The scandal that never was
- Shootdown: The Verdict on KAL 007 by R.W. Johnson
Chatto, 335 pp, £10.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 7011 2983 2
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?
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
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.
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. 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. 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?
Wolfson College, Oxford
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
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.
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.