The 2017 JFK Records Act releases at NARA: Q & A

After looking at Harold Weisberg’s archive last year, I became interested in the JFK assassination, a subject I had never really looked at before. The recent NARA release of documents under the JFK Records Act, which was supposed to be the final release of all previously withheld documents, was therefore quite interesting to me. Unfortunately, the newspaper reporting on this event was not very good, and I eventually decided to take a look at what had come out myself. The release provided some materials that I had not expected to run across, which I will write about in the not too distant future. For this short note, however, I’m just going to summarize the documents releases in a general Q&A form.

When were the documents released and what more is to come?

As of today (November 14, 2017), there have been four public releases of records under the JFK Records Act in 2017. The releases were on July 24, October 26, November 3, and
November 9, and are described in detail on the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) website, which provides an authoritative excel file of the records released so far. This post is actually just a summary of the NARA excel sheet, I claim nothing original here, except on one small point. I am certain that there will be a number of releases in the future, which I will try to look at as well. President Trump’s October 25th order gave everyone until April 2018 to finish up releasing documents, but who knows if they can really do it? I am somewhat skeptical.

How many documents were released?

In this post, I’ll refer to files posted at NARA as ‘documents’, regardless of whether they were originally paper documents or otherwise. In fact, 17 of the ‘documents’ are audio files of interviews, or interrogations, of Yuri Nosenko. I do not include these in any of my counts. In addition, 16 of these 17 audio files have matching pdf files; these are just single sheets, providing recording dates, tape numbers, and in some cases information about the interviewers (Pete, Nick, Tom, FBI, etc.) If these count as separate documents (since they are separate files), that would add another 16 to the total count. For my purposes, however, I’ll omit them, meaning that the total number of JFK Records Act documents released this year is 20,552. The number of documents released for each date is as follows:

Date No. Docs
7/24 3794
10/26 2891
11/3 654
11/9 13213

These figures are not the same as the official NARA figures. This is because the NARA says that 676 files were released on 11/3; in fact, 22 of these files had already been released on 7/24, so that only 654 new files were released on 11/3. If we were counting the 16 single ‘cover-sheets’ for the audio files, the total would be 20,568 discrete pdf files now available from NARA.

(There is also a minor error on the NARA spreadsheet: RIF# 104-10086-10154 appears twice, but in fact the second of these two documents should be 104-10086-10156. NARA has posted this file under the correct filename, so it is available.)

How many pages were released?

Putting aside the audio files and their cover sheets, the NARA files are all pdfs ranging from 1 to 562 pages. Many of the files have an RIF coversheet, which is supplied by NARA and gives basic JFK Record information. These should not be counted as part of the documents, but since some files have them and some don’t, it is hard to say how many RIF coversheets there are without going through all 20500+ files. Disregarding this problem, here is a table of number of pages per file:

Page range No. of Docs
> 200 115
100 – 199 161
50 – 99 207
30 – 49 204
20 – 29 206
10 – 19 610
6 – 9 1065
5 654
4 1206
3 2707
2 5861
1 7538

Based on this table, the total number of pages released so far this year is 133,761.

This is a surprisingly high number. It is inflated by the fact that the releases include a large number of documents already released in part in previous years. As an example, RIF # 104-10301-10004 is volume 3 of the CIA’s internal history of the Bay of Pigs operation. The NARA document has 408 pages, but in fact this volume has been previously released multiple times (most recently in 2011). There were about a dozen pages with redactions in the 2011 release, and the current NARA release has removed perhaps 4 or 5 of these (redactions remain even in this release). Thus, as many as 390-400 pages of this document have no new information, and even the redactions removed were usually just one or two words. If one ignores this type of ‘inflation’, it is easy to erroneously conclude that much more new material was released than is actually the case.

Another way to look at this question is to compare the number of pages from documents “previously withheld in full” as opposed to the number of pages from documents “previously withheld in part”:

Previous document status Number of docs Number of pages
withheld in part 19510 73427
withheld in full 1039 60271

These numbers are more in line with what we might have expected. The withheld in part documents had withheld a relatively small number of pages; on the other hand, the withheld in full documents, though relatively few, have so far turned out to be more voluminous than some had guessed. Among these newly released documents are the CIA operative files of a number of well-known people, some of these hundreds of pages long. Although often quite dull, these can sometimes give a detailed picture of the careers of important CIA officers such as David Phillips and Scotty Miler, and of CIA asset June Cobb, who many people were very curious about. Whether these people have very much to do with the JFK assassination is of course a different question. There are also lengthy transcripts of telephone taps, and compilations of surveillance photos that, in my opinion, contribute very little to our understanding, except that we can now see that the HSCA was right when they said ‘Nope, nothing there.’

What dates are covered by the released documents?

Most of the documents in this year’s releases are dated. Exceptions are the CIA op files mentioned above. Since some of these files cover decades, it is not reasonable to assign them to any particular date. There are also a fair number of documents where the NARA spreadsheet does not provide a date, even though a date is clearly indicated in the file, sometimes even on the RIF coversheet included at the beginning of the file. No doubt these omissions were due to the massive volume of files releases. In the end, though, there are only 1352 files with no year, so most of the files are dated.

Since dates may be a convenient way of indicating content (and interest) of the releases, these are worth examining more closely. The top year for documents, of course, was 1963; almost 4000 documents of the releases so far are from this one year. In terms of decades, the 1960s are naturally the main document era, with the 1970s a distant second, mostly releases of HSCA documents. There are a mere handful of releases from the 1980s. This is because it was the only decade in which there was no major investigation of the assassination. Several hundred documents were also released in the 1990s, almost all by the ARRB. Here is all this descriptive stuff in a table:

Decade Number of documents
no year 1352
1940s 137
1950s 1485
1960s 13796
1970s 3166
1980s 41
1990s 575

(note that this table follows common practice in counting ‘ought’ years such as 1960 as belonging with the 1960s)

Earliest and Latest files

The most recent documents released so far are dated 1999; these are primarily from Barry Harrelson at CIA, who was coordinating with NARA on release of HSCA CIA segregated materials after the ARRB closure in 1998. A more mysterious item is a letter from Scott Breckinridge to Charles Briggs. Don’t know why this letter is included, since it dates from after the ARRB closed. The earliest dated document is an FBI report on Paul Raigorodsky, from 1941. Raigorodsky was “a member of the Russian-speaking community in Dallas” and testified before the Warren Commission on 3/31/64. There are plenty of files released so far which include earlier documents than this, but these files are all collections of various documents, such as the CIA op files, and most of these were assembled in the 1960s or 70s.

Agencies releasing documents

The NARA spreadsheet also indicates the agencies which produced, or had charge of, the documents being released. This again gives one a fairly clear idea of the type of material in the documents. The table below gives counts for all agencies credited with more than 10 documents.

Agency No. of Documents
CIA 15762
FBI 3760
HSCA 294
NSA 244
Blank 110
JCS 43
LBJ 11

(SSCIA = Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities, ‘Church Committee’; JCS = Joint Chiefs of Staff, INSCOM = Army Intelligence and Security Command; ROCKCOM = Rockefeller Commission; LBJ = Lyndon B. Johnson Library)

Miscellaneous information

The NARA spreadsheet provides several other types of information, including the latest review dates of the documents, and comments on individual files. All this is useful for those who want to know what is going on ‘behind the scenes’ at NARA, but since that is not my main interest, I’ll omit it for now.

Final note

So far, I have barely scratched the surface of the files released, and since my overall knowledge of the JFK assassination’s many controversies is very limited, I will refrain from offering anything more than the most general comments on what’s out so far. As far as I can tell, much of this material is only distantly related to the assassination; so much so that in many cases it takes great familiarity with points of controversy to see the relevance. This is perhaps not surprising; those who had read this material prior to its release, people such as John Tunheim, the former chairman of the ARRB, have generally warned that there are few surprises to come. But for those who have more general or tangential interests, there is doubtless much of interest. An example is the large number of materials related to the Golitsyn – Nosenko controversy. For me, there were other surprises as well. In the not too distant future, I will try to write up at least one such item that “knocked my eyeglasses off.”

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