NSA documents in the ARC: The myth of “unknown” records

[First posted on March 20, 2018, at rgr-cyt.org.]

Of the 35556 records from the JFK Assassination Record Collection (ARC) which were processed by NARA in 2017, one of the more interesting sets was 244 records from the National Security Agency (NSA). Two of these records had been withheld in full; the 2017 release was the first time they became available to the public.1 The rest had already been released with deletions, many as early as 1997.

The NSA records as historical sources

These records were used extensively by James Bamford in his book on the NSA, Body of Secrets (Doubleday, 2001), which discusses NSA’s role in the U.S. response to JFK’s assassination.2 They were also cited by Vincent Bugliosi in his lengthy work on the Kennedy assassination, Reclaiming History (Norton, 2007).3 In addition to works on the JFK assassination, they have also been used in more general discussions of signals intelligence, such as Secrets of Signals Intelligence during the Cold War (Aid and Wiebes, Cass, 2013).4

There are a couple of interesting stories that the new releases tell us in more detail than previously available. One newly processed record that caught my attention was the NSA report to the Warren Commission. The Commission had asked NSA to examine Oswald’s possessions for any evidence of cryptographic messages. They found none. The version of this report originally released deleted the names of three of the four NSA employees who conducted the examination, leaving only the name of Meredith Gardner, famous for his work on the Venona decryptions. The new version (144-10001-10289) releases two more names: Ruth Bebb and Carrie Berry. I drew a blank on Bebb, but Berry is now well known, taking up several pages in Code Girls, Liza Mundy’s recent book on women in NSA (Hachette, 2017).

It should be noted that the 2017 releases do not remove all deletions from the records: in many of them, portions of the report title are still deleted (somewhat like the digraphs in CIA sluglines). Paragraph length deletions still remain in the body of most of the records as well, so most of these records show up on NARA 2018, the list of records that still have deletions.

Claims about the NSA records

The NSA records have also recently received attention as a symptom of problems with the continuing release of documents in the ARC. They are mentioned in the Mary Ferrell Foundation’s recent open letter to United States Archivist David Ferriero, which says of them:

We have identified 795 documents that have been released but do not appear at all in the official online NARA database of JFK records. For example, the National Security Agency released 244 JFK records in 2017 that are not listed in the database. Our question: are there other non-disclosed JFK documents from NSA or other agencies that are not in the 2018 listing or scheduled for release?5

They are also referenced in a recent post on Jefferson Morley’s website JFKFacts.org, in which Morley claims:

The list of still-secret JFK files is not short. Tens of thousand of files have been released since last October, including more than 200 previously unknown files from the National Security Agency.6

The main basis for these claims, in fact the sole basis, seems to be the omission of the NSA documents from NARA’s on-line database of finding-aids for the ARC. On this point, I certainly agree that it would be very useful to have on-line a complete list of all the ARC records with reader information forms (RIFs). I would go further: it would be a very useful project to put copies of all the riffed records themselves on-line. Last year the CIA put its entire CREST document system on-line, and this is an even more extensive collection than the ARC (900,000+ documents, as opposed to 300,000+).

But while I agree with the main suggestions of MFF’s open letter to the Archivist, the underlying theme of the letter is problematic. The idea is that NARA is deliberately, or at least carelessly and culpably, flouting the 1992 JFK ARC Act, and that this is in part a response to pressure from government agencies such as the CIA (or the NSA?) to keep information which is still redacted in the files from being released. This is not credible, and is simply another form of the exaggeration and overstatement that are common in the discussions of the ARC documents on the Internet.

I have already noted one case of “missing documents” in NARA’s on-line database for the ARC.7 I will post on this general point again. For now, I’ll consider a few points on the NSA documents in particular. First, has it ever been the case that these documents were unavailable at NARA? Second, did the Assassination Records Review Board, or NARA, fail to disclose the existence of these documents when they were provided by NSA? Third, were these documents generally unavailable, to researchers or the public, prior to their 2017 posting by NARA? The answer to all these questions seems to be no, as one might guess by looking at the first part of this post.

NARA and ARRB handling of NSA records

For the first point, I will just say that I have never heard or read of people who went to NARA before November 2017 looking for the NSA records and didn’t find them. Did NARA ever tell people who asked that they did not have the documents or know of the documents? Again, all comments about the “secret” or “unknown” nature of the NSA records seem to be based only on the fact that they are not listed in NARA’s on-line database of ARC finding-aids. But this is not the only way to learn of the documents.

Second, it is simply not true that the ARRB or NARA failed to disclose the existence of these documents. ARRB’s discussions with NSA and the NSA searches that produced the records are both discussed in detail in the ARRB’s Final Report, as is the number of NSA records and ARRB policy on NSA postponements.8

In addition to the Final Report, at the time of the documents’ release, the RIF numbers of many of these postponed documents were published in the Federal Register, as required by the 1992 JFK ARC Act.9 In fact, this requirement made it impossible for the Board to conceal records that were found to be assassination-related. After public notice in the Federal Register that the records had been released, as far I know, all such records were made available to any researcher who came to view them at NARA. Was anyone ever told the NSA records were not available? If no, in what way did the ARRB or NARA fail to observe the letter, or the spirit, of the 1992 Act?

As for general availability of the records, the books cited at the beginnning of this post show that interested researchers such as Bamford, Bugliosi, and Aid got access to the documents. Morley’s description of the documents as “previously unknown” is thus a substantial exaggeration. Moreover, Bamford and Bugliosi’s books were widely reviewed, so that through their books even the general public was on notice that assassination-related records from NSA existed at NARA.

NSA handling of the records

In addition to the listings of NSA records from ARRB, and references in works by journalists and researchers, it is also worth pointing out that the NSA website has 373 JFK assassination related documents on-line.10 These are clearly the same documents that NSA provided to the ARRB in compliance with the JFK ARC Act, but because NSA did not provide the RIF sheets for the documents it posted, and because of duplications in the documents, it is sometimes difficult to identify which of these documents are equivalent to the NSA documents posted by NARA in 2017. I have, however, managed to match up over 200 of the documents on-line at NSA to the documents released by NARA in 2017.11

These documents were posted on the NSA’s website beginning as early as 1999.12 By 2007, NSA had posted on-line 373 of the 378 assassination related records,13 and they remain available on-line today.

Another 2 cents

I strongly agree that a comprehensive database of all documents with finding-aids should be available on-line. After so much time, energy, and money has been devoted to creating the ARC, it is absurd to leave it without this.

As much of the Collection itself as possible should also be on-line. In addition to the documents in the ARC with RIFs, I believe key documents from the Warren Commission should also be on-line. As an example, the 1500+ Commission documents (CDs), which provide the most complete and detailed picture of the basis for the Commission’s Report, are probably more important than many of the relatively minor items that took so much time to produce finding aids for.

As for the unreleased material, I’ll continue to look at the information we have, but in my view there is much less material unreleased than some accounts would have it. I see no point in exaggerating these numbers.

  1. 144-10001-10103 and 144-10001-10110
  2. Bamford’s discussion of the events at NSA after the assassination of Kennedy is in chapter 5, esp. pp. 130-136. He does not cite the NSA documents by RIF number, however; instead he gives title and date. For example, he cites 144-10001-10052 as NSA, Top Secret/Dinar, Report, on Cuba’s Internal Problems with Rebels (November 22, 1963) (ARRB)
  3. Bugliosi’s discussion of NSA’s work at the time of the assassination (p.360-1) is largely based on Bamford, but Bugliosi specifically cites 144-10001-10138 (Source Notes, note 203), indicating that he independently checked Bamford’s ARC sources.
  4. An example can be found on p. 62, n104, where Aid cites 144-10001-10056 in his discussion of NSA’s ability to monitor East German Communist Party communications
  5. https://www.maryferrell.org/pages/Featured_Letter_to_Archivist_March2018.html
  6. http://jfkfacts.org/later-month-trump-will-decide-release-23000-secret-jfk-files/
  7. see my post at http://rgr-cyt.org/2018/02/new-nara-problems/
  8. The Final Report is available at NARA at https://www.archives.gov/research/jfk/review-board/report. In the report, ARRB policies on postponements of NSA information are discussed on pp. 50 and 62-63. As the Report notes, none of the other assassination investigations undertook the comprehensive review of NSA materials that the ARRB did (p. 75) The search of NSA files for assassination related records is described on pp. 149-150, which notes that a total of 378 records from NSA were processed, and describes the search that NSA undertook for these records. Board votes on NSA records are summarized on p. 203
  9. The text of the Federal Register is available on-line; I will post more on ARRB use of the Register and specific citations of the Register in the near future.
  10. https://www.nsa.gov/news-features/declassified-documents/jfk/index.shtml
  11. My matches are available at http://rgr-cyt.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/nsa_nara_comparison.xlsx
  12. See the Wayback Machine, https://web.archive.org/web/19990508142857/http://www.nsa.gov:8080/docs/efoia/released/jfk.html
  13. See Wayback Machine, https://web.archive.org/web/20070329035041/http://www.nsa.gov:80/jfk/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *