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National Archives items go missing

An investigation is underway into a lost Clinton-era hard drive.

July 05, 2009|Larry Margasak

WASHINGTON — National Archives visitors know they'll find the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in the main building's magnificent rotunda in Washington. But they won't find the patent file for the Wright Brothers' Flying Machine or the maps for the first atomic bomb missions anywhere in the Archives inventory.

Those are among the many historical items the Archives once possessed that are missing, as are:

* Civil War telegrams from Abraham Lincoln;

* original signatures of Andrew Jackson;

* presidential portraits of Franklin Delano Roosevelt;

* NASA photographs from space and on the moon;

* presidential pardons.

Some were stolen by researchers or Archives employees. Others simply disappeared without a trace.

The Archives' inspector general, Paul Brachfeld, is conducting a criminal investigation into a missing external hard drive with copies of sensitive records from the Clinton administration. On the hard drive were Social Security numbers, including one for a daughter of former Vice President Al Gore.

Because the equipment also may include classified information, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) calls it a major national security breach.

Brachfeld has documented thousands of electronic storage devices, including computers and servers, that have gone missing over the last decade from the National Archives and Records Administration.

Grassley, who has demanded an accounting of all missing items, said the loss of historical documents "robs our nation of its history and is completely unacceptable."

The Archives' stewardship of the nation's records has been questioned before. In a well-publicized incident, Sandy Berger, who was President Clinton's national security advisor, took documents from the Archives in the fall of 2003 while preparing, along with other Clinton administration officials, to testify before the Sept. 11 commission.

In September 2005, Berger was sentenced to two years of probation, 100 hours of community service, a $50,000 fine and loss of his security clearance for three years.

Some records have been missing for decades from the Archives' 44 facilities in 20 states and the capital, including 13 presidential libraries.

"When I came here nine years ago, there was no acknowledgment that we had a problem," Brachfeld said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Since then, he has started a recovery team that attends trade shows and Civil War reenactments, and enlists the help of dealers and researchers to recover historical items that belong to the government.

The agency has two missions that sometimes are in conflict: preserving documents, and making them available to the public in monitored research rooms with surveillance cameras.

"We do not have item-by-item control," said Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper. "We can't. We have 9 billion documents. We don't know exactly what's in each of those boxes. There's no point in preserving materials that cannot be used."

Each missing historical item has its own story.

* From 1969 to 1980, the patent file for the Wright Brothers Flyer was passed around multiple Archives offices, the Patents and Trademarks Office and the National Air and Space Museum. It was returned to the Archives in 1979, and was last seen in 1980.

* In 1962, military representatives checked out the target maps for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. The maps have been missing ever since.

* In May 2004, one of FDR's grandsons asked to see a portrait of his grandfather at the Roosevelt presidential library in Hyde Park, N.Y. It couldn't be found and hasn't been seen since 2001.

* Shaun Aubitz, a former employee at the Archives' facility in Philadelphia, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 21 months in prison in 2002 for stealing -- among other items -- 71 pardons signed by Presidents Madison, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Grant, Hayes and Lincoln. The Archives recovered 59 of the records that had been sold to manuscript dealers and collectors.

* In 2005, researcher Howard Harner was sentenced to two years in prison and two years of probation, and was fined $10,000, after pleading guilty to stealing more than 100 Civil War-era documents from the Archives from 1996 to 2002. Fewer than half were recovered.

* A National Archives intern in Philadelphia stole 160 Civil War documents. About half were sold on EBay. The documents included telegrams about the troops' weaponry, the War Department's announcement of Lincoln's death sent to soldiers, and a letter from famous Confederate cavalryman James Ewell Brown Stuart.

The intern, Denning McTague, 40, was sentenced in the case to 15 months in prison in 2007. He had told a psychiatrist he was angry that he wasn't being paid for his internship.

--

Margasak writes for the Associated Press.

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