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.Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.