WASHINGTON -- The Secret Service took its historic fight with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to the Supreme Court yesterday, putting its agents one judicial step away from having to reveal inside stories gathered while protecting President Clinton.
Unless Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist or the full Supreme Court prevents it, the grand jury led by Starr in his investigation of the Monica Lewinsky matter could question seven Secret Service officers as early as Tuesday.
Starr has said he continues to hear reports that those officers have information that could bear upon whether Clinton committed the crimes of perjury, encouraging perjury, or obstruction of justice in dealing with the White House matter involving Lewinsky.
The case carries potentially momentous significance for the role of the Secret Service. The agency has expressed fear that its agents would be unable to protect the lives of presidents if their confidential relationship were broken by forced grand jury testimony.
The failure of courts to insulate the agents from the grand jury, the Secret Service told the court, "will undermine the Secret Service's ability to step into the breach and protect the nation from profound and predictable peril."
There was no word on whether Rehnquist would act alone on the Secret Service's appeal or refer the issue to the full court.
Rehnquist faces a deadline of noon today, if he wants to block Starr from forcing the agents to testify soon. If Rehnquist does order a delay, no agent could be forced to testify at least until the Supreme Court issued a ruling, perhaps several months from now.
The Secret Service made two requests yesterday: that the order requiring the agents to testify be postponed -- an order Rehnquist could issue on his own if he wished -- and that the justices bar forced testimony by agents now and in the future.
In responding to the request for a delay, Starr urged the court not to stand in the way of testimony from the seven Secret Service agents or officers, including the agent who is usually physically closest to Clinton, as head of his personal security detail.
That officer, Larry L. Cockell, and uniformed Secret Service personnel also under subpoena had gathered at the federal courthouse in Washington yesterday morning, uncertain whether they would have to testify. A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court early in the day had blocked the testimony temporarily.
But by midafternoon, nine members of the appeals court decided unanimously not to reconsider last week's decision by the three-judge panel that the Secret Service had no right to keep its agents away from the grand jury.
One of the nine judges, Laurence H. Silberman, in a statement speaking only for himself, lambasted "the president's agents" for having "declared war" on Starr. Silberman also argued that the Justice Department had no right even to be in court seeking to block the forced testimony of the Secret Service agents, because Starr himself is, in effect, the attorney general for the purposes of the Lewinsky matter.
Silberman asserted that Attorney General Janet Reno, who heads the Justice Department, is "acting as the president's counsel," not in her Cabinet capacity.
Charles F. C. Ruff, the White House counsel, rejected that criticism of Reno as "without foundation," saying she has handled the Secret Service challenge "with complete independence."
Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry resisted responding to the appeals court rebuff, noting that the White House is not a party to the litigation. But he took exception to Silberman's accusations of "war."
"War is a very precise term of art around here, and the commander in chief takes that seriously," McCurry said. "We are not at war with Ken Starr, but we have some serious disagreements with him, obviously."
Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder also took issue with Silberman's assertion that the Justice Department's bid for a Secret Service privilege was a "constitutional absurdity."
"Given the stakes here -- and we're talking about the safety of the president, and that is from our perspective a matter of national security -- the request that we have made, the proposal we have made about the protective function privilege seems to be totally appropriate," Holder said.
He said there was "nothing dishonorable" about the way the Justice Department has conducted itself in this matter.
The three judges who were on the appeals panel that ruled against the Secret Service did not question Reno's right to be in court. But they said the department's "likelihood of success in the Supreme Court is insufficient" to justify a "further delay in the grand jury's investigation."
Because no judge among the nine asked the court to vote on whether to reconsider the panel's ruling, the appeals court simply took the matter off its docket. It gave the Justice Department a day to pursue an appeal to the Supreme Court; the department did so within an hour.
Because the issue of Cockell's testimony is unresolved, the Secret Service decided last night to shift his duties as chief of the president's security detail temporarily to another agent, Brian Stafford.
With Cockell and other Secret Service agents leaving the courthouse moments after the appeals panel temporarily blocked their testimony yesterday morning, the federal grand jury heard instead from Starr's key witness, Linda R. Tripp, for a sixth full day. Her spokesman, Philip Coughter, said Tripp is to return to the federal grand jury Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a state grand jury that is investigating whether Tripp violated Maryland law by secretly recording her phone conversations with Lewinsky met yesterday in Howard County.
Pub Date: 7/17/98