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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Secret Service Agents Fear That Probe May Break Vow of Silence

Inquiry: Some fear that becoming witnesses in a criminal case against the president could damage the trust that is key to the agency's mission.

January 28, 1998|DAVID G. SAVAGE and RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The Secret Service may be about to get a lot less secret.

For the first time in its history, the agents who guard the privacy and security of the president with their lives may be called upon as key witnesses in a criminal case against the president.

Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr is said to be checking reports that agents may have seen intern Monica S. Lewinsky with President Clinton. Several agents may be ordered to tell what they have seen.

Within the "family" of agents, whose code of honor includes a vow of silence, it is not a happy prospect.

"I have a hell of problem with it. It's going to make the job tremendously difficult in the future," said Hamilton Brown, a 20-year Secret Service veteran who is the executive secretary of the 1,400-member Assn. of Former Agents of the U.S. Secret Service.

"The relationship [between the president and his agents] is based on trust and confidence," Brown said. "He has to know he can talk in their presence and have total trust the agents will not pass on anything."

"It's remarkable and I think laudable that generations of Secret Service agents have kept their mouths shut about what they've observed," said Peter K. Nunez, a San Diego lawyer who supervised the service during the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Many former agents were angered to learn recently that three of their colleagues had told tales of President Kennedy's sexual escapades for Seymour Hersh's book, "The Dark Side of Camelot." The ex-agents defended themselves by noting that Kennedy was long dead, and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, had also died.

But that explanation did not sit well with most agents. "I'd say the vote would be 1,397 to 3 against them," Brown said.

In December, Secret Service Director Lewis Merletti sent a letter to the agency's more than 3,000 agents, saying that the revelations were "counterproductive to the mission" of the service.

"Suppose you are on the road with a candidate. The most secure place may be the car," one former official explained. To maintain security, "you would always have an agent in the car. But if the candidate can't trust that a conversation will be held in confidence, he is likely to tell the agent to get out and step away.

However, when faced with a criminal inquiry, the rules may have to change, the agents concede.

Under the law, there is no privilege or rule that would automatically allow agents to refuse to testify against a president.

The issue has not arisen before for two reasons. Rarely are presidents drawn into criminal inquiries. And until the advent of the independent counsel, a president as the nation's chief law enforcement officer had the ultimate power to block a subpoena involving personnel in the White House.

Starr has shown himself ready and willing to move aggressively to seek information from inside the White House. Some agents say they would not be bothered about a subpoena targeted at a single agent.

"If he has a specific name--agent John Doe saw something--then I think that would be legitimate," Brown said. "But if it is a scatter-gun approach where you subpoena everyone on the White House detail, I would be very upset by that."

During the Watergate affair, agents explained the working of President Nixon's taping system. In the end, those recordings brought down the president, but agents themselves did not have to say what they had seen or heard.

The agents have also helped clear up accusations involving a president.

In 1992, a House committee investigated the "October surprise," a claim that officials of the Reagan-Bush campaign, including then-Vice President George Bush, met secretly in Paris in the fall of 1980 with Iranian officials to delay the release of American hostages.

Secret Service agents provided logs showing that during the day Bush was supposed to be in the French capital, he was playing tennis at the Chevy Chase Country Club.

Times staff writer Robert L. Jackson contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Secret Service Fact Sheet

History: Founded in July, 1865, to investigate counterfeiting. Not until 1906, five years after President William McKinley's assassination, was presidential protection made a permanent Secret Service duty.

Management: Operates as a bureau of the Department of the Treasury.

Other duties: Detect and arrest any person committing legal offenses related to coins, currency, stamps, government bonds, checks, credit/debit card fraud, computer fraud and false identification crimes.

Number of Employees:

Roughly 2,000 special agents

1,200 uniformed officers

1200 other support personnel

1998 Budget: $590 Million.

****

PROTECTION DUTIES

* The president, vice president, and their immediate families

* The president-elect and vice president-elect

* Former presidents and their wives

* Widows of former presidents until death or remarriage

* Minor children of former presidents until they reach 16 years of age

* Visiting heads of foreign governments and their spouses

* Official U.S. representatives performing special missions abroad.

Source: Department of Treasury

Researched by EDITH STANLEY / Los Angeles Times

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