Comings and Goings No Secret to Officers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 1998; Page A10
Whether they stood watch outside the Oval Office or merely tended the White House gates, Secret Service officers and agents were witnesses to the amorous drama portrayed in independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's impeachment report, offering corroboration of Monica S. Lewinsky's private meetings with President Clinton.
Six current or former members of the Secret Service testified that Clinton spent time alone with Lewinsky in or around the Oval Office, and Starr cites them to contradict the sworn testimony of the man they are sworn to protect. More than 20 others appear in various points of the report mainly to back up Lewinsky's account of when and where she visited Clinton.
A Secret Service officer apparently was the first to complain that Lewinsky was a "nuisance" because she hung around the president so much, helping precipitate a move by top staff members to have her transferred out of the White House. Another officer witnessed a burlesque Easter Sunday during which Lewinsky scurried out the back door of the Oval Office after she and Clinton were unexpectedly interrupted.
Starr fought all the way to the Supreme Court to secure the testimony of about 30 Secret Service uniformed officers and agents. Until Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist refused to stop their testimony July 17, the Secret Service, represented by the Justice Department, waged a five-month legal battle to assert a new "protective function privilege." But the agency lost at both the district court and appeals court with its argument that forcing officers to testimony would destroy the special bond of trust between them and the presidents they protect, increasing the risk of an assassination.
In his report to Congress, Starr derides the Secret Service for "the frivolity of the claim." One of the grounds for impeachment argued by the independent counsel rests in part on the allegation that Clinton violated his constitutional duties when he "acquiesced" in the Secret Service's effort to secure the privilege. Lewis C. Merletti, the director of the service, has repeatedly stated that the president played no role in the decision to resist the subpoenas.
"When you balance the kind of information he got with the potential harm that has been created, I'd say the harm outbalances the benefits," said law professor Ronald K. Noble, a former Treasury Department undersecretary. "It is a question of whether it is worth potentially driving a wedge between the Secret Service and its presidents when personnel have not observed criminal activity."
Whatever distance may have been imposed between the president and the Secret Service began to grow early in the investigation. When Lewis C. Fox, a retired uniformed officer, told The Washington Post in February that he had seen Lewinsky visiting Clinton alone in the Oval Office, the White House contested his credibility, saying it was physically impossible for him to know whether someone else was present on that occasion.
Clinton's personal attorney, David E. Kendall, took on the Secret Service Sunday during an appearance on ABC's "This Week," alleging that one of the most dramatic incidents in the Starr report involving the Secret Service "first of all, is not something that I think, in fact, happened."
The disputed incident occurred Dec. 6, 1997, the day after attorneys for Paula Jones advised Clinton's lawyer that they intended to call Lewinsky as a witness in their lawsuit. That Saturday morning Lewinsky arrived unannounced at the Northwest Gate of the White House, the major entrance for visitors. At her request, the Secret Service officers there called presidential secretary Betty Currie, Lewinsky's routine contact in Clinton's inner circle.
Currie sent word that Clinton had someone with him and that Lewinsky should wait for 40 minutes, an unusual delay for someone who had enjoyed easy access to the president. While Lewinsky waited at the gatehouse, one of the officers mentioned that television personality Eleanor Mondale was in the White House, and Lewinsky gathered that she was visiting the president. Lewinsky stormed away and made an angry phone call to Currie from a phone booth.
This produced an unprecedented display of presidential anger toward the Secret Service, according to Secret Service testimony cited in the Starr report. Currie informed several officers that Clinton was "irate" that his private meeting with Mondale had been disclosed to Lewinsky, and she told a supervisor that if he "didn't find out what was going on, someone could be fired."
While turmoil spread through the Secret Service ranks, Clinton invited Lewinsky back to the White House for what she depicted as a brief but "affectionate" visit that defused her anger.
After she left, Clinton met with Capt. Jeffrey Purdie, the watch commander for the uniformed officers on duty, and told him, "I hope you use your discretion," an instruction Purdie relayed to his subordinates as "whatever just happened, didn't happen," according to testimony from Purdie and other Secret Service officers.
Top officials at the Secret Service began reviewing the Starr report's account of the episode over the weekend and have determined that it occurred, according to a senior administration official.
"They just let it die because basically they had made a big mistake letting Lewinsky know what the president was doing," the official said. "That would have been a mistake under any circumstance. So they were covering for themselves, not for Clinton."
In his TV appearance Sunday, Kendall said of the episode, "The president testified in his grand jury testimony that that did not happen." However, the Starr report cites the testimony of nine members of the Secret Service, including two senior officers, to recount the incident.
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