Washington — When Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was destroyed over Sakhalin Island in 1983, the Reagan administration immediately charged the Soviets with the deliberate murder of the 269 men, women, and children on the civilian jumbo jet. The Soviets responded with countercharges that the aircraft -- shot down 360 miles off its scheduled course -- had actually been on an American-planned spy mission. Both sides were wrong, according to Seymour Hersh, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and author who spent more than two years researching the incident for his latest book, ``The Target is Destroyed.''
In a recent interview in his Washington office, Mr. Hersh discussed his conclusions about the KAL 007 tragedy, his difficulty in getting the story, and the broader issue of the dangers of political leaders who misuse intelligence data to satisfy their own ends.
``I always thought that in a crisis the guys at the top in Washington and Moscow would at least get the best information there is,'' Hersh says. ``The truth probably is that they won't.''
The former New York Times reporter, who has written extensively about US intelligence, maintains in his book that there was a significant discrepancy between what the United States intelligence community knew about the KAL 007 shootdown, and what the White House and State Department were saying about it in public statements.
According to Hersh, US intelligence had indications that the Soviets in their confusion had erroneously identified KAL 007 as an American reconnaissance plane. Nonetheless, senior Reagan administration officials announced publicly in Washington and at the United Nations shortly after the incident that the US had hard evidence that prior to shooting the plane down, the Soviets had actually identified it as a civilian jetliner.
A White House spokesman says the Reagan administration has no comment on the Hersh book, though he noted that some members of the White House staff are now reading it.
Hersh says that if the administration had waited another 10 hours to assess carefully the raw intelligence that was still being received from American electronic surveillance posts in the Pacific and elsewhere, a more accurate portrait of the incident would have emerged. Instead, he says, the administration quickly moved to use the incident to whip up anti-Soviet opinion throughout the world.
``The [Soviet] high command did not get a firm grip as to what was going on until well into the second day of the crisis,'' Hersh says. ``By the time they finally figured out what an awful thing they had done, they were being accused in public by the United States of having shot down a civilian airliner after identifying it, and of killing women and children.''
Hersh saw a similar chain of events in the recent Nicholas Daniloff case. ``What happens is there is an enormous misunderstanding and an absolute refusal on the part of either side to give either one the benefit of the doubt,'' he says.
The long-term implication of this pattern of diplomacy in an age of nuclear weapons is grim, Hersh says. ``We were lucky [in the KAL 007 incident],'' he says. ``The whole notion of [nuclear war] deterrence is predicated on the unwritten assumption that in a crisis the people at the top with their fingers on the button also have all the information and truth at their fingertips.
``The lesson from [the KAL 007] crisis is that none of the people had the intelligence they needed when they should have had it. And when they did have the intelligence, if it didn't agree with what they wanted, they ignored it,'' Hersh says.
``The Target is Destroyed'' is more a book about the intelligence process as it relates to the Korean airline incident than an attempt to solve the lingering mysteries of how Flight 007 got so far off course.
Though he originally intended to write a book exposing possible intelligence links to KAL 007, Hersh says he found no evidence to support a conspiracy theory. In fact, after more than a year of tracking down nothing but dead ends, he considered abandoning the book altogether. His editor at Random House urged him to keep working.
Even a trip to the Soviet Union was fruitless, he says.
Hersh, who has built a career on prying sensitive bits of information out of reluctant US government officials, says he had never run into anything quite like the tight-lipped Soviet bureaucracy.
After a week of conducting government-orchestrated interviews, Hersh got what he thought was going to be a major break in his investigation. ``Finally, right before I left Moscow I got access to the chief marshal of the Soviet Union, Nikolai Ogarkov, and Georgi Kornienko, the deputy foreign minister. I thought to myself, `Aha, this is it!,' '' Hersh says.
But rather than providing Hersh with the smoking gun he was looking for to prove American involvement in the flight, the Soviets were either unwilling or unable to present any hard evidence to back up their allegations of a US intelligence connection.
Hersh asked the Soviets, ``Why not simply tell the world that you made a mistake and shot down the airliner in the belief that it was a US reconnaissance plane?''
The Soviets replied that his ``assignment'' was to return to the United States and ``find that it is a CIA plane.''
Remembering the moment, Hersh's voice lowers. ``I really was, frankly, depressed.''
He notes, ``I thought they had something. I was really sort of crushed that they didn't have anything.''
``Their view was that they behaved brilliantly [during the shootdown],'' Hersh says. ``I don't understand a society that would rather appear to be almost criminally evil than being plodding and prone to mistakes.''
The major break that led to the writing of ``The Target is Destroyed'' came several months after his return from Moscow. Hersh received a tip from a US military intelligence officer suggesting major discrepancies between the intelligence community's analysis of the KAL 007 incident and the accounts related by Reagan administration officials.
``From that point on I thought I had a book, even though it wasn't a spy plane,'' Hersh says. Some of his best sources were professional intelligence officers who had worked hard to produce a balanced analysis but who in the end felt betrayed and misused.
``That's one reason these guys talk to me. They are so sick of it; the communications-intelligence and signals-intelligence people have just had it with politicians,'' Hersh says.