Thursday, August 18, 2005

Shades of Sandy Berger?

The Washington Post reports that "a file folder containing papers from Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr.'s work on affirmative action more than 20 years ago disappeared from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library after its review by two lawyers from the White House and the Justice Department in July" who were vetting the nominee.

A little over a year ago, Sandy Berger admitted he removed copies of classified memos from the National Archives, among documents critiquing the Clinton administration's response to the millennium terrorism threat, in preparation for the 9/11 Commission. Like a steroid user failing a drug test, he first claimed the removal of 60 or more pages, plus failing to review his handwritten notes with Archives officials, was inadvertent.

"I made an honest mistake which I deeply regret," he later said, and colleagues reinforced the claim, noting he would "constantly lose track of papers or appointments without subordinates to keep him organized and on schedule."

As someone who once dealt with classified materials, I know inadvertent security violations do occur in the course of daily routine. And a lot of high-powered people are helpless when it comes to running their personal lives. But as one who researched government-controlled archives related to the USS Pueblo spy ship fiasco, I find it hard to believe Berger, a former senior government official, absentmindedly walked off with those secret papers.

Same with lawyers working on the Rogers nomination. The official line is that it would have been difficult for them to make off with the unclassified folder, but Berger certainly had no trouble taking much more sensitive papers. Officials at the Reagan Library believe Archives staff may have misplaced the Roberts folder as they for prepared for disclosure of the materials to the Senate and news media. If so, it should eventually turn up there.

So the options seem to be: Pilfered papers or lost in the shuffle. Conspiracy or mistake.

I'd normally be willing to go with mistake, but admitting shortcomings is not a strong suit of officials from either party, especially the Blameless One in Chief. Unless, perhaps, the only choice is to be seen as an occasional idiot instead of a resolute evildoer.

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