'The Taking Of K-129': How The CIA Stole A Sunken Soviet Sub Off The Ocean Floor

Sep 16, 2017

In 1968 — the middle of the Cold War — the Soviet submarine K-129 disappeared, taking with it its 98-member crew, three nuclear ballistic missiles and a tempting treasure trove of Soviet secrets. Without the technology to retrieve it from the ocean floor, the Soviet Union left it there. It was considered lost — until the CIA stepped in.

Josh Dean's new book, The Taking of K-129, tells the true story of Project Azorian, a secret CIA mission to lift the submarine from a depth of more than 3 miles into a custom-built ship called the Hughes Glomar Explorer.

"There had been no salvage of a submarine below 1,000 feet at that point," Dean says. " ... [It's] probably the greatest feat of naval engineering. And on top of that, you had to do it in secret because it's not like a giant ship parked in the middle of the Pacific — where giant ships aren't normally parked — isn't going to arouse suspicion."


Interview Highlights

On the CIA's cover story for Project Azorian

It was kind of a problem. They were like, "Well, if we're going to do it, we're going to have to build this ship. But then how do we explain to people, especially the Soviets, why we're going to have a ship out in the middle of the ocean?" Like, that's just going to seem strange.

So someone came up with the notion of: "Well, ocean mining is a thing ... So the CIA original task force decided, "Well, what if we pretended that we were ocean mining? We'll tell people that this is a mining ship and we are going to be the first people to mine the ocean."

But there's another part of that, which is, we can't be doing it, the U.S. government can't do it — that would obviously be a lie. We need somebody who would plausibly be mining the ocean, spending a lot of money despite all logic saying this is a feasible, economic thing. Who could that be? What about Howard Hughes, the guy who built a wooden airplane that didn't fly?

On the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes

Hughes, at that time, [was] probably the most famous business man in America. ... [He] came up in a mining family, so actually that's one reason this made plausible sense. ... He was a pilot, he made movies, and by 1968 he was just gigantically famous, but also living on the top floor of the Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas hopped up on pills, and he became a shut-in.

But to the public, still, he had these companies, he had a lot of money, he had [a] proven track record of doing bananas things that didn't make sense.

On how the mission's exposure in 1975 led to the popularization of the phrase "neither confirm nor deny"

It was an interesting case of a story that everyone was aware of, that the U.S. government never acknowledged and for decades would not acknowledge. It became this like total secret. ...

Because the ship was called the Hughes Glomar Explorer, the Glomar exemption was the phrase "can neither confirm nor deny," which was a CIA legal answer to the problem of [Freedom of Information Act] requests. Denying it on national security grounds would admit that they had built the ship and that its existence was real; confirming it, they obviously couldn't do. But they also couldn't deny it, so a lawyer at the CIA said, "Well, how about we neither confirm nor deny?" And that actually stood up in court. It was challenged by a Rolling Stone reporter and the ACLU, I believe, and it held up in court. And now we all deal with that phrase on a daily basis.

Marc Rivers and Jennifer Liberto produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Sydnee Monday and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to switch gears now. This is a mystery story, a spy story and a technology story all rolled into one. It started one February morning in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, when Soviet submarine K-129 sank to the bottom of the sea floor, taking with it 98 crew members, three nuclear ballistic missiles and a tempting treasure trove of Soviet secrets. At the time, 1968, there was no way to get the submarine off the bottom of the ocean. But over the next six years, a secret CIA mission spent $800 million to get the sub off the bottom of the ocean and to lift it from a depth of more than 3 miles into the hull of a massive custom-built ship.

It sounds like a movie, but it is in fact true. It's the subject of Josh Dean's book, "The Taking Of K-129: How The CIA Used Howard Hughes To Steal A Russian Sub In The Most Daring Covert Operation In History." And Josh Dean joined us from our bureau in New York. Josh, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JOSH DEAN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So run us through some of the - just some of the obstacles that stood between the CIA and their - and this prize.

DEAN: (Laughter) So many. I mean, let's start with the fact that they were going to have to pull something off the bottom of the ocean, achieving a feat of engineering far beyond anything that had been attempted in history. I mean, there had been no salvage of a submarine below 1,000 feet at that point.

Certainly, there was no existing off-the-shelf technology to go out and pull something that weighed 2 million pounds off. But if it had been at a hundred feet, it would've been complicated. This was at 3 miles, as you said, 16,500 feet. So it required a very specific and expensive tool that would have multiple components that had never been used before, I mean, unbelievable engineering. I would still argue to this day probably the greatest feat of naval engineering.

And on top of that, you had to do it in secret because it's not like a giant ship parked in the middle of the Pacific, where giant ships aren't normally parked, isn't going to arouse suspicion. And, oh, by the way, that's where a Soviet sub sunk somewhere out there. So you had to do this thing that was going to require immense engineering and equipment of gigantic size, and you had to do it in secret. Those two things don't tend to go together.

MARTIN: What was the cover story that they came up with?

DEAN: Yeah. So it was kind of a problem. They were, like, well, if we're going to do it, we're going to have to build this ship. But then how do we explain to people, especially the Soviets, why we are going to have a ship out in the middle of the ocean? Like, that's just going to seem strange. So someone came up with the notion of, well, ocean mining is a thing. So the CIA original task force decided, well, what if we pretended that we were ocean mining?

We'll tell people that this is a mining ship, and we are going to be the first people to mine the ocean. But there's another part of that, which is we can't be doing it. The U.S. government can't do it. That would obviously be a lie. We need somebody who plausibly would be mining the ocean, spending a lot of money despite all logic saying that this is not, like, a feasible economic thing. Who could that be? What about Howard Hughes, the guy who built a wooden airplane that didn't fly?

MARTIN: Tell people who he is, or was, for people who may not remember.

DEAN: Right. So Hughes, at that time, probably the most famous businessman in America, eccentric billionaire, came up in a mining family - so actually, that's one reason this made plausible sense - but then became just sort of bon vivant entrepreneur, aviation. He made movies. And by 1968, he was just gigantically famous but also living on the top floor of the desert in a hotel in Las Vegas, you know, hopped up on pills. And he became a shut-in. But to the public still, he had these companies. He had a lot of money. He had proven track record of doing bananas things that didn't make sense.

MARTIN: So he was so eccentric and so rich and famous that people - oh, yeah, sure. That could be true. One of the surprising things that you talk about in the book is the way the CIA handled media requests for information. So tell me about that.

DEAN: Well, so when the story ultimately was exposed - it did break in 1975. A radio reporter named Jack Anderson, very famous journalist of that time, broke the story. And at that point, the floodgates sort of opened in all of this. Numerous reporters who had caught wind of it before but were convinced by the CIA director to sit on the story. He made a convincing appeal that, hey, you could really do damage to national security and quite possibly start a war because if the Soviets find out that we did this, it's a very dangerous thing.

So numerous papers, including The New York Times and Washington Post, agreed to sit on the story in exchange for - he said, I'll give you the full story later. Once we're finished, then I will tell you everything, but for now, please sit on it. And they all agreed to do that. And then this one reporter went rogue and then sort of the floodgates opened. Well, the CIA's response to that was to never talk about it any - despite the fact that it came out in the media.

They basically - CIA director called those reporters and said, I know you have stories, go ahead and run them, but I will never comment on this again - and all the way up to the president, and for decades would not acknowledge. It became this, like, total secret. The words Project Azorian was not declassified until 2011, when the CIA released a partially redacted history. And I think that had a lot to do with sort of backroom negotiations with the Soviets. When it was exposed, we told them we won't talk about this in exchange for you not elevating the stakes and actually raising tensions which could harm us all in the end.

MARTIN: And whence comes the famous can neither confirm, nor deny that is something that we've heard quite a bit of.

DEAN: Call it the Glomar exemption, right. Because the ship was called the Hughes Glomar Explorer. The Glomar exemption was the phrase can neither confirm, nor deny, which was a CIA legal answer to the problem of FOIA requests, by denying it on national security grounds would admit that they had built the ship and that its existence was real. Confirming it they obviously couldn't do, but they also couldn't deny it. So a lawyer at the CIA said, well, how about we neither confirm, nor deny? And that actually stood up in court. It was challenged by a Rolling Stone reporter and the ACLU, I believe. And it held up in court. And now, we all deal with that phrase on a daily basis.

MARTIN: Well, to the end of that - at the end of the book, you say you have a special note about sources. And you say that - you write that this being a book about intelligence, a business that employs and relies on some of the world's best liars, it's always possible that someone's memory is a little off or that a person has intentionally misled me. Why did you feel the need to mention that possibility?

DEAN: Well, you know, when you have lies on top of lies, cover stories and then years in which the only people who know don't talk about it, then, you know, lots of rumors start to arise. So I just wanted to make it clear. Can I say with 100 percent certainty that everything that was told to me by retired intelligence officers is true? I can't. I mean, I feel like this is the truth. I still feel like it's also possible there are things that I don't completely know and that we may never know.

MARTIN: That's Josh Dean. His latest book is "The Taking Of K-129: How The CIA Used Howard Hughes To Steal A Russian Sub In The Most Daring Covert Operation In History." It's out now. Josh Dean, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DEAN: It was fun. Thanks for having me.

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