Why the FBI’s actions concerning Ron Tammen’s fingerprint file are weirder and more outrageous than we thought
It’s (almost) April 19th again, which means that 68 years have come and gone since Ronald Tammen went missing from Miami University, in Oxford, OH. In the four years in which this blogsite has been in existence, and that’s counting that one year we were on a hiatus, we’ve experienced a lot of firsts together, wouldn’t you say?
Remember when we all found out about Ron dropping his psychology course weeks before his disappearance even though that was the textbook laying open on his desk? That was a first! Or when we learned about the woman from Hamilton or about Ron’s walk home from Sunday night song practice? Two more firsts! Or that Dick Titus was the guy who put the fish in Ron’s bed and that Commander Robert Jay Williams was the project manager of ARTICHOKE in March 1952? That adds up to five firsts! And of course there are the two memos that I believe link Ron’s psychology professor, St. Clair Switzer, to the CIA’s drugs and hypnosis studies.
In that same vein, my devoted subscribers, occasional drop-ins, and public at large, I’d like to present our topic du jour, which is also a first. It has to do with the “Additional Record Sheets” that the FBI’s Identification Division used to keep in fingerprint jackets with the fingerprint cards when they were still using their manual system. As we’ve established here (in another first!), Ron Tammen’s fingerprints were on file at the FBI from 1941 through 2002, but then the FBI purged them, though no one seems to know (or want to admit) why. This past summer, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for Ron’s Additional Record Sheets thinking they might help answer that very question.
At this point in the blog post, I’d like to ask you to do something. Try Googling the term “Additional Record Sheets” plus “FBI” plus “fingerprint” all on the same search bar and see what happens. With the FBI using their manual system for 75 years (from 1924 to 1999), one might think that hundreds of archival documents on their website along with other related websites would turn up. I’d expect to see sample Additional Record Sheets, training booklets, and other records from the agency’s bureaucratic past, some signed by J. Edgar himself. But that’s not what happens. At the time of this writing, eight results turn up, though that number should soon skyrocket to nine with the addition of this blog post. Currently occupying the top and second-place positions is content written by yours truly. In third place is a document posted by someone at the National Archives—and let me just add a great big THANK YOU! to whomever posted that gem, as you’ll soon understand why. What I’m trying to say is, other than you, me, and the former staffers of the FBI’s Identification Division, I don’t think very many people know about Additional Record Sheets. What’s more, I don’t think I’m overstating things when I say that this may be the first time in the history of the universe that anyone has submitted a FOIA request (and an appeal, and now the next thing, which I’ll be getting to shortly) on Additional Record Sheets, let alone written an entire blog post on them. We’re trailblazers, y’all!
Before I get to the next steps, I wish to address a question with you: namely, how is it that you and I have even come to know about the elusive and unironically named Additional Record Sheets when the rest of the world seemingly does not? If you thought that one of my sources from the Identification Division (later renamed Criminal Justice Information Services, or CJIS) was casually tossing around the term as I was questioning them about their fingerprint protocol, you would be mistaken. Not one person mentioned Additional Record Sheets or their abbreviated term, ARS, even once. And honestly, where would the challenge have been if they had?
So how did I get here, where I’m so sure about the existence of Ronald Tammen’s Additional Record Sheets that I’m willing to continue traveling down this lonesome FOIA road, much to the annoyance of the FBI, in hopes of getting my hands on them? Adding two and two probably wouldn’t have cut it. Rather, this particular discovery required the use of an equation in which statements made by person 1 and person 2 were juxtaposed with an observation provided by person 3, and, after a translation to the standard vernacular supplied by a 2008 Fax, the sum of those key terms were then subdivided and reapportioned by way of the aforementioned 2004 National Archives document, made available courtesy of an online search algorithm commonly known as Google. Who said we’d never use new math in our adult lives?
Here’s an excerpt from the conversation I had with the two people who got the ball rolling:
Me: Do you think it’s still odd that they would have purged his prints?
Person #1 (speaking to Person #2): Would they have put things on microfiche?
A little later in the conversation:
Person #2: When they purged the files, they used to put them on microfiche. There should be a record somewhere if those were microfiched.
Me: But would they have told Butler County that they don’t have them even if they had them on microfiche? [I was referring to the year 2008, when the Butler County cold case detective, Frank Smith, had requested a “hand search” for Ron’s fingerprints from CJIS in Clarksburg, WV, and was told they weren’t anywhere to be found.]
Person #1: You see, that doesn’t add up to me.
Person #2: There should be a way for them to identify that they have the prints on microfiche. None of that sounds normal to me.
Me: Which aspect doesn’t sound normal?
Person #2: The fact that they said: we just threw it away. If it went through a process, there should have been a record of the process. Just like these documents here, saying, “removed from FBI file…” So there’s a reason why that happened. I don’t know what that reason would be.
What I learned during this exchange was that A) Under the manual system, the FBI didn’t just destroy fingerprints and be done with them. They required records to be made describing the process by which the fingerprints were destroyed, including the reason for their destruction. Also, B) purged fingerprints weren’t actually purged purged. They were put onto microfiche—a purged print purgatory, of sorts, where they would sit around just in case someone might need them someday. It’s like when you accidentally delete an email. At least for a while, it’s not really deleted—it’s just sitting in a different place (i.e., the trash) so you can retrieve it if you need to. Or when you store documents in the cloud—if your laptop crashes, nothing is really lost. Same concept goes for the purged fingerprint cards.
And so, in theory, if a fingerprint card is purged, they should still have the microfiche and they should still have the records. At the time of our conversation, I was picturing the microfiche in labeled boxes in a dusty storage room, but where were the records kept? We know from an FBI memo that Ron’s fingerprint jacket had exactly one fingerprint card in it in 1973, when they compared his prints to the man from Welco Industries, in Blue Ash, OH. There was no mention of an accompanying record.
Some months went by, and I found myself talking to another FBI retiree about Ron’s missing fingerprints. I asked that person what they would have done with Ron’s prints if he’d died. Here’s what that person said to me:
Person #3: “…even if a print had been identified as deceased, in that jacket, there still would have been information written in there by hand that it had been identified as deceased individual such and such. So all that would have been automated along with the actual fingerprints themselves that were digitized.”
Again with the record-keeping talk. But where were these notes being written? On the fingerprint jacket itself? I was imagining scribbles on a folder. The person specified that the notes were made “in that jacket.”
Their biggest reveal, however, was how the notes were “automated” along with the digitized fingerprints. In other words, all of those explanatory notes wouldn’t have been lost when the FBI changed over from their manual system to the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) in 1999. The notes would have been digitized too.
I went online to see if I could learn more about the FBI’s record-keeping system for purged fingerprints. The keywords I chose were pretty basic—something like FBI, fingerprint, purge, and microfiche. Nothing useful turned up.
At some point, I must have been reminded of the Fax written by the person from CJIS to Frank Smith, and I retrieved it from a manila folder in my research files. It was this Fax that I was referring to when I spoke with persons 1 and 2 about how CJIS couldn’t locate Ron’s fingerprints after Smith had requested them. Here’s what the CJIS rep had written, or SHOUTED, to Smith in February 2008:
“A SEARCH OF OUR CRIMINAL AND CIVIL FILES HAS FAILED TO REVEAL ANY FINGERPRINTS FOR YOUR SUBJECT. A COMPLETE SEARCH OF OUR ARCHIVE MICROFILM FILES HAS FAILED TO REVEAL ANY FINGERPRINTS FOR THIS MISSING SUBJECT AS WELL.”
“Ah, yes, microfilm,” said I, with a palm smack to my forehead. Microfilm is another word for microfiche. When I used it alongside the other search terms, up popped the glorious 2004 National Archives document.
Why is the document so glorious, you ask? As it so happens, federal agencies are required to submit such documents to the National Archives to ensure the proper management of government records. This particular Request for Records Disposition Authority had been submitted by the FBI describing their record retention protocol under IAFIS. The description it contained for Additional Record Sheets was exactly as persons 1, 2, and 3 had told me:
Additional Record Sheets (ARS): Prior to automation, CJIS maintained fingerprint files in a manual jacket. The cards were two-hole punched and attached to a file back by the use of a two-pronged clasp. The file back was known as the ARS back. One side of the ARS back contained employee identification numbers and dates that indicated when a file was pulled for some action. The other side of the ARS back was used primarily to record any disseminations of the record, including notations of expungements or purges of record entries, such as deletions of arrests for non-serious offenses. ARS backs were only maintained for criminal fingerprint cards. CJIS is in the process of converting these cards to electronic format.
Granted, the above paragraph is a little confusing, since it refers to fingerprint “files” instead of cards, and ARS “backs” or “cards” instead of sheets. Here’s how I picture it: Inside the fingerprint jacket was a fingerprint card and behind that card, attached with a two-pronged clasp (remember those things?), was another card, called the ARS back (because it was in the back, get it?), where notes would be written on both sides.
But you’re in luck. The FBI has posted a video on YouTube that discusses the digitization of their hard copy fingerprints, and on that video is a photo of a long-ago staffer reviewing someone’s fingerprint cards along with—YES!—their Additional Record Sheet. And now, without further ado, I present a screen grab of an Additional Record Sheet, in full view, outside its protective fingerprint jacket.
How does the National Archives document apply to Ron Tammen?
The 2004 disposition authority request submitted by the FBI to the National Archives has a lot to say about how long the FBI should retain criminal and civil fingerprints under IAFIS, not to mention the Additional Record Sheets and microfilm. Below is a link to the document as well as a timeline to help show where Ron factors in, and why, to quote person #1, his case “doesn’t add up.”
1941 – Ron Tammen is fingerprinted in Fairview Village (now named Fairview Park), OH, along with his second-grade classmates, and the fingerprint card is sent to FBI Headquarters. Ron’s fingerprints would have likely been held in the civil file at this point.
1953 – Ron Tammen disappears from Miami University on April 19. Mrs. Tammen soon contacts the FBI’s Cleveland office and they send a report to headquarters, where his fingerprints are discovered. His prints would have been moved into the criminal file at this time, since that’s where missing persons’ fingerprints were routinely maintained.
1958 – The FBI begins its microfilm program as a space-saving measure. In a 1991 booklet on the Identification Division of the FBI, the duties of the Microfilm Unit are described as primarily to thin out the fingerprint jackets of repeat offenders. The unit also microfilmed the fingerprints of subjects who’d died.
1973 – Tammen’s fingerprint card is reliably in its jacket when Tammen’s prints are compared to the guy who worked for Welco Industries in Blue Ash, OH, near Cincinnati. The date in which they pulled his card for comparison would have been included on Ron’s ARS back along with a brief description of actions taken.
1992 — The Identification Division’s name is changed to Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS).
1995 – CJIS relocates to Clarksburg, WV.
1999 – This is a big year for the folks in fingerprinting. They begin converting from a manual system to IAFIS, digitizing all of their fingerprint cards along with the Additional Record Sheets. They also stop putting fingerprints onto microfilm because they no longer need to worry about all those fingerprint cards exceeding their cabinet space. Nevertheless, they retain the 38,000-plus microfilm rolls they have, which contain roughly 50 million prints.
It should be mentioned here that the fingerprint cards are NOT destroyed immediately after they’ve been scanned. According to the 2004 disposition authority request: “At the present time, CJIS maintains a dual recordkeeping system consisting of an electronic fingerprint identification system (IAFIS) as well as a paper based repository of criminal master fingerprint cards. In 1995, CJIS and the [FBI’s] Laboratory Division signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreeing that CJIS would continue to maintain the paper file until both parties approve its destruction.” It goes on to say that the two divisions signed the MOU because the IAFIS fingerprint scans didn’t meet the Laboratory’s resolution specs. So that’s interesting.
2002 – Three years after the rollover to IAFIS, Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints are purged from the system with seemingly no explanation. Because we now know that the FBI had both electronic and hard copy versions of fingerprints in their care at this time, we also know that it probably wasn’t just a computer glitch or human error that caused Ron’s fingerprints to disappear. Someone had to make a special trip over to the manual files, seek out Ron Tammen’s fingerprint card, and purposely destroy it as well. Did it happen on the same day? We don’t know that. But with the window of time being between 1999, when his fingerprints would have ostensibly been digitized, and 2008, when Frank Smith requested the hand search, I’d say the chances are good that whatever inspired someone to delete Tammen’s electronic prints in 2002 would have been enough motivation for them to destroy his manual file at that time as well.
July 2, 2004 – The FBI submits its disposition authority request to the National Archives. In a nutshell, it says that the FBI should retain fingerprints until the individual reaches 99 years of age or seven years following notification of the subject’s death for both electronic and paper records. Same for the Additional Record Sheet scans. It also adds this powerful phrase for all of the above: “whichever is later.” This means that 99 years of age is the YOUNGEST a person should be before these records can be deleted. If he or she should die an untimely death, say, at a youthful 98 1/2, the FBI would, in theory, be required to wait an additional seven years before the fingerprints and Additional Record Sheets could be deleted. Here are the specifics:
- Criminal Subject Master File (scanned fingerprints): DELETE/DESTROY when the individual is 99 years of age or 7 years after notification of an individual’s death, whichever is later.
- Additional Record Sheets: Hard copy files: DESTROY after verification of a successful scan. Scanned version: DELETE when the individual has reached 99 years of age, or 7 years have elapsed since notification of individual’s death, whichever is later.
- Criminal Fingerprint Cards/Records (hard copy fingerprints): DESTROY when the records indicate that the individual has reached 99 years of age or 7 years have elapsed since notification of individual’s death, whichever is later.
- Microfilm Library: The entire microfilm collection will be maintained until the birth date of the most recent set of fingerprints (i.e., born in 1981) reaches 99 years of age. DESTROY in 2080.
February 2008 – Detective Frank Smith contacts CJIS requesting a hand search for Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints. Not only don’t they have his prints as a scan or hard copy, they’re not on microfilm either.
What does it all mean?
Just this: When the FBI decided to purge Ronald Tammen’s fingerprint files, they broke the retention rules that had been approved by the National Archives. In federal lingo, this means that one or more persons within the FBI (allegedly) committed an unauthorized disposition of federal records.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: Jenny, this document was from 2004, and Ron’s fingerprints were purged in 2002. How do you know that these rules were in effect two years earlier?
I know this because the document says on its cover page that it consolidates four disposition authority requests from previous years (1990, 1995, 2000, and 2002) “into one comprehensive document.” As back-up, I also have all four of the earlier disposition authority requests. Below is the document that establishes the 99-year/”whichever is later” rule, as you can see by the handwritten notes. You guys, they’d been doing it this way since at least 1995.
You may also notice on the 2004 document some crossed-out paragraphs that were superseded in 2010 by new language. Below is the document from 2010, which now stipulates that they should maintain everything until a person reaches the age of 110, period, whether they lived or died. They don’t mention the seven years after confirmed death and they no longer mention “whichever is later.” If there’s a document that supersedes this one, it isn’t referenced here, as far as I can tell.
I know what else you’re thinking. You’re thinking: Jenny, I’m sure they hadn’t finished scanning those millions of fingerprint cards in 1999. Is it possible that they were about to scan Ron’s fingerprints in 2002, noted how many years had passed since he’d disappeared, and decided to purge them at that time?
I mean…it’s possible, but that’s not how it was described to me in 2015 when the FBI spokesperson had written the following: “Jennifer — We ran the FBI# and discovered it was expunged from our system in 2002. No other info available.” “Expunged from our system” tells me that Ron’s fingerprints had already been scanned into IAFIS (the “S” in IAFIS stands for “system”) and was later expunged, or purged, a term the spokesperson later used. Also, even if it happened that way, it would have still been against protocol, since Ronald Tammen wouldn’t have been 99 years of age.
Here are the take-homes:
- According to their own rules, the FBI should have been able to produce Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints, both the electronic and hard copy versions, when Frank Smith requested them in 2008. Also, based on the 1995, 2004, and 2010 disposition documents, they should be able to produce them today. Even if Ronald Tammen were known to be dead, the FBI should have his fingerprints on file until at least the year 2032, 99 years after Tammen was born. Or if they’re going by the 2010 disposition protocol, they should have them until the year 2043.
- Those who have been following this blog for a while are keenly aware that I’d thought that Ron Tammen had probably died in 1995, when I was informed that his fingerprints were purged in 2002. I thought this because I’d been told by the FBI’s spokesperson that the FBI purged fingerprints at 110 years of age or seven years after confirmed death. It was presented as an either-or scenario and, because Ron was nowhere near 110, I chose door B. If the FBI had been following their IAFIS protocol, even if Tammen were dead, those fingerprints should have been there in 2002, in 2008, and many years hence. So, guess what this means? It means we still don’t know if Tammen is alive or dead, and I have no idea what compelled them to purge his prints in 2002.
- As for the missing microfilm, if Ron had died before 1999, the FBI might have also microfilmed his fingerprints. However, if he died after 1999, they likely wouldn’t have—they were purportedly done with microfilming. You’d think that it would be a much more involved process to delete a set of fingerprints if they’re buried somewhere within an entire roll of microfilm. I don’t think there’s much we can do to find out. You know the title of that Frozen song that’s really fun to crank up and sing your heart out to when you’re alone in a car? I think that sentiment applies here.
- And what of the Additional Record Sheets? The hard copies would have been destroyed after they scanned them, as described in the 2004 retention protocol, but the electronic versions should be around until at least 2032 and possibly 2043. If I were a gambling person, I’d bet that they deleted the scans at the same time that they were deleting his electronic fingerprint file. I mean, if they’re going to break one rule, they might as well break all the rules, right? Nevertheless, it’s a question worth pursuing, and pursue it, we will.
Before I tell you the next steps, I need to fill you in on some stuff. On March 23, the Department of Justice ruled on my appeal for the Additional Record Sheets and I lost. In the DOJ’s eyes, because of my 2012 lawsuit, I have no right to ask them about Ronald Tammen ever again, even if I’m asking them about documents that they’d never searched or thought to search before we signed our settlement in 2014. That’s despite the fact that the same DOJ division had ruled in my favor in 2016 when I used the same argument about another Tammen file that they hadn’t searched before. I thought lawyers loved precedent, but apparently not in Ronald Tammen’s case.
If you’re hoping to hear that a new lawsuit against the DOJ is now in full swing, prepare to be let down. The lawyer who represented me in my 2012 lawsuit, a FOIA expert who advised me that my 2014 settlement wouldn’t preclude me from submitting future FOIA requests on Tammen if I should discover relevant files that the FBI hadn’t yet searched, is no longer in private practice. Lately, I’ve been trying to find another FOIA lawyer to represent me, however, one expert had an alternative opinion about the settlement provisions and another might be ghosting me. But don’t feel bad—I have a feeling that this is all just part of the game when you’re dealing with FOIA law and the FBI. (You know in the Frozen song where she sings about not letting anyone see her cry? Some days, that fits too.) In the meantime, I’ll continue looking.
But there’s another step I can take before I need to start shelling out some of my sad little savings for a lawsuit, if indeed that time comes. It involves our friends at the National Archives, the holder and purveyor of government records. I’m approaching them in two ways. First, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) was started in 2009 to serve as a mediator of FOIA requests, and they’re considered a next stop before a lawsuit. So far, I’ve sent them a detailed email explaining why I should have the chance to see Ronald Tammen’s Additional Record Sheet scans if they still exist and asking them to help make it happen. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Second, I’m reaching out to another division of the National Archives—the people who oversee unauthorized disposition cases. That’s right, readers, I have in my arsenal a weapon known as “tattling,” commonly wielded by individuals of the 6-year-old variety, and by golly, I’m wielding it too. Yes indeed, I’ve recently informed them of what I perceive to be the FBI’s mishandling of Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints. I don’t know what types of policing powers the nation’s archivists hold. They don’t immediately spring to mind when one thinks of feds who enforce the laws of the land SWAT-team-style—you know, like the FBI? Judging by their web page, they appear to handle such cases through polite correspondence with the agency in question. Nevertheless, I think that someone should register their displeasure. Why not me?
Of course, if Ron Tammen had been working as an undercover operative for the CIA, his fingerprints might have fallen outside the purview of the FBI’s sanctioned fingerprint protocol. When I asked my FBI sources how fingerprints were maintained for people whose identities had been changed by a government agency, such as the CIA, they let me know that they weren’t sure how those cases would have been handled.
“That never was anything that I was, I guess, supposed to know. So I don’t,” one of them said to me.
Just a thank you
Whew—what a year, right, guys? I know we’re not out of the woods yet, but things are definitely looking up, and I am so ready to take to the road again, once it’s safe to do so.
Last year at around this time, just as Covid cases had started popping up everywhere and communities were going into lockdown, I decided to write a Ron Tammen update for the anniversary—the one on Wright Patterson Air Force Base. For the entire previous year, from April 2019 to April 2020, we were on our hiatus, and I was quietly doing my research while writing short updates on Facebook. I didn’t think I had much more to tell you, so I just, you know, withdrew a bit. But once Covid struck, I decided to start back up with the blog, and then we taped the podcast episodes, and everything picked up again. I found that, as we were waiting on ISCAP to rule on the big question, there were numerous other questions needing to be addressed, many of which were posed by you.
Recently, I half-jokingly told a friend that, if it weren’t for her, I think I would have surely perished this year. Thanks to our morning runs and deep and sometimes hilarious convos, I’ve managed to stay healthy and sane throughout this ordeal. I feel the same way about you all. You helped me focus on something other than my mortality. I hope you managed to get through this year in good health as well, and hopefully the blog gave you something else to think about. Anyway, big, big thanks. Also, here are a couple photos of how I spent the pandemic—one in podcasting mode and the other in pre-run mode. Feel free to share photos of yourselves and how you managed to get through this year of insanity as well. Or share a vaccination pic of yourself, and don’t forget to tell us which team you’re on. (Go, team Pfizer!) Of course, if you have thoughts on today’s post, I’d love to hear those as well. The floor is now open.