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Glomar: The Ship That Sinks FOIA Requests

The CIA's covert targeted drone killing campaign throughout the Middle East is an open secret. As much as the Obama administration wishes it could blot out recent leaks surrounding kills lists and chains of commands and those nagging, sour accusations...

Brian Anderson

Brian Anderson

The CIA’s covert targeted drone killing campaign throughout the Middle East is an open secret. As much as the Obama administration wishes it could blot out recent leaks surrounding kills lists and chains of commands and those nagging, sour accusations of civilian casualties, there’s just no reversing, now. The cat’s outta the bag. The ship has set sail. Sorry, dudes.

In fact, deeming the shadowy program even remotely “secret” is pointless and getting really, really old. Save a glacial uptick in vague admissions to the U.S.‘s drone games, the administration’s efforts to keep its mouth shut about the whole thing isn’t just (almost) unprecedented – it’s maybe even on its last legs. Under a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2010, the administration has through the end of today to sunlight the memo “underlying the killing programme, the basis for drone strikes that have killed American citizens and the process by which individuals are placed on a kill list,” according to the Guardian.

This could be the “secret” in the CIA’s “secret” drone program’s final stand. Just don’t go calling it that. The government may simply do what it often does when pressed under this sort of heat: pull the Glomar card.

The Glomar response (or Glomar denial) as it’s known, is a response without response. In this sense, Glomar is not unlike a majority of FOIA responses – good luck procuring that lightning-rod report that’ll bring it all down, you investigative reporter, you – in that it says, in so many words, that sorry, the information you’ve requested can’t be dished out for this reason or that. But the thing about Glomar is that it gives no reason for keeping mum. Citing Glomar, whichever agency has been FOIA’d will “neither confirm nor deny” whatever information has been requested. Easy as that.

It’s a genius bit of legal ass-covering, and historically has been invoked on grounds of national security and privacy issues. Fitting, then, that it takes it’s name from a massive salvage vessel built by the CIA in the late ‘60s to carry out Project Azorian, a covert mission to recover a sunken Soviet submarine. The precedent was set when an intrepid reporter at the Los Angeles Times, on a hunch that something was up, sent a FOIA to the CIA, only to hear back that the spy agency would “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of what’s now considered one of the deepest oceanic salvage operations ever conducted. Glomarization was born.

In a coincidental twist, the GSF Explorer, referred during Azorian as the Hughes Glomar Explorer, took its maiden voyage 38 years ago today.

With CIA cameras rolling, Project Azorian recovered only a portion of the missing Russian K-129 sub, but from this wreckage the CIA managed to pull out a pair of nuclear torpedoes and a couple of dead Soviets. Here, in the only clip ever released of the CIA’s film, the dead are given proper burials at sea

So how will the administration respond? Hell, will it even make deadline?

We’ll see. It can do a number of things, here, in response to the ACLU. 1) It could pull the rug out from under Glomar (which, it should be said, it’s been invoking all along when it comes to the CIA’s drone campaign), saying, OK, the program is actually a thing. You got us – but joke’s on you, because we’re keeping everything else about it classified. 2) It could pull the rug out from under Glomar, revealing select bits (but not all) of the program. 3) It could pull the rug out from under Glomar, and dump everything the ACLU has asked for.

“They may not release anything at all, they might continue to say it’s a secret,” Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU’s Center for Democracy, told the Guardian. “It’s possible but it’s absurd. On the one hand there’s extraordinary public interest in the drone programme. On the other hand they recently filed a legal brief claiming it’s too secret even to acknowledge. It surprised me that they were willing to say that to the appeals court in DC.”

For now, just like the CIA’s semi-automated aerial campaign over the Middle East, the Glomar will sail on, drilling for oil off the coast of Indonesia.

Top image via Scott Vardy / Marine Traffic

Reach this writer at brian@motherboard.tv. @thebanderson

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