Judge: Secret Service Must Testify
Clinton says ruling could have a 'chilling' effect
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, May 22) -- In another setback for President Bill Clinton, a federal judge has ruled Secret Service personnel must testify before the grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky controversy.
Judge Norma Holloway Johnson rejected the Secret Service's attempt
to invoke a "protective function privilege" to prevent its agents from testifying. The Secret Service had resisted Whitewater prosecutor Ken Starr's effort to compel the testimony, saying it would erode the relationship agents need to be near the president and protect him.
In her 10-page ruling, Johnson said there was no legal basis for the privilege the Secret Service sought.
"The court does not doubt that physical proximity between Secret Service personnel and the president is crucial to the president's safety," the judge wrote. "However, it does not accept the suggestions that the possibility that agents could be compelled to testify before a grand jury will lead a president to 'push away' his protectors."
| Documents: Judge's Ruling In Secret Service Privilege Decision (05-22-98)|
| Transcript: President Clinton On Secret Service Decision (05-22-98)|
Starr is investigating whether Clinton lied under oath in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case and encouraged Lewinsky, a former White House intern, to do the same. Clinton has denied the accusations, and both Clinton and Lewinsky have testified under oath they did not have a sexual relationship.
Clinton, meeting with reporters about the highway bill Friday afternoon, said the decision could have "a chilling effect" on how presidents do their job. And he criticized Starr for pushing for the Secret Service testimony. (896K wav sound)
"I don't think anyone ever thought about it, because no one ever thought that anyone would ever abuse the responsibilities that the Secret Service has to the president and the president's family," Clinton said.
"There are some things that you ought not to have to make a law
about," Clinton said. "It never occurred to anybody that anyone would ever be so insensitive to the responsibilities of the Secret Service that this kind of legal question would arise."
Clinton said he didn't know whether the Secret Service would appeal the ruling. But he said if the decision stands, it "will raise some serious questions and present a whole new array of problems for managing the presidency and for the Secret Service managing their responsibilities, because previous people have understood that and cared enough about it.
"I don't think anybody ever considered doing this before, but we're living in a time without precedent, where actions are
being taken without precedent, and we just have to live with the consequences," Clinton said.
In her ruling, Johnson said, "When people act within the law they do not ordinarily push away those they trust or rely upon for fear that their actions will be reported to a grand jury ... It is not at all clear that a president would push Secret Service protection away if he were acting legally or even if he were engaged in personally embarrassing acts. Such actions are extremely unlikely to become the subject of a grand jury investigation. The claim of the Secret Service that any presidential action no matter how intrinsically innocent could later be deemed relevant to a criminal investigation is simply not plausible."
A Justice Department official told CNN the administration will make no immediate decision on whether to appeal Judge Johnson's ruling.
In a statement, the Justice Department and the Secret Service said, "We continue to believe that any action that could distance the Secret Service from the president increases the danger to his life and that of future presidents. While the court did recognize that the Secret Service's views are legitimate, we are concerned that the court did not fully appreciate the impact that its decision could have on the safety of the president and other people the Secret Service protects."
Starr's office has not commented on the decision.
The ruling is the latest victory for Starr, who is probing the sex-and-perjury allegations against Clinton.
Most of the Secret Service privilege fight has been waged in closed-door court sessions. But at a rare open hearing on May 14, attorneys for the Secret Service and Starr argued the issue.
There is "no authority, none, zero" in the law for the privilege being sought by the Secret Service, Starr said then.
But Gary Grindler, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's civil division, argued the safety of the president was at stake and Secret Service agents should be allowed to refuse to answer certain questions.
During the hearing, Judge Johnson questioned Grindler closely, saying she did not understand how Secret Service cooperation in the independent counsel's investigation would compromise presidential safety.
"I don't see it," Johnson said, in a comment that suggested how she might rule.
The Secret Service argued presidents will be inclined to keep its agents away, worrying that agents could be forced to testify about what they see or hear.
Grinder said Secret Service testimony would damage "the trust and the confidence of the president in the ability of the Secret Service to step in and protect the president against assassination."
Starr said it was "inappropriate and indeed illegitimate for the court to engage" in providing a protective privilege to the Secret Service when Congress has already addressed the issue.
Federal law requires executive branch employees to provide any information they have relating to violation of the criminal code, Starr said.
Starr is seeking the testimony of three Secret Service officers about the alleged relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky.
The Justice Department has defined a privilege that deals with Secret Service employees preventing them from answering certain questions that touch on the area of the protection and safety of the president.
Secret Service Director Lewis Merletti has told Starr in stark terms that if the Service loses its claim of "protective privilege," it would mean, "We will lose a president of the United States to assassination."
Merletti, who headed up Clinton's security detail before becoming director, emphasized to Starr the Secret Service slogan of "trust and confidence." Merletti argued that without that, presidents will not allow agents close enough to provide adequate protection.
Starr has insisted, however, that his criminal investigation takes precedence over Secret Service safety concerns.
A release of court documents revealed the Clinton White House rejected a request by Starr for the president to order the Secret Service personnel to testify.
The documents showed that on April 28, Starr asked Clinton to step in, citing the president's public comments that he wanted to cooperate with the probe.
But White House Counsel Charles Ruff turned back the request in a May 11 letter.
"I will not advise the president to override the judgment of those whose mission it is to protect him," Ruff wrote.
The White House released Ruff's response after the newly unsealed court papers revealed Starr's request.
CNN's Bob Franken contributed to this report.