WASHINGTON — Former national security advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger admitted Friday that he had stolen classified documents, destroyed some of them, then lied about what he had done.
As a seasoned foreign policy manager under President Clinton, Berger had been considered a strong candidate for secretary of State in a future Democratic administration. He had also been entrusted with the highest security clearance granted by the government.
But all that passed under a cloud Friday as he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and acknowledged in painstaking, often humiliating detail how in 2003 he had secretly removed sensitive documents involving anti-terrorist policy from the National Archives, and afterward sought to mislead investigators and the public.
"I exercised very poor judgment," Berger told reporters after the hearing. "I deeply regret it. It was mistaken and it was wrong."
Berger added: "I'm pleased that this matter is resolved, and I look forward to moving on."
First, though, he faces sentencing July 8 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson, who presided over Friday's hearing. Prosecutors are recommending that Berger be fined $10,000 and stripped of his security clearance for three years.
Also, the inspector general for the National Archives and Records Administration, who observed the proceedings Friday, is conducting a security investigation to find out how Berger was able to walk out with the documents and his hand-written notes.
News that the FBI was targeting Berger in a criminal investigation leaked out last summer during the 2004 political campaign. Republicans are not likely to make a return to public life easy for the 59-year-old lawyer and veteran government official.
Despite repeated statements to the news media that he had "inadvertently" taken some of his own hand-written notes on the documents and "accidentally discarded" a few documents, Berger acknowledged Friday that he knew the rules and failed to tell the truth when archives officials first called on Oct. 2, 2003, to say documents were missing and to ask him where they were.
"With his guilty plea today, Mr. Berger acknowledged that as a former high-ranking government official he understood the rules and regulations," said Noel Hillman, chief of the Justice Department's public integrity section.
"His conduct was intentional and what he did was wrong. He has taken criminal responsibility."
Berger removed what officials said were five nearly identical drafts of a document called the Millennium After-Action Review, which dealt with security issues raised by the Al Qaeda plot to attack Los Angeles International Airport in 2000. The plot was foiled by an alert border guard in Washington state in 1999 in what many senior officials considered a lucky break.
Associates said Berger had taken one document on Sept. 2, 2003, and four others on Oct. 2, 2003, to give himself more time to compare versions.
The report, a multi-agency review of security, was written by former National Security Council terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. It remains secret but is believed to have contained suggestions for policy changes to tighten security and root out Al Qaeda cells in the United States.
According to the published accounts, the recommendations included increasing the number of terrorism task forces around the country, assigning more agents from the Internal Revenue Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service to trace the money and people flowing into the country.
Berger went to the National Archives to review those and other documents in preparation for testifying before the Sept. 11 commission. Some observers have speculated that Berger may have feared that because the Clinton administration did not implement all the recommendations, it could be accused of leaving the country vulnerable to the terrorist attacks.
The Sept. 11 commission barely referred to the documents, though lead prosecutor Hillman stressed that copies of all the documents Berger took were available to the commission.
"Nothing was lost to the public or the process," Hillman said.
In a nearly empty courtroom, Berger stood and said, "Guilty, your honor," when asked how he pleaded to one misdemeanor charge of knowingly removing classified documents. He formally accepted the Justice Department's recitation of how he had lied and destroyed some of the documents.
In addition to removing the five documents and lying about his actions, Berger acknowledged that he destroyed three of them with scissors.
His associates strained to explain the puzzle of why he destroyed three documents but preserved two others that were nearly identical.
"It isn't a great answer but he doesn't really know," said one associate. "He knew he shouldn't destroy all of these things but he didn't want to have a whole lot of classified documents sitting around in his office."