"Your assignment is to find that it was an intruder," a Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister told Seymour Hersh when he arrived in Moscow in 1984. The dogged reporter was beginning his investigation into Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which the Soviets shot down in their airspace on its way from Anchorage to Seoul, killing all 269 aboard. Had Hersh indeed uncovered proof that the plane was on a spy mission, he would have scored one of the scoops of the century. Instead he has done something no less impressive: followed where the facts led him and produced a gripping account undistorted by preordained conclusions. "I spent the next two years investigating," he writes in the September issue of the Atlantic, "and found that Flight 007 was not on an intelligence-gathering mission for the CIA or any other agency of the United States or South Korea."
That conclusion is convincing coming from Hersh, who has written a string of notable exposes of the CIA for the New York Times, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his accounts of the My Lai massacre and published a scathing book on Henry Kissinger, The Price of Power. His Atlantic article is excerpted from his book on Flight 007, The Target Is Destroyed, which will be published next month by Random House.
Hersh does not completely exonerate Washington. American intelligence officials, he says, quickly learned from intercepts of internal Soviet communications that panicky Soviet air-defense officials had not realized their target was a civilian airliner. Yet the U.S. continued to insist in public that the shootdown was a callous act of murder. President Reagan and his top advisers, Hersh argues, "chose to look the other way when better information became available." Attributing the wayward course of Flight 007 to the "ordinary human failings of the Korean Air Lines crew," Hersh presents new evidence that supports a scenario first posited by Harold Ewing, a commercial pilot from South Carolina who conducted his own investigation. It is a sophisticated version of the theory that the flight engineer made critical mistakes in entering the plane's takeoff longitude into the inertial navigation system. Hersh concludes that to save time and fuel, the pilot intentionally skipped one navigation way point and, while over the ocean, left the cockpit to sit with some important passengers.
The most intriguing aspects of Hersh's account are the details he has unearthed about how U.S. spy planes in the North Pacific observe Soviet missile tests and intercept communications. One of these missions was under way the night of the disaster. The U.S. electronically monitored the path of + the KAL jet, but the information, says Hersh, "was not understood, or 'analyzed,' in time to warn Flight 007." Later, Hersh says, U.S. data confirmed that the Soviets had thought the passenger plane was one of the spy flights. Secret intercepts by the National Security Agency, which were described to Hersh, reveal that the Soviet officials in the region had trouble getting a secure voice link to Moscow that night, initially had to use an open line and were put on hold waiting for authorization to shoot. Even after word came that "the target is destroyed," the Soviets were unsure what they had downed.