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Secrecy & Classification

Once More ‘Round the Plaza




By Robert Reynolds


    Once again the National Archives is preparing to release previously redacted documents from the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection (JFK ARC). And once again the idea is becoming rampant that significant and newsworthy information on the assassination of President Kennedy 58 years ago will soon be revealed.

    News coverage of the coming releases started out muted this time around compared to the last big releases, which occurred from July 2017 to April 2018. It picked up markedly, however, when President Biden released a memo on October 22 that spelled out short- to long-range plans for the collection.

    The memo called for a first release of redacted documents that agencies no longer wish to withhold in mid-December, then another, larger, release by December next year. The memo also mandated a boat-load of paperwork for agencies to fill out if they want to postpone anything past that date. A longer-range element of the plan calls for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the federal agency that houses assassination-related materials, to scan the entire collection and put it on-line. How long that will take is not spelled out in the memo.

    Reaction to Biden’s memo ranged from yawns to apoplectic complaints that Biden has sold out to pressure from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and is suppressing incriminating documents.

    That a collection of mostly paper documents can stimulate such passions is a tribute to the depth of the national trauma inflicted by the assassination. Given the confusing result of the last releases, it is also understandable that people might think there are still important documents left unreleased. A closer look at NARA’s latest data on the ARC, however, reveals just how unlikely this is.


The JFK Database

    The 2017-2018 releases from NARA were confusing, first, because it was unclear how much material was from documents previously withheld in full, and second, because it was equally unclear how much was from documents that had been previously released in part. This should not have been the case.[1]

    The primary reason for the uncertainty was outdated information in the JFK database, the computer listing of metadata for most records in the collection. The creation of the database had been mandated by the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, the 1992 public law that established the JFK archival collection in the first place. The purpose of the database was to provide a detailed index to the contents of the collection, including basic information for every record, such as the title and date of the document, the agency that generated the record, number of pages, and so on.

    The main problem that led to the confusion was a failure to update the release status of each record. Why was this data field not better maintained? During the five years the database was being assembled, 1993 to 1998, there were frequent changes in the status of records. Agencies argued with the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), the limited-term panel created to oversee the assembly and release of the JFK records, about which documents counted as assassination-related records, and what standards should apply for withholding documents in full or redacting portions of their text. These status changes were not always recorded in the database. With more than three hundred thousand records in the database, that should not be surprising.

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