COLLEGE PARK - While researching America's spy network in 1992, Timothy Naftali came across a reference to a secret operation on the theft of royal scabbards from Ethiopia: Code name, Dagger.
The notation, in an obscure cable in material at the National Archives, led the doctoral student down a paper trail that ended with an empty file. The spy masters had pulled the documents on Dagger and marked them classified.
And Naftali, now a historian, learned that the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA, was intimately involved in recovering the stolen items and returning them in 1945 to Haile Selassie, the ruler of Ethiopia.
The details of the operation revealed church assistance to the thief, an Italian army official who hid the loot in a church tower in Rome and a nearby orphanage.
For researchers and historians, the newly released records contain the missing pieces of unfinished puzzles, the clues to a thousand unsolved mysteries, the answers to a generation of questions.
The OSS records relate to a variety of subjects, from looted art to Hitler's nurse, from the deportation of Italian Jews to the execution of French saboteurs, from German weapons research to German lingerie manufacturers, from executions in Crete to immigration to Palestine.
Gregory Bradsher, a government archivist who developed an index to the newly declassified documents, says he has received more than 600 e-mail inquiries about the new material.
The Swedish Embassy wanted to know whether there was anything new on Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who helped save Hungarian Jews.
A Chicago journalist asked about looted musical instruments. The Museum of Modern Art in New York inquired about stolen art.
The material - and previous releases of documents that date to 1996 - has created job opportunities for historians and researchers who have been hired to piece together the puzzles, solve the mysteries, answer the questions for foreign governments, corporations, law firms, U.S. agencies, Jewish organizations and others.
"This has created a cottage industry," says Bradsher.
Today, Naftali is a University of Virginia professor with an expertise in intelligence matters and a contract to review the material.
While sifting through the records at the National Archives, Naftali stumbled across a reference to the royal theft from Ethiopia, just as he did eight years ago.
"There it was - my Dagger file," says Naftali, who is working as a consultant to a presidential panel charged with identifying and declassifying Nazi war criminal records in America's file cabinets.
The file described the role of the OSS in returning the loot to the Ethiopian monarch in 1945. It included photographs of 200 pieces of table silver, royal scabbards, a golden eagle throne ornament and a cache of papers stolen by Italian army Marshal Rudolfo Graziani, says Naftali.
Among the stolen items were secret British cables that the OSS wanted to keep secret - they believed they could be useful in cracking Britain's code.
The OSS's code name for the marshal was "dagger." The operation was known as Sugen, a palindrome for Negus, a title of royalty referring to the emperor of Ethiopia.
Naftali says his discovery of the Dagger file typifies the scope of material in this batch of records, a hodgepodge of facts and scenarios that relate to the activities of wartime intelligence operatives but don't necessarily tell the whole story about an operation.
"These are like the greatest hits from a huge collection of 12 million pages," he says.
Miriam Kleiman began her work in the research room of the National Archives in March 1996. The World Jewish Congress had hired her for two days to review recently declassified Nazi-era documents for information on stolen assets.
"I got lucky on my second day," says Kleiman, 33, of McLean, Va. "I found a list of Swiss bank accounts owned by Jews."
That finding led to a congressional investigation, a class action lawsuit and a $1.25 billion settlement for Holocaust survivors and the families of insurance policyholders who died in Nazi camps.
Kleiman's initial two-day foray into the stacks resulted in a four-year job at a Washington law firm that filed the claims.
Now, she does research as an independent contractor.
"It's really ground zero for the research effort," Kleiman says of the sterile-looking room in the archives building where she and others work.
Kleiman is reviewing the recent material for a national news magazine. She has already discovered one gem, an interview with Adolf Hitler's nurse, Erna Flegel.
Flegel's endearing recollection of the Fuhrer, as reported in U.S. News & World Report, is buttressed by "catty comments" she made about Hitler's mistress, Eva Braun.
Like Naftali, Kleiman stumbled across records of personal interest. They involved a German Jew from Cleveland, Norbert Bloch.
Kleiman had received a call years ago from a Cleveland attorney about Bloch's estate.
Bloch immigrated to the United States in 1939. He worked as a bookkeeper for a Cleveland grocery company. But in his spare time, he helped Holocaust survivors track lost assets and insurance claims.
Bloch left a locker full of records in his basement, documents that included an insurance policy marked with a gold fascist eagle and his German passport stamped with a red J.
Kleiman collected the documents from the attorney, reviewed them and donated the bulk to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The new archival material revealed that Bloch had been a high-ranking German bank official and had offered assistance to an OSS operative in Cleveland.
"It was amazing," Kleiman says.
Dr. James H. Lide is a historian-for-hire. His firm, History Associates of Rockville, has been working in this field for two decades. The firm also has taken a look at the new material.
"What's really new here relates to the intelligence community, how they operated, how much they knew, what kind of sources they used," says Lide. "One of the things that I found intriguing was how the OSS and other U.S. intelligence agencies made use of American businesses that had prewar contacts with Germany.
"They went to U.S. companies and tried to mine that information from commercial contacts."
For example, Lide says, some American insurers had fire insurance policies on German industrial facilities that would have included maps or blueprints of the facilities.
Naftali says the declassification is providing researchers with the material they will need to write a history of the U.S. intelligence community.
But Charles Fenyvesi of Comus in Montgomery County is more interested in the thousands of documents that haven't been released by the CIA, material known as the "withdrawn withdrawn."
Fenyvesi, 62, a retired journalist working as a researcher for the presidential commission on Holocaust assets, wants to see Wallenberg's reports from Hungary. He figures the OSS had copies of them because Wallenberg was hired by an OSS operative.
At the very least, he says, he would like to see "the traffic," the dispatches between Budapest, Washington and Stockholm.
"I seem to have a nose, a gambler's instincts, for documents that are interesting. They stare at me. It has helped me, this nose," says Fenyvesi.
Then, as if to stress his point, he says, "Two guys from the CIA are in the research room now."