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Hersh's Book on Downing of Jet Called Off Course

October 12, 1986|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh--no stranger to controversy--says he's been feeling better the last few days.

The reason: His latest book, "The Target Is Destroyed: What Really Happened to Flight 007 and What America Knew About It," finally got a bad review.

After a month of unanimous praise from critics in the national press--including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post--the New Republic, the small but influential Washington magazine of politics and the arts, dispelled Hersh's unease in its issue dated Oct. 13.

Took Hersh to Task

The review by Edward Luttwak, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a private defense consultant, took Hersh to task for publishing "the leftovers of a failed investigation" into the destruction of an off-course Korean airliner by a Soviet warplane three years ago. All 269 aboard the commercial flight were killed in the incident, which sparked an international crisis.

"It was going too well," Hersh joked during a telephone interview last week. "I'm glad I finally got a bad one." Hersh, a Pulitzer Prize winner perhaps best known for exposing the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, was widely criticized for his previous book-length venture--a thick volume on the White House years of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger--which some said was a largely one-sided, negative view of the diplomat.

However, reviewer Luttwak wasn't laughing over his critical flight into the wind of conventional wisdom concerning "The Target Is Destroyed" (Random House: $17.95). Luttwak, also interviewed by telephone, said he was still "angry" about the book, which he claimed applied a more lenient standard to Soviet military behavior than to that of the United States.

In the book, Hersh asserts that Soviet radar operators "undoubtedly" mistook the Korean airliner for a U.S. reconnaissance plane that flew a similar route earlier that day. At any rate, Hersh writes, the Soviets--mainly officers and men far down the chain of command--acted in an atmosphere of confusion and stress and did not know the plane was a civilian airliner.

Even though he doubts that was the case, Luttwak said that such an assertion implies a morally dubious attitude.

"That whole line of argument in Hersh is based on the assumption the Soviets are allowed to shoot down a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft," Luttwak said, noting that in his opinion a diplomatic protest of an overflight is the only legitimate response--at least to a first intrusion. His criticisms differ vastly from other reviewers who generally have pronounced Hersh's work a revealing and evenhanded treatment of a subject that has prompted at least five books and become a fertile topic for conspiracy buffs. In fact, "Target" has been praised for debunking conspiracy theories involving U.S. intelligence and the doomed airliner.

In particular, "Target" has been praised for its account of how U.S. officials used--or misused--the intelligence about the downing of the plane.

Hersh, citing numerous interviews with members of the U.S. electronic intelligence network, contends that U.S. officials ignored or distorted evidence that the shoot-down was a case of mistaken identity in order to score points in a propaganda battle with the Soviet Union.

Hersh's editor at Random House, Robert Loomis, said Luttwak's review apparently is the only unfavorable comment to emerge so far about the widely publicized book.

Loomis, who said the review had been read to him over the telephone, said: "It's a pure political review as far as I can see." He added, however, that an error cited in "Target" should be corrected "if it is an error."

The mistake noted by Luttwak is on Page 100. There, Hersh writes that Fritz Ermath was the Central Intelligence Agency's national intelligence officer for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe when the Korean airliner was shot down on the night of Aug. 31-Sept. 1, 1983. By Hersh's account, Ermath was a major adviser to CIA director William J. Casey during the crisis and "found more than enough evidence to conclude that the Soviet interceptor pilot had identified the aircraft as civilian before shooting it down."

Not at the CIA

In fact, Luttwak wrote, Ermath was not then at the CIA, a point confirmed by agency spokesperson Kathi Pherson. However, Ermath now holds the position he supposedly held in September, 1983, Pherson added, explaining that Ermath is a Soviet specialist who has shifted frequently between jobs in government and at private think tanks, including the Rand Corp.

Luttwak said he mentioned the error, which is described as a "howler" in the review, because Ermath, a personal acquaintance, pointed it out to him.

Hersh, who makes extensive use of unidentified sources in the book, responded to Luttwak's charge by saying, "I was told that (about Ermath) by people who know what's going on." He added, "Casey doesn't talk to me. I wish he would."

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