Subpoena by Starr Incites White House Anger
President Clinton’s personal lawyers Wednesday accused independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr of making a “backdoor attempt” to pry into confidential attorney-client conversations by subpoenaing the president’s closest Secret Service protector.
Clinton lawyers Robert S. Bennett and David E. Kendall declared in a joint statement that Starr “appears to be tracking private counsel’s meetings and conversations with the president” by compelling agents to disclose what they might have overheard in Clinton’s limousine or elsewhere.
Before this week, Starr had subpoenaed two uniformed Secret Service agents who stood outside the Oval Office and a Secret Service counsel who debriefed the officers. Those subpoenas had already been challenged by the government.
The administration has argued that forcing members of Clinton’s security detail to testify before a federal grand jury would jeopardize the safety of future presidents, who might be inclined to push away their protectors.
On Tuesday, however, Starr raised the stakes in the legal battle by subpoenaing, for the first time, Larry Cockell, who commands the plainclothes detail that always envelopes the president, and six other officers. In Clinton’s public appearances, Cockell often can be seen shadowing him, standing either directly beside or behind him.
Starr is investigating the nature of Clinton’s relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and whether she or the president lied under oath about it or encouraged others to do so.
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry rounded out the full-scale White House offensive Wednesday, calling Starr “an overzealous prosecutor” who is seeking to get “someone who has had a position of trust . . . to betray that trust.”
At his press briefing, McCurry had even harsher comments when asked to respond to an NBC News report that Starr’s prosecutors think that some Secret Service agents may have “facilitated” alleged extramarital affairs by the president.
“It is utterly outrageous and venomous for Ken Starr to allow his staff to impugn the integrity of the president of the United States and people who are required by law to protect him. And, if he had any ounce of decency today, he would tell them to knock it off,” McCurry said angrily.
Charles G. Bakaly III, a spokesman for Starr, declined comment.
Justice Department lawyers, meanwhile, went to federal court to resist the latest subpoenas at a closed-door hearing with Starr’s prosecutors before Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson. Although all the parties left after an hour without commenting, it was understood that the administration asked Johnson to stay the subpoenas.
But the Washington Post reported that Johnson refused to stay the subpoenas and, instead, chastised Justice Department lawyers for continuing to resist Starr’s efforts to compel Secret Service testimony. Justice Department lawyers later filed an emergency motion asking the federal appeals court to intervene, the Post reported. If unsuccessful there, the department reportedly planned to seek help from Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
It remained unclear, however, whether Cockell or any of the other agents would appear before the grand jury today as the subpoenas commanded. Pentagon employee Linda Tripp, a former friend of Lewinsky’s, is also scheduled to return to the grand jury today for a sixth day of testimony.
Ruling last May in the case of the earlier Secret Service subpoenas, Johnson said Starr had the right to compel the employees’ testimony because they are part of the federal law enforcement establishment and are sworn to assist in criminal investigations.
A three-judge appellate panel earlier this month upheld Johnson’s decision, saying that Secret Service employees must tell grand jurors what they saw or learned of the president’s relationship with Lewinsky.
On Tuesday, the administration appealed that decision to the full appellate court.
Starr also reportedly is seeking Secret Service documents detailing the president’s nighttime activities for a recent two-year period and on the 37 dates that Lewinsky visited the White House after she was transferred to a job at the Pentagon in April 1996.
As a result of the closer focus on Clinton’s innermost protective detail, the president’s aides jumped headlong into the legal fray, abandoning their previous stance that the Justice Department and Treasury Department, the parent agency of the Secret Service, were primarily responsible for challenging Starr’s efforts to obtain testimony from officers who guard the president and enjoy his trust.
Bennett and Kendall, in their statement, took note of some press reports that Starr might be seeking to learn whether an agent overheard a conversation between Clinton and Bennett as they were driven two blocks to the White House after the president gave sworn testimony about Lewinsky on Jan. 17.
On that day Clinton was deposed in Bennett’s downtown law office by lawyers for Paula Corbin Jones, who asked about his relationship with Lewinsky as part of their effort to establish a pattern of offensive behavior by the president for Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit against him. A federal judge later dismissed that lawsuit.
In his deposition, Clinton denied any sexual relationship with Lewinsky, as she did in a sworn affidavit.
“Let us be clear,” Bennett and Kendall said. “Any backdoor attempt by this prosecutor to invade the president’s right to consult with personal counsel will be aggressively and firmly resisted.”
They added that “the president deserves the same right to private counsel as any other citizen but the independent counsel’s track record for respecting this right is not encouraging.”
In their statement, Bennett and Kendall cited no basis other than press speculation for knowing that Starr wanted to quiz the head of Clinton’s Secret Service detail about the president’s conversations with his lawyers. Subpoenas for testimony generally do not detail specific questions that will be asked.
Johnson has ruled that government lawyers like White House deputy counsel Bruce R. Lindsey must answer questions about their private conversations, a decision currently being appealed by the White House. However, courts long have upheld the sanctity of conversations between private lawyers and their clients.
At a Senate hearing Wednesday, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told Atty. Gen. Janet Reno he was “extremely dismayed” that the Justice Department is seeking to delay the investigation further by appealing Secret Service testimony.
Reno replied that the challenge “is not done for delay” but that a crucial issue is at stake.