John Leo

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 Qaeda ?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?

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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