In the 1998 battle between Independent Counsel Ken Starr and the Secret Service, Director Merletti receives help from the Department of Justice in fighting a motion to compel agents on the President’s Protective Detail to testify about what they may have seen or heard concerning President Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
After losing their case in U.S. District Court as well as the Court of Appeals, Merletti and his Chief Counsel John Kelleher meet with Solicitor General Seth Waxman. After listening to an impassioned Merletti, Waxman agrees to take the case to the Supreme Court.
However, even after the legal fireworks had ended and Merletti had retired, one inexplicable twist remained to test the former director’s fortitude.
While the fight was working its way to a final outcome in the Supreme Court, Merletti said that more than one member of Congress approached him. “Cooperate with Starr,” they told him, “and we’ll give you the ‘protective function privilege’ you’re seeking.”
In fact, on August 13, Merletti received a fax of draft legislation from the Senate Judiciary Committee for an as yet to be numbered Senate Bill proposed by Senator Patrick Leahy, but the bill went nowhere.
The legal battle came to an end on Friday, July 17, 1998, a few minutes before noon when U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist issued his decision “…denying a stay” in testimony from Secret Service agents. No sooner had the decision been announced than OIC immediately issued subpoenas and three Secret Service agents appeared before a grand jury.
While the legal battle may have ended, and testimony from agents had begun, Merletti’s story was far from over. After Starr finally secured an immunity deal that kept Lewinsky in the clear, OIC took possession of Lewinsky’s notorious blue dress, and turned it over to the FBI lab. A blood sample from Clinton was obtained, and forensic testing had begun.
After considerable stalling, Clinton finally agreed to testify before the grand jury on August 17. However, on Saturday, August 1, another drama played out.
Approximately 500 hundred people were attending The Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation’s black-tie dinner taking place in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The annual event raises money for the families of fallen law enforcement officers. Among those in attendance that evening were Lew Merletti and another man who approached the director’s table during an intermission. An FBI special agent working for Ken Starr needed to speak with him.
“Have a seat,” Merletti told him. “We can talk here.”
“No, no,” the agent said, “this really needs to be in private.”
“I get up,” Merletti continued, “and he’s leading me. We’re moving between tables, and out into the lobby. We pass people smoking cigars as he takes me to a secluded area where we sit on a couch.”
“I know it’s been a tough time for you and the Secret Service,” the agent tells Merletti. “I’m in charge of the lab that’s testing the dress. The dress is clean. It was either a new dress or she had it dry-cleaned, but Lew… there’s no DNA on that dress.”
While Merletti was taking all this in, the agent got up and disappeared into the evening’s event.
Merletti reasoned that Starr was looking to see if he would tip-off the president to this bit of false information before the President’s grand jury appearance in an effort to further incriminate Clinton. Starr and his agents were still trying to confirm the validity of Merletti’s close relationship with Clinton based on their tip inside the Secret Service. The source had since decided against going on the record.
Nevertheless, Merletti strongly denied Starr’s claim that there was any “deal” between himself and the president.
“[Starr] spent weeks,” Merletti said, “hundreds and hundreds of man hours trying to find out if [a deal existed between Clinton and Merletti], because when he asked me, I said, ‘Wait a minute, I can tell you right now that never happened. I was never directed. I’m doing this [preventing agents from testifying] on principle. I’m standing up for the integrity of the United States Secret Service.’ He couldn’t believe… he didn’t believe in integrity.”
Starr’s chief deputy for the Lewinsky investigation, Robert Bittman said, “Merletti told someone at the Secret Service [of his deal with Clinton], and that person whom he told, ‘Joe Smith,’ told someone else who was not in the Secret Service and that someone told us. I don’t remember if we spoke to ‘Joe Smith’ or not. We did take steps to verify, but it was a private conversation between the president and Merletti…
“We would get several tips on a big case and some are crazy,” Bittman said. “Some won’t go on the record. I do remember that this was one of them.”
“Did the person, who alleged knowledge of this deal between Merletti and the president,” I asked, “ever come to the office and talk to you and Ken?”
“The source never wanted to meet,” Bittman told me. “If you quote me, you should say that I’m not positive of any of this, but that’s why I have a vague recollection that the source may have come in through the media or been in the media or something like that.
“I don’t know Merletti to be a bad guy,” Bittman added. “I think he received information that he was specifically instructed not to go into, but was pressured to make sure that no people talked.”
What Bittman and others at OIC were referring to was a copy OIC had obtained of a letter by the president of the Association of Former Agents of the U.S. Secret Service. The association letter cites a December 5, 1997 memo from Director Merletti to “All Employees,” about the recent publication of journalist Seymour Hersh’s book, “The Dark Side of Camelot.”
“Four former Secret Service agents,” Merletti wrote, “are quoted in the book as contributing information regarding the behavior of [President Kennedy]. This disclosure, regardless of its accuracy, is very troubling and counterproductive to the mission of the Secret Service. …
“I am asking each of you,” the director continued, “to refrain from discussing any information or activity associated with our protectees regardless of its content or significance… I ask that we all remember our commission book oath as ‘being worthy of trust and confidence.’ This is a confidence that should continue forever.”
When I mentioned the date of Merletti’s memo coming before anyone had even heard the name Monica Lewinsky, former Deputy Independent Counsel Solomon L. Wisenberg said, “That might have been before Lewinsky, but we were into the fourth or fifth year of our investigation and you had the Paula Jones thing going hot and heavy. So, the fact that it was before Lewinsky is not impressive to me.”
Wisenberg believed that Merletti “had a special relationship with President Clinton,” and that the director’s battle against having agents testify was “hypocritical.”
“If a Secret Service guy wrote a book that was beneficial to the Secret Service,” Wisenberg said, “that was fine. If somebody’s doing a criminal investigation looking into whether there’s obstruction of justice, all of a sudden, that’s a problem.”
In fact, there were two other memos related to confidentiality written by two previous directors. In a March 26, 1996 memo entitled “Safeguarding Communications,” then-Director Eljay Bowron wrote, “Breaches of confidentiality and security undermine the confidence of protectees in our ability to carry out our mandate. Inadvertent or deliberate breaches will not be tolerated.”
In another memo dated August 20, 1993, then-Director John Magaw cited three articles by Newsweek magazine “which contained inaccurate, unsubstantiated rumors about the service. Both the staff and I are concerned about the stories’ detrimental effect not only on our mission, but the morale of our employees.”
On the evening of August 17th, President Clinton finally addressed the American people with the truth. “Good evening. This afternoon in this room, from this chair, I testified before the Office of Independent Counsel and the grand jury… . Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate… .”
The following day, Kelleher arrived at Merletti’s office.
“It’s over, Lew,” Kelleher said.
Starr’s investigators could find no evidence of any special relationship between the Secret Service and Clinton beyond their official duties.
“Over?” Merletti replied, anger building all over again. “They put us through seven months of total, senseless distraction only to have Starr admit what we all knew from the beginning?”
At that moment, a staffer entered announcing that Starr was on the phone.
“Director, Ken Starr. Well, it’s over. I don’t understand this whole thing. You guys knew nothing whatsoever. The Secret Service turned out to be a dry hole. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Merletti was clenching his jaw throughout Starr’s recital. “You didn’t understand. You never understood. You can’t pull us into a political battle. Our fight was not about Clinton. It was about the Secret Service’s ability to protect the office of the presidency.”
Reflecting on the experience years later, Merletti remains indignant. “It was all about politics. It had nothing to do with the truth, because I laid out exactly what the truth was… what the threats were; what the threat to our nation was and he couldn’t care less.”
In a PBS interview (February 5, 1998), Ken Starr declared, “We are going by the book. We want the truth. We want all the truth. We want it completely, accurately, and we will satisfy ourselves that we’re getting the truth. And that is the absolute bedrock point. We want the truth.”
Former Special Counsel Jo Ann Harris observed, “Well, I really think Starr was over his head. I mean, he can talk about the truth all he wants, but he is, from what I can see, a very self-righteous person who really has no clue as to how to exercise judgment in very complicated situations. He is an academic, brilliant, law guy, and the worst possible kind of person you should put in charge of an independent counsel’s office and he’s not the first.”
I asked Harris if she thought the choice of Starr, who replaced Robert B. Fiske as independent counsel, was purely political. Her response: “Yup!”
On November 10, 1998, the front page of The Washington Post carried this headline: “JUDICIARY PANEL SIGNALS IT WILL PURSUE IMPEACHMENT.”
Three days later, a much smaller story appeared in The New York Times: “Secret Service Director Retiring to Work for Pro Football Team.”
At just 21 months, Merletti served one of the shortest terms as director in the history of the Secret Service contradicting Starr and OIC’s belief that Merletti coveted the position.
You would think that the story would end there; it doesn’t.
In early January 2001, in yet another dramatic turn, Merletti was in his Ohio office when he received a call from his D.C. attorney, Warren Dennis.
“I just got a call from the FBI,” Dennis told him. “They want to question you.”
“About what?” Merletti asked.
“The whole Clinton thing.”
“You mean,” Merletti said, “this thing’s still going on?”
“They’re issuing you an invitation to talk,” Dennis explained.
“I decline the invitation.”
“Lew, you don’t understand. They will issue a subpoena.”
“Warren, you don’t understand. They hurt my people. They hurt the Secret Service, and they think I’m going to come back… by invitation?”
After receiving a subpoena to appear on January 18 before a grand jury, Merletti walked into another large conference room. However, according to former Associate Independent Counsel D. Thomas Ferraro, Merletti was actually sitting for a pre-grand jury meeting. In attendance, along with Ferraro, were OIC colleague Monte Richardson, OIC investigator Coy Copeland and an FBI special agent.
Merletti described the meeting as “a two-and-a-half hour interrogation led by the FBI agent. This was a contentious battle from the moment the door closed and I sat down. I had no time to say, ‘Let me talk to you about protection and why I believe it’s important.’ There was none of that. I was on one side of a large conference table, and the opposition was on the other side.”
“You’re the last person who can give us the information we need to criminally charge Bill Clinton before he leaves office in two days,” the agent told Merletti, “and before we leave this meeting today, you will give us that information.”
Merletti was stunned by what the agent said next.
“We have information that you, Mr. Merletti, went to the White House after hours; that you drove your car up the South Lawn, entered through the diplomatic reception area, brought the president out, put him in the back seat of your car, placed a blanket over him and took him to a hotel where he met with Monica Lewinsky.”
It was the identical narrative that OIC told Merletti at his first meeting in Starr’s office, and all of it was based on very dubious information provided by their source inside the Secret Service; all of it from an individual who refused to go on the record; all of it without a shred of corroboration. Further, all of it was a direct contradiction to what Ken Starr had told Merletti at the end of his investigation: “You guys knew nothing whatsoever.”
“Okay, hold it,” Merletti told the agent. He wasn’t going to sit through this fiction again. “Let’s just stop for a second and logically think about this.
“You’re alleging that I go to the White House, in the evening. There are always a sizable number of security personnel on duty. Their job is to protect the president and they go with him wherever he goes. Those are standing orders. There are no orders that I can give that would counter those orders. So, according to your premise, I go upstairs, I get the president of the United States, and we walk past a number of agents that are posted. I walk out the diplomatic reception room, put him in my car and throw a blanket over him.”
Merletti paused for emphasis. “And no one sees this?”
“Okay,” he continued, “let’s move forward. I get in the car; I drive out the gate. That’s all recorded in the movement logs: Merletti was here; he entered the White House; he left the White House.
“Now, we get to the hotel. So, where do I park? Do I park on the street, and the president, and I walk into the hotel together; or do I park in the parking garage, and the president and I go up an elevator, go into the lobby, and I do all of this and NO ONE sees me?
“Did I have the blanket over his head the whole time, and no one notices that I’m walking through a hotel lobby with this man with a blanket over his head? Do you see how absurd this is?” Merletti told the agent. “It can’t happen; it didn’t happen. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Nevertheless, the special agent continued the interrogation asking Merletti for all his calendars as director and wanting the details of how many times he saw the president throughout the entire time Monica Lewinsky was at the White House.
After the meeting, OIC’s Ferraro was “convinced Mr. Merletti’s intentions were genuine,” and that his grand jury appearance would not be necessary.
Wrapping up his speech before the FBI’s Leadership Conference, Merletti summarized his experience with Starr.
“The Secret Service is decidedly non-partisan and non-political… This was not about President Clinton, but about the office of the Presidency and the Secret Service’s ability to protect it now and in the future. … The Independent Counsel HAS NEVER, and WILL NEVER have to shoulder the responsibility of protecting the Office of the Presidency, but the Secret Service knows what it takes. We learned that through tragic, difficult lessons. …
“If history teaches us anything, it is that there can be no justice without restraint. The end does not justify the means. The means… must be honorable.”
On January 19, 2001, in a televised statement on the release of his Final Report, Independent Counsel Robert Ray remarked that in serving “the nation’s interests … I have tried to heed Justice Robert Jackson’s wisdom:
‘The citizen’s safety lies in the prosecutor who tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, who serves the law and not factional purposes and who approaches his task with humility.’
Ray concluded, “May history and the American people judge that it has been concluded justly.”
Robert Ray, Ken Starr and Jackie Bennett did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Following a recent conversation with a colleague, Merletti confided that he now had concerns about releasing this story.
“That entire time-frame,” he wrote in an email, “was extremely disturbing to me, my family and friends; it was consuming and unhealthy. I don’t want to relive that again. … It’s just too painful and obviously, time may have affected my recollections.”
I spent several days revisiting many of my interviews with him. While it has been 18 years since the events he spoke of, the bulk of Merletti’s story comes from a nearly three-hour recorded interview in his office on November 7, 2007. At that time, he spoke with a clarity and conviction that was difficult to ignore. Further, he provided copies of documents from his files including the Lewinsky letter, PowerPoint presentation, memos and other papers that supported many of his recollections.
Notwithstanding Merletti’s recent concerns, in the eight months prior to completing this story, he has been very open and forthcoming about his experiences, even sending me additional documents from his personal files.
In our last phone conversation, I shared an exchange I had with former tobacco insider Jeff Wigand. “Given the brutal personal and professional consequences stemming from your decision to come forward about big tobacco,” I asked Jeff, “would you do it again?”
“In a heartbeat,” Wigand said.
I barely finished that story when Merletti echoed Wigand’s sentiment regarding his stand against Independent Counsel Ken Starr.
Coming Monday: BackStory – how the Secret Service story came about.