By all accounts, the unannounced FBI raid on former President Donald Trump’s Florida residence is unprecedented in U.S. history. What does have a precedent, however, is the theft and destruction of sensitive government materials by former presidential advisors. Consider, for example, former Clinton National Security Advisor Samuel “Sandy” Berger.
The Cornell and Harvard Law grad met Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1972 while serving as a speechwriter for George McGovern. During their 1992 campaign, the Clintons tapped Berger as their top foreign policy adviser and, once in the office named him deputy national security advisor under Anthony Lake.
In 1997, the Clintons promoted Berger to National Security Advisor, and he was heavily involved in advising the president on the terrorist attacks on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Berger was unable to prevent those attacks but he did gain fame on the home front.
Berger served as a representative to the 9/11 Commission, which gave him special access to classified material about the Clintons’ record on terrorism. In 2004, several months before his testimony, Berger slipped into the National Archives and ripped off classified documents and notes. The former National Security Advisor, a kind of Agent Double-O $2.98, stuffed documents into his pants and wrapped some papers around his socks. Berger stashed the stolen material on a construction site then returned to retrieve it.
This was a serious crime, but Berger cut a deal with the Justice Department to stay of jail, pay a $50,000 fine, and avoid a full explanation of what he had ripped off. No word of any sudden raids or other actions by the FBI. Berger also lost his security clearance but the matter did not end there. As Ronald A. Cass noted in 2007, the D.C. Bar began to probe what Berger had stolen and why he stole it.
To keep from answering those questions, Berger duly surrendered his law license. For Cass, author of The Rule of Law in America, that decision confirmed Berger “must be hiding something important. And if it is that important to him, it is also important to us.” Most likely, the stolen material “points to a terrible mistake by Berger himself, by President Clinton, or by both” in failing to stop al-Qaeda.
What was at stake, Cass explained, was “more than the prospects for Hillary Clinton becoming the Democrats’ presidential nominee and ultimately the President” because “our security and vitality of the rule of law in America are at stake as well.” Even so, the Justice Department failed to pursue the case, the media were not interested, and Congress opted for “more promising political fodder than one that might point back to the Clintons.”
Despite his document theft—or perhaps because of it—Berger became a big star with prominent Democrats. In 2014, President Obama invited Berger to a private dinner with a group of foreign policy experts. Berger was a big promoter of the Iran deal, and when he died in December 2015, the president praised him as one who “devoted himself to strengthening American leadership” and a man “remembered fondly within the ranks of the National Security Council, where those he mentored carry on his work.”
Sandy Berger “helped shape foreign policy” under President Clinton, proclaimed the Washington Post, and Berger was later “engulfed in legal tribulations over his unauthorized removal and destruction of classified documents from the National Archives.” No word of Berger’s “theft” or the commission of a “crime” by the former national security official.
“Mr. Berger made repeated trips to the National Archives to refresh his memory about the Clinton national security team’s work to foil a bin Laden plot,” the obituary explained. “He was caught smuggling out a handful of sensitive documents, destroying some at his office, and lying about possessing them.”
The Post is not curious about what these classified documents contained. For his part, Berger “continued to advise political leaders, including Hillary Clinton,” who also had a thing about classified material.
The former first lady and secretary of state kept reams of sensitive data on her unsecured home-brew server. When some 30,000 emails sparked interest, she bleached the server clean and smashed up phones and other devices. Clinton’s actions violated several statutes, but the FBI never conducted a surprise raid.
FBI boss James Comey, a longtime Clinton crony, contended that no reasonable prosecutor would take up the case. Hillary Clinton stayed in the race and lost to upstart Donald Trump, the target of FBI covert operations both as a candidate and as president. With Trump now out of office, the FBI conducts a surprise raid on his residence, the first such operation against a former president of the United States.
Embattled Americans could be forgiven for believing that the object of the FBI raid is to prevent Trump from running again. Like Ronald Cass in the Berger case, if they believed the rule of law is at stake, it would be hard to blame them.
Meanwhile, the midterms are coming up in November, and 2024 is just around the corner. As Trump likes to say, we’ll have to wait and see what happens.