WASHINGTON — A Soviet radar outage over the Kamchatka Peninsula led to the 1983 downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, a Cold War-era Soviet defector said.
In an interview on the CBS program "60 Minutes" to be broadcast Sunday, former Soviet air force Capt. Alexander Zuyev said Arctic gales knocked out key warning radars 10 days before the ill-fated Sept. 1, 1983, flight.
Zuyev's account tends to support those who have argued that the disaster, in which all 269 people on board were killed, was a tragic mix-up and not a deliberate attack by Soviet fighters on what was known to be a civilian airliner.
Zuyev, described in the broadcast as the last important defector of the Cold War, flew his advanced MIG-29 fighter to Turkey on May 20, 1989. He was then whisked to the United States, where has been extensively debriefed by military and intelligence officers in secret locations. Until now, U.S. officials had blocked him from speaking publicly about how and why he fled the Soviet Union, correspondent Mike Wallace reported.
With full radar coverage, Zuyev said Soviet pilots could have intercepted KAL Flight 007 over Kamchatka, identified it as a civilian Boeing 747 and forced it to land. But because of the outage, they did not catch up to the aircraft until hours later, over Sakhalin Island, where it was shot down after having flown off course for 5 hours and 26 minutes.
Moscow insisted at the time that the flight had been a joint U.S.-South Korean spying mission, a charge that heightened U.S.-Soviet tension.
Zuyev said Moscow had been aware of the radar outages and had pressed local military authorities for a quick fix. Unable to do so, the Soviet Far East command then had lied to Moscow about having corrected the problem, Zuyev added.
He said he obtained this account in 1985 from a friend who had been an air traffic controller on Sakhalin at the time of the shooting.
The CIA declined comment on Zuyev's account. But Marine Lt. Col. Harry Spies, one of a large inter-agency and inter-service team of debriefers, expressed high regard for Zuyev's credibility.
"We were confident that the information that we were getting was valid," Spies, now commander of an attack squadron at Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, N.C., said in a telephone interview.