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The Secret History of American Submarine Warfare Revealed in Blind Man's Bluff

Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story Of American Submarine Espionage

Have you ever wondered what happened beneath the waves during the Cold War? How did the US and the Soviet Union use their submarines to spy on each other, sabotage their enemies, and protect their secrets? If you are fascinated by these questions, then you should read Blind Man's Bluff, a thrilling and revealing book that exposes the hidden history of American submarine espionage.

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Blind Man's Bluff is written by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, two award-winning journalists who spent more than a decade researching and interviewing hundreds of sources, including former submariners, intelligence officers, naval commanders, politicians, and scientists. They uncover previously unknown dramas, such as:

  • The mission to send submarines wired with self-destruct charges into the heart of Soviet seas to tap crucial underwater telephone cables.

  • How the Navy's own negligence may have been responsible for the loss of the USS Scorpion, a submarine that disappeared, all hands lost, in 1968.

  • The bitter war between the CIA and the Navy and how it threatened to sabotage one of America's most important undersea missions.

  • The audacious attempt to steal a Soviet submarine with the help of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, and how it was doomed from the start.

Blind Man's Bluff is not only a captivating story of adventure, ingenuity, courage, and disaster beneath the sea, but also a revealing account of how submarine espionage shaped the course of history and influenced international relations during the Cold War. In this article, we will explore some of the highlights and insights from this remarkable book.

The Mission to Tap Underwater Cables

One of the most daring and successful operations in submarine espionage was code-named Ivy Bells. It involved sending specially modified US submarines into Soviet waters to attach listening devices to underwater cables that carried vital communications between Moscow and its naval bases. This way, the US could intercept and decode Soviet messages without their knowledge.

This mission was a joint effort between the US Navy and the CIA, who had to overcome many challenges and risks to pull it off. For example:

  • The submarines had to navigate through narrow straits, minefields, sonar nets, patrol boats, and other obstacles to reach their targets.

  • The divers who installed and retrieved the devices had to work in freezing water, pitch darkness, strong currents, and limited oxygen.

  • The devices had to be small enough to escape detection, but powerful enough to transmit signals to satellites.

  • The mission had to be kept secret from the Soviets, the public, and even most of the US government.

The results and impacts of this mission were astounding. For more than a decade, the US was able to eavesdrop on Soviet plans, movements, intentions, and secrets. This gave the US a huge advantage in the Cold War, as it could anticipate and counter Soviet actions, avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations, and gain valuable insights into Soviet capabilities and weaknesses.

The Loss of the USS Scorpion

One of the most tragic and mysterious events in submarine history was the loss of the USS Scorpion, a nuclear-powered attack submarine that vanished in the Atlantic Ocean in 1968 with 99 crew members on board. To this day, no one knows for sure what caused the Scorpion to sink, but there are many possible causes and theories, such as:

  • A mechanical failure or malfunction that triggered an explosion or implosion.

  • A collision with another vessel or an underwater object.

  • A hostile attack by a Soviet submarine or warship.

  • A rogue torpedo that circled back and hit the Scorpion.

  • A mutiny or sabotage by a disgruntled or disloyal crew member.

The Navy's handling of the investigation and the cover-up was also controversial and questionable. For example:

  • The Navy delayed announcing the loss of the Scorpion for several days, hoping to find it before the public learned about it.

  • The Navy withheld or altered crucial information and evidence from the families of the victims, the media, and even its own investigators.

  • The Navy refused to admit or accept any responsibility or negligence for the disaster, blaming it on unknown or external factors.

  • The Navy discouraged or silenced any dissenting opinions or alternative explanations from its own ranks or outside experts.

The loss of the USS Scorpion remains one of the most haunting and unresolved mysteries in naval history, as well as a source of grief and anger for the families and friends of those who perished.

The War Between the CIA and the Navy

Another intriguing and disturbing aspect of submarine espionage was the war between the CIA and the Navy over resources and influence in this field. The two agencies had different agendas, cultures, and methods, which often clashed and conflicted with each other. For example:

  • The CIA wanted to use submarines for covert operations, such as infiltrating agents, planting bugs, stealing documents, or sabotaging facilities.

  • The Navy wanted to use submarines for overt operations, such as tracking, trailing, photographing, or confronting enemy vessels.

  • The CIA preferred to use older, smaller, quieter submarines that could sneak into shallow waters undetected.

  • The Navy preferred to use newer, bigger, faster submarines that could operate in deep waters with more firepower.

These disputes affected the success and safety of undersea missions in many ways. For example:

  • The CIA and the Navy competed for funding, personnel, equipment, and access to submarines.

  • The CIA and the Navy withheld or leaked information from or to each other, compromising security and effectiveness.

  • The CIA and the Navy interfered with or undermined each other's missions, causing delays, failures, or accidents.

  • The CIA and the Navy blamed each other for mistakes or mishaps, creating animosity and distrust.

The war between the CIA and the Navy was not only a waste of resources and talent, but also a threat to national security and international stability.

The Attempt to Steal a Soviet Submarine

One of the most audacious and ambitious projects in submarine espionage was code-named Project Azorian. It involved using a specially designed ship owned by Howard Hughes, the eccentric billionaire and aviation tycoon, to secretly raise a sunken Soviet submarine from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The submarine had been lost in 1968 with nuclear missiles, torpedoes, codes, documents, and crew members on board. The US hoped to recover these valuable assets and learn more about Soviet technology and secrets.

However, this operation faced many technical and logistical difficulties. For example:

  • The submarine was lying at a depth of more than three miles (five kilometers), beyond the reach of conventional diving equipment or vehicles.

  • The ship had to use a giant claw-like device to grab and lift the submarine without breaking it apart or dropping it.

  • The ship had to disguise its purpose and activities from Soviet surveillance and interference.

The ship had to transport and unload the submarine without attracting attention or suspicion from anyone.The reasons why this project was undertaken were manifold. The US wanted to recover an intact R-21 nuclear missile and study its design and capabilities. The US also wanted to obtain cryptological documents and equipment that could help break Soviet codes and communications. The US also hoped to find clues about the cause of the submarine's sinking and the fate of its crew.

However, this operation was doomed from the start. For example:

  • The submarine was too heavy and fragile to be lifted in one piece, and broke apart during the recovery, leaving most of its contents behind.

  • The Soviets detected the presence and activities of the Hughes Glomar Explorer, and sent ships and planes to monitor and harass it.

  • The project was exposed by the media, who learned about it from leaked sources and documents.

  • The project was criticized by the public, who questioned its legality, morality, and cost.

The attempt to steal a Soviet submarine was one of the most daring and disastrous ventures in submarine espionage, as well as a testament to the ingenuity and audacity of those who conceived and executed it.


Blind Man's Bluff is a fascinating and informative book that reveals the secret history of American submarine espionage during the Cold War. It tells the stories of brave and brilliant men who risked their lives and careers to perform extraordinary feats of intelligence and engineering under the sea. It also exposes the blunders and scandals that marred some of these missions and endangered national security and international peace.

Blind Man's Bluff is a must-read for anyone interested in military history, espionage, or adventure. It shows how submarine warfare evolved from a game of cat-and-mouse to a game of blind man's bluff, where both sides relied on stealth, deception, and technology to gain an edge over their rivals. It also shows how submarine espionage influenced the outcome of the Cold War and shaped the world we live in today.


  • What does blind man's bluff mean?

Blind man's bluff is a children's game where one player is blindfolded and tries to catch and identify other players by touch. The name is also used as a metaphor for submarine warfare, where both sides operate in darkness and silence, trying to locate and identify each other by sound.

  • How did the US locate the sunken Soviet submarine K-129?

The US located K-129 by using data recorded by four Air Force Technical Applications Center (AFTAC) sites and the Adak Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) array. These systems detected an acoustic event on March 8, 1968 that likely originated from an explosion aboard K-129. The US then used triangulation methods to pinpoint the location of the event to within five nautical miles (5.8 mi; 9.3 km).

  • How did Howard Hughes help with Project Azorian?

Howard Hughes helped with Project Azorian by providing a plausible cover story for the construction and operation of the Hughes Glomar Explorer, the ship that was used to recover K-129. Hughes claimed that his ship was conducting marine research at extreme ocean depths and mining manganese nodules lying on the sea bottom. Hughes also helped finance some of the costs of the project.

  • What did the US recover from K-129?

The US recovered only a portion of K-129, about 38 feet (12 m) long, which contained two nuclear-tipped torpedoes, some cryptographic machines, codebooks, manuals, personal effects, and six bodies of Soviet sailors. The rest of K-129 broke off during recovery and remained on the ocean floor.

  • How did Blind Man's Bluff become public knowledge?

Blind Man's Bluff became public knowledge after several media outlets reported on Project Azorian in 1975, based on leaked sources and documents. The Los Angeles Times was the first to publish a story on June 18, 1975, followed by The New York Times on June 19, 1975. The CIA tried to suppress or censor these stories, but failed to do so.


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