Former National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger yesterday stepped down from his position as adviser to Sen. John Kerry, one day after he publicly admitted taking classified documents from the National Archives.
“Mr. Berger does not want any issue surrounding the 9/11 commission to be used for partisan purposes,” said his lawyer, Lanny Breuer. “With that in mind, he has decided to step aside as an informal adviser to the Kerry campaign until this matter is resolved.”
Mr. Berger has admitted that he took classified documents from the archives while vetting material for the commission looking into the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Yesterday, he said the incident was “an honest mistake” and “one that I deeply regret.” The Associated Press reported Monday that Mr. Berger is under criminal investigation.
By stepping down, Mr. Berger, who was President Clinton’s national security adviser, sought to limit political damage to Mr. Kerry. The campaign called Mr. Berger one of a group of informal advisers on national-security issues.
Mr. Berger also served as a Kerry surrogate, briefing reporters in conference calls set up by the campaign, including one on the day that the Massachusetts senator began a series of speeches on foreign policy.
“Sandy Berger is my friend, and he has tirelessly served this nation with honor and distinction,” Mr. Kerry said. “I respect his decision to step aside as an adviser to the campaign until this matter is resolved objectively and fairly.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill were not satisfied yesterday. They said Mr. Berger may have started “a national security crisis” and said Mr. Kerry must disclose whether the documents were used to aid his presidential campaign.
“Right after the documents were taken, John Kerry held a photo op and attacked the president on port security. The documents that were taken may have been utilized for that press conference. They were then destroyed, according to Mr. Berger,” said Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican.
“I just simply think it’s important for the American people to know how disappointing this conduct is as they try to take down the president of the United States,” Mr. Smith said.
But Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Kerry campaign, said Republicans were trying to “divert attention away from the 9/11 commission report,” which is scheduled to be released tomorrow.
“Instead of using the report’s recommendations to learn how we can improve our homeland security, Republicans are playing politics with an inquiry,” Mr. Singer said.
Democrats suggested the Justice Department had leaked the probe to the Associated Press late on Monday to taint the commission report.
“I do think the timing is very curious,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota told reporters. “Given [that] this has been under way now for this long, somebody leaked it, obviously, with an attempt, I think, to do damage to Mr. Berger. And I think that’s unfortunate.”
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, and Mr. Clinton expressed similar sentiments, with Miss Mikulski asking, “Is this about Sandy Berger, or is this about politics?” and Mr. Clinton telling the Denver Post that this was “interesting timing.”