Me­dia cover-up of the Berger out­rage

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - JOEL MOW­BRAY

With the re­lease of an in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion two weeks ago, we now know that for­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Sandy Berger not only know­ingly flouted laws for han­dling clas­si­fied doc­u­ments, but he went to in­cred­i­ble lengths to cover his tracks and thwart in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

While Mr. Berger’s “pun­ish­ment” was a pit­tance of a fine, for­mer Pen­tagon an­a­lyst Larry Franklin has been fi­nan­cially ru­ined and sen­tenced to 12 and a half years for pass­ing along far less­clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion to unau­tho­rized third par­ties.

Un­for­tu­nately, dis­pro­por­tion­ate jus­tice is in­her­ent to the le­gal sys­tem. The writ­ten play­book might be the same for var­i­ous cases, but dif­fer­ent judges and dif­fer­ent dy­nam­ics can lead to dra­mat­i­cally dis­parate re­sults.

But what ex­cuse is there for the wildly dif­fer­ent me­dia cov­er­age of the two cases, both of which came to pub­lic at­ten­tion in the sum­mer of 2004?

Given the na­ture of each man’s ac­tions and the starkly dif­fer­ent sta­tus each en­joyed in the pub­lic eye, the me­dia ac­tu­ally was jus­ti­fied in pro­vid­ing dis­sim­i­lar cov­er­age. Only the press got it ex­actly wrong.

One man ver­bally dis­closed clas- si­fied in­for­ma­tion de­void of sources or meth­ods. The other snuck five dif­fer­ent ver­sions of a top-se­cret doc­u­ment out of a se­cure fa­cil­ity.

One was a low-level ca­reer bu­reau­crat, while the other was just a few years re­moved from be­ing the pres­i­dent’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor. One man co­op­er­ated with au­thor­i­ties and didn’t even re­tain a lawyer be­fore be­ing in­ter­ro­gated, while the other lied to in­ves­ti­ga­tors and then in­ten­tion­ally de­stroyed ev­i­dence.

While con­ser­va­tive news out­lets rev­eled in the Berger story, the main­stream me­dia was at best blase. Of all the ar­ti­cles about Mr. Berger’s case — from the reve­la­tion that he was the sub­ject of an in­quiry through the re­cent re­lease of the Na­tional Archives in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­port — only one made it to the front page of ei­ther The Wash­ing­ton Post or the New York Times. Cov­er­age of Mr. Franklin’s case, how­ever, earned that dis­tinc­tion more than a half-dozen times.

The Franklin af­fair started out with a bang. Over seven days, start- ing in late Au­gust 2004, The Wash­ing­ton Post pub­lished six dis­tinct sto­ries, three of which landed on the front page. It was a siz­zling story. Some­one who worked in the Pen­tagon seen by the me­dia as too pro-Is­rael was sus­pected of pass­ing na­tional-se­cu­rity se­crets to the Jewish state. The Post even im­plied that five oth­ers — all Jews with “strong ties to Is­rael” — might also be spies.

In the end, the FBI’s full-court press only net­ted one con­vic­tion of a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial. Mr. Franklin plea-bar­gained to three counts, in- clud­ing pass­ing clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion to an Is­raeli gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial and two men at pro-Is­rael lobby AIPAC. (The trial of Steven Rosen and Keith Weiss­man is slated to be­gin by the spring.)

Ac­cord­ing to some­one with in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the leaked draft pres­i­den­tial di­rec­tive, the doc­u­ment con­tained no sources and no meth­ods. It had no sen­si­tive ma­te­rial of any kind. It was noth­ing more than a pol­icy pa­per — just a few pages that re­sem­bled an opin­ion-edi­to­rial — ad­vo­cat­ing tougher diplo­macy, notwar, in deal­ing with Iran.

Re­porters at The Post and the New York Times worked over­time to find new an­gles in the Franklin case, and that ef­fort yielded con­sid­er­able ink. On the Berger case, though, the mega news­pa­pers sim­ply re­ported sto­ries as in­for­ma­tion came out. There was no dig­ging, no in­ves­tiga­tive pas­sion. Even the dis­clo­sure of the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­port only hap­pened be­cause of a free­dom of in­for­ma­tion re­quest filed by the As­so­ci­ated Press.

The main­stream me­dia’s palpa- ble dis­in­ter­est in the Berger case is hardly jus­ti­fied. Many ques­tions re­main unan­swered. Of the few ex­pla­na­tions Mr. Berger and his de­fend­ers have ac­tu­ally pro­vided, none passes the laugh test.

Mr. Berger claimed in court last year that smug­gling clas­si­fied doc­u­ments out of the Na­tional Archives was about “per­sonal con­ve­nience,” but the in­spec­tor gen­eral re­port states that he walked out of the build­ing and down the street, found a con­struc­tion site, looked to see if the coast was clear, then slid be­hind a fence and hid the doc­u­ments un­der a trailer.

Which part of that elab­o­rate pro­ce­dure was “con­ve­nient”?

Ac­cord­ing to the New York Times story last April fol­low­ing Mr. Berger’s guilty plea, “As­so­ciates at­trib­uted the episode to fa­tigue and poor judg­ment.” While ly­ing to au­thor­i­ties is bad judg­ment, it is also il­le­gal. And how ex­actly did fa­tigue drive Mr. Berger to use his scis­sors to shred three ver­sions of the topse­cret doc­u­ment?

De­spite the re­port’s dev­as­tat­ing blow to Mr. Berger’s ex­cuse ma­chine, it was buried. The Post dumped it on page 7, and the New York Times ex­iled it to page 36.

Re­flect­ing — or per­haps be­cause of — the re­spec­tive me­dia at­ten­tion is the jus­tice meted out to each man. Pres­i­dent Clin­ton’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser will not see the inside of a jail cell. His $50,000 fine sounds big, but it’s roughly equiv­a­lent to a few weeks out of his princely salary. Mean­while, Franklin has lost half his pen­sion and was given a stiffer sen­tence than sev­eral Is­lamic ter­ror­ists con­victed in the very same court­house.

Just don’t ex­pect the Post or the Times to point that out.

Joel Mow­bray oc­ca­sion­ally writes for The Wash­ing­ton Times.

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