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The missing tape.

In the August 18-25, 1984, issue The Nation published David Perason's investigation into the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007. Coming nearly a year after a Soviet fighter shot the 747-200B Superjet out of the sky over Sakhalin Island, Perason's article was the first in the American press to thoroughly scrutinize the official U.S. account of the tragedy. The story concluded with seventeen questions--all aimed at determinig what U.S. officials knew about the affair and when they knew it.

Although the article provoked a modest flurry of publicity (Pearson was interviewed on the Today show, for example), the questions it posed were largely ignored by the press--with the notable exception of New York Times columnist Tom Wicker. Administration officials scoffed at the story and offered quasi denials. Richard Burt, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, could do no better than call the article "pure baloney," adding that he was "aware of absolutely no evidence to suggest" that the United States knew the airliner was off course prior to its downing. The seventeen questions went unaddressed.

Last week a new question was added to the list. In a Federal court in Washington, it was revealed that the U.S. Air Force had destroyed a tape that showed the course taken by Flight 007. According to testimony in a lawsuit against the U.S. government and other parties, brought by relatives of almost all the passengers on Flight 007, the Air Force Regional Operations Command Center at Anchorage had tracked the airliner on radar after its takeoff and recorded at least part of its flight path.

What happened to the tape? It is standard air Force procedure to impound any information relating to an air disaster. But in this instance the Air Force recycled the tape. The reason? According to The Washington Post, Jan K. Von Flatern, an attorney with the Justice Department, told the court that the Air Force "had no idea that it was going to be involved or that that data would be useful in the litigation at any point."

Before being recycled, the tape was stored for either thirty hours or fifteen days, according to conflicting statements by Von Flatern during the trial. In either period, the Air Force would have known that it had hot property. Yet the tape wasn't preserved. One need not be a conspiracy theorist to ask why the tape was destroyed--as lawyers for the families did.

From the beginning, the Administration placed a tight rein on information about Flight 007. For instance, it has released only the voice transmissions of the Soviet pilots, not those of their ground controllers, though it possesses those tapes or has access to them from the Japanese government.

The pattern of suppressing information has been consistent. Three hours after the plane plunged into the Sea of Japan, the Anchorage office of the National Transportation Safety Board was notified that the plane was missing. It began to investigate. Early the next morning, the Anchorage office was told to send immediately all the material it had gathered to headquarters in washington. From there, the information was sent to the State Department. The Anchorage office was notified that it was off the case and that the State Department would conduct the investigation. The transfer removed the data from the custody of an agency that had no power to classify it and sequestered it in the State Department. The latter has wrapped the flag of national security around much of the information on the case.

The affair of the destroyed tape is further evidence that the government has been less than candid about the downing of K.A.L. 007. Whether the tape was lost as the result of a foul-up or a cover-up, its destruction prevents us from determining its relevance. Could it have provided independent corroboration--or refutation--of official accounts?

We do not pretend to know the full story of the downing of K.A.L. 007. We do know that the Administration has not told the American people the whole truth. That is why The Nation is following up Pearson's story. We expect to publish the results of our, investigation in the coming months. Our primary purpose is, as it always has been, to prod Congress into conducting a full inquiry into this still-murky incident which increased tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.
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Title Annotation:Korean Air Lines Flight 007 tragedy of 1983
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Mar 16, 1985
Previous Article:Middle East thaw?
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