Flight 7 debate

THERE may be a last squeak or two, but the conspiracy theorists are about out of gas on the Korean Air Lines Flight 7 story. Three years ago the Korean 747, a civilian airliner with 269 people aboard, wandered far off course on a flight from Alaska to Seoul. The course took it into Soviet territory. The Soviets tracked the aircraft and sent up interceptors; one shot down the airliner with a missile. All on board were killed.

For five days the Soviets prevaricated. Then they admitted that their fighters had ``stopped the flight.'' The Soviets were highly sensitive about attempts to locate the wreckage.

The Soviets spread the story that Flight 7 was on some kind of spy mission for the United States; that it either carried electronic gear itself to monitor Soviet military installations, or that it was deliberately dispatched into Soviet airspace so that US intelligence units could test the Soviet response.

The theory has been seized upon by a handful of writers and academics who found the Soviet assertions more convincing than the emphatic US denials.

As a longtime journalist, I happened to be serving in the government as spokesman for the State Department at the time. Neither in government, nor out of it since, have I discovered a shred of evidence that the Korean plane was on an intelligence mission.

Seymour Hersh, the investigative reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, in his new book ``The Target is Destroyed,'' comes to the same conclusion, namely that the Korean plane was not on an intelligence, or any other subversive, mission.

Why was the plane off course? Nobody can prove that for sure. The consensus is that the crew made critical errors in programming the 747's computerized navigation system. One pilot with lots of experience flying the Pacific route wrote me that such a mistake was impossible. Other pilots disagree. Author Hersh found one who seems to have figured out how the crew could have made the mistakes that put the plane where it was when the Soviets shot it down.

Mr. Hersh alleges that feuding and maneuvering within American intelligence services led key administration officials to misconstrue Soviet motives in shooting down the plane. His own theory is that the Soviets confused it with an American RC-135 reconnaissance plane, even though the RC-135 was never close to the Korean plane and was back on the ground in Alaska when the Korean plane was shot down.

This leaves some questions hanging. If the Soviets were uncertain, why didn't they positively identify their target before firing?

They tracked the plane for 2 hours; why didn't they contact American, Japanese, or South Korean authorities to see whether the plane had strayed off course innocently?

Even if they believed the plane was an RC-135, what does their readiness to shoot it down tell us about their mind-set? There are various instances of Soviet planes invading American airspace, and of Soviet airliners diverting from flight course to overfly American military installations. When that happens, the US does not shoot them down.

If the Soviets did not know they were shooting down a civilian 747, they should have. If they really thought they were shooting down an RC-135 and went ahead, that is not particularly cheering and does not say much for the state of Soviet-US relations.

In the face of their brutal action, the Soviets took five days to admit they had downed the plane. To this day they have not apologized, or paid any recompense to the families of those killed.

As a matter of fact, after the shoot-down, Andrei Gromyko, then the Soviet foreign minister, asserted that the Soviets had a right to do what they did, and warned they would down any successive intruder.

It is an ugly story, made even uglier by the unfounded charges, perhaps now laid to rest, that the US was somehow responsible for the plane's tragic drift into Soviet airspace.

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