"Submarines, Secrets, and Spies"
__: During the following program, look for NOVA's Web markers, which lead you to more information at our Web site.
NARRATOR: Sleek, black and rarely seen, submarines are the ultimate killing machine. ...(music)... Prowling the decks, their torpedoes can threaten any ship at sea, their missiles, any city on land. Until recently, almost nobody knew the hidden history of their tragedies and triumphs.
For forty years sub crews lived on the front lines of the Cold War. Day in, day out, they practiced launching the missiles that could unleash Armageddon. A single missile-carrying submarine could rain down more destructive power than all the bombs used in World War II. As the United States struggled against the Soviets, it pushed submarine technology to its limits. Breakthroughs gave the West supremacy at sea, but missteps cost hundred their lives. Even today, secrecy and rumor obscure what really took place.
__: The world of operational submarines and the things that they did, it's like an iceberg. We know the very tip of it, and there's a huge nine-tenths down below that we know nothing about. They just don't like to talk about it.
NARRATOR: But recently de-classified film and documents are lifted the vail on tragic and mysterious submarine accidents and on the high risk spy missions that helped win the Cold War. These are the secrets of the Cold War subs.
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NARRATOR: As the Cold War heats up in the early 1950s, the growth of the Soviet Union submarine fleet alarms American military analysts.
__: At their height, they must have had 500 submarines in service. At the best, we have about 130 submarine in service, 150, some number like that. And the way that we make up for the lack of numbers is much better technology. We push the technology as far as we can.
NARRATOR: American science's first great success is powering subs with nuclear reactors. Now, US subs can stay under longer and ranger farther. Then, in the late '50s, they figure out how to fire ballistic missiles from subs. This gives the US a huge advantage in the Cold War. A missile hidden in the deep ocean on a submarine is virtually unstoppable. But in short order, the Soviets are doing the same.
The Navy responds with smaller, quieter attack subs that can attack the Russian missile boats around the world. The goal, should war break out, to destroy the Soviet subs before their missiles are launched.
American submarines are state-of-the-art, the "weapon of weapons" throughout the Cold War. But mistakes at the cutting edge are deadly.
__: Well, most people don't realize how truly dangerous the deep sea is. It's waiting there for you to make a mistake. When you make a deep dive, you can feel squeaks and moans, you can see things to start to pop, water starts to come out. You're right on the edge, and if you make the slightest mistake when at the edge, it will kill you.
NARRATOR: That was made painfully clear in 1963.
__: The navy's newest nuclear submarine, the Thresher, is launched at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The 278-foot craft is the first of a new class of attack subs designed operate deeper and more silently than previous under-sea craft.
__: The Thresher was the best of the best. It was this incredible piece of machinery that we put to sea, the first of a whole new class of submarines that were going to be super quiet and give us an enormous advantage over our Communist foes.
__: Now she, as we saw it, anyway, and I was a little bit in at the beginning, she was really a leap forward. She was the killer shark. The first real killer.
__: At the time, of course, I thought, "It couldn't get any better than this." We were going to be the big kids on the block from that time on. ...(music)...
__: She had the first computerized fire control system in a submarine. She had this big sonar which had incredible range. She could fry antisubmarine missiles, which were a new thing then. She was the most advanced submarine we had devised.
__: When Thresher was introduced, we realized the significance of that moment, and we could only hope that our subs wouldn't be at too great a disadvantage.
NARRATOR: April 9, 1963, Thresher heads to sea. Early the next morning, she begins a deep dive, as deep as she can go.
__: It was near Coarser Canyon that they decided to make their dive. And they had a ship above, Skylark, an ASR. Now they call them rescue ships, but certainly not for nuclear submarines. But it was able to have a line of communications, so there was a dialogue going on.
NARRATOR: Everything goes smoothly until 9:13 a.m. That's when Skylark gets the first hint of a problem down below. Thresher reports, "Experiencing minor difficulties. Have positive up angle. Am attempting to blow. Will keep you informed." Three minutes later, there's a second transmission, garbled and unintelligible. It's followed by a low-frequency rumble, then silence.
On the surface, there's no sign of trouble, but as the minutes pass, fear takes hold. Will the 129 men on-board Thresher ever see sunlight again? Skylark reports Thresher's continuing silence to fleet headquarters. It's the first tragedy to strike the nuclear sub force. It hits the tight-knit community hard.
__: I immediately made an assumption that it had happened, perhaps, in shallow water; jumped in the car, drove over to the Development Group headquarters, and went in to offer what help I could give. And they just said it was too deep. We'd lost 100 good friends.
__: It's beginning to sink in; it's still difficult to believe.
NARRATOR: Ray McCoole had left Thresher just moments before her departure because of a family emergency.
MCCOOLE: In my mind, it was impossible to lose a ship as fabulous as that. I couldn't think of any reason why she was lost of why she went down.
__: A hundred, twenty-nine men down, all that machinery gone, all this cutting-edge, you know, the beginning of this new wave of technology, gone. And we don't have any idea what went wrong. The very first thing they had to do was to find it. They had to understand, as well as they could, what went wrong. They had to do the forensics, they had to do the detective work, and they couldn't even find the submarine. And that went on month-after-month-after-month.
NARRATOR: The Navy even brings a car out and studies how it sinks to the bottom, hoping to discover some clue to the location of Thresher's remains. Remote camera and sonar sounders are tirelessly dragged over the sea floor. And the Navy's only deep diving vessel, the Bathyscaphe Trieste, spent as much time searching the bottom as her crew can stand. Finally, after six months of searching, Trieste discovers what's left of the Thresher. The sub imploded with such force, nothing remains but scrap metal.
Meanwhile, a Navy court of inquiry is making discoveries of its own. Thresher's maintenance records show that fourteen percent of the joints in the piping that moves high pressure sea water through the boat had failed ultra sonic inspection. Hundreds of other joints had never been tested, even though pipe joints of this type in other subs had failed, causing serious flooding.
At the depth Thresher was at when she was lost, failure in a six-inch pipe would dump 100,000 pounds of water per minute into the ship. Thresher's last telephone transmission gave the court vital clues, as it painstakingly reconstructed what had most likely happened.
A failure in an engine room pipe floods the compartment and blows enough fuses to force a reactor shutdown. On battery power alone, Thresher does not have enough power to reach the surface.
__: You know, normally when you're at depth like that, you drive your way out of problems. You just bow up and you just apply power and you drive yourself up to your safer depths and get yourself out of trouble.
NARRATOR: As a last resort, they blow compressed air into the ballast tanks to displace water and gain buoyancy. But Thresher's ballast system is an old design from the days when submarines couldn't dive this deep.
__: And it couldn't get enough buoyancy. Remember, it's taking on water so it's getting heavier, and then it's just going go up, sort of stall out, and then just slip back.
NARRATOR: As Thresher sinks below 1,500 feet, her hull can no longer stand the crushing pressure of the sea.
__: And once you go below crush depth, which isn't far away, then Mother Nature does it. The pressure just crushes that submarine, it goes off like a bomb.
NARRATOR: Scattered fragments of twisted metal are all that remains of Thresher, the greatest submarine of her day. This footage was shot in the 1980s by Bob Ballard, as part of a classified Navy effort to survey the debris. His cover story was his search for the Titanic.
BALLARD: Coming in on the Thresher for the first time, it was eerie, it was very much like going to a battlefield or going to Pearl Harbor. Something horrible happened here and a lot of people died. And you sense that.
NARRATOR: A hundred and twenty-nine men. Casualties of the Cold War. The Navy Court of Inquiry concluded that in trying to rush Thresher's exciting new technologies to sea, the Navy made mistakes in design and construction. The Navy vows it will never happen again, but five years later, in the spring of 1968, tragedy strikes once more, this time, to a submarine headed home from the Mediterranean.
__: The nuclear attach submarine, USS Scorpion, SSN 589, has been reported overdue at Norfolk. The submarine was scheduled to return at Norfolk at 1:00 p.m. today at the conclusion of a routine extended training operation with—
__: An all out air surface and sub-surface search is currently underway in the entire Atlantic command.
NARRATOR: Scorpion, with her crew of 99 officers and men, had simply vanished in the vastness of the Atlantic. Among the searchers is a submarine who had transferred off the Scorpion just months before.
__: I think deep inside that I knew it was futile. I think I really knew that there was no purpose in it. We had found out how long it had been since their last communication, and just figured something had to have happened, you know. Yeah, hope springs eternal, right. Give me a minute, will ya'?
NARRATOR: After ten days, the Navy declares the boat and all hands lost and presumed dead. It isn't until months after Scorpion's memorial services that the remains of submarine are found. When they are, the Navy assures the public, there's no evidence of hostile action, but the Navy will say no more. What ever conclusions it reaches about the accident are classified. Scorpion lies 10,000 feet below the surface of the Atlantic. Bob Ballard uses this mini sub to photograph the boat's remains in the mid-1980s.
Unlike Thresher,Scorpion remains largely intact. She must have been partially flooded before she reached crush depth. This was Scorpion's tower or sail. It was ripped completely off the boat. The extreme water pressure broke off the entire tail end of the sub and rammed it into the section in front of it like a collapsing telescope.
None of these images are released until 1993. That's when the Navy finally begins de-classifying information about Scorpion. Starting in the 1960s, the US military built a massive under-water network of microphones used to detect Russian fleet movements and nuclear tests. These microphones were the key to locating Scorpion's remains.
__: I think, in all, in the course of the Cold War, we spend about 17 billion, billion dollars. I mean, we're not talking small change, big money, to wire the world's oceans with these microphones. They had the whole ocean wired for sound. It's really kind of a cool thing.
NARRATOR: Technicians were trained to interpret "squiggly" lines like these as the distinct sounds of ships, whales, undersea volcanoes and submarines. An unexplained underwater explosion is found by a team of specialists headed by Navy scientist John Craven.
CRAVEN: The Carny Island record showed a blip on the record which might or might not have been associated with Scorpion, and then showed a period of 91 seconds of silence, and then se series of about 17 events that could have been the implosion of various compartments associated with the submarine. ...(music)...
NARRATOR: When the same pattern is found on recordings from two microphones in the ocean off Newfoundland, 3,000 miles away, it's possible to triangulate where the explosions occurred. But if they happened on Scorpion, there's a new mystery to solve.
__: What we expected was that if the submarine were moving from a track, that the first sound would occur at this point, and that the next sound would come ahead of this point heading more home toward Norfolk, and the third sound would come this way, heading more toward Norfolk, and so on and so forth. But we discovered through our shock and surprise, that the sounds were going in the wrong direction, as though the submarine had turned around and was heading back toward the Mediterranean.
NARRATOR: Had Scorpion turned around, and if so, why? The Navy has a possible explanation, but keeps it secret for 25 years. Finally, in 1993, the Navy releases its findings. The most likely scenario, the Navy believes, begins when stray electrical current activates an on-board torpedo. The captain orders an immediate 180 degree turn, which he expects will trigger a safety mechanism and disarm the torpedo. Then the crew ejects the torpedo. But it doesn't disarm. The torpedo begins to search for a target.
__: If no one else is around and that torpedo begins to search and acquire, it's going to acquire you.
__: They probably knew what was happening because they would have heard it coming, and they were a bit faster than the torpedo, so they would have had a chance, and I would imagine that they tried to outrun it.
NARRATOR: But this scenario does not satisfy everyone. As a young navy lieutenant, Ross Saxon examined the Scorpion wreckage in the Bathyscaphe Trieste.
SAXON: I dove on the Scorpion and I didn't see any evidence whatsoever that a torpedo sunk that ship. There wasn't anything on the hull structure that we could see, there was just that, the shutter and door were shut on all the bow tubes. The submarine was broken up because of its trip to the bottom. But there wasn't any evidence that torpedo sunk it.
NARRATOR: Dan Rogers doesn't believe the torpedo story either. He transferred off Scorpion just before her final voyage because he believe inadequate maintenance made the submarine unsafe.
ROGERS: I really didn't want to be there. I was really that concerned about the condition of that boat, especially the material condition of the boat.
NARRATOR: Eventually, Rogers shared his doubts with Steve Johnson, an investigative reporter for the Houston Chronicle. Johnson found letters from other crew members that showed they too were concerned about the mechanical condition of the sub. He tracked down Ross Saxon, whose doubts about the torpedo theory encouraged him to keep digging. Then, after years of effort, he unearthed a critical piece of Scorpion's past.
JOHNSON: I obtained several thousand pages related to the Scorpion's maintenance history from the Atlantic submarine fleet. I'd sent out a half a dozen requests under the Freedom of Information Act, and it just so happens they found these documents that they thought had been destroyed, buried amid thousands of pages, and it was the day-by-day history of how the Scorpion was selected in a secret program that drastically reduced the maintenance that it would have ordinarily received.
NARRATOR: To save time, the Navy had cut back on Scorpion's last overhaul. Scorpion was in the shipyard eight months, though an average overhaul took twenty-four. They spent just $3 million, a fraction of the norm.
JOHNSON: The torpedo theory seems to be extremely convenient for the US Navy, because it tends to detract from any other theory. And also, it tends to remove any kind of responsibility from the US Navy itself from any maintenance problems it may have contributed to the actual loss of the submarine.
NARRATOR: Yet another clue in the Scorpion mystery has been uncovered by journalists Chris Drew and Sherry Sontag. Their research has revealed another disturbing navy secret.
DREW: When the Navy released its version of events, that the Scorpion had been killed by one of its own torpedoes, I was working at the Chicago Tribune. This was a huge, front page story. As it turned out, one man who read it had been an engineer at a torpedo testing lab, and he remembered that they'd had all sorts of safety problems with the torpedoes. Now that it wasn't classified anymore, he wrote to John Craven to ask him how much of the conclusion that a torpedo was at fault had been based on all these safety problems they were having. And Craven was floored.
NARRATOR: Craven led the scientific investigation into the Scorpion mystery. Yet he had never been told of torpedo problems. In fact, Naval Ordinance had insisted the explosion of a torpedo on-board was impossible. Craven shared this letter with Sontag and Drew, him immediately started digging into the story. They learned that in tests, the battery that powered the Mark-37 torpedo had occasionally overheated and caught fire. Engineers who had worked at this torpedo test facility in Keyport, Washington, said they had warned the fleet about a possible on-board explosion big enough to sink a submarine.
SONTAG: From the moment the lab began to test these components, they warned Naval Ordinance that the batteries represented a huge danger. They said that there was no margin for error, they said that they could too easily partially activate and catch fire. Naval Ordinance ignored them. We spoke to a lot of people who are no longer in contact with one and other who were there during the fired when the alert was made and everything else, were very confident, "We can't tell you that this is exactly what happened to Scorpion, but we can tell you that this danger very definitely existed."
NARRATOR: Perhaps it was an exploding torpedo that took Scorpion down; perhaps it was the failure of equipment that didn't get the attention it required. With no survivors, we'll never know for sure. But following the disaster, the Navy abandoned its reduced maintenance experiment, and redesigned the Mark-37 torpedo. The US Navy never lost another nuclear submarine.
The Russians, on the other hand, struggling to match America's superior technology, lost at least seven submarines. Each Soviet tragedy represented a potential intelligence gold mine for the West.
__: Submarines are little cities, and in these little military cities are all the highest state secrets of the Soviet government right there. Little concentrated capsules of it right there, down on the ocean floor, waiting for us to come and pick it over. There was no more priceless intelligence than that in the Cold War. And there it was.
NARRATOR: The problem is retrieving these secrets. The bathyscaphes and remotely controlled camera sleds of the late '60s and early '70s are pretty much limited to taking pictures. In one sense, that's a sense of reassurance for both sides.
__: When things are thrown to the bottom of the sea, there is a reasonable presumption that they will stay there. The notion that anyone has the capacity to go to the bottom of the ocean and pick things up is quite fantastic. I mean, who would think of such a thing? We Americans, of course, would think of such a thing.
NARRATOR: In 1974, Louisiana-born Wayne Collier, exhausted after four years of undercover work, quit the justice department. He went to work recruiting crewmen for an offshore mining venture. Two months into his new job, he found out who he was really working for.
COLLIER: We entered one floor, went into an insurance office and up a secret staircase and up to another floor. And with my prior background with agent work, I thought, "What's happening here? What's going on?"
He says, "You're employed by the Central Intelligence Agency." And I immediately thought, "Oh, not again. I wanted to leave government work." I had a marriage that was on the rocks because of my four years, and I thought, "This is going to ruin everything for me." But I didn't say anything about my personal problems. And he said, "What I'm going to tell you may be shocking, may be alarming, but you're involved with an operation to steal a Russian submarine."
And I've thought, "Well, I've heard a lot of things, but this is unbelievable. I've got to hear more about this."
NARRATOR: This amazing story began on the 23rd of February, 1968.
RUSIN: We received an order and the sub left its base in the Northwest Pacific, and began a very long journey to its patrol area.
NARRATOR: The sub is called K-129. it's carrying three nuclear missiles. Somewhere in the Pacific ocean, it disappears.
RUSIN: What could have happened to this submarine? It was a mystery.
NARRATOR: A mystery the US navy couldn't solve. But thanks to its underwater microphones, the Navy did know where the submarine, with its missiles, torpedoes and code books now lay: Seventeen thousand feet beneath the surface of the Pacific.
__: Now how much is the prize worth? Well I ask you, how much would you be willing to pay to get a fully-armed Soviet submarine on operational station aimed at the United States, with the weapons targeted on our cities? Seems to me, that's worth an awful lot of money. And we spent a lot of money, sure.
NARRATOR: Richard Nixon has just been elected for his first term, and money for fighting Communism is not a problem. Within months, he orders the CIA to get to work on the nation's largest covert operation since the Manhattan project. Security is a major concern. Detection could precipitate an international crisis.
__: We're obviously dealing with very sensitive relationships when you get into stealing another country's submarine.
NARRATOR: Two challenges are paramount. First there is no known technology that can do the job; and second, the whole operation has to be kept hidden from both the Soviets and the American public. That requires finding a great cover story.
__: And lo and behold, we fond this wonderful example in Howard Hughes, who was secretive by nature, he'd been associated with sort of far-out ideas in the past, with the Snow Goose and some other things of that nature, so he's absolutely perfect. And he agreed to be the "cover."
NARRATOR: Hughes announces to the world, he's going to build a magnificent ship that will collect the mineral riches lying on the ocean floor.
__: It was an extremely plausible thing for a rich techno-eccentric like Hughes to want to go out and mine the deep, you know, with a vacuum cleaner that could just sweep up all these manganese nodules.
NARRATOR: Even NOVA gets swept up in the excitement, and does an entire show on ocean mining. Corporations the world over, fearing they will be left out, begin building their own ships. It's a perfect cover for the centerpiece of the CIA's operation. Hughes calls his ship the Glomar Explorer. Everything about the ship is custom built. After all, no one has ever attempted to lift a sub from the floor of the deep ocean.
The Glomar Explorer has two engines and multiple thrusters so she can hold her position in high winds and seas. The middle of the ship is a single giant room with floor that retracts allowing access to the ocean below. Three hundred 60-foot steel pipes will be strung together to lower a huge claw down the Soviet sub. Together, claw, pipe and flooded sub will weigh 15 million pounds.
The men who sign on as crew for the Glomar Explorer are fully aware of the risks they face, which range from being boarded by the Soviets to being contaminated with radioactivity. In the end, Wayne Collier is not among them, but his younger brother, Bill, signs on as a member of the "B" crew.
COLLIER: I was specifically set up that "A" crew would do the recovery step and then we would have a crew change, and then "B" crew would be responsible for the dis-assembly. And that's actually how it worked out.
NARRATOR: This account is based largely on Bill Collier's personal experiences and conversations he had with other members of the crew. The Glomar Explorer arrives at her destination in early July. It takes two days to lower the claw, nearly the size of a football field, to the sea floor, three miles below. After what feels like an eternity, the cameras on the giant claw reveal the Soviet sub. It appears intact, except the rear engine compartment has broken off. A nuclear missile is visible in one of the tubes. The operators of the claw cautiously maneuver in for the "grab." But when they close the claw, its arms strike hard on the bottom. Unwilling to lose the time it would take to check for damage, they check again.
The tension is high as the long, slow lift begins. Almost half way up, three of the arms on the giant claw give way. K-129 slips and a nuclear missile glides slowly, almost gracefully, out of its silo. It will be traveling 80 miles per hour when it hits the ocean floor. Before it does, K-129 breaks apart. The minutes tick by slowly. There is no nuclear explosion. Only a 38-foot section makes it to Glomar Explorer's giant recovery room. There are no code books or missiles. There are body parts.
__: During the disassembly, we would find fingers, pieces of scalp, bones, but everybody looked at them quite solemnly and protected.
NARRATOR: On board the Glomar, the CIA holds a funeral service for the Russian dead. This footage, given to Boris Yeltzin in 1993, is the CIA's only official acknowledgement that the operation ever happened.
As Glomar heads home, plans are made to return the following summer. Before that can happen, the press discovers the true mission of Howard Hughes' mining ship. Without the cover of secrecy, the fabulous technology of the Glomar is worthless to the CIA. The world's most sophisticated ocean mining vessel spends the next 25 years in the navy's mothball fleet.
The investment made in this single operation speaks volumes about how threatening Soviet subs were to the West. But in the end, it wasn't big operations like this that provided the most valuable intelligence. That was gathered by American submarines, themselves. Every American submarine, at one time or another, was engaged in spying.
__: I would be sent out for two months with an operation order giving me a large piece of territory in an very hot spot, and, basically, with instructions to find out what I could.
NARRATOR: This could mean listening to Soviet fleet radio transmissions or watching and photographing Soviet naval exercises. It could mean getting close enough to a Soviet missile sub to record in detail all the noises it makes. Those distinctive sounds enabled American sonar technicians not only to find an enemy submarine, but often to identify the specific boat.
__: When they sent their submarines out on patrol, we would try to latch on, follow them, make sure we knew what their patterns were. Sometimes the situations can get a little bit tense. You were trying very carefully to avoid having the tables turned on you, having a submarine that you're trailing, suddenly turn around and head right back at you.
NARRATOR: American submarine commanders call that particular maneuver "crazy Ivan".
__: Without any warning, a Soviet submarine would just make a huge loop and come roaring back at a high speed. And if you were behind it, watch out. ...(laughter) Most American submarines don't turn tail and run when that happens. They just sit there and let Ivan swing on by.
NARRATOR: Even as recently as the early '90s, these cat and mouse games have resulted in undersea collisions. That's how the commander of this Russian sub explained the dent that sent him home for repairs. His colleagues, like Captain Igor Kurdin, think it's lucky anyone made it home alive.
KURDIN: A few meters to the side, he would have hit the missile bay. Everyone would have been dead instantly. It could have been a huge explosion, nuclear warheads destroyed. It could have been an awful catastrophe, worse than Chernobyl.
NARRATOR: There were other potential risks, as well. One occasion, while observing Soviet naval exercises, Dan Rogers' sub found itself in the path of a Soviet torpedo.
ROGERS: We were just sitting around collecting telemetric data, in other words, listening, learning what awe could about their operation and what they were doing. Someone reported that there was a torpedo in the water. And I looked over at the other two watch standers, and I thought I was scared. I don't feel like I looked like they did, but I thought I was scared. Those guys looked like ghosts.
NARRATOR: The only choice was to try and outrun the Soviet torpedo.
ROGERS: There isn't another damned thing you can do, once you get past that point, except ride the boat.
NARRATOR: In this case, that was enough. Sub commanders like Whitey Mack, knew the risks of getting in close; they also knew the rewards. In 1969, Mack slipped in behind the newest Soviet missile sub, and followed its every move for 47 straight days.
MACK: Every 90 minutes, he changed course. It was 89 minutes or 91 minutes; it was exactly 90 minutes. And that's the longest I slept for the whole time. He'd go up, well we'd go up, he'd come down, we'd go down. And sometimes, we'd go pretty deep. We just did the merry old dance, you know, two 6,000 ton ships circling each other.
I think that probably the most important thing is that we came back like we had an idea of where he was operating, the method of his operations. We thought we had a better handle at the range of his tactical missiles. We could actually separate the different officers of the deck. We knew which guy had the deck just by the way he handled the ship, the way things ran. When you learn next door to somebody, you learn a lot about him, and we did. And we brought all that information back.
__: This business of surveillance against the Russians and finding out what they were doing, it was just like cowboys and Indians. And naturally, as it got more sophisticated, it was a bit more like three-dimensional chess. But with the added spur to it, knowing that somebody might be nudging up your backside any minute, and really being quite nasty about it.
NARRATOR: Sometimes spying against the other side led submarines into spaces they weren't' supposed to be, a fact both sides, to this day, officially deny.
__: Our submarine never, never entered the American territorial waters. We had a strict order not to come closer than 50 miles.
__: The orders were quite clear, "Thou shalt not trespass."
__: And were those orders ever trespassed, themselves?
__: I' can't answer that question. You might get someone from the United States Navy to answer that. I can't. I'll just leave it, "Thou shalt not trespass." And somebody wants to give a nudge and a wink, well that's up to them.
__: Look, in the '60s, I was training with the SEALs. I was in the Navy, training with the SEALs, and some of my colleagues had been in the sewers of Hanoi....(inaudible) that's one of the sewers. So can you get real close? Well you can get real close. ...(laughter)
NARRATOR: In fact, specially equipped American submarines like the USS Halibut repeatedly violated Soviet territorial waters. They were drawn there by the presence of underwater military communications cables.
__: The Soviet military naively sent a lot of its military information through cables, through the relatively shallow waters around its periphery. And because it was down there and supposedly unreachable and out of sight and out of mind, they put all kinds of communications on there that were unencrypted.
NARRATOR: For much of the Cold War, spy subs placed and retrieved recording devices on military cables off Russia's northern and eastern coasts. ...(music)... Much of the cost of developing the equipment that made this possible was hidden in the Navy's program to develop deep sea rescue submarines called DSRVs.
__: Anybody who ...(inaudible) had heard about deep submergence rescue vehicles knew from the start that they were fiction. They had to be. Unless you went down on an undersea mountain or on a continental shelf, you were going to go down and go below crush death, and there would be nobody left to rescue. But it provided the perfect cover story to create a whole other set of technology that was used for spying; that's where the money went, that's where the energy went.
NARRATOR: Some believed the rescue subs themselves were occasionally recruited for espionage.
__: The DSRVs, as we know, took a long time to be built; they were Cadillacs, that had every incredible bell and whistle that the navy and its contractors could come up with., and they went deep. They were able to do all kinds of stuff, and probably many things we don't know anything about.
NARRATOR: The scientists and engineers behind the DSRVs and spy subs like Halibut were challenged by Ronald Reagan's defense planners to go after even more.
__: They wanted live news on line, "live at five." They wanted to know what was happening as it happened.
__: If you can get a line on to one of his lines without his knowing it, you've got it. You've simply got it. And there's no substitute for it. You simply know everything he knows. You are inside his circle of decision; you are, in fact, you have a seat at his table.
NARRATOR: The plan was to use specially-designed submarines to bury a listening device in the seabed underneath the main Soviet communications cable of the Russian Northern Fleet.
__: They could lift up their cable and inspect it; it would be clean as a whistle. They would lay it down again, they would lay it right back down on our listening device.
__: From this tap, you'd run a cable off, over 1,200 miles of the sea bed to Greenland where that information would then be up-linked to satellite and down-linked to Washington, and you'd be listening to, you know, the Northern fleet activity as it happened, and the Northern Fleet would be involved any World War III scenario, so you would, in effect, have advanced notice for Armageddon.
__: This involved the development of massive amounts of new technology, and of course, the expenditure of massive amounts of money. The whole thing would have come to about $3 billion. Cheap. For the results that were envisioned, this was going to be cheap.
__: It was the highest priority and the biggest budget item in the intelligence budget in the late Reagan administration. They spent about a billion dollars on it, and then it all went away, because of one guy, Pelton.
NARRATOR: Ronald Pelton was analyst working for the National Security Agency who was convicted of spying for the KGB. The on-line tap was one of the operations he compromised. The Soviet Union relied heavily on well-placed spies like Pelton. Given the closed nature of Soviet society, this approach to gathering military secrets was far less productive for the West. ...(music)...
__: What we did have was technology. And we used that technological advantage that we had to get the intelligence that we desperately needed. And that was important. That gave us a lot of confidence. It made us probably a lot calmer than we would have been, otherwise, probably a lot less paranoid than we would have been.
__: If you looked at the Cold War under the sea, just about everything about it was dangerous. There was risk in going down in a submarine to begin with. There was certainly risk in taking a submarine right up to the Soviet port, or right behind a Soviet missile boat. There was certainly risk in pushing the technology as quickly as they were doing. And often that risk didn't pay off. Often it did, however. And in the end, they didn't provoke the Soviets and start a war; in the end, they were able, through most of the Cold War, they were able to keep of the Soviet missile boats, which was exactly what they set out to do, to prevent that nuclear Pearl Harbor. They actually did a pretty good job. ...(music)...
NARRATOR: They were the weapon of weapons in the Cold War, and now, almost a decade after the end of that tense struggle, they still patrol the world's oceans. Their numbers, however, have been drastically reduced, and their 21st century role is a matter of debate, both in and out of the navy.
__: The job a submarine does will change, but the constant, it's very valuable to have this American thing that goes out somewhere, stays there, that they don't know about, that will remain.
NARRATOR: Whatever roles the submarine fulfills in the years to come, cutting edge technology will inevitably be part of the picture. And when that new technology is taken to the depths of the sea, there will be danger. Lives will depend on waht has been learned from the past. ...(NOVA theme music)...
Navy subs have a new mission: exploring everything from Roman shipwrecks to the Arctic. NOVA's Web site takes you there at www.pbs.org. (end)
Submarines, Secrets and Spies
Written, Produced & Directed by
Sr. Consulting Producer
Russia Film Researcher
NOVA Series Graphics
Post Production Assistant
Post Production Editor
Senior Science Editor
A NOVA Pruduction by the Documentary Guild for WGBH/Boston in association with Sveriges Television.
© 1998 WGBH Educational Foundation
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© | Created September 2006
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