U.S. recovered warheads from sub, Russia says Report sheds light on Glomar Explorer

June 20, 1993|By New York Times News Service

After years of silence, Russia has acknowledged that one of the boldest U.S. spy missions of the Cold War succeeded in recovering two nuclear warheads from a Soviet submarine that had exploded and sunk in Pacific waters more than three miles deep.

It is the first time Russia has said that the West captured any of its nuclear arms.

The warheads were recovered in 1974 by a U.S. vessel, the Glomar Explorer, a panel of Russian scientists said in a report to President Boris N. Yeltsin.

The basis for the statement was not given by the report's authors, who simply say it is of Russian origin. Some Western experts suggested that the Russians might have based the statement on Western news reports. But a former top intelligence official who has spoken to the Russians about the submarine recovery said he believed the new data were Russian.

The Glomar Explorer's attempt to recover the Soviet submarine with a giant robotic claw was widely publicized in 1975 and 1976 after the U.S. vessel, which had been built by the CIA, lost its cover as a mining ship.

But what the half-billion-dollar venture accomplished was murky. Some accounts said the whole diesel-powered submarine had been recovered from the sea floor 750 miles northwest of Hawaii, where it sank in 1968, including nuclear warheads and code books. Others said the Glomar Explorer's huge claw had broken and dropped most of the sub and its military secrets. On Dec. 9, 1976, the New York Times quoted two men who had worked on the mission as saying that two nuclear torpedoes had been recovered from the sub.

Last year the CIA disclosed that it had recovered and subsequently buried at sea six of 86 crewmen said to have been aboard the sub, bolstering the impression that only part of the vessel had been recovered.

A CIA spokesman said the agency would have no comment on the Russian report, which appears to be the first in which Moscow has addressed the outcome of the top-secret endeavor.

U.S. experts said the recovery was an intelligence coup that undoubtedly helped the United States better understand the Soviet arsenal.

"It would have been very interesting to get their warheads," said Dr. Theodore B. Taylor, a former nuclear arms designer.

The Russians insist they are less interested in aid than in cleaning up the oceans and have strongly urged the United States to follow their lead in declassifying secrets about nuclear materials at sea, as well as any that may have been quietly removed.

The object of the 1974 recovery effort was a 320-foot-long Soviet submarine, later identified as No. PL-722. In March 1968 while on station in the Pacific, it exploded and sank. All hands were lost. Its location was apparently known only by U.S. intelligence, which monitored the area around Hawaii with underwater listening devices that apparently picked up sounds of the

explosion.

To raise the sunken sub, in the early 1970s the CIA built the 618-foot-long Glomar Explorer in the guise of a deep-sea mining ship for the industrialist Howard R. Hughes.

News of the covert venture, which became public in early 1975, generated conflicting claims in hundreds of articles that year and the next. Some accounts said the whole sub had been recovered, while others said that most of it had been lost.

Typical was an article in Time magazine on Dec. 6, 1976, saying that "the entire wreck" had been recovered virtually intact. But the article three days later in the New York Times reported an account by two former members of the mission, Wayne R. Collier of Houston, and his brother, Billy C. Collier, that human error had damaged the huge claw so that it broke and dropped most of the sub. The only thing retrieved, the Times article said, was the bow section containing six bodies and two nuclear torpedoes.

Moscow generally declined to comment on the U.S. reports, which received no coverage in the Soviet press.

The first public comment by the CIA came last year after Robert M. Gates in October became the first director of central intelligence to visit Moscow. In a Nov. 12 statement, the CIA said Mr. Gates gave Mr. Yeltsin "details concerning the remains of six Soviet sailors recovered by the U.S. ship Glomar Explorer. The statement said the ship had "recovered a section of the Soviet submarine," including a forward crew compartment. It gave no other salvage details.

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