The Archives Sleuth Had a Secret

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 18, 2006

Amateur historian Matthew M. Aid made news this spring by exposing a secret federal program to remove thousands of public documents from the National Archives. It turns out that Aid harbored a secret of his own.

Twenty-one years ago, while serving as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force in England, Aid was court-martialed for unauthorized possession of classified information and impersonating an officer, according to Air Force documents. He received a bad-conduct discharge and was imprisoned for just over a year, he confirmed in an interview Monday.

Aid, 48, did not mention the incident when a Washington Post reporter interviewed him for a June profile. Aaron Lerner of Silver Spring, a Post reader whose wife, Rona, remembered hearing of the court-martial while working at the National Security Agency in the mid-1980s, recently obtained the records through a Freedom of Information Act request and provided copies to The Post last week.

Aid said Monday that what he did was wrong -- but not unpatriotic. The top-secret code-word documents in his dormitory locker related to his job as a Russian linguist, he said.

"I had the proper clearance for it, so it's not as if I stole anything," Aid said. "Basically, being a workaholic, I took stuff home with me. . . . My lawyers at the time told me that a decision had been made in Washington to make an example out of me."

As for impersonating an officer, he said: "I wrote a letter to a girl, and I was trying to impress her. And that's all I'm going to say."

Since leaving the military, Aid has spent 20 years as a corporate investigator, working for firms that specialize in digging up information for lawsuits or corporate takeover bids. In his free time, he is an avid researcher at the National Archives facility in College Park, trolling through thousands of government documents about U.S. intelligence agencies. He is at work on a history of the NSA.

Last year Aid was the first to figure out that for years the CIA and the Air Force had been withdrawing thousands of records from the public shelves -- and that Archives officials helped cover up their efforts. The ensuing scandal triggered a temporary suspension of the program this spring and a pledge from Archives officials that the public would be notified when withdrawals occur.

Aid said he suspects the release of his court-martial record is retribution for exposing the Air Force's role. "It's a typical case of selective usage of archival material to beat down somebody that you are not happy with," he said. "That's the way business is done in Washington."

Capt. David W. Small, an Air Force spokesman, denied any payback effort, saying, "Obviously those allegations are false." Small noted that courts-martial proceedings are public records.

The Lerners said their involvement was not prompted by the Air Force. Rona Lerner, now retired, said she learned of Aid's case more than 20 years ago while working in an NSA office that handled FOIA and classification matters. She periodically saw Aid's name on FOIA requests he submitted to the agency, she said.

Rona Lerner said she was "annoyed" to read that Aid, who had shown disregard for the rules of classification in the Air Force, was being celebrated for exposing intelligence agencies' attempts to inappropriately pull back declassified documents. "It was an irony that I was just taken by," she said.

So her husband put in a FOIA request for the court-martial record and sent the report to The Post. Aid said the public airing of his court-martial has always been "my worst nightmare."

"Twenty-two years without a parking ticket or anything since this happened," he said. "I've become a success and respected, and overnight that's all going to change. I've been watching the Internet to see if my name suddenly starts cropping up, because, again, that's the way things are done around this town."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company