ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now we're going to hear the story of the CIA operation behind the phrase, we can neither confirm nor deny. It came into use after a secret mission to raise a Soviet submarine from the bottom of the ocean. Classified documents just released by the CIA show that the Soviets had no idea what the Americans were up to. Here's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: The story begins in 1968 when a Soviet sub and its nuclear missile suffered a catastrophic accident and sank to the floor of the Pacific Ocean. All 98 sailors aboard died.
NORMAN POLMAR: Well, the Soviets did not know where their submarine had sunk. The United States did.
MYRE: Naval historian Norman Polmar has written a book on this episode called "Project Azorian," the CIA's name for its secret operation to raise the sub, a potential gold mine of intelligence. The U.S. Navy and Air Force both had listening devices in the Pacific and could pinpoint the location. But the CIA's newly declassified documents show the Soviets never thought the U.S. would recover a sub 3 miles below the surface.
The CIA doesn't reveal its sources but says the Soviet navy in 1970 concluded, quote, "first of all, the Americans still did not have appropriate equipment. Secondly, the submarine still had to be discovered in the seabed, which at that depth was oh-so-difficult." Norman Polmar explains how the CIA fooled the Soviets.
POLMAR: Howard Hughes agreed to be the cover story.
MYRE: Howard Hughes, the eccentric, reclusive billionaire. Working with the CIA, he announced he'd build a massive ship to mine valuable minerals from the seafloor. In reality, this one-of-a-kind ship had a huge claw that would descend and pluck the sub from its watery grave.
POLMAR: By choosing someone who was so well-known, so publicized, it was a great cover story because no one could believe it was a cover story.
MYRE: It took six years of construction and testing before the Hughes Glomar Explorer set off from Long Beach, Calif., in June 1974. Sherman Wetmore, now 82, was an engineer on the ship. He says a Soviet vessel, later replaced by a second one, shadowed the Americans as they anchored above the Soviet sub. There was even a helicopter circling and taking photos.
SHERMAN WETMORE: They watched everything we did, and the cover story was still holding.
MYRE: And down deep, the giant claw was holding the Soviet sub. It was slowly raised more than a mile over several days but still had 2 miles to go. Then suddenly, the U.S. vessel shook.
WETMORE: If you've ever been in a little earthquake in California, it felt like that, oh, probably 10 seconds. You knew it was something serious.
MYRE: The Soviet sub had broken apart, and most of it headed back to the bottom. The CIA had to settle for about 40 feet of a sub that was more than 300 feet long and less intelligence than hoped for. Remarkably, there's no evidence those Soviet ships figured out what they were seeing. Wetmore says shortly before the sub was brought to the surface, the Soviets...
WETMORE: They whistled three times, which is a symbol of see you later or farewell. And they left.
MYRE: The operation leaked out six months later in U.S. media reports. The CIA still didn't want to confirm the operation, and, well, it could no longer deny it. Hence, we can neither confirm nor deny. Again, Norman Polmar...
POLMAR: The CIA over a six-year period did a phenomenal job of building a salvage capability to pick up a submarine from 16,000 feet in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with the Soviet navy watching them, and the Soviets had no idea what was going on.
MYRE: And when the CIA joined Twitter in 2014, it began with this. We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF JEL'S "KNOW YOU DON'T")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.