NARA 18, no more docs withheld in full

[First posted on May 5, 2018, at]

This is my second post on the National Archive’s 4-26 release of documents from the JFK Assassination Records Collection (ARC). In this post I will look at the ultimate resolution of the ‘Withheld in full’ (WIF) documents. The summary: The WIF pantry is now bare. Contrary to claims that thousands of documents were withheld in full, only 11 records listed as WIF were released, and only 5 of these were new documents.


NARA 18 is an excel file posted here by NARA. It lists all documents and associated metadata released by NARA from July 24, 2017 to April 26, 2018, with links to the pdfs and mp3 files that NARA has posted. The list is cumulative for all ARC documents released during this time, so it has 54,637 rows (I always include the header row when counting rows on these excel files). Each row, except for the header, represents a document/file.

According to NARA, there are 19,045 records/rows that were released on April 26, but clearly something is wrong because there are 19050 rows marked as belonging to this release. In these 19050 rows, there are five rows that do not have associated files: rows 16800, 16802, 16805, 17047, and 17064.

Perhaps these specific rows are the reason for the excess rows, but there are other possibilities. It is also worth noting that NARA’s announcement of the new release states there are 18731 files associated with the release, but after downloading everything I had only 18726 files, again indicating that there is a problem with 5 files.

As a result of this problem, the new release takes up rows 1-19051 of the excel sheet (1 is the header row).

The remaining 35586 rows in NARA 18 represent ARC releases in 2017. However, the last excel file for the 2017 releases (posted on December 15, 2017, hereafter NARA 17) had 35556 rows. The reason for the extra 30 rows is that NARA 17 was NOT one file per row; instead, it shoehorned 27 FBI files into 12 rows. In addition, 16 of the 17 .wav files in the July 24 release had 1 page pdf files with them, apparently labels for the content of the audio. All of these have now been fixed to one row, one file.

Finally, it seems that the April 26 excel file is missing one record from the July 24, 2017 release: RIF doc 104-10090-10007 104-10086-10154 (posted as docid-32352827.pdf) is missing from the April 26 sheet. The file is still available at NARA, and has an attached RIF sheet, so not a big deal, just remember if you switch between excel files.

There are other differences between data in the December 15 excel file and data in the April 26 excel file, but nothing else that affects the file/record count.

Record status

The biggest change in the NARA 18 excel file format is the way record status is handled. The excel files for the 2017 releases marked record status as ‘In Part’ or ‘In Full’. ‘In Part’ meant that a copy of the document was open for public inspection at NARA’s reading rooms, but with some of the text redacted. ‘In Full’ meant that a copy of the document was not yet available at the reading rooms, and in some cases, even the finding aid for the document was redacted, with various fields in the form marked [Restricted].

The record status cells in the excel files for the 2017 releases were also sometimes blank or had other text that was hard to interpret. These were again due to technical issues at NARA. One of these issues, I am now sure, was that the metadata for the document in NARA’s master document system was not complete, or was inaccurate. This has been a constant problem with the JFK Assassination Collection Reference System (ACRS), the public database for the ARC.

In NARA 18, however, new terms for document status were adopted. Instead of ‘In Part’, the excel file now says ‘Redact’, and instead of ‘In Full’, it now says ‘Withheld’. This terminology was first adopted in NF18, which was released in January of this year. Note that this new terminology was not retroactively applied in the 35586 rows of NARA 18 which describe the records released last year. It is only used for the 19,045 records which were released on April 26.

For the new release, there are 18700 records with ‘Redact’ status, and 11 with ‘Withheld’ status. The other 334 records/rows have miscellaneous strings that, as I said, are due to gaps in the master database or technical glitches.

The last docs ‘Withheld in Full’: from NF18 to NARA 18

Despite the release in 2017 of over 30000 ARC documents, some still claimed that large numbers of ARC documents were being withheld in full. The April 26 release shows that this is not so. This was already clear in NF 18, which listed only 798 records as ‘Withheld’. These records are now accounted for either by posting on-line or by explanations on the webpage for NARA’s ‘JFK Assassination Records Processing Project‘. Here I’ll try to trace how the 798 withheld records in NF18 match up with the accounting given for the 4-26 release.

In doing this, I went to NARA’s database of RIF data, and looked up the metadata that goes with the these records. I have posted an excel file of these 798 records and their metadata here.

The first column in the excel file is my attempt to account for what categories these records fall into. Based on NARA’s Processing Project figures, it is possible to break down these records as follows:

  • Materials not releasable under the ARCA, 65% (514 records)
  • Microfilm duplicates of other records, 23% (180 records)
  • Missing documents, 10% (79 records)
  • Unplayable tapes, (10 records)
  • previously released material, (4 records)
  • releasable material, (9 records)
  • Used typewriter ribbons, (2)

Unreleasable material in the ARC consists of documents covered by sections 10 and 11 of the ARCA, which ruled out public release for three types of records: tax records, records deeded as gifts to libraries, and records with material from federal grand jury investigations.

Most of the withheld records in NF18 were tax records for various figures, mostly from Warren Commission files; these include Oswald, his wife Marina, every Oswald employer they could track down, Michael and Ruth Paine, Jack Ruby, members of his family, his roommate George Senator, his attorney Joe Tonahill, and several of Ruby’s friends or business associates. Many fields are ‘restricted’ in these records, so it is hard to say who some of these people are. Based on four fields: agency, originating agency, subjects, and comments, I count 498 records in this category.

Another set of section 10/11 documents are records that were deeded as gifts to libraries, including the Manchester interviews of Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy. Donor restrictions keep these closed. I count 12 of these in NF18.

The last group of section 10/11 documents are records that consist mostly of grand jury materials and are therefore withheld in full. NARA’s Processing Project tells us there were 5 of these, and I can identify 3 from ARRB notices, but the other two are uncertain. One I would guess to be grand jury material is 124-90091-10143, an affidavit from USCOURTS whose subjects are [restricted] and [restricted]. As for the remaining grand jury record, who knows?

I can thus identify 514 unreleasable records in NF18. But NARA’s Processing Project page tells us there are 520, so that leaves 6 unaccounted for.

The next big group of ‘Withheld’ records in NF18 is the microfilm copy of the CIA’s 201 file on Lee Harvey Oswald. These were withheld in full until NARA could verify whether they had extra material in them that was not in the original documents, which were released in full at least 25 years ago. As the Project page says, they finally determined that the documents were 100% duplicates in February of this year. An incredibly boring job, as I have seen after comparing a thousand or so pages myself over the last few months.

There were 180 records in this category in NF18.

In addition to these, there is a group of 79 records that apparently are listed in NARA’s system with RIF metadata, but are either lost or simply bibliographical ghosts. NARA’s Project page lists all of these, and they were all in NF18.

Then there were 10 tapes from the Rockefeller Commission at the Ford Library. The Assassination Records Review Board found these were not playable or retrievable all the way back in 1998. These are again listed on the Project page and were all in NF18.

NF18 also lists four documents as ‘Withheld’ that had been previously released: 104-10535-10000, 104-10535-10001, and 177-10001-10437 were released in 2017. A fourth document, 124-10286-10391, is in the Mary Ferrell collection.

And at the bottom of the list are two typewriter ribbons that were used to type classified materials for HSCA: 180-10142-10055 and 180-10142-10194.

That leaves nine records from NF18 unaccounted for.

Now for the 11 records in NARA 18 marked ‘Withheld’. Two of these are the NF18 records that were previously released in 2017 (104-10535-10000, 104-10535-10001). These should not have appeared on NF 18, but they did, and are released yet again in NARA 18. 10000 had no redactions left in 2017, and the re-release seems to be almost the exact same file. 10001 was one of the most heavily redacted documents in the 2017 releases (perhaps because it is a Mexican government document) and the re-release adds nothing. There is a duplicate copy of 104-10535-10000, so that is 3 of the 11 ‘Withheld’ records.

In addition, one volume of the microfilm copy of Oswald’s 201 file was released (104-10196-10018), despite the fact that NARA announced the microfilm copy was an exact duplicate of the 201 documents previously released. This is an entertaining release: the pdf consists of 312 pages that all say “Image temporarily not available.”

Two CIA records in NF18 were released: 104-10291-10021 and 104-10291-10022. These lengthy records are from the microfilm version of the HSCA’s Segregated CIA collection. They are personnel files with the names of the personnel blacked out. Both feature documents from the CIA’s non-official cover division. I believe that the 4-26 documents are the first time this type of material has ever been released. Note, however, that both of these files are NBR: not believed relevant. This was not CIA’s conclusion; it was the ARRB’s conclusion.

Two HSCA records in NF18 were also released: 180-10120-10010 and 180-10131-10326. 180-10120-10010 is a subpoena HSCA issued to AG Griffin Bell. Oddly, it is for documents related to Martin Luther King, not JFK. No way of knowing why it is in the JFK Collection. 180-10131-10326 is a note by HSCA’s Dan Hardway about David Phillips’ testimony. It turns out there is a duplicate of this note that was not listed in NF18, 180-10110-10015, which is released in NARA 18 as well.

The sole JCS record in NF18 was also released: 202-10002-10134 includes documents originally from the British and Canadian governments relating to Cuban politics in 1963.

Finally, a chargeout sheet for one of the typewriter ribbons was released (180-10142-10055). The other typewriter is accounted for on the Project page, which assures us it is now open if you want to see it. Maybe I will; it is, after all, a sort of monument to archival enthusiasm.

This leaves four records from NF18 unaccounted for: 124-10175-10480, 179-20002-10389, 179-20004-10021, 180-10116-10076. Perhaps some of these are the unreleasable documents unaccounted for, but then again, maybe not.

At the end of the story then, instead of thousands of previously unheard of records filled with state secrets, we get several dozen RIFs with no documents, boxes of duplicate records, unseen tax forms that we knew we were not going to see, 10 broken cassettes and two tape ribbons. Figures.

Mary Ferrell counts

I pay careful attention to Mary Ferrell Foundation posts, since they generally know what’s what, but their record counts for this release (here) have me scratching my head. The totals for the 4-26 release just don’t add up, no matter how I count them. The count for the withheld documents I sort of understand. Everything that was not listed as ‘Redact’ they counted as withheld in full, but this is simply not right. Some of these records were listed as released in part even in the NARA database. Others are listed as released in part in the ARRB record notices.

The only files that I think MIGHT be previously unreleased are the Kennedy Library records (agency number 176-). There are 250 of these with blank status fields. I found an ARRB notice for one of these (176-10031-10069, noticed in 63 FR 53640, at the second to last meeting), but I have not yet found any of the others in the notices or the NARA database. That doesn’t mean they’re not there.

[5/8/2018 postscript] Forgot to mention above a single document that was definitely not previously released, and for which the ARRB did not publish any notice in the Federal Register. This is docid-32627026.pdf, a file which NARA 18 labels “No RIF – 250 pp” This document comes from the PFIAB. Why did it never get an RIF? Beats me.

PFIAB at first told the ARRB that it was “not subject” to the ARCA. The ARRB did not agree, and designated a number of PFIAB documents as assassination records, so that there are FR notices for 18 PFIAB documents. Although the ARRB’s final report leaves the final resolution somewhat up in the air (pg. 155), apparently the ARRB prevailed; all of the PFIAB documents designated in the record notice are now in the MF collection with RIF sheets, and they are quite interesting as policy documents. This last RIF-less document is equally interesting, especially if you are interested in Bay of Pigs material.

So add one more new document to the other 5 in this release, a somewhat fitting coda to the conclusion of a massive quest.