Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cold War Records on "Project Azorian" Declassified

The National Security Archive at The George Washington University has posted a new collection of documents on the CIA's declassified history of the Glomar Explorer, the 1974 attempt to covertly raise a sunken Soviet submarine from the Pacific floor.

Washington, D.C., February 12, 2010 - For the first time, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has declassified substantive information on one of its most secret and sensitive schemes, "Project Azorian," the Agency codename for its ambitious plan to raise a sunken Soviet submarine from the floor of the Pacific Ocean in order to retrieve its secrets. Today the National Security Archive publishes "Project Azorian: The Story of the Hughes Glomar Explorer," a 50-page article from the fall 1985 edition of the Agency's in-house journal Studies in Intelligence. Written by a participant in the operation whose identity remains classified, the article discusses the conception and planning of the retrieval effort and the creation of a special ship, the Glomar Explorer, which raised portions of the submarine in August 1974. The National Security Archive had submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the CIA for the document on December 12, 2007.

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Internal evidence suggests that the article was written in 1978, but it was prepared at such a high level of classification that it was apparently unpublishable until the Agency made decisions in 1985 to downgrade it to "Secret."

The basic story has long been in the public sphere, but these documents fill in the background and add some new information.

The Cold War has been over for so long that I got an odd sense of surprised recollection, kind of like when you find some long-lost but familiar object, when I read this snippet from the CIA's account:

The Hughes Glomar Explorer's recovery operations were greatly complicated by almost 14 days of near-continuous surveillance of the ship's work by two Soviet naval vessels. Despite the presence of the Soviet surveillance vessels, recovery work did not stop. But fearing that the Soviets might try to land personnel on his ship by helicopter, on July 18, 1974, the CIA mission director on the Glomar Explorer ordered crates stacked on his ship's helicopter deck to prevent the Soviets from landing on it. According to the article, orders were given to "be prepared to order emergency destruction of sensitive material which could compromise the mission if the Soviets attempted to board the ship. The team designated to defend the control room long enough to destroy the material ... was alerted, but guns were not issued."

Ah, the good old days. Intrusive surveillance ... emergency destruction drills ... internal defense preparations ... 'they-wouldn't-really-do-that-would-they' thoughts. All merely the stuff of Cold War nostalgia now, but they were very real concerns during the 1970s.

These documents are the first materials related to "Project Azorian" to be declassified other than for a video of the burial at sea of six sailors whose remains were recovered inside portions of the sub that were raised. The tape was delivered to the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and was subsequently released pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request made to the CIA.

I find that burial ceremony strangely affecting. I assume it was filmed partly for foreign relations purposes, as in, 'although we couldn't return their remains to you at the time due to the exigencies of the Cold War, we recorded this ceremony to document that we treated your dead with respect and rendered to them all proper military courtesies.' But it also looks and sounds perfectly sincere. There was a distinctly non-bellicose tone to the wording of the service, like this part:

"So long as men and nations are suspicious of each other, instruments of war will be constructed and brave men will die, as these men have died, in the service of their country."

Taking my Cold War hat out of storage, I could nit-pick that language. Are there not good reasons for suspicion and military preparation when some men and nations are held captive by others? And, weren't the military forces of the Soviet Union acting not in the service of a country or nation - the legitimacy of national identity being denied by Marxist-Leninism - but rather in the interests of the working class, a social construction that theoretically gave the Soviet Union a justification to insert itself anywhere in the world?

But, that no longer matters. The Cold War is over, we won, and today I'm happy to simply accept the humane and generous sentiments of that burial ceremony on board the Glomar Explorer. Of course, it's easy to be generous to an enemy after he's defeated.


Anonymous said...

I just don't understand.

Were we the only ones with the technical ability to raise the sunken submarine? Did the Soviets not have that ability?

Were they only able to watch us while we did it?

I read this and I think - okay, they had ships out there watching us do it - and there was all of this push and pull and back and forth between our ships and theirs - why didn't they just bring the sub up themselves before we could? Do you know?

TSB said...

I think that only the US had the deep salvage ability to try to recover the sub from three miles down. The Glomar Explorer was purpose-built for just that.

More importantly, only we knew exactly where the sub was, since our undersea sensor network had detected it as it sank. The Russians would only have known the general area.

I'm kind of disappointed that the CIA is keeping some of the story classified, since we still don't know what kind of materials were recovered. But on the other hand, that might be an indication that we got some really valuable stuff.