With testimony about President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky hanging in the balance, skeptical appeals court judges questioned why Secret Service officers should be exempt from revealing what they learn while guarding a president.

"You are asking for something that sounds bizarre," U.S. Appeals Court Judge Douglas Ginsburg told Justice Department lawyer Stephen Preston at one point in Friday's hearing.Judges Raymond Randolph, Stephen Williams and Ginsburg pressed the lawyer closely about the circumstances in which Secret Service personnel should or should not answer questions in Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr's investigation. Williams and Ginsburg are Reagan appointees; Randolph is a Bush appointee.

Information learned in "close proximity" to the president should not be revealed, Preston argued.

Then could a Secret Service officer testify about what he saw or heard while he was on guard outside the Oval Office and the president was in the adjacent study?

Preston indicated that was a difficult question to answer. "Proximity," he said, is "situational."

One question in the Lewinsky investigation is whether the president and the former White House intern were ever in the study off the Oval Office.

"This case is about the safety of the president," said Preston, who said Clinton and future presidents would push away guardians who might be called to testify.

In the decision being appealed, U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson rejected the Secret Service's position, prompting the agency's appeal.

Preston said the special relationship between the president and Secret Service has existed for nearly a century. But Starr said the instruction from prior court cases is to be "cautious and reluctant in recognizing new privileges."

Arguing the case himself, Starr said it is odd that the Secret Service is "cheerfully willing" to assist when it serves a president's interests but reluctant to provide information that might hurt the chief executive.

Ginsburg replied that he found nothing peculiar about it - adding that the "president isn't always seeking the truth . . . that is why we have an Office of Independent Counsel."