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Parties Spar Over Investigation of Berger

With the 9/11 Commission’s final report set for release Thursday, House Republicans pounced Tuesday on the news that former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger is being investigated for allegedly taking classified documents out of the National Archives.

Berger, who stepped down as an informal adviser to Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) after the revelations surfaced, has admitted that he took copies of documents and handwritten notes out of the Archives last year as he was preparing to testify before the commission. He called his actions “inadvertent” and has apologized for his “sloppiness.”

However, House Republicans expressed skepticism of Berger’s explanations, calling for a full investigation and questioning whether the ex-Clinton administration official was up to something nefarious.

“That’s not sloppy,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said during his weekly session with reporters. “I think it’s gravely, gravely serious. … It could be a national security crisis.”

Later in the day, in an appearance with other leaders, DeLay invoked the specter of Watergate. “It looks like to me that this is just a third-rate burglary,” he said.

In a strongly worded statement, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) suggested that the revelation raised troubling questions about Berger’s motives for such behavior.

“What could those documents have said that drove Mr. Berger to remove them without authorization from a secure reading room for classified documents?” Hastert asked.

“Did these documents detail simple negligence, or did they contain something more sinister? Was this a bungled attempt to rewrite history and keep critical information from the 9/11 Commission and potentially put their report under a cloud?”

On the staff level, some discussions have already been under way about launching Congressional hearings on the issue. But Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.), whose panel has jurisdiction over the National Archives, said Tuesday that he had no plans to hold such hearings.

The timing of the Berger story is fortuitous for Republicans — so much so that Democrats, noting that the investigation has been under way for months, are assailing it as a leak motivated by partisanship.

“It seems to me that this is overly political,” said a House Democratic leadership aide. “This is two days before they release the [9/11] report, and they’re trying to deflect attention away from that report.”

For several months, many GOP Members and operatives on and off the Hill have made a concerted effort to discredit the commission, suggesting that its members are too partisan and too eager to get on television.

At the same time, Congressional Republicans have worked to shift the blame for alleged intelligence failures away from the Bush administration and toward the Clinton administration.