The CIA’s Greatest Covert Operation

Title:                      The CIA’s Greatest Covert Operation

Author:                 David H. Sharp

Sharp, David H. (2012). The CIA’s Greatest Covert Operation: Inside the Daring Mission to Recover a Nuclear-Armed Soviet Sub. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas

LCCN:    2011041677

VB231.U54 S53 2012


Date Updated:  February 25, 2016

Review by Gene Poteat[1]

When one of CIA’s covert operations is revealed either through official acknowledgement or as a result of an operational or security failure, the world is nonetheless in awe that the CIA—America’s spy agency—is also one of the world’s premier high tech research and development incubators. The story of the CIA’s U-2, which they developed and had in the air in less than 9 months, and flying over the Soviet Union for 4 years, that answered the most critical intelligence question of the day, is still flying reconnaissance missions today, after more than as half century.

The CIA’s intelligence satellite, CORONA, became the first in a long series of ultra-high-tech satellites that lead to the current K-11 real-time imaging satellites with unimaginable capabilities. The CIA’s Mach 3.3 A-12 OXCART airplane flying at 100,000 feet set aeronautical performance records in the early 1960s yet to be matched. Today’s CIA inspired missile firing Predator drones are recognized as the most effective weapon in our quiver in the war against Islamic terrorism.

Dave Sharp’s book, CIA’S Greatest Covert Operation, finally and thoroughly documents, in detail, a CIA foray into another field of science and technology beyond aeronautics and space. It takes us into the world of oceanography and marine engineering-and showed how Agency personnel, on-the-fly, mastered and advanced the existing state-of-the-art, CIA’s project AZORIAN in the early 1970s would do the unimaginable, i.e., develop the heretofore never thought possible capability of lifting the entire sunken Soviet nuclear armed K-129 submarine from the 17,000 ft. depth of the Pacific Ocean floor. The audacious covert operation of finding and lifting the submarine, 500 miles northwest of Hawaii, would require security, cover, and deception measures never tried before, all while the world, and a trailing Soviet Intelligence trawler with no idea where their submarine went down, watched and wondered what the strange Glomar Explorer ship was really doing, though many accepted the cover story that it was engaged in deep ocean mining.

AZORIAN thus far has been the subject of a couple of books based on uninformed or second-hand speculation, and includes writings, a movie, and a few conspiracy theories. Dave Sharp, who was the mission’s Director of Recovery Systems—the Glomar’s heavy lift equipment—on board during the entire covert operation, writes with the authenticity and knowledge one has only after a first-hand, insider role. This gives AZORIAN the accolades thus far withheld for security reasons.

Perhaps more significantly, the book includes the rest of the story: the background of the Soviet submarine and its secret mission; how the submarine was located when the Soviets desperately sought to do so but could not; how the CIA planned and conducted such complex and secret undertakings; the skill and dynamics of planning and running such operations; the development of project cover and security; the damage control measures when secret operations are leaked or compromised; and, the CIA interactions with the media, Congress {with its oversight), and the White House, as well as the diplomatic and political consequences of such daring, dangerous intelligence operations.

Sharp also provides some interesting insights into the inner workings of how CIA implements and carries out its secret high-tech developments and operations, manages its security, and especially its contractors—which was never an adversarial relationship as it is today throughout the rest of the government—and the closer relationship with the senior CIA management, especially the Director of the CIA. It also shows the respect shown the Russian sailors when their bodies were recovered and were accorded a formal, reburial at sea following Russian naval traditions.

This book is a crucial for all those interested in the true nature and capabilities of American intelligence, especially CIA’s high-tech projects. CIA critics would do well to read this as a way to understand the running of black projects, as a way to arrive at more accurate accounts in the future.

Reviewed by Hayden Peake.[2]

The AZORIAN program was a clandestine CIA operation to recover a Soviet Golf II-class nuclear submarine (K-129) that sank in early March 1968 more than 16,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. David Sharp was a member of the team that performed what turned out to be a partial recovery. His book, The CIA’s Greatest Covert Operation, is the most recent account of the mission. Several books and many articles have been written about the operation since it was exposed by the Los Angeles Times on 7 February 1975.[3] With the exception of the works that called the project “Jennifer”—that was the name for the security system used—they have gotten the basic facts right. The 2010 book Project Azorian: The CIA and the Raising of the K-129, by Norman Polmar and Michael White, used Russian sources to add a Soviet perspective and is the most technically detailed.[4]

Also in 2010, the CIA released its own report.[5] What, then, does Sharp have to offer?

Sharp provides a firsthand view of AZORIAN—supplemented by input from other team members—that he argues is the most accurate and complete account available, although he admits it is not the whole story.

Some details have been withheld for security reasons. Sharp begins by telling how the project originated, the difficulties getting approval, and the formation of the team with wideranging skills that did the work. He was hired by the program leader, John Parangosky, whom he knew from his work on the U-2 and Corona programs. Sharp also describes how the Navy found K-129-he cannot confirm the submarine’s name, although others have identified it-and then determined how it was positioned on the ocean floor. Once that was established, a recovery vehicle had to be identified, contractors selected, and operating offices set up on both coasts. Sharp eventually became the head of the West Coast program office and, after some expressing some reservations, director of recovery systems at sea. (p. 128) From then on, he commuted frequently from CIA headquarters to Los Angeles, where he worked undercover.

The recovery vehicle was called the Hughes Glomar Explorer, and Sharp explains how the cover story—deep-sea mining exploration—was developed to explain what the huge vessel was doing. He goes on to describe the actual recovery, the continual monitoring by Soviet ships, the many problems that were overcome, and others that were not. Besides his personal viewpoint, from time to time he adds a detail not recounted elsewhere. For example, he describes the back-and-forth in planning meetings he attended, and he explains how secure communications were established to encode messages. (p. 67)

Whether AZORIAN was the CIA’s greatest covert operation may be a matter for debate, but Sharp’s firsthand, well-documented account is valuable in any case.

[1] Gene Poteat in Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring 2012, p. 101). Gene Poteat is a retired senior CIA Scientific Intelligence Officer, President of AFIO, and professor at the Institute of World Politics. He worked on the U-2 and A-12 aircraft, space, and naval reconnaissance systems, and managed CIA’s worldwide network of monitoring sites. He served abroad in London, Scandinavia, the Middle East, and Asia.

[2] Hayden Peake is a frequent reviewer of books on intelligence and this review appeared in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, p. 118). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Di recto rate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found on line at

[3] See, for example: Polmar, Norman (2010} and Michael White. Project Azorian: The CIA and the Raising of K-129. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press; Sonntag, Sherry (1998) and Christopher Drew with Annette Lawrence Drew. Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage. New York: Public Affairs; and Burleson, Clyde W. (1977, 1997). The Jennifer Project. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

[4] CIA historian David Robarge reviewed the Polmar and White work in “The Glomar Explorer in Film and Print,” Studies in Intelligence (56, 1, March 2012).

[5] 14. Central Intelligence Agency, “ProjectAzorian: The Story of the Hughes Glomar Explorer, 2010.” See Library/FOIA Reading Room on


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