Accuracy in Media

President Vladimir Putin of Russia capped off his visit to the United States by going on National Public Radio for an hour to answer questions put to him by listeners from around the country. They could call a toll-free number or send an e-mail. Unfortunately, his visit to Ground Zero in Manhattan took longer than expected, and he was an hour late. NPR was accommodating and rearranged their schedule, but the change spoiled my hopes of getting an important question asked. When he hadn’t shown within 40 minutes and former Secretary of State George Shultz was called upon to fill in for him, I was one of many who gave up and tuned out.

The question that I had suggested a number of people ask, if they could get through, was related to a letter that Sen. Jesse Helms had sent to Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, on Dec. 10, 1991. Sen. Helms asked Yeltsin to provide information from KGB and Ministry of Defense files that would answer important questions that had been raised about the downing in Soviet waters of a Korean airliner, KAL Flight 007, on Sept. 1, 1983. Helms expressed the hope that the improvement in relations between our country and the USSR would make it possible “to resolve the mysteries surrounding this event.”

His first request might be viewed by a lot of people as off the wall. It was: “Please provide deposition or accounts from eyewitnesses who saw KAL 007’s landing” and “the geographical coordinates of the location where KAL 007 landed.” Most of those who recall this highly publicized incident probably recall what our major media reported at the time?that the plane was “cartwheeling toward the sea” (Time magazine), “suddenly falling out of the sky” (U.S. News), and “blasted from the skies” (AP). That is not language consistent with “landing.”

Those reports were based on the assumption that the 747 had been hit by two Soviet missiles that damaged it so severely that it plummeted out of control into the sea near Sakhalin Island. That would have taken a little over two minutes, but Japanese radar showed that it went from 35,000 feet to 1,000 feet in 12 minutes, slowing down as it went. The pilot was in control.

The Soviet pilot who fired the missiles, said “the target is destroyed.” He claimed his second missile had blown off an engine and half the left wing, but both the black-box tapes, which the Russians made available in January 1993, show that all four engines were functioning normally. The first missile tore a small hole in the rear of the passenger cabin, causing decompression, but not preventing a controlled descent. The plane dropped off the Japanese radar at about a thousand feet, but that does not mean that it crashed.

A study done for Sen. Helms reported that eyewitnesses had seen the plane land safely on the water. That explains why he requested eyewitness accounts. Soviet military communications showed that commanding officers knew from their own radar where the plane was coming down. They ordered both navy and civilian vessels to converge on Moneron, a tiny island off Sakhalin.

Avraham Shifrin, the director of a research center in Israel on Soviet prisons and forced labor camps, issued a paper on July 11, 1991, in which he claimed that Soviet coast guard vessels under the command of KGB General Romanenko were alongside the plane almost immediately and that all the passengers and crew, together with their luggage, were removed and taken to the coast guard base. He says they were subsequently taken to prison camps, except for Cong. Larry McDonald, who was taken to the Lubyanka, KGB headquarters in Moscow. Shifrin, a former high Soviet official who had served several years in the Gulag before emigrating to Israel, had good contacts among former prisoners and emigr?s.

What lends great weight to his claim that nearly everyone aboard survived is that no bodies or suitcases were found floating in the water or in the plane after it sank. Izvestia reported that the divers who inspected it were amazed by what they saw. There were a few body parts, but no bodies, no baggage, few personal effects and no life jackets. The seat belts were all unfastened. Of the 269 persons aboard, the body parts could not account for more than 10, if that.

Sen. Helms asked about survivors, where they were being held and what they did with the bodies of those who didn’t survive. Those are questions that our new friend Vladimir Putin should be willing to answer. They need to be asked.

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