A note on “missing records” in the December releases

One of the more confusing parts of the December 2021 ARC releases at NARA is the status of the “missing records.” This note looks at which records belong to this set, how they got labeled “missing” and how they were “found”. This is an extremely boring note, feel free to skip it.

From 2017 to 2021

“Missing” records are records where there is data from a document identification form (aka RIF) in the JFK database, yet NARA was unable to locate any such document in its stacks. This was sort of explained in NARA’s press release on December 15, 2017, which noted that there were 86 RIFs where “additional research is required”. By April 2018, the number was down to 79, and NARA had a much clearer explanation on the 2017-18 Project page, plus a detailed list of the RIF data (metadata) for these records.

The December 2021 releases included a number of these “missing” records. According to the 2021 Project page, 46 of these records were recovered or reconstructed, leaving only 33 records still unaccounted for. There is also a separate page which lists the missing records and has links to the 46 “recovered” documents.

There is still a little confusion about which records were missing. The spreadsheet for the 2021 releases (available here) has one column that indicates the current status of the 1491 records released, but this only lists 44 records as previously having “missing” status. This is because the spreadsheet lists the previous status of 119-10001-10397 as “release” rather than “missing”, and the previous status of 179-20004-10021 as “withhold”. There is no need to go into the dull, dull detail here. In fine, the claim that there are 33 identification aids in the database not yet located in the stacks is accurate.

From lost to found

A (slightly) more interesting aspect of all this is how NARA managed to find these elusive documents. Most of the lost and found articles were from the FBI. One reason NARA (and the FBI) were able to recover these was because there were detailed inventories for the content of the documents. Examples of FBI case file inventories are plentiful at the Mary Ferrell website, and in my own research and blog notes I have found that FBI file inventories can serve as a very handy index to case files. This has an addition advantage which is probably not accidental. Due to the massively redundant FBI filing system, if one particular copy of a document goes missing, the inventories tell you what it was and can provide clues for other places that might have a copy.

124-10179-10231 is an example of this. There is a detailed cover memo for this long record, which consists of the first four “serials” (individual documents) in a case file, in this case CE 100-12159. The cover memo explains that this record was designated “NBR” (not believed relevant to the assassination) by the ARRB. (The FBI prefers NAR, “not assassination related”.) The FBI kept these documents in their vaults until 2017, rather than transferring them to NARA, but they did provide NARA a RIF sheet (identification aid consisting of metadata for the records) and inventory.

2017 rolls around, time to release the NBR/NAR documents. Alas, “after an extensive search, neither the FBI nor the National Archives could locate a small number of NAR documents or case files.” How did NARA manage to recover the four lost serials from CE 100-12159? Using “duplicate copies of documents located in the FBI field office and headquarters files within the JFK Collection.” Redundancy to the rescue! But how did they do it? Can we figure it out? No problem!

For the first serial in 124-10179-10231, the first page has a stamp that says “serialized – BB File [scribble] Dec 12 1975 FBI Albany [more scribble]”. On top of this stamp is a case file number “62-2368-16”. All of this is enough to tell us where this copy came from in the ARC. Searching for “62-2368” is the “File Number” field of the JFK database, we find record number 124-10183-10255. The complete File Number notation there reads “62-2368-1 THRU 23”. The “Record series” field for this record reads “AL”, which is the abbreviation for the Albany field office of the FBI. Like 124-10179-10231, this record is marked NAR, hence it was “Postponed in full”. Unlike the “missing” record, however, this one did not get lost, and is therefore used here in place of the misplaced record. This may seem a disconcerting solution to missing documents, but it is actually a perfectly correct and reasonable solution.

How to lose a document

How does a file wind up “missing”? Turns out that there is more than one way. Sometimes of course the reason is simply “we can’t find the damn box/folder.” 124-10179-10231 is an example of this.

In other cases, such as record 124-10179-10254, the reason is more embarrassing. “Whoops, we, uh, shredded it.” These are words that every administrator surely must hate to hear, especially when it was just another irrelevant airtel about the Director getting grilled by another Senate committee. Now we’ll be hassled about meaningless paper. Listen, the destroy by date is stamped on the box and entered in the computer, the date comes up, grind goes the file. Don’t sneer, it could happen to you. NARA is pounding the desk? Hey, they approved the destroy schedule. Thank goodness for redundancy!

Then there are cases that are best described as an “act of God.” God apparently didn’t want us to have 124-10179-10257, because “In September 2011, several years prior to the 2017 re-review and transfer of the NBR/NAR material to the National Archives, a flood severely damaged thousands of feet of records at the FBl’s Alexandria Records Center in Alexandria, Virginia. In June 2012, NARA approved the FBl’s request for emergency destruction of 10,000 cubic feet of records that posed significant airborne health hazards. Among the damaged records were FBI field office files that contained postponed JFK Collection material designated as ‘pertaining to a matter unrelated to the JFK Assassination Investigation’ or ‘not assassination related.'”

Quite a few of the missing files were in fact swept away in this mini-deluge, some of which could only be reconstructed partially. Not much to be done about this, but virtually everything was NBR, as the partial reconstructions make quite obvious.

What can we do when we do not have massively redundant FBI folder arrays? This can take some real detective work, as in the case of 181-10002-10216. This is not the original document, but as NARA’s Lost and Found team writes, “knowing that the missing document contains 15 pages and pertains to the Johnson Daily Diary Entries for June 6, 1967, it is our best assumption that the document probably consists of brief, if any, administrative correspondence, and multiple pages from the Daily Diary Entries. For informational purposes, we are including this memo and a copy of the Johnson Daily Diary Entries for June 6, 1967, with Record Identification Form 181-10002-10216.”

This is a useful sample of a Presidential Daily Diary at the beginning of the Six Day War in the Middle-East. There is only one problem; there is not one syllable in it that refers to anything assassination related. Of course, this is equivalent to complaining that 181-10002-10216 is irrelevant as well, and that document does not even have the excuse of being lost. As I have written elsewhere, people often greatly overestimate the relevance of the ARC to the assassination.