Topic: Government & Politics

Sandy Berger: Just a Player

What consistently drove all of us who care about ethical conduct to distraction about the Clinton administration’s concept of ethics was the sense that it was regarded as some kind of amusing game. In the strange culture that took its cues from the White House’s primary tenant, ethical values seemed to be disposable commodities, sometimes useful, sometimes just clutter, to be used, ignored, distorted or embraced with a wink and a laugh. To the embattled defenders of the Clintons, this rather evident truth was a hallucination or fantasy conjured up by partisan hatred.

Well, it wasn’t. Exhibit R (Exhibits A through Q available upon request): The Sandy Berger affair.

Perhaps you recall the story: in 2004, former Clinton National Security Advisor Samuel Berger, known to the world as "Sandy," was investigated for allegedly removing and destroying classified documents related to the Clinton administration’s anti-terrorism activities from the National Archives a year earlier. At the time, Berger insisted that it was all a mistake, that he had absent-mindedly lifted the papers, which seem to have had information that the 9/11 Commission was going to look over, and absent-mindedly destroyed or lost some of them. His boss actually said he thought the whole thing was funny: "We were all laughing about it on the way over here," Clinton said at the time. It was just another example of disorganized old Sandy being disorganized. "All of us who’ve been in his office always found him buried beneath papers."

Except that Berger knew very well what he was doing, and he recently admitted that he took and destroyed the documents intentionally, meaning that he was lying when he denied this to Justice Department Personnel and Archive officials. His lawyers had announced in 2004 that Berger had "returned all the documents and the notes" to the Archive within a week of his learning they were missing." But now he admits he hadn’t, and couldn’t, since he had destroyed some of them. Thus Berger has pled guilty in a plea bargain that netted him a misdemeanor conviction and the loss of security clearance in lieu of more serious punishment.

He’s still lying, however. He says now he stole the documents because he was "just too tired" to review them at the Archives, and needed to look at them at home.
Right. And a month later he was presumably also tired when he stole some more documents. He never has explained why he cut some of these into little pieces, but hey, as President Clinton says, you just have to know funny old disorganized Sandy.

Berger’s unconscionable conduct and his subsequent effort to brush it aside with lies (quite possibly knowingly aided and abetted by Clinton and others) is a betrayal of public trust, and a substantially more serious illegal act than Martha Stewart’s dissembling to Federal investigators about her stock indiscretions. For reasons undoubtedly related to the "old boy network" that flourishes in the halls of power, Sandy’s punishment mostly amounts to public embarrassment, at least among the small proportion of the public who is paying attention. It’s still better than Martha’s fate, when he deserves far worse.

This is a man whom many thought would be John Kerry’s Secretary of State. This was the nation’s National Security Advisor, who was accorded special privileges concerning access to protected documents. Where would he have acquired an attitude toward honesty, openness, and obeying the law and the rules that would lead him to even think about snatching classified materials?

Where indeed. It’s all a still game to the Clinton crowd, that’s all. Sandy got caught, and couldn’t lie his way out of it as well as some of the better players he worked with and reported to.

That well respected appointees to high government office can engage in such blatantly unethical conduct is nothing less than frightening. They are the product of an unethical culture fostered by irresponsible and arrogant leadership, nourished by an inattentive media and supported by a cynical public. Berger is just the tip of a very large iceberg, for there are far more skillful masters of the game. It is time to be outraged, angry, and alarmed, but President Clinton’s amusement to the contrary, this is no laughing matter.


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