Reader Les Baitzer writes:
In the continuing discussion of President Bush’s partial release of classified information in an October 2002 pre war intelligence report, I’ve not seen any commentary on a similar incident 23 years ago that involved President Reagan. I am a former Air National Guard Intelligence Officer with over 25 years’ experience, including before, during, and after this incident.
Remember Korean Airlines Flight 007?
On September 1, 1983, the Soviet Air Force shot down an unarmed Korean passenger airplane that had accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace. It was flying at a fixed altitude, on a fixed course, and at a fixed airspeed when it was fired upon by a Soviet fighter plane. It crashed and killed all 269 passengers and crew aboard, including a United States Congressman.
Wikipedia has a very accurate account of that incident here: “Korean Air Flight 007.” The Wikipedia article includes this comment: “In an act that surprised many within the U.S. intelligence community, the U.S. delegation to the United Nations played tapes of intercepted communications between Soviet fighter pilots and their ground control. While not publicly claimed, it is almost certain that these communications were originally encrypted.”
Saying that President Reagan’s decision to release a portion the information we had regarding this incident “surprised many within the intelligence community” is an understatement of colossal magnitude. This release of information by Reagan absolutely shocked the intelligence community!
Releasing this information to the public, not only compromised almost our entire East Asian listening network, it also gave the Soviets considerable information about our intelligence gathering methods, capabilities, and techniques.
The tradeoff was Reagan’s desire to publicize this incident to further paint the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire” it indeed was. Much was made of the fact that the Soviet Fighter planes never actually made visual contact with the Korean airliner, and US Intelligence knew that the final decision to shoot it down was actually made in Moscow. US Intelligence monitored all of those communications and the decisionmaking process.
During this time, US RC-135 Aircraft that are intelligence gathering platforms, continually probed the Soviet Eastern border and, while they would occasionally be detected on Soviet Radars, their fighter planes never even got close to the RC-135s. Immediately after the incident, the Soviets commented that they took the action because they believed the aircraft to be a US RC-135. It is a fact that the radar cross-section for an RC-135 and most types of modern airliners would appear quite similar on Soviet radar.
However, as any Junior Officer would know, RC-135s employed extensive measures to avoid detection and did not fly at fixed altitudes, at fixed airspeeds, and on a fixed course, such as an airliner would.
Thus Reagan’s release of this information, while undoubtedly a significant international political coup, also provided the American public with a very thorough explanation of the situation. It also greatly embarrassed the Soviet Union, demonstrated their ineptness, and, although I doubt Reagan considered this when he released the information, it was yet another Cold War victory that eventually led to the collapse of that Evil Empire some six years later.
As Jack Kelly wrote in his April 11, 2006 column appearing on RealClearPolitics: “Presidents are authorized to declassify sensitive material, and the public benefits when they do.” Political hacks like Joe Wilson and Richard Clarke in concert with very biased anti-administration media organizations run a dangerous bluff when they espouse positions publicly that they know to be untrue, but that fit their political agenda. They bet that certain information won’t be declassified and they look like fools when it is released.
During my many years as an Intelligence Officer, I felt that much more information could be declassified and released to the public, and I believe that to this day.
The performance of the mainstream media last week regarding the Fitzgerald brief is an outrageous, outraging disgrace in many respects. Mr. Baitzer’s thoughtful message touches on one.