American Submarine Espionage

Blind Man’s Bluff is the exciting and previously untold history of undersea warfare in the American Navy. This book is an excellent read, and it’s become one of my two touchstones for well-told history. As America’s undersea program comes under the spotlight during the recent accident off the coast of Hawaii, it’s an appropriate time to look at how we got where we are, and consider in context the fact that accidents don’t happen more often than this.

Over a year ago I was at a party one 18th street at a house most locals know as “the Motorcycle House”. I met an interesting looking guy who could have passed for a bike messenger (tattoos, spiked hair) who said he worked at the Naval Undersea Warfare Group. I said that I’d read this new book, “Blind Man’s Bluff” and was curious as to how much of it is really true. I barely finished the sentence when he turned around, without a reply, and walked away, avoiding me for the rest of the party.

The authors of Blind Man’s Bluff apparently had more success getting interviews, but it wasn’t any easier. The culture of submariners is secretive and closed, and there isn’t much in the way of reward for those who break the silence.

But, through a few scant newspaper accounts, government documents, and plain old detective work, Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew have assembled a detailed and easily read history that’s also an entertaining read. One of the best parts is the telling of how America placed a Bell Labs-built tap on an unencrypted undersea cable in the Sea of Okhotsk, which separated Moscow from several Soviet Naval Bases. Guessing that Soviets would never suspect a tap on an underwater cable, the NSA had Bell Labs build a giant recording device to be attached to the cable which lay over 300 feet deep in the sand. The submarine that took on this mission would have to sneak into Russian waters undetected, conduct a previously unattempted undersea operation to attach the tap to the cable, and sneak back out of Russian waters undetected.

The mission, codenamed “Ivy Bells”, was judged insane for a number of reasons, only one of which is that diving at those depths caused nitrogen narcosis. Not until the technology caught up to allow divers to work that deep could the mission be accomplished. The tap, 20 feet long, 3 feet wide, and weighing 6 tons was a nearly self-contained nuclear-powered tape-recorder that merely needed a source to record from. Swimming out to the Sea of Okhotsk while Nixon and Kissinger were in the middle of delicate SALT negotiations, the submariners successfully found the undersea cable being used by Moscow, and planted the tap, returning later to pick up the recordings and return them to the NSA. The Russians eventually found the tap, and placed it into a museum in Moscow.

This abbreviated version only begins to relate the fun in the book. Go and buy it from