Love them or hate them the CIA has done a lot to keep this country safe but they are one of the most mysterious organizations in the world. They are not perfect by any means and they do occasionally get forgetful. In recent times that led to a very embarrassing situation in New York.
Head to New York and you can’t help but see the name Rockefeller. They are one of the most important families in the state. They are one of the wealthiest families in the nation and their philanthropy created museums and helps to keep PBS funded. One scion of the family, Nelson, served not only as governor of New York but also as the Vice President of the United States. Following the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974 his Vice President Gerald Ford became the President. Ford then nominated Nelson Rockefeller to become his VP over Donald Rumsfeld and George H.W. Bush. Rockefeller had nearly become the VP in 1960 turning down Nixon’s offer and in 1973 when then-VP Spiro Agnew resigned but Ford was chosen to broaden the Republican Party ticket’s appeal.
After becoming VP Rockefeller asked the CIA to survey the family estate at Pocantico Hills. It was intended to only store information relating to the Rockefeller Commission that was looking into whether the CIA was spying on US citizens as well as experimenting on them with substances like LSD. When the security recommendations set down by the CIA were met (which included the installation of a secure vault) Rockefeller could then store classified information at his home. Rockefeller served out the term as VP and then declined to remain on the ticket. Gerald Ford lost the presidency to Jimmy Carter in 1977 and it was probably well that Rockefeller declined since he died in 1979.
The vault that was installed was in the basement of the carriage house on the family property. Not all material stored was classified information as well and for whatever reason the CIA never came to collect the classified material. It was almost like the CIA forgot about it until 1979 but even then they did not go to collect the documents. Leadership had changed and those in power knew nothing about this unique arrangement and when they learned about it they were stunned. It had been intended that all documents would be turned over when Rockefeller left office but for whatever reason they were not.
In 1989 things got urgent when the Rockefeller family was attempting to give the carriage house away. The CIA realized that they had a huge problem on their hands since the vault (and its contents) was still there. Not only that but numerous family staff knew the combination to the safe and there was also no plan in place to notify the government should the safe be accessed by an unauthorized person. Upon review afterwards 327 pieces of secret material were found to be stored in the safe.
The problem for the family was that many of the documents were written by or received by Nelson Rockefeller in his capacity as VP and were thus considered the property of the estate but he had stored more there than just the Rockefeller Commission files it seems. Other files in the vault were from his service in the Eisenhower Administration which were property of the government as were files from other agencies. The family was concerned about simply turning them over. The material was not well organized and they were afraid that information in the vault could get out and become an embarrassment should a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request be submitted for documents in the government’s possession. The family also wanted access to the records for posterity. For some conspiracy theorists the family balking at the turning over of documents was viewed as proof that Rockefeller had played a part in the ousting of Nixon and was given the VP job for his efforts.
A solution was worked out. All of the documents would be transferred to the Gerald Ford Presidential Library. The family would control access to the files from his time as VP and the CIA would control access to all of the others. Since the documents were in a presidential library they would not be subject to a FOIA request. Rockefeller’s wife Margareta (Happy) would control the access and was also given a top secret clearance which she retained until she died in 2015.
A barn or outbuilding can be a great place to store things but just remember, it may not be the best place to store classified information. This was the first documented case of classified information being allowed to be stored on private property in our nation’s history. One would think that it should have been the last but it almost sounds similar to a more recent event in our history, doesn’t it? For the person that purchased the carriage house that vault would have certainly been a valuable find.