Clinton Crony and Sock-Stuffer Sandy Berger Lived in the Shadows and Died in the Shadows
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It seems somehow fitting that Clinton national security advisor, Sandy Berger (left), died the same day another event sucked all the air out of the news. The event in question, of course, was Wednesday’s Islamic terrorist attack in San Bernardino.
As it happens, major news events also obscured Berger’s most newsworthy day prior to his death. On March 31, 2005, the unfortunate Terri Schiavo died a much-publicized death in Florida. On April 2, Pope John Paul II would die. On April 1, the Department of Justice announced its plea deal with Berger for his role in stealing and destroying classified documents from the National Archives.
Unlike Berger’s death, there was nothing coincidental about the timing of this April Fools news dump. The DOJ could not have chosen a better Friday afternoon to give an indifferent media an excuse for ignoring a plea deal embarrassing in its leniency--a $10,000 fine and the loss of Berger’s top-level security clearance for three years.
Whether the Bush DOJ went soft on Berger to honor some unwritten pact among presidents or whether career attorneys involved in Berger’s prosecution, Democrats all, took their own initiative to protect Berger matters little. Someone was looking out for Sandy Berger.
That someone was surely former president Bill Clinton. In his first term Clinton appointed Berger deputy national security advisor despite the absence of what the New York Times charitably called “deep foreign policy experience.”
In truth, Berger had close to no experience. What mattered was Berger’s reliability. During Clinton’s first term the president had entrusted the then deputy with some highly questionable assignments—too numerous to list--and Berger delivered. As reward, Clinton appointed Berger national security advisor.
In April 2002, the former president called in his chits. He designated Berger as his representative to review intelligence documents in advance of the various hearings on 9/11. As a 2007 report by the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform made clear, Berger did not exactly welcome this assignment.
The archivists told the House committee, in fact, that Berger “indicated some disgust with the burden and responsibility of conducting the document review.” To fulfill his obligation to the Clintons, however, Berger was prepared to sacrifice his reputation and very nearly his freedom.
According to the House report, Berger made four trips to the National Archives. He did so presumably to refresh his memory before testifying first to the Graham-Goss congressional committee and then to the 9/11 Commission. He made his first visit in May 2002, his last in October 2003.
During at least three of those visits, he stole and destroyed an incalculable number of documents. “The full extent of Berger’s document removal,” said the House report, “is not known and never can be known.” From the perspective of the Times in its otherwise glowing obituary, Berger “stumbled.”
If the House report on Berger had a hero, it was the Inspector General of the National Archives, Paul Brachfeld. Beginning with the third of Berger’s four visits to the Archives in September 2003, when Berger was first caught stuffing documents in his socks, Brachfeld tried to alert the Justice Department to the scope and seriousness of the theft.
Concerned that Berger had obstructed the 9/11 Commission’s work, Brachfeld wanted assurance that the commission knew of Berger’s crime and the potential ramifications of it. He did not get it. Two days before Berger’s public testimony in March 2004 DOJ attorneys informed Brachfeld they were not going to notify the commission of the Berger investigation before his appearance.
The commissioners remained in the dark until July 19, 2004, three days before the 9/11 Commission released its final report, too late for any significant amendment. They might not have known even then had there not been a leak from somewhere in the Bush administration.
''Last year, when I was in the archives reviewing documents, I made an honest mistake,” Berger told reporters when the story broke. In truth, there was nothing honest or accidental about what Berger had done.
On one occasion, he swiped highly classified documents and later, during a break, stashed them under a trailer at a construction site. He retrieved them at the end of the day and admittedly used scissors to cut the documents into little pieces before throwing them away.
“His motives in taking the documents remain something of a mystery,” reported the increasingly partisan Times after Berger pled guilty. If, in 1972, the Washington Post had contented itself with writing, “The motives of the Watergate burglars remain something of a mystery,” how different our history would have been.
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