The Justice Department said yesterday there was no evidence that former national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger was trying to conceal information when he illegally took copies of classified terrorism documents out of the National Archives in 2003.
Yesterday, Berger pleaded guilty under an agreement with department officials to the relatively minor charge of taking classified documents without authorization, a misdemeanor that will likely require him to pay a $10,000 fine and court fees. His plea acknowledged he had misled archives officials when initially questioned about the missing documents and falsely claimed it was "an honest mistake."
Noel L. Hillman, chief of the Justice Department's public integrity section, said Berger "did not have an intent to hide any of the content of the documents" or conceal facts from the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But he did hide the document copies in his coat jacket as he left the archives after two visits in September and October 2003. "As a former high-ranking government official, he knew and understood that what he did was wrong," Hillman said.
Hillman's comments help explain why the Justice Department was willing to strike a compromise with Berger under terms short of the maximum penalties for the knowing destruction of classified material. Department lawyers concluded that Berger took the documents for personal convenience -- to prepare testimony -- and not with the intent of destroying evidence or thwarting the Sept. 11 panel's inquiry as to whether the Clinton administration did enough to confront a rising terrorist threat.
In acknowledging the crime to Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson, Berger said he knowingly took five copies of different versions of the same classified document -- briefings for the Clinton administration on terrorism threats -- from the National Archives in the fall of 2003. As part of his plea, Berger also acknowledged that he destroyed three of the copies, and returned the remaining two to archives officials and said he had "misfiled" them.
In a brief statement outside the federal courthouse, Berger said his decision to remove and conceal the documents "was mistaken and was wrong." But he said his only motivation was to adequately prepare himself and others for the Sept. 11 commission. "I exercised very poor judgment in the course of reviewing documents at the National Archives," he said. "I deeply regret it."
Berger, who is scheduled to be sentenced in July, left with his lawyers without answering questions.
Sources familiar with the case said Berger was primarily guilty of arrogance, and appeared to presume that as former presidential national security adviser he should be allowed to review classified information in his office.
Berger has agreed to pay a $10,000 fine and accept a three-year suspension of his security clearance, a sentence prosecutors endorsed. The maximum potential sentence for this crime is one year in prison, but that is unlikely because of sentencing guidelines and because prosecutors do not recommend it. A judge will make the decision.
Hillman noted that Berger only had copies of the documents -- not the originals -- and so was not charged with the more serious crime of destroying documents.
Friends of Berger said he hopes the embarrassing episode does not badly tarnish his reputation.
The FBI began investigating Berger in October 2003 and executed search warrants at his home and office in Northwest Washington in January 2004. The criminal investigation came to light last July, and prompted Berger's resignation as a senior foreign policy adviser to 2004 Democratic nominee John F. Kerry.
Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report.