Feb 13, 2014
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.