- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2005

Talk about getting too big for your britches.

Samuel Berger is such a forgetful fellow you have to wonder how he kept America’s friends and enemies straight when he was Bill Clinton’s national security director. He purloined intelligence documents at the National Archives, accidentally he says, stopping just short of nicking the Declaration of Independence. He stuffed everything down his pants.

He paused briefly at the Constitution, secure under glass, lock and key, before deciding that he was wearing pants too small to accommodate anything really big. He went home “tired and unfocused.”

Sam copped a plea last week to stealing classified memoranda with embarrassing marginal notes about Clinton administration misfeasance in response to a terrorist plot against Los Angeles International Airport. These were documents the 9/11 commission wanted to see. A federal judge fined him $10,000 and revoked his federal security clearance for three years.

By confessing to everything he had denied when he got caught, he avoided being sent off for a term in a federal pokey for a second career of making license plates. Such a sentence could have been lethal. We shudder to think of the damage a sharp-edged aluminum plate, stuffed into the front of his prison pants, could have done if he had slipped on a wet spot on his way to the chow line.

But what if he had nicked the Constitution? Could the U.S. Supreme Court continue to deliberate without the Constitution? Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who has taken to consulting the law, culture and chicken entrails in Zimbabwe and Lower Volta in deciding really difficult constitutional issues, could have continued to work, of course, but Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas and most of the rest of the gang might have suspended operations.

It figures that Sam has pants trouble. Bill Clinton couldn’t keep his pants on and Sam couldn’t get his off, not with all that paper stuffed down the front. He insists now that he put the purloined papers in his pockets. But pockets are only so deep, and a swift zipper was the mark of the Clinton White House.

His lawyer says Sam “regrets the mistakes he made during his review of documents at the National Archives.” Others of Sam’s “associates” say he nicked the nation’s documents because “he was just too tired and wasn’t able to focus enough, and he felt like he needed to look at the documents in his home or his office to line them up. He now admits that was a real mistake.”

Well, mistakes do happen. Mistakes like this happen to all of us all the time. Anyone who has visited the National Archives remembers how tempting it was to “review” documents, stuff them into his pants, hobble stiff-legged past suspicious security guards terrified that a memo, a file folder or a paper clip might drop down a pants leg and clatter to the floor. Ordinarily a caper like that requires a clear head, a steady nerve and a sharp focus.

But Sam was tired. As soon as he recovered his stamina, he went back to the Archives. Still unfocused, he took more documents. When at last he got his groove back, he realized he had taken documents similar to the first ones, so he cut the extras into tiny pieces and destroyed them. This was Sam’s thoughtful way of making work easier for the archivists.

The New York Times, sanitizing its coverage of Sam’s settling of accounts, assures us that “Mr. Berger returned all of the documents and notes to the archives in October, within a week of his learning they were missing, his lawyers said.”

Sam’s copping a plea heartens certain Democrats, who only last summer, when Sam’s career in pilferage and plunder was first revealed, concluded ever so sadly that the whole thing was a concoction of perfidious Republicans. Joe Lockhart, once Bill Clinton’s spokesman, accused Republicans of “character assassination,” and Terry McAuliffe, the conscience of the Democratic Party, said it was Republican strategy to make Democrats look bad on the eve of their national convention. Hillary Clinton, who is naturally sympathetic to anyone with missing-document trouble, agreed: “The timing speaks for itself.” The former president, at the time signing his memoirs in a Denver bookstore, thought the whole thing was hilarious: “We were all laughing about it on the way over here.”

Why, sure ‘nuff. Sam’s just a laff riot, and it was only about national security.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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