On 1 September 1983, a Soviet fighter shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 (KAL 007) near Sakhalin Island, killing 269 people. The Reagan administration insisted that the Soviets deliberately destroyed an innocent civilian airliner while the Soviets asserted that the 747 was on a spy mission.
Since then, the debate over whether there was some form of conspiracy or cover-up has blossomed, with some attempting to explain how KAL 007 could have accidentally wandered astray, while others argue that U.S. intelligence agencies used KAL 007 to probe Soviet air defenses.
KAL 007 initially flew from New York to Anchorage without incident. The pilot and copilot were élite former military aviators with a combined 10,000+ hours flying 747s, and the pilot had been nominated to fly South Korea’s presidential aircraft. However, an hour after departing Anchorage, the flight was already twelve miles north of its first checkpoint on the route to Seoul.
KAL 007 gave false position reports at the first four checkpoints, reporting that it was on course when it was actually many miles off course. The 747 flew over the Kamchatka Peninsula—site of many strategic installations—for 38 minutes, but somehow eluded fighter interception and entered the Sea of Okhotsk. Just before Sakhalin Island, 007 turned northwest—directly toward the Soviet mainland.
Over Sakhalin, Soviet fighters tried to force the plane to land, but 007 took evasive action, altering course and altitude, and finally entering the Sea of Japan heading southwest. A fighter fired two air-to-air missiles, and at least one struck 007, which descended 32,000 feet in 12 minutes and disappeared from Japanese radar screens.
The shootdown had remarkable political effects. Before the shootdown, the Reagan administration planned to deploy Cruise and Pershing II missiles to Europe, but congressional Democrats and European allies strongly opposed this decision. Congress also opposed the administration’s favorite military programs.
Cold war tensions were easing before the incident, due to surprising new Soviet initiatives on arms control, grain purchases, and human rights. On 26 August, Yuri Andropov made an unprecedented offer to eliminate Soviet SS-20 missiles if the United States renounced its missile deployments.
After the shootdown, the incipient U.S.-Soviet rapprochement was aborted, Reagan’s defense programs sailed through Congress, and U.S. missiles were deployed on schedule and with minimal opposition. Many observers noted that the shootdown benefited the hawks in Washington and Moscow.
Seymour Hersh claims that due to a series of highly improbable errors, 007 got lost and the crew failed to notice. The U.S military saw Soviet defenses react to 007, but did not understand why the Soviets were alerted, and the Soviets simply “screwed up” when they shot down the plane. In short, no conspiracy.
Gollin and Allardyce rebut in detail the only two plausible explanations for 007 accidentally getting lost—that the inertial navigation system or the autopilot was incorrectly programmed. They show that 007’s behavior was inconsistent with accident, but unlike other authors, do not attribute this to a conspiracy involving U.S. intelligence.
KAL 007 and U.S. Intelligence
KAL conspiracy theorists note that during the cold war, U.S. intelligence focused intently on the Soviet Far East. Intelligence sought to find vulnerabilities in Soviet defenses and constantly watched for Soviet submarine and bomber activity that might presage a nuclear attack.
Listening posts in Alaska and Japan, reconnaissance aircraft like the RC-135, and “ferret” satellites intercepted Soviet radar, communications, and electronic transmissions. U.S. aircraft regularly intruded on Soviet airspace in order to activate, locate, and analyze enemy defenses.
Many aircraft were shot down on such missions, and therefore U.S. intelligence closely monitored Soviet fighters, many of which were launched when KAL 007 intruded. U.S. intelligence should have been especially alert that night, because the Soviets allegedly planned to launch a new ballistic missile toward the Kamchatka testing ground. An RC-135 aircraft and the radar ship USS Observation Island patrolled near Kamchatka to track the missile and monitor missile telemetry and other communications.
David Pearson contends that U.S. radars would have tracked 007, and U.S. intelligence would have noticed Soviet radars tracking 007. Military procedure required notifying air traffic control in such cases—yet this did not occur. Pearson cannot believe those who claim that U.S. intelligence did not gather data on 007, or misunderstood the data, or analyzed the data too late.
R. W. Johnson and others argue that 007 deliberately intruded on Soviet airspace, and that the U.S. military did not notify air traffic control about 007 because they wanted to observe the Soviet response. Johnson links the intrusion to U.S. discovery, in June 1983, of a large new Soviet radar in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia.
This radar might violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and signify Soviet intent to build an ABM system, but the only way to discover this was to “light up” the whole air defense system with an intruder.
Johnson theorizes that U.S. aircraft used electronic warfare to blind Soviet radars and enable 007 to penetrate the defenses. Electronic warfare confused the Soviets about whether 007 was military or civilian, and the Soviets alerted their entire system.
Meanwhile, U.S. reconnaissance assets—including a “ferret” satellite and the Space Shuttle—were perfectly positioned to harvest much intelligence from the alert. Johnson considers that U.S. planners never expected the Soviets to shoot down the plane. The shootdown forced the Reagan administration to conceal their responsibility while blasting the Soviets in the court of public opinion.
Michel Brun rearranges the evidence to reach a bizarre conclusion. He argues that 007 stumbled across a U.S.-Soviet air battle over Sakhalin, in which over ten U.S. military aircraft were downed. KAL 007 escaped this dogfight, only to be shot down near Honshu by “friendly fire” from Japanese or Americans who mistook 007 for a Soviet bomber.
A subgenre of KAL conspiracy theory is the argument that 007 landed on Sakhalin or ditched safely at sea and the Soviets imprisoned or executed the survivors. These theories claim that 007 was not blown apart in midair, but descended slowly for twelve minutes, which indicates the plane was air-worthy and under control.
The vast quantities of debris, bodies, and luggage recovered from other 747 midair explosions were not found near Sakhalin, and nothing from the cargo compartment ever surfaced. Thus, 007 must have landed or ditched intact. Some ultraconservatives contend that the Soviets lured 007 off course in order to kill a single passenger, the staunchly anticommunist John Birch Society chairman, Larry McDonald, and that he—and other survivors—languish in Russian prisons even today.
KAL conspiracy theories generally reflect their authors’ political predispositions. Right-wing theories echo the U.S. government position in 1983: the flight was innocently astray, U.S. intelligence was uninvolved, and the Soviets wantonly murdered civilians.
Left-wing theories echo the Soviet position in 1983: the flight was an intelligence probe, and the U.S. government behaved just as dishonestly as the Soviet government. Each side accuses the other of imbecilic credulity.
“Rightists” contend that the belief that the Reagan administration would risk innocent lives on an intelligence mission is a product of Soviet disinformation and that furthermore, so many people would have known about any such mission that something would have leaked. “Leftists” insist that “accident theories” demand accepting too many highly improbable events at once and they consider proponents of such theories to be tools of the Reagan administration’s cover-up.