Clinton’s Former Aide Drops Windfall in the Lap of Bush Campaign
DEBKAfile Special Report from Washington
July 20, 2004, 2:35 PM (GMT+02:00)
Former president Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, is under criminal investigation and subject to FBI searches of his home and his office since he was caught – probably by hidden cameras – purloining copies of highly classified terrorism documents and his own handwritten notes from a secure reading room at the National Archives in Washington. This event took place, according to the Associated Press, during preparations to testify at the Sept. 11 commission hearings after Clinton asked him to review and select the administration documents to be turned over to the panel.
This year, Berger has been informally advising Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
Even after Berger voluntarily returned documents, two or three drafts are still missing of a sensitive, after-action report criticizing the Clinton administration’s handling of al Qaeda millennium threats and identifying American vulnerabilities at airports and sea ports.
The former national security adviser was also found in possession of a small number of classified papers containing his handwritten notes from the Middle East peace talks during the 1990s. They are not the focus of the current criminal probe.
The FBI searches occurred after National Archives employees reported they saw Berger place documents in his jacket and pants and then noticed some documents missing. Three still are. Berger admitted to “sloppiness” and “inadvertently” taking copies of classified documents. They were all immediately returned, he said, except for a few that he had “apparently accidentally discarded.”
The Berger affair is pennies from heaven for the Bush presidential campaign with important bearing on the inquiries into intelligence performance prior to the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War. It is also of deep significance for Israel.
For months, President George W. Bush and vice president Dick Cheney have been under unremitting attack in official probes, films and books for bad decisions and “flawed intelligence” in the war on terrorism and for misrepresenting the grounds for going to war in Iraq. In the privacy of the Bush White House, presidential aides grumble that the Clinton administration’s failure to properly handle rising threats from Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in the 1990s left these ticking bombs in Bush’s lap. Clinton was said to have ignored the many warnings reaching him, including a specific threat against New York’s World Trade Center. However, Bush has always forbidden his campaign staff to point the finger at his predecessor in the White House for the ills of today, just as Clinton refrains from criticizing the incumbent.
The actions of his former aide have changed these rules.
Presidential challenger Kerry will have to think twice before attacking Bush on national security issues lest he lay himself open to reminders that a former Clinton aide and his own adviser was caught red-handed misappropriating classified materials that revealed how a Democratic president mishandled the threat of terror.
Berger was closely involved in more than one Labor-led Israeli government’s controversial handling of the peace process during the Clinton years. A founding father of Israel’s dovish Peace Now movement, the adviser was a friend of the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. He was less close to Shimon Peres, preferring to deal with his aide Yossi Bailin, the current leader of Israel’s far left Yahad party.
According to DEBKAfile’s sources, Berger removed his notes from Middle East peace talks from the National Archives in view of the unfortunate sequels of the Clinton presidency’s two central, mutually supportive policies. On the one hand, Clinton pushed hard for accommodations between Israel, the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors, while at the same time nurturing American ties in the Arab and Muslim world. He hoped to gain the trust of Arab and Muslim leaders for peace with Israel while persuading the Jewish state to be forthcoming with concessions. However, Clinton’s expectation of a Middle East peace triumph at the White House in the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accords melted down in the ensuing blight of the Palestinian suicide terror confrontation that continues to beset the region.
The consequences of his second policy line were still more sweeping.
In deciding to go to war in 1998 on the Muslim Albanian side of the Balkans against the Christian Serbs, Clinton may have been influenced by the atrocities committed there but he was in essence pursuing his global strategy. He chose to elide the fact that Iranian Revolutionary Guards and al Qaeda cells - most Saudi-dominated - were fighting alongside Albanian and Bosnian Muslims – as did his advisers, especially Berger and secretary of state Madeline Albright. Islamic extremists and Arab terrorists as well as the Saddam regime prospered unnoticed in the Clinton years. Al Qaeda was allowed to build up in the Balkans a central logistical base for operations in Europe, from which the Hamburg cell later derived back-up for plotting the 9/11 attacks against America.
Berger is the second Clinton-era official to face prosecution for withdrawing classified materials from secure premises. Former CIA director John Deutsch was pardoned by Clinton hours before he left office and saved from paying the price for taking home laptops with classified materials in 1996. Earlier, Deutsch resigned.
The case of Sandy Berger differs because the charges against him arise from the request of a former president in connection with an official probe. There will always be a question hanging over the precise nature of this request. Did the former adviser copy and “discard” documents at Clinton’s behest or his own initiative? In the absence of answers, a cloud of suspicion will hang over the affair and almost certainly influence American opinion before and after November’s presidential election.