Fingers began pointing as soon as Korean Air Lines Flight 007 plummeted into the Sea of Japan. Fueled by paranoia and doubt, the political left saw the flight as a spy mission, visible evidence of the Reagan administration's new Cold War. From the right, the shootdown was denounced immediately as an unparalleled act of Soviet barbarism.

Three years after that tragedy, which claimed the lives of all 269 people on board, questions remain about the final flight of KAL 007, and books and articles have proliferated. One book on the subject was recently published, and two more are due this year.

For many, the mystery of KAL 007 has intensified in the years since the Boeing 747 was shot down over Sakhalin Island in the Soviet Far East shortly before dawn on Sept. 1, 1983. Could the United States, needing to test the limits of Soviet radar and response, deliberately have put those lives at risk, as some have charged? Was a mission conceived by the plane's captain, Chun Byung-in, before the plane left Alaska? Was it really impossible, as President Reagan asserted, for a Soviet pilot to mistake the plane for a military jet?

* At least two of the books on Flight 007 argue that the Reagan administration lied to the public from the start and that it is still lying. The other, written by investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh, and due this fall, will apparently say that no spy mission was planned, but that KAL 007 was nothing like a normal flight to Seoul.

The Reagan administration dismisses theories of a spy mission or a cover-up, but the books are likely to fire up old questions -- and perhaps some new ones -- about one of civil aviation's most vivid and horrifying disasters.

"Shootdown: Flight 007 and the American Connection," the first among the new releases, was written by R.W. Johnson, an Oxford professor who says he "became obsessed" with the attack as soon as it happened. Johnson has written on the subject before, most notably in the British newspaper The Guardian, and his book attempts to show that 007 could not have strayed 350 miles off course by accident.

Neither Hersh, who reportedly traveled to the Soviet Union to research his book, nor David Pearson, whose book on the subject is due later this year, has been willing to discuss his work in detail. Pearson's book grew out of articles published in The Nation and a doctoral thesis he is writing at Yale University. The galleys of Hersh's book, "The Target Is Destroyed," have been locked in a vault by Random House, but CIA Director William J. Casey has already called Hersh and the publisher to remind them that it's a crime to print information about sensitive intelligence obtained from intercepting communications.

"It is clear that our government has simply not told us the truth about what it knew and when it knew it," says Victor S. Navasky, editor of The Nation, which one year after the shootdown published Pearson's first assertions that 007 may have been on an espionage mission for the United States.

"I have no special ax to grind," Johnson said recently while thumbing eagerly through mounds of documents he carries around in a black briefcase. "I followed the story closely. I became totally driven. The one thing that seemed absolutely clear to me is that that plane couldn't possibly be accidentally off course. I just found myself accumulating data. Every time I would stick my head above the parapet, people would start to fire at me. I have expected abusive reviews -- and I have got them -- but I never expected anything like this."

Johnson, whose previous books, such as "The Politics of Recession," have been more academic, discovered that making a living in the 007 business is not a solitary endeavor.

Much like the buffs who have turned the assassination of John F. Kennedy into an industry of doubt, there are scores of theorists who dog every detail of Flight 007. They sit at home running computer simulations and reading radar maps, and most are eager to knock a competitor's notion out of the air. There are even pilots who have remapped the air routes KAL 007 supposedly flew.

"There are people who have written to me, people who follow me around to speaking engagements and people who are dedicated to protecting the U.S. interest," Johnson says. He says interviewers for American newspapers and television talk shows have frequently been biased -- "it's as if the referee was on the other side." And he charges that State Department officials have monitored his actions, always showing up when he is scheduled to speak -- "it's as if they knew my itinerary before I did." A State Department spokesman says nobody followed Johnson around, though U.S. officials sometimes were invited to debates with Johnson.

"The cold warriors in the White House have had such a field day," Johnson said, "but the fact is, if you look hard at the aviation materials, you come up with no plausible accidental explanation."

Pearson agrees. "That flight did not enter Soviet airspace unintentionally. The U.S. government has active and ongoing knowledge of the aircraft's deviation. We have been systematically lied to."

Johnson also writes that the KAL pilot filed false weight reports on his manifest, amended the log before takeoff and repeatedly gave ground controllers inaccurate information about Flight 007's whereabouts.

He even says that the launching of a space shuttle mission from Cape Canaveral that night was delayed, and suggests it was so the shuttle crew would be in better position to receive the intelligence bonanza that a secret flight over the Soviet Union's most sensitive naval installations would produce.

U.S. intelligence veterans, Reagan administration officials and many aviation professionals familiar with all variations of the spy plane theory put forth by writers such as Johnson and Pearson say the theories are basically bunk. Many say that the tragedy was a result of careless flying by the KAL crew, and that while it is not easy to fly 350 miles off course it is clearly possible.

"There are several similar approaches and they are all inane," says Thomas Maertens, a State Department specialist in Soviet intelligence, who has been the main spokesman for the administration on the shootdown almost from the beginning. "This story starts with a world view. Most of the writers are political theorists and they hate Reagan. They began with an ideology and a conclusion. Then they tried to fit the facts to their story. They have made egregious errors. They reject the possibility that sometimes events just happen. They see a conspiracy wherever they go."

Administration officials say they have no explanation for the events leading up to the tragedy. They contend it was simply an accident, but few voice transcripts have been made public, and a National Transportation Safety Board official has said he was called off from his investigation of the case, which is unusual.

Furthermore, critics say, the State Department in initial releases referred to Soviet radio communications that it now says it does not have, and although there are intensely detailed investigations of most civil aviation accidents, technical details of the Flight 007 crash did not attract much government scrutiny.

The part of the world where KAL 007 went down is heavily monitored by both U.S. and Japanese radar installations, by U.S. listening posts and by constant aircraft activity. That night, a missile test was scheduled at a Soviet naval facility and American military officials were ready and waiting.

It may never be a completely explained why the jet twice strayed over Soviet territory or why the captain consistently fed inaccurate position reports (at times relayed through another KAL flight en route to Seoul) to the ground. There are also allegations by Johnson and others that 007 met with a U.S. reconnaissance plane off the Soviet coast.

The far right immediately turned the tragedy into a festival of propaganda.

"Some of them acted like this was sent from the heavens," says a former administration official who helped prepare information on the shootdown for the public. The right lost one of its most conservative spokesmen in the attack, Rep. Larry McDonald (D-Ga.), a national leader of the John Birch Society.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) was one of the first to take advantage of the propaganda bonanza. He accused the Russian air force of willfully and knowingly shooting down a civilian airliner.

"This is the best chance we have ever had to paint these bastards into a corner," Helms said in Seoul, where he was supposed to have joined McDonald and others in a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the U.S.-Korean Mutual Defense Treaty.

The American political left quickly claimed that the United States was not telling the entire truth. Both Secretary of State George Shultz and U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick delivered speeches that drew on flight transcripts that have not yet been released.

* Many critics find it difficult to believe that the massive technical apparatus of U.S. intelligence was unable to spot the plane or the fighters the Soviets scrambled to pursue it.

* "I am an agnostic on whether or not it was a spy plane -- I suspect it probably wasn't," says Navasky, who has published several other articles on 007 in past two years. "But we covered up, and that disturbs me more. In a world where you have a 20-minute warning time on missiles, to have this colossal no man's land of misinformation after spending billions of dollars is tragic. That is the really frightening story. It shows how fragile the threads are that keep these two nations from going to war."

* Like Navasky, critics of the administration stress the dangers -- the implications of the U.S. response to the tragedy. Some find the lack of a total explanation to be evidence of cover-up or conspiracy. And others -- similar, perhaps, to those who have sued the U.S. Air Force in an attempt to prove it conceals information about flying saucers -- appear to enjoy the game.

Will the KAL affair continue to command the attention of the U.S. intelligence community -- and those who are fascinated it?

"I think it's a good subject -- it's certainly all there," says Hersh, who says he will not discuss the contents of his book before an excerpt appears in the September issue of The Atlantic. "I love having all these books around. It's just wonderful. It's a great big country and I'd be the last person in it to say somebody shouldn't publish his own theory. But my book isn't about theories. I really tried to report on what happened out there."sk

"Well, I can't wait to see what Hersh comes up with," says Johnson, whose publisher, Viking Press, has been irked by the sudden wealth of 007 competition on the market. "He may have a different view than mine. But I am that unusual person, an old-fashioned liberal. I believe you get your turn to say what is on your mind, and then you let everybody else bash you as much as they want."