The recent carnage in which a gunman went on a spree, shooting Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killing six bystanders in Tucson, serves as a stark reminder that political assassinations are a reality that require constant vigilance.
The angry, inflamed political culture that has produced dysfunction in Washington and across the nation, reaching a fevered pitch of late, has made the threat of assassinations greater than ever. Many of our problems trace back to the Clinton-Starr imbroglio over a decade ago.
In 1998, as Independent Counsel Ken Starr launched an investigation into whether President Bill Clinton had engaged in a sexual affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and lied about it in a deposition, both sides threw every bomb within reach. The Clinton-Starr bloodbath marked the popularization of partisan warfare. It produced an impeachment trial that sullied America; it ushered in red states and blue states. Each side was willing to fight to the death, in the name of defending its own version of American virtue.
One of the many self-destructive aspects of the Clinton-Starr debacle, that still haunts us today, was the decision by Mr. Starr's office to subpoena Secret Service agents to the grand jury, as part of its quest to pin the tail on President Clinton. One newspaper trumpeted: "Sexgate Stunner, Secret Service Agent to Testify: I SAW THEM DO IT." No such evidence turned up. Yet Secret Service agents were unceremoniously dragged before the grand jury and forced to tell all.
Clint Hill, the agent who had been pushed off the bumper of President Kennedy's limousine in 1963, only to watch the President murdered in cold blood, was one of the first to sound the alarm during the Clinton-Starr battles. He warned Secret Service Director Lew Merletti that allowing Starr's prosecutors to force agents to testify about the private conversations and movements of the president was a nightmare waiting to happen.
Agent Hill, still haunted by the ghosts of Dallas four decades earlier, told Merletti: "If agents have to testify, then 'Katie bar the door.'" Once agents were required to act as spies, presidents would distance themselves from their protective details. Said Hill: "And if they start pushing you back, look out."
Certainly, if an agent witnessed criminal wrongdoing, he or she was obligated to step forward. Otherwise, agents had to be close-lipped. Evidence had to be gathered in other ways, if prosecutors wanted to conduct investigations of the president, absent extraordinary circumstances.
Director Merletti made an urgent plea to Attorney General Janet Reno and then-Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, convincing them to support a "protective function privilege" in court. He also implored Representative Henry Hyde, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, who seemed unmoved. Later that same day, a paranoid-schizophrenic named Russell Eugene Weston entered the Capitol, stormed into the office of a Congressman, opened fire with a gun, and killed two Capitol Police officers.
Former President George H.W. Bush wrote a strong letter supporting Merletti's protective function privilege proposal. Although he was no fan of Bill Clinton's indiscretions in the White House, the elder Bush stated: "I can assure you that had I felt [Secret Service agents] would be compelled to testify as to what they had seen or heard, no matter what the subject, I would not have felt comfortable having them close in."
Despite these compelling arguments, Ken Starr's prosecutors barreled forward. Eager to find a smoking gun that might prove Bill Clinton had lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, they forced agents in the President's inner circle to testify. No smoking gun was found. Yet the protective shield of trust was shattered.
It is time to undo that damaging precedent.
The angry political divide that originated in the Clinton-Starr wars 13 years ago, when both political parties lost their compass, has produced horrible consequences for our nation. It has demeaned the once-noble calling of public service. It has inflamed citizens. It has made disrespect, contemptuous language and threats of violence acceptable currency in our political discourse. It has put our leaders at risk more than ever, creating a Petri dish from which troubled and disturbed individuals can and will emerge.
While there is no evidence that the Tucson gunman who shot Representative Giffords was acting on behalf of a particular party or political creed, it is no coincidence that he chose a political gathering as his target. Once we ratchet up the hate rhetoric and begin attacking the political opposition as evil-doers, imbalanced people like Jared Lee Loughner can and will step out of the shadows and seek to murder our highest officials.
We need to do more than wear lapel ribbons to show our concern for this dangerous state of affairs. As Director Merletti and Clinton Hill warned officials of both parties during the Clinton-Starr bloodbath, if we do not remain ever- vigilant, "the guns will sound again."
The Secret Service investigates an average of 3,000 threats to the president each year. It intervenes numerous times each month to halt or apprehend individuals whose goal is to harm or kill top public officials. Eleven of the last thirteen presidents have been targets of assassination attempts. Protecting our highest officials is serious business. The attempted assassination of a country's chief executive jeopardizes its national security, the safety of its people and the stability of its democratic government.
Although nothing in the U.S. Constitution requires a protective function privilege, there is a reason that agents historically were kept out of grand juries and the political fray, for more than a century. The agency's motto, "Worthy of Trust and Confidence," is not an empty pledge. These agents dedicate their lives to creating protective shields around public officials; this is impossible without first earning the officials' absolute trust.
As part of regaining our national soul, this undermining of our Secret Service agents must cease. Congress should swiftly enact a law creating a protective function privilege for federal agents who put their lives at risk each day, protecting the President and other high-ranking public officials. Agents need to be able to do their jobs, without being forced to act as spies and informants with respect to the very individuals whom they are sworn to protect.
There are other, far less destructive ways to gain information, even to determine if future presidents have engaged in extra-marital affairs in the White House.
Ken Gormley is Dean and Professor at Duquesne Law School and author of the bestselling The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr released February 1 in paperback by Broadway Books. Lewis C. Merletti was the 19th Director of the United States Secret Service. As a member of the Presidential Protection Division he was assigned to protect Presidents Ronald Regan, George H.W. Bush and William Jefferson Clinton.