This post reviews newly released redactions from documents related to Lee Harvey Oswald (LHO), as posted at the National Archives website last December. Oswald is a key figure in Kennedy assassination documents, and the release of redactions in Oswald-related docs is always worth a close look.
The review this time is limited to LHO docs from the CIA, since these are more readily identified than LHO docs from other agencies, as will be seen below.
These latest LHO releases from the CIA have naturally attracted attention from researchers and news media, but like most of the redactions released in December, they offer at best minor details, not major revelations. Information in a number of these “releases” was in fact released in 2017-2018, or even earlier.
CIA documents on Oswald in the JFKARC
CIA information on LHO has been at the center of research by assassination “buffs” since the 1960s. Release of this information was a key issue in the passage of the JFK Act, the public law which established the JFK Collection at NARA (JFKARC or ARC).
Even before the Act was passed in 1992, the CIA released a redacted version of about half of its “201” file on Oswald to NARA. Since then, every document in the Oswald 201 file has been released, as well as an Office of Security file, and a large collection of ancillary documents. Most of these documents are now released in full, but there are still some redactions scattered about. Given the intense interest in CIA and LHO, a review of these redactions is, hopefully, a useful exercise.
Documents and redactions in Oswald 201 file
Tracking CIA’s Oswald-related docs might seem a daunting task, but in fact the ARC has some convenient shortcuts for those who are interested. To make use of these, you will need to download the JFK database from NARA (available here in six excel files).
Combine the excel files and pick out the CIA documents (every row where the “record num” column begins with ‘104-‘). Then go to the ‘comments’ field and pick out all the rows that begin with ‘OSW’ These are the docs we are interested in. As an example, this will get the first row in the first excel file, where the ‘comments’ field reads “OSW7 : V27 : 1993.05.13.16:24:12:000032 :”
To see how many of these docs are still redacted, pick out all the rows where the ‘Current Status’ field is ‘Redact’. I get 248, let me know if anyone gets a different number!
Using this method actually gets a superset of Oswald documents, including three different groups: the Oswald 201 file, the Oswald Office of Security file, and an Oswald “A” file (from the Domestic Collection Division). These are all discussed in the Final Report of the ARRB, the federal board established by the JFK Act to assemble and release JFK assassination documents.
There are other places where Oswald-related CIA docs appear. The ARRB final report mentions a “Defector file” which had Oswald-related documents in it. Apparently there is only one record from this source in the ARC.1(p. 82) It also mentions “HTLINGUAL soft files” which had Oswald material. I am uncertain how many records from this source are in the ARC.
In addition to these sources, the two main collections of CIA docs in the ARC, the hard copy Segregated Collection and the Microfilm Collection, are filled with copies of Oswald documents from all of these sources. There is also the Russ Holmes Collection of JFK docs, which has a huge assortment of duplicates (and sometimes originals) of Oswald docs.
To identify copies of Oswald file documents in these large document sets requires nothing less than a record by record review. Since this means reviewing tens of thousands of records, I have no intention of doing this. I have, however, reviewed the 985 CIA records that had redactions released in December, and identified both documents from the Oswald series and duplicates of these from the other collections.
Oswald docs and duplicates in the December releases
In the following table, “OSW” is from the Oswald documents in the ARC, “JFK” is from the hard copy Segregated Collection, JFK64 is from the Microfilm Segregated Collection, and JFK-RH is from the Russ Holmes collection.
|#||category||record number||NARA link||MFF link|
As the table above shows, out of the 57 Oswald-related docs which had redactions released, 33 were from the CIA Oswald file(s) and 24 were duplicates from other CIA document sets. A number of these duplicates had been released before, so the amount of newly released information here is quite small. Attempts to pump up the significance of these particular releases are simply not well founded.
There are other lessons here as well. Rex Bradford of the Mary Ferrell Foundation posted a survey of remaining redactions back in March 2021. Bradford supposed that the one redaction still remaining in 104-10001-10008, a cover sheet for a compilation of name traces, was the job title of Lee Wigren, Chief of the Soviet Russia Counterintelligence Research branch (C/SR/CI/R).
In fact, as the December releases have now shown us, the redacted text was the name “Alexander Brasko”, an officer in SR/CI/R who did most of the work tracing names. Bradford’s guess was simply wrong, and his supposition that the redaction here was an attempt to “block release of potentially significant JFK information” is wrong as well. (I will leave this note for another day.)
Another lesson worth noting is how many of the releases are “ancillary info.” A name redacted on a routing sheet is ancillary, simply not as important as text from the body of a cable or memo. File numbers are even less important, as are the strings of drafters’ and typists’ initials at the bottom of memos. Yet this ancillary info is virtually all that’s left redacted in many of these docs. Another common redaction: names scribbled on copies by analysts and archivists trying to figure out who was who. These are also ancillary: interesting, but secondary in importance.
There is still information that interests some researchers concealed behind the redactors’ boxes, but it is far, far less than on-line commentary has made it out to be.