Commentary Magazine


“The Target is Destroyed” by Seymour Hersh

Slaughter of Innocents

“The Target is Destroyed”
by Seymour M. Hersh.
Random House. 282 pp. $17.95.

Seymour Hersh, the famous investigative reporter, clearly means to convince his readers to stop thinking so harshly about the Soviet Union for shooting down a civilian passenger plane on September 1, 1983, killing 269 innoment men, women, and children; instead, he means them to think harshly of the President of the United States and of most of the people who run U.S. intelligence. His argument is that the U.S., and particularly U.S. intelligence, provoked the Soviet Union into understandable possessiveness about its borders; that the unlucky plane, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 from New York, strayed into Soviet airspace in circumstances that made it reasonable for the Soviet Union to mistake it for a U.S. spy plane; that the actual shootdown was a “screwup” which the Soviets regret but understandably cannot avow; and that the most despicable part of the whole affair was the irresponsible translation of an accident and an “international tragedy” into a campaign to vilify the Soviet Union unjustly and to diminish the chances for arms control.

Apologetics is the art of the possible. Had Hersh stated his argument so clearly, it would not stand a chance outside the fever swamps of academe. Neither would the even more direct argument that the Reagan administration not only used the incident as a provocation but actually caused it. Hence Hersh floods the reader with details of the telephone calls the State Department’s Richard Burt received about the crisis while dining with his fiancée, and with a lot of information about U.S. intelligence, nearly all of which is irrelevant, much of which is wrong, and some of which he reveals in what would seem to be direct violation of the federal criminal code (Sec. 798 18 USC). Into this flow—which by itself takes the reader’s eye off the question: what kind of government could authorize such killing of innocents?—Hersh injects interpretations that gradually, as the book moves along, harden into “the facts.” If anyone reads the book closely, he will see through the sham. But it will sway some. That is all one can ask of apologetics—especially considering what a tough row Hersh has to hoe in this case.

Consider, for example, how unique is the Soviet Union’s killing of 269 innocent travelers. Not only has no other country ever done this, but it is impossible to conjure up a situation in which even the American Left’s worst bogeymen, South Africa and Chile, would shoot a 747 out of the sky. Consider that the U.S. presented to the world the original tape recordings of the conversation between the Soviet pilot who shot down the airliner and his ground controller; that the pilot has admitted seeing the plane for some twenty minutes from a variety of aspects; and that the U.S. has records of the Soviet Union’s tracking of the plane for over two hours, and of communications between Moscow and the ground controllers about the decision to shoot it down. Consider that the man in charge of the decision, the head of the Soviet Air Defense Command, was subsequently promoted. If this was not a deliberate act, there is no such thing.

American officials relied on what the Soviet pilot had said during the shootdown, but (as Hersh’s favorite Soviet expert comments), “It was a one-way translation, in which everything was out of context.” Hersh evidently wants his readers to feel that in another context the Soviets would look better. How then does he set about placing everything in the “right” context? Like this:

Little newspaper attention was paid that spring to America’s aggressive patrolling and revitalized military presence in the Far East. . . . American warships were authorized by the President late in March to operate and exercise closer to Soviet borders than ever before. Three aircraft carrier battle groups, part of a forty-ship armada, accompanied by Air Force B-52 bombers, specially equipped Advanced Warning Aircraft (Awacs), and F-15 fighters, sailed defiantly in the icy waters of Alaska’s Aleutian islands, 450 miles from the Soviet Union’s Kamchatka peninsula. [Emphasis added]

You see how we frightened them!

Or again: some Japanese fishermen who were in an area thirty-five miles from “Soviet-held Moneron island” were on an “illicit adventure.” You see how Soviet rights are violated!

Or again: “. . . [T]he Soviets, like all coastal nations, have established an arbitrary zone off their coasts.” Well, they have a right to defend themselves, don’t they?

Or again: the day after the shootdown, “American intelligence knew more about what happened over Sakhalin” than did the Soviet Foreign Ministry. You see, they did not even know what they had done! How could anyone hold them responsible?

As for our response: “One State Department Soviet specialist who was aware of the immense Soviet anger after the Navy had overflown Soviet territory in the Kurile islands, suggested to colleagues that the destruction of Flight 007 might be linked in some way to the earlier incident.” If only we had more people capable of such understanding! Instead, a wide spectrum of Americans called the Soviets murderers. “[Senators] Leahy, Levin, Hatch, and the others were behaving no better or worse than the Secretary of State. . . .” Bad as they were, however, the worst villain of all was Charles Lichenstein, our acting Ambassador to the UN, who quoted Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his speech regarding the affair: “It was,” says Hersh, “as if the Soviet Ambassador to the United Nations had quoted Benedict Arnold as a moral authority and expert on the United States.”

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Hersh’s central counter-contention is that there exists in the files of U.S. intelligence a “real story,” a “scoop,” “facts,” which, had they been acted upon, would have made for a much more restrained U.S. response to the shootdown. The essence of this “real story” is that the Soviet Union reasonably mistook the civilian 747 for a military 707 intelligence aircraft, code-named Cobra Ball. Hersh does not straightforwardly argue this proposition. Rather, he asserts it as the opinion of the “pros” in Air Force intelligence.

But the fact is that everyone who knew of the existence of a Cobra Ball flight in the region that night asked immediately upon hearing of the shootdown whether there might have been a connection. After learning that the Soviets had tracked the U.S. intelligence flight nearly until it landed back home, while also tracking the Korean airliner and assigning it a different track number, and after learning that at least one Soviet pilot had had the airliner in view for some twenty minutes, just about every highly cleared person in U.S. intelligence was forced in all good conscience to dismiss the possibility that the Soviets had confused the two. True, as a few of the “pros” have pointed out, it is impossible to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the confusion did not occur. Hersh, by assertion and sleight of hand, tries to turn the impossibility of denying absolutely that the confusion existed into certain proof that it did exist.

Thus, one of Hersh’s Air Force sources insinuates (but never maintains directly) that the intelligence airplane had been quite close to the Korean airliner. But Hersh never confronts the issue of how close KAL 007 and Cobra Ball were, for the simple reason that at their nearest point they were hundreds of miles apart in space and over an hour away in time. Most important, they were at different altitudes, were tracked simultaneously for a while, and—to repeat—had been assigned different Soviet track numbers. Also, given Cobra Ball’s mission, it would have made no sense for it to overfly the Soviet Union. Hersh, indeed, ends up claiming that the Soviets did not think the airliner was Cobra Ball at all, but another intelligence flight, Rivet Joint. Yet Rivet Joint never overflies the Soviet Union, and would gain nothing by doing so. Nor was Rivet Joint operating that night.

Another of Hersh’s sources says that there is one angle from which it is difficult to tell a 747 apart from a 707—from below. For Hersh, this is as good as proof that the Soviet fighter had to be below the Korean airliner, and hence out of sight of the distinctive 747 hump. But he also lets the reader know early on that the American intercepts show the Soviet pilot flew “abeam” of the Korean airliner just before dropping behind to fire the missiles; the fighter pilot located the airliner 80 degrees on his left. Later, in Red Star, the pilot, defending his alleged effort to force down rather than to shoot down the plane, described a heroic maneuver he performed as the “spy plane” tried to evade him. Clearly, then, the fighter pilot believed that he had been seen by the KAL pilot, sitting up ahead of the hump. Hersh never explains how all of this could have happened if the Soviet pilot had stayed in the one and only position in which it is difficult to tell the difference between the two kinds of airplanes.

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Here now is how Hersh escalates his case: “The American intelligence system had not developed any specific evidence showing that the Soviets had knowingly shot down an airliner.” He quotes a participant in Vice President Bush’s crisis-management group as saying, “. . . it was clear that the Soviets could have gotten the tracks mixed up.” He characterizes the view of the chief of Air Force intelligence as “an intelligence scenario that—if described fully—directly conflicted with the stated views of the President’s Secretary of State and the known views of his Director of Central Intelligence.” This “scenario,” of a confusing coincidence between Cobra Ball and the airliner, was supposedly based on “complicated charts and minute-by-minute accounts of the airliner’s flight path.”

What was in this mysterious “scenario”? We never learn. Instead, Hersh keeps on escalating: “The evidence was no longer problematical; it was empirical: the Air Force now had intercepts demonstrating that the Soviets had not knowingly targeted a civilian airliner.” What intercepts? Hersh, not otherwise known as a hoarder of classified information, does not say. Instead he escalates again: “The President of the United States, relying on information that was wholly inaccurate and misleading, was accusing the other side of telling lies . . .” (emphasis added). Although the President may not have known it, “most of the facts he relied upon were wrong.” No evidence at all is presented to support this assertion.

Hersh’s case for the Cobra Ball/ KAL confusion, such as it is, is summed up by James Pfautz, former Assistant Chief of Staff for Air Force intelligence: we simply have to give the Soviets the benefit of the doubt. But let us recapitulate briefly what we would have to believe in order to do so. First, we would have to believe that the Soviet radar operators on Kamchatka identified the Korean airliner as Cobra Ball while still having Cobra Ball elsewhere on their scopes or hundreds of miles away, and while the airliner was flying neither like Cobra Ball nor like Rivet Joint but like . . . an airliner. Second, we would have to believe that the pilot who had the airliner in view for twenty minutes did not perform all the maneuvers he claims he did perform, or performed them with distorting lenses over his eyes so that he saw the plane from various aspects without actually noticing its distinctive hump.

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Finally, we would have to believe that it would make a difference how the Soviets identified the plane. And that is the hardest thing of all to believe. In 1978, with U.S. intelligence listening in to both sides of the conversation, a Soviet general instructed an obviously reluctant Soviet pilot to fire missiles at an airplane which the pilot had repeatedly identified as a 747 airliner. The pilot obeyed. Most of the passengers survived, but only because the missiles happened not to strike vital parts of the airliner. The Soviets claimed that the airliner was on a spy mission. It must have been, by definition; after all, it had crossed Soviet borders without permission.

Now, why should any reasonable person expect the Soviets in 1983 to have treated KAL 007 any differently, even if Cobra Ball had not been aloft, if the sun had been shining, or if the airliner had been in full view of the interceptor aircraft for hours? The policy of the Soviet Union is to kill anyone who crosses its borders without permission, in either direction. And that is one of the reasons the Soviet Union cannot be counted among civilized nations. Hersh’s thesis of possible confusion is obviously intended to cover up this simple point.

One aspect of this book, however, has about it the ring of truth, and that is Hersh’s account of the Reagan administration’s approach to the affair. The gap between what the President and his Secretary of State thundered and what they did—or rather did not do—was so wide that no one could miss it. The American people have now been taught that the appropriate response to the slaughter of 269 innocents, which their President characterized in the strongest words in the English language, is to seek summit meetings with the murderers, and to continue faithfully observing arms-control treaties which they violate.

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It should be noted that although Seymour Hersh tells us more than anyone would want to know about fleet exercises in the Pacific, Shemya Island, who is doing what to whom in Washington, and the pay scales of U.S. signals-intelligence analysts, his book is actually quite ignorant on the subject of intelligence. For example, the security designation SAO is not a compartment like “Umbra,” but a general category within which fit a variety of specific compartments; Senator James A. McClure was never a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, much less of its budget process; and so forth. But this is beside the point. All Hersh’s celebrated “leaks,” and the devious twists and turns of his narrative, go for the unworthy purpose of pulling the thickest possible veil of doubt over an obscenity. Everyone connected with this book, and everyone who has promoted and praised it, ought to be ashamed.

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