Sunday, February 21, 2010

Deep secrets: Former cold war agent gagged by the CIA



February 21, 2010


Deep secrets: Former cold war agent gagged by the CIA

An aerial starboard bow view of a Soviet Golf II class ballistic missile submarine underway.

Project Azorian: the salvage of a Soviet Golf-II submarine

HE remembers the women sunbathing naked on the deck of a passing yacht. He remembers, too, the lurking menace of a Russian intelligence-gathering trawler, watching from afar as one of the most audacious American coups of the cold war unfolded on the ocean floor, 16,500ft beneath the Pacific surface.

David Sharp recalls every detail of the 1974 mission known as Project Azorian, one of the most ambitious, expensive and politically volatile clandestine operations launched by the CIA.

As one of the CIA’s agents in charge of recovering a sunken Soviet submarine and its cargo of nuclear-tipped missiles, Sharp spent 63 days at sea on what he described last week as a “marvellous engineering effort and a marvellous security effort to keep it under wraps”.

The broad outlines of the historic intelligence feat have been written about and debated for decades, have been publicly acknowledged by governments in both Washington and Moscow and have inspired countless conspiracy theories and malevolent accusations. Yet the man who knows most about the Hughes Glomar Explorer recovery ship and its effort to retrieve the Soviet Golf-II submarine K-129 is still being gagged by the CIA.

Sitting in a coffee shop close to his home on the Maryland shore near Annapolis, Sharp scarcely looks a threat to US national security.

He is 75, silver-haired and sprightly, with a glint in his eye as he talks about his 27 years of service in the CIA and how he felt morally obliged to “play by the rules” when he decided to write a memoir about the K-129 adventure. That meant submitting his manuscript to a CIA vetting board. “It took them four months to read it, then they told me I couldn’t publish a single page,” Sharp said.

“They told me I couldn’t give a copy to my lawyer and that I shouldn’t show a copy to my wife, even though she has top secret security clearance.”

Eighteen months later, Sharp is still battling CIA censors for the right to publish his story. At the last count the agency was insisting on cuts to all but 42 pages of his 300-page manuscript.

“What they’ve said I can publish is pretty innocuous,” he said. “Unfortunately I can’t tell you about anything that’s still classified.”

Then, in a curious twist to one of the most intriguing episodes in cold war history, Sharp submitted his latest rewrite on the same day last month that the CIA released, in response to a freedom of information lawsuit, a declassified document that for the first time officially acknowledged Project Azorian and described key aspects of the agency’s operation. The door may have been opened to a long overdue account of an epic intelligence plot.

Until last month the K-129 saga had occupied a unique place in global spy lore. It was the case that inspired what later became the standard CIA formula — adopted by intelligence agencies around the world — of neither confirming nor denying the existence of any event, document or other intelligence-related matter.

The so-called “Glomar response”, named after the CIA’s submarine hunting ship, has variously been assailed as cynical, obstructionist and anti-democratic and as a form of official lying. Yet it proved an effective weapon for successive CIA directors keen to avoid stirring political uproar and was most notably last wheeled out to distance the agency from reports of interrogation abuses at Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

It all started with a tragedy wreathed in mystery. In March 1968 the K-129 was on apparently routine cold war patrolling duty 1,500 miles northeast of Hawaii. In the event of war, the Soviet submarine would have fired its three Sark nuclear-armed ballistic missiles at targets in California.

Instead, there was a catastrophic explosion and the submarine sank with at least 86 crew members on board. The cause of the disaster has never been clear. Theories range from a collision with a US submarine to a test missile firing that went wrong. The sinking a few weeks later of a US submarine in the Atlantic provoked persistent but unproven claims of tit-for-tat attacks.

It took the CIA years to prepare a clandestine grab for the Russian submarine. On several occasions the project came close to being cancelled as it proved not only ruinously expensive, estimated at $1.5 billion (£970m) at today’s values, but also risked derailing moves towards detente with Moscow.

Yet Richard Nixon, then president, and Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, agreed that the potential intelligence rewards outweighed the drawbacks. With the help of Howard Hughes, the eccentric billionaire who was interested in deep sea mining, the Hughes Glomar Explorer was commissioned with the cover story that it was to be used to extract manganese from the Pacific floor.

Instead it was equipped with huge winches and a specially made sling that would be wrapped around the hull of the 1,740-ton submarine to lift it to the surface.

As the man in charge of recovery systems, Sharp oversaw the ship’s first sea trials and the testing of its apparatus and he remains deeply frustrated that he cannot yet describe the engineering challenges involved — even though the CIA has since admitted its role in the project. Nor can Sharp yet discuss what really happened once the lifting operation began under the nose of the watching Soviet vessel. It has been widely reported over the years that the submarine split apart as it was being raised and the Americans retrieved only a short section of the bow that may or may not have included two nuclear warheads.

Sharp acknowledged last week that the question of what material the CIA had obtained and how great was its intelligence value remained one of the most sensitive outstanding questions. “Anything on that subject in my book was redacted [censored],” he said. In 1975 in the first comprehensive account of the episode, Seymour Hersh, the prize-winning investigative reporter then working for The New York Times, quoted senior US navy officials as calling the mission a failure because nuclear warheads were not recovered. Yet by 1993 Russian intelligence reports were quoted as saying the CIA had retrieved two nuclear-armed torpedoes.

Over the years there have been several more public developments that shed a little light on the story, notably a 1992 visit to Moscow by Robert Gates, now President Barack Obama’s defence secretary but then director of the CIA. After angry Russian reports that bodies retrieved from the sunken submarine had been “thrown overboard” by CIA agents, Gates presented Boris Yeltsin, then president of Russia, with a video showing the burial at sea with military honours of the six submarine crew members whose bodies had been recovered.

For Sharp it has been both frustrating and disturbing not to be able to add his knowledge to a story that is now so widely known. “What’s fascinating to me and everyone on the crew [of the Explorer] that I’ve talked to is why the security on the programme is still such a big deal after so many years,” he said.

Sharp believes that the outmoded obsession with CIA secrecy may be most to blame, but he acknowledged there were other issues that the agency might still consider sensitive. Perhaps the most intriguing of these is what Washington intended to do if Soviet vessels had attacked or boarded the Glomar Explorer to get the pilfered submarine back. Could the saga have ended in nuclear war?

In yet another twist to an epic enigma, the recovery of the K-129 unfolded as an even more momentous event was taking place in Washington. On August 9, 1974, Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal and was succeeded by President Gerald Ford.

The next day, August 10, William Colby, the intelligence chief, and Kissinger briefed Ford about the Glomar operation. According to papers in presidential and other archives, the two men sought the new president’s authorisation to raise the Russian submarine, even though potentially hostile vessels were stationed nearby. In one of the first acts of his presidency, Ford gave the crucial go-ahead.

 There is only one snag about this dramatic turn of events. According to the official account released by the CIA last month, the submarine was raised on August 8, the day before Nixon resigned. Ford appears to have approved an operation that had already taken place.

 Sharp intends to continue his battle with CIA censors in the hope that the full story of the Hughes Glomar Explorer can finally be told.

 “It’s a story that shouldn’t be allowed to die with the last crew member,” he said.

 Copyright 2010 Times Newspapers Ltd.



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