Agents deny ability to hurt Clinton case Secret Service testimony on sexual allegations to continue this week

July 20, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Lawyers for Secret Service agents who were summoned to testify before a grand jury said yesterday that their clients did not know anything that would substantiate allegations that President Clinton had improper sexual conduct with an intern and sought to cover it up.

John Kotelly, an attorney representing Larry Cockell, the head of the protective detail that follows virtually every step the president takes, said Cockell expects to be called this week before the grand jury impaneled by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

But, Kotelly said on ABC's "This Week," Cockell is unlikely to have much to say about what the president does during his private moments in the White House. Although Secret Service agents are responsible for protecting the president, their duty allows the president some moments in private, he said.

"In private situations, secure situations like in the White House, the president has privacy and the Secret Service respects that privacy," Kotelly said. "And although [the Secret Service] may be outside the room, the president has total freedom to do whatever he wants, and the Secret Service would not be aware of that."

Cockell and six other Secret Service personnel were ordered to the federal courthouse in Washington on Friday after Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist turned down the administration's appeal to block their testimony. Three of the other six testified, and those who did not are expected to be called back to the grand jury this week.

The Secret Service agents' testimony is regarded as crucial to Starr's case against Clinton because the president has declined to testify under oath about his relationship with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

If the Secret Service agents have little to say about what went on behind closed doors in the White House, that would deprive Starr of one of his few possible ways of developing corroborating evidence against Clinton.

Last week Starr said his office has "information that Secret Service personnel have evidence relevant to its investigation."

Jonathan Turley, a Georgetown University law professor and expert on independent counsels, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the Secret Service agents' testimony could be pivotal to Starr's case. Turley said the agents "represent fairly valuable witnesses" because "they're trained to notice things and they're trained to remember things."

But Michael Leibig, who represents three of the other Secret Service agents who were summoned to the grand jury Friday, argued that his clients would not necessarily have information relevant to Starr's investigation. He said the Secret Service had only one job: to protect the president from harm.

"The training of the uniformed division officers is specifically not to pay attention once they've cleared the security issues," Leibig said. "They're specifically trained not to pay attention [to] what's going on."

Kotelly said Cockell, the chief of the White House security detail, will be prepared to testify when called before the grand jury this week. "He's not happy about it, obviously," Kotelly said.

The Justice Department had sought to block the agents' testimony, arguing that future presidents might try to maintain distance between themselves and their guards if they knew the agents might one day be called to testify against them in court.

When the agents appear before the grand jury this week, they will carry White House instructions not to divulge any secrets that would threaten national security. But they will be in the grand jury room unaccompanied by their lawyers, who will be required to wait outside.

Pub Date: 7/20/98

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