4 ways to fix the JFK files mess

What follows is a letter to David Ferriero, the National Archivist, from the Mary Ferrell Foundation, sponsor of the largest online collection of JFK assassination records.

The Foundation makes four recommendations for the improving the release of the last of the U.S. government’s JFK assassination files, now scheduled for April 26, per written orders of President Trump.

March 11, 2018

Rex Bradford,

President, Mary Ferrell Foundation

Mr. David Ferriero

Archivist of the United States

Dear Mr. Ferriero,

The Mary Ferrell Foundation (MFF) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization engaged in an ongoing effort to bring accessible and interactive history to a new generation of critical thinkers. As host to the Internet’s largest collection of JFK assassination records, accessed by thousands of persons daily, MFF seeks fulfillment of the letter and the spirit of the JFK Assassination Records of 1992 mandating disclosure of all government records on the events of November 1963.

The Foundation wants to express concern about the ongoing declassification process, offer our expertise in support of improving it, and recommend four actions for you and your staff.

We have conducted an analysis of the state of the JFK records releases based on these four sources:

  • 2016 Listing – A 2016 Archives-produced listing of 3,571 documents that at that time were withheld in full (FOIA NARA-NGC-2016-000132).
  • Releases – Six sets of document releases in 2017 on 7/24, 10/26, 11/03, 11/09, 11/17, and 12/15.
  • 2018 Listing – A 2018 Archives-produced listing of 798 withheld and 21092 redacted documents still to be released (FOIA NARA-NGC-2018-000072).
  • JFK Database – The official Archives database of metadata for JFK records.

While over 35,000 documents have been released in 2017 before and since the statutory deadline of October 26, 2017, a great deal of material remains withheld or redacted. The 2018 listing indicates that 21,890 documents, comprising over 368,000 pages, are still withheld in full or in part. Based on our analysis, we believe the true number is even higher, as will be discussed in this letter.

The JFK Records Act mandates disclosure of virtually all of this material. The view of Judge John Tunheim is that this material can and should be released in full; we concur and share his disappointment that it did not happen by the statutory deadline. President Trump has expressed the view that only the names of living informants should be withheld from released JFK files after April 28, 2018. Our view is that the names of living informants should be disclosed as well, and in any case current withholding is far beyond that limited scope.

Recommended Action #1: Release all JFK files in their entirety.

To that end, we are concerned that the release of partially redacted JFK material has not been accompanied by explanations for continued withholding, as required by Section 4 (3)(e) of the JFK Records Act.

This law requires the ARRB to “publish in the Federal Register a notice that summarizes the postponements approved by the Review Board or initiated by the President, the House of Representatives, or the Senate, including a description of the subject, originating agency, length or other physical description, and each ground for postponement that is relied upon.”

Section 5 (g) (2) (D) (i) and (ii) requires any postponement to be justified by “identifiable harm to the military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement, or conduct of foreign relations”; and (ii) “the identifiable harm is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”

While the ARRB no longer exists, this provision is still in force. The failure to provide explanation for the current postponements constitutes non-compliance with the Act.

Recommended Action #2: We believe it is your duty, under the law, to require all agencies to provide and publish in the Federal Register explanations for each and every postponed document (or portion of a document) before you certify that all JFK records have been released.

The JFK Records Act also states “no portion of any assassination record shall be withheld from public disclosure solely on grounds of non-relevance,” unless the ARRB decides otherwise. Since the ARRB no longer exists, non-relevance cannot be grounds for continued postponement.

The MFF is concerned about anomalies found in our analysis of the 2016 and 2018 listings, as compared with the 2017 listings and the JFK Database. Of several issues and anomalies discovered, two data points in particular require your attention:

  • MFF has identified 375 JFK records that seem to have fallen through the cracks. These are records that were listed in the 2016 listing but not released, and yet not present in the 2018 listing. Was this an error in the 2018 listing, or are these documents no longer scheduled for release?

Recommended Action #3: MFF recommends full disclosure of any and all JFK documents identified as JFK records by the ARRB, in particular those 375 which appeared in the 2016 listing but are no longer referenced.

  • We have identified 795 documents that have been released but do not appear at all in the official online NARA database of JFK records. For example, the National Security Agency released 244 JFK records in 2017 that are not listed in the database. Our question: are there other non-disclosed JFK documents from NSA or other agencies that are not in the 2018 listing or scheduled for release? The JFK Records Act (section 4) requires that “The Archivist shall prepare and publish a subject guidebook and index to the collection”; no complete index currently exists.

Recommended Action #4: MFF recommends that the database be updated with the latest information from all government agencies to ensure accountability and public confidence in the disclosure process.

We would be happy to supply further details, including listings of which record numbers are being referenced in the counts above.

In closing, we thank your and the Archives staff, led by Martha Murphy Wagner, for your diligence in making the JFK Records Collection available to the public. As the most popular and studied body of records in the Archives, the JFK collection deserves your closest attention.


Rex Bradford

President, Mary Ferrell Foundation

Debra Conway

Vice-President, Mary Ferrell Foundation

Jefferson Morley

Board Member, Mary Ferrell Foundation

William Simpich

Board Member, Mary Ferrell Foundation

Larry Hancock

Board Member, Mary Ferrell Foundation

Marie Fonzi

Board Member, Mary Ferrell Foundation



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