On Selling a Revolutionary War book to the CIA

The CIA had a problem. The world’s most powerful spy agency with its own military, bigger than most militaries in the world, owed me $5.53 but couldn’t figure out how to pay me. It would take more than three years for them to solve the problem. They had toppled governments in less time.

It all began in August 2011 when the CIA’s Open Source Center ordered a $100 book from me. I shipped it to them on August 5. On August 9, it was returned to me stamped “REFUSED.”

benjamin tallmadge

The book was The Memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge. Tallmadge was a Revolutionary War officer who organized the Culper Spy Ring. He was the director of military intelligence for George Washington, so it is not surprising the agency wanted the book.

Some time went by after the book was sent back to me before a CIA employee named Deborah contacted me to find out where the book was. I explained what happened and sent her a photo of the package. That was on September 8. On Halloween, she emailed me to say I never sent her the photo. I had, but I sent it to her two more times to be on the safe side. She then emailed me and said, “This is an odd request, but if you could do me a favor. Please peel off the yellow “return to sender” from the post office. Could you let me know what the exact address on the label is? I know what I intended to send. I want to see if the mistake was on Alibris’ part, or the post office’s part.” Alibris is the book selling venue the CIA purchased the book through.

Of course, I immediately agreed and peeled off the label. Beneath the label was the address she had provided when purchasing the book, which was:

OSC LIBRARY

1E41 OHB

GATE 5, 1000 COLONIAL FARM RD

MCLEAN, VA 22101

She the responded with “Okay, thanks. I know where the screw-up happened. I’m still interested in the book. Can you resend it? How much will the new shipping charges be? I’ll give you a new address. If you could wait to resend until I give the okay, I’d very much appreciate it.” And I answered with “Postage would be $5.53. I will wait until I hear from you before I re-send the package.”

By now it was November 2. I put the package on a closet shelf where it would be safe and waited to hear back. And waited. And waited some more. On January 6, 2012, Deborah contacted me again stating,

“I’m sorry this has sat so long – we’re working on this on our end. Could you please send me the name exact name of your bookstore, the bookstore’s address, and its tax id number?”

Of course, I had already sent them all this information before except for my tax number. But I complied and included my NYS tax number. Five more months went by. I heard from Deborah again. “Again, I’m so sorry for the delay on our end. I’m getting ready to have the treasury check sent out to you . I just want to double check that the book is still ready to go, once you receive the check? Also, I can’t remember if I gave you the address to use, so I’ll include it again:” The new address was in Washington, DC.

Then she told me they were having trouble with my tax number. I waited some more. In September 2012, she contacted me again and asked me to contact the NYS Department of Taxation to see if the two letters at the beginning of my tax id were actually part of it. I contacted them and found out they were part of the number and notified her.

Apparently, the CIA determined they couldn’t use a treasury check to pay me the $5.53 for shipping the book back to them. It was also apparent to me they didn’t know anything about petty cash or simply putting $5.53 in cash in an envelope and sending it. Now they wanted to know if I accepted credit cards. At the time I didn’t. Now I do. There were more questions about my tax number. I answered every question. Then I heard nothing.

I heard nothing from September 12, 2012 to August 12, 2014. On August 12, 2014, Deborah wrote, “I’m following up on this book after quite some time. We understand that you still have the book for us. We’d like to be able to pay you the shipping costs so you will send it. Have you acquired a federal tax id so we can do so? Unfortunately we can’t pay by either paypal or check. And as I said, our system doesn’t like your state tax id. If you don’t have that, I’d like to ask about us getting a refund for the price of the book, $103.99? This will allow you to put it back up for sale.”

Of course by now the Postal Service had instituted rate increases and there had been changes in the book industry, so I responded by saying, “I take credit cards now. You can call me at 518 842-**** with the info. Cost to reship book is now $6.25. If l do a refund, it could only be a partial one. The value of this title has dropped and after 3 years, 27 emails and additional labor, l could not give a full refund.”

Another fifteen days of silence went by. Then Deborah wrote, “One more question – how much would shipping the book by UPS or Fedex cost?” I could have shipped it via UPS or FEDEX, but by now I was FED UP, and told her I only ship through the post office. They called me with their credit card number. I charged them $6.25 and shipped the book.

I never checked the tracking status but assume they received the book because it was not returned to me and it has been over four years since they last contacted me. I hope whenever a mole reads the Memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge in the CIA library, they will appreciate the effort it took to get it placed there. Meanwhile, the same book is now available as a free download from the Internet Archives.

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