We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but nowhere in this account will you find a topless (or fully clothed, for that matter), horseback-riding Vladimir Putin. Nor is this regarding nimble-fingered hackers being accused of attempting to sway international elections through cyber attacks.
A Soviet Golf II submarine similar to K-129.
Instead, it is about an incident that occurred in March of 1968 involving a 1,750 ton, 132-foot long Soviet Golf II-class submarine simply called K-129, sent out to patrol international waters about 1,500 miles northeast of Hawaii. This was a routine peacetime patrol mission, but with the Cuban Missile Crisis still a recent enough memory for both the United States and Russia the diesel-electric K-129 left port at Petropavlovsk fully loaded with three SS-N-4 nuclear-armed ballistic missiles and two nuclear-tipped torpedoes for those ‘just in case’ moments that could potentially pop up during the end of the Cold War.
The Americans hatch a super-stealthy top secret mission
A frantic and intense effort by Russia to recover the remains of their countrymen and the nuclear arsenal aboard K-129 followed, but after two months of futile searching the rescue attempt was officially called off.
Enter into the picture a little outfit from the American side of the equation called the Central Intelligence Agency, who couldn’t help but notice the sizeable fleet of Russian vessels suddenly gathered in the vicinity. What the U.S. didn’t know was why exactly the Russian Navy was there. Since all of this was taking place in international waters once the area cleared of any potential Red menace the U.S. Navy took over and began to discreetly snoop around.
But what to do with it? The CIA decided it was worth the time and effort to raise K-129 and have a first-hand look at the nuclear weaponry onboard. There was also hope of gaining access to codebooks and possibly get a chance at obtaining the cryptographic equipment used by the Soviets to decipher those naval codes.
There were formidable hurdles to this becoming a reality, though. Not least of which was knowing the Soviets (not exactly America’s best buddy in the world’s political playground) were watching and tracking every single U.S. Naval ship and submarine in the area.
A complex plan was formulated and put forth to U.S. president Richard Nixon who approved a recovery mission of K-129—a mission that would move forward under the name Project Azorian that not only had to be cloaked in secrecy to avoid a potential nuclear arms throw-down with the Soviets but would also end up costing the Americans almost $3 billion in today’s dollars.
The crazy oil tycoon and the CIA’s billion-dollar lie
Sometimes the best way to cover a falsehood is to be so outrageously over the top about things people begin to think, “There’s no way they’d seriously even try that, would they?” And in this particular situation if they happen to be translating that into Russian or at least saying it with a heavy Russian accent, even better.
Add to this already simmering cauldron of secrecy stew the final key ingredient: American oil tycoon, businessman and former dashing playboy Howard Hughes. Once known for his involvement with Hollywood (both financially and flirtatiously) and piloting himself around all parts of the globe in cutting edge experimental aircraft, at this point in his life Hughes was a codeine addict and severe germaphobe rumored to be storing jars of urine in his closet and wearing tissue boxes on his feet à la Mr. Burns on The Simpsons. Hughes was a living, breathing example of a man who had more money than he knew what to do with.
There were other Americans out there that had money to burn and big manufacturing companies to their names, so why exactly did the CIA choose Howard Hughes? In declassified CIA documents released in 2010, a secret memo sent to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger explains it like so: “…he [Hughes] has the financial resources; he habitually operates in secrecy; and, his eccentricities are such that news media reporting and speculation about his activities frequently range from the truth to utter fiction.”
In 1970 the CIA used an offshoot branch of the Hughes Tool Company, the Summa Corporation, to construct a 618-foot, 36,000 ton recovery ship that was basically designed to be able to swallow the K-129 by means of its submersed retractable underbelly.
That vessel took four years to build and would be known as the Hughes Glomar Explorer, around which the CIA devised an elaborate cover story involving Hughes diving head-first into the deep ocean mining of manganese nodules.
To go along with the ‘Hughes is a bit loony’ aspect of the story the CIA put the creative side of its collective brain to work and began planting fake tech-spec laden press releases with media outlets which eventually lead to publications such as New Scientist reporting, “On 6 August the vessel Glomar Explorer slipped out of Philadelphia to mine nodules from the ocean floor using techniques more advanced than other companies have even planned.”
Of course, if the press is reporting it, it’s gotta be true…right?
The plan goes into action
On July 4, 1974, the Glomar Explorer, following numerous delays and an ever-skyrocketing budget, began the first steps in the recovery of K-129. This included a massive cover being put in place over top of the Glomar Explorer to keep its activities out of view of the eyes of the Peeping Tom Russians who were naturally curious as to what might be going on.
In early August and under literal cover, a specially constructed claw nicknamed Clementine by the crew was used to start raising the wreckage of K-129 upwards towards the hungry belly of the Glomar Explorer and the information-starved Americans awaiting to see what Russian nuclear secrets they might now be in possession of.
But what fun is it if everything goes exactly the way you want it to, especially when you’re talking about a potential international incident waiting to happen? On its ascent to the surface almost two-thirds of K-129’s hull broke away and the portion of the sub considered to contain vital materials-including the nuclear missiles-fell back to the seafloor.
What the Americans did manage to bring to the surface were two torpedoes and the bodies of six Russian crew members. The crew were later given a formal burial at sea with military honors, all of was which was filmed and archived. That film would eventually be presented to Russian president Boris Yeltsin in 1992 by the Director of Central Intelligence, Robert Gates.
Before a second attempt at recovering K-129 in 1975 news of Azorian was leaked to the press, thanks to a complicated series of events that began with the theft of sensitive documents detailing the Azorian mission from the Los Angeles offices of the Summa Corporation months prior to the Glomar Explorer even heading out to sea.
Director of Central Intelligence William E. Colby asked that those who had learned of the mission to keep things quiet for the sake of national security. The Los Angeles police would later be contacted and informed the papers would be returned if a ransom of $500,000 was paid.
A mission fails but a government response is born
On February 7th, 1975, the Los Angeles Times went to print with an error-filled article with a byline that read in part: ‘C.I.A Salvage Ship Brought Up Part of Soviet Sub Lost in 1968’. During a time when things weren’t exactly rosy on American soil with Richard Nixon recently being forced to resign (ironically during the same week the Glomar Explorer first raised part of K-129) and Watergate still a scandal in progress, the American press was hungry for answers from the CIA as to what was happening on Howard Hughes’ engineering marvel of a ship. Citing the Freedom of Information act in their demands for details, reporters were met with a terse, “We can neither confirm nor deny that such materials exist.” from the CIA-a first for the now infamous response from the agency.
With the mission officially compromised, Project Azorian was shelved. The Hughes Glomar Explorer was cast aside and sat unused for almost 25 years until the late 1990s when it was brought out of storage and eventually purchased by US petroleum company Transocean (whose name you might remember from the Deepwater Horizon disaster), re-christened the GFS Explorer and outfitted for deep sea oil drilling. It was unceremoniously scrapped in 2015.
As can sometimes be expected with stories involving secret government missions, foreign countries, technology, break-ins and alleged cover-ups sometimes details of events can vary significantly from source to source. Below you will find links to various media outlets that have their own take on the events surrounding Project Azorian.