National Archives hunts for missing treasures with recovery team

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 11:41 AM

FRANKLIN, TENN. - Among the Civil War buffs wandering through the tables of muskets and faded daguerreotypes of Union soldiers for sale here are four federal agents.

One raids houses and carries a gun. But right now he's handing out innocuous-looking brochures to the relic hunters walking by, as the sweet smell of glazed nuts wafts from a concession stand. "Does that document belong in the National Archives?" the brochure asks.

The agents have flown to a fairground outside Nashville to the country's biggest Civil War show to hunt for stolen treasure - robbed right from the nation's attic.

Whether they know it or not, the dealers may be trafficking in stolen government property. The heist may have taken place in 1865. Or last week. Or a document may not have been looted at all, but made its way into private hands instead of the Archives.

With the Civil War 150th anniversary drawing new interest, the trail could be warm.

"We're friendly," says Paul Brachfeld, inspector general of the Archives, who has gotten out of the office this December weekend to see his team in action. For the dealers, "it's an authenticity thing," he says. "If you traffic in stolen documents, it taints everything."

The tactic illustrates the new, more aggressive approach the Archives is taking in an effort to recover treasures that have disappeared from its holdings. Porous security and open access have allowed countless items to slip out of the Archives' 44 centers and presidential libraries, from the Washington headquarters to the Reagan Library in California.

The missing items include telegrams written by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War; the Wright brothers' patent for a flying machine; Eli Whitney's patent for the cotton gin; Lyndon Johnson's class ring from the Coast Guard; an official portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt; and target maps for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

'We were defenseless'

Government auditors have long warned that lax security at the Archives has allowed trusted researchers and employees to sneak past security cameras with priceless treasures, or find ways to destroy or alter government records. The problem was underscored last month when the agency accused a longtime researcher of changing the date on a pardon signed by Lincoln to make it appear more valuable. There were no security cameras at the time.

"For a long time we were defenseless, and senior managers just accepted that," said Brachfeld, who has assigned eight of his 24 agents to the Archival Recovery Team, a unit devoted to retrieving stolen loot.

"We have people alone with images and artifacts all the time," Brachfeld said. "The thieves all say how easy it was." Until not long ago, some researchers were given open access to stack areas with no supervision, officials and researchers said.

Around the time they disclosed that the Lincoln pardon was altered with a fountain pen in full view in the main research room in Washington, Archives officials instituted new security procedures they said would include random body searches as visitors leave the downtown headquarters and the massive records center in College Park.

Many heists have been carried out by insiders. In October, the team discovered one of the biggest caches of documents taken from the repository, a valuable audiovisual collection stored in the Rockville basement of the former department chief in charge of the records.

Led by a tipster, the inspector general's office raided Leslie Waffen's house and filled two trucks with boxes. Waffen, a nationally known expert, had run the Archives' audio and film department for 37 years until his retirement last June.

Waffen has been banned from the Archives. He has not been charged in the matter, although the inspector general's office is building a case against him that will include evidence that he sold sound and film recordings on eBay. His attorney, Michael Fayad, declined to comment.

Public approach

The challenge of monitoring the collection is enormous. Nationally, the collection includes 10 billion letters, maps and charts, reports, photographs, moving images and sound recordings. The holdings take up 31 million cubic feet, plus hundreds of thousand of artifacts and 6.7 billion electronic records. Right now there is no money for security enhancements beyond the Washington area.

An item-by-item inventory has never been taken. "It would be counting grains of sand, there's so much," Brachfeld said.

The Archives allow access to anyone over age 14 who shows proper identification.

"There's a fine balance between providing access and security and protection for the documents," said Richard Judson, the Archives' director of space and security management.

Government auditors described "significant weaknesses" in the Archives' security last fall, highlighting loose computer access, physical security and clearance requirements for the agency's 3,000 employees.

On an unannounced visit to a regional research room 11 months ago, the inspector general's office concluded that the holdings were "at constant risk of theft." Another investigation last summer revealed that employees were failing to refile records provided to researchers. Too many employees had access to the stacks. There was no way to ensure the records were properly accounted for.

Archives officials say they are devoting more full-time staff to patrol research areas instead of interns and requiring better training of employees who handle original documents.

But it is still possible, officials say, to walk out of a research room with a letter or photograph stashed in a sock or bra and go undetected.

"It would be very onerous to go through a detailed search of everyone's bag," Judson said.

That's where the treasure hunters, as the Archival Recovery Team is known, come in.

Brachfeld, who came out of internal affairs at the Secret Service, assembled his team of criminal investigators five years ago. He pushes an aggressive approach, appealing to the public for help as agents did at the Civil War show.

Hits and misses

Many such efforts turn up nothing; the agents dispatched to Franklin flew home to Maryland with no new leads, but a handful of new contacts.

The outreach builds trust - and generates tips. Tips and leads from document dealers have helped the agents recover about 7,000 missing items that were stolen from the Archives or never made it into the agency's possession in the first place.

"We see things from our holdings we don't know if they were stolen last week or if great-grandpa took them," said Thomas Bennett, the team's computer crimes expert.

Stolen records often show up for sale on the open market. The "only known copy" of the Potsdam Declaration signed by Harry Truman demanding the surrender of Japan in 1945 is for sale on the Web site of the online auction house Alexander Autographs. The listed price is $100,000 to $150,000. The team did not try to get it back, though. They can't pursue everything.

Among the office's highest-profile cases was a theft by former Clinton national security adviser Samuel "Sandy" Berger, who was fined $50,000 after pleading guilty in 2005 to stuffing his coat pockets and walking out of the Archives with classified counterterrorism documents.

Other recoveries include a map of Cuba with John F. Kennedy's notes in the margin. It was found after a dealer from Catonsville, Md., put it on eBay.

Ronald Reagan's high school yearbook, stolen from his presidential library in California, was returned by an employee who was exposed by a friend.

A letter Lincoln wrote on behalf of a fired U.S. Mint director five days before the Gettysburg address turned up in a private collection in Arizona before the owner agreed to donate it to where it belonged.

A year after Berger confessed, Jim Thomas was hunting for a birthday present for his brother, Dean, a Civil War buff from Gettysburg, Pa., and found for sale online a series of original letters to the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia, which supplied munitions to the Union Army. Dean recognized the letters from his research at the Archives for his books on Civil War munitions. He called the Archives. The seller turned out to be an intern at the Philadelphia branch. He confessed to smuggling more than 160 documents in the pages of a yellow legal pad. All but three were recovered.

Eighty-one boxes of records with national security value are still missing from the Archives' storage facility in Suitland, where federal agents discovered them missing last year. Between 2005 and 2007, original records from the Bureau of Indian Affairs were discovered dumped in the trash at the Washington headquarters.

Whether the crime was intentional or an accident is not known.

The FDR portrait is still missing, too. Brachfeld says he thinks he knows who did it, but doesn't have enough evidence to pursue a case.

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