Spy Glossary — On the Origin of “GLOMAR Response” [UPDATE — John Le Carré’s Lexicon]

“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.”

CIA — March 18 1975

March 18 2020 — American spies don’t just talk American English. They have their own spy lingo. Did you ever wonder what a “GLOMAR” answer is? On March 18, 1975, one of CIA’s greatest intelligence coups, Project AZORIAN, was fully exposed through a nationally broadcast syndicated report. Jack Anderson’s syndicated television report revealed the truth about the Glomar Explorer and its connection to a secret intelligence operation. Follow us on Twitter: @INTEL_TODAY

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“John le Carré’s considerable public achievement has been to chronicle and interrogate the big political themes of the age while also inventing his own lexicon of espionage — the Circus, tradecraft, lamplighters, moles, scalphunters, pavement artists, the honey trap — that will endure as a permanent part of the language.”

Jason Cowley — Editor of the New Statesman

UPDATE (December 18 2020) — John Le Carré passed away, but his novels are with us forever.

And let me assure you that his lexicon will indeed endure as a permanent part of the language.

Circus, tradecraft, lamplighters, moles, scalphunters, pavement artists, and the infamous honey-trap are indeed spy words that are credited to John Le Carré.

As always, Truth is never simple. I suggest that this is worthy of serious research.

Perhaps, writing a series “Spy Glossary” may not be a bad way to remember the great master of the spy novels….

Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer just published a piece about this subject.

When the British spy novelist John Le Carré died last Saturday, many obituaries noted how his gripping tales of Cold War espionage were informed by his own experiences in the U.K. intelligence agency MI5.

His firsthand knowledge of spycraft provided verisimilitude for those bestselling works, beginning with ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ in 1963.

That verisimilitude extended to the jargon of spying in his novels, which had the ring of truth. But in fact, Le Carré would often make up his own terms. As he revealed to a BBC interviewer in 1976, ‘I’ve used some authentic words, but I prefer my own really.’

Those Le Carré-isms include “scalphunter,” “honey-trap,” “lamplighter” and “pavement artist.”

In that same interview, Le Carré was asked about one term that became particularly prominent after he used it in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” in 1974: “mole,” for a double agent who penetrates an organization and spies on it from the inside.

“A mole is, I think, a genuine KGB term, for somebody who burrows into the fabric of bourgeois society and undermines it from within,” Le Carré said.

As it turns out, aside from a nickname for one Russian agent decades earlier, “mole” was not in common use by either Western or Soviet intelligence until it became popularized in Le Carré’s novels and adaptations.


Le Carré may have been mistaken in thinking of “mole” as a standard KGB term, but it did appear sporadically in the context of Soviet-era spying.

A 1922 article in the London Morning Post on Communist activities in Great Britain referred to “the underground burrowings of our Bolshevist moles.”

And in 1932, the Soviets recruited a double agent named Fedossenko and gave him the alias “The Mole,” according to Geoffrey Bailey’s 1960 book “The Conspirators.”

As you can expect, this series would not be an easy one to write. Are you so sure that John Le Carré coined the expression honey-pot? Do not bet on it just yet….


When the Central Intelligence Agency joined Twitter on June 6 2014, folks at the Agency chose the phrase “can neither confirm nor deny” as their first tweet. This is known as a “GLOMAR” answer.

“45 years ago, a syndicated report by Jack Anderson was broadcast nationally, fully exposing a classified mission to extract a wrecked Soviet submarine from the Pacific Ocean.”

CIA Tweet — March 18 2020

Recent “GLOMAR” answer (February 2020)

Crypto AG was a Swiss company specializing in communications and information security.

It was secretly jointly owned by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and West German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) from 1970 until about 1993, with the CIA continuing as sole owner until about 2018.

Don’t bother to send FOIA requests…

This is a final response to your 11 February 2020 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, received in the office of the Information and Privacy Coordinator on 11 February 2020, for a copy of all documents, electronic or otherwise, that pertain to or mention: Crypto AG [which you advised] is a Swiss company specializing in communications and information security.

In accordance with Section 3.6(a) of Executive Order 13526, the CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request.

The fact of the existence or nonexistence of such records is itself currently and properly classified and is intelligence sources and methods information protected from disclosure by Section 6 of the CIA Act of 1949, as amended, and Section 102A(i)(l) of the National Security Act of 1947, as amended. Therefore, your request is denied pursuant to FOIA exemptions (b)(l) and (b)(3).

On the Origin of the word “GLOMAR”

The so-called “Glomar response” was created by the CIA in reaction to media inquiries about a covert agency program, which created a salvage vessel named the Glomar Explorer to recover a sunken Soviet submarine.

Glomar is a contraction of Global Marine, the company that the CIA commissioned to build the Glomar Explorer.

By stating that the agency could “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of the covert program, the CIA avoided saying the program did not exist, which would have been a lie, and simultaneously it avoided revealing the existence of the program by confirming it, which would have tipped off the Soviet Union.

How the Media found out

Almost immediately after the recovery effort, planning began for a second mission to recover the lost section, but was stopped after a bizarre and unforeseen exposure of Glomar’s true purpose.

In June 1974, just before the Glomar set sail, thieves had broken into the offices of the Summa Corporation and stolen secret documents, one tying Howard Hughes to CIA and the Glomar Explorer. Desperate to recover this document, CIA called in the FBI, which in turn enlisted the Los Angeles Police Department.

The search drew attention, and by the autumn of 1974 the media began to pick up rumors of a sensational story.

Director of Central Intelligence William E. Colby personally appealed to those who had learned about AZORIAN not to disclose the project.

For a while they cooperated, but on February 7, 1975 the Los Angeles Times published an account that made connections between the robbery, Hughes, CIA, and the recovery operation.

Journalists flooded into the Long Beach area where the Glomar was preparing for its second mission.

Jack Anderson’s syndicated television report was broadcast nationally on March 18, fully breaking the truth about the Glomar.

The Ford Administration neither confirmed nor denied any of the stories in circulation, creating the notorious statement that has come to be known as the “Glomar Response.”

By late June, the Soviets were aware of the Glomar’s covert mission and had assigned a ship to monitor and guard the recovery site.

With Glomar’s cover blown, the White House canceled further recovery operations.


The Exposing of Project AZORIAN — CIA Website (March 17 2020)

CIA GLOMAR Response on Crypto AG Documents [2 Pages, 1MB]

The CIA’s Secret History of the Phrase ‘Can Neither Confirm Nor Deny’ — PAUL H.B. SHIN


Spy Glossary — On the Origin of “GLOMAR” [March 18 1975]

Spy Glossary — On the Origin of “GLOMAR Response” [UPDATE — John Le Carré’s Lexicon]

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