WASHINGTON – Former national security adviser Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger admitted Friday that he had stolen classified documents, destroyed some of them, then lied about what he had done.
As a seasoned foreign policy manager under President Clinton, Berger had been considered a strong candidate for secretary of state in a future Democratic administration. He had also been entrusted with the highest security clearance granted by the government.
But all that passed under a cloud Friday as he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and acknowledged in painstaking, often humiliating detail how in 2003 he had secretly removed sensitive documents involving anti-terrorist policy from the National Archives, and afterward sought to mislead investigators and the public.
“I exercised very poor judgment,” Berger told reporters after the hearing. “I deeply regret it. It was mistaken, and it was wrong.”
Berger added, “I’m pleased that this matter is resolved, and I look forward to moving on.”
First, though, he faces sentencing July 8 before U.S. Magistrate Deborah Robinson, who presided over Friday’s hearing. Prosecutors are recommending that Berger be fined $10,000 and stripped of his security clearances for three years.
Also, the Inspector General for the National Archives and Records Administration, who was an observer Friday, is conducting a security investigation to find out how Berger was able to walk out with the documents and his handwritten notes.
Moreover, news that Berger was the target of a criminal investigation by the FBI leaked out last summer during the 2004 political campaign, and Republicans are not likely to make a return to public life easy for the 59-year-old lawyer and veteran government official.
Despite repeated statements to the news media that he had “inadvertently” taken some of his own handwritten notes on the documents and “accidentally discarded” a few documents, Berger acknowledged Friday that he knew the rules and regulations and failed to tell the truth when Archives officials first called on Oct. 2, 2003, to say documents were missing and to ask him where they were.
“With his guilty plea, Berger acknowledged as a former high-ranking government official that he understood the rules and regulations,” said Noel Hillman, chief of the Justice Department’s public integrity section.
“His conduct was intentional and what he did was wrong. He has taken criminal responsibility … he has given the clear articulation of guilt.”
Specifically, Berger removed what officials said were five nearly identical drafts of a document called the Millennium After-Action Review, which dealt with security issues raised by the al Qaeda plot to attack Los Angeles International Airport in 2000. It was foiled by an alert border guard in Washington state in 2000 in what many senior officials considered a lucky break.
Associates said Berger took one document on Sept. 2, 2003, and four others on Oct. 2, 2003, to give himself more time to compare versions.
The report, a multiagency review of security, was written by former National Security Council terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. It remains secret but is believed to have contained suggestions for policy changes to tighten security and root out al Qaeda cells in the United States.
According to the published accounts, the recommendations included increasing the number of terrorism task forces around the country, and to assign more agents from the Internal Revenue Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service to trace the money and people flowing into the country.
Berger went to the National Archives to review those and other documents in preparation for testifying before the Sept. 11 commission. Some observers have speculated that Berger, who has declined to discuss the affair, may have feared that the Clinton administration’s failure to implement all of the recommendations exposed it to accusations of leaving the country vulnerable to the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Sept. 11 commission barely referred to the documents, though prosecutor Hillman stressed that copies of all the documents Berger took were available to the commission.
“Nothing was lost to the public or the process,” said the lead prosecutor.
In addition to removing the five documents and lying about his actions, Berger acknowledged that he destroyed three of them with scissors.
Berger declined to take questions after reading a statement outside the courthouse.
Why he destroyed three documents but preserved two others that were nearly identical is a puzzle that his associates strained to explain.
“It isn’t a great answer but he doesn’t really know,” said one associate. “He knew he shouldn’t destroy all of these things but he didn’t want to have a whole lot of classified documents sitting around in his office.”
Berger was notorious for having a desk that looked like it had been hit by a hurricane, and his defenders seemed to be suggesting he had held onto some copies and cut up others in order to avoid losing them.
Berger’s sentence clouds his career but it may not end it. More than one Washington figure has recovered from scandal to return to power. Elliott Abrams, convicted and jailed for lying to Congress about funding for the Nicaraguan contras, is now serving in President Bush’s National Security Council as head of the Mideast bureau. Vice Adm. John Poindexter, also implicated in the arms-for-hostages scandal as deputy national security adviser in the Reagan administration, has periodically served as a consultant to the Pentagon.
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