Opinion: Media Mangle

The Story That Never Was

The story of Berger's filching of documents had a life-span of a fruit fly

I was driving in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania last summer when I heard the news on New York’s WABC radio. Samuel R. (Sandy) Berger, John Kerry’s top foreign policy adviser and national security advisor to Bill Clinton, had been caught stealing documents from the National Archives.

John Kerry was the presumptive Democratic nominee at the time and one of his key advisers had been caught putting documents down his pants and in his socks in the National Archives. And what were those documents? They were documents requested by the 9-11 commission regarding the Clinton administration’s role in combating terrorism, and Berger was vetting them at the request of Bill Clinton himself.

Not only did Berger steal documents, he later destroyed some of them. It doesn’t take much imagination to know why. It is unlikely that he chose to destroy documents that made Clinton look good, so one can reasonably conclude that the opposite is true: they must have been devastating to the Clinton legacy for Berger to take such a chance. The papers taken and destroyed appear to have been so-called “after-action” reports regarding the millennium plot of 1999-2000. Berger apparently zeroed in on these documents during his pilfering.

This was (or should have been) huge news, simply huge, given the timing – heated presidential campaign, both parties pointing fingers of blame on terrorism, the 9-11 commission at its preening worst. But a strange thing happened. As I drove the narrow roads from the town of Jim Thorpe to Bushkill Falls that day, the story began dropping off the radar screen. It was the major story at the noon hour but by late afternoon it had disappeared.

After a brief flurry of stories in the national papers in that third week of July, 2004, the story disappeared and never came up again during the presidential campaign of 2004, even when the issue of who knew what and when did they know it about Osama, Saddam and WMD. For some reason the national press simply yawned at the notion of a major candidate’s adviser filching classified documents from our National Archives.

Another bit of revisionism occurred very quickly during that first day the news broke. In early reports, Berger was a “major” advisor to Kerry who was the acknowledged next secretary of state should Kerry triumph in November. By midday he was only an “informal” advisor, and by the end of the day you’d think the two had never met.

The Berger story, which disappeared so conveniently last summer, is now back. Berger has agreed to a plea deal, admitting he took and destroyed classified documents and later lied about it.

Last summer Berger and his lawyers claimed this was “an honest mistake” and that the pants-stuffing and the socks-cramming was “inadvertent.” But now the truth can be told, it seems. It was entirely “advertent” and was certainly not a mistake. Anyone with a lick of sense was saying this last summer, but the entirely credulous press was not impressed.

Imagine, though, if Condoleezza Rice had been caught doing the same thing, stealing classified documents from the National Archives in an attempt to help her boss, George W. Bush, escape blame for inaction in the runup to 9-11. Would this story have had the life cycle of a fruit fly, as it did with Berger as protagonist? More likely it would have had a half-life akin to Uranium 235.

So now another Friend of Bill has taken a fall for doing Clinton’s bidding. How many is that? I’ve lost count. Berger is charged with a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. But Berger’s deal involves no jail time and only a $10,000 fine. Plus, he will lose his national security clearance for three years (why not for life? one may ask). I’ve seen no speculation in the media that this is quite an insignificant punishment for purloining classified documents of the highest level.

The media are playing Berger’s plea deal as yet another ho-hum Washington insider story. Where is the clamor for Berger to reveal exactly what documents he stole and destroyed? This doesn’t seem to be part of the agreement announced by the Justice Department.

Again, imagine if a Bush adviser were in a similar situation. It would be the never-ending story.

Ham is the publisher of Carolina Journal.