National Archives missing many items

Records include NASA photos, military maps

By Larry Margasak
Associated Press / July 5, 2009
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WASHINGTON - National Archives visitors know they’ll find the Declaration of Independence, the US 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.

Many historical items the Archives once possessed are missing, including:

  • Civil War telegrams from Abraham Lincoln.

  • NASA photographs from space and on the moon.

  • Presidential pardons.

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

    And there’s more gone from the nation’s record keeper.

    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 that of one of former vice president Al Gore’s daughters.

    Because the equipment also may include classified information, Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, calls it a major national security breach.

    Grassley, who has demanded an accounting of all missing items, said the loss of historical documents “robs our nation of its history and is completely unacceptable.’’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, President Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, took documents from the Archives in the fall of 2003 while preparing, along with other ex-Clinton administration officials, for testimony to 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.

    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.

  • A 40-year-old 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 famed Confederate cavalryman James Ewell Brown Stuart.

  • A financially strapped Denning McTague was sentenced in the case to 15 months in prison in 2007. He had told a psychiatrist that he was angry that his internship was unpaid.