Set aside Republican speculation that former Clinton national security adviser Samuel "Sandy" Berger was trying to hide classified information from the Sept. 11 commission or that he had provided the material to the Kerry campaign. Do likewise with Democratic suspicions that the FBI's investigation of Berger was leaked to distract attention from the commission's report. Those concerns, all unproven, are partisan and secondary. Keep the focus where it belongs. Did Sandy Berger violate the rules regarding the protection of classified information entrusted to him, and if he did, will he be held accountable for his actions?

That's the key test for Washington.

Sandy Berger is a prominent figure among the nation's foreign policy elite. He has friends everywhere, especially where it counts: on Capitol Hill and in the Democratic administration-in-exile holed up in D.C. think tanks and on K Street. He occupies a place of honor in high political circles and among opinion-makers in the press. And he's got clout. Immediately following disclosure about him and the missing National Archives documents, Bill Clinton and John Kerry put in a good word for their friend. And it wasn't for nothing that Berger received this sympathetic characterization in a Post story on Wednesday: "At the same time," wrote our reporter, "[Berger] was known as someone who would constantly lose track of papers or appointments without subordinates to keep him organized and on schedule. 'For all those who know and love him, it's easy to see how this could happen,' one former Clinton colleague said."

A regular Mr. Magoo, that Sandy Berger.

Well, I don't know Berger or even love him except as my neighbor, in accordance with the Scriptures. But I do know that there are men and women in service to our nation who have paid a dear price for their mishandling of classified materials. They, too, were presumably known and loved by others. Nonetheless, their failure to properly safeguard sensitive information landed them in trouble with their government. Should Sandy Berger, because he is connected, be given a pass for taking classified materials out of the National Archives without permission? Should distraction by the cares of the world serve as an adequate defense for the violation of security procedures?

In 2000, during the Clinton administration, Ambassador Martin S. Indyk's security clearance was suspended for suspected violations of State Department security standards. In that same year, according to State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, the clearances of five other State employees were suspended for violations of security policies. And in the previous two years, 27 other State Department workers had their security clearances suspended for other reasons.

At U.S. embassies and diplomatic missions around the world, offices are daily inspected to ensure that classified information is safeguarded. And violations for leaving safes unlocked, burn bags unattended and classified materials unprotected are written up and, if repeated and serious enough, referred to Washington.

Terrorism remains problem number one. But there are also hostile forces out there that make it their business to get their hands on U.S. government secrets. And they do it by any means necessary, including spying, electronic eavesdropping or recruiting someone on the inside to bring them out.

All the alarms, closed-circuit TV cameras and mechanical devices designed to prevent surreptitious intrusions aren't worth much if someone possessing classified material is careless or flouts security procedures. Some people do that, and with serious consequences to themselves and the nation's security. How well I know.

Several years ago, when the Cold War was still quite frigid and I was dozens of pounds lighter and with a full head of hair, I was a State Department special agent assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Bonn as a regional security officer. From West Berlin to Hamburg and Munich, I saw America's best and worst sides on display where compliance with security procedures was concerned.

Which gets us back to Mr. Berger.

In adjudicating his case, questions that apply to others should also apply to him.

Given that Berger walked out of the National Archives with classified material and 40 to 50 pages of notes he had taken, and that he failed to show these papers to archives officials for review before leaving, as he should have, can he be still trusted with classified material?

Archives officials say that Berger turned over the notes when contacted by archives workers about missing files, but other documents are still missing. A search of his home and office failed to locate the missing documents. Does this raise a question regarding Berger's willingness and ability to safeguard classified information in his possession?

Berger's attorney says his client's actions were "inadvertent." Inadvertence happens to be one of the conditions that can mitigate security concerns under the federal government's adjudicative guidelines when considering violations of security regulations. Well, what caused archives officials to begin watching Berger as he worked with classified materials in their special room for reviewing documents? Officials familiar with the case told The Post that some documents were missing after Berger's previous visit, so archives staffers coded the papers he was interested in reading to help them detect when other papers disappeared. After one of Berger's visits, one source reported to The Post, those materials had disappeared from the files.

"Inadvertent" means not focusing the mind on the matter. Sources who tell The Post that archives officials witnessed Berger stuffing papers in his clothing may be of the view that the former national security adviser's mind was focused wonderfully on what he was doing. Sandy Berger denies walking off with classified stuff in his pants. But getting to the truth is, in fact, what this is all about.

At issue is not Berger's sense of injustice or embarrassment, or the gotcha game that is being played out by Republicans, or the Democratic establishment's willingness to give Berger the benefit of the doubt because he's one of their own.

The question is, was Sandy Berger's violation due to negligence -- at best -- or was it deliberate -- at worst? And should he be held accountable for his actions? Or is he too important and well-connected to be treated like everyone else? What's the answer, Washington?

kingc@washpost.com