Howard Hughes, eccentric millionaire, movie producer, aviation aficionado, inventor/engineer, visionary and world class paranoiac recluse is known for many things. The immense failure of the Spruce Goose, giving a platform to Orson Welles at RKO to make a film taking on William Randolph Hearst, founding TWA, defending revolutionary innovation from Preston Tucker in his fight with "the big three" car manufacturers, hitchhiking in rags and the final years of isolation and opiates hiding from the world are some of the first things that come to mind when people think of Hughes. One of the most interesting stories is little known now and was suppressed in its time.
Project AZORIAN was just one of many cases where journalism has been suppressed in recent history. Now, today, the CIA is fairly open about the project, going into the history on their website. If you run through the CIA's CREST releases you can also find a <a href="https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb305/doc01.pdf">30 page article from Studies In Intelligence</a>, this article however is highly redacted with multiple pages and passages missing to this day.
The article at CIA.gov on AZORIAN focuses more on the engineering feat itself which is impressive, but not one of the most interesting things about the story:
<blockquote>Imagine standing atop the Empire State Building with an 8-foot-wide grappling hook on a 1-inch-diameter steel rope. Your task is to lower the hook to the street below, snag a compact car full of gold, and lift the car back to the top of the building. On top of that, the job has to be done without anyone noticing. That, essentially, describes what the CIA did in Project AZORIAN, a highly secret six-year effort to retrieve a sunken Soviet submarine from the Pacific Ocean floor during the Cold War.
The story began in 1968 when K-129, a Soviet Golf II-class submarine carrying three SS-N-4 nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, sailed from the naval base at Petropavlovsk on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula to take up its peacetime patrol station in the Pacific Ocean northeast of Hawaii. Soon after leaving port, the submarine and its entire crew were lost. After the Soviets abandoned their extensive search efforts, the US located the submarine about 1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii on the ocean floor 16,500 feet below. Recognizing the immense value of the intelligence on Soviet strategic capabilities that would be gained if the submarine were recovered, the CIA agreed to lead such a recovery effort with support from the Department of Defense."</blockquote>
The <a href="https://www.cia.gov/about-cia/cia-museum/experience-the-collection/text-version/stories/project-azorian.html>article from the CIA</a> goes on to note how CIA engineers determined by 1970 that the 1,750 ton, 132-foot-long submarine would most likely be best extricated covertly from it's resting place 3 miles below sea level with the use of a giant mechanical claw and a series of wenches connected to a large enough vessel. The cover story was to be the Glomar Explorer. On the surface, the Hughes Glomar Explorer was a deep-sea mining ship involved in marine research and manganese mining at the bottom of the ocean.
The submarine, a portion of it anyway, was finally recovered. Aboard, six Soviet submariners were found who were given a formal military burial at sea. A leak in the media however led to the Glomar Explorer's existence as more than a commercial vessel being discovered. It all started with a break-in to the Summa Corporation's office. It's believed that among the documents stolen one was from a senior employee for Mr. Hughes mentioning a proposition from the CIA to allow his company to be used in the project. The CIA had to engage the FBI to track down the documents, FBI called in the Los Angeles Police Department. Some members of the media began to get wind of.
Then Director of Central Intelligenc William Colby tried to shut down coverage by urging the importance of a leak-proof environment due to the diplomatic and political sensitivity involved in secretly absconding with a Soviet nuclear sub without being detected. Seymour Hersh was working on a story related to the Hughes Glomar Explorer but the CIA convinced the New York Times to suppress the story initially, but Hersh would write a piece on the CIA connection to the ship after other media outlets had shared the news.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">After 9/11, the use of the GLOMAR response has expanded beyond belief, says <a href="https://twitter.com/vdbaranetsky?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@vdbaranetsky</a>.<br><br>I can neither confirm nor deny that this is the case.<br><br>(Just kidding. Glomarization spreading beyond the <a href="https://twitter.com/CIA?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@CIA</a> is terrible news. <a href="https://t.co/8cjjpwOkwG">https://t.co/8cjjpwOkwG</a> )<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/news_archiving?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#news_archiving</a> <a href="https://t.co/3U89uxDxFm">pic.twitter.com/3U89uxDxFm</a></p>— Alex Howard (@digiphile) <a href="https://twitter.com/digiphile/status/984929697019576320?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">April 13, 2018</a></blockquote>
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The LA Times eventually covered the robbery and a potential connection between Hughes and the CIA sponsored operation AZORIAN. Jack Anderson later would break the story on national television at which point the genie was out of the bottle. Within a couple years the story would become <a href="http://bondfanevents.com/on-site-inside-stage-007/">inspiration for the Liparus oil tanker and submarine interceptor from the James Bond film</a> The Spy Who Loved Me. Perhaps not entirely too surprising considering James Bond film producer Albert Broccoli was a lifelong friend of Hughes. In fact, the eccentric millionaire <a href="http://jamesbond.wikia.com/wiki/Willard_Whyte">Willard Whyte from the film Diamonds are Forever</a> is based loosely on Hughes.
<blockquote>"Inspired by media revelations regarding the Howard Hughes-sponsored Glomar Explorer–outwardly a marine research vessel later revealed to conceal apparatus designed expressly for the covert recovery of a downed Soviet nuclear sub–Stromberg`s base of operations would be the Liparus, at first glance one of the largest oil tankers in the world (“After the Karl Marx, of course,” interjects Agent XXX.), but in reality housing a labyrinth of quays, holding cells, arsenal, control center and more, all conveniently traversed by dual elevators and twin, superconductive monorails."</blockquote>
The Nixon administration responded to media and FOIA requests with a response that would come to be standard in cases like this, saying they could "neither confirm nor deny" anything related to the story. It was too late however, soon the Soviets were guarding the recovery site and operation AZORIAN was abandoned. Supposedly, the ship was unused for nearly thirty years before it would be used for deep-sea oil drilling and exploration by a US petroleum company.
In fact, to this day the term "Glomarization" has become a term for using the "neither confirm nor deny" means of declining to comment in order to potentially protect national security. The website MuckRock tracks FOIA requests and reports on national security history, they have an entire <a href="https://www.muckrock.com/search/?q=glomar">tag for Glomar</a>. Most of the articles in question that are tagged Glomar are related to <a href="https://www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2016/nov/09/msp-glomar/">"Glomarization:"</a>
<blockquote>“Glomar” rejections, as they are known, are mostly issued by federal agencies like the CIA on requests about black ops programs or operations gone wrong, and they have a tight legal scope. Those infamous words, “we can neither confirm nor deny,” are only supposed to come out when national security is at risk, or if someone’s name appearing or not appearing in a law enforcement document would have a ruinous effect on that person’s life or character.</blockquote>
Harriet Ann Phillippi was trying to obtain documents related to the Hughes Glomar Explorer via a FOIA request. Her denial was considered the <a href="https://www.muckrock.com/place/united-states-of-america/exemption/glomar-denial-183/">prototypical "Glomar denial" exemption</a>. Generally it is invoked by agencies that are part of the security state, but (as per Wilner v. Nat'l Sec. Agency) agencies "may refuse to confirm or deny the existence of records where to answer the FOIA inquiry would cause harm cognizable under a FOIA exception.”