The Glomar Response

Nice Bureaucracy check… you earned 100 experience points.

The Glomar Response is the term for the phrase “I can neither confirm nor deny…” that has become so popular nowadays. Though, the full response actually goes like this:

“We can neither confirm nor deny the existence or the nonexistence of the information you requested. And if such hypothetical information did exist, such information would be classified.”

It is actually a very important bit of legalese that was first written in 1974 in a response to a request for information about a secret CIA project known as Project Azorian. The short version of the story is this:

Back in the late 1960’s, a Soviet nuclear submarine sank for unknown reasons and the U.S.S.R. could not locate it. However, the U.S. government desperately wanted to recover it because it would contain a wealth of useful information, including Soviet military codes and nuclear warheads. The U.S. located the sub three miles underwater and they wanted to recover it. But they didn’t want the Soviets to know they had recovered it. So, as a cover, they contacted wealthy nutjob Howard Hughes and asked him to put together a phony expedition to mine rare minerals from the seafloor. A company named Global Marine manufactured a phone “mining vessel” to recover the sub. It was called the Glomar Explorer. Unfortunately, the expedition failed to recover most of the submarine.

In 1974, the press got wind of the expedition somehow and requested information about it. The CIA was in a difficult position. They did not want to admit how much information they had or had not gleaned because they wanted to keep the Soviet’s nervous (it WAS the Cold War). But they also did not want to lie. See, at the time, the Watergate Scandal had rocked the government and Congress was examining all government agencies. So it was important to keep your nose clean.

Ultimately, a CIA lawyer penned the response to the reporters: “we can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of the information you have requested, but if such hypothetical information did exist, it would be classified.” It effectively gave no answer without lying. And the response was ultimately upheld by the court system. It was acknowledged that occasionally governments DO have to keep secrets and sometimes even acknowledging the existence or nonexistence of something is very telling.

It’s kind of like when the GM rolls the dice behind the screen.

Incidentally, if you want to hear the whole wild story of the Glomar Response (it’s really great), check out WYNC’s Radio Lab Podcast: Neither Confirm Nor Deny. And then listen to more Radio Lab. It’s a great show.