Berger's revealing footnotes

Posted: Jul 23, 2004 12:00 AM

"The innocent explanation is the most likely one, particularly given the facts involved," Bill Clinton said in defense of former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. Who, you've probably heard, is in some hot water for getting caught illicitly smuggling very classified documents on more than one occasion from the National Archives.

Now, I don't know for sure what to make of Berger's misdeeds, but it's clear that his best defense against criminality is an offensive to prove how sloppy and careless he was. He says that in the process of illegally sneaking the notes he made while reviewing classified material, he "inadvertently" stole several classified documents. He's since lost some of them. And the documents were far from random. He took all of the politically sensitive drafts of the after-action study on the Clinton Administration's response to the so-called Millennium Terror plot, which went to the heart of the Clinton administrations anti-terror policy.

Unfortunately for Berger, even his A-list spin team - Clinton lawyers Lanny Breuer, Lanny Davis and former White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart - are having a hard time proving Berger was as dumb as he's claiming. According to various reports, Berger inadvertently took anywhere from four to five drafts of the same report, plus the final copy, over at least two different visits. Some witnesses claim he shoved documents down his pants, in his jacket and - allegedly according to one witness - in his socks. He says he accidentally carried the drafts and final copy away in a leather portfolio. Still, the drafts were somewhere between 15 and 30 pages each, so it's hard to believe he didn't notice swiping 75 to 180 pages.

It's like a 10-year-old telling his parents he knowingly stole $5 worth of candy but in the process he accidentally shoplifted a basketball. And this guy was the National Security Adviser.

In an interview with the Denver Post, Clinton stuck to the most "innocent explanation," that Berger's just a slob. "We were all laughing about it on the way over here," he told the paper. "People who don't know him might find it hard to believe. But ... all of us who've been in his office have always found him buried beneath papers."

Now, I've chatted with a few people who are very experienced in the rules and procedures governing the handling of classified documents. And many of them think this "innocent" explanation is the most damning. Berger was the head of the NSA, and he was in charge of countless documents like these when he was in the White House. And here Clinton is defending him by saying mistakes like these are just plain funny because they're so typical. Berger steals documents in the lead-up the 9/11 Commission hearings because - according to his lawyer! - he was too distracted stealing notes that he couldn't keep things straight. And Bill Clinton is laughing it off. Why? Because that's so like Sandy! He was always a slob with vital national security documents.

Mr. Berger has been a top advisor to the Kerry campaign. He resigned this week to stem the damage to the Democrats. But why didn't Berger tell Kerry he was being investigated? I guess being investigated by the Justice Department for his chicanery is as laughable - and therefore trivial - a subject as losing "password" class documents and sneaking past armed guards with notes crammed into your pants.

Now, nobody ever gives this administration the benefit of the "most innocent" explanation. George W. Bush is still called a liar every day, and the Kerry campaign still says Bush misled the country, even though two massive investigations - one in Britain and one by the Senate Intelligence Committee - have exonerated Bush of that charge and cast very harsh light on his accusers, like former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

This election - according to every observer and even the campaigns themselves - will be focused on national security and the war on terror. But the Democrats and The New York Times are convinced the real scandal here isn't Berger's antics but the leak which revealed them. I cannot recall such concern about a single leak in the last year which hurt the Bush administration.

The central debate of this election is national security. Democrats charge that Bush has fumbled it. Republicans charge that the Democrats don't take it seriously enough. Fair debate.

But now comes a senior adviser to the Kerry campaign, who helped write the Democratic platform and who set anti-terror policy in the last administration. He's been caught in a scandal in which the most innocent defense they can mount is that he was so careless, so sloppy and so dismissive of the rules that he stole - and lost! - extremely sensitive documents by accident, while illegally smuggling others. And the last Democratic Commander-in-Chief says it's not only typical, it's funny.

That may be the most innocent explanation, but it's also evidence why these guys have their work cut out if they're going to convince voters they're serious about national security.