Secret Service Fought Probe Early
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Just six days after the Monica Lewinsky furor erupted in January, the Secret Service had already staked out a hardline position that its agents should not have to testify about what they saw while protecting the president, according to court papers unsealed today.
Court filings by Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr say that on Jan. 27, ``the Secret Service expressed the view that interviews of Secret Service personnel about their observations while in close proximity to the president would undermine a principle of confidentiality.″
At that same meeting, Starr wrote, ``the Secret Service maintained that disclosure of these observations could potentially lead present and future presidents to distance themselves from Secret Service personnel while engaging in illegal or embarrassing acts.″
The Lewinsky investigation became public in news stories Jan. 21.
The newly unsealed court papers emerged as U.S. District Judge Norma Hollaway Johnson weighs a decision on whether Secret Service agents should be forced to tell a grand jury about what they may have observed or heard about Ms. Lewinsky while protecting the president.
The Clinton administration is trying to make a novel legal argument that Secret Service agents must have the confidence of the president to effectively protect him and therefore deserve a special ``privilege″ not to have to testify.
Starr has argued that no such privilege exists in the law, and that the testimony of a few agents is central to their investigation of whether Clitnon had an affair with the former White House intern and then tried to cover it up during the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit.
The new court document provides new details on a legal battle that, until an open court hearing last week, was fought mostly in secret.
The records show that on March 13 that Whitewater prosecutors questioned two Secret Service employees who invoked the ``protective function privilege,″ the court papers said.
On March 23, the prosecutors questioned another Secret Service employee who asserted the protective function privilege and attorney-client privilege.
Echoing his courtroom arguments of last week, Starr said in the newly unsealed court papers that ``there is no such thing as a `protective function privilege’ under federal law.
In his court filing, Secret Service Director Lewis Merletti said that ``the confidence and unquestioned trust existing″ between the service and a president ``warrants the Court’s complete and unequivocal protection.″
It is ``imperative that the protective function privilege be recognized by this Court,″ Merletti stated.
The court filings were heavily edited to leave out details of what evidence the three Secret Service employees might have involving President Clinton.
``That the Secret Service apparently believes _ but does not know _ that testimony from its employees would endanger the president highlights a ``flaw in its assertions of privilege,″ Starr stated in the papers.
``To date, neither the Secret Service nor the (Justice) Department has offered any indication that President Clinton has asked Secret Service employees to refrain from testifying, or that he feels he will have to distance himself from them if they do so,″ Starr said.
The papers added that ``the idea that he may be inclined to `push away’ his protective circle is pure speculation.″
``Indeed, if the testimony″ of the three Secret Service employees ``were to exonerate the president, one might very reasonably expect the opposite _ that he would draw in his protective circle even closer,″ the prosecutors said in court papers.
Earlier, officials said that John Hilley, a former head of the White House legislative affairs office, was summoned to appear before the federal grand jury investigating the Lewinsky case.
Hilley was expected to appear before the panel at the U.S. Courthouse as early as today.
Hilley, who has left the White House and is now in the private sector, was director of the White House office that worked with Congress on legislative issues.
Ms. Lewinsky, who denied having an affair with Clinton in a deposition given in Mrs. Jones’ civil suit against the president, worked in Hilley’s office after her stint at the White House as an intern. Clinton also denied under oath that he had a sexual relationship with Ms. Lewinsky.
Hilley can be expected to be asked what he knows about Ms. Lewinsky’s time in his office and her subsequent transfer to job in the Pentagon’s press relations office.
The federal grand jury last week heard from the president’s personal secretary, Betty Currie.