Berger might have had a good reason to swipe documents

July 22, 2004|By Linda Chavez

WASHINGTON - Surely it was an innocent mistake, former Clinton administration National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger's stuffing classified documents into his pants, his jacket and perhaps even his socks before leaving the National Archives building last fall.

After all, what could he possibly have been trying to hide? Mr. Berger had been asked by President Bill Clinton to review documents that had been requested by the 9/11 commission relating to the Clinton administration's handling of terrorism. And we know from no less an authority than former Clinton terrorism czar Richard A. Clarke, not to mention Mr. Berger himself, that the Clinton administration viewed fighting terrorism as its No. 1 priority.

Of course, neither Mr. Clinton nor Mr. Berger publicly declared terrorism Enemy No. 1 when they were in office - citing such things as Haiti, environmental degradation and, surprisingly, containment of Saddam Hussein as their priorities at the time. But I'm sure that's simply because they didn't want to clue Osama bin Laden in on how committed they were to catching him before he could kill innocent Americans.

Now I know there will be some conservatives who think I'm being naive. How is it possible, they'll ask, that Mr. Berger went back to the archives on two separate occasions, according to archives' staff, asking for copies of the same document he had inadvertently taken from the building on previous trips?

First, let's look at the document in question. Why, it was just a draft of what's known as an "after-action report" from the foiled Millennium plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport during the New Year's Eve 2000 celebrations.

Apparently, there were at least a couple of versions of this report, and I'm sure Mr. Berger just didn't want anyone bewildered by reading earlier versions that might have been unduly critical of the administration's efforts. So he was probably just cleaning up the sloppiness of others who hadn't bothered to cull the files to remove such confusing material before they left the White House when Mr. Clinton left office.

Or maybe he thought they were duplicates and so no one would miss them if he stuck one in his pocket - or his shoe. You know, maybe he wanted to keep it as a memento, and the government is so sticky about not taking any original documents with you when you leave, especially if they're marked Top Secret, or worse, SCI (for special compartmented intelligence). The Clinton appointees never had much patience for such cloak-and-dagger stuff.

Look at former Clinton CIA Director John M. Deutch. He got himself into a passel of trouble when he downloaded some 17,000 pages of classified material onto a home computer, which he then kept after he left his government post. There was such a stink at Mr. Deutch's putting national security secrets on an unsecured computer that Mr. Clinton had to issue one of those 11th-hour pardons the day before he left office, nullifying a Justice Department plea agreement in which the former CIA director admitted he was guilty of mishandling classified documents.

The current fuss is the same kind of narrow-mindedness that forced Mr. Berger's predecessor at the National Security Council, Anthony Lake, to withdraw his name from consideration after he was nominated to be CIA director in 1997.

Mr. Lake never informed Mr. Clinton that the Chinese government had tried to influence the 1996 congressional elections by funneling $2 million to Democratic candidates, even though Mr. Lake's staff had been thoroughly briefed on the plot by the FBI. Imagine those stuffy Republicans thinking that this oversight ought to disqualify Mr. Lake from being the head of U.S. intelligence, along with Mr. Lake's failure to keep Chinese agents and international criminals from meeting with the president.

It just goes to show how uptight and suspicious some people are. I, for one, am going to withhold judgment, though I do hope he finds the still-missing archive documents. I'm sure they're somewhere on his messy desk, or maybe they got stuck between the soles of his loafers.

Linda Chavez's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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