“Missing” RIFs at NARA

[First posted on April 28, 2018, at rgr-cyt.org.]

It was difficult to come up with a snappy title for this post. Scare quotes around the word missing are a compromise. Otherwise it was something like “RIF forms that were completed but not included in NARA’s on-line database of ARC finding aids.” Well anyway, now you know what this post is really about.

RIFs and the JFK Assassination Records Collection Database

The JFK Assassination Record Collection (ARC) is a documentary collection held by the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA). It was established by the “President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992,” (ARCA) and assembled under the oversight of an independent Federal agency, the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB).

Records in the Collection came from a wide variety of sources. This post is limited to a discussion of the set of records which the ARCA required to have individual, detailed finding aids, as opposed to the usual practice for finding aids, which are generally done for larger units, such as boxes or folders.

This turned out to be a very large set of records (over 300,000). In addition, the ARCA also required NARA to “ensure that the identification aid program is established in such a manner as to result in the creation of a uniform system of electronic records by Government offices that are compatible with each other.” The intent was to eventually have an electronic database of these identification aids available for the use of both researchers and the general public.

The finding aids which NARA created are called “Reader Information Forms” (RIFs), and the electronic RIF database which the ARCA envisioned is available for on-line searching at NARA’s website. NARA calls this database the “JFK Assassination Collection Reference System” (ACRS).

RIF prefixes

A key feature of every RIF is the record number. Each record in the Collection is assigned a unique 13 digit record number, called a “RIF number” as shorthand. The 13 digits are divided into groups of 3, 5, and 5, separated by dashes. The 3 digit sequence is called an “agency prefix” and indicates the agency which turned over the record to NARA. The first 5 digit sequence is called the “disk number” and represents the number of a floppy disk which NARA provided for agencies to use in creating RIFs. The second 5 digit sequence is called the “control number” and identifies the individual RIF forms on the floppy disk.

As a result of this design, those familiar with the agency prefixes can read off the source of an ARC record by simply looking at the number. One has to be aware, however, that the agency which turned over the record may not be the originating agency. For instance, a record transmitted to NARA by the CIA (prefix 104) might have come from the FBI (prefix 124). In such cases, the RIF number will begin with 104; finding the originating agency will require consulting other data on the RIF. Still, as a quick reference, it is quite useful.

Unfortunately, despite the obvious utility of the system, I have never been able to find a list of which prefixes represent which agencies. As far as I can tell, there is nothing at NARA or even in the ARRB’s electronic records, which were posted at NARA last October.

My latest attempt at my own list of RIF prefixes is here.

I have two different sources for the prefixes and figures in the list. The “ncount” comes from NARA’s ACRS via the JFK Database Explorer at the Mary Ferrell website. The Explorer is a copy of the ACRS made in 2015 and gives some very useful prefix counts here.

The “dcount” comes from my own check of the Federal Register notices that the ARRB published during its review of assassination records over the four years of its existence (see my posts on the ARRB’s FR notices here). The fact that these two sources give different numbers was expected, because of their different nature. What was surprising was that a number of prefixes in the FR notices were NOT in the ACRS.

Prefixes in FR notices but not in ACRS

There were a total of 9 prefixes which occurred in the ARRB’s Federal Register notices, but not in the ACRS. Since prefixes indicate agencies, this means that the ACRS is missing not just individual records, but all records from 9 specific agencies. These include the Secret Service (prefix 154), Immigration and Naturalization Service (136), the National Security Agency (144), the National Security Council (145), the US Army’s Investigative Records Repository (194), the Eisenhower Presidential Library (203), the Carter Presidential Library (207), and the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (206). There is also a puzzling record set with the agency number 117, which the ARRB notice describes as “Department of Justice” records (see 63 FR 40096). The categories of DOJ records in the Collection are complex, so it is hard to say what these are without their RIFs.

(I should note that I have already done one post about the “missing” NSA records here.)

Other agency records not in the ACRS

In fact, based on a close reading of the ARRB’s Final Report, I am sure that there are more than 9 agencies whose records are not included in the ACRS. For instance, page 165 of the Final report states that the House Judiciary Committee agree to release “substantial records” from HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) to the ARRB. There is no sign of these records in either the Federal Register notices or in the ACRS. Ditto for records from the Abzug Committee, mentioned on the same page. Page 156 of the Report mentions records from the Department of the Navy; unless these are under ONI (173), these are not listed either.

Individual records not in the ACRS

In addition to whole agencies omitted from the ACRS, there are extensive omissions of records from agencies which do appear there. The most notable case (which I discussed here) is three FBI record sets: 124-10203, 124-10204, and 124-10223. These sets are absent from the ACRS, but over 1400 records from these sets are on line at Mary Ferrell. According to an email I received from Martha Murphy at NARA, the reason these are absent is that three floppy disks of RIFs from the FBI were unreadable when sent over to NARA.

This has not only been an obstacle to researchers, it had an effect on NARA’s recent record releases as well; most of the typos in record numbers were from these sets, and all metadata for these records was omitted from the excel sheets of the released records which NARA posted on-line, meaning that for people who wanted to do things like count how many records from the FBI were released, there were big gaps.

How many records not in the ACRS?

Simply counting the records in the ARRB notices with prefixes that do not appear in the ACRS gives 5866 missing (and remember that my counts for the record notices are only tentative). This is not the whole picture, however. As an example, the notices list 26 records from the Secret Service, yet the ACRS lists zero SS records, truly a baffling omission. In fact, we can be sure that there are many more SS records in the Collection than just 26. Mary Ferrell has a list of Secret Service records (here) numbering over 670, and the control numbers (last five digits) on these record numbers suggest there are hundreds more. The omission of the IRR records is even more startling; almost 5000 of these appear in the FR notices, yet not one is listed in the ACRS. How such extensive omissions came about is hard to understand. Adding up all the omissions discussed above, I think the total number of missing record in the ACRS could easily be 7000-8000. This is an injustice to the hard work of the ARRB and its staff.

The usual 2 cents

The ARC is one of the most important documentary collections in the world today for cold war history. It is also a monument to the idea of transparency in government. Lack of an adequate reference system has obscured the value and significance of the ARC, and has even opened the door to the wholely false claim that there are still “undisclosed records” held in some imaginary vault. NARA has already indicated that a revised version of the ACRS is underway. It should be given the highest priority.