The Clinton administration’s most senior national security official pleaded guilty yesterday to stealing classified documents from the National Archives and destroying with scissors some of the material related to terror threats before the 2000 celebration.
Samuel R. Berger, the White House national security adviser from 1997 to 2000, faces a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine after pleading guilty to one misdemeanor charge of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material.
However, under a plea agreement, Mr. Berger likely will avoid prison and pay a $10,000 fine.
“Guilty, your honor,” Mr. Berger told U.S. Magistrate Deborah Robinson at a hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington.
Mr. Berger, who placed handwritten notes in his pants and jacket and put the classified documents in a leather portfolio, initially had claimed that he took the documents as the result of an “honest mistake.” He had been preparing to testify before the September 11 commission investigating intelligence and security failures.
During the hearing, Mr. Berger was neither asked nor offered why he cut up the documents at the Washington office of his Stonebridge International consulting firm. Mr. Berger, accompanied by his wife, Susan, did not offer an explanation when he addressed reporters outside the federal courthouse after the hearing.
“It was a mistake, and it was wrong,” he said, refusing to answer questions.
Noel Hillman, chief of the Justice Department’s public integrity section, would not discuss Mr. Berger’s motivation, but did say Mr. Berger knew the rules for handling the documents. Mr. Berger only had copies of documents. All of the originals remain in the government’s possession, Mr. Hillman said.
In addition to the fine, Mr. Berger also will lose his security clearance for three years. The plea agreement must be approved by Magistrate Robinson, and sentencing is scheduled for July 8.
Associates of Mr. Berger told the New York Times in yesterday’s editions that the agreement does allow Mr. Berger to have his security clearance reviewed and restored within three years if it becomes necessary.
The document theft had raised questions about whether Mr. Berger was attempting to cover up the Clinton administration’s anti-terrorism policies and actions.
The documents were related to internal assessments of the Clinton administration’s handling of what has been called the millennium terrorist threat in December 1999 to bomb airports in the United States.
All the documents taken by Mr. Berger did get reviewed by the National Commission Investigating Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, as the September 11 commission is formally known.
The commission report stated that Mr. Berger had rejected three plans to go after al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the months before the September 11 attacks.
However, the documents in question did not relate to those issues, according to U.S. officials.
Mr. Berger is the second senior Clinton administration official to be implicated in mishandling classified documents. Former CIA Director John Deutch was caught improperly removing highly classified defense documents on his personal computer in 1999. Mr. Deutch agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified documents.
Mr. Deutch was pardoned by Mr. Clinton in January 2001, before a sentence was imposed.
Prosecutors said Mr. Berger, on Sept. 2, 2003, and Oct. 2, 2003, “concealed and removed” five copies of classified documents from the Archives.
“Initially, Berger did not tell the Archives staff that he had taken the documents, but later that night told Archives staff that he had ‘accidentally misfiled’ two of them,” a Justice Department statement said.
The FBI then began an investigation, which culminated in the plea agreement.
Mr. Berger returned two copies of the five documents and explained that he had destroyed the three other documents with scissors at his office. He also returned the handwritten notes, as required by security rules.
As part of the agreement, Mr. Berger must cooperate with the Archives inspector general in reviewing security procedures and must agree to take a polygraph test about his activities at the Archives.
Mr. Berger was an adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry until July, when the investigation of the document theft became public.
Democrats, at the time, charged that the investigation of Mr. Berger was politically motivated.
This article was based in part on wire reports.