Sandy Berger, President Bill Clinton’s former national security advisor, died early this morning of cancer. He was 70.
Berger served as Clinton’s chief national security advisor from 1997-2001. Prior to that, he was a renowned international lawyer and advisor to the Democratic Party.
Berger was White House national security adviser from 1997 to 2001, including a period when the Clinton administration carried out airstrikes in Kosovo and against Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq. Berger also was deeply involved in the administration’s push for free trade.
In 2005, Berger pleaded guilty to illegally removing classified documents from the National Archives by stuffing some documents down his pants. He was sentenced to probation and a $50,000 fine. He expressed regret for his actions.
Out of government, he helped found the firm now known as the Albright Stonebridge Group, where he most recently held the title of chair, along with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
“Our country is stronger because of Sandy’s deep and abiding commitment to public service, and there are countless people whose lives he changed for the better. I am certainly one of them,” Albright said in a statement on the company’s website. “He was one of my dearest friends and among the wisest people I have ever met. I will always treasure our decades-long partnership, both in and out of government, and I will be forever proud of what we accomplished together.”
Prior to his service in the Clinton administration, Berger spent 16 years at Hogan & Hartson, where he led the firm’s international practice. Sandy also held advisory positions in the Senate and the Department of State.
“It was a joy to work alongside Sandy for so many years, at ASG, the White House, and Hogan & Hartson,” Anthony S. Harrington, Chair of ASG’s managing board said in a statement. “We are all enriched by being part of his extraordinary life – one that truly made a difference in the world.”
The odyssey of Berger’s purloining of classified documents at the archives will never be completely told because no one knows exactly what he took, what he destroyed, and most importantly, why he did it. It may have been for personal reasons — trying to hide some embarrassing memos that revealed that he missed a threat prior to 9/11 — or he might have stolen the documents at the behest of someone else.
What is not in dispute is that Berger lied continuously about what he did.
According to reports from the Inspector General of the National Archives and the staff of the House of Representatives’ Government Operations Committee, Mr. Berger, while acting as former President Clinton’s designated representative to the commission investigating the attacks of September 11, 2001, illegally took confidential documents from the Archives on more than one occasion. He folded documents in his clothes, snuck them out of the Archives building, and stashed them under a construction trailer nearby until he could return, retrieve them, and later cut them up. After he was caught, he lied to the investigators and tried to shift blame to Archive employees.
Contrary to his initial denials and later excuses, Berger clearly intended from the outset to remove sensitive material from the Archives. He used the pretext of making and receiving private phone calls to get time alone with confidential material, although rules governing access dictated that someone from the Archives staff must be present. He took bathroom breaks every half-hour to provide further opportunity to remove and conceal documents.
Before this information was released, the Justice Department, accepting his explanation of innocent and accidental removal of the documents, allowed Berger to enter a plea to the misdemeanor charge of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material – no prison time, no loss of his bar license. The series of actions that the Archives and House investigations detail, however, are entirely at odds with protestations of innocence. Nothing about his actions was accidental. Nothing was casual. And nothing was normal.
What could have been important enough for Berger to take the risks he did? What could have been important enough for a lawyer of his distinction to risk disgrace, disbarment, and prison?
To paraphrase the questions asked of Richard Nixon by members of his own Party, what did he take and why did he take it?
The context of the theft is that the 9/11 Commission was looking at counterterrorism efforts by the Clinton administration to foil the plans of Osama bin Laden. Before the committee could get its hands on some of these highly classified documents, Berger stole several (including all copies of some memos), many of which probably contained handwritten notes from top officials — including the president.
Now, we will probably never know. Berger has apparently taken his secrets to the grave and the true history of that period is poorer for it.