Sandy Berger was President Clinton’s top adviser on all national security matters. On Sept. 2, 2003, in a secure reading room at the National Archives, Berger was reviewing classified documents from the Clinton era, in his capacity as Clinton’s point man in providing relevant materials to the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
One such document was a copy of a White House “after-action” report that he himself had commissioned, when national security adviser, to assess the Clinton Administration’s performance in responding to the so-called millennium terrorist threat before New Year’s 2000. (I am relying throughout on reports from the New York Times.) Berger put the document in his pocket and walked out of the Archives with it.
Exactly a month later, in another visit to the Archives, he stuffed four copies of other versions of the same report into his clothes (some reports have specified his socks) and again walked out of the building with them.
At his own office later that day, Berger cut three of the copies into small pieces. Two days later Archives staffers took the matter up with him. He said the removals were inadvertent, and returned the two remaining copies of the report, but said nothing about the three he had destroyed.
Berger has now pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in connection with the theft (removing classified material from a government archive) and has agreed to pay a $10,000 fine and give up his security clearance for three years. The charge also carries a maximum sentence of a year in jail, but Berger will be spared the jail time if the court approves his plea bargain.
The burning question here, of course, is what was in the three documents Berger destroyed. We can be sure Berger won’t tell us, or more precisely that we will never know whether anything he chooses to say on the subject is a lie. The documents are irretrievably gone, and Berger can carry the secret of their contents to his grave.
But you can bet your bottom dollar they weren’t Clinton’s secret recipes for chicken a la king. In fact, as a practical matter, there is only one thing they could have been, given the huge risk that Berger took in stealing them from the Archives and destroying them.
Consider. All five were copies, or (as the Times puts it at one point) “versions,” of a single document: an assessment of terrorist threats produced during the Clinton Administration. These copies had presumably been distributed to various major figures in the administration and later collected and placed in the Archives. What interested Berger about five copies of the same document? Presumably, notes scribbled on them by the recipients. And what could have impelled him to destroy three of the five copies, and return the other two? Surely, that the notes on those three copies made it all too clear that somebody high up in the Clinton Administration had perceived a threat very much like what happened on September 11, but then failed to do anything about it.
For whom would Berger be willing to risk a jail sentence? For himself, no doubt, and for Clinton, and that just about completes the list.
So Berger may belong on the roll of those, like Susan McDougall and Webster Hubbell, who have accepted criminal penalties to protect Clinton from the truth. And what Clinton failed to do to defend the nation against terrorists may join his lifetime medical records (which the media generously never demanded) among those interesting things about Slick Willie the American people will never be privileged to know.