JFK Assassination Records Processing Project - 2021 Update
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has created a dedicated team to process previously withheld John F. Kennedy assassination-related records to comply with President Joe Biden’s Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies on the Temporary Certification Regarding Disclosure of Information in Certain Records Related to the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, requiring disclosure of releasable records by December 15, 2021.
While NARA is publishing an additional 1,491 documents in full on December 15, 2021, there are approximately 515 documents that remain withheld pursuant to sections 10 and 11 of the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act (JFK Act) and are not subject to the 25-year disclosure requirements and the President’s certification to withhold certain records, established under section 5 of the JFK Act.
Over the next year, NARA and the agencies proposing continued postponement of more than 14,000 previously withheld documents will be conducting an intensive review of each remaining redaction to ensure that the United States Government maximizes transparency. Any information still withheld from public disclosure that agencies do not propose for continued postponement beyond December 15, 2022, shall be released to the public on that date.
When Congress passed the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act (the JFK Act) in 1992, agencies throughout the federal government transferred assassination-related records to the National Archives, which established the JFK Assassination Records Collection (the Collection). The Collection consists of approximately 5 million pages of records. Approximately 94% of the records in the Collection are open in full. An additional 5.9% are released in part with sensitive portions removed. Approximately 0.1% of documents identified as assassination-related remain withheld in full. All documents withheld either in part or in full were authorized for withholding by the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), an independent temporary agency that existed from 1994 to 1998.
According to the JFK Act, all records previously withheld either in part or in full should have been released on October 26, 2017, unless authorized for continued postponement by the President of the United States. The 2017 date derives directly from the law that states:
Each assassination record shall be publicly disclosed in full, and available in the Collection no later than the date that is 25 years after the date of the enactment of this Act, unless the President certifies, as required by this Act, that –
(i) continued postponement is made necessary by an identifiable harm to 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.
The JFK Act was signed by President George H. W. Bush on October 26, 1992; thus the release date was October 26, 2017.
On April 26, 2018, President Donald Trump certified the continued postponement of information proposed by the agencies, withholding those records from full public disclosure until no later than October 26, 2021.
On October 22, 2021, President Biden issued a Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies on the Temporary Certification Regarding Disclosure of Information in Certain Records Related to the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, requiring the disclosure of releasable records by December 15, 2021, and requiring re-review by December 15, 2022, of documents where agencies request continued postponement.
The National Archives has posted records online to comply with these requirements.
For more information about the ARRB and the JFK Act, you can read the Final Report of the Assassination Records Review Board. A copy of the JFK Act is in appendix C of the report.
The JFK 2021 Processing Team
The National Archives formed a dedicated team of four archivists to process withheld JFK assassination-related records in preparation for the 2021 release of additional materials, with significant support from additional staff across the the agency.
The team is conducting archival processing on the documents to prepare the records for review and eventual release. Agencies have been notified that previously withheld documents will be released in 2022 absent a successful appeal to the President. The team is working with NARA’s Office of Innovation to determine the best way to present the documents through Archives.gov during the additional release in 2022.
Once the digital release is completed, physical documents will be reconciled with the five million pages of the paper Collection.
Questions about the Collection and the 2021 release
What happened after the October 26, 2021, deadline?
On October 22, 2021, President Biden issued a memorandum granting a temporary certification to authorize the withholdings requested by the agencies. In the memorandum, the President required that the agencies re-review the withheld documents over the next year. Any agency that sought to request further postponements was instructed to submit their findings to the Archivist of the United States by November 30, 2021, and then to the President on December 15, 2021. NARA is publishing the newly released documents on December 15, based on the decision of the President.
How do I know if a document released in December has been previously released?
The data table for the 2021 release includes a column that describes the previous status of the document.
What has not yet been posted?
NARA did not post the following:
- 515 documents that are continuing to be withheld in full under sections 10 and 11 of the JFK Act.
- Unlike the Legislative and Executive Branch records discussed in sections 5 and 6 of the JFK Act, section 10 addresses records withheld under court seal that would require a federal court order to release. The records still withheld under section 10 are outside of the current public disclosure rules as outlined in section 5.
- In section 11, the JFK Act states that the JFK Act does not take precedence over “section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code” or “deeds governing access to or transfer or release of gifts and donations of records to the United States Government.” Records defined by section 11 are also outside of the current public disclosure rules outlined in section 5.
- As part of NARA’s processing, we conducted a survey of documents listed as containing withholdings under both of these sections, and were able to determine that the metadata identifying documents with section 10 and 11 information was correctly applied. Since 2017, we also identified several items among our holdings subject to deed of gift restrictions where a release was possible and undertaken. We will continue to assess the pertinent deed of gift restrictions and will release documents in the future.
- Documents included in the Oswald 201 microfilm
- The Oswald 201 microfilm is the voluminous CIA "201" file (also known as a "personality" file) on Lee Henry [sic] Oswald. The file was opened in December 1960 and contains a small set of pre-assassination records. After the assassination, this file became a repository for much of the CIA's investigative work. The National Archives did not process the Oswald 201 microfilm for release or post it online, since an ARRB evaluation determined that the microfilm documents are a duplicate of the original paper Oswald 201 file that was processed and released. NARA conducted our own evaluation, which was completed on February 5, 2018, and agreed with the ARRB’s original assessment.
- Documents verified to have been released prior to 2016.
- The open in full “document” 180-10125-10179, which is an index of the numbered files of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). Since every document in the numbered files has otherwise been indexed in the JFK Database, we have not yet prioritized scanning these 30,000 index cards. However, they are now open in full and available upon request in the research room at the National Archives at College Park and will be digitized and made available online in the future.
- Document 180-10142-10194, which is a used typewriter ribbon.
- Ford Library audio files that the ARRB agreed could not be recovered. The transcripts of the audio files are open and available in the Collection. The ARRB’s decision was captured on page 2 of the Ford Library’s “Final Declaration,” dated August 12, 1998 (which is open and available in the ARRB files). The following Record Identification Form (RIF) numbers describe the audio files.
- 33 unresolved RIF numbers (see below)
What is the current status of the 86 documents referred to in the December 15, 2017, press release?
The press release referred to 86 RIF numbers where additional research was required by the National Archives and the other agencies to resolve. After additional processing, NARA was able to reduce the number of RIF numbers still outstanding to 79 in 2018. As of 2021, NARA has resolved 46 additional documents, and only 33 RIFs now remain unresolved. 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 metadata in the 1990s. NARA will continue to try to resolve these issues as archival processing continues on the Collection.
A list of the 79 RIF numbers from 2018 as well as the associated metadata is available here. Each item has a corresponding entry in the “Current Status” column, which describes whether the document has been resolved or remains unresolved as of 2021. The 46 resolved documents are linked to their scanned image.
As of December 2021, how many documents are now withheld in full and how many are redacted?
Pursuant to sections 10 and 11 of the JFK Act, 515 documents remain withheld in full and are not subject to the 25-year disclosure requirements or the President’s certification to withhold certain records, established under section 5 of the JFK Act.
Section 10 authorized the ARRB to petition courts to request the Attorney General to release assassination related information held under seal of a court or “under the injunction of secrecy of a grand jury.” The ARRB “only identified one instance where it believed that important assassination records remained under seal of court and it requested and obtained the assistance of the Department of Justice in lifting the seal” on 13 transcripts of electronic surveillance (described in Chapter Five, p.75, and Chapter Six, p.104 of its final report, which is available on NARA’s website, at https://www.archives.gov/research/jfk/review-board/report). Five documents remain withheld in full under this section.
Section 11 completely excluded from the JFK Act tax return information protected under section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code, as well as “deeds governing access to or transfer or release of gifts and donations of records to the United States Government.” Eleven documents are governed by donor restrictions, and the remaining 499 withheld in full documents concern tax-related information of the IRS or the Social Security Administration. The ARRB discusses these documents at Chapter Five, pp.74-75, and Chapter Eight, pp. 154-55 and 159-60 of its Final Report.
A list of the items withheld in full as of 2021 is available here.
Redactions still appear in 14,236 documents, although most of these documents now contain fewer redactions than versions released prior to October 26, 2017.
On December 15, 2021, NARA released an additional 1,491 documents in full totaling 19,193 pages.
The page where the new files can be found has a "Formerly Withheld" column with these values found in it: "Redact", "Release", "Redacted Version Only", "Missing". Is there a place where precise definitions of these 4 values can be found?
“Redact” means that prior to 2021 the item was released in part.
“Release” may mean multiple conditions:
In most instances, there was a release determination from a prior year, but the fully released document had not yet been posted online.
In a few instances, there was a redact determination from a prior year, but the document that was posted online contained no redactions, and NARA is confirming that the document was released in full.
“Redacted Version Only” means that prior to 2021 the item was released in part, and as of 2021 NARA has identified that release as the best available copy. This is usually because the original document was itself redacted.
“Missing” means that prior to 2021, the document was not precisely identified within the JFK Collection.
What will happen with the Collection between December 15, 2021, and December 15, 2022?
Over the next year, agencies proposing continued postponement and NARA shall conduct an intensive review of each remaining redaction to ensure that the United States Government maximizes transparency, disclosing all information in records concerning the assassination, except when the strongest possible reasons counsel otherwise. This review shall include documents within the assassination records collection designated as “not believed relevant” by the Assassination Records Review Board established under the JFK Act, but nonetheless placed within the collection by the ARRB.
Any information that an agency proposes for continued postponement beyond December 15, 2022, shall be limited to the absolute minimum under the statutory standard. An agency shall not propose to continue redacting information unless the redaction is necessary to protect against an identifiable harm to the military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement, or the conduct of foreign relations that is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure. In applying this statutory standard, an agency shall:
(i) Accord substantial weight to the public interest in transparency and full disclosure of any record that falls within the scope of the JFK Act; and
(ii) Give due consideration that some degree of harm is not grounds for continued postponement unless the degree of harm is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest.
For any record containing information that an agency proposes for continued postponement beyond December 15, 2022, the agency shall provide, no later than December 15, 2021:
(i) an unclassified letter, to be signed by the head of the agency, providing a written description of the types of information for which the agency is proposing continued postponement and reasons for which the agency is proposing continued postponement of such information;
(ii) an unclassified index identifying for each such record the reasons for which the agency is proposing continued postponement of information in such record; and
(iii) a specific proposed date identifying for each such record when the agency reasonably anticipates that continued postponement of information in such record no longer would be necessary or, if that is not possible, a specific proposed date for each such record identifying when the agency would propose to next review again after December 15, 2022, whether the information proposed for continued postponement in such record still satisfies the statutory standard for postponement.
NARA shall review each proposed redaction no later than September 1, 2022, in consultation with:
(i) The Department of Defense, if the agency proposing the redaction asserts an anticipated harm to the military defense;
(ii) The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, if the agency proposing the redaction asserts an anticipated harm to intelligence operations;
(iii) The Department of Justice, if the agency proposing the redaction asserts an anticipated harm to law enforcement; and
(iv) The Department of State, if the agency proposing the redaction asserts an anticipated harm to the conduct of foreign relations.
The relevant consulting agency, as designated pursuant to subsection (d) of this section, shall provide its assessment to NARA as to whether the information proposed for continued postponement satisfies the statutory standard for such postponement. In reviewing a proposed redaction, NARA or the relevant consulting agency—as designated pursuant to subsection (d) of this section—should consult with the agency that proposed the redaction.
If NARA does not agree that a proposed redaction meets the statutory standard for continued postponement, it shall inform the agency that proposed the redaction. After consultation with NARA, the agency that proposed the redaction may, no later than October 1, 2022:
(i) withdraw the proposed redaction; or
(ii) refer the decision on continued postponement to the president through the Counsel to the president, accompanied by an explanation of why continued postponement remains necessary to protect against an identifiable harm to the military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement, or the conduct of foreign relations that is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure.
If NARA agrees that a proposed redaction meets the asserted statutory standard for continued postponement, the Archivist shall recommend to the president, no later than October 1, 2022, that continued postponement from public disclosure of the information is warranted after December 15, 2022.
At the conclusion of the one-year review, any information still withheld from public disclosure that agencies do not propose for continued postponement beyond December 15, 2022, shall be released to the public on that date.
(i) At the conclusion of the one-year review, each unclassified letter described in subsection (c)(i) of this section and each unclassified index described in subsection (c)(ii) of this section shall be disclosed to the public on December 15, 2022, with any updates made to account for any information initially proposed for continued postponement that is not postponed from public disclosure beyond December 15, 2022.
What will happen to records publicly disclosed prior to 2016?
The Archivist shall issue a plan, no later than December 15, 2021, to digitize and make available online NARA’s entire collection of records concerning President Kennedy’s assassination.
The Archivist shall provide additional context online about the records that have been withheld in full under sections 10 and 11 of the JFK Act—primarily documents containing tax-related information of the Internal Revenue Service or the Social Security Administration—that are not subject to the Presidential certification requirement under section 5 of the JFK Act. NARA will work with the Internal Revenue Service to determine what additional context is appropriate within the confines of 26 U.S.C. 6103 and 6105.