Friday, December 22, 2006

The Berger Case

It's been a couple of days since the National Archives Inspector General released his report on the theft of classified documents by former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger. That assessment clearly casts Mr. Berger's activities in a different light, and raises new questions about why he got off with only a slap on the wrist.

When Berger's theft was originally disclosed, his former colleagues in the Clinton Administration dismissed it as a case of "slopiness." In fact, that seemed to be the official "talking points" description of the matter. When talk show host Sean Hannity returns from his holiday break, we hope he will again play his audio montage of Democratic big-wigs who used that same word to categorize Berger's actions.

But the IG report refutes that notion once and for all. As we now know, Berger deliberately removed classified documents from the National Archives, hid them under a construction trailer, removed them under the cover of darkness, destroyed copies some documents, tried to retrive classified materials from the trash, and when confronted by authorities, lied about his actions. For his efforts, Berger eventually pleaded guilty to the relatively minor charges of removing and illegally retaining classified documents; he was sentenced to 100 hours of community service, a $50,000 fine and loss of his security clearance for three years.

Extracts from the IG report were buried on page A31 of today's Washington Post, which has adopted the same, ho-hum approach in reporting this case as the rest of the MSM. True, Mr. Berger received his punishment a year ago, but it wasn't until the release of the inspector general document that we learned the degree of Berger's deceit. It also took the IG to inform us that the information removed by Berger was a highly classified assessment, distributed to only about 15 people in the U.S. government, all presumably high-ranking members of the Clinton national security team. I haven't seen the report (obviously), but the restricted readership suggests it was a limited distribution (LIMDIS) or even a Special Access Required/Special Access Program (SAR/SAP) document. That would make the theft--and potential compromise--even more damaging to national security.

But neither the Post (nor any other MSM outlet) really bothered to follow up on what exactly transpired during Berger's visits to the National Archives, in preparation for testimony before the 9-11 Commission. While his illegal activities were readily observed by archives personnel--and reported to supervisors--there is no evidence that anyone from the WaPo or other media outlets actually bothered to interview those personnel. Why? The theft of classified documents is a serious offense. Moreover, any time such material is lost--particularly a high-level "after action" report--investigators must assume that the information has been conpromised. To this day, no one has any idea who else might have viewed the documents during their sojourn under that trailer, or could have obtained the pages that Berger placed in the trash. So much for the "watchdog" press.

As you might imagine, the issue of security is near and dear to my heart. For much of my adult life, I held a Top Secret/SCI security clearance, with additional access to various SAR/SAP programs that represented some of the crown jewels of our intelligence effort. If I had attempted the stunts that Mr. Berger pulled, I would still be a guest at the Military Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, and rightfully so. From Day One at intelligence school, I was taught to protect classified information at all costs, and learned that the penalties for mishandling or misplacing such data--deliberate or accidental--would be severe. Those penalties are supposed to be enforced uniformly among the ranks of all who have access to classified information.

But obviously, such rules don't apply to former national security advisors. Mr. Berger received minimal punishment for offenses that would put mere mortals in grave legal jeopardy. Long-time readers of this blog may also recall that the federal judge who sentenced Berger actually imposed a "harsher" punishment, since the recommended sentence from the Bush Justice Department was even milder. As we observed at the time, the department's "go easy" approach smacked of insider politics, an example of high-ranking officials taking care of another member of the club, even if he worked for a Democratic Administration.

Sadly, those same practices seem to be in effect today, more than a year later. Was it any accident that the report was released less than a week before Christmas, when much of official Washington (including the press corps) is out of town? And why did it take so long for the IG to conclude his examination? The events were observed, reported and summarized years ago, and the criminal case against Mr. Berger was concluded last year. Given its glacial pace, we should be thankful the archives IG doesn't handle "pressing" matters.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's observed famously that the "rich are different from you and me." No where is that more evident that inside the Beltway, where the rich and powerful sometimes go to great lengths to assist one another, with little concern for the gravity of offenses committed, and the example it provides to "the rest of us."


Charlie Martin said...

Same background, same conclusion. "Some animals are more equal than others."

directorblue said...

Utterly outrageous. I did a little thought experiment. What if Condi Rice had been caught stealing 9/11 documents prior to her testimony before the Commission?

The whole situation stinks to high heaven.

Carl said...

What I found most surprising about the Berger case was that there appeared to be only one copy of the documents that he destroyed.

Is that generally true of such documents? I would have thought that any documents that went into storage would at least be copied and put into two separate locations.

I had read that Berger destroyed documents that had been distributed, implying multiple copies, but with unique hand written notes. So what might have been destroyed wasn't actually anything with national security implications, but personal opinions.

That might explain the light punishment Berger received. But I guess we'll never know.

Carl said...

To answer my own question, that web page explains how those documents ended up being unique.