Politics & Policy

Sandy Berger’s Heavy Lifting

The troubling details of the Archives document removal.

In Washington this morning, government officials are trying to piece together the facts of the Sandy Berger case in an attempt to understand what the former Clinton administration national-security adviser was trying to accomplish when he took highly classified documents from the National Archives.

Berger, who yesterday quit his position as an informal adviser to the Kerry campaign, was appointed by former President Clinton to vet Clinton-administration documents before those documents were turned over to the September 11 investigating commission. Berger claims that as he went through a large number of documents last fall, he inadvertently put a few in his briefcase and took them home. “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 September 11 commission, I inadvertently took a few documents from the Archives,” Berger said in a written statement. “When I was informed by the Archives that there were documents missing, I immediately returned everything I had except for a few documents that I apparently had accidentally discarded.”

But it appears that some of the evidence in the case casts doubt on Berger’s explanation. First, Berger has reportedly conceded that he knowingly hid his handwritten notes in his jacket and pants in order to sneak them out of the Archives. Any notes made from classified material have to be cleared before they can be removed from the Archives–a common method of safeguarding classified information–and Berger’s admission that he hid the notes in his clothing is a clear sign of intent to conceal his actions.

Second, although Berger said he reviewed thousands of pages, he apparently homed in on a single document: the so-called “after-action report” on the Clinton administration’s handling of the millennium plot of 1999/2000. Berger is said to have taken multiple copies of the same paper. He is also said to have taken those copies on at least two different days. There have been no reports that he took any other documents, which suggests that his choice of papers was quite specific, and not the result of simple carelessness.

Third, it appears that Berger’s “inadvertent” actions clearly aroused the suspicion of the professional staff at the Archives. Staff members there are said to have seen Berger concealing the papers; they became so concerned that they set up what was in effect a small sting operation to catch him. And sure enough, Berger took some more. Those witnesses went to their superiors, who ultimately went to the Justice Department. (There was no surveillance camera in the room in which Berger worked with the documents, meaning there is no videotape record of the incidents.)

The documents Berger took–each copy of the millennium report is said to be in the range of 15 to 30 pages–were highly secret. They were classified at what is known as the “code word” level, which is the government’s highest tier of secrecy. Any person who is authorized to remove such documents from a special secure room is required to do so in a locked case that is handcuffed to his or her wrist.

It is not clear why Berger would focus solely on the millennium-plot report. But it is clear that the report has been the object of intense discussions during the September 11 investigation.

The report was the result of a review done by Richard Clarke, then the White House counterterrorism chief, of efforts by the Clinton administration to stop terrorist plots at the turn of the year 2000. At several points in the September 11 commission hearings, Democrats pointed to the millennium case as an example of how a proper counterterrorism program should be run. But sources say the report suggests just the opposite. Clarke apparently concluded that the millennium plot was foiled by luck–a border agent in Washington State who happened to notice a nervous, sweating man who turned out to have explosives in his car–and not by the Clinton administration’s savvy anti-terrorism work. The report also contains a number of recommendations to lessen the nation’s vulnerability to terrorism, but few were actually implemented.

The after-action review became the topic of public discussion in April when Attorney General John Ashcroft mentioned it in his public testimony before the September 11 commission. “This millennium after-action review declares that the United States barely missed major terrorist attacks in 1999 and cites luck as playing a major role,” Ashcroft testified. “It is clear from the review that actions taken in the millennium period should not be the operating model for the U.S. government.”

In May, a government official told National Review Online that the report contains a “scathing indictment of the last administration’s actions.” The source said the report portrayed the Clinton administration’s actions as “exactly how things shouldn’t be run.” In addition, Clarke was highly critical of the handling of the millennium plot in his book, Against All Enemies.

It is not clear how many copies of the report exist. Nor is it clear why Berger was so focused on the document. If he simply wanted a copy, it seems that taking just one would have been sufficient. But it also seems that Berger should have known that he could not round up all the known copies of the document, since there were apparently other copies in other secure places. Whatever the case, the report was ultimately given to the September 11 Commission.


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