Spy Ops (2023) s01e08 Episode Script

Project Azorian

During the Cold War,
both the United States
and the Soviet Union
deployed submarines
with ballistic missiles.
The K-129 was a Soviet
ballistic missile submarine.
The submarine sank.
To find a sub in the ocean
is like looking for a needle
in a haystack.
It would be a remarkable treasure,
uh, to be able to get
your hands on a Soviet submarine.
And so that's what we set out to do.
The CIA needs a cover story.
They go to Howard Hughes,
"Build a ship that can salvage
a Soviet submarine
with a nuclear missile."
Howard Hughes says, "Okay."
A submarine at 16,000 feet?
It was just unprecedented
to even think about
undertaking something that ambitious
and to do it in secrecy.
This was more complex,
in some respects, than going to the moon.
I joined the CIA in, uh, June 1966.
My first assignment was
at the National
Photographic Interpretation Center.
I became kind of an expert in that.
The Cold War was essentially a competition
between the Soviet Union
and the United States.
Essentially, conflict between democracy,
capitalism, and socialism.
Well, during the Cold War,
the United States developed
what they called a "Triad Response"
to the foreign threat.
The triad consisted of submarines,
submarine-launched ballistic missiles,
and aircraft to deliver weapons.
Fortunately, no one pushed the button,
but it was a very tense period.
The US and the Soviet Union
routinely spied on one another.
The main object was to monitor
the activities of Soviet submarines,
to determine what their capabilities are,
where they were headed,
'cause that was important
to track Soviet submarines,
uh, in the event of a nuclear exchange.
Almost three quarters of the Earth's
surface is covered with water,
and America's two newest states,
Alaska and Hawaii,
are thrust deeply into the Pacific.
And most important,
the most powerful nations in the world
border the oceans and the seas.
This global disposition of land and water
may be likened to a gigantic chess board,
where play many strategies
and many weapons.
The Soviet program,
naval program, was very aggressive.
At the time, they were building
both surface ships as well as submarines.
With the development
of the nuclear weapon,
both countries then began to think about,
"Well, where can you deploy your missiles
that would carry a nuclear warhead?"
This was a highly classified program
within the Soviet Union.
And this question still remained,
what was the nuclear capability
from a submarine-launched missile?
We didn't know that.
I'm Captain First Class Igor Kurdin.
For 25 years, I had served
in the Russian Submarine Fleet.
It became clear that one
of the main components of war at sea
must be the submarines
with nuclear ballistic missiles.
Golf-class submarines
turned out to be very successful,
so we built 24 of them.
This was a thermonuclear unit
with a missile range of 880 miles.
The K-129 was a modernized submarine,
which was armed
with a set of three ballistic missiles
with a load of more than one megaton.
And the most important thing,
as a result of modernization,
was that these missiles
could fire underwater.
From the depth of 150 feet, very quickly,
a submarine could release
its three ballistic missiles.
Both the Soviet Union and United States
were interested in where
each other's submarines are.
Soviet Union launched
their missiles submerged
and had their engines
running out of the tubes,
and we considered this
extremely dangerous.
K-129 submarine departed Petropavlovsk
and steamed towards
the West Coast of the United States.
Its mission was to go on patrol
and to take up station at a position
in the event of a nuclear exchange
with the United States.
The task of the K-129
is to stay in an area
that permits firing
at more than one target.
For example, San Francisco,
but also other targets
on the US territory.
If there are military objects,
the more targets that are within
the K-129 missile range, the better.
I am the son of Dr. Cherepanov.
My father, captain third class,
was major of medical services
on the K-129 submarine.
I was ten years old at the time.
My father wasn't supposed to be
deployed on this mission.
It was coincidence.
It was decided by chance.
Father, of course, knew the whole crew.
This crew was his crew, his commander.
And I knew many of these people.
This deployment was supposed to be
his last deployment, his last sea voyage.
K-129 was on full radio silence mode.
But it was supposed to send
control reports
when it arrived at control points.
When we didn't receive
the control radio dispatch from K-129,
the Navy command, and especially
the Pacific Ocean Fleet command,
rolled out a search operation,
including search boats and airplanes.
They immediately
started sending out aircraft, submarines,
and surface ships
to look for the submarine.
They knew the approximate area
for the K-129, but not an exact position.
This search continued.
Unfortunately, there were no results.
There was
no official statement acknowledging
the loss of the submarine
and death of 98 members of its crew.
They just told them that they died
while fulfilling their military duty.
What tipped US intelligence
was the Soviet search, a massive search.
US watchers couldn't miss it,
but the trick was to locate the sub.
And for that, the United States
used its underwater surveillance system
that was run by both
the Navy and the Air Force
that was designed to track
the movements of Soviet subs,
but also from the Air Force's perspective,
to track Soviet missiles.
When it had its accident,
it created
a very strong acoustic signature
that was picked up
by the underwater surveillance network
that we had set up around the world,
both in the Pacific
and the Atlantic Ocean,
where we could follow
the movement of the submarines.
The US was able
to triangulate that data
to locate very precisely
the remains of the K-129.
The Navy's response
was to use one of its
specially configured submarines,
the USS Halibut, to go and photograph
the debris on the bottom.
The USS Halibut returned
with thousands of photographs.
They showed the K-129, where it was,
and in a recoverable condition
and position.
They wanted to see
if there was any imagery looking down
towards one of the open missile tubes,
to see if there was still
a missile or warhead,
and they were looking for an object
that was approximately
three miles below the surface.
I was allowed to see the photography
because my responsibility
was to try to see it better.
I was fascinated by the photography.
It was my first time
ever looking at something like that.
It was really very captivating.
I wrote a report about that,
basically saying,
"There is probably
a missile in that tube."
It was very, very sensitive.
Henry Kissinger, advisor to the president,
sees the photographs, says,
"I want the nuclear warhead
on that third missile."
Initially, the task of devising a plan
to recover the K-129
was given to the US Navy.
And the Navy developed a plan,
but that plan
was thought not to be feasible.
And so, in 1969, the job
was given instead to the CIA.
John Parangosky, a career CIA officer,
was asked to assemble a team to do that,
and he became what we call
the "Program Manager" for the project,
which was given the name "Azorian."
The objective of Project Azorian
was to raise
the targeted portion of the K-129
in order to recover
the valuable items thought to be on board,
which included nuclear warheads
and missiles and cryptographic gear.
Studying nuclear weapons had always been
the first and foremost intelligence task.
Second, they could gain
secret codes for radio connections,
including using a fast-acting system.
All the secret codes.
They could read these secret documents,
these telegrams,
and put together quite a good idea
about our Navy fleet tactics,
especially for the submarines.
The K-129 was a warship.
Recovering a warship
is illegal under international law.
It was a highly risky operation.
CIA go to a company called Global Marine.
Global Marine builds ships
to do ocean floor drilling,
drilling for oil on the ocean floor.
The objective of the CIA
was to recover the K-129.
It required hundreds,
thousands of people to do that,
and the development of huge,
enormous technology.
And so the cover story
that the CIA selected in 1969
was to hide that undertaking
in plain sight
under cover
of a deepwater ocean mining operation.
And to front the operation,
the CIA selected Howard Hughes.
He has a pre-existing relationship
with the US intelligence agency.
He had been
a defense contractor for years,
but according to declassified documents,
that included providing cover arrangements
for CIA people working overseas.
And the thinking was, well,
only one person, Howard Hughes,
an eccentric,
was thought to be crazy enough
to undertake something,
deep ocean mining,
an industry that didn't exist at the time.
That immediately focused
so much publicity.
Here there were headlines in newspapers,
"Howard Hughes starts seafloor mining."
It was a brilliant cover story,
and it worked.
I was involved with the Glomar Explorer
from its inception until it finished,
from 1970 to 1975.
It was a challenge.
Us engineers love challenges,
so it was something
I looked forward to getting involved with.
We built a ship.
It ended up 600 feet long,
weighed 63,000 tons.
Was a lot of things to do
other than just build a ship.
They had to build a capture vehicle.
They had to make sure that the materials
that were used in the capture vehicle
were strong enough.
In metallurgy, there's a trade-off
between the ability of something to bend
and its ability to be strong at the limit.
Below deck
was really where the action was,
and included an enormous moon pool,
which housed the capture vehicle
that was designed to go down
three miles to collect the sub,
and then, presumably, would house
the sub itself when it was recovered.
Once the ship was completed,
it left Philadelphia
and actually had to sail down
and go through the Straits of Magellan
to get to Long Beach, its home port.
The ship arrived
from Pennsylvania to Long Beach.
Strangely, a dock
right next to Hughes' flying boat.
So that made perfect sense.
Howard Hughes
was selected for a lot of reasons.
His company, Hughes Tool,
was privately owned.
There were no stockholders to answer to,
no Securities and Exchange Commission
reports to file.
And so it was a perfect black box.
But nighttime burglary at a Hughes-owned
warehouse in Los Angeles took place.
The burglars reportedly stole
thousands of dollars in valuables,
but mostly papers.
Those papers included a memo
that was written by a Hughes aide in 1970,
and this aide
explained to Hughes via this memo
that the CIA had approached Hughes
to raise a Soviet sub,
and explaining exactly what the CIA
wanted from Hughes,
and what the operation was
and asking for Hughes' approval.
The CIA and Colby
were concerned about the memo,
because if it would continue
to go missing,
that the program, the cover will be blown.
The location of the target
was in the North Pacific Ocean.
The operation itself
had to be conducted at a time of the year
when the ocean was most calm.
As soon as the Glomar Explorer
reached the area,
the Soviets immediately became suspicious.
They sent a ship to observe.
It was very foggy.
We couldn't see anything,
and as it got lighter and lighter
as fog started to burn off,
we saw this beautiful, white ship
with a bunch of radomes on it.
We then identified it
as the Chazhma, a Russian ship,
and it was evidently
holding station with us.
They opened the doors
in the back of the ship,
and out comes this little helicopter.
The Glomar Explorer had a helicopter pad.
The last thing they wanted
was the Soviet helicopter landing,
so they immediately took boxes,
packing gear, anything they could find,
filled up the helicopter deck
on the Glomar
so that the Soviet helicopter
could not land.
The ship was mostly unarmed.
It was unescorted, and it was alone
in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Ostensibly, a commercial ship.
And the fact that there were
Soviet vessels hovering nearby,
many crew members certainly did feel
that they were vulnerable.
One concern was
that the Soviets were unpredictable,
especially some of their ship operators,
and it was possible
that they could decide to
"accidentally," in quotes, ram the ship.
The Soviet Union
was very interested in the ship.
The cover was a mining vehicle deployment.
Therefore, they would assume
that's what it was
and not feel like
it was any kind of a threat.
They came to the conclusion
that the Glomar Explorer
was performing deepwater work,
with the purpose of mining
some useful fossils or crude oil,
which they reported to the command
and left that area very fast.
At this point, there was no
belief that the Russians were aware of
The mining activity
seemed to have held fine.
And then this tugboat came up.
It was a tug,
but it was a Russian Navy tug.
Didn't look like it was any threat
other than getting in our way,
which it did a few times,
just to harass us.
Then they'd come by every few days,
and come real close again,
see if we were doing anything.
We didn't open the gates
and lower the rig until they parked,
and they hung all around us
the whole time that we went down.
The claw, which was named Clementine,
had cameras mounted on it, and lights,
so they were able to monitor
exactly what was happening.
So, Clementine makes its way down.
Folks were hopeful
that they would succeed.
When we went to pick up the sub,
everything was going well.
The claws went under the submarine
into the ocean floor.
The bottom was harder
than they anticipated.
Then they called us
and told us to take over control
for lifting it to the surface.
So there was a high level of anxiety.
"If we get the submarine
into our ship, what do we have?"
Key question was radiation.
The submarine had three nuclear missiles,
two nuclear torpedoes.
They had been under pressure
at 16,000 feet for a couple of years,
plus the salt water.
What was the effect of that environment
on a nuclear warhead?
No one knew,
especially because we didn't know
that much about Soviet nuclear warheads.
There were individuals on board
that were demolitions experts
and defusing experts,
that were trained
to make sure that the weapons,
if there were any recovered,
did not explode.
One morning, we were in the mess room.
I was having a meeting with my guys,
and I felt this little shake,
like a small earthquake,
or a barge or something
bumping the side of us.
Something had gone wrong,
we knew instantly.
I went to the heavy lift control room.
They said, "Fine here."
Then someone realized,
"Oh wait, those are old images,"
and somebody pressed the refresh button,
and then they realized,
"Oh, part of the submarine
has broken away."
We had 12 cameras on the capture vehicle,
and they were multiplexed.
We could then read the weight
that we had left on the thing,
and we had lost about a thousand tons.
We had lost the major part
of the submarine that we were after,
the one with the missiles,
but we still had about
a 40-foot-long section of the bow,
so we just kept coming with the pipe.
And then the Russian naval vessel
blew their whistle three times,
which is the maritime farewell,
and sailed away.
All they got
into the Glomar Explorer was 38 feet.
The ballistic missile
that Kissinger wanted
fell to the ocean floor
with that other section of the submarine.
You had a success
and a failure at the same time.
What was aboard the sub,
what did US experts
believe was aboard the sub,
that information has been declassified.
What they recovered, that has not been.
We had trained to take things apart
and categorize them, dry things out.
They did find parts of six bodies.
These bodies were recovered,
removed from the submarine,
buried at sea,
in the location of the Glomar Explorer.
This service is being conducted
to honor Viktor Lokhov,
Vadim Kostyushko, Valentin Nosachev,
and three other
unidentified Soviet submariners
who perished in March 1968
in the North Pacific Ocean.
CIA officers
prepared to bury those remains
in accord with the Geneva Conventions
and to do so in a respectful way
in case the Soviets ever asked a question,
'cause this was, again,
a very high-stakes operation.
And so you wanted to bury the remains
in a way that would be respectful
and follow the conventions, um,
to answer any concerns
that the Soviets might have.
Yes, I've seen the video.
And the only thing I regret
is that it was done by American sailors.
The exploitation, then,
of the third of the submarine
started immediately.
After a covert operation
of this magnitude and type,
there's always the question about,
"Well, was it worth it?"
"Did we get anything
of any particular value?"
the result of Operation Azorian,
for the American fleet,
was of great importance.
Probably helped them discover
the technology behind Russian submarines.
Immediately after the Glomar
Explorer returned to the United States,
the CIA began planning
to go back with the Glomar Explorer
and recover that section
of the submarine that had broken off,
pick it up, to get the nuclear warhead
from that third missile.
Project started immediately.
They took photographs of the ocean floor,
of what that part
of the submarine looked like,
so schedules were made up.
It was going to be
a very successful mission,
and everyone was very enthusiastic
about going after the piece that dropped.
It was called "Matador."
The cost factors were such
that the agency went back
to Henry Kissinger for confirmation
that the project should continue,
and that was revalidated
by Mr. Kissinger saying,
"Yes, we think this project
is worth the cost."
But in early February 1975,
the LA Times leaked a story
about the Hughes-CIA connection,
and the fact that it was going after
a sunken submarine.
The reason that it blew had to do with
events that took place months earlier,
uh, when a burglary at a Hughes-owned
warehouse in Los Angeles took place.
That investigation leaks,
and in February of 1975,
two local beat reporters
for the Los Angeles Times
publish the first
garbled account of the project.
The CIA was to silence the press
in hopes that the US
could still continue the operation.
Seymour Hersh follows up
with a credible account
on the front page of the New York Times
the next morning, May 19th.
So at this point,
the operation is fully blown.
Soon as that happened,
within ten days or so
of that newspaper hitting the newsstands,
the Soviets put a ship out at the spot
where the Glomar had been operating
and just circled the area,
making sure that no one else came back.
President Ford said, "Okay."
"Based on that,
we're not going to go back."
And we didn't.
So that's how it got terminated and why.
There are still a lot of mysteries
regarding the Azorian Project,
things we don't know.
One of them is regarding what,
exactly, the US hauled up,
and that information
has still not been declassified.
The best source on this
is a French edition
of William Colby's memoirs
which were published
beyond the reach of CIA censors.
And according to that,
the US did not recover
the full targeted section of the sub.
There are three nuclear missile warheads
on the bottom of the North Pacific.
One of them is intact.
Has anyone gone back? No.
The CIA would never comment on it.
It was a secret of all secrets.
The response that was developed
to requests for information
about Project Azorian
was to neither confirm
nor deny those reports.
And that language,
"neither confirm nor deny,"
has become part of our culture today.
It's one of the major, um, legacies
of the Azorian Project,
which became known as
the "Glomar Response"
that the US government has used for years.
The first tweet from the CIA account
was, cheekily enough,
"We can neither confirm nor deny
this is our first tweet."
There are a lot of theories
as to what happened to the K-129.
That it went rogue, and some tried
to detonate a nuclear device on board,
um, but what we do know
is that it suffered some kind of
an internal explosion, uh, and sank.
The most realistic version
is the one I was told
by an American officer
from a surface ship.
That the K-129, under the periscope,
was in shallow depth
for an underwater diesel operation
and was unintentionally hit by
a surface ship, the American destroyer.
The destruction of the submarine itself
was so fast,
there was no time for them
to send an emergency signal.
Many critics felt
that Azorian was scandalous.
It was a high-cost operation.
The exact figure remains classified today.
Estimates are approximately
$350 million and up,
and that was a large figure at the time.
One of the costlier US collection efforts
in intelligence history,
so there was a cost factor.
But the other thing
had to do with the target itself.
By 1975, the K-129
was an older vessel.
It was really a historical relic,
and many questioned
whether this was a wise investment.
Was the Glomar Explorer,
Project Azorian, a failure?
No, it was not a failure.
We did it.
Was it successful?
Only partially.
It failed to obtain that nuclear warhead.
Glomar Explorer was laid up,
mothballed, in California, Suisun Bay,
for about 20 years.
Now, the ship's getting old
and outdated, and sold it for scrap.
It's gone.
I have heard people compare
the Glomar Explorer to going to the moon,
and to me,
that's pretty fantastic as well.
And there were certainly challenges.
I can't really compare them. Uh
It'd be nice to think that it was
that way as being personally involved,
but my ego won't let me go that far.
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