Finally, an answer: Why Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints were expunged and why it makes so much sense

Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

I am shaking. Shaking! You’re not going to believe the news I have for you today. After all we’ve been going through over the years trying to find out why the FBI expunged Ron Tammen’s fingerprint record in 2002, I now have an answer for you.

But first: do you know how I came to find the answer? The FBI, you say? Oh, you kidder, you. No, I arrived at the answer thanks to our awesome friends at the National Archives. 

If you’ll recall in the blog post Purged, we learned that if the FBI had been following their own records retention policy in 2002, they should have held on to Ron’s fingerprints until he was at least 99 years of age. And then, near the end of that post, I said that I was planning to tattle to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) regarding the FBI’s (alleged) unauthorized disposition of Ron’s fingerprints.

Well guess what? I did that. And guess what else? They got back to me yesterday. In a brief email that arrived at around 4 p.m., and in the most low-key manner imaginable, they explained to me why the FBI was permitted to expunge Ron’s records from their system before the normal period was up. The reason: N1-65-88-3, Item 1a.

I couldn’t believe it—someone actually gave me a reason. 

I spent the next few hours Googling N1-65-88-3 (let’s forget the “Item 1a” part for now). From what I gathered, the “65” refers to the FBI, the “88” refers to the year in which that particular records schedule was first implemented, and the “3”…well, in the few documents online in which a 3 follows the 88, I found only one reason for it to be there: a court order. That’s right—we’re back to the court order explanation. 

This is one of the few documents online that has the same citation as Ron’s: N1-65-88-3 as a reason for expungement. In it the author says: “The records described on it are already covered by Job. No. N1-65-88-3, which authorizes the Federal Bureau of Investigation to destroy immediately those temporary files whose destruction is mandated by court order.”

As it turns out, it could be that the number 3 refers to a type of court order. For example, I found that N1-65-88-1 refers to a court order for the destruction of background investigations by a certain year. N1-65-88-2 refers to visa applications, though it doesn’t mention a court order to do so.

As for Ron’s court order, the Federal Register, a daily government publication that announces proposed and final policies of federal agencies, has cited N1-65-88-3 only four times since the year 1994. And when they did so, it was to describe a court order for the “Federal Pre-Trial Diversion Program.” What’s the federal pre-trial diversion program, you ask? Apparently, it’s when the government decides not to prosecute someone—a first-time offender, for example—but enrolls them in a supervised program of some sort. So someone commits a crime, they’re enrolled in the program, and then, if they’re successful, the charges are dismissed and their fingerprints are expunged. I have no idea if this applies to Ron’s situation. I’m only saying that the same number they used for Ron was used to explain an expungement four other times in the Federal Register. Interestingly, another records disposition authority request cites N1-65-88-3 and the Federal Pre-Trial Diversion Program as the reason for the expungement of documents. (Note that it also references Item 1B. I have yet to see an Item 1a. )

Last night, I sent a follow-up email to a department of the National Archives that handles questions about records schedules. In it, I ran through my definition of each number—the 65, 88, and 3—and then asked them what “Item 1a” referred to.

Here’s the lion’s share of their response: 

“Thanks for your question. The FBI Records Officer and/or FOIA officer are your best resource for questions concerning records expunging. The schedule provides the authority to dispose of the records, but more detailed information on specific records can only be answered by the FBI. The schedule allows the FBI to dispose of already scheduled temporary records earlier when there is a court order or a privacy act conflict…”

Frankly, a privacy act conflict for a guy who went missing in 1953 would be fascinating too. But if it’s all the same to you, I’m going to hold off on writing the FBI right now. As you know, the FBI and I have a rather (ahem) strained relationship, and I’ll need to figure out the best way to approach them, especially since the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) is looking into my other FOIA request with them for Ron’s Additional Record Sheets. I need to mull over my strategy. There are other avenues I can take as well.

In the meantime, let’s look at what we do know and how this new revelation makes so much sense. 

The word “expunge” fits.

First, the word “expunge” carries legal implications that the word purge does not. It means to delete records as if they never existed—as in the expunging of criminal records. If there was a court order to erase Ron’s fingerprints from existence, then I believe the word we want to use from here on out is most definitely expunge. As you may recall, this was the word choice used by the FBI’s spokesperson the first time he told me that Ron’s fingerprints were removed from their system in 2002. Interestingly, the term he didn’t use when explaining the possible reasons for expunging fingerprints was a “court order.”

We’d already ruled out the other two possible reasons.

Again, in Purged, I wrote that it occurred to me that, based on the 2002 records retention protocol, we could no longer presume that Ron was dead. Even if they had confirmed him to be dead, they’d need to keep his fingerprints until he was at least 99 years of age. Therefore, the remaining option would be a court order. This finding supports that conclusion.

Ron’s case is special.

If Ron’s fingerprints were expunged by a court order, potentially due to some special court-approved diversion program, it confirms to us that Ronald Tammen is not your run-of-the-mill missing person. He was special. But, then, we already knew that, didn’t we?

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What do you think? Is this the big deal I think it is?