State of the JFK Releases 2021
This essay discusses the state of the JFK Records Collection as of March 2021. It describes the background and results of the declassifications which occurred in 2017 and 2018, and alerts readers to the re-review which is taking place this year. Particular focus is placed on 3,598 "withheld in full" records which the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) declared would be finally released. Some were, and some weren't, as will be explained.
A companion page, 2017 Document Releases, discusses the set of records that were released in 2017 and 2018, along with links to read and search them all.
Another companion page, Withheld in Full - 2021 Update, contains an interactive table where the not-released portion of the 3,598 "withheld in full" records may be explored.
Background: The JFK Records Act and the Assassination Records Review Board
Following public outcry over Oliver Stone's film JFK, Congress in 1992 passed the JFK Records Act. This law created the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), which from 1994 until 1998 oversaw the declassification of a large number of documents related to the assassination of President Kennedy and the various investigations into his murder; this broad effort included a wide swath of formerly-secret records on Kennedy foreign policy on Cuba and Vietnam, and FBI and CIA and other agencies' files on myriad related topics and individuals.
The revelations from the declassifications of the 1990s have rewritten the story of the formation of the Warren Commission, thrust into prominence Lee Harvey Oswald's trip to Mexico City in the fall of 1963 and the allegations of Communist conspiracy emanating from that city, and turned that story on its head with the stunning news that Director Hoover - in a memo to the Secret Service and a now-erased presidential phone call - relayed the FBI's determination that someone had impersonated Oswald there. Also released were formerly-secret notes of Oswald's interrogation which include an alibi for his whereabouts, buried testimony about the nature of JFK's wounds (and thus the direction of shots) which was taken by Congressional investigators and then hidden, documents revealing that CIA officers lied about their knowledge of Oswald before the assassination, a Pentagon false-flag operation named Northwoods outlining terrorist acts which could be implemented and then used to justify a U.S. invasion of Cuba, written plans kept secret for 35 years to withdraw U.S. forces from Vietnam, and so much more, far too voluminous to even summarize here.
The JFK Records Act has been in many ways a great success in reaching toward a fuller history of Kennedy's murder and its context.
The JFK Collection now sits at over 300,000 records comprising over 5 million pages, plus abundant photographic and audiovisual records. The records processed in the 1990s and later all have a unique 13-digit record number assigned to them and are represented in a master collection database. A substantial portion of the 5 million pages, including voluminous Warren Commission files, predate this system, have no record numbers, and do not appear in the database.
But while the ARRB oversaw a massive declassification effort, it also deferred in many cases to government agencies desiring continued secrecy; tens of thousands of JFK records were released with "redactions" (blackouts) - sometimes as small as a name, sometimes entire pages. And thousands of records remained "withheld in full."
The JFK Records Act mandated that, 25 years after the passage of the Act, all such records should be released in full, barring a determination by the president that "continued postponement is made necessary by an identifable harm to the military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement, or conduct of foreign relations" and "the identifiable harm is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure."
The 25-year deadline came on October 26, 2017. But when the 25-year deadline finally arrived, the remaining records were not released in full. Instead, under a process approved by then-President Trump:
- Over 34,000 documents were released, or re-released with fewer redactions, in 7 batches in 2017 and 2018.
- Hundreds of documents were declared sealed in accordance with Sections 10 and 11 of the JFK Records Act (IRS and Social Security Administration records are exempt from public disclosure, as are those sealed by court order or donated to the Archives under a restrictive "deed of gift").
- On the date of the last batch of releases, April 26 2018, another Trump memorandum authorized a process whereby the more than 15,000 records with remaining redactions would be subject to re-review in 2021.
It is now 2021.
The 2017 and 2018 Releases
In seven batches in 2017 and 2018, the National Archives (NARA) put online more than 34,000 documents from its JFK Collection. Some of these had been previously released in redacted form, and were re-released in full. Others were simply re-released with fewer (or, inevitably, more) redactions. The documents themselves may be read and searched here at the Mary Ferrell Foundation.
According to NARA's JFK Assassination Records Processing Project page, 15,834 documents still feature redactions. A listing of which particular documents remain redacted is not available, and it is not possible without access to all those records to independently make such a determination. NARA's online database of records, which does list the status of records, has not been updated since 2008, and so is quite out-of-date in this regard. The Mary Ferrell Foundation (MFF) is in possession of scanned copies of only 20% or so of the collection, and thus is not in a position to do this analysis.
The majority of the newly-released documents came from the FBI and CIA, but other agencies which released records included the National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, the State Department, Department of Justice, the National Archives itself, and others. Records from previous investigations including the Church Committee, the Rockefeller Commission, and the House Select Committee on Assassinations were also declassified.
What was in the redacted text that got revealed, and what blackouts remain? There is no single answer. In many cases, the redactions relate to "sources and methods" - agent or informant names or numbers, or names or details of particular operations. Sometimes they involve a relationship with a foreign government official. Agencies like the FBI and CIA naturally want to keep these secret, but a full accounting of the JFK assassination story can turn on such details. The issue is whether, more than 55 year later, revealing them is really a matter of "identifiable harm" of "such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure."
The 2017/2018 releases contained revelations of interest to researchers - that the mayor of Dallas signed a CIA secrecy agreement, for example. Among audiotapes released were actual interrogations of Soviet defector Yuri Nosenko, whom the CIA imprisoned during the Warren Commission investigation and afterwards. Abundant details in CIA files are still being studied to fill out much of the story of the "secret war" against Castro's Cuba. Generally, the 2017/2018 releases did not produce the vast sweeping new revelations that the 1990s declassifications uncovered. But the removal of redactions is indeed helping researchers fill in previously-murky details of various aspects of the vast JFK assassination saga.
Too many redactions remain, however, without compelling reasons for them. Some examples of the kinds of redactions still seen in the records:
- Classification that prevents the release of trivial information: In one document about CIA's Mexico City station, the word "unilateral" was made public only in 2017 (see then vs. now). In context, "unilateral" means no other intelligence service assisted in technical surveillance in Mexico City 55 years ago. Did withholding this information protect U.S. national security? It's hard to see how. This redaction is symptomatic of widespread overclassification of JFK files.
- Classification that spares the CIA embarrassment and has nothing to do with national security: In this testimony of CIA officer Sam Halpern (who is one of very few insiders alleging that Robert Kennedy was a driving force in the plots to kill Fidel Castro) the Agency is still hiding the details of a 1960's scheme, in which Halpern participated, to make a fake porno film about President Sukarno of Indonesia because he charted a foreign policy independent of the U.S. government. This type of withholding is a matter of public relations, not public safety.
- Classification that blocks release of potentially significant JFK information: Some of the 2017/2018 releases actually left redactions completely unchanged. For example, see this March 1964 CIA memo for the Warren Commission, then vs. now. The redacted information in this case is almost certainly the job title of counterintelligence officer Lee Wigren and the CIA component he worked in. This information could be significant in the JFK story because the Warren Commission was originally told that the CIA had only 5 documents on Lee Harvey Oswald at the time of the assassination. In fact, the true number of pre-assassination Oswald documents was at least 42. The CIA waited ten weeks to share this very basic information with the Commission. Lee Wigren did the belated sharing. What CIA office was he working for in 1964? His CIA job title/office in 1975 are declassified in this document, which has been in the public domain for decades. So why is his title/office in 1964 withheld? The answer might help illuminate the process by which the CIA slow-walked the Oswald investigation. This is exactly the kind of question the release of JFK records is supposed to answer. [Note: an alert reader sent us a link to a separate document, available since 1993, which reveals Wigren’s office in 1964. So this example may really be part of a fourth category, inconsistent and arbitrarily applied redactions.]
Not all documents were previously seen with redactions. Also among the released files were nearly 2,500 which had been "withheld in full" - not previously available even with blackouts. One of these is the subject of the concluding section of this essay. In general these completely-secret documents naturally invoke curiosity, and for them we do have a listing of the documents in question. Our discussion turns next to these records.
Withheld in Full - Released Now?
In 2016, in response to a Freedom of Information request from Politico, other news organizations, and researchers, the National Archives produced a listing of 3,603 documents which were at that time "withheld in full." That list was amended to 3,598 (and still later amended, mistakenly, to a count of 3,571). These records were explicitly slated for release as part of the 2017 declassifications in accordance with the JFK Records Act.
Sample metadata for a withheld JFK record
The Mary Ferrell Foundation has conducted an analysis of these 3,598 records, comparing that list to what was actually released in 2017 and 2018. We have also taken into account declarations made on NARA's project page. In summary, only 2,447 of them were released in any form; 1,151 remain withheld, were declared released but not put online, or are missing. NARA's project page contains explanations for most of these, though there are a few ambiguities and the provided explanations in some cases are questionable. Our analysis indicates that an unknown but significant number of records remain unaccounted for.
Here is a summary of the information provided by NARA regarding what we identify as 1,151 records not released online by the Archives, coupled with our own analysis:
- 520 records, according to NARA, remain withheld due to legal restrictions under Sections 10 and 11 of the JFK Records Act. MFF has identified via metadata only 500 of these, though some others we did not so identify are likely candidates. The withheld records include documents under court seal, those donated to the Archives under restrictive deeds of gift, and IRS and Social Security Administration records.
- 178 records were not put online; these are microfilm records marked as duplicates of Oswald's CIA "201 file"
- 79 records are declared by NARA to be missing (see Archives listing of these 79)
- 10 audiocassettes are acknowledged lost by the Ford Library
- 1 physical record, a typewriter ribbon, was not scanned
- 336 records were declared by NARA in a spreadsheet sent to the MFF on 4/6/2018 as "Released in Full prior to 2017 project"
- 27 records were missing in the erroneous listing of 3,571 records produced by NARA (see note below), and these have not been released
- 14 documents appear to be missing and unaccounted for
- 6 audio recordings appear to be missing and unaccounted for
The discrepancy of 27 documents noted above, between an original NARA listing of 3,598 documents and a later NARA PDF file containing 3,571, was apparently due to a missing page. In an email of 8/30/2016, an Archives staffer wrote to MFF of the discrepancy: "We believe a page was missed in the scanning of the original document that was posted on NARA's website; we are forwarding this list to our Office of General Counsel, the office responsible for the original FOIA and posting, and are asking them to post it with the original document in NARA's Electronic FOIA Reading Room." Note that none of these 27 Department of Justice records has been released.
Section 10/11 Withheld Records
According to NARA, there are 520 records withheld due to legal restrictions, though no record number listing is available:
- Court Order - 5 FBI records are restricted by court order, and thus withheld under Section 10 of the JFK Records Act.
- Deed of Gift - By our count from inspecting metadata, 12 records are withheld under "deed of gift" restrictions under Section 11 of the JFK Records Act. Seven of these relate to William Manchester's research for "Death of a President," including four May 1964 interviews with Jacqueline Kennedy (Tape 1, Tape 2, Tape 3, Tape 4) and two interviews with Robert Kennedy (5/16/64 and 1/12/65). These are all "closed by court order until 2067." The other five are "very personal letters of Mrs. Kennedy" to President Lyndon Johnson, at least three of which were written in the week following Kennedy's assassination
- IRS and Social Security Administration - NARA's count of 520 "section 10/11" records would indicate another 503 documents (520 minus the 17 above) withheld under Section 11 of the JFK Records Act. These include tax returns and employment records of Lee Harvey Oswald, tax returns and financial documents of Jack Ruby, his family, and his associates, and various other IRS-related memos and documents. While tax returns are one matter, it is not clear why the memos couldn't be redacted rather than withheld in full, in the interest of transparency into the government's interest in and handling of these records.
MFF has identified from the metadata 483 IRS/SSA documents rather than 503, but another 9 among the 27 missing DOJ documents are IRS-related, and a few of our "unaccounted for" list are likely part of the section 11 withheld group. We cannot independently confirm the 520 count but our estimate is only short by a handful of records.
Some items could not be found by NARA when it came time to release them, despite appearing in the 2016 inventory of to-be-released records:
- 79 Lost Records - According to the Archives: "These are RIF numbers that were captured in the JFK Database, but a corresponding document has not yet been found in the Collection. Some of these might be data entry errors from when agencies provided thousands of diskettes with meta-data in the 1990s. NARA will continue to try to resolve these issues as archival processing continues on the Collection." They are an interesting assortment, including two Church Committee interview transcripts (157-10014-10049 and 157-10014-10090), LBJ's Daily Diary entries for June 6, 1967 (during the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt), and much more.
- 10 Lost Audio Cassettes - The Ford Library was unable to locate 10 recorded interviews conducted by the 1975 Rockefeller Commission with persons including Robert McNamara, William Harvey, Sheffield Edwards, and Frank Sturgis. The Archives notes that "The transcripts of the audio files are open and available in the Collection." This is difficult to verify given that the metadata for the recordings does not identify the interviewee in all cases.
Not counting 336 records which were declared by NARA to be "Released in Full prior to 2017 project" - but more on why this assertion is questionable in the next section - there still remain 14 paper documents and 6 audio records which the MFF cannot account for. The metadata of these records makes it pretty clear that most have nothing to do with the IRS or Social Security Administration or deeds of gift, though a few may. So their status remains a mystery. They include:
- A 379-page FBI document from John Fain, who handled Oswald's defection case, to FBI director Hoover (strangely marked "Not Assassination Related" despite LHO - Lee Harvey Oswald - in the subject field).
- Four memos from Warren Commission staffer Howard Willens to Chief Counsel J. Lee Rankin re: Joe Tonahill. One document does have an indication it may be IRS-related; perhaps they all are. Again, it seems like such Warren Commission memos, unlike actual tax returns, should be redacted rather than withheld in full.
- Two Warren Commission documents related to Jack Ruby's roommate George Senator. One is likely withheld due to IRS restrictions; the other has no such indication but may be.
- The six unaccounted-for audio recordings all derive from the HSCA investigation, and include an interview with CIA officer David Phillips, tapes of organized crime figures Marcello and Trafficante, an interview with Warren Commission staffer William Coleman (which actually has been declassified for over a decade and can be heard here at MFF), and 2 sets of interviews with CIA translators Boris and Ann Tarasoff (here and here) - these might be duplicates of the released Tarasoff recordings, but the record numbers and tape count/timings don't seem to match, and finally one labeled "Tarasoff and McWillie and Oswald."
Previously Released in Full. Or Perhaps Not.
As noted earlier, there were 336 records which were included on the 2016 spreadsheet but never came out, but which were explained away in an email as "Released in Full prior to 2017 project."
It turns out not to be that simple.
In May of 2019, the MFF conducted a spot-check of some of these records at the National Archives II facility in College Park, Maryland, where the JFK Collection is housed. With the helpful assistance of an Archives staffer, we attempted to physically access 40 documents, to see if they were indeed publicly available. Here is what we found:
- Records marked Missing: 9 of the ones we checked are among the 79 noted by NARA as missing. 5 of them indeed could not found in the box where they should have been located. 2 were DIA files where a rif sheet only was found in the box. The other 2 had a withholding notice marking them as "non-JFK."
- Records under section 10/11. One record categorized by MFF as withheld under deed-of-gift restrictions due to its metadata, a letter from Theodore White concerning Jackie Kennedy's interviews with William Manchester, turned out to be open in full on the shelves. A separate IRS record could not be located.
- Unaccounted-for records: 2 documents were among the list we have identified as unaccounted for as yet. Neither could be located.
The remaining 27 were among those 336 records which are said by NARA to have been mistakenly put on the 2016 listing, but actually released previously. But of these:
- 9 were indeed available and open in full
- 3 were noted to be available only on microfilm, though microfilming of these Warren Commission records was done in 1982, and thus they would not be available in unredacted form
- 14 could not be located
- 1 had a "referred" slip where the document should have been
Thus, fully 2/3 of the "previously released" documents we spot-checked were not available for inspection at the National Archives. Extrapolating to the full set, at that rate an estimated 224 out of the 336 of these "previously released" records are not in fact available.
The same 4/26/2018 email which provided the list of 336 "previously released" records explained the discrepancy in this way: "As we prepared for the 2017 release, part of that process was cleaning up inaccurate data in the JFK Assassination Collection Database."
We hope that the NARA database comes back online soon, and is updated to reflect the current status of all records - a complete and up-to-date database should be an important part of any final accounting of JFK records. This should include checking to see that all of the records in the 2016 withheld-in-full listing are properly accounted for, including actual shelf checks.
The Larger Universe of Missing JFK Records
Regarding the withheld documents, it is very unfortunate that the Manchester interviews with Jackie and Robert Kennedy are sealed until 2067. With David Talbot's book Brothers providing major new insights into Bobby Kennedy's reaction to his brother's murder, and revelations that Jackie and Bobby sent emissary William Walton to Moscow to convey their conclusion that JFK's killer "did not act alone", it is of importance to know now, not 46 years from now, what they told Manchester.
The lost documents and audiotapes noted by the National Archives may or may not be a matter for suspicion, though some of their titles raise an eyebrow.
Lost or destroyed records in the Kennedy assassination is not new. Those following the case are aware of too many such instances, including among other examples:
- FBI agent James Hosty's destruction of a note left by Oswald at the Dallas FBI office
- The erasure of the first recorded presidential phone call, on the morning after the assassination, between Lyndon Johnson and FBI Director Hoover
- The 1971 destruction of the never-seen Army Intelligence file on Lee Harvey Oswald
- The Secret Service's January 1995 destruction of records related to presidential trips where JFK's life was under threat - after having received instruction from the ARRB to preserve all records
- Dozens of Church Committee interview transcripts, known to have existed, which the ARRB could not locate among Senate holdings
The JFK Records Collection database itself, by virtue of being more than a decade out-of-date and other reasons, is not a ground source of truth even on the records processed by the ARRB.
As one example, among the releases of November 3, 2017 are 34 documents from a Defense. Dept. agency known as INSCOM/CSF (INSCOM is the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command; CSF stands for Central Security Facility). Other INSCOM/CSF records, all with prefix 194 in the record numbers, have been viewed at the National Archives and cited by authors. And yet the JFK Records Collection database contains not a single record with the 194 prefix. Neither does it contain any with the prefix 154, used for records of the Secret Service, which was notably uncooperative with the ARRB.
Many of the files released in 2017 and 2018 have record numbers which are not present in the online NARA records database. Among these seven batches there are 1078 records not listed in the NARA database: 466 FBI, 250 NARA, 248 NSA, 59 INSCOM, 47 NSC, 6 Secret Service, 1 DIA, and one unnumbered record.
One possible reason for bad data is the now-arcane nature of the technology in use in the 1990s. In one email communication from NARA staff on 2/13/2018, MFF was informed that agencies transferred metadata to them via floppy disks, and on more than one occasion disks were "corrupted and could not be loaded."
On the subject of withheld-in-full records, it has been noted by others that the JFK Records Collection database lists 9,718 records marked "POSTPONED IN FULL" (this is the same as withheld in full). This is far more than the 3,598 listed in the 2016 spreadsheet. In an email dated August 19, 2016, NARA staff told the MFF that the extra 6,120 records were not really withheld; this was simply due to the database being out of date: "The difference between the number of postponed in full documents derived from an analysis of the public JFK database and the number provided by NARA reflects the updating of the master copy of the database that our JFK2017 project team has done as part of the project." We have not been able to evaluate this claim. Given our experience with spot-checking the 336 "previously released" documents, there is cause for concern.
The Upcoming 2021 Review
Where are we now? The April 26, 2018 Trump administration memorandum set a date of April 26, 2021 by which time agencies must "identify to the Archivist the specific basis for concluding that records (or portions of records) satisfy the standard for continued postponement under section 5(g)(2)(D) of the Act." It further states that "the Archivist shall recommend to the President, no later than September 26, 2021, whether continued withholding from public disclosure of the identified records is warranted after October 26, 2021."
At the time of this writing, April 26 is not much more than a month away. President Biden's decision on the fate of these continued withholdings comes six months later. Researcher Larry Schnapf has sent a detailed and compelling letter to the House Oversight Committee chairperson asking for hearings and enforcement of the JFK Records Act. Specifically, he asks that Congress:
- Conduct an oversight hearing before the April 26th deadline established by the Archivist for the agencies to request further postponement;
- Instruct agencies that requested records to be withheld in 2017 that they are to comply with the April 26th deadline;
- Instruct any agency requesting further postponement to provide a Vaughn Index setting forth specific explanations on a document-by-document basis why the particular document needs to be withheld as required by Section 4(3)(e) of the JFK Act;
- Require all agencies to provide and publish in the Federal Register explanations for each and every postponed document (or portion of a document); and
- Investigate if certain records were properly categorized as “Not Believed Relevant” (NBR).
The MFF endorses all of these requests.
The Cost to History
There is a cost to the lack of transparency, to the willful destruction of historical records, to the endless kicking the can down the road on declassification orders. John F. Kennedy was killed more than 55 years ago, and as for the figures named in these documents, the obituaries are piling up every year. That makes continued withholding less likely to hit the bar set by the Congress that "postponement is made necessary by an identifiable harm..." and that "the identifiable harm is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure."
Among the releases of December 15, 2017 was the formerly withheld-in-full 6/23/1978 House Select Committee on Assassinations' sworn testimony of Orest Pena, a bar owner in New Orleans. Why was the testimony of a bar owner held in complete secrecy for nearly 4 decades? Why did the Assassination Records Review Board apparently not review this testimony for release (its date of last review is 7/22/1993, before the ARRB was formed)? You may ask, but you will not find a satisfactory answer.
It has long been known that Mr. Pena told the HSCA that he knew that Lee Harvey Oswald, who frequented his bar in the summer of 1963, was an FBI informant. It has also long been known that Pena told the Committee that he himself was also an informant to the same FBI agent, Warren de Brueys, whom Pena said had threatened him physically after the assassination to keep his silence. The HSCA chose to disbelieve Pena, writing that de Brueys denied these accusations, and citing a few (weak) reasons why "he was not a credible witness."
Now that the testimony is finally public, what's in it? In one sense, nothing new - Pena tells the story the HSCA attributed to him. The reader can judge the credibility of the witness across the 38-page transcript; to this reader he seemed compelling. More importantly, Pena named names. A Mr. Pedro to whose restaurant Oswald would "go...in the morning with other federal agents from the Customs House Building." A Victor Perez who could verify Pena's having seen Oswald in their company at that restaurant. These people are no doubt dead now. And if the HSCA ever interviewed Mr. Pedro or Mr. Perez, there is no such indication in the metadata of the records it left behind, nor were they cited in the dismissal of Orest Pena's allegations.
Regarding Oswald and U.S. Customs, the earlier Church Committee was also onto this connection during their limited review of the JFK assassination. Declassified memos written by staffer Paul Wallach made notes of phone conversations with a David Smith of Customs, and an associate named Wendall Roach of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Wallach noted that both names had been provided by none other than Orest Pena. Roach told the staffer "I've been waiting twelve years to talk to someone about this," and said he was "willing to come to D.C. at our convenience." However, there is no subsequent interview transcript with Wendall Roach to be found in the released Church Committee files. That Committee's other records on this matter are frustratingly meager.
Oswald palling around with government agents doesn't mesh well with the "lone nut" assassin theory. But the point here is not to say with any certainty that Pena's allegations and the Oswald-Customs connection would necessarily have held up under investigative scrutiny. The point is that the investigations failed in this and so many other instances to do what was needed, and their files have remained secret for too long, and thus as a country we have failed to get to the bottom of Kennedy's assassination.
This is the "identifiable harm" we should be attending to - the harm to our nation due to ongoing secrecy - not now-inconsequential harm or embarrassment from the release of the remaining clues in these records. Justice demands allegiance to the truth, and democracy demands accountability and transparency, and we have not had enough of either in this affair. We should end the pattern of obstruction. Release all the files now.
- Rex Bradford, March 2021