By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 21, 2006
On the evening of Oct. 2, 2003, former White House national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger stashed highly classified documents he had taken from the National Archives beneath a construction trailer at the corner of Ninth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW so he could surreptitiously retrieve them later and take them to his office, according to a newly disclosed government investigation.
The documents he took detailed how the Clinton administration had responded to the threat of terrorist attacks at the end of 1999. Berger removed a total of five copies of the same document without authorization and later used scissors to destroy three before placing them in his office trash, the National Archives inspector general concluded in a Nov. 4, 2005, report.
After archives officials accused him of taking the documents, Berger told investigators, he "tried to find the trash collector but had no luck." But instead of admitting he had removed them deliberately -- by stuffing them in his suit pockets on multiple occasions -- Berger initially said he had removed them by mistake.
The fact that Berger, one of President Bill Clinton's closest aides from 1997 to 2001, illicitly removed the documents is well-known: A federal judge in September 2005 ordered him to pay a $50,000 fine for his actions and forfeit his security clearance for three years.
What Berger did, and the ham-handed and comical methods by which he did it, are freshly detailed in the National Archives report, which the Associated Press obtained first under a Freedom of Information Act request.
Although the report reiterates that Berger's main motive was to prepare himself for testifying before a commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, it makes clear that he not only sought to study the documents but also destroyed some copies and -- when initially confronted -- denied he had done so.
His lawyer, Lanny Breuer, said in a statement yesterday that Berger "considers this matter closed, and he is pleased to have moved on." Berger is a principal with Stonebridge International, a consultant to large energy firms that recently opened an office in China.
In the statement, Breuer emphasized that the Justice Department concluded that other copies of the documents at issue existed and that they were provided to the Sept. 11 commission. He also said the Justice Department affirmed that Berger had no intent to hide the contents.
Berger made four visits to the Archives to inspect Clinton administration records in 2003. The inspector general's office attempted to retrieve the missing documents and probed how the archives handled each of his visits. In its report, the office criticized the fact that Berger was given special treatment and also said the archives' investigation of his actions was "improper" because the FBI and Justice Department were not promptly informed.
The report states that in 2003, an official whose name was deleted informed the White House that the documents Berger reviewed during his first two visits -- in May and June of that year -- were so poorly organized and tracked that the archives "would never know what if any original documents were missing." Berger has said he removed nothing during those visits, and a source close to him said last night that no one had accused him of doing so.
In September and October, Berger was able to sneak papers -- slight variations of a report titled "Millennium Alert After Action Review," which looked at U.S. vulnerabilities to terrorists, as well as the notes he took from other classified documents -- into his pockets, the report said, because an unnamed senior official left the room while Berger made or took phone calls.
Although one archives official claimed to have seen Berger fiddling with what appeared to be a piece of paper "rolled around his ankle and underneath his pant leg," Berger told investigators he was merely pulling up his socks, which he said "frequently fall down." He said "this story was absurd and embarrassing."
Berger said that after spending hours at the archives on Oct. 2, he took a walk outside past a construction fence to leave four classified copies of the millennium document beneath a trailer. He later explained that he needed to return to the building for several additional hours of work and was worried that guards would see the documents bulging in his suit.
Berger got caught partly because suspicious archives employees secretly numbered the millennium document copies they showed him in October. When an official challenged him by telephone on Oct. 4, he turned over two copies of the millennium document that he said he had accidentally kept.