On Thursday, March 31, just hours after Terri Schiavo died, the Justice Department announced that former Clinton national security adviser, Sandy Berger, was about to get his wrist slapped.
Among the “mistakes” that triggered the slap was Berger’s hand-shredding of several critical documents with a pair of scissors. Another “mistake” that Berger acknowledged was lying to all and everyone about what he had done when first questioned. He now admits the destruction of these documents was “not inadvertent.”
With both Schiavo dead and the pope dying, the media were free to downplay the Berger story, which they eagerly did. They provided almost no answers and asked few questions. The Washington Post, however, did manage to pose a conundrum, “It remains unclear,” asked the Post, “why [Berger] destroyed three versions of a document, but left two other versions intact.”
In an earlier article on Berger, I suggested an answer to this question – the president’s handwritten notes on a document make one version entirely more dangerous than an identical document without those notes. My source for this process was Col. Buzz Patterson, author of “Dereliction of Duty.”
Patterson carried the “nuclear football” for the president during the fateful summer of 1996 and as such had almost total access. One morning that Patterson identifies only as “late-summer” 1996, he was returning a daily intelligence update to the National Security Council when he noticed the heading “Operation Bojinka.” As Patterson relates, “I keyed on a reference to a plot to use commercial airliners as weapons.” As a pilot, he had a keen interest in the same.
In the way of an omen, Islamic terrorist Ramzi Yousef was on trial in New York on the day of July 17, 1996, for his role in Operation Bojinka (Serbo-Croatian for “loud bang”). The publicly known part of this plot was Yousef’s plan to blow up 11 American airliners over the Pacific. A lesser-known element of Bojinka, the one Patterson stumbled upon, was the plan to use planes as flying bombs. That same summer, courtesy of an FBI informant in Yousef’s New York jail, Yousef was actively communicating with the terrorist world. Among his correspondents was his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the mastermind of 9-11.
Patterson was not in position to connect Bojinka and TWA Flight 800. The knowledge of what happened the night of July 17, 1996, had been kept remarkably tight. What Patterson did learn from seeing the president’s hand-annotated response to this intelligence report is that Clinton had read it carefully.
“I can state for a fact that this information was circulated within the U.S. intelligence community,” Patterson writes, “and that in late 1996 the president was aware of it.” That Clinton was reviewing this information in the immediate aftermath of TWA Flight 800’s demise suggests more than mere coincidence: The FBI had received these documents from the Philippine police 18 months earlier.
Berger now says that the documents he shredded had to do with an after-action review written by Richard Clarke and dealing with various terrorist threats at the time of the millennium. A little skepticism is in order here. Could these documents possibly have been worth risking one’s career over? I don’t think so.
The Bush Justice Department has given Berger a pass in the form of a $10,000 fine and a meaningless three-year suspension of his security clearance. The probe dies with the fine.
There is one likely reason why the Bush administration cooperated in the suppression of this story. Revealing it might have dangerously destabilized the government. The TWA Flight 800-9/11 thread is among the very few revelations that has the potential to do just that.
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