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All In The Detail

Now that Ken Starr has the go-ahead to question the President's Secret Service agents, can they tell him what he wants to know?

By Richard Lacayo

TIME magazine

(TIME, July 27) -- Three days before Christmas of 1997, Monica Lewinsky had a lot on her mind. She had just been served a subpoena in the Paula Jones case. So, on Dec. 22, Lewinsky was driven by Bill Clinton's friend Vernon Jordan to the offices of the new lawyer Jordan had handpicked. There she got help in drafting a sworn affidavit denying that she had ever had a sexual relationship with Clinton. Even as Lewinsky met with Jordan, the President was on a dizzying 36-hr. tour of Bosnia, visiting American G.I.s in Sarajevo. Did Lewinsky try to reach him while he was abroad? Less than a month later, Clinton was asked by lawyers for Jones whether he had been in telephone contact with Lewinsky from Bosnia. Under oath he answered, "No." Then the lawyers asked, "While you were on that trip, did you ask anyone to meet with her?" Clinton said, "Not to my knowledge."

Last week, as the legal skirmishing between Ken Starr and Bill Clinton reached its highest pitch yet, the independent counsel won the right to question someone who was at Clinton's side at virtually every moment of the Bosnia trip: Secret Service special agent Larry Cockell, the President's bodyguard. After a series of courtroom victories that largely swept away the notion of a "protective privilege" shielding Secret Service agents from having to testify about what they saw or heard while on duty, Starr is free to ask Cockell if he knows anything that contradicts the President's testimony. Cockell is expected to go before Starr's grand jury this week. Starr is particularly interested in any contact Clinton may have had with Lewinsky and Jordan at the time the affidavit was signed.

Typically, Starr won the legal battle, but the White House scored public relations points. For months the Administration had argued that if the President began to think of his bodyguards as an attachment of eavesdroppers, he would try to shake them whenever he needed privacy, with unhappy consequences for the presidential life-span. (Cut to the Zapruder film, released this month in video stores everywhere.) But in the White House, there were serious doubts all along that any court would uphold a protective privilege. Administration sources tell TIME that last week, even as the White House's argument was bumping painfully and vainly through the courts, Justice Department officials were telling the Treasury Department, which oversees the Secret Service, that chances of prevailing in the matter were virtually nil. But Treasury officials, led by Robert Rubin--who spoke by telephone from Africa, where he was traveling--opted to go ahead anyway.

Justice was right, of course. The privilege argument was rejected by judges over and over last week. On Friday, Chief Justice William Rehnquist dealt it a decisive blow. But for the White House, going to court may have been worth the trouble. Starr's legal vindication could be another of his Pyrrhic victories, a p.r. stumble that compares with his squeezing testimony from Monica Lewinsky's mother. Sworn to sacrifice their life to save the President's, plainclothes agents see themselves as the ultimate shield. By dragging them before his grand jury, Starr risks treating them like human bugging devices. But the independent counsel has his own calculations. He knows that what the agents may be able to tell him could be worth whatever beating he takes in public opinion to get it.

Starr has long been seeking the testimony of two of the uniformed officers who guard the White House hallways. But last week he startled Washington by issuing his first subpoena to a member of Clinton's plainclothes security detail--Cockell, who until last week was the special agent in charge. Cockell joined the presidential detail almost exactly two years ago. That was two months after Lewinsky had been transferred from the White House to the Pentagon, but it put him in a position to talk about events of this past winter--and not just the Bosnia trip. Starr may want to know if Cockell overheard any discussions Clinton had with Jordan or White House aides that implied Lewinsky would be getting a job in exchange for telling lies in her affidavit.

It was after Cockell was assigned to Clinton that Lewinsky, then working at the Pentagon, made many of her 37 still unexplained visits to the White House. A subpoena sent to the Secret Service indicates that Starr is especially interested in any off-hour visits--early morning, late night and weekends--times when Hillary Rodham Clinton may have been out of town. In particular, in his January deposition in the Jones case, Clinton testified that he did not recall being alone with Monica or meeting her alone between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. That testimony conflicts with Linda Tripp's secret tape recordings of Lewinsky, in which Lewinsky, according to people who have heard the tapes, spoke of private sessions with the President that included at least one late at night. Cockell may also have been within earshot of any phone calls between Lewinsky and Clinton at the White House. And Cockell was within earshot of the conversation between Clinton and lawyer Robert Bennett during their January limo ride back from the Paula Jones deposition. But Starr's spokesman, Charles Bakaly, rejected White House assertions that the independent counsel wants to intrude on a lawyer-client moment, using Cockell as the back door.

Watching the Administration's doomed attempt to push its argument through the courts was like witnessing a man spending a week falling down a flight of stairs. Starr subpoenaed the agents on Tuesday, just a week after a three-judge federal appeals panel upheld a lower-court ruling that rejected the protective-privilege claim. By early Thursday morning, Cockell and six officers were at the courthouse in Washington, ready to walk the plank into Starr's grand-jury room. So great was the attention on them that Tripp was able to enter the court in relative peace for her sixth day of testimony.

The agents got a last-minute reprieve when the three-judge panel determined that they would not have to testify until the full appeals court made up its mind whether to hear the White House argument. To no one's surprise--full court hearings are rarely granted--the judges rejected the idea. The gist of their ruling was that Secret Service agents are sworn officers of the law; they are obliged to testify about potential wrongdoing and can do so without endangering the President's security. In a concurring opinion, Judge Laurence Silberman referred to the proposed privilege as "a constitutional absurdity." The White House hit the last step on Friday, when Rehnquist declined to delay the subpoenas. Starr questioned officers the same day.

By that time the public relations war was well under way. On Wednesday, NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert reported on the Today show that Starr's office had subpoenaed the agents partly to learn if any of them had "facilitated" the President in some kind of sexual relationship with Lewinsky. In the winking language of the scandal's sexual steeplechase, "facilitated" is one step removed from "pimped." Clinton's bodyguards were infuriated by the implication that they had been used as errand boys in a presidential affair. Advancing the week's baroque spin, Clinton's press secretary, Mike McCurry, took great pains to object to Russert's report, saying Starr and his men were "sliming" the agents, an accusation that Bakaly denied.

Starr's quick moves to force the Secret Service testimony are another sign that his hopes for a deal with Lewinsky are all but gone. They rose last month after she changed lawyers, but talks broke down after Starr demanded to interview her in person. His strategy again appears to be to build a circumstantial case against her. For that, he needs the agents' testimony to bolster Tripp's. And the agents' testimony is what he is going to get, whether they like it or not.

--Reported by Michael Duffy, Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/Washington
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: July 27, 1998

The Bodyguards: Shadows And Shield
All In The Detail
Tradition With A Twist
The Notebook: Clinton's Chinese Miscommunication

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