A look back at NF16

[First posted on April 3, 2019, at rgr-cyt.org.]

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

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 2015.2The list was published at several websites in the February 2016, but apparently the actual release of the list was in January.

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 in the ARC 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 NF183Available here. and NARA18.4Available here.

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.5I have posted on NF18 numerous times, most recently March 2019. 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 comparing 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.6See my two posts on this subject, NF18 and the 4/26 ARC releases and The state of the JFK ARC: The Bradford critique.

Adding all these together, NARA has now accounted for all the WIF files in the ARC. The files in the ARC which remain WIF will remain closed to the public, barring a change in the ARCA, the law authorizing 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 in 2015, before the 2017-2018 releases had begun, and was originally supposed to be a list of only the WIF files in the ARC.

The other FOIA list, NF18, was much more extensive, and was supposed to include all WIP and WIF files left in the ARC after December 2017. But of course it did not take into account the final April 2018 release.

NF18 included 1870 files that had originally appeared on NF16. 797 of these were listed on NF18 as ‘Withheld’ (i.e. WIF), while the other 1023 were listed as ‘Redacted’ (i.e. WIP). The implication was that all the other files on NF16 had been released from July to December, 2017.

In fact, this was not the case. Over 300 records on NF16 were neither released in 2017 nor listed as withheld on NF18. This was noted by several websites which had been tracking the releases. Jimmy Falls noted the discrepancy at the WhoWhatWhy.com website soon after the release of NF18,7See What’s Buried in the Missing JFK Documents?, and Rex Bradford, president of the Mary Ferrell Foundation, made the same point in a June 2018 overview of the 2017-2018 releases.8See 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

Falls’ article included a copy of the NF16 pdf with the “missing” records highlighted in green, identifying 375 records not accounted for in NF18.9Falls only highlights 374 records, but I believe his figure of 375 is correct and he simply omitted to highlight one record, ARC 180-10110-10050. Bradford agreed with Falls that there were 375 files in NF16 “which had not been released in 2017” and were not on NF18. The Mary Ferrell Foundation wrote to NARA about the discrepancy. According to Bradford, NARA “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 it was quite a pain in the butt. For those interested in this dull subject, the excel file listing all the records discussed in this post is here.

One reason it was so difficult to reconcile all of these claims is that there are actually more than 375 documents “missing” from the NF18 list. NF16, as originally released, was missing the final page. The Mary Ferrell Foundation discovered this omission and got the missing page from NARA.10See here. This final page lists an additional 27 records. Eighteen of these are also “missing” from NF18. Falls’ count omits these 18 records; adding them in, the total number of records unaccounted for in NF18 is 393. Although Bradford had the missing page, he apparently made the same error, since he agrees with Falls that only 375 records are unaccounted for.

Despite the doubts Falls and Bradford express, it is certain that some of the “missing” files listed in NF16 were not withheld at all. Some of these can even be found online at MFF. For example, ARC 179-40003-10035, listed in NF16, but not accounted for in any of the later releases, actually appears in Commission Document 442, starting on page 74 (see here). Record 179-40005-10139, listed in NF16 and unaccounted for elsewhere, also appears in CD 442, on page 78. (see here)

Why did NARA err in compiling NF16? Comparing the RIF metadata for 179-40003-10035 in CD442 with the data in NARA’s online database of ARC finding-aids, the Assassination Collection Reference System (ACRS), shows that 179-40003-10035 was reviewed on 9/14/94; when its RIF sheet was printed, it was already OIF. But its entry in the ACRS was never updated to reflect this change. This failure to update the ACRS is one reason why NARA has struggled to identify which records are WIF, WIP, and OIF.

While this problem should be fixed, I don’t think it justifies the skepticism both Falls and Bradford on NF16 express about NARA’s work on the ARC. Falls did not even bother to correspond with NARA on the question of the “missing” documents. Bradford did, but a reader could easily take his discussion of NF16 to mean that some of the 336 documents might still be hidden away unreleased somewhere. This is not justified by any of the material released from the ARC.

Nor does Bradford bother to inform us that the 39 (actually 38) documents NARA told him were going to be released in April WERE released. As I have noted in another post, there were a number of records not listed on NF18 that were later released in April 2018.

In the end, if one really believed there were something dubious going on with the NF16 records, it would be easy to check on them at NARA’s College Park facility. Real problems would make a strong story for any news outlet, yet none of the internet doubters seem to have time to do any checking of actual documents.

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.11See for example Martha Murphy’s 2015 presentation on the ARC, “NDC Prioritization: What Secrets Do People Want to See? (ca. 30:00)”. It has revised lists of documents, added new items to the lists, and released these items too. It has responded carefully, and I believe correctly, to researchers’ questions. As far as I can see, NARA has made due efforts to open all the records that the ARCA allows it to 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 in Congress to ask that they consider fully funding this final step in fulfilling the goals of the ARCA.