THE documents that the Russian government handed over to South Korean and United States officials last week regarding the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on Sept. 1, 1983, confirm most of the version of events the US, Japan, and South Korea have given the world about that tragedy. They also confirm that the story told by Soviet officials at the time was a coverup and a lie.
The Soviets defended their downing of the plane, which killed all 269 people aboard, including Koreans, Japanese, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and others, by claiming to have proof that the civilian airliner was on a secret spy mission organized by US intelligence. They claimed that the plane failed to respond to repeated radio warnings and warning tracer shots, and that the plane took evasive action when challenged by Soviet fighter planes. Lastly, they charged that the plane had changed course se veral times while in Soviet airspace.
Soviet officials also said that they had not located the plane's "black box," or flight data and cockpit recorders, and that they had turned over all debris from the airplane to the US and Japan.
The US and other Western nations repeatedly denied the espionage charges.
Ironically, it was the now-independent newspaper Izvestia in post-Soviet Russia that lifted the lid on the coverup.
Izvestia's investigation over the past year found the wreckage from the flight and revealed that the Soviets had located the voice recorder in October 1983. Another paper, Rossiskiye Vesti, in August printed what it said was the transcript of the Sept. 2, 1983, Politburo meeting that discussed how to respond to the shootdown.
The transcript of the cockpit voice recorder released by Russian President Boris Yeltsin on Thursday covers the last 30 minutes of KAL 007. It shows that the flight was proceeding normally, with no indication that the crew knew it was off course or that it was being pursued by Soviet fighters. It carried on normal communications with air traffic controllers in Tokyo and a following KAL flight. The only ambiguity comes 16 minutes into the tape: A crew member asks, "What does it look like?" But there is no thing to indicate what he was referring to.
About 24 minutes into the transcript, the pilot asks Tokyo for permission to ascend from 33,000 feet to 35,000 feet. This action, which slowed the plane down, caused a pursuing Soviet fighter to shoot past, according to previous evidence given by US and Soviet officials. But there is no indication that the crew ever saw the Soviet warplane.
The first indication of trouble comes 29 minutes into the tape. An alarm signal sounds and crew members shout "Get up!," followed by "I can't!" Emergency announcements in Korean, English, and Japanese instruct the passengers to put on their seat belts and oxygen masks. The plane radios Tokyo: "Don't break communications. Give directions. We have rapid [de]compression."
As Tokyo calls out the plane's call letters, the tape ends. The plane has been destroyed. The transcript indicates that the crew never knew what hit it.
Among the documents released last week is a letter from then-KGB chief Viktor Chebrikov to then-Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, in which the KGB advises against releasing the contents of the flight and data recorders because they are too ambiguous: In other words, they did not prove the Soviet case.
Another KGB document says that the plane's crew "for more than five hours kept the route unchanged, did not make any alterations in the flight path, and did not take measures to leave Soviet airspace," thus demolishing arguments advanced by the Soviets and several theorists that the plane zigzagged its way across Soviet territory. The documents imply that the Soviets never had any evidence that the plane was on an espionage mission.
The material does not reveal why the plane was so far off course in the first place. One theory, advanced by journalist Seymour Hersh in his 1986 book, "The Target Is Destroyed," is that the flight engineer incorrectly entered a wrong digit into the jet's computerized inertial navigation system (INS) while on the ground in Anchorage, Alaska, sending it several degrees off course.
Other theories are that the plane's gyroscope, which tells the computer where the center of the Earth is, was not set before the plane left Anchorage, or that the INS was never connected to the plane's autopilot.
The South Korean government said last Friday it was dissatisfied with the materials received and asked again for the "black box" itself to be turned over.
The new information "basically puts to bed all the conspiracy crackpottery," says James Oberg, a space engineer and author of several books about Soviet disasters who has closely followed the KAL 007 affair. "But without the other data," he says, "we'll never know exactly what happened."