In August 1974, the United States undertook a top-secret mission that one CIA document disclosed in 2010 “ranks in the forefront of imaginative and bold operations undertaken in the long history of intelligence collection.”
As the declassified article in the internal CIA journal Studies in Intelligence explains, Project AZORIAN was a collaboration among the CIA and private marine firms to recover a sunken Soviet submarine from the depths of the Pacific Ocean some 1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii.
The Soviet G-II class ballistic missile submarine had sunk years before, killing all aboard in March 1968. It was diesel-powered, but US intelligence suspected the vessel was armed with nuclear weaponry.
If true, the US stood to learn much about its Cold War rival if it recovered the sub. It would give the US a look at Soviet weapons design, on top of other potential intelligence treasures. Fortunately for the Americans, Moscow was in the dark regarding its lost submarine’s location.
Of course, the US first had to figure out how to even retrieve a 1,750-ton vessel that sat more than three miles below the ocean surface and under tremendous water pressure. The CIA’s solution: a purpose-specific ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, which would lug the submarine upward with a giant eight-fingered claw in the style of a claw crane grabbing a plush toy.
Global Marine and other companies agreed to conceal the ship’s true function behind a cover story: The Hughes Glomar Explorer was an experimental deep-sea mining vessel, and its inauguration came complete with a champagne christening ceremony and speeches from the enterprising seafarers.
The story of the US’s partial success in this long endeavour — which spanned the tenure of two presidents and three Directors of Central Intelligence — is not newly surfaced. LA Times columnist Jack Anderson broke the news as early as February 1975, and the public radio program Radiolab dedicated a half-hour program to this curious Cold War footnote (In the episode, Julia Barton reported that one of the legacies of project AZORIAN was the birth of the now-typical “neither confirm nor deny” response by government officials faced with inquiring reporters).
But what the CIA’s latest disclosure does offer is several stranger-than-fiction anecdotes on the many times the Hughes Glomar Explorer’s mission could have gone awry.
Faith in the technical viability of the project was shaky to begin with. In 1972, Admiral Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a memo that recommended dropping the mission “because of decreased intelligence value of the target with the passage of time” and mounting costs. Deputy Secretary of Defence Kenneth Rush only estimated the project’s chance of success at 20 to 30 per cent.
But Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms, the paper discloses, was worried about the long-term consequences of backing out, feeling that “a termination now would appear capricious to contractors and jeopardize future cooperative efforts.”
President Nixon finally gave the project a green-light after a “long series of high-level program reviews.”
After jumping these bureaucratic hurdles, the mission also had a close encounter with a major political flare-up. Too broad for the Panama Canal, the Glomar had to sail around the southern tip of South America to get the Pacific Ocean. The crew then docked in the port city of Valparaiso, Chile, only to find themselves in the midst of August Pinochet’s violent coup on September 11th, 1973.
Seven technicians had traveled to Chile to join the mission. “After checking in to their hotel, early on 11 September, the Global Marine personnel were awakened by the sounds of the revolution in the streets.” The Americans were under virtual house-arrest for a few days before eventually leaving safely — though not without stoking suspicions that the United States had a hand in socialist president Salvador Allende’s ouster.
The Glomar would nearly find itself bogged down on home soil as well.
Docked in Long Beach, California in November 1973, the ship landed on the bad side of about a hundred union picketers — “including strong-arm types” — voicing their dissatisfaction with Global Marine.
“The resulting tense situation continued for the next week to ten days,” the Studies in Intelligence article states. “During this time, the ship’s crew and shipboard workers were harassed, delivery trucks stopped, and special security measures had to be put into effect.”
Though they were ignorant of the vessel’s special mission, the protesters delayed the HGE’s departure by a few uncomfortable weeks. And docked just a few hundred yards away were Soviet ships that didn’t suspect the Glomar’s true purpose.
Once at its target location above the submarine, the Glomar was still pressured by the Soviet navy. One military ship dispatched a helicopter on two occasions, to snap photos of the idling ship. Its unarmed crew put crates on the Glomar’s helipad to thwart a potential landing, and even made preparations to destroy their ship’s clearly intelligence-related equipment.
Even friendly ships threatened to blow the Glomar’s cover. One of them was a British merchant vessel that had approached the HGE for help treating a sick crew member.
The incident may have actually played to the American ship’s advantage. As the Glomar responded to a well-meaning question about its activity over the open radio circuit, “It was hoped the Soviets were monitoring this exchange.”
In the end, the Hughes Glomar Explorer overcame steep odds to finally attempt a raising of the doomed submarine. TV monitors were placed around the ship so that “sailors, cooks, divers, drill crew” and everyone else onboard could watch the fateful attempt to recover the submarine.
But it only partially succeeded.
As recounted by David Sharp, a CIA officer aboard the Glomar, the greater part of the submarine broke off as the vessel was being hauled up to the surface and plummeted back to the ocean floor. In the fragment that was actually recovered, Sharp says the Glomar’s crew encountered three of the submarine crew’s dead.
“They were given the full respect that I think the Soviet navy would have conferred upon their own people under those conditions,” Sharp said. The LA Times later reported that 70 bodies were found and buried at sea.
After years of effort, numerous setbacks, and the construction of a purpose-built vessel, it’s understood that the CIA didn’t recover any useful material from the operation.
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