White House knew about investigation of Berger

Kerry campaign alleges leak was timed to divert attention from 9/11 report

July 22, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Senior officials at the White House were told by Justice Department investigators months ago that a criminal investigation was under way to determine whether Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, the national security adviser under President Bill Clinton, removed classified documents about al-Qaida from the National Archives, the White House spokesman said yesterday.

The White House declined to say who beyond the White House counsel's office knew about the investigation, but some administration officials, insisting on anonymity, said they believed that several top aides to President Bush were informed.

Bush declined to answer a question yesterday about whether he had been told, saying: "I'm not going to comment on this matter. This is a serious matter, and it will be fully investigated by the Justice Department."

The disclosure of the investigation forced Berger to step down Tuesday as an unpaid adviser to Sen. John Kerry's campaign, which accused the White House yesterday of deliberately leaking news of the investigation and said that Vice President Dick Cheney was personally involved in strategies to divert attention from the Sept. 11 report to be issued today.

"The timing of this leak suggests that the White House is more concerned about protecting its political hide than hearing what the commission has to say about strengthening our security," a statement issued by Kerry's campaign said.

Scott McClellan, the president's press secretary, denied yesterday that the White House had anything to do with the leak, or was seeking to divert attention from the report.

The Sept. 11 commission's report is expected to include stinging criticism of the Bush administration's handling of intelligence about terrorism, but it will also contain significant criticisms of the Clinton administration, and the national security council that Berger ran, in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden.

The chief mystery surrounding the mishandling of the documents is one of motive. Republican leaders and the Bush- Cheney campaign have suggested that Berger sought to pass classified information to Kerry. Ken Mehlman, the president's campaign manager, called on the Kerry campaign to provide "clear assurance to the American people that the Kerry campaign did not benefit from classified documents that were removed from the National Archives by one of their advisers, Sandy Berger, now subject to a criminal investigation."

But Kerry himself, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, would likely have access to any such documents, and the clearances to read them. Last night, Berger's spokesman, Joe Lockhart, who served as Clinton's press secretary, said: "Mr. Berger never passed any classified information to the Kerry campaign. Any suggestion to the contrary cannot be supported by any facts."

Yet at the Kerry campaign, officials say they were taken by surprise by the accusation. It appears that Berger did not disclose the investigation to Kerry's aides, some of whom previously worked for Berger. Lockhart said that was because "we were dealing in good faith with the Department of Justice on this matter for many months, and part of our agreement was that this was not to be discussed beyond Sandy's legal team."

On Tuesday, after the story about Berger emerged, McClellan referred all questions to the Justice Department and said "what we know is what has been reported in the news media." That seemed to suggest no early knowledge of the investigation inside the White House.

McClellan corrected himself yesterday, saying that the office of Alberto Gonzalez Jr., the White House counsel, had been informed about the Berger case during the course of a months-long investigation.

"The counsel's office is the one that is coordinating with the Sept. 11 commission the production of documents," McClellan said. "And since this relates to some documents, the counsel's office was contacted as part of that investigation."

The Justice Department declined to comment on the case. The department is investigating whether Berger broke federal law on the handling of classified material by removing from a secure government reading room a handful of documents related to an after-action report on the 1999 millennium plots, as well as handwritten notes he took during his review.

In preparing for testimony before the Sept. 11 commission, Berger spent about 30 hours over three days in the summer and fall of 2003 reviewing thousands of pages of intelligence documents. He said he removed the documents by mistake, but Republicans accused him of stashing the material in his clothes on purpose. They have offered different theories about what that purpose may have been, ranging from an effort to withhold information that reflected badly on the Clinton administration to seeking to pass to the commission documents that could demonstrate that the Clinton White House moved actively against al-Qaida.

The Democrats seemed more interested in the leak than in Berger's action.

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