187. Memorandum From Rob Roy Ratliff of the National Security Council Staff to Secretary of State Kissinger 1


  • Project AZORIAN—40 Committee Meeting

Culminating six years of effort, the AZORIAN Project is ready to attempt to recover a Soviet ballistic missile submarine from 16,500 feet of water in the Pacific.

The recovery ship would depart the west coast 15 June and arrive at the target site 29 June. Recovery operations will take 21–42 days (30 June to 20 July–10 August). The time element is critical because of a narrow “good weather window” (15 June–13 August) after which recovery efforts probably would have to be abandoned since it is doubtful security could be maintained until next year’s “good weather window.”

The innovative recovery system has been tested and project officials believe it will work. The United States Intelligence Board (USIB) reviewed the potential intelligence gain at your request and has reaffirmed the “unique intelligence value” of the target.

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Now the 40 Committee must decide whether to go ahead. As part of the Committee’s assessment of political risks, special attention must be given to the President’s Moscow visit2 which is to begin two days before our recovery ship is to arrive at the target site.

The attached AZORIAN Mission Proposal3 was prepared [less than 1 line not declassified] and has been sent to other 40 Committee principals in anticipation of a meeting. I have attached to this memorandum a brief background statement4 comment on the main issues, and questions5 you may wish to ask at the 40 Committee meeting.

Where do other 40 Committee principals stand? My preliminary reading suggests that the major (and perhaps single) negative position may come from State (Hyland and INR to date; Sisco has yet to be briefed). At a briefing last week Secretary of Defense Schlesinger, Clements, Admiral Moorer and DCI Colby all reportedly favored moving ahead.

Following precedent, and because of the significance of the undertaking, you may wish to submit the 40 Committee’s recommendation to higher authority for approval.

In summary: The key question before the 40 Committee is whether the mission should proceed as scheduled, departing 15 June, arriving on site 29 June, and attempting recovery of the Soviet submarine from 30 June to 20 July–10 August. Because of the narrow “good weather window” a prompt decision is imperative to afford maximum time in which to accomplish the mission.

Conduct of the Meeting:

[less than 1 line not declassified] will be at the meeting prepared to brief on the status of the project and to address any questions you or the principals may have.

I recommend you open the meeting by asking for the briefing (it will take no more than 10 minutes) and then proceed to examine each of the major issues with the principals—your talking points are designed in this way.

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Paper Prepared by the National Security Council Staff6


Will the system work? Fully integrated systems tests have been completed satisfactorily at a depth of 2800 feet. Additional tests in deeper waters have been abandoned because of the critical time element. While additional tests would increase confidence in the system, project officials believe it is capable of recovering the target.

What are the chances of success? Because it is admittedly a high-risk, innovative endeavor the estimates seldom go beyond 50%. At the low end of the scale some estimated 20%; at our last review in late 1972 an estimate of 30–40% was considered sufficient to go ahead with the project. Now that the system has been completed and tested, I understand project officials go with a higher than 40% estimate.

Is a six-year-old target worth it? The USIB reaffirms the “unique intelligence value” of the target (see TAB B).7 Recovery and exploitation of Soviet cryptographic materials “would represent a major milestone.” Acquisition of a nuclear warhead, the SS–N–5 missile system and related documents “would provide a much improved baseline for estimates of the current and future Soviet strategic threat.” The USIB “continues to believe that recovery of the AZORIAN submarine would provide information which can be obtained from no other source, on subjects of great importance to the national defense.

There could be “negative” gains, too. We’ve never had a Soviet cryptographic machine and if one is recovered from the target we might learn that we are wasting large sums of money trying to break Soviet codes. We might find that the base for estimates of the Soviet strategic threat is faulty, since some of our information is based upon nearly 25 years of conjecture and hard data that is at least 10 years old.

Will the Soviets know what we are doing? There is no evidence to suggest that they will associate the mission with an attempt to recover their submarine—they don’t know where their submarine is for sure, the deep ocean mining cover has been widely publicized and accepted, there have been no significant security breaches. The target is located outside normal commercial or military ship areas, however it is in a [Page 879] 500-mile-wide Soviet submarine transit corridor. Mainly because of the latter and the fact that Soviets were making the initial deployment of a YANKEE-class submarine to the eastern Pacific, our first ship monitoring the area was subject to considerable Soviet surveillance; a second survey mission received none (see TAB F).8

Will Soviet reaction be hostile? Our recovery system is designed to appear to be part of a deep ocean mining operation and is capable of continuing to operate even under close and continuous Soviet surveillance. Any Soviet surveillance is likely to stem from non-military interest in the scientific/technical/economic aspects of an ostensible deep ocean mining experiment or due to the site being in a Soviet submarine transit line.

Unless the Soviets were to become aware of the real purpose of the mission, there is little reason to expect that they would react with hostility. In case of security problems while the operation is in process, the mission could be modified or suspended; if the Soviets learned of the recovery, the target could be replaced. Contingency plans have been made to meet a variety of Soviet reactions (see TABs G and H).9

What are the political risks? The Soviet submarine remains the property of the USSR, and our efforts to recover and exploit it are illegal (which was one of the opposing arguments raised by State in our late 1972 review; see TAB E, page 15 for legal aspects).10 If the Soviets were to discover our attempt, it could be exploited for propaganda and political purposes if the USSR desired. If we were successful and the Soviets did not learn of it until after the fact, Soviet embarrassment and concern over what we may have gained from our acquisition might moderate their reaction.

As Hal Sonnenfeldt pointed out in the 1972 review, détente is not going to terminate mutual intelligence operations which the target country will consider obnoxious and the collecting country vital. Either country which wished to exploit a reconnaissance operation could cite airborne, underwater and overhead programs now being conducted.

In our 1972 review State raised questions about handling of Soviet crew remains. Plans are to abide insofar as possible by the Geneva Convention (see TAB E). Remains will be returned to the sea, but the personal effects of the crew will be retained for possible future delivery to [Page 880] the USSR in an effort to soften any reactions should they learn of the success of the mission.

On the domestic scene, note should be taken of the fact that Howard Hughes has played a prominent role in the cover for AZORIAN. While this cover has held up well, recent publicity revealed that Hughes was anxious to become a “front” for the CIA in an attempt to erect a shield to protect him from government regulatory and investigative agencies. Given the current domestic political climate, exploitation of potential severe embarrassment to the Administration could result from any public knowledge of Hughes’ role in AZORIAN.

  1. Source: National Security Council Files, Nixon Administration Intelligence Files, AZORIAN Project. Top Secret; JENNIFER. Outside the system. Sent for information. Kennedy concurred.
  2. Nixon traveled to the Soviet Union from June 27 to July 3.
  3. Document 186.
  4. Attached, but not printed.
  5. Attached, but not printed.
  6. Top Secret; JENNIFER.
  7. Document 185.
  8. Tab F, an undated paper entitled “[name not declassified] Operation,” is attached, but not printed.
  9. Tabs G and H are attached, but not printed. Tab G is a paper, September 22, 1973, outlining the contingency operations plan for Project AZORIAN. Tab H is an undated paper, entitled “Mission Cover Contingency Plan.”
  10. Tab E, an undated paper, “AZORIAN Target Object Crew Remains,” is attached, but not printed.