Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mysteriously Missing Documents

Documents containing details of Soviet spy networks inside the United States mysteriously disappeared from the national archives: real-life events as gripping as any suspense movie from Hollywood.

In 1946, a State Department employee named Samuel Klaus wrote a memo detailing communist infiltration in the federal government. At that point in time, the Communist Party was not about ideas; it was about, in its own words, the “violent revolution” to overthrow the U.S. government.

At least two copies of the Klaus report existed: one in Klaus’s own files, the other sent to Congress’s Tydings committee. Yet, by the late 1990s, neither copy could be found, despite the otherwise meticulous record-keeping of the national archives. The Klaus report named specific individuals. Was someone’s identity kept secret by this theft?

The Klaus memo was only one of a number of such documents to disappear. One historian, M. Stanton Evans, made a careful study of the archives, including the Tydings committee, and noted that “other historical data that ought to be in the subcommittee records are documents provided to the panel by” senators, by the State Department, and by the FBI, among other sources.

One document was a letter to Senator Millard Tydings “of March 18, 1950, listing the names of eighty loyalty/security suspects at State and elsewhere.” Enclosed with that letter “was a letter from the head of the Central Intelligence Agency concerning one of the eighty suspects.” The Tydings committee gathered quite a bit of intelligence. It had, also in March 1950, obtained “a list of two dozen other names as potential subjects of inquiry. All told, a pretty sizable package of information on the most burning issue of that day, and many days thereafter.”

There is a significant lacuna in the historical data about how much, and how thoroughly, foreign espionage permeated the United States government. It seems reasonable to conjecture that foreign agents, or their accomplices, orchestrated the theft and probable destruction of documentation from the archives. As historian M. Stanton Evans notes,

As these papers were part of an official proceeding of the Senate — and as we know from other sources they were in fact provided — they should all be in the Tydings archive. Again, however, so far as diligent search reveals, all of them are missing, with no explanation of what happened to them, no hint that they were ever there, and no withdrawal notice. They are simply gone.

In trying to understand the Cold War, the international communist conspiracy, and the Soviet spy network inside the United States, these texts are crucial to historians. In trying to protect ordinary citizens, these texts are crucial to understanding the methods and identities of such agents. “Since they were documents central to any assessment of” Soviet espionage, “their absence is a critical gap in the archival record. That absence, it bears noting, affects” our ability to measure the damage inflicted by communist infiltration, and affects “our comprehension of the Cold War era.”

Historians seek data to answer specific, measurable questions: Which classified documents were compromised by Soviet agents? How was misinformation fed to policy makers, and how did that misinformation cause policy to play into the hands of the Soviets? How did the Soviets nudge media outlets and news coverage to slant reports according to their strategies? Which types of sabotage were planned?

A long list of various agencies and departments within the government had responsibilities regarding counterespionage activities, and produced documentation about the Soviet spy network. “Such problems,” Evans notes, “didn’t cease with Millard Tydings but would occur also with the records of” other House committees, Senate committees, FBI memoranda, etc. “It’s evident that a lot of records here are likewise missing. A notable instance involves the case of Annie Lee Moss, a security suspect in the Army who appeared before” to testify

at an historic committee session. In the hearing record, reference is made to an “Exhibit 18,” an FBI report about Mrs. Moss that was obviously important in gauging the merits of the case.

After a careful search, “there is no ‘Exhibit 18’ to be found in the archive” pertaining to the Moss case. Once again, a central bit of evidence has disappeared.

In addition to missing documents, other documents have been mysteriously redacted. This was done simply by using ink to obliterate words, sentences, and entire paragraphs in such a way that no technology can recover the missing text. This happened, for example, to a 1946 memo from the director of the FBI to the Attorney General Tom Clark. The memo concerned a Soviet agent named David Wahl. Did someone inside the government obliterate text in order to hide Wahl’s activities?

Historians face a double mystery. First, which data did these missing documents contain? Second, who stole them, and when? Why were they stolen, and where are they now?