The story of KAL-007 should come to mind when considering the fate of MH-17. There might be legitimate reasons for opposing the increasingly authoritarian government of President Vladimir Putin, but exploiting a tragedy does not equate to constructive statecraft for dealing with an adversary.
At a minimum, the White House and State Department one year ago displayed unseemly haste in deciding to be first out of the starting gate with a narrative implicating Russia, at least indirectly -- a narrative that may not be based on fact. That twelve months have passed and there has been no effort made to either correct or amplify the record is unacceptable.
Someone Is Lying
Both Russia and Ukraine deny any active role in the MH-17 shoot down. So do the anti-coup forces in southeastern Ukraine. Someone knows something and is lying to conceal a role in the incident. From the U.S. perspective what happened needs to be clarified and become a matter of public record. No other nation has the resources that the U.S. had to come up with an evidence-based answer; and intelligence collection and analysis are the tools that must be used. The information released to date does not bear close scrutiny; it does not permit an informed judgment as to who is lying about the shoot-down of Flight 17.
One year ago today, National Intelligence Director James Clapper authorized a background briefing including some sketchy talking points in a very short "Government Assessment" for selected mainstream journalists. It was just five days after the shoot-down and two days after Secretary of State Kerry pointed the finger of blame at anti-coup Ukrainians and Russia. Understandably, corroboration was being sought.
Like Kerry's presentations on the Sunday talk shows of July 20, 2014, however, much of the "Government Assessment" was derived from postings on "social media." The July 22, 2014 briefing addressed, inconclusively, the key issue of who fired the Buk anti-aircraft missile widely believed to have downed the airliner on July 17, 2014.
No update to that five-day-after "Government Assessment" has been provided over the past year. Are we asked to believe that one year later the intelligence community still cannot adduce evidence that goes beyond insinuation regarding the Buk missile?
The July 22, 2014 briefing also suggested that the missile might have been fired by a Ukrainian "defector." Has there been no clarification on that point? It is, frankly, very hard for us to believe that the U.S. intelligence community has been unable to expand its understanding of these key issues over the past year.
To be sure, there has long been a tendency in Washington to "fix the intelligence around the policy," to quote the Downing Street memo relating to the inglorious start of the Iraq War. More recently, we note the claim repeatedly made by Secretary of State John Kerry on August 30, 2013, that "we know" the regime of Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical incidents near Damascus nine days before.
In that case, Kerry also cited a "Government Assessment" to support his charges. We saw the introduction of this unique genre of "assessment," instead of the normally required "Intelligence Assessment," as evidence that honest intelligence analysts were refusing to go along with the preferred narrative. In fact, Kerry's accusations turned out to have been based on false and even fabricated intelligence provided by opponents of the Syrian government.
Choosing to Reveal the Truth
If the White House has concrete, probative intelligence regarding MH-17, we strongly suggest that the time is right to approve it for release before the "blame Russia" narrative becomes completely dominant. The American people are perfectly capable of judging for themselves what took place but they need to have all the information presented without bias and without any attempt to evade unpleasant conclusions. And it should be done even given the risk of compromising "sources and methods," as the broader issue of war or peace with Russia is something that should be of paramount concern to every American.
What is needed is an Interagency Intelligence Assessment -- the mechanism used in the past to present significant findings. We are hearing indirectly from some of our former colleagues that the draft Dutch report contradicts some of the real intelligence that has been collected. Resorting to another "Government (not Intelligence) Assessment" to sidestep the accountability issue is not appropriate and is itself an insult to the integrity and professionalism of the intelligence community.
Mr. President, we believe you need to seek out honest intelligence analysts now and hear them out, particularly if they are challenging or even opposing the prevailing groupthink narrative. They might well convince you to take steps to deal more forthrightly with the shoot-down of MH-17 and minimize the risk that relations with Russia might degenerate into a replay of the Cold War with the threat of escalation into thermonuclear conflict. In all candor, we suspect that at least some of your advisers fail to appreciate the enormity of that danger.
The courtesy of a reply is requested.
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