Archivist Guilty of Stealing and Selling National Sound Treasures

Babe Ruth during his brief stint with the Braves, in 1935, two years before he made the sound recording that was stolen from the U.S. National Archives
Former United States National Archives employee Leslie C. Waffen, 66, who worked at the agency for over 40 years, and as head of the agency’s Motion Picture, Sound and Video Branch until his retirement last year, has admitted in federal court that he stole almost 1,000 sound recordings from the Archives and sold some of them on the online auction site, eBay, in September and October, 2010.

He pleaded guilty in federal court to embezzlement of government property.

Prosecutors presented evidence that Waffen had stolen items from the United States National Archives and Records Administration since at least August 2001, while he headed the audiovisual department, which holds more than 90,000 film, sound, and video recordings of historical importance.

The sound collection began in 1896. Among Waffen’s contributions to it was to head a team that preserved the only known audio recording of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His department also had custody of the 8mm color home-movie-camera film of the assassination made by amateur photographer Abraham Zapruder.

Among the items Waffen took from the Archives was a master copy of a voice recording of Babe Ruth, made on a 1937 hunting trip. Waffen sold it on eBay for $34.74, prosecutors said.

Shortly after Waffen retired late last year, federal agents raided his Rockville, Maryland, home, in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, and seized 6,153 sound recordings. Archive officials later reported that 955 of them belonged to the National Archives.

Waffen will face sentencing in March 2012 and could  face up to 10 years imprisonment. Prosecutors said at his federal court hearing October 4 2011 that they would state that Waffen stole items valued at more than $70,000.

In a statement on October 4 2011, David S. Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, said: “While I am pleased that we are one step closer to justice in this case, I am disappointed and angered by Mr. Waffen’s violation of the trust placed in him by colleagues and the American people to safeguard our nation’s history. It is an outrage that an employee entrusted with protecting our heritage became a threat to those holdings.”

Security has been a sensitive issue at the National Archives. Watchdog groups had criticized the agency for lax security.

In 2007, an intern at a National Archives facility in Philadelphia was sentenced to 15 months in prison for stealing 164 Civil War documents, including the War Department’s announcement of President Lincoln’s death; the defendant had sold many of the items on eBay. More recently, the National Archives recovered a document signed by Lincoln that had been taken at an indeterminable time from the Archives, perhaps decades ago.

The Washington Post reported in October 2010 that the most dramatic security breach had been the disappearance in 2009 of a hard drive with national security data from the Clinton administration. Among the material were more than 100,000 Social Security numbers, contact information for Clinton officials, and Secret Service and White House operating procedures.

Auditors with the Government Accountability Office, the federal auditing agency, said the Archives was vulnerable to hackers because it was preserving records electronically but not adequately protecting its computer networks; it had weak firewalls and passwords, and failed to encrypt sensitive information, the GAO charged.

Sen. Thomas E. Carper (D-Del.), echoed those concerns in a statement issued at that time: “The items in jeopardy are more than just pieces of paper, collectibles or electronic files,” he said. “They are priceless links that connect us to our nation’s history and help tell the story of America. So I am sure it is unsettling to the American people – as it is to me – that the monumental task of preserving these valuable artifacts is not always being performed to the standards we all should expect.”

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, had worried about the problems, too. At the time of Warren’s arrest, he said in a statement: “These problems have needed correction for years. I hope there will be a plan to get the organization back on track quickly.”

Yesterday (October 4 2011), Ferriero said there had been a plan, and that it was in full swing: “As I have stated since I became Archivist of the United States, the security of the holdings of the National Archives is my highest priority.” Among measures the agency has taken, he said, have been to assign the Archives’ Holdings Protection Team to train archival units in improved security measures, techniques, policies, and procedures, and to purchase new equipment to ensure that holdings are safer.

The National Archives has also increased security in all its facilities around the country, and to foster “a culture of increased vigilance among our staff.”

Among new procedures are exit screenings, in which security officers check all bags of visitors and staff alike – including Ferriero’s — at both our Washington, D.C., and College Park, Maryland, facilities. That practice would soon be extended to all 44 National Archives facilities around the country, he said.

In another measure, the Archives’ Holdings Protection Team was beefing up its registry of individuals banned from Archives facilities. The aim of that upgrade, he said, was to keep closer track of the facilities such individuals visit, and the documents they ask for.

Among archivists, the conviction of Waffen provoked predictable expressions of regret. On the listserv of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, for example, one poster expressed shock at the idea that any archivist would sell something like the Babe Ruth recording in the way Waffen admitted he had. The poster wrote: “I cannot understand how someone who dedicated a 37-year career to safeguarding this stuff could bring himself to let it go to (presumably) a complete stranger for such a trivial amount of money.”

– P.M.

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