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Ex-Employee Put National Archives On eBay

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The story you're about to hear is true...


And that opening theme you just heard was from "Dragnet." A recording of that old radio show was stolen from the National Archives. The thief was a former government employee who worked there for more than four decades. Leslie Waffen admitted this past week to stealing almost a thousand audio recordings belonging to the federal government, including this one:

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Well, before we could even raise our gun, the Babe gets another quail.

CORNISH: This is a 1937 radio interview with Babe Ruth as he was quail hunting on in New Jersey on a snowy December morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: How did you find hunting conditions out in the winter for you?

BABE RUTH: Well, I'll tell you, you know, just like this: the early bird gets the worm and I love worms.

CORNISH: Bambino fans, don't worry - that recording, which Waffen eventually auctioned off on eBay was recovered by federal agents. But David Ferriero, head of the National Archives, says what's harder to recover is a sense of trust.

DAVID FERRIERO: Not only did he betray the American public in terms of this stuff but he betrayed his colleagues.

CORNISH: Now, Leslie Waffen, who retired last summer, is awaiting sentencing for his crime. And for the time being, Ferriero says:

FERRIERO: I cannot talk specifics at this point.


FERRIERO: I can just tell you that it was enough to make my blood boil because they are the records of the government.

CORNISH: Thefts are not new at the National Archives, where visitors have pilfered Civil War-era letters and other historical documents over the years. But this was an inside job carried out over a decade by a high-ranking official who was in charge of the Archives' collection of audio, film and video recordings.

FERRIERO: He walked out as any staff member did at that time, without any kind of inspection by the guards, unlike how our users are treated when they leave the building.

CORNISH: Now, Ferriero says, bags belonging to both visitors and staff at the National Archives are inspected on their way out. We don't know how many recordings Waffen sold on eBay. The Babe Ruth recording went for $34.74. That may not sound like much, but Ferriero says the true value of these original recordings is priceless.

FERRIERO: What he has done is destroying generations of people discovering their history through primary sources. That's what's so disturbing about this.

CORNISH: David Ferriero is the head of the National Archives. Leslie Waffen, the former head of the Archive's audio-visual department will be sentenced in March. You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.