This note looks at a critique of the current state of the ARC, written by Rex Bradford, president of the Mary Ferrell Foundation (MFF). The critique is online here. The MFF website which Bradford heads is the foremost source for JFK ARC documents. His note is therefore worth a careful reading.
This is Bradford’s fourth critique of the ARC releases. The earlier three (here, here, and here) are also worth a read, but this latest is by far the most comprehensive, and comes at an appropriate time. Releases have slowed to a crawl, and we now have both the details of what has been accomplished and a blueprint for what remains to come. An appropriate moment then for a look back.
For this retrospective, Bradford offers an overview of 50 plus years of JFK assassination materials releases. Having spent well over a decade on this subject, he has a lot to say. I cannot begin to offer an in-depth response to such an extensive overview, but I will respond below to a couple of points he makes on the more recent releases.
Overall, Bradford’s careful description of areas of controversy and avoidance of overstatement set him apart from many other commentators on the ARC. This is by no means a minor contribution to discussion of the JFK collection.
The bottom line?
The bottom line in most discussions of the JFK ARC is now often presented as: “How many redacted documents are left in the collection?” This is not, in my opinion, the real question.
The real question, at least for those interested in the assassination, is what new light the releases can shed on JFK’s death, on the investigation of his assassination, and on the historical background of the assassination.
Evaluating the importance of ARC texts can be difficult, however, when text is held back. IMO, this difficulty is often overstated, and the history of these redactions is almost invariably ignored or exaggerated. Bradford’s account of the redactions does a good job of avoiding these problems, making it particularly useful.
Bradford’s answer to the “bottom line” question is cautious: “the true count of redacted records is difficult to determine; MFF estimates that it is probably under 3,000, but this is just a very rough estimate.”
This is a very conservative answer, but certainly in the right ballpark. To see why this is a good answer, we need to look at two things: record lists and release spreadsheets.
Transparency plans: what, why, and when
The current universe of redactions in the JFK ARC is found in five “transparency plans” (TPs) which agencies with assassination records compiled pursuant to President Biden’s December 2022 memo. The agencies/departments in question are the CIA, FBI, DOS, DOD, and NARA.
The TPs are basically lists of records, with notations indicating why the agencies are redacting text, and when the records will be released.
I took a look at these in an earlier note (see here for my discussion). Bradford has taken a closer look at the numbers and come up with a better count.
Bradford’s total count records in the transparency plan lists is 4,608 records, as opposed to my earlier count of 4,342 records. The difference is largely due to the Department of State records, which consist of only a few FBI records.
However, these records are long, long, long, actually consisting of dozens of separate documents, all lumped together under one record number. (This is what NARA calls “unit indexing.”)
The DOS TP later goes on to actually cite over two hundred distinct documents incorporated in these massive FBI records, which must take up hundreds of pages. All of these documents seem to date from the 1970s and cannot have any direct relation to the JFK assassination.
But the fact remains that they are in the collection and subject to the JFK Act. Account for them and release when possible.
It is also important to note that all records in the TPs are “Section Five” records (referring to the relevant section in the JFK Act). The release of “Section Five” documents is mandated by the JFK Act.
There are other documents which the JFK Act exempts from release. See here for more info on these.
Anyway, Bradford’s count of records in the TPs is certainly more accurate than mine. It is still not the ultimate count, I believe, but it is good enough for the purposes of his critique.
The 2023 releases: Counting down
The TPs reflect the release state of the ARC as of December 15, 2022. In April 2023, however, NARA began reposting documents online, with new releases.
By NARA’s own count it re-posted 2,672 documents online between April and June 2023 in five releases. Another 21 records were also reposted in August 2023, for a sixth release.
I have done detailed reviews of all records in the six 2023 releases, and offer the following summary.
Readers should note that of the five sets of records listed in the transparency plans, only records in the CIA TP are being released. The other 950 records (more or less) in the FBI, DOS, DOD, and NARA lists have not yet come out.
Summarizing again, there are 3648 redacted records in the CIA TP. CIA is responsible for releasing these redactions. All of these records were posted, in redacted form, on NARA’s website in December 2022. In 2023, 2672 of these records were reposted by NARA.1Bradford has a count of 3651 for this list. NARA says there are 3648 records on the list. This is the number I got. In the discussion below, I ignore the 21 records posted in August 2023. I have a post on this small set, and the problems with them, available here.
As I noted in another post, we can divide the CIA TP records into three groups.
First, there were 976 records that were posted in December 2022, and were not reposted in 2023. NARA’s explanation is that CIA reviewed these records and affirmed that there was nothing else that could be released at this time, under their transparency plan.
Second, there were 1569 records reposted in 2023 with all redactions released. These records are now RIF (released in full).
Third, there were 1103 records posted on NARA’s website on June 27th whose status is uncertain, to me at least. There were 50 to 60 records in this set which were released in full, another 50 to 60 which were reposted with no changes from 2022, and about 1000 records with one or more redactions released.
This set should not be treated as a trivial release. Hundreds of whole page redactions (WPRs) were released in this set, removing a big chunk out of this major source of redacted text. Those interested can take a look at the series of notes I have put up on WPRs elsewhere on this blog.
Adding up these categories, we have the following sets of redacted records left in the ARC:
1) about 1000 records which were posted in 2022 and not reposted in 2023;
2) about 1000 records which were released in part in 2023;
3) about 950 records outside the CIA transparency plan list which were never reposted in 2023.
As Bradford observes, this puts the total of redacted records left in the ARC at somewhat less than 3000. Yet despite my count, and Bradford’s count, there are still people who claim significantly more than 3000 redacted records remain in the ARC. See below for some commentary on this.
My two cents
We are close to the complete release of all ARC documents, and the redactions that are not out are both miscellaneous and usually lacking in any significance, as far as the JFK assassination is concerned. Other historical interests may still be served by some of these releases.
Useful or not, NARA is committed to the full release of all section five records in the collection and it must continue to monitor compliance with the JFK Act in the months and years ahead.
It should go without saying that I strongly support full release, but occasionally I’ve been accused of not supporting it. Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps, in part, because I believe most of the remaining redactions have no bearing on the JFK assassination. That is certainly true, but that doesn’t keep me from supporting full release.
I do think it would be outrageous to release social security numbers and other personal information for people who are still living. This information should come out only when they are deceased. Of the 950 documents in the Transparency Plans, about 400 are open in full except for this personal information. I support Biden’s decision to hold this back.
Other redactions concerning FBI and CIA informants or agents is also withheld, pending their deaths. President Biden has decided this extension is justified under the JFK Act. The Mary Ferrell Foundation, under Rex and their board of directors, contested this decision in court. As far as I can tell, the court ruled Biden’s decision comported with the JFK Act. That’s that.
So also for operational details and liaison information, which Biden also decided to hold back, such as signal intelligence NSA acquired from its allied partners, and technical information such as nuclear yield for various weapons. I am not surprised that the JFK Act presents no obstacle to Biden’s decision to hold back such info. That was the idea behind that section of the Act.
As I said above, I’ve been over the 2023 releases in detail and I find Rex Bradford’s count of redacted documents convincing. Not everyone does, perhaps. On October 4 of 2023, journalist Jefferson Morley could still write “In a September 2022 letter to the National Security Council, a Defense Department official offered the following justification for the redactions that remain in 4,684 JFK documents six decades after the death of the 35th president…”
Morley wrote this after he called Bradford’s new overview “authoritative” and “comprehensive” in this blog post. This is typical of the sloppy, misleading, and sometimes contradictory writing Morley has often done on the ARC releases. As I’ve said more than once on this blog, when it comes to claims about ARC releases and withholding, caveat lector.