Six miles above the North Pacific, as August slid into September, a sleek jumbo jet with 269 people aboard flew headlong into the deadly twilight zone of the cold war. It has now been three years since that dark summer morning when a Soviet fighter pilot sent a trespassing Korean Airliner to its yet unfound grave deep beneath the Sea of Japan. But time has not decreased the interest in the tragedy. In addition to millions of newspaper words and hundreds of magazine articles, there have now been a total of eight books on the subject, with at least one more due out shortly. In fact, there is even a newsletter on the topic, The KAL 007 Information Bulletin & Newsletter.
Like the assassination of President Kennedy, the shootdown of the Korean airliner has just the right combination of mystery and tragedy to keep the controversy alive for many years to come. For those of the conspiracy school, flight paths have replaced bullet trajectories and the Kamchatka Peninsula has become the grassy knoll of the 1980s.
Of the eight books written thus far on the incident, six were published in the United States and one each was published in Japan and Canada. The two most recent are “Shootdown: Flight 007 and the American Connection” by R. W. Johnson, a fellow in Politics at Oxford who has written books on Africa and the French Left; and “ ‘The Target Is Destroyed': What Really Happened to Flight 007 and What America Knew About It” by Seymour M. Hersh, a reporter for The New York Times and the author of “The Price of Power,” about Henry Kissinger.
Johnson spends much of his book exploring the various theories surrounding how the Boeing 747 strayed so far from its scheduled route. First there is the accident theory that blames the crew with either entering the wrong coordinates into the on-board navigational computer, known as the Inertial Navigation System (INS); or that, through crew error, the plane was not flying on the INS computer at all. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) found these two theories the most persuasive because they could have placed the aircraft on roughly the same erratic course over which it eventually traveled. But both Johnson and the ICAO pointed to a number of problems with both of these “finger error” explanations.
A second theory is that the crew was simply taking a shortcut in order to save on fuel, an argument with little merit made by an equally meritless book, “Massacre 007: The Story of the Korean Airlines Disaster” (Hodder & Stoughton: London), written by Canadian Maj. Gen. Richard Rohmer. Johnson quickly dismisses this theory as well as the third, that the Russians, using special electronics, had deliberately lured the airliner off course.
This leaves the fourth explanation, that the Korean airliner was part of a U.S.-sponsored intelligence operation designed to force the Soviets into turning on hidden, seldom used radar installations. As these stations switched on their radar equipment, in the process of tracking the KAL intruder, U.S. National Security Agency monitoring stations in the Far East would thus be able to pinpoint their locations. This explanation seems to be favored by a number of academic writers on the subject. Not only does Johnson feel that this is the most likely answer, both Syracuse University professor Oliver Clubb, author of “KAL Flight 007: The Hidden Story” (The Permanent Press, 1985) and Alexander Dallin of Stanford, author of “Black Box” (University of California, 1985), agree.
All these books, however, suffer from the same problem. Although extensive use is made of newspaper and magazine articles, the ICAO report and other published sources, virtually no effort appears to be made to seek out and interview a wide range of people who might be knowledgeable about the subjects discussed. This is a weakness common to many academic writers writing on major events. It is as though there is something unseemly about leaving the library and actually picking up the telephone. Nor, apparently, did Johnson or the other academic writers ever bother to use one of the most important tools in contemporary research, the Freedom of Information Act.
One writer who did make extensive use of both interviews and the Freedom of Information Act was Seymour Hersh. “The Target Is Destroyed” is by far the most important book on the subject in every respect. It is a brilliant display of investigative writing. Rather than simply rearrange the old clippings and come up with a new theory, Hersh found and interviewed many of the key players in the drama. These ranged from low-level NSA intercept operators to high-ranking Air Force intelligence officials. The result is a devastating portrait of the misuse of intelligence and of government by deception.
In a sense, the answers to two of the most important questions concerning the flight, why did the Russians shoot the plane down, and how did it get so far off course, are anticlimactic. To many who have followed the incident, the fact that the Russians had mistaken the plane for an American reconnaissance aircraft will not be news. Nor will the reason for the massive deviation, a mistake in entering the aircraft’s coordinates into the INS navigation computer. However, Hersh points out that this was most likely followed by a series of complex additional mistakes in the cockpit, which would explain many of the mysteries surrounding the erratic flight path.
The true value of the book is in documenting how senior Administration officials knew, almost from the very beginning, that the Soviets had mistaken the aircraft for a trespassing American spy plane. Yet at the same time, they deliberately misled the American public into believing that the Russians had known for sure that they were shooting down a civilian airliner. “No official,” writes Hersh, “not (Secretary of State) George Shultz, (Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs) Lawrence Eagleburger, or (Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs) Richard Burt, would jeopardize all that had been gained--in terms of damaging the Soviets in the eyes of the world and improving the status of the State Department with the President--by acknowledging that the Administration initially had abused the intelligence gathered and then lacked the courage and integrity to set the record straight.”
The United States was falsely insisting that it had irrefutable yet secret evidence that the Soviets knew, prior to the shootdown, that they were pursuing a civilian airliner, and the Soviets were falsely insisting that they had irrefutable yet secret evidence that the aircraft was on a spy mission. As Hersh writes, “The shootdown had come full circle. A tragic and brutal Soviet mistake,” he concludes, “was escalated into a tinder-box issue on the basis of misunderstood and distorted intelligence.”