All the president's guards

A new and damaging leak about Clinton's Secret Service detail re-ignites the firestorm enveloping Kenneth Starr and the White House.

Published July 16, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The legal battle between independent counsel Kenneth Starr and President Clinton has escalated sharply with explosive new allegations that the Secret Service agents may have "facilitated" the president's alleged sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and that Starr is now investigating whether any of these agents acted as "accomplices" to a suspected cover-up of the Lewinsky affair.

The allegations, coming one day after Starr subpoenaed Larry Cockell, head of Clinton's Secret Service security detail, were contained in a report by NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert that aired on the network's "Today" show Wednesday morning.

"There are lots of suggestions coming out of people close to Ken Starr that perhaps the Secret Service facilitated for President Clinton," Russert reported. "Remember that code word," Russert cautioned, referring to the word "facilitated." "It was used about the state troopers in Little Rock." Russert was referring to controversial 1993 charges that Arkansas state troopers assigned to Gov. Clinton's security detail helped him arrange extramarital affairs.

When asked by "Today" show host Matt Lauer to explain what he meant by saying Secret Service agents may have "facilitated" for the president, Russert clarified: "I didn't say they did. But there are suggestions, and Ken Starr is driving for that information: Was a Secret Service agent an accomplice in trying to cover up a relationship with Monica Lewinsky?"

Amid the grinding legal and verbal slugfest between Clinton and Starr, Russert's report was the equivalent of Starr's biting off an ear, and it prompted howls of outrage from the White House. "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 the people who are required by law to protect him," White House spokesman Michael McCurry told reporters. He said if Starr "had any ounce of decency," he would tell his staff to "knock it off" in spreading allegations against the president and his security guard. "They should not be slimed by Ken Starr and his operatives," McCurry growled.

Other allies of the president tore into Russert, saying he did not call the White House to check his story before airing it. "We're back to the days of the semen-stained dress," protested one Clinton supporter, referring to thinly sourced reports early on in the scandal that claimed Lewinsky, a former White House intern, was keeping a semen-stained dress in her closet as a grotesque memento of her alleged affair with Clinton. A subsequent FBI search of Lewinsky's Washington apartment turned up no such dress.

Russert dismisses the attacks on him as "political" and defends his story as an accurate description of where his sources say Starr's investigation is headed. In a telephone interview, he also stressed that his sources did not come from Starr's office. "These are congressional sources who told me that, in fact, this is what part of the investigation is looking at," Russert told Salon. "All I'm doing is reporting it. I'm not making it up."

Russert's explanation has only angered the president's aides more. "He's now helped his viewers understand that Ken Starr has laundered the information through the Starr operation's friends on Capitol Hill," McCurry said, his tone dripping with sarcasm. "That's good when news organizations give you a little more help in understanding what their anonymous sources are about."

Noted another presidential ally: "If it came from a source in Congress who did not get it from Starr, it would be complete rumor and speculation, and Russert would have no business repeating it. But if these congressional sources are saying these things because they heard it from the independent counsel's office, that raises serious questions about grand jury secrecy. Either way, there's a serious issue there."

Starr's spokesman, Charles Bakaly, did not return a call seeking comment.

As for the accusation that he failed to call the White House for comment, Russert says: "What would I ask the White House? Whether it's true that Ken Starr is looking into this? How would the White House know? That's not what this is about. This is a Secret Service issue, not a White House issue."

In his report, Russert also said that if head agent Cockell is forced to testify before the grand jury in the Lewinsky investigation, the Secret Service may be forced to remove him from the White House security detail. "How can we have an agent testifying against the president one day and guarding his life the next?" Russert quoted a source -- presumably from the Secret Service -- as saying.

The Secret Service declined to comment on Russert's report. "Everything is so sensitive, we're really not commenting on anything on background or for the record," said Secret Service spokesperson Chaun Yount. She said the Secret Service might be more forthcoming in a few more days.

Cockell and six other Secret Service agents who guard the president received subpoenas on Tuesday, a week after a three-judge federal appeals panel endorsed Starr's right to question Secret Service personnel in connection with the Lewinsky affair. But Starr's decision to include Cockell and two others in addition to the three agents he originally sought to question appeared to underscore the independent counsel's frustration over the Justice Department's decision to appeal the panel's ruling to the full appeals court. Starr also wrote an angry letter to the Justice Department about its decision to appeal, saying it would delay his investigation.

In her 15-page letter to the full U.S. appeals court, Attorney General Janet Reno restated the administration's argument that requiring the Secret Service agents to testify would result in the president's pushing away his security detail and inviting an assassination. Secret Service director Lewis Merletti has vowed to go to the Supreme Court if necessary to create a so-called protective function privilege that would exempt Secret Service agents from having to testify. While some Justice Department officials believe this legal battle is ultimately doomed to fail, it would delay Starr's investigation at least until October, when the high court reconvenes after its long summer recess.

Starr's subpoena of Cockell is particularly troubling to Clinton. As head of the White House security detail, the plainclothed Cockell is among those agents who are physically closest to the president at all times. According to the Washington Post, Cockell was the only Secret Service agent who was permitted to guard Clinton on January 17 when the president gave his sworn deposition to lawyers for Paula Jones in her sexual harassment civil suit against Clinton. After the deposition at a downtown Washington law office, Cockell also rode back to the White House with Clinton and his lawyer, Robert Bennett.

In trying to determine whether Clinton committed perjury in denying he had sexual relations with Lewinsky and whether he suborned perjury on her part, Starr is said to want to question Cockell about Clinton's conversation with Bennett during their limousine ride. NBC's report that Starr is looking for an "accomplice" to Clinton's alleged crimes may be a signal to Cockell and other agents that they could face legal troubles themselves if they don't testify truthfully.

Lawyers for Clinton say such questioning would constitute a "backdoor attempt" by Starr to breach Clinton's attorney-client privilege and would be challenged in court. Last month, the Supreme Court upheld the attorney-client privilege after Starr, in an effort to obtain the notes of late White House counsel Vince Foster, argued that the privilege expires with the death of the client.

"The president deserves the same right to private counsel as any other citizens, but the independent counsel's track record for respecting this right is not encouraging," said Bennett and David Kendall, Clinton's other personal attorney, in a joint statement. "For example, the independent counsel sought to rewrite the law of attorney-client privilege and establish that the privilege does not survive death. The Supreme Court disagreed and rejected this contention.

"Now this. Let us be clear: Any backdoor attempt by this prosecutor to invade the president's right to consult with personal counsel will be aggressively and firmly resisted," Bennett and Kendall stated.

In quoting his sources as saying Secret Service agents may have "facilitated" Clinton's alleged affair with Lewinsky, Russert resurrected the allegation that Arkansas state troopers serving on Gov. Clinton's security detail performed the same function with other women. The allegations by the troopers surfaced in a December 1993 article in the conservative American Spectator magazine by journalist David Brock. Brock's article, the first to mention a woman known only then as "Paula," led to Paula Jones' sexual harassment suit against the president.

However, earlier this year, Brock disavowed his article after he said he discovered that some of the troopers who made the allegations had been paid by right-wing critics of the president and that their sworn testimonies did not match what they had told him.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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