Thursday, July 17, 2014


Unfortunately, the destruction of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine brings up terrible memories of the shootdown of KAL007 in 1983.  Let's hope that we get to the bottom of the MH17 tragedy faster than we were able to in the case of the Korean airliner. 

KAL007, September 1, 1983.
The day after KAL007 was shot down off Sakhalin, the State Department formed a task force to deal with the inevitable Consular issues arising from the shootdown.  I worked on the task force for over a week, talking with and consoling relatives of the 269 passengers and crew, many of whom were Americans.  We all suspected the worst: that the Soviets had cold-bloodedly shot down a civilian airliner in full knowledge that it was not a spy plane.  Subsequent release of the flight tapes in 1993, after the fall of the Soviet Union, revealed that the Soviet shootdown of the plane was a paranoid mistake, but in the immediate aftermath, the continuing denials by Soviet Marshal Nikolay Ogarkov, particularly his press conference on September 9, proclaiming that KAL007 was a spy plane, enraged everyone on the task force, and we were all looking for ways to retaliate. 

One immediate thought that came to mind was to deny Aeroflot landing privileges in the United States.  Aeroflot had previously been threatened with a suspension of its landing privileges in the U.S. when, in contrast to KAL007, which made an innocent navigational error, Aeroflot planes actually did divert their flight tracks out of New York so that they could overfly the U.S. submarine base at Groton, Connecticut.  After several such incidents, we told them to stop or they would lose their flight privileges altogether.  Aeroflot did stop, but by then events had overtaken the whole fly/no fly controversy, and a decision to stop Aeroflot from landing in the U.S was inevitable.  The first immediate result was that Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko's visit to the UN in mid-September was cancelled, since he refused to fly on anything but Aeroflot.

Gromyko Gets Snubbed.
The following year, the Department decided to allow Gromyko's plane into JFK on an exceptional basis so that he could attend the UNGA.  He flew in on September 19, 1984.  Unfortunately, it was not the greeting ceremony that he or the Soviets were expecting.  Primarily for security reasons, his Il-62 was guided to the most remote area of JFK, so far away that the rest of the airport was out of sight, and it took almost ten minutes to get there via back roads from the main terminal.  In order to impress upon Gromyko just how ill-favored he was, it was decided that the U.S. side should greet him on arrival at an insultingly low level.  It was in that manner, therefore, that I was delegated to be Gromyko's official airport greeter.  Gromyko's Il-62 taxied up to the parking area and the entire Soviet brass lined up in protocol order all the way up the landing stairs and a considerable distance out onto the tarmac.  I was there with the FBI and a couple of USUN officials at the far end of the line.  Gromyko stepped out, greeted all his high-ranking cronies, and began looking around for the highest-ranking American.  He eventually found me at the end of the line.  Looking even more like a cold fish than usual, and sporting his usual grimace that rapidly turned into a frown, Gromyko gave me a limp-wristed and somewhat clammy handshake as I welcomed him to the United States.  He never bothered to look me in the eye.  Then he and his minions loaded themselves into the first limousine and trundled off.  My FBI escorts thought it was all very funny, and so did I.  I would not see him again until Codel O'Neill visited Moscow the following year.  By then, fortunately, US-Soviet relations were changing decisively for the better.

In late 1992, a few months after I came on board ISCA (the ex-Soviet Desk), I found myself off to Moscow again to discuss a familiar subject: KAL007.  Despite repeated Soviet claims that they had never recovered the Cockpit Voice Recorder and Digital Flight Data Recorder from KAL007, we long suspected that they had, and were covering up the fact because the “black boxes” would provide a conclusive refutation of the bizarre Soviet assertion that KAL007 was a spy plane.  We suspected it would also prove conclusively what many already believed, that KAL007 was shot down in international waters.  With the fall of the Soviet Union and the advent of the Yeltsin Administration, the logjam on many long-held secrets began to break, including KAL007.  On October 15, 1992, Yeltsin handed over the black boxes to South Korea.  However, the tapes were either absent or unreadable, and the resulting hue and cry led to a hurried call for negotiations to turn over the original tapes to ICAO.

Talks to negotiate the handover were held on December 8-10 at the Osobnyak in Moscow, a site I knew well from my last tour in the Soviet Union.  The negotiations, which were led on our side by Jim Collins, and on the Russian side by Presidential Administration head Yuriy Petrov, Deputy Defense Minister Kondratyev, and Deputy Foreign Minister Mamedov, dragged on interminably, even though everyone knew what the ultimate outcome had to be.  Around 9pm on December 9, with everyone getting very tired, Jim left me in charge to work through the final details with the Russians, as well as with local diplomats representing Korean, Japanese and other victims of the crash.  The negotiations continued at a snail's pace, with a number of Russian players from the security services interposing all kinds of frivolous objections.  I remember in particular Tatyana Anodina, a chain-smoking general who represented Aeroflot -- she was especially hardline.  Fortunately, others, like Interstate Aviation Committee head Rudolf Teimurazov were anxious to come to an understanding, and we eventually achieved final agreement at about 4am the next morning.  Last minute changes in the document were viewed with some misgivings by the Japanese and Korean delegations, but as the changes were not substantive in nature, they decided to go along.  The signing ceremony took place that day, and the handover was scheduled for January 8, 1993 at ICAO headquarters in Paris.

The following month, I flew off to Paris to witness the handover.  Janet Speck, the desk's civil aviation officer, accompanied me.  We were met at Charles de Gaulle airport by the local FAA Representative, who proceeded to take us on a tour of his favorite bars and restaurants while complaining incessantly that he was tired of “being stuck in Paris for the last nine years.”  Janet and I, who had been stuck for years in considerably less pleasant locales, could scarcely refrain from bursting out laughing.  The fact was, Paris was a complete paradise.  All my previous visits there seemed to have taken place during heat waves, with no air conditioning in the hotels, and fights literally breaking out in the streets.  This somewhat cooler and gentler Paris was a definite pleasure to visit.  Our hotel, the Maillot, near the Arc de Triomphe, was strictly two-star, but quite pleasant as well.

The next day, Janet and I, and about fifty other officials from all over the world watched as Yeltsin's chief of staff Yuriy Petrov handed over the tapes in a ceremony at ICAO's modest headquarters building. A preliminary analysis revealed the tapes to be intact and in good condition.  Later detailed analysis would reveal that most of our suspicions about the Soviet cover story on KAL007 were correct.  The plane had flown off course due to an error in setting the autopilot, which had been programmed to fly the great circle route and not a specific set of waypoints that would allow it to skirt the Soviet border.  At no time were the pilot and crew aware they were being chased by Soviet fighters.  A few mysteries remained, but the biggest ones were solved, ten years after the fact.


  1. WRT to your second paragraph. I suspect we may have gone to some of the same meetings. I recall attending an IG chaired by Tom Niles that discussed possible retaliatory actions. I guy I had not known before, John Lenczowski, then of the NSC staff, and arguably insane, suggested (out loud) that we shoot down an Aeroflot plane on its way into JFK. My recollection is there was a momentary hush and the discussion moved on.
    Any respect I may have had for Seymour Hersh BTW, I lost after he wrote his IMHO piece of trash book about KAL-007

    1. 1983 was lucky year for the U.S and the U.S.S.R. As recently released PFIAB documents indicate, we avoided nuclear war by a whisker, and it was largely due to the good judgment of the colonels and majors in charge of the missiles.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.