[First posted on April 21, 2018, at rgr-cyt.org.]
This is the third in a series of posts on the Assassination Record Review Board and the notices it published in the Federal Register. This post introduces the 50 record notices the ARRB published over its four years of existence.
In addition to general oversight powers, the JFK Assassination Record Collection Act gave the ARRB two key functions. First, it was charged with finding as many records relating to the JFK assassination as possible. To do this, it was given significant legal powers, especially in dealing with federal agencies and records. Second, it was charged with reviewing material that federal agencies wished to withhold from release, including documents containing law enforcement and national security information, as well as all manner of personal information, ranging from social security numbers to juvenile criminal records.
To ensure that these functions were performed under public scrutiny, the ARCA required the ARRB to publish notices in the Federal Register for all record decisions, from designating raw files as assassination records to individual deletions in each document reviewed.
The Federal Register notices were not intended to provide a complete picture of the Board’s actions. To find that, one must go to the Board’s Final Report, published in 1998 (here) However, if one is interested in the details of the review process, the FR notices are a great resource. And if there were problems with the review process, this of course is one of the first places to look for them.
My list of ARRB record notices is available here.
This list actually comes from two sources. As noted in an earlier post, the Federal Register is now available on-line, including all back-issues from 1936 on, and the list provides links to all of the notices I could find. From the first record notices in June 1995 up until February 1998, the ARRB published complete lists of every record it reviewed, including per-document counts of “text postponements” (explained below).
Beginning in April, 1998, however, the volume of records was so large (notices often covered thousands of records), that the ARRB switched to simply giving summary counts of record categories. Detailed lists were available for those who requested them, and a number of researchers apparently did so. Copies of these list are also available at NARA, but not on-line. In October, 2017, however, as part of a release of ARC records, NARA posted the electronic records of the ARRB on its website (see here) These files include pdfs of ARRB’s lists of individual records it processed.1 I downloaded these files, so my list includes links to them.
ARRB record notices are technical documents and use a terminology that ARRB developed. Chapter Four of the ARRB Final Report gives a detailed description of both the process and terminology of the review process that the ARRB developed. Following is a list of the most common review terms:
Designation: When reviewing documents submitted by Federal agencies, the ARRB was charged with deciding whether it was “assassination related.” If it was, the ARRB would “designate” it as an “assassination record,” and the documents were then processed for inclusion in the ARC. There were several notices of such “designations,” but because these were not linked to specific documents in the ARC, I’ll cover these in a separate post.
Determination: When an agency did not want to release information in an ARC document on law enforcement, national security, or privacy grounds, it would mark the information it wished to withhold, and the ARRB would review the document to see whether the agency request met the ARCA criteria for withholding. Withholding is also sometimes called postponement, since the ARCA stated that except for a very limited set of materials, all documents were to be completely released after 25 years. The ARRB’s item by item votes on agency requests to withhold document text are “determinations” and for complex requests, the notices give a count of how many text blocks in a document are “withheld” and “released.” For some documents, these numbers were in the hundreds. In addition to the text determinations, the ARRB also set a date for release of withheld text. Text that was to be withheld for a full 25 years was marked 10/2017; earlier dates were indicated by month and year.
Consent release: This is described in Chapter Four of the ARRB Final report. When documents scheduled for Board review were simply released by agencies without redaction, the Board referred to these as “consent releases.” These were usually listed in the notices as “Additional Releases” with a standard description: “After consultation with appropriate Federal Agencies, the Review Board determined that the following records from [agency name] may now be opened in full.” As the Final Report notes, consent releases actually make up the majority of records processed by the Board.
Reconsideration: This is of the more difficult terms to define; it is not used consistently either in the notices or the Final Report. To provide a more useful accounting of the notices, I will define reconsideration as re-publishing record information in a notice. This generally indicated that the Board voted on the releases and postponements in the record again. Often, but not always, there is some change in these.
Rescission: A notice contains rescissions when it announces that the Board intends to reconsider a specific record. There is no consistent terminology for this; record determinations are said to be “withdrawn”, “suspended”, “rescinded”, and so on. The difference between rescission and reconsideration is that a rescission notice does not specify what determinations have yet been made. This is obviously a temporary status, and as far as I can tell, in every case where a record determination was “rescinded”, a reconsideration notice was eventually published.
Correction: Correction notices varied from correcting typos to noting that a determination was issued for the wrong record. Considering that tens of thousands of records were noticed in the Federal Register, it is a tribute to the Board’s technical competence that there were not more of these.
Duplicate: Duplicate notices were only published in a few cases. As part of the Board’s standard for review, if a record that had not yet been reviewed was discovered to be a copy of another document that had already been reviewed, the Board automatically attached the same releases and postponements. Duplication was a major issue in the ARC, and will be the subject of a future post.
Records “not believed relevant”: These were records that the ARRB believed “truly had no apparent relevance to the assassination” of JFK. As discussed on pg. 47 of the ARRB Final Report, the Board designated very few records as NBR, but when it did, it automatically postponed them in full until 10/2017, removing them from further Board consideration. A number of the ARC records that were not released in full last year belong to this category. This is another subject for a future post.
Records “containing federal grand jury material”: The ARCA specifically granted the ARRB authority to petition courts to unseal federal grand jury records. The notice in 63 FR 23717 states that for several hundred FBI records, “This information is not believed to be relevant to understanding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the Review Board has decided not to petition the relevant court to unseal this information.” This is the only case I’ve found for this. Apparently this means that these records will not be released in full.
My record notice list gives counts of how many records in each of the preceding categories were noticed. These counts are preliminary, and will no doubt change several times over the next couple of weeks. I’ve been working on these notices for almost two months now, and am still bumping into problems, so I can only estimate that I’ll be done sometime in May (maybe). However, I can already say that there are thousands of records in these notices that are not in NARA’s online database of finding aids, and this will be the subject of my next post.