Another look at what is not in NF18

[First posted on March 25, 2018, at rgr-cyt.org.]

NF18 is a list of 22,933 records in the JFK Assassination Record Collection that have not yet been released in full. It is the result of an FOIA request from John Greenewald, who runs the website The Black Vault. The list is available as an excel file at NARA’s FOIA Electronic Reading Room (here) or at the FOIA Online site (here)

John Greenewald’s view

After receiving NF18, Greenewald compared it with NARA 17, the list of ARC documents processed and posted on-line at NARA in 2017. He found that 3082 (actually 3081) records listed in NF18 did not appear in NARA 17.

Based on this, Greenewald originally wrote on the Blackvault website that over 3000 documents had not yet been released at all.1 He later revised this post to concede that the 3082 figure was probably not correct, but he still holds to the view that there is a deliberate, on-going attempt to withhold information from the public by making it difficult to determine what is released and what is not.

Jimmy Falls’ view

Following Greenewald’s revised posting, Jimmy Falls, a writer for the Who What Why website, posted his take (here). His post not only covers the NARA 17 and NF18 lists, it also looks at NF16, the list of withheld documents which the Who What Why website got from NARA in a 2016 FOIA request.

Falls offers a new version of Greenewald’s comparison of NARA 2017 and NF18: an excel sheet listing 2901 records that are in NARA 2018 and not in NARA 2017. He repeats the claim that “The majority of the files [on his new list] appear not to have been publicly released.”

Falls also compared NF16 with NARA 17 and NF18, and found that 375 files originally listed on NARA 16 were not released in 2017, nor do they appear on NF18. His conclusion: “there appear to be approximately 3,275 files not yet released to the public.”

This post suffers from the same problems that Greenewald’s post had, and is by no means an accurate count.

New and old comparisons

A look at the new list of 2901 records from Falls shows that it is essentially the same set of records that Greenewald described in his post. The only difference is that Falls has removed the duplicate records from his count.

Each ARC document is supposed to have a unique record number, so why there are multiple documents with identical numbers on the list is a puzzle, but putting that puzzle aside for the moment, there are indeed 2901 unique record numbers on NF18 that do not appear on NARA 17.2

Since these records do not appear on NARA 17, we know that they were not posted on NARA’s website last year. But this is by no means the same thing as “never publicly released at all.”

All documents in the ARC that are open to the public are available at NARA and have been so since 1998, when the Assassination Record Review Board finished its work assembling the Collection.

Why then does Falls claim that “The majority of the files [on his new list] appear not to have been publicly released”? Did he visit NARA and fail to find them? Did he write to ask for copies and get no response? In fact, he gives no basis for this claim anywhere in his post, a serious problem for his credibility.

Falls’ claim is especially puzzling because it flatly contradicts the clear content of NF18.

NF18 classifies each document it lists as either ‘redact’ or ‘withheld’. This is surely the current release status of these records, and I am 99% certain that ‘withheld’ means “postponed in full” and “redact” means “released with deletions.” This is the point of NF18, to clarify which records still have withheld portions.

Records “postponed in full” have not been released to the public in any form. The ARC has finding-aids for these records, so we know what they are in a general way, but the text of the documents is not available to the public. This is what Greenewald and Falls are talking about when they mention records that are not “publicly released”.

Records “released with deletions” have anything from a single word to whole pages deleted, to protect either national security, law enforcement needs, or personal privacy. It is true that in some of the documents “released with deletions” the majority of the text is gone, but these are a very small percentage; the difference between postponed in full and released with deletions is usually substantial.

So what does NF18 say about Falls’ 2901 records? 795 are marked ‘withheld’, i.e. not released to the public in any form. The other 2106 are marked ‘redact’, i.e. released with deletions. Yet Falls says ‘the majority of the files appear not have been publicly released.’ In other words, he doesn’t believe the record status listed on NF18 for some undefined portion of the 2106 documents identified as released with deletions. Why? Which ones?

Rechecking the Records

It is of course possible to resolve this question directly: just go to NARA’s College Park facility and ask to view the records. This is what publicly released means. Go to NARA, ask for the record, and they will let you read it. Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor money to do this. (Besides, Falls might not believe me either.) Instead, I have tried a couple of other things.

First, I checked the list of 2901 records against NARA’s online database of finding-aids3 Second, I tried looking for the records on the largest source of ARC documents outside of NARA: the Mary Ferrell Foundation website.4

The on-line database at NARA consists of electronic finding-aids for documents in the ARC called Reader Information Forms (RIFs). It does not have RIFs for every document in the collection, but it does have RIFs for all the documents on Falls’ list.5

Most RIFs include a current status field. Checking the on-line RIFs shows these are not completely consistent with the information on NF18. The on-line RIFs show the current status of 1803 records as ‘released with deletions’, 1075 as ‘postponed in full’, 10 as ‘open’, and leaves the current status field blank for 13.

The main discrepancy is that instead of 795 records ‘withheld’, the on-line database lists 1075 as ‘Postponed in full’, a different of 280. Putting aside this difference for the moment, we are still far from 2901 documents that have never been released to the public.

Perhaps some might still feel free to reject the descriptions in the on-line database; the documents are not on-line to disprove our doubts, perhaps there are massive errors in BOTH the on-line database and NF18.

Mary Ferrell is, outside of NARA, the largest source of ARC documents on-line. It does not, however, have all the documents in the ARC. According to an FAQ on Mary Ferrell, their collection consists of approximately one third of the total documents in the ARC.6

Of the 2106 records that NF18 lists as released with deletions, one can find 1192 on Mary Ferrell. In other words, over half are available in some form at Mary Ferrell, a pretty good rate. This is good evidence that there is no large scale error in NF18 or the on-line database. When NARA says these files were released with deletions, they are by and large correct.

I have put the results of checking these two sources in a spreadsheet available here, including the document status as given in NARA’s online database, and links to the files available on Mary Ferrell. Although Mary Ferrell is a subscription service, its ARC documents are available to read on-line for free. Just click on the link.

Discrepancies between NF18 and NARA’s on-line database

Returning to the 280 records that NF18 says have been released with deletions but the on-line database says are postponed in full, one explanation for the discrepancy is that the on-line database is out of date. In fact, according to NARA it was last updated in 2008.7 There is evidence for this at Mary Ferrell, which has at least 6 documents on-line that the on-line database says are withheld in full.8 One of these files (124-10286-10391) is also listed as ‘withheld’ on NF18. Yet five pages are available at MF. The 795 ‘withheld’ documents should therefore go down to 794.

  1. See http://www.theblackvault.com/documentarchive/j-f-k-assassination-records/”
  2. Actually there are several record number errors on NARA 17, which affect the count; correcting for the errors, I counted 2909 unique record numbers.
  3. The database is available at https://www.archives.gov/research/jfk/search
  4. Available at https://www.maryferrell.org
  5. Falls at one point notes that “the FOIA list does not include any title or subject information”, but this information is all available from the RIFs published in the on-line database
  6. See https://www.maryferrell.org/php/jfkdb.php
  7. https://www.archives.gov/research/jfk/search
  8. 157-10014-10120; 157-10014-10141; 157-10014-10168; 180-10147-10193; 180-10128-10002; 124-10286-10391

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