NARA 21, part 4: “redact” records

[Revised 7/18/2021]

This is my fourth note on NARA 21, the updated version of the JFK ARC database (available here). See the first note in this series for more details on the what, when, why of NARA 21.1The list of notes on this subject is available here.

This note deals with one of my main interests in the ARC: how many records in the Collection are still redacted, and on what basis do they remain redacted after the October 2017 “deadline” for the release of ARC records?

NARA 21 gives the answer to this question, but it is such a complex answer that I can’t hope to do more than give a very general picture in this post. I should also remind readers (and myself) that tracking redactions in the ARC is a fast moving target. NARA 21 is a snapshot of the JFK ARC as of May 17, 2021. I believe that further releases of redactions are still being considered, in fact they are certainly coming, though I don’t know the exact date.

Will there be another release of the entire JFK database following this? I hope so! I remain fascinated by the subject, and a complete copy of the database is THE solution to the outlandish rumors, exaggerations, and inaccuracies that have flourished over this subject.

Redactions in the ARC

I use redact here to refer to documents which are available to the public, but some text in the document is removed; it is whited out, blacked out, covered over, etc. I contrast this with “withhold”, which I use to mean entire documents that are not available to the public.

[I add here that “remove” does not mean permanently, or at least it shouldn’t mean that. The documents on-line that have redactions are copies of the complete original, which remains intact.]

I have sometimes referred to these documents as “withheld in full” (WIF) for entire documents that are unavailable, and “withheld in part” (WIP) for documents that have text removed. This use of “withhold” to refer to two different things can lead to a lot of confusion. To avoid this problem, for the rest of this note I will use the word “withhold” only in the first sense, for whole documents that are unavailable.

Text is removed from records in the ARC based on exemptions enumerated in the JFK Act. The specific text that is removed must fit into one of these exemptions. Prior to October 2017, there were many of these: 1.A, 1.B, 1.C; 6.1, 6.2, 6.3; etc. Now that October 2017 is behind us, however, most of these exemptions are no longer applicable.

In my third note on NARA 21, I discussed four exemptions that are still applicable. These are exemptions for certain types of tax information, indicated by 11(a), certain types of court documents, indicated by 10(a)(1) and 10(a)(2), and donor gift restrictions (no fixed abbreviation).

My third note looked at cases where entire documents were withheld in full based on these three exemptions. There are also thousands of records redacted (WIP) based on these four categories. NARA 21 gives us an update on these records too, but I will save my discussion of them for later.

There is also a fifth exemption category, which NARA abbreviates “5(g)(2)(D)”. This refers to the section of the JFK Act that allows agencies to appeal to the President for continued removal of text from their records. The JFK Act gives the President this authority, but stipulates that continued removal must be “made necessary by an identifiable harm to the military, defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement, or conduct of foreign relations, and the identifiable harm is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”

Since this category only refers to record status after October 2017, it naturally did not occur in earlier versions of the JFK database, and the post 2017 database naturally requires an update. This is an important reason for the maintenance the JFK database is now undergoing.

Text exemptions in NARA 21, old and new

The JFK database has a field for exemption category or code: “retrictions.” This field was previously filled with the old exemptions. NARA 21 has now replaced most of these (but not all) with the new category “5(g)(2)(D)”. Below is my summary of “restrictions” data for records with a current status of “Redact”. I abbreviate 5(g)(2)(D) as 5(g), since there is only one exemption in this section:

# restriction record count percent
1 5(g) only 13035 80%
2 5(g) plus others 858 5%
3 no 5(g) 2390 15%

The new 5(g) code is now the sole code used for 80% of the redactions in the ARC. The other two categories are very miscellaneous, especially the last one. Without going into the details, I wonder if these records might not have been completely processed yet.

As an example, NARA 21 has about 500 records that have an “exemption” code of “Open in full” in records that are categorized as “Redact”! Close to 500 records in NARA 21 have no exemption code at all. The old JFK database had exemption codes for every record, so NARA has removed the exemption codes from these documents. I expect that they will have to put something back if these records remain redacted.

For the other non-5(g) records in NARA 21, most of the remaining redacted records use the 11(a) and 10(a) codes, but there are a few hundred records left that still have 6 codes: 61, 62, 63, etc. Since these are no longer applicable, I also expect that NARA will replace these as it continues to update the database and at the same time review the records.

Agencies with 5(g) records

Since there are probably going to be more changes for many of the mixed or non-5(g) records, I will leave them for a later note and focus on the simple 5(g) records here. The main question I had is which agencies were asking to continue their redactions and who had the most. Of course I already knew the answer, but it always nice to have real numbers to back up what you know. Here the numbers are:

# agency record count percent
1 CIA 11208 ~86%
2 FBI 1009 ~8%
3 HSCA 617 ~5%
4 SSCIA 60 <1%
5 ROCKCOM 54 <1%
6 OSA 34 <1%
7 LBJ Library 15 <1%
8 JCS 14 <1%
9 JFK Library 9 <1%
10 DOS 6 <1%
11 DOJ 3 <1%
12 USA 3 <1%
13 OSD 2 <1%
14 ONI 1 <1%

An even starker contrast than I expected, actually. There are a number of reasons for this result. Putting total redacted docs back in, instead of just the 5(g) ones of course bumps the FBI ranking higher. Still, no matter how you count it, most of the documents redacted at this point are CIA. Well worth a separate note, which is coming soon!

Redaction extent, a note on totals, and a suggestion

I emphasize here again: the records i discuss in this note are NOT WITHHELD. They are redacted: some text has been removed. How much text has been removed? Look at the end of this section for my view. First, though, some notes on the totals I give above for redacted records.

NARA stated in 2018 that 15,834 records remained redacted.2See the bottom of this page. In NARA 21, this number has gone up to 16,283.

The increase is due to two things: first, a better count of documents that remain redacted. Second, some documents that were categorized as withheld are now categorized as redacted. As we saw in an earlier post, documents such as the microfilm duplicate of Oswald’s 201 file are moved in NARA 21 from withheld to 5(g) redacted. Ditto for the 10 Rockefeller Commission tapes at the Ford Library. This suggests that records with technical issues are now treated as 5(g).

It is also clear that NARA is using the 5(g) exemption to remove social security numbers of living persons from ARC documents. How do I know this? Because the HSCA payroll records, which are part of the Collection (!!), are marked 5(g). NARA specifically recommended to President Trump that ss numbers in these documents be withheld. Clearly Trump agreed, and Biden should as well. The failure of the JFK Act’s drafters to require that such personal data be withheld should be roundly criticized.

I note here that several hundred of these 5(g) records were never posted on line. I hope that, at a minimum, all of these are put on line. I actually hope that the entire JFK collection (with the exception of the typewriter ribbons) is put on line. This is the most thorough going solution to how to make these documents available to the public.

Now back to a topic that is much easier to answer thanks to NARA 21. How much text has been removed from the redacted documents? There are a lot redacted records, so individual answers won’t mean that much. Averages are more meaningful, but I still don’t have a number. I’m working on it.

For now, I can say that the redactions I have looked at using NARA 21 as a guide are not extensive. Redactions where more than two lines of text have been removed are a small minority. I have not yet looked closely at the really big files, because they are big, and because they make up a very small percentage of the redacted documents.

I should make clear that I have not used NARA 21 to look at the FBI files with redactions. I expect that these will be different from the CIA documents which make up 85% of the redacted records. Most redactions in the CIA documents are single words or short phrases: names of people, names of places. There are thousands of documents that have only one or two short redactions. My next note will take a close look at this.