The CIA has released documents confirming that it used an alleged deep-sea mining vessel called the Glomar Explorer to raise part of a sunken Soviet submarine from the floor of the Pacific Ocean in 1974.  This is a step forward for the agency, which in the past has refused to confirm or deny its connection to the Glomar Explorer, but agency officials are still declining to say how much the project cost, how much of the sub they recovered, and what, if any, intelligence they gleaned from the project.

The Soviet submarine sank for unknown reasons about 1,500 miles from Hawaii in March 1968, taking its crew and three nuclear missiles to the bottom of the Pacific.  A year and a half later, the CIA established a task force to study the feasibility of harvesting the 1,750-ton vessel from the ocean floor, some 16,500 feet down.  The task force concluded that it needed to build a huge, specially designed ship with winches that could lower a sling beneath the sub and gently hoist it to the surface.  The government hired Howard Hughes’s Summa Corporation to build the Glomar Explorer, which was disguised as a deep-ocean mining ship.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the mission: the Cold War began to cool down.  As U.S.-Soviet tensions began to ease, some White House advisers ordered a review of the project, “in light of increasing concern that … the developing political climate might prohibit mission approval.” The nation’s top defense officials were uniformly critical of the project.  The Chief of Naval Operations, the assistant secretary of defense for intelligence, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all judged the program to be dangerously provocative, absurdly expensive, and unlikely to produce much valuable intelligence.  But CIA director Richard Helms convinced President Nixon to ignore his top military advisers and give the green light to the project.

When the Glomar Explorer and its crew reached their target in the northwest Pacific in the summer of 1974, they were immediately detected by the Soviets.  A Soviet Navy ship hovered nearby and launched a helicopter, which buzzed the ship and took photographs from all angles.  “What are you doing here?” the Soviet captain asked the Glomar crew, via radio transmission.  Just a little deep-sea mining, they replied.  The Soviets were not convinced, and sent a salvage tugboat to loiter in the area as the “miners” continued with their task.  The Soviet tug left the area just before the Glomar crew managed to bring something – an “intelligence item,” the CIA called it – to the surface.  The Glomar then steamed to Maui, where a special team trained to handle the “item” boarded the ship.

The story of the recovery operation began to leak in the press in early 1975.  CIA Director William Colby spent days making frantic phone calls to reporters and editors, trying to persuade them to kill the story in the interest of national security.  Most of the press was “splendid,” Colby said, but columnist Jack Anderson refused to listen to Colby’s pleas and broke the story.  (Colby’s campaign to urge the press to censor itself is an interesting case study in media coverage of national security issues, as I’ve written about here.)  Its cover blown, the Glomar was mothballed in the Suisun Bay for two decades, until the government began leasing it for oil drilling.

Last week, in response to its FOIA request, the National Security Archive received a redacted version of a 1985 CIA account of the operation.  Before releasing the document, CIA censors blacked out everything related to the project’s cost, which is believed to be around $500 million (in 1970s dollars).  Nor does the document disclose anything about what the CIA learned from the “item,” what the item was, or even what agency officials had hoped to learn from the project. Apparently the agency recovered a couple of nuclear torpedoes – there’s mention of dangerous levels of radiation – but we still don’t even know how much of the sub was harvested and whether the haul came close to justifying the phenomenal amount of money spent.  This secrecy is continuing despite the fact that a) the Soviet Union knew about the recovery effort at the time; b) the Soviet Union no longer exists; and c) the Obama administration is supposedly committed to “an unprecedented level of openness in Government.”

The author of the CIA report on the operation insists that it had “intangibly beneficial” effects: “a government or organization too timid to undertake calculable risks in pursuit of a proper objective would not be true to itself or to the people it serves.”  Sure, most of the nation’s top military and defense officials wanted to kill it, but in the end it provided “tangible proof…that the intelligence profession is dynamic and alive.”  In short, it was  needlessly confrontational and a waste of money.  But it’s nice to know that it made our men in the CIA feel good about themselves.