The CIA and the Sea

Part of the story of the Glomar Explorer has been known for over 30 years. This huge drill ship was supposed to be engaged in deep-sea mining for billionaire Howard Hughes back in 1974 but was actually recovering a sunken Russian submarine for the CIA. Now the CIA has released its own account of this Cold War caper -- known as "Project Azorian" -- under a Freedom of Information Request from the independent National Security Archive at George Washington University.

While the internal CIA report adds some detail to the dramatic story of a covert operation carried out in plain sight, which involved a giant claw lifting part of the sunken submarine and a few of its dead sailors from the deep ocean floor, the true significance of "Project Azorian" and its ongoing impact on our blue world remains largely unknown, even to many in the spy agency (with the possible exception of CIA Director Leon Panetta).

During construction of the 619-foot Glomar Explorer, several cover stories had been considered, including the idea that it was treasure hunting for lost Spanish galleons full of gold.

But the CIA worried such a romantic quest by the reclusive Hughes might attract too much attention and so settled on the idea of a "mining mission" targeting mineral rich but assay poor manganese nodules that cobble parts of the deep Pacific Ocean floor in great abundance. In 1972 Hughes announced the formation of the Summa Corporation that would use the Glomar for commercial recovery of these deep-sea nodules. The CIA lent credence to his claim by planting mining articles in major media around the world including Business Week, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Two weeks after the Glomar was launched on its "mining" mission in the summer of 1974, 5,000 delegates from 48 nations met in Caracas, Venezuela for the United Nations Law of the Sea (LOS) treaty convention. The talks, which had been going on in a desultory fashion since 1958, were electrified by word that Hughes' half-billion dollar ship was now at sea. Many delegates were outraged at the thought of the Glomar sucking up thousands of tons of nodules from the deep sea that the U.N. had earlier declared, "the common heritage of mankind." With visions of a trillion-dollar godsend the poorer non-aligned countries called for the establishment of a UN-administered international seabed authority to oversee the expected mining bonanza. The U.S. delegation objected while the Soviet Union, seeing a no-cost chance to tweak the U.S., sided with the third-world's "Group of 77," or G-77.

Within three years other (actual) corporate mining consortia had formed and launched their own ships. Even after the Glomar's CIA cover story unraveled in the press and its true purpose was exposed, many of the world's leaders remained convinced large-scale ocean mining was feasible. Who should oversee this enterprise quickly became the main stumbling block between the U.S. and other delegations to the LOS convention.

Although the convention eventually established 16 solid agreements on freedom of navigation, maritime commerce, law enforcement, environmental protection and scientific research, its lack of a provision on mining left everyone nervous, especially after President Reagan named a new delegation in 1981 that took a hard-line position on mining.

Fearing western corporations might soon begin mining off their shores many G-77 nations moved to assert control by declaring 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) around their coastlines. This was the first redrawing of the world's ocean boundaries since the 17th century Dutch concept of mare liberum, or free seas.

While refusing to sign on to the LOS convention, the U.S. rapidly followed suit, declaring the world's largest EEZ on March 10, 1983. Two weeks later Reagan's Secretary of Interior James Watt declared 700,000 square miles of our new ocean frontier open for mining only to discover the mining industry had no interest in this hugely challenging, risky and unprofitable new enterprise.

Still, many have argued that once you fence off large parts of the sea, you also take on a larger responsibility for its stewardship. By 1994 the Clinton administration had talked the U.N. into revising the mining provisions of the LOS convention and joined 159 other nations in signing the treaty that sets global standards for ocean activities in many critical areas like the Arctic. But more than 15-years later, and despite widespread support from all U.S. maritime sectors from the Navy to the shipping and oil industry and environmentalists, the Senate has yet to ratify the treaty due to right-wing objections from people like Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) who claim that U.N. treaties such as the Law of the Sea threaten our sovereignty.

In 2003 and 2004 two blue ribbon commissions looked at the state of America's EEZ, including one chaired by former White House Chief of Staff and now CIA director Leon Panetta. They concluded that the ecological decline of our oceans represents a threat to our security, our economy and our environment. They also called on the U.S. to ratify the LOS Treaty. While the Bush administration failed to act on the reports the Obama White House is now in the final stage of establishing a U.S. National Ocean Policy that follows their recommendations on how to improve the stewardship of our public seas.

The administration has not however pushed hard for ratification of LOS nor has Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, been willing to challenge the Republican right and bring the Law of the Sea Convention to a final vote on the Senate floor.

Maybe the CIA should have gone with the treasure-hunting story.