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The Lure of Government Secrets and Treasures

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Authors writing spy thrillers, or crime novels laced with espionage, often hook readers with declassified intelligence. By our nature, we want things we can’t have; we want to place our eyes on what we’re not allowed to see. To be sure, information governments once classified in the name of national security is by its nature sexy and provocative. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s role in the study of UFOs, for instance, is catnip for any generation. Declassified information is forbidden fruit that’s fallen off the tree, now ripe for eating. What once was a nation’s crown jewel lies on the ground—abandoned and discarded—beckoning like that glowing green crystal in Superman. (Of course, I’m referring to declassified information rather than the pure product. Criminal and civil penalties exist for those who unlawfully obtain, handle, or disseminate classified information.)

Sources for tantalizing declassified information vary, but treasure troves exist at the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) and through investigative reporting. In the past, much of the investigative reporting stemmed from major newspapers; namely, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Today, however, online publications provide juicy nuggets of intel. Beyond the CIA’s interest in UFOs, noteworthy examples of historic declassified treasures include the Watergate scandal, the Pentagon Papers, and the Bay of Pigs. In the last few decades, NARA has released interesting material from the Cold War era, including most of Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Papers, and in the coming months and years it will unveil new records concerning the Global War on Terrorism.

Earlier this month, NARA declassified an additional tranche of records concerning President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. This document dump likely piqued the interest of Stephen King, who studied the Warren Report and related NARA disclosures before writing 11/22/63, a thriller where the protagonist travels back in time to prevent Kennedy’s assassination. What’s more, Tom Clancy based most of his novels on declassified information. In fact, his material was so provocative that many accused him of exposing classified information. (The bigger the controversy, the larger the book sales.) And Brad Meltzer obviously spends considerable time researching the historical archives to find material for his novels. It is no surprise that one of Meltzer’s best fictional characters is a young archivist named Beecher White.

In the early 2000s, I played a role not unlike that of Beecher White. I was on a team of U.S. Department of Justice lawyers who sifted through boxes of the Reagan Papers for declassification purposes. Each box was categorized into different topics: Just Say No, Assassination Attempt, First Woman Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, AIDS, Line-Item Veto, etc. Notwithstanding your political stripes or views of certain presidents, reviewing boxes of presidential documents transports you into the past like a time machine. Dust covered the countless bankers’ boxes, and our team scoured their contents in small offices in a building on New York Avenue in Washington, D.C. We worked into the witching hours, eating junk food and pouring over records that would forever change history, unearthing national gems.

There was one topic that proved most fascinating: Ronald Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech in June 1987. This was the memorable speech where, with the Berlin Wall as a backdrop, President Reagan extolled General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Multiple boxes contained sensitive drafts that chronicled the evolution of the speech. Experts on world affairs knew Reagan’s speech would be historic, and several themes dominated the tension among numerous drafters and reviewers. The “tear down this wall” line, however, caused most alarm within the State Department and National Security Council. In fact, Reagan’s National Security Advisor—a forty-nine-year-old General Colin Powell—kept crossing out the phrase, worried that it would ratchet up Cold War tensions between the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. Near the end of the box, Powell’s side appeared to have won the debate. The line had vanished in the final draft in the final box.

But had it vanished? President Reagan famously said those words, some of the most memorable in world history. So…was there another draft?

After leaving government, I worked for the same law firm as Secretary James Baker, one of Reagan’s closet confidants. Baker’s Washington, D.C. office, just a few blocks from where I had reviewed the Reagan Papers years early, had no desks or computers—only a couch, a few chairs, and a phone. I sat on a chair across from the couch and retold my story . . . and he finished it. He said that Kenneth Duberstein, Reagan’s deputy chief of staff, rode with Reagan to the Berlin Wall on that historic day. They traveled in a limousine together, and Reagan told him he was putting the line back in. “The boys at State are going to kill me,” he said, “but it’s the right thing to do.” The rest is history, and you can find the final draft at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

Beyond declassified intelligence, other mysterious governmental information awaits the curious and crafty. One of the greatest joys of writing thrillers is that people—even strangers—want to discuss your projects. Those discussions often lead to interesting material. My inspiration for writing my first novel, Scavenger Hunt, was learning of the hidden eighth floor at the U.S. Department’s (DOJ) Main Justice Building in Washington, D.C. Few people, even DOJ lawyers, know that it exists, and my curiosity led me to ask more about it. The Main Justice elevators only access seven floors, but eight sets of office windows paint the outside of the building. After weeks of inquiry, a building custodian took me on a tour. Scavenger Hunt walks the reader up the hidden staircase that connects the seventh and eighth floors and leads to the former Federal Bureau of Investigation’s ballistics lab, now dark and eerie, where the clandestine team of Operation Scavenger Hunt meets in secret.

Weeks after submitting Scavenger Hunt’s final manuscript, I continued to dig up fascinating information. At an event in D.C. in May, I ran into a former U.S. attorney general. He asked me about my novel, only a few days from print, and we discussed the secret eighth floor of Main Justice. He then proceeded to describe a secret room above the attorney general’s office on the fifth floor. Before long, two other former U.S. attorneys general joined our conversation. They all knew about this hidden treasure, where, attorney general lore holds, Robert F. Kennedy “visited” with Marilyn Monroe. Learning of this revelation, I scurried away and emailed my publisher: Stop the press!

You can read more about the “RFK Honeymoon Suite” in Chapter 2 of Scavenger Hunt.



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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