Guardians of the nation's attic

When Paul Brachfeld took over as inspector general of the National Archives, guardian of the country's most beloved treasures, he discovered the American people were being stolen blind.

The Wright Brothers 1903 Flying Machine patent application? Gone.

A copy of the Dec. 8, 1941 "Day of Infamy" speech autographed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and tied with a purple ribbon? Gone.

Target maps of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, war telegrams written by Abraham Lincoln and a scabbard and belt given to Harry S. Truman? Gone, gone and gone.

Citizens of a democracy must have access to their history, Brachfeld understood. But what kind of country leaves its attic door open, allowing its past to slip away? His solution: Assemble a team of national treasure hunters.

They are two earnest federal agents and a bookish historian dutifully scouring Civil War collector shows, dealer inventories and the Internet for bits of Americana that wind up on an EBay auction block. They sift through leads from disgruntled divorcees ("I was going through his junk and I found this document…") and set straight do-gooders convinced they've just gotten hold of the Gettysburg Address.

It is mission impossible by any measure; the National Archives keeps watch over 10 billion federal, congressional and presidential records. The most famous -- the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights -- are enshrined in the magnificent granite headquarters blocks from the White House. But they are a sliver of the nation's important stuff, much of it shelved or boxed all over the country. (Indeed, the dismantled pieces of Parkland Hospital's Trauma Room 1, where President Kennedy was pronounced dead, are in an underground cave in Kansas that no one intends to open.)

Now the Archival Recovery Team, as the treasure hunters are formally known, is asking the American people to help find what rightfully belongs to them. They published a pamphlet on how to recognize an historical federal document, and who to call if you find one. The Wright Brothers patent -- lost or stolen in the '80s, no one knows for sure -- was May's featured missing item on the archives' Facebook page.

"We have taken theft out of the shadows," Brachfeld said, recalling the days when embarrassing losses were kept secret. "We want people to know we live, we exist. If it's gone, we want it back. And if it's stolen, we will do our best to send whoever took it to jail."

This day, Brachfeld and his team are gathered around a conference table here at Archives II, a big, bland building in the Maryland suburbs that belies the history between its climate-controlled walls: Jackie Kennedy's blood-stained pink Chanel suit, the deed of gift for the Statue of Liberty, Eva Braun's photo albums.

Mitchell Yockelson, a veteran archivist, is the team's historical brains. He decides what belongs to the nation and what doesn't. Special agents Kelly Maltagliati and Dave Berry are the law enforcement brawn. They carry guns and raid houses.

Much has changed since Brachfeld, who came out of the Secret Service internal affairs, took the job a decade ago and was alarmed by a string of brazen thefts, some by trusted archives staff.

In 2001, Shaun Aubitz, in charge of preparing exhibits of the Philadelphia holdings, took virtually all of the collection's presidential pardons and the deed to the hillside home of Robert E. Lee, whose front yard became Arlington National Cemetery. A dealer Aubitz tried to sell to became suspicious and reported him. When Brachfeld looked Aubitz in the eye and asked, "Did you take more than we'll ever know?" Aubitz only winked.

A few years later, a buyer shopping on EBay spotted Civil War documents he had seen in Washington's archives collection and alerted authorities. A history buff named Howard Harner confessed to smuggling more than 100 of them out of the archives' research room in his clothes over a six-year period, slicing off valuable signatures with a razor blade. Forty-two were recovered from his home; the team is still searching for the rest.

Security tightened. Surveillance cameras scan the premises at all of the archives' 44 facilities and presidential libraries. Guards patrol. No purses, briefcases or jackets are allowed in the research rooms. Registrars keep track of what goes out and who signed for it. When Archivist of the United States David Ferriero showed up at his downtown Washington office one Sunday morning, the cameras caught him "breaking in" -- and he runs the place.

The easiest course would be to lock it all away and be done with it. But the National Archives prides itself on balancing public access with historic preservation, inviting American citizens "to see for themselves the workings of the federal government." All you have to be is 14 or older with proper identification and a research card that takes minutes to get. A homeless man who used to come regularly to the Washington building got the same access as filmmaker Ken Burns.

"We had one senior manager who wanted to strip everybody naked who came through here," Brachfeld said. "In 99.9% of cases that would stop it. But God help America if it came to that."

The archives' paper records alone could circle the earth 57 times. There are battlefield maps, Confederate muster rolls, World War II Navy deck logs, grainy footage of Japanese planes strafing U.S. battleships in the Pacific. All of it belongs to the people, and the people have a right to look, even if that means things occasionally walk out the door in somebody's sock.

A lot of what's stolen seems obscure -- a letter to a Civil War saddle-maker -- but can be worth hundreds of dollars on the collectors' market. A Lincoln signature fetches thousands, and a few were recently unearthed by amateur researchers plodding through arcane court-martial records here in Maryland.

"You're in here and you say, 'Holy cow, there's a Lincoln.' You might start thinking about it," said Brachfeld, who, after a decade on the job, suspects just about everybody. "I could be taking documents out of here every single day, given my access."

Inspectors general have pursued thieves in the past. Ronald Reagan's high school yearbook was stolen from his Simi Valley presidential library years ago by an employee who was turned in by her roommate. The culprit resigned and the book was returned without fanfare.

Brachfeld sought a higher profile, believing the public has a right to know what it has, what's missing, and who took it. His office made headlines when it went after Sandy Berger, President Clinton's national security advisor, who admitted in 2005 to stealing and destroying highly-classified documents related to the Sept. 11 attacks. Berger got community service and a $50,000 fine.

Around the same time, a Civil War buff shopping for a birthday gift on EBay found original letters to the Frankford Arsenal, which supplied munitions to the Union Army. He called archives. Agent Maltagliati traced the seller to an intern at the Philadelphia branch named Denning McTague, set up a sting and raided his row house. Under questioning, McTague tearfully confessed to smuggling 164 documents in a yellow legal pad. All but three were recovered.

With that, Brachfeld decided it was time to dedicate a staff to keeping the nation's valuables in the nation's hands. The three are as much about tactical outreach as high drama crime-fighting, though the team was the subject of a Harlequin romance novel. ("A real bodice-ripper," Yockelson said.)

"We hope people will call us and say, 'We have something, I would like to give it back,'" said Yockelson, believed to be the only "investigative archivist" in the country. "The goal of my job is to make things whole again, to fill in the gaps of history."

The magnitude of the problem is impossible to measure. The National Archives did not exist until 1934. There has never been nor will there ever be the staff to catalog every item in a collection that predates the Revolution and is still growing. (Few cared about Elena Kagan's personal letters until she was nominated to the Supreme Court; now they'll belong to the archives.)

It's hard to know what's missing when they don't know precisely what they have -- which is precisely what compels some people to steal: If archives keeps it in a box, why shouldn't I enjoy it in my basement? The treasure hunters accept no excuses. What belongs to the National Archives belongs to the American people. All of them. If it's gone, they want it back.

"People ask, is it still happening? How much? Is it continual or sporadic?" Brachfeld said. "We don't know. But Big Brother is watching."

faye.fiore@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°