ARRB postponements and the microfilm Oswald 201 file

Most of my recent spare time has gone into looking at the ARRB record notices published in the Federal Register (see here for an earlier post on this topic).

I am interested in these notices for several reasons. One important reason is that the record notices include many documents that were omitted from the Assassination Collection Reference System (ACRS), NARA’s database of ARC finding aids. Hopefully these records will be added to the database in the not too distant future, but in the meantime, the Federal Register notices remain the sole online reference for several thousand ARC records.

Another reason for my interest in the ARRB record notices is that they give us a detailed picture of which redactions the ARRB released and which redactions the ARRB sustained in the ARC. This was one of the main tasks of the ARRB set by the 1992 JFK Assassination Record Collection Act (ARCA): to examine the redactions requested by the main executive branch agencies in their classified records, accepting or rejecting these, based on the standards provided by Congress.

In the ARRB’s terminology, accepting a requested redaction was a “postponement,” while rejecting a requested redactions was a “release.” A document with no redactions was described as “open in full,” while a document in which text remained redacted was described as “postponed in part.” In a few cases, entire documents were withheld from public release. These were said to be “postponed in full.”

Every postponement of text in an ARC document was decided by a vote of the ARRB. Releases, on the other hand, sometimes occurred when an agency simply withdrew its request to redact a document and released it in full of its own accord. This of course was usually because the agencies concerned realized that the ARRB would probably vote against retaining their redactions, and rather than defend a losing case, simply dropped it. The ARRB called such releases “consent releases.” According to the ARRB’s Final Report, the majority of releases from the ARC were consent releases.

In order to ensure that the ARRB’s review process was subject to public scrutiny, the ARCA further required the ARRB to publish notices of all postponements of text in the Federal Register.

After going through the Federal Register notices, however, I have not been able to reconcile the postponements in these with the postponements listed in the ACRS. The current version of the ACRS lists over 9700 records as “postponed” either in part or in full. Only 2550 of these records were listed in the Federal Register notices. This seems to contradict my understanding of how the ARRB processed assassination records.

Explanations for some of this, however, can be found in other parts of the ARRB records. An interesting example of this is the microfilm Oswald 201 file. To understand this example, some background on 201 files is necessary. According to the ARRB’s Final Report,

the CIA opens a 201 file on an individual when it has an “operational interest” in that person. The CIA opened its 201 file on Lee Harvey Oswald in December 1960 when it received a request from the Department of State on defectors. After President Kennedy’s assassination, the Oswald 201 file served as a depository for records CIA gathered and created during CIA’s wide-ranging investigation of the assassination. Thus, the file provides the most complete record of the CIA’s inquiry in the months and years immediately following the assassination.1

As for how Oswald’s 201 file came to be microfilmed, when the House Sub-Committee on Assassinations concluded its investigation of the JFK assassination, it signed a memorandum of agreement with the CIA that

Upon termination of the Committee, all materials provided by CIA and examined by the Committee will be kept and preserved within a segregated and secure area within CIA for at least 30 years, unless the DCI and the House of Representatives agree to a shorter period of time….The decision to microfilm was apparently based on two major considerations, as far as we can determine from our records. First, the integrity of the sequestered records had to be maintained. Second, a number of the files that the Assassination Committee requested were active files, and had to be available to allow people to continue conducting their normal activities within the Agency.2

Following its final release of ARC documents on April 26 2018, NARA noted that

Documents included in the Oswald 201 microfilm were not processed for release or posted since it was determined that the microfilm documents are a duplicate of the original Oswald 201 file that is processed and released. The ARRB evaluated these records and determined that they were duplicate files. NARA conducted our own evaluation, which was completed on February 5, 2018. That independent evaluation agreed with the ARRB’s original assessment.3

The ARRB evaluation process is described in more detail in a memo I found in the electronic records of the ARRB, released last year. The memo is from Robert Skwirot, the ARRB’s chief analyst for CIA records, to Laura Denk, the Executive Director of the ARRB for the last few months of its existence. The full text is as follows:

September 25, 1998
TO: Laura Denk, Executive Director

FROM: Robert J. Skwirot

SUBJECT: Sequestered Collection Microfilm Copy of the Oswald 201 File: Review Board staff procedures to confirm that the microfilm copy matches the original Oswald 201.

When copying to microfilm all the records that had been made available to the HSCA, the CIA transferred the Lee Harvey Oswald 201 file to 13 reels of microfilm. The Review Board staff has made an effort to confirm that all of the records on the microfilm copy of the Oswald 201 file can be found in the original Oswald 201 which was reviewed by the Board in 1995 and 1996.

The Review Board staff chose random samples from a printed copy of the microfilm Oswald 201 and verified that they were in the original Oswald 201 file. This task proved difficult since the two copies of the file were not in the same sequence, possibly due to the mechanics of the microfilming or because the Oswald 201 has been disassembled, reviewed, and reassembled so many times.

Members of the Review Board staff spent approximately five days at different times over the past three years engaged in this meticulous work. The page by page comparison of the hard copies of these files was supplemented by CIA database searches to find a match for those records which proved elusive to the Review Board staff. Review Board staff members were able to physcially match each microflim record examined to the corresponding record in the original Oswald 201.

It is likely that the microfilm of the Oswald 201 is a duplicate of the original. Though the Review Board staff examined less than 10% of the microfilm copy of the Oswald 201, no record they viewed could not be matched to a copy in the original 201. The only way to speak with absolute authority on this subject would be to match each and every record. Our survey convinced the CIA team that viewing every record would not be the most productive use of limited staff resources.

The microfilm reels of the Lee Harvey Oswald 201, as well as the printouts from the microfilm, will be transferred to NARA after September 30, 1998. They will be released in full in 2017.

This memo clarifies Board’s policy on the microfilm 201: having already processed a hard copy of the Oswald 201, the Board decided not to waste time on the microfilm 201 which it had good reason to believe was a duplicate of the materials it had already processed. As a result, release of the microfilm 201 file was postponed until the final release date under the ARCA. This decision was not published in the Federal Register.

  1. ARRB Final Report, pg. 45
  2. ARRB 6 August 1996 Board meeting transcript, p. 23-26
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Review of Kill the Messenger

Schou, Nick. Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb. Nation Books, 2006.

When Gary Webb’s series “Dark Alliance” was published in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, it set off what was easily the biggest journalistic controversy of the 90s. Nick Schou’s book gives a highly sympathetic picture of Webb, but may not satisfy all interests.

I became interested in Webb and his “Dark Alliance” series (DA below) a few years ago, and spent much time fishing around the internet trying to piece the story together, before finally reading Schou’s book. Schou book puts a lot of the story together, and provides some important new contributions as well, but I cannot recommend it as a complete introduction. In the end, Schou tries to do too much in too little space. Kill the Messenger is a combination of biography, journalism critique, and re-examination of the DA story, and that’s just too much ground to cover for a book that’s only a little over 200 pages. Schou’s sympathies also get in the way of the story sometimes, substituting discreet understatements for a straightforward narrative.

For those who want to know more about Webb’s life and career, the first and last two chapters are interesting and useful biography, heavy on anecdotes, but solidly based on interviews with Webb’s family and friends. Schou’s description of Webb’s decline and suicide is plainly but movingly told. And for those who like gloves-off writing, his curb-stomping of the conspirati who claim that Webb was murdered is good clean fun.

For those interested in the journalism, the book gives a detailed and fascinating account of the complex relations between Webb and his editors. In most magazine and journal articles I read on DA, Webb’s editors refused all comment. Schou, however, managed to interview some central people, including executive editor Jerry Ceppos, Dawn Garcia, the editor who worked directly with Webb on DA, and reporter Pamela Kramer, who worked on many of the DA follow up stories with Webb. As a result, “Mea Culpa”, the chapter which deals with how Webb left the Mercury News after the story fell apart, is fascinating reading and adds important information to the story.

The chapter “Feeding Frenzy”, which deals with LA Times, Washington Post, and New York Times coverage of the story, is much weaker, partly because of Schou’s sympathy, which leads him to understate things in a way that can make it hard to understand what the coverage really said, and partly because Schou sometimes shows a hostility which seems almost personal. He is especially hard on LA Times reporter Jesse Katz, for instance, in a way the text doesn’t seem to explain or justify.

Despite this, Schou is not as partisan as some others, who lambast everyone at the big three papers who wrote about “Dark Alliance.” In an interview with NY Times reporter Tim Golden for example, although Schou is determined to extract some concession that Golden was too trusting of the CIA, he doesn’t try to hide Golden’s outstanding qualifications and accomplishments, or the absurdity of what Golden went through after he criticized Webb’s story.

Lack of detail for a complex story is also a problem. One chapter I had a really hard time figuring out was “Drug Stories” which deals with how Webb put together the series. This includes a long description of the travails of Martha Honey, Tony Avirgan, and Daniel Sheehan, but never explains how they fit into the story. I still don’t get this. I also found the chapter about Ron Lister very hard to understand. This chapter is where Schou tries to build his case that DA was basically right about some things, but there’s just not enough detail in the book to make it convincing or even easily comprehensible.

These defects take off a star. It loses another star for no index; it may be a short book, but there’s more than enough characters to merit an index. I must punish the cheapskate publisher.

[Postscript] I wrote this review over three years ago, and after reading more on the subject, I have a much harsher view of Schou’s attempts to find some substance to Webb’s claims. But that is a post for another day.

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Bill Kelly on the ARCA

[Revised May 29]
The JFK Assassination Records Collection Act (ARCA) is the law that established the massive JFK Assassination Records Collection (ARC) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). As federal law, the record of its enactment is about as public as you can get. Yet the passage of time, and ignorance of the basic law-making process, can confuse even something as transparent and public as this.

A recent post at JFKcountercoup, a blog owned by Bill Kelly, is an example of this (here). According to Kelly:

The law [the ARCA] prescribed that all of the government records on the assassination of President Kennedy be released in full to the public by October 26, 2017, twenty-five years to the day Bush signed it into law. When he signed it however, Bush added a rider to the law that provided the President – and only the President, with the authority to continue withholding certain records beyond the October 26, 2017 date on the grounds of national security, where their release would harm American interests.

It was of course impossible for President Bush to change a bill after it was passed by Congress. A federal law in the United States must first be passed by both Houses of Congress. It then comes to the President, and he can either sign it into law, or refuse to sign it, an act called vetoing. The President cannot rewrite a bill that Congress has passed and then sign it into law.

I learned this as a school child in the United States. I don’t understand how Kelly did not. Where Kelly got this idea is not important, but to actually publish this claim on his blog shows surprising ignorance of how laws are made in the United States Congress. Kelly frequently posts on the ARC and his posts are referenced at websites such as Mary Ferrell, so this error is worth a note.

The real legislative history of the ARCA is clearly described in the Final Report of the Assassination Records Review Board. 1 Summarizing, the ARCA was introduced in Congress as a joint resolution (H.J.Res 454/S.J.Res 282). After hearings and reports, the Senate passed a revised version of the bill on July 27, 1992. The House passed the Senate version on September 30, and it was signed into law by President Bush on October 26, 1992. The only thing that Bush added to the bill was his signature.

  1. Final Report, 6-7. Mary Ferrell has a copy of the final report here, NARA has a copy here.
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ARRB resource page added

I have finally put together a webpage to hold all of the lists and links I have been using in my posts on the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB). In addition, I have also started to add material from other websites as well.

The new page includes a link to a list of articles originally posted as a site called ‘Fair Play’, run by John Kelin. Unfortunately, this site is now completely off-line, preserved only by the Wayback Machine at The articles I list here were a series written by Joe Backes, who followed the ARRB’s activities very closely. Backes attempted for the first months of the ARRB’s existence to read, summarize, and critique all of the records released by the ARRB.

He was of course totally overwhelmed by the release of tens of thousands of records, but the series represents at least some of the early response to the ARRB’s work, and is worth a look. Beware, however, that there is much confusion on which records were released when. Backes tries to divide the releases into ‘Batches’, but these don’t match up with the Federal Register notices that the Board published, in part because there were often delays before the Board’s unredacted versions of the records reached NARA’s reading rooms.

The list of Backes’ articles is here.

Or go to the new link page here to see what else is up.

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NARA 18 errata corrections

This is a minor book-keeping note on NARA 18 (the excel file that NARA released on 26 April 2018).

I had previously found 20 record number errors in NARA 17 (the excel file that NARA released on 15 December 2017), and posted these in a table here.

I have now gone over NARA 18 in detail, and all of the errors I found in NARA 17 have been corrected as I suggested. (That weird contortion you see me doing is an attempt to pat myself on the back.) In addition to these corrections, there is one other data change I have found in NARA 18: the files for records 124-10184-10083 and 124-10274-10002 have been switched. I will put this change in the errata table today or tomorrow. Why didn’t I catch this? Because the two files were big FBI releases that had previously been withheld in full and were posted without RIF forms, hence no way to find any inconsistencies in their data.

The rest of NARA 18 looks okay so far. As noted in my second post on NARA 18 (here), the excel file has been normalized to one file/one row. This is truly a mercy and will make searches much simpler in the future. Thanks to NARA for fixing what is broken.

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The new NARA 18 and the last ARC WIF docs

This is my second post on the National Archive’s 4-26 release of documents from the JFK Assassination Records Collection (ARC). In this post I will look at the ultimate resolution of the ‘Withheld in full’ (WIF) documents. The summary: The WIF pantry is now bare. Contrary to claims that thousands of documents were withheld in full, only 11 records listed as WIF were released, and only 5 of these were new documents.

This post requires a revision of a term I have been using in previous posts. John Greenewald, owner of The BlackVault website, filed an FOIA request with NARA for a list of records in the ARC that were not yet released in full. In response, NARA provided an excel file listing 19233 documents. I have been calling this list NARA 18, but the 4-26 release of documents now makes this ambiguous. I will therefore switch terminology. From now on, I will use NARA 18 to refer to NARA’s list of documents released on 4-26, and re-christen the list that Greenewald received from NARA as NF18 (available here).

Similarly, in 2016 NARA responded to an FOIA request filed by Michael Raznitsky with another list. I have been calling this list NARA 16, but for consistency, from now on I will call it NF16 (available here).

The new NARA 18

NARA 18 is an excel file posted here

NARA 18 lists all documents and associated metadata released by NARA up to April 26, with links to the pdfs and mp3 files that NARA posted on the same day. The list is cumulative for all releases of ARC documents since July, 2017, so it has 54,637 rows (I always include the header row when counting rows on these excel files). Each row except for the header represents a document/file.

According to NARA, there are 19,045 records/rows in the new release, but clearly something is wrong because there are 19050 rows that are marked as belonging to the 4/26 release. In these 19050 rows, there are five rows that do not have associated files: rows 16800, 16802, 16805, 17047, and 17064.

Perhaps these specific rows are the reason for the excess rows, but there are other possibilities. It is also worth noting that NARA’s announcement of the new release states there are 18731 files associated with the release, but after downloading everything I had only 18726 files, again indicating that there is a problem with 5 files.

As a result of this problem, the new release takes up rows 1-19051 of the excel sheet (1 is the header row).

The remaining 35586 rows in NARA 18 represent ARC releases in 2017. However, the last excel file for the 2017 releases (posted on December 15, 2017, hereafter NARA 17) had 35556 rows. The reason for the extra 30 rows is that NARA 17 was NOT one file per row; instead, it shoehorned 27 FBI files into 12 rows. In addition, 16 of the 17 .wav files in the July 24 release had 1 page pdf files with them, apparently labels for the content of the audio. All of these have now been fixed to one row, one file.

Finally, it seems that the April 26 excel file is missing one record from the July 24, 2017 release: RIF doc 104-10090-10007 104-10086-10154 (posted as docid-32352827.pdf) is missing from the April 26 sheet. The file is still available at NARA, and has an attached RIF sheet, so not a big deal, just remember if you switch between excel files.

There are other differences between data in the December 15 excel file and data in the April 26 excel file, but nothing else that affects the file/record count.

Record status

The biggest change in the NARA 18 excel file format is the way record status is handled. The excel files for the 2017 releases marked record status as ‘In Part’ or ‘In Full’. ‘In Part’ meant that a copy of the document was open for public inspection at NARA’s reading rooms, but with some of the text redacted. ‘In Full’ meant that a copy of the document was not yet available at the reading rooms, and in some cases, even the finding aid for the document was redacted, with various fields in the form marked [Restricted].

The record status cells in the excel files for the 2017 releases were also sometimes blank or had other text that was hard to interpret. These were again due to technical issues at NARA. One of these issues, I am now sure, was that the metadata for the document in NARA’s master document system was not complete, or was inaccurate. This has been a constant problem with the JFK Assassination Collection Reference System (ACRS), the public database for the ARC.

In NARA 18, however, new terms for document status were adopted. Instead of ‘In Part’, the excel file now says ‘Redact’, and instead of ‘In Full’, it now says ‘Withheld’. This terminology was first adopted in NF18, which was released in January of this year. Note that this new terminology was not retroactively applied in the 35586 rows of NARA 18 which describe the records released last year. It is only used for the 19,045 records which were released on April 26.

For the new release, there are 18700 records with ‘Redact’ status, and 11 with ‘Withheld’ status. The other 334 records/rows have miscellaneous strings that, as I said, are due to gaps in the master database or technical glitches.

The last docs ‘Withheld in Full’: from NF18 to NARA 18

Despite the release in 2017 of over 30000 ARC documents, some still claimed that large numbers of ARC documents were being withheld in full. The April 26 release shows that this is not so. This was already clear in NF 18, which listed only 798 records as ‘Withheld’. These records are now accounted for either by posting on-line or by explanations on the webpage for NARA’s ‘JFK Assassination Records Processing Project‘. Here I’ll try to trace how the 798 withheld records in NF18 match up with the accounting given for the 4-26 release.

In doing this, I went to NARA’s database of RIF data, and looked up the metadata that goes with the these records. I have posted an excel file of these 798 records and their metadata here.

The first column in the excel file is my attempt to account for what categories these records fall into. Based on NARA’s Processing Project figures, it is possible to break down these records as follows:

  • Materials not releasable under the ARCA, 65% (514 records)
  • Microfilm duplicates of other records, 23% (180 records)
  • Missing documents, 10% (79 records)
  • Unplayable tapes, (10 records)
  • previously released material, (4 records)
  • releasable material, (9 records)
  • Used typewriter ribbons, (2)

Unreleasable material in the ARC consists of documents covered by sections 10 and 11 of the ARCA, which ruled out public release for three types of records: tax records, records deeded as gifts to libraries, and records with material from federal grand jury investigations.

Most of the withheld records in NF18 were tax records for various figures, mostly from Warren Commission files; these include Oswald, his wife Marina, every Oswald employer they could track down, Michael and Ruth Paine, Jack Ruby, members of his family, his roommate George Senator, his attorney Joe Tonahill, and several of Ruby’s friends or business associates. Many fields are ‘restricted’ in these records, so it is hard to say who some of these people are. Based on four fields: agency, originating agency, subjects, and comments, I count 498 records in this category.

Another set of section 10/11 documents are records that were deeded as gifts to libraries, including the Manchester interviews of Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy. Donor restrictions keep these closed. I count 12 of these in NF18.

The last group of section 10/11 documents are records that consist mostly of grand jury materials and are therefore withheld in full. NARA’s Processing Project tells us there were 5 of these, and I can identify 3 from ARRB notices, but the other two are uncertain. One I would guess to be grand jury material is 124-90091-10143, an affidavit from USCOURTS whose subjects are [restricted] and [restricted]. As for the remaining grand jury record, who knows?

I can thus identify 514 unreleasable records in NF18. But NARA’s Processing Project page tells us there are 520, so that leaves 6 unaccounted for.

The next big group of ‘Withheld’ records in NF18 is the microfilm copy of the CIA’s 201 file on Lee Harvey Oswald. These were withheld in full until NARA could verify whether they had extra material in them that was not in the original documents, which were released in full at least 25 years ago. As the Project page says, they finally determined that the documents were 100% duplicates in February of this year. An incredibly boring job, as I have seen after comparing a thousand or so pages myself over the last few months.

There were 180 records in this category in NF18.

In addition to these, there is a group of 79 records that apparently are listed in NARA’s system with RIF metadata, but are either lost or simply bibliographical ghosts. NARA’s Project page lists all of these, and they were all in NF18.

Then there were 10 tapes from the Rockefeller Commission at the Ford Library. The Assassination Records Review Board found these were not playable or retrievable all the way back in 1998. These are again listed on the Project page and were all in NF18.

NF18 also lists four documents as ‘Withheld’ that had been previously released: 104-10535-10000, 104-10535-10001, and 177-10001-10437 were released in 2017. A fourth document, 124-10286-10391, is in the Mary Ferrell collection.

And at the bottom of the list are two typewriter ribbons that were used to type classified materials for HSCA: 180-10142-10055 and 180-10142-10194.

That leaves nine records from NF18 unaccounted for.

Now for the 11 records in NARA 18 marked ‘Withheld’. Two of these are the NF18 records that were previously released in 2017 (104-10535-10000, 104-10535-10001). These should not have appeared on NF 18, but they did, and are released yet again in NARA 18. 10000 had no redactions left in 2017, and the re-release seems to be almost the exact same file. 10001 was one of the most heavily redacted documents in the 2017 releases (perhaps because it is a Mexican government document) and the re-release adds nothing. There is a duplicate copy of 104-10535-10000, so that is 3 of the 11 ‘Withheld’ records.

In addition, one volume of the microfilm copy of Oswald’s 201 file was released (104-10196-10018), despite the fact that NARA announced the microfilm copy was an exact duplicate of the 201 documents previously released. This is an entertaining release: the pdf consists of 312 pages that all say “Image temporarily not available.”

Two CIA records in NF18 were released: 104-10291-10021 and 104-10291-10022. These lengthy records are from the microfilm version of the HSCA’s Segregated CIA collection. They are personnel files with the names of the personnel blacked out. Both feature documents from the CIA’s non-official cover division. I believe that the 4-26 documents are the first time this type of material has ever been released. Note, however, that both of these files are NBR: not believed relevant. This was not CIA’s conclusion; it was the ARRB’s conclusion.

Two HSCA records in NF18 were also released: 180-10120-10010 and 180-10131-10326. 180-10120-10010 is a subpoena HSCA issued to AG Griffin Bell. Oddly, it is for documents related to Martin Luther King, not JFK. No way of knowing why it is in the JFK Collection. 180-10131-10326 is a note by HSCA’s Dan Hardway about David Phillips’ testimony. It turns out there is a duplicate of this note that was not listed in NF18, 180-10110-10015, which is released in NARA 18 as well.

The sole JCS record in NF18 was also released: 202-10002-10134 includes documents originally from the British and Canadian governments relating to Cuban politics in 1963.

Finally, a chargeout sheet for one of the typewriter ribbons was released (180-10142-10055). The other typewriter is accounted for on the Project page, which assures us it is now open if you want to see it. Maybe I will; it is, after all, a sort of monument to archival enthusiasm.

This leaves four records from NF18 unaccounted for: 124-10175-10480, 179-20002-10389, 179-20004-10021, 180-10116-10076. Perhaps some of these are the unreleasable documents unaccounted for, but then again, maybe not.

At the end of the story then, instead of thousands of previously unheard of records filled with state secrets, we get several dozen RIFs with no documents, boxes of duplicate records, unseen tax forms that we knew we were not going to see, 10 broken cassettes and two tape ribbons. Figures.

Mary Ferrell counts

I pay careful attention to Mary Ferrell Foundation posts, since they generally know what’s what, but their record counts for this release (here) have me scratching my head. The totals for the 4-26 release just don’t add up, no matter how I count them. The count for the withheld documents I sort of understand. Everything that was not listed as ‘Redact’ they counted as withheld in full, but this is simply not right. Some of these records were listed as released in part even in the NARA database. Others are listed as released in part in the ARRB record notices.

The only files that I think MIGHT be previously unreleased are the Kennedy Library records (agency number 176-). There are 250 of these with blank status fields. I found an ARRB notice for one of these (176-10031-10069, noticed in 63 FR 53640, at the second to last meeting), but I have not yet found any of the others in the notices or the NARA database. That doesn’t mean they’re not there.

[5/8/2018 postscript] Forgot to mention above a single document that was definitely not previously released, and for which the ARRB did not publish any notice in the Federal Register. This is docid-32627026.pdf, a file which NARA 18 labels “No RIF – 250 pp” This document comes from the PFIAB. Why did it never get an RIF? Beats me.

PFIAB at first told the ARRB that it was “not subject” to the ARCA. The ARRB did not agree, and designated a number of PFIAB documents as assassination records, so that there are FR notices for 18 PFIAB documents. Although the ARRB’s final report leaves the final resolution somewhat up in the air (pg. 155), apparently the ARRB prevailed; all of the PFIAB documents designated in the record notice are now in the MF collection with RIF sheets, and they are quite interesting as policy documents. This last RIF-less document is equally interesting, especially if you are interested in Bay of Pigs material.

So add one more new document to the other 5 in this release, a somewhat fitting coda to the conclusion of a massive quest.

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ARC agency numbers

[Post script added 2018/5/9]

For those not in the know, most (but not all) records in the JFK Assassination Records Collection at NARA have finding aids called Reader Information Forms (RIFs) Each RIF has a unique 13 digit number that identifies the document. In this numbering system, the first three digits represent the agency that provided the record. In my last post I provided a webpage I compiled of all the agency numbers I had found.

After posting the article, I wrote NARA asking if any information on these was available, and was promptly answered by Martha Murphy, who sent me a list of agency numbers, the full titles of the agencies/archives which provided the records, and the record groups (RG) at NARA where further materials from these agencies can be found.

This is a list I have been looking for for a long time, so I have converted it to a table and posted it here.

I have also added to NARA’s list some of the other agency numbers I found earlier. These are marked with an asterisk to indicate which numbers are not from NARA. This version of the list omits extraneous material in the earlier version showing where I got the numbers, since I now have a more authoritative source. I believe there are still at least one or two agency numbers to add, and perhaps a clarification for the confusing agency number 179. Hopefully the complete list will soon appear at NARA. Consider this a sneak preview.

Post script: The agency number list is up at NARA. It is posted here.
Imagine my embarrassment when I found out that it has been up since 2005! (according to the Wayback Machine.) It does not include all of the agency numbers I found, e.g. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Carter Presidential Library, Presidential Foreign Intelligence Advisers Board. To find these, check my table.

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“Missing” RIFs at NARA

It was difficult to come up with a snappy title for this post. Scare quotes around the word missing are a compromise. Otherwise it was something like “RIF forms that were completed but not included in NARA’s on-line database of ARC finding aids.” Well anyway, now you know what this post is really about.

RIFs and the JFK Assassination Records Collection Database

The JFK Assassination Record Collection (ARC) is a documentary collection held by the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA). It was established by the “President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992,” (ARCA) and assembled under the oversight of an independent Federal agency, the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB).

Records in the Collection came from a wide variety of sources. This post is limited to a discussion of the set of records which the ARCA required to have individual, detailed finding aids, as opposed to the usual practice for finding aids, which are generally done for larger units, such as boxes or folders.

This turned out to be a very large set of records (over 300,000). In addition, the ARCA also required NARA to “ensure that the identification aid program is established in such a manner as to result in the creation of a uniform system of electronic records by Government offices that are compatible with each other.” The intent was to eventually have an electronic database of these identification aids available for the use of both researchers and the general public.

The finding aids which NARA created are called “Reader Information Forms” (RIFs), and the electronic RIF database which the ARCA envisioned is available for on-line searching at NARA’s website. NARA calls this database the “JFK Assassination Collection Reference System” (ACRS).

RIF prefixes

A key feature of every RIF is the record number. Each record in the Collection is assigned a unique 13 digit record number, called a “RIF number” as shorthand. The 13 digits are divided into groups of 3, 5, and 5, separated by dashes. The 3 digit sequence is called an “agency prefix” and indicates the agency which turned over the record to NARA. The first 5 digit sequence is called the “disk number” and represents the number of a floppy disk which NARA provided for agencies to use in creating RIFs. The second 5 digit sequence is called the “control number” and identifies the individual RIF forms on the floppy disk.

As a result of this design, those familiar with the agency prefixes can read off the source of an ARC record by simply looking at the number. One has to be aware, however, that the agency which turned over the record may not be the originating agency. For instance, a record transmitted to NARA by the CIA (prefix 104) might have come from the FBI (prefix 124). In such cases, the RIF number will begin with 104; finding the originating agency will require consulting other data on the RIF. Still, as a quick reference, it is quite useful.

Unfortunately, despite the obvious utility of the system, I have never been able to find a list of which prefixes represent which agencies. As far as I can tell, there is nothing at NARA or even in the ARRB’s electronic records, which were posted at NARA last October.

My latest attempt at my own list of RIF prefixes is here.

I have two different sources for the prefixes and figures in the list. The “ncount” comes from NARA’s ACRS via the JFK Database Explorer at the Mary Ferrell website. The Explorer is a copy of the ACRS made in 2015 and gives some very useful prefix counts here.

The “dcount” comes from my own check of the Federal Register notices that the ARRB published during its review of assassination records over the four years of its existence (see my posts on the ARRB’s FR notices here). The fact that these two sources give different numbers was expected, because of their different nature. What was surprising was that a number of prefixes in the FR notices were NOT in the ACRS.

Prefixes in FR notices but not in ACRS

There were a total of 9 prefixes which occurred in the ARRB’s Federal Register notices, but not in the ACRS. Since prefixes indicate agencies, this means that the ACRS is missing not just individual records, but all records from 9 specific agencies. These include the Secret Service (prefix 154), Immigration and Naturalization Service (136), the National Security Agency (144), the National Security Council (145), the US Army’s Investigative Records Repository (194), the Eisenhower Presidential Library (203), the Carter Presidential Library (207), and the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (206). There is also a puzzling record set with the agency number 117, which the ARRB notice describes as “Department of Justice” records (see 63 FR 40096). The categories of DOJ records in the Collection are complex, so it is hard to say what these are without their RIFs.

(I should note that I have already done one post about the “missing” NSA records here.)

Other agency records not in the ACRS

In fact, based on a close reading of the ARRB’s Final Report, I am sure that there are more than 9 agencies whose records are not included in the ACRS. For instance, page 165 of the Final report states that the House Judiciary Committee agree to release “substantial records” from HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) to the ARRB. There is no sign of these records in either the Federal Register notices or in the ACRS. Ditto for records from the Abzug Committee, mentioned on the same page. Page 156 of the Report mentions records from the Department of the Navy; unless these are under ONI (173), these are not listed either.

Individual records not in the ACRS

In addition to whole agencies omitted from the ACRS, there are extensive omissions of records from agencies which do appear there. The most notable case (which I discussed here) is three FBI record sets: 124-10203, 124-10204, and 124-10223. These sets are absent from the ACRS, but over 1400 records from these sets are on line at Mary Ferrell. According to an email I received from Martha Murphy at NARA, the reason these are absent is that three floppy disks of RIFs from the FBI were unreadable when sent over to NARA.

This has not only been an obstacle to researchers, it had an effect on NARA’s recent record releases as well; most of the typos in record numbers were from these sets, and all metadata for these records was omitted from the excel sheets of the released records which NARA posted on-line, meaning that for people who wanted to do things like count how many records from the FBI were released, there were big gaps.

How many records not in the ACRS?

Simply counting the records in the ARRB notices with prefixes that do not appear in the ACRS gives 5866 missing (and remember that my counts for the record notices are only tentative). This is not the whole picture, however. As an example, the notices list 26 records from the Secret Service, yet the ACRS lists zero SS records, truly a baffling omission. In fact, we can be sure that there are many more SS records in the Collection than just 26. Mary Ferrell has a list of Secret Service records (here) numbering over 670, and the control numbers (last five digits) on these record numbers suggest there are hundreds more. The omission of the IRR records is even more startling; almost 5000 of these appear in the FR notices, yet not one is listed in the ACRS. How such extensive omissions came about is hard to understand. Adding up all the omissions discussed above, I think the total number of missing record in the ACRS could easily be 7000-8000. This is an injustice to the hard work of the ARRB and its staff.

The usual 2 cents

The ARC is one of the most important documentary collections in the world today for cold war history. It is also a monument to the idea of transparency in government. Lack of an adequate reference system has obscured the value and significance of the ARC, and has even opened the door to the wholely false claim that there are still “undisclosed records” held in some imaginary vault. NARA has already indicated that a revised version of the ACRS is underway. It should be given the highest priority.

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The April 26 ARC releases

NARA has come through with a new release of 19,045 ARC documents. There are many things to be said about this release, but for now I will simply put up a very important link to NARA’s JFK Assassination Records Processing Project

This page provides important explanations that, unfortunately, will probably not get mentioned at most of the websites that have been posting about the assassination records for the last couple of years. The most interesting to me is the explanation of what happened to the 795 files listed as withheld in NARA’s response to John Greenewald’s FOIA request. According to NARA, 520 of these are not releasable under the ARCA statute. They are either tax returns, protected from public release under section 6103 of the IRS code, deeded as gifts to various libraries (e.g. William Manchester’s notes and interviews for Death of a President), or contained federal grand jury materials under court seal.

NARA’s FOIA response also listed 180 CIA records “withheld.” According to the documents’ metadata,these were all volumes from the CIA’s 201 file for Lee Harvey Oswald. This was odd, because the massive 201 collection was entirely declassified over 25 years ago. I actually realized yesterday what these were (really, I did!), and NARA confirmed it today: these were the microfilm version of the 201. Everyone always assumed that the microfilm version was identical to the original documents, and simply rushed on to other documents, but poor NARA was stuck with the incredibly boring job of comparing the microfilm to the originals, page by page and line by line. According to the project page, they made the official determination that the two were identical on February 5 (Hence the response to Greenewald still listed them). Being identical, NARA did not post them. If you want copies, try Mary Ferrell, but beware–the Mary Ferrell copies are in some cases 25 years old, with many, many redactions that were actually lifted long ago.

Although that is all interesting, the most important news of all comes in the middle of the page: “We will be updating the JFK Assassination Collection database with updated access status and posting the updated database on the web.” This is the most urgent task facing NARA. The sooner it happens, the better.

All in all though, I have to give NARA credit for one thing: they take their statutory responsibilities dead serious.

Posted in History, JFK ARC | Comments Off on The April 26 ARC releases

ARRB notices: additions and revisions

I have added some new material to my ARRB lists and revised some of the record counts. This post is a short note on what changed.

Meeting list: new transcripts

I have added another set of meeting and hearing transcripts to my list of ARRB meetings. The list originally included links to transcripts online at Mary Ferrell, but these were not complete. I have since found additional transcripts in the ARRB electronic records posted at NARA last October. The transcripts are in this zip, which is a large collection of ARRB administrative records. Look in the zip under the TRANSCRP directory.

These transcripts include the 1996/9/17 Los Angeles hearing, and the 1997/04/02 DC hearing on the Zapruder film. I downloaded all of these transcripts and posted them here at the warren. Just click on the links in the meeting list.

Not all of these transcripts are identical to the MF transcripts. A particularly interesting variation is in the transcript of the 1996/08/06 public meeting. This meeting was held to discuss how the ARRB should handle the segregated CIA files compiled for the HSCA. It turns out that the meeting included a presentation from Barry Harrelson and John Pereira of the CIA’s Historical Review Group. This very informative presentation was cut out of Mary Ferrell’s version of the transcript, as the link shows. What’s up with that, MF?

Records list: revised counts

I have been working quite a bit on the ARRB record notices; the results of this work will appear mostly as revisions of my record notice list, starting with 61 FR 00048. This was the first notice to include consent releases; including these in the record notices is one reason the notices become so long and complicated.

In reviewing the record notices, I have cross checked the 1996 notices with the ARRB’s Fiscal Year 1996 Report, on-line at MF. This report includes two interesting supplements: 1) a summary of the decisions published in notices 14-23 (as numbered in my list), on pages 9-18 of the Report; 2) Appendix B, a 64 page list of all the records noticed.

Both of these cover only the records the Board actually voted on; they do not cover the consent releases. Since the report is devoted to the Board’s activities and specifically to justifying an extension of the Board’s term, this is understandable, but of course this means any questions about the consent releases in the notices will not be answered here. Another limitation is that recissions are not mentioned at all, nor are records reconsidered distinguished from regular determinations. This makes verifying counts tricky sometimes.

In addition, Appendix B has close to 200 duplicate record numbers in it. The majority of these are FBI records, but there are plenty of CIA duplicate numbers too. At this early stage of the ARC, there were clearly problems with making sure that every record had a unique number. This is not surprising, since the finding aids which enforced the unique number requirement were being filled out by a very large group of people, who no doubt often differed in experience and understanding of the records. Strong evidence then of how large a task it was to compile the ARC.

Overall, the 1996 Report is no substitute for the FR record notices in the period it covers. No quick shortcuts for accuracy here (sigh).

Posted in ARRB, History | Comments Off on ARRB notices: additions and revisions