Date registered: Sep 2004
Vehicle: 95 E300
Location: Inside my head
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The Berger Files
The case of the purloined archives gets stranger all the time.
Saturday, January 13, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST
The more we learn about Sandy Berger's brilliant career as a document thief, the clearer it becomes that there is plenty we still don't know and may never learn. On Tuesday, the House Government Reform Committee released its report on Mr. Berger's pilfering of classified documents from the National Archives.
The committee's 60-page report makes it clear that Mr. Berger knew exactly what he was doing and knew that what he was doing was wrong. According to interviews with National Archives staff, Mr. Berger repeatedly arranged to be left alone with highly classified documents by feigning the need to make personal phone calls, and he used those moments alone with the files to stuff them in his pockets and briefcase.
One incident is particularly suggestive. By his fourth and final visit to review documents and prepare for testimony before the 9/11 Commission, the Archives staff had grown suspicious of how Mr. Berger was handling the documents, so they numbered each one he was given in pencil on the back of the document. When one of them--No. 217--was apparently removed from the files by Mr. Berger, the staff reprinted a copy and replaced it for his review. According to the report, Mr. Berger then proceeded to slip the second copy "under his portfolio also." In other words, he stole the same document twice.
This gives the lie to Mr. Berger's story that he was taking the documents for his own convenience, to assist with his preparation for testimony to the commission. If that were the whole story, one copy of document 217 would surely have been sufficient. That document was an email pertaining to a draft of the Millennium After-Action Report on the attempted bombing of Los Angeles International Airport. The episode suggests that Mr. Berger had some other motive for removing No. 217, even if he was ultimately unsuccessful in doing so. But neither his April 2005 plea agreement, nor the Congressional report, nor the report of the Archives' Inspector General shed any light on what that motive might have been.
Another telling revelation concerns Mr. Berger's access to original, uncopied and uninventoried documents from the files of former NSC antiterror official Richard Clarke, among others. At the time Mr. Berger made his misdemeanor plea agreement, we were assured by then-federal prosecutor Noel Hillman that there was no evidence that Mr. Berger destroyed or intended to destroy any original documents. That was, strictly speaking, true. But during three of Mr. Berger's four visits to the Archives in 2002 and 2003, the former National Security Adviser did have access to original documents of which no adequate inventory existed or exists.
This seems relevant, given the concern that Mr. Berger's breaches of national security might have denied evidence to history of the Clinton Administration's approach to al Qaeda and the threat of terrorism. And yet the Justice Department clearly gave the impression that there was no danger that Mr. Berger abridged the historical record. We now know that this was not true. Mr. Berger was in a position to remove documents from Mr. Clarke's files, and thanks to lax security, breaches of protocol and undue deference on the part of Archives staff, we may never know whether Mr. Berger took documents other than the five he's admitted to removing.
It is true that there is no affirmative evidence he did so. But it is equally true that he had opportunity and a demonstrated willingness to breach security in his handling of the documents. As for motive, this remains shrouded in mystery, in part because the documents Mr. Berger has admitted to taking remain highly classified, so the precise nature of his interest is unclear.
Thanks to Justice's and the Archives' leniency, or laxity, or both, Mr. Berger's plea deal expires in 2008--just in time, perhaps, for the next Clinton Administration.