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."
The White House referred all questions about the case to the Justice Department. Deputy Attorney General James Comey emphasized that the department has a history of prosecuting people for improperly handling classified documents.
"As a general matter, we take issues of classified information very seriously," Mr. Comey said at the department. "It's our lifeblood, those secrets."
He added: "It's against the law for anyone to intentionally mishandle classified documents either by taking it to give to somebody else, or by mishandling it in a way that is outside the government regulations."
If convicted of such a charge, which is a felony, Mr. Berger could face 10 years in prison. Although no charges have been filed, the duration of the probe, which began last year, suggests that prosecutors consider it a substantive case.
"The length of the investigation indicates that they are trying to dot their i's and cross their t's," former federal prosecutor Joseph diGenova said. "I'm not surprised that they're taking this case seriously, especially given the bizarre circumstances."
He was referring to reports that Mr. Berger had stuffed classified documents and/or his handwritten notes into his jacket, his pants and even his socks.
Mr. Berger has acknowledged taking the documents, but insisted that he unintentionally put them in his portfolio. He also has admitted carrying out his own notes, but his attorney insisted that he did not try to do so surreptitiously by stuffing them in his pants.
The confusion produced some possible classic Washington lines, including Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, saying: "I don't know what happened to these documents after they were put in Mr. Berger's pants."
Speaking to reporters outside his office yesterday, Mr. Berger said he had "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," he said.
On CNN's "Wolf Blitzer Reports" program, Mr. Breuer said both Mr. Berger and the archives staff slipped.
"He's at the table. He's working openly. The archives people are there, and there are thousands of documents," he said. "Perhaps there was too much informality by Sandy and maybe too much informality by the archives people."
National Archives public-affairs director Susan Cooper did not return four calls for comment yesterday.
Mr. Breuer, who once served as special counsel to Mr. Clinton, also did not return phone calls yesterday. Previously, he said that Mr. Clinton had deputized Mr. Berger in June 2003 to select Clinton-era documents from the National Archives that could be turned over to the September 11 commission.
Although Mr. Berger was permitted to review the documents, federal law and archives regulations forbade him from removing them from the secure room where they were stored. When archives employees noticed him removing documents, they notified the FBI, which searched Mr. Berger's home and office in January.
Mr. Berger admitted removing several drafts of a report he commissioned on al Qaeda terrorist plots against the United States in the run-up to the millennium celebration. The report was written by Mr. Clinton's counterterrorism chief, Richard A. Clarke, an outspoken Bush critic who was a star witness in the September 11 hearings earlier this year.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, said he was "profoundly troubled" by the revelations.
"Did these documents detail simple negligence, or did they contain something more sinister?" he added. "Was this a bungled attempt to rewrite history and keep critical information from the 9/11 commission and potentially put their report under a cloud?"
Al Felzenberg, a spokesman for the commission, said the panel's work was not affected.
"We are sure that we have seen all the documents under discussion in the press today regarding this particular case," he said. "It's important to know this investigation in no way compromises the integrity of the commission's work or the thoroughness of its investigation."
Mr. Berger said through his attorney Monday that he returned some of the classified documents to the archives, but had "accidentally discarded" others. It was not clear whether those documents were still recoverable.
Mr. Berger said his lapse was "sloppy," but House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said "sloppy" wasn't the right word.
"I think its gravely, gravely serious what he did, if he did it. It could be a national security crisis," the Texas Republican said.
Brian DeBose contributed to this report.