Every conspiracy theory starts with an information vacuum, which then tumbles into fantasy.
In a freak accident 31 years ago this month, an intern at the American Embassy in Tokyo contributed to conspiracy theories by pressing the wrong key the day Korean Airlines Flight 007 was shot down by the Soviets in 1983.
The mistake destroyed hours of work American staff were doing in the wake of the incident, adding to confusion that eventually gave room for conspiracies to mushroom.
The 1983 downing of KAL 007 sharpened American tensions with the Soviet Union to heights not seen since the Cuban missile crisis. The Cold War was hot: Ronald Reagan was president, the Soviets were occupying Afghanistan, and that same year the Soviet military readied plans to preemptively strike the United States with nuclear weapons if it felt an American attack was imminent.
John C. Beck, now 54 years old and the owner of a consulting firm, then was 23 years old, fresh out of Harvard. As a Japanese-speaking American with some background in computer programming, the U.S. embassy in Tokyo tasked him with training staff how to use computers. It was the early days of miniaturized computers, and all of the terminals at the embassy were connected through one main system.
Sometime in the early hours of the day KAL 007 was shot down, Beck arrived at his workstation at the embassy.
One of the secretaries that worked in the agriculture department liked to beat the commute by arriving at the crack of dawn as well. While waiting, the secretary would play a computer game. But the game, like many in this early age of computer programming, had a bug and would freeze up on occasion.
It was a problem that happened every few days, Beck said. The secretary would call and ask him to restart her terminal so that she could resume playing.
Beck was totally unaware that earlier that morning the Soviets had shot down a Korean airliner in the Sea of Japan. Staffers were frantically compiling information from eyewitnesses and Japanese sources. Dozens of staff were translating materials as others worked on a major report for Washington, D.C.
The intern highlighted the secretary’s workstation on his monitor, and hit the button to reset her monitor. At least, he thought he did.
The next thing he knew, the screen went black. At first, he couldn’t quite figure out what happened. Then he realized that he had hit button to reset all terminals, located right next to the button to reset one terminal.
“It was stupid design flaw,” Beck told the Daily Beast.
Beck wasn’t immediately concerned about the mistake. It was still early in the morning, and it was unlikely that embassy staff would be working on anything important at that particular time. Except they were.
As the system booted up, Beck noticed that an abnormal number of terminals were active. But he still had no idea why there was so much computer activity.
Then his supervisor rushed into the room. Beck informed him that he had accidentally reset the system, which sent the supervisor scrambling back into the hall in a panic.
“I still hadn't really registered what had happened. It didn't bother me much at the time,” Beck said. “By then I had the feeling like I made a big mistake, but I had no clue what it was."
It was the era before auto-save, and embassy staff hadn’t saved their work. Beck had accidentally destroyed hours of urgently needed American reports.
Half an hour later, the deputy chief of mission walked into the computer room, and told him about the downed flight, KAL 007.
“I turned completely ashen, completely pale,” Beck remembers. It would take hours more for staff to rewrite their report for higher-ups in D.C.
Beck copped to resetting the computer system, and was fired. Luckily for the Harvard grad, it was his last week at the internship. All things considered, he thought, the punishment was not so severe.
But the fallout would reverberate for years.
"Missing a keystroke by literally one key… contributed to conspiracy theories that lasted decades,” Beck said.
In the hours after KAL 007 was shot down, false reports reigned. The American embassy in Tokyo was a major hub for information, but was hindered by Beck’s mistake.
Six hours after the plane had been shot down, South Korean officials announced that the flight had been forced to land but had done so safely at Sakhalin, a Russian island.
“Early reports said the plane, a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 jetliner on a flight from New York to Seoul with a stop in Anchorage, had been forced down by Soviet Air Force planes and that all 240 passengers and 29 crew members were believed to be safe,” read a Sept. 1, 1983 New York Times article.
A Miami Herald article reported a Korean Air Lines confirmation that the jet was safe, and also noted that Korean state news said the same.
One conspiracy theory, from the son-in-law of one of the victims, holds that surviving passengers and crew were taken from the plane by the KGB and placed in labor camps. Another said that the flight was part of a spy mission, or that it was an assassination attempt on Rep. Larry McDonald, an anti-communist and leader in the John Birch Society.
All drew oxygen from the confusion Beck contributed to in the wake of the crash.
The American Embassy in Tokyo could not confirm Beck's internship, saying they did not keep such records from the early 1980s, and both the ambassador and deputy chief of mission have since passed away. However, two contemporary friends of Beck's, Osamu Sekiguchi and Ryo Sambongi, confirmed to the Beast that Beck worked at the embassy in Tokyo.
Beck later went on to receive a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior at Harvard, and teach at a number of prestigious universities. His most recent book is Good vs. Good.