During the Cold War, the C.I.A. Secretly Plucked a Soviet Submarine From the Ocean Floor Using a Giant Claw
By Lila Thulin Smithsonian.com
In a corner exhibit of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., which opens this weekend, a submarine control panel, a swoopy-banged wig, detailed whiteprints and a chunk of manganese are on display. Together, they represent relics of a Cold War espionage mission so audacious, the museum’s curator, Vince Houghton, compares it to the heist from Ocean’s 11. This mission, codenamed Project Azorian, involved the C.I.A. commissioning the construction of a 600-foot ship to retrieve a sunken Soviet submarine from the ocean floor—all in complete secrecy. “I can’t imagine there’s another country in the world that would have thought, ‘We found a Soviet submarine, under [more than three miles] of water. Let’s go steal it,’ says Houghton.
The six-year mission began in 1968, when the Soviet ballistic missile submarine K-129 went missing without explanation somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. In this post-Cuban Missile Crisis era, both American and Soviet submarines prowled the open seas with nuclear weapons aboard, prepared for potential war. Some reports indicate that the sinking was due to a mechanical error such as inadvertent missile engine ignition, while the Soviets for a time suspected the Americans of foul play.