The scandal that never was

Paul Foot

  • 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?

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.