Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park.
With the recent releases of records relating to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy it might be useful for readers of Federal Bureau Investigation (FBI) records that form part of the released records, to better understand actually what they are reading. Thus this blog posting.
The National Archives holds a substantial quantity of FBI records relating to the Kennedy assassination. In the future it is likely additional FBI records relating to the assassination will be released. The FBI case files contain a variety of documentation, including FBI agent reports; teletype-messages; prosecutive summaries; accounts of interviews and physical surveillance; letters; memorandums; lab reports; informant reports; photographs; newspaper clippings and other public record material; and logs, transcripts, and summaries of electronic surveillance. They are a rich source for researchers. According to Judge Harold H. Greene, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, in a lawsuit regarding FBI records, the records of the FBI “perhaps more than those of any other agency, constitute a significant repository of the record of the recent history of this nation, and they represent the work produce of an organization that has touched the lives of countless Americans.” But, in using those records, challenges will be faced by researchers, including understanding FBI abbreviations and euphemisms.
On the surface the contents of the FBI files appear straightforward. Actually they are not so simple to understand. “Learning to find one’s way through FBI files,” according to one researcher, “is no easy chore.” A Department of Justice senior attorney in the mid-1970s investigating illegal break-ins reported that his staff had been on the case for more than a year and “they still didn’t know how to read an FBI file.” Part of the problem is the language used in the files. Like any agency, the FBI has its own terminology and euphemisms that researchers will have to learn in order to understand what they are reading. There are scores of abbreviations throughout the files that researchers will have to decipher if the information in the file is to make sense. There are real simple ones, like OO meaning Office of Origin (the FBI office responsible for an investigation) and AO meaning Auxiliary Office (FBI office(s) assisting in the investigation). Then there are the abbreviations for FBI Field Office supervisors: SAC and ASAC, Special Agent in Charge and Assistant Special Agent in Charge. ELSUR means electronic surveillance, both telephone surveillance (wiretap or technical surveillance) and microphone surveillance (bug or electronic listening device).
Often individuals in FBI records are identified as FNU, LNU, or FNU LNU. When I began looking at records at FBI headquarters back in the 1980s I thought it strange that there were so many criminals named FNU LNU. I eventually asked Bureau personnel to explain it to me. I bet they really thought I was naïve. They smiled, chuckled and told me that those abbreviations stood for First Name Unknown and Last Name Unknown!!
My favorite abbreviation is UACB (Unless Advised to the Contrary by the Bureau). This is usually used in conjunction with an FBI Field Office notifying FBI Headquarters (i.e., the Bureau) that it planned to do something unless there was an objection. And, of course, there is “OK H,” on tens of thousands of documents indicating that Director J. Edgar Hoover approved what was being recommended to him. Abbreviations are listed and discussed in Ann Mari Buitrago and Leon Andrew Immerman, Are You Now or Have You Even Been in the FBI Files: How to Secure and Interpret Your FBI Files (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1981).
Then there are the euphemisms. Former Attorney General Nicholas Katenbach told Congress in 1975 that “the Bureau constantly resorted to terms of art, or euphemisms, without bothering to inform the Attorney General that they were terms of art. I don’t think it is excessively naive to assume that ‘a highly reliable informant’ is precisely that, and not a microphone surveillance.” For example, when reporting of break-ins, agents sometimes used such terms as “special techniques” or “sensitive investigative techniques.” When included in the files, information from break-ins was reported often as having come from an “anonymous source,” a “highly confidential source,” a “highly confidential informant,” or a “confidential informant.” The term “confidential informant” also was used to disguise the source of illegally obtained information. According to former special agent G. Gordon Liddy, if a field office submitted a plan for headquarters approval and it contained the words “‘security guaranteed,’ it meant that we did it last night and got away clean—approve it so we can send you the results officially.” Often in a report one will see “T-1, a usually reliable informant whose identity cannot be disclosed” or “T-2, a reliable informant who is not available for re-interview.” These may relate to human informants, but occasionally they denote electronic eavesdropping.
So the word to the wise, before undertaking research in the FBI records, one should become familiar with the literature regarding the records and once research has begun to understand that certain words and terms may have some special meaning.
This is an update to a post written on October 10, 2012.
Click here to read more FBI related posts from the Text Message!
 Anthony Marro, “FBI Break-in Policy,”in Athan G. Theoharis, ed., Beyond the Hiss Case: The FBI, Congress, and the Cold War (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982), p. 84.