WASHINGTON — Democrats assailed Republicans who suggested Wednesday that former White House national security adviser Sandy Berger sought to hide embarrassing materials when he removed classified documents related to the investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts accused the Bush White House of disclosing the existence of a criminal investigation for political advantage. After news of the investigation surfaced, Berger, who served in the Clinton administration, quit as an informal adviser to the Kerry campaign Tuesday to limit the political fallout.
The investigation of Berger began in October, but it came to light only this week as the independent commission investigating the attacks was preparing to issue its final report on Thursday.
“The timing of this leak suggests that the White House is more concerned about protecting its political hide than hearing what the commission has to say about strengthening our security,” the Kerry campaign said in a political memo distributed by email.
Meanwhile, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said Wednesday that his committee would also investigate Berger.
“At best, we’re looking at tremendously irresponsible handling of highly classified information — some of which, I understand, has not yet been located,” Davis said. “At worst, his actions suggest an intentional effort to keep critical information away from the commission and the American public.”
Politics seen behind leak
Lanny Breuer, Berger’s attorney, said on NBC’s “Today” show Wednesday that he was “very disappointed” by Republican assertions that Berger’s removal of copies of classified terrorism documents from the National Archive could represent a national security crisis.
“This matter is a year old. Never once, in all my discussions with the Justice Department has there been any assertion like that,” he said.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the White House had nothing to do with the disclosure. But he acknowledged that the Justice Department did contact White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez about the investigation “quite some time ago.”
McClellan said he did not know whether President Bush was ever informed of the investigation.Video:
The Justice Department is investigating whether Berger committed a crime by removing copies of documents about the government’s anti-terror efforts and notes that he took on those documents. Berger was reviewing the materials to help determine which Clinton administration documents to provide to the Sept. 11 commission.
Breuer said Berger knowingly removed the handwritten notes by placing them in his jacket and pants and inadvertently took copies of actual classified documents in a leather portfolio. He returned most of the documents, but some are still missing.
Breuer also dismissed allegations that Berger removed some documents by stuffing them in his socks.
Berger told reporters Tuesday that he was not guilty of criminal wrongdoing.
“Last year, when I was in the Archives reviewing documents, I made an honest mistake. It’s one that I deeply regret,” Berger said. “I dealt with this issue in October 2003 fully and completely. Everything that I have done all along in this process has been for the purpose of aiding and supporting the work of the 9/11 commission, and any suggestion to the contrary is simply, absolutely wrong.”
Clinton: ‘Interesting timing’ in disclosure
Many other Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton himself, suggested that politics were behind disclosure of the probe only days before the release of the Sept. 11 commission report, which is expected to be highly critical of the government’s response to the growing al-Qaida threat.
The Democratic National Committee filed a request Wednesday under the Freedom of Information Act for all correspondence between the Justice Department and the White House regarding the investigation.
“It’s interesting timing,” Clinton said in Denver at a autograph session for his book “My Life.” Berger was national security adviser for all of Clinton’s second term.
John Podesta, Clinton’s White House chief of staff, was more blunt. “I think a lot of people are skeptical that this wasn’t engineered by people some place in the government,” he said Wednesday.
But Republicans said the matter raised questions about whether Berger sought to hide embarrassing materials.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, told reporters that the case was about theft and questioned a statement Berger issued Monday attributing the removal of the documents and notes to sloppiness.
“I think it’s gravely, gravely serious what he did, if he did it. It could be a national security crisis,” DeLay said.
Rep. Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., said, “We should question Senator Kerry’s judgment for placing him in a serious position in his campaign.”
The documents have been a key point of contention between the Clinton and Bush administrations on the question of who responded more forcefully to the threat of al-Qaida terrorism. Written by former National Security Council aide Richard Clarke, they discuss the 1999 plot to attack U.S. millennium celebrations and offer more than two dozen recommendations for improving the response to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.
In his testimony April 13 before the Sept. 11 commission, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the review “warns the prior administration of a substantial al-Qaida network” in the United States. Ashcroft said it also recommended such steps as using tougher visa and border controls and prosecutions of immigration violations and minor criminal charges to disrupt terror cells.
Video: “These are the same aggressive, often-criticized law enforcement tactics that we have unleashed for 31 months to stop another al-Qaida attack,” Ashcroft told the panel. He added that he never saw the documents before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Berger said in his testimony to the commission March 23 that Clinton submitted a $300 million supplemental budget to Congress to pay for implementing many of the documents’ recommendations. Berger acknowledged, however, that not all of them were accomplished.
In his initial statement Monday, Berger said that every Clinton administration document requested by the Sept. 11 commission was provided to the panel. Berger also said he returned some classified documents and all his handwritten notes when he was asked about them, except for two or three copies of the millennium report that may have been thrown away.
Al Felzenberg, spokesman for the Sept. 11 commission, said the Berger investigation would have no bearing on the panel’s report.
Placing documents in clothing
The FBI searches of Berger’s home and office occurred after National Archives employees told agents they believed they witnessed Berger placing documents in his clothing and that some documents were then noticed missing, officials said.
When asked, Berger said he returned some classified documents that he found in his office and all of the handwritten notes he had taken from the secure room but could not find two or three copies of the highly classified millennium terror report.
“In the course of reviewing over several days thousands of pages of documents on behalf of the Clinton administration in connection with requests by the Sept. 11 commission, I inadvertently took a few documents from the Archives,” Berger said.
“When I was informed by the Archives that there were documents missing, I immediately returned everything I had except for a few documents that I apparently had accidentally discarded,” he said.
Documents were copies, lawyer says
Breuer said Berger believed he was looking at copies of the classified documents, not originals.
There are laws strictly governing the handling of classified information, including prohibiting unauthorized removal or release of such information.
Government and congressional officials familiar with the investigation, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the probe involves classified materials, said that a grand jury had been convened but that no decision had been made on whether Berger should face criminal charges.
The officials said the missing documents were highly classified and included critical assessments about the Clinton administration’s handling of the millennium terror threats as well as identification of America’s terror vulnerabilities at airports to sea ports.
David Gergen, who was an adviser to Clinton and worked with Berger for a time in the White House, said, “I think it’s more innocent than it looks.”
Appearing Tuesday on “Today,” Gergen said: “I have known Sandy Berger for a long time. He would never do anything to compromise the security of the United States.”
Gergen said he, too, thought that “it is suspicious” that word of the investigation of Berger would emerge just as the Sept. 11 commission was about to release its report, because “this investigation started months ago.”
NBC’s David Gregory and Pete Williams and The Associated Press contributed to this report.