Bradford on the ARC, 2021

This note looks at a critique of the current state of the ARC, written by Rex Bradford, president of the Mary Ferrell Foundation (MFF). The critique was posted online here in March 2021. Unfortunately, this was too early for Bradford to consult the updated version of the JFK database, which went on line in June 2021.

Bradford did some interesting work for his critique, however, and he certainly knows something about disentangling the tangled web of ARC records. The MFF website which Bradford heads is a premier resource for JFK ARC documents. His note is therefore worth a careful reading and some commentary.

An important caveat to this note: what is written on ARC redactions today will not necessarily be true tomorrow. Tracking redactions in the ARC is aiming at a fast moving target, as NARA reviews the collection, updates its database, and prepares for more releases in December.

Previous posts on the state of ARC

For anyone keeping track, both Bradford and I have previous posts on the state of the ARC. My first post was in May 2018, after the last big ARC release from NARA in April 2018. Bradford posted a long note on the state of the ARC in June 2018. In my comments on Bradford’s note, I pointed out some problems and errors.

When the updated JFK database (NARA 21) became available, I put up a third note, which concluded that as far as the “withheld in full” records were concerned, NARA 21 answered the main questions on these.

Bradford 2021 came before the update to the JFK database and before my third note on the withheld in full records. In the five months since the release of the JFK database update, Bradford has not yet updated his March commentary, so I am not sure what his current views are.

Comments on Bradford 2021

The main issue with Bradford 2021 is that it needs updating, now that an updated version of the JFK database has come out. I have seen Bradford 2021 cited in other places, including a note at Larry Sabato’s blog at the University of Virginia, which cited some of the old information Bradford used.

I will therefore repeat: some of the figures and commentary Bradford gives are out of date (i.e. wrong). This should be corrected, if for no other reason, then to reflect the hard work NARA has put into updating the database.

This is a large, juicy bone I have to pick with recent commentary on the ARC. NARA’s important and continuing corrections and updates to the Collection are widely ignored, even though these are highly relevant to the issue of what is available in the ARC.

I have done several notes on the updated JFK database and what it tells us about the current state of redaction and releases in the ARC. Interested readers can refer to these here.

Undue reliance on NF16

Another problem with Bradford’s latest note is that he is working from the 2016 FOIA list of records, which I call NF16. My first two critiques worked from the 2018 FOIA list, which I call NF18. NF16 had major errors and NF18 corrected many, though not all, of these.1For my notes on these two lists, see here.

NF16 was also published prior to the 2017-2018 releases, so it is particularly difficult to figure out what happened to the NF16 records without detailed knowledge of what was opened/not opened 2017-2018.

Again, the updated JFK database renders much of this laborious counting etc. out of date.2Bradford divides the records on NF16 is a particularly complicated way that lost me a couple of times. One example that particularly confused me because it seems to differ from his earlier notes: he now puts 180-10110-10050 in his “previous releases” table, and 179-30003-10282 in his “unknown status” table. This is why these tables still have 336 and 14 records respectively. Another very confusing point: he lists 27 records in the “extra page” table, observing that “none have been released”, as if all of them were releasable. Nine of these are explicitly described as tax records; these are therefore not eligible for release and belong with the other tax documents. Yet he does NOT list these on the “IRS” table.

Checking the archives

Perhaps the most noteworthy part of Bradford 2021 is that he actually checked records at NARA. Kudos to Bradford for taking the time to do this; this is how one gets a definitive answer on what is available in the collection. Everyone interested in the ARC should be doing the same thing (I had a written excuse for not doing this from my department chair, but the dog ate it).

The most interesting results from Bradford’s visit to NARA came from his look at a set of 336 documents on the NF16 list. Inclusion in NF16 was suppposed to mean they were withheld in full, but these records were not released in 2017-2018. Bradford wrote to NARA asking what was up. NARA replied that those documents were actually already released. They were listed in NF16 by mistake.

Bradford did not check all of these records during his visit to NARA; that would probably have taken more than a day or two. Instead, he looked at a sample of 27 (unfortunately he doesn’t say which ones). Of the 27 records that Bradford asked for, NARA found only 9 that were present and released in full. 14 could not be located, 3 were available only on microfilm, and one had a referral notice in its place. In other words, two thirds of the records Bradford checked were missing or unavailable. Based on this, Bradford suggests, we may assume a total of 224 records are in fact not available.

Only 9 records available out of 27 checked is certainly a poor showing. I find it particularly disturbing that 14 of the records were actually missing. This is not unheard of; NARA had a list of 79 records in April 2018 that it was unable to locate.3See the section on these records on this page. None of these, however, were from the list of 336 records that Bradford was using.

Does this mean the list of missing records needs to be tripled? I’m not yet sure that is really the case. Missing records are not a good thing for an archive. NARA is still looking into these, and according to NARA 21, at least one more of these has been found. Some of the records missing from April 2018 may in fact be due to errors in identification aids–bibliographic ghosts, if you will.

What does NARA 21 say about the 336 records Bradford spot checked? It shows these as all released; no comments about missing or referred records.

For those interested in the very messy details of NF16, Bradford has an excellent interactive page that gives record data in convenient and snappy looking tables. I have an April 2019 note that includes a plain vanilla excel file that gives some of the same info, as well as my thoughts on what went wrong with NARA’s attempt to count the withheld in full records.