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Dear Mr. Lang,
Thank you for posting your request on History Hub!
We searched the National Archives Catalog and located 4 items in two collections that include the phrase “cannot confirm or deny.” We also located 86 file units & 10 items in various record groups/collections that include the phrase “confirm nor deny.” These records have been digitized and are available for viewing via the Catalog.
In addition, we searched the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) and located the series Central Foreign Policy Files, ca. 1973 - 12/31/1979 in the General Records of the Department of State (Record Group 59) that includes 19 Electronic Telegrams from 1975-1976 & 1979 using the phrase “cannot confirm or deny” and 214 Electronic Telegrams from 1973-1979 using the phrase “confirm nor deny.” These telegrams are available digitally via AAD.
We hope this is helpful. Best of luck with your research!
Thank you for your efforts.
Dear Mr. Lang.
By way of background, I am a Cold War Veteran of the U.S. Air Force (8 Dec 1981-10 Jul 1996). During my nearly 15 years in uniform I served in both the USAF Security Police (AFSC 81150) with the 45th Missile Security Squadron at Ellsworth AFB, SD (primarily guarding Minuteman II ICBMs), and with four follow-on Wings both stateside and in West Germany. In those latter units, from Oct 1984-onward, I served as a USAF Senior Historian (AFSC 792X2, later 3HO71), a member of the Commander's staff for each combatant wing and training center as his 'corporate memory', where I also compiled and wrote objective (classified) historical analysis of the routine activities of the mission activities for each of those deterrence, combat-tasked, or technical training Wings. As an enlisted USAF Historian, it was a large part of my job (by SAC and USAF Regulation) to provide full, factual, and frank answers to all historical inquiries that crossed my desk, whether they come from the public, from higher-level officers, from foreign allies, etc.
In my personal experience, the term "Cannot Confirm nor Deny" was a very common one in Air Force parlance, particularly in certain Major Commands like SAC and USAFE that had strategic and tactical nuclear deterrence missions, as well as among the specialists in certain classified career fields who served in those commands. I do not know the term's origins, but they are very old and likely date back (at least Air Force-wise) to our predecessor branch, the U.S. Army, prior to the Air Force becoming a separate branch in 1947. Officially, the term was used as a convenient safeguard for the speaker (often a person with access to classified information) to prevent them from giving unauthorized personnel certain vital information for which they were not cleared. This included such things as the number of aircraft, crews, bombs, or targets planned for a future sortie, etc. A standard response would be: "I can neither confirm nor deny there will be a bomber generation tomorrow morning, but if you hear jet engines, you'll have your answer." It was often used in my own Wing when civilian inquirers (most of them locals who it was well understood knew our mission was strategic nuclear deterrence, and yet we were not allowed to discuss anything related to such weapon systems publicly), for example: "I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of certain 'manhole covers' being stored inside that bunker." Of course, the euphemism "manhole covers" referred to various types of nuclear gravity bombs or ICBM warheads, etc. The term also had its humorous uses as well. It was so common from a military perspective, that it often formed a rather comical reply to many a non-official question asked of us by our buddies. Question: "What were you doing (who were you with, et.al.) in the NCO Club last night?" The typical response would be: "I can neither confirm nor deny I was at the Club/with that woman/with that bottle in my hand, etc."
Granted, 'Freedom of Information Act' requests are an important safeguard against "too many secrets", and it should be the goal for all leaders at all levels, both military and civilian, to exercise as much transparency for the voting public whenever possible. But the primary mission of our U.S. military is to guard this nation, our national interests, and to protect our American way of life. Make no mistake, our adversaries are not only very clever, they are also very keen to witness (or hasten) our failure, our destruction, and our demise as a free nation. In order to safeguard our nation effectively without 'showing our hand' to our enemies, sometimes certain information must be withheld for a time. This is not done with a malicious intent to withhold information from the American citizen; this is only a means to safeguard that information if it puts you and me or our forces at risk. Hence the need and utility of the term "I can neither confirm nor deny". Persons without military experience may not understand that even just the nature of a response to a question they might ask could be used against friendly forces in some way. Whether in peacetime or in war, our national security depends upon vital information being withheld from those who are not cleared for that information, lest it leave America vulnerable to some form of attack, the undermining of our units, or cost people's lives. Granted, many outside of the national defense world assume their questions will be granted full-disclosure responses at all times, claiming 'every American has a right to know'. Well we do have a right to know, but often not exactly at that moment, when the timing involved, or the special sensitivity of information involved, might be necessary to keep us or our forces in harm's way, safe. While there are no stronger advocates for our Constitutional liberties than those of us who risked our lives in their defense, there are indeed some elements of vital information that if given to the wrong individual, at the wrong time, can and indeed will be used against us. There are cases where those without a requisite "Need to Know", will not have access to that information for a time, until the timeliness or nature of that information, were it to be disclosed to parties outside the particular mission it was intended for, is no longer a threat to us. Forehand knowledge of upcoming missions, certain vitally-important defense programs, numbers of aircraft on alert, aircraft that may be awaiting maintenance, availability of crews, and even such things as the ordnance that might have been uploaded for a future mission, if accidentally leaked to the wrong listener, can supply our adversaries with enough essential information that they could use it against us, redouble their efforts to evade our sorties, build up stronger forces to counter our defenses, or even use it as a 'shopping list' for saboteurs and malicious terror attacks.
I hope this comes close to answering your question.
Thank you for your thoughtful reply. The term "neither confirm nor deny" originated around a CIA operation regarding raising a Soviet sub using Howard Hughes mining vessel The Glomar Explorer. Best to you.