The Berger Caper: What The 9/11 Report Says

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When it was disclosed that former Clinton National Security Adviser Samuel (Sandy) Berger was being investigated by the FBI for removing classified documents from the National Archives, Democrats cried foul, claiming the news was leaked to distract attention from the imminent release of The 9/11 Commission Report. The report managed to move Berger's troubles off the front page, but it contained some passages that could surely make him uncomfortable. It describes several instances in which the Clinton adviser was presented with plans of action to hit al-Qaeda in Afghanistan — and balked. In the margin next to a suggestion from Richard Clarke, Berger's counterterrorism czar, to attack al-Qaeda facilities in late 1999, Berger wrote "No." The report also says Berger nixed at least two plans to go after Osama bin Laden in the three years leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The papers he took don't relate to those incidents, and Berger claims he took them inadvertently. To be sure, it's unlikely he thought he could hide anything from those writing the 9/11 report. Berger's spokesman, Joe Lockhart, pointed out that the Archives gave Berger only photocopies of the original documents — and informed Berger of that — so any cover-up would have been impossible. After learning of the incident, commission chairman Thomas Kean said his staff members checked and were sure they had "every single document that [they] needed or requested."

So how to explain what Berger called an "honest mistake"? He says that in gathering up papers, he must have accidentally taken some Archives documents along with his notes. Those who have worked with him find that plausible. Berger could get wrapped up in his work, they say, and his desk was piled high with documents and notes. "He always kept a lot of paper," says a former assistant. Nonetheless, Berger has now severed his ties as an informal adviser to the Kerry campaign, and a man once touted as a potential Secretary of State has seen his reputation tarnished.