July 22, 2004

The Berger Follies: The NYT Has No Shame

Rarely have I seen a major newspaper play a story in such brazenly partisan fashion.

It truly beggars belief.

Check out today's lead NYT story on the unfolding Sandy Berger scandal by Eric Lichtblau and Dave Sanger.

Boy, is it a whopper...

Let's take a closer look, graf by graf, because it is well worth the time.

Here's the lede:

The White House said Wednesday that senior officials in its counsel's office were told by the Justice Department months ago that a criminal investigation was under way to determine if Samuel R. Berger, the national security adviser under President Bill Clinton, removed classified documents about Al Qaeda from the National Archives.

Talk about a disingenuous lede!

You see, the main story here isn't mostly about whether/why Berger surrepetitiously stole away with classified documents from 9/11 committee chambers.

No, it's about whether the Justice Department should have clued in the White House regarding the investigation.

The White House declined to say who beyond the counsel's office knew about the investigation, but some administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they believed that several top aides to Mr. Bush were informed of the investigation. President Bush himself declined to answer a question Wednesday about whether he had been told, saying: "I'm not going to comment on this matter. This is a serious matter, and it will be fully investigated by the Justice Department."

Bush, not Berger, is not answering Qs right now!

I mean, you couldn't make this stuff up folks.

Howell Raines himself would blush.


The disclosure of the investigation forced Mr. Berger to step down as an informal, unpaid adviser to Senator John Kerry's campaign on Tuesday, and on Wednesday the campaign accused the White House of deliberately leaking news of the investigation and said that Vice President Dick Cheney was involved in strategies to divert attention from the Sept. 11 report to be issued Thursday.

"Informal." "Unpaid."

Certainly not one of three finalists for the job of chief diplomat in a prospective Kerry administration!

Just some random campaign flak...

Sandy, er, who???

And, of course, evil Dick Cheney might be trying to divert attention away from the 9/11 inquiry--the NYT helpfully showcases as well.

It wouldn't fit the W. 43rd St. narrative, of course, if Cheney didn't have some hand in the Washington scandal du jour (energy, Halliburton, 'Kenny Boy,' Iraq intel, and so on)...


"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," a statement issued by Mr. Kerry's campaign said.

Scott McClellan, the president's press secretary, denied Wednesday that the White House had anything to do with the leak, or was seeking a diversion from the report.

Your baffled NYT readers might be excused, at this juncture, for thinking George Bush himself was stuffing docs down his socks and trousers....

The report is expected to criticize the Bush administration's handling of intelligence about terrorism, but it will also contain significant criticisms of the Clinton administration and the National Security Council that Mr. Berger ran, in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden.

Gee, ya think?


The chief mystery surrounding the mishandling of the documents is the motive. Republican leaders and the Bush-Cheney campaign have suggested that Mr. Berger sought to pass classified information to Mr. Kerry. Ken Mehlman, the president's campaign manager, called on the Kerry campaign to provide "clear assurance to the American people that the Kerry campaign did not benefit from classified documents that were removed from the National Archives by one of their advisers, Sandy Berger, now subject to a criminal investigation."

But that's just a red herring.

The White House hasn't been going heavy on the theme that Berger did this to help Kerry.

Here's Scott McClellan yesterday:

Q The other partisan charges being leveled is that Berger, as an informal advisor to Senator Kerry, may have been using documents that would ultimately inform Senator Kerry's thinking on developing policy. That view has been expressed by the reelection campaign. Does the White House share that concern?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sure that all those matters will be looked into by the people overseeing the investigation.

Q As part of the investigation?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sure that they will look into all those issues that would be related to this investigation.

Q You just don't want to have a piece of this story, do you?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think it's -- Bill, you've asked me about other criminal investigations, and I've always said that, because it's an ongoing investigation, it's best that we let the investigation proceed, and that those questions be directed to the Department of Justice. I understand your desire for information, but this is a serious -- this is serious matter.

This is hardly mega-cheerleading that Berger did this on Kerry's behalf, no?

It's simply the standard, when someone is self-destructing, step aside and let the meltdown occur as the "investigations proceed(s)"...

But by making it look like the Republicans are going all helter-skelter on that front (Berger did it for Kerry!), the NYT adeptly defines the scandal up--allowing this next:

But Mr. Kerry himself, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, would probably have access to any such documents, and the clearances to read them. On Wednesday evening, Mr. Berger's spokesman, Joe Lockhart, said: "Mr. Berger never passed any classified information to the Kerry campaign. Any suggestion to the contrary cannot be supported by any facts."

At the Kerry campaign, officials say they were taken by surprise by the accusation. It appears that Mr. Berger did not disclose the investigation to Mr. Kerry's aides. Mr. Lockhart said that was because "we were dealing in good faith with the Department of Justice on this matter for many months, and part of our agreement was that this was not to be discussed beyond Sandy's legal team."

"Taken by surprise"!

Is it just me, or are you more "surprised" that a former NSC Advisor stands accused, at least by some, of stuffing hugely sensitive documents down his socks?

That, at least, is what's got me all curious over here in London.

But the Times relentlessly churns on regarding, not what Berger did or didn't do, but the ginned up "who in the White House knew?!?" meme:

On Tuesday, after the information about Mr. Berger emerged, Mr. McClellan referred questions to the Justice Department and said, "What we know is what has been reported in the news media." That seemed to suggest no early knowledge of the investigation inside the White House.

On Wednesday, however, Mr. McClellan corrected himself, saying that the office of Alberto Gonzalez Jr., the White House counsel, had been informed about the case.

"The counsel's office is the one that is coordinating with the Sept. 11 commission the production of documents," Mr. McClellan said. "And since this relates to some documents, the counsel's office was contacted as part of that investigation."

Mr. McClellan did not specifically cite the Justice Department as the source of the information, but administration officials said it was the department that had informed the White House of the investigation.

The Justice Department declined to comment.

Ominous, huh?

Ashcroft is stone-walling again....

Finally, towards the end of the article, we come to this:

The department is investigating whether Mr. Berger broke federal law on the handling of classified material by removing from a secure government reading room a handful of documents related to an after-action report on the 1999 millennium plots, as well as notes he took during his review.

In preparing for testimony before the Sept. 11 commission, Mr. Berger viewed thousands of pages of intelligence documents. He said he removed the documents by mistake, but Republicans accused him of stashing the material in his clothes on purpose. They have offered theories about what that purpose may have been, like an effort to withhold information that reflected badly on the Clinton administration.

Note the vivid language re: "stashing the material in his clothes on purpose."

That's, er, not a judicious portrayal of what Berger stands accused of by many.

There's the treatment of his notes, for instance, rather than the documents themselves.

Or he might have stashed them in his clothes, er, not on purpose (that credulity-straining careless thang).

What's my point?

That the NYT wants to make the Republican accusations look as dramatic as possible--so, in case Berger was merely careless, the GOP looks bad for all that slanderous talk about Berger doing it on "on purpose", "stashing" the docs, etc. etc.

The larger point?

The big issue in all of this, what did Berger do or not do, is just worth this slight, passing mention.

And this in the lead (at least on the web) NYT article on the matter today.

Moving on, we swiftly return to the Bushies role in all this, and end the article, thus:

Traditionally, law enforcement officials have sought to maintain a firewall of sorts between criminal investigators and political appointees on politically sensitive cases.

Several legal analysts said it would not be unusual or necessarily improper for the political appointees at the Justice Department to have let the White House know of the investigation's existence. But they emphasized that such communications should be closely held at the White House, should not involve criminal investigators and should not be allowed to influence the outcome.

"There may be a legitimate explanation here because the White House counsel had responsibility for handling these documents," said Beth Nolan, White House counsel under President Clinton.

"But the better path might have been not to provide the information to the White House at all,'' she said, "because of this exact situation - if you have information that was shared and was then leaked, it creates a whole set of political problems."

Talk about diverting attention away from the main show.

Breathtaking, really.

But, of course, not suprising is it?

Compare all this with the Washington Post's handling of the story.

The contrasts are, shall we say, vivid.

It's like they are covering two different scandals--which, in a way, they are--one real, one fictive.

Posted by Gregory Djerejian at July 22, 2004 10:50 AM
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