Congress soon will begin an investigation into how and why a former foreign-policy adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry illegally removed or lost several top-secret anti-terror documents from the National Archives.
House Government Reform Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, yesterday called the actions of Samuel R. Berger “a disturbing breach of trust and protocol.”
“At best, we’re looking at tremendously irresponsible handling of highly classified information,” Mr. Davis said. “At worst, his actions suggest an intentional effort to keep critical information away from the [September 11 commission] and the American public.”
Mr. Berger, who was President Clinton’s national security adviser, resigned Tuesday as an adviser to Mr. Kerry. He admitted removing documents with the government’s highest classified rating from the National Archives to help prepare for his testimony before the commission investigating the September 11 attacks.
Mr. Berger became the subject of a criminal investigation by the Justice Department in January, several weeks after staffers at the archives saw him stuffing classified notes into his pants and noticed that several top-secret documents were missing.
Law-enforcement sources told CNN and Fox News yesterday that Mr. Berger was seen putting documents into his socks before leaving the secure room.
Mr. Berger has characterized his taking of the documents, some of which he said he “inadvertently” threw away, as an “innocent mistake.”
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, was more skeptical.
“How could President Clinton’s former national security adviser be so cavalier?” Mr. Hastert asked. “Was Mr. Berger trying to cover up key facts regarding intelligence failures during his watch? What happened to those missing documents? Whose hands did they fall into? What kind of security risk does that pose to Americans today?”
The Bush-Cheney re-election team is demanding that Mr. Kerry prove that he did not use the top-secret documents to help his campaign.
“Why would the [Kerry] campaign launch arbitrary attacks instead of offering clear assurance to the American people that the Kerry campaign did not benefit from classified documents that were removed from the National Archives by one of their advisers, Sandy Berger, now subject to a criminal investigation?” asked Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman yesterday.
Democrats say the timing of the publicity of the criminal investigation of Mr. Berger was orchestrated by Republicans to distract from today’s release of the September 11 commission’s report.
“The Republicans are going to spin conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory to distract from the fact that three years after September 11th, the Bush administration still doesn’t have a plan for homeland security and their reckless unilateralism has driven away the allies we need to win the war on terror,” Kerry campaign spokesman David Wade said.
Another Kerry campaign aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said at the time the documents were taken, Mr. Berger was not an adviser to the campaign, so they couldn’t have been used against Mr. Bush.
Meanwhile, Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request yesterday with the Justice Department seeking the surrender of information on any contacts between Justice and the White House, because of the “possibility” that the Bush administration “politicized an ongoing investigation” of Mr. Berger.
“There seems to be a pattern here,” said Jano Cabrera, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. “Whenever questions are raised about this president’s handling of national security, the Bush administration seems to release information for political cover.”
Mr. McAuliffe’s FOIA request, however, might run up against one of the nine conditions exempt from the law because it involves “records compiled for law-enforcement purposes.”
Republican National Committee spokeswoman Christine Iverson called Mr. McAuliffe’s FOIA request “another flailing attack and attempt to change the subject.”
Documents that Mr. Berger took from the archives, on at least two occasions, reportedly deal with the so-called “millennium plot” by international terrorists to attack the United States during the New Year’s celebration for 2000.
In his televised testimony to the commission, Mr. Berger said the Clinton administration’s “sustained attention” to terrorist threats and “rigorous actions” foiled the millennium plot.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, however, told the commission that he saw some of the documents that have now turned up missing in the archives and that the plot was stopped with “luck playing a major role.”
White House spokesman Scott McClellan confirmed yesterday that “some people” in the White House Counsel’s Office were informed of the investigation months ago because they were helping to coordinate the release of classified documents.
Mr. McClellan would not say whether Mr. Bush knew about the criminal investigation of Mr. Berger, but added that there is no sign that the information was leaked to the press from the White House.
Mr. Bush said yesterday he is “not going to comment on this matter.”
Mr. Clinton, who dispatched Mr. Berger to the National Archives in preparation for the September 11 commission hearings, told the Denver Post that he and his current aides were “laughing” about the trouble Mr. Berger finds himself in which because of his self-described “sloppiness.”
Mr. Clinton, who called the controversy a “non-story,” also joined fellow Democrats in questioning the timing of the revelation about Mr. Berger’s activities.
“I wish I knew who leaked it. It’s interesting timing,” he said.