Indexing at NARA: Putting the pieces together

[First posted on February 12, 2018, at]

This is another post on the JFK Records Act Release 6 at NARA. To get up to speed on the subject, I suggest looking at the other posts in this category (JFK ARCA).

As I noted at the end of a recent post, NARA’s spreadsheet for JFK record act release 6 lists a number of records where there are two different files having the same record number. Some of these are different versions of the same file, but in a few cases, the two files appear to be simply different documents.

As I said, this seems to defeat the purpose of the record numbers, which are supposed to be unique for each document in the collection. Is there really a reasonable explanation? Yes, Virginia, there is!

Bit and pieces of files

This link has a list of six cases where NARA seems to do this, assigning the same record number to two files with large differences between them. But a closer look shows that these documents are closely related.

Take the case of 124-10328-10025. This number is assigned to two separate pdf files: one from release 5 with 4 pages, and one from release 6 with 20 pages. When you go through them carefully, however, the two are actually one document: a 1958 report by FBI agent Malcolm Carr. In the report, Carr details his surveillance of Rafael Medan, an assistant press director for the Israeli delegation to the United Nations.

The report is captioned ‘Espionage Case’, but there’s not really enough information to tell us what is going on. (I’ll try to explain later on why this report is in the collection.) The 20 page document (19 minus the cover sheet) includes the original report and a carbon copy. The carbon copy is complete, but the original is missing 3 pages. The 4 page document (3 minus the RIF sheet) is the missing 3 pages of the original report.

Why was the document released in two pieces? Perhaps this is just how NARA got it from the HSCA. No need to ask too many questions; by statute, all documents from the HSCA are automatically part of the collection, so into the collection it goes. The only real question is how do we handle these two chunks of one document? NARA’s answer is to release it in two pieces, but to index it as one document. Index here means to give it the same document number.

124-10173-10382 is also one FBI document in two pieces: one pdf from release 5 with 7 pages, and one pdf from release 6 with 11 pages. The 7 page pdf includes a RIF sheet, a JFK ARCA “cross-reference” sheet, an administrative memo (I think) that gives the name of informants and is mostly blacked out, and a letterhead memo which is completely blacked out except for the date. Then a postponement sheet that says pages 2 and 3 are not here. Then a page marked ‘3’ at the top and blacked out except for the middle, which says that (name blacked out) claimed that Oswald worked for the FBI. Then another postponement sheet that says 8 more pages are not here. Notice that only one page, page 6, actually has any content. Cheez.

The 11 page pdf from release 6 is a cover sheet (105-NY-66954 sec 11), then a ten page 302 form, the record of an interview with Walter George Sikora. This is the part that the pages in the 7 page pdf postponed (no 2 pages, no 8 pages). It does not have the administrative sheet, the LHM, or the page mentioning the claim about Oswald, but clearly this is something that must have come up in the course of interviewing Sikora. Like the two chunks of the report about the surveillance of Medan, NARA gives these two files the same record number.

The other documents in the list are even more complicated. For example, 124-10193-10031 and 124-10193-10032 are two related documents put together from 4 chunks, with bits of each document distributed across all four chunks, and all the pages out of order. 124-10164-10276 and 124-10164-10277 are two documents put together out of three chunks, one of them a humongo 571 pages.

Some thoughts

I take all this as evidence that NARA sometimes uses one record number (RIF#) for multiple files when it determines that all the files are fragments of a single record. This is very distinct from the other cases we looked at before, when the same number was assigned to two files that were trivially distinct from each other (different case nos, with RIF without RIF etc).

In fact, this multiplicity of files with the same record number occurs in material on Mary Ferrell as well. In what must be an extreme case, I have found one record number, 124-10289-10035, which is assigned to 10 different files. Can these all be pieced together into one large file? Possible, I think, but a tough job; there are 848 pages in these 10 files.

On the other hand, the fact that these different files have the same RIF# tells us that NARA believes they belong together. This is an essential aid. If we non-adepts had to do this unassisted, we are in the same spot as the Chinese archaeologists trying to reassemble the tortoise shells used to record royal divinations, after they have been broken up and sold to herbal doctors as dragon bones.

[Later note: it is not correct to say that NARA assigned the same RIF# to two documents. The RIF sheets were, as much as possible, prepared by the agency which originally had the document, in this case the FBI.]

Another more general thought after going through this material is how hard it is to understand these documents without context. The Carr report on Medan is a typical example of this problem. Why is this an assassination record? The answer is to look up the record number on Mary Ferrell and see where it came from. The Carr report, in a very mutilated condition, in the HSCA’s FBI subject files, under the name of Joseph Shimon. Shimon is indeed mentioned in the report, in a couple of places, but without checking I would never have suspected that his mention in this 1958 report is what made it an assassination record.

On similar lines, it is also hard to avoid the thought that for those interested in the JFK assassination, the amount of dross, as opposed to silver, in these materials is very very high. The 10 page interview with Walter George Sikora that omits the remark about Oswald is marked NAR: not assassination related. This FBI annotation is not arbitrary; it is apt.