BALTIMORE — A Maryland man whose espionage conviction made headlines in the 1980s acknowledged a more common crime Thursday: theft.
Samuel Loring Morison pleaded guilty to stealing boxes worth of government records from a naval history archive in the nation's capital. The records were related to his grandfather, a prominent historian.
Morison, 70, pleaded guilty to theft of government property and was sentenced to two years of probation. He must also cooperate with officials in returning any additional items that belong to the government. A prosecutor said Morison stole thousands of records — including maps, charts and photographs — from the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, which preserves U.S. naval history.
The records, which filled 34 boxes, were related to his grandfather, Rear Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison.
The elder Morison, a Harvard University professor who died in 1976, was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner in the biography category for biographies of Christopher Columbus and John Paul Jones, a hero of the Revolutionary War. He also wrote a 15-volume history of World War II naval operations that was published between 1947 and 1962. Records the younger Morison took were used by his grandfather in writing the series.
Prosecutor James Warwick said Thursday during a court hearing that the stolen records were appraised at $10,000 to $30,000, but he called them "irreplaceable." In court the judge was shown about a dozen of the objects Morison took, including a map with his grandfather's handwritten notes and a photographic print of the famous flag raising on Iwo Jima.
Morison's attorney, James Wyda, said during the hearing that Morison, who did paid research work at the Naval History and Heritage Command, was going through difficult times financially and was in poor health. He said his client "lost his perspective" and "convinced himself he was entitled" to the documents, which were found in his home in Crofton, Maryland. He also had an agreement with a bookstore to sell other records through eBay.
Before his guilty plea Thursday, Morison had only one other brush with the law, Warwick said.
In 1985, Morison was convicted of leaking spy satellite photographs to the British military magazine Jane's Defence Weekly. At the time he gave the magazine the photographs of the Soviet Navy's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier under construction, he was a civilian employed by the Navy as an intelligence analyst. His attorneys defended Morison by saying he was trying to inform the public about a Soviet naval buildup and that in leaking the photos he didn't disclose anything the Soviets didn't already know about how a U.S. spy satellite worked.
Morison was convicted of two counts of espionage and two counts of theft of government property and sentenced to two years in prison. He was pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2001.