NARA 21, part 7: Redacted CIA records – A cable from Helsinki

This note looks at a specific issue in the ARC, but since it looks at it in the context of the latest information on redactions, call it my seventh note on NARA 21, the updated version of the JFK ARC database (available here). NARA 21 is the most current resource for ARC redactions, incorporating all the info from the 2017-2018 releases/redactions.

This note examines a redacted cable in the CIA file on Lee Oswald. The redactions in this document are intended to hold back the cable’s origin, but the body of the cable makes clear that it originated from the CIA station in Helsinki.

Like most of the documents in the Oswald file, there are many duplicate copies of this cable in the ARC. And like the document I discussed in my 6th note on NARA 21, this cable also has inconsistent redactions, releasing information in one or two copies that is still redacted in the others. This was one reason for my interest in this document

Even more interesting, and puzzling, is why the CIA has requested, via exemption 5(g), the redaction of information in the cable readily gleaned from reading the text. CIA docs discussing ARRB plans to release station names present a number of reasons for this, most notably protecting CIA and foreign service liaison information.

Context: Helsinki in the Oswald file

Helsinki shows up in several documents that deal with CIA efforts to track Lee Oswald’s pre-assassination movements and actions. These documents were incorporated into the CIA file on Oswald and eventually released, usually with heavy redactions, as early as 1976.

The release of these documents from the CIA Oswald file, aka 201-289248, came about through FOIA litigation. During the litigation, the CIA devised a numbering system to refer to agency originated material in the file. Later, revisions in this numbering resulted in a curious hybrid sequence, aka “double barreled numbers.” The cable discussed in this note is thus officially designated “149-606”. In my discussion below, I will just call it Doc 149.

The release of the Oswald 201 file is a complicated story I won’t go into now (more is coming on this important subject, though). This large file still has may documents that remain redacted; Doc 149 is one of perhaps twenty cables redacted in the exact same way described here.

This redacting needs a note. As pointed out in my sixth post on NARA 21, most CIA cables have a cable number which consists of a cable prefix, usually four letters, followed by a sequence number. The prefix is usually a simple mnemonic for the location sending the cable.

The 1970s releases of cables in the Oswald file generally redacted the entire cable number, both prefix and sequence. But the ARRB, the independent agency created by the JFK Act to oversee the release of the JFK assassination documents, was unwilling to accept CIA redaction of the entire cable number. Eventually, the ARRB and CIA reached an agreement allowing the CIA to redact just the prefix, thereby holding back the origin of the cable, but releasing the sequence number.

Most cables also have a “From:” field indicating the full name of the station, so to hold back the station location, both of these fields must be redacted.1Many cables also have file numbers on them which can indicate locations as well.

Even without the prefix, however, the cable’s text is often sufficient to indicate the station location. In the case of the “Helsinki” cables, the text refers to very specific details relating to Helsinki, such as the names of hotels, train schedules, and so on. These cables represent the CIA’s attempt to trace Oswald’s journey from Helsinki to the USSR in 1959. Oswald’s visit to Helsinki in 1959 is of course well established.

A tale of a cable: JFK DOC 149

Since Doc 149 is short, I will give the text here (but see important note below):

TO: DIRECTOR
FROM: [XXX]

DIR CITE [XXX] 2299
RYBAT KEYWAY
REF DIR 85133

1. [VALINK 6] REPORTS SUBJECT STAYED AT TORNI HOTEL IN HELS FROM 10 TO 11 OCT 59 AND THEN MOVED TO KLAUS KURKI HOTEL WHERE HE STAYED UNTIL 15 OCTOBER APPARENTLY WAITING FOR VISA TO BE ISSUED HIM BY SOVIET CONSULATE IN HELSINKI. HE TRAVELED TO USSR VIA TRAIN CROSSING AT VAINIKKALA ON 15 OCTOBER 59.

2. SINCE HQS HAS RECORD ALL TRAVELERS BETWEEN [FINLAND AND USSR] ([VATRIP] LISTS) SUGGEST YOU SCAN THESE FOR SUBJECTS RETURN TRAVEL.

As noted above, the FROM field in the cable head is redacted, the cable prefix is redacted, but the sequence number 2299 is released. The text in square brackets is also redacted in one or more copies of the cable. VALINK 6 is the Helsinki station source, possibly Finnish security service or police, and VATRIP is Helsinki train/transit records to and from Russia.

Like most CIA documents in the ARC, there are multiple copies of this cable. By this I mean that the same document (sometimes with different formatting or annotation) appears in the ARC under different record numbers. So far, I have found 11 copies of Doc 149 in the ARC.

An excel file listing the record numbers of these copies, with links to pdfs of the doc on the Mary Ferrell website, is available here.

The redaction/release of the bracketed text, including source and records, is the sort of inconsistency I pointed to in my previous note on NARA 21. Even more striking, however, ARC 104-10132-10162 releases the cable prefix. The text there reads:

DIR CITE HELS 2299

Despite this apparently definitive release, however, the cable’s FROM field is still redacted. CIA thus confirms the cable prefix is HELS, but does not confirm that the cable is from Helsinki. Whatever you say, guys.

CIA station names in the ARC

Why has the CIA chosen this odd strategy? Well, CIA does not publish the names of its offices or facilities overseas.2This is of course true for every other intelligence and security service as well: British, French, German; Russian, Chinese, Japanese; as far as I know, no country publicly identifies its overseas intelligence or security facilities or officers. The JFK Act, however, has no specific exemption for locations of CIA stations. In fact, reading the Congressional hearings on the JFK Act has convinced me that an important motivation for the JFK Act was to ensure release of information from the CIA’s Mexico City station, the station which discovered Lee Oswald’s contacts with the Russian and Cuban embassies in Mexico City in September-October 1963.

Release of CIA records from Mexico City was thus non-negotiable, and the first several batches of CIA records released by the ARRB were almost all from or about the Mexico City CIA station. The huge number of CIA records acquired by the HSCA during its investigation, however, also included records from dozens of other stations as well. Some of these were marginal to the JFK assassination by any definition. Others were relevant in the very broad sense defined by the ARRB but presented complicated problems that could not be solved by executive or legislative fiat.

There are several records in the ARC which describe CIA discussions with the ARRB on how to handle station names. ARC 104-10331-10318 is probably the most directly relevant, though it does have a number of redactions which leave some of the examples uncertain.3Another interesting example is ARC 104-10332-10020 (NARA copy is here). This is also an example of a document with inconsistent redactions. It looks heavily redacted, but it is actually a collection of several memos which also occur separately in the ARC; the individual memos are much less redacted than the collection.

One of the most important reasons for redacting documents with station names is that the countries involved objected to release of the records in this format. Release from the CIA official files via the ARC acknowledges U.S. liaison with other security services, something that often posed complicated political issues.

One of the most interesting examples of this is ARC 104-10330-10060, which discusses very serious stress with a friendly government over just this issue. The country’s name is of course redacted, but it is hard to resist speculating. If I have my chronology lined up right, this document’s release is a third strike again the swiss-cheese-like U.S. protection of foreign government intelligence.

On the other hand, this document dates back over twenty years, so maybe the concerned government has had a chance to cool off in the intervening decades. Security based alliances are very resilient.

I believe these stresses are the case for the Helsinki cables as well. While fifty-plus years is a long time, sometimes evolving a compromise on releasing security information is the better part of valor.

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