The state of the JFK ARC: The IG report

[First posted on December 14, 2018, at rgr-cyt.org.]

For those not familiar with the subject of this post, I have a new page introducing the JFK Assassination Records Collection (a link is at the top of the blog page). This should help make the discussion a little more comprehensible.

I’ve now had a look at the two reports I mentioned in my last post. These reports cover the final releases of material from the JFK Assassination Records Collection (ARC), which is held at the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA). Neither report is as useful as I had hoped.

The first of the two reports is from the office of NARA Inspector-General James Springs (here). It was issued 29 March 2018, a little less than a month before NARA released what is supposed to be the final set of ARC documents. The IG report therefore only covers the 2017 ARC releases.

I should note that I am not certain whether the document I cite here is the report itself, or simply a summary of the report. 1

Much of the report is simply a recitation of the basic history of the JFK assassination; no need to go over that here.

The remaining part of the report recounts various aspects of the 1992 ARCA, the legislation which created the ARC. It notes that, in the IG’s view, the ARCA is still in effect and imposes a “continuing obligation” on federal agencies to release assassination records.

It also spells out the records which the ARCA exempted from public release, including sealed court documents, federal grand jury information, deeded gifts to the federal government, and “records held under section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code.”

There is then a brief description of NARA work on the ARC releases, beginning in 2014 and ending with work current as of the report date (March 2018).

For those who have not followed this long story, in 2014 the JFK Assassination Record Collection still had numerous records that were not available to the public, or available only in part.

The ARCA set a 2017 deadline to release most of this information, so after lengthy preparation and consultation, described in the IG report, NARA released six sets of records from the ARC during July to December 2017. According to the IG report, during this period 34,873 documents were ‘released.’

A caveat is now in order here for readers who may be confused by the word released.

Many readers have taken the word “released” in this context to mean that a document was previously “withheld,” i.e. unavailable to the public. This is not how these terms are used in describing ARC releases.

There are three possible states in which an ARC record may appear: withheld in full, withheld in part, and released in full. Documents withheld in full are not available to the public at all. Documents released in full are publicly available, with no text removed at all. Documents withheld in part are publicly available, but have part of their text removed. These removals (usually called ‘redactions’) range from a single excision of as few as two letters (a digraph), to several pages of text.2

When a redaction is “removed” from a document, this means the blanked out or blacked out text is restored. For ARC documents, however, the restored text is said to be ‘released.’

Why is this confusing? Consider a hypothetical ten page document, published ten years ago with only one redaction, two letters from a CIA cryptonym. When the two letters are restored, NARA counts the entire document as a “release.” Moreover, if redaction x in a document is ‘released’, but redactions y and z are not, the same document may later be referred to as ‘released’ again and again, until it finally reaches the stage of ‘released in full.’

This counter-intuitive terminology led some writers last year to believe that ALL of the documents ‘released’ during 2017 were previously withheld in full! Since a total of 34,873 documents were ‘released’ in 2017, it is easy to get the mistaken impression that a vast amount of material was previously unavailable to the public, based on the false assumption that all of these 34,873 documents were withheld in full.

But this was far from the case. Pursuant to an FOIA request in 2016, NARA attempted to compile a list of all the withheld in full documents. This list, which I refer to as NF16, counted 3598 documents withheld in full.3

The vast majority of the 34,873 documents released in 2017 were thus NOT withheld in full. Many of them had only one or two redactions, and after the 2017 ‘release’ were actually ‘released in full.’

Ah, but which ones? Unfortunately, NARA did not provide a count of these. This lack is partially filled by the IG report. For instance, the report states that all the documents released in July and October 2017 were released in full.

In addition, the IG report also indicates a publicly available source for further checking.

This source is another list which NARA released in January 2018. The list, which I call NF18, included ALL documents still containing redactions after the 2017 releases. The list, which was also released pursuant to an FOIA request, consisted of an excel spreadsheet with 22,933 rows. For reasons that are unclear to me, many of these rows were duplicates. The total number of unique documents in NF18 was 21,890. 4

This list is the basis for the claim on pages 3 and 6 of the IG report that 21,890 ARC documents still contain one or more redactions after the 2017 releases.

NF18 can thus be a tool for testing the IG report statement that the documents released in July and October 2017 were all released in full. Do any of the July/October documents appear on NF18? The answer is no. But is NF18, and the IG, correct in asserting that there is nothing left redacted in these documents?

Well, the documents were posted on the internet. Just check if a July/October document still has redactions. Alas, this is a task that none of the internet commentators on the ARC have yet attempted.

Going further, one can also check the November/December 2017 releases using the same method. For the count of November/December releases not included in NF18, the results I got were as follows. Of a total of 24,626 unique records released in November 2017, 8856 of these do NOT appear in NF18. Of a total of 4217 unique records released in December 2017, 986 do NOT appear in NF18.

These documents are also available for checking to see if they are indeed released in full. No one has bothered checking these either.

This being the case, and now having some spare time, I have attempted this feat for all of the 2017 releases, and will report on the results in a future post.

Meanwhile, adding these figures all together, I get 16,536 documents “released” in 2017 that are not on NF18, meaning that they were released in full.5 Returning one more time to the IG report, this is consistent with the claim in the second paragraph of the report that “approximately 16,000” of the 2017 documents were released in full.

These figures are the main contribution of the IG report to our understanding of the current state of the ARC. Since the IG is using NF18 to track releases, we can also do so for the 16 April 2018 release. This will also be the subject of a future post.

  1. The document cited is in the form of a letter from Springs to the National Archivist David Ferriero. Page 6 refers to “the attached special report”, but there is no attachment in the text released. This made me wonder whether the letter might be just a summary, while the actual report remains unreleased.
  2. See my posts on the Assassination Record Review Board for a discussion of who did these redactions and and how.
  3. In fact, the total number of withheld documents was smaller than this. I discuss NF16 in a post here.
  4. I have discussions of NF18 here, here, and here
  5. Some of these are duplicates. For more precise figures, watch for future posts

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