NARA steps up

While press coverage of the December 2021 ARC releases was mostly disappointing, NARA provided much useful information on the December releases for those who wanted to report it. This note takes a look at the good news side of the December releases, including important clarifications of the current status of the JFK Assassination Records Collection at NARA.

December 15 saw the release of text in 1,491 documents from the ARC. All of these documents are now open in full. Text was released in 958 CIA documents, 355 FBI documents, and 106 HSCA documents. These three sources account for 95% of the new releases. According to NARA, after this release there are still 14,236 documents in the ARC with redactions.

The new releases are presented on NARA’s 2021 release webpage, which provides a spreadsheet of data and pdf text files from 1,491 records. There is further discussion on the 2021 summary webpage, titled “JFK Assassination Records Processing Project 2021 Update.” To understand what’s what, it’s best to go to the second page first. This page gives a clear introduction to the current state of the ARC, why releases from the collection are still coming out, and what the future holds. Go here for an accurate description of withholding and redactions in the ARC.

The summary webpage also links to two important lists. The first: a list of the records withheld in full. Despite what you may have read from writers such as Philip Shenon and Jefferson Morley,1See my Washington Decoded article for my complaints. the JFK Act did not mandate public release of all the records in the ARC. Income tax returns are exempted from release by Section 11 of the Act. This section also allows records given to NARA under deed of gift to be withheld. Sealed court records and federal grand jury proceedings are exempted under Section 10 of the Act. Documents and redactions exempted from release under these two sections will not be opened for public inspection unless the JFK Act is amended by Congress, and even Congress cannot open some of the court records. Following the last major release of text and documents from the ARC in 2018, NARA estimated 520 records fell into these two categories and would continue to be withheld in full. The new list has only 515 documents. The total has shrunk due to misclassified records.

The second important list: a set of records sometimes called the “missing documents.” When the ARC was assembled, all agencies holding records were required to fill out “reader identification forms” (RIFs) providing basic data for each record. As part of its review of the collection, NARA matched these forms against the documents. Given the complexity and size of the collection, it is no surprise that the archivists at NARA had trouble matching up a handful of these. After the 2018 releases, NARA was not able to locate documents for 79 RIFs. NARA has devoted much energy to these records. According to the new list, it has recovered or reconstructed 46 of those 79 documents. There are links to these on the list page. Most of them have cover memos explaining the issues involved and how NARA recovered or reconstructed. Only a handful of these records are actually relevant to the JFK assassination, but NARA is dead serious about accounting for ARC documents.

These formerly-missing documents are all newly released, unlike almost everything posted on the release page this time. They were not posted online in 2018 because, well, they were still missing then. There are about two dozen other records posted this time which were also not posted in 2018, including 18 payroll records for the HSCA, and a few FBI records.2I have a separate discussion here about the latest from NARA on these documents.

Much of the summary webpage at NARA is devoted to future developments for the ARC. Biden’s October 22 memo calls for another release of redactions in December 2022 and sets many conditions for any text postponements past that date, requiring agencies to provide a letter stating reasons for postponement, an index of all documents postponed with individual reasons for postponing each document, and a date when the agency anticipates that the postponement will no longer be necessary. Biden’s memo also called for eventual release of the entire ARC on-line. NARA has now come up with a draft plan for this, posted on-line here. NARA estimates this will take 2-3 years, but don’t hold your breath. It will require major funding, something Congress has not given in the past.

Future releases: December 2022 and on

Redactions in CIA records constitute the bulk of all redactions still remaining in the ARC. These redactions are numerous, but not extensive, except for a handful of cases. They include employee names, source names, overseas facilities, and liaison relations. Under the JFK Act, many of these remaining redactions have to be released. Yet the December 2021 releases have shown a dilatory, inconsistent CIA response to the endgame of the JFK Act. There is probably a case to be made for continued redaction of liaison-related material and station names. There is definitely a case to be made for redacting employee names from the 1990s. Personal information such as addresses, birthdates, and social security numbers of living people should have been exempted by the Act to begin with.

On the other hand, continued redaction of copies of documents that have already been released in full is nonsense, and CIA should have its nose pressed to the grindstone on these. Biden’s memo gives the administration a way to press down without having to delve into the arcana of the distant past themselves, and 2022 should see a much larger release of CIA redactions. The odds are good, however, that there will remain redactions.

The question is what is in those redactions. This is not nearly as much of a mystery as online pundits have made it seem. The currently redacted version of every one of the 10,000 plus CIA documents in the ARC that still have text redacted were all posted at NARA’s website in 2017-2018. The majority of these are documents with 1 or 2 redactions each. There is every reason to think that material redacted in these documents is similar to the material released in December. Despite the grossly inflated coverage these received, there were only the quotidian details of history in these documents, useful to historians, but not to journalists.

There are still about 90 to 100 documents remaining that have whole pages redacted. There is less certainty about what is on these pages. If you are looking for assassination related material, however, you are likely to be disappointed, since these documents were mostly designated “Not believed relevant” (NBR) by the ARRB reviewers.

Some documents may still may remain in the back corners of the ARC that will interest those looking for assassination related materials. But as I have observed elsewhere, to expect revelations from the few remaining redactions that will overturn the cumulative weight of millions of pages released in full is absurd.