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KE007: An Exchange

In response to:

KE007 A Conspiracy of Circumstance from the April 25, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

In his long review article on the September 1983 Korean airliner incident [NYR, April 25], Murray Sayle purportedly “reveals what really happened.” In passing, he several times criticizes my own recently published book, KAL Flight 007: The Hidden Story. Allow me to comment.

To begin with, Sayle presents my book in the context of a reference to “conspiracy theorists” who “so clearly and desperately want us to believe” that the Korean airliner’s flight through Soviet strategic airspace “was a crime by those who sent it there….” He goes on to state: “But such emotions are poor pointers to the direction in which we should start looking for the truth.” Thus, to have reached the conclusion that there had been a “conspiracy” (in this case, involving a US intelligence mission) is in itself asserted to be evidence of a “clear and desperate” need to show that to have been the case; it is implied that “emotions” were therefore the basis for such a conclusion.

How valid is that method of criticism? There have in fact been many proven conspiracies in recent years: the Watergate conspiracy; the conspiracy to assassinate Fidel Castro; the conspiracy to achieve the overthrow of Salvador Allende; and on and on. No one could argue now that anyone concluding that there had been conspiracies in those cases is ipso facto motivated by a “clear and desperate” need to show that to have been so—and to have drawn upon “emotions” for reaching such a conclusion. The fact that there have been other conspiracies proves nothing, of course, about my own conclusion that, beyond reasonable doubt, KAL Flight 007 had been on a US intelligence mission. Clearly, however, the proper way to have evaluated that argument would have been to examine the evidence I presented and the conclusions I drew from that evidence, by way of judging whether or not I had erred in my analysis. Had there been significant weaknesses in my handling of the evidence bearing on the KAL airliner incident, I would have expected Mr. Sayle to show why that had been so. But he hasn’t done this.

Indeed, in his first specific reference to my book, Sayle misrepresents what I wrote and adds some improbable suggestions of his own. He has me “naming two conspirators, the head of the Reagan administration and Captain Chun Byung In, the dead pilot in command, and indicating the presence of a cast of thousands in between (as, on this account, there must have been, there being no record of pilot and president ever having met).” Anyone who hasn’t read my book would infer from this that I had named President Reagan as having authorized an intelligence mission involving KAL Flight 007. I did indeed conclude that KAL Flight 007 had been on an intelligence mission, aimed at activating Soviet air defenses in the Sea of Okhotsk region. But nowhere did I name the President as having authorized the flight. I found no evidence relating to this and made no suggestions about it. Noting US communications capabilities, what I did say was this: “Nor can there be much doubt that President Ronald Reagan learned soon afterwards what had happened”—even as President Eisenhower had quickly learned, by James Bamford’s account in The Puzzle Palace, “exactly what had happened and why” with regard to the shooting down of a US EC-130 reconnaissance plane over Russia in 1958.

Sayle’s misrepresentation of what I said about President Reagan’s role then becomes the basis for his references to a “cast of thousands” (his invention, not mine) necessitated by Reagan and the pilot of Flight 007 never having met. What are we to make of this? That presidents or other high officials who authorize covert operations would normally confer with the agents recruited to carry those operations out? Are we supposed to think that President Kennedy would have met with John Roselli, the Mafia hood enlisted by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro? Or that President Eisenhower would have met with Francis Gary Powers to plan the latter’s U-2 flight over Russia in 1960? Are we supposed to think that a “cast of thousands” is necessarily required if the chief of state doesn’t meet personally with those who have been recruited to carry out a covert operation?

Quite obviously, the number of people engaged in a covert operation depends on the scale of the operation. Covert operations have come in many sizes, some of them very large. To cite but one example, former CIA Deputy Director Ray Cline reported in the CBS documentary, “The CIA’s Secret Army,” that from five hundred to six hundred CIA case officers were assigned to Operation Mongoose, the Florida-based covert operation initiated after the Bay of Pigs fiasco with the aim of bringing down the Castro government. As the film showed, the CIA in that operation enlisted the cooperation not only of a great many Cuban exiles and various Mafiosi, but also the US Coast Guard, Florida law enforcement officials, bankers, and the Florida news media—even though the operation violated, among other things, the US Neutrality Act. It was in fact an operation with a “cast of thousands.” But to this day, I would venture to guess, very few Americans are aware that Operation Mongoose even took place.

An intelligence operation involving KAL Flight 007 would have required the cooperation of relatively few people, on a strictly “need to know” basis. I don’t even guess at numbers in my book, but do discuss the role of various agencies whose actions suggested some form of cooperation. The point here, it seems to me, is that Sayle has resorted to a grossly distorted characterization as a means for dismissing the case I present in my book. Why was that necessary?

We see this sort of thing again when, to show that I am a “one-hundred-proof conspiracy theorist,” Sayle says: “According to Clubb, the odds against an accident [emphasis added] ‘are so astronomical that we can reject that possibility out of hand.’ How does he know?” The trouble with this is that Sayle has distorted both the context and meaning of my statement. That statement followed my reference to a September 4, 1983 New York Times article, which quoted a “senior intelligence official” as saying: “The plane did not veer off suddenly in some completely random direction. It was on the wrong path for several hours, never deviating from a line that would have taken it straight to Seoul.” My own statement then read: “The odds against Flight 007’s pilot having done what the ‘senior intelligence official’ said he had done without knowing where he was headed—straight for Seoul—are so astronomical that we can reject that possibility out of hand.” That’s quite a different thing.

Sayle then makes a reference to the sources of my information:

Clubb makes free use of such sources as the Miami Herald and People magazine. (Captain Chun’s widow, according to People, reported, “You never saw such a methodical man as my husband. Just about everything had to be precisely at its proper place.” Rhetorically Clubb asks: “And this was the man who had committed one gross navigational error after another in piloting Flight 007 on its deviant course? To ask that question, it seems to me, is to answer it.”)

Sayle’s references to People magazine and the Miami Herald, my having referred to single articles in those publications among a great many other sources, are plainly meant to suggest that my analysis is heavily based on trivial stuff from light-weight sources. The question, it seems to me, is not whether any of these sources is a “serious authority”—the issue raised by Sayle. Rather, it is whether information presented from any source is accurate and whether or not it helps to show what it purports to show.

Take, for example, the two references cited by Sayle himself to show that my analysis is based on flimsy material. The Miami Herald article reported that KAL Flight 007’s pilot “appears to have turned off” his IFF system, “the signal device that would have identified him as an innocent airliner.” This was based on Japanese military radars having reported “a blip where Flight 007 turned out to be, but they did not report receiving an identifying IFF signal.” The Reagan administration itself, as I noted, released transcripts of the conversations between two Soviet interceptor pilots in which one of them is heard to say: “The target isn’t responding to IFF.” The Miami Herald story also described the workings of the IFF (“Identification: Friend or Foe”), a transponder which automatically responds when queried by a signal from air traffic controllers, giving the aircraft’s tail numbers, airline name and flight number. And that same account quoted a veteran US Air Force pilot as saying: “Whenever you’re off course and you don’t want the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] to know it, you turn off IFF.” Was this sort of information inaccurate, irrelevant, or trivial because it appeared in the Miami Herald?

Then there is the People magazine reference. In Sayle’s article, the reference appears without a context. In my book it appears following a review of a whole series of navigational procedures which would have been routinely followed on the course assigned to Flight 007—“any one of which, properly carried out, would have negated the possibility of a gross deviation in the first instance or enabled the crew to discover that deviation and bring the aircraft back on course.” And I asked whether fate might somehow have assigned to KAL Flight 007 just the kind of grossly incompetent and careless pilot required to have botched the five-and-a-half hour flight in all the ways required by a hypothesis put forward by the International Civil Aviation Organization’s investigating team. The People magazine portrayal of Chun Byung In, which I then cited, contained not only the remarks of Chun’s wife but other information that Sayle chose not to mention. It noted that Chun (a former South Korean Air Force pilot) had commanded international civilian flights “flawlessly for 11 years.” (He had flown the Anchorage to Seoul route for five years.) It quoted Ahn Sang Jeon, who had flown precisely synchronized formations with Chun on the South Korean Air Force’s aerobatics team, as saying that Chun was “the most careful man I’ve ever known.” And it noted that Chun was so respected “that he had served as a backup captain on three of President Chun Doo Hwan’s state visits….”

Was People magazine’s portrayal of Flight 007’s pilot, drawn from several sources, inaccurate? If so, Sayle should tell us how so. Were Chun’s record, character, and competence irrelevant to a consideration of whether or not he would have committed one navigational error after another in piloting his aircraft on its flight? Do the People magazine and Miami Herald articles referred to by Sayle in fact show what his scornful references to them are meant to demonstrate?

I have confined my comments to Sayle’s treatment of my book. But the manner in which he has ignored my principal arguments and distorted the rest raises serious questions, I think, about the methods he has used to sustain his own case about an international incident with extremely important implications.

Oliver Clubb

Syracuse University

Syracuse, New York

Murray Sayle replies:

Professor Clubb is still, if I read the above correctly, arguing that KE007 must have been on an intelligence mission (the “hidden story” of his book’s title) because the aircraft could not have arrived by accident over Sakhalin Island, where a Soviet fighter or fighters shot it down. But the ICAO report I considered along with Clubb’s book cites two scenarios involving navigational errors—the aircraft having been flown on a magnetic heading, undetected by the flight crew, and the inertial navigation systems aboard having been accidentally misprogrammed—and describes both of them as “possible,” a word surely fatal to Clubb’s argument. In my review I added material not in the ICAO publications: that there was a strong, indeed overwhelming reason why KE007 must have left Anchorage that night on a magnetic heading of 246 degrees (the VOR radio beacon at Anchorage was out of service) and a known, admittedly rare, incidence of aircraft having been mistakenly flown in magnetic heading in other parts of the world.

But it is exactly a very rare kind of accident that is being posited and Clubb’s line of reasoning requires not more arguments about its rarity but proof of impossibility. The case would be quite different if Clubb had the names of conspirators, details of their meetings, operational plans, descriptions of the equipment they used (beyond the aircraft itself), and so on. But he offers nothing like this. If Ronald Reagan is to be removed from the list of suspected conspirators, at least before the event, then we are left with only one name, that of the dead pilot in command, Captain Chun Byung In. The argument that Captain Chun must have been party to a criminal conspiracy because his widow recalled him as a careful man unlikely to have made a mistake would strike me as flimsy wherever it appeared and Professor Clubb quite correctly says that I did not treat it seriously. In the same vein it is perhaps pardonable for The Miami Herald, shortly after the event, to confuse IFF, a purely military device, with the transponder civil airliners carry so that air traffic controllers can read off their flight numbers and altitudes on their radar screens. However, someone writing a book, particularly one making sensational charges, should surely avoid making such elementary blunders and detect them if other people make them.

Clubb’s case is still, in my view, weak and while he is welcome to exercise his right of reply I hope he agrees with me that plain speaking is appropriate about an event so charged with deadly implication.

Much other correspondence has arrived on this matter, in particular a lengthy criticism of my views by David Pearson of The Nation which I propose to examine in a forthcoming issue of the Review.

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