Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2218
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 tracked Cobra Ball out of their radar range, apparently mistook the intrusion of KAL 007 for a reentry of the just departed spy plane. The first signs of Soviet activity concerning KAL 007 were picked up by a marginal unit at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, which was not equipped for high quality interception and thus had no way of realizing the significance of its signals. A more sophisticated facility in Misawa, Japan, collected better information but could not immediately analyze it. Hersh further describes a highly secret American intelligence unit in northern Japan, code-named Project CLEF, which also intercepted Soviet communications dealing with KAL 007’s overflight and was in a better position to ascertain their significance. CLEF, however, operated under cover, largely unknown to the Japanese and their top politicians and thus relayed its information in a roundabout way. CLEF’s existence, once discovered, caused considerable embarrassment and anger in the Japanese government. By leading the reader carefully through a maze of electronic intelligence-gathering practices, Hersh is able to demonstrate that none of the American collecting stations involved can be faulted for not instantly linking incoming Soviet signals to an off-course commercial craft. His examination of the intercepted messages implies that raw data is misleading if not useless until interpreted by experts within wider contexts. Such context is provided by the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland, which reserves for itself the right to interpretation, a situation producing tension, confusion, and delay when the pressure is on. It took about four hours after the shootdown before American and Japanese intelligence could piece together a likely scenario, based on the combination of unexplained Soviet scrambles, excited Soviet intelligence relay involving top commands and rumors of an overdue airliner, followed by vague Soviet references to the downing of a spy plane and observation of search and rescue operations in the suspect area. Hersh’s narrative moves swiftly to re-create the atmosphere of confusion at this point, confusion heightened by a Korean Airlines announcement several hours later that the plane had safely landed on Soviet territory.
As Washington, D.C., at last keyed in to the disaster and the story shifted to the politico-military arena of the capital, it assumed an entirely different dimension. Hersh’s investigation first centers on interservice rivalry between Washington-based intelligence agencies, each hastening to present a better report on the incident to top White House officials. According to Hersh, the most accurate and later universally accepted version—that the Soviets mistook KAL 007 for the just departed Cobra Ball spy mission—was put forth by air force intelligence under Major General James Pfautz, one of the few openly to voice dismay to Hersh over the handling of the affair. A much less well-researched estimate, involving, among others, the Defense Intelligence Agency, implied that the Soviets knew what type of plane they were destroying. Secretary of State George Shultz, backed by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and CIA director William Casey, chose the latter version and immediately went public with it, accusing the Soviets of knowingly killing civilians, while he waved what turned out to be a bogus sheet of paper as evidence in front of television cameras. Hersh believes that intense rivalty between the National Security Council and the State Department, which had left Shultz’s star in decline at the White House, contributed to the embellishment of Shultz’s announcement. According to Hersh, Shultz and his advisers, realizing that in the president’s absence from the capital either they or the National Security Council would have to deal with the episode, decided to maneuver themselves into the limelight ahead of their rivals, but in the ensuing haste they failed to evaluate the background material properly. After exhaustive analysis of all available information, it became evident to the intelligence community that the White House had broadcast an exaggerated if not incorrect version of Soviet intent in the tragedy. Hersh cites intelligence sources as appalled, even outraged, at this corrupt use of their material yet by and large unwilling to challenge what had by then bloomed into a full-scale verbal assault against the Soviets. As other government and military factions fell quickly in line with Shultz’s “Russian-bashing,” the telling of the real story lost out. Once President Reagan himself commented on the episode by publicly contrasting United States moral superiority to Soviet moral corruption, all evidence to the contrary, though it surfaced sporadically, was denied by the administration and for the most part ignored by the media and public. Hersh relates that congressional leaders later received the correct version in closed hearings but were not interested in challenging the White House view. Hersh is not certain whether the President ever knew or was simply left in the dark about the facts.
A rather disturbing point in Hersh’s book is the account of how all communication media, led by television’s inflammatory reporting, created a wave of public anger and revulsion that soon erased all distinction between fact and fiction. It resulted in anti-Soviet acts by American citizens, including several provocative spy missions initiated by some overeager regional commanders who hoped to unleash a larger confrontation. Though Hersh is aware that the administration manipulated the media, he tends to exonerate his colleagues by stressing their dependence on official briefings and the fact that these briefings echoed the Shultz line. Later, led by responsible print media, the prevailing view was challenged, but by then the United States had gained its intended stunning propaganda victory over the Soviet Union.
In the most technical section of the book, Hersh discusses the workings of the Inertial Navigation System aboard KAL 007. He draws heavily on the investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization and the conclusions of veteran American pilot Harold Ewing, who researched the incident independently. Ewing shows that the pilot of KAL 007 made careless errors in computing the plane’s weight even before takeoff, that the copilot may well have misprogrammed the instruments, and that the pilot, judging by recorded cockpit chatter, was not in the cockpit for most of the flight but in the first-class cabin spending his time with passengers. There is, however, no definite explanation why the crew ignored or misread all the built-in safety features. Hersh does note that the very wealth of automated, computerized systems on board modern aircraft leaves the crew with little to do and encourages laxness.
The Soviets, according to Hersh, accommodated the Washington line first by denying all knowledge of the affair, then by proposing that KAL 007 was sent as a spy plane, and finally by engaging in a massive countercampaign. Hersh believes that had the Soviet Union been able to face up to its error and admit that it misidentified the plane, offering apologies and restitution, world response would have been moderate and Washington’s anti-Soviet operation undercut. Hersh himself spent some time in the Soviet Union interviewing pertinent military personnel, but he soon found that the latter wanted him to confirm the Soviet view, though they provided no evidence for it. Hersh’s meshing of the various versions permits him to suggest that what Soviet investigators reasonably interpreted as evasive maneuvers by KAL 007 might be adjustments of instruments by the crew as it finally realized its errant course. He notes that Soviet air defenses, far from acting recklessly, were unusually cautious in the face of an unidentified aircraft ignoring their warnings while heading straight for their most sensitive mainland defense installations. A poignant footnote is Hersh’s discovery that Japanese fishermen, who witnessed the crash, avoided coming forward because they were fishing in illegal waters and feared retribution. They contributed their eyewitness account only after assurance of secrecy and much too late to aid in locating the crash site.
Hersh at no time implies that the propaganda war unleashed by the Reagan Administration was responsible for the loss of the 269 lives, but there does emerge from his account a strong warning that official announcements are suspect, that the media are easily manipulated and the public far too gullible. He concludes with a follow-up on what happened to the major players, leaving the reader with the final impression that the deception served well the careers of those who perpetrated it. It is a chilling picture.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 75
Chicago Tribune. September 14, 1986, XIV, p. 1.
Christian Science Monitor. LXXVIII, October 3, 1986, p. 22.
Commentary. LXXXII, December, 1986, p. 68.
Library Journal. CXI, December, 1986, p. 118.
The London Review of Books. VIII, October 23, 1986, p. 7.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 28, 1986, p. 2.
The Nation. CCXLIII, September 6, 1986, p. 163.
The New Republic. CXCV, October 13, 1986, p. 33.
The New York Times Book Review. XCI, September 21, 1986, p. 3.
Progressive. L, November, 1986, p. 40.
U.S. News and World Report. CI, September 1, 1986, p. 69.
Washington Post Book World. XVI, September 14, 1986, p. 1.
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