Full speed ahead in Starr trek Ruling: Courts clear way for Secret Service testimony, leaving no excuse for delay in closure.

July 19, 1998

THE VIRTUE of Chief Justice William Rehnquist's rejection of Justice Department pleas to delay Secret Service testimony before a grand jury is that it allows Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr to get on with the job.

His search through President Clinton's personal luggage has convulsed the nation, titillated the world and distracted government. The sooner he can reach a conclusion -- be it to indict certain people or report to the House Judiciary Committee -- the better.

Still, debate continues over the argument of the Secret Service, supported by the Justice Department, that it needs the total confidence of the president to protect his life. The chief justice allowed as how fellow justices might wish to hear such questions, after summer recess, but saw no reason to delay proceedings until then.

So Secret Service agents appeared at the federal courthouse in Washington on Friday, as requested by Mr. Starr, even though they thought it would make their jobs more difficult -- and possibly put the life of a future president in more peril -- if they were forced to answer questions. But their anxieties have no force of law.

Increasing numbers of Americans are disquieted to learn that the president does not have the same protections as everyone else. A president's adviser finds he was a prosecutor's hearing aid all along. A mother must testify about her daughter's intimate secrets.

At least what we tell our lawyers in confidence remains in confidence after our death, despite Mr. Starr's attempt to have it otherwise.

With luck, that may still apply to what we tell our physician or our priest as well, although that has not been addressed.

All of this chipping away at rights and protections of Americans would be justified if the crimes being investigated -- and the menace to the republic -- were grave. Mr. Starr assures us that they are. The Secret Service testimony speeds up the time when he will have to say what he has found.

Mr. Starr's dogged pursuit is changing unwritten assumptions about the way this nation is run. When the crimes, if any, are forgotten, the precedents will be with us.

When Secret Service Agent Larry L. Cockell, who heads the president's detail, has told all, the most important legacy may be not what he told, but that he told it.

Pub Date: 7/19/98

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