'Neither Confirm Nor Deny': Film Review | DOC NYC 2020

Courtesy of Film
An involving look at one of the CIA's least shameful secrets.

Philip Carter recounts a mammoth CIA program that used Howard Hughes as cover during the height of the Cold War.

In 1976 Clive Cussler published Raise the Titanic!, a novel in which a team of undersea adventurers attempted to bring the famous shipwreck to the surface and recover its treasures. But Cussler's hero Dirk Pitt was late to this game: For the previous six or seven years, the CIA had been secretly attempting something similar in the real world, with a much more dangerous treasure in mind.

Adapting a nonfiction book written by that project's director, Philip Carter's Neither Confirm Nor Deny chronicles the massive amount of work (and money) the CIA put into an effort to retrieve a Soviet submarine that sank in the Pacific Ocean in 1968. Full of period footage and storytelling from three of the men most responsible for the project, the film gets much of its appeal from context: As we're reminded in the background here, the '60s and '70s were not exactly glorious years for covert operations by operatives of the U.S. government. This plot, though, was about as morally defensible as they come.

The sub in question was equipped with multiple nuclear missiles, and when it sank after some kind of accident, the Russian government didn't know exactly where to look. Somehow (an explanation here would be very welcome), American intelligence knew more than the ship's owners did. In the words of retired CIA agent David Sharp, "the Soviets didn't know where it was lost. We did."

Sharp was recruited for a team that would reach the sub three miles beneath the ocean's surface and haul it up, allowing the U.S. to see exactly what kind of weapons the Soviets had developed, and possibly to learn from cryptographic material on board. But in order for this material to be most useful — and to avoid perhaps starting a war — the Russians must never learn the Americans had the sub. That's where Howard Hughes comes in.

With the help of a marine-exploration company run by Curtis Crooke, the agents imagined a cover operation of the scale and nature only Hughes was likely to undertake: They got the reclusive entrepreneur to okay the creation of a fake offshore mining vessel dubbed the Hughes Glomar Explorer. The giant ship would secretly be towing a massive device capable of grabbing the tons of submerged metal, but any outside observer would think it was just a very ambitious entry into the nascent field of ocean-mining.

The CIA's Walter Lloyd explains how all those outside observers were manipulated. Rather than working under cover of night, the Agency threw a big public launch for this fake mining operation, earning media attention that probably caused Hughes' competitors to invest much more in undersea exploration than they otherwise would have. Sorry, guys! Once the ship was ready to move to the west coast, agents were all given the kind of glamorous cover identities typically seen only in the movies.

While these three men tell the story of the salvage operation, Carter tracks a less wholesome narrative: The contrast between Richard Nixon's public diplomacy and his illicit tricks. We meet several of the journalists who worked the Watergate beat, including Seymour Hersh, and see how their research on that front dovetailed with investigations into this and much more sinister work undertaken by the CIA.

The late investigative columnist Jack Anderson is a big part of this side of the story, and we see several instances of his railing against government secrecy and attempts at censorship. Even today, many details of this story remain classified; at the time, the government's responses to Freedom of Information Act requests often included the infamous phrase that gives this doc its title.

Venue: DOC NYC
Production company: New Sparta
Director: Philip Carter
Producers: Sheryl Crown, Maggie Monteith, Christopher Simon
Executive producers: Jerome Booth, Liam Halligan, Chris Reed
Editor: Ben Stark
Composer: K
Sales: Ben Schwartz, Submarine

89 minutes