Revisiting Korean Airlines Flight 007: The Attacker Talks at Last
A US insider at the time responds to a Soviet participant's evidence and excuses
One of the last conspiratorial theories about the shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 13 years ago has finally been put to rest.Skip to next paragraph
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The Korean jumbo jet was on a flight from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seoul with 269 passengers and crew on board, including a US congressman. It strayed into Soviet airspace and was shot down by a missile from a Soviet fighter plane. All aboard the Korean commercial airliner were killed.
While the Soviets denied for five days that they had shot the plane down, the world reacted with dismay and anger at the Soviet barbarity. In the Security Council of the UN, the US played a Japanese-supplied audiotape from intelligence sources on which the attacking Soviet pilot was clearly heard describing his actions to his ground controllers.
The tape, with the pilot's exultant "the target is destroyed" cry, had a chilling effect on US-Soviet relations. Finally, in an angry private confrontation with US Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko said, "Yes, we shot it down ... and we'd do it again."
I was assistant secretary of state, and Secretary Shultz's spokesman, at the time. I was with him when he first got the news of the Soviet outrage, and with him hour by hour throughout the crisis. His guidance was clear: "Get the facts out, all the facts, as fast as you can. Let the story tell itself."
The facts were plain. It was not clear why the airliner had strayed off course. It was clear the Soviets had tracked it by radar for 2- 1/2 hours. A Soviet fighter made visual contact and, 14 minutes after reporting this to his ground controller, the fighter pilot fired that fatal missile while the Korean airliner was over Sakhalin, an island off the Soviet mainland.
Not a US spy mission
In the face of world condemnation, the Soviets attempted to defend their actions. They argued that, although Flight 007 was a civilian Korean airliner, it was on a "spy" mission for the United States. The US government at the time and ever since has strongly denied that, and not a shred of evidence has ever emerged to substantiate the Soviet claim.
The Soviets argued that the plane had turned off its strobe light and navigational lights, but the fact is that the Soviet interceptor pilot reported seeing them on.
The Soviets said that the Korean pilots ignored tracer shell warnings from the interceptor pilot, but when the Korean plane's "black box" was ultimately found there was no indication that the pilots had seen such tracers, or were ever aware of the menacing Soviet fighter.
The Soviets argued that the US would have acted aggressively if a Soviet aircraft had appeared over secret parts of the United States. But in fact, Soviet aircraft had done just this. On Nov. 8, 1981, both the inbound and outbound Moscow-Washington Aeroflot flights deviated markedly from their prescribed routes in US airspace over New England.