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Neither Confirm Nor Deny
Like I was Sayin....
We’ve all seen it in print, or heard it on television. The phrase is used so often that it’s easy to gloss over. Everyone from politicians to celebrities says it: “I can neither confirm nor deny.” They are likely responding to an inquiry or accusation, to which they don’t want to answer. Even though they likely know the answer.

You see, some things are so important that the government wants them classified. And that’s the origin of this phrase: a classified mission, a persistent press, and a response that has found its way into pop culture.

A recent NPR Radiolab program, which is worth listening to in its entirety, explains where the “Glomar Response” – that’s its actual name – came from. In 1968, a Russian submarine had sunk to the bottom of the ocean and we, the Americans, found it. A subsequent six-year operation aided by Howard Hughes attempted to recover the wreckage and all the valuable intelligence aboard. It involved building a big boat, the Glomar Explorer, with a makeshift claw to lift the sub three miles from below the surface of the ocean.

And, according to the report, the plan largely failed.

In 1975, Los Angeles Times journalist Harriet Ann Phillippi asked the CIA to confirm the existence of the Glomar project and the agency would neither confirm nor deny whether it happened at all.

But after some 40 years, a few details about the mission and the vessel built to execute it have come to light. In between, the Glomar (an abbreviation of Global Marine) response has been used countless times and, in the government’s case, often upheld by courts to protect “sensitive” information. It’s the go-to response when someone files a Freedom of Information Act request. But it’s so much more.

It’s infiltrated the world of sports. Recently, neither the Manchester United soccer team nor its star player Wayne Rooney would confirm nor deny a new contract to which the two sides had agreed.

Politicians, especially those engulfed in scandal, love saying it. Initially, former Congressman Anthony Weiner would neither confirm nor deny whether lewd photos that surfaced online were of him. It was eventually confirmed.

And you know who uses it a lot? The beleaguered National Security Agency.

Following recent stories on abusive government spying, ProPublica journalist Jeff Larson filed a freedom of information request with the NSA asking if the agency had spied on him. He didn’t expect an answer, but he got one anyway.

Larson received a letter from the NSA that said it would neither confirm nor deny whether it had gathered his information. It added that, “any positive or negative response on a request-by-request basis would allow our adversaries to accumulate information and draw conclusions about the NSA’s technical capabilities, sources, and methods.” And providing the information “would reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to national security.”

That doesn’t sound reasonable at all. How would telling a journalist, or anyone for that matter, whether it had compiled information on them do such grave damage?

We’ll probably be kept in the dark for decades, or longer, as to what exactly the NSA and FBI are gleaning from the central Internet servers they have reportedly tapped into. After all, to this day the CIA has insisted some details of the Glomar project remain secret.

The National Security Archive, an independent non-governmental research institute at George Washington University, pointed out that President Barack Obama did add a line in his recent Executive Order on Classification. It reads: “No information may remain classified indefinitely.”

But indefinitely is a long time.
 
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