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Release of USS Thresher Documents Delayed by COVID-19 Office Closures

A bow view of the nuclear submarine Thresher (SSN-593), 24 July 1961. US Naval History and Heritage Command photo

The Navy is sitting on roughly 600 pages of documents related to the USS Thresher (SSN-593) sinking that a federal judge ordered released, unable to comply because the office charged with processing their release is shuttered due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Following a February court hearing in U.S. District Court, a judge ordered the Navy’s Undersea Warfare Division (OPNAV N97) to start handing Thresher-related records to retired Navy Capt. James Bryant, a former Thresher-class submarine commander. He has for years researched Thresher’s sinking.

The Navy has rebuffed his requests by Bryant to review Thresher-related documents – the vast majority of which the Navy declassified in 2012. In July, Bryant sued the Navy to honor his Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to review hundreds of Thresher-related documents.

However, according to a court-mandated status report filed Wednesday, N97 officials state the records review is now on indefinite hold. During the COVID-19 outbreak, N97 staff is limited to telework and accomplishing mission-essential tasks supporting undersea forces and operations, according to the Navy’s court-mandated status report filed Wednesday.

“OPNAV N97 does not have the personnel or resource to process the requested document at this time. However, OPNAV N97 is continuing to monitor the COVID-19 crisis and will return to the review and process of Plaintiff’s FOIA request once the office is able to expand beyond mission-essential capabilities,” the Navy stated in the status report.

When N97 resumes processing Bryant’s FOIA request, the Navy intends to use reservists to help speed up the pace in which documents are released, according to the status report.

Thresher never resurfaced after conducting a test dive on the morning of April 10, 1963, killing 129 officers, sailors and shipbuilders. Thresher is the worst nuclear submarine disaster in U.S. history. The Thresher disaster spurred the Navy to create its SubSafe program. Even after six decades, Bryant believes the Navy and ship designers can learn from the incident.

There are several theories as to why Thresher sank. Mechanical failures, design flaws and even suspected Soviet Navy interference have been discussed. Bryant suspects the problem involved Thresher’s main coolant pumps. Without the documents he’s requested, though, he doesn’t think there’s a way to determine if any theories are correct.

While N97 states it is limited in its ability to process Bryant’s FOIA request, the Navy’s Naval Reactors division is steadily reviewing the requested documents for release. Naval Reactors holds the documents and is first reviewing them to ensure sensitive information is not inadvertently released.

“In total, Naval Reactors has reviewed approximately 600 pages of records and these records have been transferred to OPNAV 97,” the status report states.

The Navy is scheduled to submit its next Thresher document release status report to U.S. District Court on July 20.