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Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / April 29, 1998 / 3 Iyar, 5758

Roger Simon

Roger Simon You may ask, but should they tell?

WASHINGTON -- Not long after he was sworn in as president and had moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Bill Clinton opened up a back door at the White House one evening and walked out onto the South Lawn to play with Socks the cat.

Immediately, three Secret Service agents stepped out of the shadows and created a security triangle around them.

Clinton was surprised and displeased. As governor of Arkansas, he had much more freedom to go where he wanted to without watchful eyes upon him.

"The White House is the crown jewel of the federal penal system," Clinton grumped.

Little did he know.

"When he goes to a hotel to give a speech and has to go to the bathroom, the agent sometimes goes in with him," a former top aide said. "They are everywhere."

Harold Ickes, Clinton's former deputy chief of staff, said the Secret Service is so close to the president, he almost wears them.

"These guys are almost like a suit," Ickes said. "They are that close. They hear everything. They are in the car with him. They hear him talk to the staff, to governors, to senators, to everybody."

Just what the Secret Service sees and hears and what agents can be compelled to repeat under oath is now the subject of a furious legal battle between Independent Counsel Ken Starr and the Clinton administration. Starr wants agents assigned to the elite presidential detail to testify as to whether Clinton was ever alone with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office and whether the two were observed engaging in sexual acts.

The Treasury Department, which oversees the Secret Service, is fighting Starr, saying agents must maintain a code of silence in order to do their job effectively.

The White House is remaining officially neutral, but interviews with various senior officials produced the same argument: If the president cannot trust the Secret Service, he will keep them farther away from him and by so doing endanger his own life.

"I deal with the Secret Service all the time," one top aide said. "They tell me what they need; they tell me what the president can and can't do and mostly I defer to them. But if I ever have to worry about whether agents are going to be put under oath to repeat what they see and hear, I am going to say, 'I don't give a sh-t about security, I don't want you in the room.'"

Clinton reportedly told lawyers for Paula Jones in a sworn deposition that he had never spent time alone with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office, except perhaps on brief occasions.

One former uniformed Secret Service agent, Lewis Fox, has reportedly told a grand jury, however, that Clinton was alone with Lewinsky for at least 40 minutes in the Oval Office on a weekend afternoon in the fall of 1995.

On two occasions, Starr's investigators reportedly went to Secret Service headquarters and conducted limited interviews with agents. Starr now wants those agents, and possibly others, to testify before the grand jury. The Clinton administration has made a sealed court filing opposing him.

"Starr is supposed to be searching for 'credible and specific evidence' of criminal conduct," Lanny Davis, formerly a special counsel to Clinton, said. "Subpoenaing the Secret Service is unnecessary and dangerous. What is the crime that the Secret Service is supposed to have witnessed? This is all based on a manufactured question from lawyers to President Clinton: 'Did you ever meet with Monica Lewinsky alone?' President Clinton didn't deny it. He said, 'I can't recall.'"

Regardless of the legal maneuvering, the White House is seriously worried about having Secret Service agents testify. While the Clintons have kept agents out of the two top floors of the residential quarters of the White House, the agents are virtually every place else including just outside of (though not inside) the Oval Office.

"And when the president leaves the 18 acres of the White House grounds," one aide said, "then the agents really are much more intrusive. When he stays overnight in a hotel, there are agents in the halls, in the elevators and outside the doors of his suite. I talk openly in front of them, and the president talks openly in front of them, but if they can be made to repeat what they hear, that is going to change things."

Former President George Bush recently wrote a letter to the director of the Secret Service saying that agents should not be compelled to testify about what they saw or heard while on duty. Asserting that confidence was needed between the president and the Secret Service, Bush wrote: "If that confidence evaporates, the agents ... cannot properly protect the president."

As president and vice president, Bush lived for 12 years under Secret Service protection, and when Clinton defeated Bush in November 1992, Bush had some advice for him: Don't get on the wrong side of the Secret Service; they can make your life miserable.

It was good advice, but Clinton apparently did not heed it and got off to a rocky start with the agents.

"It was a cross-cultural thing," one former aide, who worked in the White House during that period, said. "There were certain frictions."

The Clintons were unused to the close presence of the agents and also wanted to hand-pick them, fearing that after 12 years of Republicans in the White House, the agents in place might not be loyal to them.

"If it is true that most reporters voted for Clinton," one Clinton aide said, "then most Secret Service agents voted for Bush."

Soon after the Clintons moved in, there were leaks to the press, allegedly by Secret Service agents, about fights between the Clintons, including one in which Hillary reportedly threw a lamp or a vase at Bill's head.

"Or a Bible or a Mercedes-Benz," Hillary jokingly said in a television interview later. "You know, there were many variations. It particularly bothered me that the Secret Service was beings used to try to substantiate untrue stories."

But the Clinton's proved formidable at the art of the leak themselves, and the White House soon kicked off rumors that the Treasury Department, which had created the Secret Service in 1865 to track down counterfeiters, was shopping around for another agency to guard the president and his family.

After that, all leaks stopped, and today, by most accounts, the Clintons and the agents have developed a close relationship, with the president going out of his way to meet the families of the agents and giving them presents when they retire.

And last summer, the Secret Service discovered a good way to Clinton's heart: high drama. The agency took the Clintons and their staffs to its training facility in Beltsville, Md., where it staged a mock assassination.

"The staff was the crowd, and the president and Hillary were working the rope line," Harold Ickes said. "It was supposed to be a scenario of what would happen if the Secret Service did not have the ability to mag (check with a metal detector) the entire crowd.

"So Clinton and Hillary are coming down, shaking our hands, and all the sudden, there are these shots -- bang! bang! -- from right behind me where an agent is playing the assassin, and the other agents jump over the rope line on top of him, and it was all over in about six seconds."

But the real coup for the Secret Service came when it showed Clinton its emergency driving techniques, including the "J-turn," when the presidential limousine is thrown into a 180-degree spin by going into reverse at high speed, hitting the brakes and then accelerating.

First, the agents did it with an actual limousine. Then, President Clinton was allowed to do it in a souped-up red Mustang, which he said was an unforgettable experience.

Yet forgetfulness, as in forgetting that the agents are around, is at the heart of the White House's problem with Starr and his plans to make the agents testify.

"You grow so used to the Secret Service being around that you say and do anything in front of them," one aide said.

But at least one veteran politician has reminded Clinton he should be reluctant to be trustful of anybody, including the Secret Service.

"I was with him at a Bears game," Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said, "and he was surrounded by Secret Service agents. He asks me a private question ... and I say, 'Mr. President, I can't answer you. Why? Those two guys sitting here (the agents), I don't know them. A week from now, if what I say shows up in gossip columns, I've got to blame them. So I'm not talking.' And you know what? After, one of them comes up to me and says: 'Thank you.'"


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2/12/98: Drip, Drip, Drip
2/10/98: Clinton tunes out the networks
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1/29/98: What the president has going for him
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1/22/98: Bimbo eruptions past and present
1/20/98: Feeding the beast: Paula Jones gets the full O.J.
1/15/98: Let's get it over with: it's time to deal with Saddam, already
1/13/98: Sonny Bono is dead, let the good times roll
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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.