The National Archives

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

The textual research room of the National Archives in College Park, Md.

Acting National Archives director Adrienne Thomas is being pilloried for Tuesday's revelation that the library has misplaced a hard drive containing enough Clinton administration data—including Social Security numbers, addresses, and Secret Service operating procedures—to fill literally millions of books. But important government documents have walked out of the storied library before—and not just in a Nicolas Cage movie. Despite a security system worthy of an adventure flick, the National Archives and Records Administration has long been a prime target for pilfering.

The most theft-worthy holdings, of course, are the big guns: the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. But would-be thieves have their work cut out for them. Both documents—which were transported from the Library of Congress to the Archives in 1952 via armored car—are displayed in hermetically sealed cases filled with inert argon gas. They are periodically inspected for damage with help from an electronic imaging monitoring system created by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory—the same folks who send rockets to the moon. On view in the historic Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, they are also rigged to plunge into an underground vault at any hint of vandalism, fire or even nuclear war.

(Read "On the Trail of Pilfered History.")

But plenty of other treasures are not on lockdown. The Archives, created by Franklin Roosevelt in 1934, keep only the 1% to 3% of government documents and material considered important enough to be saved forever. Still, that adds up. The total currently includes 9 billion pages of text records, more than 20 million photographs, 7.2 million maps, charts, and architectural drawings, and more than 365,000 reels of film. Arranged side by side, the library's inventory would circle the Earth more than 57 times.

The original archives building on Constitution Avenue, designed by John Russell Pope (who also created the Jefferson Memorial) was stuffed to the gills by the 1960s, forcing the archives to expand elsewhere. Most of the documents are now housed in College Park, MD, in a modern building of some 2 million cubic feet that can manage nearly 400 researchers at once. An electronic archive is in the works. Among the documents open for perusal by anyone aged 14 and up are military records, naturalization records for generations of immigrants, slave ship manifests and the Emancipation Proclamation, the Japanese surrender documents from World War II—even the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, emblazoned with the signature "Bonaparte." Some of the holdings have recently been hauled out as political ammo: Hillary Clinton's First Lady schedules, for instance.

Anyone can access most federal agency records under the 1966 Freedom of Information Act. Over the years, however, some library buffs have taken it upon themselves to liberate certain documents. After Brooklyn artist Charles Merrill Mount attempted to sell a collection of rare Civil War manuscripts including three Lincoln letters to a Boston bookstore in 1987, suspicious staffers alerted the Feds. Mount was arrested, and a search of his Washington safe-deposit box revealed some 200 Civil War-era papers, mostly pilfered from the National Archives. Before releasing him on bail, a U.S. magistrate barred Mount from the Archives, the Library of Congress and the National Gallery. "I have nothing else to do," Mount said. "Try the zoo," said the judge. Convicted on charges of mail fraud and possessing stolen government property, Mount got five years.

His example, though, was apparently not much of a deterrent. In 2002, Archives employee Shawn Aubitz was sentenced to 21 months in prison for stealing, among other documents, 71 pardons signed by 10 presidents. Virginia antiques dealer Howard Harner got two years in 2005 for walking off with more than 100 Civil War-era documents from the Archives; fewer than half have been found. That same year, Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton's former National Security Adviser, was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and fined $50,000 for filching five copies of classified documents from the National Archives shortly before he was scheduled to testify before the 9/11 Commission. Berger initially denied taking the documents, which concerned the Clinton administration's response to a 2000 terrorist plot, but eventually pleaded guilty. (Berger did not, as popular mythology would have it, stash the files in his pants or socks on his way out of the library — he used his suit jacket.) Though Berger was disbarred and relieved of his security clearance for three years, he later served as foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton during her run for president.

The following year, a 40-year-old National Archives intern stole 160 Civil War documents—including an official announcement of President Lincoln's death—and sold about half of them on eBay. Possible motivation? He told his psychiatrist he was angry the internship was unpaid.

In November 2006 the Archives launched Operation Historic Protector, sending investigators to manuscript shows with pamphlets on how to spot a stolen document. Perhaps their next step should be teaching them how to prevent stolen hard drives.

—With reporting by Randy James

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