A Meal of Berger

Everyone loves a mystery and the challenge of reconciling seemingly contradictory facts. This is what makes the recent investigation if Sandy Berger, the former National Security Advisor for President Bill Clinton, so intriguing. In preparation for his testimony before the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks and as the person vetting documents for the Clinton Administration, Berger was reviewing thousands of pages of documents at the National Archives.

The details of what happen remain murky, but a few things are clear to all. Berger admits to leaving “inadvertently” the National Archives with highly classified materials. He further concedes that some of the documents from the National Archives have been accidentally discarded. In addition, Berger admits that, in violation of laws on handling classified materials, he took hand-written notes from the material with him out of the National Archives. The matter is still under investigation. The mystery lies in the fact that none of the most obvious explanations of Berger’s behavior appear entirely plausible.

Berger’s explanation, that the entire mishap is a consequence of disheveled clumsiness, does not quite explain all the facts. First, as a National Security Advisor the treatment of highly classified material whose disclosure could harm national security, should have become second nature. Berger knew the rules about removing notes and admits that he deliberately took those notes with him. Moreover, if one or two pages of material unintentionally slipped into a brief case one time, the absent-minded professor excuse would be very believable. But the withdrawal of materials on separate occasions requires believing of Berger a level of incompetence inconsistent with the respect associates generally accord Berger. Moreover, the former CIA Director John Deutch, appointed by Clinton in 1995 was investigated when he mishandled data that he brought home. One would have expected that the incident would have made clear to Berger the seriousness of sloppy handling of classified material, even inadvertent mishandling.

Another report that argues against the inadvertent removal of material is that off all the documents that he reviewed, on both occasions he only removed versions of the Millennium Report, a review of the security measures implemented for the year 2000 celebration. Apparently, the report was critical of the Clinton Administration. The accidental remove of only versions of this document twice seems unlikely.

However, removing this report would not hide its conclusions. There were other copies of the report and it was review by the 9/11 Commission. So what was to be gained by Berger or even the Clinton Administration by removing a few copies of the document?

Some of the more conspiratorially imaginative Republican partisans have suggested that perhaps there were embarrassing margin notes written in some of the copies of the Millennium Report. This explanation appears to explain the know facts, but that seems highly speculative and it is hard to imagine anything in the margins that would be worth the risk of prosecution for deliberate theft and unauthorized destruction of classified material.

Not to be out done in spinning the news, some Democratic partisans (including former President Clinton) suggest that the release of information about the investigation of Berger was a clever Republican plot to divert attention from the 9/11 Commission Report. This theory lacks plausibility for two reasons. First, the information did not come out at the optimum time for maximum political effect. Perhaps during the Democratic Convention or late in October would have been a better time. In addition, the Administration knew what was in the 9/11 Report before it was issued publicly. They had to vet it for security reasons. Since the Commission’s report was even-handed, not blaming either the Clinton or Bush Administrations for 9/11, there was little reason to exploit the Berger’s problems at this time.

There are even doubly clever Republican theorists who suggest that Democrats leaked the information now so it could not be used at a later, more effective time by Republicans. This seems too clever by half. Clear thought drowns at these depths of Machiavellian scheming.

A benign theory that has been floated is that Berger was simply gathering information for what just about everyone else in Washington does: writing a book. Yet even this does not explain removing copious notes about a report he could probably remember the key points of without notes. We will have to wait for more information before we can draw definitive conclusions about Berger and we ought to grant him guarded latitude until then.

What is most revealing is the reaction of the press to the Berger incident. Sure it was covered but not with the ferocious intensity that the New York Times usually reserves for all-male country clubs in Georgia. Where are the demands for more information? Where is the indignation?

It can not be proved with certainty, but if the current National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was caught removing and discarding highly classified documents that some thought would be embarrassing to the Bush Administration’s handling of the terrorist threat she would not be granted the same latitude accorded Berger.

In an amazingly self-contradictory editorial, the Washington Post criticized avid Republicans in the House for making suggestions about Berger’s motives on little information, while at the same time noting, “that news of the months-old investigation of Mr. Berger just happened to leak on the week before the Democratic convention.” You see, it is unfair to make negative inferences of Democrats on little evidence, but perfectly reasonable to use innuendo against Republicans in the absolute absence of evidence.

We gain further insight into Left-wing partisan analysis from the Capital Times, a “progressive” newspaper in Wisconsin. They editorialize that “Democrats should not waste an ounce of energy defending the former Clinton aide.” Why? Because he is perhaps guilty of mishandling classified material? No. Because “he tried to get former Clinton to launch a war with Iraq in the late 1990s.” If Berger had been on the other side of the Iraq issue, presumably Berger could be forgiven or at least defended.

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