Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, is the subject of a criminal investigation for illicitly removing highly classified documents about the 1999 millennium bombing plot and handwritten notes he took from a secure reading room at the National Archives. Some of the classified documents taken by Mr. Berger are still missing. Mr. Berger (who resigned yesterday as a foreign-policy adviser to presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry) was in the Archives last summer and fall preparing, at Mr. Clinton’s request, the previous administration’s response to questions from the commission investigating the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Mr. Berger and his attorney told The Associated Press that he knowingly removed handwritten notes he made by sticking them in his jacket and pants.The FBI searched Mr. Berger’s home and office after Archives employees claimed to have seen him place documents in his clothing while he was reading classified Clinton administration papers. Some of the documents were later found to be missing.
While this newspaper has had its differences with Mr. Berger over policy, his integrity and honesty have never been at issue. Like any target of an investigation, he is entitled to the presumption that he is innocent. Nor should he be singled out for harsh punishment because he is a famous person. If he is found to have violated the law, he should be punished no more harshly than an average citizen would be for the same violation.
Nonetheless, the behavior Mr. Berger has already admitted to, at a minimum, raises serious, troubling questions about his judgment when it comes to handling highly classified information. The former national security adviser admits that he was aware that removing his notes from the secure reading room was wrong, but asserts it to have been nothing more than a “technical violation of Archive procedures” (a point that appears to be in dispute). Mr. Berger expresses regret about his “sloppiness” in handling the highly classified documents. That’s nice to hear. But it doesn’t change the fact that at least two and possibly three copies of a critical report — which Mr. Berger had no legitimate reason to take out of the Archives to begin with — are missing.
The missing documents about the millennium bombing plot are said to include highly classified assessments about the Clinton administration’s handling of the December 1999 plot to blow up U.S. targets, as well as information on the vulnerability of American airports and seaports to a terrorist attack. The millennium plot has potentially huge political implications, as Mr. Clinton and his partisans have tried to assert that the terrorists’ failure shows that the former administration was not asleep at the switch in fighting al Qaeda. Clinton critics will surely claim Mr. Berger’s actions were not sloppiness at all, but an effort to remove documents that reflect poorly on Mr. Clinton’s national-security stewardship. Either way, the best thing now would be for Mr. Berger to cooperate fully with the Justice Department and help recover the documents he irresponsibly lost.