TRACKING THE STORY
May 14, 1998
At issue today in a public hearing in Washington was whether secret service agents should be compelled to testify before independent cousel Kanneth Starr's grand jury. George Lardner, a reporter on the Washington Post's national staff, reports on today's arguments.
MARGARET WARNER: There was a rare public hearing in this ongoing investigation today at the federal district court here in Washington. At issue, can Secret Service agents who protect the president be compelled to testify before independent counsel Kenneth Starr's grand jury? For a report on today's arguments we turn to George Lardner, a reporter on the Washington Post's national staff. He joins us from the Post's news room. Welcome, George.
GEORGE LARDNER, Washington Post: Thank you, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: First, explain to us, why does Kenneth Starr want the testimony of Secret Service agents?
GEORGE LARDNER: He says he needs it because he thinks they have evidence of crimes that may have been committed: obstruction of justice, perjury, and he said today intimidation of witnesses as well. He didn't go into the particulars. The judge, Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, didn't ask him for them. But I imagine they're laid out in the pleadings that are still secret.
MARGARET WARNER: But essentially, does Ken Starr feel that these agents are in a position perhaps to know more about the relationship between the president and Monica Lewinsky, for example?
GEORGE LARDNER: Undoubtedly, that is what he is seeking, and he thinks they have information along that line. And I think that the government is asserting the privilege because it does have sensitive information, or it knows those agents have seen and heard things that they would rather not testify about.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. So take us to today's hearing. What did Kenneth Starr argue?
GEORGE LARDNER: He argued that for the government to establish this new privilege--untested privilege--is without any authority in common law, and that there's no basis for a court to adopt-he says--if the Secret Service grants this privilege, it should go to Congress and get a law passed. But it shouldn't ask the courts to act as a legislation.
MARGARET WARNER: And then who argued with the Secret Service, and what argument did he or she make about why the agent should be protected from testifying?
GEORGE LARDNER: The Justice Department represented the Secret Service, and their argument was pretty exclusively based on the fears and dangers of assassination, on the risks that are posed if a president they say thinks the agents are going to be required to testify about what they see and hear, that he'll push them away, that he won't want them around them, and they need proximity, they say, to do their job in order to protect him.
MARGARET WARNER: What did they use or cite? What did the attorney use or cite to buttress that argument about the danger of a president not wanting the Secret Service agents close by?
GEORGE LARDNER: Well, they went all the way back to Lincoln, who, it seems, a few days before he was killed, got rid of a federal marshal or a federal marshal resigned because of the difficulties Lincoln posed in protecting him. And then he went to President McKinley, who was killed moments after an agent assigned to protect him was told to stand back because some other dignitary wanted to be close to the president. And then he went on to episodes of recent years like plane landings and helicopter landings on the White House lawn to suggest that the White House is itself a place where a president could be killed.
MARGARET WARNER: And what did Kenneth Starr say to that risk of assassination argument?
GEORGE LARDNER: He said that it wasn't enough to overcome his need for testimony, that the dangers surrounding a president are very real, but he suggested the Secret Service could do its job adequately without having to cover up evidence of crimes that he thinks they might have.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, how did the judge in this--Judge Johnson--how did she react? What could you divine from her reaction or her questions?
GEORGE LARDNER: Well, she seems skeptical of the claimed connection between dangers to the president, assassinations, claims that the Secret Service couldn't do its job, and the need for testimonial privilege. Starr, for his part, argued that the cure really is education of the president. Don't talk about crimes when your Secret Service agents are around.
MARGARET WARNER: He said that?
GEORGE LARDNER: Substantially that.
MARGARET WARNER: Does the Secret Service recognize any limits to this privilege they're claiming? I mean, are they saying it's absolutely blanket, they should never have to testify about anything they hear or see?
GEORGE LARDNER: Well, they're saying that it's absolute in the sense that it can't be counterbalanced by competing interests, such as the need for evidence in a criminal trial. But they say it doesn't cover eyewitness sightings of a felony or what they have reasonable grounds to believe is a felony. Of course, that leaves out misdemeanors, beating up your wife, things like that, and it also leaves out, Starr pointed out, situations like say President Nixon erasing a tape and an agent sees him. Well, there's no crime itself in erasing a tape, and if the agent, Starr said, didn't know that that tape had been subpoenaed the day before under the government's theory he wouldn't be able to testify about Nixon's erasing it.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Secret Service--I understand--worked very hard behind the scenes to even keep this from getting to a courtroom like this today. Tell us a little about that.
GEORGE LARDNER: Well, Director Merletti of--Louis Merletti, he's the head of the Secret Service--is very articulate, very dedicated, and very passionate on this point, I understand. And he has been preaching his gospel to the lawyer in government, even to Starr. He is genuinely afraid that a president will be killed if they can't do their job, if his agents can't do their job, and he fears they won't be able to if they can't stay close to the president, if they are pushed away.
MARGARET WARNER: But that was of no avail at all. I mean, is Starr giving any ground in this?
GEORGE LARDNER: Not that I saw today. He's had discussions with Director Merletti, and he just feels very strongly it was clear today that he's entitled to the testimony of the three agents whose names were not disclosed that they're trying to get.
MARGARET WARNER: And then former President and Vice President George Bush has also weighed in on this?
GEORGE LARDNER: Yes. Merletti used to be in his detail, I understand, and former President Bush wrote him a letter saying he sympathized with Director Merletti's position and that he, Bush, would feel uncomfortable if he thought agents would be going around, repeating what they heard and said. On the other hand, Vice President Quayle today weighed in on the other side. He said presidents and vice presidents don't normally engage in criminal conduct and, if they do, the people ought to know about it.
MARGARET WARNER: And what's your sense of the timetable on this?
GEORGE LARDNER: I don't know. It's difficult to predict Judge Johnson's actions or when she's going to do a certain ruling or release evidence. She did promise to release redacted or censored copies of the pleadings on this issue, and she took the case under advisement, but she set herself no deadline for when she's going to come up with a ruling.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you expect that whichever way it goes, the other side will appeal?
GEORGE LARDNER: Yes. I would think so. Perhaps all the way to the Supreme Court.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, George Lardner, thank you very much for being with us.
GEORGE LARDNER: Thank you. .