Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, who helped shape foreign policy as President Bill Clinton’s national security adviser from 1997 to 2001 and who later was engulfed in legal tribulations over his unauthorized removal and destruction of classified documents from the National Archives, died Dec. 2 at his home in Washington. He was 70.
The cause was cholangiocarcinoma, a cancer of the bile ducts, said an official with the Albright Stonebridge Group, the Washington-based consulting firm he co-chaired with former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.
A jowly, stocky, self-declared workaholic, Mr. Berger spent much of his life as a low-profile power broker at the nexus of politics, law and business. In a statement, President Obama called Mr. Berger “one of our nation’s foremost national security leaders” and said “his legacy can be seen in a peaceful Balkans, our strong alliance with Japan, our deeper relationships with India and China.”
Mr. Berger had been a congressional legislative aide, a speechwriter for Sen. George McGovern’s ill-fated Democratic presidential campaign in 1972, a State Department official under President Jimmy Carter and a prosperous international trade lawyer whose legal work involving countries from Poland to China trained him for the multi-layered crises he would face as national security adviser.
His influence also derived from his long-standing ties to Clinton, his equal in ambition and intellectual breadth. They met in 1972 at a McGovern rally in Texas, and Mr. Berger vividly recalled the young Clinton as ebullient and dashing — even as he sported a white Colonel Sanders suit.
Mr. Berger was an adviser to several Democratic presidential aspirants, but he mostly — and most importantly — cast his lot with Clinton, the Arkansas governor who came from relative obscurity to win the presidency in 1992.
“The bar was not extremely high in 1991 to become senior foreign policy adviser to Bill Clinton, who wasn’t even a blip on anybody’s chart,” Mr. Berger later said in an oral history with the Miller Center for public affairs at the University of Virginia.
Described at times incongruously as sharp-tempered and amiable, Mr. Berger drew admiration for his work as deputy national security adviser under Anthony Lake in the first Clinton administration and then, in Clinton’s second term, as Lake’s successor.
As national security adviser, Mr. Berger did not set policy but maneuvered deftly to give the president many options on global conflagrations and kept to a workable minimum the considerable friction among competing egos at the highest levels of government.
He described himself as a “surrogate” who collected viewpoints, prodding for diverse perspectives from experts at the State and Defense departments and beyond, and who then brought all interested parties to something resembling a consensus. He also devoted hefty amounts of time to maintaining cordial congressional relations in a Republican-controlled Congress.
By many accounts, he acquitted himself successfully amid crises that included the rise of al-Qaeda as a terrorist threat, NATO airstrikes that helped end Serbian repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, controversial missile strikes on an alleged chemical weapons plant in Sudan, and tensions in the Kashmir region between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.
Given Mr. Berger’s background, trade also was one of his pivotal concerns. Despite protests from human rights activists, he was a strong advocate for shepherding the repressive Chinese government into the World Trade Organization in the hope that the relationship would in time foster greater Western influence.
Other national security advisers — including Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell — traditionally spent their careers immersed in global political or battlefield strategy, but Albright said Mr. Berger was “a practical problem solver” who could lucidly explain the likely domestic repercussions of foreign policy actions.
“Sandy was the deus ex machina of it all,” Albright said. “He grasped the breadth and depth of American political systems.”
Samuel Richard Berger was born in Sharon, Conn., on Oct. 28, 1945. He was 8 when his father died, and he grew up in Millerton, N.Y. His mother, who supported two children on income from an Army-Navy surplus store, instilled in him a strong work ethic, including his lifelong tendency of creating every Sunday a handwritten “to-do” list for the week.
As a Jew and a budding Democrat, he was in many ways an outsider in an area that was small-town, Protestant and Republican-dominated. He dated his political awakening to the John F. Kennedy-Richard M. Nixon presidential race in 1960. He recalled that in his classroom, he was Kennedy’s “lone defender” against staunch young Nixonites.
At Cornell University, he became active in student affairs and helped bring in firebrand black activist Stokely Carmichael as a campus speaker.
He received his undergraduate degree in 1967 and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1971. During his law school years, he began working as a legislative aide for Democrats on Capitol Hill, notably Rep. Joseph Y. Resnick of New York, who championed efforts to reduce rural poverty.
Mr. Berger received an early education in political power when a lobbying group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, used its clout to derail a one-man investigation by Resnick into its sprawling business interests.
Resnick died in 1969, and Mr. Berger pushed forward, writing a muckraking exposé, “Dollar Harvest” (1971), that won strong reviews for the clarity of its prose on a difficult subject.
After law school, he took up speechwriting for McGovern, the liberal, antiwar standard-bearer who won his party’s nomination for president but was shellacked by Nixon. In a candidacy that attracted anti-establishment and counterculture followers, Mr. Berger looked out of place.
“He was always the guy with the briefcase,” John D. Podesta, a McGovern supporter who became Clinton’s White House chief of staff, once told The Washington Post.
Mr. Berger spent a year as a legislative aide to Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York before settling in Washington with the law firm Hogan & Hartson. In 1977, he joined the State Department, serving first as a speechwriter and later under Lake as deputy director of the policy-planning staff.
Immersed in a portfolio of economic, national security and foreign-policy issues, he later said the experience “totally reoriented my career.” In 1981, he returned to his law firm and started its international trade group while also gradually entering Clinton’s inner circle and encouraging his friend’s presidential aspirations.
As national security adviser, Mr. Berger became a key decision-maker in the so-called ABC Club — along with Albright and Defense Secretary William Cohen — who consulted on strategy with other national security grandees, such as CIA Director George J. Tenet and Joint Chiefs Chairman Henry H. Shelton.
Although the 1995 Dayton peace accords led to a cease-fire in the civil war and massacres in the former Yugoslavia, Serbian attacks continued on ethnic Albanian villages in the Kosovo region. In the debate over how to stop the bloodshed, Mr. Berger offered the president options of airstrikes or ground troops, but he warned the latter would incur pushback from Russia and undermine NATO and European unity.
Ultimately, the president backed NATO aerial bombing and cruise-missile attacks that started in March 1999 and lasted 78 days. The bombardment helped force a withdrawal of President Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian nationalist forces. Milosevic was pushed from power the next year and died in 2006 during his war crimes trial at the Hague.
Mr. Berger was part of high-level discussions involving a military response to terrorist attacks orchestrated by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, notably the August 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. More than 200 people died in the dual attacks.
In retaliation the same month, the United States shot cruise missiles into al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan — apparently just missing bin Laden — and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan that, by CIA estimates, had been producing chemical weapons for bin Laden.
The attack in Sudan, which killed a night watchman, sparked intense protest around the world, and the 9/11 Commission later found no independent corroboration that the plant was used to make chemical weapons.
According to the commission report, Mr. Berger was “rankled” by a suggestion in the Economist magazine that the combined military responses elevated bin Laden’s stature and “created 10,000 new fanatics where there would have been none.”
On a separate mission, and despite swelling antiwar sentiment at home, Mr. Berger joined a national security team in deciding to commence a four-day bombing campaign in December 1998 on military and security targets inside Iraq.
The attack was ostensibly punishment for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s failure to comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions involving inspections of alleged sites containing weapons of mass destruction.
After leaving the White House, Mr. Berger started a consulting group, but much of his time was consumed by an embarrassing legal ordeal.
He had been tapped by Clinton to be the former president’s personal liaison to the 9/11 Commission, an independent body examining the government’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
By most accounts, Mr. Berger made repeated trips to the National Archives to refresh his memory about the Clinton national security team’s work to foil a bin Laden plot. He was caught smuggling out a handful of sensitive documents, destroying some at his office and lying about possessing them.
A Justice Department criminal investigation ensued, prompting Mr. Berger to quit his advisory role on the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). In 2005, he agreed to plead guilty to removing classified material without authorization, a misdemeanor.
He was fined $50,000, barred from access to classified material for three years, and sentenced by a federal judge to two years of probation and 100 hours of community service. Mr. Berger voluntarily relinquished his law license in 2007. He continued to advise political leaders, including Hillary Clinton and Obama, although in a muted fashion.
In 1969, he married Susan Harrison. Besides his wife, of Washington, survivors include three children, Deborah Fox of Chevy Chase, Md., Alexander Berger of Los Angeles and Sarah Sandelius of New York; a sister; and five grandchildren.
Although inclined to spend 15-hour days in the office as national security adviser, Mr. Berger was known for his devotion to one diversion outside work: baseball.
Albright recalled the one time Mr. Berger became “seriously mad” at her. In April 1997, Clinton was recovering from a knee operation, and Albright, who had no attachment to the sport, was inexplicably tapped to throw out the opening pitch of the baseball season at Camden Yards in Baltimore.