View Full Version : Inadvertently or Not, a Grave Security Breach

08-03-04, 06:36 AM

Inadvertently or Not, a Grave Security Breach

By Matthew Dodd

Let me share my perspectives on the recent disclosures about former President Clinton’s national security advisor, Samuel Berger, and his handling of documents he accessed at the National Archives in preparation for his testimony before the 9/11 Commission.

I have read and heard a lot about this issue, and it seems that the more I learn about it, the more angry and frustrated I become. Maybe I am too rigid in my understanding of what it takes to be considered responsible when handling classified materials. Maybe I am too strict in my expectations of the application of common sense with respect to leadership in dealing with security issues. I will let you be my judge.

Okay, I have a serious confession to make. I do not know if it is normal for a career Marine officer to feel like I do, but I know that I have not heard anyone say what I am about to say: I am scared to handle classified material for fear that I may mishandle it.

There, now that I have said it, I feel much better. A huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders now that the truth has been set free. Let me explain my feelings about and experiences with classified material.

First of all, my being scared of handling classified material does not and has not ever prevented me from handling it or seeking access to it when my jobs have required it. I do not shy away from classified material, nor do I seek it out. I know it is there and when I need it I go get it, do with it what I must do, then return it or destroy it as appropriate and in accordance to the explicit guidelines and policies for handling and destroying classified material.

I pay attention to my required annual security training requirements. I have never been the subject of any type of security violation investigation. For me, classified material is serious business and I take the opportunity to deal with it very seriously.

For those readers who may not be clear as to what is meant by classified material, let me give a very basic class about the three most commonly heard security classifications.

“Confidential” information is information that if compromised to an enemy of the United States would cause damage to national security.

“Secret” information is information that if compromised to an enemy of the United States would cause serious damage to national security.

“Top Secret” information is information that if compromised to an enemy of the United States would cause exceptionally grave damage to national security.

Each of these increasingly restrictive security classifications requires different background and security checks and investigations in order for individuals to be granted access to them. Materials that are classified are supposed to be clearly labeled, often are in clearly labeled folders or containers, and they are stored in clearly labeled areas with limited access so there is no doubt about the materials being sensitive. All these measures help reinforce and facilitate the proper handling of the materials. Mishandling these materials in any way is adequate justification for suspending or completely revoking an individual’s security clearance.

The best way for me to share my perspectives is to comment on some selected media excerpts about what Mr. Berger did, and what is being said and done about what he did.

First of all, I am a bit confused about what is being done and why it is being done. Compare the following two opening statements from articles that appeared in USA Today and The Washington Times respectively [italics added]:

“Samuel Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser, is the focus of a criminal investigation into whether he improperly removed notes and classified documents from the National Archives …. ”

“President Clinton’s national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, is the focus of a criminal investigation after removing highly classified documents and handwritten notes from a secure reading room …. ”

I am not talking semantics, but accuracy in reporting. The first statement is unsure whether classified documents were improperly removed from a secure location, while the second statement is more definitive about what was done with highly classified materials. Either way, according to a Washington Post article, “Federal laws prohibit unauthorized release or removal of classified documents.” The Times article further stated that Berger “knew that taking his own notes out of the secure room was a ‘technical violation of Archive procedures …. ”

“Berger said he inadvertently took some documents from the archives but was not trying to withhold information from the commission. … Three government officials who have been briefed on the investigation said Berger had removed handwritten notes and classified documents from a private room at the National Archives where he was preparing for his March 24 testimony. … Two of the officials said Berger was reportedly seen stuffing some of the material into his clothing.”

My Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “inadvertent” as: not turning the mind to a matter, inattentive and unintentional. These definitions imply apathy, and not paying attention to the environment and situations within the environment. To me, someone with access to highly classified materials should never be considered by others, let alone describe himself, as handling any sort of classified material with the word “inadvertently.” Such a person does not deserve the privilege of being granted access to classified materials. As the Washington Times report continued:

“Mr. Berger and his attorney told the Associated press [on July 19] that he knowingly removed handwritten notes that he had taken from classified anti-terrorism documents … by sticking them in his jacket and pants.”

“He inadvertently took copies of actual classified documents in a leather portfolio and also accidentally threw away some documents …. ”

Classified notes from classified documents knowingly removed from a secure space somehow do not match my vision of “inadvertently” taking some documents. Maybe gathering up a lot of scattered unclassified documents and not noticing that a couple of classified documents were mixed in would be more plausible, but still not acceptable.

Are we to believe that while viewing highly classified documents, it is a wise and common practice, especially for a former presidential national security advisor, to hold, and store some of those documents in a leather portfolio, and then to forget about them?

Taking classified documents is bad enough, but throwing them away like everyday trash, in today’s personal-information security-conscious and potential-terrorist-threat world, is inexcusable. As the USA Today article went on:

“The FBI has conducted searches of Berger's home and office. But some of the documents he reviewed are still missing, the officials said. Some of those documents involved the Clinton administration’s handling of intelligence surrounding terrorist plots to disrupt millennium celebrations in 1999 and identification of America’s vulnerabilities at airports and seaports. … ‘When I 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,’ [Berger] said. … Berger said he returned some classified documents that he found in his office and all of the handwritten notes he had taken from the secure room .… ”

Berger carried via various unsecured containers (pants, jacket, leather portfolio), probably in an unofficial vehicle (maybe even public transportation) classified materials that he wrongly took from the National Archives to at least his office (and maybe his home), and he kept them there until the Archives told him they were missing documents.

Okay, so he either realized he had classified materials in an unsecure place and did not think anything was wrong so he did not tell anyone or take any self-directed corrective actions, or he never realized he had the classified materials. Either scenario is unacceptable for a man of his position of trust and responsibility.

If one of my Marines, young or old, senior or junior, ever did the same things that Berger is accused of having done, I would be real hard-pressed to argue against taking away that Marine’s clearance, and would at least take away that Marine’s access to that info.

I am not sure what will eventually happen to Berger, but he needs to be held to at least the same high standards expected of the young troops who are deployed to combat zones fighting, and in some cases dying, to preserve our national security.

Lt. Col. Matthew Dodd USMC is a Senior Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at mattdodd1775@hotmail.com. Please send Feedback responses to dwfeedback@yahoo.com.



08-03-04, 07:29 AM
Most of us who have handled classified infomation are aware of the points you are making. The average citizen does not know these facts you are preaching to the wrong people. This needs to be said to the average citizen so that they have a better understanding of the issue.

08-03-04, 08:43 AM
Lt. Col. Matthew Dodd

I enjoyed reading your editorial on Sandy Berger, what I have not seen anyone mention is that Mr. Berger went there with the intention of taking those documents, which makes it a serious felony.

Berger clearance needs not only to be revoked but he needs to be behind bars. How many Arab terrorist are now hanging out near his trash cans?

Cook Barela

08-03-04, 11:42 AM
I know that I always felt a little apprehensive when transporting classified documents - even Confidential ones. If I remember correctly, the penalty for not handling classified material properly was castration!