Q: What's your theory of the case?
A: In looking at the pieces of information that have filtered down through the news coverage--that's the only access I've had--I pieced it together this way:
My guess is that, at the time the Korean airliner leaves Anchorage, the program put into the computer for driving the navigation system is in substantial error. The aircraft takes off, proceeds along the route, begins to go off its normal course, cuts into and actually crosses into Soviet airspace and perhaps beyond that, over land space.
Q: How did that original computer error get made and not perceived?
A: Totally by the Koreans. But the data being relayed back show that, because of the program error, the plane's on its normal track. And to the pilot, it appears that he is on his normal track. But in reality he's very substantially off course. That will take some explaining by somebody else who knows those systems better. But I don't know any other way this series of events could have occurred unless that happened.
The aircraft actually would be normally tracked by the Soviets, as everything that flies on the periphery is 24 hours a day. The fact that it moved toward the coast would be detected rapidly. The Soviet air defense system goes into alert as they see the prospective and then real penetration of airspace. We are told that eight aircraft reacted, which says to me four missions of two aircraft each spread out over a substantial period of time.
Identification passes have to have identified it as a 747: it's too distinctive an airplane to be misidentified. In the nighttime there may have been some difficulty in identifying it as Korean. The Soviets at that point had to be discussing how to get it to land. What we don't know, of course, is what kind of signals they tried to use back and forth. In the daytime, clearly, it's much easier with the rocking of wings and the other things that the pilot can clearly see. At night that becomes a little more complex.
But if I'm right in my guess about the bad computer program, the Korean pilot and crew, believing they're over international waters, aren't about to follow a signal from Soviet aircraft to divert and land. And so they proceed.
The Soviets are determined not to let an intruder actually come into their territory and escape, with memories of '78 (when another Korean airliner penetrated northern Russia) and the criticisms of the poor performance of their air defense system fresh in their minds. They make the decision, since the Koreans are not responding, to shoot it down. Instead of using cannons as in '78, they use heat-seeking missiles.
Q: You are saying that the Korean pilot could very well have figured that he was over proper waters, in international airspace, and so he never knew what hit him?
A: Exactly. He saw the action, he saw aircraft. He maybe even understood signals. But having the Soviets go out to fly around commercial airlines is not a unique event. They're targets of opportunity, to look at, reconnaissance, to practice anything. So it may well be that the Koreans had previously had aircraft come up, look at them, pace and proceed back, when they're proceeding in international airspace. The presence itself of the fighters therefore would not be an instant cause for great alarm. But obviously any signals, any kind of rocking or lights being flashed, does become cause. Then the pilot faces the question, why are they trying to divert me? If he believes he's in international airspace, then he continues to fly, never responding.
Q: We read in the papers that the Japanese military picked up that the plane was off course. We know that the Korean airline itself was aware the plane was late. Why wasn't two and two put together?
A: There's a time factor here. Very likely, first, the Korean people didn't know it was late until it didn't arrive.
Q: Don't they pick it up some hundreds of miles out?
A: Not a long way. They don't think to track commercial flights just for tracking. But it would have been picked up at a distance--let's give it 100 to 150 miles out across the Sea of Japan. That's still well short of where it ran into its problems.
As for the Japanese radar, the question is what's the time factor involved there. They have no way in all probability of knowing the identity of the aircraft that they track. They know it's not theirs. But they don't know whose it is.
Q: So it would be very difficult for it to occur to them to pick up a phone.
A: That's right. And even if they were to pick up a phone, how? to whom? This does perhaps pose a need to rework the procedures for international air traffic. The Soviets are not part of the normal process in handling international aircraft. And there's a long gap in there between Anchorage and where the Japanese would pick up.
Q: Cut a little deeper into the Soviet reaction. Why would there not have occurred to them the 100 reasons for not shooting that would occur to us?
A: Because you're thinking as an American, and not as a Soviet. To an American, in this country, human life is the No. 1 priority. And property and territorial matters come a very distant second. It is inconceivable to me that the United States would ever delegate authority to engage a civilian airliner in peacetime.
With the Soviets the priority is exactly the other way around. The first priority is that they will not tolerate any intrusion into their airspace. And if it occurs, they will force the aircraft down. And if the aircraft tries to escape, they'll destroy it.
Q: You are suggesting, or you are stating as a fact, that the shoot-down decision was made by the local people way out in Siberia, even though this event was going on at the dinner hour in Moscow?
A: I believe there is a strong likelihood, following the '78 incident, that they reviewed their procedures. It's the normal Soviet reaction when they're poked fun at, when they're criticized by the West for poor performance.
They have a long aversion to any aircraft that comes in whether it's a small aircraft wandering over from Turkey or a military aircraft doing peripheral reconnaissance or a commercial airliner. In the '78 incident, an enemy aircraft got too far in. They were sluggish in detecting it, they were very slow in reacting. When they went up to try in fact to fire at it, the guy dove and found ice on a lake on which he landed. He didn't know where he was. If he had known where he was he'd have gone to Finland instead.
Subsequent to that, I believe, the odds are very high that the Soviets established an autonomous air defense system. They delegated authority to intercept and force to land and, if that did not work, to destroy.
Now, given the way information flows centrally in the Soviet Union on everything, information clearly must have been flowing to Moscow as the events were occurring. So at least someone in Moscow at an air defense headquarters knew they were tracking an aircraft, knew that the aircraft was over land or at least was penetrating Soviet airspace, knew that they had reacted to this and that ultimately they intended to destroy it.
So the prospect is clearly there for someone in Moscow to override that decision, but I believe it is already established with civilian Politboro approval that there will be no penetration of Soviet airspace, and if an aircraft does, just shoot it down if it won't land. It doesn't matter whether it's civilian or military.
Q: So we are dealing with a very grim reminder of how that system works but not necessarily with a new political fact that has to enter into our calculations on other dealings with the Soviet Union?
A: Exactly right. It is a grim reminder of their value system, of their general attitude about anything that penetrates Soviet territory. And the ruthlessness with which they will deal with that without any second thoughts.
Now, I'm sure at this point in time there are a great many people in Moscow who would like to reverse this event. Not because an airplane was shot down with a loss of lives but because of the stark reminder it has for the rest of the world; it does an awful lot to clear the air after this very sophisticated campaign we've watched over the last two years of their trying to portray themselves as the peacemakers and the United States as the great threat to world peace.
Q: If that is their presumed purpose, then why are they fudging and lying about it?
A: Well, there's no easy answer for them. I cringed, as I always do, when we began providing details of events that we've collected from sensitive intelligence sources and methods, because of the likelihood that the Soviets will track back through that process and determine not only how much we knew but maybe even how we knew it and will take steps to cut us off. But with our decision to declassify and to make a direct statement and not let leaks occur and do perhaps even more damage, the Soviets were put at an immediate disadvantage. So much detail is provided that they are not left with the easy option to mislead.
Let's face it, we have been in the climate in this country and in much of the West for the last decade, where what the U.S. government says is almost immediately questioned--are they telling the truth? What the Soviets, the Nicaraguans, the Cubans say is almost immediately accepted as the truth and then later challenged. In this case the depth of detail is such that the Soviets are at a very substantial disadvantage.
Q: Why don't they just say, we're sorry but we do not allow our territory to be penetrated?
A: That would be a much smarter response.
Q: The truth is not in them?
A: Well, the truth in this case is not a likely response. But they may come to that. And it would be a much smarter way to deal with it. Trying to portray this as a Korean plane doing a spying mission is just pure nonsense. We certainly wouldn't have wanted it. We have much better ways of getting the information. If the Koreans had had anything they had wanted to know, they would have come to ask us for it--not fly a 747 loaded with passengers when they're trying to build a commercial airline business. It's such a shallow lie that it makes the Soviet case even worse.