The Amateur Sleuth Who Gave the Archives a Red Face
Thursday, June 8, 2006
The scandal over missing documents that rocked the National Archives this spring came to light not because of the digging of an investigative reporter or a timely leak by a concerned federal insider.
Instead it was Matthew M. Aid, an amateur researcher and historian, who figured out that for at least six years the CIA and the Air Force had been withdrawing thousands of records from the public shelves -- and that Archives officials had helped cover up their efforts.
"I'm a 48-year-old part-time historian who just accidentally stumbled onto something," Aid said in a recent interview. "I like things neat. And when I started getting the runaround from people at the Archives about why this stuff wasn't available, that's when I started getting angry. . . . They would not give me an explanation. Alarm bells started going off when that happened."
Aid "stumbled" onto something that everyone else missed in part because he knows the territory so well. By profession, the native New Yorker is a corporate investigator, a digger for hire who has worked for several firms that specialize in rounding up information for lawsuits or corporate takeover bids. He once told a prospective boss that he "loved paper more than life itself." But Aid's passion is history -- more specifically, the history of the U.S. intelligence community.
"Basically, I've spent my entire adult career in secrets, in one form or another," he said.
Aid's love for the subject is obsessive, so much so that he spends most of his free time and all of his vacations at the National Archives' facility in College Park. There, he trolls through thousands of old government memos, reports, cables and other documents on such far-flung subjects as CIA operations in Iran in the 1950s, Air Force intelligence reports from World War II and State Department assessments of agrarian reform in Guatemala.
"Countless generations of girlfriends called this the busman's holiday. I have no idea how to take a normal vacation," said Aid, who is single. "Any spare time I have, I run up to the National Archives to do historical research. . . . I love history because it's like solving a puzzle."
For 20 years, Aid has been cobbling together many little pieces of a particular puzzle. He is working on a comprehensive history of the National Security Agency, whose initials -- NSA -- are jokingly said to stand for "No Such Agency." Aid, a former Russian linguist for the NSA and the Air Force, began the project in 1986, largely because a fellow researcher bet him he could not do it. He writes from 4 to 9 a.m. every weekday, then begins his day job for a British company he declines to name because, he said, his employer would not like the publicity.
Two decades in, Aid said that he has completed the first of three volumes on the NSA and that the book is at a publisher. He hopes it will hit bookstores next year. He did not get an advance for writing the book and has not made a dime from his years of research.
"I'm doing this for love -- or insanity," Aid said. "It's not about money. It literally has become an obsession. I'm dying to know how it's all going to end myself."
Aid has looked through piles and piles of documents, many of them once classified top secret. He has 22 filing cabinets in his Northwest Washington apartment filled with copies of declassified material, much of it from the National Archives. He has read some documents two or three times, and routinely will ask Archives staff to pull papers he perused 10 years ago to refresh his memory or see if he can spot anything new.
It was while revisiting (or trying to) some Cold War-era State Department records last August that Aid realized documents he had seen before -- indeed, he had copies of some at home -- were no longer on the Archives shelves. He inquired about it but was given no explanation. He let it go for a while, but by October, after several other files had gone missing, he demanded answers.