Secret Service secrets: Are they worth telling? Judges rule: Testimony from agents is required, no matter the merit of the case in question.


THE RULING by a three-judge panel that Secret Service officers must testify before a grand jury about President Clinton's meetings with Monica Lewinsky cries out for the quickest possible review by the Supreme Court next term.

The Justice Department should authorize the Secret Service, a branch of the Treasury, to appeal.

The opinion by three judges of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is exemplary as far as it goes.

It held that the Secret Service had not made a good enough argument that the personal safety of the president requires it not to snitch on him, especially since Congress had not passed a law to that effect.

But more is at stake -- proportionality or relative importance. This must be addressed. Precedents are being set.

Two uniformed officers of the Secret Service, Gary Byrne and Brian Henderson, refused to answer 19 questions put to them by independent counsel Kenneth Starr's lawyers when the officers appeared before a grand jury.

They are law enforcement officers and are required to report crimes they see.

What Mr. Byrne or Mr. Henderson saw was no crime. One or the other may have seen Monica Lewinsky where he did not think she was authorized to be or may have seen her with the president.

This is not a crime or even sexual activity, but it might be used to draw inferences of what might have happened.

Mr. Starr says he is investigating whether serious crimes occurred.

One would be if President Clinton lied in a sworn deposition for Paula Corbin Jones' lawsuit against him by denying he had a sexual relationship with Ms. Lewinsky.

The other would be if the president got others to lie about that alleged affair.

So while the Secret Service officers may have seen no crimes, what they did see might help grand jurors decide whether a crime took place later.

The catch is that U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright ruled in January that the Lewinsky matter could not be admitted into evidence in the Jones litigation.

On April Fool's Day, the judge dismissed the Jones lawsuit as lacking legal merit.

That would make any perjury in the discovery phase of the lawsuit moot: without practical effect.

In the wake of the Supreme Court's clarification of sexual harassment law last month, a chance exists for an appeal to reinstate Ms. Jones' lawsuit.

Absent that, it is difficult to see what any of this is about in a legal sense.

The appellate court panel that scrutinized the Secret Service's argument did not try to balance that against the merit of Mr. Starr's need to know.

Somebody -- it can only be the Supreme Court justices -- should.

Pub Date: 7/09/98

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