The strange cases of the Berger memoranda and the Wilson mission

Smashmouth Republican tactics try to change the subject on the eve of the unveiling of the 9/11 commission's report.

Published July 22, 2004 10:57PM (EDT)

After having lunch with Vice President Dick Cheney and Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie in the Capitol on Tuesday, Senate Republicans dispatched three of their most partisan warriors on a mission. The field of battle was the "stakeout" area off the Senate floor where print and television reporters gather. The target was former President Clinton's national security advisor, Sandy Berger, who says he absent-mindedly took copies of classified documents from the National Archives last fall as he prepared to testify before the 9/11 commission probing the government's response to the 2001 terrorist attacks.

In comments that were immediately amplified by RNC press releases and conservative columnists, radio talk show hosts and Fox News, Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., accused Berger of sneaking the documents out in his underwear. (Berger admits to putting some of his handwritten notes in his pants and suit jacket pockets.) Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., suggested -- without offering any evidence other than his own speculation -- that Berger had stolen information about the Clinton administration's response to a thwarted 1999 al-Qaida attack in order to help Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry score political points against President Bush on port security.

And Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the third-ranking member of the Senate Republican leadership, said the significance of the Berger matter was that "very serious charges are being made against the president of the United States. What we're finding as we look into those charges [is] that more and more of them are the product of a fraudulent beginning."

Never mind that Santorum appeared to be conflating the Republican talking points on Berger with those against Joseph Wilson IV, the former ambassador to Gabon who claimed last year that Bush had distorted intelligence on Iraq's attempts to buy uranium for nuclear weapons. And never mind that Al Felsenberg, a spokesman for the 9/11 commission, said in an e-mailed response to Salon that Berger's actions had "in no way compromised the thoroughness of our investigation or the quality of our report," which is being released Thursday.

The orchestrated Republican goal, rather, was to cast doubt on anyone who would challenge Bush's own credibility on Iraq and the fight against terrorism, two national security-related areas where the president once seemed strong, but where public confidence in his leadership is now flagging. This was a strategy decided upon before the Tuesday luncheon with the vice president and the party chairman, Santorum told me in an interview in the Capitol Wednesday. "I'm in charge of setting up the stakeouts," the Senate Republican Conference chairman said. "Our intention from the beginning was to speak out about the accuracy and motives of those condemning the president." Cheney, Santorum claimed, "didn't say a word" about Berger in the Tuesday meeting with the senators.

Later on Tuesday, Berger resigned as an informal advisor to the Kerry campaign. And Republicans were nearly giddy with the sense that they had finally found an effective counterattack against Democratic assaults on Bush's judgment and trustworthiness, issues that had been eroding Bush's poll numbers. Asked about comments by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Clinton that the timing of the Berger leak, nine months after the investigation began and just days before the 9/11 commission's final report was released, seemed fishy, Santorum responded with his trademark biting sarcasm. "Of course" there's a partisan conspiracy, he told me as we took an elevator to the Capitol basement to catch the tram to his Senate office. "Sandy Berger removing documents is a coordinated attack on the Democratic Party. We are using psychological warfare to get Sandy Berger to do something that may have been illegal. We are using a secret machine to control his mind," Santorum added, scissoring his hands in the air, wizard-like. Then, adopting a serious and chiding tone, he said: "This is the height of absurdity that you guys [in the news media] would even think of printing this."

Democrats clearly weren't buying Santorum's line. In a book-signing appearance in Denver, where he was promoting his new autobiography, "My Life," the former president defended his former national security advisor. "We were all laughing about it," Clinton said, according to the Denver Post. "People who don't know [Berger] might find it hard to believe. But ... all of us who've been in his office have always found him buried beneath papers." Clinton added that he'd known of the FBI probe for months and said, "I wish I knew who leaked it. It's interesting timing."

Lanny Davis, a former Clinton White House deputy legal counsel, also ridiculed the allegations. "We're making progress up the anatomy. They started with socks," he said, referring to an erroneous CNN report that Berger had ferried away documents in his socks. "Now they're at the underwear. We're going to get to the jacket pockets soon, which from what I understand, is the right place." Unlike Santorum, Davis said he saw nothing coincidental about the timing of the anonymous leak to the press about Berger. "I think this 9/11 commission underlies the polling numbers that the Bush White House is worrying about most of all -- that he's not going to be seen as the best person to fight Osama bin Laden. This election is about 9/11 and people being terrified. This story about Sandy Berger is a surrogate for them reviving the notion that you can't trust the Democrats on terrorism."

The prospect of next week's Democratic convention in Boston formally nominating Kerry may have also motivated the leak, Davis said: "It's a week before the Democratic convention, and they know Kerry will get a bounce. They're doing everything they can to try to undermine that bounce."

On the Senate floor, meanwhile, Sen. Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican, took up the case against Joseph Wilson in a speech Wednesday. As a member of the intelligence committee, Bond joined the panel's chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in filing additional views to the Senate report. Those comments charge Wilson had lied in public statements when he claimed his wife, Central Intelligence Agency operative Valerie Plame, was not responsible for the CIA's decision to send Wilson to Niger in 2002 to investigate the claims of British intelligence that Iraq was seeking to purchase uranium "yellowcake" for use in building nuclear weapons.

The committee's bipartisan findings section said that "interviews and documents provided to the committee indicate" that Plame "suggested his name for the trip." But the Republican senators went further, stating her role as central and undisputed. Wilson has denied this characterization of his wife's involvement and has said it is irrelevant to the central issue of Bush's discredited claim in his 2003 State of the Union address that "British intelligence has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" and to the legal case being pressed by a special prosecutor against any leaker of her identity as a covert operative. (Wilson has responded to the accusations with a letter of rebuttal.)

Still, Republicans have seized on the issue in an effort to discredit Wilson, who has also informally advised Kerry. Instantly, conservative media and pundits have cranked up a howling storm against him. The RNC has blasted e-mails round the clock for more than a week to the press corps and Republican supporters. In its face, the committee's Democratic members have remained muted. They pointedly declined to join their Republican counterparts in concluding that Plame in fact did recommend her husband for the trip. But neither have they publicly defended Wilson. "We were agnostic" on Wilson, intelligence panel member Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said in an interview Wednesday. Nonetheless, he said the Republican conclusion about her role "should have been kept out of the report" as irrelevant.

After his energetic denunciation of Wilson on the Senate floor Wednesday, Bond crowed in an interview that Wilson "has been totally debunked." According to the Senate report, Wilson reported back from his trip to Niger that an Iraqi delegation had approached the country's then-prime minister in 1999 with an overture that the prime minister interpreted as a desire to purchase uranium. Although no transaction took place, Bond said Wilson had in fact corroborated Bush's assertion in the State of the Union address, although the Senate report also found the evidence was shaky, the CIA has been far more skeptical than British intelligence, and the White House has admitted that Bush should not have used the information in his address. The CIA in recent days has told CNN and the Los Angeles Times that Wilson's wife was not involved in the decision to send him to Niger -- and the CIA has also confirmed that for Salon. But Bond insisted that Democrats "are the ones who are misusing intelligence to embarrass the president. And we just blew a major hole in their whole thesis."

Wilson had made repeated public denials that his wife was behind his Niger trip, which Republicans pounced on. Last year, an unidentified administration official disclosed Plame's status as a covert CIA officer to conservative columnist Robert Novak, in what Wilson has claimed was retaliation for his speaking out about his trip to Niger. Depending on the circumstances, it can be a felony to blow the cover of a covert CIA operative, and a Justice Department special prosecutor has been looking into whether anyone in the Bush administration broke the law by leaking Plame's name. The Republican effort to dent Wilson's credibility may be a preemptive strike in the event of indictments.

For his part, Berger has admitted to being "sloppy" with the classified copies of the documents, which were written by former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke to describe the administration's response to a failed al-Qaida plot to bomb the Los Angeles airport during millennial celebrations in 1999. Berger told the FBI he may have inadvertently discarded some of the copies. He did not, however, remove any original documents, but only copies, his lawyer has said.

But Republicans have attempted to downplay the disclosure of Plame's covert status, even suggesting she had it coming because, in their view, she and Wilson were working to damage the president politically. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, told the Washington Times last October that Plame's outing was a "minor" event. On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal editorialized that the prosecutor in the case "should close up shop." That forgiving attitude toward the senior administration officials who outed Plame evaporates when Republicans discuss Berger, who as national security advisor had always maintained good personal relations with congressional Republicans, despite such policy differences as over whether American should have led the NATO war in Kosovo.

"Sandy Berger, we all know him, we've worked with him. But he has now been charged with taking highly classified documents, stuffing them in his trousers, using them for the Kerry campaign, and then admitting to destroying those documents. He says he was sloppy," Sen. Smith said at Tuesday's news conference, himself making several sloppy allegations.

But Berger hasn't been charged with any crime, and it is highly doubtful that he will be. Whether Valerie Plame did or did not have anything to do with Wilson's Niger mission happens to be legally beside the point; it is simply a Republican talking point, of no bearing to the special prosecutor, who continues his work. These attacks on two Democratic national security figures can be best understood as reflecting the Republican fear of the 9/11 commission report. And with its release, these controversies are likely to recede as sideshows.

By Mary Jacoby

Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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