August 10, 2004

C.U. Community Reacts to Berger Controversy

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A Cornell alumnus has recently reappeared on the national stage in a controversy whose repercussions could increase scrutiny on issues of national security and the upcoming presidential elections.

The Associated Press reported on July 19 that Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger ’67, former national security adviser to President Bill Clinton and an unofficial aide to Sen. John F. Kerry’s (D-Mass.) campaign, was the focus of a criminal investigation after “removing highly classified terrorism documents and handwritten notes from a secure reading room during preparations for the Sept. 11 commission hearings.”

According to the report, Berger’s office and home were searched by FBI agents earlier this year. Berger had allegedly removed classified drafts of assessments about the Clinton administration’s handling of the millennium terror threats and identification of terror vulnerabilities at airports and seaports from the National Archives, as well as handwritten notes he made.

Berger knowingly removed the handwritten notes while reviewing the documents by sticking them in his jacket and pants, and inadvertently took copies of classified documents in a leather portfolio, according to the report. Berger said that when he was “informed by the Archives that there were documents missing, I immediately returned everything I had except for a few documents that I apparently had accidentally discarded.”

The Sept. 11 commission never complained of missing documents, and other copies of the missing materials are apparently available in the Archives.

“I deeply regret the sloppiness involved, but I had no intention of withholding documents from the commission, and to the contrary, to my knowledge, every document requested by the commission from the Clinton administration was produced,” Berger said in a statement to the AP.

The article has prompted President George W. Bush to call the controversy “a very serious matter” and for Congress to take action. According to the New York Times, House Government Reform Committee chair Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) asked the Archives to provide materials related to Berger last week. Many Democrats have accused Republicans of playing politics, criticizing the timing of the leak, which occurred days before the Democratic National Convention.

There have been mixed reactions in the Cornell community, but many seem supportive of Berger, who has maintained ties to his alma mater, visiting the campus as an Olin Lecturer in June 2003. He is also scheduled to give a lecture this coming semester as part of Cornell’s Mock Election events, which will be co-sponsored by The Sun.

“I am confident that Sandy Berger’s upcoming lecture at Cornell will be well received by the Cornell community,” stated Michael Zuckerman, president of the Mock Election Steering Committee. “Mr. Berger is one of Cornell’s most distinguished alumni, and we are honored to have him participate in Mock Election 2004.”

“[As a student] Mr. Berger was … a campus leader, widely known and highly respected. … He and I, I’m glad to say, have been friends for a number of years,” stated Prof. Walter F. LaFeber, the Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor, in an e-mail to The Sun.

Berger took one of LaFeber’s courses as an undergraduate, though LaFeber said that due to the large size of his classes he does not specifically remember him as a student.

LaFeber expressed his support and admiration for Berger and observed that he was not alone in doing so: “A number of leading public figures, including David Gergen and former CIA director James Woolsey — neither of whom is known for being friendly to the Clinton administration — have gone on national television to say that Mr. Berger has long been one of the most respected persons in American politics, especially because of his personal integrity. Mr. Berger has admitted he made mistakes in handling documents, and he is paying a personal price for those mistakes. It needs to be emphasized that in no sense did his actions threaten the national interest, nor did they prevent the 9/11 commission from seeing all the documents it wanted and needed to see. Given the current extraordinarily poor state of foreign policy advice on both the Republican and Democratic sides, if Mr. Berger’s mistakes prevent him from later advising U.S. officials on foreign policy we’ll all be the poorer for it.”

President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 declined to comment on the controversy. “I don’t really know anything about the probe,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Others in the University administration expressed their support for Berger. “I would expect to see him back at Cornell at some point,” said Linda Grace-Kobas, director of the Cornell News Service. “He has not been charged; obviously the leaker put the worst possible face on it. It’s far too soon to make any judgments, but we know Mr. Berger as a highly respected public official and he has a lot of friends at Cornell.”

Archived article by David Hillis
Sun Senior Editor