Clinton aide cops a plea

Sandy Berger, who was the top national security aide to former President Clinton, has agreed to plead guilty to taking classified documents from the National Archives, the Justice Department says.

The plea agreement, if accepted by a judge, ends a bizarre episode in which the man who once had access to the government’s most sensitive intelligence was accused of sneaking documents out of the Archives in his clothing.

The Bush administration disclosed the investigation in July just days before the Sept. 11 commission issued its final report. Democrats claimed that the White House was using Berger to deflect attention from the harsh report, with its potential for damaging President Bush’s re-election prospects.

Berger, who was national security adviser in Clinton’s second term, was expected to enter the plea Friday in U.S. District Court in Washington, Justice spokesman Bryan Sierra said Thursday.

The charge of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of a year in prison and up to a $100,000 fine.

However, a federal law enforcement official said a plea agreement calls for Berger to serve no jail time but to pay a $10,000 fine, surrender his security clearance for three years and cooperate with investigators. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the pending court proceeding.

Security clearance allows access to classified government materials.

Berger previously acknowledged he left the National Archives on two occasions in 2003 with copies of documents about the government’s anti-terror efforts and notes that he took on those documents.

He said he was reviewing the materials to help determine which Clinton administration documents to provide to the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. He called the episode “an honest mistake” and denied criminal wrongdoing.

Berger and his lawyer, Lanny Breuer, have said Berger knowingly removed the handwritten notes by placing them in his jacket and pants and inadvertently took copies of actual classified documents in a leather portfolio.

He returned most of the documents, but still missing are some drafts of a sensitive after-action report on the Clinton administration’s handling of al-Qaida terror threats during the December 1999 millennium celebration.

“Mr. Berger has cooperated fully with the Department of Justice and is pleased that a resolution appears very near,” Breuer said Thursday.

The Associated Press first reported in July that the Justice Department was investigating Berger for incidents at the Archives the previous fall. The disclosure prompted Berger to step down as an adviser to the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

Clinton was among Democrats who questioned the timing of the disclosure of the Berger probe, three days before the release of the final Sept. 11 commission report. The commission, writing three months before the 2004 presidential election, detailed failures of both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Leaders of the Sept. 11 commission said they were able to get every key document needed to complete their report.

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© 2005 The Associated Press