WASHINGTON -- While reviewing national security documents from the Clinton administration in preparation for his appearance before the 9/11 Commission hearings, former National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger was observed stuffing papers in his socks by employees at the National Archives. Soon he was accused of taking these documents -- memos, draft documents, e-mails, that sort of thing -- from the Archives in breech of the law, and he was duly charged. All of this took place a couple of years ago, and those of us who had followed the Clinton high jinks with more diligence than the rest of the press had a good laugh. Once again we were vindicated and the rest of the press went into another episode of disappointment. As throughout the 1990s, the best and the brightest of the Clinton saga had been caught flagrante delicto -- and let me add flagrante hilarious. Berger really did pack the documents in his socks.
Yet there was a debate among us Clinton sleuths that now has been settled. After Berger pleaded guilty, many of us accepted his explanation, namely, that he was simply too lazy to read through all the material in the uncomfortable quarters made available to him at the Archives. He wanted to read them at home in the presence of loved ones, the family cat, and with Fleetwood Mac on the sound system. He had grimmer critics with a darker reading. They believed that in the aftermath of Sept. 11, historians were going to be more exacting in their readings of the Clinton record on terror and if White House documents showed laxity, the historians would report it. Thus these Clinton sleuths argued that Berger was making off with embarrassing documents to destroy or perhaps to revise.
According to the Washington Post, the congressional report "said Berger took a special interest during his early visits (to the Archives) in files from the office of former White House counterterrorism official Richard A. Clarke, which included uninventoried draft documents, memos, e-mail messages and hand-written notes." "Had Berger removed papers," the report notes, "it would be almost impossible for Archives staff to know."
In other words, the National Archives blundered badly when it gave Berger access to documents that were unrecorded and uncopied. Berger, an admitted liar, has almost certainly lied about what he did with these documents. And historians will probably never know what notations they contained or even if they contained major revelations about the Clinton administration's assessment and treatment of terrorists in the years before Sept. 11.
The Democrats now repine over a Republican "culture of corruption." Well, it did not start with the Republicans. I can find no historic parallel for what Berger did at the National Archives, and he got off with a misdemeanor. From this week's congressional report it appears to me that he stole documents, possibly destroyed them, and apparently corrupted Archives officials and officials in the Justice Department. Cultures of corruption have a way of spreading. When I read of Sen. Hillary Clinton's run for the White House I wonder, do the Democrats want to go through this degraded debate all over again?