13 April 2005
As we noted last week, Sandy Berger stole some of the nation's most highly classified terrorism documents from the National Archives. He scissored them to pieces in his downtown Washington offices. Then he lied about it. Mr. Berger's lenient plea bargain with the Justice Department fines him an amount he can shake from the couches at his Stonebridge International LLC offices and promises his security clearances will be restored in time for Election 2008.
It's hard to underestimate the effect a case like this has on national-security professionals. For cynics, it shows that big players get off easy when they commit the crimes smaller fry lose their careers over. Meanwhile, spies, policy-makers and other handlers of secrets are effectively being told their efforts aren't taken seriously. It's a classic Washington double standard.
"This is one of the most dissatisfying and demoralizing legal decisions possible from a national-security standpoint," former National Security Council staffer John Lenczowski told us. "It sends the signal that the U.S. government is not nearly as serious about the protection of classified information as our laws would indicate."
In conversations about the case, foreign-affairs veterans use words like "stomach-turning" and "demoralizing" to describe their reaction to the plea agreement. It is not hard to see why. Lives depend upon observing national-security rules. Untold man-hours and billions of dollars are spent acquiring and keeping secrets. All this is risked when the rules and laws are broken. In this case, Mr. Berger's stolen documents detailed the Clinton administration's failure to guard adequately against terrorist plots during the 2000 millennial celebrations. These weren't some low-level briefing papers. They were among the most-sensitive materials anywhere in government.
Far from acknowledging the ill effects of Mr. Berger's free pass, however, some of his defenders are actually excusing his behavior and sweeping its ill effects under the carpet. We wouldn't have thought the Wall Street Journal editorial page would number among them, but it does. The Journal praised the agreement for "restraint" and glossed over its morale-wrecking effects, pausing only to note that "lesser officials have received harsher penalties for more minor transgressions."
With this wink and nod, the Wall Street Journal is telling national-security professionals that double standards should govern the nation's secrets.
Meanwhile, Mr. Berger seems to be getting away with a novel defense: that he's ignorant. Mr. Berger "didn't exactly know how to return the documents once he'd taken them out," the Wall Street Journal explains credulously. This is laughable. Mr. Berger was the highest-ranking official at the National Security Council and has held national-security jobs since the Carter administration. If a former national security adviser "didn't exactly know" the rules, who does?
At this point, the only consolation is that Mr. Berger's future in national-security jobs is in doubt. The bureaucracy already doubts Democratic bona fides, so putting Mr. Berger up for a big job in, say, a Hillary Clinton administration would only worsen things. Of course, a tougher penalty would have, and should have, nullified that possibility.