One of the last conspiratorial theories about the shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 13 years ago has finally been put to rest.
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.
They followed a course that overflew Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire and the nuclear submarine facility at Groton, Conn. The US responded with a two-flight suspension against Aeroflot; it did not shoot the Soviet planes down. Meanwhile Soviet aircraft had, in fact, flown repeatedly through the airspace of many nations where they had no right to be. They were challenged and escorted away, not shot down.
There was one development that momentarily complicated the story. After initially condemning the shootdown, Mr. Shultz learned that a United States RC-135 intelligence plane had been in the same area on the same night monitoring a Soviet missile test in the Far East. Again, Shultz's guidance was clear: "Get the facts out, even if they seem negative. Let the world judge what happened."
The press analyzed and consulted experts about the possibility that the Soviets could have shot down the Korean airliner, mistaking it for a US intelligence plane. The possibility was quickly dismissed. The RC-135 was never closer than 80 miles to KAL 007. It had returned to its base in Alaska and was on the ground more than 1,000 miles away when the Soviets shot down the airliner. Soviet monitors had assigned each aircraft a different tracking number. The profile of an RC-135 is unlike that of a Boeing jumbo jet. The Soviet attack pilot was in visual contact with the Korean plane before firing.
Reprehensible either way
Still, over the years, conspiracy theorists and apologists for the then-Soviet regime have tried to suggest the Soviets were confused and maybe not sure what they were shooting down. It is a puzzling effort to excuse the Soviet action. If the Soviets thought they were shooting down a commercial airliner, that is reprehensible. If they thought they were shooting down an unarmed US intelligence plane, which they had tracked for 2-1/2 hours without making any effort to contact US authorities or avert a crisis, that is hardly less reprehensible.
But now the Soviet pilot who shot down the airliner has clarified that he knew it was civilian. In his first interview with an American journalist, he told The New York Times he saw its flashing lights.
"I saw two rows of windows and knew that this was a Boeing," he said. "I knew this was a civilian plane. But for me that meant nothing. It is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use."
The now-retired pilot, Col. Gennadi Osipovich, says he did warn the Korean pilots by firing his cannon three times. But the 520 shells he fired did not contain tracers, and were not visible in the dark. He says he did flash the lights of his SU-15 but did not use his radio to call the Korean airliner, because the Koreans would not have understood Russian.
This belated, firsthand confirmation that the Soviets knew they were shooting down a civilian airliner, for which Colonel Osipovich shows no remorse, should finally lay to rest the apologetic theory that the Soviet action was somehow less heinous than it was.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, has served as US assistant secretary of state and assistant secretary-general of the United Nations.