The Bush Administration is rightly castigated for whatever lapses they are responsible for that may have led to them ignoring or downplaying the terrorist threat prior to 9/11. However, we know that they were not acting in bad faith like some:
Under terms negotiated by Berger’s attorneys and the Justice Department, he has agreed to pay a $10,000 fine and accept a three-year suspension of his national security clearance. These terms must be accepted by a judge before they are final, but Berger’s associates said yesterday he believes that closure is near on what has been an embarrassing episode during which he repeatedly misled people about what happened during two visits to the National Archives in September and October 2003.
Lanny Breuer, Berger’s attorney, said in a statement: “Mr. Berger has cooperated fully with the Department of Justice and is pleased that a resolution appears very near. He accepts complete responsibility for his actions, and regrets the mistakes he made during his review of documents at the National Archives.”
The terms of Berger’s agreement required him to acknowledge to the Justice Department the circumstances of the episode. Rather than misplacing or unintentionally throwing away three of the five copies he took from the archives, as the former national security adviser earlier maintained, he shredded them with a pair of scissors late one evening at the downtown offices of his international consulting business.
The document, written by former National Security Council terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke, was an “after-action review” prepared in early 2000 detailing the administration’s actions to thwart terrorist attacks during the millennium celebration. It contained considerable discussion about the administration’s awareness of the rising threat of attacks on U.S. soil.
Archives officials have said previously that Berger had copies only, and that no original documents were lost. It remains unclear whether Berger knew that, or why he destroyed three versions of a document but left two other versions intact. Officials have said the five versions were largely similar, but contained slight variations as the after-action report moved around different agencies of the executive branch.
When they say misled, they mean he lied:
BREUER: Exactly. And at the time of the millennium in 2000, if you remember, there were lots of threats about terrorism. And the White House and the United States addressed those concerns. And most people look at the time of January 1, 2000 as a time that we can be proud of. We thwarted terrorist cells. Berger was the national security adviser and he was very proud of what they did. But he didn’t just rest on his laurels. He said to Clarke, “I want you to take a hard look. Tell us what we did right and tell us what we didn’t do right.” And to Clarke’s credit, he did it. To Berger’s credit he asked him to do it.
Now with respect to what this document is about, it is widely known. Its existence is widely known. It’s written about in books and in magazines.
BLITZER: So why did he have to take it out of that room?
BREUER: That he did it inadvertently.
BLITZER: What is inadvertently?
BREUER: Let me tell you what happened.
BLITZER: Sandy Berger doesn’t do things inadvertently.
Really, folks- this was just a big, fat lie:
One Berger associate said Berger acknowledges placing his handwritten notes into his pants pockets, and perhaps into his jacket as well.
National Archives policy requires that if someone reviews classified documents and wants to take out handwritten notes, those notes must first be cleared by archivists.
“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 written statement.
There was nothing indavertant or accidental about it, as we now know, those who suspected intentional theft were correct. First up for some scorn in this sordid tale is former President Clinton, who offered up this laughable excuse for Berger’s stuffing documents in his knickers and socks:
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. “People who don’t know him might find it hard to believe. But … all of us who’ve been in his office have always found him buried beneath papers.”
It isn’t the papers Berger is buried under that concerns us- it is the papers buried in his underwear that are of interest. Next up for some ridicule is former Clinton advisor David Gergen, who defended Berger and maligned the accusers:
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.”
Enter Lanny Davis:
Law enforcement sources said archive staff members told FBI agents they saw Berger placing items in his jacket and pants, and one archive staffer told agents that Berger also placed something in his socks.
That latter allegation drew a sharp response from Berger associate and former White House lawyer Lanny Davis, who challenged any unnamed official who makes such an accusation to come forward publicly.
“I suggest that person is lying,” he said. “And if that person has the guts, let’s see who it is who made the comment that Sandy Berger stuffed something into his socks.”
Lanny Davis, exit stage left, enter Tom Daschle:
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said he found the timing “very curious, given this has been under way now for this long.”
“Somebody leaked it, obviously, with intent, I think, to do damage to Mr. Berger, and I think that’s unfortunate,” Daschle said.
And while we are slapping people on the wrist, let’s take Josh Marshall to task:
As far as I can tell, my comments from last night stand. Notes taken from classified documents are themselves classified, unless and until they are cleared as containing no classified information. That at least appears to be the standard procedure.
However, it seems equally clear that the surfacing of this matter is the product of a malicious leak intended to distract attention from the release of the 9/11 commission report.
Consider the timing.
According to this article in the Post, the National Archives began investigating this matter in October and then referred it to the FBI in January. That is, needless to say, at least six months ago. The article also notes that the FBI has yet to interview Berger, which suggests that the investigation has not reached a critical stage, for good or ill, that would have brought it to light now.
The most obvious, and probably the only, explanation of this leak is that it is intended to distract attention from the release of the 9/11 report due later this week. That would be yet another example of this administration’s common practice of using the levers of executive power (law enforcement, declassification, etc.) for partisan purposes.
That doesn’t mean Berger doesn’t have any explaining to do. The two points are not exclusive of each other.
As I chided Marshall before– Berger steals documents, and Marshall smells a Republican conspiracy. A more likely scenario (now that Berger has admitted to stealing the documents and shredding them in an effort to conceal… well, we will never know what he was concealing) is that officials were prescient of the fact that Berger had something to do with the disappearance of the documents and knew that they were somehow related to his upcoming testimony before the 9/11 Commission.
Which brings up the larger point- Can we still trust Sandy Berger’s testimony before the 9/11 Commission? Remember this:
In late ’99, as we approached the Millennium celebrations, the CIA warned us of five to 15 plots against American targets. This was the most serious threat spike during our time in office. I convened national security principals at the White House virtually every day for a month. During this Millennium period, plots were uncovered in Amman against the Radisson Hotel and religious sites, and against the Los Angeles airport. Terror cells were broken up in Toronto, Boston, New York and elsewhere…
You also asked about the transition. When our administration ended, we alerted the incoming team to the terrorist threat and al Qaeda. During the transition, Bush administration officials received intensive briefings on this. As has been reported, I told my successor that she would be spending more time on terrorism and al Qaeda than any other issue. I did my best to emphasize the urgency I felt.
Members of the Commission, looking back at our years in office, there were successes, disappointments and frustrations. Sixty-seven American lives were lost to foreign terrorism during the Clinton administration. But fighting terrorism was a high and growing priority from the beginning of the Clinton administration to the end…
And we can’t forget this exchange between the shamelessly partisan Richard Ben-Veniste and Mr. Berger:
MR. BEN-VENISTE: Now, with respect to the function of the national security adviser, your function is to coordinate and to relay to the President information both of a foreign and domestic nature as it regards our national security; is that correct?
MR. BERGER: That’s correct, although the traditional focus of the National Security Council have been the traditional concerns of national security, which have been foreign threats, but that, obviously, has evolved over time.
MR. BEN-VENISTE: And it certainly evolved during your service. Specifically I point to the Millennium threat —
MR. BERGER: Yes.
MR. BEN-VENISTE: — where the United States, as we have heard, at its highest levels was on battle stations. You convened meetings of the Cabinet to deal with that threat, did you not?
MR. BERGER: Yes, I did.
MR. BEN-VENISTE: And that was on an intense and frequent basis; is that correct?
MR. BERGER: It was on a daily basis, Mr. Commissioner, I think almost every day for a month.
MR. BEN-VENISTE: And is it correct that although, again, the focus of the threat was supposedly against assets overseas, indeed, as you have related in your opening remarks, plots involving North America and sleeper cells in North America, including Los Angeles, Toronto, Boston and others, were uncovered and thwarted by reason of the intensive efforts that were made during the Millennium time frame.
MR. BERGER: I do believe that we thwarted threats and I do believe it was important to bring the principals together on a frequent basis for a number of reasons. Things happen when the number one person is in the room. So Director Tenet would say I’ve got a lead on so and so, and the attorney general would turn around to a person sitting behind her and say, “Can we get a FISA on this person?” And she’d say “the answer is yes, Attorney General.” We got more FISAs in a shorter period of time than ever before in history. And when the principal spends an hour a day at the White House or more, he goes back or she goes back to her agency or his agency and she — he or she shakes that agency for whatever it has.
So I believe that the threat was sufficiently serious that it had to be operated at that level. You can’t operate that, obviously, principals level as a routine matter, but this was not a routine situation.
Nothing that Sandy Berger was involved in regarding this testimony can now be taken at face value. His testimony before the commission is suspect (as is Richard Clarke’s), and I can not trust the conclusions of the commission that relate to the late Clinton years.
At its very worst, this is a story of undermining national security for personal partisan reasons. At its best, it is petty theft in the pursuit of legacy protection. Samuel “Sandy” Berger should never hold another government job as long as he lives.
*** Update ***
Matt Yglesias points out that Berger and his supporters can seek refuge in the ambiguity of the report.
*** Update ***