1.00pm - By RUPERT CORNWELL in Washington

Sandy Berger, national security adviser under President Bill Clinton and now a foreign policy adviser to Democratic White House challenger John Kerry, is under criminal investigation for removing classified counter-terrorism documents from the National Archives in Washington.

The probe, which began several months ago but whose existence was only revealed yesterday, relates to papers which Mr Berger reviewed for three days last summer and autumn to prepare for testimony to the commission examining the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Officials at the Archives, a repository for Presidential documents, are said to have told the FBI they saw the former national security adviser place papers in his jacket and trousers, and then discovered that some documents were missing.

They include notably a top-secret review carried out in early 2000 of the Clinton administration's handling of the threat from al Qaeda during the December 1999 millennium celebrations, when terrorist attacks were widely feared, as well as hand-written notes taken by Mr Berger.

In a statement, Mr Berger admitted he improperly took some documents and notes with him when he left the Archives building, and expressed "deep regret" for his " sloppiness."

But, he insisted, he had no intention of withholding any documents from the commission. Indeed, as far as he knew, "every document requested from the Clinton administration was produced," Mr Berger declared.

The early 2000 'after-action review' was drawn up by Richard Clarke, the counter-terrorism chief at the Clinton and George W. Bush White Houses, who has since emerged as a bitter critic of what he says was the neglect of the terrorist threat by the Bush administration before September 11 2001.

Mr Clarke told the Washington Post it was "illogical" to believe Mr Berger had sought to conceal the review "because everybody in town had copies of this thing."

David Gergen, a journalist who served as an adviser at both Republican and Democratic White Houses, and had a stint alongside Mr Berger in the mid-1990s during the Clinton administration, was also sceptical: "I think it's more innocent than it looks," he said.

Moreover, the timing of the leak about the Berger probe has aroused some suspicion -- coming as it does just 48 hours before publication of the commission's report - even though the FBI investigation itself has been in progress for months.

Some Democrats saw the affair as a deliberate bid by the Bush campaign to smear their party, and divert public attention from the report itself.

The report will be critical of both the Clinton and Bush administrations, but it is the latter which may come out worse.

Not only is it expected to cast doubt on assertions by the Bush White House of links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda that were used to justify the increasingly unpopular 2003 invasion of Iraq; the report will also suggest that Iran was a far greater terrorist threat than Iraq, and actually allowed eight of the 9/11 hijackers to transit across its territory on their way to the US.

Mr Bush's critics will seize on this finding as further evidence that he went after the wrong target when he launched his war against Saddam, despite strong international opposition.

In his statement, issued jointly with Lanny Breuer, his lawyer, Mr Berger said the mistake happened after he reviewed "thousands of pages of documents" in connection with requests from the commission, and "inadvertently" took a few of them from the Archives.

After he was told that some were missing, "I immediately returned everything apart from a new documents that I had apparently discarded."

However embarrassing the latest disclosures, Mr Berger can console himself that he is not the first high ranking official to find himself in a similar predicament.

John Deutch, CIA director from 1995 to 1996, was prosecuted for keeping 17,000 pages of classified material on his home computer, and was about to plead guilty to a misdemeanour charge when he was pardoned by Mr Clinton in January 2001.


Herald Feature: September 11

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