Will Bill feel Sandy’s pain?

By Craige McMillan

Well, well, well – little Sandy Berger caught with his Hanes-for-her wrapped around his ankles while running interference for the Clinton administration’s “legacy” on international terrorism. What will we see next?

Mr. Berger, you may recall, was Bill Clinton’s National Security Adviser from 1997 to 2001. He was at the Archives on official business. His former boss had asked that he sort out which documents the Sept. 11 Commission needed to see – and which they didn’t. Why Mr. Berger? Who would know better which documents were relevant to the commission’s inquiries than a man who had directly or indirectly created many of them?

Before we can understand why Mr. Berger took such an extreme risk, we need a little bureaucratic insight. Initial drafts of reports are always written by career bureaucrats. By and large, these people confine themselves to the known facts and draw quite limited conclusions.

Following this initial draft, the report works its way up the bureaucratic food chain. During this journey facts are refined and conclusions honed to eliminate certain ambiguities and introduce others. Oddly enough, this process always makes the affected department look better than the original report.

When the bureaucratic department heads are finished with the report, their “draft” is given to a low-level political master – in this case, Richard Clarke. Here, the political revisions begin in earnest. Certain facts which aren’t “relevent” are discarded, downplayed, or footnoted. Other facts which the original authors deemed of only peripheral importance are highlighted. This process requires that the report’s conclusions be “refined” to take into account this “new information.”

When Mr. Clarke was satisfied with the report, he would have passed it on to his boss – in this case, Sandy Berger. If Mr. Berger was satisfied with the report, he would pass it on to his boss – President Bill Clinton. After the president had a chance to read it, he would discuss it with Mr. Berger. They would come to a “meeting of the minds” and the report would get it’s final revision. By this point, there is an excellent chance that the report’s own mother (original author) would no longer recognize it.

Now back to poor Sandy Berger. He spent three days sifting through classified material at the National Archives deciding what documents to give the 9-11 Commission. But he left not with a list of documents the commission needed to see, but with his clothing and socks stuffed with handwritten notes and his briefcase filled with classified documents the 9-11 Commission didn’t need to see! And among these documents were the early drafts of President Clinton’s performance on terrorism.

Mr. Berger pointed out that the commission received every document it requested. I’m sure that’s true: It’s difficult to request documents you don’t know exist. It’s even more difficult to request documents that once existed but suddenly “disappear” – like the ones that traveled to Mr. Berger’s office, never to be seen again.

When Archives employees saw that Mr. Berger appeared twice as heavy when he left the Archives as when he had arrived, they checked their documents. They discovered that earlier drafts of the Clinton terrorism legacy report were missing. Then they told their superiors, who called (please select one):

a) The Park Police

b) The FBI

c) The Justice Department

d) Bruce Lindsey

If you answered Bruce Lindsey, the Clinton family lawyer, you are correct. A phone call from the Archives to Mr. Clinton to inform him that the one of the Plumbers had been caught red-handed stealing classified documents would be open to public scrutiny. If the information was relayed via Mr. Clinton’s attorney, however, the phone call would be protected by attorney-client privilege. (We’ll see what Attorney General John Ashcroft thinks about that soon.)

As I write this column on Tuesday, speculation is rampant about what was in the stolen reports. The simple fact is, we don’t know. But we do know this. Sandy Berger stole classified material in an effort to prevent its disclosure to the 9-11 Commission. He may have done it at the direction of his former boss. It’s a serious matter that could land him in jail. Whatever was in those stolen and “disappeared” reports is hot enough that the former Clinton administration is feeling Sandy’s pain.