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July 20, 2004
Trousergate, Cont'd

The Washington Post essentially recaps the AP story last night on Trousergate, Sandy Berger's theft of classified documents from a secure room last October, although they manage to leave out the trousers from their article. However, the story has shifted into a more muted tone in the hands of Susan Schmidt and Dan Eggen:

The FBI is investigating Clinton administration national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger's removal of classified documents from the National Archives, attorneys for Berger confirmed last night.

Berger inadvertently took copies of several versions of an after-action memo on the millennium bombing plot from the Archives last fall, said his attorney Lanny Breuer. The lawyer said one or more of the copies were then inadvertently discarded. ...

Berger discovered several versions of the classified memo in a leather portfolio he had taken to the Archives, his attorney said. He returned them and papers on which he had taken notes about materials he had reviewed. Those notes, Breuer said, were not supposed to have been removed from the Archives without review by employees there. Berger's actions, said Breuer, were the result of "sloppiness" and were unintentional.

For my money, that's at least one "inadvertently" too many, and that is not a literary criticism. Perhaps this explanation will fly for those who have never worked around classified documents, but since I spent three years producing such material, I can tell you that it's impossible to "inadvertently" take or destroy them. For one thing, such documents are required to have covers -- bright covers in primary colors that indicate their level of classification. Each sheet of paper is required to have the classification level of the page (each page may be classified differently) at the top and bottom of each side of the paper. Documents with higher classifications are numbered, and each copy is tracked with an access log, and nowadays I suppose they're tracking them by computers.

Under these rules, it's difficult to see how anyone could "inadvertently" mix up handwritten notes with classified documents, especially when sticking them into one's jacket and pants. Furthermore, as Clinton's NSA, Berger would have been one of the people responsible for enforcing these regimens, not simply subject to them. The DOD makes these rules crystal clear during the clearance process at each level of access, and security officers (which Berger clearly was) undergo even further training and assessment on security procedures. "Inadvertent" and "sloppiness", in the real context of secured documentation, not only don't qualify as an excuse but don't even register as a possibility.

Schmidt and Eggen also try to tone down the potential damage Berger's theft could do to national security:

The missing copies, according to Breuer and their author, Richard A. Clarke, the counterterrorism chief in the Clinton administration and early in President Bush's administration, were versions of after-action reports recommending changes following threats of terrorism as 1999 turned to 2000. Clarke said he prepared about two dozen ideas for countering terrorist threats. The recommendations were circulated among Cabinet agencies, and various versions of the memo contained additions and refinements, Clarke said last night.

Breuer said that Clarke had prepared a "tough review" and that the document was something of a critical assessment of what agencies did well and what they failed to do in the face of the millennium threat.

Clarke said it is illogical to assume Berger would have sought to hide versions of the memo, because "everybody in town had copies of these things." He said he could not recall most of the recommendations, but one that he did remember -- having FBI field offices send wiretap material to Washington for translation instead of translating it locally -- still has not been accomplished.

Now we have another excuse -- that the material isn't important and shouldn't be considered a problem. After all, everyone knew what was in the memo, right? Unfortunately, as the article does state elsewhere, there were several versions of the memo during its development, and each had different information and recommendations. It would appear that at least one memo had information and/or recommendations that received no action, and its release might embarrass the Clinton administration's national-security team. Besides, the NSA or DOD still considered the data to be highly sensitive, and its loss means that the information it contained has either been destroyed, or if you believe Berger, may be lying intact in a Virginia landfill, waiting to be discovered.

I find it highly suspect that the first expert the Post found to speak on this is Richard Clarke. How many of the partisans will come out of the woodwork? Next, we'll have Joe Wilson come out and claim that the documents never existed in the first place.

Clarke and Berger may spin this all they want, but the truth is that Berger stole classified files that related to the worst act of mass murder/terrorism ever experienced by Americans, and indeed the worst attack on our territory since the Civil War. That theft by a member of the opposition party's Presidential campaign calls into question the motivations of not only the administration Berger served, but also the administration he proposes to serve.

UPDATE: The New York Times' Mark Glassman doesn't just spin the story, he sanitizes it. Here's the description of the event from Glassman:

Mr. Berger removed at least two versions of a memorandum assessing how the government handled intelligence and security issues before the millennium celebrations in 1999, his lawyer, Lanny A. Breuer, said. He also removed notes he took about classified documents, the lawyer said. ...

Mr. Berger returned all of the documents and notes to the archives in October, within a week of his learning they were missing, his lawyers said.

Glassman doesn't find Berger's lawyer's admission (in the Post story) that one or more of the documents were lost (see above) to be at all newsworthy, for some reason.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at July 20, 2004 7:04 AM

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