NBR files in the ARC, part 2: The ARRB memos

[First posted on May 14, 2019, at rgr-cyt.org.]

This is Part 2 of a series of posts I am doing on CIA records in the ARC which were designated “not believed relevant” (NBR). This post corrects the NBR count for CIA documents given in Part I, examines the release history of these NBR documents, and begins a discussion of ARRB memos on groups of NBR records.

I should note here that records from agencies other than the CIA were also either designated NBR or treated in an analogous way. I will discuss these records in a future series of posts. This series will discuss only CIA records.

Introduction: ARRB and NBR

The Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) was an independent federal agency established by Congress to oversee the creation of the JFK Assassination Records Collection (ARC). Many of the documents placed in the Collection were redacted by the originating agencies on national security, law enforcement, and privacy grounds.

It was the ARRB’s responsibility to review these redactions, opening as much of the documents as possible to the public. This was a lengthy process that often involved extensive consultations with the orginating agencies.

As the ARRB began work on the CIA “sequestered collection” (SC), a massive set of documents numbering close to 300,000 pages, it became concerned that some of the material in the SC was of “marginal relevance” to the JFK assassination, and that a “word by word” review of redactions to such materials would curtail its work in other important areas.

To reduce the time spent on marginal material, the ARRB developed a set of guidelines for processing material “not believed relevant” (NBR) to the assassination. If a page by page review of a document found it of no relevance or marginal relevance, the Board designated it NBR and deferred release of the entire document until the October 2017 deadline for release of all materials in the ARC.

Revised count of CIA documents declared NBR

As my previous post on the NBR material noted, it is sometimes difficult to tell which records were in fact designated NBR. My primary basis for distinguishing NBR records is the Assassination Collection Reference System (ACRS), a database of metadata for ARC records provided online by the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA), which holds all the ARC records.

However, as the previous post also noted, there are some cases where the ACRS metadata does not indicate a record was designated NBR, but other ARRB material indicates that it was. For the CIA documents, these “other materials” were mostly notices of record determinations which the ARRB published in the Federal Register.1 In my previous post on NBR records, I found 762 NBR records for the CIA in the ACRS database, and 29 notices of NBR records in the Federal Register which were not included in the ACRS.

After review, however, I have revised these figure: I now count 42 records as NBR using data from the ARRB’s notices in the Federal Register, and 758 records as NBR using the data in the ACRS. I missed the ACRS records before because they use slightly different language in describing the NBR designation. I identify the additional records in the Federal Register because they were noticed as postponed in full, which the ARRB only did for CIA records designated NBR. In addition, the ACRS comment fields for records gives the same description used for the other Federal Register NBR records.

If all of these revisions are correct, that means the total number of CIA NBR records is 800. I have posted a new excel file that lists these records here.2

Release of the NBR documents

As far as I can tell, the CIA documents designated NBR were withheld in full until their release in 2017-2018. There are several reasons for thinking this is so.

First, I have found no trace of these documents in the Mary Ferrell Foundation collection of ARC documents. The MFF collection is of course not exhaustive, but the greatest strength of the MFF collection of ARC documents is its set of CIA records. The fact no NBR CIA records were in the MFF collection (until they were released in 2017-2018) certainly suggests that these documents were not released prior to 2017-2018.

Second, virtually all of the NBR CIA documents were on the NF16 list. This was a list of all ARC records supposedly withheld in full, released by NARA in response to an FOIA request. As I have noted elsewhere, not all of the records on NF16 were actually withheld in full; some of these documents are present in other places in the ARC collection. I have found no such traces,however, of any NBR records3.

Third, the finding aid attached to each ARC document, known as a RIF sheet, lists the status of the record: open in full (OIF), withheld in part (WIP), or withheld in full (WIF). I have found no RIF sheets for the CIA NBR documents that indicate anything other than WIF (or sometimes DIF “Denied in Full”).4

Finally, ALL of the NBR records were “released” in 2017-2018. This is not an absolute guarantee that all of these documents were previously withheld in full. As I have also noted elsewhere, “released” in the context of the ARC is a technical term, and simply means that previously redacted text in a document has been opened to the public. Thus a 500 page document that was withheld in full by CIA in 1993, then released by the ARRB in 1996 with only two letters redacted, would still count as a “release” if the final two redacted letters were made public in 2017. Similar instances happened with a number of records in the 2017-2018 releases. It is therefore possible that some of the NBR records “released” in 2017-2018 were not released for the first time, but had also had text released earlier. I have found no evidence of this, however.

Summing up, I think it is very likely that ALL of the CIA NBR records listed on my excel sheet were in fact withheld in full until released in 2017-2018.

NBR document groups

Although determining whether specific records were designated NBR is sometimes a problem, ARRB files include a number of memos on groups of records (also called record blocks or sets) that were designated NBR. Many of these memos were written by Michelle Combs, who was ARRB’s Associate Director of Research and Analysis when the Board ended in September 1998. These memos are available online at Mary Ferrell (here). A good overview of the main sets of NBR documents can be found in this memo by Combs, which lists the following groups of NBR documents:

  • Nosenko records: Yuri Nosenko was a KGB defector who claimed to have knowledge of the KGB’s records on Lee Harvey Oswald. His bona fides were the subject of great controversy inside the CIA. The ARRB found a number of Nosenko documents relevant to the assassination and released these in 1995-1998. The NBR Nosenko documents were not released until 2017-2018. Combs estimates these totaled 2,400 pages.
  • CRC financial records: ARRB staffer Manuel Legaspi describes the Cuban Revolutionary Council (CRC) as “an umbrella group of anti-Castro groups formed with the support of the U.S. Government, [that] was to be the basis for an official government of Cuba had the Bay of Pigs invasion been successful in ousting Castro from power.”5 This group of documents contains “detailed financial and monthly accounting records” of the CRC. Combs estimates 5,400 pages of documents in this group.
  • Office of Personnel Files: According to Combs, ‘The HSCA was provided with the official Office of Personnel (OP) files for every agency employee connected in any possible way with the assassination or any investigation of the assassination.’ Combs does not give a page estimate for this group.
  • The Monster NBR: This was a list compiled by the ARRB’s CIA team. After a review of all the microfilm material in the CIA’s “Sequestered Collection” which the CIA designated non-relevant, the ARRB reviewers came up with their own list of materials which they agreed were NBR. This list was apparently classified at the time of its compilation, and I have not seen a copy of it. Combs estimates 25-30,000 pages of documents on the Monster list were marked NBR.

Coming next

The next several posts in this series will cover these four groups of NBR documents. This is worth doing for at least two reasons. First, many of these records have their own historical value. The debate over Nosenko’s bona fides, for example, has been the subject of several books, and I believe the newly released NBR documents shed significant light on the subject. Second, we can now use the released records to independently evaluate the ARRB’s decision to designate these documents as not relevant to the JFK assassination.

  1. See my previous post for details.
  2. There are two records whose status is not clear: 104-10164-10006 and 104-10136-10401. I do not include these in the count. I also recently found several records in the ARC which include discussions between the ARRB and CIA reviewers on the subject of NBR documents. These are useful for this discussion, so I list them in the excel file as well.
  3. For examples of records listed as WIF in NF16 that occur in NARA versions of Warren Commission documents, see my previous post on NF16, A look back at NF16.
  4. There is one possible exception to this: 104-xxxxx-xxxxx. This record has apparently been OIF since 1998. I am not sure of the content or the circumstances of its release, so this is one of the records I omitted from my list of CIA NBR documents.
  5. See Legaspi’s memo on CRC here.