In 1974 a Soviet nuclear submarine, the K-129, disappeared. Though the Soviets couldn’t locate it, U.S. military intelligence did (it had sunk three miles down in the Pacific) and the CIA began “Project Azorian,” an attempt to bring the sub to the surface without letting the Soviets know. The hope was that they would be able to recover Soviet nuclear codes. It was one of the most complex and expensive CIA intelligence operations ever and it’s the subject of the new documentary “Neither Confirm Nor Deny,” which is available today (September 22) on both Apple TV and Amazon streaming.
To keep the mission secret the CIA asked billionaire Howard Hughes to cooperate by letting them brand the construction of a 619-foot drill ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, as a Hughes corporation project. The story is told by Project Azorian team members like David Sharp (director of recovery) and career CIA agent Walter Lloyd. The film is based on Sharp’s book, “The CIA’s Greatest Covert Operation: Inside The Daring Mission To Recover A Nuclear-Armed Soviet Sub.” Walter Lloyd is credited with creating what is now called a “Glomar Response” to Freedom of Information requests: “We can neither confirm nor deny.”
A project with this size and scope (it lasted six years and cost $4.7 billion in today’s dollars) was difficult to keep secret. Journalist Seymour Hersh recounts that he once casually asked a CIA contact, “What’s with this kooky story about us trying to raise a Soviet submarine in the Pacific?” Later, CIA director William Colby shared some Watergate dirt to Hersh in return for him killing the “Project Azorian” story.
This is an invaluable documentary for anyone interested in Cold War clandestine operations or foreign affairs during the Nixon and Ford administrations. Directed by Philip Carter, it is a compelling and enjoyable account of one of the most ambitious and controversial adventures in CIA history. It combines interviews, vintage footage, music and dramatizations to create a suspenseful tone throughout the length of the film. (I also recommend reading the Wikipedia page on “Project Azorian” if you want to dive into more details about the story.)