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Former US National Security Adviser Under Criminal Investigation - 2004-07-21

Former U.S. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger has stepped down as an adviser to the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry. Mr. Berger left the Kerry campaign after his lawyers confirmed that he is under criminal investigation in the disappearance of classified documents.

Mr. Berger says he inadvertently removed classified documents from the National Archives last year as he was reviewing what material should be turned over to the independent commission investigating the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Mr. Berger, who served under President Bill Clinton, says he immediately returned the documents when told by the Archives that they were missing. But there are a few documents relating to anti-terrorism efforts during the millennium celebrations that are still missing.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation searched Mr. Berger's home and office earlier this year.

Lawyers for the former national security adviser say their client may have discarded the missing documents by mistake.

At the Justice Department, Deputy Attorney General James Comey declined to discuss the F.B.I. investigation but underscored that it is illegal to mishandle classified documents.

Mr. Berger, who had been mentioned as a possible secretary of state if Senator John Kerry was elected in November, stepped aside Tuesday as an adviser to the Kerry campaign.

Mr. Kerry issued a written statement saying he respects Mr. Berger's decision to step aside until the matter is resolved.

Democrats on Capitol Hill immediately questioned the timing of the revelations about the investigation, with some suggesting it was meant to distract attention away from the release Thursday of a report by the commission probing the September 11th attacks.

Senator Tom Daschle is the Senate's top Democrat. "The timing is very curious, given this has been under way now for this long," he said.

Republicans questioned Mr. Berger's motives.

The speaker of the House of Representatives, Congressman Dennis Hastert, wondered whether Mr. Berger was seeking to rewrite history and keep critical information from the September 11th commission. "I hope that action does not cloud this 9/11 Commission, and I hope they had all the information they needed to have," he said.

Mr. Hastert said he is "profoundly troubled" by the allegations.