Trust and Confidence – Conclusion

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.

secret-service-badge

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.

21 comments… add one
  • Frank April 14, 2016, 7:30 pm

    This is clearly major news about a time that was so vital in our history. Where there was such a shortage of truth, it is interesting that an ethicist has uncovered the “goods.”

  • Joan Rutkowski April 14, 2016, 9:42 pm

    This all seems so obvious to me – what is ethically right. Ken Starr was an odd choice to head the inquiry – he had no experience and was bound by his ultra-conservative personal, political agenda. I hope that a precedent has been set so that we don’t have to go through this again – it would surely be worse considering the political philosophies running around now.

  • Stephen Ambra April 15, 2016, 6:46 am

    Gripping account proves the axiom that if being ethical were easy everyone would be doing it. The cost of doing what is right takes both a personal and institutional toll: under such circumstances can that cost ever be too high to pay? As a “story” the account would make a great work of fiction; that forces with an agenda drove events that actually happened is chilling. Standing up for what is right is moral courage in action and is to be commended.

  • Edward Cella April 15, 2016, 7:43 am

    What a story, and such a momentous opportunity to interview a key figure in such an outsized crisis. The memory of the caustic nature of the crisis perhaps slowed me getting into the build up of your piece; however, but your careful attention to this story delivers a powerful demonstration of a person’s commitment to himself and his position in the face of a potentially crushing set of pressures.

  • Amy DiGiacomo April 15, 2016, 9:04 am

    Fascinating. The lengths someone will go to to destroy another on senseless grounds. This has reminded me of the importance of integrity and loyalty. Thank you for the work involved in retelling this story, Jim.

  • Dan Piraro April 15, 2016, 10:18 am

    This story is at once riveting and appalling. It is no secret that the world of politics is rife with ethically bereft players, but Starr’s very expensive, very public waste of time and energy over a sitting president’s sex life was a mind-numbingly low point in our country’s history. I remember all too well how embarrassed I was for the U.S. when this was in the news, and now those feelings come rushing back with every headline about the Trump campaign. I must admit that I hope the (modern) Republican Party burns to the ground and they build something useful in its place.

  • Jeremy Tessmer April 15, 2016, 12:23 pm

    What a fascinating read.

    I would love to know more about the Office of Independent Council. To whom do they report? One would have thought that Mr. Merletti’s perfectly reasonable response in the face of numerous interrogations would have afforded him some protection by someone of sufficient authority to call off the O.I.C.’s “dogs”? One would have also thought that trying to elicit betrayal from a person whose loyalty to the mission would compel them to step in front of a bullet would seem so unlikely as to be almost silly. Great job on unearthing this troubling story.

  • Rod Lathim April 15, 2016, 12:58 pm

    A most compelling read – like reading the screenplay to ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. Your diligent and driven pursuit of this story is admirable, Jim. Bravo! Sadly it shines an accurate light on the underbelly of the state of our nation’s politics and the ethics or lack thereof that guide our country.

  • Steven Plone April 15, 2016, 1:05 pm

    I am so glad that I had the chance to read about this part of our history. Jim, it is to your credit that I actually understood what I was reading. Mr. Merletti is trully an ethical hero, and I thank him for sticking to his guns. Somehow, I felt edified after you pulled back the curtain on this story.

  • Gary Lange April 15, 2016, 1:50 pm

    What an incredibly well written detective “novel” by Jim Lichtman about the ethical integrity of one of our finest Secret Service directors, Lewis Merletti, and his dedication to the mission of Trust and Confidence.

    Even though I thought I remembered the story we heard in the media, I surely did not know half of the true story. Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr spent millions of taxpayer funds to try to entrap and prove his hypothesis that Merletti and President Clinton conspired to obstruct justice.

    As Merletti said years later: “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 (Starr) couldn’t care less. 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.”

    Thanks for bringing Merletti’s dedication and integrity to the light!

  • Harry Sims April 15, 2016, 2:40 pm

    Harry April 15, 2016

    It’s been nearly 20 years since Ken Starr presided over the office of Independent Counsel and stumbled his way into the Monica Lewinsky affair. The story of his investigation has a long tail precisely because its unfairness still rankles. To this day, many of the participants remain politically active, and in Washington’s current, hyper-politicized atmosphere, the ethical questions Lichtman explores are most relevant.

  • Cherilyn April 15, 2016, 3:07 pm

    Jim always gets the point and makes it so very accessible.
    Also makes us think hard about things we could easily skim over.
    Thanks for making my brain work overtime sir!
    This 3 part series was fantabulous!

  • John Baldwin MD, FACS, Major, US Army April 15, 2016, 5:01 pm

    A magnificent piece of dogged, accurate and unique investigative journalism. It remains a shame and a gross ethical violation that conduct in the Oval Office by President Clinton ever occurred to cause this action, but the underlying constitution of the U.S. Secret Service is the real story and its ethical leader, Director Merletti never wavered.

  • Julian Dean April 15, 2016, 9:14 pm

    I have enormous appreciation and respect for Jim’s work in researching and writing this expose of Ken Starr, and his use of power to pursue personal ambitions that do not serve the greater good of the citizens of the United States. Perhaps one day we will elect leaders, who hire staff and counsel who are more inclined to serve the greater good than to generate pathological drama. It is up to us citizens to require candidates to meet such standards. We are obliged to hold ourselves to the standards of those we hope to elect.

  • Richard Yates April 16, 2016, 10:15 pm

    Thank you Jim for shedding some definitive light on this situation.

    It seemed evident at the time to many of us that this was more of a witch-hunt than a search for truth, and a colossal waste of government resources to go after a man not fessing up to an affair. Had Clinton’s duplicity been something important relating to national security or on the order of Watergate, that would be different.

    In fact, we could have used someone with Ken Starr’s tenacity to go after many figures in the highest branches of government in more recent history. But that would have to be someone with an ethical commitment to understanding the difference between what is justifiable to pursue and what is not. For example, what in earlier times would have been called war crimes (and still should be), that is worth pursuing. Going after something that could be handled by any journeyman private detective and completely unrelated to the duties of a President is so clearly not worth pursuing that it reveals itself as both politically and, apparently, egotistically motivated as well.

    Your piece was thought–provoking, and thank God there are still people like you willing to get to the bottom of things in this age of sound bites where important stories get dismissed with an official version that seriously truncates and distorts the truth with the implicit understanding that not only will the media move on to the next thing, but the American people won’t care. In fact, one of the most serious problems facing America right now, that prevents us from really learning the lessons of history, is this shallow reading of important public events.

  • Colman McCarthy April 17, 2016, 10:07 am

    Much praise to Jim Lichtman for taking the time to tell the fact-based story that needs to be told, and one that the major media have either ignored or dismissed as too complicated.

    • Jim Lichtman April 17, 2016, 10:28 am

      Note to Readers: Colman McCarthy, a former columnist for the Washington Post, was awarded the “Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience” Award in Sherborn, Massachusetts for his nationally syndicated column in The Post. Colman has written for The Atlantic, New York Times, New Yorker, Readers Digest, as well as The National Catholic Reporter. His High School coarse in the D.C. area, “Peace Studies,” continues to garner much deserved praise.

  • Myles Mattenson April 17, 2016, 7:28 pm

    The conflict between those in government who stand their moral ground and seek to protect and preserve our institutions, and those who seek some short-sighted limited political gain at the expense of our institutions has been with us far too long and will unfortunately continue. The public, aware or not, benefits from these men and women of moral courage and the recitation of their stories. I hope that this story of Lewis Merletti is told and retold to inspire future generations of those called upon to serve the public good.

  • David Krieger April 20, 2016, 5:10 pm

    I read the third and concluding section of your piece on Starr and Merletti. It’s so well done. I congratulate you. It deserves a wide audience, and Merletti deserves a lot of respect for his principled stance. Keep up your great work in ethical analysis and communications. It’s important.

  • Felix P. Nater April 27, 2016, 9:33 pm

    Jim, well written is an understatement, it was captivating, riveting and revealing.

    As a former federal agent, Mr. Merletti’s high ethical standards honored the thousands of federal agents who would never compromise their integrity for the sake of convenience or opportunity even though history can reveal some who might have.

    What I find fascinating about this coverage was how Mr. Merletti successfully convinced Janet Reno of the reasons to oppose the agent testimony while Mr. Starr wasn’t concerned with the safety of the President of the United States. I commend the Department of Justice for carrying out it’s fiduciary responsibility.

    In retrospect, it appears that Mr. Starr had a political agenda.

    Jim, you never let me down.

  • Robert Beal March 3, 2017, 2:35 pm

    Merletti’s knew Bill Clinton was corrupt as the day is long. Even to this day Bill Clinton is still corrupt, still scheming others and remains a womanizer, which even Hillary Clinton knows very well, but she prefers to remain silent. Using his honor code fine, however not when he knows Clinton is guilty as charged, including Clinton lying to a Grand Jury. Our laws are more important than an individuals oath to office; and the individual is expected to live up their oath taken, such is well known. If you known the truth, then your not suppose to deny and obstruct it. So he will have to live with choices made. Just as Hillary has had to live with her humiliations; brought about by her unfaithful husband. The oppose of Truth is Guilt, chose what you wish!

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