Vol. 8 No. 18 · 23 October 1986

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

3700 words
‘The target is destroyed’: What really happened to Flight 007 
by Seymour Hersh.
Faber, 282 pp., £9.95, September 1986, 0 571 14772 0
Show More
Show More

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.

Thereafter our assumptions grow exponentially. The rule book says that a pilot may not connect his INS to autopilot without a fix on a VHF Omni Range radio beacon (VOR), but we assume that this rule, too, was disregarded. We now further assume that the pilot made a further off-the-cuff decision to disregard even his own self-devised flight plan and to make a minor cross-cut to save fuel. (The fact that this would, as Hersh admits, have saved negligible fuel we ignore.) This means that we also have to assume that the pilot deliberately lied to ground control in reporting his first way-point, for he had decided to skip it altogether. We now further assume that the pilot was somehow interrupted while entering the next set of figures into his computer, putting in latitude co-ordinates but failing to enter longitude co-ordinates. (He has to be interrupted at this particular point and no other.)

We now assume that the pilot left the cabin and stayed out of it for the next five hours – something unheard of in international aviation circles. We also assume that the pilot did all of this without bothering to explain what was in his mind to the two other officers sharing the flight cabin with him. The two other officers left in the cabin would have been confronted by ever-increasing evidence of the plane’s gross error, but we further assume that they were so bound by an Asian sense of hierarchy that they did not dare to question their captain’s presumed intent. We also assume that they broke company rules by not using their ground-mapping weather radar (which would have shown them they were verging over land, not sea, as they entered Soviet airspace); that they disregarded the ever-increasing evidence of cross-track error displayed on the screens in front of them; and that they ignored the fact that the INS was displaying route distances which did not correspond with what they expected. We assume that the flight officers chose the precise moment after the Soviet fighter zeroed in on 007 (and no other) to re-program their computer. This was now so hopelessly fouled up that it made the plane go into a steep turn, though (we assume) the cabin officers corrected it quickly: this, we have to imagine, would explain the large turn 007 made as it approached Sakhalin Island, even though the turn the plane made was far bigger than could be explained by such a manoeuvre. Finally, we have to assume that even after the Soviet missile hit the plane the flight officers still did not realise that they were in trouble sufficient to warrant the mandatory Mayday call. This despite the fact that they were experiencing terrifying decompression and were conducting a rapid descent.

To accept the Ewing/Hersh scenario one has to accept every single one of these assumptions, despite the fact that the cumulative odds against every one of them being sequentially true is astronomical. Anyone who accepts such hostile odds has to be either exceptionally gullible or guided by blind faith. Moreover these odds can easily be further increased. For example, we know that in 1978 a KAL airliner deviated 1000 miles off-track and overflew the biggest Soviet nuclear submarine base at Murmansk. By accident, apparently; and despite the vocal alarm of the passengers, who noticed such details as the Sun having swung over to be on the wrong side of the plane and Soviet fighters buzzing the plane. What were the odds against another KAL airliner flying accidentally off-track in 1983 to overfly the second biggest Soviet submarine base (at Petropavlosk)? Accidents will happen, no doubt: but what is it about Soviet nuclear submarine bases which cause the same airline to make repeated accidental deviations over them? One could go on, piling improbability on improbability, but it seems almost like bullying to do so.

Hersh is careful to label Ewing’s scenario as ‘highly speculative’, but in practice he adopts it wholesale, writing quite confidently about the actions of the flight officers (‘in the cockpit of the Korean airliner it was still yawn-and-stretch time’) and even about what ‘they undoubtedly thought’. Moreover Hersh simply dismisses all other possible explanations, arguing that the Ewing scenario ‘melds perfectly’ with all the known facts.

But it doesn’t. Even if, for the sake of argument, one were to accept the truly astronomical odds against the Ewing hypothesis, there are still a number of facts it doesn’t explain. There is the mystery of why 007 left paying cargo behind at Anchorage. There is the small matter that it was not using the correct transponder code (by which other planes or ground stations recognise an aircraft type), but a special ‘squawking’ code instead. There is the fact that the plane must have made at least one other (conscious) turn besides the one at Sakhalin. There are several unexplained oddities in the way the plane misreported back to ground control. Hersh also omits altogether to say that, in theory at least, each waypoint en route should have been an occasion for a further course-check. There is the fact that 007 dawdled over the early part of its route and later speeded up to well beyond its assigned Mach limits. Why didn’t the pilot check his position against the VOR on Shemya? What about his ordinary compasses and Distance Measuring Equipment? What about his Mach buzzer, which would have gone off at the speeds he was travelling at? Again one could go on.

Most remarkable of all, though, is Hersh’s attitude to several key episodes. We know, from data provided to the Japanese Diet by the Nakasone Goverment, that as the Soviet fighter settled on its tail 007 signalled to its ground controller that it was climbing, and then that it had completed a climb, but that in fact it had dived, and the pilot was lying to his ground controllers. (Not surprisingly, the Russians believed these were evasive tactics.) Hersh must be familiar with these data: they are public property, and he cites works in his bibliography which contain charts and accounts of this event. Yet he calmly asserts that 007 did indeed carry out a routine climb at this point, without even citing the fact that hard evidence exists to the contrary. Similarly, he passes over without mention the many very curious features of the abortive search for 007’s black boxes. Faced with the fact that the radio bleeps from these boxes were several times picked up – which should have made recovery almost automatic – he rather lamely repeats the suggestion made by Reaganite ultras that perhaps the Russians had deliberately dropped a false bleeper in the water to throw off the US search. A moment’s reflection would suggest that any bleeper, whether true or false, should then have been recovered. A technology able to re-assemble the millions of bits of an exploded Shuttle from the bottom of the sea, or find the black boxes of the crashed Air India jet at nearly ten times the depth that the wreck of 007 would have been at, would have made short work of recovering a device which was actually emitting radio signals to aid recovery.

Yet again, Hersh offers no reflection on why the US, in addition to refusing to hand over key radar tapes of 007’s flight to the ICAO enquiry, destroyed some of these tapes altogether. Quite extraordinary, too, is the fact that Hersh does not mention that a US electronic satellite was making passes overhead while 007’s excursion was in progress, or that an electronic reconnaissance ship was on station nearby. This is very curious, for Hersh writes, most interestingly, of the bonanza of electronic intelligence gleaned in the course of the 1978 KAL deviation over Murmansk. Despite his claims to an inside track with members of the US intelligence community, there isn’t a single word in his book about the gathering of comparable intelligence from the 1983 deviation. Hersh also admits that US Intelligence was, six days after the tragedy, still putting out maps showing 007 as having flown an entirely straight-line course. Hersh makes no comment on this, but it surely must have occurred to him that those publishing such maps had long had the information which falsified any notion of a straight-line course.

Last month, at the invitation of relatives of the Americans who died aboard KAL 007, I attended a memorial service in New York. It was an immensely moving occasion. There were those who had lost one or both their parents, brothers or sisters, parents who had lost all their children. But the air was charged with political tension as well as an elemental grief. The relatives are hardly a left-wing group. Even in the US it is still true that the clientele who enjoy international air travel have an upper-income bias, so the victims and their relatives had a more than averagely middle and upper-class profile, which in turn meant that those not apolitical had generally come from conservative or at least centrist political backgrounds. Nonetheless, I did not meet a single relative who believed that KAL 007 had been off-course by accident. They have, naturally, followed the development of the case closely and many are intensely bitter at the systematic obstruction to which they feel the Reagan Administration has subjected them in their quest for more and truthful information about the tragedy. Many of them expressed cynicism about the Hersh book and wondered whether the world of Washington journalism did not necessitate a certain sort of respectful deal-making with those who make or break journalistic careers through the leaks they give.

Others wondered if Hersh had perhaps decided to go for a ‘manageable’ political target in attacking the Administration merely over its corrupt presentation of the tragedy, leaving the larger target alone as too explosive. Personally, I do not want to believe such things of Hersh, whose reputation has been hard-earned. But since I have been over some of the same ground and come up with some sharply different conclusions, I have to have some notion of why this divergence has occurred.

Part of the reason derives, I think, sheerly from method. Although I spent a very large number of hours talking to pilots and aviation officials, and to other researchers, I decided I must base what I wrote almost wholly on written sources, replete with full bibliographical and footnote references, and work analytically from established facts. An academic tends to do this anyway, but in this case the controversial character of the subject made such a method seem even more prudent than usual. Hersh’s method has been quite the opposite. For him, the interview is the central research technique. A fact becomes a fact when someone can be got to say it (even though in the large majority of cases these sources remain anonymous). The strength of this technique is to be found in the large number of interesting nuggets of information he offers about, for example, the complex in-fighting within the Washington defence and intelligence bureaucracies. A lot of this information could be gained in no other way. But the weaknesses of this method are very great.

Hersh appears, for example, to have been told several incompatible things, and he relates these without seeming to notice their inconsistency. Thus he makes a large number of statements about the reach of US electronic surveillance, sometimes suggesting that it is very limited, sometimes that it is virtually unlimited. At one stage he has US officials bemoaning the low budgets and poor resources of Japanese signals intelligence, but just a few pages further on he tells us that actually the Japanese had far better recording equipment than the Americans, who were strapped by budgetary constraints. Hersh’s reliance on interview material is so great that, as we have seen, he neglects so vital a published source as the report to the Japanese Diet on 007’s last-minute jinking manoeuvres just as the Soviet fighter settled on its tail. But many other printed sources, too, seem to have been neglected. And it is difficult not to worry that one of the reasons why AFIN comes out so well in Hersh’s book is that it provided him with one of his rare attributable sources. Given that three other intelligence agencies – NSA, DIA and CIA – were also heavily involved in this affair, one would feel more comfortable with Hersh’s claim to have the real, inside intelligence story if he could quote comparable sources within those agencies too.

But, to be fair, even that would be far from conclusive. If the greatest reporter in the world, returning from his sorties, announces that he couldn’t get anyone to tell him something and that therefore there is no story, he is asking one to place great faith in the notion that they would have told him something if they could. Thus Hersh dismisses – in a footnote – any idea that 007 might have been part of a planned surveillance mission with the statement that ‘in all of my reporting inside the NSA and military intelligence I found no evidence of any advance word on the Korean flight, and advance notice to such units would have been essential.’ Apart from the fact that no advance notice would have been necessary to activate electronic intelligence-gathering either by the satellite overhead, the electronic intelligence ship already on station, or the giant US intelligence base at Misawa which operates on a round-the-clock basis anyway, this is asking one to place quite inordinate faith in Hersh’s personal power to elicit such data. If there had been some form of surveillance mission in operation, one should not, in other words, underestimate either the ability or the unwillingness of the intelligence community to let even Hersh know about it. Had Hersh really tested this hypothesis by looking under every stone – analysing all the printed data properly, for example, or getting (as I did) the opinion of an aviation accident investigator on the Ewing scenario – one would have less right to complain. But his whole book gives every impression that this was, for him, a question decided in advance.

And yet the questions surrounding the KAL 007 tragedy will not go away. All else apart, the victims’ relatives are far from satisfied. The Californian attorney, Melvin Belli, acting for some of the US relatives, has announced that he has videotape testimony from, inter alias, the widows of both the pilot and co-pilot that their husbands were planning a deliberate deviation off-course and were worried at the high risks involved. Belli claims to have similar videotape evidence from the pilot of KAL 015, which was closely following 007 on a parallel course and relaying his radio messages. He insists he is taking the matter all the way to the Supreme Court. We shall see. Meanwhile the Japanese victims’ relatives report that the pilot’s widow took out a large insurance policy on her husband’s life shortly before the flight. They, too, are in no mood to be easily placated. What all these people want is a full and proper inquiry into the affair. This, at least, they deserve. They are, though, up against powerful forces that would deny them this: even to accept the case for such an inquiry is, after all, to admit that the official Reagan Administration version of the affair may leave something to be desired. The sad thing about Hersh’s book is that it will inevitably be seized upon by those who wish to resist such an inquiry. Why, even Seymour Hersh, one of America’s greatest reporters, thinks the plane was off-course by accident. No matter that he is relying on the utterly incredible Ewing scenario: we are talking about a Pulitzer Prize-winner here, after all ...

One is reminded, ineluctably, of the Lusitania tragedy. Those who questioned the official Anglo-American version of the affair – that the Germans had wantonly killed 1201 civilians by attacking a wholly innocent ship – immediately ran into the accusation that even to ask questions was to give implicit support to the German version of events. It was not until 1972, when Colin Simpson showed that the Lusitania had, in fact, been loaded with contraband munitions (which may be why it sank so quickly), that a more just appreciation became possible. The issues are the same – the possible abuse of civilian transport for military purposes – and so are the cold war (Anglo-German, US-Soviet) constraints against asking those awkward questions. In the case of the Lusitania, it took 57 years for the truth to come to light. It would be intolerable if we had to to wait that long to know the full truth about KAL 007. Happily, this may now be unlikely.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


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.

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences