If the Privacy Act was the reason that Ron Tammen’s fingerprints were expunged, then guess what? Ron was alive in 2002

A sample of someone’s fingerprints from the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Aug. 1953

Remember how, back in 2015 and 2016, I kept pestering the FBI to answer, yes-or-no, had they confirmed Ron Tammen to be dead? And remember how they chose not to answer that question despite the fact that a simple “no”—they had not confirmed him to be dead—would have sent me on my way, forlorn and (momentarily) defeated? 

Back then, I took their non-answer to mean that Ron was dead but they just didn’t want to say he was dead. Because Ron’s fingerprints had been expunged long before he’d turn 110 (the age at which a person’s fingerprints are normally expunged, as cited by the FBI’s spokesperson), I figured that was all the evidence I needed to conclude that he was dead and had been dead for at least 7 years (the alternative scenario cited by their spokesperson). But with our recent discovery that the FBI was able to expunge his fingerprints early because of #N1-65-88-3, Item 1a—the National Archives and Record Administration’s (NARA’s) record schedule having to do with a Privacy Act conflict or a court order—I now believe Ron was alive when they expunged his fingerprints. It’s also feasible that he could be alive today, although I don’t think so. 

You guys called it early. When I told you that the FBI was able to expunge Tammen’s fingerprints 30 years ahead of time due to a Privacy Act conflict or a court order, I think Blue was the first to say that he could have still been alive, and others agreed. Kudos to you, smart people! 

I was a little slower, probably because I was so focused on the “court order” lingo and how I’d heard that term before. A couple of the former FBI staffers I’d spoken with had mentioned it as a possible reason for early expungement of Ron’s fingerprints, while no one had brought up the Privacy Act. Also, among the smattering of documents online that cited N1-65-88-3 for early expungement, they all had to do with a court order. So that’s where my brain was. 

As for the “was he alive?” question, it seemed possible if it had to do with the Privacy Act, which I’d been bumping into with all of my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. That law is literally a question of life or death. If I couldn’t prove a person was dead, I (usually) didn’t get the info. The court order is so much grayer: what was the order and when was the order given and which court would have ordered it—federal or state or even lower? And if I were somehow able to get past all that, could we tell if Ron was still alive?

I knew I needed to talk to someone who was knowledgeable about such matters and who was willing to speak openly. Thankfully I found someone. I won’t be sharing the person’s name or credentials with you because I promised them we would be talking “on background.” (Translation: I can use the information they shared, but I won’t be identifying them.) 

A word of warning: you’ll find that there was a point in our conversation where things went a little…askew. From the start, I’d told my source that the reason the FBI had expunged Ron’s fingerprints was the Privacy Act or a court order—good old N1-65-88-3, Item 1a—and the early part of our discussion reflected that. However, as the conversation progressed, my source began to speculate about a different reason for the expungement. Things became a little uncomfortable as I pushed back. Still, even those moments offer important insights into Ron’s case.

Most responses have been lightly edited or paraphrased to reflect the overall substance of what was said in Q&A fashion. Occasionally I’ve supplied additional background information to help clarify a response. If I have thoughts to add regarding a particular response, those’ll be in blue next to my initials. Here we go!

What are the main reasons that FBI files might be expunged ahead of time because of the Privacy Act?

If a person were to file a FOIA request on themself, and their file had incorrect information in it, they might ask that it be expunged. Or perhaps the information was collected illegally. For example, if a person was exercising his or her First Amendment rights (such as voicing their opposition to a political issue), and the FBI started a file on them, they could request that the file be expunged. Most Privacy Act cases have to do with First Amendment issues.

What happens when an FBI file is expunged based on the Privacy Act or a court order?

According to the Federal Records Act, government records can’t be destroyed without the approval of the head of NARA. In the case of a Privacy Act or court-ordered expungement, however, those take precedence. Once the FBI agrees to expunge a record for either of those reasons, NARA’s role is to simply document the action. 

At my time of involvement, the FBI would write to the National Archives saying “we’re going to destroy file number XYZ under the Privacy Act.” The National Archives would keep that record and write back to the FBI. Then the FBI would destroy the file and replace it with a card saying “file number XYZ has been destroyed under the Privacy Act.”

JW: When I was told by the FBI that Ron’s fingerprints had been expunged in 2002, the spokesperson added “no other info available.” If the 2002 protocol was similar to the one described above, the spokesperson should have been able to tell me why Ron’s prints were expunged. Also, now that we know about NARA’s record schedule, the FBI spokesperson should have had access to that information too. At the risk of sounding naïve, I think the FBI was intentionally keeping it from me.

N1-65-88-3 doesn’t pop up much on Google. How frequently or rarely is this reason cited for the expungement of government records?

I don’t think that it happens a lot. It could be dozens or a hundred times a year, but I don’t think it’s that much.

Do they ever expunge FBI files for people who are deceased based on the Privacy Act?

That I don’t know. Under American law, dead people don’t have the right to privacy. But whether a family member could write it in, I’m not sure they would have the legal standing to make the request.

JW: Upon further reading, the Department of Justice has this to say: “Deceased individuals do not have any Privacy Act rights, nor do executors or next-of-kin.” This tells me that the FBI can’t expunge a file based on a Privacy Act conflict if the person is deceased. The FBI might request the file be expunged for another reason, but not for the Privacy Act. Therefore, if Ron’s file was expunged due to a conflict with the Privacy Act, it’s my belief Ron was alive in 2002.

On the other hand, in 2010, I was able to obtain Ron’s FBI files without providing proof of death or authorization from a third party. For this reason, I think Ron Tammen was deceased by 2010. 

What about the court order? Are these generally for living people?

To be honest, I’ve never heard of an example of a court ordering the destruction of records, although I’m sure it probably happens. I’d say that, by far, the majority of expungements based on either the Privacy Act or a court order are due to the Privacy Act.

Legal questions have come up, one of which is: can a federal judge order something to be kept or destroyed when the Federal Records Act gives that authority to the head of NARA? But I don’t think it happens that often.

JW: It’s telling that our source doesn’t recall ever seeing a court-ordered expungement. Perhaps most useful is our source’s estimation that Privacy Act expungements far outweigh court-ordered expungements. As a result, it seems more likely that Ron’s fingerprints were expunged due to a Privacy Act conflict.

As for the alive-or-dead question, in the few court-ordered expungements I’ve seen online, the person whose records were being expunged was ostensibly alive. I’ve been attempting to find someone who can definitively answer my question, and I’ll continue to look. 

Regarding the early expungement of fingerprint cards, have you heard of that happening before? If so, under what circumstances does that happen in your experience?

If I was thinking in terms of being a practical bureaucrat, if we’re in the process of converting tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of fingerprints to an automated system [which took place in 1999], and we have all these fingerprints that were gathered in World War II from school kids, and figuring they’re probably 70, 80 years old in the ‘90s, they might have simply gotten authority…and I’m not sure how. What they could have done is go to the National Archives with a blanket request saying “We’d like to destroy all fingerprint cards created before 1950 because they’re not relevant now, or we’re getting ready to convert these to the automated system and these will just add to the burden of doing that.”

How would that work?

If it was simply a request for expungement, the FBI would write the request on the Standard Form 115 [the form in which all such requests are written], send it to NARA with a brief explanation of why the records don’t have value to the FBI or anybody else, and describe when they would like to destroy them—when they’re 50 years old, 75 years old, or whatever. Then, one of the Archives staff would review the form and seek permission from the head of NARA. A copy would be returned to the FBI, and they would follow the schedule. 

Would that be the N1-65-88-3—would that be a Privacy Act expungement?

No. The FBI would have submitted something with a different number and it would probably just be a request to destroy fingerprint cards that are X number of years old.

JW: I found an example of one of the more routine “thinning-out” records schedules from the year 2000 (marked 00), which I’m posting here. As our source said, the number is different and doesn’t involve the Privacy Act or a court-ordered expungement. Could this request have been initiated because of the FBI’s move to automation in 1999?

But the person from National Archives cited N1-65-88-3, which tells me that it IS a little different than the switchover to the automated system.

That could be an oversight on NARA’a part. They probably just assumed that it was destroyed under the Privacy Act when it was actually destroyed under the authority of another Standard Form 115.

JW: The NARA rep’s exact words were “The fingerprints in question were expunged from the FBI system as per N1-65-88-3, Item 1a. NARA does not have any further information regarding the expungement of this file.” That sounds a lot more certain than someone who is just assuming something. Also, I used to respond to public inquiries with a federal agency. We’d never put anything in writing without double-checking to make sure we had our facts straight.

I’ve submitted a FOIA request to NARA for “the paperwork associated with the FBI’s early expungement of the fingerprints (both paper and electronic) for Ronald H. Tammen, Jr., FBI # 358 406 B. This should include the relevant Standard Form 115…plus any additional documentation associated with the FBI’s action.” Once I have that, I’ll be able to decide if I need to file more FOIAs to determine if there was a mass expungement around 2002 because of a Privacy Act conflict or court order or if Ron’s case was special.

In light of the above, here’s where I’m leaning at the moment:

  • Because Privacy Act or court-ordered expungements circumvent the role of the head of NARA, it imparts a higher level of import and urgency to the removal of Ron’s fingerprints.
  • It’s far more likely that Ron’s fingerprints were expunged due to a Privacy Act conflict than a court order.
  • If Ron’s fingerprints were expunged due to a Privacy Act conflict, then he was still alive in 2002.
  • Ron’s fingerprints were NOT expunged as part of a mass expungement of obsolete fingerprints (e.g., fingerprints obtained from children before WWII or some other characteristic) to reduce the burden on the FBI’s automated system or any other reason to thin out their records.
  • Whether Ron’s fingerprints were expunged as part of a mass expungement due to the Privacy Act or a court order remains to be seen. 

And you? Where do you lean?

19 thoughts on “If the Privacy Act was the reason that Ron Tammen’s fingerprints were expunged, then guess what? Ron was alive in 2002

  1. My thought had pretty consistently been that it wasn’t Ron himself who requested the prints be expunged. I’m sure this was partly because i too assumed he was deceased… but also, it seemed odd that he would wait until 2002 to request this.

    I figured it was someone in the CIA who wanted them expunged in an attempt to cover their butts.

    Now after reading this post, a couple questions have popped in my head.

    For a privacy act expungement, would anyone other than Ron himself have been able to request this?

    If not, why would this suddenly become a priority for him in 2002? Could it be that he’d just begun to access the internet and saw that his case was featured online and it spooked him? Was anyone actively posting online about him in 2002? It does seem that was around the time period when his generation was warming up to the internet.

    Very interesting info as always!

    1. These are great observations/questions. I need to step away for a while but will address them later today/this evening. Thank you!

    2. Hi again! So on to your questions:

      For a privacy act expungement, would anyone other than Ron himself have been able to request this?
      Here’s my understanding of the process: The Privacy Act allows a person to review their own FBI files. It’s like submitting a FOIA request, only it’s a Privacy Act request. I’ve never submitted one, but to request your own files, you have to certify your identity. (Here’s the certification form: https://www.justice.gov/ust/file/doj361_form.pdf/download.) Once you’ve reviewed your files, you may have a disagreement with what’s there–maybe there’s an inaccuracy, in which case you may try to seek a correction. Maybe they’ve infringed upon your First Amendment rights, in which case you can request an expungement. Although the FBI’s process for requesting an expungement isn’t spelled out online, I’m sure you can work with their FOIPA (Freedom of Information/Privacy Act) office to do so.

      This is a lengthy way of saying that, generally, this is something that you would handle yourself. However, on the above 361 form, you can see that a third party may request your file as long as you’ve authorized it. But for a third party to actually request that your records be expunged, I don’t know. I’m certain they’d also need your authorization for that, if it’s permitted. I’ve heard of parents requesting their child’s criminal record be expunged, so perhaps a parent or next of kin can request an expungement. Of course, that wouldn’t apply to Ron’s case.

      Other possibilities might be the CIA. I can totally imagine a scenario in which they’d find out late (almost too late, really; I’d think they would have discovered it sooner) that Ron’s fingerprints were on file, and they corrected it. Perhaps they could call it a Privacy Act expungement because they might say that his fingerprints were obtained improperly, particularly if he was working covertly as an adult and he was just a child when they took them. I did ask my source about such a scenario, but they didn’t know.

      And then I was thinking about the FBI: would there be a time when they themselves would decide that they needed to expunge a person’s records due to a Privacy Act conflict. For example, in an earlier post, we were discussing whether the FBI’s conversion to an automated system might have led them to initiate a mass expungement, particularly for certain people who needed to remain secret, such as Witness Protection, operatives, etc. I don’t know–maybe. (Again, my source didn’t know either.) But I think they would have needed to seek their authorization first.

      There’s also the question I discussed regarding the FBI’s current biometric/fingerprint identification system (NGI) which, at least in 2015, was reported to be combining its criminal and civil fingerprints, which is considered a Privacy Act conflict, particularly for the civil fingerprint holders. In that situation, I’m sure they wouldn’t expunge all of the civil prints. They’d need to find another solution–and maybe they have.

      So I’m obviously spitballing here. Some of this information isn’t easy to find and I’m sure that’s by design. But I’d say that USUALLY, it’d be Ron who would make the request. However, if Ron was working for who I *think* he was working for, I’m sure they could have found a way. 🙂

      If not, why would this suddenly become a priority for him in 2002?
      Good question. Maybe you’re right — maybe he was web-surfing (Google officially got started in 1998) and grew concerned, although his fingerprints were rarely mentioned–just in one early Plain Dealer article that I can recall. There wasn’t much going on about his case at that time, but there were always anniversary articles. Or maybe there was an incident where he had to be fingerprinted and he remembered being fingerprinted as a youth. Seems late, but crazy things can happen. Sorry! I don’t have any good answers for you at this point. I’ll keep thinking…

  2. If Mr. Tammen is deceased, his SSN would have been retired within three years afterward. Google deceased persons SSN (which I certain you gave his number) and look for an open database listing. The databases that are created from the Dead Persons File by SSN will show his name, DOB, DOD. Good luck with this. Let us know if you find it!

    1. Thanks! Yes, the last time I checked, his SSN wasn’t listed as deceased. (I can look again.) I do have an interesting story on this topic tho. Need to step away, but I’ll be back in touch later today.

    2. Hi! I looked Ron’s number up again–276-28-2084–and he’s not there, but the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) sites only go up to 2014. I’m sure that if he was working for the CIA, they would have given him another number, but it would be so helpful if there was a more updated list. I’m sure there’s a reason though…

      So here’s the story I wanted to share: in 2009, after the Butler Co. cold case detective had reopened the Tammen case (because of the dead body in Georgia), his office thought they’d found someone who was using Ron’s SSN. The man lived in Florida, so they were working with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to interview him. Coincidentally, they found that the man was born in Cleveland about a year before Ron, and he even had some Miami U connections, having taught a summer course there in the early 60s. He also had a cottage on Lake Erie. HOWEVER, the man was not Tammen, and he was adamant about that fact. Nevertheless, they took an oral swab so they could test his DNA and compare it with Marcia Tammen’s, which had been added to the CODIS database.

      Alas, around that same time, Butler Co.’s detective realized that Ron’s and the man’s Social Security numbers were off by two numbers that were transposed. I mean they were SO close, but definitely not the same. Also, the detective was able to obtain birth certificates for Ron and the man–Ron being born in Lakewood City Hospital and the man being born in St. John’s Hospital. So it was a wash, and they ended up canceling the DNA test. When you look at the documents, you feel really bad for them. You could tell he was disappointed when he canceled the test, but I think it’s also a lesson in what it’s like to work in that field. By the way, the man who ALMOST had Ron’s SSN passed away in 2012, though his number isn’t showing up in the SSDI either.

  3. One of my first pictures I put on my wall is that of my bff Marcia J. Tammen’s obit. It is on a humble plack I received from The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
    I just had to sit down and swallow the first part of this incredible update Jennifer. I am crying!
    My goodness Jennifer!

    1. Thanks, Jule! It’s a journey…more like an expedition…and there’s always a chance some new info will change our thinking. But this is where my head is now.

  4. Read it through once, will process it for a while, then consider the ramifications.

    At first glance, of any of your leanings, “Ron’s fingerprints were NOT expunged as part of a mass expungement of obsolete fingerprints (e.g., fingerprints obtained from children before WWII or some other characteristic) to reduce the burden on the FBI’s automated system or any other reason to thin out their records.” is the one I think I’d be least inclined to agree. If at that time, there were no ongoing investigations, I can see someone shrugging and saying, “Yeah, whatever, get rid of the fingerprints from the kids taken 60 years ago. Don’t need to go through a court order and all.” But, I’ll think about it.

    1. The FBI wouldn’t have been able to use the N1-65-88-3 number if they’d expunged Ron’s prints along with those of a bunch of kids from long ago. It wouldn’t have been due to the privacy act/court order, which is how I came to that conclusion. But that’s why I filed a FOIA request with NARA for Ron’s SF115– to make sure that Ron’s expungement truly was due to N1-65-88-3, Item 1a.

      1. Great work on the interview, Jenny!

        If there had been a mass expungement of obsolete fingerprints, then Ron’s prints should not have been included if he were an honest-to-goodness missing person whose fate the government knew nothing about. If Ron were missing for unknown reasons, then his fingerprints should have been kept in the database in case they were ever needed to identify a body. If the government did not know what happened to Ron, they’d have no reason to hinder his identification (living or dead) at some time in the future.

        I think that what you’ve learned points to: (1) Ron was alive in 2002 and (2) the government knows why Ron disappeared. Assuming the prints weren’t part of a mass expungement for being obsolete, if a government agency requested that Ron’s prints be expunged, that implies that the government knows what happened to him. Also, if Ron himself requested the expungement, the FBI would have realized that he was listed as missing and (if they didn’t already know) would have asked where he had been for the past 49 years. Either way, assuming no mass expungement of fingerprints, the FBI knows what happened to Ron.

        Like Whereabouts Still Unknown posted, I lean towards thinking that it was not Ron who requested that the fingerprints be expunged.

      2. Yep…I so agree. They know. And every time someone tells me “no further info available,” I’m like…🤨…maybe.

  5. This, is the stuff right here. I mean, it looks like he was alive, all this time.
    Amazing.
    Wonder if he is still going by Ron Tammen?
    Is there any way at all to tell that?
    Would have to think not, but still using same social?
    Thanks again for the wild ride 😀

    1. Thanks so much for your comments. Unfortunately, Ron hasn’t used his social since he disappeared and I doubt he’s still using his name. Also, I’m not sure he was alive after 2010. (But it’s possible!) I do think he was here a lot longer than anyone realized. I’ll just keep chipping away as far as I can go.

  6. I read it again, and this thought came to mind: If a mass expungement was requested, would any individual members of that fingerprinted group already have some sort of flag(missing person, criminal, Witness Protection, etc) to forestall those individual prints from being removed as part of a group removal?

    1. You’re talking about a generic “old fingerprints” mass expungement, right–not one based on the Privacy Act/court order? I just reread the verbiage of the SF115 from 2000 that I posted, and they seem to be very selective in what they expunge. It doesn’t sound as if they would destroy records in one fell swoop, but they’re making sure they fall within the criteria. If there are outliers–WPP, missing persons, etc.–they’d probably pull them and handle accordingly. Also, it would be much easier to sort at this point, now that they’re automated. Does that address your question?

  7. This case has always fascinated me, and I admire your tenacity in going after the facts!!!!!!! I must admit that a lot of it is confusing to me and difficult to understand. I’m afraid my questions may be stupid, but I’m going to ask you anyway.

    Would Ron Tammen have been prevented from returning home or ever contacting his family again? Or would that have been Ron’s choice?
    Did he live the rest of his life as someone else, not knowing who he was?
    I realize no one knows, but I just wonder what you think.

    Thanks so much and thanks for your hard work in trying to find all the answers.

    Deborah Lewis

    1. You have noooo idea how much I wonder about these 2 questions. My feeling has been that Ron was in control—that he always knew who he was and that he chose not to keep in contact with his family because of the shame he felt he would have brought them. (I think he was gay, which was a major stigma back then.) But there is also the possibility that he wasn’t in control— that he didn’t know who he was or who his family was. That’s way more scary. However, when the other clues come into play—the FBI’s and the university’s weird “cover-up” behaviors—it leads me to think that it’s the first choice. If it were the second choice, I can’t imagine everyone going along with something as outrageous as that—unless they were lied to. I’ll keep digging. But your questions are at the heart of this story. Thank you!

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