July 21, 2004

On "Trousergate"

There are all kinds of sub-issues related to the Sandy Berger story. I still don't have clarity on the down-his-pants (or in-his-socks) vs. in-his-pockets issue, and I'm not sure I care about that: he concealed this material in his clothing, and that's that. He claims that only the handwritten notes were in his jacket and pants (and possibly socks), but we'll see. I'm a good deal more concerned with the two events he claims were accidents: removing top-secret documents, and destroying top-secret documents.

This guy was National Security Advisor. One would think that he can handle the basics of the job—like preserving the integrity of classified documents, and knowing what he's putting into his leather portfolio.

Clearly, he's either incompetent, or covering up for Clinton.

But even if this is all the result of carelessness, it's an egregious lapse. Clinton should be embarrassed that this guy, who cannot handle the basic requirements of his job, was his National Security Advisor. Instead, he's laughing it off, which may say something about how seriously he takes the security issues facing this country to this day.

My newspaper-reading friends tell me you still have to dig to find mentions of this story in either the LA Times or the NY Times, which is outrageous.

Stephen Green had a good opening volley on the story, and is covering it well; be sure to scroll around on his main page after reading this entry.

The Irish Lass has a nice roundup; once more, you might take the time to do some scrolling, since she's all over this.

Prof. Reynolds remarks:

[T]he decision to charge someone, even someone admittedly guilty, is always a matter of discretion, and criminal charges against a former National Security Adviser are a rather big deal. It's easy to understand why the Justice Department might be reluctant to bring such charges even if it's satisfied that all the elements of the crime are present.

To which Dr. Joyner replies:

Quite true. I'd like to get a better explanation of exactly what Berger was trying to accomplish and let this one percolate a bit more before deciding what punishment, if any, is appropriate. Berger gave many years in the public service and, so far as I'm aware, this is the first time he's even been accused of anything remotely sinister. Even aside from the baffling issue of why, I would be interested in knowing--if it's knowable--what harm Berger's theft caused.

There has to be a consequence for this type of behavior, though. If a former National Security Advisor-- invested with so must trust that it never even occurs to anyone that he needs to be monitored while in a room with highly classified material--can plead "oops" on something so blatant, I don't know how we can ever hold a soldier accountable again.

As usual, you'll also want to go to James for the best links to hard news sources on this issue.

Byron York, writing in National Review Online, has two major points. To begin with, he feels there's no way this was accidental:

It appears that some of the evidence in the case casts doubt on Berger's explanation. First, Berger has reportedly conceded that he knowingly hid his handwritten notes in his jacket and pants in order to sneak them out of the Archives . . . Berger's admission that he hid the notes in his clothing is a clear sign of intent to conceal his actions.

Second, although Berger said he reviewed thousands of pages, he apparently homed in on a single document: the so-called "after-action report" on the Clinton administration's handling of the millennium plot of 1999/2000. Berger is said to have taken multiple copies of the same paper. He is also said to have taken those copies on at least two different days. There have been no reports that he took any other documents, which suggests that his choice of papers was quite specific, and not the result of simple carelessness.

Third, it appears that Berger's "inadvertent" actions clearly aroused the suspicion of the professional staff at the Archives. Staff members there are said to have seen Berger concealing the papers; they became so concerned that they set up what was in effect a small sting operation to catch him. And sure enough, Berger took some more. Those witnesses went to their superiors, who ultimately went to the Justice Department . . . . The documents Berger took — each copy of the millennium report is said to be in the range of 15 to 30 pages — were highly secret. They were classified at what is known as the "code word" level, which is the government's highest tier of secrecy. Any person who is authorized to remove such documents from a special secure room is required to do so in a locked case that is handcuffed to his or her wrist.

York finds Berger's focused pilferage highly interesting, since it appears that the Clinton administration's handling of the millennium plot has been the subject of a lot of debate and considerable criticism:

The report was the result of a review done by Richard Clarke, then the White House counterterrorism chief, of efforts by the Clinton administration to stop terrorist plots at the turn of the year 2000. At several points in the September 11 commission hearings, Democrats pointed to the millennium case as an example of how a proper counterterrorism program should be run. But sources say the report suggests just the opposite. Clarke apparently concluded that the millennium plot was foiled by luck — a border agent in Washington State who happened to notice a nervous, sweating man who turned out to have explosives in his car — and not by the Clinton administration's savvy anti-terrorism work. The report also contains a number of recommendations to lessen the nation's vulnerability to terrorism, but few were actually implemented.

The after-action review became the topic of public discussion in April when Attorney General John Ashcroft mentioned it in his public testimony before the September 11 commission. "This millennium after-action review declares that the United States barely missed major terrorist attacks in 1999 and cites luck as playing a major role," Ashcroft testified. "It is clear from the review that actions taken in the millennium period should not be the operating model for the U.S. government."

In May, a government official told National Review Online that the report contains a "scathing indictment of the last administration's actions." The source said the report portrayed the Clinton administration's actions as "exactly how things shouldn't be run." In addition, Clarke was highly critical of the handling of the millennium plot in his book, Against All Enemies.

It is not clear how many copies of the report exist. Nor is it clear why Berger was so focused on the document. If he simply wanted a copy, it seems that taking just one would have been sufficient. But it also seems that Berger should have known that he could not round up all the known copies of the document, since there were apparently other copies in other secure places. Whatever the case, the report was ultimately given to the September 11 Commission.

What a clumsy, stupid thing to do. If the intention was what York is implying—to cover up the Clinton Administration's incompetence and lassitude regarding national security—Berger should have the book thrown at him. He is, essentially, Clinton's Rosemary Woods.

Posted by Attila at July 21, 2004 07:33 AM

"Berger gave many years in the public service"..for which he was paid, both in monetary and in psychic terms. Why is working as a government official "public service" any more than, say, growing food as a farmer, or transporting it as a railroad employee? It's time to start challenging these pieties.

Posted by: David Foster at July 21, 2004 08:08 AM

I'd say:

1) Very often, the people who hold high-level public jobs do so at great personal cost, since they generally could command 2-5 times the salary in the private sector;

2) If you want to challenge James's statement, you might start by questioning Berger's efficacy when he was working under Clinton, since there were several key ways that administration dropped the ball on terrorism and helped set up the conditions that fostered 9/11.

Posted by: Attila Girl at July 21, 2004 08:59 AM


If you or I or anyone else had done this, we'd be led away in cuffs and looking at $50k in fines and 10 years in prison for each offense.

If a former NSA isn't held accountable for his actions, how the hell can we expect anyone in the military or government to take security protocols seriously?

Posted by: Timmer at July 21, 2004 10:59 AM

Well, we don't know what is going to happen to him. If I had to put money on it, I'd say he will have to do time, because this story isn't going to go away.

Let's remember that the investigation is ongoing.

Posted by: Attila Girl at July 21, 2004 11:37 AM

Maybe they *could* get 2-5 times the salary in the private sector, but:

a)Some people are more motivated by power/influence than by money...is there anything particularly praiseworth about this?
b)In many cases, the "public servant" gets the money anyhow, after he retires, since he is now in demand for a variety of lobbying-related jobs.

My point is simply that devoting one's life to the pursuit of political power and influence does not necessarily make on a Mother Teresa.

Posted by: David Foster at July 21, 2004 11:38 AM

I'll certainly grant that.

Posted by: Attila Girl at July 21, 2004 11:57 AM

It is not clear how many copies of the report exist. Nor is it clear why Berger was so focused on the document. If he simply wanted a copy, it seems that taking just one would have been sufficient. But it also seems that Berger should have known that he could not round up all the known copies of the document, since there were apparently other copies in other secure places. Whatever the case, the report was ultimately given to the September 11 Commission.

The answer to York's puzzlement is that there apparently were multiple drafts of Clarke's critique. It's not uncommon for these things to get blanded down a bit in staff exchanges before the "official" version is transmitted -- but those drafts usually are kept for matters this important.

Berger was trying to get hold of all the drafts, including the early ones that reportedly are scathing about events under Berger's term as NSA.

Posted by: too true at July 21, 2004 03:28 PM

Side note: The Washington Post is doing a great job covering the story. The New York Times is blaming the whole thing on George Bush. Really. They're spinning it so hard they're likely to hurt themselves.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at July 22, 2004 06:58 AM

Aw, I'll bet they talk a lot about the "timing" issue. My feeling is that if the Democrats really want to control when these sorts of things are revealed, they could simply exercise some control over when and how they steal top-secret documents. That would surely help.

Posted by: Attila Girl at July 22, 2004 11:40 AM

Share photos on twitter with Twitpic "Let the issues be the issue.

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