Monday, August 1, 2016

A spy in the archives

I began working on this post in May, put it aside, and figured I would get back to it once life stopped getting in my way. And now it has: I'm en route to the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists and am three hours into a five hour flight delay. What follows is by no means earth-shattering, but at least my to-do list is one item shorter.

One of the things I love about being an archivist is talking with researchers about their interests and what they find in our records. My reference duties have brought me into contact with people who are incredibly gracious and enthusiastic, and I find their warmth and zeal contagious. At the same time, I'm always mindful that, as archival security experts frequently caution, researchers who seem eager to establish rapport and trust may have ulterior motives. Cases in point:
  • Barry Landau, who stole presidential and other documents from historical societies, university libraries, and government archives on the East Coast, brought cookies to one state historical society he and his accomplice repeatedly visited and gave cupcakes to the staff of the Maryland Historical Society shortly before he and his accomplice were caught stealing documents from the facility.
  • John Mark Tillman, who made a career of preying on antique dealers, museums, and archives throughout the Canadian Maritimes, was able to spirit documents out of the Dalhousie University Archives in part because he spent years winning the trust of the former chief archivist and becoming familiar with the repository's holdings and routines. Tillman was able to steal the keys to the facility's vault, duplicate them, and return them without being detected. He and his then-girlfriend entered the university library just before it closed, hid out in a women's restroom until the wee hours of the morning, and then entered the vault and stole letters written by George Washington, General James Wolfe, and other prominent people.
Landau and Tillman seem to have been driven by a mixture of greed, arrogance, and collecting impulses run amok. However, other thieves have been propelled by other drives.

In April of this year, the British Broadcasting Corporation announced that it had found in the archives of the Stasi, the intelligence and secret police agency of the former German Democratic Republic, a video recording of a speech that Harold Adrian Russell "Kim" Philby gave to Stasi officials in 1981. In it, Philby, a British double agent whose spying for the Soviets resulted in the deaths of Western agents and Central and Eastern European anticommunists, discusses his life and his work. Despite his upper-class background, Philby became a communist while at Cambridge University and was recruited by Soviet intelligence shortly afterward. After covering the Spanish Civil War for a London paper, he was hired by the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6, and was initially charged with monitoring German espionage in Spain and Portugal.

Philby very quickly began funneling information to his Soviet handlers, and much of the information he provided came right out of the MI6 archives. How was he able to gain access to vast quantities of intelligence records without arousing suspicion? He befriended the man who was in charge of the organization's documents room:
I came to the point where, every two or three times a week, I'd meet him after office hours for drinks. He became a close friend, had full confidence [?] in me, and so I could ask for papers which had nothing to do with German espionage in Spain or Portugal, but which he would nevertheless send me as a friend whom he trusted . . . . Every evening, I left the office with a big briefcase full of reports which I had written myself, full of files taken out of the actual archives. I was to hand them to my Soviet contact in the evening. The next morning, I would get the files back, the contents having been photographed, and take them back early in the morning, and put the files back in their place. That I did regularly, year in, year out.
 (The above transcription is mine, and Philby's discussion of his relationship with this MI6 employee begins at 11:40 in this BBC Radio 4 broadcast.)

In retrospect, it seems easy to regard this records officer -- a former police officer with a serious drinking problem -- as a fool. However, Philby fooled everyone. His superiors thought him impressive, and many of his colleagues thought that he might one day become the agency's head. Moreover, as Philby's biographer has argued, MI6 traditionally regarded its operatives -- almost all of whom were recruited from the upper echelons of British society -- as being inherently trustworthy because they and their families all moved within the same social and professional circles. It wasn't until 1951, when two other MI6 agents who had been recruited by Soviet intelligence while studying at Cambridge defected to the Soviet Union, that the agency began coming to grips with the fact that having "the right sort" of background was no guarantee of loyalty. Philby, who was a close friend of both of these double agents, was rather gently investigated and forced to resign in 1955, but he was allowed to rejoin MI6 several years later. British authorities began closing in on him in earnest late 1962, but MI6 put a longtime friend in charge of the internal investigation and kept him under cursory surveillance. Philby slipped away and defected to the Soviet Union, where he lived until his death in 1988.

I am no expert on MI6's internal security procedures -- and if I were, I almost certainly wouldn't be blogging about it -- but I think it's safe to say that access to MI6's documents rooms -- and servers -- is now sharply limited and carefully scrutinized. However, even those of us who don't work in national security settings should never forget that a few of the kindly, supportive researchers we encounter are in fact seeking to exploit us and the records in our care. Records that either have intrinsic value or contain information that could be used to facilitate identity theft or other crimes abound in archives, and those of us who care for records have to ensure that our desire to be friendly and helpful never compromises our efforts to protect our collections and the restricted information found within them.

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