Secret Service Agents Give Grand Jury Testimony
Rehnquist refuses to extend stay, clearing way for their testimony
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, July 17) -- Three members of the Secret Service testified before a federal grand jury Friday as part of Independent Counsel Ken Starr's investigation of President Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist made Friday's testimony possible by refusing to extend a stay that would have protected Secret Service agents from appearing before the grand jury.
The grand jury adjourned about 4:30 p.m. EDT without hearing from Larry Cockell, the head of Clinton's security detail. Cockell was one of the seven Secret Service agents subpoenaed by the independent counsel, but not one of the three who testified Friday.
Michael Leibig, an attorney for two of the other agents, said none of his
clients testified Friday, but the Office of the Independent Counsel said uniformed members of the Secret Service would be recalled before a grand
jury on Tuesday. Leibig also said the Justice Department indicated the independent counsel's office was attempting to provide a schedule for the witnesses.
In refusing to grant a stay, Rehnquist acted on his own, which he is permitted to do, as he was not able to consult with all of his colleagues on the high court during its summer vacation.
"The opinion of the Court of Appeals seems to me cogent and correct," Rehnquist wrote in a two-page order.
Starr had told Secret Service agents to be available at noon Friday, the deadline for a previously issued stay to expire. Just before noon, Cockell and other agents arrived at the federal courthouse.
John Kotelly, Cockell's attorney, told reporters outside the federal courthouse Friday his client had been allowed to go home without testifying, but Cockell has been informed that he will be recalled at a future date.
Ealier Kotelly told CNN that Cockell would decline to answer questions that might involve attorney-client privilege.
Kotelly said that on the advice of counsel, Cockell would object either to the specific question or the type of question, it would be referred to the chief judge, and then attorneys would argue the point.
If the judge overruled the objection, according to Kotelly, attorneys for the president, at that point, would decide whether to intervene and appeal the judge's decision. Such an appeal could involve another stay until the issue is resolved.
But Kotelly doubts they will try to pierce the president's attoney-client privilege.
"I cannot believe they'll ask such questions," Kotelly said.
Cockell has been taken off the president's detail until the legal questions are resolved but, according to Kotelly, Cockell is afraid he may never again be protecting the president.
"He's resigned that he's got to testify; we don't know where it goes from here," Kotelly said. "There's a real possibility he may never regain the position he had."
The U.S. Court of Appeals Thursday had temporarily barred the agents from testifying before the Lewinsky grand jury, but set a noon Friday deadline for that stay to expire.
The grand jury assigned to investigate the Lewinsky matter normally meets Tuesdays and Thursdays; however, the agents appeared before another grand jury meeting Friday at the federal courthouse. Rehnquist's ruling was explained to the new grand jury, sources told CNN.
The Justice Department had asked Rehnquist to extend the stay and contended that having the agents testify would cause presidents to keep them at arm's length in the future, leading ultimately to an assassination.
In addition, the Justice Department attorneys have asked the courts to rule there is a special privilege for the agents, shielding them from being required to testify.
Rehnquist did not rule on that second request, but said he believed his colleagues on the Supreme Court would hear that case.
Cockell is the agent who mostly closely guards the president and has been privy to a number of conversations with the president and his attorneys. Starr has denied that he is attempting to circumvent the attorney-client privilege by
asking Cockell what he overheard.
It appeared that Starr decided he needed to get the Secret Service people in as quickly as possible, before the administration could devise a creative legal strategy for blocking the testimony.
Friday morning, Clinton again declined to comment on the issue of Secret Service testimony and reiterated that the Secret Service and the Justice Department have a made a professional decision on the matter and they should continue to take the lead in the legal battle.
"I have decided that it would be inappropriate for me to express an opinion and I have not done so and I believe that I should stay out of it," Clinton said. "I do have an opinion ... I have a legal opinion and I have a personal opinion, but I think it's important and I think it would be completely inappropriate for me to be involved in this."
Added Clinton, "These people risk their lives for me, in a professional way, not a political way. Agents speak for themselves and I should not inject myself into it."
When asked about U.S. Appeal Court Judge Laurence Silberman's harsh written comments suggesting that Attorney General Janet Reno has acted dishonorably and the president had declared "war" on the independent counsel, Clinton said reporters should "consider the source of that comment."
"That is simply not true," Clinton said. "The judge has a right to his legal opinion about what the Treasury Department and the Justice Department have said but I have told you that this case is about their professional judgment and about what is necessary to do their job."
Silberman was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, and has been known to make partisan comments.
Although they are under orders not to publicly comment on the Secret Service testimony controversy, White House officials privately accused Starr of abusing his powers and using the agents to send a political statement.
"They have treated dedicated professionals in a blatantly unprofessional
manner," an administration official told CNN. "This is keystone cops ... the
Office of Independent Counsel is using them for political purposes."
The official said the "high noon" drama of calling the agents in on a
Friday afternoon and making all seven sit around the courthouse while a few
were called to testify "is outrageous ... it's an insult to the Secret Service."
An appeal was filed with the clerk of the Supreme Court Thursday after the
U.S. Court of Appeals for the federal circuit declined to review its earlier
decision to require the Secret Service testimony. That left 12 noon EDT Friday as the time when a stay on the testimony expires.
Rehnquist has oversight for the Federal Circuit. He was in Innsbruck, Austria, during the court's recess, but returned to the Washington, D.C., area to make the decision.
The Supreme Court could still be asked to decide the broader question of creating a privilege for the Secret Service when the court convenes next in October. That is an appeal separate from Thursday's request for a delay. Administration officials indicate they are unlikely to let the matter rest at the lower court.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court turned down Starr's request for expedited hearing of the issue. The justices urged the lower appeals court to act expeditiously, and it did.
To get on the Supreme Court's fall calendar, the Clinton Administration would have to petition the justices to grant "certiorari" -- a decision to hear the case. If there are four votes among the nine to hear it, the case would be scheduled for argument in the fall.
CNN's Bob Franken and Charles Bierbauer contributed to this report.