A look back at NF16

NF16 is a list of 3598 records in the JFK Assassination Records Collection (ARC) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).1

NARA released the list in January 2016 in response to an FOIA request by Michael Raznitsky, who asked for a list of all records in the ARC “withheld in full” (WIF) as of November 2015.2

As discussed in earlier posts, WIF is one of three possible states for ARC records. The other two are “withheld in part” (WIP), and “open in full” (OIF). OIF records have no text removed; they are “unredacted”, and thus completely open to the public. WIP records still have some text removed for reasons of national security, law enforcement, or privacy. They are thus “redacted.” WIF records are records that are not available to the public at all, except for certain items of metadata relating to the document, i.e. number of pages, basis for withholding, agencies which provided the document, and so on.

WIF records have been a focus of interest for many people interested in the JFK assassination, but for reasons that I will discuss in another post, the actual number of WIF records in the ARC was left in confusion when the main work on declassifying and opening the records ended in 1998. NF16 was part of NARA’s effort to clarify this confusion.

My post today takes a second look at the NF16 list, in an attempt to see how many documents on the list were ultimately released, problems it revealed with NARA’s ability to identify WIF records in the ARC, and researchers’ sometimes flawed understanding of what is available and what is not.

NF18 and NARA 18

Before I look back at NF16, however, a review of two other lists relevant to the 2017-2018 ARC releases is necessary. These lists include NF183 and NARA18.4

NF18 is a list of 22,933 records in the ARC. The NF18 list was released in January 2018 in response to another FOIA request, this one from John Greenewald, who runs The Black Vault website.5 Unlike NF16, which lists only WIF records, NF18 was supposed to list all records in the ARC which still had redactions as of the date of its release. The NF18 list has many duplicate records, so for purposes of counting or comparison total redactions, one must use the number of unique records in the list, which is 21,890.

NARA18 is the cumulative list of all seven ARC record releases from July 2017 to April 2018. It gives the final tally of ARC records released in this period. Note that “record releases” here is a technical term, it does not mean a complete restoration of all redacted text at one fell swoop, but instead refers to a document that has had at least one redacted passage restored. In fact, some documents were “released” multiple times, with different text redactions restored at different times. Tracking what text was restored in which release is a permanent source of confusion in any accounting of ARC documents.

Of the 21,890 records on NF18, 798 are identified as “withheld,” meaning in this case “withheld in full.” The remaining 21,092 records are identified as “redacted,” meaning in this case “withheld in part.” In the most recent release of ARC records on April 26 2018, NARA clarified the status of the “withheld” records, most of which are not eligible for release under the 1992 Assassination Records Collection Act (ARCA) the law governing the ARC. Only 9 of the 798 files were released in April. In addition to the ineligible files, another 200 or so were record errors, damaged recording tapes, and a large set of microfilmed duplicate files on Lee Harvey Oswald, the originals of which had already been released earlier.6

Adding all these together, NARA has now accounted for all the WIF files in ARC. The files in the ARC which remain WIF will remain closed to the public, barring a change in the ARCA, the law which authorized releases from the Collection. How many of the WIP files still in the Collection will remain redacted is unclear (I will do a post on this in the near future). There is also some uncertainty as to which records in the ARC are now OIF and which remain WIP. Eventually one would hope NARA will clarify these issues, but this will probably not happen in the near future.

A comparison of NF16, NF18 and NARA18

Going back now to NF16, one must remember that this list was compiled over 3 years ago. Although it was originally supposed to be a list of only the WIF files in the ARC, it is now clear that a number of the files in the list were in fact NOT withheld in full. Nonetheless, 797 of the 798 withheld in full documents in NF18 were already listed in NF167

Comparing the remaining files, 2447 records from NF16 appear in NARA18. These are all releases of previously redacted material. I should note that it was probably not the case that all of these documents were actually WIF, but even if they were WIP at the time of the 2017 releases, we at least have the documents and can now examine its contents.

In any case, 2447, plus the 798 WIF unreleased records listed in NF18, still leaves something over three hundred records in NF16 unaccounted for. These unaccounted records were noted by several websites which have been tracking the releases. Jimmy Falls noted this gap at the WhoWhatWhy.com website soon after the release of NF18,8, and Rex Bradford, president of the Mary Ferrell Foundation made the same point in a June 2018 overview of the 2017-2018 releases.9

Fortunately, Falls provided a copy of the NF16 pdf with the “missing” records highlighted in green, so it is possible to immediately identify 374 of the 375 records he is interested in.10 Bradford agrees with Falls that there are 375 files in NF16 “which had not been released in 2017” and are not present in NF18. The Mary Ferrell Foundation corresponded with NARA on this question, and according to Bradford “the Archives in a reply claimed that 336 of the 375 had been erroneously included on the 2016 list in the first place. The other 39 were said to be ‘pending April release’ despite being missing from the 2018 listing.”

I believe I have now tracked down these discrepancies, but the one by one itemizing was a truly dull task. I will put up an excel sheet with the items when I have recovered from my Stakhovite labors. In the meantime, I will give a short version here.

First, there are actually more than 375 documents “missing” from the NARA18 spreadsheet. NF16 as originally released was missing the final page. The Mary Ferrell Foundation discovered this omission and got the missing data from NARA.11 Falls’ copy of NF16 is missing this final page, which lists an additional 27 documents. 18 of these also missing from NF18. Like Falls, Bradford counts 375 “missing documents” in both the “Open Letter” and his report on the 2017-2018 ARC releases, so he has also omitted the 27 documents on the final page of NF16.

Neither Falls nor Bradford mentions actually trying to look up the 375 records they question at NARA. I have not myself checked all 336 records which NARA told Bradford were included in NF16 by error, but just glancing at other documents online at NARA or Mary Ferrell show several cases where these records were incorporated in other materials, and are present in full, with no redactions. As examples, record 179-40003-10035 appears in Commission Document 442, starting on page 74. This document is available on Mary Ferrell (see here). Record 179-40005-10139 appears in the same document, starting on page 78. (see here)

Comparing the RIF metadata sheets for 179-40003-10035 in CD442 with the data in the Assassination Collection Reference System (ACRS), NARA’s online database of ARC finding-aids, shows that 179-40003-10035 was reviewed on 9/14/94, and that when its RIF sheet was printed, it was OIF. Yet its entry in the ACRS was never updated to reflect this change. This seems to have occurred frequently in documents with the prefix 179; over half of the 336 documents erroneously listed in NF16 are in fact documents with the 179 prefix. This failure to update the ACRS is perhaps the main reason why NARA has struggled to identify which records are WIF, WIP, and OIF.

While this is a problem which needs correction, I find the critiques of both Falls and Bradford on NF16 off the mark. Falls did not even bother to correspond with NARA on the question of the “missing” documents. Bradford did, but still apparently questions NARA’s response that 336 records released in full were incorrectly included on NF16, without checking the actual state of the documents at NARA, and without bothering to check NARA18 to see whether it included 39 other “missing” documents. (Or if he did, he did not bother to inform us that they were indeed there.)

To question NARA’s ARC figures without taking the most basic step of actually looking up the records in question shows a lack of concern for accuracy. At this late point in the development of the ARC, when we are not talking about vast numbers of documents but a few thousand, a few hundred, or even a dozen or so, there is no excuse for not doing this.

NARA is not obligated to be 100 percent correct in every metadata item for every document in the ARC, just as the Library of Congress is not obligated to be 100 percent correct. It should show due diligence in revising errors, and it should give due notice of where errors may lie. In the case of NF16, prior to its release, NARA more than once reminded researchers that its database field for record status (OIF, WIP, WIF) was NOT accurate.12 It revised lists of documents and responded to researchers’ questions. As far as I can see, NARA has made due efforts to open all records that the ARCA allows to be open.

NARA has been less prompt in updating and correcting the ACRS. According to NARA staff member Gene Morris (in a recent email to me), this is a problem of funding. Given the vast amount of time and resources poured into the ARC, however, it makes no sense to leave the ACRS in its current condition. It should be updated and corrected to provide complete and accurate metadata on all records in the ARC, and I have written to my representatives to ask that they consider fully funding this final step in fulfilling the goals of the ARCA.

  1. The list is available at the Goverment Attic website (here); as discussed below, there is a page missing from this document, available at the Marry Ferrell website (here). I did a post on the NF16 list in November 2017 ( JFK Records Act Releases: A comparison with NARA 2016.) In previous mentions of NF16, I called it NARA 2016, but to avoid confusion with the growing number of record lists released by NARA, I now call it NF16.
  2. The list was published at several websites in the February 2016, but apparently the actual release of the list was in January.
  3. Available here.
  4. Available here.
  5. I have posted on NF18 numerous times, most recently March 2019 .
  6. See my two posts on this subject, NF18 and the 4/26 ARC releases and The state of the JFK ARC: The Bradford critique.
  7. The only exception is record 177-10001-10437, which was not in NF16, but was added in NF18.
  8. See What’s Buried in the Missing JFK Documents?
  9. See 2017 & 2018 Releases – Progress, Issues, Recommendations In fact, Bradford made the point even earlier in a MFF Open letter to the Archivist of the United States
  10. Falls only highlights 374 records; I believe the record he has omitted to highlight is 180-10110-10050.
  11. See (here).
  12. See for example Martha Murphy’s 2015 presentation on the ARC, “NDC Prioritization: What Secrets Do People Want to See? (ca. 30:00)”.
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