Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The law requires, and people of good conscience are obliged to assume, that former Clinton national security adviser and current “Kerry for President” foreign policy adviser Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger is innocent of the crimes of stealing highly classified documents from the National Archives.

But inquiring minds are quivering with ferret-like anticipation, while Democratic and Republican politicians are digging their spikes into their respective starting blocks, as Washington is once again off to the scandal races.

As in all true Washington scandals, most of the commentators in politics and journalism come to the scandal predisposed to defend or eviscerate the subject. And, it wouldn’t be a true Washington scandal if the subject was not”agood friend” or “a former colleague and good friend” of the commentator — thus further reducing the chances for honest comment.

The story was first reported by the Associated Press on Monday evening by long-time, respected investigative reporter John Solomon, who characterized his sources as “officials and lawyers” — which pretty much describes everyone in town over the age of 24.

The first line of rhetorical defense was laid down early Tuesday morning on the “Today” show by metropolitico-journalist David Gergen — former adviser or staffer to presidents Nixon, Reagan and Clinton, and one of the designated wise men of Washington. “I think it’s more innocent than it looks. I have known Sandy Berger for a long time. He would never do anything to compromise the security of the United States,” said Mr. Gergen. Mr. Gergen added “it is suspicious” that word of the investigation emerged just as the September 11 commission is about to release its report, since “this investigation started months ago.”

This doubtlessly heartfelt defensive effort was actually slightly counterproductive. By asserting that it was more innocent than it looked, he let any doubters know that the events looked not innocent, even to friend David Gergen.

Moreover, as he didn’t offer any hard evidence to justify his suspicion of innocence, he was left with offering evidence of good character — which is marginally probative, but rarely persuasive in this age of so many fallen idols and clay-feeted men.

He simply asserted the point commonly argued in Pall Mall clubs in London in the 1950s during their plague of turncoat spies: “As a member of my club, he is a good chap, and a chap like that doesn’t do a thing like that — or if he does, he must have a bloody good reason for doing so.” (NOTE: I am not even suggesting espionage or disloyalty of any sort by Mr. Berger. Such a thought is utterly absurd. I am only describing the clubby mentality that often drives well-born men of a certain type to defend their friends against the facts.)

Mr. Gergen’s second line of defense became the pro-Berger talking point of the day: The timing of the story is “suspicious.” Everybody from Democratic Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle to noted expert Norm Ornstein suggested that the Bush administration must have leaked the story to take the edge off future bad news expected this Thursday when the September 11 commission makes its final report.

There is, of course, as yet no evidence that the story was leaked at all. It may well have been the product of solid investigative reporting by an experienced investigative reporter.

But it muddies the waters nicely to suggest that the story is not about a top Democratic Party official possibly stealing and destroying classified documents that might show the Clinton administration to have been inept in fighting terrorism. The real story, according to this line of defense, is about a dirty trick by the Bush administration in leaking such a nasty story at such a convenient time. Either alternative is quite possible — and quite irrelevant to the seriousness of the charges.

The leak is to Washington what the potato was to Ireland — the staff of life, the thing that gives energy to human activity. Without the leak, The Washington Post would be three pages long, CBS’s “60 Minutes” would be 60 seconds, and most of us in Washington would have to get an honest job — and America would be none the worse.

But although both parties and all politicians and journalists traffic daily in leaks — when your chap is hit by one, you scream like a stallion in heat at the sheer unfairness of it all. Real scandals roll on, long after those defensive screams have faded into the long night.

But if the Democrats are in a defensive crouch, the Republicans are in a fine state of indignation. Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert quickly upped the ante Tuesday afternoon. He was “profoundly troubled”: “What could those documents have said?” “What information could be so embarrassing?” “Did those documents contain something more sinister?” “Mr. Berger has a lot of explaining. The American people and 9/11 families want the truth, not a cover-up.”

As close friends of mine have, in the past, been unfairly slandered (and had their golden careers truncated) by fraudulent Washington scandals, I honestly express no opinion about the Berger affair. He may well, as he claims, be guilty of nothing worse than sloppiness. All people who care about this matter should await the complete unfolding of the facts before reaching judgment — but you should be aware that, while truth may be a byproduct of the scandal process, it is not the objective of either side in this nasty Washington blood sport.

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