The Public Interest Declassification Board should Establish Credibility by Re-Reviewing the Kennedy Assassination Records, then Prioritize Declassification by “Following the Footnotes.”
The Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), an advisory committee established by Congress in 2000 “to promote the fullest possible public access to a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of significant U.S. national security decisions and activities,” is asking the public for advice on what to declassify.
My advice to the Board is that its first step should be to establish its credibility and the credibility of the National Declassification Center (NDC) by reviewing the more than 1,171 distinct documents related to the John F. Kennedy assassination held by the National Archives whose release to the public was postponed until 2017 by the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), “unless certified as justifiably closed by the President of the United States.”
Recent blog posts by the PIDB asked for suggestions for which documents 25 years and younger and 25 years and older should be declassified. While these lists include such interesting and worthy topics as “the Cuban Missile Crisis,” ”Vietnam P.O.W. and M.I.A.s,” “9/11 and Terrorism,” “Iraq 2001-2004,” and “Guantanamo/Detainee Issues” (but not Archer 83 :/ !), they make no mention of the Kennedy assassination documents which remain unavailable to the public. This omission is bizarre, considering these Kennedy assassination documents are likely the most frequently and prominently requested classified documents in NARA’s possession. At each of the Public Interest Declassification Board meetings I have attended, there have been continued and prominent calls and suggestions from researchers that the PIDB and NDC review these records. This includes a meeting in 2010 when Assistant Archivist Michael Kurtz “misspoke” and stated the records would be reviewed by the National Declassification Center by 2013. The PIDB knew of the intense public interest in these assassination documents –as of today, twelve of the thirteen comments on the PIDB’s call for prioritization categories are for the Kennedy assassination docs– but, has of now, omitted them from their Prioritization List.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) (which includes both the PIDB and NDC) has made some compelling arguments as to why it does not view a declassification review of these JFK assassination documents as a priority. On its website, NARA states that “it is a common misconception that the records relating to the assassination of President Kennedy are in some way sealed. In fact, the records are largely open and available to the research community here at the National Archives at College Park in the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Record Collection.” In a 2012 letter, NARA’s General Counsel explained that “less than one percent of the documents in the collection are ‘postponed in full’ until 2017 [he makes no mention of records 'postponed in part']” and that “because the postponed JFK assassination records have already been subject to a full and complete government-wide declassification review,” it would not be an efficient use of resources for the NDC to re-review them.
Second, and I think most importunately, successful review and release of these (mostly) CIA documents in NARA’s possession will establish that the US National Archives really is the people’s archive, rather than, in the words of one PIDB commenter, “The CIA Archives.” The reassurance is strongly needed upon the recent news that National Declassification Center is declassifying only 61 percent of the historic documents it reviews. (The NDC should be lauded for –contrary to earlier reports– coming close to meeting President Obama’s December 2009 instruction that it “permit public access to all declassified records from the [357 million page] backlog no later than December 31, 2013,” but this low release rate is extremely troubling. The National Security Archive expected a 90 percent release rate for these documents (some much) older than 25 years; indeed, Mandatory Declassification Review requests –including for current documents– are released in whole or in part 81.7 percent of the time!!)
Tangentially, while I was reviewing the Final Report of the Assassination Records Review Board as I was writing this article, I was struck by how accurate and well written its criticisms of the classification system were. Sadly the no action was taken to enact any of the recommendations, and system remains as broken as it was in 1998. I hope the same fate does not meet the Public Interest Declassification Boards’s recommendations. The National Declassification Center would be wise to follow the Assassination Records Review Board’s recommendation that “the cumbersome, time-consuming, and expensive problem of referrals for ‘third party equities’ (classified information of one agency appearing in a document of another) be streamlined by (A) requiring representatives of all agencies with interests in selected groups of records to meet for joint declassification sessions, or (B) devising uniform substitute language to deal with certain categories of recurring sensitive equities… [if an "agency did not process and return the [referred] record by a specified deadline, the Review Board would automatically vote to release the record.” The National Declassification Center had an opportunity to reform the flawed referral process; President Obama instructed the National Declassification Center that “further referrals of these records are not required except for those containing information that would clearly and demonstrably reveal [confidential human sources or key WMD design concepts];” but the NDC chose not to go this route and employed multiple equity review. The extremely high (39 percent) denial rate is the result of the NDC’s refusal to embrace this privilege.
Finally, and not trivially, a fresh review and release of these JFK assassination documents will bring the Public Interest Declassification Board much positive publicity and support. This momentum would ensure that the President’s Classification Reform Steering Committee does indeed have enough positive public support (including from the the JFK researchers, other historians, archivists, librarians, and –let’s not forget the Oliver Stone effect– media) to counter the anti-classification reform inertia of the federal government.
After the Board establishes its credibility as a declassifier of the public (not intelligence agency) interest –and allays the persistent and formidable calls for declassification review of the Kennedy assassination records– I suggest the PIDB and NDC take a “Follow the Footnotes” approach –rather than a topical approach– to prioritizing further declassification.
Before I give some examples of “Follow the Footnotes” declassification, I’d like to weigh in on the healthy and lively debate of the merits of prioritization verses non prioritization of documents by supporting prioritization. The very fact that these documents have made it to NARA, rather than the shredder, means that they already have been prioritized. It is estimated that less than one percent of all documents created by the federal government are identified as having “permanent value” and preserved. Eventually the hope is all classified documents identified by agencies as having permanent value will be declassified. But because the declassification process is such a slow, frustrating slog, it is much better to use resources to first declassify the documents that most researchers, historians, writers, and readers are interested in. Of course the other, non-prioritzed documents are subject to Freedom of Information Act and Mandatory Declassification Review requests, should a researcher wish to independently prioritize them. Archivists, I think, are loath to label certain documents as special. I’m a historian, so I’m not. Special documents, I believe, are the ones that are at the most enlightening, will be the most cited, and will impact the understanding of the most people.
I believe a “Follow the Footnotes” prioritization method may be the best way to get these “special documents declassified.” Really this method is quite simple: Prioritize declassifying, classified internal agency histories, reports, SF -135 record transfer forms, record retention schedules, and other documents –already created– that act, to an extent, as a map of the records they are created from.
This means that the PIDB and NDC should focus their priority on declassifying documents such as:
- Joint Chiefs of Staff Histories, Command Histories, Unit Histories, Wing Histories, Fleet Histories, etc. Most of these are produced annually (by fiscal year) and their quality does vary. Still the ones that I have seen offer comprehensive chronologies, that are often densely footnoted. Sometimes the documents they footnote are included as an appendix. As with all of the documents I am about to list, many of these (older than 25 years) histories have not been accessioned to the National Archives or Washington Records Center. If this is the case the PIDB should compel them to be transferred.
- Other documents from the Agency Historian Offices. I have heard murmurs that the Joint History Office, and the Historical Office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense are a mess, with histories unindexed and haphazardly stored on hard drives–perhaps so the public could not easily FOIA them. The Navy’s Inspector General determined portions of its history program were “at risk.” If this is the case, the PIDB and NARA should intervene, catalog the histories and declassify the ones 25 years or older. In addition to the documents listed above these offices contain histories such as POINTER papers which record and diagram tactical maneuvers. Their declassification would also serve as a road map for further research.
- Other classified internal histories including those in the Classified editions of the CIA’s Studies in Intelligence and Clandestine Service Histories Project.
- The National Archive should following the lead of the Department of Defense and post all created SF-135 forms online. These forms include titles and descriptions documents as they are transferred from agencies to NARA, and are an invaluable resource to researchers requesting declassification review. Currently researchers must travel to the Washington Records Center in Suitland, MD to view the majority of these forms.
- Other Records schedule and ascension documents which will help researchers target documents by title or description
- Inspectors General reports which are often thoroughly footnoted.
- Indexes of reports produced by agencies, such as the CIA’s Monthly Index of Photographic Exploitation Products.
- Hundred of of other types of documents which I am missing (list ‘em in the comments!) that can serve as “Poor Person’s Finding Aids” in this era of austerity.
- Beyond these “Footnoted dox” I generally recommend prioritization based upon the seniority of the documents’ creators and receivers. That is: all documents accessioned by secretaries and generals first, then documents accessioned by assistant secretary and colonels, and so on.
I suspect that the PIDB may have preferred that I submit the above list without mention of the delayed JFK Assassination documents. But the silence was deafening. If those are the most requested documents –which I believe they are– then resources should be used to review them; the benefits will be worth the endeavor. After establishing credibility, I recommend “Following the Footnotes” to multiply the impact of the PIDB’s and NDC’s declassifications.
 The National Archives otherwise stunning 2012 exhibit on the Cuban Missile Crisis failed to mention that the Soviet Union possessed armed Luna Tactical Nuclear weapons on the island that would have likely been launched at Guantanamo bay had the US invaded. Was this crucial historic omission because the existence of the Luna’s was not officially declassified?
 John R. Tunheim, who chaired the Assassination Records Review Board, disagrees that it would be inefficient for the NDC to review them. In November 2013, he told the Boston Globe that the CIA obfuscation about documents related to one of its officers, George Joannides, who monitored Oswald when he was living in New Orleans and was also tied to Cuban exile groups as well as groups sympathetic to Fidel Castro, “really was an example of treachery…If the CIA fooled us on that, they may have fooled us on other things.” He called on the CIA to release all material it has on Joannides.