ARRB postponements and the microfilm Oswald 201 file

[First posted on June 15, 2018, at rgr-cyt.org.]

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
  3. https://www.archives.gov/research/jfk/processing-project

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