The Still Unsolved Case of the Purloined Papers
Virtually every aspect of Sandy Berger’s brief and uncharacteristic career as researcher and thief at the National Archives —including the lackadaisical attitude of the Justice Department investigating and pursuing the case— raises more questions than it answers. Exactly what he did, and why he did it are still unclear after his plea bargain and limited allocution. Despite commitments of candor he decided to renounce his law license rather than risk questioning under oath.
In Washington few bad deeds go unrewarded, and Mr. Berger has resurfaced as an adviser to Senator Clinton’s campaign. The three year loss of his security clearance (as part of his sentence) will end in a few months.
The Clinton Presidential Library has just announced, in response to Freedom of Information Act suit, that the document Mr. Berger stole (of which, in fact, he stole at least five copies) won’t be made available to the public. This isn’t really surprising because the document had such a stratospheric security classification — just short of “destroy before reading” — that it must continue to be closely held.
An article in this month’s Washington by Philip Shenon does little to clarify the ongoing coverup, but it does dramatize the egregious nature of the offense itself — from the improper preferences Mr. Berger was given at the Archives (beginning with being allowed to work in a private office rather than in a guarded and secure reading room) to the actual serio-comic mechanics of stealing quantities of bulky papers.
The document in question was the 15-page report, written in 2000 by NSC counterterrorism export Richard Clarke, describing the Clinton administration’s record dealing with terrorism threats during the millennium year; the report included 29 specific recommendations for revamping the administration’s approach.
On his third visit, on September 2, 2003, Berger began to steal the documents themselves. He had finally found a copy of Clarke’s 2000 after-action report; it had been faxed to the archives a few weeks earlier from Clinton’s presidential library in Little Rock.
Berger created the same distraction with Smith, claiming he needed to make a business phone call. She obliged. But Berger turned out to be a lousy thief and was detected almost immediately. Another archivist, John Laster, bumped into him on his way to the men’s room.
“Okay, I know this is odd,” Laster wrote to Smith in an e-mail later that day. He explained that when he passed Berger in the hallway, he saw him “fiddling with something white, which appeared to be a piece of paper or multiple pieces of paper” that had been “rolled around his ankle and underneath his pant leg, with a portion of the paper sticking out underneath.’’
Smith tried to convince herself there was an innocent explanation. In a return e-mail, she speculated that Laster had seen something else—maybe a white compression sock, the sort used for circulatory problems. Berger was overweight. He had seemed agitated. Maybe there was some health problem.
Surely Berger wasn’t stealing classified documents. For Smith, an archivist responsible for classified documents—and few documents were as highly classified as the ones Berger was reviewing—the idea was almost too much to bear.
Taking secret documents was a crime. It would ruin Berger. And there was every reason to think that archives staff members would be punished—fired?—for allowing it to happen.
It was too late to try to reconstruct the files Berger had gone through; they had never been fully catalogued, so it was impossible to know exactly what he might have stolen.
Much as she dreaded the idea, Smith decided she would have to test Berger on his next visit to the archives. He was due to return October 2.
Mr. Shenon is a reporter who covered the 9/11 Commission for The New York Times and then wrote The Commission, the well-received self-styled “uncensored” history of the Commission. He makes a convincingly sympathetic case for the pressures —personal, professional, and political— under which Mr. Berger was operating when he made his unfortunate and uncharacteristic choice. But he cuts far too much slack when it comes to drawing conclusions and is curiously agnostic when it’s time to render judgment. Is there any question that, had Mr. Berger been working for the 37th instead of the 42nd POTUS, he would have done hard time?
Surely anyone with a basic knowledge of how Washington works and a modicum of common sense knows what really happened. As someone who purports to qualify on both those counts (although I accept that some will quibble about how much of a modicum is involved), I think I do.
Despite the technically correct claim that Mr. Berger stole copies of the same document, the fact is that the recipients (including President Clinton) would have made unique handwritten notations — thus making each of the “copies” an original. So someone wrote something that, in the partisan finger-pointing that characterized the politicized post-mortem being conducted by the 9/11 Commission, would have been extremely —and possibly unfairly— embarrassing to the Clinton Administration. And the way to avoid this unfortunate and probably unproductive outcome was —to coin a phrase— deep six the problematic paper.
There you have it. Case, at last, solved.