Anatomy of a smear: Sandy Berger “socks” shocker; Lies, blind quotes, and innuendo rampant in Berger coverage

On July 19, the Associated Press was the first to report that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating former Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger for allegedly illegally removing classified documents and personal notes from the National Archives last fall during preparations for his appearance before the 9-11 Commission.

This much is known: Berger and his lawyer, Lanny Breuer, have said for the record that: 1) Berger inadvertently put several copies of classified documents into a leather portfolio he was carrying; and 2) that Berger put handwritten notes, which he had made while reviewing the documents, in his jacket and in his pants pockets.

But rumors and confusion abound in media coverage:

Media confuses originals and copies. As the story unfolded between July 20 and July 22, conservative pundits have run with speculation that Berger removed original classified documents, rather than copies, from the archive and then destroyed them as part of a cover-up. But there is no evidence to support this accusation; in fact, according to The Washington Post, "The documents removed were copies; the National Archives retained the originals."

Media propounds rumor that Berger placed documents in his socks and pants. It was reported -- notably by CNN -- that Berger put the classified documents into his pants and/or his socks -- allegations that Breuer has said are “false” and “ridiculous” and for which there is no on-the-record substantiation. This reportage was then amplified by MSNBC hosts Chris Matthews, Joe Scarborough, and Pat Buchanan; by the New York Daily News and the New York Post; by Ann Coulter and Kellyanne Conway; by a slew of right-wing columnists like Linda Chavez and Cal Thomas; and by right-wing radio show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage. Worse still, some of these same media outlets and media personalities falsely attributed to Berger and his lawyer the claim that Berger had put the classified documents into his pants and/or socks -- even after Berger and his lawyer said Berger had not done so.

Media confuses Berger's removal of copies of classified documents with his removal of his own handwritten notes. According to a New York Times article, the legal issue for Berger largely will rest on his claim that he removed copies of classified documents by accident. Berger's lawyer told the Times that the removal of handwritten notes is a “technical” violation; according to a July 22 Washington Post article, it is a “violation of Archives rules.” Berger's defense is plausible only if the media asserts it accurately -- that Berger removed the copies of classified documents inadvertently in his leather folder and removed his own handwritten notes by putting them in his pockets.

Yet in media coverage monitored by Media Matters for America, these unresolved issues -- which are still under investigation -- metastasized into a portrait of a man who had supposedly stolen original secret documents to withhold them from the investigative authorities by covertly sticking them down his pants and in his socks. Only a smattering of “sources,” unnamed government and law enforcement officials, and baseless assertions have been cited to back up this portrait. The net effect was seemingly to convict Berger in the media before the investigation has run its course and before all the facts are known.

MMFA has examined two main threads of the still-unfolding Berger story -- what Berger took and where he put it -- and has documented other dubious assertions, including outright statements of guilt, bizarre conspiracy theories, and comparisons of the Berger matter to the Watergate scandal.

#1: Berger stole original documents and destroyed them

9-11 Commission spokesman Al Felzenberg has stated that the commission is not missing documents. “This is a matter between the government and an individual,” he told USA Today. “They were not our documents, and we believe we have access to all the materials we need to see to do our report.”

Yet this statement did not end the speculation in The Washington Post and the assertions by Limbaugh, FOX News Channel host Sean Hannity, Coulter, and CNN host Tucker Carlson that Berger removed the documents in order to hide them.

In a July 21 article, Washington Post staff writer Susan Schmidt reported, “The documents that were removed were copies; the National Archives retained the originals.” Yet, in the same article, she hinted at the possibility of a cover-up: “Even as Berger acknowledged his actions, it remained unclear the degree to which they stemmed from carelessness or an intentional effort to hide and remove the documents, along with notes of the materials he was reviewing.” She did not explain how Berger would have succeeded in hiding anything by removing only copies and not originals.

Media conservatives were bolder, repeatedly claiming that Berger had removed and/or destroyed incriminating documents in order to prevent the 9-11 Commission from seeing them -- claims belied by the commission's own statement and by The Washington Post's report that the documents were “copies.” (FOX News Channel host and radio host Bill O'Reilly was an exception here, saying, “I want to stay away from the speculation. But even so, he's not going to cover up anything because the 9-11 Commission had access to all of the original documents. They were going to see what Berger saw, whether he took these copies out or not.”)

  • Radio host RUSH LIMBAUGH: The stuff that was stolen, the stuff that's probably now been shredded, the stuff that he just inadvertently, sloppily can't find, you know what the -- those documents contained? Elements of evidence that Al Qaeda was in the country in 1999. [7/20]

  • FOX News Channel co-host SEAN HANNITY: The only reason I can imagine that he would do this is to cover something up. And that would be that he found something there that made him, Bill Clinton, his administration, look bad, and that politics is being played here. That is a serious charge. And I don't know if we'll ever be able to get to the bottom of it, because who knows what happened to a lot of these documents.


    Hannity's guest and right-wing pundit ANN COULTER: That's right. No, that's right. And if he is going to be engaging in a way, subjecting himself to criminal investigation and probably prosecution, they must have been pretty damning documents, presumably suggesting Al Qaeda may not have been the A-number one priority of the Clinton administration as they have been saying. [FOX News Channel, Hannity & Colmes, 7/20]

  • CNN Crossfire co-host TUCKER CARLSON: [T]here is nothing random about the documents he took. Berger stripped the files of every single copy of a single memo which detailed the Clinton administration's response to the Y2K terror threat. [7/22]

  • MSNBC Hardball host CHRIS MATTHEWS also suggested a cover-up: What would be worse, he removed documents to destroy them and keep them from reaching public light as to the role the Clinton administration played or didn't play in fighting terrorism after the millennium incident back in -- back in the -- in the Clinton administration, or that he simply took the documents to help make a case for the Kerry nomination, the Kerry presidency? [7/21]

Notwithstanding Breuer's unchallenged assertion that Berger took only copies and his own handwritten notes, and notwithstanding the commission's confidence that it had access to all relevant information, FOX & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade described the issue of what was taken as “critical” and questioned the commission's level of confidence.

  • FOX & Friends co-host BRIAN KILMEADE: It is very critical. There were number of drafts of that report. It is some of those drafts that are missing. One of the government spokespersons for the 9-11 Commission says they are “confident” they didn't say they are sure. They are “confident” that they have all the documents. [7/21]

#2: Berger stuffed documents down his pants, hid them in his socks

At the beginning of the news cycle on July 19, the Associated Press reported that Berger and his lawyer said that he had put handwritten notes in his jacket and pants. By referring to “pants,” rather than “pants pockets” this report fostered the impression that Berger had done something highly unusual; and by asserting that Berger and his lawyer acknowledged that this is what happened, the AP allowed the “pants” claim to be accepted as fact.

  • THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: Berger and his lawyer said Monday night he knowingly removed handwritten notes he had made while reading classified anti-terror documents at the archives by sticking them in his jacket and pants. [7/19]

In fact, contrary to the AP's suggestion that Berger acknowledged “putting documents in his ... pants,” Breuer was quoted in The New York Times on July 21 saying that while Berger had put his handwritten notes in his jacket and pants pockets, “If there's a suggestion that he's shoving things down his pants, that is categorically false and ridiculous.” Thus, the distinction Breuer drew in the Times that had been obscured in the AP story -- putting handwritten notes into pants pockets versus putting handwritten notes into pants -- was all but lost.

  • One exception came during a panel discussion on FOX News Channel's Special Report with Brit Hume: Roll Call executive editor and regular FOX News Channel contributor Morton M. Kondracke and National Public Radio national political correspondent Mara Liasson both made the distinction as they debated syndicated Washington Post columnist and FOX News Channel contributor Charles Krauthammer.

From the July 21 edition of FOX News Channel's Special Report with Brit Hume:

KRAUTHAMMER: Well, it's not going to be a political impact, but it is a puzzle. What was stuffing in his pants and why?

KONDRACKE: You know -- you know, there is a part of your pants called your pockets! It makes it a little less nefarious.

KRAUTHAMMER: I don't know anybody who stuffs in his pants inadvertently. I mean he had a reason ...

LIASSON: Maybe it was his pockets.

KRAUTHAMMER: It would be interesting. And obviously, it was done in a way so that he would not be discovered as he left the room.

In much subsequent coverage, the distinction between the classified documents and the handwritten notes was also lost; Berger's “stuffing” or “shoving” of documents in his pants became the media shorthand for what had happened. Of course, if Berger had stuffed the classified documents in his pants, rather than putting his handwritten notes in his pants pockets, his defense -- that he had removed the classified documents inadvertently by mixing them up with other papers in his leather portfolio -- would be rendered implausible before the investigation could reach a conclusion.

  • LIMBAUGH: Ah, and I'm tempted to call this “Trousergate.” [laughter] But I'm trying to keep this on the up-and-up. But since we're talking about stuffs -- the things stuffed in the pants, it's hard to even do that. [7/20]

  • FOX News Channel Hannity & Colmes co-host HANNITY: How many people do you know shove documents down their pants?

    [Hannity was interviewing former Berger spokesman P.J. Crowley, who questioned his source for the characterization. Hannity replied that he had read it in the Associated Press and other newspapers.] [7/21]

  • Syndicated columnist CAL THOMAS: That Berger felt a need to slip some of the classified documents in his jacket and stuff others in his pants may say something about his true motive. [7/20]

  • In the July 22 edition of The Washington Post, in an apparent effort to clarify the muddle of fact and rumor to which the paper had arguably contributed, staff writers John F. Harris and Susan Schmidt compounded the problem. By failing to state clearly Berger's defense -- that he inadvertently mixed copies of classified documents with his own papers in his leather portfolio and that he placed his own handwritten notes in his jacket and pants pockets -- the story set up a direct conflict between Breuer's assertions that Berger inadvertently took copies of classified documents and the Post's assertion that “Berger was witnessed stuffing papers into his clothing.”

The morning after the AP story was published, CNN reported on July 20 that Berger had put documents in his socks, making Berger's defense that he had taken the documents inadvertently even more implausible. CNN national correspondent Bob Franken reported, “There are two law enforcement sources, however, who tell CNN chief justice correspondent, Kelli Arena, that Berger was seen stuffing some of the documents in his socks."

When CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer asked Breuer about the socks story between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. (ET) on Wolf Blitzer Reports, the lawyer called it “categorically false and ridiculous.” Yet the very next day, the socks story was either being treated as fact, with no on-the-record substantiation (the New York Daily News;; MSNBC's Matthews and Scarborough; Ann Coulter; Tony Blankley; and Kellyanne Conway), or was the subject of credulous speculation (FOX News Channel hosts E.D. Hill, Steve Doocy, and John Gibson, as well as Linda Chavez and

  • MSNBC Hardball guest TONY BLANKLEY, editor of The Washington Times' editorial page, described the effect: Look, CNN, which is not a tabloid, was reporting that they have some source, government source, saying he was putting it in his socks. There is a big difference between putting something in your pocket, which you can do almost inadvertently. ... And stuffing it down a trouser or in a sock, which obviously bespeaks an attempt to be covert. [7/21]

  • host CAM EDWARDS: Apparently the staff there in this secure reading room noticed Sandy Berger stuffin[g] his -- stuffing his pants and his socks and his jacket with items. [, Cam & Company, 7/20]

  • ANN COULTER: Right. I think that's the important question that no one is asking, what was he hiding when he inadvertently stuffed the documents in his pants and in his socks. And I know that liberals... Somehow they leave the room, and two witnesses see him putting them [the documents] in his socks and his pants. [Hannity & Colmes, July 20]

  • NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: But Berger's bizarre actions -- including allegations that he stuffed some documents into his socks -- could not help but fuel GOP cries of a coverup. ... An Archives staffer reported seeing the papers sticking out of a leg of Berger's pants, saying “it could have been white socks, except that [Berger] was wearing a dark suit,” according to a government source. [7/21]

  • NEWSMAX.COM: Law enforcement officials are contradicting denials from Sandy Berger's lawyer and two friends who say the former national security adviser never stuffed super-secret 9/11 documents into his socks during three or more visits to the National Archives last fall. Reports CNN's Bob Franken: “Three law enforcement sources talking to CNN's Justice Department correspondent Kelli Arena [say] they saw him, or that he had been seen, putting documents in his socks.” [7/21]

  • MSNBC Hardball host CHRIS MATTHEWS: Right, but you don't jam it in your socks though if that's what you're... [7/21]

  • MSNBC's Scarborough Country host JOE SCARBOROUGH: Day two of Sockgate and still no charges against the former Clintonite. ... What could he [Berger] have been doing with these documents that he reportedly was stuffing in his jacket, his pants and his socks? [7/21]

  • Republican strategist KELLYANNE CONWAY: And look, I'm sure it's never an opportune time to find out that one's national security advisor may be a thief. And it certainly is plausible that he innocently took those documents, but when you innocently pick up a file that doesn't belong to you, you usually don't stick it in your socks or in your pants. [FOX News Channel, The Big Story with John Gibson, 7/21]

  • Syndicated columnist LINDA CHAVEZ: Surely it was an innocent mistake, former Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger's stuffing classified documents into his pants, jacket and perhaps even his socks before leaving the National Archives building last fall. [7/20]

  • FOX News Channel FOX & Friends co-hosts STEVE DOOCY and E.D. HILL:

    DOOCY: By the way, what was the name of the cat during the Clinton administration? ...Socks. ...Coincidence?

    HILL: I don't think we know exactly where he says -- where he stuffed the documents. We've heard the briefcase. We have heard his socks. We've heard his pants. We've heard his coat. [7/21]

  • FOX News Channel host JOHN GIBSON: Did Sandy Berger purloin secret documents? Did he stuff them in his clothes, his pants, and even his socks to secrete the secret out of the National Archives? These are the facts that matter. [The Big Story with John Gibson, 7/21]

Internet gossip Matt Drudge and FOX News Channel not only reported the socks story but falsely attributed it to Berger and his lawyer. Hannity, Savage, Buchanan, and the New York Post made the same false attribution.

  • DRUDGE linked to FOX News' report claiming that “Berger and his lawyer said Monday night he knowingly removed the handwritten notes by placing them in his jacket, pants and socks.” [7/20]

  • ABC Radio Host SEAN HANNITY: Now Berger, through his lawyer -- in typical Clintonesque fashion -- said he knowingly removed the handwritten notes, he placed them in his jacket, he stuffed them. ... [laughing] And he rolled them up in his socks. I mean, I don't know whether to laugh or cry at this thing. ... But see, stuffing -- here's a former national security adviser; he knows the rules and regulations about this and there he is, stuffing his jacket, his pants and his socks and then -- quote -- inadvertently I took copies out in my leather portfolio. I deeply regret the sloppiness of sticking them in my pants, the sloppiness of sticking them in my socks, the sloppiness of stealing them. [7/20]

  • Right-wing radio host MICHAEL SAVAGE: Berger and his lawyer said last night, he knowingly removed the handwritten notes, by placing them in his jacket, pants, and socks, and also inadvertently took copies of actual classified documents in a leather portfolio. ... The Democrats would like that because it would go away. It would all be dismissed as just a-- sort of a prank. Sort of a college prank. That he just simply took top secret documents and stuffed 'em in his underwear. [Savage Nation, 7/20]

  • From a July 20 discussion between MSNBC host JOE SCARBOROUGH and his guest, MSNBC analyst PAT BUCHANAN:

    SCARBOROUGH: Sandy Berger ... took highly classified documents and allegedly stuffed them in his trousers and socks.


    BUCHANAN: Look, this man said that he inadvertently took them with him. But apparently, he stuck them in his socks, in his pants, everywhere on his body.


    SCARBOROUGH: But why would somebody like Sandy Berger do -- why would he go into a secure location, gather these documents, stuff them possibly in his socks, in his pants, in his jacket...


    BUCHANAN: The likelihood ... is that he came across something that was so embarrassing or so humiliating or so incriminating that Sandy Berger put his career on the line. His lawyer said he put these things in his socks.

  • NEW YORK POST editorial: "[I]t wasn't just his pants into which Berger says he stuffed a bunch of classified documents to sneak them out of the National Archives: He crammed some into his socks, too." [The Post ran a screaming headline, "SOCKED."] (7/21)]

Finally, some media figures were not content to simply spread unsubstantiated rumors. MSNBC's Chris Matthews invoked Watergate. Others spun or revived discredited conspiracy theories.

  • MSNBC Hardball host CHRIS MATTHEWS: If you had heard about someone else, say, on the other side politically or anywhere else, someone on the Republican side, that someone had gone in the National Archives during the Watergate affair, for example, and had turned out to be taking stuff out of the room that they weren't supposed to, would you assume they were bad guys? [7/21]

  • CNN Crossfire guest ROB GRAY, Republican strategist: It may well be another Democrat who doesn't like Sandy Berger [who leaked word of the investigation to reporters]. It may be the first volley in the Hillary '08 campaign. He's a John Kerry foreign policy adviser. She doesn't want to see John Kerry win. [ 7/21]

    [Media Matters for America has documented numerous instances of conservatives suggesting that Senator Clinton wants Kerry to lose in November to clear her path to the White House in 2008.]

  • LIMBAUGH: One thing we can be sure of, ladies and gentlemen, is these missing documents will not show up in the Map Room of the White House like the Rose Law Firm billing records, unless there is a former Clinton administration official who can worm his way back into the White House and plant them there -- and Sandy Burglar, stay away from Fort Marcy Park [in Northern Virginia, where former White House deputy counsel Vince Foster's body was found after he committed suicide]. [7/20]

    [Media Matters for America has documented other recent instances in which Limbaugh referred to Fort Marcy Park in an attempt to resurrect the long-discredited right-wing claim that Foster was murdered and that the Clintons were involved.]