Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, Public Affairs/Perseus Book Group, New York, 1998, $25.
The submarine is usually considered in its offensive (torpedo attack) or defensive (strategic missile deterrence) roles. In a tactical middle ground, however, lies its role in Intelligence–observing the enemy visually or electronically, or infiltrating agents and saboteurs. Never has this activity been so pronounced–or so high tech–as in the Cold War, and indeed the Cold War is the time frame of Blind Man’s Bluff, since the book confines its treatment to East-West confrontations between 1945 and 1989. It should be pointed out that the story of submarine espionage is not entirely untold. Curiously, too, the book fails to include the well-documented story of the Soviet Yankee-class submarine K-210, which was towed in full sight of the U.S. Navy and then scuttled. Aside from those criticisms, however, Blind Man’s Bluff is an engaging study of a variety of secret missions, their accomplishments and failures, and the human cost involved.
The marriage of “squids” and “spooks” was described by one Intelligence officer as “engaging in the world’s ‘second oldest profession,’ one with even fewer morals than the first.” Perhaps the best examples of this are the cable taps installed by U.S. Navy nuclear submarines in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Barents Sea to monitor the communications of the Soviet Pacific and Atlantic submarine fleets. The taps, made within Soviet territorial waters, were clearly illegal under any international laws, and the subs that installed them were wired to self-destruct if they were caught. Another example is the attempt to retrieve critical material from a Soviet Golf-class sub sunk in the Pacific. The Central Intelligence Agency, in collaboration with Howard Hughes, built the huge research vessel, Glomar Explorer, to bring up the entire submarine–only to see it break apart as they tried to raise it.
The use of submarines in Intelligence work has resulted in tragedy as well as controversy. Of great concern within the U.S. Navy was the loss of USS Scorpion (SSN-589) in 1968 from the explosion of one of her own torpedoes, due to a manufacturing defect that was known but overlooked by the ordnance community until disaster struck.
In its coverage of submarines from diesel to nuclear, the overriding theme of Blind Man’s Bluff is that the U.S. Navy was always ahead of the Soviet fleet in technological sophistication, but that the Soviets could compensate to some extent through human intelligence, using turncoat spies. The book’s appendices document many cases of U.S. and Soviet collisions and sinkings, which at the time had to be concealed as a matter of diplomatic necessity. The fact that such statistics are publicly revealed in Blind Man’s Bluff is perhaps the surest sign that the Cold War is over.
Roderick S. Speer