President's bodyguards questioned Chief justice upholds Starr's right to query Secret Service agents

Hurried before grand jury

Special prosecutor says he expects to get 'sensitive information'

July 18, 1998|By Lyle Denniston and Susan Baer | Lyle Denniston and Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer David L. Greene contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Denied legal protection by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Secret Service bodyguards for President Clinton obeyed subpoenas yesterday and began answering prosecutors' questions about Monica Lewinsky.

As Secret Service agents for the first time testified against their will to a grand jury, the protective force that prides itself on being nearly invisible found itself in the full glare of the media spotlight at the end of a feverish week of court activity.

With independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr prevailing in the Supreme Court in a legal bout with the Secret Service that began in late January, three of the eight subpoenaed agents and officers went before a grand jury, including one retired agent.

Starr was so determined to exploit his victory that he used the all-purpose grand jury sitting yesterday rather than the usual Lewinsky grand jurors, who are not due to meet until Tuesday.

Larry L. Cockell, the head of Clinton's security detail, who had been at the center of this week's sometimes heated court fight, reported to the U.S. Courthouse yesterday and waited all afternoon but was never called to testify.

Cockell's lawyer, John Kotelly, said he did not know when his client would be asked to return. Another lawyer representing other agents said some of the eight are likely to be called back Tuesday.

It was unknown whether any testimony yesterday met Starr's expectations that the officers would relate evidence of the "highest relevance" about whether the president had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky when she was a White House intern.

Starr is investigating whether Clinton lied under oath in denying such a relationship and encouraged Lewinsky to lie about it, too.

In a secret filing with the Supreme Court yesterday, Starr notified Rehnquist of the kinds of evidence he thought the agents could supply. Publicly, Starr said, without elaboration, that the secret filing "includes extraordinarily sensitive information."

In another document, Starr declared that he has "information that Secret Service personnel may have observed evidence of possible crimes while stationed in and around the White House complex."

Rehnquist's order allowing the agents to be questioned came after two lower courts had turned down the Secret Service's challenge to Starr, with no judges dissenting.

That issue, though, is not dead. Rehnquist and his colleagues have not yet acted on the Secret Service's pending appeal asking the justices to create a new rule that agents cannot be forced to testify about what they observe when protecting the president.

Rehnquist, in fact, said he assumed that the court would agree to hear that issue later.

"This case is obviously not a run-of-the-mine dispute," he said, because it may affect "the safety and protection of the president" and the scope of a grand jury probe of the president.

But, the chief justice went on, he believed the Secret Service would ultimately lose that appeal. "I believe my view would be shared by a majority of my colleagues," Rehnquist added.

He said the federal appeals court was right in refusing to establish any bar to agents' forced testimony.

No 'irreparable' harm

For now, Rehnquist refused to postpone the bodyguards' testimony. He said in a two-page order that he doubted that any harm resulting from their appearances would be "irreparable" -- a standard he said the Secret Service had to meet to gain a delay.

Rehnquist acted alone on the delay issue, rather than sharing the decision with his eight colleagues. He said several of them were out of the country.

The Secret Service could have renewed its request for a delay with another justice after Rehnquist acted but opted not to do so.

The White House did not respond to yesterday's actions, but Clinton, before leaving on a trip to Little Rock, Ark., defended the position taken by the Justice Department that Secret Service agents should be granted a right not to testify against their will.

"This was a decision that came out of the Secret Service, about which they feel very strongly," Clinton said. "And these people risk their lives to protect me and other presidents in a professional way, not a political way.

"And they have strong convictions. They have manifested those convictions. The attorney general has determined that there is sufficient legal merit in their position that they ought to be represented."

Though he won yesterday, Starr is not necessarily free from all complications as he moves ahead with the forced questioning of the presidential bodyguards.

Testimony by an agent or a uniformed White House guard could be disrupted by sideline fights over exactly what questions they would be willing to answer.

Among questions they apparently are prepared to refuse to answer, according to one of their lawyers, are any that involve "military and state secrets" or that might intrude on Clinton's right to discuss his legal affairs confidentially with his private attorneys.

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