The Story Behind the Glomar Response

The Glomar response refers to a “neither confirm nor deny” response from the government to the existence of a record requested via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This response can be utilized to deny information requests related to national security and information requests for law enforcement files regarding privacy. A Glomar response is one of the more interesting (and controversial) ways the government can respond to a FOIA request; however what is even more interesting is the story behind why it is called a “Glomar” response.

In April of 1968, a Soviet Golf-II class submarine sank in 17,000 feet of water roughly 750 miles northwest of Hawaii.  The United States Naval Intelligence in Pearl Harbor had been tracking the submarine and became aware of its fate through coded communications and underwater listening devices. The following year, the CIA established “Project Azorian,” which was designed to bring the sunken Soviet submarine to the surface and hopefully retrieve nuclear missiles and code books.  The CIA contracted Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Company under the direction of Howard Hughes to design a ship capable of raising the submarine and in 1973 the Hughes Glomar Explorer was delivered to CIA. The Hughes Glomar Explorer was publically alleged to be created for mining manganese nodules from the ocean floor, however its true purpose was for submarine retrieval.

The Hughes Glomar Explorer began lifting the Soviet submarine in 1974, but encountered numerous problems. Major disaster struck when the submarine was two miles from the surface and it tore apart under its own weight. The Hughes Glomar Explorer was able to bring part of the submarine to the surface and managed to retrieve the bodies of six Soviet sailors who were given a burial at sea, but the nuclear missiles and additional valuable information sank back to bottom of the ocean.

In February of 1975, a journalist for the Los Angeles Times named Harriet Ann Philippi filed a FOIA request to the CIA, asking for the disclosure of information regarding the operation and the CIA’s suppression of a New York Times publication on the operation. The CIA chose to “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of the project or any suppression of a story about the project. Years later, the operation was eventually made public although much still remains classified. However, out of this situation the Glomar response was born, giving the government the ability to “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of records.