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If not the most skillful of embezzlers, Samuel “Sandy” Berger is a far more formidable character than the media would have us believe. When he made his now-storied sorties into the National Archives, he risked his career and his reputation in so doing, and he knew it. Rest assured, he would not have done so were the secrets to be preserved not worth the risk of pilfering them.
True to form, the major media refuse to even ask the most fundamental question: Just what secrets would justify so much personal exposure? Having read the report on Berger by the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, I am more confident than ever that I know the answer.
As the House report makes clear, Berger did not exactly welcome this assignment. This confirms my suspicions. The archivists told the committee, in fact, that Berger “indicated some disgust with the burden and responsibility of conducting the document review.”
Apparently, he did not have much choice in the matter. Former President Bill Clinton had, according to the report, “designated Berger as his representative to review NSC documents.” Berger was Clinton’s go-to inside guy.
In his first term, Clinton had hired this millionaire trade lawyer and lobbyist to be deputy national security adviser, not because of Berger’s foreign policy experience, which was negligible, but because of his political instincts, which were keen and reliable. Clinton entrusted Berger with some very sensitive assignments, particularly in relationship to China, and rewarded him for his trust with the job of national security adviser in his second term. This job does not require Senate confirmation. It is unlikely that Berger could have gotten any job that did.
As we now know, Berger made four trips to the National Archives. He did so presumably to refresh his memory before testifying first to the Graham-Goss Commission and then to the 9/11 Commission. Berger made his first visit in May 2002, his last in October 2003.
As we now know too, he stole and destroyed an incalculable number of documents during these four visits. “The full extent of Berger’s document removal,” reports the House committee, “is not known and never can be known.”
As the report clarifies, “Archives staff would have no way to know” if any part of a given National Security Council document was removed. Further, had Berger removed papers from a Staff Member Office File – these more loosely enumerated than the NSC documents – “It would be almost impossible for the Archives staff to know.”
Among his more flagrant acts of criminal mischief, Berger purloined some highly classified documents and stashed them “at a construction site where they could have been found by anyone.” This behavior does not exactly classify as “inadvertent,” the media’s original characterization of Berger’s motivation.
As the House report also establishes, the FBI never questioned Berger about those first two visits nor submitted him to a polygraph about any of the visits as his plea deal required. The Department of Justice’s only source of information about possible theft during Berger’s first two visits was the man himself, and Berger has proved almost comically unreliable.
In fact, Berger has changed his story about the documents as often as his boss did about Monica, in both cases to adapt to the emerging evidence. Berger even refused to be interviewed by the House committee, the one honest enterprise in the whole investigation.
We know too that on his first visit, according to Archives staff, “Berger was especially interested in White House terrorism adviser Richard Clarke’s personal office files.” Again, this confirms my suspicions. According to the committee, “Had Berger seen ‘a smoking gun’ or other documents he did not want brought to an investigatory panel’s attention, he could have removed it on this visit.”
The much-discussed Millennium After Action Review was hardly the gun that smoked. In fact, the DOJ saw the Millennium Review as “beneficial to the Clinton administration” in that it made them look “engaged” in the war on terrorism.
The Millennium Review made the news only because it was the first document Berger got caught swiping, then on his third visit. The benign nature of this review led the DOJ to conclude that Berger took the documents for his “personal convenience,” and the media predictably played right along.
To understand what that “smoking gun” might have been and how it involved Clarke and Berger, let us turn to the fateful summer of 1996. At that time, Col. Buzz Patterson carried the “nuclear football” for President Clinton. Given his security clearance, Patterson was entrusted with any number of high-security assignments. One morning in “late-summer,” Patterson was returning a daily intelligence update from the Oval Office 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. “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.” The president’s handwritten comments on the documents verified the same.
The Philippine police had uncovered plans for aerial assaults as early as January 1995 and shared those plans with the FBI almost immediately. The man responsible for those plans was Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing and very possibly an Iraqi contract agent. His accomplice was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9-11 and allegedly Yousef’s uncle.
Understandably, the 9/11 Commission was very concerned about who knew what when in regards to the use of planes as bombs. Bush National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was asked on her first real question: “Did you ever see or hear from the FBI, from the CIA, from any other intelligence agency, any memos or discussions or anything else between the time you got into office and 9-11 that talked about using planes as bombs?”
Rice said no. She was likely telling the truth. Clarke had acknowledged as much during his earlier testimony. He admitted that the “knowledge about al-Qaida having thought of using aircraft as weapons” was relatively old, “5 years, 6 years old.” He asked that intelligence analysts “be forgiven for not thinking about it given the fact that they hadn’t seen a lot in the five or six years intervening about it.”
Before the summer Olympics of 1996, in fact, Clarke had warned security planners about the possibility of Islamic terrorists hijacking a 747 and flying it into Olympic Stadium. Two days before the start of those Olympics, on July 17, Saddam’s National Liberation day, with the U.S Navy on the highest state of alert since the Cuban missile crisis, TWA Flight 800 blew up inexplicably off the coast of Long Island.
The fact that the president was reviewing Bojinka plans soon after the destruction of TWA Flight 800 makes the versions of those plans with his handwritten notes on them all the more critical. If found and revealed, they would, at the very least, acknowledge that the Clinton administration had a keen interest in the possible use of planes as bombs five years before Sept. 11.
That interest obviously died, and Clarke served as chief assassin. Among other roles, it fell upon this Clinton sycophant to devise the “exit strategy” that transformed a seeming aeronautical assault on TWA Flight 800 into a “mechanical failure.” In his book “Against All Enemies,” he takes full credit for this bit of aviation alchemy.
Clarke was likely also responsible for getting the CIA and FBI to breach the storied “wall” and work together on the creation of the notorious “zoom-climb” animation. This animation showed a nose-less 747 rocketing vertically 3,200 feet into space and confusing onlookers. The FBI used it to discredit all 270 of its eyewitnesses to an apparent missile strike.
The media swallowed the zoom-climb as uncritically as they had the “mechanical failure.” The New York Times did not bother to interview any of the 270 relevant eyewitnesses. Say what you will about former Timesman Jayson Blair, but he at least would have made one up.
Berger played a key role in the TWA Flight 800 sleight-of-mind as well. On the night of July 17, 1996, Berger was among the scores of staff summoned to the White House for an emergency meeting – a first for a domestic airplane crash. Col. Patterson was there as well but was kept fully out of the loop. When I asked Patterson if anyone was holed up in the family quarters with the president, he could tentatively identify only one person. And that person was Sandy Berger, then just the deputy national security adviser. Berger’s boss, the less “reliable” Tony Lake, was relegated to his own office.
A logical deduction from existing evidence is that Clarke put the “planes-as-bombs” talk on hold for the five or six years after the TWA Flight 800 disaster lest such talk evoke unanswered questions about that fateful crash. Berger’s task, I surmise, was to make sure all references to Bojinka, planes-as-bombs, and/or TWA Flight 800 were rooted from the Archives, especially any documents with handwritten notes that led back to co-conspirators Berger, Clarke and Clinton.
On Friday April 1, 2005, the Department of Justice announced its embarrassingly lenient plea deal with Berger. The timing was more than fortuitous. On March 31, Terri Schiavo had died. On April 2, Pope John Paul II would die. DOJ could not have chosen a day better calculated to give a casually indifferent media an excuse for ignoring a bombshell of a story.
“It remains unclear,” asked the Washington Post about the Berger story line as it existed in April 2005, “why he destroyed three versions of a document, but left two other versions intact.”
As I responded at the time, the answer to this question was too obvious to ask –handwritten notes on a document make one version entirely more dangerous than an identical document without those notes.
The Wall Street Journal, among other media, did not take kindly to ruminations like mine above. I will flatter myself that its editors had me at least somewhere in mind when they opined April 8, 2005, “Some people won’t let a bad conspiracy theory go.”
The Journal continued in full hauteur, “We’re referring to those who loudly assert that former NSC adviser Sandy Berger was trying to protect the Clinton administration when he illegally removed copies of sensitive documents from the National Archives in late 2003.”
The Journal cited chief of DOJ’s Public Integrity Section, Noel Hillman, who claimed that “no original documents were destroyed, and that the contents of all five at issue still exist and were made available to the 9/11 Commission.”
According to the Journal, the “confusion” stemmed from the “mistaken idea” that Berger destroyed handwritten notes by various Clinton administration officials in the margins of these documents. This, said Hillman, was simply an “urban myth.”
As we know now, the only urban myth in play was that presumed Republicans like Hillman were, as Berger claimed, trying “to assassinate his character to pursue their own ends.” In fact, they were covering for him. “Nothing was lost to the public or the process,” said Hillman of Berger’s theft in April 2005. This was transparently false.
The House Committee found the DOJ to be “unacceptably incurious” about investigating Berger’s time in the Archives, especially his first two visits. Although Hillman would publicly claim that Berger “did not have an intent to hide any of contents of the documents or conceal facts from the [9/11] commission,” Hillman had been told on at least four prior occasions that the opposite was true.
According to the House report, “The 9/11 Commission was specifically interested in the office files of White House terrorism advisor Richard Clarke, and never was told that Berger had access to Clarke’s original office files on May 30, 2002, and July 18, 2003.”
If not exactly apologizing to us humble conspiracists, the Journal has at least admitted its error. Hillman was indeed dissembling, Journal editors acknowledged last week: “Mr. Berger was in a position to remove documents from Mr. Clarke’s files, and thanks to lax security, breaches of protocol and undue deference on the part of Archives staff, we may never know whether Mr. Berger took documents other than the five he’s admitted to removing.”
The media will assuredly “never know” for one good reason: They refuse to look. If they do, they will discover a rat’s nest of conspiracy that will make Watergate seem as consequential as a Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction.
Next week – why the Bush Justice Department felt compelled to suppress this, the great untold story of our time.
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