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Keeping It Secret

In private sessions with Starr, the Secret Service is balking at his questions. Is a showdown inevitable?

By Michael Duffy

TIME Magazine

(TIME, May 18 ) -- The meeting last Friday was so secret that no one who attended would admit it had taken place, much less where. The scene inside the conference room just off Pennsylvania Avenue was potentially so contentious that the Secret Service officers needed their own kind of bodyguard. They came flanked by Justice Department lawyers, whose mission was to throw themselves in front of any question that could pierce the Secret Service's impulse for protection. Again and again, Ken Starr's prosecutors fired questions they have been asking in similar sessions for weeks: What exactly can Secret Service officers see from their posts in the West Wing? When did Monica Lewinsky visit the Oval Office? Who was she coming to see?

But they got only some of the answers. Clinton Administration lawyers brandished the privilege they are busy trying to invoke: officers will answer general questions about what they do and where and how, but the minute the queries turn penetrating, out comes the legal Kevlar. Lew Merletti, director of the Secret Service, has made it clear from the start that he will fight Starr all the way to the Supreme Court to prevent his agents from testifying in court. And Starr's prosecutors have been just as unyielding in carrying out their boss's vow to "run down every lead" about the President's relationship with Lewinsky. "They're not really half-a-loaf kind of guys," said a Justice Department official.

In the coming days lawyers for both camps expect Judge Norma Holloway Johnson to schedule a hearing on Merletti's claim that there is a "protective function" privilege that excuses his officers from testifying in court. And, if only for effect, Administration lawyers have included in their legal briefs rare photos showing officers, acting on John F. Kennedy's orders, jumping off the rear bumper of his car just minutes before it entered its fatal swing through downtown Dallas in November 1963. Though Johnson's ruling on Merletti's claim is still weeks away, her decision is regarded as more pivotal to Starr's probe than her ruling last week voiding Executive-privilege claims for White House aides Bruce Lindsey and Sidney Blumenthal. "The Secret Service question is the big casino," said a White House official.

That's because the President's bodyguards have almost certainly witnessed a great deal more about the President's private life than they have been willing to divulge. The secret sessions in recent weeks were designed, Justice lawyers say, to help narrow the scope of Starr's questions and, if possible, enable officers to answer them under oath without having to slug out the privilege issue in the courts. Much of the questioning focused on events occurring in the days before Lewinsky's abrupt transfer out of the White House in April 1996. Starr wants to know whether some incident involving the Secret Service triggered the decision to ship Lewinsky to the Pentagon.

Sources involved in the depositions told TIME that Starr has been particularly interested in a Dec. 28 meeting at the White House among Lewinsky, Clinton and his secretary, Betty Currie. That session took place on a quiet Sunday, 11 days after Lewinsky had received a subpoena in the Paula Jones case and two days after she had quit her Pentagon job. Currie spent 10 hours before the grand jury last week, going over her recollections of Monica's visits to the White House. Starr's lawyers have directed the same kinds of questions to the uniformed officers who stand watch at stations in the West Wing: Did she come to see Currie? Clinton? Both?

Starr has been careful not to ask for everything. He has not pressed the Secret Service for papers for fear of exposing the agency's methods. And he has restricted his questioning to between eight and 12 "uniformed division" officers, agents in white, black and gold uniforms who guard the White House proper but not the President himself. That distinction may undercut Merletti's "protective privilege" argument because uniformed officers don't stick as close to the President as the body men in the "protective detail," and therefore may not require the same legal privileges. But Starr is unlikely to keep his hunt narrow; if Johnson rules in his favor, he is certain to work his way up the Secret Service chain of command.

Both sides said they welcomed the private sessions and agreed to continue them this week. However, neither believes that all the differences can be overcome. Even after one marathon session Friday, Starr was largely blocked from filling in the holes in his narrative, which means a courtroom showdown is almost inevitable.

--Reported by Viveca Novak, Elaine Shannon and Michael Weisskopf/Washington

Tale Of The Tape

Name/Age Ken Starr, 51
Lew Merletti, 49
Background Starr Born in Texas, graduated from George Washington and Duke; clerked for Justice Warren Burger Merletti Born in Pittsburgh, enlisted in Army, graduated from Duquesne; at Secret Service since 1974>
Where They Were In 1969 Starr In graduate school Merletti In Vietnam, Special Forces
On The "Protective Privilege" Starr Says it would compromise the integrity of his investigation Merletti Would compromise the security of the President
Memorable Quote Starr "The public has a right to every man's evidence" Merletti "Proximity is the heart and soul of what we do"
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: May 18, 1998

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