Today’s note continues to look at whole page redactions (WPRs) in CIA documents from the JFKARC. These were numerous in the 2017-2018 releases, then mostly released in 2022-2023. How many are left? Keep reading to find out!
For those who missed the first installment of this series, including an explanation of WPRs, see here.
This current note discusses two of the more puzzling records in the ARC, both of which deal only with the early 1950s. These two files, on an organization called the National Committee for a Free Europe (NCFE), are utterly irrelevant to the JFK assassination, but provide detailed information on the NCFE, and will fascinate those who are interested in the early history of the cold war.
So what are we to make of the inclusion of these irrelevant files in the ARC? My two cents are below.
[See also the post script, added 2023-07-31]
The National Committee for a Free Europe (NCFE)
The NCFE is one of the most well known cold war organizations of the late forties and early fifties. It was involved in a wide range of activities, most prominently in Radio Free Europe. Nominally created and run by private citizens, NCFE was, in fact, primarily funded by the U.S. government, and although it counted many prominent Americans among its supporters, the CIA played a major role in the NCFE’s operation and activities.
For those interested in the details, Hugh Wilford’s 2008 book The Mighty Wurlitzer has a very interesting introduction to the NCFE’s relations with the CIA, and especially with the European emigres who undertook much of the work for NCFE.
NCFE files in the ARC
There are two lengthy NCFE files in the ARC, both of which originally had lengthy whole page redactions, which are now largely released:
|record # (2018)
These two files, with a total of 791 pages, were released for the first time in 2017, then again in 2018. They were released a third time in 2022, and yet again in 2023. The 2023 releases came on 6/27, which was the final release under the massive ARC review ordered by President Biden. Both files had previously been designated NBR (not believed relevant) by the ARRB, the federal board which assembled the ARC in the 1990s.
I have several notes about the NBR designation, available here. NBR was a time-saving measure that the ARRB adopted when it became clear that it would not be possible to do a word by word review of all the CIA records which the HSCA accumulated during its investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination.
Once the ARRB determined, after a page by page review, that a record was not relevant to the assassination (under the very broad definition of an assassination record that the ARRB established), it would conduct no further review, but set aside the record for release in October 2017, when the JFK Act mandated the release of all withheld material in the ARC.
There were several catches regarding this release date, however. (See here for a general discussion of these.) In particular, agencies could appeal to the President for further postponements. In 2017, both CIA and the FBI appealed for continued postponements in hundreds of records, including the NCFE files.
We now know, based on recent FOIA releases, that when CIA and the FBI proposed postponing numerous records in toto, NARA objected strongly. The lengthy WPRs we got in 2017-2018 represented a compromise. With a lapse of five more years, and with President Biden’s memo putting some teeth in declassification, files for WIROGUE, NCFE, and a number of other projects and persons have dropped many, but not all, of their WPRs.
It is also worth noting that there were many lengthy redactions in the NCFE files that fell just short of whole pages. These are also now largely released.
Relevance and release: Why NBR, and why NCFE?
All this still leaves me with a nagging question: having determined that many files and folders in the CIA segregated collection are not “relevant” to the JFK assassination, under even the broadest interpretation of the word “relevant”, why did the ARRB insist on putting them into the JFK collection?
As the ARRB made clear in their final report, they read the JFK Act to include everything that the HSCA had in its files, no matter how NBR they were. In a previous post, I called these irrelevant documents “de jure” assassination records.
One could of course argue that NBR records are still relevant in some way to the HSCA investigation, but the NCFE files demonstrate just how far this can take us.
Why did the HSCA ask for the NCFE files? NCFE is not mentioned anywhere in the published records of the HSCA, and after several hours of searching, I was not able to find a reason for this request. There is a record of the request here, but there seems to have been no specifics to the request at all, and Robert Gambino, head of CIA’s Office of Security, reacted rather bitterly to this and similar requests.
In the end, as the HSCA signature sheets for the NCFE documents show (here and here), no one ever read these files. In fact, CIA’s primary liaison to the HSCA, Scott Breckinridge, estimated that about 20% of the documents HSCA requested were never read.
Without any documented reason for these document requests, such records are the far side of the NBR documents. It is hard to argue that the files tell us anything about the HSCA investigation. Just give us the unsigned signature sheets and we know all we need to know, as far as the investigation is concerned. But …
My two cents
Despite the NBRishness of it all, I strongly support the complete release of the NCFE files. There are two reasons for this. First, and most important, the JFK Act is a commitment that should be kept. In fact, Congress might not have expected such massive file drops. There is a lot of commentary about this at ARRB meetings which is worth a look. However, ARRB chose maximal release and this choice was binding. Finish the job.
Second, much of the history here is interesting and important, and if this is what it takes to release this hard to get historical material, so be it. Put more personally, I’m interested in this material, so I’m happy to have it released.
The latest review of the ARC has seen fit to continue limited postponements in the documents. Fine. They are irrelevant to the JFK assassination and we need lose no sleep over potential assassination revelations in them. These records will come up again, however, and sooner or later must, and will, be released in full. Such is the nature of the JFK Act.
Is there any disadvantage to releasing this material through the JFK Act? Well, some people are bound to try and make this stuff relevant to the JFK assassination, like smacking square pegs into the round holes. Radical misinterpretations of the JFK records are so common, however, that it’s hard to get too excited.
Actually, its easy to get excited and irked. Don’t. Just do what I’ve learned to do. First, give a deep and profound shrug of the shoulders. Then, repeat the mystic one-syllable mantra that expresses all: “Meh.”
In emails over the weekend, Larry Haapanen and Paul Hoch provided some suggestions on why the HSCA was interested in the NCFE. Larry pointed out the original HSCA request I was unable to locate. It is available in the MFF collection here. The request shows that HSCA says it found a reference to NCFE in George DeMohrenschildt’s security file.
Larry’s email also noted that the reference to NCFE probably comes from records in DeM’s file indicating that DeM’s ex-wife Phyllis (they divorced in 1949) was a receptionist for NCFE, ca. 1950-51. Paul Hoch found detailed info on Phyllis’s job at NCFE in this compilation. As a bonus, Paul also found HSCA staffer notes on Phyllis’s job in a doc located here.
Looking at the dates, it seems that the staffer’s notes (late May 1978) were the basis for the additional HSCA request (late June 1928). The staffer (Beth Anne Lichtenfels) notes that she conducted the May review of files at the request of senior staff member Michael Goldsmith. Okay, so far so good. However, I still have questions.
George is a person of interest in the JFK assassination. All right, but Phyllis got the NCFE job after she and George were divorced. Why do we care what she does after she is no longer connected to George? Then again, she worked as a receptionist, for perhaps a year. What significance does that have for the Kennedy assassination, George or no George? And remember, all of this is over a decade before the assassination.
In the June request, HSCA asked for “access for all files, documents and other information relating to” NCFE. It did not ask for anything concerning Phyllis in the NCFE files. It did not ask for anything concerning George in the NCFE files.
Documents in the files the CIA provided are primarily from 1952-53. Nothing is from the year Phyllis was working there. As we can see from the files, there must be thousands of pages on the NCFE covering many years. Why these years? Why these pages? It seems to me there must have been some further discussion about this. As we saw in the CIA response, OS chief Gambino asked for something much more specific. What did the HSCA reply?
I have not read all of the NCFE files, but I have read at least three hundred pages. I have not seen the names of George or Phyllis anywhere in the files so far. The files are mostly memos, reports, and letters, no personnel information at all. The most frequent writer is Tom Braden, chief of the CIA’s International Organizations Division (IOD). The main recipient is either Braden or Frank Wisner, who was Deputy Director of Plans at the time, in 1952-53.
As I said, very interesting stuff for those interested in the early cold war period. But utterly devoid of significance for the JFK assassination, and so far as I can see, devoid of relevance even for George and Phyllis De Mohrenschildt. If only Mickey Goldsmith were still around we could ask him what the HSCA were looking for, but, sadly, he passed away in 2009.