WASHINGTON -- Former national security adviser Sandy Berger, who once had unfettered access to the government's most sensitive secrets, pleaded guilty yesterday to sneaking classified documents out of the National Archives, then using scissors to cut up some of them.
Rather than the ''honest mistake" he described last summer, Berger acknowledged to US Magistrate Deborah Robinson that he intentionally took and deliberately destroyed three copies of the same document dealing with terror threats during the 2000 millennium celebration. He then lied about it to National Archives staff when they told him documents were missing.
''Guilty, your honor," Berger responded when asked how he pleaded.
Robinson did not ask Berger why he cut up the materials and threw them away at the Washington office of his Stonebridge International consulting firm. Berger, accompanied by his wife, Susan, did not offer an explanation when he addressed reporters outside the federal courthouse following the hearing.
''It was a mistake, and it was wrong," he said, refusing to answer questions.
Noel Hillman, chief of the Justice Department's public integrity section, would not discuss Berger's motivation, but said the former national security adviser understood the rules governing the handling of classified materials. Berger only had copies of documents; all the originals remain in the government's possession, Hillman said.
The charge of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of a year in prison and up to a $100,000 fine.
However, under a plea agreement that must be approved by Robinson, Berger would serve no jail time but pay a $10,000 fine, surrender his security clearance for three years, and cooperate with investigators. Security clearance allows access to classified government materials.
Sentencing was set for July 8.
The court appearance was the culmination of a bizarre episode in which Berger, who once had access to the government's most sensitive intelligence, was accused of sneaking documents out of the National Archives, which houses the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and other cherished and top-secret documents.
The Bush administration disclosed the investigation in July, just days before the Sept. 11 Commission issued its final report.
Democrats contended the White House was using Berger to deflect attention from the harsh findings, with their potential for damaging President Bush's reelection prospects.
After news of the probe surfaced, Berger acknowledged he left the National Archives on two occasions in 2003 with copies of documents about the government's antiterror efforts and notes that he took on those documents.
He said he was reviewing the materials to help determine which Clinton administration documents to provide to the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He called the episode ''an honest mistake" and denied criminal wrongdoing.
Berger and his lawyer, Lanny Breuer, have said that Berger knowingly removed the handwritten notes by placing them in his jacket and pants and inadvertently took copies of actual classified documents in a leather portfolio.
He returned two copies of a sensitive report on the Clinton administration's handling of Al Qaeda terror threats during the December 1999 millennium celebration.
The Associated Press first reported in July that the Justice Department was investigating Berger. The disclosure prompted Berger to step down as an adviser to the campaign of presidential candidate John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts.
Clinton was among the Democrats who questioned the timing of the disclosure of the Berger probe three days before the release of the Sept. 11 report.
Leaders of the Sept. 11 Commission said they were able to get every key document needed to complete their report.