By Bill Sizemore - The Virginian Pilot
It was audacious in the extreme, the most ambitious feat of ocean engineering ever attempted by man:
Raise a sunken Soviet submarine, armed with nuclear ballistic missiles, from its resting place three miles down on the Pacific Ocean floor.
And do it in total secrecy, right under the nose of the Soviet navy.
Four decades later, the most complete account yet has emerged of this incredible Cold War saga.
Was it a historic achievement or a colossal boondoggle ?
The truth lies somewhere in between, says Norman Polmar, co-author of a new book about the CIA's super-secret mission to raise the Soviet sub K-129.
It was a marvel of engineering ingenuity and high-stakes spycraft. But it was hugely expensive, and the intelligence payoff was meager.
Regardless, the story opens a revealing window on a little-known chapter of the Cold War and the lengths to which the two superpower rivals - the United States and the Soviet Union - went to get a leg up in the struggle.
It is a story full of head-turning details, such as the role played by the famously eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes in establishing the CIA's elaborate cover story for the operation.
Perhaps most remarkable, however, is the sheer enormity of the undertaking - and the tenacity with which the CIA fought to keep it under wraps for 40 years.
The story first began to emerge within a year after the operation ended, most prominently in a March 1975 expose by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in The New York Times.
There has been a smattering of other articles and books since, but none written with access to any classified records.
The CIA consistently refused to confirm or deny that the operation ever occurred until early this year, when it released a censored 50-page account in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The National Security Archive, a Washington-based watchdog group.