What the FOIA is GLOMAR?!

Images courtesy of Central Intelligence Agency.

FOIA can be a challenge for even the most seasoned requester, and jargony language and acronyms make things even more confusing. Case in point: the term “Glomar” is often used to describe a FOIA response where the agency neither confirms nor denies (NCND) the existence of responsive records. Knowing where this term comes from can help understand why agencies issue this type of response. 

How and why did the word “Glomar” come to be used to describe a type of FOIA response? On March 8, 1968, a Soviet Union submarine (known as K-129) sank in the Pacific Ocean – on board were 98 sailors who all perished. Also onboard the submarine were nuclear missiles. The Soviet Navy attempted for several months to find the ship, which was three miles below the surface, but was never able to locate it. At the same time, the United States recognized there might be a lot of valuable intelligence data on the ship if it could be located and raised. Once the Soviets gave up searching, the U.S. military located the ship approximately 1,800 miles northwest of Hawaii, which was hundreds of miles away from where the Soviets had been searching. Thus the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in partnership with the Department of Defense began a six-year long covert operation to raise the ship under the code name Project Jennifer, later to be revealed as Project Azorian.

With the goal of attempting to raise a 2,000-ton sunken submarine, the CIA realized they needed a cover story to not attract attention, particularly the attention of the Soviet Union. The CIA turned to eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, owner of Global Marine Development Inc. As part of the CIA’s plan, Hughes publicly announced that he would construct a ship to collect valuable minerals from the Pacific Ocean floor. The reality was that an expensive, one-of-a-kind ship was being built specifically for this salvage operation. Construction of the ship, named the Hughes Glomar Explorer — “’Glomar” being a contraction of the name of Hughes’s company Global Marine — used the name of Hughes’s company as a cover for the project. The ship took four years to construct and was outfitted with a submersible claw that could conduct recovery under water, therefore not attracting attention from other ships, aircraft, or spy satellites. 

In June 1974, the Hughes Glomar Explorer left Long Beach, California, for the recovery site and worked for several months in secrecy. Although the claw was successful in lifting K-129 off the seafloor, the hull broke apart midway through the process and only 40 of the K-129’s total 300 feet was recovered. Once the 40 foot portion was lifted onto the Hughes Glomar Explorer, the suspected intelligence goldmine was nonexistent. What was recovered were submarine manuals, two nuclear-tipped torpedoes, and the bodies of six Soviet sailors who were given a formal burial at sea by the U.S.

After the search and recovery mission wrapped up, stories began to leak about Project Jennifer through a variety of media reports. This was partially fueled by an odd occurrence; Hughes’s office in Los Angeles was burglarized during this time and documents related to the project were stolen. The CIA then recruited the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Los Angeles Police Department to help recover the stolen information. This drew media attention to the project, including the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and other publications. Harriet “Hank” Phillippi Ryan, a journalist for Rolling Stone, filed a FOIA request seeking information on the Hughes Glomar Explorer. The CIA responded with “we can neither confirm nor deny” the existence of documents related to the project which became commonly known as the “Glomar” response. Although information leaked to the public through the theft of Mr. Hughes’s papers, this did not constitute an official acknowledgement of the project. An acknowledgement by the CIA of the existence of related records would have constituted an official acknowledgement of the project. Since the existence of the project was itself classified, the CIA used the NCND response. From this point forward, responses that neither confirm nor deny the existence of responsive records were referred to in shorthand as a “Glomar” response.

In its 2020-2022 term, the FOIA Advisory Committee (FAC), a body created to explore ways to improve how FOIA works, made four recommendations to the Archivist of the United States about NCND responses. The Archivist accepted these recommendations, one of which, Recommendation 2022-01, states: The Department of Justice, Office of Information Policy (OIP) should issue guidance to agencies that they use the internationally recognized “Neither Confirm Nor Deny” (NCND) instead of Glomar. Members of the 2020-2022 FAC felt strongly that the term “Glomar” was jargon – making it more difficult for ordinary citizens to interact with and participate in government – and the use of the term  should be eliminated from the vernacular of federal agencies. 

The Hughes Glomar Explorer was never used again for covert operations. It was renamed the GSF Explorer and continued operation in the private sector as an oil drilling rig; it was eventually scrapped in 2015, just as we hope agencies will retire the term Glomar.