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Secret Service Fought Probe Early

May 19, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Just six days after the Monica Lewinsky story erupted, the Secret Service took a hard line, saying its employees should not have to testify about what they saw or heard while protecting the president, according to court papers released Tuesday.

``The Secret Service maintained that disclosure ... could potentially lead present and future presidents to distance themselves from Secret Service personnel while engaging in illegal or embarrassing acts,″ Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr said.

The newly unsealed court papers described a Jan. 27 meeting in which the Secret Service told Starr that interviewing personnel about their observations while near the president would undermine a principle of confidentiality.

The Lewinsky investigation became public Jan. 21.

The court papers emerged as U.S. District Judge Norma Hollaway Johnson weighs a decision on whether two uniformed Secret Service officers and a Secret Service attorney should be forced to tell a grand jury about what they may have observed or heard about Ms. Lewinsky and Clinton.

Starr wants the testimony of two uniformed officers ``regarding information they, or other Secret Service officers and agents, learned while protecting the president,″ says a court filing by Attorney General Janet Reno and Justice Department lawyers, who are representing the Secret Service in the dispute.

Starr also seeks to compel testimony of a Secret Service attorney about information the lawyer acquired while assisting the agency in the dispute with Starr’s office, Reno’s court filing stated.

``To turn Secret Service personnel into sources of information about the president ... would severely damage, if not destroy, the fundamental relationship of trust and confidence that must exist for the Secret Service to effectively protect the president,″ Reno and the Justice Department lawyers said.

The Justice Department ``appears to believe″ that those protecting the president should not have to disclose what they see, what they hear and the identities of people while Secret Service personnel are in proximity to the president and while performing protective function duties, Starr stated.

The papers provide new details on a legal battle that, until an open court hearing last week, was fought in secret.

Starr says the testimony of agents is central to his investigation of whether Clinton had an affair with the former White House intern and then tried to cover it up during the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit.

According to the papers, Whitewater prosecutors agreed initially to take testimony from Secret Service personnel in depositions at the prosecutors’ offices rather than in front of a grand jury.

On March 13, Whitewater prosecutors questioned two uniformed Secret Service officers who invoked the ``protective function privilege″ in response to certain questions, the court papers said.

On March 23, the prosecutors questioned a Secret Service lawyer, who asserted the protective function privilege and attorney-client privilege.

The court filings were heavily edited to leave out details of what evidence the three Secret Service employees might have involving Clinton.

In a declaration, 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.

Starr stated ``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.″

``To date, neither the Secret Service nor the 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.

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