LA Times columnist Max Boot's attack on Seymour Hersh riddled with inaccuracies


Los Angeles Times op-ed columnist and Weekly Standard contributing editor Max Boot used distortions and baseless accusations in an attempt to discredit New Yorker investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. In his January 27 column, Boot falsely claimed that declassified Soviet archives debunked Hersh's reporting on the destruction of Korean Airlines Flight 007 (KAL 007), which was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1983; misleadingly claimed that Hersh "tried to peddle a documentary based on forged documents"; and misleadingly challenged Hersh's report on the cost of unmanned Predator aircraft.

A "claim debunked by the opening of Soviet archives"

In support of his contention that Hersh's "record doesn't inspire confidence," Boot wrote: "In 1986 he published a book suggesting that the Soviets shot down a South Korean airliner because they mistook it for a U.S. spy plane -- a claim debunked by the opening of Soviet archives." The truth is that Soviet documents disprove only the Soviets' claim that the airliner was indeed an American spy plane; no documents debunk Hersh's argument in his book The Target Is Destroyed (Random House, 1986) that the Soviets initially mistook KAL 007 for an American spy plane and shot it down under this misapprehension. U.S. State Department officials, a former director for the U.S. Information Agency, and the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization all support Hersh's analysis.

The Associated Press reported on October 16, 1992, that the KGB (the Soviet intelligence agency) had deliberately concealed data culled from the wreckage, including the plane's voice and data recorders (its "black boxes"), to preserve this allegation. But a January 13, 1988, Los Angeles Times article reported that U.S. State Department officials had concluded that the Soviets had mistakenly identified KAL 007 before shooting it down:

These statements [by U.S. intelligence officials that the Soviets knew KAL 007 was a civilian craft] appear to be contradicted by recently declassified intelligence estimates released Tuesday by Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), which indicate that U.S. officials had concluded as early as Sept. 2, 1983, that the Soviets were unaware that it was a civilian airliner. The estimates were contained in two letters written about a year ago to Hamilton by J. Edward Fox, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs.

"We had concluded by the second day that the Soviets thought they were pursuing a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft throughout most, if not all, of the overflight," Fox wrote. He later added that "the bottom line is that the Soviets, through their own ineptitude, probably were not certain what type of aircraft they were shooting down."

Similarly, the Boston Globe article reported on September 12, 1992: "A year after the downing, a senior State Department official told reporters that, although the Korean plane was definitely not on a spy mission, the Soviet air-defense officers who shot it down genuinely mistook the 747 for an RC-135 spy plane." A February 20, 1992, New York Times article also reported that the State Department had "acknowledged" that Hersh's report about the Soviet misidentification of KAL 007 was accurate.

Alvin Snyder, a former director of television for the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) who was involved in the controversy over the shooting, also agreed with Hersh's view. Snyder claimed in a September 1, 1996, New York Times article that "the Russians believed the intruder aircraft was an American RC-135 reconnaissance plane, many of which flew routine missions in the area." Snyder asserted that taped evidence of conversations between Russian pilots and controllers "show[ed] that [the Russian pilot who shot down the plane, Major Gennady] Osipovich could not identify the plane, and that he fired warning cannons and tipped his wings, an international signal to force the plane to land. All this failed to get the crew's attention." As director of worldwide television for USIA, Snyder was responsible for creating a video presentation addressing the shooting down of KAL 007 to be shown to the United Nations Security Council in 1983. Snyder alleged that [U.S. officials] provided him with "selective information": tape recordings of the Russian pilots carefully edited and arranged to promote the accusation that the Soviets had "wantonly shot down what they knew to be a passenger plane."

An investigation of KAL 007 by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a U.N. agency "whose mandate is to ensure the safe, efficient and orderly evolution of international civil aviation," echoed Snyder's assertions about the Soviet's mistaken identification of the plane. The ICAO determined that Soviet air defense had failed to take all measures to properly identify KAL 007, and were operating under the assumption that it was an American spy plane. The ICAO's 1993 report concluded: "The USSR air defence command assumed that KE 007 [KAL 007] was a United States RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft before they ordered its destruction," though the report also criticized Soviet air defense for attacking the plane "despite certain indications that suggested" the plane was a civilian aircraft.

He "tried to peddle a documentary based on forged documents"

Boot also claimed, "In 1997 he [Hersh] published a book full of nasty allegations about John F. Kennedy that was widely panned. As part of that project he tried to peddle a documentary based on forged documents." But Hersh did not know that certain documents were forgeries when he wrote The Dark Side of Camelot (Back Bay Books, 1998), or when ABC partially produced a documentary based on it. Indeed, it was Hersh's own analysis -- in conjunction with ABC -- that revealed the forgeries. Hersh removed the portions of his book based on the forged documents prior to publication, and the documentary that eventually aired on ABC on December 4, 1997, included no material based upon the forged documents, as Time explained in an October 6, 1997, article.

"[H]e claimed that Predator drones cost $40 million"

Finally, Boot wrote of Hersh: "In a story in October 2001, he claimed that Predator drones cost $40 million; the actual price tag is $2.5 million."

Hersh wrote in an October 22, 2001, New Yorker article: "The Predator, which costs forty million dollars and cruises at speeds as slow as eighty miles an hour, is equipped with imaging radar and an array of infrared and television cameras that are capable of beaming high-resolution images to ground stations around the world." Boot is correct that a single Predator aircraft costs about $2.5 million, not $40 million, as Hersh's article suggests (though the cost rises to about $7 million when associated surveillance equipment is included, as the Air Force News Service reported). But Hersh's passing reference to the cost of the Predator is irrelevant to the thrust of his article. Moreover, a United States Air Force online fact sheet about the RQ-1 and MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicles lists the cost of the Predator system -- which includes four aircraft -- at $40 million in 1997 dollars.

Boot is also the Olin Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where a bio describes Boot as an expert on national security and U.S. military history and technology. The John M. Olin Foundation Inc. is one of the leading financial backers of conservative think tanks and other organizations.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.