Confirmed: The CIA's most famous ship headed for the scrapyard

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Carol Hills: I’m Carol Hills and this is The World. Here’s a phrase many investigative journalists know by heart: “The CIA can neither confirm or deny the existence of these documents.” The response is used with such frequency there’s a name for it: a Glomar. That word Glomar has a pretty fascinating backstory. It involves a covert battle with the Soviet Union back in the 1970s, a billionaire inventor, and a ship so large it couldn’t fit in the Panama Canal. The World’s Julia Barton did a story for Radiolab on the Glomar, but she never thought the term would be back in the news. First, I had her explain just what the Glomar is.


Julia Barton: The Glomar is an enormous ship, its original name was the Hughes Glomar Explorer, and it was built in the early 1970s by the CIA in order to retrieve a Soviet submarine that sank to the bottom of the Pacific in 1968. They felt like it would have a ton--a treasure trove of intelligence information, information on nuclear ballistics and torpedoes, and it was worth the incredible effort to try to raise it from three miles below the surface of the ocean.


Hills: Where exactly was it in the ocean?


Barton: It was northwest of Hawaii. It was just in the middle of this very turbulent, deep, deep part of the Pacific Ocean.


Hills: So there’s this secret mission, the CIA builds this ship, it pulls together a crew, sends them out. Does the crew know what it’s doing out there in the Pacific Ocean?


Barton: Most of them do not, and this is where the incredible commercial cover story comes in. So, there was no way to hide what was going on. They needed to build a vessel that was large enough to be stable, that had the technology to bring up something from the bottom of the ocean while staying stationary for days on end in a turbulent deepwater situation. So they had to build a giant rig, and the only way to do that was to do that in the open. So the CIA approached Howard Hughes, the billionaire.


Hills: Howard Hughes, and this is the early 1970s, so Howard Hughes was already a recluse at this point.


Barton: Yes, and it’s not really clear if anybody from the CIA actually talked to him in person; he had sort of an entourage around him. But they agreed to sign on patriotically to provide the commercial cover story, which was that Howard Hughes had decided to invest his sort of entrepreneurial effort into deepwater ocean mining and pulling up these nodules of heavy metals, like manganese and nickel that actually do exist at the bottom of the ocean and potentially could be worth a lot of money. So, he was going to build this enormous rig with his sort of inventing expertise and his crazy drive. And they actually created this whole company, this whole mining venture around it, and it was built out in the open in a shipyard outside of Philadelphia. So I talked to a former CIA director who was on that whole mission. This guy’s name is David Sharp. He actually wrote a book called, “The CIA’s Greatest Covert Mission” about this whole situation.


David Sharp: Most thought they were working for a crazy millionaire. The leaders of the company, the presidents, knew what the real purpose was. But the great majority of the people working on the ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, simply believed it was going to be a mining prototype.


Hills: Now, was David Sharp, who we just heard, was he on the boat itself at the time of this retrieval mission?


Barton: Yes, actually he went on it several times. I mean, after it was built in Philadelphia, it had to go around South America because it was too big to fit through the Panama Canal. He was with it the whole time, and then it was sort of docked in the Los Angeles area, and it would go out on these faux reconnaissance missions to ostensibly look for deposits of manganese on the ocean floor and also to see how much observation they were going to be getting from Soviet vessels, and they did get a lot of razzing from the Soviet side.


Hills: So Julia, did they find the Soviet sub?


Barton: Oh yeah, they knew exactly where they were going. They just had to pretend like they didn’t know.


Hills: So I understand they try to get the ship, they only get a piece of it, and they don’t get the treasure trove of information that they were hoping for. But why are people still talking about this whole episode?


Barton: Well, what was interesting was the dilemma that the government put itself in. So, as you said, they did manage to retrieve a piece of the submarine, and it was a huge disappointment that they didn’t, after millions of dollars being spent and all this effort and successful secrecy, that they didn’t get the whole submarine. However, they did get a piece of it and the CIA wanted to play this double game, they wanted the Soviets to be afraid and embarrassed and worried about the security of their codebooks, of their nuclear missiles. But you have to remember, this is 1974, this is right in the midst of Watergate and all these hearings on the intelligence community, they couldn’t bald-faced lie to the American public. And journalists had figured out what had happened in this mission, there were too many leaks, it was impossible to keep the secrecy. So, they had to come up with this sort of thread-the-needle response to Freedom of Information Act requests. And I spoke with the attorney--he didn’t give us his real name, he gave us a pseudonym, Walt Logan--but I spoke with an attorney at the CIA who came up with the response, which is still used by a lot of government officials today. Here’s Walt Logan.


Walt Logan: The Glomar response developed was basically the following: “We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the information requested. But hypothetically if such data were to exist, the subject matter would be classified and could not be disclosed.


Hills: “We can neither confirm nor deny,” that’s certainly a familiar slogan or familiar response.


Barton: Yes, and it was something that, you know, people like Henry Kissinger would use with foreign governments as a non-answer, but it had never been used on the American media before, and the American media was not happy about that. However, attempts to have it overturned in court failed and it became sort of one of the go-to responses for certain types of FOIA requests. It’s a non-answer; “We can neither confirm nor deny.” It’s even a step back from saying, “Yes, that information exists but it’s classified.”


Hills: So what happened to the Glomar Explorer after the secret mission?


Barton: It was built for one thing. It was like truly a “You had one job” type mission and it didn’t work out very well. So eventually it was mothballed with the US Navy fleet and then finally the Navy sold it in the late “˜90s to an oil exploration company, Transocean, and it was refitted--because it did have this amazing capacity to be stable on the open seas--as an oil exploration rig and it was going around, putting down probes in the deep ocean, looking for oil deposits, and it worked that way until recently. But now the cost of oil is so low that the cost of maintaining these kind of exploration rigs is just not worth it to companies like Transocean. So, they just announced in April that it’s been condemned and they’re going to sell it for scrap.


Hills: Wow. Are you a bit sad that it’s going away?


Barton: Well, it’s an amazing story and I think more people should know it. The CIA is finally copping to it. It’s kind of one of the most incredible things they did. And one of their first tweets actually when they started a Twitter account was, “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.”


Hills: The World’s Julia Barton on the Glomar, a ship built by the CIA for a secret Cold War mission in 1974 to raise a sunken Soviet sub. It’s now heading to the scrapyard. Thanks, Julia.


Barton: Thank you.


Hills: This is The World.