KAL 007 Mystery
By Timothy W. Maier
Intelligence evidence suggests that the Soviets never told the truth about the downing of KAL 007, but the U.S. government suppressed its own investigation.
Hans Ephraimson of Ridgewood, N.J., brushed aside the New York Times story about Korean Air Lines Flight 007 being forced to land on the island of Sakhalin after straying into Soviet airspace on Sept. 1, 1983. The Times said another Korean jet had been sent to pick up the passengers. Suddenly it hit him: His 23-year-old daughter, Alice, was aboard KAL 007. “I got to my office thinking the Soviets probably would not release the luggage but they likely would honor her reservation in Hong Kong,” he tells Insight.
Ephraimson phoned the general manager of a Hong Kong hotel to let him know that his daughter would be arriving late and that she might need extra clothes. “Charge it to my account,” he recalls saying. “That won’t be necessary,” the general manager replied. Then, after a long pause, the manager put it as gently as he could: “I regret to inform you, sir, that the plane didn’t land. There were no survivors.”
A stunned Ephraimson immediately called Korean Air Lines demanding an explanation. “How could this be?” he wondered. The national media had reported that the Japanese Civil Aviation Bureau “confirmed that the Hokkaido radar followed Air Korea to a landing in Soviet territory on the island of Sakhalin” where all 269 passengers and crew were safe. Korean Air Lines promised it would get back to him. But it didn’t.
An exasperated Ephraimson telephoned the State Department to clear up the confusion. “Sorry,” he was told, they were busy preparing for press conferences just now but someone would call him back. Like Korean Air Lines, they never did.
With nowhere else to turn, Ephraimson called the office of Rep. Lawrence P. McDonald, D-Ga., who was being reported to have been on the flight. McDonald, a staunch anticommunist who was the new president of the John Birch Society, was traveling to Seoul to help memorialize the 30th anniversary of the Korean War armistice. He was to meet a congressional delegation there led by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who along with Sen. Steve Symms, R-Idaho, decided at the last minute to take another flight. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, arrived on a flight from China.
“McDonald’s staffer assured me everything was well and my daughter would be released,” recalls Ephraimson, holding back tears. “I told them I think they have wrong information. He said he would check and call me back. Fifteen minutes later he called to tell me my information was right.”
By the next day it was being reported around the world that KAL 007 had been blown out of the sky. The Russians claimed it was a spy plane flying over the highly restricted Kamchatka peninsula, site of the Petropavlovsk naval port, where 90 nuclear submarines were based along with 30 land-based ballistic missiles aimed at the United States. The area was so sensitive that the Soviets claimed six colonels had been executed for failing to destroy U.S. planes crossing the region.
The downing of KAL 007 triggered protests worldwide with charges that the Soviets had murdered 269 innocent civilians. This hottest flare-up of the Cold War since the Cuban missile crisis came at the very height of the biggest Soviet disarmament campaign ever, badly shaking Moscow’s credibility. In the Soviet Union, itself, people gathered around TV sets, doubting their leaders, who were appearing with charts and graphs to promote the spy propaganda.
There would be no military response, but in Europe one debate was ended. U.S. cruise missiles now would be deployed on the continent. President Ronald Reagan recognized it as the turning point in the Cold War. He broke off arms-treaty negotiations and used the display of Soviet ruthlessness to promote peace through strength with a rapid military buildup that the Communists could not match. When the Soviets ratcheted military spending up to 20 percent of their gross domestic product, the effort crippled their economy and ended the Cold War.
But in that late summer of 1983 the world was holding its breath. Soviet air defenses had been ordered to a much higher state of combat readiness, allegedly in response to incursions by U.S. Navy fighters into Soviet airspace over the Kurile Islands during a battle-group exercise in April. Except for the retaliatory power of the U.S. submarine forces, the United States was believed to be vulnerable to a Soviet first strike.
Meanwhile, Insight has learned, the Soviets had scheduled a secret test of an SS-25 intercontinental ballistic missile on the night of the shootdown, a direct violation of the SALT II arms treaty. The Soviets had deployed a special electronic-warfare aircraft to jam U.S. tracking of this missile test — something that U.S. insiders say may have affected the Soviet tracking of KAL 007.
The warhead of the test missile was scheduled to land on the Kamchatka peninsula over which KAL 007 strayed. A U.S. RC-135 spy plane, code-named Cobra Eye, was flying in the area to monitor the missile test but exhausted its fuel and returned to its base near Alaska prior to the attack on the civilian jetliner. It was on the ground when the presence of KAL 007 in the area apparently forced the Soviets to abort the test and Col. Gen. Ivan M. Tretyak, commander of the Far Eastern Military District, ordered Soviet attack planes to “kill the intruder.”
President Reagan called this order “one of the most infamous and reprehensible acts of history,” and played a recording of the Su-15 pilot boasting in midair that “the target is destroyed.” Outraged Western airline pilots refused to fly to Moscow. Soviet diplomat Andrei Gromyko was barred from landing in either New York or New Jersey.
Why was the jet so far off its designated flight path to Seoul? Evidence pointed to a technical navigational error, in which the inertial navigation system (INS) failed to take control of the autopilot, causing the jet to fly 365 miles off course after it took off from Anchorage, Alaska. “It was a real tragedy,” KAL attorney Andrew Harakas tells Insight. “The pilot didn’t do something technically proper. They couldn’t reprogram the INS in flight. They would have had to fly back, and if they did they would have been penalized by the company.”
The grieving families of KAL 007 turned to the justice system for both the truth and compensation. Five days after his frantic phone calls, Ephraimson filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against both Korean Air Lines and the USSR. More than 100 other lawsuits quickly followed. The Soviet Union eventually was dropped from the litigation, the main liable defendant became KAL, and the cases were tangled in a legal web for 17 years.
Ephraimson recently became the last of these litigants to wrap up his civil case. A federal jury initially awarded him $2 million for pain and suffering and $135,000 for economic damages — the highest jury award of all the KAL cases. But the victory was short-lived. In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that international plane crashes are covered by the Death on the High Seas Act, which limits recovery to economic damages, taking away a previous $50 million award to be shared by dozens of other families and stripping Ephraimson of his $2 million judgment.
In a last-ditch effort Ephraimson attorney Gerald Baker tried to persuade the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York that the jumbo jet didn’t crash in international waters but within Soviet territory — which, if true, would have reinstated the $2 million judgment. But the court last year ruled that Ephraimson and the other litigants previously had stipulated that it crashed in the Sea of Japan.
For Ephraimson, the case is over, but the tormenting questions remain. “What have they done with the bodies?” he asks Insight tearfully. Small parts of four bodies, including that of a child, were discovered but couldn’t be identified as KAL 007 passengers because they were torn to shreds. Authorities revealed that the four pieces of human remains were embedded with hundreds of pieces of fragments of metal, presumably the result of an explosion or being sucked out of the aircraft during decompression.
About 576 pieces of related jetsam reportedly washed ashore around Wakkanai on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, 200 miles from the alleged ocean crash site. Another 167 pieces reportedly were recovered by Japanese and Soviet search ships. The USSR produced only 10 percent of the reported wreckage that was recovered. “They were searching for two-and-a-half months and they found no bodies? Impossible!” Ephraimson claims. “We are certain that human remains were recovered.”
For the first eight days following the KAL 007 incident no floating debris or body parts were reported recovered. In 1985, an Air India Boeing 747, carrying 329 passengers, exploded at 31,000 feet over the North Atlantic when a suspected terrorist bomb was detonated. In that tragedy 132 bodies were recovered — 123 of them on the same day. All were identified. In 1987, when a South African Airlines 747 exploded at 14,000 feet from a cargo-bay fire, 15 of 159 persons were recovered along with several thousand pieces of debris, some as far away as 2,000 nautical miles.
But there never has been a satisfactory answer to what happened to the bodies and debris from 007 despite the fact that half a dozen books and hundreds of articles have been written to explore the story. Now, with no more legal proceedings left in which to try to ferret out the truth, the chapter on the missing bodies appears to be closed.
Ephraimson says he walked out of the courtroom with an empty feeling. “For 17 years our families have been traumatized. One woman I know keeps having a recurring nightmare that her dead husband is sleeping between her and her new husband.”
Who is to blame? Take a number. The families say they were frustrated when the Reagan administration failed to provide timely answers; they blame the Korean pilots, alleging that they noticed the navigational error but failed to rectify it; they blame the Soviets for a cold-blooded massacre and for covering it up behind a sea of lies.
Money, Ephraimson says, doesn’t buy closure to this case. “Peanuts,” he says of the $135,000 compensation award that has been eaten up by years of attorneys’ fees. Besides, no dollar figure ever could provide sufficient compensation for a beloved daughter shot down in the prime of her life.
“You can’t play Monday-morning quarterback in this business,” says Baker on whether he should have accepted an out-of-court settlement for Ephraimson. But it’s hard not to, considering Baker cut substantial deals for other families of KAL victims, including $3 million for the estate of 40-year-old Kathy Speir and $1.25 million for the estate of 51-year-old James Beirn. “After we won the $2 million for Ephraimson, I thought maybe I lost a million for Beirn and should have gone to trial,” Baker says. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
For Ephraimson, the crash became a rallying cry. He formed the American Association for Families of KAL 007 Victims, the first airline victims’ support group. He was instrumental in getting an international pledge from hundreds of foreign airlines that voluntarily signed an agreement to put the burden on the airline to prove they were not at fault should families seek to collect beyond the current cap of $135,000 for willful misconduct.
He also lobbied Congress for families of airline crash victims to be able to collect more than compensatory damages, calling for an amendment of the Death on the High Seas Act. In 1999, the act was amended to allow for some punitive awards, but it still does not include pain and suffering, an issue currently under review by Congress.
The lawsuits also triggered the release of hundreds of documents, including U.S. Navy records, and some 1,300 pages of State Department files, consisting mostly of cable reports, though many more remain classified. Early on, Baker stumbled into multiple roadblocks when attempting to obtain U.S. radar and intelligence intercepts. In May 1986, the U.S. District Court in Washington ruled there was no indication that military radar even was capable of seeing that the airliner was off course — although intelligence sources tell Insight the National Security Agency (NSA) had tracked the plane but that it took several hours to analyze the data. By then it was too late.
The court also dropped a bombshell when it informed families that the State Department had allowed the U.S. Air Force to erase relevant radar tapes as part of routine operations.
And NSA intelligence reports were off-limits. Baker says he even was prohibited from pursuing allegations that an air-traffic-controller tape included the utterance, “We should warn them,” or the Russian allegation that KAL 007 was a spy plane flying over a sensitive Soviet naval base. “They told us we couldn’t get those documents on national-security grounds,” Baker tells Insight. “It turned out we didn’t need them. We won anyway.”
But for the victims’ families those documents might provide clues to lingering questions. Instead, the continued secrecy has fueled a cottage industry of conspiracy theories. Many of them stem from KGB disinformation, such as unproved allegations that former president Richard Nixon was booked and then warned off the jet or that spy gear had been placed aboard at Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Spring, Md.
“Look, we just want to know what happened,” insists Ephraimson. “As of today, they still haven’t released all the files on the flight.”
He’s right. A two-month Insight investigation reveals that the government possesses explosive documents casting doubt on the official stories that neither were made public nor provided to the U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the only agency to produce an official public report on the downing of KAL 007.
Insight has reviewed and received briefings on key documents that have yet to be made public. They contradict some of the findings of the ICAO, which concluded KAL 007 (dubbed “Heavy” by air-traffic controllers as shorthand for a 747) was struck at least once by an Su-15 Soviet fighter’s missile and then either exploded at about 35,000 feet or plunged into the sea at such a high speed and steep angle that the impact was catastrophic.
ICAO failed to determine if KAL 007 was hit in Soviet airspace or over international waters. However, a review of intelligence information and the coordinates supplied by the Soviets (46º 46’27” N and 141º 32’48” E) to the United Nations in 1993 suggests the plane was attacked in international airspace and crashed in Soviet territorial waters about 12 miles north of Moneron Island.
Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, agreed with the ICAO’s report despite reliable intelligence data indicating the jet was under a “12-minute controlled descent” suggesting a ditch at sea. For example, the actual descent calculated by former government specialists who in 1991 reviewed NSA data and Russian intercepts indicates KAL 007 turned 180 degrees and dropped at a rate of 3,700 feet per minute, slowing to 1,333 feet, definitely not an accelerating average rate of descent and consistent in every respect with controlled descent of a decompressed 747 with a lost engine. All of which was consistent with a flight simulation conducted by commercial airline pilot Joe Ferguson in 1985 for an article in Conservative Digest, which concluded that the disabled jet was not out of control and could have been landed at sea or on nearby land.
“We’d like to hope that the plane landed,” says Ephraimson. “But with what we know, it is impossible to land a 747 on the sea. These 747s come down at such a high speed the body just breaks up.”
Boeing spokesman Gary Lesser tells Insight that all 747 pilots are trained to ditch the plane over water. Asked if anyone ever has done so, Lesser replies, “There has never been a reported successful ditch, but there has never been an unsuccessful one as well.”
According to sources briefed on KAL 007 by intelligence agencies, some reports and studies still classified include special U.S. intelligence on Soviet radar during the tracking and shootdown; a U.S. “raw intelligence report” created three days after the incident; an NSA special intelligence report issued Sept. 3, 1983, and amended Oct. 19, 1983, and in June 1991; and a CIA report suggesting evidence and analysis may have been suppressed by senior CIA and NSA officials. Insight has filed for all these records under the Freedom of Information Act.
In June 1993, ICAO released its final report, which did include Japanese radar records and material from a top-secret Soviet Defense Ministry report — including data allegedly from the plane’s black boxes containing the digital flight-data recorder (DFDR) and cockpit voice recorder (CVR). The Soviets claimed for nearly 10 years they did not have the black boxes. But they were turned over to the United Nations via France in January 1993, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Missing, however, was key evidence that should have been collected in the black boxes, suggesting they may have been tampered with, according to sources familiar with the data. For instance, the strange absence of any emergency Mayday distress calls by the KAL pilots, although the CVR suggests they may not have been aware of the severe danger they were facing. Also somewhat odd, according to intelligence sources, is that both the CVR and DFDR stopped at the exact same time and with power remaining. A CVR transcript shows no sign of panic, although the pilots instruct passengers to put on the oxygen masks as they try to drop the plane to 10,000 feet where oxygen is more abundant. Which finishes the ICAO theory of a midair explosion!
Former government officials who investigated the incident believe the Russian Su-15 fired one or two guided missiles. One probably hit a right wing engine and a second may have hit the tail section. While Soviet and Japanese radar indicate KAL 007 was on a controlled descent for at least 12 minutes after it was hit, the tapes sent back by the Russians record only one minute of the flight after being struck. “The feeling was that the Soviets may have deleted the last 11 minutes or manipulated the tape,” says a source knowledgeable about evaluation of the intelligence files. The Russians, themselves, initially filmed their own radar showing what appeared to be an attempted ditch, “but the film mysteriously disappeared,” adds another source.
James Oberg, a Houston space engineer and author of Uncovering Soviet Disasters, doubts the tampering allegation. He theorizes that “critical control surfaces and lines were damaged, halting the recorders” and subsequently killing all four engines.
However, intelligence sources say the pilots would have been incapable of having the amount of control displayed on the radar without at least one engine being operable. Boeing’s Lesser tells Insight: “As long as there is one engine running, both recorders would still continue to operate until the plane hits the water.”
Even though portions of the tapes were unintelligible, they never were technically analyzed to determine if there were erasure gaps because the technology to do so didn’t exist at the time they were provided to ICAO in 1993. Experts tell Insight that Intelligent Devices, a Washington sound-extraction company currently seeking to review the 18-and-one-half-minute gap on the Nixon tapes, might be able to extract voices from the KAL 007 tapes if Congress were to request it.
Ephraimson would like nothing better than to garner congressional interest in the case that might help “us bring some of the belongings back.” Some of these reportedly washed ashore on Japanese and Russian beaches, including a tennis shoe that Baker claims may belong to Alice Ephraimson and Kathy Speir’s business card. The Soviets, for unexplained reasons, dry-cleaned some of the passengers’ clothes before turning them over to authorities. And the Russian perpetrators apparently have more. Families have been told “they could buy them back” — an outrage to families who have suffered enough, Ephraimson says.
This year the FBI released an 80-page file after Ephraimson’s civil case, the last piece of KAL 007 litigation, officially ended. The recently released file, called “Korean Airline Flight 007,” can be downloaded on the Internet at www.fbi.gov. It spans a three-year period from 1983 to 1986 and falls well-short of solving many of the mysteries surrounding the flight. In fact, the FBI withheld 167 pages from the public for alleged national-security reasons and broadly redacted many of the nonpublic documents.
The released documents are comprised of court records, newspaper clippings, allegations of air-traffic-controller misconduct, the passenger manifest indicating McDonald was sitting in seat 02B and a 1985 Washingtonian magazine article suggesting pilots deliberately flew off course to collect a now-terminated bonus for saving fuel.
One document also indicates that, prior to KAL 007’s takeoff, the FBI interrogated an Asian female passenger for a “possible threat to hijack.” The FBI dismissed the allegation for reasons that were redacted.
The file also contains letters from citizens the FBI sometimes refers to as “mentally unstable.” At least one letter written in Spanish and postmarked in New Jersey on Nov. 3, 1983, appeared to be taken seriously. The translated letter claims that “at least one employee” of the Korean Air Lines “is a Russian spy,” who informed his superiors of McDonald’s presence on the airplane. The letter also warns President Reagan that the “Libyan government by order of the USSR” might commit an air attack against the president when he travels via helicopter.
The files also show that the FBI kept the CIA and the White House Situation Room updated on shootdown developments, but none of the releasable documents provides any summary or conclusion about the crash. The files also indicate the Department of Justice requested any examples of “disinformation” linked to KAL 007.
According to intelligence sources, some FBI documents that were withheld concerned South Korean opposition Democratic Party legislator Sonn Se-il. In 1992, Sonn stated he had been handed a “CIA report” marked “Top Secret/Codeword” that claimed there might be KAL 007 survivors. The FBI immediately launched an investigation to determine who authored the “CIA report,” according to sources. As expected, the agency denied it was their work product but Sonn became convinced that passengers aboard KAL 007 may have survived. The concerns of this respected legislator were widely reported in South Korea but were not taken seriously by the U.S. press.
So what happened to that “CIA report”? Insight obtained the 108-page “report” from Diane Provan, a friend of McDonald who had obtained it from Sonn in December 1992.
The report is not a CIA document. Despite being stamped “Top Secret/ Codeword” and “sensitive restricted access,” the study never went through a classification review. But it undeniably is heavy with classified information concerning NSA intercepts, CIA findings and U.S. Navy classified reports. It is described in the middle of the document as a “Republican staff study.”
Insight has learned from intelligence sources that the study was ordered by Sen. Helms in the summer of 1991. This was before the Soviet Union admitted it had the black boxes — a significant point, because the study said that without a doubt the Soviets had them. At the time Helms, who had been a friend of McDonald, was not chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee but the senior ranking member. Insight is told he was briefed on the findings but never read the entire study — which was obtained by the CIA and apparently leaked to South Korea after Helms ignored it.
The FBI ultimately concluded in 1994 that Victor Fediay, a senior defense-intelligence analyst who made several trips to Moscow to discuss access to the KAL 007 files with top aides to Boris Yeltsin and died in 1993, had authored the study. However, because it never was released to a committee, an FBI internal review ruled it was a “nondocument,” or draft, which meant the bureau wasn’t obligated to investigate the implications. Former Helms chief of staff James P. Lucier, now an Insight senior editor, didn’t participate in the writing or editing of this story. He refuses comment on anything involving his years with Helms.
The study prepared for Helms is an analysis of all the “raw” special-intelligence reporting on the KAL-007 incident from NSA, CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, the State Department Bureau of Intelligence Research and the related U.S. Navy classified reports. It contains evidence of Soviet deception in these matters reported in an 18-story 1991 series by the former Soviet government official newspaper, Izvestia, and uncorroborated allegations by unnamed Russian émigrés concerning possible KAL 007 survivors.
“The only way to explain the lack of wreckage, bodies, and luggage from this great airliner incident is to assume that after its 12-minute flight in search of a landing spot, KAL 007 successfully ditched at sea, and that the Soviets either rescued all the passengers who survived, and recovered their luggage, or that the Soviets recovered all the bodies, wreckage, and the luggage,” the study prepared for Helms maintains. “Since the Soviets are now known to have recovered the black boxes and the wreckage, as revealed in 1991 by Izvestia, it is reasonable to presume that the Soviets also recovered at least all the passengers, dead or alive, and all the luggage.”
In 1992, the late Avraham Shifrin, an Israeli intelligence specialist on Soviet labor camps, alleged two expatriate Russians had told him in a debriefing that some KAL passengers, including McDonald, had indeed survived the crash and were imprisoned. According to intelligence sources, these were the same Russian émigrés who were interviewed for the Helms’ staff.
Shifrin, author of the seminal Guidebook to Slave Camps, claimed in a 1993 TV interview that he had asked President George H. W. Bush to confirm details by electronic surveillance but the administration never got back to him. The study refers to the émigré story as “partially verified,” because the survivor allegations could never be corroborated independently.
Ephraimson calls Shifrin a “con man who has no idea how much grief he has caused to families,” claiming he arranged for another man to meet a Shifrin survivor source but the source never showed up. “It is impossible for there to be survivors,” Ephraimson declares.
The study, however, says the émigrés knew information that only was known in 1991 by U.S. intelligence. For example, “they gave precise identification of local air-defense commanders, precise locations and the precise nomenclature of the types of radar involved, all of which seem to be consistent with existing U.S. intelligence information,” according to the study.
The émigrés also had detailed knowledge of the decisive role in the tragedy played by Marshal Ogarkov, then chief of the Soviet General Staff. They knew the Soviet military was highly embarrassed that it took so long and so much effort to intercept and shoot down a huge civilian airliner over international waters. There was, at minimum, a whirlwind of incompetence so great that the pilot, Maj. Gennadi Osipovich, had to be told six times to fire on the 747 before doing so. Incredibly, a Soviet radar operator at an antiaircraft missile battery on Sakhalin incorrectly identified the 747 as a U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft, adding to the embarrassment. But, according to the intelligence sources, three Russian aircraft searching for the alleged intruder radioed that it was a civilian airliner. Pilot Osipovich initially said he didn’t know it was a commercial jet but says he never believed it was a spy plane. The Soviets promptly promoted him to lieutenant colonel.
The émigrés also knew of the Soviet military “after-action” reports that falsely accused KAL 007 of spy-plane evasive measures and had precise knowledge that the black boxes contained subsystems marked Hamilton AIDS, which Boeing confirmed, but which had not yet been made public. These sources also reported the following:
c KAL 007 ditched successfully in Soviet territorial waters between Moneron and Sakhalin islands; KGB Col. Gen. Semyon Romanov’s Border Guard boats recovered the 747 largely intact; the jet was stripped of all its surviving passengers and their luggage; a Soviet helicopter pilot reported seeing KAL 007 in one piece on the surface of the ocean; the craft was towed to Soviet territorial waters near Moneron, where it deliberately was scuttled in shallow waters inside Soviet territorial limits.
c Romanov failed to retrieve the black boxes and was disciplined for this mishap and died under mysterious circumstances in East Germany in 1985, according to the émigrés. They reported that a special team of Soviet divers was brought in to retrieve the black boxes and search for spy gear. Upon discovering no espionage equipment, Ogarkov ordered that the 747 be blown up underwater. The black boxes were sent to Moscow for analysis at Lyubertsy and the Ilyushin Aircraft Design Bureau, where Moscow learned for certain that KAL 007 had no spy mission.
c After confirming McDonald’s identity, say these informed sources, Moscow ordered the concoction of the spy-plane legend. The captive congressman then was transported to KGB’s Lubyanka prison while others were imprisoned along the Trans-Siberian border and on Wrangel Island.
Oberg, who traveled to Russia, doubts all survivor tales. He claims Japanese fishermen saw the plane with its lights out and aviation fuel spraying wildly as it smashed into the sea and exploded north of Moneron Island. “The fisherman says his captain’s log still smelled of jet fuel,” Oberg tells Insight.
Oberg respects Shifrin’s unquestioned expertise and encyclopedic knowledge of Soviet concentration camps but says “he got real confused” about KAL 007. Oberg further claims the Soviets were ordered to leave the bodies on the ocean floor as they searched for the black boxes. He says that the dead were torn to shreds and devoured by local cuttlefish and that Soviet divers searching for the data recorders later spotted scattered remains — “a severed arm, a woman’s scalp, a glove with a hand still inside.”
But part of the émigrés story appears to be verified by a Soviet salvage diver quoted in the Izvestia series. The divers say they were ordered to destroy “everything that was turned in. … The main thing was not what we had seen but what we had not seen. The divers found practically no human bodies or remains,” and the seat belts allegedly were found unbuckled.
While solid proof of the survivor allegations has yet to surface, intelligence experts have been baffled by classified NSA intercepts of Soviet cockpit conversations never released to ICAO. These NSA intercepts indicated that at least three Russian search-and-rescue aircraft identified the downed Boeing 747 jetliner as a commercial plane carrying “American” passengers, according to the study, which quotes the still-secret NSA reports. It is unclear how Soviet searchers could have known “Americans” were aboard KAL 007, but the Helms study says intelligence intercepts indicate Soviet military forces mounted “rescue operations” for “American passengers.”
According to the study: “Soviet command posts were expressing regret that they had not shot down the legitimate military target of the American RC-135, but instead had shot down by mistake a civilian passenger airliner carrying some Americans, because they feared that soon the Americans would be accusing them of killing ‘Americans,’ presumably the innocent civilian passengers.”
It is unclear how the Soviet search pilots knew the aircraft was a 747, though in a previous forced landing of a Korean passenger plane near Murmansk in 1978 they had confused a Boeing 707 and a 747 — perhaps causing more rigorous pilot instruction. In that earlier incident, the Korean airliner was forced to land under gunfire on a frozen lake, killing two passengers, while the rest of those aboard survived after the pilot repeatedly transmitted, “Mayday, Mayday,” throughout Europe. Of course, KAL 007 could have been identified by other pilots if a significant portion of its distinctive cabin had been floating in the sea.
Helms may not have agreed with some of the conclusions in his staff study because he never requested a congressional investigation. In fact, the study is critical of President Reagan and Congress for failing publicly to call for of President Reagan and Congress for failing publicly to call for or complete investigation of the shootdown. It also criticizes the intelligence community for ignoring hard evidence that the Soviets had engaged in a massive strategic deception known in Russia as maskirovka.
The study says: “It is troubling that no official U.S. government investigation nor final report on the KAL 007 incident was ever completed, by either the executive branch, or by the Congress, despite the mysterious dearth of debris from KAL 007, the mystery of the origin and identity and late recovery of what scant remains were associated with KAL 007 and the mysterious disappearance of a sitting U.S. congressman and the 60 other American citizens on board.”
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration did institute an investigation, the study asserts, but it was “abruptly aborted” in September 1983. Their preliminary findings were turned over to the State Department, which produced and then suppressed a white paper on the crash, the Helms study says. The State Department also prohibited the U.S. Navy from employing a special submarine to plant intelligence sensors because it didn’t want to offend the Soviets. In 1984, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Bent said the U.S. investigation was over despite the fact that at that time the Soviets had not returned the black boxes and no official U.S. report had been released.
Nearly 10 years later, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher announced in 1994 that a U.S. delegation had asked about KAL 007, and “Russian President Boris Yeltsin replied that there had been no survivors, and we have no reason to doubt the Russian government’s statement.”
Intelligence experts who have followed this story for 17 years tell Insight there is plenty of information to raise doubt about whether Russia has told the entire truth about this incident. They also would like to know why the State Department suppressed its own investigation of these matters.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has the power to get to the bottom of this. Why hasn’t Helms raised the issues developed in his own staff study? After two weeks of repeated requests to interview the senator about these matters, Insight was told that he “is too busy.” An embarrassed staffer claimed they would get back to us. They never did.
Sea of Soviet Lies
Rep. Lawrence P. McDonald, D-Ga., was fond of saying of the unbroken series of postwar Soviet advances, “Reviewing all of this you either must believe in a conspiracy or in a highly unlikely series of coincidences.” Oddly, at the time, McDonald may have been the only national political figure who could have been convinced the Soviets were capable of pulling off a calculated deception of the kind that surrounded their cover-up of the shootdown of KAL 007 and its passengers.
The intelligence community had reason to know that elaborate disinformation schemes routinely were manufactured within the Soviet Union’s Main Operations Directorate, where the legend was created that KAL 007 was a spy plane. But, according to a 1991 Republican staff study prepared for the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., the U.S. intelligence community was filled with hubris and, in some sectors, astonishing naïveté.
As far back as 1969, U.S. intelligence had “refused to report and analyze scrupulously the continually growing evidence of Soviet deception and violation in regard to the arms-control treaties,” the study says. “There was simply a mind-set in U.S. intelligence throughout the 1970s and up to 1983 that the Soviets were incapable of massive deception on anything important, and that they certainly did not negotiate deceptively or cheat on arms-control treaties.”
When one CIA analyst wrote about such deceptions, the “CIA suppressed all his writings” and he resigned in controversy, the study says. However, it notes, despite this pervasive attitude, intelligence agencies did collect extensive evidence in 1983 that supported a Soviet strategic plan of deception concerning KAL 007 but chose to ignore the pattern of the Russian lies.
Soviet deception in the KAL 007 matter included the following:
- The U.S. Navy classified Task Force 71 report stated: “The operation established, with a 95 percent or above confidence level, that the wreckage does not lie within the probability area outside the 12 nautical mile area claimed by the Soviets. … Had the Soviets permitted the Task Force to search within their territorial waters, the aircraft may have been found.”
- The Soviets claimed KAL 007 flew with its lights off, though Maj. Gennadi Osipovich, the Soviet pilot, later acknowledged that the plane’s “navigational lights were lighted and flashing.”
- The Soviets put fake black-box pingers into the sea to provide false coordinates to throw off both U.S. and Japanese search-and-rescue efforts — and then threatened to ram and prevent rescuers from entering Soviet waters.
- The Soviets initially told the. International Civil Aviation Organization that no “flight or cockpit voice recorders have so far been recovered,” when in fact they did “recover” them and a decade later gave them to the French government. Special intelligence, according to the Republican staff study, discovered that the Soviets had possession of the black boxes on the day of the downing, Sept. 1, 1983.
- The Soviets initially claimed they found no bodies because they “did not know the plane was down.”
- The Soviets falsely claimed KAL 007 made encrypted bursts of intelligence transmission while over Soviet territory.
- The pilot of the Soviet Su-15 fighter falsely claimed to have fired tracer cannon shells to warn KAL 007 and that he tried repeatedly to communicate with KAL 007 on the 241-megahertz international-emergency frequency.
- The Soviets falsified and re-recorded their own audiotape of the communications of their interceptor pilots and their ground controllers during the shootdown, complete with an electric shaver buzzing in the background to simulate radio static, while pilot Osipovich was provided a script of lies to read about the incident, according to a 1991 series published in the Russian newspaper Izvestia.
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