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Soviets Thought They Were Downing Spy Plane, Report Says

August 25, 1986 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The downing of a South Korean airliner three years ago was a terrible mistake made by Soviet military officers who did not know they were firing at an unarmed civilian plane, journalist Seymour M. Hersh said today.

Nor was the intrusion into Soviet airspace by KAL Flight 007 a disguised U.S. spy mission or a deliberate provocation as the Soviets have suggested, Hersh said in a television interivew.

″They (the Russians) first spotted the plane and they shot it down always thinking it was an American military plane,″ Hersh said on NBC-TV’s ″Today″ show.

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Hersh said U.S. intelligence information backs the view that Soviet military officers believed they were firing at an American reconnaissance plane, possibly one which was operating in the area at the same time.

He said he gives U.S. officials ″very, very poor marks″ for rushing to judgment about the Soviet action on the basis of preliminary intelligence reports.

″They (U.S. officials) took incredible chances with very sensitive intelligence and I think they manipulated very much,″ he said.

In a magazine article, Hersh wrote that the president and other top officials ″chose to look the other way when better information became available about the Soviet confusion with longstanding American reconnaissance missions.″

″Those who ran the American government did not want to learn that the Soviets had been honestly confused and panic-stricken about the enemy intruder,″ he wrote.

The article, in the September issue of The Atlantic, will be part of Hersh’s upcoming book on the incident in which 269 people died on Sept. 1, 1983.

State Department spokeswoman Anita Stockman said Sunday night the department would have no comment on Hersh’s article. She said many of the points it raised had been addressed by U.S. officials in the past.

Hersh has been investigating the plane’s downing for two years, and was invited to the Soviet Union in May 1984 to interview top Soviet military officials. Hersh received the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for having exposed the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and won a National Book Critics Circle award for his book on Henry Kissinger.

The story says the Korean Air Lines 747 was off course due to errors by the crew in programming the jetliner’s computerized inertial navigation system, which controlled the automatic pilot.

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In fact, the error that led eventually led to the plane’s flight path over sensitive Soviet military installations occurred before the plane ever left the ground at Anchorage, Alaska, for its trip to Seoul. The flight engineer entered a single wrong digit into the computer, and the crew somehow failed to catch the error during the flight, according to Hersh.

The article notes that the plane was guided toward the flight path of an American RC-135 intelligence plane code-named Cobra Ball, which was in the air the night of Aug. 31 when Flight 007 left Alaska.

The spy plane operates out of a little-known Strategic Air Command base at Shemya, in the Aleutian archipelago of the North Pacific, and is used to monitor Soviet missile tests.

Hersh said the Soviets thought there were two U.S. planes flying together over that country’s Kamchatka Peninsula.

″American technicians searched through thousands of feet of National Security Agency recordings and files to re-create, to the extent possible, the Soviet radar tracking of both Cobra Ball and Flight 007 ... and no such side- by-side flying was found,″ he wrote.

But Hersh added, ″The American intelligence community, while disagreeing about some details, has categorically concluded that the regional Air Defense commander at Kamchatka merely watched what he assumed was an American reconnaissance plane approach the border a few minutes after 1:30 a.m. Tokyo time.″

The author said the National Security Agency and the Electronic Security Command ″have not been able to agree on whether the Soviet radio operators assumed that Flight 007 was the Cobra Ball re-entering radar coverage or a separate RC-135″ flying another intelligence mission known as Rivet Joint.

″But neither disputes that the Soviet Air Defense Force was convinced that it was dealing with an American reconnaissance plane - one whose flight path, whether it was a Cobra Ball or a Rivet Joint mission, they knew all too well.

″The American reconnaissance plane, they assumed, would turn aside,″ Hersh wrote.

Instead, the aircraft continued to dart in and out of Soviet airspace toward even more sensitive military installations, the article said.

″The Sea of Okhotsk was not the place for a commercial passenger plane to have lost its way. The sea is the home waters of the Soviet Union’s navy in the Far East ... a refuge for ballistic-missile submarines capable of striking targets in the United States,″ Hersh wrote.

The article said the Soviet SU-15 interceptor pilot who tracked the airliner from behind and locked his missile system onto the target never visually identified the aircraft as his regulations required.

As he was given the order to fire, the article said, he exclaimed, ″Oh, my God 3/8 (Yolki palki 3/8)″