Several books have endeavored to unravel the mystery of Korean Airlines (KAL) flight 007, the airliner shot down by Soviet air defenses on September 1, 1983, which accounted for the loss of 269 lives. The authors of two recent studies—Shootdown: Flight 007 and the American Connection, by R. W. Johnson (1986), and KAL Flight 007: The Hidden Story, by Oliver Clubb (1985)—believe that the flight was on an American espionage mission. Seymour Hersh does not. His account, no less disturbing, deals with the vulnerability of existing military mechanisms and the extent to which human biases and frailties can subvert them. In providing a context for the incident, he goes far beyond the parameters of the actual tragedy, exploring the history of United States reconnaissance on Soviet borders, analyzing Soviet behavior on previous intrusions, and explaining the political ramifications. The most fascinating aspect of his book is the description of the use and abuse of intelligence data in the political arena, where distortions and omissions readily displace reasoned analysis in order to manufacture a crisis. Many of Hersh’s assumptions are not substantiated by direct reference to sources. Since the material underpinning his conclusions remains mostly classified, those who deal with it communicated with him off the record. Even so, he furnishes a wealth of notes containing verifiable information and enough names of individuals to render his story credible. Hersh himself brings excellent credentials to the task, being a veteran of several exposés of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for The New York Times and a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for international reporting as well as a host of other writing awards.
An important part of the background concerning the fate of flight 007 involves a 1978 incursion into Soviet airspace by a KAL airliner, which Hersh presents in some detail, for it reveals inexplicable carelessness even then on the part of a KAL cockpit crew as it strayed far off its course and overflew sensitive Soviet defense installations in the Murmansk region. Hersh’s investigation of this earlier incident also demonstrates to what extent the United States and its allies are able to monitor Soviet pilot-ground communications, and this record reveals that Soviet air defenses, though charged with making positive identification before attacking a craft, do not have a foolproof system of enforcing their own rules in moments of crisis. The actions of a cautious Soviet pilot resulted in safely forcing down the errant craft in 1978, and the ensuing inquiry furnished Hersh with useful background material.
A further introduction to the 1983 shooting down is Hersh’s review of the political atmosphere: He believes that the chilly superpower relations then in effect created conditions that influenced the course of events once KAL 007 blundered into Soviet airspace. Hersh cites President Ronald Reagan’s verbal anti-Soviet offensive, commencing in the spring of 1983, his intent to install Pershing II missiles in Europe, and his announcement that he was committed to the development of a Strategic Defense Initiative as factors in putting the Soviets on edge. Subsequent stepped-up American fleet exercises in East Asia added to the war of nerves, as these forces congregated on Soviet borders and even violated Soviet territory by overflying the Kurile Islands, captured from Japan at the end of World War II but not recognized by the United States as a permanent Soviet possession. According to Hersh, these destabilizing maneuvers unwittingly contributed to the tragedy by leading the Soviets to expect further intrusions and in effect mistake the civilian airliner for a spy plane.
Hersh’s account of what happened on board the fatal flight is poignantly terse, since very little direct information is available. The bulk of the book deals with the political aftermath and the intelligence-gathering operations, both of which dominated the reporting immediately following the tragedy. The extensive overview of how Soviet air defenses are monitored entails considerable technical detail, occasionally hard going for the casual reader. Hersh compensates, however, by casting his story in a dynamic, short-chaptered, detective-tale style, projecting an air of excitement as he pieces together odds and ends which he has been able to discover despite the aura of secrecy. By using his knowledge of the resolution of the conflicts even as he describes their discovery, he is able to invest each episode with its full significance. The end result is a good understanding of the often dangerous war of nerves constantly played out between United States intelligence services and their Soviet counterparts.
A number of critical accounts following the disaster questioned why American surveillance stations with their highly sophisticated equipment did not warn the ill-fated plane in time. Hersh explains that failure by focusing on several such installations and their relevance to the disaster. One is the tiny Aleutian island Shemya Rock, which was not fitted with up-to-date electronic ground devices but served as home base for an RC-135 spy plane named Cobra Ball. This plane overflew an area adjacent to and partially overlapping that of the errant KAL 007 less than an hour before the shooting down. Based on his interviews with American sources, Hersh posits that the Soviets, after having...
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