Made it through the mid-term

Finally reached the halfway point in this tricky semester. We have been lucky to keep meeting in class as usual, except for our classmate who has not been able to come back from winter break in Macau. Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten you! This week we are all supposed to be wearing face masks. A hassle, but working through it. Stay well, all!

Posted in quotidiana | Comments Off on Made it through the mid-term

Welcome back!

After an extra week of vacation (which we will have to pay back at the end of June), we have made it through the first week of the new semester. Welcome back everyone, and for our students/classmates who are still in Macau or Hong Kong, hang in there guys!

Posted in quotidiana | Comments Off on Welcome back!

Group on table joins

This is one of the more confusing issues of table joins. To make it extra confusing, try an outer join:

Select * from ta as a
left outer join tb as b
on a.key = b.key

Both tables have duplicate records for the field they are joined on. To clear up which tables have which records, I want to group on the key. Which table should I group by key?

I suspect there is not a general answer, it will depend on what you want to do. However, choose a simpler case, where ta has no duplicates in the key field, and tb does.
The answer was not what I expected (yes, I know, shows what a dunce I am). The CORRECT answer is to group on a.key

Select * from ta as a
left outer join tb as b
on a.key = b.key
group by a.key

Why? Say table b has no fields with key = x and key = y. You can catch this by using
where b.key is null
BUT if you group by b.key, the value of both these non-existent records in tb is null, so only one of them will show up as null, and this will also mean that only one of these values, x and y, is selected in ta. Tricky for guys like me.

Posted in Programming | Comments Off on Group on table joins

Happy Chinese New Year

Even though it’s three weeks late, Happy year of the Rat! 恭喜! 恭喜!

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Merry Christmas!

It’s not very cold in Taiwan, and Christmas is no longer a holiday here, but Merry Christmas to all, just the same.

And for those of you who like countdowns, get ready to say goodbye to the 201Xs (unless you are one of those perverse people who count their decades not from zero, but from 1).

Posted in quotidiana | Comments Off on Merry Christmas! now online

I now have a new website on the JFK Assassination Records Collection at All my future posts on the JFK ARC will go up there. The new site now includes all my previous posts on the ARC from this site, with long overdue corrections on some of them. I had several ARC posts almost ready to go which the failed upgrade of this site put on the back burner, so there should be new material up there in the near future. I have some interesting notes for this site as well, so visit again soon!

Posted in Site News | Comments Off on now online

Back online!

The Warren is back after a two month break. The unintended pause was the result of a failed upgrade from Ubuntu 12.04 to 14.04. Yuck, what a mess!

Thanks to Chi Nan University’s Computer Center, however, I am now up and running on Ubuntu 18.04, with the current version of WordPress as well. I have done my best to restore the site as it was before, but there are probably still some links that do not work. If you find any, let me know in a comment to this post.

I plan on a number of changes to the Warren. The main change: after two years of posting on the JFK Assassination Records Collection, any future writing on this subject will go on another site, and the Warren will return to its original function as a platform for my miscellaneous notes.

Posted in Site News | Comments Off on Back online!

Nosenko NBR: CIA files in the 2017-2018 ARC releases (Part 3)

This post looks at the CIA records on Yuri Nosenko in the JFK Assassination Records Collection (ARC) that were designated “not believed relevant” (NBR).

Over 2000 pages of these NBR documents on Nosenko were released by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in 2017-2018. For those interested in the Nosenko controversy, the release of these records provides much information previously unavailable. For those interested in the JFK assassination, however, the NBR designation seems to be an accurate appraisal (one question about this is raised at the end of this post).

The 2017-2018 NBR documents contrast with the CIA records on Nosenko released from the ARC in 1995-1998. These earlier documents are an important part of the story of the assassination investigation, detailing Nosenko’s claims about his knowledge of Lee Harvey Oswald’s KGB file, and the Warren Commission’s discussion of whether or not to incorporate these claims in their report.

Adding together the 1995-1998 Nosenko documents and the records released in 2017-2018, a total of 3000 plus pages of CIA documents on Nosenko have been released through the ARC. According to the Assassination Collection Reference System (ACRS), the online database of records in the ARC, this accounts for all CIA records on Nosenko in the ARC.

NBR records from CIA

To provide context for this post, a note on the NBR designation is in order. As described in previous posts, the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), an independent federal agency which oversaw the creation of the ARC and the release of information from the records in it, designated a number of CIA records as “not believed relevant” to the JFK assassination.

The release of NBR records was “postponed” until October 2017, when most of the material in the ARC was scheduled to be released. All NBR records from the CIA were indeed released in 2017-2018, but redactions were kept in some of them after President Trump certified that “continued withholdings are necessary to protect against identifiable harm to national security, law enforcement, or foreign affairs that is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in immediate disclosure.”1

The Nosenko documents are one of the larger sets of ARC documents designated NBR. A close look at these documents allows us to better understand why the ARRB designated them NBR, and the chronology of when and how they were released.

Who was Yuri Nosenko?

Yuri Nosenko (1927-2008) was a KGB officer who defected to the United States in 1964.2 Nosenko claimed to have reviewed the KGB file on Lee Harvey Oswald, the ex-marine who assassinated President Kennedy. As a result, he was interviewed at least five times by the FBI during the Warren Commission’s investigation of the assassination. According to Nosenko, the KGB did not use Oswald as an agent.

The CIA’s Counter-Intelligence Division soon came to suspect that Nosenko was a dispatched agent, sent to conceal a high-ranking KGB agent in the CIA ranks. As a result, Nosenko was confined at CIA facilities for three and a half years, from April 1964 to October 1967, while it attempted to evaluate the truth of his claims. Ultimately, the CIA accepted Nosenko as a bona fide defector, and retained him as a consultant on KGB affairs for the remainder of his career.

ARRB handling of the Nosenko NBR records: Combs memo 1

The ARRB’s work on the Nosenko records is partially documented in the ARC record 104-10332-10009, which consists of CIA correspondence on the Nosenko records, dating from 1978 to 1998.

Included in 104-10332-10009 is an October 9, 1997 memo from ARRB staffer Michelle Combs describing 24 sets of Nosenko records which were designated NBR.3 The memo consists of a summary of the ARRB CIA team’s conclusion that the Nosenko records were NBR, and a five page list, describing each set of documents.

There is also an earlier memo dated August 5, 1997, which gives more background on Nosenko, and gives descriptions of 25, rather than 24, sets of documents.4

The extra document in the August list is 104-10210-10009, which is the October 1968 Solie report on Nosenko’s bona fides. I do not know why this document was dropped from Combs’ October list. According to the Aug. 5 Combs memo, “A sanitized version of the Solie report has been released to the public.” but I have not been able to find this in the ACRS [6-26-2019 note: The “sanitized version” Combs refers to is probably ARC record 104-10150-10004. Some redactions were removed from this verison of the report in April 2018, but it should still be compared to 104-10210-10009.]5 In any case, for whatever reason, the ACRS listing for 104-10210-10009 does not mark it as NBR. Despite the lack of an NBR designation, 104-10210-10009 was apparently also withheld in full until 2017-2018.

Another puzzling document is what Combs describes as “a five page February 1964 memo from the Director of the Soviet Division (C/SR) David Murphy to the Deputy Director for Plans (DD/P) Richard Helms on plans to debrief Nosenko based on C/SR’s belief that Nosenko is a Soviet plant.” This seems to be record 104-10210-10155, but this was apparently released in full in 1999 and like 104-10210-10009 is also not marked as NBR.

At the time of Combs’ two memos, the RIF numbers now used to identify documents in the ARC had not yet been assigned to the Nosenko records. Instead, Combs identified the microfilm reels and “files” holding these records. Generally speaking, however, it is not difficult to identify which ARC documents came from which boxes and microfilm reels. These are all identified in the comments field of the document’s identification aid (its RIF sheet), which is attached to the top of each document in the ARC. In a few cases, some of the “volume/file” numbers may differ.

Based on Combs’ memo and descriptions, I have compiled a spreadsheet listing the RIF numbers and descriptions of the NBR Nosenko documents with links to the documents as posted at NARA, and in the Mary Ferrell collection. The spreadsheet is divided into three separate worksheets, covering the NBR documents in Combs’ memos discussed above, and two other sets of documents described below. The spreadsheet is available here.

Skipping the two questionable documents mentioned above, the total number of documents identified by Combs in her list is 36, and the total number of pages listed in the ACRS for these documents is 2,336. This is consistent with Combs’ estimate of 2,400 pages of NBR Nosenko records.

Combs memo 2

Record 104-10332-10009 also has a memo from Combs dated September 22, 1998, to then ARRB executive director Laura Denk.6 According to this memo, after the processing of the NBR Noskeno records, the ARRB’s CIA team reviewed two additional boxes of working files on Nosenko. These were all either copies or originals of previously reviewed material. Combs does not indicate reel or box numbers for these records, so I am not sure where they came from. I assume that they were discovered as part of later CIA records searches.

I have identified a number of records from this set that were also released in 2017-2018 and duplicate records from Combs’ earlier lists. All of these records have RIF numbers beginning 104-10534-10XXX. 7 In fact, all of the 200 plus records with the disk number 104-10534 are labelled “Nosenko records.” The 10534 record set contains some of the last CIA records to be processed in the ARC; most of them were registered on the CIA system in January 2001, over two years after the closing of the ARRB.8 I attribute the late processing of these records both to the fact that they were among the last records reviewed by the ARRB, and that they were duplicates of previously released material.

I count 15 documents in the 10534 set that are duplicates (though sometimes with different redactions) of the microfilm NBR Nosenko documents. These were obviously not included in Combs original estimates of how many pages were in the Nosenko NBR documents. In my spreadsheet file of Nosenko documents listed above, I have a separate worksheet for the 10534 documents (titled “working file docs”). Note that the ACRS document page count is wrong for a number of these records, so the working file spreadsheet lists both the ACRS page count and my own page count for each document. My page count for these documents is 827. (Note that I exclude RIF sheets from the count, and that three records have two or more copies of a document, for which I counted only one of the copies.)

The Nosenko recordings

The 10534 disk also contains RIF metadata for the 17 Nosenko recordings that were released in July 2017. I have not found any sign that these were designated NBR, but, like the records that were NBR, these recordings were also withheld in full until the October 2017 deadline to release all eligible ARC documents. These recordings all date from 1964. Two are from the January 1964 interviews of Nosenko in Geneva, the remainder from interviews of Nosenko between February and July 1964. The ACRS also lists 6 recordings of John Hart interviewing Nosenko in September 1978. These recordings were not released on-line in 2017-2018, but pdf files for each of the recordings were released. These files are not, however, transcripts of the recordings. Instead, they appear to be just labels for the tapes. I have written to NARA to find out if copies of the tapes available, and will post on any response I get.

Some comments

ARRB’s basic distinction between NBR Nosenko records and non-NBR records is clear: records concerning Nosenko’s account of the KGB file on Oswald are relevant, records concerning Nosenko’s bona fides, his confinement and treatment from 1965 to 1968, and his later relations with CIA, are NBR.

Thus transcripts of Peter Deryabin’s interrogation of Nosenko, a hitherto neglected aspect of the CIA’s attempt to determine Nosenko’s bona fides, are all designated NBR. This is reasonable; in close to 800 pages of interrogation, Kennedy and Oswald are not mentioned once.

The NBR records also include at least three of the major CIA studies of Nosenko’s bona fides:9 the Soviet Division’s 835-page rejection of Nosenko’s bona fides (104-10210-10037, 104-10210-10068, 104-10211-10001), written in February 196710; the Office of Security’s 263-page affirmation of Nosenko’s bona fides (104-10210-10009), written in October 1968 by Bruce Solie, and John Hart’s review of Nosenko’s bona fides (104-10211-10004, 104-10534-10205), written in June 1976.

Designating the bona fides studies NBR again makes sense for the reports of Solie and Hart, which have almost no mention of Nosenko’s claims about Oswald.

On the other hand, Bagley’s 835-page NBR report devotes close to 10 pages to Nosenko’s account of Oswald. Moreover, even in the most recent release (April 2018), there are still substantial redactions in precisely this section of the report. I don’t see how such material can be reasonably designated NBR.

In addition, other documents which relate to Nosenko’s bona fides were NOT designated NBR, and were released almost twenty years before October 2017. The most notable of these, perhaps, is the so-called “Green Book” report (104-10150-10136), written in February 1968.11 It seems that a consistent application of the NBR designation, in at least this case, is not as straightforward as one might hope.

Finally, for those who are interested in taking a closer look at these records, I have two caveats.

First, the 10534 duplicates should not be ignored. The 10534 version of the Hart report, for example, has significantly fewer redactions than the the NBR version. On the other hand, one cannot just read the 10534 version and ignore the NBR version: redactions remain in 10534 that are released in the NBR version. The ARRB made an effort to avoid this sort of confused, inconsistent redacting in the ARC records, but there are still many cases of this in the 2017-2018 releases.

Second, some of these documents have been released outside the ARC. If you are seriously interested in Nosenko, it would probably be wise to track down these releases. As an example, I initially believed that the Hart report remained unreleased until 2017-2018, but according to CIA historian David Robarge, the report had been released, in at least some form, by 2009.12 I have not been able to find this yet, but I see no reason to doubt Robarge. It would be interesting to know if other materials on Nosenko were also available elsewhere, perhaps in less redacted forms.

  1. See the April 26, 2018 Presidential Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies
  2. This section is sourced primarily from Vincent Bugliosi’s book Reclaiming History, pp.1249-1253. Bugliosi’s presentation is not free from problems, but he cites most of the important sources in a very concise form. Readers should also consult Bugliosi’s endnotes on Nosenko issues, pp. 715-716.
  3. See pp. 41-46.
  4. See pp. 23-30.
  5. There is another Solie report on Nosenko in record 104-10150-10026, from June 1967.
  6. See ARC document 104-10332-10009, p. 47.
  7. See my post “Missing” RIFs at NARA for an explanation of the record numbers in the ARC.
  8. I base this on the accession numbers in the RIF comment field of these records.
  9. The most extensive discussion of the bona fides studies I know of is Richards Heuer (1987), “Nosenko: Five Paths to Judgment”, Studies in Intelligence, 31 (3): 71–101.
  10. The ACRS does not give a document date for this record, nor does the report itself. The dating here comes from Heuer’s 1987 article on Nosenko
  11. See Heuer 384 for a brief description of this work.
  12. See David Robarge (2013), “‘Cunning Passages, Contrived Corridors’: Wandering in the Angletonian Wilderness,” Studies in Intelligence, 53 (4): 49–62.
Posted in History, Intelligence, JFK ARC | Comments Off on Nosenko NBR: CIA files in the 2017-2018 ARC releases (Part 3)

“Not Believed Relevant”: CIA files in the 2017-2018 ARC releases (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a series of posts I am doing on CIA records in the ARC which were designated “not believed relevant” (NBR). This post corrects the NBR count for CIA documents given in Part I, examines the release history of these NBR documents, and begins a discussion of ARRB memos on groups of NBR records.

I should note here that records from agencies other than the CIA were also either designated NBR or treated in an analogous way. I will discuss these records in a future series of posts. This series will discuss only CIA records.

Introduction: ARRB and NBR

The Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) was an independent federal agency established by Congress to oversee the creation of the JFK Assassination Records Collection (ARC). Many of the documents placed in the Collection were redacted by the originating agencies on national security, law enforcement, and privacy grounds.

It was the ARRB’s responsibility to review these redactions, opening as much of the documents as possible to the public. This was a lengthy process that often involved extensive consultations with the orginating agencies.

As the ARRB began work on the CIA “sequestered collection” (SC), a massive set of documents numbering close to 300,000 pages, it became concerned that some of the material in the SC was of “marginal relevance” to the JFK assassination, and that a “word by word” review of redactions to such materials would curtail its work in other important areas.

To reduce the time spent on marginal material, the ARRB developed a set of guidelines for processing material “not believed relevant” (NBR) to the assassination. If a page by page review of a document found it of no relevance or marginal relevance, the Board designated it NBR and deferred release of the entire document until the October 2017 deadline for release of all materials in the ARC.

Revised count of CIA documents declared NBR

As my previous post on the NBR material noted, it is sometimes difficult to tell which records were in fact designated NBR. My primary basis for distinguishing NBR records is the Assassination Collection Reference System (ACRS), a database of metadata for ARC records provided online by the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA), which holds all the ARC records.

However, as the previous post also noted, there are some cases where the ACRS metadata does not indicate a record was designated NBR, but other ARRB material indicates that it was. For the CIA documents, these “other materials” were mostly notices of record determinations which the ARRB published in the Federal Register.1 In my previous post on NBR records, I found 762 NBR records for the CIA in the ACRS database, and 29 notices of NBR records in the Federal Register which were not included in the ACRS.

After review, however, I have revised these figure: I now count 42 records as NBR using data from the ARRB’s notices in the Federal Register, and 758 records as NBR using the data in the ACRS. I missed the ACRS records before because they use slightly different language in describing the NBR designation. I identify the additional records in the Federal Register because they were noticed as postponed in full, which the ARRB only did for CIA records designated NBR. In addition, the ACRS comment fields for records gives the same description used for the other Federal Register NBR records.

If all of these revisions are correct, that means the total number of CIA NBR records is 800. I have posted a new excel file that lists these records here.2

Release of the NBR documents

As far as I can tell, the CIA documents designated NBR were withheld in full until their release in 2017-2018. There are several reasons for thinking this is so.

First, I have found no trace of these documents in the Mary Ferrell Foundation collection of ARC documents. The MFF collection is of course not exhaustive, but the greatest strength of the MFF collection of ARC documents is its set of CIA records. The fact no NBR CIA records were in the MFF collection (until they were released in 2017-2018) certainly suggests that these documents were not released prior to 2017-2018.

Second, virtually all of the NBR CIA documents were on the NF16 list. This was a list of all ARC records supposedly withheld in full, released by NARA in response to an FOIA request. As I have noted elsewhere, not all of the records on NF16 were actually withheld in full; some of these documents are present in other places in the ARC collection. I have found no such traces,however, of any NBR records3.

Third, the finding aid attached to each ARC document, known as a RIF sheet, lists the status of the record: open in full (OIF), withheld in part (WIP), or withheld in full (WIF). I have found no RIF sheets for the CIA NBR documents that indicate anything other than WIF (or sometimes DIF “Denied in Full”).4

Finally, ALL of the NBR records were “released” in 2017-2018. This is not an absolute guarantee that all of these documents were previously withheld in full. As I have also noted elsewhere, “released” in the context of the ARC is a technical term, and simply means that previously redacted text in a document has been opened to the public. Thus a 500 page document that was withheld in full by CIA in 1993, then released by the ARRB in 1996 with only two letters redacted, would still count as a “release” if the final two redacted letters were made public in 2017. Similar instances happened with a number of records in the 2017-2018 releases. It is therefore possible that some of the NBR records “released” in 2017-2018 were not released for the first time, but had also had text released earlier. I have found no evidence of this, however.

Summing up, I think it is very likely that ALL of the CIA NBR records listed on my excel sheet were in fact withheld in full until released in 2017-2018.

NBR document groups

Although determining whether specific records were designated NBR is sometimes a problem, ARRB files include a number of memos on groups of records (also called record blocks or sets) that were designated NBR. Many of these memos were written by Michelle Combs, who was ARRB’s Associate Director of Research and Analysis when the Board ended in September 1998. These memos are available online at Mary Ferrell (here). A good overview of the main sets of NBR documents can be found in this memo by Combs, which lists the following groups of NBR documents:

  • Nosenko records: Yuri Nosenko was a KGB defector who claimed to have knowledge of the KGB’s records on Lee Harvey Oswald. His bona fides were the subject of great controversy inside the CIA. The ARRB found a number of Nosenko documents relevant to the assassination and released these in 1995-1998. The NBR Nosenko documents were not released until 2017-2018. Combs estimates these totaled 2,400 pages.
  • CRC financial records: ARRB staffer Manuel Legaspi describes the Cuban Revolutionary Council (CRC) as “an umbrella group of anti-Castro groups formed with the support of the U.S. Government, [that] was to be the basis for an official government of Cuba had the Bay of Pigs invasion been successful in ousting Castro from power.”5 This group of documents contains “detailed financial and monthly accounting records” of the CRC. Combs estimates 5,400 pages of documents in this group.
  • Office of Personnel Files: According to Combs, ‘The HSCA was provided with the official Office of Personnel (OP) files for every agency employee connected in any possible way with the assassination or any investigation of the assassination.’ Combs does not give a page estimate for this group.
  • The Monster NBR: This was a list compiled by the ARRB’s CIA team. After a review of all the microfilm material in the CIA’s “Sequestered Collection” which the CIA designated non-relevant, the ARRB reviewers came up with their own list of materials which they agreed were NBR. This list was apparently classified at the time of its compilation, and I have not seen a copy of it. Combs estimates 25-30,000 pages of documents on the Monster list were marked NBR.

Coming next

The next several posts in this series will cover these four groups of NBR documents. This is worth doing for at least two reasons. First, many of these records have their own historical value. The debate over Nosenko’s bona fides, for example, has been the subject of several books, and I believe the newly released NBR documents shed significant light on the subject. Second, we can now use the released records to independently evaluate the ARRB’s decision to designate these documents as not relevant to the JFK assassination.

  1. See my previous post for details.
  2. There are two records whose status is not clear: 104-10164-10006 and 104-10136-10401. I do not include these in the count. I also recently found several records in the ARC which include discussions between the ARRB and CIA reviewers on the subject of NBR documents. These are useful for this discussion, so I list them in the excel file as well.
  3. For examples of records listed as WIF in NF16 that occur in NARA versions of Warren Commission documents, see my previous post on NF16, A look back at NF16.
  4. There is one possible exception to this: 104-xxxxx-xxxxx. This record has apparently been OIF since 1998. I am not sure of the content or the circumstances of its release, so this is one of the records I omitted from my list of CIA NBR documents.
  5. See Legaspi’s memo on CRC here.
Posted in History, JFK ARC | Comments Off on “Not Believed Relevant”: CIA files in the 2017-2018 ARC releases (Part 2)

“Not Believed Relevant”: CIA files in the 2017-2018 ARC releases (Part I)

[This post was revised on 5/7/2019 to add the endnotes that I accidentally omitted when posting, and to fix a few typos. Unfortunately, the count of NBR documents is also slightly off, and will be revised in the next post.]

From 2017 to 2018, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released seven sets of documents from the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection (ARC). News media and assassination researchers have claimed these releases include significant new information about the assassination of JFK, previously withheld from the public.

In a recent post I looked at responses to such claims by Max Holland and Dale Myers, two writers who have done important work on the JFK assassination. As both made clear, the significance of the releases has often been overstated.

This post discusses a set of documents from the 2017-2018 releases which received much attention, but whose signficance is particularly questionable. These are the CIA files designated “Not believed relevant” to the assassination (NBR) by the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB). The ARRB was the independent federal agency charged with overseeing the collection and release of government documents on the assassination of JFK.

In this post I look at why the ARRB designated some records as NBR, the criteria it followed when doing this, and the problems I had in identifying these records. For those who want to follow the discussion in detail, all of the figures and records cited below are listed in an excel sheet posted here. In future posts I will look at specific topics in CIA records with “no believed relevance” to the JFK assassination. I will also take a look at a similar, even larger set of FBI records.

The creation of the NBR designation

The genesis of the ARRB’s NBR designation was at an ARRB meeting on August 6, 1996.1 The ARRB’s first year and a half of work on CIA records was devoted to a word by word review of the CIA’s main file on JFK assassin Lee Oswald, usually referred to as the Oswald 201 file. By August 1996, the Board’s work on the Oswald 201 file was done, but the CIA still had a huge number of records that the ARRB needed to review for relevance to the JFK assassination.

The bulk of these records was in the CIA’s “sequestered collection” (SC), sometimes called the segregated collection. This collection consisted of all the records the CIA had gathered for the investigation conducted by the House Special Committee on Assassinations (HSCA).

The transcript of the August 6 ARRB meeting includes an introduction to the sequestered collection, given under oath by two members of the CIA’s Historical Research Group (HRG): John Pereira and Barry Harrelson. Pereira’s presentation divided the SC into two parts: hard copy files with about 129,000 pages, and 72 reels of microfilm, equivalent to about 163,000 pages when printed out, so a total of about 300,000 pages.2

The Board members believed that processing such a large number of records using the exacting word by word review standards they employed in the Oswald 201 file would consume most of the ARRB’s remaining time.3 As Board member Anna Nelson observed during the August 6 meeting:

One of the reasons we feel — and we’ve talked about that we feel this is such a big problem — is that if we take the time to word-for-word look at the sequestered collection, then we won’t have time for anything else.4

The Board was also concerned that much of the material in the SC was of secondary value. Many documents were duplicated, sometimes massively. In the CIA presentation, Pereira cited one document which the CIA reviewers had found 43 copies of.5

In another presentation at the same meeting, T. Jeremy Gunn, ARRB counsel and associate director for research and analysis, also notes that in the SC “there are some records where it is very difficult to determine the relevancy [to the assassination].” In fact, as Gunn’s presentation makes clear, there are large chunks of the SC that are of no discernible relevance at all.6 I will have a detailed discussion of this problem in my next post on the NBR records.

Following Gunn’s presentation, the Board also provided time for comments from JFK researchers, including authors John Newman and Harrison Livingstone, AARC president Jim Lesar, and COPA president John Judge. Newman, Lesar, and Judge all argued that the Board should aim to fulfill both goals: complete processing of the SC, and continuing to search for and process new documents. If necessary, they suggested, the board could ask Congress for a further extension of its term.7

Board member Anna Nelson expressed doubt that further extension of the Board’s term would pass Congress and pressed Lesar on his priorities:

MS. NELSON: For a moment, let’s forget about an extension, which would be difficult in this Congress. Would you, Mr. Lesar, prefer that we examine the new file materials and not seek any other CIA or other documents?
MR. LESAR: No. Given that choice, I would prefer that the board give primary attention to drawing unidentified assassination records into the collection.

As the transcript of the August 6 meeting shows, this sentiment was shared by the Board. On the other hand, the Board’s reading of the ARCA’s requirements made them reluctant to consider non-release of the irrelevant material in the SC (this is discussed below).

The NBR guidelines

Caught between the two imperatives of continuing the search for more unidentified assassination records and full processing of all material in the SC, the ARRB came up with a compromise solution for handling documents of marginal or undetermined relevance in the SC. This solution was implemented in a set of guidelines which ARRB staff began drafting soon after the August 6 meeting.8 The final version of the guidelines was adopted at the Board meeting on 13 November 1996.9

These guidelines had not been drafted when the ARRB’s 1996 report was written, and they are only briefly mentioned in the ARRB final report,10, so a more detailed look at them is appropriate here.

The guidelines first defined a set of “segregated collections” consisting of FBI and CIA records provided to all government investigations of the JFK assassination. The guidelines require a complete review of all records in these collections. Records that are relevant to the assassination, or that “enhance historical understanding” of the assassination, were to have all requests for “postponements” (redactions) reviewed on a word by word basis.

Records that the ARRB staff decided had information “not believed relevant” (NBR) to the assassination were to be documented with a brief description of the basis for the determination. The Board would then stopped processing the document or the section of the document determined to be NBR. The effect of this was that these documents, for the most part, were withheld in full through the ARCA’s 25 year deadline, though the ARRB encouraged the agencies to release the information.

The guidelines provided that the record’s final determination form “shall reflect that such postponements have been sustained on both the specific grounds enumerated in Section 6 and the material’s NBR status.” and emphasized that “Under no circumstance shall information that is relevant to the assassination be postponed on joint NBR-Section 6 grounds.” Put more plainly, these rules did not allow withholding any information in the NBR documents that was relevant to the JFK assassination.

Problems in NBR record accounting

Accounting for which records were NBR proved to be a problem for the ARRB. The most complete list of NBR records that I have found is in the Assassination Collection Reference System (ACRS), NARA’s online database of ARC metadata. The ACRS lists 762 CIA records as NBR. These are records where the phrase “NBR” appears in either the subject field or the comment field of the record. I have listed the titles, RIF #s, subjects, and comments for the records I found in the excel sheet for this post (here).

To ensure that the ARRB’s review of assassination records was performed with a high level of public scrutiny, the ARCA also required the ARRB to publish notices in the Federal Register for all record decisions.11 The NBR guidelines, however, did not specifically deal with publication of NBR determinations in the Register. In fact, only 55 NBR record notices were published in the Register. These are also listed in the excel file for this post (here).

Of these 55 NBR records, only 33 were from the CIA. Of the 33 CIA records listed as NBR in the Federal Register, only four are listed as NBR in the ACRS. What happened to the other 29? These records are all from CIA disk number 104-10063, with records numbered 104-10063-100XX. Checking the full metadata for these records, they all have a note in the comment field that reads “FBI DENIED IN FULL 2/16/94; ARRB DENIED IN FULL 3/14/97.” This is instead of simply writing “NBR” as all the other NBR records do.

The metadata for all CIA records in the ARC was keyed in by the CIA reviewing team, so this confused, inaccurate description is on them. In defense of the review team, we should also note that these were the first records that the ARRB declared NBR, so the review team perhaps did not immediately understand on what basis the documents were withheld.

Adding the 762 NBR records from the CIA in the ACRS, and the 29 records listed as NBR in the Federal register gives a total of 791.

Why has there been confusion about these records? First, with the exceptions noted above, they were not noticed in the Federal Register, in contrast to all the other records processed by the ARRB. Second, with one or two exceptions, the “final determination forms” which the NBR guidelines envisioned would be attached to all of these documents were apparently never prepared. Third, the staff documentation for the NBR records (“a brief description of the basis for the [NBR] determination”) was not published, but remained in the ARRB files. I am sure that it exists there, but no researcher has ever bothered to dig it out. Documentation for some of the classified files is also probably still classified itself.

Relevance in the Assassination Records Collection

Ultimately, as far as I have been able to trace them, the NBR records from the CIA were all included in the ARC, and have been released, either in full or in part. To me, this poses something of a puzzle. If these records are truly unrelated to the JFK assassination, why did the ARRB insist on including them in the collection?

The Board’s primary rationale for including such irrelevant material in the ARC is that it was obtained by the HSCA as part of its investigation, and Section 3(2) of the Assassination Records Collection Act (ARCA), the legislation establishing the ARC, defines an assassination record as “a record that is related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that was created or made available for use by, obtained by, or otherwise came into the possession of [the government].”12

  1. A copy of the meeting transcript was released in the ARRB electronic records and is available at the Mary Ferrell website (here). This document is referred to below as “the transcript.” Beware that the MFF website has another copy of the transcript (here), which is missing all of the CIA presentation on the Sequestered Collection.
  2. See the transcript, p. 23 During the meeting, both ARRB members and the CIA employees sometimes refer to these 300,000 pages as 300,000 documents (see e.g. transcript, p. 38) This is obviously a very loose way of talking: one page does not equal one document.
  3. The committee was scheduled to sunset in 1997, but Congress eventually extended its term (and funding) until September 1998. See the ARRB Final Report, p. 7
  4. Transcript, p. 60.
  5. Transcript, p. 28.
  6. Transcript, p. 39-47.
  7. Livingstone argued that the CIA records were not relevant to the assassination (See transcript, p. 92.
  8. See the ARRB 1996 Annual Report, pp. 18-19, 40-41. Note that the 1996 Report incorrectly states that these rules were adopted October 16, 1996. There was no Board meeting on that date, and the copy of the Guidelines in the ARRB electronic records gives November 13, 1996 as the date of its adoption.
  9. A copy of this was released with the ARRB electronic records and available at the Mary Ferrell website (here)).
  10. Available at the Mary Ferrell website, see page 47.
  11. This is discussed in an earlier post, “ARRB record notices”
  12. This is discussed during the August 6 meeting by ARRB counsel T. Jeremy Gunn. See transcript, p. 47-48.
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