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Inside Politics

House panel opens own Berger probe

Democrats seek Justice Dept. records on White House contacts


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Berger says he made "an honest mistake."
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Former national security adviser Sandy Berger under investigation.

CNN's Bill Hemmer talks with Lanny Davis about the Berger accusations.

Berger has a reputation for shooting straight.
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Samuel Berger
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House Government Reform Committee launched an investigation Wednesday into reports that former Clinton administration aide Samuel "Sandy" Berger removed classified documents from the National Archives while reviewing materials for the 9/11 commission.

It was reported Monday that Berger, who was national security adviser during President Clinton's second term, has been under criminal investigation by the Justice Department over the allegations since October.

Earlier Wednesday, Democrats filed papers asking the Justice Department to disclose all contacts with the White House in the investigation, citing the "questionable timing" of the probe's disclosure -- the same week the 9/11 commission issues its final report and a week before the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Wednesday the Justice Department notified White House counsel Alberto Gonzales' office about the investigation because Berger was reviewing documents for the independent commission investigating the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

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

The Government Reform Committee is House's primary investigative panel and has jurisdiction over the National Archives.

"These allegations are deeply troubling, and it's our constitutional responsibility to find out what happened and why," said Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, the committee's chairman, in a statement.

"It boggles the mind to imagine how a former national security adviser walked off with this kind of material in his pants, or wherever on his body he carried it."

Davis' committee has been less active in opening investigations during the Bush administration than it was during the Clinton years, when it was chaired by Republican Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana.

Berger called his removal of classified documents from the archives an "honest mistake" and quit his post as an unpaid foreign policy adviser to presumptive Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's campaign. (Full story)

A government source said Tuesday that while the 9/11 commission was briefed on the Berger investigation, the White House was not.

President Bush declined comment on the investigation Wednesday, telling reporters it was "a serious matter and it will be fully investigated by the Justice Department."

Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, the Republican speaker of the House, said Tuesday the Berger investigation could leave a "cloud" over the 9/11 commission's report, which is scheduled to be released Thursday. (Full story)

"If it does cloud it, it's a shame, because we spent a lot of money to ask these people to bring forward a report that best served the American interest," Hastert said.

Some Democrats say the leak could have been intended by Republicans to cast just that type of cloud.

"The criminal investigation only came to light three days prior to the release of a report expected to be critical of the Bush administration's lack of focus on the events leading up to the 9/11 attacks," Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe wrote in a Freedom of Information Act request released Wednesday.

"As conservative scholar Norm Ornstein stated, 'You can't look at the timing of this with anything but an enormous amount of skepticism.' "

McAuliffe's request, filed with the Justice Department, seeks the release of any communications between justice employees and the White House, Bush's re-election campaign or the Republican National Committee.

Al Felzenberg, a spokesman for the 9/11 commission, said Tuesday there was no reason to believe the Berger investigation would affect "the substance or integrity" of its final report.

Berger admitted that during visits to the archives last year to review materials for the 9/11 commission, he "inadvertently" removed some documents.

His lawyer, Lanny Breuer, told CNN the documents were mixed in with other personal papers and accidentally put in his leather portfolio.

Breuer said Berger returned the materials last October after being contacted by archives officials and has been cooperating since then with the Justice Department's investigation into the incident.

Berger, well-respected in Washington circles and close confidant of former President Bill Clinton, was designated as the official from the Clinton administration who would review documents relevant to the 9/11 commission's probe. He also testified before the commission.

Archives officials told investigators that one document is still missing -- an analysis of the effectiveness of counterterrorism efforts against threats tied to the turn of the millennium.

A government source told CNN that some of the documents at issue were classified as "code word" materials -- the highest level of security, making them more closely held than nuclear secrets.

Breuer conceded Berger took away handwritten notes he made about other documents from the archives, knowing that policy required that those notes had to first be reviewed.

He said Berger considered "the hard work of the 9/11 commission" more important than the archives' policy.


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