WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Samuel R. Berger, a former Clinton national security adviser, quit as an adviser to John Kerry's presidential campaign yesterday after he was revealed to be the subject of a criminal investigation for mishandling classified documents.
Berger acknowledged he removed classified documents from the National Archives while reviewing them for submission to the panel investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. One former government official who reviewed the documents said they were marked "code-word secret" because they contained intercepts from the National Security Agency about possible terrorist threats in Jordan.
Another source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said National Archives staff watched Berger through a glass door as he appeared to put pieces of paper in his jacket pocket.
News of the FBI investigation heightened the politically charged atmosphere surrounding the commission's final report, due to be released tomorrow. It also comes as an unwelcome distraction for the Kerry campaign as it prepares for the Democratic National Convention next week, when Kerry is to be officially nominated.
Republicans expressed suspicions of a cover-up of information that could embarrass Clinton administration officials. Democrats decried what they called politically motivated leaks.
The 9/11 commission is expected to fault the Clinton and Bush administrations for intelligence and law enforcement failures leading up to the attacks, but news reports indicate the Bush administration will draw the bulk of criticism.
"Mr. Berger does not want any issues surrounding the 9/11 commission to be used for partisan purposes," his lawyer, Lanny Breuer, said in a statement. "With that in mind, he has decided to step aside as an informal adviser to the Kerry campaign until this is resolved."
Last fall, Berger reviewed thousands of Clinton administration documents at the National Archives that were being sought by the Sept. 11 panel. Two law enforcement sources said archives officials had suspected Berger removed documents during an early visit, and made sure they secretly coded and copied records for the next time he came.
Berger and his lawyer told the Associated Press that he inadvertently took copies of classified documents in a leather portfolio and also knowingly removed his own handwritten notes. At least one document is missing even after a search of Berger's house several months ago by the FBI. Berger has expressed regret for what he called his "sloppiness."
The missing documents included versions of a critique written by Richard A. Clarke, a former White House counter-terrorism chief in the Clinton and Bush administrations, on how the government responded to a 1999 plot to attack Los Angeles International Airport and Amman, Jordan, at the turn of the millennium.
A source familiar with the investigation, who refused to be identified in any way, called the missing records "a scathing critique of the last administration's handling of the millennium plot" that offered "a whole raft of recommendations on how to move forward with protecting the United States."
Accounts differed on how many documents were missing. One source said five or six early versions of the Clarke critique - ranging from 20 to 30 pages each - were missing.
Berger had previously aroused suspicions, one source said, because several reports he had looked at were missing. The staff called Bruce Lindsey, former deputy counsel to President Bill Clinton who was a Clinton liaison to the archives, to offer a chance to clear up the issue and retrieve the records, the source said. Lindsey could not be reached for comment.
The source said the records Berger returned through Lindsey were not the same records the staff had suspected were missing, which suggested that more records were missing than the staff had realized. "That's when they started coding the documents," the source said.
When Berger returned for his next visit, the staff watched him as he appeared to put papers in his pocket, the source said. An archives spokeswoman declined to comment.
Kerry praised Berger's decision to quit the campaign.
"Sandy Berger is my friend, and he has tirelessly served this nation with honor and distinction," Kerry said. "I respect his decision to step aside as an adviser to the campaign until this matter is resolved objectively and fairly."
Former government colleagues of Berger defended his integrity yesterday, while voicing suspicion about politically motivated law enforcement leaks.
"The timing of it seems completely outrageous to me," said Daniel Feldman, who worked for Berger on Clinton's National Security Council staff. "It was leaked two days before the 9/11 commission report and before the Democratic convention."
Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert, in a statement, raised suspicion that Berger was involved in a cover-up of information critical of the former administration.
Sun staff writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.