Merrell Williams, who made a name for himself a decade ago as a document-grabbing whistle-blower against Big Tobacco, laughs into his cell phone when discussing Sandy Berger's supposed sloppiness in taking secret government files. He has too much to say.
"What I don't understand is why someone who has such a respectable career would choose to demean himself in such a way," says Williams of the former national security adviser, who is being investigated for removing secret documents from the National Archives last year in advance of his Senate testimony on terrorism preparations. "Only people at the bottom, like me at the time, have the instincts to pull off this kind of work. You have to understand: I had nothing to lose, except for my job, my wife, my kids and my own life. And I would have done it all over again."
Williams was the former paralegal who stole and copied secret files from Brown & Williamson Tobacco that eventually helped gain massive settlements with the tobacco industry in the late 1990s.
He says he dedicated more than four years of his life to stealing B&W's documents (from January 1988 to March 1992), which demonstrates the essential element of this kind of undercover work: a true purpose. "If you're going to steal something important, and if you have a purpose, and that purpose endangers your life, then that automatically makes you more methodical, subtle, reasonable, creative and rational with what you're doing. A purpose makes you better at it. My purpose in [stealing those documents] was to change a perspective, an idea in the world, which has a long tradition."
The verdict is still out on whether Berger had a purpose; if it's proven that Berger had no purpose other than convenience, that would seem to prove Williams's point. Still, whether Berger stuffed the documents in his coat, down his pants or in his socks, Williams says those actions do not necessarily reflect Berger's amateur status in espionage. That's how some of the best do it, too, he says.
"I remember how the papers would stick to my tummy when I sweated," Williams says. At other times, the papers he stuffed around his waist would be so crisp that they would make a crinkling sound as he walked. To hide the sound from the security guards, Williams says he often ate potato chips as he passed. It proved effective, not only because of the crunching sound but because "the guards would always be distracted by the chips," says Williams. "They were really fat and wanted my chips more anyway."
To transport his documents, Williams eventually got a waistband, which soaked up 41/2 years of high-stress sweat. "It still smells. Really bad. I keep it on my bookshelf."
Peter Earnest, who worked for the CIA for 36 years and is now the executive director of the Spy Museum in Washington, says that the more professional way to go is just to take pictures of the documents with a tiny camera, the kind available at any RadioShack. "I don't know about the situation in depth, but it does sound like, whatever Berger did, he did it in a way that aroused the suspicions of the employees from the very beginning," says Earnest. "In intelligence gathering, that's the last thing you want to do. He drew attention to himself, which leads you to believe that he had no sense of what he was doing -- not the [mindset] of a professional."
"The fact is, unauthorized removal of classified info is probably the single most common security violation that takes place," says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "People always take classified information home, even when they know they shouldn't, just so they can make their work easier. They often feel there's no reason not to take them home. Happens all the time."
Williams says he would like to view Berger as one of his own -- people who risk stealing documents for a purpose larger than themselves. But, for him, Berger's actions don't really stack up -- maybe, in this situation, the biggest issue is Berger himself.
"I don't think the man is devious like I was," says Williams, who hasn't ruled out the possibility of kleptomania. "You don't have to be Jesse James to realize that when you rob something you have to have a reason to do it in order to do it well. Though, I wasn't trying to rob the train -- I was trying to stop it."