Tom Engelhardt on “The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s”

June 18, 2010

Tom Engelhardt on “The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s”

We discuss the latest in the ongoing US war in Afghanistan, the longest-running war in American history, with Tom Engelhardt, creator and editor of the website TomDispatch and author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s. Engelhardt says the US war in Afghanistan has troubling parallels with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan of the 1980s.


Tom Engelhardt, creator and editor of the website TomDispatch. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We go now to Afghanistan, where the Ministry of Mines has announced Thursday it is taking the first steps toward opening the country’s vast mineral resources to international investors. News of Afghans’ mineral reserves made headlines earlier this week when the New York Times detailed findings of the Pentagon and US Geological Survey that Afghanistan has at least $1 trillion in untapped mineral wealth. Afghan officials suggested the reserves could be worth as much as $3 trillion.

Meanwhile, back on Capitol Hill, debate over the US war effort continues. Senior Pentagon and military officials spoke to lawmakers Wednesday to urge patience and support for their operations. The head of US Central Command, General Petraeus, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the war was moving in the right direction, and they were on track to begin withdrawing forces from Afghanistan by next summer.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: The conduct of a counterinsurgency operation is a roller coaster experience. There are setbacks, as well as areas of progress or successes. It is truly an up and down, when you’re living it, when you’re doing it, even from from afar, frankly. But the trajectory, in my view, has generally been upward, despite the tough losses, despite the setbacks.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the ongoing US war in Afghanistan, the longest-running war in American history, we’re joined now here in New York by author Tom Engelhardt. He is the creator and editor of the website His latest book is called The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s. His latest post on TomDispatch “Call the Politburo, We’re in Trouble: Entering the Soviet Era in America.”

What do you mean? Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tom.

TOM ENGELHARDT: What I mean is that in the Cold War, which we’ve largely forgotten at this point, the Soviet leaders made a kind of a basic miscalculation. They mistook military power for global power. They poured all their money functionally into their military. They got stuck in Afghanistan, very much like us, for ten years. In the meantime, their budget deficits were going up. They were growing—their indebtedness to other countries was growing. Their infrastructure was beginning to crumble. The very society they had built was beginning to crumble. And when the Red Army came out of Afghanistan—it limped out in 1989, after a decade—it basically returned to a country that didn’t exist, because within two years the Soviet Union collapsed.

In Washington, this caught everybody by surprise. Everybody expected the Cold War to go on and on. When American leaders saw this happen, they declared victory. The world was without an enemy at this point. And they—in one of the more striking decisions, I think, that’s been made in many, many years, they decided then to follow the Soviet path. And they began—and they put the so-called peace dividend in a ditch, and they began to pour money, successive administrations, as we know, up through the Bush administration into today, into the American military, while budget deficits rose, indebtedness rose, infrastructure crumbled, and the society began to—you know, began to weaken. Now, the United States is not the Soviet Union. It was always by far the more powerful country. And it isn’t today the Soviet Union in 1989 or 1991. But it is striking that our leaders, in declaring victory, decided to go down, in essence, the Soviet path, which was the path to implosion.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You spend quite a bit of time on the book in one chapter talking about the language of war and how the American media portrayed Muslim resistance fighters in other wars, initially in the first war in Afghanistan against the Soviets—

TOM ENGELHARDT: Yes, yes, yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —and in Chechnya, as well. Could you talk about the language of war?

TOM ENGELHARDT: Well, you know, if you go back, in the 1980s, of course, we were supporting many of the very people we’re now fighting. And at that point, they were not Muslim extremist whatevers. They weren’t Islamic totalitarians. They were—well, the President said it at the time. That was President Reagan. He called them “freedom fighters.” And when you look at the language in the press for these very same people doing many of the very same things, they were—it just happened to be against the Soviets—car bombs, camel bombs, bike bombs, suicide attacks, so on and so forth. I mean, and this included Osama bin Laden and so on and so forth. They were portrayed as resistance fighters. You no longer—you would never say the word “resistance” fighter with—put with the Taliban, nor, to give you an example in the Iraq war—it was very interesting. The phrase that the military often used for those they were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is they referred to them as “anti-Iraqi forces” or “anti-Afghan forces,” as if they were foreigners. And, of course, nobody would refer to us as anti-Iraqi forces or foreign forces or anything of the sort.

I mean, there’s a whole language that goes with American-style war. To give you just a simple example, and you hear it relatively often, when things start to go badly, American officials—Robert Gate said it relatively recently—say, let’s put an Afghan mask—an Afghan face on the war. And that’s just a commonplace thing. And it means, let’s get an Afghan out front. But if you think about that phrase for a minute, an Afghan face is, of course, a mask over really an American war. And often the words that they use, the images that they use, are very telling, if you just look barely under them, about what they think about who’s actually running what war. I mean, you can really see in our language that we feel this is ours, it should be ours, you know, it’s our war. I mean, this has—the Afghans are ancillary to the war we’re fighting.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you propose pulling out? How do you propose Obama get out?

TOM ENGELHARDT: Well, let me say, as a start, that one of the problems with answering a question like this is, you know, basically, we’ve never tried it. I mean, in other words, it’s like talking about peace. All the money goes into war. So, you know, and in addition, as you try to get out, as was true in Vietnam for years, future fantasies are put forward: you know, there’s going to be a bloodbath, terrible things will happen. We don’t know what actually will happen in Afghanistan, if we were to pull out. We know what’s happening now, and it’s quite terrible, and it’s actually devolving. I mean, I think it’s perfectly reasonable, whether you—I mean, you could simply announce a withdrawal, a reasonable withdrawal schedule, and pull out American troops. You could offer—you could offer money. We really don’t know. I think it’s very unlikely, for instance, that the Taliban would simply take over the country. They didn’t the last time. They might get part of the country, but not all of it. We really don’t know what would happen. We just know that this will otherwise be a trillion-dollar war, which, like the Soviet war, will go on forever and ever. I mean, the Soviets, from about 1986 on, for about the last three or four years, they wanted to get out. The Soviet leadership, you look at their documents, they want to get out, but they can’t muster the will. They keep worrying, will Afghanistan be stable?, etc., etc. It goes on for years. And the problem isn’t how will we get out of Afghanistan, but when Obama decides he wants to, it’s going to be difficult.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And this most recent announcement about the vast mineral wealth—


JUAN GONZALEZ: —in Afghanistan, especially coming, the timing of it, as the war is actually not progressing as well as the Obama administration had hoped, is it your sense that this was more sort of rallying the corporate and financial elites of the world to take more renewed interest in supporting the US effort?

TOM ENGELHARDT: I’m want convinced it’s going to have that effect, actually. First of all, as you can see from the Times today—the Times had a piece on it today—and as was true with Iraq, it’s very hard to get Western, these big Western mining companies, to come into a situation where, you know, the lithium that they’re talking about is basically under lands that basically are Taliban-controlled right now. They don’t want to send their people in there. The people who might come in are the Chinese, maybe, who would be willing to take more risks, or various state mining interests that we wouldn’t be interested in. So I’m not sure this is a great benefit in that sense.

Secondly, you know, to get—in a country with almost no infrastructure and no mining infrastructure to get anything out of the ground there, I mean, I’m sure you’re talking a—you’re not talking about now, you’re not talking about something striking that’s going to happen now. I think—yeah, I mean, it was a kind of a good news story at a bad news time, and it is significant that there’s all this stuff under Afghanistan, which was known—

AMY GOODMAN: It’s not as if it wasn’t known.


AMY GOODMAN: And the question is why it’s being raised as a story now, if not to justify the US’s continued presence, that maybe the US can get these natural resources.

TOM ENGELHARDT: Let’s point out that it was known by the Russians. You know, in the Russian war, the Russians knew this. I mean, I’m struck by one small thing. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian leader who did finally get them out, his term for Afghanistan was “the bleeding wound.” Our Afghan war commander recently referred to his kind of pet offensive in the small southern area of Marjah, where they threw in 15,000 troops in the spring, declared it a victory, and now find out that things are not going well, he’s called it a “bleeding ulcer.” There is kind of an eerie parallel there, and it reminds us that both countries will now have been in a war in Afghanistan, a place known as the graveyard of empires, for a decade.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about, finally, garrisoning of the planet.

TOM ENGELHARDT: Yes. Well, the American way of war, which is the title of my book, is based on something that, in the United States, we have basically no interest in. Unless a base closes in the United States, and then there’s an enormous uproar, a military base, we really don’t think about much our basing policy around the world. And yet—

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds, then we go to a web special after.

TOM ENGELHARDT: And yet, we have maybe up to 1,200 bases, depending on what you’re counting, maybe even more, around the world. We basically garrison the planet. Washington is a war capital. We are in a state of war. We don’t know it.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Engelhardt, congratulations on your new book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s. We’re going to continue this after the show and put it up at

CIA declassified history of the Glomar Explorer

February 14, 2010 

The National Security Archive has released recently declassified documents from the CIA pertaining to the 1974 Project Azorian, a secret expedition to retrieve a sunken Soviet nuclear sub 250 miles northwest of Kaua’i.  The cover story for the Glomar Explorer, the strange ship searching the deep sea was that it was looking for manganese nodules on the ocean floor.   Only part of the sub was recovered including the bodies of several Soviet submariners and two nuclear weapons. The sub was brought back to Hawai’i for analysis.

Tom Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive said “To me, Glomar resembles the Bay of Pigs more than U-2 or Corona. On the latter, they brought in the best people, Ed Land and the Skunk Works, on the former, they only talked to themselves.”  The expression “neither confirm nor deny”, now the policy of the military related to the presence of nuclear weapons, was coined by the CIA when asked about its involvement with the Glomar mission.  This was one of the strangest episodes of the Cold War.


Project Azorian

The CIA’s Declassified History of the Glomar Explorer

Posted – February 12, 2010

Edited by Matthew Aid with William Burr and Thomas Blanton

For more information contact: 202/994-7000

The Hughes Glomar Explorer
(U.S. Government photo)

The name of the CIA ship Hughes Glomar Explorer is infamous in the world of FOIA requesting and litigation. In the wake of the exposés on the Glomar Explorer by Jack Anderson and Seymour Hersh, journalist Harriet Ann Phillippi filed a FOIA request asking for documents on the Agency’s attempts to discourage reporting on the CIA’s salvaging project.  Rejecting Phillippi’s request, the Agency declared that it could “neither confirm nor deny” its connection with the Glomar Explorer. Phillippi filed a lawsuit, but the U.S. District Court of Appeals upheld the CIA’s position in 1976. Since the Phillippi v CIA decision, the term “glomarize” or “glomar response” have become terms of art to describe the circumstances when the CIA or other agencies claim that they can “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of requested documents. No doubt the CIA will continue to make “Glomar” responses to some declassification requests, but in light of this new release, it is unlikely to “glomarize” the Glomar Explorer.

A Soviet Golf class submarine, the type of ship that “Project Azorian” was trying to recover from the bottom of the Pacific. (Photo used with permission of Federation of American Scientists)
Excerpt from Seymour Hersh story,
The New York Times, March 19, 1975
Inconsistent Secrecy?

On January 24, 2010, the Washington Post’s letters to the editor’s section included a communication from retired CIA officer David Sharp, who served on the crew of the Hughes Glomar Explorer. Sharp has written a book-length account of the Glomar Explorer project but has tried in vain to get the CIA’s Publication Review Board to declassify his manuscript in its entirety. According to Sharp’s letter, the Board continues to insist that one-third of the manuscript cannot be published. Perhaps the decision by the CIA FOIA office to declassify the 1985 Studies in Intelligence article on “Project Azorian” will give Mr. Sharp some leverage in his negotiations with the Review Board.

Washington, D.C., February 12, 2010 – For the first time, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has declassified substantive information on one of its most secret and sensitive schemes, “Project Azorian,” the Agency codename for its ambitious plan to raise a sunken Soviet submarine from the floor of the Pacific Ocean in order to retrieve its secrets. Today the National Security Archive publishes “Project Azorian: The Story of the Hughes Glomar Explorer,” a 50-page article from the fall 1985 edition of the Agency’s in-house journal Studies in Intelligence. Written by a participant in the operation whose identity remains classified, the article discusses the conception and planning of the retrieval effort and the creation of a special ship, the Glomar Explorer, which raised portions of the submarine in August 1974. The National Security Archive had submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the CIA for the document on December 12, 2007.

National Security Archive director Tom Blanton commented that “the Navy alternative to the Glomar Explorer–investigation by a deep sea submersible–sounds more convincing than the claim in the Studies in Intelligence article that Project Azorian advanced the cutting edge of deep sea exploration the way the CIA did on aerial and satellite reconnaissance. To me, Glomar resembles the Bay of Pigs more than U-2 or Corona. On the latter, they brought in the best people, Ed Land and the Skunk Works, on the former, they only talked to themselves.”

Also published today for the first time are recently declassified White House memoranda of conversations from 1975 which recount the reactions of President Ford and cabinet members to ongoing news of press leaks about the Glomar Explorer, including Seymour Hersh’s exposé in The New York Times on March 19, 1975.

Project Azorian
The CIA’s Declassified History of the Glomar Explorer
By Matthew Aid

For the first time, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has declassified substantive information on one of its most secret and sensitive schemes, “Project Azorian,” the Agency codename for its ambitious plan to raise a sunken Soviet submarine from the floor of the Pacific Ocean in order to retrieve its secrets. Today the National Security Archive publishes “Project Azorian: The Story of the Hughes Glomar Explorer,” a “Secret” 50-page article from the fall 1985 edition of the Agency’s in-house journal Studies in Intelligence. Written by a participant in the operation whose identity remains classified, the article discusses the conception and planning of the retrieval effort and the creation of a special ship Glomar Explorer, which raised portions of the submarine in August 1974. The National Security Archive submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the CIA for the document on December 12, 2007.

Also published today for the first time are recently-declassified White House memoranda of conversations from 1975 recounting the reactions of President Ford and cabinet members to ongoing news of press leaks about the Glomar Explorer, including Seymour Hersh’s exposé in The New York Times on March 19, 1975.

The first sketchy details of the program were published by the Los Angeles Times in February 1975 and by columnist Jack Anderson in a March 18 radio program, and were further developed in Hersh’s March 19 article in the New York Times. Since then the CIA has been so adamant in its refusal to declassify any material related to “Project Azorian” that it will neither confirm nor deny that the operation ever existed. This doctrine changed slightly in the 1990s, when the Agency declassified a videotape given previously to Russian president Boris Yeltsin showing the burial at sea of the Russian crewmen who were found in the portion of the submarine that the CIA raised to the surface. But other than this videotape, for the past 35 years the public has had to rely for everything that it knew about the project on a very small number of books and articles written without access to the classified records. (Note 1)

This newly-released CIA document vastly expands what we know about this poorly-understood operation. Despite significant redactions made by the CIA, the article contains a detailed chronological history of the program from its inception until Jack Anderson published the first hard details about the program in April 1975. Internal evidence suggests that the article was written in 1978, but it was prepared at such a high level of classification that it was apparently unpublishable until the Agency made decisions in 1985 to downgrade it to “Secret.”

The story of “Project Azorian” began on March 1, 1968, when a Soviet Golf-II submarine, the K-129 (the CIA history refers to the submarine by its pendant number – 722), carrying three SS-N-4 Sark nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, sailed from the naval base at Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula to take up its peacetime patrol station northeast of Hawaii. If war had broken out, the K-129 would have launched its three ballistic missiles, each carrying a one megaton nuclear warhead, at targets along the west coast of the United States. But something went terribly wrong, for in mid-March 1968 the submarine suffered a catastrophic accident and sank 1,560 miles northwest of Hawaii with the loss of its entire crew. Interestingly, the CIA history is silent on the cause of the accident, mentioning neither how the agency came to learn of the sub’s demise nor the exact location of its resting place 16,500 feet below the surface of Pacific. It is quite likely that this information was Top Secret, and could not be included in the article at the Secret classification level, despite the fact that books and articles about the project back in the 1970s mention that the U.S. Navy’s SOSUS underwater sonar system detected the location of the sunken submarine.

The article traces in detail the trials and tribulations of “Project Azorian” over the next six years, culminating on August 8, 1974, when the commercial vessel specially modified to perform the secret mission, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, raised a portion of the K-129 to the surface and took it to Hawaii for detailed examination.

The declassified article is replete with information that has never been made public before now:

  • On July 1, 1969, the CIA established the Special Projects Staff within its Directorate of Science and Technology to manage “Project Azorian.” The head of the unit was John Parangosky, a senior official in the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology who had previously managed the development and operation of a number of highly-classified CIA aerial reconnaissance systems. His deputy, and the man who ran the day-to-day operations of Project Azorian for the next six years, was a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and World War II submarine officer named Ernest “Zeke” Zellmer. President Richard Nixon personally approved the creation of the special task force in August 1969. (pp. 4-5)
  • With President Nixon’s approval in hand, on August 19, 1969, CIA director Richard Helms placed all information concerning the work being done by Parangosky and Zellmer’s staff in a special security compartment called “Jennifer,” thus restricting all knowledge of what these men were doing to a very small and select group of people inside the White House and the U.S. intelligence community, including President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger. It should be noted that in the 1970s, a number of books and articles claimed incorrectly that “Jennifer” was the name of the operation. (p. 5)
  • It was not until October 1970 that a team of CIA engineers and specially-cleared contractors determined that the only technically-feasible way to lift the huge 1,750-ton Soviet submarine off the sea floor was to slip a specially-made sling made out of pipe-strings around the submarine, then slowly raise the sub to the surface using heavy-duty winches mounted on a specially-modified ship built for this purpose. (p. 9, 15)
  • Initially, senior intelligence officials were not particularly optimistic about the chances of success for the operation, believing that there was only a 10 percent chance that the operation would succeed. (p. 11)
  • In August 1971, during the early research and development stage of the program, “Project Azorian” came within inches of being cancelled because of huge cost overruns. According to the article, the only thing that saved the program from being terminated was the potential intelligence bonanza that would accrue if the project succeeded. Despite deep concerns about rising costs on the part of the officials overseeing “Project Azorian,” on October 4, 1971 the CIA was authorized to proceed with the program. (pp. 13, 15)
  • Work began immediately building a ship specifically designed to conduct the operation. On November 16, 1971, the keel was laid at the Sun Shipbuilders yard in Chester, Pennsylvania of what would become the Hughes Glomar Explorer. The initial schedule called for the ship to be launched on October 5, 1972, and delivered to the CIA on April 20, 1973. (p. 15)
  • The developing U.S.-Soviet détente, symbolized by the cordial meetings between President Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at the May 1972 Moscow summit, threatened to derail Azorian. In July 1972, the special Executive Committee, which oversaw the project, asked the high-level and top secret 40 Committee, which oversaw all sensitive intelligence operations, to review the project due to the possibility that, by the time it was ready for deployment in 1974, “the developing political climate might prohibit mission approval.” The views of other senior government officials cleared for access to “Project Azorian” were also solicited. The response was far from positive. The Deputy Secretary of Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Chief of Naval Operations, the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Intelligence), and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) all recommended that “Project Azorian” be terminated because, in addition to the rapidly rising costs of the program and the political risks involved, the value of the anticipated intelligence gain from the operation was probably less than what the CIA believed. Despite the impressive heft of these negative assessments of “Project Azorian,” on December 11, 1972, President Richard Nixon ordered that the program be continued. This proved to be the last major bureaucratic obstacle that “Project Azorian” had to clear. (pp. 16-19)
  • While docked at the port of Long Beach, California between October 1973 and January 1974, 24 vans containing the classified equipment needed to perform the mission were loaded aboard the Hughes Glomar Explorer. (p. 25)
  • In November 1973, a strike by union members belonging to the Marine Engineers Benevolent Association (MEBA) disrupted the completion of the fitting out of the Hughes Glomar Explorer for its mission at Long Beach. Because the mission could only be accomplished during a ten week “weather window” between July and mid-September, CIA officials were concerned that the delay could cause the ship to miss its deployment date. If that had happened, the mission would have been delayed for an entire year until the next period of favorable weather conditions occurred. (pp. 27-28)
  • On June 7, 1974, President Nixon personally approved launching the “Project Azorian” mission, with the stipulation that the Hughes Glomar Explorer not begin its work until after he had returned from a summit meeting in Moscow scheduled to last from June 27, 1974, to July 3, 1974. The Glomar Explorer arrived at the recovery site 1,560 miles northwest of Hawaii on July 4, 1974, the day after Nixon left Moscow. Recovery operations commenced immediately to attach the pipe-string collars around the Soviet submarine. (pp. 36-37)
  • The Hughes Glomar Explorer’s recovery operations were greatly complicated by almost 14 days of near-continuous surveillance of the ship’s work by two Soviet naval vessels. Despite the presence of the Soviet surveillance vessels, recovery work did not stop. But fearing that the Soviets might try to land personnel on his ship by helicopter, on July 18, 1974, the CIA mission director on the Glomar Explorer ordered crates stacked on his ship’s helicopter deck to prevent the Soviets from landing on it. According to the article, 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 team designated to defend the control room long enough to destroy the material… was alerted, but guns were not issued.” (p. 39)
  • The Hughes Glomar Explorer began lifting the K-129 off the sea floor on August 1, 1974, more than three weeks after the ship arrived at the recovery site. It took eight days to slowly winch the remains of the Soviet submarine into the massive hold of the Glomar Explorer, with the sub finally being secured inside the ship on August 8, 1974. The next day, recovery operations were completed and the ship sailed for Hawaii to offload its haul. (pp. 43-46)

Unfortunately, the CIA made significant deletions from the text of the article, which makes it extremely difficult to accurately gauge just how successful “Project Azorian” was. For example, the CIA refused to declassify any information concerning the massive cost overruns, which threatened to shut down the program during its early stages. Subsequent reports estimate that as much as $500 million (in 1974 dollars) were spent. Nor did the declassified portions of the CIA article answer the critically important questions of how much of the submarine the Hughes Glomar Explorer managed to bring to the surface, or what intelligence information was derived from the exploitation of the portions of the sub that were recovered. Unfortunately, this material apparently was either redacted from the text or not included because of the high classification assigned to this material.

So what can we surmise about what “Project Azorian” accomplished? Because the CIA article provides no answers to this critical question, the prevailing school of thought maintains that the project failed to accomplish its primary goals. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh’s March 1975 New York Times article reported that the mission was, in the opinion of senior U.S. Navy officials, a failure, because the CIA did not recover any of the K-129′s SS-N-4 nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew’s 1998 book Blind Man’s Bluff reported that only a 38-foot long forward section of the K-129 was recovered, including the sub’s torpedo compartment and its store of Russian nuclear torpedoes. Ninety percent of the highly-fragile submarine, including the conning tower, missile compartment, control room, radio shack and engine room, broke free and fell back to the ocean floor, disintegrating on contact. “Back to the ocean floor went the intact [SS-N-4] nuclear missile, the codebooks, decoding machines, the burst transmitters. Everything the CIA most wanted to reclaim.” And because only small fragments survived the disintegration of the submarine when it hit bottom, the CIA decided not to make a second attempt to retrieve what was left. Sontag and Drew argue that a Navy proposal to use a deep-sea submersible to probe the sunken vessel was never properly vetted, although it may have produced better results. (Note 2)

There apparently were some tangential benefits that accrued from the project. In June 1993, a panel of Russian experts prepared a report for President Boris Yeltsin, using only information made available to them by the Russian intelligence services, which concluded that the CIA recovered at least two nuclear-armed torpedoes from the portion of the K-129 that it managed to bring to the surface. According to the report, the level of plutonium radiation the CIA team on the Hughes Glomar Explorer encountered was consistent with two nuclear warheads. (Note 3) This conclusion is partially confirmed in the surviving text of the CIA article, which reported that Glomar Explorer’s recovery crew had to deal with plutonium contamination once the sub was raised to the surface caused by the one-point detonation of the high explosive components of one or more of the K-129′s nuclear torpedoes. (p. 46)

So was “Project Azorian” a waste of time and taxpayer money? We will not know for sure until the CIA declassifies the remainder of this article and other documents relating to this operation.

Read the Documents

Another view of the Glomar Explorer
(U.S. Government photo)

Document 1: [Author excised], “Project Azorian: The Story of the Hughes Glomar Explorer,” Studies in Intelligence, Fall 1985, Secret, Excised copy

Document 2: Memorandum of Conversation, February 7, 1975, 5:22-5:55 p.m., Confidential, Excised copy
Archival source: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library; National Security Adviser–Memoranda of Conversation, box 9, February 7, 1975 – Ford, Kissinger, Schlesinger, Colby, General David C. Jones, Rumsfeld

Calling his national security team together, President Ford expressed his worries about leaks to the press, such as reports on recent National Security Council discussions of the SALT [Strategic Arms Limitations Talks]. During the course of the discussion, Director of Central Intelligence (DCI)William Colby interjected that he had been in touch with the Los Angeles Times, whose editors were going to publish an article about the Glomar Explorer. He said that he called Franklin D. Murphy, the chief executive officer of the Times-Mirror Company, which published the Times, but his call was to no avail. The next afternoon, February 8, 1975, it ran a story entitled “U.S. Reported After Russian Submarine/Sunken Ship Deal by CIA.”

Document 3: Memorandum of Conversation, “[Jennifer?] Meeting,”March 19, 1975, 11:20 a.m., Secret, Excised copy
Archival source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser–Memoranda of Conversation, box 10, March 19, 1975 – Ford, Schlesinger, Colby, Buchen, Marsh, Rumsfeld

The day that Seymour Hersh’s story appeared in The New York Times, Ford also met with top advisers. Secretary of Defense (and former Director of Central Intelligence) Schlesinger recommended acknowledging the “bare facts” because it was implausible to deny the story. DCI Colby, however, thought otherwise and his advice prevailed. Remembering that President Eisenhower’s admission of the downed U-2 exacerbated the 1960 crisis, he suggested that confirming the story would put Moscow under “pressure to respond.”


1. Two books have been written about the project: Clyde W. Burleson, The Jennifer Project (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977); and Roy Varner and Wayne Collier, A Matter of Risk (New York: Random House, 1977). See also Seymour Hersh, “C.I.A. Salvage Ship Brought Up Part of Soviet Sub Lost in 1968, Failed to Raise Atom Missiles, The New York Times, March 19, 1975; “The Great Submarine Snatch,” Time, March 31, 1975, pp. 20-27; Seymour Hersh, “Human Error Is Cited in ’74 Glomar Failure,”  The New York Times, December 9, 1976, pp. 1, 55. See also the CIA’s review of Clyde Burleson’s book in John Milligan, “The Jennifer Project,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring 1979, p. 45.

2. Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage (New York: Public Affairs, 1998), 83-84, 180, 198.

3. Jeffrey T. Richelson, A Century of Spies: Intelligence in the Twentieth Century (NY: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 352n, citing William J. Broad, “Russia Says U.S. Got Sub’s Atom Arms,” The New York Times, June 20, 1993, p. 4; “CIA Raising USSR Sub Raises Questions,” FBIS-SOV-92-145, July 28, 1992, pp. 15-16.