The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee promised Sunday to introduce legislation to determine how much Secret Service agents protecting the president must reveal of what they see and hear.
The question already is in the courts, with the Justice Department debating whether to contest an appeals court ruling that presidential bodyguards must testify in the Monica Lewinsky case.Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the Judiciary Committee chairman, said the panel will hold hearings and "see what can be done next year, and we will see where you split the baby and really what should be done in this particular area."
A Washington appeals court ruled last week that Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr can question Secret Service personnel before the grand jury looking into allegations that President Clinton had a sexual relationship with former White House intern Lewinsky, then lied about it and asked her to lie.
Justice Department lawyers argued unsuccessfully that forcing an agent to reveal the actions and words of the president could undermine trust between the president and his bodyguards and increase the chances of an assassination.
"There is no such thing as a protective function privilege," Hatch said on NBC's "Meet the Press," and said it would be wrong "for the courts to create it out of thin air."
He urged the Justice Department not to appeal the court ruling, saying it would only further delay conclusion of Starr's investigation. Without naming sources, Newsweek magazine reported in editions on newsstands Monday that a debate is under way in Justice about what to do, with some advisers recommending against appeal to deflect such stonewalling charges.
In its decision last Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington said: "We leave to the Congress the question of whether a protective function is appropriate in order to ensure the safety of the president, and, if so, what the contours of that privilege" should be.
On the NBC program with Hatch, a senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, agreed that it is the job of Congress and not the courts to find a balance between what an agent should and shouldn't talk about.
"If a Secret Service agent saw a serious crime being committed, he ought to be intervening, not just testifying," Frank said on NBC.
But "if there's no privilege at all, they would have to testify before Congress on political conversations."