The Blog

The Gap

Sandy Berger's pilfering of papers from the archive should be big trouble for the Democrats. Why is the press AWOL?

12:00 AM, Jul 22, 2004 • By HUGH HEWITT
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HERE ARE the two key sentence from yesterdays Washington Post: "[Sandy] Berger returned two of the after-action drafts within days, according to his attorneys. Other drafts of the after-action document, they said, were apparently discarded."

As any lawyer who has ever argued over the contents of a brief knows, the stuff that gets left out can be the most telling material of all--indicative of prejudices and priorities, sensitivities and credibility. Berger's sticky fingers have left a gap in the record of the Clinton administration's response to the growing threat posed by al Qaeda. Unless other files exist with all the same drafts and handwritten notes that Berger destroyed, we will never be able to conclude whether Berger's actions were simply another display of fecklessness and recklessness on an issue of national security, or an attempt to bleach the record of Clinton-era malpractice on matters of terror.

Washington has had to judge gaps in the record before. "[A] few minutes missing from a non-subpoenaed tape hardly seemed worth a second thought," Richard Nixon wrote in his memoir of his reaction on first learning that Rose Mary Woods had deleted a portion of the famous tapes. Nixon would conclude "most people think that my inability to explain the 18 and 1/2-minute gap is the most unbelievable and insulting part of the whole of Watergate." Imaginations ran wild, and Nixon's credibility never recovered.

Now crucial drafts of an important report are missing, and no one has reported if exact duplicates--not "copies"--have been found. Unless and until "red-lined" versions of the previous and following drafts are produced and compared to the "missing" drafts, we will never know what vanished from the record in Berger's pants. Could it have been a reference to Osama's flight from Sudan, or a warning of airplanes as missiles? No one can know unless some other repository existed for all of the drafts, and only if copies of all handwritten notes exist in that same file. The trouble with widely circulated papers is that principals make handwritten notations on all of them, which are then returned to the central record keeper. Every "copy" is an original if a note has been made in the margin.

A COMMISSION STAFFER said with certainty that no gaps exist in the record, but how could they possibly know this if the Department of Justice still has the matter under investigation and if handwritten notes are involved? Further, if handwritten notes appeared on the originals or copies that Berger walked off with, the commission would have to be certain that the "copies" they have been provided were copies of exactly what Berger took away and "lost." Read this laughable, incredible statement from the commission, quoted in the Los Angeles Times: "Al Felzenberg, a spokesman for the Sept. 11 commission, said the panel had been given access to all copies of drafts that were missing, and thought that the integrity of its work had not been compromised. 'We had access to copies of everything we are reading about,' he said."

Reporters who know what a paragraph or two can do to a story and who have seen what a handwritten note can do to a case, are walking away from this story, calmed by the assurances from Berger's lawyer, his friends, and a desperate-not-to-be-discredited commission. Was Rose Woods this well treated? If Condoleezza Rice had stuffed her blouse full of various drafts of pre- 9/11 terrorism reports and then admitted to sloppy work that resulted in the loss of these docs, would promises of copies suffice to quiet a crazed White House press room?

Still wondering about the potential significance of a single draft, or small changes between drafts? Recall that on January 11, 2001, the Los Angeles Times deleted a reference to Juanita Broaddrick from a George Will column on the legacy of Bill Clinton. I caught the censorship on air, and the wave of reader outrage that followed forced an admission of guilt and an apology from the paper. The Times's attempt to hide a single phrase from its readers told you volumes about the paper--and about the significance of Broaddrick to the Clinton legacy.