The virtual public meeting hosted on May 18 by the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) received the following questions regarding delays in public access to certain records that are part of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). We have listed those questions and comments below, followed by the response of the PIDB.
1.) Can the President be asked to justify, record by record his reason for withholding release of records Congress in 1992 said should be released absent some compelling reason, that Congress did not say can be kept secret ???
2.) I was one of the signatories to the letter you received from Mark Zaid requesting that the status of the JFK Records Act be placed on the May 18 agenda. Thank you for considering the following question:
On April 26, 2018, President Trump issued an executive memorandum stating that all executive agencies had complied with his prior order authorizing postponement (issued on October 26, 2017). That prior order required the agencies to review all information in postponed records and inform the Archivist of the specific reason(s) for continued postponement past April 26, 2018. As of April 26, 2018, did the Archivist have record-by-record written certifications (from the agencies) for continued postponement past April 26, 2018? If so, did the Archivist based on those certifications in fact recommend an additional 3-year period of review (to expire April 26, 2021, for additional certifications to the Archivist)? I would also ask for an explanation on what information the Archivist has received (from originating agencies) as of April 26, 2021.
Thank you in advance for your consideration.
3.) I was one of the signatories to the letter you received from Mark Zaid requesting that the status of the JFK Records Act be placed on the agenda for your May 18th public meeting. I would appreciate it if you would address the following questions:
- Despite numerous requests, the Congressional committees with continuing jurisdiction over the JFK Act have not held a hearing to discuss the recommendations in the 1998 AARB Final Report, particularly recommendation 7. I ask that PIDB consider making a recommendation to Congress that it exercise its oversight authority and specifically take testimony on recommendation 7.
- I request PIDB review the process that lead to President Trump’s April 26, 2018 certification to further postpone disclosure of assassination records to October 26, 2021 used in 2018.
- The PIDB should consider recommending to the President that NARA should be delegated the authority to declassify all historical records over 50 years.
- The PIDB should consider recommending to the President that a process be established that allows public to nominate classified documents or topical areas for direct, expedited declassification review by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel.
- The PIDB should consider recommending to the President that the National Declassification Center be given the authority to declassify the archival records without requiring prior review by the agencies that originated the records
- The PIDB should recommend Congress instruct the Congressional Research Service to release ALL reports older than ten years.
- The PIDB should recommend Congress release any records of the Church Committee and House Select Committee on Assassination not yet disclosed.
4.) If the Archivist of the United States participates in the meeting, I have the following questions:
- The Online Collection has been down for some time for “maintenance.” What is the nature of the problem and when do you think it will become available
- The excel spreadsheet that NARA has made available while the online collection is unavailable only contains 52% of the records in the collection and has not been updated since 2008. When will this be updated?
- If an agency requests another postponement for its records, do you believe you have the authority (like the ARRB did) to overrule the request based on the JFK Act section 6 criteria?
- Section 6 of the JFK Act requires “clear and convincing evidence” on a record-by-record bases that the alleged harms posed by the disclosure outweigh the public interest in disclosure. Where can we find those record-by-record determinations?
- The postponed assassination records are over 50 years old. Doesn’t NARA have the authority and expertise to declassify these records regardless if the agencies object.
5.) I would like to respectfully have the following question read to the Board and addressed at Tuesday’s meeting:
With the upcoming statutory/presidential deadline of October 26, 2021, for the release of documents designated as Assassination Records by the Assassination Records Review Board, what actions can the PIDB take to fulfill its mission and ensure maximum transparency through declassification occurs?
6.) During your May 18th meeting, it was stated that you had “received 50 questions”. This statement came after a question regarding the Kennedy records.
- Does this number reflect questions on all topics (I presume it does), or did this number reflect questions specifically regarding President Kennedy?
Online, I would prefer that the PIDB not condense multiple questions on the same subject into one overarching question, but rather be transparent and list all questions individually and simply indicate that one response answers multiple questions. However, during meetings, I do understand the need to condense questions to some degree as a matter of saving time.
- Can you list the total number of questions you received and break-down the numbers by category — while we continue to wait for answers (e.g. 20 questions on 9/11, 25 questions on JFK, 5 questions on technology modernization, etc.)? To date, you have answered 15 questions — eight on May 25th, and seven on May 28th. I assume you will eventually answer all.
- Will you continue to release such a small number of answers bit-by-bit, or will you try to answer in-bulk at some future date in order to finalize this process? It was stated that you will meet with the archivist to learn more about the Kennedy records before October 26 — this should be an obvious action item considering the timeframe.
- Do you have a goal / date in which you will have that meeting with the archivist considering the due date in October is only five months away?
One final comment as opposed to a question.
- Ms. Starzak had much to say during the meeting, however, I thought her stammering condensed response regarding the Kennedy records was vague, left to others to answer, and highly inappropriate when she stated, “…let’s move to the next question.” This does not exhibit openness or transparency, nor does it reassure that there will be openness and transparency in the future. I would suggest someone speak to her about this.
I look forward to your answers.
Here is the combined response of the PIDB:
In response to these comments and questions, the PIDB reiterates its call posted again here on May 5, 2021, for the National Archives to exercise its authority in the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 (the Act) to challenge all requests that do not strictly meet the Congress’ intent to release as much information as possible and only postpone the most sensitive records that meet the standards in section 5(g)(2) of the Act.
The members of the PIDB take its responsibility to promote a “thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of significant United States national security decisions and significant United States national security activities in order to…respond to the interest of…Congress…and respond to the interest of the public” seriously. As the National Archives begins its analyses of the agency requests, the PIDB will continue pressing for maximum transparency, including the processes agencies used to make record-by-record requests. The PIDB will also advocate for additional declassification as it believes the public interest in most of these records outweighs continued postponement. In the coming months leading up to the September 26 deadline and the President’s October 26 certification deadline, the PIDB will remain engaged with the National Archives and will advocate for the public release of these records, including addressing questions about accessing the collection on the web.
Click here to view the PIDB Virtual Public Meeting of May 18, 2021 in its entirety on the NARA YouTube Channel.
The PIDB will continue to post and respond to questions and comments received by email before and during the virtual meeting and will conclude with a post that summarizes the PIDB’s thoughts on the content of the meeting and possible next steps.