Rumors, facts detailed in agents' testimony Starr's prosecutors, grand jurors showed equal interest in both

October 03, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Hours after independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr obtained open-ended authority to question President Clinton's Secret Service guards, the protectors freely told a string of new stories -- some no more than raw rumors -- about sexual escapades in or near the Oval Office.

Sometimes, they recalled their disbelief at what they said they saw happening. One recalled that when he speculated about what was going on when the president was in the Oval Office alone with Monica Lewinsky, another officer said, "He wouldn't be that stupid."

For more than six months, the Secret Service had pressed the legal argument that its officers had a right to refuse to tell what they had observed Clinton doing; they needed that right, they said, to assure that they would keep the president's confidence and be able to stay close enough to protect him.

But once that courthouse battle was lost, the defeat turned loose a torrent of testimony from the agents, often deeply embarrassing to the president and adding to his legal woes. Starr's prosecutors and the grand jurors showed as much interest in the rumors as in the details the agents described as facts. They got plenty of both.

Because of the contradictions, the testimony does not point necessarily to a conclusion that the president lied. But Starr clearly regards the agents' stories as added proof of "impeachable offenses." And Clinton's most determined foes in Congress are likely to find much there to bolster their challenge.

Overall, what emerges from hundreds of pages of grand jury testimony is a contradictory image of the storied Secret Service: an agency that in court had spoken of how its officers kept their observations to themselves but that was now shown to be one whose officers, in the back corridors of the White House, were freely swapping the most lewd yarns about Clinton.

There was talk of the president being in "a compromising position" with a woman, not his wife, in the White House theater. And a story about a presidential steward griping about having to "clean up after them" -- the president and Lewinsky. And gossip about a supposed witnessing of a scene in the president's study with "Monica face down in the president's lap."

Some of the officers' stories meshed. But some of the most inflammatory tales clashed so deeply as to be irreconcilable. One guard, for example, told the grand jury that another guard had told of personally observing a sex act between Clinton and Lewinsky. But when that other guard testified, he denounced the story as an "outlandish rumor" and said he had heard the rumor from another guard and had tried to stop it.

Leading up to the testimony, Starr had gone to court and made this damning claim as he jousted with the Service Service: "The Office of Independent Counsel is in possession of information that Secret Service personnel may have observed evidence of possible crimes while stationed in and around the White House complex."

The courts -- including Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist -- were convinced. Just before noon last July 17, Rehnquist lifted the last legal barrier to full questioning of the Secret Service guards.

At 3: 41 p.m., Starr's prosecutors began a session with a uniformed officer, Gary James Byrne, who was hurriedly rushed before a grand jury that did not normally handle the Starr investigation. In just 21 minutes, the prosecutors vividly demonstrated how much they had won by forcing the agents to testify fully.

Starr had been acutely interested in Byrne since first interviewing him under oath last March. Byrne's normal station was right outside the Oval Office. He saw all who entered and left. He could even clear people in when he knew that the president was alone. He could observe the hallway through which all presidential visitors had to pass. Surely, he had seen something.

When the legal battle began, Byrne was one of only two agents that Starr had summoned to testify. He had given a tantalizing deposition in March, relating a hallway conversation he had overheard, between Lewinsky and presidential steward Bayani Nelvis.

"If you're not careful," Byrne remembered Nelvis as saying, "you'll end up like Paula [Corbin] Jones" -- the Arkansas woman who had sued Clinton over alleged sexual misconduct years before.

When Byrne came back for another interview in May, he told more about that conversation, recalling that Lewinsky had retorted to Nelvis that she was smarter than Jones.

Although saying he did not know personally of any after-hour access that Lewinsky had to the Oval Office, the officer recounted some rumors -- including the one about an alleged sexual encounter between the president and another woman in the movie theater.

In June, he told of Nelvis' supposed disgust at having to pick up towels soiled with lipstick after Lewinsky had visited.

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