FOR whatever reasons and under whatever circumstances, Sandy Berger, national security adviser in the second Clinton administration, removed classified documents and notes from the National Archives last year, which prompted an FBI investigation. He shouldn't have done it, and his subsequent decision to separate himself from the campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry for president was correct.
It should not be reversed, even if no formal prosecution follows from the probe.
The idea that Mr. Berger walked off with the documents accidentally is not credible. Anyone who worked in the U.S. government with classified materials for the 12 years that Mr. Berger did has it deeply ingrained in him to take extreme care to protect the security of those materials.
It is thus highly improbable that he put the documents in question into his personal leather folder and his jacket and pants pockets by mistake and carried them away. If his notes were derived from classified material, they, too, became classified and needed to be handled as such.
So why did he do it?
One theory is that he may have been purging the files of documents that would be damaging to him or to former President Clinton if they remained available to the Sept. 11 commission. This is the theory that some Republicans have jumped on to limit what they expect to be the damage to the Bush Administration that the commission's report will inflict now that it has been released.
A second theory, one that is kinder to Mr. Berger, is that he wanted to have the documents in hand to make certain that his testimony before the commission, which finally took place in March, was accurate. He was, after all, testifying under oath about events that occurred at least three years before.
That, too, strains credibility.
Mr. Berger said he "made an honest mistake." He told reporters that "everything that I have done all along in this process has been for the purpose of aiding and supporting the work of the 9/11 commission, and any suggestion to the contrary is simply, absolutely wrong.''
A missing piece in all this is why the disappearance of the documents was noticed last year by the guardians of the archives, but the matter didn't see the light of day until Monday. The timing of the release of the news may have had something to do with damage control for the Bush Administration on the report of the Sept. 11 commission.
Regardless, Mr. Kerry and his team and, presumably, Mr. Berger himself, realized quickly that the classified-documents affair made him a clear liability to the campaign, and that a quick separation was definitely in order.
Mr. Berger had been mentioned as a possible secretary of state in a Kerry Cabinet. Given the amount of baggage that senior officials from previous administrations can carry - Mr. Berger's a case in point - it makes sense to start a new administration with new faces, not retreads from previous regimes of the same party. Examples can be cited from both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
The circumstances under which Mr. Berger has been taken out of the game are regrettable. He should not have compromised classified government documents.
The silver lining is that he has been virtually ruled out for a senior post in a possible future Kerry administration.