The BOOKPRESS April, 1996

The Truth Has a Long Fuse

Incident at Sakhalin: The True Mission of KAL Flight 007
by Michel Brun translated by Robert Bononno
Four Walls Eight Windows, 326 pages, $24.95

Warriors of Disinformation
by Alvin A. Snyder
Arcade, 321 pages, $25.95

Edward T. Chase

Walter Cronkite, America’s venerable and revered T.V. pundit, praises Michael Brun’s new book:

This book has importance far behind its sensational and dramatic revelations of a Cold War intelligence ploy that turned into a military engagement—an aerial battle that could easily have escalated into World War III. That importance concerns the covenant that exists in a democracy between the government and its people regarding the matter of honesty. A democracy depends on an informed electorate and it ceases to be a democracy when its agents conspire to deny the people the truth.

Unfortunately, Cronkite’s blurb, so right in its lofty sentiment about democracy, assumes as fact the unproven and altogether unlikely aerial battle that Brun alleges was fought between Soviet and U.S. military aircraft in May (?), 198_. This dubious allegation sets afloat a new “conspiracy theory,” a tic that seems to plaque the modern world. What is true is that the Cold War intelligence ploy caused the KAL 007 disaster might indeed have triggered World War III. Now the impact of Brun’s book may lead to Congressional hearings that might finally unearth the whole truth of this calamity, crucial details of which remain a mystery. Otherwise, we may have to wait until the year 2008, when the classified documents on the episode automatically will be disclosed per the welcome and overdue Executive Order 12958 which came into force in October 1995.

At least a half-dozen books document the episode, which stands as arguably the most puzzling and misunderstood incident of the Cold War. Besides Brun’s book, two others are scheduled for the coming year. None, so far, is definitive.

For all its bizarre elements, I must say that, as a veteran editor, I find the story of the Brun book typical of many others, in that its initial inspiration eventuated in years of work, yet it falters in the end. However, Brun and his indefatigable colleague, John Keppel, achieve their basic goal—to demonstrate that the United States government has perpetrated a deception and cover-up that must be exposed.

What is notable about the work, besides its improbable inception, is that it deals with a historical event of profound importance, an event that the author shows just might have triggered nuclear warfare between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. At the very least, the disaster entails the tragic deaths of some 269 innocent passengers and crew, 61 of them Americans.

Incident at Sakhalin is the work of two intelligent, informed men whose obsessive motivation is to tell what they are convinced is the truth about the shootdown of KAL Flight 007. They wish to have the book serve as a cautionary tale in the interests of the world community. As everyone has been told, the “official” story is a simple one: a commercial airliner accidentally flew off course over Soviet territory and was shot down by a Soviet fighter plane on the Soviet assumption it was on a spy mission to evaluate Soviet military defenses. International uproar ensued, and President Reagan in particular used every opportunity to castigate the Soviets. International anxiety was tremendous, and, by and large, the U.S. version of the event was accepted.

Brun’s book largely demolishes the U.S. propaganda line. Yet it is impossible for me to agree with all its conclusions. Although I respect his and John Keppel’s intent, admire their industry, their skills, and their tenacity, I feel that their work could mislead the public by positing a conspiracy theory that is not credible in key particulars.

Although I, along with other book editors sent the manuscript, became aware of the book at its inception, I was not its editor or publisher, and I write as one of a large-audience of interested citizens profoundly curious about the KAL 007 shootdown and the tragic deaths of 269 civilians. My awareness of the book began in 1985, when, as Senior Editor of Macmillan/Scribner, I received a letter mailed from Paraguay by Michel Brun, identifying himself as a French investigative agent in transportation. He wrote that he could demonstrate that the official U.S account of the KAL Flight 007 episode was false. I was deeply skeptical, and I read the early draft of the manuscript he sent along with disbelief. I wrote Brun that I figured he was a provocateur, perhaps a K.G.B. agent (the Cold War was hot then). For all I know, other editors may have shared this reaction. At any rate, I agreed to see Brun, and, when we met in New York, I recognized that he was serious, neither a nut nor a K.G.B. agent. As editors commonly do with potential authors, I invited him to lunch. I felt I could better assess his hypothesis if I had present with me at the luncheon an old acquaintance, Dick Witkin, former aviation editor of the New York Times, and David Pearson, unknown by me but the author of an earlier book, KAL 007: The Cover-up. We were impressed by Brun’s grasp of the known facts about the disaster, and especially by his background as a veteran pilot in the Western Pacific, as well as his intimacy with Japanese sources about the disaster, and his plausible critique of Secretary of State George Shultz’s initial condemnatory report on the disaster.

Brun is fluent in Japanese, English, Spanish, and Polynesian. He is also author of a book on his raft voyage from Tahiti to Chili. We urged his further investigation and work on the manuscript.

Learning from Dick Witkin that retired Foreign Service Officer John Keppel, a Harvard graduate, had been a valuable associate of David Pearson in the preparation of Pearson’s book, I contacted Keppel as I became increasingly curious about the real truth of the episode. It was arranged for Keppel to telephone Michel Brun, then in Tahiti. Keppel had served in the United Nations and twice served on tours at the Moscow Embassy. Keppel had also been a member of an inter-agency working group in Washington after Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 plane went down over Sverdlovsk on May 1, 1960. Keppel writes in the book’s preface:

I have taken part myself in official lying. Not realizing that the Soviets had the U-2’s cameras virtually intact and Powers himself alive, we (the members of the working group) very stupidly recommended that President Eisenhower stick to the cover story that the U-2 was a weather plane that had inadvertently flown off course.

For the American public, this was a bombshell eye-opener: for the first time, most Americans “realized that a U.S. president would lie to them on an important subject.”

Keppel and Brun hit it off from the beginning. Together, they plunged into further investigation in Asia, in Europe, indeed wherever the trail led, continually revising the manuscript, with Keppel also raising operating funds (not least for Robert Bononno’s translation of Brun’s French manuscript into English) from public-interest parties such as The Fund for Constitutional Government and individuals like Paul Newman. Months, then years went by as the work progressed. Finally, Brun’s draft became a finished manuscript, and Brun and Keppel were able to sign a book contract with Four Walls Eight Windows.

Brun’s thesis is that, while on flight from Anchorage to Tokyo, KAL 007 was a decoy posing as an innocent flight off course but was really on a spy mission to trigger the electronic and military reactions of the most strategically sensitive Soviet Pacific defense installations, where Soviet missiles were tested and their nuclear submarines trained, so as to give the U.S. military “real time” information. This intelligence ploy failed spectacularly, of course, as the Soviets detected the plane and dispatched fighters to destroy it. Brun asserts that, in conjunction with this action, an air battle ensued between Soviet and American aircraft of at least two hours duration wherein ten U.S. military aircraft were shot down, killing some 30 U.S. military men.

Why the military aircraft were approaching Sakhalin at the same time as KAL 007, a provocation, is left unclear—perhaps to show that the Soviets couldn’t control the borders of their own air space, Keppel has suggested. What’s more, Brun asserts the Soviets did not shoot down KAL 007 off Sakhalin Island but that it was destroyed by unknown means about 300 to 400 miles to the south, off the shore of Honshu, Japan’s main island, and over three quarters of an hour later than the “official” U.S. line alleged.

Among the many questions Brun’s work poses is that while U.S. and perhaps Japanese intelligence had to have known at the time where KAL 007 was destroyed, apparently no search-and-rescue operation was conducted for the passengers and crew. In fact, so far as the lay world knows, the wreckage and bodies never have been located—this despite Brun’s book, two official investigations, and numerous media attempts—all frustrated by a conspiratorial cover-up, claims Brun. Indeed, how and why the plane was destroyed remain open questions, writes Brun. For that matter, if the plane was, per the official U.S. party line, just innocently off course by some 300 miles in the skies over the Sea of Okhotsk, how come the U.S. air controllers tracking the plane didn’t warn the crew? It remains an open question, of course, unless you accept that the plane indeed was on a spy mission.

Besides his own investigation, including actually searching Japanese beaches himself for debris, Brun has analyzed all the records and reports of the U.S., Russian, Korean, and Japanese governments and the June 1993 report of the International Civil Aviation Organization (a U.N. entity).

Brun’s book makes very onerous reading for the layman. To follow his meticulous analysis of navigational and minute time discrepancies among the various transcripts and reports is a daunting task, rivaling in difficulty interpretations of texts by Kant or Derrida. However, his argument does demolish the official single-intrusion, single-deception, single-shootdown theory.

While the Russians have stuck to the general “establishment” line, as Brun would put it, that the Korean commercial airliner was violating Soviet air space despite warnings by Soviet fighters, and hence deserved to be shot down, the Russians’ behavior has been bizarre. The two black boxes Yeltsin submitted as from KAL 007 in late 1992 and early 1993 are passing strange, apparently phonies, says Brun, adopted from other planes. According to Brun, they were designed to justify the Soviets’ actions, so savagely condemned by Reagan as “an act of premeditated barbarism.” Brun’s proof of the falsity of these black boxes is one of the compelling sections of his argument.

Interestingly, for evidence of multiple intrusions by U.S. military aircraft resulting in a major air battle, Brun largely depends on analysis of Russian transcripts of communications between various command posts on the ground at Sakhalin, from the Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Air Force Far East Military District, General Kamenski, down to lower-ranking officers. But Brun asserts the Russians tampered in draconian fashion in editing these transcripts, so that “in every instance Russian and International Civil Aviation Organization falsifications have the effect of minimizing rather than exaggerating the clash that took place.”

Why? one asks. Brun’s rationale for the Russian behavior is that, at first, the Soviets chose to downplay the intrusion for genuine fear the episode could escalate into war. Later, after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the Russians, desperately in need of economic help through such U.S.-dominated institutions as the International Monetary Fund and the world financial market, opted for the U.S. party line of off-course error single-intrusion single-shootdown—in a word, an essentially accidental calamity. The Japanese, too, after initial resistance by their military, acquiesced in accepting the government of Japan’s “switch to the American version of events.” Ditto the International Civil Aviation Organization, as noted, a creature of some 40 U.N. member governments. Brun, of course, assumes the ICAO is under the thumb of the U.S.

Such is the Brun charge of deception and cover-up. Obviously, it poses a dicey job for the “managers” of the cover-up “to keep the flow of news” like the black boxes, unaccounted-for military aircraft debris, etc., etc. “from upsetting the acceptance by the media and public of the official account of the events.”

John Keppel’s “preface” is an integral part of the book, and it spares no punches in indicting the U.S., Russian, Japanese, and South Korean governments as well as the ICAO for a conspiratorial cover-up. “Through the manipulation of evidence, lying, and the subornation of witnesses,” writes Keppel,

the Reagan Administration turned its own ghastly blunder into a renewed political attack on the Soviet Union. In doing so it further committed itself to its mistaken quest for a decisive victory rather than striving for a gradual way of bringing U.S.-Soviet relations into a viable accommodation. The disastrous results are only now beginning to dawn on us—Chechnya, economic disintegration, the spread of disease, the illicit sale of nuclear materials.

What’s more, Keppel infers that the Bush and Clinton administrations have gone along with the cover-up to protect our intelligence sources and techniques.

For Keppel to link the KAL 007 disaster with Chechnya and other calamities is to project a complex, one might say outlandish theory so questionable as to undermine the book’s positive and compelling aspects. The likelihood of a conspiratorial cover-up, of suppression, distortion, and silence of this magnitude and duration seems remote. Consider, for starters, the problem of erasing the evidence of the deaths of 30 U.S. servicemen. The networking and gossip among service aviation personnel and their kin is well known. Yet, not a word seems to have surfaced. Indeed, the evidence Brun uses to demonstrate that this air battle occurred is all circumstantial, painstakingly argued, but, for me and for experts I have queried ,unconvincing to say the least. Nor do Brun or Keppel ever clarify the connection between the KAL 007 flight and the intrusion of U.S. military planes around the same time and place.

One wishes Brun and Keppel had confined their charge to the persuasive facts they elicit—that there was a deliberate intrusion of breathtaking recklessness and stupidity that has been lied about ever since, and that the episode demands full, truthful disclosure.

Another recent book, Warriors of Disinformation by Alvin A. Snyder, an excellent work highly praised by Mike Wallace and Marvin Kalb among others, powerfully supports Brun’s charge of government lying in the KAL 007 disaster. Snyder is a veteran insider who ran Worldnet, the United States Information Agency’s satellite T.V. service, and was formerly an executive with CBS and NBC. Snyder was the official who organized and presented the T.V. account of the shootdown of KAL 007 at the United Nations and then the world, using tape recordings of the Soviet fighter pilot’s radio transmissions—picked up by both U.S. and Japanese intelligence—when the pilot shot down the plane. This, of course, was one of the sensations of the Cold War and was widely deemed at the time to be America’s greatest propaganda triumph.

What Snyder reveals is that the tapes were doctored, cut to give a false scenario supporting the U.S. line. Contrary to that line, Snyder reports that the full transcripts of the tapes show that, contrary to the U.S. allegations at the U.N., the Soviet pilot did fire warning shots, did circle 007 to get its attention, and tilted its wings to force the plane down, after being asked repeatedly by his ground controllers to do so. The Soviets never realized that the airliner was a commercial plane. Snyder reveals that the National Security Agency deleted five crucial minutes from the tape shown to the U.N. and the world. He also labels as a “whopper” the lie by U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick that “at no point did the [Soviet] pilots raise the question of the identity of the target aircraft.” Snyder’s whole book is first-rate, and his integrity comes across as unquestioned.

What is clear is that there has been provocation and deception by the United States government on a grand scale. Innocent lives were lost that should never have been exposed to danger and could have readily been saved were this just an accident of navigation. There was also a needless risk of nuclear war. The time is long overdue for the United States to come clean and release the classified materials that can give us the truth.

Edward T. Chase is former Editor-in-Chief of New York Times Books and senior editor at Scribner.

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