SANDY BERGER TESTIFIES
September 11, 1997
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SEN. FRED THOMPSON, Chairman, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee: There for a while there's really an unbelievable string of events taking place. You had an individual by the name of Wong June, chairman of the Chinese International Trust & Investment Company, an 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 in February of '96. Ning Lap Sing, Mr. Wu, head of real estate development conglomerate with--from Macao. It's a notorious place where a lot of at least gambling racketeering is going on. 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. Gregory LaShinksy, international businessman linked to organized crime in Russia and the smuggling of nuclear materials, drug smuggling and money laundering, attended the dinner with the President in October of 1993, 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, 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 there being with the President or the Vice President.
SAMUEL BERGER, National Security Adviser: The answer to your final question is, yes, I think we served the President best when we are able to not only screen but often given him a piece of paper about who the person is and what questions he might ask, things the President should be aware of. I can't verify that whole list. And I don't know what percentage of the tens of thousands of people the President saw over four years that list of people constitutes. The fundamental proposition here, which is that the system best functions when there is vetting--
KWAME HOLMAN: Berger says there now is such a vetting or screening procedure in place. He was asked about a 1995 request from Democratic Party officials that Berger meet and have his picture taken with Eric Hotung, a wealthy Hong Kong businessman.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: In this memo, after describing him, it says, "The guy is straight out of Taipei in terms of his life story but a bit off the wall" in his memo to you. Did you know that he claims to have substantial contact with the people in the Chinese government and military leadership?
SAMUEL BERGER: At that time I don't know that. I relied upon my staff to make a judgment, and my staff says that he is probably more knowledgeable about China and Hong Kong affairs than almost anybody they've talked to.
KWAME HOLMAN: Berger said he was unaware Hotung's wife had pledged a $100,000 contribution to the Democratic Party at about the same time he was asked to meet with Hotung.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: It was apparently worth $100,000 to him to have a photograph taken with the No. 2 person at the NSC. I think that's--
SAMUEL BERGER: Mr. Chairman, I really--I can't accept that conclusion, first of all. I don't know the facts. But, you know, I've looked at the documents, and my impression is that he actually had already decided to give before any meeting with me came up. But this was not--at least from my perspective--related in any way to a campaign contribution. And, you know, if I had simply wanted to meet with him, Mr. Chairman, because the DNC, I wouldn't have sent it to my staff and asked 'em to vet it. He is one of the most powerful players in Hong Kong. This is eleven, twelve, thirteen months before Hong Kong reversion, which was an issue of enormous importance to us, enormous importance to the United States, and very high on my radar screen. So the opportunity to meet with someone whom my staff says is a major player in Hong Kong, even after five minutes, I think is--is a valuable one.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Even if he was a bit off the wall? I mean, that's also what they say.
SAMUEL BERGER: Mr. Chairman, let me say this. As somebody who spends his life in foreign policy, dealing with diplomats, some of the best information I get are from people who are off the wall a bit.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: You mentioned the fact that you thought it was important for the NSC to operate in a non-partisan and a non-political manner. And I would assume not only in reality but in appearance, is that correct?
SAMUEL BERGER: Yes.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: And notwithstanding that fact, I believe you were a regular participant in the President's weekly campaign strategy meetings, is that not true?
SAMUEL BERGER: I was a weekly participant in "a" campaign strategy meeting that took place in '96, that's correct.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Why were you there?
SAMUEL 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. No. 1, I wanted to make sure that in the discussion of a campaign there would in no way be in any political distortion of the President's foreign policy record. As ads were reviewed, I wanted to make sure that 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. And, second of all, in some sense I was there as a dissuasive force, not as a persuasive force; that is, I was there to make sure foreign policy wasn't a subject of a discussion that had a high level of political content.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Were you afraid the President would make some foreign policy without you?
SAMUEL 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, and--
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: I won't ask you to name which ones.
SAMUEL 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 the discussion of any foreign policy issues. So part of my being present I think that was effective was that foreign policy really wasn't discussed in those meetings. In a sense, I was a kind of living stop sign.
KWAME HOLMAN: As to the cases in which questionable people got into White House events over the objections of national security officials, Berger says he believes the warnings never reached the President's schedulers. The committee resumes its hearings next week.
JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner has more.
MARGARET WARNER: And joining us now are two members of the committee: Republican Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois. Senator Cochran, what most disturbs you about what you heard this week?
SEN. THAD COCHRAN, (R) Mississippi: I think we are seeing a continuation of evidence pile up to indicate that the Democratic National Committee officials were prepared to intercede in behalf of those who contributed large sums of money to the Democratic National Committee to try to get special access, to get favorable consideration for projects or other views that they might want to express to senior members of the administration; that there were regular meetings that involved a lot of people from the Democratic National Committee on a regular basis at the White House, where money was talked about, fund-raising techniques and strategies discussed, including the use of the President and the Vice President for making fund-raising calls personally and having coffees and other uses of the White House, itself, to reward contributors, or to encourage contributions for the campaign effort, all clearly in violation, it seems to me and many other observers of election laws, and even the President's counselor on legal matters advisory that he had sent out to all White House staff before the campaign cycle began.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Durbin, your view of what we heard this week. Do you, is that your assessment?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, (D) Illinois: Well, I agree with Sen. Cochran. There were some things that were disturbing, and they related to the question of access in the White House. This is no excuse, but I will say that most of the things that were alleged were not new in nature. Specifically, they may have been new with new players involved, but there was ample evidence of this sort of thing having happened with previous administrations and previous Presidents. But having said that, that is no excuse. I think what Sandy Berger told us today was that the White House has taken extraordinary steps now to make sure that they clear the people who are coming in who see the President and Vice President. I think we have to keep in mind that the White House is one of the most historic buildings in America. It's the President's home, but it also an office building, one of the most important in our nation. We want to make sure that it is accessible even to those who are not American citizens, but we don't want the wrong people coming in. We can't expect an FBI check on everyone coming through the door, but you certainly ought to use good judgment. And if somebody has a questionable background and that information is known, then I think we ought to think twice about giving them access to the White House.
MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Cochran, let me ask you, following on that access question, something that DNC Chairman Fowler said. He said he saw nothing inappropriate or wrong about the chairman of a major political party helping friends and supporters gain access to senior administration officials. And he said that's what congressmen do all the time.
SEN. THAD COCHRAN: This was an interesting part of his testimony. And he pointed out that he would do the same thing for those who didn't contribute and for those who did contribute to support the party financially. But the evidence was very clear that he even got around some of the decisions made by the National Security Council about who should be permitted access to the President for the purpose of getting photographs, or getting to witness the regular weekly radio address. And this raises questions about who was really making these decisions, who should make those decisions. And now they have changed the guidelines. And one person now will receive those requests from the Democratic National Committee chairman if they come in in the future. That is an improvement, and that's encouraging that changes are being made.
MARGARET WARNER: I just want to make sure I understand what you're saying. Are you saying you agree with Chairman Fowler that there's nothing intrinsically improper, it's just that the wrong people shouldn't be given access, or do you think he--it was improper for him to do it?
SEN. THAD COCHRAN: Well, this is a judgment that others can make. And, you know, I draw my conclusions that it was highly irregular to be granting access to people who've made large contributions, have personal business interests, that might not be consistent with U.S. national policy, our own trading rules, which we hope are fair for U.S. exporters and U.S. businesses. Are foreigners being given special treatment because of special access through the Democratic National Committee? In a few instances that could have happened.
MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Durbin, same question to you in terms of the way the system is set up now. Is there anything intrinsically improper in the chairman of a major political party getting this access, or is it just a question of what kinds of people he does it for?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I think you have to draw some clear and bright lines. In this case, Mr. Tamraz was the object of most of our inquiry.
MARGARET WARNER: Explain briefly. He's an American businessman with Lebanese connections, oil financier, trying to get U.S.--at least backing for a big pipeline project in Central Asia.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: And he's been a player on the Washington scene for a long, long time. He's been recommended by both political parties for various types of recognition, but the fact is--and I think this is an interesting bottom line for all of the so-called access that Mr. Tamraz had--he came up empty-handed. The administration refused his request and said it was inconsistent with American policy. But I agree with Sen. Cochran. It is a fact of life that politicians do at least grant access to themselves and maybe try to provide access to others, but we have to use good judgment in terms of the people who are given that access. I personally would be reluctant to be contacting the Central Intelligence Agency, for example, on behalf of someone. That really, I think, kind of gets close to the line. And I think that was the reason why Mr. Fowler's testimony was controversial. Having said that, let me tell you, I think he's an honest and honorable man who did a good job, did the best that he could under very difficult circumstances, and I think he had a tough week here, but, by and large, he did a fine job for the nation and for the party.
MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Cochran, let's go back to the other issue you raised in your opening answer, which had to do with Vice President Gore and his fund-raising practices, phone calls. There was a lot of--a lot of memos introduced I guess it was yesterday or this week in testimony about whether he knew what kind of money he was raising, hard or soft money. What is your conclusion after hearing that testimony? And explain, if you can, briefly also why that distinction is important.
SEN. THAD COCHRAN: One of the documents that was put into evidence and made a part of the hearing record was a memorandum that went to the President and the Vice President and others at the White House as well describing how the funds that were going to be raised from phone calls from the President and Vice President would be allocated at the Democratic National Committee. The first $20,000 of any contribution would be considered money that could be used in federal election campaigns, so called hard money. Anything over that would go into a soft money account that could be used for non-election or not-election campaign purposes like party building activities and the like. The reason that's important is that the attorney general has suggested that there was nothing really against the current law that for a person like the President and the Vice President to make calls raising soft money, or for non-federal campaign purposes. And that's what the Vice President said he thought he was doing. But these memos that came to both of them and to others on their staff clearly showed that the money was going to be federal campaign purpose fund-raising. And that makes it subject to an interpretation that would mean that they violated the law.
MARGARET WARNER: Follow up--
SEN. THAD COCHRAN: And this is a decision the attorney general is going to have to make. Does this trigger the independent prosecutor statute? Many think that it does.
MARGARET WARNER: And briefly, do you--did you conclude from that that the Vice President knew?
SEN. THAD COCHRAN: Well, that's something the Vice President has to answer and the President as well. There were call sheets for the President, 10 separate call sheets that were submitted to him by Harold Ickes were made a part of the record.
MARGARET WARNER: Deputy White House Chief of Staff.
SEN. THAD COCHRAN: And the memorandums said that they were being given to the President as he requested. He had requested them. And the President hadn't made a comment about whether he did or did not. But that's an interesting development too. And one of the call sheets said that the person wanted to contribute only if the money could be used for his campaign efforts.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me let Senator--
SEN. THAD COCHRAN: To show that it would be a prohibited call in the first place.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Senator Durbin what were your conclusions on this question, after hearing this, this week?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, it's a legal tangle and what the facts were and what the Vice President knew, we're going to have to wait and see. And I trust Attorney General Reno, who was investigating it. I think her professional judgment is good. She's shown that in the past, but the bottom line here is we can clear this up and a lot of other things if we can have real campaign finance reform. Today, 45 Democratic Senators, all of us, signed a letter saying we're prepared to vote for McCain-Feingold, bring it to the floor. There are three Republican co-sponsors. We now have 48 votes ready to move forward and change some of these laws and improve them. We need two Republican Senators who will step up and say they'll join us. Then we can say to the American people not only can we point out the sins of the past, we can start changing this system so that voters have more confidence in the next election process.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with what I think Sen. Cochran was saying? Do you think that all of this makes it more likely that Janet Reno will recommend the appointment of an independent counsel?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, I'm not sure that that's going to happen. And I'll tell you why. There is ample evidence that if those calls took place from the White House, it wasn't the first time a President or Vice President did that. In the Regan administration President Reagan made telephone calls, other Presidents have done it, Senators have done it, members of the House have done it. You know, the bottom line is, are we going to call for a special prosecutor and convene a grand jury and get deep into this investigation over whether Al Gore made forty-six or sixty phone calls from the wrong telephone? I really wonder if that rises to the level where we should be engaging this kind of procedure and prosecution?
MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Cochran.
SEN. THAD COCHRAN: These--I must say that these are just additional elements in a pattern of very serious abuse of our current campaign laws, a disregard for the rules that we have that prohibit the use of federal properties, federal resources for fund-raising, and federal election campaigns. Whether you're talking about the Vice President or the President, other senior officials of the administration, it was clearly intended to use the White House to reward contributors, to encourage contributions, to directly solicit from the White House contributions to the Democratic National Committee. That's all prohibited by law, we think. And we should underline it. The reforms ought to be to remind everybody what the laws are and insist that they are obeyed. We do need--
MARGARET WARNER: All right.
SEN. THAD COCHRAN: --to make some changes. I agree with that. But it's not necessarily the changes recommended in this one bill for reform.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you, Senators, both of you very much for being with us.