WASHINGTON – The CIA for the first time has revealed details about an ultra-secret Cold War-era project to raise a sunken Soviet submarine from the depths of the Pacific Ocean in 1974.
The high-risk salvage operation, code-named "Project Azorian," had been shrouded in secrecy for decades but the spy agency broke its silence in newly declassified documents published Friday by an independent watchdog, the National Security Archive.
The documents, drawn from a 50-page article written for an in-house CIA journal, recount the daring bid approved by then-President Richard Nixon to raise the submarine using a specially designed ship, the Glomar Explorer.
Newspaper articles in 1975 first uncovered the operation but the Central Intelligence Agency initially refused to confirm its existence and had declined requests for information even after the Cold War ended.
"They've been holding on to it for years," John Prados, an author and analyst at the National Security Archive, told AFP.
"The release of this article greatly advances our knowledge of Project Azorian."
The episode began after a Soviet Golf-II submarine, the K-129, sank in 1968 in an accident 1,560 miles northwest of Hawaii, the cause of which remains unclear.
The Soviet sub, which was carrying three ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads, offered a potential boon to U.S. intelligence agencies if it could be lifted out off the ocean floor and examined.
The newly released documents have passages that are blacked out and questions about the ultimate success of the operation -- and what the CIA learned about Soviet subs and warheads -- remain a mystery.
Journalists and historians have concluded the ambitious salvage effort produced mixed results, as only sections of the submarine could be retrieved and the most sensitive Soviet equipment was not recovered.
"So was Project Azorian a waste of time and taxpayer money?" asked Matthew Aid, who edited the papers for the National Security Archive.
"We will not know for sure until the CIA declassifies the remainder of this article and other documents relating to this operation," he wrote.
According to the CIA account, Nixon personally backed the creation of a task force in 1969 to try to retrieve the sub, despite the technical hurdles posed by having to raise the giant vessel from 16,500 feet below the sea's surface.
The project was nearly cancelled over its mushrooming costs and over concerns that it could derail a burgeoning detente between Washington and Moscow, the documents show.
Skeptical that the operation was worth the risks, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the chief of U.S. naval operations, the deputy defense secretary, the assistant defense secretary for intelligence, and the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency all recommended that the project be called off.
Despite opposition from these top military and civilian officials, Nixon ordered the project to go ahead in 1972 and the salvage operation finally got underway in the summer of 1974, according to the CIA account.
The papers indicate that "the only thing that saved the program from being terminated was the potential intelligence bonanza that would accrue if the project succeeded," Aid wrote.
The operation called for employing a special sling around the submarine and then slowly raising the vessel to the surface with heavy-duty winches mounted on the Glomar Explorer.
The CIA mission was hounded by round-the-clock surveillance by Soviet vessels, and as a result the agency ordered crates to be stacked up on the ship's helicopter pad to prevent the Soviets from landing.
Orders were given to "be prepared to order emergency destruction of sensitive material which could compromise the mission if the Soviets attempted to board the ship," the CIA article said.
The program later became the subject of legal battles as the CIA fended off Freedom of Information requests.
As the Cold War faded, the then CIA director, Robert Gates -- now U.S. defense secretary -- informed Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1992 about the operation and presented him with a film of a burial ceremony for the six submarine crewmen found in the wreckage.
A retired CIA officer and crew member of the ship, David Sharp, has written an account of the project but he says the spy agency has insisted that a third of the manuscript cannot be published.
© AFP 2013