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Sen. Thompson Questions National Security Adviser Sandy Berger

Aired September 11, 1997 - 12:00 a.m. ET

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Judy Woodruff in Washington.

For those of you tuning in to "NEWSDAY," we are in our special coverage of the Senate Governmental Affairs hearings -- hearings into campaign finance abuses during last year's presidential campaign.

The president's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, is being asked about a photo that he was willing to sit in on with a wealthy Hong Kong businessman, named Eric Hotung, who after this five-minute photo session, his American-born wife gave the Democratic Party $100,000.

Senator Fred Thompson is doing the questioning.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON, (R) GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS CHAIRMAN: ...Which is exhibit 1082. It makes reference to the NSC staffer Bob Suitinger (ph) -- how do you pronounce that?

SANDY BERGER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Suitinger (ph).

THOMPSON: Meeting with Mr. Hotung. He met with Mr. Hotung not at the NSC, but at Mr. Hotung's lawyer's office. Do you know anything about those circumstances?

BERGER: Well, we've asked him subsequently. And he indicated that there was no particular significance. Mr. Suettinger is a career employee of -- in the diplomatic area. He was assigned to the NSC. Not at all political.

And he actually subsequently met with Mr. Hotung, I think, several times, because he found him to be, he said, one of the most valuable sources of -- but not sources -- valuable resources with respect to what was happening in China, what was happening in Hong Kong.

But he said he frequently met with people outside the office. And I think, you know, our people generally meet in the office, but they might go over to CSIS or they might go over to a hotel to meet with someone who is visiting the city. I don't think it's highly unusual.

THOMPSON: Do you know -- did Mr. Suettinger say that someone requested that he meet with Mr. Hotung?

BERGER: I assume someone requested Mr. Suettinger...

THOMPSON: Do you know who?

BERGER: I don't know that. We can find that out.

THOMPSON: Mr. Suettinger didn't tell you that?

BERGER: No. Actually, my counsel, the DNC counsel spoke to Mr. Suettinger, so I don't know. But we can certainly find out the answer.

THOMPSON: All right, sir. Mr. Hotung -- I made reference to the China contacts. Absolutely right. He has contacts with lots of different people.

But in his own words, more or less, as indicated by exhibit 1078, he lists two pages -- which I understand that he himself lists two pages here of the contacts that he has with the Chinese government leadership, ambassadors and the military, that sort of thing. And I'm sure, as you said, lots of contacts with lots of other people.

But I think the only point there is that -- in terms of the frame of mind of someone at the NSC, if you know something about the gentleman as to why, as we know now, it was apparently worth $100,000 to him to have a photograph taken with the number-two person at the NSC, I think that's a good question.

BERGER: Mr. Chairman, I really -- I can't accept that conclusion, first of all. I don't know the facts. But, you know, I've looked at the documents, and my impression is that he actually had already decided to give before any meeting with me came up. But this is was not, at least from my perspective, related in any way to a campaign contribution.

THOMPSON: All right.

BERGER: And -- you know -- what I -- if I had simply wanted to meet with him, Mr. Chairman, because of the DNC, I wouldn't have sent it to my staff and ask him to vet it. You know, I had no obligation to do that. I just would have picked up the phone and called Sosnik and said, bring him over.

I did what I think is the proper thing to do when you don't know somebody you're asked to meet. You check with your professional staff. The Taipan reference you said somewhat -- I don't think is a disparaging reference. What that means is he's one of the most powerful players in Hong Kong. This is 11, 12, 13 months before Hong Kong reversion, which was an issue of enormous importance to us, enormous importance to the United States, and very high on my radar screen.

So the opportunity to meet with someone who my staff says is a major player in Hong Kong, even if for five minutes, I think is a valuable one.

THOMPSON: Even if he was a bit off-the-wall? That's also what they said.

BERGER: Mr. Chairman, let me say this, as somebody who spends

his life in foreign policy dealing with diplomats. Some of the best information I get are from people who are off the wall a bit.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Senator Glenn. Thank you, Mr. Berger.

SEN. GLENN JOHN GLENN, RANKING MINORITY MEMBER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I'd like to ask a couple of questions about the procedure for vetting that would get the NSC. You were not in the loop as far as everyone that came into the White House, certainly. Who made the decision to refer things to you for vetting? And was it all foreign people who were going to come into the White House or those with diplomatic backgrounds or those with business backgrounds? Or was there any criteria that you were going to be responsible for at NSC?

BERGER: Under current practice, under the policy of Mr. Bowles and then I have promulgated, it would apply to all foreign visitors that were meeting with the president and the vice president and/or first lady or Mrs. Gore. In the first term, there was no, as far as I know, no formal procedure. It was done when the person who was putting together the event made the request. I would say also that Mr. Bowles has made very clear in this term that the people who are sponsoring an event have a high degree of responsibility for who attends that event.

GLENN: OK. And this was basically the same procedure that had been followed as you said, I believe, for some 30 years?

BERGER: In the process, Senator, in the process of putting together my guidelines, I spoke to most of the national security advisers of the last 30 years, not all of them, but I think a good sampling of them, Republican and Democrat, and none of them indicated there was any such procedure.

GLENN: Reference was made to the number of questionable characters that seem to have gotten into the White House and so on, and that was after our discussion of Mr. Tamraz a minute ago. I might note that in the NSC interviews, we understand that Mr. Tamraz says he visited with President Reagan and met with Casey out at CIA. Were you aware of those visits?

BERGER: No, I was not, but...

GLENN: I would have to review the record of his, I understand that's in his deposition anyway. I'd be surprised I guess if an NSC, if the national security adviser was not involved in some decisions involving the president and campaign strategy and so on, not necessarily from the campaign strategy standpoint, but just as you say, to make absolutely certain that matters that might go over into foreign policy were not dealt with in a wrong manner.

BERGER: That was certainly my intent.

GLENN: Did you discuss that with any of the former NSAs?

BERGER: No. I don't believe I did. But, you know, Secretary of

State Baker was brought back in 1992 to run President Bush's campaign, so it's not exactly been a total separation between church and state.

GLENN: Well, no it hasn't been. And in fact, let me talk about that one just a moment, about the Bush campaign, because -- and I don't see anything wrong with this, myself. But you've been more or less accused of being, of taking inappropriate actions there by attending these meetings, and some has been written about it. It's been commented on at these hearings and so on. And I just don't see that that's a big problem. I would note that in Exhibit 2002-M, if we could put that up, you will see that The New York Times reported President Bush had daily meetings at 7:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. with Mr. Baker and other campaign advisers, including Mr. Scowcroft. And in fact, I think Brent Scowcroft was noted as saying that the meetings could last for hours. He didn't particularly -- they went on longer, I guess, than he would have liked. And he was national security adviser. During that time he was NSA, he was even dispatched to Texas in 1992 as part of President Bush's campaign team assigned to convince Ross Perot not to run for president. Were you aware of that one?

BERGER: I've seen that article only recently.

GLENN: Page 8 of the same exhibit I asked for, The New York Times is one of many newspapers to report about that in 1992. The New York Times noted, and I quote, "Some historians said that Mr. Scowcroft's journey to Dallas would be little different from appearing on a political talk show or addressing a party convention. Others said his role debased the post of National Security Adviser." End of quote. I guess by him being sent off on a strictly political mission like that.

In '95 and '96, did you perform any such political activities in support of President Clinton's reelection bid?

BERGER: No, I didn't. I should say, Senator, that I have the highest regard for General Scowcroft as an individual and as a national security adviser, and I can only imagine he attended those 7:30 meetings for the same reason that I did in some cases.

GLENN: I would imagine so. And I have great admiration for General Scowcroft also. I think he's one of the fine people that's been in government during the time I've been in Washington here. I like him very much. So I don't, I really don't see anything wrong with that. Maybe being going out on a strictly political mission at that time, maybe that was a bit much, but as far as attending these missions, which you did, I would think that'd be unusual if you did not have an input to meetings like that. Just in the interest of making sure that foreign policy was dealt with properly.

BERGER: It does not surprise me that this was not unprecedented.

GLENN: I turn the rest of my time over to Ms. Marple.

PAMELA MARPLE, DEP. DEMOCRATIC COUNSEL: Mr. Berger, I have a few questions about the structure of the NSC. Can you estimate the approximate number of employees at the NSC?

BERGER: There are 50 professional staff, roughly. that is, 50 policy people. And then there is a roughly comparable number of support staff, and then there is a third piece of people who handle sensitive communications for the White House in terms of running the situation room and making sure that we are always able to communicate with the world on an instant basis.

MARPLE: I ask you to refer to exhibit 1074.

BERGER: Yes.

MARPLE: Can you describe this document for us?

BERGER: This is a document that was issued in March of 1996 at the request of Mr. Lake. This was as we were really heading into a political season, and I think he wanted the staff to understand very clearly what the laws and regulations of the White House and of the United States were with respect to what they could do in political campaigns, and not do in political campaigns, and there are some rules that pertain to people that are part of the NSC staff, and there are other rules that pertain to people like myself who are members of the White House st