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Soviets May Have Erred on KAL Jet : Intelligence Report Contradicts Reagan on Plane Downed in ’83

Times Staff Writer

Contrary to President Reagan’s public statements at the time, U.S. intelligence officials quickly determined in 1983 that the Soviet Union had shot down a Korean Air Lines 747 without realizing that it was a civilian airliner, according to documents made public Tuesday.

On Sept. 4, 1983, three days after 269 people were killed when the KAL jet strayed into Soviet airspace, the President told congressional leaders that the United States had “definite proof that they intentionally shot down that unarmed civilian airplane.”

“There is no way a pilot could mistake this for anything other than a civilian airliner,” Reagan declared a day later, referring to what he described as “incontrovertible evidence.”

Allegation by Shultz

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Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who first disclosed in a news briefing that the plane had been shot down, also charged that the Soviet fighter pilot who downed the Boeing 747 in the early morning darkness of Sept. 1 knew he was shooting at a civilian plane, not a U.S. military reconnaissance plane flying in the same area.

These statements appear to be contradicted by recently declassified intelligence estimates released Tuesday by Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), which indicate that U.S. officials had concluded as early as Sept. 2, 1983, that the Soviets were unaware that it was a civilian airliner. The estimates were contained in two letters written about a year ago to Hamilton by J. Edward Fox, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs.

“We had concluded by the second day that the Soviets thought they were pursuing a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft throughout most, if not all, of the overflight,” Fox wrote. He later added that “the bottom line is that the Soviets, through their own ineptitude, probably were not certain what type of aircraft they were shooting down.”

Was Reagan Informed?

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It is not known whether the President ever read the intelligence reports to which Fox referred. Congressional hearings on the Iran-Contra scandal uncovered evidence that Reagan was never provided with other key U.S. intelligence estimates that contradicted his rationale for selling weapons to Iran.

Despite the President’s remarks, other U.S. officials subsequently softened their public condemnation of the judgment exercised by Soviet air-defense commanders and pilots in shooting down the KAL plane. The Kremlin, which did not immediately acknowledge the incident, later asserted that local commanders had concluded that it was a spy plane.

In defense of Reagan’s early statements, however, Fox told Hamilton that the Soviets ought to have been able to identify KAL Flight 007 as a civilian airliner. “The Soviets had an obligation to identify the aircraft before they shot it down and it is clear from the pilot’s conversation with his controller that he made no effort to describe his quarry and the controller did not ask him to do so,” he wrote.

In addition, he noted that the first assessment of U.S. intelligence officials on Sept. 1, 1983, “was that although the Soviets never referred to the target as a civilian airliner, the pilot who downed it should have been able to identify it.”

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Shultz also charged on Sept. 1 that the Soviets had knowingly downed a civilian airliner, and, in doing so, he disclosed that the United States routinely monitors Soviet military transmissions. “We can see no excuse whatsoever for this appalling act,” Shultz said.

Reagan, during a nationally televised speech Sept. 5, played a tape recording of an exchange between two Soviet fighter pilots moments after the jetliner was shot down. According to the President’s interpretation, one pilot identified the target, noted its navigation lights, reported launching a missile and then declared that the target had been destroyed.

When he became chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Hamilton requested an explanation from Fox of why these statements appeared to contradict intelligence estimates. He said he was releasing the letters because the issue had been raised in a 1986 book by Seymour Hersh, “The Target Is Destroyed,” which contends that U.S. intelligence did not substantiate the charge that the Soviets knew that they were shooting down a civilian airliner.

KAL Flight 007 was on its way from New York to Seoul with a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska. On the Anchorage-Seoul leg of the trip, it went off course over the North Pacific, flew over Soviet territory in the Kamchatka Peninsula and then over Sakhalin Island. Soviet fighters intercepted it, and one shot it down with a missile, sending it plunging into the Sea of Japan off the southwest tip of Sakhalin.

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Although some critics have suggested that its actions were deliberate, American and South Korean officials insist that the plane strayed because of a navigational error.

Among those killed was a U.S. congressman, Rep. Larry P. McDonald (D-Ga.).

According to Soviet statements, the KAL plane was mistaken for a U.S. Air Force RC-135, a military version of the Boeing 707, that flew in the same general area of the KAL plane’s route off the Soviet coastline. U.S. officials acknowledged that the U.S. reconnaissance plane had been flying in the vicinity but insisted that it never came closer than 75 nautical miles to Flight 007.

The Soviets also stated: “The Soviet pilots, in stopping the actions of the intruder plane, could not have known that it was a civilian aircraft. It was flying without navigation lights, at the height of night, in conditions of bad visibility and was not answering signals.”

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