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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Liaison Would Be Difficult, Insiders Say--but Possible

White House: Even under constant scrutiny of Secret Service, electronics and government aides, a president can find opportunities for privacy.

January 24, 1998|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Is this really possible: The president of the United States, the most public and carefully observed person in the world, regularly accomplishes an illicit sexual liaison, one of the most private, personal and secretive acts?

It is extremely unlikely that no one--other than the president and paramour--would know, former presidential aides who have been among those nearest the chief executive said Friday.

But, they added, it is not entirely out of the question.

The fishbowl existence that has so rankled most modern presidents extends even within their most private circle. By the minute, their White House meanderings are tracked.

A manually controlled electronic "locater box," displayed in several locations around the White House, notes in orange and gray their whereabouts at all times. Visitors are recorded. The outer doors to the Oval Office and its adjoining private office trigger alarms whenever they are opened. Secret Service agents trail the president 15 or so paces down a private corridor to the office of the chief of staff.

No more than a dozen of the most senior, trusted aides have generally been given permission to visit the president--in the office or the family quarters on the second and third floors of the White House--without prior approval or escort.

But throughout the day and night, in Washington and on the road, presidents can routinely spend time in private or potentially private settings. The ever-present Secret Service agents are nearby, perhaps just yards away, but they are on the other side of the doorway. And the door is closed.

"It would be a challenge for a president to have a truly secret liaison," said one former White House aide, a senior staff member whose office adjoined the president's private study.

But, said another former White House official, Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary to Ronald Reagan and George Bush, "it's really very simple once you accept the idea he doesn't really care if a few people know."

Here's how:

*

It's 3 p.m., and the president's formal appointments are behind him. A staff member who works in the West Wing, where the Oval Office is situated, enters the antechamber to the president's office, where a secretary and personal aide work. A Secret Service agent observes her arrival but makes no note of it.

The secretary tells the president that the staffer is waiting to see him; he invites her in. Who knows she is there? The agent outside the door, the secretary and the personal aide. No one else need know.

"That would be an easy way," Fitzwater said. "She could go in, make love for a couple of hours, and leave."

Or this:

The president returns to the Oval Office after dinner, when all secretaries and other aides have gone home. The staff member wanders down the hall; the president opens the door. Who knows? Just the Secret Service agent at the doorway and perhaps an agent just beyond the Oval Office on a colonnade adjacent to the Rose Garden.

At least one door leading directly into the Oval Office, and accessible to secretaries, has a peephole, and the doors leading to the Rose Garden are glass. But from the Oval Office, the president has access to his private study and a space that Bush used as a dining room.

Space in the study is tight--barely sufficient room for a small sofa, a desk and a chair. It was in such an office hideaway, said to be a coat closet barely 5 feet square, that President Harding has long been reported to have experienced the joy of intimate quarters with Nan Britton, who was 20 when she first took up with him before he became president.

Fitzwater recalled that, when he sat on the sofa to confer with Bush, he was so close to the president that "my feet were almost in his lap."

But the dining room was more commodious. "You could put a queen-sized bed in there," Fitzwater said.

Still, as one former White House staff member said, even in such a "near-secret liaison" as that which could be engineered in the late hours in the Oval Office, "pure knowledge is different from credible expectation."

In other words: Even if an aide or Secret Service agents track the president and a woman to the doorway of a bedroom, they are not privy to what goes on inside.

On the road, the situation is much the same.

Conventionally, when the president stays at a hotel, several floors are sealed off. Any visitors to the secured areas are cleared in advance and logged in. But a visitor could be invited to the room of a presidential aide adjacent to the president's suite and, if there is a connecting door, even the Secret Service agents would not necessarily know if the visitor had been ushered in by the aide to the presidential quarters.

*

And in the executive mansion itself, visitors given permission to drive onto the grounds and park just outside the Diplomatic Entrance facing the South Lawn can be whisked up a private elevator, on the instructions of the president or his secretary, and reach the family apartment with little attention. Most staff members have access to the ground floor, but few, if any, may enter the residence two stories above without prior approval.

Clinton, who once complained that the White House was either "the finest public housing in America or the crown jewel of the prison system," was reported to have expanded the Secret Service perimeter within his quarters.

Under previous tenants, Secret Service agents had stationed themselves on a second-floor landing between the elevator door and the entrance to the living quarters. For whatever reason, Clinton ordered them to keep a greater distance.

*

Times staff writers Elizabeth Shogren and Edwin Chen contributed to this story.

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