Friday, March 16, 2007

NARA Intern Stole Documents

Just about every news outlet in the country has grabbed this AP story: a Philadelphia man who interned at a National Archives site last summer has been charged with the theft of more than 165 original Civil War documents from the Archives, which he then sold on eBay. Denning McTague, 40, who runs a website for selling rare books, has now admitted the thefts - and, drawing directly from the Smiley playbook, has agreed to help prosecutors recover the documents in exchange for a plea deal.

Documents stolen include an official War Department announcement of the death of President Lincoln, additional War Department telegrams, and a JEB Stuart letter. Prosecutors say most of the materials have been recovered. US Attorny Patrick Meehan said of the items "These are pieces of American history to be preserved, not sold to the highest bidder."

"McTague, who holds master's degrees in history and information systems, was recommended for the unpaid internship by a professor at the State University of New York at Albany," according to a spokesperson for the Archives. The Albany Times-Union confirms that, but said that SUNY Albany would not name the professor.

"As an intern, McTague was responsible for arranging and organizing documents in preparation for the upcoming sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the Civil War. His responsibilities included ordnance records dating from 1816 to 1907, prosecutors said. While visiting researchers must examine items in secure research rooms, McTague, as a temporary employee, may have had access to the stacks," NARA admitted.

A former curator at this NARA branch was sentenced to 21 months in prison back in 2002 for stealing hundreds of documents from the repository. Clearly the lessons of that case went unlearned. Again, cooperation notwithstanding (they shouldn't really have even needed it here if the materials were sold on eBay), McTague should do some serious time.

[Update: Travis has some thoughts on this over at Upward Departure. He notes this is the fourth reported theft from NARA facilities in recent years, and that "three of the four were only caught when they tried to sell the items on eBay." He's even got a contest: guess McTague's prison sentence, win a signed copy of Travis' book, The Book Thief. His guess = 34 months.]

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