Here it is: the document that allowed the FBI to expunge Ron Tammen’s fingerprints 30 years ahead of time

This is just a quick update, but it’s significant, so I thought it was worthy of being an official blog post.

I was getting ready to FOIA the FBI for their 1988 records schedule–hoping to find the meaning of N1-65-88-3, Item 1 a–when I found myself on a new page for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA): the Records Control Schedules. Before that moment, I’d only seen the schedules referred to as Records Schedules, which was how I must have missed this page earlier.

Click on this link for all the records control schedules for the FBI.

Then scroll until you get to N1-065-88-003. Note that they’ve placed zeros before the 65 and the 3, which is probably why it wasn’t turning up in Google.

And here it is, you guys: the document that the FBI (through a NARA spokesperson) cited as its reason for expunging Ron Tammen’s fingerprint file 30 years ahead of time.

Click on document for a closer view.

We’ve seen this language before in similar documents. As Item 1 reads:

Case files or any portion of their contents, including specific information within documents, whose continued maintenance by the FBI may conflict with the provisions of the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. 552a, as amended, or whose destruction is mandated by court order.

Note that Ron’s scenario is described in Item 1 A, which ends with this fateful decree: DESTROY immediately.

That’s so interesting that the FBI may have felt that continued maintenance of the fingerprints of a person who’d been missing since 1953 might have been in conflict with the provisions of the Privacy Act. I wonder: Did they feel the need to expunge all missing persons’ fingerprints for the same reason?

Lately, I’ve been reading up on the Privacy Act and things of that ilk. Someday, we may have a longer discussion on the topic, once I’ve had all my questions answered. However, at this stage, I can say this: I’ve been living under the Privacy Act rules for the past 11 years as I’ve been filing FOIA request after FOIA request. And this question stands out:

Q: When does a person’s privacy protections pretty much go out the window (with certain caveats, such as with HIPAA and FERPA)? 

A: When they die. Once a person has died, a whole world of information opens up to us through FOIA. The ticket for entry is proof of death.

Several of you have said that it sounds more likely that Ron was alive in 2002 in order for them to have reason to expunge his fingerprint records. Although we still can’t rule out the court order, I believe a potential Privacy Act conflict supports this theory. 

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I’d like to thank you for your astute questions and observations to date on this topic–you’ve been extremely helpful. The floor is now open.

11 thoughts on “Here it is: the document that allowed the FBI to expunge Ron Tammen’s fingerprints 30 years ahead of time

  1. Wow!
    Getting somewhere.
    Amazing updates.
    So a privacy act.
    Were people already snooping around and coming close to finding Ron?
    Did they see you coming?
    Awesome stuff.

    1. Thank you, Kyle! Actually, I didn’t get started until 2010, and supposedly, they expunged his prints in 2002, so I can’t take the credit. 😉 But some readers have speculated — and it makes a lot of sense to me — that the FBI’s move to digitize fingerprint records with their Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) in 1999 might have been the triggering factor (allowing a few years for bureaucratic response time).

      For example, if Ron’s not *really* missing and is working for the CIA (let’s say), and he hasn’t committed a crime, his fingerprints shouldn’t have been in the criminal file, which is continually searched with each new print. That would be a privacy issue. As another example, it’s been reported that when the FBI transitioned from IAFIS to Next Generation Identification (NGI), both criminal and civil prints were merged (https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2015/09/little-fanfare-fbi-ramps-biometrics-programs-yet-again-part-1), which has raised privacy concerns. The issue is that law-abiding citizens shouldn’t have their fingerprints continually scrutinized against incoming prints. So one thing I need to find out is if other people who were listed as missing and whose fingerprints were on file (such as Richard Cox) had their prints expunged as well. Fingers crossed…

  2. Great detective work, Jenny!

    A few thoughts come to mind.

    First, the job number N1-065-88-003 document refers to destroying “case files” or portions of them, not just fingerprint files. Have any of the files on Ron that you’ve received over the years through FOIA been from the FBI case file on Ron? Did the FBI destroy their entire case file or just the fingerprint files?

    My second thought is regarding the idea that the FBI might have destroyed fingerprint files from many missing people. (15 years after the N1-065-88-003 document and 28 years after the Privacy Act, but the federal government can move slowly.) If there was a policy on doing this after a certain amount of time, I think that it would be known outside of the FBI and you’d have come across it before now. There would be people at websleuths-related forums complaining about this because it would hinder identification of bodies. Would such a policy be a secret? One way to possibly determine if this did happen would be to make a FOIA request for the Additional Record Sheet of a longtime missing person who went missing non-suspiciously (e.g., fell off a boat, got lost on a hike, etc.) and whose fingerprints would have been in the FBI database. I know that deciding upon a person for this is far easier said than done.

    Third, it might have been decided (decades belatedly) that taking/saving the fingerprints of school children in the 1930s and 1940s was a violation of the Privacy Act. All of those fingerprints from school children might have been destroyed in mass. However, if this had been done, I think that Ron’s fingerprints would have been exempt because they’d been moved to the criminal fingerprint database when he went missing. Also, such as mass fingerprint deletion probably would not be a secret.

    My fourth thought regards the analysis results for Marcia Tammen’s DNA. Elsewhere on this website, it’s stated that Marcia’s DNA was collected in February 2008 by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in order to compare to DNA from unidentified bone fragments. My assumption is that the federal DNA repository, CODIS, would have received Marcia’s DNA results so that they could be used again in the future, as needed. But, if the FBI didn’t keep Ron’s fingerprints (in 2002) because that was a Privacy Act violation, would they have wanted his sister’s DNA in CODIS? And, if the FBI didn’t keep Ron’s fingerprints because they were told by the CIA or other powers to get rid of them, would they also have been told to squash the DNA? So, was Marcia’s DNA ever actually put into CODIS?

    1. These are great questions. One by one:

      RE: Was Ron’s case file destroyed?
      Ron had several FBI files: his fingerprint file, his missing person file, and his Selective Service violation file, among several others that no longer exist or that couldn’t be located. The FBI provided some documents to me, though they admitted some files had been destroyed by the time I sought them, which they said was according to routine retention schedules. None were destroyed at the same time as the fingerprint file though.

      RE: missing person expungements
      I think I’m interested in obtaining Additional Record Sheets for three categories of people: general people who went missing whose fingerprints had been on file with the FBI, people who supposedly went missing whose fingerprints were on file and who may have worked for the CIA (i.e., Richard Cox), and people who may have worked for the CIA who had a criminal record (i.e., Charles Manson, etc.). I think it would be really interesting to compare all of those scenarios, if possible.

      RE: possible mass expungement of children’s prints
      Hmmm….I agree that we probably would have heard about this. I also agree that, if Ron was still truly listed as missing, and the FBI had no idea what happened to him, Ron’s prints would have been exempt from expungement. If the FBI does know what happened to him (as I believe), I think his prints would have been expunged for a reason that is less serendipitous than this though.

      RE: Was Marcia’s DNA really added to CODIS?
      Oh, that’s a very interesting question. According to Frank Smith (Butler Co’s former cold case detective), it had been added to CODIS in 2008. But Frank’s now retired and is working as a polygraph consultant. Hmmm…I wonder if anything has changed in that regard.

  3. Jenny, thank you for your detailed responses to my questions!

    Regarding general people who have gone missing, perhaps you’d want to find some who were never declared legally dead and some who were declared legally dead. (Although that would make finding such people for FOIA requests even harder.) I assume that being declared legally dead is just like being absolutely known as dead in that both situations would cause loss of some privacy restrictions. Was Ron ever declared legally dead? I don’t recall reading that he was. I know that a major reason for having a a missing person declared dead is to settle their estate and, at 19, Ron didn’t an estate worth bothering about.

    1. Sure thing! And good point re the question of whether they were declared legally dead. Ron was never declared dead but Richard Cox was. That’s made searching for Ron’s documents more difficult.

  4. Being declared legally dead is such a catch-22 when working with missing persons cases. David Paulides of “Missing 411” says that when a missing person has been declared legally dead then it is harder for him to initially learn of their case. Once a missing person is declared dead, some law enforcement agencies delete them from missing persons lists because they’re no longer classified as “missing.” So, the Missing 411 researchers only learn of some cases by scouring old newspapers looking for articles on newly missing people. But, as you say, if a person is missing and not legally dead, then privacy laws come into effect. There needs to be a third category, “missing and declared dead,” that would keep such cases on the LE radar.

    1. So true. And did you hear about the man from Ohio who was declared legally dead and then he returned? The judge wouldn’t declare him un-dead. So there’s that. https://www.cnn.com/2013/10/09/us/ohio-legally-dead-man

      I do know of a person whose fingerprints had been on file who went missing and who is now deceased, so I’ve FOIA’d his Additional Record Sheets as well. We’ll see what we can find out.

      1. So there needs to be a category for missing, missing & dead, missing, dead, and undead.

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