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What Lies Beneath

Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 10:51 AM

In “Neither Confirm Nor Deny,” we spend a fair amount of time on the remarkable cover story that disguised a CIA mission to lift the Soviet submarine K-129 from the bottom of the Pacific. That cover story puts the movie-cover-story of “Argo” to shame: from about 1970-74, the CIA managed to convince the world that billionaire Howard Hughes had decided to invest millions of dollars to scoop up “manganese nodules,” balls of heavy metals that lie on the ocean floor. And the agency had to fool not just the world, but a diverse range of special interests: ship-building unions, stockholders, environmental watchdogs, and the media. Via fake press releases, events, technical specs and front companies, the CIA really had us for a while there. The prospect of an ocean mining rush prompted huge consternation among delegates at the ongoing United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea.

In the end, the commercial cover story was only a wobbly success—investigative reporter Seymour Hersh saw through it early on, but was persuaded to keep it under wraps.  

But Project Azorian’s real cover might just have been its technical daring. It was just too crazy to be believed. Former Soviet Navy captain and historian Nikolai Cherkashin told me that once Soviet officers saw the gigantic “mining” vessel hovering over the area of the K-129’s demise, they tried to warn higher ups that something suspicious was happening. But Soviet intelligence dismissed the notion that the US would be insane enough to try to lift an object of 2000 tons from three miles below the surface, where water pressures were enormous. It would have been almost easier, given the technology of the time, to bring a Soviet object back from the Moon.

David Sharp, who was director of recovery missions on the Hughes Glomar Explorer, says his crew of CIA engineers simply didn’t know it couldn’t be done. “I think given a better background in marine engineering, we likely would not have tried” what they did, Sharp said. But the CIA also brought in skilled contractors like the deepwater drilling experts Global Marine, whose name in truncated form adorns the Hughes Glomar Explorer (HGE).

What they designed may never be seen again: The HGE itself was massive—too wide to fit in the Panama Canal—and it was built to heave up and down on waves while its center held steady, lifting an enormous claw with the K-129 wreckage inside. Every piece of this hydraulic lifting apparatus was its own engineering nightmare, from the gymbals with bowling-ball-sized ball bearings, to the heave compensators and derrick that had to handle 14 million pounds of submarine, claw, and heavy pipe string. Lockheed engineers designed the “claw” itself, more accurately called a “capture vehicle,” and got it into the HGE via an elaborate submersible barge (echoes of which a few people detected during the 2013’s not-as-awesome Google Barge mystery).

In 2006, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers declared the HGE an historical landmark. But the mission deserves more attention:  Whether or not you agree with the CIA’s goals, the contractors and government employees who participated in Project Azorian did so knowing they could lose their lives. Not only did the mission put them at risk of capture because it flaunted international maritime law and the USSR at the height of the Cold War, it was risky just in terms of pure physics. David Sharp writes that if one bad storm came up while the submarine was hanging from the ship, it could have dashed whole thing to bits.

“If the ship rolled more than 8.5 degrees, the pipestring, with whatever was hanging underneath it, would break,” he told us. With the sudden weight loss, the upper section of the lift system would suddenly rise up, come crashing down into the ship and break it in half. “That was the failure mode,” he said.

That didn’t happen, of course, but Sharp’s 2012 book is filled of other moments that show the mission’s personal toll. Marriages fell apart, including his. Men had heart attacks from the stress—the Global Marine engineer who designed the HGE died before it set out to retrieve the submarine. Sharp himself nearly lost his eyesight from a stress-related disorder. None of this, of course, compares to the suffering that the Soviet sailors must have gone through as their vessel sank, or the endless grieving of their families, who only got posthumous recognition for their loved ones in 1998. We sometimes forget that the Cold War was also a war, with its dead and shell-shocked survivors.

July of 2014 will be the 40th anniversary of Project Azorian, but don’t expect much hoopla. Much has been declassified, even made into detailed documentaries. But the CIA still insists on keeping many details of the mission a secret, just as agency director did in 1975 with President Gerald Ford, who was so impressed that he wanted to boast about it publicly. Now that the Cold War is (sort of) behind us, you’d think the CIA might want to crow about one of its most remarkable technical accomplishments. But the problem now, says David Sharp, is that few people at the agency remember it first-hand, and thus feel qualified to sort through what can and can’t be revealed, even now.

And so, over time, operational secrecy slides into inertia and institutional memory loss. The net result is that when we hear the story of Project Azorian now, it jolts us: that actually happened? It seems like a big hole in our national history that shouldn’t be there. That secrecy hole was at first intentional—hence the famous “neither confirm nor deny” Glomar Response. But now it seems like it’s just eating itself, growing larger with the death of every person who lived through Project Azorian. Their stories belong to all of us, and it’s time more of them were sought out and allowed to be told.


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Comments [8]

Frank Barry from California

Gerald Ford appointed George HW Bush to be CIA Director.
Perhaps he could unlock the secret data from CIA files.
Can't be that hard to do.

Mar. 20 2014 07:29 PM
mike from Gainesville, FL

why didn't they use magnets?

Mar. 06 2014 12:58 PM
Allan Stanbury from Vero Beach, Florida

Fantastic Info!

Mar. 06 2014 10:57 AM
Chris from NJ

Great story. However, the reference cited does not support the statement that "President Gerald Ford ... wanted to boast about it publicly."

Mar. 05 2014 08:45 AM
David Frank Dempsey

In 1974-75 I was a seaman aboard the 220-foot ocean oil and mineral supply boat Indian Seal. It was owned and operated by Galveston, Texas based Seal Fleet Marine. I don't remember the dates but I was flown from Texas to San Diego for a 3-month-long assignment. The boat had been leased and extensively fitted out by Kennecott Copper Mining Company. The boat's crew including myself were standard for the leasing of these boats.
Kennecott's idea was to lower a machine about the size of a Chevy van to Pacific floor, about three miles deep, where it would vacum up manganese nodules. It was basically a research trip and for a young seaman like me it seemed like quite an adventure. I even got to keep a couple of manganese nodules myself.
We had been required to sign oaths of silence for 20 or 30 years and at first Kennecott wanted to use their own navigation, effectively keeping the ship's own crew ignorant of the ship's position. That idea was nixed for obvious reasons.
We sailed to a work area south of Hawaii and far from the Russian submarine's location. While there a large vessel approached to within radar range and circled our work area and us slowly for about a week. It remained too distant during daylight hours to be visible to the naked eye. If I remember correctly it may have come somewhat closer at night.
The rumor aboard our vessel was that the circling ship belonged to Howard Hughes who, for real reasons or not, was considered by Kennecott to be a major competitor in the research toward mining the sea floor for manganese nodules. It became a running joke during shift changes on our bridge to ask if Howard was still out there. Of course the mate or captain and seaman who were going off watch would point out the ship and its bearing on radar. After a week or so the ship left as mysteriously as it had arrived.
Upon our first return to San Diego, after about a month at sea, a Kennecott representative met us at the dock holding the most recent copy of National Geographic Magazine. In an unrelated story about the Pacific there was a map with a large circle delineated by red dashes with the words "Kennecott Copper Mining Work Area," inside.
So much for secrecy. It was a pretty high-powered joke that was appreciated even by some of the Kennecott personnel aboard our boat.
I think we made two month-long trips to the work area. before Kennecott's lease of the Indian Seal expired. After the mining company's equipment was removed, I believe at Long Beach, the boat's crew, myself included, sailed the Indian Seal back to Galveston via the Panama Canal.

Feb. 23 2014 04:21 PM
Steve Becker from Vancouver, WA

I was a reporter on a US Air Force Base in the late 1980's when the topic of nuclear weapons came up. I was told by the Public Affairs Officer he could "neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons..." and then without missing a breath finished the sentence with "...but they are completely safe!"

Feb. 20 2014 02:15 PM
guylive from philadelphia

great radio! this suspenseful and gripping program shows off many of the political errors that continue to haunt us; with no resolution in sight. Plus, who could resist this darkly humorous, almost slapstick event from the cold war?
thanks for a great show.

Feb. 18 2014 09:30 AM
Mr Shiitake from

The NSA doesn't use email for their meaningless responses? Of course, it Makes much more sense from a financial cost and environmental impact perspective to mail a letter.

Feb. 17 2014 10:48 PM

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