Sandy Berger Probed in Terror Memos
President Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, is the focus of a criminal investigation after admitting he removed highly classified terrorism documents from a secure reading room during preparations for the Sept. 11 commission hearings, The Associated Press has learned. Berger’s home and office were searched earlier this year by FBI agents armed with warrants. Some drafts of a sensitive after-action report on the Clinton administration’s handling of al-Qaida terror threats during the December 1999 millennium celebration are still missing.
Berger and his lawyer said Monday night he knowingly removed handwritten notes he had taken from classified anti-terror documents he reviewed at the National Archives by sticking them in his jacket and pants. He also inadvertently took copies of actual classified documents in a leather portfolio, they said. “I deeply regret the sloppiness involved, but I had no intention of withholding documents from the commission, and to the contrary, to my knowledge, every document requested by the commission from the Clinton administration was produced,” Berger said in a statement to the AP.
Berger served as Clinton’s national security adviser for all of the president’s second term and most recently has been informally advising Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Clinton asked Berger last year to review and select the administration documents that would be turned over to the commission.
The FBI searched Berger’s home and office with warrants earlier this year after employees of the National Archives told agents they believed they witnessed Berger put documents into his clothing while reviewing sensitive Clinton administration papers, officials said.
When asked, Berger said he returned some of the classified documents, which he found in his office, and all of the handwritten notes he had taken from the secure room, but said he could not locate two or three copies of the highly classified millennium terror report. “In the course of reviewing over several days thousands of pages of documents on behalf of the Clinton administration in connection with requests by the Sept. 11 commission, I inadvertently took a few documents from the Archives,” Berger said. “When I was informed by the Archives that there were documents missing, I immediately returned everything I had except for a few document that I apparently had accidentally discarded,” he said.
The officials said the missing documents were highly classified, and included critical assessments about the Clinton administration’s handling of the millennium terror threats as well as identification of America’s terror vulnerabilities at airports to sea ports.
I have no reason whatsoever to doubt Berger’s integrity, other than the fact that he continued to serve Bill Clinton after the truth about the Lewinsky scandal was obvious and his boss continued the cover-up. It’s difficult to conceive of a reason one would inadvertantly walk off with classified information and then accidentally forget to return it to the Commission and somehow the most incriminating parts happened to be accidentally destroyed. Perhaps his dog ate it?
Update: The story just broke a couple hours ago but is already creating a stir in the blogosphere:
- Michelle Malkin has dubbed him Sandy Berg(l)er and notes this is hardly the first time a Clinton Administration official had documents turn up missing.
- Big Trunk says it’s a bombshell but thinks it’s impossible to get anything to stick to a Democratic administration, especially once it’s left office.
- Captain Ed Morrissey observes, “It will be difficult to explain to anyone’s satisfaction why Berger felt the need to stuff notes from sensitive documents down his pants.” [Supply your own Clinton joke here. -ed.]
- Hugh Hewitt invokes the Hamburglar in his reaction.
- Glenn Reynolds finds the whole thing “bizarre.” [Indeed. -ed.]
- John Little believes we should, “Look for this story to get much bigger.”
- Jay Caruso channels the Church Lady: “How convenient.”
- Spoons brings a religious perspective to the story.
Most note that Berger is a chief foreign policy adviser to John Kerry. Unless evidence emerges that Kerry helped him stuff documents down his pants, it’s hard to see how it impacts his qualifications to be president. And, if he did, the theft of documents will likely not be the foremost topic of interest.
Update (7/20): The major papers have the story now, obviously. I’ll highlight the links and any information not in last night’s reportage.
The missing copies, according to Breuer and their author, Richard A. Clarke, the counterterrorism chief in the Clinton administration and early in President Bush’s administration, were versions of after-action reports recommending changes following threats of terrorism as 1999 turned to 2000. Clarke said he prepared about two dozen ideas for countering terrorist threats. The recommendations were circulated among Cabinet agencies, and various versions of the memo contained additions and refinements, Clarke said last night.
Breuer said that Clarke had prepared a “tough review” and that the document was something of a critical assessment of what agencies did well and what they failed to do in the face of the millennium threat.
Clarke said it is illogical to assume Berger would have sought to hide versions of the memo, because “everybody in town had copies of these things.” He said he could not recall most of the recommendations, but one that he did remember — having FBI field offices send wiretap material to Washington for translation instead of translating it locally — still has not been accomplished.
While I take Clarke’s integrity rather more lightly than I do Berger’s, this is an interesting point. If that’s all that was taken, it certainly moves this several rungs down the scandal ladder. It is still baffling, though, that a man no longer in government employment thought it permissible to simply take some classified documents home with him and just got “sloppy.” Furthermore, stuffing the documents down one’s trousers, while perhaps a convenient transportation technique (it has never occured to me to try it), certainly suggests a surruptitious intent.
There are also several variants of the AP wire report out there, although they appear at first skim to contain essentially the same information.
YahooNews – AP: Clinton Adviser Probed in Terror Memos
Oddly, the story does not appear anywhere on the front of the NYT website. If one does an archive search, however, two brief reports appear.
NYT – Clinton Aide Took Classified Material [no RSS]
The piece contains no new information and, indeed, rather notably omits key points, especially that Berger destroyed some documents. The report indicates that Berger returned all documents, which even his lawyer admits is not true.
There is also a Reuters wire piece entitled Former Clinton Adviser Target of Justice Dept. Probe. It’s essentially identical to the initial AP report from last night.
USA Today – Clinton adviser probed about removing classified terror memos — Basically a rewrite of the AP wire material.
Missed in last night’s coverage, a report that provides the most reasonable explanation yet for a possible motive:
A sensitive after-action report on the foiled Millennium bomb plot, portions of which allegedly were pilfered by former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, sounded the alarm that al-Qaida operatives had entered the U.S. and were preparing to strike. In testimony before the 9/11 Commission in April, Attorney General John Ashcroft detailed the highly classified March 2000 document, saying it contained a set of sweeping recommendations on how to combat the al-Qaida threat that were completely ignored by the Clinton White House. “The NSC’s Millennium After-Action Review declares that the United States barely missed major terrorist attacks in 1999 Ã¢€“ with luck playing a major role,” Ashcroft told the Commission. “Among the many vulnerabilities in homeland defenses identified, the Justice Department’s surveillance and FISA operations were specifically criticized for their glaring weaknesses.” “It is clear from the review,” declared Ashcroft, “that actions taken in the Millennium period should not be the operating model for the U.S. government.”
The Millennium plot review warned the Clinton administration “of a substantial al-Qaida network and affiliated foreign terrorist presence within the U.S., capable of supporting additional terrorist attacks here,” the Bush attorney general said. “Furthermore, fully seventeen months before the September 11 attacks, the review recommends disrupting the al Qaida network and terrorist presence here using immigration violations, minor criminal infractions, and tougher visa and border controls,” he explained.
Ashcroft’s comments suggested why a former Clinton national security official might not want the information contained in the Millennium review to ever see the light of day. “Despite the warnings and the clear vulnerabilities identified by the NSC in 2000,” he told the Commission, “no new disruption strategy to attack the al-Qaida network within the United States was deployed. It was ignored in the Department’s five-year counterterrorism strategy.”
Update: Malkin’s list of Clinton administration problems with document handling omits a rather serious one: the discovery of classified docs on former DCI John Deutch’s home computer, connected to the Internet with zero security.
Update: Steven Taylor observes that, as of 1249 Eastern, there was virtually no coverage of this story from the progressive wing of the Blogosphere. The most noteworthy exception is Josh Marshall, who thinks this was leaked to divert attention from the 9/11 report. One would think they’d have waited a couple days were that the intent, though.
Update (1357): Fox News – Sandy Berger Probed Over Terror Memos
Although lawmakers didn’t want to make a judgment call on Berger’s fate until all the facts are known, they agreed that the situation doesn’t look good for Berger, or even for Kerry. “There’s an ethic here — that is of strict discipline, of not letting the fact you’re working on a political campaign start to color your actions when it comes to national security,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., told FOX News on Tuesday. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., called the news “surprising” and said that “unless we learn otherwise, I have to assume that what Sandy said was right — that any removal of documents was inadvertent. But it is serious.” Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said, “we need more information — obviously the timing of it is not good” for Kerry. “From now on, until the election, everything like this will have a spotlight put on it, examined very carefully,” Lott continued.
David Gergen, who was an adviser to Clinton and worked with Berger for a time in the White House, said Tuesday, “I think it’s more innocent than it looks.” “I have known Sandy Berger for a long time,” Gergen said in a television interview. “He would never do anything to compromise the security of the United States.” Gergen said he thought that “it is suspicious” that word of the investigation of Berger would emerge just as the Sept. 11 commission is about to release its report, since “this investigation started months ago.”
Breuer said Berger was allowed to take handwritten notes but also knew that taking his own notes out of the secure reading room was a “technical violation of Archive procedures, but it is not all clear to us this represents a violation of the law.”
Update (1850): Berger: It’s All About the Socks
Update (1951): The actual statute under discussion: Even if the story is exactly as Sandy Berger and his attorneys describe it–the documents accidentally fell into his pants and so forth–it’s rather apparent that he broke the law. This law: U.S. Code Title 18 , Part I , Chapter 37 , Sec. 791., Sec. 793.
Update (2208): Former president Bill Clinton defends his embattled national security advisor as a man who “always got things right,” even if his desk was a mess. “We were all laughing about it,” Clinton said about the investigation into Sandy Berger for taking classified terrorism documents from the National Archives.