The Guardian • Issue #2081


Neither Confirm nor Deny – How the Glomar Mission Shielded the CIA from Transparency

by M Todd Bennett

In the 1970s scientific journals such as Scientific American had numerous articles on the mineral bonanza being recovered from the deep ocean floors. In 1975 I attended a talk delivered by a geologist from the CRA Mining Company on how the CIA had used the cover story of mining deep-sea mineral nodules to hide its recovery of ballistic missiles from a sunken Russian submarine in the north Pacific. Later I met the engineer, Major John Buchan, who had designed the submersible system that recovered parts of the submarine. He confirmed that the CIA had paid for stories of deep-sea mining to cover up its clandestine activity. Deep-sea mining was fake news.

Now, M Todd Bennett reveals the politics behind the clandestine venture in Neither Confirm nor Deny: How the Glomar Mission Shielded the CIA from Transparency (2023). The CIA contacted the American billionaire Howard Hughes to build the Glomar Explorer, a 188-metre length ship, designed ostensibly to pick up magnesium nodules off the Pacific Ocean floor. In reality the CIA wanted to retrieve the ballistic missiles from a sunken Soviet submarine, to see how advanced their missile guidance system was. When confronted by the press with the project’s real purpose the Glomar’s response was: “We can neither confirm nor deny.” Todd uses recently declassified CIA documents on how it used the media, including scientific journals, to cover-up its activity. The operation was a major geopolitical coup for US intelligence.

The Soviet Golf-II class submarine K-129 sank on 8 March 1968, northeast of Hawaii. The wreckage was located by the US Navy using sonar technology. It lay on the seabed at a depth of 5 kilometres. A salvage operation at that depth was technically impossible at the time. The US government wanted to recover a ballistic missile from the sunken submarine, along with valuable intelligence information. The CIA convinced President Richard Nixon to approve a secret operation to attempt to raise the vessel from the ocean floor. The CIA contacted Hughes to use his Hughes Tool Company to convert the Glomar Explorer, the world’s most advanced deep water drilling ship, for the mission, code-named Project Azorian. In 1972, construction began in a Delaware River dry-dock, Philadelphia, at a cost of US$350 million (equivalent to US$2.37 billion today).

To hide from the USSR the real reason for the Glomar Explorer, the CIA invented the cover story that the ship was carrying out deep-ocean mining. The well-publicised story described the process of harvesting magnesium nodules from great depths on the ocean floor with a custom-built ship that pushed marine engineering technology to its limits. The scientific community and international mining companies fell for the cover story. The deep-sea “magnesium mining vessel” secretly raised part of the 2000-ton K-129 through a hidden well opening in the hull  with a ‘claw’ of mechanically articulated fingers that used sea water as a hydraulic fluid.

On 7 February 1974 investigative reporter Seymour Hersh who had won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, broke the story: “CIA Salvage Ship Brought Up Part of Soviet Sub Lost In 1968, Failed To Raise Atom Missiles.” With its cover blown, the Glomar Explorer was transferred to the Navy in 1976 for an extensive US$2 million preparation for storage in dry dock and spent almost two decades mothballed at Suisun Bay, California. London-based Global Marine then converted the vessel for commercial use. Having outlived its usefulness, the CIA’s Glomar Explorer ended up in a Chinese scrap yard in 2015.

The CIA proudly tells the story behind the clandestine project on its website. On 4 July 1974, the Glomar Explorer began its two-month-long covert salvage operation, all the while allaying suspicions of curious Soviet ships nearby. The CIA recognised the intelligence potential of recovering the submarine and embarked on a six-year mission, code-named Project AZORIAN. “AZORIAN, set against the backdrop of the Cold War, was a critical endeavour that married the ingenuity of the CIA with the expertise of private sector engineers.” An oil painting of the Glomar Explorer is displayed with a placard that reads: “We are only limited by our imagination.”

The book has been criticised for prioritising excitement over criticism of the agency’s use of its ‘imagination.’ The Glomar carried out its’ mission barely a year after the CIA-backed coup in Chile which led to death and torture for thousands, and the same sense of Cold War competition that inspired the submarine salvage has led ‘the Agency,’ with Australian help, to whip up the hatred behind the mass killings of at least 500,000 people in Indonesia in 1965-66; two episodes not commemorated with oil paintings.

Neither Confirm nor Deny originally published 2023.

Seymour Hersh of the Los Angeles Times revealed the clandestine project on 7 February 1974.

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