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Reprinted from Consortium News
During a recent interview, I was asked to express my conclusions about the July 17, 2014 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, prompting me to take another hard look at Official Washington's dubious claims -- pointing the finger of blame at eastern Ukrainian rebels and Moscow -- based on shaky evidence regarding who was responsible for this terrible tragedy.
Unlike serious professional investigative reporters, intelligence analysts often are required by policymakers to reach rapid judgments without the twin luxuries of enough time and conclusive evidence. Having spent almost 30 years in the business of intelligence analysis, I have faced that uncomfortable challenge more times than I wish to remember.
But the trust-us-it-was-Putin marathon dance has now run for 13 months -- and it's getting tiresome to hear the P.R. people in the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper still claiming that the U.S. intelligence community has not revised or updated its analysis of the incident since July 22, 2014, just five days after the crash.
Back then, Clapper's office, trying to back up Secretary of State John Kerry's anti-Russian rush to judgment, cited very sketchy evidence -- in both senses of the word -- drawn heavily from "social media" accounts. Obviously, the high-priced and high-caliber U.S. intelligence community has learned much more about this very sensitive case since that time, but the administration won't tell the American people and the world. The DNI's office still refers inquiring reporters back to the outdated report from more than a year ago.
None of this behavior would make much sense if the later U.S. intelligence data supported the hasty finger-pointing toward Putin and the rebels. If more solid and persuasive intelligence corroborated those initial assumptions, you'd think U.S. government officials would be falling over themselves to leak the evidence and declare "we told you so." And the DNI office's claim that it doesn't want to prejudice the MH-17 investigation doesn't hold water either -- since the initial rush to judgment did exactly that.
So, despite the discomfort attached to making judgments with little reliable evidence -- and at the risk of sounding like former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- it seems high time to address what we know, what we don't know, and why it may be that we don't know what we don't know.
Those caveats notwithstanding I would say it is a safe bet that the hard technical intelligence evidence upon which professional intelligence analysts prefer to rely does not support Secretary of State Kerry's unseemly rush to judgment in blaming the Russian side just three days after the shoot-down.
"An Extraordinary Tool"?
When the tragedy occurred, U.S. intelligence collection assets were focused laser-like on the Ukraine-Russia border region where the passenger plane crashed. Besides collection from overhead imagery and sensors, U.S. intelligence presumably would have electronic intercepts of communications as well as information from human sources inside many of the various factions.
That would mean that hundreds of intelligence analysts are likely to have precise knowledge regarding how MH-17 was shot down and by whom. Though there may be some difference of opinion among analysts about how to read the evidence -- as there often is -- it is out of the question that the intelligence community would withhold this data from President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and other top officials.
Thus, it is a virtual certainty that the Obama administration has far more conclusive evidence than the "social media" cited by Kerry in casting suspicions on the rebels and Moscow when he made the rounds of Sunday talk shows just three days after the crash. On NBC's "Meet the Press," Kerry told David Gregory that "social media" is an "extraordinary tool." The question is, a tool for what?
The DNI report two days later rehashed many of the "social media" references that Kerry cited and added some circumstantial evidence about Russia providing other forms of military equipment to the rebels. But the DNI report contains no mention of Russia supplying a Buk anti-aircraft missile system that Kerry and the DNI cited as the suspected weapon that downed the plane.
So, why does the administration continue refusing to go beyond such dubious sources and shaky information in attributing blame for the shoot-down? Why not fill in the many blanks with actual and hard U.S. intelligence data that would have been available and examined over the following days and weeks? Did the Russians supply a Buk or other missile battery that would be capable of hitting MH-17 flying at 33,000 feet? Yes or no.
If not supplied by the Russians, did the rebels capture a Buk or similar missile battery from the Ukrainians who had them in their own inventory? Or did some element of the Ukrainian government -- possibly associated with one of Ukraine's corrupt oligarchs -- fire the missile, either mistaking the Malaysian plane for a Russian one or calculating how the tragedy could be played for propaganda purposes? Or was it some other sinister motive?
Without doubt, the U.S. government has evidence that could support or refute any one of those possibilities, but it won't tell you even in some declassified summary form. Why? Is it somehow unpatriotic to speculate that John Kerry, with his checkered reputation for truth-telling regarding Syria and other foreign crises, chose right off the bat to turn the MH-17 tragedy to Washington's propaganda advantage, an exercise in "soft power" to throw Putin on the defensive and rally Europe behind U.S. economic sanctions to punish Russia for supporting ethnic Russians in Crimea and eastern Ukraine resisting the new U.S.-arranged political order in Kiev?