On both this blog and on my cross-post at Oh, That Liberal Media, commenters have questioned the timing of this leak (via Jon at QandO) to the press and the seriousness of the damage done by Sandy Berger’s theft. Some have suggested that Bush operatives within the FBI deliberately let this leak out just before the release of the 9/11 Commission’s report in order to dilute its impact, too.
Let’s take the last issue first. A family friend has been visiting the past few days, and we discussed this at breakfast this morning. (Well, in between my grunts as I moved around …) She also questioned the timing and made the same assumption about the leak. Possibly, she’s right. However, let me ask this — when would people prefer to have the information that the 9/11 Commission was denied access to highly classified material relating to the Clinton Administration’s response to terrorism — after the report came out, or before? For that matter, when would the commission itself prefer to find this out? I’d say it’s better to have this information in the public eye now, especially since the commission made such a show about public testimony, including that of Sandy Berger. If they publish a report based on incomplete evidence, I want to have that information in hand before assessing its credibility.
In terms of the potential damage done by Berger’s actions, it’s not likely that the commission would leave innocuous documents highly classified if no damage could be done by their release. In fact, the commission has publicly demanded other documents to be declassified, including the unprecedented release of a presidential daily briefing on threat assessments. If that can be declassified, the retention of classification on these documents indicates that they could be highly damaging to national security, which is (after all) the reason for their classification in the first place.
Small wonder that even Democratic lawmakers consider this to be an extremely serious problem:
Although lawmakers didn’t want to make a judgment call on Berger’s fate until all the facts are known, they agreed that the situation doesn’t look good for Berger, or even for Kerry.
“There’s an ethic here — that is of strict discipline, of not letting the fact you’re working on a political campaign start to color your actions when it comes to national security,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., told FOX News on Tuesday.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., called the news “surprising” and said that “unless we learn otherwise, I have to assume that what Sandy said was right — that any removal of documents was inadvertent. But it is serious.”
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said, “we need more information — obviously the timing of it is not good” for Kerry. “From now on, until the election, everything like this will have a spotlight put on it, examined very carefully,” Lott continued.
For one last pass at why this information came out now, I’d say that it had more to do with the investigation being passed to the Justice Department than anything else. However, I’d remind you that the investigation was well known to many parties — and that one of the first person contacted on the document theft was Bruce Lindsey, Bill Clinton’s counsel. If people want to assume conspiratorial motives to Bush, it’s just as plausible to assign them to the Clintons as well, who might wind up benefiting from a Kerry collapse. (I think it’s a silly argument, but I also think the Bush argument is equally silly.)
On the notion that this is just a mistake on Berger’s part, this update seems to discredit that notion, too (emphasis mine):
Berger and his lawyer said Monday night he knowingly removed the handwritten notes by placing them in his jacket, pants and socks, and also inadvertently took copies of actual classified documents in a leather portfolio.
Nothing about this story adds up to an innocent mistake on Berger’s part. He wanted to sneak the material out from its secured location. Motive will be important, but the search for why should not obscure the already-known what.