Thoughts On Trousergate

Quite a few years ago, I spent a summer working for the State Department. One of my most vivid memories of that time is the emphasis that was placed on proper handling of classified documents. Such documents were prominently marked, and at the end of every work day, all classified materials were locked in safes. This was a ritual which everyone took seriously. One source of amusement was the fact that virtually anyone could classify a document, while a high-level review was required to declassify it. So every now and then, a low-ranking employee (like me, for example) would, as a joke, classify a comic book as “Secret.” For years thereafter, the comic book would dutifully be gathered up every evening and locked in a safe.
Against this background, it strikes me as ludicrous to suggest that a national security professional like Sandy Berger, with years of experience in the State Department, would forget that he is not supposed to stuff classified documents into his shorts and take them home. No. There was a very serious reason why Berger took that risk.
And a huge risk it was. Berger was very likely to be Secretary of State in a Kerry administration. He threw that chance away because there were documents that he desperately wanted to get out of the National Archives. And he didn’t do it just once. We don’t know, from news accounts, how many times he hid documents in his clothes and smuggled them out of the Archives, but we know it happened several times, at least, because Archives employees saw him do it and started marking documents they gave to him so they could track their exodus.
So what was he so anxious to remove from the public record? Some have suggested that he stole records relating to weaknesses in port and airline security in order to feed them to the Kerry campaign. This seems extremely unlikely for two reasons: 1) I don’t think a man like Berger would risk his career and reputation to do it, and 2) it was wholly unnecessary. Kerry doesn’t need secret, technical details to assail an alleged lack of homeland security planning; all he has to do is make general criticisms, and hope for a successful terrorist attack. And that is all that he has done.
The only motive I can imagine that would lead Berger to take the immense risk of stealing classified documents out of the National Archives is that they contain information that is extremely damaging to him and to the Clinton administration. While the timing is not entirely clear from press accounts, it appears that Berger purloined the documents last year. I haven’t been able to pin down the exact timing of the Sept. 11 Commission’s investigation, but it seems reasonable to conclude that Berger wanted to get the documents in question out of the Archives before the Commission discovered them. This would make sense only if they were extremely damaging not only to the Clinton administration, but to Berger personally. Of course, given Berger’s role as National Security Advisor, any serious default in the Clinton administration’s response to terrorist threats would have reflected badly on him. The millenium bomber is an obvious example, but the documents may have related to Clinton’s decision not to capture Osama bin Laden, or many other matters.
That is, I think, what must have happened. But we will probably never know. Berger has admitted that he destroyed some documents–“inadvertently,” which is even more absurd than sticking them into his pants inadvertently. And it is not clear from news accounts whether there is any complete record of all of the materials that Berger had access to, and could have smuggled out of the Archives. This matter will drop, as the mainstream press will prefer not to pursue it. Berger’s effort to frustrate the historical record will, I suspect, be successful. But he will pay a price: he will never be Secretary of State.


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