The Berger Smoke Screen

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

July 22, 2004

There is not much to rue about the departure of Clinton-era national security advisor Sandy Berger from his unpaid, informal advisory role in John Kerry's campaign. Berger has always been a plodder, unimaginative but diligent. Only now has he become interesting, as his apparent mishandling of classified documents on terrorism from the National Archives has GOP leaders smelling blood. "What information could be so embarrassing that a man with decades of experience … would risk being caught pilfering our nation's most sensitive secrets," demanded House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert. Majority Leader Tom DeLay warned that "it could be a national security crisis."

Slow down, guys. Berger, who admits he made an "honest mistake," is guilty of taking copies and handwritten notes (that too is a serious violation of the rules) but not original documents. He's returned most of them to the National Archives but says some are missing or discarded. His conduct is inexcusable. But traitorous? Before rushing to judg ment, everyone should remember that the Justice Department is investigating and has yet to come to any firm conclusions. Maybe it never will.

Indeed, it's striking that Berger's accusers have yet to supply a motive for his actions. Do Hastert and DeLay believe that Berger would take that kind of risk to "assist" the Kerry campaign? Or to cover up a personal failure in confronting terrorism, because the documents were about the foiled so-called Millennium terrorist plot, which occurred during his watch? They don't say.

Anyway, the problem with such theories would be that because the original documents remain in the National Archives, Berger would not have been able to deny the 9/11 commission access to them. Any attempted cover-up would not have covered anything up. Instead, he's now drawn attention to the documents.

By contrast, the motives for whoever in the administration leaked the Berger investigation appear clear enough. Like the outing of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV's w ife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA agent, someone is sending up a smoke screen to deflect more serious charges. By creating a brouhaha about Berger's actions, the leaker distracts attention from any criticisms of President Bush and his administration in the independent 9/11 commission report.

The accusers' theories and winks hark to an earlier staple of far-right discourse, the frequent claims of treasonous conduct by President Clinton and his advisors, whether it was in dealing with terrorism or China.

Berger has only himself to blame. He should have known from experience that you don't get punished in Washington for policy mishaps like mistakenly bombing a medical factory in Sudan, but for personal missteps. His actions are so stupid that it would probably take a genius to explain them.

We aren't hearing from the geniuses yet.