Berger Put on Defensive Over '96 RoleBy Edward Walsh and Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 12, 1997; Page A21
In a rare appearance by a national security adviser before a congressional committee, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger yesterday deflected Republican suggestions that he played an improper role in the 1996 presidential campaign while conceding that the White House lacked an effective system to screen people seeking access to President Clinton.
Berger, who now heads the National Security Council staff and was deputy national security adviser to the president in Clinton's first term, testified before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee as part of the investigation into fund-raising improprieties during the 1996 campaign.
Asked by committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) about "really an unbelievable string of events" in which "many questionable characters" were allowed access to the White House, Berger said that until this year only an "informal" system existed for the NSC to review the backgrounds of foreign nationals and others with foreign interests who were referred to the White House by the Democratic National Committee. Many of the "questionable characters" Thompson mentioned gained their access through fund-raising connections with the DNC that are at the heart of the committee's investigation.
Berger said that earlier this year he instituted a formal, "tightly controlled" screening system by the NSC, but that in 1996 this was not seen as a problem. "We did not have this on our radar screen," he said.
The questioning of Berger, a longtime friend of Clinton's, was polite, with no one directly accusing him of an improper role in the campaign. But that was the implication in questioning by Thompson about Berger's participation in weekly White House political strategy sessions during 1996.
"You were part of that core campaign group," Thompson said. More bluntly, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) told Berger, "I don't believe the national security adviser should be involved in political campaigns."
Berger replied that his participation in the meetings was "appropriate," and that his role was in part to ensure that in the heat of the presidential contest Clinton's political operatives did not distort his foreign policy positions and record. "I was kind of a living stop sign," he said.
Committee Democrats produced 1992 news reports that Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to President George Bush, attended daily White House political strategy sessions. "I'd be surprised if the national security adviser was not involved in some way in campaign strategy," said Sen. John Glenn (Ohio), the committee's ranking Democrat.
One "questionable character" that Berger was closely questioned about was Roger Tamraz, a Lebanese American businessman who was promoting a plan to build a pipeline to carry oil from the Caspian Sea region of Central Asia to Western markets. An NSC warning about Tamraz's background, one of the few examples of such screening, led to his removal from the guest list for a 1995 breakfast with Vice President Gore. But Tamraz gave $300,000 to Democratic Party organizations and he later attended at least four White House events with Clinton.
"What changed?" Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) demanded to know. Referring to the lack of coordination within the Clinton White House, Berger said it was a "left hand, right hand problem" that resulted in White House officials who were unaware of the NSC warning providing Tamraz with access through "another door."
Nickles also disclosed documents that detailed the attention Tamraz received from Clinton and his aides. In one memo, White House senior counselor Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty told Clinton, "Per your direction, I had a good visit with Roger Tamraz at the Monday morning coffee. Roger was very pleased with your interest, and we will follow-up in a supportive but prudent and appropriate way." According to documents, McLarty also relayed information, apparently dealing with the pipeline project, to an Energy Department official.
"That is very inappropriate action by the president, by his [counselor]," Nickles said.
In trying to ascertain whether foreigners obtained any quid pro quo for their contributions, committee Republicans also focused on Berger's October 1995 meeting with Hong Kong businessman Eric Hotung, whose wife gave $100,000 to the Democrats nine days later.
Berger said he did not have "any recollection" of the meeting, but said he had consulted with his staff, who "knew him to be a serious man, a man of substance." Then, he said, "I went ahead and met him, presumably exchanged a few words, and had a picture taken."
Thompson read an Oct. 3, 1995, internal White House memo to Berger describing Hotung before the meeting: "If you don't know Hotung, he's a fabulously wealthy Hong Kong businessman who also heads an institute dedicated to promoting U.S.-China relations. . . . The guy is straight out of 'Taipan' [a best-selling novel about wealth and power in Hong Kong] in terms of his life story, but a bit off the wall."
"Let me say this," Berger told Thompson, "as somebody who spends his life in foreign policy dealing with diplomats some of the best information I get is from people who are off the wall a bit."
Berger said that Hotung was "one of the most powerful players in Hong Kong" and "probably more knowledgeable about China and Hong Kong affairs" than almost anybody interviewed by his staff.
So, Berger grabbed the opportunity to talk to him: "This is 11, 12, 13 months before Hong Kong reversion [to China], which was an issue of enormous importance to us enormous importance to the United States, and very high on my radar screen."
And, as far as a quid pro quo, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) told Berger later in the hearing, "no one ever ordered a copy of the picture" Berger took with Hotung. Thus, Lieberman concluded, Hotung "may actually have been interested in discussing matters of substance."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company