I've covered more than my share of scandals, mini-scandals and pseudo-scandals over the years, but I've rarely seen one as strange as the Sandy Berger mess.
Usually you have some idea of the nefarious goals involved, but difficulty proving who knew what and when, and how high in the chain of command it went. In this case, we know what happened--Bill Clinton's national security adviser took some top-secret documents that he shouldn't have, stuffing them in his pants (though the socks part is in dispute)--but we can only speculate about why.
Why would an experienced former White House aide risk his career like that? Could being "sloppy" really explain it?
In Watergate, the motive of the break-in was to discover some dirt on the McGovern Democrats--and it took two years to prove Nixon knew of the coverup.
I once wrote about Billy Carter's shenanigans, and basically he was trying to use his connection to his brother to make some dough.
Debategate erupted when the Reagan team got hold of Jimmy Carter's briefing book before their only televised showdown.
The Iran-contra embarrassment involved the Reagan administration trading arms for hostages with Iran, and bypassing Congress by secretly funneling money to the Nicaraguan rebels.
The Clinton fundraising scandal rested on using White House coffees and the Lincoln Bedroom to butter up potential donors. The Monica debacle involved (take your pick) sex with an intern or lying about sex with an intern.
Ken Lay, Dennis Kozlowski, Martha Stewart--the allegations are all about corporate honchos lying to make money.
But Berger? What grand scheme might he have been trying to pull off? That, at the moment, remains fuzzy.
"John F. Kerry's presidential campaign yesterday accused the White House of leaking word to reporters Monday about a criminal inquiry into Samuel R. Berger's handling of classified documents, as the Democratic camp tried to deflect growing Republican attacks linking Kerry to controversies vexing Berger and other political allies," says the Boston Globe. | http://www.boston.com/news/politics/president/articles/2004/07/22/berger_case_roils_both_camps/
"Kerry also disclosed yesterday that he had not known until this week that Berger was the subject of a criminal probe over his removal of classified materials dealing with counterterrorism from the National Archives.
"'I didn't have a clue, not a clue,' Kerry told NBC's Tom Brokaw in an interview last night. Asked whether Berger had told Kerry about the criminal inquiry, the senator repeated, 'I didn't have a clue.'"
Got it--he was clueless.
"President Bush, meanwhile, used the White House bully pulpit yesterday to elevate the Berger controversy to 'a very serious matter,' prompting Democratic outcry that the president was hyping an ongoing criminal inquiry into Berger's actions to deflect attention from an independent commission's report on the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which is expected to be released today."
The Hill, which has little interest in probing Republican scandals, is pumped for this one:
"Congress soon will begin an investigation into how and why a former foreign-policy adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry illegally removed or lost several top-secret anti-terror documents from the National Archives," says the Washington Times. | http://washingtontimes.com/national/20040722-121147-6642r.htm "House Government Reform Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, yesterday called the actions of Samuel R. Berger 'a disturbing breach of trust and protocol'. . . .
"The Bush-Cheney re-election team is demanding that Mr. Kerry prove that he did not use the top-secret documents to help his campaign."
Josh Marshall | http://talkingpointsmemo.com/ scoffs that "all the supposed nefarious motives I've heard for this seem ridiculous on their face. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) says that Berger took information on port security from those documents and gave them to John Kerry so he could use them at a photo op soon after the incident took place last October.
"That makes no sense. As someone who runs in those circles, I can tell you that there are at least half a dozen Democratic think-tank homeland security mavens who will happily go on about port security with you until you're ready to strangle them, or even until you do strangle them.
"The thought that Kerry needed Sandy Berger to pilfer one of Richard Clarke's after-reports about the millennium terror alerts to get whatever boilerplate he discussed at this particular press conference is truly ridiculous. And Santorum must know it."
Andrew Sullivan | http://www.9andrewsullivan.9com is puzzled, like most people:
"The salient question - and we have yet to have an even faintly plausible answer - is why? What was the purpose of stashing document copies that were allegedly available elsewhere? How could such a thing be 'inadvertent'? Why is such an accomplished Washington player unable to come up with a reasonable explanation for such bizarre behavior?
"The Washington Post reports that
"A government official with knowledge of the probe said Berger removed from archives files all five or six drafts of a critique of the government's response to the millennium terrorism threat, which he said was classified 'codeword,' the government's highest level of document security.
"All the drafts? And now they're missing? Doesn't that sound like trying to cover your back? And yet the 9/11 Commission has not complained that it lacked any important documents; and the originals are still in the archives. I still don't get it. My best bet is that Berger was engaging in advance damage control - saving the drafts to help concoct a better defense of his tenure. If so, it's classic Clinton era sleaze - not exactly terrible but cheesy subordination of national security for partisan political advantage."
Does "cheesy" amount to a scandal?
National Review's Byron York | http://nationalreview.com/york/york200407210837.asp does some truth-squadding, saying "it appears that some of the evidence in the case casts doubt on Berger's explanation. First, Berger has reportedly conceded that he knowingly hid his handwritten notes in his jacket and pants in order to sneak them out of the Archives. Any notes made from classified material have to be cleared before they can be removed from the Archives -- a common method of safeguarding classified information -- and Berger's admission that he hid the notes in his clothing is a clear sign of intent to conceal his actions.
"Second, although Berger said he reviewed thousands of pages, he apparently homed in on a single document: the so-called 'after-action report' on the Clinton administration's handling of the millennium plot of 1999/2000. Berger is said to have taken multiple copies of the same paper. He is also said to have taken those copies on at least two different days. There have been no reports that he took any other documents, which suggests that his choice of papers was quite specific, and not the result of simple carelessness.
"Third, it appears that Berger's 'inadvertent' actions clearly aroused the suspicion of the professional staff at the Archives. Staff members there are said to have seen Berger concealing the papers; they became so concerned that they set up what was in effect a small sting operation to catch him. And sure enough, Berger took some more."
Slate's Fred Kaplan | http://slate.msn.com/id/2104138/ cuts to the chase:
"Is Samuel 'Sandy' Berger a criminal, a pilferer, a sneak, or just clumsy?. . . .
"First, this whole to-do should have no bearing on the presidential campaign; the leaking of the Justice Department investigation reveals a desperation on the part of the White House or the Republican National Committee to enmesh Clinton and Kerry in a cloud of blame just before the release of the 9/11 commission's report.
"Second, Sandy Berger should forget about being appointed to a national security post ever again."
Dan Kennedy | http://www.bostonphoenix.com/medialog/index.asp finds one bright spot:
"Sandy Berger stepped aside from John Kerry's presidential campaign almost immediately, which shows that he understands the seriousness of the charges against him. Even if his removal of highly classified documents from the National Archives was inadvertent - even if he didn't stuff them in his socks - he's nevertheless made himself radioactive to Kerry's presidential hopes."
The Wall Street Journal editorial page tries to broaden the indictment:
"We'll grant that visions of a former National Security Adviser stuffing classified documents down his trousers or socks makes for good copy. But count us more interested in learning what's in the documents themselves than in where on his person Sandy Berger may have put them when he was sneaking them out of the National Archives.
"For the evidence suggests that the missing material cuts to the heart of the choice offered in this election: Whether America treats terrorism as a problem of law enforcement or an act of war.
"Mr. Berger admits to having deliberately taken handwritten notes he'd made out of the Archives reading room. On the more serious charges involving the removal (and subsequent discarding) of highly classified documents--including drafts of a key, after-action memo Mr. Berger had himself ordered on the U.S. response to al Qaeda threats in the run-up to the Millennium--he maintains he did so 'inadvertently.'
"There's only one way to clear away the political smoke: Release all the drafts of the review Mr. Berger took from the room.
"If it's all as innocent as Mr. Berger's friends are saying, there's no reason not to make them public. But there are good reasons for questioning Mr. Berger's dog-ate-my-homework explanation."
Kevin Drum | http://www.washingtonmonthly.com sort of captures my reaction:
"I can't really think of anything else to say about this bizarre story except the obvious: what on God's green earth was he thinking? Crikey."
Meanwhile, convention fever must be spreading, because Rather and Brokaw are already in Boston, where they chatted up Kerry. Which made me wonder: Why is JFK so much more cogent and succinct in TV interviews than in his, um, rather long-winded speeches?
Bush, meanwhile, was showing a little leg on this question of what he'll do for the next four years. Further evidence, perhaps, that Dan Balz gets results (since writing about the lack of an agenda in The Post on Sunday, a story that has spread in the media.)
"President Bush on Wednesday set out the broad principles that he said would guide his domestic agenda for a second term, saying he would tackle education, health care, energy and the economy through an emphasis on limited government, individual responsibility and the power of markets," says the New York Times. | http://nytimes.com/2004/07/21/politics/campaign/21CND-BUSH.html
"But Mr. Bush offered no details and only the barest outlines of new initiatives as his campaign begins what aides said would be a effort of several weeks to flesh out for voters what he would do if re-elected. Mr. Bush said he would embark on a new effort to ensure that high school graduates were well prepared for work or college. He suggested that he would seek to extend or tighten rules requiring welfare recipients to seek work, and to emphasize the role of community colleges in training workers. He talked of expanding access to health care. And he alluded, without being specific, to his proposal to add personal investment accounts to Social Security."
The Chicago Tribune | http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/elections/bal-te.bush22jul22,0,1860430.story?coll=bal-home-headlines also notes the sketchiness of Bush's remarks:
"The president has waited longer than most of his recent predecessors in sharing his plan for a second term. Some Republicans have urged the White House to begin offering such a plan to change the subject from the war in Iraq.
"In his speech last night, Bush offered only a generic outline of his plan for another four years, pledging to 'spread opportunity to every corner of this country.' Senior campaign advisers said a full agenda would be outlined as the president campaigns in August before the Republican convention in New York."
So these were just coming attractions.
Nader isn't dropping off the radar screen next week, says the Wall Street Journal:
"Ralph Nader is scheduled to arrive in Boston tonight to attend a Veterans for Peace convention, a week before a prominent veteran will introduce John Kerry at the Democratic Convention across town.
"Coincidence? Hardly. The antagonism between Mr. Nader and the Democrats has become so intense during recent weeks that far from shying away from the Democrats' four-day fete, the independent presidential candidate is taking the fight to Boston and trying to cozy up to veterans -- a group that gives Mr. Kerry not only welcome support but also credibility as a tough warrior.
"Mr. Nader, the Green Party's presidential candidate in 2000, pledged to run as an independent in March and courted endorsements of the Green Party and the Reform Party. The Reform Party endorsed him, but the Green Party instead nominated longtime activist David Cobb. Without a convention of his own, Mr. Nader views the Democratic and Republican gatherings as ways to attract much-needed attention to his campaign."
Does the following development, from the AP | http://www.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/nation/president/2004-07-21-kucinich-kerry_x.htm, strike anyone as rather belated?
"Democrat Dennis Kucinich, who has remained in the presidential race despite John Kerry's obvious lock on the party's nomination, will formally throw his support to the Massachusetts Democrat on Thursday.
"The Ohio congressman, who has waged a long-shot bid for right to challenge President Bush in November, will announce the endorsement during a joint appearance with Kerry in Detroit, according to spokesmen for both candidates."
I thought he'd wait until at least late October.
And this New York Daily News | http://nydailynews.com/front/story/214639p-184738c.html report on Margaret Cho suggests that the week in Boston will be rated no worse than PG:
"Margaret has been Whoopi'd.
"The potty-mouthed comedian has been cut from a gay political bash coinciding with the Democratic convention.
"Apparently, its John Kerry-friendly organizers are worried that her racy routine will become more fodder for Republicans who have been trying to label the Massachusetts senator the candidate of Hollywood values instead of family values.
"The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, insists it is not censoring Cho, whose anti-Bush diatribes are well known in the gay and lesbian community."