Another day, another NARA FOIA release

This post discusses an FOIA release from NARA that came out in February 2020. The release includes a couple of record lists and NARA’s letters to President Trump on releasing material in the ARC. The release is available from NARA here. It is also available in a somewhat different format from the Government Attic website here, and from the “FOIA Online” website.1Website is here, tracking number is NARA-NGC-2020-000185.

Request and releases

It is not clear who submitted the FOIA request. Possibly it was Bill Kelly, who did a post on the FOIA release when it first came out.2See his JFK Countercoup website (here). Note that Kelly has two websites, Coutercoup and Countercoup 2. I previously confused these two in writing about an earlier post of his.

In any case, it seems the request was for “a copy of each letter sent by the Archivist of the United States to the President of the United States between January 1, 2017 and the present.”3The quote from the FOIA response is available in the Government Attic pdf of the release, and from Kelly’s post. Ditto for the quote in the next sentence. NARA reviewed its files and came up with four. Two were released, and two were withheld “under the deliberative process privilege.” The two letters released were from September 2017 and March 2018.

The 2017 letter discusses the problem of social security numbers in the JFK ARC. The 2018 letter is basically a cover letter for all the other material in the release. This included several attachments under 8 tabs, of which three were released. One attachment was the September letter. One was an excel sheet listing 80 RIF numbers which NARA was not able to associate with a record (i.e., they have a finding aid for a record, but they can’t find a record to go with it). The final attachment was a spreadsheet of all of the items proposed for continued postponement.

Social security numbers in the ARC

The letter on social security numbers answers a question I’ve had for a while. The ARCA, the law creating the JFK ARC, makes no exemptions for personal information in the records, and the ARRB, the independent agency which implemented the ARCA, made a great show of demanding complete release of everything, even some highly derogatory FBI records on Mark Lane. How then could social security numbers be redacted?

In fact, the ARRB postponed the release of a large number of SSNs in the HSCA records all the way back in 1995.4See 60 FR 67120, which authorizes 3882 postponements of SSNs. NARA’s letter confirms this decision to withhold the SSN of people like Robert Blakey, the HSCA general counsel, but specifies that the exemptions only affect 211 documents. The letter claims there is an attachment listing these 211 records; either I’m going blind or it’s not there.

The letter claims that the ARRB withheld the numbers in 1995 under section 6(3) of the ARCA, which says that the release of personal information may be “postponed” if the public disclosure of the assassination record could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. This would not fit the decision to prolong the postponement past the October 2017 deadline for release, so NARA bases its recommendation to withhold the numbers based on ARCA section 5(g)(2)(D), i.e. it’s release would present an identifiable harm to law enforcement, which apparently would be overburdened by investigating the identity theft resulting from the revelation of Blakey et al’s SSNs.

NARA recommends postponement until everyone involved is dead, or until 2054, 75 years from the closing of the HSCA. I guess identity theft is not such a problem for centenarians. At any rate, NARA requested postponement, and this is one of the requests that Trump agreed to.5In fact, some of these HSCA SSNs are released. How come? Apparently part of NARA’s solution is to use a “moving wall” approach to SSN release. Check every five years or whatever to see if these people are dead. If they are, release.

If my comments here sound a little sarcastic, that is because I feel the legalistic rationales NARA throws about are basically a subterfuge to reach a reasonable result under a poorly written law. The ARCA should have exempted social security numbers from release, at least for living people. It is a ridiculous flaw that it did not.

The pseudo-records

The list of 80 identification aids for documents that NARA could not identify (still produces a giggle when I write it) has now shrunk by one; the record 180-10131-10326 was identified and released after the 2018 letter was written. These ghost IDs represent more data entry problems, an issue I discussed in a recent post here. I think we can anticipate that another one or two will be resolved in the next release in 2021, but I’m sure most of these are simply bloopers.

Note that although these “records” are simply bibliographic ghosts and don’t really exist, NARA still “postpones” their release; another symptom of the ARCA’s poor drafting, and NARA’s extremely careful attitude toward the terms of the Act.

The big list

The other excel sheet included in the February release interested me — at first. This file, titled “jfk-documents-not-released-in-full-tab-8” was described as “a spreadsheet of all of the items proposed for continued postponement under section 5(g)(2)(D).” As anyone who has read the earlier posts on this blog knows, ever since the dust settled from the 2017-2018 ARC releases, I have been trying to figure out exactly which records still have some text redacted, and which are now open in full. This has proven to be a very difficult task.

Alas, tab 8 turned out NOT to be something new and helpful. It is just another copy of the list I have been calling NF18, released in January 2018.6See my previous posts on the NF18 list in the “ARC record lists” category of this website. To see that tab 8 is indeed the same as NF18, compare the February 2020 tab 8 file (here) and the Black Vault copy of NF18 (here). They are byte-for-byte identical. Some information that IS new, however, is the description of the review process in the 2018 letter.

The 2018 letter states that NARA sampled the FBI and CIA requests for continued redaction, rather than examined the requests page by page and word by word. They also “had extensive discussions with CIA and FBI since 26 October 2017 regarding their review methodology and our assessment of prior reviews.” As a result of the review, “we identified questions or concerns, and adjustments were made by DoD as well as CIA.”

These discussions resulted in further releases in full, beyond what was released in 2017. “Based on the results of the further review by agencies, an additional 5,821 records are being released in their entirety.” In addition, “13,922 documents contain specific information that is proposed for further postponement under section 5(g)(2)(D) of the JFK Act.” This description looks like it should be a big help in answering my question.

Alas, looking at the spreadsheet, the numbers don’t seem to add up. NF18 contains 22933 rows of records. The documents that “contain specific information that is proposed for further postponement under section 5(g)(2)(D) of the JFK Act” should be the ones identified as “Redact” in the list. There are 22135 rows listed as “Redact”. Within these records, there are many duplicates. Grouping for unique records, we get 21092 rows.

I don’t get this at all. How does this relate to the 13,922 documents described in the letter? The additional 5821 records released in full apparently means in addition to the 2017 releases in full. Alas, still no way to identify these.

The figure 13,922 also contradicts another statement NARA makes on its website here, claiming that “15,834 documents are still redacted.” I had problems with this claim, based on the overall math of the releases.7See my post here. Now I have even more questions. What is needed to resolve the question is a complete list of the currently redacted records in the Collection.

Maybe the “maintenance” now underway at NARA’s online database of metadata for ARC records will produce some answers. Guess we just have to wait and see.