Monday, January 1, 2007

With the release of an internal investigation last week, we now know that former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger not only knowingly flouted laws for handling classified documents, but he went to incredible lengths to cover his tracks and thwart investigators.

While Mr. Berger’s “punishment” was a pittance of a fine, former Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin has been financially ruined and sentenced to 12 and a half years for passing along far less-classified information to unauthorized third parties.

Unfortunately, disproportionate justice is inherent to the legal system. The written playbook might be the same for various cases, but different judges and different dynamics can lead to dramatically disparate results.

But what excuse is there for the wildly different media coverage of the two cases, both of which came to public attention in the summer of 2004?

Given the nature of each man’s actions and the starkly different status each enjoyed in the public eye, the media actually was justified in providing dissimilar coverage. Only the press got it exactly wrong.

One man verbally disclosed classified information devoid of sources or methods. The other snuck five different versions of a top-secret document out of a secure facility.

One was a low-level career bureaucrat, while the other was just a few years removed from being the president’s national security advisor. One man cooperated with authorities and didn’t even retain a lawyer before being interrogated, while the other lied to investigators and then intentionally destroyed evidence.

While conservative news outlets reveled in the Berger story, the mainstream media was at best blase. Of all the articles about Mr. Berger’s case — from the revelation that he was the subject of an inquiry through the recent release of the National Archives inspector general’s report — only one made it to the front page of either The Washington Post or the New York Times. Coverage of Mr. Franklin’s case, however, earned that distinction more than a half-dozen times.

The Franklin affair started out with a bang. Over seven days, starting in late August 2004, The Washington Post published six distinct stories, three of which landed on the front page. It was a sizzling story. Someone who worked in the Pentagon seen by the media as too pro-Israel was suspected of passing national-security secrets to the Jewish state. The Post even implied that five others — all Jews with “strong ties to Israel” — might also be spies.

In the end, the FBI’s full-court press only netted one conviction of a government official. Mr. Franklin plea-bargained to three counts, including passing classified information to an Israeli government official and two men at pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. (The trial of Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman is slated to begin by the spring.)

According to someone with intimate knowledge of the leaked draft presidential directive, the document contained no sources and no methods. It had no sensitive material of any kind. It was nothing more than a policy paper — just a few pages that resembled an opinion-editorial — advocating tougher diplomacy, not war, in dealing with Iran.

Reporters at The Post and the New York Times worked overtime to find new angles in the Franklin case, and that effort yielded considerable ink. On the Berger case, though, the mega newspapers simply reported stories as information came out. There was no digging, no investigative passion. Even the disclosure of the inspector general’s report only happened because of a freedom of information request filed by the Associated Press.

The mainstream media’s palpable disinterest in the Berger case is hardly justified. Many questions remain unanswered. Of the few explanations Mr. Berger and his defenders have actually provided, none passes the laugh test.

Mr. Berger claimed in court last year that smuggling classified documents out of the National Archives was about “personal convenience,” but the inspector general report states that he walked out of the building and down the street, found a construction site, looked to see if the coast was clear, then slid behind a fence and hid the documents under a trailer.

Which part of that elaborate procedure was “convenient”?

According to the New York Times story last April following Mr. Berger’s guilty plea, “Associates attributed the episode to fatigue and poor judgment.” While lying to authorities is bad judgment, it is also illegal. And how exactly did fatigue drive Mr. Berger to use his scissors to shred three versions of the top-secret document?

Despite the report’s devastating blow to Mr. Berger’s excuse machine, it was buried. The Post dumped it on page 7, and the New York Times exiled it to page 36.

Reflecting — or perhaps because of — the respective media attention is the justice meted out to each man. President Clinton’s national security adviser will not see the inside of a jail cell. His $50,000 fine sounds big, but it’s roughly equivalent to a few weeks out of his princely salary. Meanwhile, Franklin has lost half his pension and was given a stiffer sentence than several Islamic terrorists convicted in the very same courthouse.

Just don’t expect the Post or the Times to point that out.

Joel Mowbray occasionally writes for The Washington Times.

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