“Not Believed Relevant”: NBR files in the 2017-2018 ARC releases (part I)

[First posted on May 5, 2019, at rgr-cyt.org.]

From 2017 to 2018, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released seven sets of documents from the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection (ARC). News media and assassination researchers have claimed these releases include significant new information about the assassination of JFK, previously withheld from the public.

In a recent post I looked at responses to such claims by Max Holland and Dale Myers, two writers who have done important work on the JFK assassination. As both made clear, the significance of the releases has often been overstated.

This post discusses a set of documents from the 2017-2018 releases which received much attention, but whose signficance is particularly questionable. These are the CIA files designated “Not believed relevant” to the assassination (NBR) by the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB). The ARRB was the independent federal agency charged with overseeing the collection and release of government documents on the assassination of JFK.

In this post I look at why the ARRB designated some records as NBR, the criteria it followed when doing this, and the problems I had in identifying these records. For those who want to follow the discussion in detail, all of the figures and records cited below are listed in an excel sheet posted here.

The creation of the NBR designation

The genesis of the NBR designation was at an ARRB meeting on August 6, 1996.1A copy of the meeting transcript was released in the ARRB electronic records and is available at the Mary Ferrell website (here). This document is referred to below as “the transcript.” Beware that the MFF website has another copy of the transcript (here), which is missing all of the CIA presentation on the Sequestered Collection. The ARRB’s first year and a half of work on CIA records was devoted to a word by word review of the CIA’s main file on JFK assassin Lee Oswald, usually referred to as the Oswald 201 file. By August 1996, the Board’s work on the Oswald 201 file was done, but the CIA still had a huge number of records that the ARRB needed to review for relevance to the JFK assassination.

The bulk of these records was in the CIA’s “sequestered collection” (SC), sometimes called the segregated collection. This collection consisted of all the records the CIA had gathered for the investigation conducted by the House Special Committee on Assassinations (HSCA).

The transcript of the August 6 ARRB meeting includes an introduction to the sequestered collection, given under oath by two members of the CIA’s Historical Research Group (HRG): John Pereira and Barry Harrelson. Pereira’s presentation divided the SC into two parts: hard copy files with about 129,000 pages, and 72 reels of microfilm, equivalent to about 163,000 pages when printed out, so a total of about 300,000 pages.2See the transcript, p. 23 During the meeting, both ARRB members and the CIA employees sometimes refer to these 300,000 pages as 300,000 documents.3(see e.g. transcript, p. 38) This is obviously a very loose way of talking: one page does not equal one document.

The Board members believed that processing such a large number of records using the exacting word by word review standards they employed in the Oswald 201 file would consume most of the ARRB’s remaining time.4The committee was scheduled to sunset in 1997, but Congress eventually extended its term (and funding) until September 1998. See the ARRB Final Report, p. 7 As Board member Anna Nelson observed during the August 6 meeting:

One of the reasons we feel — and we’ve talked about that we feel this is such a big problem — is that if we take the time to word-for-word look at the sequestered collection, then we won’t have time for anything else.5Transcript, p. 60.

The Board was also concerned that much of the material in the SC was of secondary value. Many documents were duplicated, sometimes massively. In the CIA presentation, Pereira cited one document which the CIA reviewers had found 43 copies of.6Transcript, p. 28.

In another presentation at the same meeting, T. Jeremy Gunn, ARRB counsel and associate director for research and analysis, also notes that in the SC “there are some records where it is very difficult to determine the relevancy [to the assassination].” In fact, as Gunn’s presentation makes clear, there are large chunks of the SC that are of no discernible relevance at all.7 Transcript, p. 39-47. I will have a detailed discussion of this problem in my next post on the NBR records.

Following Gunn’s presentation, the Board also provided time for comments from JFK researchers, including authors John Newman and Harrison Livingstone, AARC president Jim Lesar, and COPA president John Judge. Newman, Lesar, and Judge all argued that the Board should aim to fulfill both goals: complete processing of the SC, and continuing to search for and process new documents. If necessary, they suggested, the board could ask Congress for a further extension of its term.8Livingstone argued that the CIA records were not relevant to the assassination (See transcript, p. 92.

Board member Anna Nelson expressed doubt that further extension of the Board’s term would pass Congress and pressed Lesar on his priorities:

MS. NELSON: For a moment, let’s forget about an extension, which would be difficult in this Congress. Would you, Mr. Lesar, prefer that we examine the new file materials and not seek any other CIA or other documents?
MR. LESAR: No. Given that choice, I would prefer that the board give primary attention to drawing unidentified assassination records into the collection.

As the transcript of the August 6 meeting shows, this sentiment was shared by the Board. On the other hand, the Board’s reading of the ARCA’s requirements made them reluctant to consider non-release of the irrelevant material in the SC (this is discussed below).

The NBR guidelines

Caught between the two imperatives of continuing the search for more unidentified assassination records and full processing of all material in the SC, the ARRB came up with a compromise solution for handling documents of marginal or undetermined relevance in the SC. This solution was implemented in a set of guidelines which ARRB staff began drafting soon after the August 6 meeting.9See the ARRB 1996 Annual Report, pp. 18-19, 40-41. Note that the 1996 Report incorrectly states that these rules were adopted October 16, 1996. There was no Board meeting on that date, and the copy of the Guidelines in the ARRB electronic records gives November 13, 1996 as the date of its adoption. The final version of the guidelines was adopted at the Board meeting on 13 November 1996.10A copy of this was released with the ARRB electronic records and available at the Mary Ferrell website (here)).

These guidelines had not been drafted when the ARRB’s 1996 report was written, and they are only briefly mentioned in the ARRB final report,11Available at the Mary Ferrell website, see page 47., so a more detailed look at them is appropriate here.

The guidelines first defined a set of “segregated collections” consisting of FBI and CIA records provided to all government investigations of the JFK assassination. The guidelines require a complete review of all records in these collections. Records that are relevant to the assassination, or that “enhance historical understanding” of the assassination, were to have all requests for “postponements” (redactions) reviewed on a word by word basis.

Records that the ARRB staff decided had information “not believed relevant” (NBR) to the assassination were to be documented with a brief description of the basis for the determination. The Board would then stopped processing the document or the section of the document determined to be NBR. The effect of this was that these documents, for the most part, were withheld in full through the ARCA’s 25 year deadline, though the ARRB encouraged the agencies to release the information.

The guidelines provided that the record’s final determination form “shall reflect that such postponements have been sustained on both the specific grounds enumerated in Section 6 and the material’s NBR status.” and emphasized that “Under no circumstance shall information that is relevant to the assassination be postponed on joint NBR-Section 6 grounds.” Put more plainly, these rules did not allow withholding any information in the NBR documents that was relevant to the JFK assassination.

Problems in NBR record accounting

Accounting for which records were NBR proved to be a problem for the ARRB. The most complete list of NBR records that I have found is in the Assassination Collection Reference System (ACRS), NARA’s online database of ARC metadata. The ACRS lists 762 CIA records as NBR. These are records where the phrase “NBR” appears in either the subject field or the comment field of the record. I have listed the titles, RIF #s, subjects, and comments for the records I found in the excel sheet for this post (here).

To ensure that the ARRB’s review of assassination records was performed with a high level of public scrutiny, the ARCA also required the ARRB to publish notices in the Federal Register for all record decisions.12This is discussed in an earlier post, ARRB record notices” The NBR guidelines, however, did not specifically deal with publication of NBR determinations in the Register. In fact, only 55 NBR record notices were published in the Register. These are also listed in the excel file for this post (here).

Of these 55 NBR records, only 33 were from the CIA. Of the 33 CIA records listed as NBR in the Federal Register, only four are listed as NBR in the ACRS. What happened to the other 29? These records are all from CIA disk number 104-10063, with records numbered 104-10063-100XX. Checking the full metadata for these records, they all have a note in the comment field that reads “FBI DENIED IN FULL 2/16/94; ARRB DENIED IN FULL 3/14/97.” This is instead of simply writing “NBR” as all the other NBR records do.

The metadata for all CIA records in the ARC was keyed in by the CIA reviewing team, so this confused, inaccurate description is on them. In defense of the review team, we should also note that these were the first records that the ARRB declared NBR, so the review team perhaps did not immediately understand on what basis the documents were withheld.

Adding the 762 NBR records from the CIA in the ACRS, and the 29 records listed as NBR in the Federal register gives a total of 791.

Why has there been confusion about these records? First, with the exceptions noted above, they were not noticed in the Federal Register, in contrast to all the other records processed by the ARRB. Second, with one or two exceptions, the “final determination forms” which the NBR guidelines envisioned would be attached to all of these documents were apparently never prepared. Third, the staff documentation for the NBR records (“a brief description of the basis for the [NBR] determination”) was not published, but remained in the ARRB files. I am sure that it exists there, but no researcher has ever bothered to dig it out. Documentation for some of the classified files is also probably still classified itself.

Relevance in the Assassination Records Collection

Ultimately, as far as I have been able to trace them, the NBR records from the CIA were all included in the ARC, and have been released, either in full or in part. To me, this poses something of a puzzle. If these records are truly unrelated to the JFK assassination, why did the ARRB insist on including them in the collection?

The Board’s primary rationale for including such irrelevant material in the ARC is that it was obtained by the HSCA as part of its investigation, and Section 3(2) of the Assassination Records Collection Act (ARCA), the legislation establishing the ARC, defines an assassination record as “a record that is related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that was created or made available for use by, obtained by, or otherwise came into the possession of [the government].”13This is discussed during the August 6 meeting by ARRB counsel T. Jeremy Gunn. See transcript, p. 47-48.

What’s to come?

In future posts I will look at specific topics in CIA records with “no believed relevance” to the JFK assassination. I will also take a look at a similar, even larger set of FBI records.

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