183. Editorial Note

In March 1968, a Soviet Golf II submarine carrying nuclear ballistic missiles tipped with four-megaton warheads, cryptographic materials, and a seventy-person crew suffered an internal explosion on a routine patrol mission and sank in the Pacific Ocean some 1900 nautical miles northwest of Hawaii. The Soviet Navy subsequently conducted an extensive but unsuccessful search for the wreckage. Alerted by this unusual Soviet activity, the United States began its own search for the sunken submarine, which was located in August 1968.

In August 1970, Chairman of the United States Intelligence Board (USIB), Richard Helms, established recovery of the sunken Soviet submarine as the Board’s “highest priority” and established its targets to include the submarine’s cryptographic equipment, nuclear warheads, missiles, navigation and fire control systems, sonar and anti-submarine warfare technologies, and related documentation. In September 1972, Helms, in his capacity as Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), reviewed the project and recommended to the 40 Committee that it be continued.

The 40 Committee charged the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with the mission to recover the submarine. It took the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology, led by Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Carl E. Duckett, several years to develop the hardware necessary to carry out the technologically sophisticated mission. The operation required the development of a ship to serve as a platform designed to grab the submarine and raise it to the surface. The recovery ship was accompanied by an enormous barge that prevented Soviet reconnaissance satellites from photographing the operation. Summa Corporation, a subsidiary of Hughes Tool Company owned by billionaire industrialist Howard Hughes, was chosen to be the project’s ostensible sponsor and source of funding. Hughes Global Marine, Inc., built the barge and recovery ship, called the Hughes Glomar Explorer (HGE).

The cover story developed was that the HGE , construction on which began in 1971, was being built for Hughes’s private commercial venture to mine manganese nodules located on the ocean floor. In May 1974, as construction of the HGE neared completion, William Colby, Helms’s successor as DCI and USIB chairman, reviewed the proposal and recommended that the 40 Committee approve recovery of the Soviet submarine. The submarine, Colby argued, contained “information which can be obtained from no other source, on subjects of great impor[Page 863]tance to the national defense.” The 40 Committee met to discuss the proposal and recommended its approval. On June 7, President Richard M. Nixon authorized the plan to raise the Soviet submarine.

The recovery mission began on or about June 15, 1974; however, it was only partially successful. In November 1974, an Ad Hoc Committee of the USIB and Deputy Secretary of Defense William Clements each recommended another mission. On January 22, 1975, the 40 Committee met and proposed that a second mission be undertaken, and on February 6, President Gerald R. Ford approved the operation.

As preparations for the second mission were underway, the operation’s cover story was blown when syndicated columnist Jack Anderson and several major newspapers—including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post—reported that the HGE was actually an undercover operation led by the CIA to recover the sunken Soviet submarine. Previously, Colby had held meetings with journalists, including Seymour Hersh, during which he persuaded them to delay publishing stories about the secret operation. Once Anderson had broken the informal silence, Hersh published an article in the March 19, 1975, edition of the New York Times reporting several significant details about the clandestine operation—including its actual purpose, cost (estimated at more than $250 million), technology, and results.

As a result of the media exposure, the Soviet Union became aware of the HGE ’s actual purpose. On March 28, 1975, Colby argued that it was “inadvisable to undertake a second mission” due to the operation’s exposure. On June 5, the 40 Committee met and concluded that the program should be terminated, and President Ford approved the Committee’s recommendation on June 16. On August 30, 1976, the Hughes Glomar Explorer was mothballed.