Federal judge rules that Navy must release documents related to the sinking of the Thresher

A federal judge has ruled in favor of a retired Navy officer who is seeking thousands of pages of documents from the service relating to the sinking of the USS Thresher nearly 57 years ago.

Retired Navy Capt. Jim Bryant filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Navy in July 2019 for the information, which he said could help shed light on possible causes for the sinking that have not been made public. He said it would also help to know the Navy's thinking at the time.

"We want to know the thoughts in their mind, which is very important to researchers today dealing with technological advancements, is how did these folks handle these technologies? What was their analysis of it at the time, so that it can be used in future situations," Bryant said during a phone interview last week.

On Feb. 10, a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C., ordered that the Navy must start releasing documents to Bryant by mid-May. The Navy has said there are 3,600 documents that are responsive to Bryant's FOIA request.

Bryant said a key point made by the judge, Trevor N. McFadden, was when he explained, in issuing his ruling, that while he normally defers to the government in cases like these, this time the government is being overly cautious.

Bryant, for his part, said he's remaining cautiously optimistic about the ruling until he actually sees what the Navy produces. He's spent years looking into the cause of the Thresher's sinking and has publicly questioned the Navy's explanation that a ruptured seawater pipe in the engine room of the submarine caused catastrophic flooding, including water spraying an electrical panel that caused the submarine's nuclear reactor to shut down. The submarine sank on April 10, 1963. Everyone aboard — 16 officers, 96 sailors and 17 civilians — died.

Bryant has cited analyses done by experts like Bruce Rule, who testified during the Navy's investigation into the tragedy. Rule believes there was no flooding because the sounds of high-pressure water hitting the inside of the submarine were not detected during the analysis of acoustic data.

Among the documents Bryant is seeking are the transcript, exhibits, photographs, charts, graphs, memoranda and technical reports produced during the Navy's investigation.

McFadden ordered the Navy to review 300 pages of documents per month starting at the end of April and to start producing documents by mid-May. The Navy's lawyer argued during last week's hearing that the Navy needed more time to review the records to ensure classified information remains protected, a time-consuming process that involves several subject matter experts.

About eight years ago, the Navy planned to release more documents on the sinking of the Thresher but later scrapped that idea, saying the material was mostly technical in nature, did not contribute to any better understanding of the loss, and would be unnecessarily traumatic for the remaining families and next of kin.

j.bergman@theday.com

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