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The scandal that never wasPaul Foot
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Vol. 8 No. 13 · 24 July 1986

The scandal that never was

Paul Foot

3115 words
Shootdown: The Verdict on KAL 007 
by R.W. Johnson.
Chatto, 335 pp., £10.95, May 1986, 0 7011 2983 2
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Profound embarrassment has greeted the publication of R.W. Johnson’s book on the shooting-down of a Korean airliner over Russian airspace. Even its serialisation in the Sunday Telegraph showed signs of embarrassment, as though the editors had not realised what they were commissioning. ‘Experts’ with strong connections with the Central Intelligence Agency have been hired to ‘dispose of’ the book in important people’s newspapers, and most of the media have responded with their most deadly weapon: silence. This embarrassment is not surprising. It is a tribute to the blow which Mr Johnson has struck at the heart of the politics which have dominated the 1980s on both sides of the Atlantic.

The shoot-down of KAL 007 on the night of 31 August/1 September 1983 gave a boost to President Reagan’s Administration. At once, a set of Cold War measures which had previously been threatened passed through both elected Houses. Disarmament talks faltered, and the arms race quickened.

On all sides, people believed the story which was circulated with much panache by Reagan’s team. An airliner with 269 people in it, many of them children, had strayed by accident over Russian airspace on a routine flight from Anchorage in Alaska to Seoul, South Korea. Without warning, Russian fighters shot it down: 269 innocent people had been murdered by a barbarian power. What more proof was needed of the old maxim that good and democratic people must arm themselves against the forces of lawlessness and terror? Anyone who suggested otherwise was plainly an agent of the barbarians.

R.W. Johnson was one of the few people on either side of the Atlantic to resist. His articles in the Guardian drew a message from a Tory MP (generously not named in this book) to the head of Magdalen College, Oxford suggesting that Mr Johnson was ‘not a fit person’ to be a don there. He stuck to his sceptical view, however, and enriched it with meticulous research. The result is not only a terrifying story – far more terrifying than any work of fiction could ever be – but a political exposé of the highest order.

The story starts with the facts about the last flight of KAL 007. The aircraft was equipped with the most sophisticated, computerised navigational aids. The route from Anchorage to Seoul goes so close to Russia that it is dotted with signals waypoints, all equally well-equipped. If the equipment works, an airliner cannot stray off-course. If it doesn’t work, the warning mechanisms in the plane and on the ground are certain to alert the pilot within seconds. Yet almost from the moment it left Anchorage, KAL 007 strayed northwards off its proper path. It was 365 miles off-course when it was shot down: further than any other plane had strayed in the history of civil aviation.

Somehow, none of the waypoints were warned of this deviation. Somehow, no one on board noticed. Somehow, before he set off from Anchorage, the aircraft’s captain had sketched a route very similar to the one he actually took. Somehow, he had taken on extra fuel, though he logged less fuel than his proper complement. Somehow, when the Russian fighters swarmed around him firing tracer bullets, he seemed to try to dodge the Russian fighters with changes of course and altitude which were not notified to ground control. R.W. Johnson makes an effort at the end of his book to reckon the odds on all these things happening by accident on one night. He gives up at ‘literally billions or trillions to one’.

If the plane did not stray by accident into Russian airspace, however, it must have done so by design. Here, incredulousness vies with probability. For what conceivable reason would a civil airliner deliberately fly with more than two hundred passengers into some of the most sensitive and dangerous airspace on earth? Could it have been on a surveillance mission? R.W. Johnson convincingly rejects the notion that KAL 007 carried its own surveillance equipment – so how could it have been spying?

One good answer to that comes from Ernest Volkman, editor of the American Defence Journal. He was interviewed in July 1984 on the British current affairs programme TV Eye. ‘As a result of the KAL incident,’ he said, ‘United States Intelligence received a bonanza the likes of which they never received in their lives. Reason: because of the tragic incident it managed to turn on just about every single Soviet electromagnetic transmission over a period of about four hours and an area of approximately seven thousand square miles, and I mean everything.’ In particular, the Russians turned on all their air defence radar systems. They were allowed to do so under a 1982 agreement between Russia and the United States which granted an exception to the general rule that air defence radar systems must be turned off. The exception was where ‘an unidentified aircraft’ was spotted over either country.

Air defence radar had been much in the news in the United States in the weeks before the Korean airliner disaster. In June 1983, a satellite had spotted the construction of a huge new Russian radar system at Krasnoyarsk. At once the American Far Right, which was anxious to prevent any further progress in the disarmament talks, seized on the new radar system as a clear breach of the SALT 2 disarmament treaty. The Heritage Foundation – so often the leader in right-wing propaganda offensives of this kind – was fed top-secret information by the security services, and immediately orchestrated a campaign across the whole of the United States to the effect that Krasnoyarsk was clear evidence of Russian treachery. The cry was taken up enthusiastically by Republican cavemen in the Senate.

The President’s advisers wavered. None of them were keen to continue with the arms talks, but public opinion in the States and Europe was strongly in favour. Did Krasnoyarsk provide a good enough excuse to denounce the Russians for breaking past treaties? To answer that question, more information was needed about the state of the radar systems in Eastern Russia. Was there, perhaps, a gap in the system which was being filled by the new station at Krasnoyarsk? If so, the new station could be said to be directed against anti-ballistic missiles, as the Heritage Foundation claimed, and could therefore be said to be in breach of SALT. R.W. Johnson concludes: ‘Just a month before its fatal flight, the US had developed a very powerful motive for testing the Soviet radar network in Soviet East Asia.’

The airliner appeared on Russian radar screens as a mysterious intruder, an unidentified aircraft which could be hostile. As a result, it achieved what the vast array of United States radar systems ranged round the East Russian coast could not do: it turned on every available inland radar system for five thousand miles. All these systems were duly recorded and photographed by a US ‘Ferret’ satellite which just happened to be passing overhead and whose range and sophistication were such that it was ‘bound to pick up enough data to keep US analysts busy for a long time’. Indeed, KAL 007 was delayed in Anchorage for forty minutes, just the time necessary to place its flight path over Russian airspace in range of the satellite as it passed overhead.

If the reader’s mind is not yet made up, R.W. Johnson clinches the matter with his account of the most mysterious episode in the whole mysterious story. Six and a half hours after the shoot-down, as anxious friends and relatives at Seoul Airport clamoured for information about the missing plane, the Korean Government announced the ‘news’ that 007 had been forced to land by the Russians and that all passengers and crew were ‘safe on Sakhalin Island’. The distraught families gave a cheer and went home to bed. The story was promptly carried by the media throughout the world. It was completely, cruelly false, and can only have compounded the grief of the families when they were told the truth the next day.

Johnson has little difficulty in proving that the source of this false story was the CIA: the Korean Government admitted it. He has even less difficulty in showing that the shooting down of the airliner must have been recorded in the closest possible detail by the battery of US radar systems in the area. He tells us, for instance, that on Shemya Island a vast radar system called Cobra Dane is ‘able to monitor 200 objects simultaneously and pick up a baseball-sized object 2000 miles out in space’. The US authorities must have known within minutes that the airliner had been shot down. Why did they send out a false report that it was ‘safe on Sakhalin’?

If the plane had been shot down by trigger-happy Communists as the result of its pilot’s own genuine mistake, what cause was there for a false report, and a delay in making the outrage public? Why should the truth not have been blazoned abroad at once, to the certain horror of the whole world?

On the other hand, if the shoot-down meant that a crazy plan to get sensitive information had gone dreadfully wrong, there was a very strong motive for delay. The planners would need time to get the tapes from the computers and doctor them so that the best possible picture could be presented to the world. They needed what Johnson calls ‘a holding operation’ – which is exactly what the ‘safe on Sakhalin’ report provided.

Even when all the arguments pile up on one side of the scales, the rational mind hesitates. Whatever the facts about the technology and the signals, whatever the odds against an accident, is it really possible that responsible people in a democracy could behave in such a reckless way? Anything can happen in a country where there is no democracy and no accountability. But the United States of America has both. Is it conceivable that people in the public eye, people who have to answer questions on television, could send 269 passengers to their death, like guinea pigs to the scalpel?

It is here that this book is at its most revealing and persuasive. Behind the aircraft thundering through the night to its doom, behind the complicated analysis of signals, radar and military technology, Johnson paints in the essential background. He introduces us one by one to the wild bunch ushered by the old cowboy Reagan into the highest reaches of the most powerful government on earth. They came from the backwoods, from the Moral Majority, from the ranches of the Sunbelt, and from the phoney Institutes where the doctrines that the only good Russian is a dead Russian and that it is better to be dead than red are taught as religious dogma.

At the centre of the stage, swaggering in Stetson hat and cowboy boots, is William Clark, National Security Adviser, who had been nominated by Reagan to the Californian Supreme Court of Justice though he’d never made it out of law school. When appointed to take charge of all foreign policy, he cheerfully admitted he knew nothing about it, and was not at all embarrassed when he couldn’t name the President of South Africa or the leader of the British Labour Party. He did not give a damn about anything except zapping Communists. Nor did his chief supporter, Richard Perle, nicknamed ‘Prince of Darkness’, for his single-minded obsession with avenging his ancestors for what the Russian Reds did to them. Perle’s high moral tone reached its zenith when he recommended arms purchases from an Israeli firm which had paid him 50,000 dollars before he took office.

Wiliam Casey, the hustler and PR man appointed by Reagan to head the CIA, was 70 – and forgetful. He forgot, on taking office, to list seventy of his former clients, who included the South Korean Government. Forgetfulness was a problem, too, for Edwin Meese, Reagan’s choice as Attorney-General. Meese forgot to mention a number of personal loans to himself and his wife from benefactors who later got Federal jobs. But Meese had a sense of humour. He made all Washington hoot with laughter when he announced that Scrooge had had a bad press. Scrooge’s chief problem was that he did not have showbiz agent Charles Z. Wick in charge of his publicity. Wick also rose high – but was caught paying 32,000 dollars of government money to install a complicated burglar alarm system in his private house.

These were the ‘boys’ whom the President trusted absolutely to ‘get on with the job’ and leave him to his afternoon siestas and his evening horseback rides on the range. It was not simply that they were fanatical right-wingers, without intellect and without even a twitch of social responsibility. They were all infected by Fingerspizengefuehl, a ‘feeling for the clandestine’. They were fascinated by covert operations, code-names, disguises, stunts. Senator Barry Goldwater, the wild man of the American Right in the Sixties, summed them up: ‘Some of the conservatives are crazy as hell.’

Even crazier were the hell-raisers of the KCIA, the mirror of the CIA in South Korea. In that country, of course, no one has to bother with elections. The CIA is the Government. The President and the Prime Minister are both former bosses of the KCIA. The KCIA was often used by the CIA for ‘operations’ in the United States. One of their most useful fronts was the Moonies, whose high priests used KCIA money (and a Washington daily newspaper) to persuade the young of the spiritual cleanliness of the anti-Communist way of life. No one was closer to the Stetson-hatted, cowboy-booted, clandestine world of martial arts and red-baiting than the daredevil pilot and captain of KAL 007, Chun Byung-in.

Men like these were perfectly capable of the plot which R.W. Johnson presents, carefully, as a ‘scenario’. The disarmament talks were showing dangerous signs of success. Information was necessary to stop them. The only way to get the information was to persuade a civil airline captain to pretend to lose his way, to stray into Russian airspace and to spark off the radars. If the airliner survived and was brought down, there would be an embarrassing incident, but it would quickly be smoothed over. If the airliner was shot down, there would be plenty of opportunity for international indignation. Either way, the information would be in the bag. Heads, the CIA won. Tails, the Russians lost. In these circumstances, what tough cowboy from the Sunbelt could afford to be squeamish about 269 passengers, most of whom were foreigners anyway?

R.W. Johnson’s book deals in facts, not assertions. Though his contempt for Reagan and his circle is quite obvious, he never allows it to mask the facts. He is still short, he explains, of the vital information which could turn his ‘scenario’ into unquestioned fact. Nor is he in the least impressed with the Russians’ handling of the affair. There was, he insists, ‘no excuse’ for shooting down a civil airliner, however great the doubt or the provocation. The Russian authorities, moreover, matched the United States lie for lie. It was almost as though both sides expected the other to lie, and lied instinctively even when it was better to tell the truth.

If the President’s men were responsible for a plot to send KAL 007 into Russian airspace, they got away with it. The only casualty was William Clark, who beat a retreat into the Ministry of Interior six weeks after the shoot-down, and, soon after that, retired to Californian pastures for the last time.

The comparison with Watergate is irresistible. The last Republican President before Reagan was hounded from office after a minor break-in at the Hotel Watergate. This small crime and its cover-up released a great tide of indignation. The grand traditions of American rationalism and scepticism were tapped to the full. Investigative journalists wrote best-sellers about their own triumphs. Films were made about them. They were joined by Congressmen and senators disturbed about the rule of law. Together, they drove the President from the White House.

The skills and powers of such investigators and politicians are still there in the United States today, as the unfortunate officials of NASA are finding to their cost. When the scandal is domestic, as in the case of Watergate or Challenger, there is no more effective force than American liberalism at its most outraged. But as soon as the Cold War looms over the scandal, the scandal vanishes. As soon as anyone who probes the misdeeds of government can be branded a crypto-pink, the investigators and the liberal politicians scatter in silence. I don’t believe that anyone can read this book without believing that it is at the very least highly probable that the closest advisers to the President of the United States plotted with their allies in South Korea to send an airliner on a surveillance mission over Eastern Russia. Predictably, the plane was shot down and 269 people were killed.

A more appalling charge is hard to imagine. Yet the great engine of investigation which has achieved so much in the past never left its shed. The New York Times, champion of the Freedom of Information Act and of investigative journalism, refused even to accept an advertisement putting the case against the Government over KAL 007. Congressional and Senate Committees whose public hearings are celebrated everywhere as the apotheosis of open government found other things to look at. The public bodies whose job by law is to investigate air disasters responded to what was arguably the most notorious air disaster in world history with the blandest of cover-ups or by obeying orders from the White House to shut up. The whole façade of Western liberalism and open government collapsed.

Completely? Not quite. For now we have this fine book, easy to read and easy to understand. We have Chatto and Windus, who had the guts to publish it in spite of what must have seemed insurmountable libel problems. It should be published again, soon, in paperback, and read high and low on both sides of the Atlantic. It is not just an exposé of a single atrocity. It helps to explain other atrocities from the same source in other parts of the world, from Managua to Tripoli. It is also a warning. For if the New Fanaticism in the United States, unrestrained and unexposed, can play cynical spy games with 269 lives, then it can go much further. Like the Reaganite loon in Dr Strangelove who whooped his way to freedom sitting astride a hydrogen bomb as it hurtled to Communist earth, the New Fanatics will yell three cheers for God and Property as they blow us all to pieces.

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Letters

Vol. 8 No. 15 · 4 September 1986

SIR: In his glowing review of Shootdown: The Verdict on KAL 007 (LRB, 24 July) Paul Foot comments that since the author’s original article in the Guardian (17 December 1983), R.W. Johnson has ‘enriched’ his story with ‘meticulous research’. In the article Johnson suggested that KAL 007 was used by the CIA because a ‘slow-moving aircraft with high-resolution cameras and electronic surveillance equipment’ can carry out better reconnaissance than a satellite: however, in the book, as Foot notes, he ‘convincingly rejects the notion that KAL 007 carried its own surveillance equipment.’ Similarly, in his article he cites Washington’s ‘consuming interest in the Soviet naval complex around the Sea of Okhotsk and in the new Soviet Typhoon submarine’ as its motivation for initiating such an operation, whilst, in his book, Johnson claims that it was America’s interest in the new radar site at Krasnoyarsk. The only point of congruence in Johnson’s two hypotheses – and that is all they are – is his belief that it was not an accident but a CIA-inspired spying mission. In both cases Johnson makes strenuous efforts to tailor the facts to suit his theory. Yet despite having been obsessed with the issue for three years now, he has failed to produce any direct evidence to substantiate this ‘verdict’.

The central plank of Johnson’s latest theory is that a deliberate incursion into Soviet airspace would activate all the air defence radars on its eastern borders, thus allowing US Intelligence to identify the ‘gap’ which the Krasnoyarsk radar was designed to plug. The desire to find out more about this radar, Foot claims, was because ‘the American far Right’ believed that the new radar system was ‘a clear breach of the SALT 2 disarmament treaty’. It is actually the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty which the radar is alleged, by the US Department of Defense, to have breached. The reason is that it is an ABM radar which is located neither within a 150-km radius of Moscow nor on the periphery of the Soviet Union. Moscow claims that it is simply intended for space tracking and not ballistic missile early warning: a claim hard to substantiate because the radar is not optimised for such a role, would make a negligible contribution to the existing Soviet space-tracking network, and is orientated to cover a gap in the Soviet Union’s ABM coverage on its north-east borders which Washington has known about for years.

The radar at Krasnoyarsk is not a dish, as most people might imagine, but a large fixed phased-array construction pointing in a north-easterly direction. For precisely this reason an intelligence-gathering operation of the type Johnson suggests took place is unnecessary. Moreover, activating short-range tactical Soviet air defence radars would tell the Americans absolutely nothing about the coverage afforded by long-range strategic ABM radars: a fundamental point blurred by both Johnson and Foot.

There are numerous other examples of Johnson twisting facts to suit his scenario. It is therefore highly misleading for the book to be subtitled ‘The Verdict on KAL 007’: not only is all of the evidence presented circumstantial but much of it is also irrelevant. The only verdict which one can reach is that the Soviet Union shot down an unarmed civilian airliner, killing its 269 passengers and crew. Unsubstantiated claims by the Soviet Union and more recently by R.W. Johnson that KAL 007 was engaged in espionage only serve to hide this brutal reality.

Paul Mercer
Hinckley, Leicestershire

R.W. Johnson writes: I have no quarrel with Mr Mercer’s points about the Krasnoyarsk radar being a fixed-position phased-array construction or an alleged violation of the 1972 ABM Treaty – both points made in my book. His repetition of the Reagan Administration’s claim that the radar is an ABM radar is more dubious. As British Intelligence has pointed out, the radar is in the wrong place and facing the wrong way to cover the main ICBM corridor over the North Pole, and is also situated so far inland as to be of very limited utility as an ABM radar against missiles sea-launched from the North Pacific. On the other hand, as British Intelligence has also pointed out, the radar’s construction does seem consistent with what is known of Soviet space-programme plans for the next decade. At the very least, it is unwise to accept the Reagan Administration’s assertions on this point: the Administration has never been willing to discuss these obvious difficulties for its its claim, and has clearly been motivated by a desire to find grounds for getting rid of SALT 2 and for alleging that Soviet violations of the ABM Treaty make it permissible for the US to drive a coach and horses through that treaty, too, with its Star Wars programme.

The Krasnoyarsk radar will not, however, be completed until 1988. In the meantime the growing Soviet Naval presence in the Far East, and in particular the Typhoon submarine base at Petropavlovsk, are of considerably greater interest to the US, as are the Soviet air defence, radar, command, communications, control and intelligence (C3I) systems in the area which provide the necessary and interlocking protective network over and around these key installations. The whole provides a quite natural focus of intense US monitoring, probing and intelligence curiosity. No doubt the discovery in June 1983 that a vast new Soviet radar was being built in the hinterland behind this defence complex was a further spur to such curiosity, but no doubt the US was hungry for more intelligence data about this area anyway. There is also no doubt that the prolonged incursion of KAL 007 into Soviet airspace just three months after the Krasnoyarsk discovery had the effect of producing voluminous and invaluable extra intelligence about every sort of Soviet radar, air defence and C3I system in the area.

Mr Mercer accuses me of ‘tailoring facts to suit my theory’, but then accusingly points out that I have changed my mind over the possibility that KAL 007 might itself have been carrying surveillance equipment. I would have hoped that my willingness to change my mind in the light of further research and reflection was a sign of bona fides rather than the reverse. I have no interest in being wrong about this case and will happily make a public retraction of any point I have made about it if new data can be produced which counter it. The problem at present is that the Reagan Administration is energetically discouraging the search for such new data and is refusing to release the considerable amount of extra information it possesses about the flight of KAL 007.

The facts which Mr Mercer must face are that 007’s pilot fiddled his fuel papers to take on five extra tons of fuel; that he inexplicably left paying cargo behind at Anchorage; that he also left behind notes (reproduced in my book) in which he appears to have been planning the route he actually took (365 miles off his proper course); that he executed at least three navigational turns which could only have been conscious; that he systematically misreported his position at every waypoint, each one a required occasion for a further course-check; that he flew at widely varying speeds quite outside the scheduled speed ‘envelope’; that he mysteriously used the wrong transponder code; that he carried ground-mapping weather radar which would have clearly shown that he was over Soviet territory; that he failed to respond to Soviet radio enquiries or even warning tracers shot past him; that when finally challenged by a Soviet fighter, he falsely informed his ground control that he was carrying out a climb while in fact he was diving; and that in the 56 seconds in which he remained on the air after the plane had been hit by a missile he mysteriously refrained from giving the mandatory Mayday signal. If one adds to all this the fact that 007 was carrying the latest INS (triply redundant computer) navigation system; that 007 set a new world record for deviations off-course by planes carrying such equipment; that there were a number of considerable oddities in 007’s conversation with ground control; and that 007’s pilot was the airline’s best with a reputation as ‘the human computer’, one has a pattern of inexplicable but apparently deliberate behaviour which sits ill with any attempt to argue that KAL 007 was off-course accidentally. In my book I tried to estimate (conservatively) the odds against all these things being accidentally true and gave up when I reached odds of one quintillion (1 followed by 18 zeroes) to one against. If Mr Mercer wishes to argue for an accidental hypothesis he must a. accept those odds against, and b. offer a coherent explanation incorporating all the above facts. It is no good just saying that one prefers a ‘cock-up’ to a ‘conspiracy’ theory. No one, of course, is arguing with Mr Mercer’s final point that KAL 007 was shot down by the USSR or that anything could justify such a brutal act.

I was naturally grateful for Paul Foot’s generous review in the LRB, and particularly for the attention he drew to what amounts to a semi-black-out in reviews of my book. All my previous books received far wider attention than this one, though none was remotely so newsworthy. It is difficult to talk about this without sounding either paranoid or as if one actually has a right to be reviewed, but perhaps I can place the phenomenon in a broader context.

The last two months have seen the publication of Count Tolstoy’s The Minister and the Massacre (which made serious allegations about Harold Macmillan’s role in the handing over to the Communist authorities of 70,000 Cossacks and Yugoslavs in 1945), Chris Mullin’s Error of Judgment, which suggested that the wrong men had been jailed for the Birmingham pub bombings and that there had been a massive police cover-up, and my own book on the KAL 007 tragedy. All three books had major and uncomfortable implications for our rulers. Consider what happened to them in the broadcasting media alone. Count Tolstoy was invited to appear on four BBC programmes and actually recorded an interview for the Radio 4 Today programme. The Today interview was scrapped and all the other programmes dropped. Mr Mullin recorded interviews about his book both with BBC TV and with the Today programme. Both interviews were then scrapped. In my own case, interviews were arranged both for BBC TV and the Today programme. Both interviews were scrapped only hours beforehand. The result was a complete BBC black-out on all three books. Count Tolstoy has announced that he will refuse to pay his licence fee to what he now regards as a government propaganda organisation and will go to jail if necessary to publicise his protest. For my part, I was, I must admit, less surprised. Seven years of unremitting Thatcherite pressure have taken their toll of the BBC, as of much of the written press. The sort of gross intervention seen over the Real Lives programme is unnecessary now. Self-censorship is thoroughly institutionalised – with the normal ‘technical’ excuses: we had to drop your interview because we had an item about Zola Budd, or the Palace corgis. Day-to-day excuses: but these three books deal with explosive allegations about events in 1945, 1973 and 1983 respectively. They were still news the day after the interviews of apparently superior importance with Zola Budd or the Palace corgis. And the day after that …

There is little point in mincing words. Too many of my former pupils have left current affairs broadcasting, complaining bitterly of political interference, pressure, and protective self-censorship, to leave me in much doubt as to what is going on. The BBC is now experiencing what happened to French broadcasting in the Sixties under de Gaulle, when it became part of I’Etat UDR (the UDR being the Gaullist Party). It is important to say that the French media, even then, remained greatly superior to Pravda or Radio Moscow, but the pattern is familiar: an authoritarian government of the Right in power, more than willing to use its elbows ruthlessly. A few examples – Dick Francis’s sacking, the Real Lives imbroglio – make the point. The many good people who remain learn to live within the new rules, to persuade themselves that they alone stand between the outright rule of propagandist hacks. They give the necessary ‘technical’ excuses, and wax indignant when these are queried. Guilty conscience, as ever, synthesises indignation and anyway such people are ‘corporation loyal’. In the end, French TV reached the situation where the classic documentary on resistance and collaboration, Le Chagrin et la Pitie, was shown on cinema and TV screens around the world, winning a host of international awards, but could not be shown on French TV screens. Only in 1981, after Mitterrand came to power, were French viewers allowed to see this crowning glory of French documentary TV production. Happily, we are not all the way to this position yet. In seven years Mrs Thatcher has achieved infinitely more in terms of media control than any government before hers, but the French Right had a whole 23 years. The signs are clear, though.

Vol. 8 No. 17 · 9 October 1986

SIR: I am not competent to comment on the various technical issues raised by R.W. Johnson in his account of the shooting down of KAL 007 by the Soviet Air Force in September 1983, but would like to take issue with the implications of the latter half of his reply to Paul Mercer (Letters, 4 September) that there was in effect a conspiracy of silence against him on the part of the media. It is my experience, here in his own university and among the intelligentsia at large, that the (simplified) ‘Johnson-view’ – that the CIA or another villainous, but still more secretive agency of the USA put the 269 innocents on board KAL 007 at risk for some nefarious purpose of its own – is so universally accepted that nobody is likely to get excited over another book, albeit by the original discoverer, proving another variant of Uncle Sam’s guilt. This may be hard on Mr Johnson, but the fact is he has now given two conflicting accounts – in the Guardian (17 December 1983) and in Shootdown (1986) – and that he has dealt with the discrepancies between them with all the aplomb of a magician explaining that the last rabbit out of the hat was just an optical illusion, but this one is the real thing. And the next one? In any case, if Shootdown hasn’t been getting the attention it deserves in the West, the Soviet bloc’s media will no doubt accord it the same generous publicity which Mr Johnson’s original Guardian article received, being widely reviewed on radio and television and even reprinted in pamphlet form for visiting tourists, businessmen and scholars. The silence about Shootdown in this country is not as total as Mr Johnson fears. Already an anonymous, but laudatory review of Shootdown can even be found in the programmes of popular London musicals like Cabaret! Mr Johnson complains that Today substituted ‘Zola Budd or the Palace corgis’ for him, but has no fear of being upstaged by Sally Bowles? Mr Johnson’s attack on the ‘Thatcherite’ bias of the BBC suggests that he was too busy researching Shootdown to watch or listen to any of its news programmes, let alone its comedy and chat shows. To take just one current issue upon which he is also an expert: is the BBC really a mouthpiece of Mrs Thatcher’s opposition to sanctions against Pretoria?

Mark Almond
Wolfson College, Oxford

Vol. 8 No. 16 · 18 September 1986

SIR: In his review of Shootdown: The Verdict on KAL 007 (LRB, 24 July), Paul Foot, like R.W. Johnson, finds telling evidence of there having been a fully prepared espionage operation in the fact that the CIA originally lied about the fate of 007, putting out a false report that the plane was not shot down but safe on Sakhalin. The CIA, it is said, did this because it needed a ‘holding operation’, time to doctor the tapes and ‘put the best possible picture’ before the world. Whatever merit there may be in Johnson’s book, this claim makes absolutely no sense. Assume there was a deliberate incursion into Soviet airspace. Presumably, the CIA hoped the plane would be forced down safely and not shot down, but obviously, just what its fate would be once Soviet defences were alerted could not be guaranteed beforehand. The CIA does not have to explain anything more should the plane be shot down: rather it must explain what the plane was doing there at all, and this explanation presumably would be exactly the same whatever the Soviet response. If I have prepared an alibi as to what I am doing going through your valuables with the lights off, that alibi is just as good – or as bad – whether you lose your head and shoot me or simply turn me over to the police.

Steven and Julie Ross
New York City

Vol. 8 No. 20 · 20 November 1986

SIR: The last issue of my favourite publication (LRB, 24 July) brought two editorial oversights. It is not too serious when Patrick Hughes in his charming diary tells us that ‘my record was 52 lengths in the half-hour – that is, 1300 metres … It is my ambition to be able to do a kilometre in half an hour, but I didn’t learn to swim until I was 33, so I am not very fast.’ After all, if he would swim a little slower, he would achieve his ambition. But when Paul Foot translates ‘a feeling for the clandestine’ as Fingerspizengefuehl [sic], he misrepresents a good word. Fingerspitzengefuehl stands for sensibility, sympathetic understanding, empathy and has overtones of tact and delicacy – hardly how Paul Foot would want to describe the activities of the President’s ‘boys’. Are these just incidental difficulties with Continental concepts, or should I also be wary of taking the LRB as my example of good English?

Kirsten Fischer Lindahl
Dallas, Texas

Vol. 8 No. 22 · 18 December 1986

SIR: In a subject as controversial as the Korean Airlines disaster, careful attention to facts is an essential starting-point. And although R.W. Johnson in his review of Seymour Hersh’s book (LRB, 23 October) asserted that he meant to ‘work academically from established facts’, my own investigations have convinced me that this has not happened. Instead, we have seen the manufacture of a flock of ‘factoids’ from which artificial logical structures are assembled. But those consequent structures are counterfeit, and the activity is a parody of true scholarship. An example of a factoid is Foot’s assertion, in his slavishly affectionate review for you of Johnson’s book Shootdown (LRB, 24 July), that there is a string of radio beacon stations arrayed continuously along the North Pacific airline flight path, and that automatic equipment aboard airliners receives these signals and instantly sounds a cockpit alarm if any course deviation occurs. No such string of beacons and no such automatic alarm exist.

Johnson uses similar factoids in his book and in his review. A few examples may demonstrate the flavour. The ‘fact’ that Captain Chun’s scribbles on the flight plan show he had pre-planned the course deviation is actually a factoid: Chun’s scribbles show reference to the Equal Time Point, where (usually for mechanical or passenger health emergencies) he could quickly press on to the nearest Japanese airport rather than return to Anchorage, and that ETP was exactly proper for the standard R-20 route – Johnson simply asserts (incorrectly) that it wasn’t. The ‘fact’ that Chun took on 10,000 extra pounds of fuel was originally a mistake, in that analysis of the loading manifests shows that there never was such an extra amount, but that Chun made an arithmetic error in one column of his figures; Hersh reports this, Johnson in his review misreports it, having obviously misunderstood the passage. The ‘company rules’ about using weather radar in the ‘ground-mapping mode’ is another factoid: there is no such rule. The ‘fact’ of evasive manoeuvres is a factoid, since the released Japanese radar data are entirely consistent with the announced KAL 007 manoeuvres, with proper consideration of inherent radar inaccuracies which Johnson evidently never understands (so the pilot was not ‘lying to his ground controllers’, nor had he ‘dived’, as Johnson claims – even a descent as reported by raw Japanese radar would have been on a one-degree angle, hardly a ‘dive’ for evasion).

Another major factoid is ‘the mystery of why 007 left paying cargo behind at Anchorage’. Here Johnson in his review of Hersh may have slipped across the hazy boundary between mere enthusiastic academic carelessness and intentional deception. There never was any such cargo, as has been demonstrated by experts and communicated to Johnson in correspondence many months ago. The mystery ‘1200 pounds’ (not 1800, as reported in his book) is labeled ‘6 D/H’, and was entered into one line in the weight manifest items, crossed out, and entered directly below in its proper location. It refers to the six ‘dead-heading’ (that is, staff passengers) KAL pilots and engineers on the flight. On this simple bookkeeping foul-up, Johnson has conjured up a picture of deliberate intention to prepare for ‘action’ – yet he neither checked with any aviation experts on this question, nor, when he had been personally told of the true innocent reason for the manifest citations, did he dispute it or attempt to rebut it. Instead, he promulgated it in your journal as if it were still a fact. I have prepared a 100-page critique of Shootdown which shows upwards of five hundred cases of such factoids and clear distortions: many involve mere careless ignorance, but many others involve key arguments and assertions. Johnson routinely twists documented evidence, makes up non-existent ‘expert testimony’, changes cited assertions and maps, reverses the meanings and intents of original sources, smears dissenters (such as myself), and in general completely and consistently confuses his evidence. The pattern is so overwhelming it seems impossible not to notice: see, for example, how Johnson twists and distorts my article in the January-February 1985 Defence Attaché.

James Oberg
Dickinson, Texas

R.W. Johnson writes: Mr Oberg, who describes himself as an ‘imagineer, triviologist and expert in astro folklore’, has been pursuing me for some time now, writing to newspapers, demanding to review my book, sending me abusive letters. I have repeatedly asked him for a copy of his long critique of Shootdown – to no avail. LRB readers must forgive me for not replying in detail to Mr Oberg’s points – his last letter to me sought my help in his quest to have me fired from my job.

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