There are Redactions and… Redactions

Today the Department of Justice will submit proposed redactions to the affidavit in support of the search warrant issued for the, well…, search of Donald Trump’s Florida estate in, well…, search of documents that should have been deposited with the National Archives upon Trump’s departure from the White House in early 2021. What could those redactions conceal or reveal? is the question on everyone’s mind.

I’ve perused a lot of FBI documents over the years, of a certain vintage: the middle three or four decades of the twentieth century. Ah, those were the days of monospaced typewriters: with a little creativity and a piece of graph paper, you could count the letters in the blacked-out (or, later, whited-out) blocks. If you knew the context, and had a limited cast of likely characters, it wasn’t that difficult to figure out that the twelve spaces of

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

could be

D A V I D   H U G H E S

But sometimes you’d get really lucky.

The FBI publishes many of its files on celebrities on The Vault. One such file concerns its investigation of homosexual organizations in the 1950s. And yet, floating around the web, there exists a second file—the same one—with different, fewer redactions!

Why would the Bureau’s bureaucrats re-redact a file? I can’t tell you, but perhaps a newer Freedom of Information Act request had been submitted, somehow warranting a re-review. If made public by the requestor, this could result in a more useful file—or a useful combination of redactions (and revelations), as in this example.

FBI File Excerpt 1
FBI File Excerpt 2

This excerpt concerns who gave the Bureau the name of Chuck Rowland, a gay activist I studied in the 2010s. Based on the top version, historian Douglas Charles IDed a woman, Ann Carll Reid, the managing editor of ONE magazine. But the bottom version IDs “one of the Associate Editors,” a man. Unbeknownst to the readers of ONE, in actuality there was only one associate editor (a pseudonym); all the other names listed in the magazine’s masthead were completely fictitious, presumably to make it look as if the magazine had staff.

I was shocked when I learned the identity of this man: Jim Kepner, who would go on to become a pioneering LGBT+ archivist. And a dear friend of Chuck Rowland. Read more about this case in my Vile Vault: The FBI Gets Its Man (or Woman).

I’d say, Get out your graph paper, but proportional-spaced typography in modern DOJ docs makes it a little more difficult. Alternately, if you can match the affidavit’s font, you might have a running chance.

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