Cold War espionage: The submarine's story surfaces
Web posted on: Thursday, February 04, 1999 4:44:43 PM
(CNN) -- The submarine has been an integral part of modern warfare and peacekeeping from the earliest days of submersible boats. And while Hollywood has turned out a number of feature films on the exploits of submarines at war, they pale in comparison to the real stories.
"Blind Man's Bluff" is an investigative account of espionage during the Cold War and the crucial role played by subs. The book is number four on this week's New York Times Bestseller List.
Co-authors Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew spoke with CNN anchor Laurie Dhue on CNN's Sunday Morning.
LAURIE DHUE: It was interesting to see the very first line in your book. You quote an admiral saying "submarining has always been a game of blind man's bluff," thus the title of the book. Sherry, you've said that this is one of the last great untold Cold War stories, and it's like a Tom Clancy novel, but it's real. And that's what's so amazing about this book. Walk us through what we're going to see in the book.
SONTAG: Basically, you're going to see 40 years of missions, where the men actually were, the risks that they took, how they managed to keep track of the Soviet submarines, how they were set out to prevent a repeat of Pearl Harbor in a nuclear age.
DHUE: This is six years of research, right?
SONTAG: Absolutely. These men were the silent service. They were trained from the start not to tell their wives, their family, their parents, their friends, anyone, where they were going. And this was all about trying to get them to open up just a little bit, so we could now tell this part of history that had never been told before.
DHUE: All right. Christopher, to you. One of the more fascinating stories, I thought, was the way the subs literally had to comb the ocean floor to look for these very sensitive cables that surrounded the Soviet Union. If you would, sort of walk us through this remarkable cable-tapping operation.
DREW: When you think of what these guys were doing, I mean, this was the most dangerous and the most productive thing. We actually had four submarines, over the course of the Cold War, that were specially equipped to go right into Soviet seas, let divers out, walk on the sea bed, and tap into these Soviet communications cables.
It was so hard to do, the Soviets never dreamed we'd be able to do it. And it was one of the most productive things that all of our intelligence services did the whole Cold War. It just took us right inside their minds, right into their war plans.
DHUE: I would think it would be a little bit like finding a needle in a haystack ... an enormous haystack.
DREW: No question. And one of my favorite stories in the whole book is the way that we found the first cable to tap. There was a Capt. James Bradley in naval intelligence, and he was pondering this problem. And he dreams one night, sitting in his Pentagon office at 3 a.m., and he kind of lets his mind wander back to his boyhood on the Mississippi River. And he remembers going on riverboats and seeing signs on the beach, "Cable Crossing -- Do Not Anchor," so that some boater wouldn't mess up a cable.
And he thought, well, if we give boaters warnings here in the U.S., the Russians must do the same thing. And he sent one of these submarines to look for signs on the beach.
DHUE: I love this story, because it's just like them using common sense.
Sherry, would you say submarines are the key to spy missions during the Cold War?
SONTAG: They were an important part of it. I mean, it's so different from what you expect, because normally you think of spying as antiseptic from satellites. And here we had 100 guys at a time, or more, going right up against the Soviet coast, trailing Soviet submarines, basically keeping tabs on everything to do with nuclear weapons under the water.
And there was no other way to track that. There was no other way to really know where a Soviet ballistic-missile sub would be or how advanced they might be. And it was crucial. And it probably had a lot to do with the balance of power during the Cold War.
DHUE: Sherry, is it safe to say that these revelations in your book are top secret? I mean, are these things that the U.S. government absolutely did not want the public to know?
SONTAG: These were things that were classified ... even higher than top secret, and while they were going on, it really was crucial to keep them that way. And, in fact, some of these things were compromised by spies later in the Cold War.
Now we think it's more of a matter of bureaucracy and how difficult it is to get anything declassified. We had sources high up in naval intelligence who very much helped us know that we were doing no harm, that we can tell these tales, that we can give the men credit.
And it's important to do it now, also, because some of the people who were integrally involved in all this are dying; the story is being lost.
DHUE: Christopher, how difficult was it to get people to talk, to really open up? And were people concerned about betraying these secrets?
DREW: Well, they were. And it was extraordinarily difficult at first. We started in the early 1990s, and the Cold War was just ending. And, rightfully, this was kept very hushed up then.
Over time, it's gotten a little bit easier, and a lot of people have opened up. We've talked to very high-level officials, Defense secretaries and higher officials, who have helped.
Part of it is they think it's time the public knew what really happened. Part of it (is) it's time, they think, the men who did these dangerous missions get credit.
It's been really gratifying. As we have done book signings in Navy towns, we get a couple of hundred people come out, men who were on these boats that did the cable-tapping, and they have never told their wives or children anything they did, and they'll bring their families to these signings, and it's an emotional catharsis for them.
DHUE: It's interesting to note the U.S. Navy has refused to comment on this, and I would think they would be especially uneasy about some parts.
Did either of you have concerns about revealing this kind of information?
SONTAG: We reported as much what not to say as what to say. And in the end, we were only asked to take out two very, very small details.
We showed this to people who were in the position to know. And we really made sure that we weren't compromising anything current.
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