US hid evidence on shooting down of Korean airliner

September 18, 1996

In August 1983, Soviet fighter planes shot down a South Korean civilian airliner which, on a flight from Alaska to Seoul, went hundreds of kilometres off course and passed over restricted Siberian territory. The event was portrayed by the US Reagan administration as a deliberate and wanton act of murder by the "evil empire". A videotape portraying the shooting down of KAL flight 007 was played at the United Nations Security Council and was a central feature of a US propaganda campaign which was extremely damaging to the Soviet government.

Alvin Snyder made that videotape. He now says the information on which it was based was deliberately distorted by the US government.

Snyder is a former director of television for the US Information Agency and author of the book Warriors of Disinformation: American Propaganda, Soviet Lies and the Winning of the Cold War. His revelations about flight 007 were printed in an article he wrote for the September 1 Washington Post.

As director of worldwide television for the USIA, Snyder writes, he was summoned to a secret meeting at the State Department. There he was given an audio tape. "I was instructed to produce a video document based on the contents of the tape that would be shown two days later at the U.N. Security Council.

"Korean Airlines Flight 007, with its 269 passengers and crew, had strayed off course over a Soviet missile installation in the far Pacific and was shot out of the sky by Maj. Gennady Osipovich, in his Sukhoi-15 fighter. Minute by minute, top secret American intelligence stations near the Soviet border had monitored Osipovich's pursuit of Flight 007 ... Working with other producers, we fashioned a slick video which was played at the Security Council Sept. 6, and beamed around the world by satellite ...

"The video was powerful, effective and wrong."

The video used parts of conversations between the Soviet fighter pilots and their ground controllers. "... the tape supported the contention that the Soviets wantonly shot down what they knew to be a passenger plane. They fired no warning shots nor gave any signal for the plane to land. The video became a key factor in what Secretary of State George Shultz promised in a memo to President Reagan would be a massive public relations effort 'to exploit the incident."'

The people making the videotape "were not aware at the time that the State Department was also telling President Reagan that the pilots of the Soviet interceptors were confused as to the identity of the plane, according to a recently declassified memo from Shultz to Reagan which was released through the Freedom of Information Act."

Shultz had been told by the CIA and the National Security Agency "that the Soviets might have thought they were shooting down a U.S. spy plane. According to his memoirs, Shultz dismissed the notion ...

"Shultz went public with the hard line. State Department official Richard Burt told reporters in a background briefing that the Soviets knew it was a passenger plane. Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said the downing of the airliner raises 'the most serious questions about the competence of the Soviet air defense system, with all the danger that implies."'

The US ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick, introduced the tape to the Security Council . "'Perhaps the most shocking fact learned from the transcript", she said, "is that at no point did the pilots raise the question of the identity of the target aircraft'."

Snyder comments on the effect of his video: "One Soviet journalist told me that our video was the biggest propaganda blow ever suffered by the Kremlin during the Cold War, something from which the Soviets never fully recovered".

"But", he continues, "within the last few years, additional taped evidence has become public that makes clear that I was given only selective information — some of the pilots' words and none of the comments of the ground controllers. Those full conversations reveal that the Russians believed the intruder aircraft was an American RC-135 reconnaissance plane, many of which flew routine missions in the area ...

"The tapes, the content of which U.S. government officials were aware of ... show that Osipovich could not identify the plane, and that he fired warning cannons and tipped his wings, an international signal to force the plane to land. All this failed to get the crew's attention."

Snyder writes that former US officials involved have told him the information on the tapes was concealed intentionally.

"Flight 007 was a victim of the Cold War, and it proved that war could be very real and could lead to human casualties. Another casualty, always war's first, was the truth. Anything that worked was fair game. The story of Flight 007 will be remembered pretty much the way we told it in 1983, not the way it really happened."

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