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Neither Confirm Nor Deny

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 04:00 PM

How a sunken nuclear submarine, a crazy billionaire, and a mechanical claw gave birth to a phrase that has hounded journalists and lawyers for 40 years and embodies the tension between the public’s desire for transparency and the government’s need to keep secrets.  


Whether it comes from government spokespeople or celebrity publicists, the phrase “can neither confirm nor deny” is the perfect non-denial denial. It’s such a perfect deflection that it seems like it’s been around forever, but reporter Julia Barton takes us back to the 1970s and the surprising origin story of what’s now known as a “Glomar Response.” With help from David Sharp and Walt Logan, we tell the story of a clandestine CIA operation to lift a sunken Soviet submarine from the ocean floor and the dilemma they faced when the world found out about it.

In the 40 years since that operation, the Glomar Response has become boilerplate language from an array of government agencies. With help from ProPublica editor Jeff Larson and NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston, we explore the implications of this ultimate information dodge. ACLU lawyer Jameel Jaffer explains how it stymies oversight, and we learn that, even 40 years later, governmental secrecy can be emotionally painful.


After listening to the story ... 


After 40 years, many of the details of Project Azorian are only now coming to light. The US government’s default position has been to keep as much of it classified as possible. It took three years for retired CIA employee David Sharp to get permission to publish his account of Project Azorian. And FOIA played an indirect role in that, as Cold War historians got the CIA to release, in redacted form, an internal history of the mission. After that and a threat of legal action, Sharp was finally able to publish his manuscript in 2012.


We mentioned conspiracy theories that have swirled around Project Azorian filling the void where official silence has reigned. One of them is promulgated in the 2005 book “Red Star Rogue” by Kenneth Sewell and Clint Richmond. They posit that the K-129 was taken over by rogue Stalinist KGB agents in order to start a nuclear conflict. But the conflict was to be between the US and China, as, according to the authors, the sub had powers to disguise its sonic signature as a Chinese Navy vessel.


This book is the basis of the 2013 drama “Phantom,” which features Ed Harris and David Duchovny as Soviet military officers who sip vodka in a very un-Russian way.


Russian Naval historians, like Nikolai Cherkashin, are not only insulted by this take on the cause of the K-129’s demise, they say the true cause is much easier to pinpoint: They say an American vessel, possibly the USS Swordfish, collided with the Soviet submarine. 


Despite the fact that the US government has turned over many documents about Project Azorian and what it found to the Russian government, many in the Russian Navy stand by their theory that it was far too easy for the US to locate the K-129 on the bottom of the Pacific, given the technology of the time. According to these theories, Project Azorian was nothing more than an elaborate cover-up disguised as... an elaborate cover-up. We can neither confirm nor deny that we exactly understand how that would have worked in practice or execution.

But for our money, there’s probably no stranger and more telling document from this time than a video of the funeral at sea for Soviet sailors ostensibly recovered by the US during Project Azorian. Audio of the service starts at 1:25 in this post. Eulogies and rites are performed in both English and Russian (albeit with an American accent).


It’s one of the more solemn moments of the Cold War, and one that the Glomar Response helped keep a secret for a very long time.



Jameel Jaffer, Jeff Larson, Walt Logan, David H. Sharp and Dina Temple-Raston


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Comments [18]

Robert from Shelter Island, New York

just wanted to say that after listening to RadioLab for years this story and its presentation has to be one of the best. I've listened to it over and over and over; and I smile each and every time I hear it. Thank you so much for doing such a wonderful job on all the shows and making them available to us on the Internet. Cheers!

Apr. 13 2014 07:45 PM
Random Commentor from Florida

I never even knew that the term "glomar" existed. The United States is a very liberal country but it also has many restrictions on its freedoms. Even freedom of speech is restricted by obscenities and context versus environment. It, therefore, does not surprise me then, that the government retricts our curious nature to gather information by delaying the release of this information or by making reporters waste their resources looking for a slip of the tongue that they could take to court. Why would they deny us information if not for selfish reasons? Honestly, collecting phone calls and text records is useless. The majority of texters are teenagers whose egocentric perspective of life only allows for petty, unimportant texts about their daily chores or routines. I would think terrorists, by now, have found a more convenient way of communicating. The Patriot Act has served its purpose; making ignorant Americans feel safe after 9/11. If you are willing to give up your right, it will be taken.

Apr. 03 2014 08:08 PM
Joseph Kinyon

I remember passing by the GLOMAR Explorer for most of my childhood and adult life as it was anchored in Suisun Bay for decades with the Mothball Fleet.
Currently drilling off India

Mar. 24 2014 05:52 PM
Bret from Florida

There is a good video called, "Azorian: The Raising of the K-129". You can rent if from Netflix.

Mar. 03 2014 08:13 AM
dankzephyr from seattle

i did the freedom of information request, as mentioned in this episode... as for my reply from the nsa -they said that they could not release any information due to national security reasons OR because there was no information to release..

Mar. 03 2014 03:45 AM

For more information on this and many other fascinating cold war events, I highly recommend the book: Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage

Feb. 28 2014 11:44 PM

@robin78 The piece at the end is called Demilune ƒ22 and is by KILN.

Feb. 27 2014 07:51 AM
Michael Huang

In the show, it was mentioned that government agencies must respond when the exact name of a document is asked for, since that indicates existance of a document that can't be denied. Has anyone attempted to submit hundreds or thousands of FOIA requests with likely names in hope that one of them matches?

Loved the show!

Feb. 23 2014 10:56 PM
Ed from Tokyo

Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this podcast. I've only recently started listening to Radiolab and it's already becoming a favourite. Highly informative and beautifully produced. The Glomar story was fascinating, something I hadn't heard before. How has it never been picked up by Hollywood? The next Argo maybe?

Feb. 20 2014 11:55 PM
Leo Romero from Manila, Philippines

Updated the Wikipedia entry for Glomar response, citing CIA AGC "Walt Logan" as author; cited Radiolab as source.

Feb. 18 2014 07:34 PM
Pretzels from Reading, Penna.

Robin 78, it's Demilune F22 by Kiln.

Feb. 18 2014 07:07 PM
Kevin Lehmann

The story of the Soviet sub recovery attempt has been long in the public domain. In "The Silent War:The cold war battle beneath the seas" (2001) by John Craven has a detailed discussion, including how the sub was located. Craven was a key scientific adviser the the US Navy. The US hydrophones recorded the implosion of the sub as it descended and basically used triangulation. The US Navy published their own account of the the project in "Project Azorian: The CIA and the Raising of K-129" in 2010.

The "cover story" about mining Magnesium nodules was not the joke the report suggests. The search for a practical method to mine these was pursued by several multinational groups during that time frame, and has even resurfaced more recently as a potential source of rare-earth elements.

Feb. 17 2014 06:00 PM
sam from france

Nice story. Not many people know about this. Its better than some fictional cold war spy stories.

Did you know the main reason for getting that submarine was the submarine itself. Russian subs could operate deeper underwater because of titanium hull construction. However titanium is very hard to weld or for that matter do anyting with after it has been moulded. The US wanted to know how they built the submarine first and foremost.

Pretty shameful the way this 'neither confirm or deny' is used to obfuscate the truth. My logic says it is a fallacy if you extend the problem domain to the real world. If 'they' cant confirm or deny then 'somebody' should confirm or deny for them. Its not like you could go to an archive/databse and use a data search method to discover therefore 'confirm' for them.

Feb. 15 2014 01:30 PM
Kieron George

I'll be glad to donate as long as I know Jad Abumrad isn't publically supporting things like alternate medicine & other woo.

Feb. 14 2014 03:34 PM
Erik from Paris

In the Netherlands we have a rather new online news initiative created by a group of journalists: the not copy paste journalism but articles with backgrounds, deep digging news. I see similarities with what you are doing. They are called: The Correspondent' They publish a lot of articles on Facebook for free but do you want to give comments on their site and see all articles you pay for a subscription. They came up recently with an online 'innovation map' of the country with initiatives put on that map by people starting a new bank par example. If readers want to put their initiative on the map they have to subscribe. Its smart and everybody understands the benefits in a free press world. You can also come up with initiatives to ask for support without asking: you offer something with a benefit. Good luck.

Feb. 14 2014 03:36 AM
Wayne from Montevallo Alabama

I served in the U.S. Navy in ASW, early 60's and had forgotten about this incident. Thanks Radio Lab. We chased many sonar contacts during the blockade and after that presumably were Russian Subs and we were not careful with them.

Feb. 13 2014 10:21 PM

Thanks for another fun episode. It really got me thinking. In particular, that the idea of the NSA not giving out any information at all (even a denial) is a bit (maybe a lot?) hypocritical. If I understand it correctly the whole frame of logic for the phrase “neither confirm nor deny” implies that even the meta-data is too dangerous to give out. Yet, since the recent revelations, haven’t we been assured of the harmlessness of this? That we, as individuals, are supposed take it as reassuring that they are ‘only collecting the meta-data’. No personal information. Nothing specific. I guess all meta-data isn’t created equal? Clearly there is a difference between the needs of the State and the needs of the individual. But does it apply here?
Thanks again!

Feb. 13 2014 02:18 PM

Very informative podcast! I enjoyed it a lot!

I recognize the gloomy music at the end of the pod cast from perhaps earlier pod casts. Is this snippet something you created for the show or from an actual artist? If so, which one and what is the name of the song?

Thanks you for everything!!!

Feb. 13 2014 05:12 AM

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