Agents Keep Tabs on the President
Jul. 15, 1998
WASHINGTON (AP) _ When President Clinton heads to the South Lawn to walk his dog Buddy, his ``time out'' and ``time in'' are noted in Secret Service logs near the door. Swimming laps in the White House pool? Agents are there just in case. And when he leans into a crowd to shake hands, an agent is anchoring him around the hips.
The agents are always close by; no wonder independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr wants them on the witness stand.
Agent Larry Cockell, one of those subpoenaed in Starr's investigation of whether Clinton obstructed justice in the Paula Jones case, was inside the 11th-floor conference room all six hours that Clinton was deposed by Mrs. Jones' lawyers. As is standard practice, the agent rode in the front passenger seat of Clinton's limousine to and from the law offices, in full earshot of whatever Clinton and his attorney Bob Bennett discussed.
``My experience riding in the car is it's hard not to overhear,'' White House press secretary Mike McCurry allowed Wednesday.
Only when Clinton and his lawyers called a ``time out'' in the deposition and retreated privately to a separate room did Cockell leave them alone and wait outside the door, according to people present that day.
``That deposition was going to be a heated environment,'' explained former Secret Service deputy director Larry Sheafe. ``Whenever the president is in a meeting where there are several people and there's not a great deal known about those other people, the agent will be there inside.''
Even in the Oval Office, an agent will be inside unless Clinton is meeting with close advisers _ and, even then, an agent is posted on the patio just outside the Oval's glass-paned doors.
Before the Clinton administration's high-profile, high-stakes fight to keep his agents from testifying to the Whitewater grand jury, there was little public discussion of how closely the plainclothes presidential detail _ the most elite corps in the Secret Service _ ring the president.
Except for in the upstairs family quarters of the White House _ ``the one place where the first family has total privacy,'' said Sheafe _ the Secret Service is omnipresent and often witness to the president's most personal moments.
President Nixon made his televised resignation speech from the Oval Office with only the camera operator and a Secret Service agent present. An agent for President Bush plunged into the White House pool fully clothed to pull out one of his granddaughters when a family dog got too playful.
At 1:20 a.m. on the March 1997 day that Clinton stumbled in the dark on Greg Norman's perfectly secure estate, agents were there _ though not close enough to break the fall that tore Clinton's knee.
Agents are low-profile on purpose. When Clinton spoke at the Daytona International Speedway last week, an agent dressed up as a rescue worker blended into the backdrop of uniformed Florida firefighters and volunteers who stood proudly on stage behind the president.
His agents on that trip had to tote several changes of clothes on and off Air Force One so they could blend in from stop to stop: sport shirt and khakis for golf, suit and tie for political fund-raiser.
``One of the reasons why they do their job effectively is that you just take them for granted _ that they're there,'' said McCurry.
The front limo seat and forward cabin on Air Force One are standard posts. But the Secret Service's commitment to provide 360-degree protection whenever and wherever the president is vulnerable _ especially in public _ has also landed agents in flippers, snorkeling with Clinton at the Great Barrier Reef, and next him in an open-top Jeep, face to face with killer lions on an African safari.
In fact, his armored golf cart is about the only vehicle Clinton travels in without the Secret Service. While one contingent does lookout from the rough, Clinton drives himself, with agents in separate cars in front of and behind his.
``The whole game is cover-and-evacuate. The agents are right there so they can grab him,'' said Sheafe, a 23-year veteran posted at the White House during the Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations.
As for privacy, former agent Jerry Parr said the president's personal detail ``knows quite a bit. But it just goes in one ear and out the other most of the time.''