Thursday, September 21, 2023

Neither Confirm Nor Deny: Project Azorian

There was a time when journalists were not inclined to take the government’s word for what constituted “disinformation.” Can you imagine what Jack Anderson would have thought about the Department of Homeland security working with social media sights to suppress news stories and opinions they didn’t approve of? Of course, because all ethical judgements are situational these days, many of the same cheerleaders for censorship will be happy Anderson broke the story of the CIA’s “Project Azorian” salvage mission. Regardless, there is no denying it was quite a story, which Philip Carter chronicles in the documentary, Neither Confirm Nor Deny, which releases tomorrow.

In 1968, the Soviet nuclear submarine K-129 (and its highly sensitive nuclear codes) sank somewhere in the Pacific (it was one of four subs that mysteriously sank that year, probably because of kaiju). In 1974, the CIA located it and hatched a Clive Cussler-worthy mission to recover it from the sea floor. Naturally, they wanted to keep their efforts secret from the Soviets, so they approached Howard Hughes to help create their cover story.

Supposedly, the CIA mission would appear to be a deep-sea mining initiative launched by Hughes Industry, which made sense because the reclusive tycoon had mining and nautical companies. He was also a little eccentric. Obviously, for the plan to work, the CIA had to maintain its secrecy, which meant keeping the operation out of the newspapers.

Perhaps the biggest, juiciest revelation in
NCND is the news that CIA director William Colby supplied Watergate dirt to Sy Hersh, who agreed to kill his story on Project Azorian in return. This comes directly from Hersh himself.

Throughout the film, Carter tries to intertwine Project Azorian with the Watergate scandal, but Hersh’s horse-trading with Colby is the most significant point of intersection. Quite inconveniently for the Agency, details of the operation broke during the time of the Church Committee hearings. However, it seems unfair in retrospect to lump Azorian in with the black ops the Committee was investigating. The off-the-books operation might have technically violate international salvage laws, but you could still argue it was a case of finders-keepers.

Frankly, Reelz covered much of this story with far more economy in
The Real Hunt for Red October. However, it is interesting to hear David Sharp and the late Walter Lloyd, the CIA veterans who ran the operation, spin what many consider a failure into a possible success—pretty convincingly, as a matter of fact. Yet, hearing Hersh and Jack Anderson’s colleagues argue for less trust in government and more access to secret information dramatically highlights how much has changed. What would Anderson think of the Department of Homeland security’s “disinformation” division? The discontinuity between now and then is so jarring, it seems bizarre Carter never acknowledges it in any way.

Again, this is a wild story, involving daring on the high seas and an archly clever deception. Philosophically, none of the interviewed journalists really take issue with the mission itself. They just assert the public’s right to know, despite dramatically escalating tensions with the Soviets, by revealing it. There are just too many obvious questions Carter neglects to ask. Too one-sided and too mired in the partisan politics of the 1970s,
Neither Confirm Nor Deny releases this Friday (9/22) on-demand. For a nutshell overview of Project Azorian, check out The Real Hunt for Red October instead.