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At 500-plus pages, a reasonable assumption might be that the final report of the 9/11 commission would include plenty of information for even the most voracious reader. But on July 22, as official Washington began poring over the long-anticipated report, the most pressing questions centered on the few pages that might have been left out - after disappearing down the pants of a top Clinton aide.
The furor began on July 20, when former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger acknowledged he was the subject of a criminal investigation involving highly classified terrorism documents he had spirited out of the National Archives. His acknowledgment came after someone with knowledge of the probe leaked the news to the Associated Press. Asked by Mr. Clinton in late 2003 to review the documents for possible release to the 9/11 commission, Mr. Berger admitted he smuggled some papers out of the Archives building while "inadvertently" removing others. He claims he returned most of the materials when questioned by investigators last year, but several documents have disappeared entirely, leading House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to term the situation a "national-security crisis."
The more immediate crisis may be political, however: Mr. Berger had been serving as an unpaid adviser to John Kerry's presidential campaign, prompting top Republicans to question whether he had misused classified information in an effort to embarrass the president. After apologizing for his "honest mistake," Mr. Berger resigned his role with the Kerry campaign on July 21.
The Berger controversy threatened to eclipse the findings of the 9/11 commission, which labored for 20 months in putting together its report. In its quest for unanimity, the carefully balanced, bipartisan panel stopped short of saying the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington might have been prevented. But that still left plenty of room for criticism of the Bush administration's handling of the terrorist threat; some questioned whether the whole Berger scandal was a GOP effort to shift the attention of voters.
At a book signing in Denver, Mr. Clinton noted the "interesting timing" of the Berger revelations, while Kerry spokesman Phil Singer went much further. "This appears to be a partisan attempt to divert attention away from the 9/11 commission report," Mr. Singer told members of the media. "Instead of using the report's recommendations to learn how we can improve our homeland security, Republicans are playing politics with a criminal investigation. That's wrong, and in November voters will have a choice on the ballot between a candidate they can trust and a president that continues to mislead the nation."
The Kerry camp went so far as to accuse Vice President Dick Cheney of personally leaking news of the Berger investigation in a closed-door meeting with Senate Republicans who later led the attack against the former national security adviser. "If true, the fact that the White House has Cheney coordinating a political attack at a time when the 9/11 report is coming out with recommendations on how to improve the nation's security speaks volumes about the Bush approach to governing," said a letter issued by the campaign.
Republicans, meanwhile, made accusations of their own. Noting that the stolen documents dealt with terrorist threats to ships and airplanes, GOP election officials pointed out that Mr. Berger, acting on behalf of the Kerry campaign, briefed reporters on that very topic last February. Now Republicans want to know if the Democrats used classified information in an effort to undermine the president's standing on issues of national security.
"In fairness to the president of the United States, it's important that this be followed and pursued so the American people can know that the predicate of many of the charges made against George W. Bush are based on lies and deception," said Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), noting the "curious connection" between the smuggled documents and the Kerry press conference.
"I don't know what happened to these documents after they were put in Mr. Berger's pants, but it's been reported in the press that these documents related to homeland security and our airports and seaports and it's very interesting to note that those are two areas where Sen. Kerry has been critical of the Homeland Security Department," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). "I would hope, No. 1, that the Kerry administration would disavow any connections with Berger, that they would come forward with any documents . . . and that we can bring this matter to a close very quickly."
A quick close to the matter seems highly unlikely. The investigation has been quietly proceeding for nine months already, ever since workers at the National Archives reportedly saw Mr. Berger stuffing documents into his pants, shirts, and socks. The Archives' inspector general notified Mr. Berger he was being investigated in October 2003. Four months later, the FBI broadened the inquiry into a criminal investigation.
Mr. Berger insists that the only papers he intentionally smuggled from the Archives were his own handwritten notes about the documents he was reviewing on behalf of Mr. Clinton. His lawyers initially said Mr. Berger knew he was violating Archives regulations by removing his notes, though he didn't think he was breaking any laws. They later backed off that claim, acknowledging Mr. Berger was cognizant of the law, which requires Archives staffers to review all papers that leave the reading rooms where classified documents are stored.
Besides his own notes, Mr. Berger admits to removing several highly classified documents by "inadvertently" slipping them into a leather portfolio he was carrying. In addition to numerous memos, those documents reportedly included several draft versions of a report critical of the Clinton administration's counterterrorism efforts surrounding the millennium celebrations of Jan. 1, 2000. When confronted by investigators, Mr. Berger says he promptly returned all the documents he could find, though some apparently were discarded - again, inadvertently.
"I made an honest mistake which I deeply regret," Mr. Berger told reporters the day the scandal became public. "I dealt with this issue in October 2003 fully and completely. Everything that I have done all along in this process has been for the purpose of aiding and supporting the work of the 9/11 commission, and any suggestion to the contrary is simply absolutely wrong."
But his explanations - and his track record - have left many in Washington with lingering questions. Why, for instance, would Mr. Berger go to such lengths merely to sneak his own notes from the reading room? Archives workers who bent the rules by letting him bring his leather portfolio to the table - something that's normally forbidden with presidential papers - would surely have been lenient when reviewing the notes he was making.
And what of the classified documents he accidentally removed and subsequently lost? While some might be willing to believe he let one copy of the millennium terror report fall unnoticed into his portfolio, how could he mistakenly remove multiple draft copies of the same report over a one-month period?
Mr. Berger's defenders note that he is known for his sloppiness, and that it took multiple assistants to keep him organized during his tenure as national security adviser. But his detractors remember something more sinister about his years in the Clinton White House: Even then he was manipulating classified information to achieve political goals.
"This is the second time now that we have a documented case of Berger mishandling classified information," said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), recalling a 1999 incident that led him to take to the floor of the House to criticize "the outrageous and curious behavior of our so-called national security adviser."
As a member of the Cox Committee charged with investigating the transfer of high-tech secrets to China during the Clinton administration, in January 1999 Rep. Weldon sent an advance copy of the committee's report to Mr. Berger for his review. After seven months of closed-door, bipartisan hearings with no leaks to the press, the committee of five Republicans and four Democrats had unanimously recommended some three dozen steps that should be taken to protect America's national security.
Within days, however, "Sandy Berger issued a statement to selected members of the media putting the White House spin on what was still a classified document," congressman Weldon recalled. "He did that without asking any member of the committee. Before the CIA director could even read our report, Berger was already spinning. That sets the pattern for what may have occurred" in the Archives case, Rep. Weldon believes.
Though he planned to remain silent on the current controversy until more facts came to light, a reminder of Mr. Berger's record was enough to change Rep. Weldon's mind. "I remember this vividly now," he told WORLD in his first interview on the subject. "I went through it in a detailed way on the floor of the House. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that Berger pre-released classified information to benefit the White House."
Then as now, the Pennsylvania congressman faults the Clinton spin machine for putting political calculus before the national interest. "This was an egregious violation of our country's national security," he said of the top-secret documents missing from the National Archives. "There's no way that any human being would put information in their socks unless they were trying desperately to hide something.
"The question is, for what reason? We don't know for sure what documents are missing, and we may never know. But obviously there was something there that bothered him dramatically."