NO MORE SECRETS?
July 15, 1998
The Justice Department has challenged Kenneth Starr's bid to have Secret Service agents testify before a grand jury. Today, before a Senate panel, Attorney General Janet Reno argued that such a move could force a president to distance himself from his protectors. Two experts discuss these developments with Jim Lehrer.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
June 4, 1998
The Supreme Court refuses an expedited review.
April 15, 1998
Kenneth Starr seeks the testimony of Secret Service officers.
February 12, 1998
Experts debate whether Secret Service officers should be forced to testify.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the Starr Investigation.
The White House.
JIM LEHRER: Two perspectives on this. Stuart Knight was the director of the Secret Service from 1973 to '82. He's now a senior adviser to a security firm in Tennessee. Jonathan Turley's a professor at George Washington University Law School. He filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of four former attorneys general in support of Independent Counsel Starr. Mr. Knight, what do you think of this latest development, asking for testimony from agents the closest to the President?
STUART KNIGHT, Former Secret Service Director: It's a step up, not a major step up, but a slight step up, because the uniform division officers were the ones originally subpoenaed-do not travel with the President, whereas, Larry and his cohorts do. So, in that sense, it's a step up.
Should Secret Service agents testify against the man they are supposed to protect?
JIM LEHRER: So, step up toward what?
STUART KNIGHT: Towards finding out what the President's doing.
JIM LEHRER: And good or bad?
STUART KNIGHT: Some of each, I think. I think as Jonathan knows, I'm opposed to the Secret Service personnel testifying for corroborative evidence, which is what I think-what I think Judge Starr wants. And I respect Judge Starr. But he wants to know who went in the room, how long they stayed there, and when they came out, and that sort of thing. And that's not a crime per se, but understand, I've done enough criminal investigations to know that that is corroborative evidence.
JIM LEHRER: And you do not believe Secret Service agents around the President should be asked for that sort of testimony?
STUART KNIGHT: Correct, absolutely correct.
JIM LEHRER: Why not?
STUART KNIGHT: It's not a crime. And you're talking about the man's personal business.
JIM LEHRER: But if the Secret Service witnessed a crime, the agent knew it was a crime-
STUART KNIGHT: No problem.
JIM LEHRER: No problem.
STUART KNIGHT: No problem at all. No problem at all. Now, my book, my commission book says quite clearly he is commended to those with whom he may have official business as worthy of trust and confidence. And I think when you're asking those immediately around him to testify, you somehow erode that trust, you erode that confidence, and that may have dire consequences, because they'll ask him not to be around.
JIM LEHRER: You see it differently, Mr. Turley.
JONATHAN TURLEY, George Washington Law School: Well, I do. I mean, I have a lot of respect for Stuart, and he represents the best of the Secret Service, a very proud cadre. And certainly the attorney generals don't question the need to protect the President, nor is it a privilege. These were people who helped write the doctrine of executive privilege, are some of the strongest advocates of executive privilege. But the reason that these four attorneys general have come forward and the reason two ex-presidents-
JIM LEHRER: Tell us who the four are that you filed the brief for.
JONATHAN TURLEY: Barr, Bell, Thornburg, and Meese.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
JONATHAN TURLEY: And the reason they've come forward-
JIM LEHRER: Three Republicans, one Democrat.
JONATHAN TURLEY: Right.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
JONATHAN TURLEY: And the reason President Carter has come forward and President Ford to oppose this privilege is that they see a real danger here, and it's important for people to understand. I trust Stuart. I trust him. I'm sure that Stuart would never do anything or participate or withhold criminal evidence, because he's a great guy. And so are many of the people that work or if not all of the people that work in the Secret Service.
STUART KNIGHT: I think all of them-
JONATHAN TURLEY: Right. I do too. But the problem is who decides what's a crime. And we have a branch for that, the judicial branch. We have an independent counsel in the field. He believes these Secret Service agents have relevant, material testimony. He went into an in-camera session with the judge, showed her-
JIM LEHRER: In-camera means secret.
Secret Service agents are trained to protect, but they are not trained in the law.
JONATHAN TURLEY: Right. Showed her what he wanted and what the agents could testify to, and she found it relevant material. And so the question is when a federal judge finds evidence relevant and an independent counsel believes it's necessary to complete an investigation, who is it that needs to make that decision, and in our system witnesses don't make that decision. Secret Service agents are wonderfully trained; they're courageous people. They're not trained in the law. They don't make the decisions as to what is relevant and what is not. But also I think that the problem with what Sen. Leahy said in your tape is that it would be virtually impossible for Ken Starr to get into the conversations he described. There's a host of privileges that would prevent that type of testimony occurring. We're talking about a very narrow circumstance where it has been found that there is not only a credible criminal allegation against the President but also that the evidence sought goes materially directly to that evidence.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, let's-we don't know the specifics of this case, but let's make up some specifics and see if we can figure this out-no, I don't mean in this case-but a Secret Service agent observes because it's his or her job a particular person going into a room, any room. Okay. And that's all the-that's all the agent saw. And an independent counsel comes along and says, I want to ask that agent, did you see Sammy Sue go through that door, because it may relate to something that happened inside that the agent did not see? Now, you don't think that agent should be asked that question.
STUART KNIGHT: That's correct.
JIM LEHRER: Why not?
STUART KNIGHT: It's not a crime per se. Now, I recognize corroborative evidence. You know, I've been in the business 35 years, so I've made a few arrests in my life. But, again, we're talking about, you know, something that is not a crime, and-
JIM LEHRER: Where does that hurt that particular case and cases like that? Let's assume that what you all are saying is correct, that all Mr. Starr wants from these agents is corroborative evidence, not evidence of a crime but just-anyhow we won't go through that again-but let's assume that that's the case. What harm does that do to the protective functions?
STUART KNIGHT: Because that makes them want to move the protective function farther out so that they can observe that sort of thing, and when they move them farther out, they put the President and his-in his wording-
JIM LEHRER: In other words, you think that this would lead to presidents and people around presidents saying well, let's keep those agents where they can't see the people coming through the door?
STUART KNIGHT: Exactly. Exactly what former President Bush has said in writing.
JONATHAN TURLEY: And that's what two other ex-presidents say will not happen. And I think that the court of appeals panel that voted three/zip against this said that they not only questioned the legal basis for this, they questioned the need. This is a rather poorly crafted privilege, with all due respect. I mean, there are holes in this privilege. It would not prevent Secret Service agents or ex-agents from testifying. There would be no assurance to the president that a conversation would or would not be subject to evidence, since it would depend largely on the Secret Service agent's view, or an ex-agent, who wouldn't be covered by the privilege. So the president would get no assurance. And that's one of the things the court said. The court said we fail to see-even if we accept this privilege-why a president would be at all put at ease by this. But it also is suggesting that presidents will bolt from their security detail in order to avoid a circumstance in which what they are doing or saying could be alleged to be criminal. That's a very rare thing. Few presidents have ever been subject to criminal investigation.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think that'll happen?
STUART KNIGHT: Do I think what will happen?
JIM LEHRER: That the presidents will-
STUART KNIGHT: Yes, I do.
JIM LEHRER: You do?
STUART KNIGHT: Sure. And not only do I think it, but dozens and dozens of former high officials in the Secret Service, assistant directors, deputy directors feel the same way the current leadership also does, as you know-
JONATHAN TURLEY: Stuart, even ex-treasury-I'm sorry to interrupt but even an ex-secretary treasurer, who also opposes it, you know, Secretary of the Treasury Baker, says that he believes this is not needed.
JIM LEHRER: Why do you think the presidents will act that way?
STUART KNIGHT: Because they don't want-if they know that the people around them are going to be subpoenaed to report on what they've done, who they saw, who they talk to in some senses, then they're going to ask them to stay away so they can't see that.
A conflict between an agent's protective function versus their law enforcement function?
JIM LEHRER: Is it oversimplifying this to say that what the issue here is the Secret Service agent's conflict between his or her protective function versus his or her law enforcement function?
JONATHAN TURLEY: It is. And this is not an easy issue. I mean, people like Stuart are not carrying anyone's water, and I respect that, but it's an issue that belongs in Congress. There is a tension, and the question is: Are these people law enforcement officials first-which they are.
JIM LEHRER: See, that's the point. You would say that's not the point, right?
STUART KNIGHT: I don't deny-
JIM LEHRER: No?
STUART KNIGHT: --that they're federal law enforcement officials.
JONATHAN TURLEY: But the problem is that there's an inherent danger when law enforcement agents can withhold relevant criminal evidence. This is a small country. And it can become a disablizing or dangerous group of people if they stand beyond the law in that sense, if they alone decide what could be criminal. You know, we had a system like that once in history. They were called the Praetorian Guard. And they were a very dangerous group of people. And I'm not suggesting that the Secret Service would become a Praetorian Guard, but actually I believe that this privilege diminishes the Secret Service. They're not a personal household guard. And I have former agents who say that they are prepared to testify in Congress, that they opposed this privilege for that reason.
JIM LEHRER: Diminishes-diminishes the Secret Service?
STUART KNIGHT: I don't understand that, but Jonathan, I'm sure, can explain it to me.
JONATHAN TURLEY: The reason I believe it diminishes it is that they aren't their-their duties run to the public. They don't run to the president as a person. They're not a personal household guard. They're not a palace guard. They're law enforcement agents, and you know what? We want the president to feel uncomfortable. If he is saying something that could be potentially criminal, he should feel uncomfortable saying it in front of a law enforcement agent.
JIM LEHRER: What's wrong with that?
STUART KNIGHT: Nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with that, except he's not going to want them around when he's going to carry on conversations.
JONATHAN TURLEY: But, Stuart-I'm sorry-
STUART KNIGHT: This subpoena is focused on one case and one instance. Who's to say that, you know, it cannot be expanded by some future independent counsel and get into the political arena or whatever?
JONATHAN TURLEY: Stuart, in order for that to happen they would have to get the attorney general of that president to say, yes, I believe these are criminal, these are potentially criminal acts, a three-judge panel to say yes, we think this is credible evidence, an independent counsel who seeks their testimony, and a trial court who approves it. That's a lot of guarantees to a president.
JIM LEHRER: Let me ask just a practical question, Mr. Knight, based on your experience with the Secret Service. Functioning in a protective role, trying to protect the President of the United States, as a matter of fact, do most agents listen to what's going on, or are they concentrating on other things?
STUART KNIGHT: Not really. Not really. They're focusing on other things. I was asked, for example, wouldn't the agent in the front seat of the car have overheard the conversation between the President and his attorney, Bennett, and the answer is no, because there's a big class divider between the front and the back seat, so, you know, that's not possible, but in my opinion.
JIM LEHRER: Is the concentration elsewhere, just as a normal course of-
STUART KNIGHT: Concentration is elsewhere. Even the president is giving a speech, you develop-you hear a phrase-oh, that means he's almost through, well, we'd better get ready to move. But that's about it. You're looking somewhere else.
JONATHAN TURLEY: Well, you know, part of-
JIM LEHRER: We have to go, but this is going to go-you think this is going to go all the way to the Supreme Court?
JONATHAN TURLEY: I think it would be a mistake. I doubt the Supreme Court would grant a review of this case.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, thank you both.
STUART KNIGHT: Thank you, Jim.
JONATHAN TURLEY: Thank you.