Meticulous account of an audacious covert operation to snatch a sunken Russian submarine.
Outside magazine correspondent Dean (Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred, 2012, etc.) ably resurrects the forgotten Cold War drama of Project Azorian, showcasing governmental and engineering derring-do, seemingly impossible in both its difficulty and secrecy. Following the K-129’s disappearance in the Pacific in 1968, some American officials realized, “if the US Navy could locate the sub’s precise location, it might be able to access the wreck and mine it for a host of valuable intelligence.” This fell to the CIA, which recruited civilian experts in multiple fields to design a ship equipped with a deep-mining derrick and clawlike “capture vehicle” to pluck the sub off the seafloor. They also developed a plausible cover story, involving new ocean-mining technologies pursued by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Dean captures the personalities and patriotism of the industrialists, engineers, and spies who stealthily built the Hughes Glomar Explorer and perfected large-scale systems so cutting edge that it remained unclear “whether or not they could locate, grab, and lift a submarine three miles deep in the ocean.” The high-risk voyage went forward in 1974 and was partially successful, as a large portion of the submarine broke off while being raised; one engineer “was stunned at how little of the sub remained.” Plans for a follow-up mission were scuttled when the story leaked in the press following a mysterious burglary at a Hughes facility. This created a delicate situation for the new Gerald Ford presidency; to avoid impacting the politics of détente, writes the author, “both sides would pretend as if the boldest and most outlandish intelligence operation in history had never happened.” Dean is verbose in laying out this improbable tale, with a fondness for occasionally extraneous detail, but this style is well-suited to a complex adventure spanning six years and numerous principal characters.
A well-researched, mostly engrossing geopolitical narrative of American ingenuity in the face of Russian threats.