In June 2002, I was living at a place called the Car Barn of Capitol Hill, an old red brick fortress that used to house trolley cars in the northeast section of Washington, DC. Every weekday, I’d step out of the apartment, head right on East Capitol Street, stroll past the dogs and kiddos at Lincoln Park, and then turn up North Carolina Avenue on my way to Eastern Market to take the train to my job as a technical writer for the federal government. I was living my dream—immersed in the historic urban-ness of Capitol Hill, doing work I believed in, and feeling attuned to the inner-workings of our democracy. But, as it turns out, I was also sadly oblivious.
Oblivious, because I had no idea that on one of those June days, the FBI would be expunging the fingerprints of Ronald Tammen, the person who’d famously disappeared from my alma mater in 1953 and who, according to his friends and family, was still very much listed as missing.
What about you? Where were you in June 2002 when the FBI purposely expunged Tammen’s fingerprints forever and always—gone in a flash—no take-backs, no quitsies?
We’ve since learned a little bit about that expungement—namely that it was carried out in accordance with the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA’s) records schedule known as N1-65-88-3, Item 1a, which means that his fingerprints were expunged in response to either a court order or a conflict with the Privacy Act of 1974. If it’s because of the Privacy Act, and the odds are good that it was, then Tammen was likely alive when his fingerprints were expunged. (As you may recall, an expert I spoke with said that the Privacy Act far outweighs the court order as the reason for expungements.)
As much as the above revelations have told us, they’ve also managed to generate more questions. Therefore, I recently submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to NARA. I wanted to see whatever documents the NARA representative was reading when he or she informed me that: “The fingerprints in question were expunged from the FBI system as per N1-65-88-3, Item 1a,” and then quickly followed up with “NARA does not have any further information regarding the expungement of this file.”
Specifically, I wanted to get my hands on the relevant Request for Records Disposition Authority form, aka Standard Form 115, aka SF 115, that I believed someone must have filled out before they could expunge Tammen’s fingerprints. (To preserve ink, I’ll be referring to it as the SF 115 from here on out.) I also asked for “any additional documentation associated with the FBI’s action.”
I submitted my FOIA request on June 8 of this year and yesterday, July 6, I received a response. Theirs wasn’t one of those evasive “we can neither confirm nor deny” or “we can’t find anything” sort of responses I get from the CIA or the FBI. It was a responsive response. NARA sent me 24 documents totaling 80 pages. These people are big believers in FOIA and it shows.
The majority of the documents don’t have anything to do with Tammen’s case per se, but they offer insight into how the FBI was handling its expungement cases before and after the fateful day in June 2002, which offered good background. However, one key document does tell us about Tammen’s case. That’s right. Someone from the FBI actually provided a short synopsis about Tammen’s fingerprints and what led to their being expunged. We’ll get to that synopsis in a second.
First, let’s discuss some of the things I learned about court-ordered or Privacy Act expungements in general.
Let’s begin with this fun fact: The 1988 SF 115 that’s cited for all Privacy Act/court-ordered expungements was signed by Robert W. Scherrer, who led an interesting life before he was in charge of records at the FBI. He’s kind of famous.
You’ve already seen N1-65-88-3 on this blogsite, however a memo dated 11/30/87 is extremely helpful in describing that records schedule, particularly the meaning of Item 1a. (Don’t ask me what the acronyms at the top of the memo stand for—I’ve been all over NARA’s website, and can’t find a document that spells out NIRM or NIR. Just know that they appear to be in the Records Administration side of NARA and they seem to be charged with the proper disposition of records. If you happen to be from NARA and can solve this puzzle, please let us know in the comments section.)
Based on that memo, we now know that Item 1a refers to records that were already considered temporary, meaning they were slated to be destroyed after a given retention period had ended. Ron Tammen’s fingerprints were in this category. As you may recall, in my write-up Purged, I discuss at length how Tammen’s prints were expunged at a time when the FBI was operating under the records schedule that required holding onto fingerprints until an individual would have reached 99 years of age. In Tammen’s case, that would have been the year 2032.
Because Item 1a records have already been approved for disposal (after the person is 99 years old in this case), if the FBI were presented with a court order to expunge or with an expungement request due to a Privacy Law conflict, they would be able to expunge those records immediately.
Here’s the most interesting part of this very helpful memo:
This will obviate the need to submit an SF 115 to NARA for each individual accelerated disposal action, thereby lessening the Bureau’s workload and ours. Also, it will speed the actual disposal of the records by eliminating our processing time and the 45 day waiting period while a job is at the Federal Register. In some cases, this waiting period causes anguish to individuals eager to see their file destroyed. For these reasons, NARA should approve this item. Records already have been appraised as lacking in historical value and there is no problem from the legal rights standpoint since the disposal of records has either been ordered by a court or is being done with the approval of the individual to whom the records pertain.
So to sum things up: for Item 1a records, no additional SF 115 is needed in order to expunge them before their normal retention period is over. Simply recording somewhere that the expungement was conducted on the basis of N1-65-88-3, Item 1a, is all the information the FBI would need to supply to NARA as back-up. As a result, there isn’t a specific SF 115 for Ron Tammen’s fingerprints.
In contrast, Item 1b refers to files that are permanent or otherwise not scheduled for disposal. If an expungement request should come in, either because of a court order or Privacy Act conflict, 1b files did require an additional SF 115, and they would have to go through the lengthy process described above. Beginning in 2003, however, the FBI began inquiring about whether they needed to continue submitting SF 115s for the expungement of permanent records due to the time element, and they and NARA sought legal guidance on that question. As far as I can tell, in 2011, the FBI stopped sending in SF 115 forms for the expungement of permanent records.
So the question that’s probably on everyone’s mind is: if the FBI didn’t have to submit an SF 115 to expunge Ron Tammen’s fingerprints, what was the NARA rep looking at when he or she sent me an email saying that Tammen’s prints had been expunged as per N1-65-88-3, Item 1a? (On second read, if that’s the question that’s on everyone’s mind, my goodness, you are a brilliantly wonky bunch, aren’t you?)
This. NARA had contacted the FBI on April 15, 2021, a couple weeks before I received NARA’s email, and here’s what the FBI’s records and information management specialist had to say about Ron Tammen’s case:
So, that’s pretty cool, right? Do you think the FBI would have bothered telling me any of this if I’d reached out to them directly? I’d asked them at the outset why they expunged his prints and was told “no other info available,” so I’m fairly certain that they wouldn’t have. But I can ask NARA and NARA can ask the FBI, and voila, we have more answers.
Here are my thoughts regarding the FBI email:
- We now know that Ronald Tammen’s parents had given Ron’s fingerprint card to the FBI when he disappeared. This question was always perplexing, since my FBI sources had said that children’s fingerprints were routinely returned to the parents, and it appeared as if the FBI had kept Ron’s prints since 1941. However, it doesn’t answer why they had an FBI number for him when Mrs. Tammen had reported him missing, #358406B. I’d been told that they wouldn’t create FBI numbers for fingerprints that were returned. But so be it.
- The FBI records specialist says that Ron’s fingerprints were filed with the civil prints. I’m pretty sure she’s mistaken on that. One, his missing person file had “crim” written on it—short for criminal—next to the fingerprint shorthand, and two, my sources said missing persons were routinely filed in the criminal file, since that was the most active one to check against incoming prints.
- The most loaded, convoluted sentence in the email is this one: “The prints in question would have been retained until the subject was 99 years of age had they not been responsive to an expungement initiated in or prior to 2002 with the final action taken in June of 2002.” So, I was right when I guessed that Tammen’s fingerprints should have originally been retained until he was 99. Woohoo! I love when that happens!
- As for her remark about an expungement that had been “initiated,” let’s consider the language that’s commonly used when describing the two reasons for expunging under N1-65-88-3. You either have a court order, an order coming from the court, or you have an expungement request, a request coming from an individual that’s decided and acted upon by the FBI. She uses neither word, but her phrasing sounds far more like a Privacy Act expungement where the FBI, not the courts, had control. Here’s what she also doesn’t say: she doesn’t give NARA a benign reason for Tammen’s prints to have been expunged, such as if it were part of a large number of missing persons who were expunged for Privacy Act reasons when the FBI automated their fingerprints. This tells me that Ron’s case is special.
- Despite her ambiguous language regarding the timeframe, I strongly suspect they expunged his record immediately. I’m sure it wasn’t a “let’s initiate an expungement sometime in or prior to 2002,” and then wait a few months. Remember why the FBI wanted to do away with submitting SF 115s for the 1b files? Time. They didn’t want to wait around.
I submitted a second FOIA request to NARA in hopes of finding out if there had been a mass expungement sometime between January 1, 1999, and December 31, 2002, due to their transition to automation. Namely, I asked for all SF 115s that had been submitted during that period for the expungement of fingerprint records ahead of their retention date. As we now know, I won’t be receiving any SF 115s from the 1a crowd, which I would think are the ones I’m most interested in. I’m not sure if I’ll be seeing anything from the 1b crowd either, but I’ll let you know if I do.
Does the FBI know more about Tammen’s case? Oh, most definitely. Why do you think the records and information management specialist went to great pains to construct such a vague and confusing paragraph?
As far as how we can find out more about the FBI’s expungement of Tammen’s fingerprints, unfortunately, my FOIA settlement prevents me from requesting any more documents on Tammen from the FBI, and I’m quite sure they’d push back hard on this question. (I’ve come to know them pretty well by now, and something tells me that they feel as though they know me pretty well too. 🥰) If there are other possible sources of information, I will seek them out. However, if anyone reading this now or in the future is interested in submitting their own FOIA request to the FBI concerning the “expungement initiated in or prior to 2002 with the final action taken in June of 2002,” here’s where to go: https://efoia.fbi.gov/#home.
I only ask that, if you choose to submit a FOIA request, please don’t do it on my behalf, and please don’t tell me or announce it on this blog.** You’d be doing it out of your own curiosity and interest in knowing the truth. You’re also welcome to use whatever records I’ve posted online as supporting documentation, since it’s public information. That’s how researchers work. We share things.
Of all the documents that NARA sent me, one of my favorites was the 11/30/87 memo, especially where it discusses how a lengthy wait to expunge records “causes anguish to individuals eager to see their file destroyed.” Further down, it notes that expungement due to the Privacy Act is “being done with the approval of the individual to whom the records pertain.” If Tammen’s fingerprints were expunged due to the Privacy Act, and, again, the odds are with us that they were, then it’s my belief that Tammen was likely the eager and possibly even anguished person who was insisting that they be expunged ASAP.
OK, the floor’s now open. I’m eagerly awaiting your thoughts!
**If you should decide to submit a FOIA on the June 2002 expungement of Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints and you’re successful at obtaining information, by all means, please let us know. However, I’m just not permitted to be part of the FOIA process. Thanks!