The Absent Minded Adviser

The New York Sun, July 2004

SANDY BERGER WAS doing what? He was stuffing those documents where ?

What the hell was he thinking? That’s the question everyone is asking. But even the most nimble conspiracy theorists can’t figure this one out. Was he trying to keep something from the 9/11 Commission? That doesn’t make sense: The pilfered papers were photocopies, not originals. Was he planning to give them to the Kerry campaign? No logic in that, either. Kerry serves on the Foreign Relations Committee — he could have perused the National Archives whenever he wanted. Our former National Security Advisor has achieved a neat trick: He has engaged in behavior so moronic that it defies interpretation.

So what was he thinking? I’ve wondered about questions like this for a long time. In fact, stupid security lapses are the subject of my novel about love and laxness at the CIA, Loose Lips. There may be some kind of sinister logic to the Berger case. But before reaching for the conspiracy theory, it’s wise to keep in mind that unfathomably stupid security blunders are remarkably common, even among people who should obviously know better. Consider the following cases.

The former Director of Central Intelligence, John Deutch, placed a private diary detailing the CIA’s most sensitive covert action programs on an unsecured computer in his home, which he then used to surf the Internet and exchange e-mail with foreigners — one of them a Russian, no less. Someone in his household used that same computer to frequent the Web’s more exotic pornography libraries. Any hacker of average talent could have snuck through the open Internet connection, helped himself to some 17,000 pages of Top Secret documents, taken a brief tour past the amateur housewives, then erased all trace of himself.

This wasn’t even Deutch’s first screw-up. At the Defense Department he was prone, apparently, to shoving the computer memory cards and disks that contained his daily journal in his shirt pocket and transferring them to his home computer — this while simultaneously issuing memos reminding his employees that only properly reviewed and cleared information should be placed on insecure computer systems.

Shortly before the Deutch scandal broke, another senior CIA analyst was discovered to have done exactly the same thing. A senior CIA analyst? The head of the intelligence community? What were they thinking?

Whatever they were thinking, they weren’t alone in thinking it. Soon afterwards, someone at the CIA sold 25 laptop computers at a public auction without checking first to see whether they contained classified information (and what else would there be on a CIA computer? Copies of TurboTax?) This wasn’t discovered until a perplexed purchaser reported that there seemed to be some weird Top Secret… stuff on his new hard drive.

It’s not just the CIA. An unsupervised State Department laptop computer containing thousands of classified documents about arms proliferation simply disappeared one day from a conference room. Evidently, an official had left it there unsupervised — and propped open the door.

One of the FBI’s most senior counterterrorism officials left a report outlining every counterespionage and counterterrorism operation in New York in a Florida hotel room.

In Los Alamos, hard drives containing classified nuclear information disappeared and then popped up, like missing socks from the dryer, behind a photocopier.

Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos nuclear scientist initially suspected of spying for the Chinese, appears simply to have been a monumental slob.

A scandal concerning mishandled military documents at Guantanamo Bay recently turned into a double scandal when Army officials transferred classified evidence to an uncleared civilian attorney.

The laptop computers of British intelligence officers disappear from car trunks and subway stations with such regularity that I plan to look for one at Paddington Station when my antiquated model finally gives up the ghost.

Then, of course, there is the heroine of my novel, Selena Keller. A CIA Clandestine Service Trainee, she’s caught sending e-mail to her family containing details of the CIA’s classified training program. What the hell wasshe thinking? Now that, I can tell you. “Why did I write those letters?” she asks herself.

It’s simple. I just didn’t think. Screwups always say that. ‘You drank eleven margaritas and then you tried to run that dang chain saw?’ I just didn’t think. ‘You put your hand in the polar-bear cage and you tried to pet all that fluffy fur? I just didn’t think.

Of course, once she’s caught, she thinks about it plenty.

There’s a special hell reserved for people who do something stupid. Your mind traces and retraces the moment you did what you can never take back, no matter how much you will it. If only you could reverse history by replaying the scene in your mind, over and over again. Each time you give the story a different ending, and each time you realize the ending willnever change. How many times did Bill Clinton think how it might have been: No, Monica, absolutely not. I’m a married man, I’m twice your age, and I’m the president of the United States. How many people before me, how many after, have rued a carelessly whispered word, an indiscreet letter, a confession in a moment of passion or tenderness?

It appears to be surprisingly easy, psychologically, for people with access to classified material to become careless. Just as people who drive every day become inured to the fact that automobiles are lethal deathtraps, people who handle sensitive material every day tend to forget that loose lips really do sink ships.

So what was Berger thinking? He probably wasn’t thinking. He may, perhaps, have been thinking, “Gee, this chair is really hurting my butt, I guess I’ll just take these papers home and read them on my nice comfy couch.”

One thing is for sure: He may not have been thinking then, but he’s sure thinking now. He’s going over those moments again and again in his mind, wishing he could reverse history and knowing that he can’t.

And another thing is certain, too: He’s feeling just as stupid as he appears.

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