The CIA, the New Russian Ambassador, a Sub and the Dreaded 'Glomar Response'

 CIA documents declassified in 2010 show schematics for the MV Hughes Glomar Explorer (Credit: NSA Archive)

CIA documents declassified in 2010 show schematics for the MV Hughes Glomar Explorer (Credit: NSA Archive)

In mid-August, as reports emerged that Russia had named a "tough" new ambassador to the U.S., Code and Dagger filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA for any mention of the ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, in the spy agency's past communications. Optimistic? Sure. Foolish? Almost certainly. But the secretive agency could release something about the incoming bureaucrat who had to have been on the CIA's radar for years, right?

Apparently not. In a letter from the CIA, the agency said it could "neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request."

"The fact of the existence or nonexistence of such records is itself currently and properly classified and is intelligence sources and methods information protected from disclosure [by law]," the CIA said.

This is, almost comically, a prime example of what's known as the infamous "Glomar response."

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Reaching back some 40 years to the middle of the Cold War, the Glomar response came about in the wake of the CIA's Project Azorian, a secret effort to raise the Soviet submarine K-129 from the depths of the Pacific Ocean after the sub suffered a mysterious, catastrophic incident. The highly classified operation eventually called for a specifically built commercial vessel, dubbed the Hughes Glomar Explorer, to raise the ship, which it successfully did in parts in the mid-1970s, according to a history in George Washington University's National Security Archive.

At the time some journalists got wind of the operation and stories were written about it. Then one journalist, Harriet Ann Phillippi, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents that purportedly would show the CIA's attempts to discourage reporting on the incident. In response, the CIA famously said it could "neither confirm nor deny" the existence of the documents or its connection to the Glomar. Phillippi filed a lawsuit but was rebuffed when a court backed the CIA's play.

From then on, whenever anyone -- especially the CIA -- claimed it could "neither confirm nor deny" something, it became known as getting the dreaded Glomar response. (The Department of Justice provides a whole section of guidance online when it comes to privacy and "Glomarization.")

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