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.
Posted in History, JFK ARC | Comments Off on “Not Believed Relevant”: CIA files in the 2017-2018 ARC releases (Part I)

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 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)”.
Posted in History, JFK ARC | Comments Off on A look back at NF16

Gaps in the ACRS: A note from NARA

I have done a couple of posts about the agencies whose records are missing from the Assassination Collection Reference System (ACRS), the on-line database of finding-aids for the JfK Assassination Records Collection at NARA.1 I emailed NARA about the problem a while ago and have recently heard back from them.

In my email, I specifically asked about the omission from the ACRS of all records from the following agencies:

  • the Investigative Reports Repository (agency prefix 194)
  • the National Security Council (agency prefix 145)
  • the National Security Agency (agency prefix 144)
  • the Immigration and Naturalization Service (agency prefix 136)
  • the United States Secret Service with the agency prefix 154
  • the Department of Justice with the agency prefix 117

I heard back from Gene Morris at Archives II Textual Reference Branch (whom I wrote to in Feb 2018 about the missing FBI records from disks 124-10203, 10204, and 10223). Mr. Morris replied:

I personally spot checked the records for each of the agencies you cited and they are all here and open and available for public review and they have been for some time.

So the records are indeed available. Unfortunately, it looks like the only way you can find out what’s there is to visit NARA’s College Park facility in person. According to Mr. Morris:

There are no plans to add any of the missing records to the database as we do not have the resources or funding to do so. They do appear in the Collection Register, so their existence has been made known. Actually the National Security Council records you cited are not listed there. The entry must have fallen off during an update and not been noticed. I’ve arranged to have it fixed and should be corrected next week.

As for why these records didn’t make it into the ACRS, Mr. Morris explained:

The records arrived with either the RIFs attached or at least printed out. The metadata, the information contained within the individual RIFs was placed on discs and transferred to us at the same time. As with the FBI RIFs we discussed previously, the information on the discs with the metadata was corrupted and could not be merged with our database. Given the technology of the time and the rather cumbersome process involved, it was decided to simply work around the issue. Since we had the RIFs and the paper records were open for public review, we could just treat those files like the other files not in the database.

As I said in an earlier post,2 the ARC is one of the most important documentary collections for cold war history, and the ACRS is a tremendous aid for anyone who wants to do research in it. To leave the ACRS unfinished not only hobbles serious researchers, it leaves the door open to false and misleading claims about the content of the ARC. Such claims have already appeared more than once.

Posted in History, JFK ARC | Comments Off on Gaps in the ACRS: A note from NARA

Max Holland on the ARC releases

Having gone through tons of ARC release trivia, I’m finally looking at what it all adds to our knowledge of the JFK assassination. This post begins with a look at a December 2017 article by Max Holland, who makes many important points on this subject.


The JFK Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 (ARCA) created the JFK Assassination Records Collection (ARC), now the largest existing archival collection of government documents on the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the federal government’s investigation of the assassination. The Collection is stored and administered by the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA).

Many of the records in the ARC were created by federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and as such were protected from public release. The ARCA, however, mandated that the vast majority of the Kennedy assassination records would be published in full, and set a deadline of 25 years from the passage of the Act for complete release of all records in the Collection.1

Not content to let the public wait for 25 years to see much of this material, the ARCA also established an indepdent federal agency, the Assassination Record Review Board (ARRB), to begin immediately processing the records for public release, and to seek out additional assassination related materials in both public and private hands. From 1995 to 1998, a large percentage of the restricted materials in the Collection were in fact released in full through the ARRB’s efforts.

When the 25 year limit set by the ARCA was reached on October 26th, 2017, hitherto unreleased materials were in fact made public, amid widespread press coverage. Unfortunately, most of this coverage, including stories in major U.S. newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post, was of surprisingly low quality.

The reasons for this almost unrelieved journalistic confusion and error were the subject of Much Ado About Nothing, an article by Max Holland published in the now defunct news magazine, the Weekly Standard, on December 8, 2017 (available here). Holland, a contributing editor of The Nation magazine, has written extensively not just on the JFK assassination, but on the Cold War era as a whole.

Holland’s work is particularly notable for his effective use of ARC documents, often in areas where they are important and relevant, yet have been ignored or neglected.2 Holland thus offers some of the best-informed commentary available on the ARC, and his article is well worth reading.

Holland on the ARRB review of the ARC

One of Holland’s most important points is how news coverage of the releases either ignored or misunderstood the ARRB’s review of the ARC documents.

Looking back at the news stories of October 2017, this is especially baffling. With the exception of a few local stories in Minnesota interviewing former ARRB chair John Tunheim, who is still serving as Chief Judge in in Minnesota federal district court, I can’t recall a single article that interviewed members or staff of the ARRB.

Holland did not make this mistake. He interviewed Board member William Joyce and ARRB executive director David Marwell. He read the Final Report of the ARRB (and himself testified before the Board in 1995 on the subject of defining an assassination record). He spoke to NARA staff working with the ARC.

The long and short of the story: the ARRB released all assassination information in the ARC documents by 1998. The ARRB only left text redacted when it was deemed to be irrelevant to the facts of the assassination (or fit into one of the VERY narrow exemptions mentioned in footnote 1 below).

This has a rather devastating implication for the news stories which attempted to describe what was new in the ARC releases.

Cold rice fried again

This Chinese slang for newspaper stories that have passed their best if used by date is an apt description of Holland’s vivisection of the newspaper coverage of the October releases.

Holland’s discussion of ARC document 180-10110-10104 (the “Jenkins memo”) is a fascinating example of the bogus news that arose from the failure to recognize something that had been previously released. This document is a memo of a phone conversation between Johnson’s top aid Walter Jenkins and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover on 11/24/1963, immediately after JFK assassin Oswald had been shot by Dallas club owner Jack Ruby. As Holland notes, this memo featured prominently in testimony before the HSCA3 and was discussed in Holland’s own 2004 book The Kennedy Assassination Tapes (89-90).

The memo was released in part by the HSCA in 1978, and in full by the ARRB in 1998, but in spite of this, NARA released the Jenkins memo with the annotation that it was previously withheld in full. Rather than note the error, newspapers, journalists and commentators cited it as an example of important information withheld for 25 years. One could argue that these people were simply unlucky enough to have missed Holland’s book, but anyone familiar with the HSCA investigation should have spotted NARA’s error.

In this example, the newspaper coverage at least has the excuse that NARA presented the document with inaccurate information, leading those who were not familiar with the HSCA investigation to draw erroneous conclusions. In fact, document after document presented in news coverage of the releases was the same story, without any NARA error to explain why they were writing news articles about decades old material.4

Experts with no expertise

While Holland has harsh things to say about newspaper coverage of the ARC releases in general, his strongest criticism is reserved for people who he thinks ought to know better, professional historians and specialists in the Cold War.

Holland’s criticism of professional historians like Robert Dallek and Michael Beschloss is, I think, well taken. Both men were clearly not familiar with the material in the ARC releases and their comments were substantially uninformed. This was surprising and disappointing: the ARC documents are certainly important for the period they have specialized in, yet Dallek and Beschloss were not able to offer useful or perceptive comment on them.

Nor does Holland spare journalists. He is particularly critical of two reporters: Jefferson Morley and Philip Shenon, whom he compares to two earlier figures who wrote influential works on the JFK assassination: Mark Lane and Edward Epstein.

I have read only a limited amount by Lane, Epstein, Shenon, and Morley, so I should perhaps hold my tongue on the appropriateness of the comparisons. However, it seems to me that it would take extremely dubious behavior to match Lane. While Morley is certainly firmly conspiratorial in his views, I haven’t yet seen anything from him that would put him in the same class with Lane.

I know a little more about Epstein and Shenon, having read both Epstein’s book Inquest and Shenon’s book A Cruel and Shocking Act. These are currently the two primary accounts of the work of the Warren Commission, and Shenon’s book in particular was a disappointment. But again, I’m not sure I see the basis for the comparison between Epstein and Shenon, except that people interviewed by them later had serious complaints about the accuracy of what Epstein and Shenon wrote.

Comparing the flack Epstein took for bad quotes, and the complaints directed against Shenon, it seems Epstein is way up on the non-existent and twisted word scales. On the other hand, some of the Commission staff that Shenon criticizes are dead, and thus have said little to defend themselves.

Future of ARC research

The ARC is surely one of the most important collections for Cold War history available. As Holland says early on in his article, “Dozens of dissertations are waiting to be written based on the records [in the ARC].” Why then have professional historians and academics failed to make effective use of it? Holland does not directly answer this question. The failure of historians and specialists to appreciate its value for areas outside the narrow issue of JFK’s assassination is, however, implicit in Holland’s critique. And even on the narrow issue of the JFK assassination, the quality of research done using the ARC is often low indeed. The lure of appearing a pundit and the interest in making books more saleable are also implicit in Holland’s critique. Overall, it is a depressing picture.

  1. There were, however, exceptions in the Act for certain types of tax documents, court-sealed documents, federal grand jury materials, and deed restricted material held by the NARA.
  2. Two fascinating examples are Holland’s article “A Luce Connection: Senator Keating, William Pawley, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Journal of Cold War Studies 1, no. 3 (Fall 1999): 139–67, and “Private Sources of U.S. Foreign Policy: William Pawley and the 1954 Coup d’État in Guatemala.” Journal of Cold War Studies 7, no. 4 (Fall 2005): 36–73.
  3. It is released (in part) at 3 HSCA 468. For testimony regarding the memo, see 3 HSCA 565-569, 714-718, etc.
  4. See Dale Myers’ great article “Scraping the bottom of the barrel” at his blog JFKFiles for many more ludicrous examples.
Posted in History, JFK ARC | Comments Off on Max Holland on the ARC releases

Redaction counts in the ARC

In my recent posts on the JFK Assassination Records Collection (ARC), I have been looking at some of the fine (even trivial) details of the most recent release of redacted texts in the Collection. This post steps back to look at totals for all seven releases of documents in 2017-2018. Surprisingly, NARA’s totals for released in full documents and documents still redacted show significant discrepancies.

This post starts from NARA 18, a spreadsheet NARA posted with its 26 April releases of ARC documents. NARA 18 is a cumulative list of all ARC documents released from July 2017 to April 2018. Documents are identified on the spreadsheet by a column listing their RIF numbers, a unique fifteen-character number given on the Reader Information Form attached to each document. Each row on the spreadsheet is supposed to be linked to a document posted as a file on NARA’s public server, and since there are 54,637 rows (the first row is headers for each column), one could say there are 54,636 documents released.

For reasons discussed in earlier posts on the ARC, there are many, many documents listed multiple times on NARA 18. Adjusting for these, there were a total of 36576 unique RIF numbers listed on NARA 18.1

The 2017-2018 releases were mandated by the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which required all documents with content withheld to be released in full by October 27, 2017. This deadline was pushed back six months by an executive order from President Trump, so that 26 April 2018 was the deadline for releasing this material. However, to make a long story short, President Trump agreed to continue postpone release of some withheld text in a number of documents, subject to further review by October 26, 2021.

The question for researchers now is which documents still contain redacted material and which have been released in full. Unfortunately, this has turned out to be a very difficult question to answer. NARA should be able to answer it, but the information it has given so far has been surprisingly contradictory.

The ARPP figures

One answer is given on NARA’s JFK Assassination Records Processing Project webpage (ARPP), a general FAQ posted following the 26 April release. The ARPP gives much valuable information, but its document totals have serious problems.

According to the ARPP, “Since July 2017, NARA has released in full 13,371 documents.” Note that this a cumulative total. In the same section, the ARPP also notes that “15,834 documents are still redacted.” The problem with this accounting is that the two figures add up to 29,205, 8731 short of the number number of documents listed on NARA 18.

Unless NARA released a large number of documents that were already released in full, I don’t understand why NARA’s total of released in full and remaining redacted documents should be thousands less than the total number of documents released.

The IG report figures

Another way to see the problem is to go back to an earlier report from the NARA Inspector-General (previously discussed here). The IG report predates the 26 April release, so it is no longer current, but it offers totals that come much closer to the actual releases than the ARPP does. Before we look at these, however, we should note a problem with the IG figures. The IG report gave a total of 34,873 ARC documents released in 2017. The actual figure should be 35,436.2

Despite this error, the IG report gives more consistent figures for released in full documents and redacted documents than the ARPP webpage does. As discussed in an earlier post on the IG report, the IG relies on NF18, a January 2018 list of redacted documents in the ARC, to provide a figure of 18,980 redacted documents remaining. It also gives a total figure of approximately 16,000 documents released in full during 2017. It does not give a source for this figure, but by comparing NF18 against the list of releases in 2017, I was able to get a similar result.

Explaining the IG and ARPP differences

The difference between the IG report total for documents released in full and the ARPP total is striking. Despite the fact that hundreds, more likely thousands of documents were released in full on 26 April 2018, ARPP claims a cumulative total of only 13,371 records released in full. In contrast, the IG report gives a figure of 16,000 for the 2017 releases alone.

One of these figures is clearly wrong, and after running through the 2017 releases, the ARPP figure seems much more likely to have a large error in it somewhere. The total number of ARC documents released in full should now be far in excess of 16,000. perhaps as much 20,000. An update from NARA on this odd problem is needed.

  1. One early release was omitted from NARA 18, so the full count should be 36577. 10 rows have bad file links, but this does not affect the total count of unique documents.
  2. For total number of documents released in 2017, the IG used the figures NARA gave in its press releases for each of the six releases in 2017. This is not correct, first because these releases also had duplicate documents, and second because the 2017-12-15 release used a different way of counting documents than all the other releases.

    In this release, a single file on NARA’s server often contained many ARC documents. Rather than give a figure for ARC documents released, however, NARA simply listed the number of files released, which was 3539. To make things even more confusing, this number seems to also be off by two, or at least I was only able to find 3537 files to download.

    If one uses the same method of counting document releases for all six 2017 releases, counting unique document numbers, NARA released 35,436 ARC documents were released during this period, rather than the IG’s figure of 34,873.

Posted in History, JFK ARC | Comments Off on Redaction counts in the ARC

A revised file count for NARA 18

This post discusses NARA 18, a spreadsheet posted at the National Archives and Record Administration on 26 April 2018. NARA 18 gives a cumulative list of documents released from the JFK Assassination Records Collection from July 2017 to April 2018.

After a recount, I have to revise the file count I gave for NARA 18 on 5 May 2018 (here). There are ten bad filenames on the spreadsheet, rather than 5 as I previously stated. A table of the bad filenames is here.1

Bad filename means that no files with the names given on these ten rows exist on the NARA server. In my original 5 May post, I caught only five of these, and as a result counted 19,045 rows linked to files on the NARA server. This correction means that there are actually only 19,040 rows linked to files. This does not mean, however, that the records cited on each of these rows have not been released by NARA.

In fact, all of the record numbers listed in the ten rows appear multiple times in NARA 18. This is true of many records in the 4/26 release (and earlier releases as well). As a result, there is no document cited in these ten rows that does not have an associated file elsewhere in the release. There is therefore no reason to assume that a document scheduled to be released in this set has been omitted.

As I’ve noted previously, the reason for these duplicate listings in NARA’s ARC releases is unclear. The ten rows here all refer to FBI documents, and for many FBI records, NARA released a single pdf file which included multiple ARC documents, so that NARA 18 links to the same pdf file multiple times. Perhaps this practice caused a problem in the case of these ten rows. This is of course just a guess on my part.

[Revised 01/10/2018 for clarity]

  1. In the list, the row number column indicates which row in the NARA 18 spreadsheet the filename occurs. As I’ve noted before, when giving spreadsheet row numbers, I include the first, or header row.
Posted in History, JFK ARC | Comments Off on A revised file count for NARA 18

NF18 and the 4/26 ARC releases

NF18 is a list of redacted documents in the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection (the ARC) held at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). This is an important document for those who are interested in how much material in the Collection remains unreleased.1

This post looks at how NF18 fits into the latest ARC release on 26 April 2018. The results of this comparison show that NF18 was by no means a complete list of all redacted documents in the ARC.

The status of NF18

NARA released NF18 in excel format on 29 January 2018 to John Greenewald, owner of “The Black Vault” website, in response to his FOIA request. Apparently the spreadsheet was accompanied by a note or letter, which Greenewald quotes as saying: “We conducted a search and were able to locate an EXCEL spreadsheet that lists everything that has not been released since December 15th, 2017 (the last release date).”2

While not very elegantly stated, this simply means that the NF18 spreadsheet lists all redacted documents remaining in the ARC after the six 2017 releases, which began in July 2017 and ended in December 2017.

This is confirmed (indirectly) in the March 2018 report from the office of NARA’s Inspector-General, James Springs (recently discussed here). That report states: “Currently, 21,890 documents [in the ARC] have not been fully released which represents about 7 percent of the collection.” The 21,890 record figure is consistent with NF18, which lists 21,890 unique document numbers.3

In other words, NF18 was NARA’s best effort at a comprehensive list of redacted documents in the ARC as of January 2018. As of March 29th, this was still the IG’s understanding.

NF18 in the 26 April 2018 releases

Following a six month review requested by President Trump, on 26 April 2018 more records were released and a new, cumulative spreadsheet was published for all of the now seven releases of ARC records. NARA’s press release on this set of records stated that 19,045 documents were in the 26 April release.4

If NF18 is indeed a complete list of all the ARC records with redactions, all of the new releases should be from records listed on NF18. 5

This turns out, however, not to be the case. To see that this is so requires two steps. First, one must determine how many records are unique to the April release: i.e., were not released in any of the 2017 sets. There are 1078 such records. Second, one must compare THESE files to NF18. Any records not in NF18 are then records that had redactions, but were not listed in NF18. Somewhat to my surprise, there are 320 such documents. A spreadsheet of these files is posted here.

In terms of the size of the ARC, this is not a large number: it is only one one thousandth of the 319,000 plus ARC documents. It also indicates that after coming up with its January 2018 total of redacted documents, NARA continued looking for more redactions all the way up to deadline. In addition, most of these newly discovered redactions were released in full and all of them were posted online at NARA.

In terms of finding out how many redacted ARC documents remain at NARA, however, it must remind us that tracking down every last one of these has been a difficult task, and we should not be surprised if more turn up in the months and years ahead.

Do discoveries of more redacted documents have any significance for those interested in researching the JFK assassination? This is a subject I’m slowly working on. Given the extremely broad scope of the material in the ARC, more documents released in full doesn’t automatically mean more information on the JFK assassination is available. Nor need it automatically diminish our confidence in previous studies, done when this material was unavailable.

  1. I have done a number of posts on NF18. See here for more details.
  2. See
  3. For reasons I do not know, NF18 contains a substantial number of duplicate record numbers; the 21,980 unique figure is after subtracting these duplicates.
  4. The press release is here. Note that there is a minor problem with this figure. I will write a short post on this problem in the near future.
  5. I assume for the purposes of this post that NARA did not post records that have already been released in full. It posts only unredacted, or less redacted, records. NARA’s JFK Project page (here) partly supports this assumption: “We only posted documents in April of 2018 if the agency informed us that the document had more information released as a result of the re-review ordered by the President.” This claim will get a closer look in a future post.
Posted in History, JFK ARC | Comments Off on NF18 and the 4/26 ARC releases

The state of the JFK ARC: The Bradford critique

This post will discuss the second of two recent reports on the status of the JFK Assassination Records Collection (ARC). My post on the first of the two is here. For those new to this subject, see here for an introduction to the ARC.

The report covered in this post, dated June 18, 2018, is by Rex Bradford, president of the Mary Ferrell Foundation. It can be found here.

The Mary Ferrell Foundation provides on-line access to a large percentage of the ARC records, as well as other important historical government records from the 1960s and 1970s. In terms of ARC documents, and the access it provides to them, it is of very high quality indeed.

Bradford is of course strongly conspiracy oriented, as are all of the MFF directors, but he is also well-qualified to provide an overview of the problems and work remaining for the ARC, so I had high expectations of his review of the current status of the ARC.

Unfortunately, his critique was a disappointment overall. I agree with Bradford on a number of points, but this post will focus on what I feel is his most problematic claim: that the ARC still contains records “withheld in full.”

Summary of Bradford

Bradford first offers a brief overview of the 2017-2018 releases, then summarizes what he sees as problems in these releases under four headings:

1) excessive and undocumented redactions;
2) errors, anomalies, and mysteries in online data;
3) missing withheld in full files
4) lack of accountability for the releases and the full collection

He closes with several recommendations, which mostly echo an open letter that the MF Board of Directors sent to National Archivist David Ferrigno in March 2018.1

Bradford’s doubts on NARA’s accounting

A number of my posts on the ARC documents have been responses to various claims that there are still large numbers of records withheld in full at NARA. All such claims that I have checked have been based on misunderstandings or error.

Yet Bradford too believes there are still entire documents in the ARC which are eligible for release under the ARCA, but which NARA has not yet released. Bradford does not make the mistake of claiming “thousands” of ARC records still withheld in full; in the end he claims only 13. Even this claim, however, is in error.

The basis for Bradford’s claim

What is the basis for Bradford’s claim that there are still releasable records withheld in full at NARA? It comes from one FOIA document and Bradford’s reading of a NARA webpage. The FOIA document is a list of records that still had redactions as of January 2018. I now call this important document NF18 (see here for a description of where it came from and what is in it). The webpage Bradford cites is NARA’s JFK Assassination Records Processing Project. This is also an important source for the final ARC releases.

NF18 has been misunderstood by several writers. It is basically a list of ARC document numbers and their current status: redacted or withheld. The list is NARA’s accounting of all the ARC documents with redactions as of January 2018.2 Bradford has clearly understood this, and matches NF18 against the information on the Records Processing Project page to check whether everything on NF18 that should be released has been released.

This is an appropriate method, and I tried to do the same thing in a post on 2018 May 5 (here). My results, however, were different from Bradford’s results, so a closer look is in order.

At the time of NF18, there were 798 ARC records withheld in full. It is important to remember, however, that the law creating the ARC, the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act (ARCA), did NOT mandate that all records in the Collection would be made public. Sections 10 and 11 of the Act specifically exempted three types of records from public release: 1) sealed court documents and federal grand jury information; 2) deeded gifts to the federal government, 3) “records held under section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code.”3

According to NARA’s webpage on “The JFK assassination records processing project,” there are 520 records which are withheld in full are withheld under Sections 10 and 11, and will therefore not be released.

But how do these 520 files fit into the 798 records withheld files listed in NF18? This is where some of Bradford’s doubts arise.

There are two other issues that come up as well. In addition to the section 10 and 11 records, there were 10 audio tapes in the Gerald Ford Presidential Library that were “not recoverable.” There were also 79 Record Information Forms (RIFs) that could not be matched to records in the collection. All 89 of these records are therefore also unavailable online or in NARA’s archives, adding to Bradford’s doubts.

A final set of 180 documents is also listed in NF18. This document set is a microfilm copy of the CIA’s 201 file for Lee Harvey Oswald.4 The microfilm 201 file turned out to be a 100% duplicate of the original file, released all the way back in 1992. The “Project page” thus states that the microfiled files “were not processed for release or posted.”5

Bradford’s list

Based on all these items, Bradford begins by trying to specify which files are exempt from release under Sections 10 and 11 of the ARCA. This attempt is marred by what appear to be count errors and a math error.6 In addition, he has overlooked sealed court documents and federal grand jury information, of which NARA’s JFK Project page says there are 5.

He then lists 19 files which he says have not been released but which he suggests may actually be releasable. Six of these are FBI files which Bradford concedes “may be tax records,” so that in his list it is only 13 files which are “at issue.” Here are the files Bradford lists:

# RIF # Agency RIF data Restrictions
1 104-10291-10021 CIA [RESTRICTED], 63 pages, NBR 1B
2 104-10291-10022 CIA [RESTRICTED], 270 pages, NBR 1B
3 124-10286-10391 FBI [No Title], From DIRECTOR, FBI to SAC, SG (7/15/1953) SECTION 10(a)1
4 124-90026-10181 FBI [No Title], Subjects: HARRY HALL SECTION 10(a)1
5 124-90026-10182 FBI [No Title], Subjects: HARRY HALL SECTION 10(a)1
6 124-90091-10143 FBI [No Title], From: US COURTS (AFFIDAVIT) SECTION 10(a)1
7 124-90097-10251 FBI [No Title], 198 pages, Subjects: CHARLES TOURINE SECTION 10(a)1
8 124-10129-10309 FBI [No Title]. Subjects: DEMOH, INCOME TAX RETURNS SECTION 11(a)
9 124-10130-10083 FBI [No Title], From: PAINE, MICHAEL RALPH, SECTION 11(a)
10 124-10130-10136 FBI [No Title], From: PAINE, MICHAEL RALPH, SECTION 11(a)
11 124-10130-10137 FBI [No Title], From: PAINE, MICHAEL RALPH, SECTION 11(a)
12 124-10130-10138 FBI [No Title], From: PAINE, MICHAEL RALPH, SECTION 11(a)
13 124-10158-10060 FBI [No Title], From: IRS, Subjects: LHP, PRE-RP, REL, INCOME TAX SECTION 11(a)
14 124-10175-10480 FBI [No Title], From: FAIN, JOHN W., 379 pages, Subjects: MCO, LHO, FOIA REQUEST,
Classification: TOP SECRET
15 180-10116-10076 HSCA [No Title], 26 pages, Subjects: KING, MARTIN LUTHER, JR.
16 180-10120-10010 HSCA [No Title]. From: HSCA, To: BELL, GRIFFIN, Subjects: BELL, GRIFFIN, SUBPOENA REFERRED
17 180-10131-10326 HSCA [No Title], Record Series: SECURITY CLASSIFIED TESTIMONY,
From: PHILLIPS, DAVID ATLEE, Date: 5/11/1978
18 180-10142-10055 HSCA [No Title], Classified typewriter ribbon cartridge (presumably accompanies 180-10142-10194?) REFERRED

Problems with the list

The first problem with this list is that although Bradford claims none of these documents have been released, in fact five of the documents already have been, as the links I have added show. Note that 180-10131-10326, a document Bradford was particularly concerned about, is one of these.

The second problem with this list is that Bradford apparently worked directly from NF18, and did not go back and check the RIF sheets for these documents. NF18 only gives a few data fields from the RIF sheets for these documents. It omits, among other things, the restrictions field for these records. I have added this back in because it shows the basis for restricting access to these records.

Using this, we can see that there are five records on Bradford’s list withheld on Section 10 grounds. Section 10 refers to legal documents under seal of court [10(a)1], or grand jury information [10(a)2]. Another 6 records are withheld on Section 11 grounds. Section 11 refers to “records held under section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code.” Two of the CIA records which were released in April 2018 have information withheld on 1B grounds. This is the ARCA exemption for “intelligence sources or methods.” Several records are also listed as “referred.” This means that agencies which provided information in the record have been asked to clear release of the record. Several of these have indeed been released.

The RIF “restrictions” field does not resolve all questions, but it certainly answers some of Bradford’s doubts: the six FBI documents that Bradford says “appear to be IRS documents” are withheld under section 11; there is no ambiguity here. Five of the documents he lists as questionable are withheld on Section 10 grounds. This is consistent with NARA’s Project webpage, which says five documents were withheld under Section 10.

It is a pity that Bradford did not check the full RIFs for these documents before compiling his list. It is strange that he lists documents as unreleased that are in fact released.


The 798 withheld records listed in NF18 and the 520 records withheld under Sections 10 and 11 are largely resolvable. Here are the numbers I have:

# Prefix Agency type count Restrictions
1 104 CIA dupl. Oswald 201 180
2 misc misc unresolved RIFs 79
3 178 GFL tapes 10
4 137 IRS Tax docs 178 Sec 11
5 179 WC Tax docs 314 REFERRED
6 124 FBI Tax docs 6 Sec 11
7 124 FBI Court docs 5 Sec 10
8 176 JFKL DOG docs 7 3
9 179 LBJL DOG docs 5 REFERRED
10 MISC MISC 11/17 docs 3 [open]
11 MISC MISC 4/26 docs 5 [open]
12 MISC MISC unreleased docs 4 [WITHHELD]
2 180 HSCA typewriter ribbon/cartridge 4 ?

This is all 798 withheld records on NF18. Of these records, I can only identify 515 as Section 10 or 11 documents. There are four documents remaining which have not been released, but I have no idea why. Even if the four unreleased documents are all Section 11 records (very unlikely), we are still one document short of 520. Perhaps one unreleased Section 10 or 11 record has indeed been omitted from NF18. (I will have more to say about this in the near future.) Or perhaps 520 is a miscount. Everyone makes this kind of mistake; a look at my past posts will show lots of places where I have had to go back and correct my numbers.

Following the trail down to the very end, I am also uncertain of the status of the typewriter ribbons. Bradford seems to think that these two records represent two pieces of one object, but I think they are separate: the cartridge is not just a box, it has more ribbon inside it that was used to type classified documents. I have no idea why these two ribbons were kept. It seems unlikely that two only ribbons were required to type all the classified documents that passed through the HSCA, but these are the only two listed in the ARC.

Overall, this is almost the same accounting I gave in my May 5th post, as the excel sheet posted there shows. I have changed my mind on one item: the document 124-10286-10391. I originally thought this was NOT a withheld document because Mary Ferrell has a document with this record number. That left me with only four Section 10 records.

In fact the 124-10286-10391 document on Mary Ferrell is an error; the RIF sheet for the withheld 124-10286-10391 document has been erroneously attached to another document on a similar subject.

How did this happen? Federal agencies were required to produce record information forms (RIFs) for all their assassination related records, and during this process, it happened more than once that the wrong RIF was attached to the wrong document. This happened to several of the FBI documents in the record group that 124-10286-10391 belongs to. This group is a set of FBI files relating to William Waldman, a vice president of Klein’s Sporting Goods. Klein’s was the company which sold Lee Harvey Oswald the rifle he used to shoot President Kennedy.

I am now sure that the Mary Ferrell 124-10286-10391 RIF sheet is mis-attached because the RIF sheet indicates the document date is 1953, while the Mary Ferrell document attached to this RIF sheet is from 1965.

Summing up, the document count NARA gives is off by only one file. Although the remaining four unreleased files may have other issues, I conclude that Bradford’s claim of over a dozen missing withheld in full files is simply wrong.

  2. From what we know in December 2018, NF18 is not one hundred percent correct or complete, but it was NARA’s best effort in January 2018.
  3. This summary comes from the recent report on the ARC by NARA’s Inspector-General James Springs. There is a copy of the text of the ARCA on the NARA website here.
  4. See here for a post on this subject.
  5. In fact, a file numbered 104-10196-10018 from this set was posted at NARA, but the file consists only of 312 pages all saying “Image temporarily not available.”
  6. For instance, Bradford counts 182 IRS documents in NF18’s withheld files instead of 178, lumps the LBJ library letters to and from Jacqueline Kennedy (probably Deed of Gift material) together with withheld Warren Commission tax documents, and mis-adds file totals (182+321+7 = 510, not 465). For my own accounting of the withheld documents in NF18, see this spreadsheet.
Posted in History, JFK ARC | Comments Off on The state of the JFK ARC: The Bradford critique