Media Response & CIA Coverup of Project Azorian

Los Angeles Times article by William Farr & Jerry Cohen, published on the 18th page

On February 8th, 1975, an article was published in the Los Angeles Times, reporting the efforts of a CIA mission to raise a sunken Soviet submarine1. This article, though riddled with innacuracies and hidden on the 18th page of the paper, was the beginning of the end of Project Azorian’s secrecy.

The article was instigated by something rather random: The previous year, the offices of Howard Hughes’ Summa Corporation were robbed, and several documents were stolen. These documents contained records of the CIA’s involvement with the Glomar Explorer and the secret mission to raise K-129, and were apparantly stolen in an attempt to blackmail Hughes and the CIA2. When the CIA failed to track down the burglars themselves, they turned to the FBI, who in turn involved the local police. The police investigation into the burglary is what brought media attention to the case, and when the media discovered the content of the stolen documents, the story became national news.

The Times’ story was the first public reporting on the Explorer, but it is not broadly credited for making the public aware of the project. Roughly a month after the initial article’s publication, columnist Jack Anderson pieced together the truth of the story, fixing several factual errors in the Times’ original article, and broadcasted the story on radio for a national audience. Anderson criticized the project for its apparant failure to recover anything of strategic importance, calling it a “waste of taxpayer money.”3 This was a common criticism of Project Azorian in the media, as the portion of K-129 that was raised by the Glomar Explorer did not contain the submarine’s coderooms or its nuclear warheads, the 2 items with the most singnificance to the intelligence community.

CIA Attempts to Suppress the Story
New York Times article by Seymoure Hersh, published only after the LA Times broke the story

The Los Angeles Times article was not the first time that a newspaper had attempted to report on the Glomar Explorer. 2 years earlier, New York Times reporter Seymoure Hersh had discovered details about the Explorer’s test missions in the Atlantic Ocean, and was in the process of writing an article about the planned salvage mission. In February of 1974, however, then-CIA Director William Colby approached Hersh and requested he stop investigating, citing national security concerns4.

When news of the burglary broke in 1975, Colby again attempted to supress the story in the Los Angeles Times, as publishing the article would endanger a planned mission to recover the remainder of K-129. While the story was not fully suppressed, Colby succeeded in moving the story from the front page to the 18th, meaning that much of the public wouldn’t be aware of the story for several months. When Colby later attempted to suppress Jack Anderson’s radio broadcast, he was flatly refused. Anderson wasn’t convinced that the story was a real threat to national security, and believed the detriment of hiding it from the public outweighed any cost5.

Détente and threats to US-Soviet diplomacy

At this point in history, the Cold War had entered a period of relative calm as US-Soviet diplomacy was defined by a doctrine known as Détente6. Under détente, the American and Soviet governments had a greater degree of communication between them, with many major treaties being ratified under the period of diplomacy that was started under the Nixon administration. With such a delicate balance of peace between the two sides, the story of the Glomar Explorer becoming public was a dangerous thorn in the US government’s side. If the US admitted to capturing a Soviet vessel in order to gain surveilance capability, diplomacy between the parties was sure to break down.

The downed U-2 spy plane

Such a breakdown had happened before, in the 1960s due to the U-2 spy plane7. In May of 1960, a US spy plane was shot down in Soviet airspace, after dozens of missions gathering information on the USSR. To add insult to injury, President Eisenhower admitted to having approved the U-2’s mission. In order to preserve his image, Khrushchev demanded that Eisenhower apologize for violating Soviet sovereignty during the opening ceremony of the 1960 Paris Summit. Eisenhower refused to apologize, leading the Soviet delegation to leave the summit the day after it had begun, ruining any chances at peaceful negotiations.

In the midst of such a valuable period of peace, and with the context of the U-2 and many other incidents behind them, the US government could not afford to admit involvment in the Glomar Explorer and the raising of K-129. As such, they largely remained silent on the topic, giving standard ‘no comment’ responses. Eventually, however, the govenrment was forced to give a formal response.

FOIA Requests and the Glomar Response

In 1976, reporter Harriet Ann Phillippi began to investigate the CIA’s involvement in the Glomar Explorer, interested by the fact that the CIA had requested other journalists ceace following the case. She filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act, demanding any files that were related to the Explorer or Project Azorian8. Under FOIA, any government agency is required to hand over any documents requested in writing, with a few notable exeptions. Most importantly, if a document is classified in order to protect national security, the agency is not required to turn it over. Of course, if the documents in question simply do not exist, they would also not need to be handed over. The CIA denied Phillippi’s FOIA request, but did not state whether they were citing an exemption to FOIA or that there were no documents to hand over. Instead, their lenghty response contained the first usage of a phrase that came to be synonymous with the CIA and shady government coverups, a phrase that became known as the Glomar Response.

“Mr. Duckett has determined that, in the interest of national security, involvement by the U.S. Government in the activities which are the subject matter of your request can neither be confirmed nor denied. Therefore, he has determined that the fact of the existence or non-existence of any material or documents that may exist which would reveal any CIA connection or interest in the activities of the Glomar Explorer is duly classified Secret in accordance with criteria established by Executive Order 11652. Acknowledgement of the existence or non-existence of the information you request could reasonably be expected to result in the compromise of important intelligence operations and significant scientific and technological developments relating to the national security, and might also result in a disruption in foreign relations significantly affecting the national security.”

Phillippi v. Central Intelligence Agency, 546 F.2d 1009 (D.C. Cir. 1976)

By neither confirming nor denying the existence of the documents, the CIA was able to comply with Phillipi’s FOIA request while also revealing no information, thus avoiding a disruption of diplomacy with the USSR. The response was held up as constitutional in a court case which followed the request, and has been used countless times since as a way for US agencies to avoid admitting their involvement in secretive projects. Despite widepread criticism from journalists and members of the public9, the CIA’s use of the Glomar Response has become so ubiquitous that it is engrained in popular culture, with the CIA tweeting a tounge-in-cheek reference to the anti-journalistic phrase as their first tweet in 2014.


1.⠀William, Cohen, “CIA Reportedly.”
2.⠀William, Cohen, “CIA Reportedly.”
3.⠀Robarge, “The Glomar Explorer,” 29
4.⠀Hersh, “C.I.A SALVAGE SHIP.”
5.⠀Robarge, “The Glomar Explorer,” 28
6.⠀Bennett, “Détente,” 196
7.⠀Bennett, “Détente,” 204
8.⠀Phillippi v. Central Intelligence Agency, 546 F.2d 1009 (D.C. Cir. 1976)
9.⠀Danae, “Reining in,” 232


Bennett, M. Todd. “Détente in deep water: the CIA mission to salvage a sunken Soviet submarine and US-USSR relations, 1968–1975.” Intelligence and National Security, 33:2 (2018): 196-210,

Danae J. Aitchison, “Reining in the Glomar Response: Reducing CIA Abuse of the Freedom of Information Act,” U.C. Davis Law Review 27, no. 1 (Fall 1993): 219-254,

Farr, William & Cohen, Jerry. “CIA Reportedly Contracted With Hughes in Effort to Raise Sunken Soviet A-Sub.” Los Angeles Times, February 8, 1975


Robarge, David  “The Glomar Explorer in Film and Print” (PDF). Studies in Intelligence. 56 (1) (March 2012): 28–29.