NBR files in the ARC, part 5: OP files

This is my fifth post on NBR records in the JFK Assassination Records Collection. (See here for a general introduction to records designated NBR “not believed relevant”). The “OP” files is the largest set of NBR files discussed so far, and received much attention immediately following the 2017-2018 ARC releases. As it turned out, this attention was based in part on a misunderstanding.

OP ≠ Operational

The misunderstanding, which I shared, was that OP stood for “Operational.” The original list from NARA that included file names using the OP abbreviation was released in 2016. Figures with such files included people like David Atlee Phillips and E. Howard Hunt, both long of interest to conspiracy-oriented writers, and both involved in important CIA operations.1See here for a discussion of the 2016 list, which I call NF16.

The OP in this case refers to the Office of Personnel, not operational, and the files in question are personnel files. Matters dealt with in the files are mostly ordinary personnel information such as hiring, transfers, promotions, recommendations, insurance, and retirement. Operations are sometimes mentioned, but only in passing, not the details that people expected.

Some of the expectations for major revelations in the 2017-2018 releases was built on this misunderstanding, which reflected a general lack of understanding about how CIA records handle such matters. Operations are not labeled or listed under the names of people involved. They are handled under the name of the operation, such as PBSUCCESS, the operation that led to the overthrow of Guatemala’s Arbenz government.

As a result, the relevance of OP files to the JFK assassination is naturally low. I have not read all of these documents (there are over 10,000 pages), but from what I have read, the NBR designation seems quite correct.

For those who are interested in more boring topics, however, such as how these records were handled, evaluated, and released, the OP files are an exemplary topic for this blog, and so I’ll offer a few comments on them.

The Combs memo and list

The NBR OP files were discussed in the November 1997 memo from Michelle Combs which I cited in my second NBR post (see here). Combs headed the ARRB team of analysts handling CIA records, and the November memo covers the main sets of NBR records.

The ARRB was the federal board created by the JFK Act of 1992 to assemble and release the ARC documents. It was due to their efforts that so many obscure government documents were discovered, added to the ARC, and for the most part released in full almost thirty years ago.

Looking through the ARRB electronic records again has turned up two more detailed notes on the OP files from Combs: 1) a memo for the January 1998 ARRB meeting on the OP files, and 2) a list of the records in question.2Both are available on-line at NARA, but the most convenient access is through the MFF website: the memo is here and the list is here. These are the primary material for this note.

The OP files as defined in the list include personnel files for 60 individuals. These were all from the microfilm segregated collection.3I have a very brief note on the CIA segregated collection here. The microfilm segregated collection was a sort of expanded version of the segregated collection, and originally consisted of 73 microfilm rolls. Combs provides box and folder numbers, personnel names, and number of pages for each of the sixty figures. This is very convenient and allows us to track exactly how they were incorporated into the ARC. In the current ARC, the folders Combs listed are now divided into 184 records.

The data fields I need to cite for this info are too wide to conveniently incorporate into this post, so I am putting together a separate table, coming soon.

Redaction and significance of the OP files

As noted above, the release of these files in 2017-2018 was a matter of much excitement. When the nature of the files became clear, however, they dropped from most online discussions.

Recently they have come back, and are now frequently cited as examples of ARC documents where there is still important evidence hidden under redactions. It is true that they are sometimes (but not always) more heavily redacted than the minuscule withholding that characterizes most redacted documents in the ARC today.

Does this mean the redacted material was significant? Were the OP files in fact important documents in the JFK record collection? This was not the opinion of the ARRB. The OP files were previously withheld in full because the ARRB designated them as “not believed relevant” (NBR) and therefore put them aside so they could spend their time on more worthwhile documents. As staff member K. Michelle Combs wrote in a summary on CIA personnel files for the board:

The ARRB staff recognizes that many of the individuals whose files are found in the Microfilm Collection are significant to an understanding of the assassination. However, the material in these files not marked by the ARRB staff and not already found in the Sequestered Collection was found to consist of basic standard personnel information and to have no believed relevance to the assassination.