Commentary: Politics and National Security Don't Mix Anymore

Mansoor Ijaz
Anyone who has visited Sandy Berger at his White House offices knows his penchant for burying himself in paper – mounds and mounds of paper. Like the good lawyer he once was, in the chaos of his disorganized stacks, he found security that somehow he was doing his job to the best of his abilities. Or so the American people were led to believe.

No one should question his patriotism, or desire to protect American interests or even his work ethic, as a result of yesterday’s revelations that he walked out of the U.S. National Archives last October with some of America’s most sensitive national security documents.

But for future reference, we have every right to question Mr. Berger’s judgment in taking pre-meditated actions – stashing away handwritten notes in his pants and jacket – that demonstrates what happens to men and women in public service who are subjected to such enormous pressures, like those that a catastrophic 9/11 type of attack can bring to bear, that they are prepared to do anything to restore the luster to their public service records.

"That is what yesterday’s revelations are really about. Politicizing the intelligence assessors and gatherers, not just the intelligence."

That is what yesterday’s revelations are really about. Politicizing the intelligence assessors and gatherers, not just the intelligence. Those who exposed Mr. Berger’s travails wanted to prevent his ascension into another position of responsibility (he was rumored to be interested in the CIA Director’s job if John Kerry were to win the White House in November) where he might repeat the same mistakes he made during the mid 1990s. Those who defended his actions, like his former boss, President Bill Clinton, as the innocent sloppiness of an overworked, underpaid public servant, wanted desperately to prevent further damage to his reputation in order to prevent further damage to theirs.

It is highly unlikely that Mr. Berger took any action last October to help the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, because at the time his actions were taken, nobody knew who the nominee would be. Or at least it was certainly not believed that Mr. Kerry would be the nominee.

In its purest analysis, Mr. Berger’s actions were about the need to restore perceptions of his stalwart defense of American national interests when he knows deep in his heart that the 9-11 attacks occurred, at least in part, because he repeatedly failed to see the broader scope or understand the visceral hatred of America’s enemies as he slumbered over the mounds of paper on his desk. That he doesn’t accept at least part of the responsibility that was inherent in his job as national security adviser for what happened to 3,000 innocent people on that horrendous day, is testimony to the seething arrogance of power which can suffuse well-intentioned men like Mr. Berger.

I am witness to some of the harm caused to our collective security from the failures of Mr. Berger and his colleagues, failures covered up by an arrogance that permeated the behavior at every level of his national security team. The same arrogance of power that gave him the sense he could overturn the entire U.S. government’s interagency decision-making process in October 1997, (which would have resulted in American intelligence officials gleaning important insights from Sudanese intelligence files about Al Qaeda’s blossoming network) is the same arrogance of power that six years later, in October 2003, made him believe he was above the rules when he repeatedly removed the only document that he could find which was critical of his team’s efforts to stop terrorism from rearing its ugly head on American soil (in that document, Richard Clarke apparently concluded that Al Qaeda’s Millennium plot to attack America was foiled by luck, not prudent preventive measures, a fact that has reflected poorly on Mr. Berger’s assertions to the contrary).

And the list of similar failures goes on, and on, and on…

Politicizing intelligence became a hallmark of the Berger years as national security adviser. Unfortunately, as we have now seen on Iraq and other tough national security decisions taken by the Bush White House, keeping politics out of intelligence gathering and analysis is a tall order.

Creating competitive intelligence gathering, dissemination, and analysis centers is an important cornerstone to preventing politicized assessments from being made before they reach our policymakers’ desks.

Separating functions of the intelligence community so those who vet our nominated officials are not answering for their paychecks to those who hire the same officials is another.

But only the American people’s judgments of who we have making the final decisions can prevent political machinations from overtaking prudent decision-making in our future governance. That is why this year’s election is so important, and why whether it was several months ago, now, or later, the exposure of Mr. Berger’s travails has taught us all an important lesson.

His personal lapses demonstrate the highly individual nature of the pressures men and women face in taking on the nation’s toughest jobs, and how pressing it is that we, the American people, choose with great care those who we want making the decisions that affect our security.

We can never de-politicize intelligence gathering and analysis completely, and surely holding Mr. Berger accountable for his actions will deter others in the future from making similar mistakes. But just once it would be nice to see a senior American national security or intelligence official accused of wrongdoing, whether a judgment lapse or a criminal offense, apologize to the American people for betraying the highest trust we can offer – that of the future safety and security of our children in their hands.

Mansoor Ijaz is chairman of New York-based Crescent Investment Management. He negotiated Sudan’s offer of counterterrorism assistance on al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden to the Clinton administration in 1997 and co-authored the blueprint for the ceasefire of hostilities in Kashmir in the summer of 2000. He serves as Fox News Foreign Affairs analyst.