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Sen. Thompson Questions NSA Sandy Berger

Aired September 11, 1997 - 11:30 a.m. ET

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, just a moment ago the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee got under way and resumed hearings. Today the witness is the highest-ranking official of the Clinton administration yet to testify before this committee. He is Sandy Berger, the president's national security adviser. As you can see, he has just taken the oath and seated himself at the witness table. Let's listen.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON (R), GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS CHMN.: Thank you very much. Mr. Berger, we do appreciate your being with us this morning. I know that it's not unprecedented for a person in your position to come to the Hill and testify, but it's not an every day occurrence, to say the least. It is appreciated by this committee. We, of course, will avoid any matters that have to do with national security matters. Any thing that we might get into in that area can be taken up in closed session. But it will not be necessary to get into that in open session.

So, if you would, please generally explain the responsibilities of the National Security Council and the roles played by the assistant to the president for national security affairs and the two deputies.

SANDY BERGER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The National Security Council itself, Mr. Chairman, was established almost 50 years ago by Congress, and as a formal matter consists of the president, the vice president, and his senior cabinet officials.

The NSC staff, which is the functioning day to day operation, is essentially the professional foreign policy staff that serves as chief adviser to the president and vice president on foreign policy matters, seeks to coordinate the various departments and agencies with responsibility on national security, seeks to assure that the president has the best advice possible to make decisions, is engaged in managing crises, and implementing the policies where the president makes a decision.

THOMPSON: I believe that during President Clinton's first term while Mr. Lake was head of the NSC, that you were his deputy during that time and that his philosophy was that the NSC should operate in a non-partisan, non-political manner. Is that correct?

BERGER: That's correct, Mr. Chairman. I think Mr. Lake was very clear himself and generally that foreign policy should be conducted on a non-partisan, bipartisan basis which is something that I also believe in very strongly.

THOMPSON: All right, sir. What positions did Nancy Soderberg

hold at the NSC during President Clinton's first term?

BERGER: At the outset of the first term, Mr. Chairman, she was, her title, I believe, was chief of staff. And probably two or two and a half years into the first term, her title changed. She became deputy national security adviser, deputy assistant to the president for national security. The same title that I had during the first term.

THOMPSON: All right. Excluding NSC-sponsored events or meetings, when you arrived in January of '93, were there any procedures in place for vetting foreign nationals who were to come into contact with the president or vice president?

BERGER: There were not, Mr. Chairman. If I could just step back one period in time. I was also chairman of the transition for President Clinton in 1992. We had a very careful review of the NSC as part of our effort of preparing to assume our responsibilities. That indicated no system was in effect prior to our arrival, either.

THOMPSON: Did you attempt to institute such procedures during President Clinton's first term?

BERGER: There was not a formal system, Mr. Chairman. There was, I think, an informal ethic or an informal set of principles that Mr. Lake made very clear, that we should do our foreign policy work in a non-partisan way, to the greatest extent we can, but there was not a formal system in place.

THOMPSON: There was no requirement, in other words, for people to vet individuals with the NSC?

BERGER: That's correct. Nor had anyone asked the NSC to undertake that responsibility, as I take it has been the case in previous administrations going back as far at least to the Nixon administration.

THOMPSON: All right. As I believe you've testified, or stated in interview, that it was more or less an ad hoc thing during that period of time. Is that a correct...

BERGER: It was an -- I would say it was an informal system where in some instances, as we now look back on it, the NSC, an NSC staff person was asked for their judgment or asked for their evaluation of an individual and would render that opinion, but it was not -- it was not done on a systematic basis, and that's why I initiated a new set of procedures when I became national security adviser.

THOMPSON: All right. Secondly, was there any procedure as to what someone should do at the NSC if they were contacted directly by a political person, such as a member of the Democratic National Committee, or any other political entity?

BERGER: Well, there were rules about being contacted by DNC people for political purposes. There were no rules about being contacted for non-political purposes.

I have initiated a process whereby any contact made to the NSC staff from the DNC would only come to one individual: my deputy, Mr. Steinberg. And that's an effort to make sure that we can keep total control of any contacts from the DNC.

THOMPSON: Were there procedures in place before the procedures that you instituted that you just referred to?

BERGER: In terms of vetting?

THOMPSON: Yes. And...

BERGER: There were no formal procedures...

THOMPSON: In terms of...

BERGER: There was an ethic, there was a general understanding on the part of the NSC staff that foreign policy should be conducted in a non-partisan way. And -- but there was no system in place.

THOMPSON: All right.

BERGER: Nor have we been asked to initiate such a system. But I would say -- from even looking back on it -- although there wasn't a system, that, in my judgment, when the NSC staff members were asked their advice, they did a very credible job.

THOMPSON: Up until, let's say, the first term -- and you've talked to people who had held similar positions to yours in prior administrations also, I believe -- when you decided, or Mr. Bowles instructed, that new procedures be instituted. Did you not?

BERGER: Yes, I did.

THOMPSON: Is it fair to say that during the prior administrations and during the first Clinton administration there was not any real perceived need for a vetting procedure such as the one that you finally decided that you did need?

BERGER: I'm trying to characterize, not only my own views but the views of a number of other national security advisers. I don't think, during the first administration, we saw that there was a problem. We did not see any instance foreign policy being adversely affected, and therefore did not see it -- did not have this on our radar screen.

THOMPSON: Well, you don't want to wait -- you decided, I assume, you don't want to wait until foreign policy was adversely affected before you addressed the problem, not only of appearances but the possibility that within the future there might be some adverse foreign implications...

BERGER: Absolutely.

THOMPSON: ... after all, legitimate concerns.

BERGER: Absolutely, Mr. Chairman. We -- I initiated the system,

not only because Mr. Bowles, as part of a larger system of dealing with the White House, gave us certain responsibilities, but I felt very strongly that we needed to have a much clearer system; much more clarity for staff people so that there would not be any questions about how these things should be handled, despite the fact that I think our staff people did a good job because there was not a clear procedure. Obviously, questions get raised, and I wanted to protect them in some ways, as well as protect the president and protect the process.

THOMPSON: Because before there was a procedure, although the NSC staff might do its job, it can't do something that it doesn't know anything about, can it?

BERGER: That's certainly true.

THOMPSON: If someone doesn't bring a situation to you, then you likely don't know about it.

BERGER: In the situations that were brought to our attention, I think the NSC staff people generally handled things well.

THOMPSON: Well, you're familiar...

BERGER: Obviously they were not, we were not asked in all situations, and I think others, the president and others, have said that the system was inadequate.

THOMPSON: Right. We'll get to that and we'll look in more detail in a moment. Well, you're familiar with the situation with Mr. Roger Tamraz, at least what's been disclosed publicly. Mr. Fowler, I believe the record will indicate, contacted the NSC staff, Sheila Heslin, on behalf of Mr. Tamraz, who was a large DNC contributor, in an effort to get her to drop the NSC's opposition to Mr. Tamraz seeing the president. As you know, the record before us is that the NSC voiced objections and raise serious concerns. Breakfast with the vice president -- Mr. Tamraz was going to be present. Mr. Tamraz was disinvited from that breakfast. And Mr. Fowler then called the NSC to try to get Mr. Tamraz back into the White House, and we know that subsequently, one function or another, he got back in four different occasions. What do you know about that situation where Mr. Fowler or Mr. Tamraz called the NSC? I'm sorry. Mr. Fowler called the NSC?

BERGER: Mr. Chairman, I have no personal knowledge of that situation. What I know of it I know after the fact, after the stories in the newspapers and what has been reported. So I have a very, very sketchy understanding of it. My understanding is that, again from not direct knowledge, is that Mr. Fowler contacted Ms. Heslin. She was concerned that he might misrepresent his relationship to the White House. She contacted Ms. Soderberg, who at that point I believe was deputy national security adviser. She in turn contacted Mr. Fowler, and in unmistakable terms in her view, and I suspect knowing Ms. Soderberg, they were unmistakable views, made it clear that he should not pursue this.

THOMPSON: All right. On that point, Ms. Soderberg has told us the same thing, that she explained to him in unmistakable terms what

she thought about the situation. Tell us what you understand from her that her response to Mr. Fowler was.

BERGER: Excuse me? Mr. Fowler?

THOMPSON: What do you understand Ms. Soderberg's response to Mr. Fowler was?

BERGER: I believe Ms. Soderberg thought he heard the message clearly and understood.

THOMPSON: That what?

BERGER: That Mr. Tamraz should not meet with White House officials.


BERGER: Well, again, this gets, you know, this gets beyond what I know, Mr. Chairman. I have not -- since the campaign, these have been matters that have been handled by the counsel's office, not by the NSC. We've been trying to do our job in foreign policy. So I don't have personal knowledge of the facts, nor have I gone back and reconstructed the facts. These investigations are being handled not only in this committee but by other offices in the White House.

THOMPSON: Would situations like the Fowler call to Ms. Heslin be handled any differently now under the new procedures that you've instituted?

BERGER: Yes. First of all, I've made it clear that I want all calls from Mr. Fowler or the -- anybody from the DNC to be made only to Mr. Steinberg. Mr. Steinberg is my deputy and is obviously a senior person and is able to make those judgments better than our professional staff very often can -- and presumably, in consultation with me.

Now, there are legitimate reasons why the DNC might call the White House. They might want to know the president's position on a particular issue or other purposes. But those calls would be made only to Mr. Steinberg. And if he felt it was appropriate, presumably in consultation with counsel, he would proceed on that basis.

So the process is much more tightly controlled. No direct contacts between the DNC and the White House -- and the NSC -- excuse me.

THOMPSON: All right.

Was there a time during the president's first term that it was brought to your attention or you otherwise had any information about the fact that foreign nationals were getting into the White House and having contact with the president or vice president without being vetted by the NSC?

BERGER: I don't believe there was, Mr. Chairman. After the fact, I know of some instances. But I saw -- you know, I was in

contact with the president almost every day. We were engaged in making foreign policy. There was no evidence in the context of making foreign policy of any extraneous influences on that. And so, I did not see this problem on the radar screen.

THOMPSON: Our record indicates that there were several instances here where people that presumably certainly would be of interest, and would have been of interest to the NSC had you known about it, were not vetted and were sent into the White House, apparently at the behest of the DNC in most occasions with some relatively low-level staffer over at the White House knowing about it, but leaving it up to the DNC to make the call.

BERGER: I don't know how many instances there were, Mr. Chairman. But I don't think that's the way it ought to proceed. And it's not the way it's going to proceed.

THOMPSON: Well, that's what I understand. And that's a good move. But we've seen instances in times past, as we've said before, you know, we've got to look at the past and see where we were there in order to be able to look at the future and see if we're headed in the right direction now. It certainly seems that you are.

But there for a while it was really an unbelievable string of events taking place. You had an individual by the name of Wang Jun -- the chairman of the Chinese International Trust and Investment Company, and the arms manufacturing company, which is run by the People's Liberation Army, connected to a plan to smuggle assault rifles into the United States -- attended a coffee with the president on February 1996.

Ng Lap Seng, Mr. Woo -- head of real estate development conglomerate with -- from Macao, that notorious place where a lot of at least gambling racketeering is going on; a business partner of Charlie Trie; sent hundreds of thousands of dollars into here, into the states through Mr. Trie -- got into the White House about 10 times.

Roger Tamraz -- who we have talked to, over really the objections of the NSC -- managed to get into the White House, I believe, six times, including seeing a movie with the president. Grigori Loutchansky -- international businessman, linked to organized crime in Russia, the smuggling of nuclear materials, drug trafficking and money laundering -- attended a dinner with the president in October, 1993. It was not at the White House, I might add, but that's another question.

And other individuals who, although these kinds of questions about them do not arise, it certainly would be people, I think, the NSC would have been interested in. The head of the CP group, single- largest foreign investor in China, attended a coffee along with other officials from the CP group. Yim Van Wong (ph), Singapore billionaire, business partner of Mark Middleton, attended the radio address.

Carlos Mercan (ph), chief economic adviser to President Juan Carlos Wasmosy of Paraguay attended a coffee with the

president. PRC businessmen with Johnny Chung, attended a radio address of the president, and it concerned the president so much that he didn't want the photographs of that meeting to be released.

So all of those are instances that were happening there, and I take it that you were not aware of this disturbing pattern of activities and, but, I also assume that had you been aware that you would have been interested, or the NSC would have been interested in checking on who these individuals were and whether or not there were any adverse implications to their being with the president or the vice president.

BERGER: Let me say a couple of things in response to your question, Mr. Chairman. First of all, the answer to your final question is yes, I think we serve the president best when we are able to not only screen, but often give him a piece of paper about who the person is and what questions he might ask and what things the president should be aware of. I can't verify that whole list and I don't know whether at what percentage of the tens of thousands of people the president saw over four years that list of people constitutes. A few of them, I think, that you mentioned, actually aren't foreign as I understand it. I don't believe Mr. Chung is -- I think he's an American citizen, I don't know him. But the fundamental proposition here, which is that the system best functions when there is vetting -- is foreign individuals I agree with. That has not been the practice of NSC or the White Houses as far as I can tell for the past 30 years, but it is the practice of this White House under this president and this administration.

THOMPSON: As far as you know, for the past 30 years there's not been anything like the number of questionable characters going in and out of the white house either on numerous occasions.

BERGER: I'd rather not make those comparisons. There have been obviously hearings like this that have taken place with respect to previous administrations and I...

THOMPSON: I would add the first term of the Clinton administration as far as we know -- up until the '95-'96 time frame. I believe you said in your interview that you didn't really know that the DNC had the ability to get anybody on the president's schedule. Is that right?

BERGER: Well, I think the way the procedure -- As I understand the procedure works now, the DNC must work with a White House political officer or White House office in order to schedule events at the White House. That is the way I would assume things should work.

THOMPSON: All right, sir. Now, Mr. Berger, a couple of other points and I know that others want to ask you some questions. You mentioned the fact that you and Mr. Lake both thought it was important for the NSC to operate in a non-partisan and a non-political matter. And I would assume not only in reality, but in appearance, is that correct?


THOMPSON: And, not withstanding that fact, I believe you were a regular participant in the president's weekly strategy meetings, is that not true?

BERGER: I was a weekly participant in a campaign strategy meeting that took place in '96. That's correct.

THOMPSON: Why were you there?

BERGER: I was there -- I was asked to attend, but I was there, I think my attendance was appropriate, Mr. Chairman, really for two reasons. Number one, I wanted to make sure that in the discussion of the campaign there would in no way be a political distortion of the president's foreign policy record. As ads were reviewed I wanted to make sure someone was there that was familiar with the president's foreign policy record so that if an ad mentioned a trade position or a leadership in the world position there was someone there who knew whether it was accurate. So, number one, I was there, in some ways, partly dissuasively to make sure that there wasn't discussion of political issues in any serious way in those meetings and to make sure there was no distortion of the president's foreign policy record.

And second of all, quite honestly, I thought there ought to be somebody from the foreign policy side of the shop that had some general familiarity with the campaign -- its basic themes, its basic message -- because the president in 1996 was both president and candidate. And the extent to which there were basic themes and messages of the campaign, it was important obviously that our foreign policy comments and messages were at least not inconsistent with that. And so both -- or, for example, just in understanding the demands on the president's time -- I think we were in a better position knowing over the next two weeks what kind of demands would be on the president's time, which would have obviously a direct and constraining impact on what we were able to suggest the president do in the foreign policy area.

So I think my participation there was appropriate. These were large meetings. These were not small, close-hold decision-making meetings. They were essentially largely briefings on the campaign.

THOMPSON: But they were weekly campaign strategy meetings, were they not?

BERGER: I think that's the way they were described.

THOMPSON: And let me see if we get the attendance right here -- Mr. Mark Penn and Doug Shawn (ph), pollsters; Dick Morris; Bob Squires; Peter Knight; Evelyn Lieberman; Harold Ickes; sometimes Senator Dodd, who was co-chairman of the DNC; and other senior staff. Would that usually comprise the group that would meet?

BERGER: The president and the vice president, Mr. Panetta, senior domestic policy people, senior people on the White House staff on communications, a good part of the senior White House staff was at these meetings. These, again, were not the small, inner-sanctum making decisions. They were basically a more general briefing on where the campaign was and where it was headed for the next week.

THOMPSON: But I take it that they would review ads and television commercials and that sort of thing?


THOMPSON: Ads they were planning to run and ads that were being considered?

BERGER: One of the things that would frequently happen is that ads would be aired. I was particularly concerned that to the extent the president's foreign policy record was represented in those ads that they were accurate. And had there been no one there from the foreign policy shop...

THOMPSON: Obviously, if there's something that affected Interior, the group or someone could have brought in the secretary of interior, or something that affected Commerce. Anybody can be brought in if they're needed in a particular area. The question is, who's going to be a part of that core campaign group? And you were a part of that core campaign group.

BERGER: Well, here's the difference, I think, Mr. Chairman, respectfully, in terms of Department of Interior and my being there. In some sense, I was there as a dissuasive force, not as a persuasive force. That is, I was there to make sure that foreign policy wasn't the subject of a discussion that had a high level of political content.

THOMPSON: You were afraid the president would make some foreign policy without you?

BERGER: No, it wasn't a question -- not the president, but there are a lot of political consultants there who are smart people, and some of them are smart people.


THOMPSON: I won't ask you to name which ones.

BERGER: And I wanted to make sure that, you know, if they thought the president ought to say so-and-so and so-and-so about his trade record, that really wasn't the place to make -- have that discussion or have a discussion of any foreign policy issues. So part of my being present -- and I think it was effective -- was that foreign policy really wasn't discussed in those meetings, since I was kind of a living stop sign.

THOMPSON: All right. I'm sure we'll want to discuss that a little further. But there's another point I want to make in the time that I have here.

On October 4, 1995, you met for five minutes and had your picture taken with Eric Hotung, a British citizen who lives in Hong Kong. Let me read a portion of the e-mail sent to you by a member of your staff on October 3rd regarding this photo session. That's exhibit 1082 for the members.

It says: "Sandy, a request has come in from Doug Sosnik's" -- sorry -- "Doug Sosnik's office for you to have a five-minute photo op with Eric Hotung. Sosnik's office got the request from Chairman Fowler. If you don't know Hotung, he's a fabulously wealthy Hong Kong businessman who also heads an institute dedicated to promoting U.S.- China relations. I think a photo op would be fine. But I'd try not to sit down with the guy." End quote.

Prior to having your photo taken with Mr. Hotung, had you ever met him before?


THOMPSON: Did you know about Mr. Hotung prior to having your photo taken with him?

BERGER: Well, let me try to reconstruct this the best I can, Mr. Chairman. First of all, I don't have any recollection of this at this point. It is a five-minute encounter almost two years ago in the next few weeks. As I reconstruct this, however, a request came in from Mr. Sosnik, who is on the White House staff. Apparently, he had gotten that request from Mr. Fowler, that I see him briefly and have a picture taken.

I vetted that with my staff, my Asia director, Mr. Roth. They knew Mr. Hotung. They knew him to be a serious man. They knew him to be a man of substance. That memo, that e-mail says it's fine, and I went ahead and met him, presumably exchanged a few words and had a picture taken.

Now, I would ad only one thing, Mr. Chairman. Now, under the new rules, this would be handled differently in one respect, and that is that -- at least in one respect. And that is the request of Mr. Roth would be stripped of any political affiliation so that there could be no question that he was being asked simply to render his judgment of whether this was worthwhile or valuable or acceptable on a foreign- policy basis.

THOMPSON: I might go ahead...

WOODRUFF: As Sandy Berger, the president's national security advisor, answers questions from Sen. Fred Thompson about some -- as Sen. Thompson put it -- unsavory characters who got into the White House, we're going to take a local cable break. Our live coverage of these Senate hearings will continue in just a moment.

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Continued: Sen. Thompson Questions National Security Adviser Sandy Berger

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