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The Inadvertence Files

July 26, 2004

In political scandals, public attention is often focused on some trivial but damning detail. In the Sandy Berger case, it’s the socks. Berger, President Clinton’s national security adviser, is accused of illegally removing from the National Archives highly classified documents related to terrorism, specifically papers on the Clinton administration’s handling of the foiled al-Qaida “millennium” plots against the United States. Supposedly, he was reviewing the documents to determine which papers should be released to the 9/11 commission.

First-day stories last week said archives officials reported that Berger had placed notes he made from some top-secret documents either “in his clothing” or in his “jacket and pants.” In an early story, one unidentified official said he noticed something white flashing at Berger’s ankle level, something that could have been a document or a sock. This would mean either that Berger hid something in a sock, or that he is a poor dresser, wearing white socks with a dark suit. Unfortunately for the poor-dresser theory, one report by, admittedly third-hand and anonymous, coming through “law enforcement sources” who got it from the FBI, said an archives staffer had seen Berger placing something in a sock.

No recent scandal has been spun so heavily so quickly. At “Fox & Friends,” the story was quickly labeled “socksgate.” Bill Clinton worked the other side of the street. He said he and his book-tour entourage “were all laughing about” Berger’s foibles — i.e., Berger is a careless but lovable guy caught up in a nonscandal.

The New York Times seemed to agree. It ran a no-big-deal report, topped by the snore-inducing headline “A Kerry Adviser Leaves the Race Over Documents,” speculating when Berger might return to the Kerry campaign. No mention of the sock, or that Berger was a subject of a serious criminal investigation. Berger aides said he had removed “copies of a handful of classified documents.” The rather dramatic news that the FBI had descended on Berger’s home and office to search for missing documents was downplayed and folded into the major Democratic talking point — that the Bush administration had leaked the news about Berger and the FBI investigation to divert attention from the 9/11 commission final report.

Terry McAuliffe charged that the timing of the news on Berger was suspicious. Maybe so, but the Bush administration has been buried in nonstop bad news for months. What would have been a nonsuspicious time for the story to emerge — during Richard Clarke’s testimony? Or as the Abu Ghraib story broke?

Berger said he regretted his “sloppiness” and explained that he had “inadvertently” walked out with some secret documents and notes he made about other papers. Notes on classified material are not supposed to be removed from a secure room at the archives without permission. Bypassing security protocols is a serious matter, and Berger stretched inadvertence to extreme limits. He inadvertently took the documents and notes, inadvertently didn’t notice that he had them, then inadvertently lost or threw away some of the papers. Though the Times continued to soft-pedal the story, by Thursday several news outlets reported sources claiming, as The Washington Post put it, “that Berger was witnessed stuffing papers into his clothing.” Through his attorney and spokesmen, Berger denied it.

Worse for Berger, the Post report undermined his “inadvertence” defense. It said that archives officials noticed documents missing after a visit to the archives by Berger last September, so they set up a sting operation, coding papers secretly so they could tell more easily which papers were missing if Berger returned.

He came back Oct. 2, according to the Post, and when he left, some marked documents were missing. The Post reports that Berger said he had made 40 to 50 pages of notes during three trips to the archives. Were these rather voluminous notes among the papers placed into his clothing, and if so, why he didn’t just put the notes in the leather portfolio he brought with him on visits to the archives?

It’s not yet clear what Berger was removing or why, or whether the archives have copies of everything missing. If Berger wanted to refresh his memory on matters to be raised by the 9/11 commission, presumably his notes would do that without the removal of any official document. Perhaps the “timing” argument will now work to Berger’s advantage — that the 9/11 report will overwhelm the archives story and direct attention away from him. A few news outlets are playing the Berger issue as yet another left-right, Democrat-Republican partisan wrangle. That’s a way of discounting a story that has to be pursued.

From → Media, Politics

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