It's about time Americans found out what Sandy Berger stuffed in his pants

Posted: Oct 13, 2006 12:00 AM

I recently bemoaned the fact that Americans know more about what Bill Clinton pulled out of his pants than what Sandy Berger stuffed into his. This week a group of House Republicans requested a congressional investigation that has the potential to change that.

The AP reported Wednesday that “ten lawmakers led by House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., released a letter calling for the House Government Reform Committee to investigate” to “determine whether any documents were missing from Clinton administration terrorism records, to review security measures for classified documents and to seek testimony from Berger.”

Berger admitted to taking classified documents from the National Archive in 2003 and to destroying some of them. His guilty plea to one charge of “unauthorized removal and retention of classified material” resulted in a fine of $50,000.

The theft and destruction of classified national security documents by former National Security Advisor Samuel “Sandy” Berger is a topic that never received the attention it should have. In an informal poll of my non-political junkie friends, I was unable to find anyone who knew that Clinton’s National Security Advisor had illegally taken and destroyed classified documents, much less that those documents related to events leading up to September 11.

My outrage, though, comes from the actual theft of the documents, rather than the way the media largely ignored it.

For over a decade I worked as a paralegal, serving as custodian for a depository of hundreds of boxes of documents from a failed financial institution. Those documents, although financial in nature, and evidence in several multi-million dollar lawsuits, were not top secret. They were not classified. There was never even a remote possibility that if a document was lost or stolen or inadvertently released to an unauthorized agent, anyone’s life would be in danger or the security of the nation jeopardized. Yet I was very diligent in my handling of the documents and in the way they were allowed to be handled by other parties reviewing them. All the lawyers I worked with, including opposing counsel, showed respect for the integrity of the documents. I never had any trouble with anyone stuffing a handful of documents into their briefcases, much less their socks.

The fact that someone whose responsibilities included the security of the nation, would remove classified documents (whether they be copies or originals) without permission, on several occasions, is inexcusable. When a former National Security Advisor has such disregard for the integrity of documents and the rules and laws pertaining to their treatment, what can be said for his regard for the security of the nation and the safety those rules applying to classified documents protects?

It is no wonder that the American public knows so little about Sandy Berger’s crime, considering the slap on the wrist he received. Instead of a higher standard of behavior being demanded of someone in such a position of trust, Berger was actually held to a lower standard than others have been.

In May of 2005 Judge James Robertson sentenced Howard Harner to two years in prison, two years probation, and a $10,000 fine for pleading guilty to stealing more than 100 Civil War-era documents from the National Archives Building.

In response to news of the sentence Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States, said “this sentence sends a very clear signal that theft of cultural property belonging to the American people will not be tolerated. We are very grateful that the Judge recognized the seriousness of the crime…Thousands of researchers each year have access to our priceless documentary heritage, using original records at National Archives facilities across the nation. This allows American citizens to see for themselves the workings of the Federal government and the accountability of Federal officials. Mr. Harner abused that trust and has paid the price for that abuse."

Berger, on the other hand, did no jail time and is even back to appearing on the cable news circuit as an expert on matters of national security. The “clear signal” Harner’s sentence sent about the theft of cultural property, only serves to contrast the treatment Berger received for taking national security documents.

Bill Clinton did not take the Berger theft seriously either, telling the Denver Post that it was a “non story.” He chalked the episode up to the sloppiness of a "workaholic" who has "always been up to his ears in papers."

Just as the Rathergate story made me wonder how many similarly suspect stories had been reported as fact by news networks in the past, the Sandy Berger story made me wonder what other relevant documents might have gone missing during the Clinton years. It is not as if the Berger theft was the first time there were problems with the handling of Clinton documents.

In 1996, Rose Law Firm billing records sought for years by investigators were mysteriously found in the First Lady’s book room leading to Hillary Clinton being the first First Lady to ever testify before a Grand Jury. During the Lewinsky scandal there were allegations that secret service logs had been altered to hide the number of occasions Lewinsky had visited the Oval Office. I can’t help but wonder how many documents from the Clinton administration might have been lost forever?

As for those “questioning the timing” of the current call for an investigation, I agree. Such an investigation should have been demanded long ago, but it is better late, than never. The American people deserve to know.