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Sense, Nonsense, and Pretense About IZVESTIYA's New KAL007 Revelations

Memorandum for the Record

February 15, 1991

Something was up in December -- Shevardnadze's brief apology to South Korean contacts for the shootdown was the "breaking the ice", it was hoped. US Senators interested in the story (on the request of constituents) sent another series of letters to Gorbachev seeking clarification. The NY Times reported these new approaches on Dec 16 in a Richard Witkin article. Unaware of the appearance of any other publications, I prepared a letter to senators Kennedy, Bradley, Nunn, and Levin (describing in general terms what I had learned from my Moscow contacts, and volunteering to assist in any investigation), and mailed them December 23 (almost two months later, none of them has answered -- one of the continuing puzzles of this new phase).

On December 6, CNN television had reported that official sources in Moscow had told their correspondent that "within the next two weeks" there would be a full disclosure of facts surrounding the shootdown (I didn't learn of this report until recently). Then, the December 24 issue of U.S. News & World Report (appearing about a week earlier), in the "Washington Whispers" section (page 22), edited by Charles Fenyvesi, had six short items, the fifth of which was THIS:

"BLACK BOX MYSTERY: Whatever happened to the black box aboard Korean Airlines flight 007? Investigators looking into the 1983 incident -- in which a Soviet military jet shot down the airliner, killing 269 -- have long suspected the Soviets recovered the box but have refused to admit it. Now, however, well-informed sources on the Soviet Pacific island of Sakhalin, near the crash site, confirm that Soviet authorities did, in fact, retrieve the black box with the flight data that would help to unravel the mysteries surrounding the KAL tragedy. The sources add that Soviet officials admit having used decoy "pinging" devices to send false signals to American and Japanese search vessels as they scoured international waters off the Sakhalin coast looking for the box. But without access to the data from the box, the source could not explain the two basic questions: Why the Korean airliner was so far off course -- or why the Soviets shot it down."

I only saw that item a few weeks later, after I had learned on December 24 that IZVESTIYA had (on Dec20) finally published its opening article on the shootdown (by NY correspondent Alekandr Shalnev), based on some studies and comments I had mailed to him in April. The Soviet newspaper's interest was sparked by an in-depth investigation by a team led by Andrey Illesh, who made a brief post-script to Shalnev's article in which he reported discovering suppressed information about the crashed plane's discovery and investigation in "tens of meters" of water.

With the appearance of the Izvestiya piece (which I'd had a hand in) and the USNWR item (which I knew nothing about, and still don't know where it came from), things got exciting. I telephoned Fenyvesi to tell him that his item (from somebody I'll have to refer to as "Source A", who definitely was not me) was right in line with my own multiple sources, and that I'd been told in Moscow that the plane (off the island of Moneron) had been accessed by Soviet military divers. Some other items (such as the false pinger) were unkown to me at the time but were later confirmed in the 17-article series. Fenyvesi was obsessed with two themes: the Soviet military censorship attempts (he wanted confirmation of rumors of "death threats" -- which I'd never heard of) and the disposition of the bodies.

I recalled the single relevant report I'd heard back in 1984, that a visiting group of Japanese at a Sakhalin port (on Sep 26, 1983) to pick up victims' personal effects had reported black smoke from a building identified as a long-unused crematorium. In December I was still under the impression (from my meeting with Illesh February 9 in Moscow) that the airliner was "essentially intact on the bottom, with the right wing broken off" [Illesh's words]. That of course implied that the fuselage would still be full of bodies, and their disposition would have been a challenge for the Soviet divers. But I had no explicit information on that exact subject.

Other Soviet-source reports which I had received (not from the Illesh group -- they came via Japan) had told me that both flight recorders had been decoded by the Ministry of Aviation and no "smoking gun" (any evidence of deliberateness by the crew) was found. I ended the conversation by again congratulating Fenyvesi on the quality of the information from his source (the mysterious "A") and I urged him to go back for more; he said he was doing that.

Recall another report from 1984, found in Hersh's book (and let's call it "Source B"), that a US naval officer had months later located a Japanese fisherman who said he'd been poaching for squid in Soviet waters off Moneron when he saw the crippled airliner pass overhead before striking the water and exploding. The fishing boat was sprayed with leaking jet fuel and the US officer reported that the logbook still reeked of gasoline. That was a highly credible report and I told Illesh about it, after he had walked over to a wall map and had pointed out Moneron Island to me as the location he had been told by his own private sources.

A second corroborative report was published in Aviation Week magazine a year after the shootdown, from a US intelligence source (let's refer to him/her as "C"). Music tapes with popular songs from the airliner's entertainment system were being circulated among Soviet military personnel, strongly implying that electronic equipment had been recovered from the airliner. A garbled version of this story came to me a few years later, that such songs were actually being broadcast over Soviet military radio stations in the Far East, and I told this to Illesh (he put it in one of his articles, too), but when later in 1990 I recontacted my source he gave the Aviation Week article as his source (I had thought the stories were mutually corroborative, but it turned out one was merely a garble of the other). In any case, the original "music tapes" story appeared to support the hypothesis that Soviets had been aboard the airliner or had accessed its wreckage.

The original Dec 20 Izvestiya article was described in a Jan 7 NY Times article. The low level of Western interest in the Illesh material, and the weeks of delay between publication in Moscow and New York, are very strange.

The 2nd USNWR report (Jan. 14, page 19) in 'Washington Whispers' (item 1) was a bombshell: "GLASNOST GETS THE STORY. In the potentially most explosive venture yet into American-stle investigative journalism by a Soviet newspaper, Izvestiya plans to reveal sensational new details about the shooting down by the Soviet military of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983. According to a Russian-speaking US source recently returned from the Soviet Union, the articles are based on continuing interviews with eyewitnesses and knowledgeable government insiders now willing to tell the truth [1]. Izvestiya will disclose that despite official denials, the doomed airliner crashed into the sea just off the Soviet Pacific island of Moneron and remained largely intact at a depth of about 100 feet [2]. In order to keep the discovery secret, Moscow then ordered the bodies of the 269 victims destroyed in a local crematorium [3]. According to Izvestiya, electronic gear aboard the plane proved the aircraft was not on a spy mission but that the Korean crew indeed had lost its way during the 6,875-mile flight from New York to Seoul [4]. However, because Defense Ministry officials were then trying to stir fears of a pending U. S. nuclear attack, the crash report was suppressed [5]. The American source, who has read much of the material on the KAL disaster, tells U.S. News that the Defense Ministry is pressuring to have the stories killed and has forbidden its staff to talk with Izvestiya's reporters [6]. The series is now scheduled to run later this month -- unless the Kremlin decides the paper has exceeded the bounds of glasnost [7]."

Well, where did all that come from?

[1] Was this me, or a composite of "Source A" and a garble of my telephone conversation? I told Fenyvesi that various people were talking to the newspaper team but couldn't go public from fear of prosecution for violating military secrecy.

[2] This is what Illesh had told me the previous February.

[3] USNWR wanted me to confirm this as a fact, but the most I could tell them, was that such a grisly scenario was one possibility among others (especially if the airliner was mostly intact), and that I believed that the Soviets had recovered (from wreckage, from sea, or from Sakhalin beaches) some human remains, and denials were lies. I distinctly remember being extremely cautious about these stories, and I urged Fenyvesi to be so, because of concern for feelings of family members.

[4] I never heard this from Izvestiya, but did from another USSR source; the flight leg was from Anchorage, not from New York, so the miles are irrelevant. In any case, Soviet discovery of "spy gear" or of recorded guilty conversations would most certainly have been fully publicized to the whole world. Silence strongly implies otherwise.

[5] As I explaned to USNWR, the Soviet government from Andropov on down was apparently under the impression that Reagan was planning such a sneak attack, but certainly the Soviet military establishment had no rationale to deliberately exacerbate such fears.

[6] This apparently is true (I heard it from another Moscow press source in January) but I never discussed it with USNWR.

[7] The Kremlin and the reform forces, of course, would actually be in favor of any revelations which tended to discredit the military forces opposed to perestroika.

So there was a pot pouri of material in USNWR #2, some of which was clearly from me, some of which may have been distorted accounts, and some of which must have been from other sources (probably "A" was involved again).

Worldwide reaction focused on the cremation angle, thanks to the prevalent standards of taste and tact of the news media. Apparently there was furious editorializing in South Korea, where a Soviet diplomat had just arrived to continue discussions of normalizing Moscow-Seoul relations. He was confronted with demands for more information, and the Seoul regime was criticized for negotiating with Russians at all. This in turn led to PRAVDA article (printed Jan 11, from correspondent Tikhomirov in Pyongyang) which raised the possibility the whole story had been issued (by enemies of peace) to sabotage improved relationships; but even PRAVDA (quite a bit more doctrinaire than IZVESTIYA) concluded with a call for publication of all hidden information ("Where there's smoke, there's fire").

Then, amidst the fear that the Soviet military would squash the project, the articles appeared. First was on Monday, January 21 (issue 18, since the paper comes out every day but Sunday). There was a total of seventeen in all, on consecutive issues through Friday, February 8. The level of courage, professionalism, and integrity reflected by this event was astonishing, particularly in that most of the interviewees did in fact allow use of their real names.

Some new directions appeared, especially the details that the airliner had essentially disintegrated on impact and was found along 1.5 km at a depth of 165 meters. Very little human remains were found at the crash site (floating debris would have drifted away, to reach the Sakhalin beaches or open ocean -- I have since learned from Japanese sources of a rumor that a number of bodies were found there, autopsied, and buried at a remote site on the island). The flight recorders WERE recovered, but Izvestiya could find out nothing about what was discovered on the tapes. A number of Western spyflight rumors were given some credence (the airliner's visit to Andrews AFB, and the "We should warn him" fantasy, and various US government coverup conspiracies).

Little has been heard from the spyflight conspiracy nuts (Keppel, Pearson, Johnson, Clubb, Brun, "PQ Mann", the Fund for Constitutional Government, etc.) and understandably so, since much of the supportive Moscow-source material they embraced has now been repudiated in Moscow as lies and disinformation (which some perceptive people in the West had correctly assessed all along).

The entire series of articles is being translated by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service. Access to the original Russian has been made difficult by recent Soviet changes in airmail overseas delivery prices: stodgy old newspapers such as Pravda and Red Star kept their government subsidies and come within a week, but trouble makers such as Izvestiya and Moscow News have been relegated to sea mail, delaying delivery by weeks or even months.

The next move is up to the Gorbachev administration, and the Defense Ministry, both of which have so far completely ignored the issue. Up until now, revelations of past atrocities (e.g., Katyn, or the Soviet support for North Korean aggression in 1950) has been politically acceptable since the current regime was not a party to the crime or to the coverup. That excuse is wearing thin for the KAL-007 massacre since many military figures from that time are still active and since the government now has the option to tell all, or try to keep the lid on. Every additional day of silence is the result of Kremlin decisions to maintain the old lies.


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