In 2008, the Central Intelligence Agency sent four people on a mission into the Philippine and South China Seas and no-one came back, as follows from a feature published by Yahoo News. It gives the tragic account of a task to place a camouflaged electronic intelligence-gathering device to keep tabs on suspicious Chinese military traffic.
The mission was conducted before the South China sea became an apple of discord in the area, at a point in time when the CIA's Maritime Branch was adrift, struggling to prove the reason for its existence and competing with the Navy.
In an attempt to accomplish the espionage venture, the four-strong crew, led by Stephen Stanek, a covert CIA operative, and his younger mission partner Michael Perich sailed into a hurricane, Tropical Storm Higos, to never be heard from again.
Two other men were on board the 40-foot vessel - Jamie McCormick and Daniel Meeks, both in secondary roles. Stanek, a retired Navy ordnance disposal diver, was highly experienced, but had only recently attained his license to be a ship captain, according to people familiar with the matter.
The crew spent the last several days sailing up the coast of the Philippines after departing from Malaysia in what was to be the maiden voyage of their ship - a commercial one on the surface, but secretly owned by the CIA’s Maritime Branch. Stanek and Perich planned to dive off an island using commercial scuba gear that would be deniable in the event they were captured.
Their cover story for the 2008 mission was that a client in Japan had bought the vessel, and the crew had been hired to transport it there from Malaysia, with all the necessary paperwork on their hands to back the story up.
Their actual target was a small piece of land to the north of Luzon, the Philippines’ largest island. The CIA believed the Chinese military was occupying the small island in an area that was hotly disputed.
According to teammates and friends, as well as his previous service records, Stanek would have known perfectly well what was awaiting them, being aware of the weather forecasts, but regardless made his final decision, which proved to be fatal, as the ship was devoured by the hurricane.
US military personnel in the region reportedly remained oblivious to the CIA’s failed operation and had no part in any recovery efforts. The CIA coordinated with the Japanese Self-Defence Forces to have their ships make some sweeps to find the missing personnel. Nothing was ever found, “not even a floating life jacket", a former CIA officer was cited by Yahoo News as saying.
The Maritime Branch is a CIA paramilitary component, one of the four principal elements within the Special Operations Group of the CIA’s Special Activities Centre, typically tasked with clandestine operations. The other elements include the Air Branch, the Ground Branch, and the Armour and Special Programmes.