In the twenty-one years I have been writing and speaking on ethics, I have not encountered a more compelling story of integrity than that of former Director of the United States Secret Service Lewis Merletti – a story, largely unknown to most Americans.
In Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage,” U.S. Representative George Norris fittingly points out: “History asks, ‘Did this man have integrity? Did this man have unselfishness? Did this man have courage? Did this man have consistency?’ ”
From January to July 1998, and in January 2001, Director Merletti clearly met the standards behind those questions when he battled independent counsel Ken Starr over compelling agents on the President’s Protective Division to testify about what they may have seen or heard regarding the president’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
This is about a fight between reason and rationalization; between moral integrity and moralistic righteousness. It’s a battle between one man standing on principle and another believing the end justifies the means.
On March 30, 2000, former U.S. Secret Service Director Lewis Merletti was preparing to speak to an audience of FBI agents at their National Academy Leadership Conference in Cleveland, Ohio. Merletti was invited to speak about the character traits necessary for leadership. He was also there to share his experience with independent counsel Kenneth Starr that consumed much of his time as Secret Service director in 1998.
Walking backstage, two agents approached Merletti. “We wanted to be the first to meet you, sir,” one agent said, extending his hand.
“A great pleasure,” the second agent added. “What will you be speaking on today?”
“I’m going to talk about ethics, leadership and integrity, and I’ll be speaking a bit about Ken Starr,” Merletti replied.
Starr had occupied the morning slot at the conference. After learning this, Merletti asked for equal time in the afternoon.
“Man, he sure did a great job this morning!” the first agent added.
Always low-key, Merletti said, “Well, I’ll have some things to say that may not be quite so positive.”
The second agent looked the former director squarely in the eyes, “Sir… I hope you’re wearing a bulletproof vest today.”
“I’m just here to tell the truth,” Merletti said.
In 1998, for the first time in our nation’s history, the director of the United States Secret Service was asked to testify against a sitting president. Kenneth W. Starr and the Office of Independent Counsel wanted to question Director Merletti, as well as agents on the president’s protective detail, about President Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Based on alleged inside information, which proved to be false, Starr issued a motion to compel agents on the President’s detail to testify as to what they may have seen or heard regarding Clinton’s liaisons with Lewinsky. In a declaration made in opposition to the motion, Merletti argued that if agents were allowed to testify about anything other than criminal acts, it would compromise the trust and confidence tenet critical to the mission of the Secret Service, and thus jeopardize the safety of the presidency and the country.
For the last several years, I have spoken with Merletti extensively about his time as Director of the Secret Service and his involvement with Starr. I also interviewed former Starr prosecutors and the special counsel who investigated allegations of professional misconduct by Starr’s office.
To fully understand why Starr was so interested in the Secret Service, it’s necessary to examine the context of the Office of Independent Counsel (OIC) in early January 1998.
After a 19-month Freedom of Information search, I obtained a copy of a 100-page report detailing an independent investigation conducted by the former Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, Jo Ann Harris, and her Co-counsel, Mary Harkenrider. The two attorneys were brought in by then-independent counsel Robert W. Ray, who took over for Ken Starr in the fall of 1999 after Starr returned to private practice. Harris and Harkenrider’s job was to investigate allegations of professional misconduct by OIC in their treatment of Monica Lewinsky at the Ritz Carlton hotel on January 16, 1998.
According to the report, after reaching dead ends in Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate, and the suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster, OIC “was attempting to wrap up old cases and wind down its investigations,” when they received a late night phone call from Linda Tripp. Speaking to Starr’s deputy, Jackie Bennett, Tripp revealed that her Pentagon co-worker, Monica Lewinsky, had been intimately involved with the President. Conversations, secretly recorded by Tripp, supported her account.
Before her death in 2014, Harris told me, “When Tripp made that phone call to the Washington office, the whole place just lit up. It just rescued their investigation.”
With Tripp’s revelations about the President’s relationship with Lewinsky, along with a tip from a covert source inside the Secret Service, Starr’s prosecutors focused, with bulldog obsession, on getting Merletti to confess to an alleged deal he made with Clinton: “Keep quiet about Lewinsky, and I’ll make you the next director.”
Six months after Clinton was sworn-in for a second term, Lewis Merletti became the 19th Director of the Secret Service. Starr and his deputies were convinced that this fact confirmed their source. In fact, Merletti says he never asked for the job. As he described, he was one of 16 candidates recommended to the post. It was only after many rounds of interviews that he was chosen as the new director and sworn in on June 6, 1997 by Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin.
Seven months later, the new director was driving to work when he heard NPR Reporter Mara Liasson interviewing Clinton. “Is there any truth to the allegation of an affair between you and the young woman?”
Merletti couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He was the special agent in charge of the President’s detail at the time this was allegedly taking place, and he had never heard a word from any of his agents about any association between Clinton and Lewinsky.
The next bombshell came when, “Our chief council, John Kelleher, informed me that we would be getting subpoenas from the Independent Council for agents on the President’s Protective Detail to testify.”
Merletti’s reaction was immediate, “What is this guy thinking? Does he know what this means?”
“Look,” Kelleher tried to assure him, “Ken Starr is a reasonable guy. Once we explain things to him, Lew, this will all be a non-issue.”
A few days later, at OIC offices on Pennsylvania Avenue, Merletti stood before Ken Starr and his deputy, Robert J. Bittman, and laid out his reasoning why agents should not testify about the president’s private life by way of a compelling PowerPoint presentation detailing Secret Service history and its vital mission.
“An assassination has grave affects,” Merletti explained. “It’s not like any other murder. It’s a murder that has worldwide implications. Secret Service history has proven that confidentiality affords us the proximity that is critical to the success of our mission. Proximity,” Merletti stressed to Starr and Bittman, “is the difference between life and death to our protectees. If our protectees cannot trust us, if they believe that they will be called to testify before a grand jury to reveal confidences, the president will not allow us that critical proximity.”
When the director finished, an unctuous Starr responded, “Mr. Merletti, this office has the highest respect for the Secret Service and all that your agents do. Now,” he said, looking at his notes, “I’d like your agents to tell me, when women came out of the Oval Office, did any of your agents observe that their lipstick wasn’t on right, or their hair was mussed? Did they ever hear any sounds?”
The Secret Service director was incredulous. “You are kidding?”
“No sir, I am not,” Starr said in the polite and courtly manner he is known for.
“You have no questions about the presentation?” Merletti asked.
“That’s what I want to know,” Starr continued, “that, along with the postings of agents in and around the Oval Office.”
“That’s what I’m trying to avoid,” Merletti said, “giving the specifics on where our agents are, how they do their job, because when you give that away, it’s going to come out somewhere in newspapers or magazines. We’re giving away our protective advantage. If you know where we are, you know how to defeat us.”
“I was fighting for two things,” Merletti made clear to me. “Number one, I know that it’s trust and confidence in us that allows us proximity to our protectees. And I know that our protection is like a science. You have to have proximity because it’s all about cover and evacuate. Cover our protectee, the president, and evacuate him. By cover, we mean stepping in the line of fire, stepping in front of a bullet.”
Merletti explained using agent Tim McCarthy’s immediate response to spread out and cover President Ronald Reagan during the 1981 attack by John Hinckley, Jr. As McCarthy was covering, another agent whisked the president into a car before it sped away.
“I can’t outrun a bullet,” Merletti continued. “None of us can. We have to have proximity. We can’t do it from across the room. We can’t do it with smoke and mirrors. And we train at it, and train at it, and train at it, so that we can immediately step in front of him.”
Despite the detailed examples in the director’s 90-minute presentation, Starr was unconvinced.
“He was on a mission,” Merletti declared, “and I firmly believe, that it was driven in large part by politics.”
Starr then played his trump card.
“Someone at that meeting said, ‘We have information that you… Mr. Merletti, were involved in putting the President in the backseat of a car, covering him with a blanket, taking him out of a White House context, taking him to a hotel, getting Monica Lewinsky there and allowing them to be alone in a room.’ ”
Merletti was stunned. “Who told you this?”
“Oh, I can’t tell you that,” Starr said.
“He had some type of information,” Merletti said, “some ‘Deep Throat’ type of information, and he believed this information, and it could not have been further from the truth.”
“When the entire Monica Lewinsky thing hit,” Merletti recalled, “I was the director and things were going pretty good. I was working to maintain the same high standards for the Service that the previous directors had. Then, I’m driving to work and hear the news about an allegation that he had an affair with this intern and I thought, ‘What?’
“Then, it starts coming out, a day or two later that Secret Service agents may be involved. ‘What!?’
“The weekend gets here and it’s become a huge diversion. I’m no longer focusing on how the Secret Service stops terrorists; how we prevent Osama bin Laden from getting an edge on us. A large part of my time every day is dealing with this issue.
“It was the first Sunday. In my home, downstairs I have a small gym. When I go down to work out, the light bulb goes out. I call up to my son to bring down another bulb. As my eyes are adjusting to the light, I see a box sitting there, and I wonder, what is this? I reach in and grab a handful of stuff. My son comes down with a light bulb and a flashlight. He flips the flashlight on; I look and in my hand is a letter addressed to me and the return address says Monica Lewinsky.
“The letter is dated October 28, 1996. Now, this was written before I’m the director. It’s written when I was the agent-in-charge at the White House. The whole affair is over. She’s no longer at the White House.
“Let me explain how it got in the box,” Merletti continued. “I got the letter at the White House. I open it up, and attached are these pictures of me from the New York Times magazine. It was during the [presidential] campaign and the Secret Service had agreed to allow the magazine to shadow the president’s detail and the candidate nominee, Senator Dole and his detail. So, this was a story being written about us. I put it back in the envelope, and throw it in my desk and obviously never looked at it again. When I get transferred, I bring a cardboard box to my desk and empty the stuff in the desk. I take the box home and just forget about it.
“Now [over a year later], I reach in that box and I pull this letter out. So, now it has huge significance to me. In reality, this is what saved me.”
Dear Agent Merletti,
While I don’t think you would know me by name, Monica Lewinsky, I am quite sure you would know me by sight… I used to work at the White House in Legislative Affairs and transferred over to the Pentagon about six months ago. I was always walking back and forth from the East Wing to the West Wing, and am loquacious by nature so I was always engaging whichever agent was outside the Oval in conversation. Since my move over to the Pentagon, I have seen you at some of the functions. You might recall that I used to tease you about being in all of the pictures of the President…
“I don’t remember any of this at all,” Merletti said.
Well, I was glancing through this past week’s New York Times magazine and read this article on the Secret Service. I was happy to see that you have become famous in your own right! Looking at these pictures, this time it was the President making a cameo in your photograph rather than the other way around!!!
Thank you for doing such a great job of protecting the “Big Guy,” and take care!
Merletti showed the letter to Kelleher who immediately reacted. “We’ve got to turn this over to Starr.”
“When I brought the letter in, it was like, let’s take a look at the date; let’s take a look at what she says. In the letter, she says that I don’t even know her by name. Now, how would I be doing all this stuff [arranging liaisons between Clinton and Lewinsky]? Why would she even write this letter if she knew me so well? She’s not a suspect. She’s just John Q Citizen.
“Here,” Merletti showed me. “This is her testimony that she secretly gave to the FBI up in New York. [An FBI agent asks her]: ‘Now, tell us what the Secret Service knew.’
“She says, ‘They don’t know anything. Basically, we were fooling them.’ ”
A portion of the FBI report of Monica Lewinsky’s testimony on July 30, 1998, page 4, reads as follows:
“Lewinsky saw a USSS plain clothes agent named Lou Merletti several times, but had more of an acquaintance than a friendship with him. Merletti gave Lewinsky his business card.”
“See, “Merletti said, “I don’t even remember that.”
“Lewinsky teased Merletti about being in so many photos with the President and sometimes joked with him in the hallways.”
“That’s not true at all,” Merletti says. “I never was in the hallways. Agents were standing post. I didn’t stand post.”
“Lewinsky saw Merletti at the ‘Nutcracker’ in December 1996.”
“That was true,” Merletti agreed.
“Merletti was very friendly with Lewinsky and she sent him a letter once. Merletti never saw Lewinsky with the President to her knowledge.”
According to Merletti, “Ken Starr wasn’t happy to hear about this, because all of a sudden this puts a big hole in his Secret Service’s ‘hiding him under a blanket’ story.”
Wednesday: Director Merletti asks to meet with Attorney General Janet Reno.