How Howard Hughes Helped the CIA Try to Steal a Russian Nuclear Sub

The expensive attempt was largely a mechanical failure, but it was still one of the stranger covert ops in US history.

Seth Ferranti

Seth Ferranti

Left Image: Howard Hughes in 1936. (Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images) Right Image: Dave Pasho and others helping establish the cover of the CIA project as a deep-sea mining operation in 1972. Photo courtesy Dave Pasho

At the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, tensions were running hot and an itchy trigger finger could have spelled nuclear catastrophe at any moment. Though the most famous episode of this era remains the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev essentially engaged in a global thermonuclear standoff, that was far from the only time the United States and Russia came close to nuclear catastrophe. With nuclear subs and bombers on constant worldwide patrol, unprecedented arsenals of war left plenty of room for human—and mechanical—error.

It was amid this cauldron of distrust, near the close of Lyndon Johnson's presidency in early 1968, that a Russian K-129 submarine armed with three nuclear missiles exploded and sank. Rather than some kind of nefarious plot to drive terror into American hearts and minds, the sinking was a total accident, a colossal fuck-up that neither side had much interest in making public. The Soviets didn't want to look inept or weak—they soon gave up on even finding the sunken submarine—and the United States, catching wind of the frantic recovery effort, soon resolved to quietly get its hands on the sub for intelligence purposes.

That's where Howard Hughes, the reclusive billionaire businessman, came in.

At the behest of the Pentagon, the CIA embarked on a six-year, $800 million mission to recover the submerged Soviet sub, leaning on Hughes—and his alleged desire to make a foray into deep-ocean mining—as a front. Most famously, the agency built the Glomar Explorer, a name familiar to journalists who have been told the government will "neither confirm nor deny" prized intelligence information. Though the operation did manage to attach what was essentially a massive claw to the sub, only a chunk of it was recovered, and the mission is generally regarded as a failure.

In his new 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, out September 5, author Josh Dean takes readers on a fascinating—and optimistic—journey through this strange saga. VICE chatted with Dean by phone for insight into what was officially known as Project Azorian, why the US government was so intent on finding a partially destroyed sub, and how a Cold War episode like this one resonates amid the frosty current relationship between (some of) the US government and Moscow.

Here's what he had to say.

VICE: When did you first hear about Project Azorian, and what made you decide to write a book about it? It's not like this hasn't been covered in some detail, both in the 1970s by reporters like Jack Anderson and Seymour Hersh and again after records were released in 2010?
Josh Dean: It's not like I discovered the story—it's been bouncing around for a while. It's one of those mysteries from the intelligence world that people are aware of, but know very little [about]. I felt like there was so much of the story that hasn't been told. Even now, after spending three years on it, its hard for me to believe that much of it is true. It wasn't the sort of thing where I could just sit and bang it out in a straight chronological narrative. I had to look at what was available and submit FOIAs. Almost everybody hears the story and is like, "Did that actually happen, is that really true?" It's the definitive, "The truth is stranger than fiction" story.

What surprised you the most in your research, after getting all the documents new and old, and piecing it together?
I didn't even slightly appreciate how audacious and vast and even ridiculous it was. I knew that the CIA tried to steal a submarine that was deep under the ocean, that was the broad strokes of it. The engineering alone, even today, would be mind blowing. But in '71 to 73, when they were building the ship, it was basically redefining what was possible on the ocean. It took me a while to digest and unpack the engineering and then figure out a way to write it so people who aren't engineers can understand, and wouldn't get bored by it, and appreciate the complexity without feeling bogged down by details. It's a spy story for sure, but the science and technology and engineering side to it is crazy.

How important was it for the US government to find that sub, really? One could argue—and some have—this was just a big Pentagon boondoggle.
It was an unprecedented opportunity. A lot of people today ask why would they do that? It was so complicated, so expensive, but that was the height of the Cold War when apocalypse was a real possibility. The only way that the US and the Soviet Union were able to maintain peace and not start a war was by each side conducting intelligence and monitoring how many missiles the other country had—where they were, what the range was, and how many warheads. But submarines were a big x-factor. We were constantly trying to track their subs, and they were doing the same to us.

And when the Russians lost one, which no one could believe, they assumed that since it was three miles below the ocean surface that nobody had to worry about it. But the Pentagon said: Here's a chance to look at and take apart three ballistic missiles, so we'd know exactly what we were looking at. In addition to that, there was the submarine construction—all that was valuable to the Navy.

While there was some resistance, the CIA, the Navy, and the Pentagon, despite the CIA listing the recovery as a 10 percent probability, thought it was worth it. Not great odds for something that cost hundreds of millions of dollars [and took] numerous years and could possibly start a war. But that was what the stakes were.

I think it's difficult for readers who don't have a great sense of Hughes as a cultural figure to understand why he was such an ideal front. Can you talk about that?
Once they solved the engineering problem, which was huge—like, How can we actually pull a submarine off the bottom of the ocean 16,000 feet down? It was a 3 million pound piece of steel that was going to be attached to millions more pounds of steel. But once they figured it out, they were like, How are we going to explain the fact that we've got this big ship parked in the middle of the Pacific in a region where ships aren't usually sitting and not that far from where the Soviets lost a sub? Like, that's going to look really suspicious. They needed a cover. They needed some way to explain it. It could start a war.

Somebody came up with the idea of [deep]-ocean mining, which had just begun to bubble up around the world. It was believable that somebody might do it [there], but the CIA couldn't just go to any company, because if it was a public company then you'd have to explain to their shareholders what you're doing. Hughes was almost the only person that made sense. Here was this crazy, old eccentric mogul, popped up on pills, who had a history of working with the CIA.

It was almost like he was perfectly created for this character—and I don't think there's anyone you could have hired or worked with who plausibly would do something so speculative and expensive. Ocean mining was new, and to build a ship that cost [so much] and go out there and spend an additional who knows how much—it's not believable. Except with Howard Hughes, people are like, Oh yeah, that guy is crazy. He built the Spruce Goose. He built a wooden airplane that didn't fly. He would do anything.

The operation wasn't a total fiasco from the start, even if it didn't recover the majority of the vessel. But it's more impressive in some ways that it remained relatively misunderstood after the fact, right?
The thing was literally described on national radio and television [in 1975], and then the CIA's reaction was basically to completely shut down. Most likely Kissinger and some the US National Security higher-ups agreed to never talk about this again—pretend it didn't happen. It was deeply classified.

This [ruse] was so successful that people believed it for years. The UN had massive debates about ocean mining, like why Americans should get to go out and mine the ocean, a shared resource of humanity. Ocean mining went on to be a legitimate industry, and I can't say that the CIA started it, but they certainly gave it a boost.

Are there any actual heroes in a story like this, despite the project's shortcomings?
The scientists and the engineers of the CIA. There's a whole division in the CIA that [was] coming up with these audacious engineering concepts. In a period of less than 15 years during the Cold War, they built the U-2, the highest altitude spy plane, still in service today. The SR-71 Blackbird is still the fastest plane by a long shot. The first spy satellite was also the first object to go into space and bring something back. And then the Glomar Explorer may be the most impressive feet of Naval engineering in history.

Does a Cold War fiasco like this resonate differently in light of the frostier-than-usual Russia-US relations?
Suddenly we're having this conversation [again] about whether they're our enemy or not. We've got a lot of people in our government—including old men who were serving in the military during the Cold War or at least were in government—trying to pretend that Russia is suddenly our friend. Yeah, maybe they meddled in our election, but that wasn't a big deal. People need to remember who we are dealing with, and [that] Putin comes from that era.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Learn more about Josh Dean's forthcoming book here.

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