In February 1968, the Soviet submarine K-129 was conducting ordinary patrols in the Pacific Ocean when it vanished. The USSR organized a massive air, sea, and submarine search for the vessel, but by March they'd come up empty and declared K-129 lost with all hands missing.
The sub carried a Soviet nuclear missile, and Americans in the intelligence and military worlds know what a colossal coup it would be to recover not only an enemy sub but also a nuclear warhead. Thus began a mammoth operation to find and potentially recover a submarine from the bottom of sea. Called , this effort would among the most expensive and secretive operations of the Cold War. But it was only partially successful. For the all engineering ingenuity and guile required for the U.S. to locate the sub, build a rig to retrieve it, and fake a cover story to explain their actions, the mission salvaged only part of the vessel and some of the secrets American spies hoped to get their hands on.
Josh Dean, who documents the mission in the new book , explained to PM just how crazy it was.
America turned to the guys who made the U-2 and SR-71
You might think that figuring out a way to raise a boat from 3 miles below the surface of the sea would be a job for the United States Navy. Not so, although Navy leaders desperately wanted it. Instead, the CIA led the project.
Why? For one thing, Dean says, this made it easier to keep Project Azorian a black operation that was harder to trace. Also, CIA guys had just proven themselves capable of taking on bonkers operations. CIA engineers—not those of the Air Force—devised and built the U-2 and then the SR-71 high-altitude spy planes to spy on the Soviets from above and close the "intelligence gap." "They kinda proved they could do anything," Dean says. "Bananas engineering over and over again."
They had to design new kinds of vessels to find it and recover it
When the United States decided to salvage K-129 from three miles down, it had never recovered anything of great size from more than 1,000 feet down. Everything on the Hughes Glomar Explorer, the ship that would undertake this operation, had to be designed new. "There was no off-the-shelf equipment for any of this," Dean says.
Camera systems, sonar, and hydraulics all had to be designed on spec. The government had to turn to the best optics people in the USA to figure out how to image way down deep without creating distortions or shadows that would ruin this delicate work. The claw had to be designed to match the orientation of the wreck.
People bought the cover story
Communication and surveillance weren't quite so sophisticated 50 years ago, but even so, the United States government couldn't build a sprawling salvage ship and take it out to the middle of the ocean without a cover story. So the U.S. cooked one up. Plutocrat Howard Hughes agreed to tell the world he was using the Hughes Glomar Explorer to mine manganese nodules from the sea bottom.
The craziest part: People bought it. Dean says he has stacks of media clips from the 1970s—people reporting on Hughes' undersea mining effort. The United Nations even discussed the legality of it."Howard Hughes was this nut eccentric who built a wooden airplane," Dean says, referring to the . "If it wasn't for Hughes, I'm not sure there's a story that wouldn't worked."
It gave birth to 'neither confirm nor deny'
Surely you've heard a government organization like the FBI or CIA report that they can "neither confirm nor deny" some manner of secret information. The government loves to give this canned response to Freedom of Information Act requests for data about secret programs, the idea being that the government would necessarily have to disclose the purpose of a program if it were to disclose which agencies were involved. Therefore, the argument goes, the U.S cannot confirm or deny such things.
However, you might not know that this response has a name: the Glomar response, or Glomarization. The name comes from the Hughes Glomar Explorer and hunt for K-129. The U.S. issued such a defense for keeping the program a secret.
They were only marginally successful. A New York Times reporter caught wind of some details in 1974, though government officials got him to withhold the story because of national security secrets. That lasted until 1975, when a story ran in the L.A. Times and the New York Times reporter released his full story. Even so, Project Azorian remained fully classified until the in about 2010. "It became verboten to even say the word Azorian," Dean says. There's still a ton of information that isn't public, he says, but the agency isn't quite as uptight about the mission anymore. "I had meeting in Langley," he says. "They weren't shutting the door in my face they would have 10 years ago."
It wouldn't be possible today
To Dean, Project Azorian was the right moment in history to attempt something so audacious. Today there'd be no way to build such a vessel without being found out or having wild rumors spread across the internet.
"On this scale, you couldn't do it. If that ship was getting built, so many people would be nosing around. Someone would put a picture on Reddit and say, 'This looks a little fishy. Why would you need a gimbal platform of this size?'"
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