Friday, September 9, 2005

Former National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger was fined $50,000 by a federal judge yesterday for illegally taking classified documents out of the National Archives by stuffing them in his pants.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson, in ordering the fine, ignored a recommendation by government lawyers that Mr. Berger — the Clinton administration’s most senior national security official — pay a $10,000 fine as part of a plea agreement reached in April.

“The court finds the fine is inadequate because it doesn’t reflect the seriousness of the offense,” Judge Robinson said in handing down the sentence. She also ordered Mr. Berger to surrender his access to classified government materials for three years, perform 100 hours of community service and serve two years’ probation.

He also was ordered to pay $6,905 for the administrative costs of his two-year probation.

Mr. Berger, who served as national security adviser for President Clinton from 1997 to 2000, had faced one year in prison and a $100,000 fine, but his plea agreement reduced the fine and kept him out of jail.

He told the court yesterday he let “considerations of personal convenience override clear rules of handling classified material.” He described the removal of the documents as a lapse of judgment that occurred while he was preparing last year to testify before the September 11 commission investigating intelligence and security failures.

“In this case, I failed. I will not again,” Mr. Berger said.

Outside the courtroom, he told reporters he regretted his actions and accepted the judgment of the court.

His attorney, Lanny Breuer, said his client would not appeal the ruling, adding that the September 11 attacks “weighed heavily” on Mr. Berger and he took the classified documents, along with handwritten notes, from the Archives to get the facts correct on the terrorist attacks.

According to the government, Mr. Berger “knowingly removed classified documents from the National Archives and Records Administration and stored and retained such documents at places,” including his office in the District.

He pleaded guilty in April to a misdemeanor charge of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material, including documents outlining the government’s knowledge of terror threats in the United States during the 2000 New Year’s celebration.

Mr. Berger initially claimed he took the documents as the result of an “honest mistake,” but later admitted he placed the classified records in his pants and jacket, and put other classified documents in a leather portfolio.

During his initial court hearing, he was not asked and did not offer a reason why he later cut up the documents with scissors at the office of his Stonebridge International consulting firm. Prosecutors said at the time Mr. Berger knew the rules for handling the documents and had taken only copies. They said the originals remained in the government’s possession.

The document theft raised questions about whether Mr. Berger was attempting to cover up the Clinton administration’s anti-terrorism policies and actions. The records he took were related to internal assessments of the Clinton administration’s handling of the terrorist threat in December 1999 to bomb airports in the United States.

Mr. Berger is the second senior Clinton administration official to be implicated in mishandling classified documents.

Former CIA Director John M. Deutch was caught improperly storing highly classified defense documents on his personal computer in 1999. Mr. Deutch, who agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified documents, was pardoned by Mr. Clinton in January 2001, before a sentence was imposed.

Mr. Berger was an adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry last year when the investigation of the document theft became public. Democrats at the time charged the probe was politically motivated.

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