ABC, CBS and NBC Spike Colorful Revelations About Berger's Pilfering of Secret Papers

The AP obtained the November 4, 2005 report from the Inspector General of the National Archives and in a dispatch late Wednesday led with how “President Clinton's national security adviser removed classified documents from the National Archives, hid them under a construction trailer and later tried to find the trash collector to retrieve them, the agency's internal watchdog said Wednesday.” But despite the colorful details about how Sandy Berger cut the documents, about the Clinton administration's reaction to terrorist threats in 1999, into small pieces, the broadcast networks weren't interested Thursday morning or evening even though the report discredits Berger's claims he simply accidentally mishandled the documents.

The evening newscasts, which all began with the bad weather in the Rocky Mountain states and how four Marines were charged with murder for the alleged massacre in Haditha, didn't utter a syllable about Berger's apparent efforts to cover up an aspect of how the Clinton White House responded to a terrorist threat. Yet they made room for more frivolous topics even before the usual end of the newscast human interest piece. ABC's Charles Gibson allocated a full story to the recovery of race horse “Barbaro” and 30 seconds to how "a public health advocate" reported how much exercise it takes to work off holiday calories, such as 37 minutes of walking to "burn off" a gingerbread cookie. CBS devoted to a two-part Katie Couric interview, consuming nine minutes of air time, to the widow of the mountain climber found dead on Mt. Hood. NBC's Brian Williams had time to highlight how the Governor of New Jersey signed a civil unions law and NBC ran a full story on how “the first Muslim elected to Congress comes under attack by a colleague over religion.”

Thursday morning, CBS's Early Show and NBC's Today ignored the revelations about Berger while ABC's Good Morning America gave it a piddling 23 seconds, the MRC's Michael Rule tracked in this earlier NewsBusters item. CNN's The Situation Room, however, gave substantial time to the story on Thursday afternoon.

The opening teasers on Thursday, December 21, which the MRC's Brad Wilmouth collated, offer a glimpse at network priorities:

Charles Gibson at the top of ABC's World News:
"Welcome to World News. Tonight, a paralyzing winter storm causes chaos across the country. Thousands of travelers unable to fly, and the roads aren't any better. Marines charged: Eight Marines face possible prison time in connection with the worst alleged massacre by U.S. forces in Iraq. Prescription for danger: A new study finds teenagers quitting illegal drugs, but starting to take addictive drugs right out of the medicine cabinet. And gift of life: The parents who were told they could never have another child now celebrating the holidays with a family they never imagined."
Katie Couric opened the CBS Evening News:
"I'm Katie Couric. Tonight, the biggest criminal case to come out of the war in Iraq. David Martin tells us the charges include murder in the infamous killing of 24 Iraqis at Haditha. Kelly Cobiella on the pre-Christmas blizzard that's making holiday travel a nightmare. He died in a snowstorm while climbing Mount Hood. Tonight, in an exclusive interview, Kelly James' widow Karen tells us about their last conversation."
Brian Williams teased the NBC Nightly News:
"A major winter storm has the Denver area snowed under. Tonight, thousands are stranded at the airport, on the roads, and now a ripple effect across the U.S. The first Muslim elected to Congress comes under attack by a colleague over religion, the Koran, and immigration. How would you define victory in Iraq? Tonight, NBC News puts the question to five prominent people. And a really big story tonight, the newest member of the prehistoric hall of fame."
A more complete rundown of what each covered instead of the embarrassing revelations about Berger:

ABC's World News with Charles Gibson:
Led with multiple stories on the bad weather in the Rocky Mountains with thousands trapped at the airport near Denver, followed by charges issued against eight Marines, four of them for murder, over the “alleged massacre of 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha.” ABC moved on to a possible deal between al Sadr and the Iraqi government, a brief item from Gibson on the death of the dictator of Turkmenistan, and then full stories on the increasing use of legal drugs by teenagers, a look at the recovery of race horse “Barbaro” and a family told they could not have a child, but had one after contracting with a surrogate. In between those full reports, Gibson also squeezed in short notes about how the GDP “slowed” to 2 percent in the third quarter and 30 seconds on how “a public health advocate” reported how much exercise it takes to work off holiday calories, such 37 minutes of walking to “burn off” a gingerbread cookie.
CBS Evening News with Katie Couric:
Began with Haditha (Couric: “In a war filled with horrors, this was among the most-shocking”), followed by the bad weather in the Rocky Mountain states and a brief note about fog closing Heathrow in England. After the first ad break, an item about increased teenage usage of drugs they find in their houses and then a full story on, as Couric introduced it, how “critics say the government is ignoring all the problems caused by soot coming out of smokestacks. They claim it kills thousands every year.” Following a quick mention of the new GDP number, the rest of the newscast was devoted to a two-part Couric interview, consuming nine minutes of air time, with the widow of the mountain climber found dead on Mt. Hood.
NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams:
Opened with the bad weather and the impact on pre-holiday travel followed by the charges against the Marines over Haditha and a note about how 71 servicemen have been killed in Iraq this month. Lisa Myers checked in with a piece about charges a private contractor in Iraq killed an innocent civilian before Williams went to Ron Allen for a full report on Republican Congressman Virgil Goode of Virginia urging tighter immigration controls to prevent more people being elected to Congress who want to be sworn in, as does incoming freshman Democrat Keith Ellison, on the Koran. After the ad break, viewers saw a series of soundbites from experts defining “victory” in Iraq. Williams also devoted a brief item to how the Governor of New Jersey signed a civil unions law and then checked in with a CNBC reporter for a look at how much people are spending on holiday shopping. NBC ended with a piece on a new dinosaur discovery in Spain.

Back on July 20, 2004, when Berger resigned as an adviser to the John Kerry campaign in the wake of the initial disclosure of an investigation into his mishandling of documents stored at the National Archives, the CBS Evening News was more interested in the timing than substance of the revelation. Dan Rather charged Berger's resignation “was triggered by a carefully orchestrated leak about Berger, and the timing of it appears to be no coincidence.” CBS reporter John Roberts, now with CNN, credulously reported that “Berger returned to the archives all but two of the documents, which he believes he accidentally threw away.”

For a full rundown of the July 20, 2004 coverage, check the July 21, 2004 MRC CyberAlert.

The next day, July 21, 2004, Andrea Mitchell highlighted on the NBC Nightly News how “Democrats claim the story was leaked just in time to distract from the 9/11 report,” and after a clip of former Clinton White House Chief-of-Staff John Podesta making that charge, Mitchell backed it up: “The White House acknowledged that White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales had been given advance notice of the investigation but denied leaking it.”

More from the Thursday, July 22, 2004 MRC CyberAlert:
In the morning on Wednesday [July 21], Today co-host Matt Lauer opened the program: "What a mess over this Sandy Berger situation. One Republican is saying that this whole thing could lead to national security crisis. So the war of words, at least, has escalated."

Katie Couric then gave equal weight to the timing issue: "That's right because meanwhile, Matt, Democrats who support the former Clinton national security adviser say this is all a game of leaks to divert attention from the 9/11 commission's report which is due out tomorrow. This morning we'll talk with Sandy Berger's attorney.”

Indeed, Couric soon interviewed Lanny Breuer and gave him a chance to shoot down Republican charges about his client. The day before, on Tuesday, Today brought aboard Berger friend and defender David Gergen, so Today has yet to put on a detractor, but at least Today has conducted interview sessions about Berger. Other than a discussion Wednesday with their own George Stephanopoulos, ABC’s Good Morning America has not carried any interview segments about Berger and neither has CBS’s Early Show. None of the programs did this morning, Thursday, either.

ABC’s Linda Douglass, in a story on Wednesday’s Good Morning America, framed the subject around “Republican charges.” The MRC’s Jessica Anderson caught this wording: "Well, that war of words will continue on Capitol Hill today, and Sandy Berger himself stepped forward last night to defend himself against Republican charges that he stole classified documents and endangered national security. Berger said he meant no harm when he took home classified documents to prepare his testimony before the 9/11 Commission."

A bit later, Charles Gibson prompted George Stephanopoulos: "Is the timing of this leak suspicious?"

Stephanopoulos agreed: "Every single Democrat I talked to raised this issue. They say 'Come on, six days before the Democratic Convention, two days before the 9/11 Commission report, seven months after the investigation begins, we're only finding out about it now?' And some are even suggesting that maybe Attorney General John Ashcroft was behind it."
A July 21, 2004 MRC Media Reality Check summarized coverage of Berger.

On April 1, 2005, Berger pled guilty to some misdemeanor charges. See the April 1, 2005 MRC CyberAlert.

An excerpt from this week's AP story by Larry Margasak, an updated version posted Thursday morning on Yahoo, with the colorful details:
....Officials told The Associated Press at the time of the thefts that the 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 and seaports.

Inspector General Paul Brachfeld reported that National Archives employees spotted Berger bending down and fiddling with something white around his ankles.

The employees did not feel at the time there was enough information to confront someone of Berger's stature, the report said.

Later, when Berger was confronted by Archives officials about the missing documents, he lied by saying he did not take them, the report said.

Brachfeld's report included an investigator's notes, taken during an interview with Berger. The notes dramatically described Berger's removal of documents during an Oct. 2, 2003, visit to the Archives.

Berger took a break to go outside without an escort while it was dark. He had taken four documents in his pockets.

"He headed toward a construction area....Mr. Berger looked up and down the street, up into the windows of the Archives and the DOJ (Department of Justice), and did not see anyone," the interview notes said.

He then slid the documents under a construction trailer, according to the inspector general. Berger acknowledged that he later retrieved the documents from the construction area and returned with them to his office.

"He was aware of the risk he was taking," the inspector general's notes said. Berger then returned to the Archives building without fearing the documents would slip out of his pockets or that staff would notice that his pockets were bulging.

The notes said Berger had not been aware that Archives staff had been tracking the documents he was provided because of earlier suspicions from previous visits that he was removing materials. Also, the employees had made copies of some documents.

In October 2003, the report said, an Archives official called Berger to discuss missing documents from his visit two days earlier. The investigator's notes said, "Mr. Berger panicked because he realized he was caught."

The notes said that Berger had "destroyed, cut into small pieces, three of the four documents. These were put in the trash."

After the trash had been picked up, Berger "tried to find the trash collector but had no luck," the notes said....

In a Thursday Washington Post story placed on page A7, “Berger Hid Archives Papers Under a Trailer, Probe Shows,” reporter R. Jeffrey Smith recounted:
On the evening of Oct. 2, 2003, former White House national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger stashed highly classified documents he had taken from the National Archives beneath a construction trailer at the corner of Ninth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW so he could surreptitiously retrieve them later and take them to his office, according to a newly disclosed government investigation.

The documents he took detailed how the Clinton administration had responded to the threat of terrorist attacks at the end of 1999. Berger removed a total of five copies of the same document without authorization and later used scissors to destroy three before placing them in his office trash, the National Archives inspector general concluded in a Nov. 4, 2005, report.

After archives officials accused him of taking the documents, Berger told investigators, he "tried to find the trash collector but had no luck." But instead of admitting he had removed them deliberately -- by stuffing them in his suit pockets on multiple occasions -- Berger initially said he had removed them by mistake.

The fact that Berger, one of President Bill Clinton's closest aides from 1997 to 2001, illicitly removed the documents is well-known: A federal judge in September 2005 ordered him to pay a $50,000 fine for his actions and forfeit his security clearance for three years.

What Berger did, and the ham-handed and comical methods by which he did it, are freshly detailed in the National Archives report, which the Associated Press obtained first under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Although the report reiterates that Berger's main motive was to prepare himself for testifying before a commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, it makes clear that he not only sought to study the documents but also destroyed some copies and -- when initially confronted -- denied he had done so....

In September and October, Berger was able to sneak papers -- slight variations of a report titled "Millennium Alert After Action Review," which looked at U.S. vulnerabilities to terrorists, as well as the notes he took from other classified documents -- into his pockets, the report said, because an unnamed senior official left the room while Berger made or took phone calls.

Although one archives official claimed to have seen Berger fiddling with what appeared to be a piece of paper "rolled around his ankle and underneath his pant leg," Berger told investigators he was merely pulling up his socks, which he said "frequently fall down." He said "this story was absurd and embarrassing."

Berger said that after spending hours at the archives on Oct. 2, he took a walk outside past a construction fence to leave four classified copies of the millennium document beneath a trailer. He later explained that he needed to return to the building for several additional hours of work and was worried that guards would see the documents bulging in his suit.

Berger got caught partly because suspicious archives employees secretly numbered the millennium document copies they showed him in October. When an official challenged him by telephone on Oct. 4, he turned over two copies of the millennium document that he said he had accidentally kept.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center