Countdown to release

This note collects a few miscellaneous facts about redactions in the ARC, on the eve of what may be the last release for a while. As this note will show, due to the depleted store of redactions, the coming final June release cannot compare with the last big release in December 2022, much less the 2017-2018 releases. I will comment at the end of this note on the potential signficance of these last redactions.1Thanks to Paul Hoch for comments on this note.

CIA’s den of redactions

CIA remains the main source of redacted records in the ARC, though this needs some qualification. CIA has the largest set of redacted “section 5” records, i.e. records that were due for release in 2017, but postponed until now. There are other records that were not scheduled for release, mostly tax and court records (section 10 and 11 records).

I gave some current redaction counts in a recent post, but here I’ll try to look (yet again) at the distribution of these redactions, using this as a not very reliable proxy for how signficant these redactions might be. The distribution I’ve been looking at is pages per doc, which I divided into three categories: short (1 page), medium (2-10 pages), and long (>10 pages).

I’m going to change my counting methods this time, since the number of redacted docs has shrunk so much. I will now include not just CIA originated documents but all documents the CIA is responsible for releasing, which I estimated at 2079 (more or less). The estimate is based on this pdf posted at NARA.

One reason I do this is to avoid counting approximately 400 documents where the only information redacted is social security numbers of living persons. I do not believe these will be released this year. In fact, I will say up front that I am opposed to releasing these until the person in question is deceased.

I will also put a bit more detail into the medium length docs, since these are now different from what they used to be. With this in mind, here are the numbers:

pages record count percent
short docs (1 page) 492 ~23%
medium docs (2 pages) 453 ~21%
medium docs (3 pages) 262 ~12%
medium docs (4 pages) 144 ~7%
medium docs (5-10 pages) 270 ~13%
more than 10 499 ~24%

This table shows that the sample has changed. Previously the short docs were a much larger component. Now the medium docs make up the majority of redacted docs (~50% if one adds them all up). The long docs make up about a quarter of the whole set of redacted docs, also in contrast to its previous ranking.

Significant or not?

Number of pages is of course not really a good proxy for signficance. Here is one example from the document release on April 13: The HSCA doc 180-10110-10485 is a 616 page doc, but it consists only of document receipts. When the CIA or FBI delivered classified documents to the Committee, the Committee had to sign receipts for these. Many, but not all, of these receipts are in this file.

Why were there redactions in such a file? Because the people delivering the docs also had to sign the receipt. One of these people was David Ballard, a CIA employee whose name was redacted on five receipts. (See pages 12-16 of the MFF pdf cited above. The redacted version from Dec 2022 is available here.) These are the only redactions in the file. Why was Ballard’s name redacted? Most likely he retired from CIA under cover.

As far as I can tell, Ballard’s name has not appeared on any other CIA documents. The significance of his signature on the receipt therefore may not be zero, but it is damn low. The signficance of the file as a whole is of course not zero; if we want to trace which docs were delivered when, received by who and delivered by who, this file could be quite useful. But as far as the actual assassination is concerned, all this lacks any significance (my opinion of course), and even for the investigation of the assassination, must rank low in significance.

There are several things that determine signficance. Volume is one thing. Lots and lots of redacted material can become significant, even if each individual redaction is not that important. Content is significant, of course. There are certain types of material that CIA redacted that in my opinion have very little significance overall. One example is file numbers, something that the FBI also sometimes redacted. This keeps people from piecing together isolated chunks of material, defeating what is sometimes called the “mosaic effect”. Not significant in itself, however.

The most significant kind of signficance, however, is relevance. In this case, information that is relevant to the JFK assassination itself, relevant to the investigations of the assassination, or relevant to the overall background of the incident. It is on this account that, as I have said repeatedly, the remaining redactions in the ARC are simply not that significant anymore. Who wrote or released a classified cable, the location of the station sending or receiving a cable, all of these are necessarily of secondary importance, and become even less important when they are for cables sent 10 years before or after the assassination.

More can be said on this, but I will leave it for now.

My two cents

I will repeat again that I believe all records in the ARC should eventually be released to the public, though I am emphatically opposed to the absurd idea of releasing social security numbers of living people. This is not only utterly insignficant information, as defined above, but a positive harm to the people involved.

There is other material in the ARC with zero signficance for the JFK assassination, or so close to zero that I couldn’t locate my interest in it with a scanning electron microscope, as Frasier Crane once said. This material should be released because that was the law as it was signed. I refuse, however, to try and pump up the importance of what is so clearly insignificant. I advocate release because it was stipulated and agreed.

And of course, the JFK collection is important not only for the JFK assassination, but for the information it provides on key events of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The total declassification of the documents for this period has provided an unprecedented view of the diplomacy and intelligence gathering at the time. Most of the documents that have more than one or two redactions left are related to this period, and I expect, as the JFK Act stipulates, that they will become accessible.

On the other hand, the collection has a natural focus; the assassination is at the heart of the collection. This heart is open, not closed. There may be a handful of assassination details that we can glean from the remaining redactions, but they are truly, truly few.

To claim otherwise is a failure to grasp what is significant. It is the task of researchers to determine not only what is significant, but what is NOT significant, and to put it to one side.