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CIA Cover Story Gives Birth to Deep Ocean Mining

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User ID: 51323695
United States
03/16/2014 05:47 PM
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CIA Cover Story Gives Birth to Deep Ocean Mining
Resting deep on the seabed of the Pacific are two symbols of oceanic politics, one decaying as time ticks by; the other slowly growing at a pace measured in millions of years.

The first symbol is the salvage site of Soviet submarine K-129. Once it prowled the seas with three nuclear missiles, but suddenly she and her crew were lost to the depths. After sinking mysteriously in 1968, the diesel-powered submarine became the object of an expensive and elaborate operation of the Cold War. The Central Intelligence Agency and Howard Hughes devised a cover story about deep-sea mining to recover it secretly. The operation, run by former CIA Director William Colby, was trying to determine the state of Soviet nuclear weapons prowess. After a string of near mishaps, the mission recovered only part of the sub.

The other symbol is a widespread deposit of potato-sized rocks rich in manganese and other minerals. Called polymetallic nodules, these rocks were the original fictitious prey of the CIA’s cover story.

But today those nodules are the prizes of a very real, but hardly less complicated, search of the ocean floors. The stories of the sunken Soviet sub and the polymetallic nodules are intertwined in history, technology and politics. Deep-sea mining is on track to become a reality soon despite serious questions about its environmental consequences.

The linkage began soon after the United States found the lost Soviet submarine. A CIA plan codenamed “Project Azorian” oversaw the design and construction of the Hughes Glomar Explorer, a ship of unprecedented design and cost. The ship’s goal was to lift a 1,750-ton submarine, armed with nuclear missiles and torpedoes, off the seabed and into the belly of a huge ocean-going vessel.

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