With President Clinton's lead bodyguard waiting at the courthouse, the Clinton administration waged a dramatic last-minute appeal and temporarily blocked the Secret Service agent and his colleagues from testifying before the Monica Lewinsky grand jury.
In a rare emergency order, the U.S. Court of Appeals spared agent Larry Cockell and several uniformed officers from appearing before the grand jury until it decides whether it should review the legal dispute."The purpose of this administrative stay is to give the court sufficient opportunity to consider the merits of the motion and should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits of that motion," the appeals court said.
The ruling, though temporary, was a major victory for the Justice Department, which had made a mad dash from the District Court to the Supreme Court seeking to head off the testimony.
When the judge who oversees the grand jury refused Wednesday to stop the testimony, the department appealed to the appeals court and also sent protective paperwork to the Supreme Court in case it needed to ask Chief Justice William Rehnquist to intervene.
Summoned to appear, and uncertain of the status of the legal wrangling, Cockell and the officers arrived grim-faced at the courthouse and waited outside the grand jury room for more than an hour until the stay was issued. They left immediately to resume the work of protecting the president.
With all the legal drama outside, key prosecution witness Linda Tripp, whose secret tape recording spurred the Lewinsky investigation, quietly walked into the grand jury room and began a sixth day of testimony.
The court order remains in effect only until the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decides whether to accept the Clinton administration's appeal of two decisions ordering Secret Service agents to testify.
The same three-judge panel that last week ruled against the administration and ordered the testimony issued Thursday's stay to give the full court time to act.
Clinton's lawyers opened another line of defense in the case - declaring the subpoenas a "backdoor attempt" to find out about Clinton's confidential conversations with his lawyers.
Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr is moving toward a new and sensitive area of his investigation with the grand jury probing possible suborning of perjury, witness tampering and obstruction.
Attorney General Janet Reno refused Thursday to describe what appeals her department was making in the case because they involve grand jury matters that are secret by law. But, she said, "What's at stake, based on what the Secret Service has advised, is the safety of the president of the United States, now and for years to come. And I think that's too important not to pursue in every way possible."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch on Wednesday criticized Reno for pressing ahead with the court appeals.
"The decision to appeal at this time calls into serious question the real motivations of both the Department of Justice and the Secret Service," Hatch, R-Utah, told Reno at a hearing.
"I tell you . . . with all my heart" the court appeal "is not done for delay," Reno replied.