The Goofy CIA Plan To Capture A Sunken Soviet Sub

By Nolan Moore on Monday, September 8, 2014
Submarine_Golf_II_class
“A Freedom of Information Act request seeking records [. . .] may require an agency to flatly refuse to confirm or deny whether such records exist.” —United States Department of Justice bulletin, Privacy Glomarization

In A Nutshell

Of all the wild schemes concocted by the CIA during the Cold War, Project AZORIAN might be the wildest. After a Soviet submarine sank in the Pacific Ocean, the spy agency decided to bring it back to America . . . with the help of a giant claw. By the time the mission was over, the CIA had teamed up with one of America’s richest men, been foiled by petty thieves, and had invented one of the most enigmatic and irritating phrases in bureaucratic history.

Note: The photo above is the same type of Soviet submarine (Golf II class) as the K-129 discussed in this article.

The Whole Bushel

What do Howard Hughes, a Soviet sub, and the Freedom of Information Act all have in common? Well, they all played key roles in the incredibly crazy story of Project AZORIAN. This Cold War caper got started in 1968 when a Russian submarine called K-129 suffered an internal explosion and sank in the Pacific Ocean. As soon as the ship disappeared, Soviet search parties began hunting for the boat, but despite their best efforts, they simply couldn’t find the sub.

The Americans were luckier. After noticing the flurry of Soviet activity, officials put two and two together and set out looking for the Golf II submarine. Thanks to advanced sensor technology, they found the boat and immediately started cooking up ways to bring it back home. After all, the sub was probably loaded with codebooks and all kinds of top-secret information . . . not to mention nuclear missiles capped with 4-megaton warheads. Only there was one little problem. K-129 had sunk 5 kilometers (3 mi) beneath the waves. At that depth, the pressure was 7,500 pounds per square inch. In other words, picking up that sub would be like lifting a barbell weighing 6.4 million kilograms (14 million lb).

So how were they going to drag it up? Well, the CIA and a team of engineers devised a plan that sounded like it was ripped straight out of a video arcade. They designed a giant, eight-fingered claw. The plan was to sail a ship right over K-129 and the hull would open up, releasing a smaller capture vehicle equipped with the oversize claw machine. The craft would then descend toward the ocean floor, snag the sub, and haul it back into the ship. As a cover story, the CIA asked eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes to suddenly feign interest in undersea manganese mining. With the wealthy weirdo on board, they loaded the claw onto the businessman’s boat, the Hughes Glomar Explorer and set sail in July 1974.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go according to plan. After the claw latched onto the sub, K-129 broke in half about 2,700 meters (9,000 ft) from the surface . . . and the part with all the secret info and nuclear warheads sank to the bottom of the sea. Majorly disappointed, the Americans started planning a second try when things took an extremely strange turn. Thieves broke into one of Howard Hughes’s L.A. buildings and stole a stack of important papers . . . that might or might not have contained a Project AZORIAN memo.

Understandably, the folks at the CIA were pretty concerned. They weren’t sure if a secretary had destroyed the document or if the burglars had snatched it. If that memo was just floating around somewhere, the US government was in serious trouble. And that’s when someone called up the LA police department, claiming to represent a man who’d come across some rather sensitive paperwork. In fact, these papers were so sensitive that his friend wanted $500,000 for their return.

Worried one of those papers was the AZORIAN memo, the CIA informed the FBI of the situation. The FBI told the LA police, who then told the middle man he was actually involved in some pretty serious, top-secret business. Not surprisingly, somewhere along the way, somebody leaked the story to the press, and it wasn’t long before every major newspaper was running a bare bones version of what went down in the Pacific. Now the Soviets knew the CIA was trying to steal their sub, and they weren’t going to let them try again. The jig was up, and the Americans finally canceled Project AZORIAN . . . a mission that cost them $800 million.

But there’s still one last twist to this wild tale. While the Soviets knew the US had captured one half of the sub, they didn’t know what was inside. Had the Americans found their missiles? Were they cracking their codes? The Russians didn’t know, and the feds wanted to keep them on their toes. Of course, if journalists got their hands on AZORIAN documents via the Freedom of Information Act, the American government was more or less screwed.

That’s when the CIA struck bureaucratic gold by developing a brilliant new phrase to stop reporters in their tracks. Known as the Glomar response (after the ship), it started off by saying the government could “neither confirm nor deny” the existence or nonexistence of the records. Of course, if those documents did exist, “the subject matter would be classified and could not be disclosed.” With one paragraph, the CIA stopped the Soviets from learning about their massive failure and kept the world from learning the truth. And they didn’t even have to lie. So at the end of the day, the CIA lost their sub but gained a tricky new catchphrase that’s used by just about every government agency today.

Show Me The Proof

Radiolab: Neither Confirm Nor Deny
io9.com: That Time The CIA And Howard Hughes Tried To Steal A Soviet Submarine