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Washington prodded Boeing to help Japan probe deadly '85 JAL crash: former U.S. official

A U.S. attorney who was with the Justice Department at the time of the deadly 1985 Japan Airlines crash in Gunma Prefecture has said Washington pressured Boeing Co. to cooperate with Japan’s investigation, rejecting suspicions across the Pacific that Washington sought to protect the plane maker.

Speaking in her first interview, Linda Candler, who was an international affairs prosecutor with the Justice Department at the time of the crash that claimed 520 lives, said she persuaded Boeing to submit its repair team to voluntary written questioning by Japanese authorities.

“Look, the Justice Department is supporting this request,” Candler recalls telling Boeing.

“We are prepared to go to court, to get a court order, to seek answers from Boeing, in response to those questions. I’m hoping that won’t be necessary. I am asking for your cooperation,” she said. “And they agreed.”

Candler, currently a California attorney, was speaking ahead of the 31st anniversary Friday of what remains the world’s deadliest single-aircraft accident. JAL Flight 123, a Boeing 747 bound for Osaka with 524 passengers and crew, crashed into the Osutaka Ridge in Gunma Prefecture after suffering an explosive decompression. Only four survived.

In 1987, a Japanese government investigation panel concluded the accident was caused by improper repairs that Boeing conducted on the pressure bulkhead, a problem JAL did not detect in maintenance checks.

While Japanese prosecutors sought to question and charge Boeing workers with professional negligence, it was difficult to do so because of the U.S. legal system’s tendency not to charge people for acts committed unintentionally.

The two countries had no mutual treaty for criminal investigation cooperation, meaning the United States was not obliged to assist Japanese authorities with their probe.

But the U.S. government eventually agreed to ask Boeing to cooperate, resulting in written questions being sent to more than 40 people who were involved in a faulty repair that was made in 1978 after the same plane sustained damage from a hard landing when its tail struck the runway at Osaka airport.

“This was not my decision, personally,” Candler said. “This was a decision that the Department of Justice made, together in cooperation with the Japanese. And we decided to cooperate and seek assistance from Boeing to the extent possible. We would see if we could assist even though there was no treaty and there was no requirement that we provide assistance.”

“It was a very important case, and the Japanese people were looking for answers. If we could help with that, I was happy to help. I argued strongly that we should assist, if we could,” she said.

In 1988, the Gunma Prefectural Police referred papers on 20 people, including four Boeing employees, to prosecutors on suspicion of professional negligence. The Maebashi District Prosecutor’s Office, which covers the prefecture, tried to charge everyone on the list, including 16 people from JAL and the Japanese transport ministry.

Japanese prosecutors traveled to Washington in May 1989 to negotiate for face-to-face questioning of the Boeing employees, according to sources in the U.S. and Japanese governments and at Boeing.

After the attempt hit a snag, however, the Japanese changed tack to seek written questioning and managed to secure it with U.S. government help, with one source saying the Americans took an “uncommon step” in Japan’s favor.

This contrasts with a 1976 investigation in which Japanese prosecutors had asked the U.S. side to interview Carl Kotchian, vice chairman of Lockheed Corp., in connection with a bribery scandal over which former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka would be arrested. The interview via U.S. judge as proxy was allowed in return for immunity for Kotchian, a deal the Japanese accepted to get to Tanaka, who for them was the more important target.

In the JAL case, however, it wasn’t an option to grant immunity to Boeing workers because Japan considered the company’s responsibility to be greater than that of the Japanese inspectors who failed to detect Boeing’s faulty repair.

Under Japanese law, people can be punished for professional negligence. But such cases are commonly treated as civil lawsuits in the United States, and the general view is that punishing individuals for an unintentional mistake cannot contribute to preventing aviation accidents, according to former U.S. National Transportation Safety Board official Ron Schleede, who investigated the accident in Japan.

Of this Candler said: “I think you have to respect each country’s judicial system. But I can’t really second-guess it. Every country has its own laws and offenses and prosecutions based on different statutes, and you can’t really say what U.S. law allows is better or worse than what Japanese law allows.”

As for the lingering argument in Japan that the U.S. government secretly assisted Boeing in view of its importance to U.S. industry, Candler unequivocally denied it.

“Absolutely wrong,” Candler said. “To my knowledge, Boeing never came to the Justice Department and asked for any kind of special treatment.”

Former officials familiar with the investigation said the questionnaires yielded no answers because the Boeing workers refused to cooperate fully.

In 1989, Japanese prosecutors officially dropped the case concerning all 20 people, including one from the Japanese transport ministry who committed suicide.

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