FOIA Chats: What happened with the JFK Files?

FOIA Chats: What happened with the JFK Files?

Transparency community gathered to discuss what had happened, what people had found, and what next April’s batch of records might bring

Written by
Edited by JPat Brown

Despite Donald J. Trump’s statement that “JFK Files are released, long ahead of schedule,” last week’s release was not what many expected.

A very quick and simple version of a timeline leading up to this “release” could be listed as the following:

  1. The 1992 Act required the release (when and where appropriate) to be done before October 26th 2017
  2. Presidential approval of release given
  3. Day-of release related news was slow to be shared
  4. New date for release was scheduled for April 2018
  5. Night time data dump of limited files was shared but not widely accessible

It was within this context that our FOIA Friday Chat was held.

Our first question was, and had to be, “Has anyone gained access to the released files?” By 2pm the day after, most had only seen were screenshots from news organizations, and there wasn’t an online-browsable archive at the time. This was not quite the level of transparency researchers were hoping for.

This lead the discussion to what methods have proven to be useful for past JKF data dumps. Our veteran researchers shared that is a great resource for an organized index to a data dump. Some researchers will also migrate the released data to Document Cloud.

Because there was still a great deal of confusion about this set back, as a group, we wanted to list the possible factors that were limiting the access and transparency once promised in the 1992 Act. These were the top three possible factors:

  • Non-translatable formats leading to illegible documents
  • Lack of curated information possibly due to NARA staffing, funding, and/or training
  • Redactions and FBI and CIA classification guidelines protocol confusion - CIA closed the historical collections division in 2013

Looking forward to the April 2018 limited release of files, FOIA researchers might be able to leverage any of these changes to help estimate the quality and timeliness of this next release:

  • Any change in NARA staffing
  • Any lawsuits that result from the mishandling of this “final” release
  • Any new acts or bills proposed/passed that directly or indirectly address the betterment of FOIA requests

Thanks to our FOIA Slack community for participating in this discussion and supporting each other in the ongoing struggle between “released” data and “accessible” data.

See you next FOIA Friday!

Image via Wikimedia Commons and licensed under Creative Commons BY 2.0.