Saturday, January 6, 2007

As the new year opens, Washington has once again been reminded of the sordid Sandy Berger burglary of sensitive national security documents, thanks to Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, an intrepid Virginia Republican.

You may recall that Samuel R. Berger, President Clinton’s national security adviser from 1997 to 2001, pleaded guilty in April 2005 to stealing and hiding highly classified documents from the National Archives building in Washington.

His loot that he hid in his home and office included files on terrorist threats to the United States. Mr. Davis said Mr. Berger’s action suggests a partisan effort to keep critical information from the September 11 bipartisan Counterterrorism Commission before which Mr. Berger was planning to testify.

According to Dec. 22 reports in The Washington Times and The Washington Post, Mr. Berger made four separate visits to the Archives building in 2003. There he examined documents in an “unauthorized” area, stuffed some in his suit, and sneaked them past the guards. The Archives Inspector General later said he “could not explain” why Archive officials didn’t immediately call the FBI.

On one occasion when Mr. Berger left the Archives, he hid some of the purloined papers under a trailer in a nearby “construction” site and later picked them up.

In April 2005, after much foot dragging, Mr. Berger pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and was fined $50,000. But Mr. Davis is not prepared to let the matter rest. He suspects Mr. Berger’s crime was partisan, not patriotic.

In sharp contrast to this sordid tale is an uplifting story that also involves the scene of Mr. Berger’s crimes. It features Allen Weinstein, United States archivist, who presides over that magnificent monument to American liberty and democracy. The Archive building, with its magnificent exhibition hall is at 700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW in Washington.

Last December, Mr. Weinstein called for a national campaign to advance “civic literacy,” especially among high school children, thousands of whom are painfully ill-informed about America’s great historic documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and Lincoln’s second Inaugural address, all of which embody the Founders’ determination to establish a government of law, not of men.

While Mr. Berger furtively violated our national security laws, Allen Weinstein was calling for all citizens, especially recently nationalized immigrants, to study these great documents that proclaim our democratic rights and duties. But this was only the beginning. For him, noble words however noble become flesh only when made into deeds. As a distinguished scholar, Mr. Weinstein demonstrated his commitment to active patriotism years before he became the nation’s top Archivist.

In his carefully researched, “Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case,” a 675-page book published in 1978, Mr. Weinstein honored the Founders’ commitment to the rule of law by documenting the truth about the impassioned Alger Hiss-Whittaker Chambers “spy case” during which those two men became almost mythic figures in the early Cold War years.

In the highly charged political climate of the time, many Americans dismissed Chambers’ charge that Hiss was a Soviet spy. With rising passion, prominent Americans were at loggerheads over the guilt or innocence of the smooth, Eastern Establishment Hiss and the veracity of Chambers, a former communist turned Quaker, whose brilliant book, “Witness” (1952), will stand the test of time. Those of us who lived those turbulent times cannot forget the hidden Pumpkin Papers and the incriminating typewriter.

In his book on the Hiss case, Mr. Weinstein tells the full story with the discipline of a scholar and the instincts of a patriot. Citing the court records, he convincingly proves Hiss was indeed in Josef Stalin’s service. Eventually, Hiss was convicted of the lesser crime of perjury, but until his dying day he and a coterie of supporters insisted on his innocence.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called Mr. Weinstein’s book the most “convincing account… of the most dramatic court case of the century.” He was right.

Of course, the sins of Sandy Berger should not equated with the treachery of Alger Hiss. Sandy’s motives were partisan, but his crime had implications beyond our shores. Hiss’ spying for our sworn enemy was outright treachery.

Ernest W. Lefever is the founding president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of “The Irony of Virtue.”

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