Cover Story

BERGER'S SECRET

Turns out the surprise revelations that ex-Kerry foreign-policy adviser Sandy Berger mishandled classified documents should come as no surprise: He's done it before, according to Congressman Curt Weldon in this WORLD exclusive

Issue: "Berger can't keep a secret," July 31, 2004

At 500-plus pages, a reasonable assumption might be that the final report of the 9/11 commission would include plenty of information for even the most voracious reader. But on July 22, as official Washington began poring over the long-anticipated report, the most pressing questions centered on the few pages that might have been left out - after disappearing down the pants of a top Clinton aide.

The furor began on July 20, when former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger acknowledged he was the subject of a criminal investigation involving highly classified terrorism documents he had spirited out of the National Archives. His acknowledgment came after someone with knowledge of the probe leaked the news to the Associated Press. Asked by Mr. Clinton in late 2003 to review the documents for possible release to the 9/11 commission, Mr. Berger admitted he smuggled some papers out of the Archives building while "inadvertently" removing others. He claims he returned most of the materials when questioned by investigators last year, but several documents have disappeared entirely, leading House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to term the situation a "national-security crisis."

The more immediate crisis may be political, however: Mr. Berger had been serving as an unpaid adviser to John Kerry's presidential campaign, prompting top Republicans to question whether he had misused classified information in an effort to embarrass the president. After apologizing for his "honest mistake," Mr. Berger resigned his role with the Kerry campaign on July 21.

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The Berger controversy threatened to eclipse the findings of the 9/11 commission, which labored for 20 months in putting together its report. In its quest for unanimity, the carefully balanced, bipartisan panel stopped short of saying the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington might have been prevented. But that still left plenty of room for criticism of the Bush administration's handling of the terrorist threat; some questioned whether the whole Berger scandal was a GOP effort to shift the attention of voters.

At a book signing in Denver, Mr. Clinton noted the "interesting timing" of the Berger revelations, while Kerry spokesman Phil Singer went much further. "This appears to be a partisan attempt to divert attention away from the 9/11 commission report," Mr. Singer told members of the media. "Instead of using the report's recommendations to learn how we can improve our homeland security, Republicans are playing politics with a criminal investigation. That's wrong, and in November voters will have a choice on the ballot between a candidate they can trust and a president that continues to mislead the nation."

The Kerry camp went so far as to accuse Vice President Dick Cheney of personally leaking news of the Berger investigation in a closed-door meeting with Senate Republicans who later led the attack against the former national security adviser. "If true, the fact that the White House has Cheney coordinating a political attack at a time when the 9/11 report is coming out with recommendations on how to improve the nation's security speaks volumes about the Bush approach to governing," said a letter issued by the campaign.

Republicans, meanwhile, made accusations of their own. Noting that the stolen documents dealt with terrorist threats to ships and airplanes, GOP election officials pointed out that Mr. Berger, acting on behalf of the Kerry campaign, briefed reporters on that very topic last February. Now Republicans want to know if the Democrats used classified information in an effort to undermine the president's standing on issues of national security.

"In fairness to the president of the United States, it's important that this be followed and pursued so the American people can know that the predicate of many of the charges made against George W. Bush are based on lies and deception," said Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), noting the "curious connection" between the smuggled documents and the Kerry press conference.

"I don't know what happened to these documents after they were put in Mr. Berger's pants, but it's been reported in the press that these documents related to homeland security and our airports and seaports and it's very interesting to note that those are two areas where Sen. Kerry has been critical of the Homeland Security Department," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). "I would hope, No. 1, that the Kerry administration would disavow any connections with Berger, that they would come forward with any documents . . . and that we can bring this matter to a close very quickly."

A quick close to the matter seems highly unlikely. The investigation has been quietly proceeding for nine months already, ever since workers at the National Archives reportedly saw Mr. Berger stuffing documents into his pants, shirts, and socks. The Archives' inspector general notified Mr. Berger he was being investigated in October 2003. Four months later, the FBI broadened the inquiry into a criminal investigation.

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