The FBI search of a former president’s residence and the National Archives request for the Justice Department to investigate the removal of records to Mar-a-Lago are unprecedented. But a review by CBS News reveals a long — and, at times daring — history of the theft or disappearance of records belonging to the National Archives.
Some of the cases triggered federal prosecutions against historians, collectors and National Archives insiders.
The thefts of valuable historic artifacts and papers — ranging from military dog tags of a Tuskegee Airman to an audio recording of Babe Ruth — led to formal investigations by the National Archives, and later the U.S. Justice Department. The cases include theft by researchers who, at first, sought to review the records in-person at National Archives facilities.
Prosecutors alleged the cases were deliberate attempts to steal, and potentially profit, from unique historical artifacts which belong to the U.S. government.
“From the outside, it might seem like a simple mistake to take an item from the Archives. But it’s hard to say you don’t know the obligations when you handle National Archives records,” said University of Maryland law school professor Michael Greenberger, a former U.S. Department of Justice attorney.
Greenberger said the theft of archives artifacts is a “very big deal and taken very seriously.”
Court records reviewed by CBS News show, in 2018, a Maryland researcher pleaded guilty to a federal theft charge for taking items from the National Archives records facility in College Park, Maryland. In his plea agreement, Antonin DeHays acknowledged he “stole at least 291 U.S. servicemen dog tags and at least 134 other records from National Archives at College Park. Some of these dog tags bore evidence of damage, such as dents and charring due to fire sustained during the crashes.”
His plea agreement said, among other items, DeHays took “two dog tags, one silver and one brass, assigned to a downed Tuskegee Airman, who died when his fighter plane crashed in Germany on Sept. 22, 1944.” He also acknowledged he “gave the brass dog tag to a military aviation museum in exchange for the opportunity to sit inside a Spitfire airplane.”
In court filings, prosecutors said DeHays stole items worth an estimated $45,000 in value, then resold them for approximately $43,175 in return. A judge sentenced DeHays to nearly one year in prison. He was released in 2019. In a court order last year, a federal judge mandated DeHays make monthly $250 payments to reimburse the federal government.
In 2012, a former National Archives employee pleaded guilty to embezzlement related to a scheme to sell historically significant sound recording discs on eBay that he stole from the National Archives. Prosecutors said investigators seized thousands of sound recordings from the home of Leslie Waffen of Maryland.
According to his signed plea agreement, Waffen acknowledges selling on eBay “an original master copy of a Babe Ruth voice recording, which captures Ruth hunting on Dec. 10, 1937.” It fetched $34.74.
Waffen was a longtime employee of the agency. According to prosecutors, Waffen was employed by the Archives from 1969 to 2010, serving as chief of the Motion Picture, Sounds and Video Recording Branch of the Special Media Archives Services Division in later years. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
In 2015, Samuel Morison of Crofton, Maryland pleaded guilty to a federal theft charge for stealing historical records related to his grandfather, who was a military servicemember. According to the Justice Department, “Morison allegedly offered to sell records relating to Rear Admiral Morison’s work during World War II to the owner of a bookstore, who subsequently agreed to take possession of the records, place them on consignment through his shop, and sell them using eBay.”
Morison was sentenced to probation.
“Everything the National Archives holds is a piece of history, so they need to continually protect those items from being stolen,” said Kel McClanahan, a Washington, D.C. attorney specializing in national security law.
McClanahan said there is a potential black market and monetary value to items belonging to the Archives because of the unique nature of each artifact. “It offers a unique sort of bragging rights for someone,” he said.
Investigations into stolen or missing artifacts are often spearheaded or handled by the National Archives and Records Administration office of Inspector General. A series of agency reports reviewed by CBS News show the inspector general received a range of tips in recent months, including the suspected on-line auction of artifacts and documents belonging to former President Franklin Roosevelt. A report issued in March 2021 said, “Two of the documents were drafts of speeches, and the third document was an inventory of President Roosevelt’s stamp collection.”
One of the most notorious thieves of national historical artifacts was Barry Landau, who was also one of the leading collectors of presidential memorabilia. In 2013, he was convicted of the single largest theft of historic artifacts in the U.S. That year,reported on his exploits, noting that Landau had stolen thousands of items, including hundreds of documents signed by some of the most famous names in history: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Francis Scott Key, Marie Antoinette, Voltaire. He’d taken them from museums and libraries all over the country. Among the items was the original copy of Roosevelt’s 1937 inaugural address, the one he read on Inauguration Day.
Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who in 2013 was the U.S. attorney in Maryland, led the prosecution against Landau. He told “60 Minutes,” “It was a rainy day. In fact, the reading copy of the speech, the document the president read from that day was waterlogged. And you can see that on the document that we seized from Mr. Landau.” Landau was sentenced to seven years and prison, and upon release, he was to to be banned from visiting “museums, libraries or any other places where documents are deposited,” Rosenstein said.
In a March 2020 report, the inspector general noted that “five World War II-era photographic prints from NARA’s collection were discovered for sale at a public auction house. The (investigators) stopped the auction, obtained the prints, and determined they were part of NARA’s archival collection of Dorothea Lange.”
In one of the highest profile theft cases in National Archives history, former Clinton administration national security adviserpleaded guilty to unlawfully removing and retaining classified documents. He was fined $50,000, ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and was barred from access to classified material for three years.
According to his guilty plea, Berger acknowledged reviewing documents at the National Archives in summer 2003, then concealed and removed a set of documents.
The Justice Department, in an April 2005 announcement of the guilty plea, said, “Berger, who possessed a United States government security clearance and was aware of the laws and rules regarding classified documents, knew he was not authorized to remove the classified documents from the Archives.” Berger died in 2015.
The National Archives and its Office of Inspector General did not respond to requests for comment.