187. Memorandum From Rob Roy
Ratliff of the National Security Council Staff to
Secretary of State Kissinger1
Washington, June 3, 1974.
- Project AZORIAN—40 Committee
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.