neither confirm nor deny / Glomar response

When a US government official neither confirms nor denies the existence of a classified program it is called a Glomar response or a Glomar denial. This label has its origins in one of the most fascinating incidents of the Cold War between the US and the USSR, but the wording neither confirm nor deny is much, much older, dating to at least 1840.

In March 1968, the Soviet K-129 Golf-class ballistic missile submarine sank 1,500 miles off the coast of Hawaii. The wreck was at a depth of 16,000 feet (4,900 meters). Soviet efforts to recover the submarine failed, and the CIA and US Navy subsequently funded the construction of the ship Global Marine Explorer or Glomar Explorer by billionaire Howard Hughes. The cover story was that the ship would be used to mine manganese from the ocean floor. In 1974 the ship managed to lift the hull of the Soviet submarine from the ocean floor, but the submarine broke up in the process, and the Glomar Explorer only recovered a portion of the sub. Allegedly, various cryptographic materials, two nuclear torpedoes, and six corpses were in the recovered portion. The bodies of the Soviet sailors were buried at sea with full honors by the US Navy.

The story became public in the pages of the Los Angeles Times in 1975. Subsequent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by reporters for documents on the incident were met with the response that the government could neither confirm nor deny the incident took place. Hence the labels Glomar response and Glomar denial became attached to the phrase.

But the earliest use in print of either label that I can find is in the 1996 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), which reads:

A “refusal to neither confirm nor deny” response […] That kind of response is referred to as a “Glomar” denial.

The phrasing Glomar response can only be found from 2003 version of the CFR:

Glomar Response. In the instance where a [Department of the Navy] activity receives a request for records whose existence or nonexistence is itself classifiable, the DON activity shall refuse to confirm or deny the existence or non-non-existence of the records.

But the phrase neither confirm nor deny predates the Cold War by over a century. It’s a standard journalistic phrase used for all sorts of denials, by the government and by others. It dates to at least August 1840 in the pages of the Baltimore Sun:

Some of the Cincinnati papers of the 25th, publish a rumor of the death of Judge Bigger, Governor elect of Indiana—The papers of the 26th neither confirm nor deny the truth of the report.

The phrase appears thousands of times in newspapers since that date. For example, this one from the Nashville American in January 1900:

An able-bodied and seemingly authentic report is abroad that Coal Oil Inspector Thomas H. Jackson’s resignation is in the hands of the Governor. The Inspector will neither confirm nor deny the report.

Or this British example from The Guardian in January 1970:

Biafra has denied that Federal forces have made any gains in the latest fighting, and official sources would neither confirm nor deny the reports.

Various popular and journalistic accounts of the Glomar incident credit the CIA FOIA office for inventing the neither confirm nor deny phrase, but this not the case. The CIA simply used a standard journalistic catchphrase; it is only the labels Glomar response and Glomar denial that stem from the Cold War incident, and even these appear only decades after the incident.


Sources:

32 CFR § 701.23. US Government Printing Office, 1 Jul 1996.

32 CFR § 701.11. US Government Printing Office, 1 Jul 2003.

“Biafrans Forced Back?” The Guardian, 3 Jan 1970, 3.

“Memphis Officials,” The Nashville American, 7 Jan 1900, 3.

“Rumored Death,” The Baltimore Sun, 31 Aug 1840, 2.

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