Sandy Berger cleared. But shhh! It's a media secret

By Eric Boehlert

Published August 3, 2004 5:46PM (EDT)

How quickly the press forgets. Just two weeks ago the cable news channels were flooded with anxious chatter over news that President Clinton's national security advisor Sandy Berger was under investigation for improperly removing classified terrorism documents from a secure reading room at the National Archives during preparations for this year's Sept. 11 commission hearings. The Beltway's biggest mini-scandal of the season, the episode was fanned by partisan Republican charges, launched by House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, that Berger may have been trying to hide embarrassing information from the 9/11 commission. At the time, Democrats noted news of the investigation, which had begun nine months earlier, was leaked to the press just two days before the release of the 9/11 commission, which was expected to be critical of the Bush administration's handling of some anti-terrorism and intelligence measures.

Last Friday the Wall Street Journal uncovered some actual news and shot down a key flank of the Republican talking points on the Berger controversy. The paper reported that National Archive officials looking into the Berger affair had determined "no original materials are missing and nothing Mr. Berger reviewed was withheld from the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks." The Journal report continued, "Daniel Marcus, general counsel of the 9/11 Commission, said the panel had been assured twice by the Justice Department that no originals were missing and that all of the material Mr. Berger had access to had been turned over to the commission. 'We are told that the Justice Department is satisfied that we've seen everything that the archives saw,' and 'nothing was missing,' he said."

The Department of Justice is still investigating the fact that Berger breached policy by removing copies of a classified "after-action report" that he had ordered to study the Clinton administration's handling of terrorist threats at the time of the millennium. Berger, who admitted the removal and returned some copies after being contacted by government officials, has said it was unintentional.

But if you think the press rushed in to follow-up the Journal's report about Berger being cleared by the 9/11 commission, guess again; the press' subsequent silence has been deafening. "Ever since they invented ink and paper, charges have got more space than the truth," says Joe Lockhart, the former Clinton press secretary who has been acting as Berger's spokesman. "Am I disappointed more people haven't picked this up? Yes. Am I surprised? Absolutely not." Not one major newspaper, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, or Washington Post, has reported on the Journal's 9/11 commission findings. And in the four days since the Journal report, CNN has aired just 6 very brief mentions of the development. None of CNN's reports lasted more than 60 seconds, and none involved CNN interviewing experts to get their take on the news. Stitched together the six mentions totaled maybe four minutes of TV time. Compare that to two weeks ago when the Berger story was first leaked and CNN aired more than 40 in-depth segments, covering hours and hours of airtime.

Then again, CNN's six mentions is five more than the NBC/MSNBC/CNBC news team has managed to date. That, compared to the 22 Berger segments it ran. Fox News has not reported the Journal's finding, despite the fact it ran more than a dozen Berger stories/segments two weeks ago.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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