Grand jury judge asked to quash new Secret Service subpoenas Clinton lawyers also ask appeals panel to block agents' testimony today

July 16, 1998|By Susan Baer and Lyle Denniston | Susan Baer and Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Rushing back to court to open a new challenge to Kenneth W. Starr, Justice Department lawyers tried yesterday to prevent agents in the president's security detail from testifying before a federal grand jury.

U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson held a 50-minute, closed-door hearing on the issue. The judge is presiding over the special grand jury looking into the Monica Lewinsky matter.

Johnson had taken no action as of late last night, legal sources said. Fearing that her inaction would mean the subpoenas would have to be obeyed promptly, administration lawyers asked the federal appeals court here to step in.

Meanwhile, the president's private lawyers threatened to start still another court battle with the independent counsel, accusing him of a "backdoor attempt" to learn what Clinton may have told them privately about Lewinsky, a former White House intern.

The subpoenas to Larry L. Cockell, the head of Clinton's security detail, and five uniformed Secret Service officers demanded the agents appear before the special grand jury today. Linda R. Tripp, Starr's key witness, also is scheduled to give testimony today in her sixth day before the jury.

Cockell, who is often close enough to Clinton to overhear the president's most private conversations, received a subpoena Tuesday, after the Justice Department announced it would appeal a ruling requiring Secret Service agents to testify. The appeal was aimed at quashing subpoenas to three other Secret Service employees Starr wanted to question.

The Justice Department has argued that testimony by the Secret Service agents might cause the president to push them away when he is engaged in confidential business and thus increase the danger of his being assassinated.

Starr, who is investigating whether Clinton lied in denying a sexual relation with Lewinsky and also encouraged her to lie about it, has not said why he wants to question Cockell and the other agents.

But relying on a news report, White House spokesman Michael McCurry and Clinton's private lawyers said Starr might have summoned Cockell to ask him about conversations he could have overheard between Clinton and one of those attorneys, Robert S. Bennett.

Cockell was in the room at Bennett's office in January during Clinton's daylong deposition in the now-dismissed Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case. He was also in the limousine with the president and Bennett on their way back to the White House when the deposition may have been discussed.

McCurry, echoing the lawyers' sentiments, said Starr's subpoena to Cockell may be a "backdoor attempt to impede and intrude upon the attorney-client privilege."

"The government has a right to come and take someone who, by law, has to be in the car to protect the president, and try to find out about that conversation?" McCurry asked.

Bennett and David E. Kendall, Clinton's lawyer in the Whitewater and Lewinsky matters, said any attempt to intrude on the relationship between Clinton and his private counsel "will be aggressively and firmly resisted."

"The president deserves the same right to private counsel as any other citizen, but the independent counsel's track record for respecting this right is not encouraging," the lawyers said.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, criticized Attorney General Janet Reno for mounting what he called "a fruitless campaign" in the courts to insulate Secret Service agents from testifying.

At a Senate hearing on Justice Department operations, Hatch told Reno he was "extremely dismayed" that the administration was pursuing the matter with another court appeal.

He also criticized Reno for refusing to defend Starr against critics, and for remaining silent in the wake of a Maryland prosecutor's investigation of possible illegal wiretapping by Tripp, who recorded 20 hours of telephone calls with Lewinsky as she discussed Clinton.

Reno countered that last week's decision by an appeals court refusing to protect Secret Service agents from forced testimony "is wrong" and the importance of the issue "warrants further review" in the full 11-member Court of Appeals.

"I tell you, with all my heart, it is not done for delay," Reno told the committee.

Pub Date: 7/16/98

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