Casual readers of the news will have no idea what to make of Sandy Berger’s guilty plea. This AP story says:
Former national security adviser Sandy Berger, who once had unfettered access to the government’s most sensitive secrets, pleaded guilty Friday to sneaking classified documents out of the National Archives, then using scissors to cut up some of them.
Rather than the “honest mistake” he described last summer, Berger acknowledged to U.S. Magistrate Deborah Robinson that he intentionally took and deliberately destroyed three copies of the same document dealing with terror threats during the 2000 millennium celebration. He then lied about it to Archives staff when they told him documents were missing.
Noel Hillman, chief of the Justice Department’s public integrity section, tried to be reassuring:
Berger only had copies of documents; all of the originals remain in the government’s possession, Hillman said.
The AP describes the Berger incident as “bizarre,” and, to an ordinary reader, it must seem bizarre indeed. Why would anyone steal and destroy “three copies of the same document,” and then lie about it?
The answer, obviously, is that all of the “copies” were different, in that they contained different handwritten notes by various Clinton administration officials, apparently including Berger. This Washington Post story is slightly more informative:
Berger’s associates said yesterday he believes that closure is near on what has been an embarrassing episode during which he repeatedly misled people about what happened during two visits to the National Archives in September and October 2003.
Rather than misplacing or unintentionally throwing away three of the five copies he took from the archives, as the former national security adviser earlier maintained, he shredded them with a pair of scissors late one evening at the downtown offices of his international consulting business.
The document, written by former National Security Council terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke, was an “after-action review” prepared in early 2000 detailing the administration’s actions to thwart terrorist attacks during the millennium celebration. It contained considerable discussion about the administration’s awareness of the rising threat of attacks on U.S. soil.
Archives officials have said previously that Berger had copies only, and that no original documents were lost. It remains unclear whether Berger knew that, or why he destroyed three versions of a document but left two other versions intact. Officials have said the five versions were largely similar, but contained slight variations as the after-action report moved around different agencies of the executive branch.
So Berger removed five copies of the Clarke report, carefully destroyed three of them “late one evening,” and returned the other two to the Archives. Obviously he reviewed the notes on the five documents and destroyed the three that contained information damaging to the reputation of the Clinton administration. I do not find reassuring the Post’s suggestion that these were “copies only” and that it “remains unclear whether Berger knew that.” Obviously all five copies of the Clarke report were “copies.” But they contained unique notes, and Berger certainly thought that they were the only “copies” of those notes in existence, or it would make no sense to destroy them. I have seen no evidence whatsoever that he was wrong.
One aspect of Berger’s sentence that seems almost humorous is the fact that his security clearance is suspended for three years. He wasn’t going to need it during President Bush’s second term, in any event, and he’ll have it back in time for the new Democratic administration that, he hopes, will begin in 2009. What a penalty for attempting, apparently successfully, to destroy a portion of the historical record relating to the government’s anti-terror activities in the months leading up to September 11.