Secondary Targeting

R.W. Johnson has published a book on the shooting-down of KAL 007. He now examines a rival account of the matter

  • ‘The target is destroyed’: What really happened to Flight 007 by Seymour Hersh
    Faber, 282 pp, £9.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 571 14772 0

Throughout the time I was working on my own book on the KAL 007 tragedy I heard reports that Seymour Hersh was working on a parallel book, and I looked forward to it keenly. Ever since he sprang to prominence with his exposure of the My Lai massacre 17 years ago I have read his writings with respect, sometimes with admiration. It is thus with some regret that I have to say that I found his KAL 007 book a very considerable disappointment. One hastens to add that Hersh has few rivals in the culling of Washington gossip; that his fame and pertinacity mean that many will talk to him who will not talk to others; and that his book includes much fascinating material on the technology and internal rivalries of the US intelligence world. I found myself informed, stimulated, nodding in agreement, with much of what he writes. But I was disappointed: his book is poorly organised; it omits a great deal of pertinent evidence; and, above all, he has accepted almost lock, stock and barrel a quite absurd explanation of how KAL 007, on its way from Anchorage, Alaska to Seoul in South Korea, came to be 365 miles off-course, deep over Soviet territory, when it was finally shot down with the loss of all 269 civilians aboard on 1 September 1983.

In essence, what Hersh has done is to rely heavily on one particular source, Jim Pfautz, the now retired head of USAF Intelligence (AFIN). Pfautz, indeed, is very much the hero of Hersh’s book, and the story that emerges often verges on a praise-song to Pfautz. That story – and for Hersh it is very much the story – is that AFIN concluded almost immediately that the Russians had misidentified KAL 007 as a US military reconnaissance plane, and had not realised that they were shooting down a civilian airliner. The other three intelligence agencies involved were the CIA, the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA). Largely due to the urgings of William Casey, who, as Director of Central Intelligence, is notionally in command of all three, these agencies lent themselves, initially at least, to the story favoured on purely ideological grounds by the leading hawks of the Reagan Administration: that the Russians had deliberately shot down what they had known to be a civilian airliner. Thus the scandal is, for Hersh, that this version of events – announced to the world by President Reagan and by Mrs Kirkpatrick at the UN, with an acute consequent increase in Cold War tensions – was propagated despite the existence of firm intelligence evidence that it was untrue.

This is, in several ways, a rather curious emphasis. It is, for a start, hardly news: as I pointed out in my own book, the fact that the Reagan Administration had knowingly ignored its own intelligence in making its accusations was public property only five weeks after the tragedy. One reason it gained so little publicity at the time was that attention was focused, not unreasonably, on the far more brutal fact of the shootdown itself – and on the $64,000 question: how on earth did KAL 007 come to be so far off-course in the first place?

To answer this question Hersh puts forward the theory of Captain Harold Ewing. By his own admission, Ewing set out to find a way of proving that 007’s deviation from course had to have been accidental. Fairly quickly he realised that none of the accidental scenarios posited by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) could explain the plane’s actual track. These scenarios he (rightly) abandoned. He then began devising ever more elaborate scenarios of his own to prove the deviation accidental. His work became known to those of us who were working on the same problem. But although there is no doubt about Ewing’s integrity and good faith, his speculations demanded that one accept far too many long-odds assumptions to be at all credible.

The version of events according to Ewing/Hersh is as follows. First, we have to assume that 007’s pilot decided, for reasons of his own, to scrap his computerised flight plan (the fact that his scribbles on that plan suggest that he then planned the route he actually took is ignored). Then, because that meant he was rushed, we assume he made ‘a monumental error’ about his fuel, taking on five extra tons of the stuff – enough to crash the plane had it been fully loaded. (But there was no rush – take-off was actually delayed for 40 minutes – and the pilot filled in one set of papers correctly, one incorrectly.) We then assume that the crew decided not to use the pre-programmed flight-plan cassette with which they had been issued, instead opting to program their three flight computers manually. We further assume that one of these computers was then wrongly programmed with a 10-degree error (we’re not just assuming a mistake but one very specific mistake – a 9-degree or 11-degree error won’t do), and when the other computers threw up their inevitable warning of this error, that the error was resolved by switching off the warning light and leaving the error intact. We then assume that the pilot, despite his reputation as KAL’s No 1 and a ‘human computer’, disregarded the obligatory checking procedure designed to ensure that the computers had been correctly programmed. Then we assume that the pilot, once aloft, made a further decision to switch over to control by his Inertial Navigational System (INS) without checking, as he should have, that he was actually on the right course.

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