Did Top US Official Mislead Congress on MH-17 Shoot-down?
March 16, 2015
Robert Parry / Consortium News & Glenn Greenwald / The Intercept
After analysts found no proof that the Russians had delivered a BUK anti-aircraft system to the rebels and concluded that the attack on the MH-17 jet was apparently carried out by a rogue element of the Ukrainian military, the White House went silent about the MH-17 shoot-down. Not so for Victoria Nuland, a US official helped orchestrate last year's coup -- which saw the pro-US regime in Kiev dispatch neo-Nazi militias to carry out "death squad" operations against ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.
Did Top US Official Mislead Congress on MH-17 Shoot-down?
Almost eight months after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, the US intelligence community claims it has not updated its assessment since five days after the crash. Yet, in House testimony, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland blamed Russia for last summer's shoot-down of MH-17 over Ukraine. So, did Nuland mislead Congress or just play a propaganda game?
Nuland's Mastery of Ukraine Propaganda
Robert Parry / Consortium News
(March 11, 2015) -- An early skill learned by Official Washington's neoconservatives, when they were cutting their teeth inside the US government in the 1980s, was how to frame their arguments in the most propagandistic way, so anyone who dared to disagree with any aspect of the presentation seemed unpatriotic or crazy.
During my years at The Associated Press and Newsweek, I dealt with a number of now prominent neocons who were just starting out and mastering these techniques at the knee of top CIA psychological warfare specialist Walter Raymond Jr., who had been transferred to President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council staff where Raymond oversaw inter-agency task forces that pushed Reagan's hard-line agenda in Central America and elsewhere. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Victory of 'Perception Management.'"]
One of those quick learners was Robert Kagan, who was then a protégé of Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams. Kagan got his first big chance when he became director of the State Department's public diplomacy office for Latin America, a key outlet for Raymond's propaganda schemes.
Though always personable in his dealings with me, Kagan grew frustrated when I wouldn't swallow the propaganda that I was being fed. At one point, Kagan warned me that I might have to be "controversialized," i.e. targeted for public attack by Reagan's right-wing media allies and anti-journalism attack groups, like Accuracy in Media, a process that did indeed occur.
Years later, Kagan emerged as one of America's top neocons, a co-founder of the Project for the New American Century, which opened in 1998 to advocate for the US invasion of Iraq, ultimately gaining the backing of a large swath of the US national security establishment in support of that bloody endeavor.
Despite the Iraq disaster, Kagan continued to rise in influence, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a columnist at the Washington Post, and someone whose published criticism so alarmed President Barack Obama last year that he invited Kagan to a White House lunch. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Obama's True Foreign Policy Weakness."]
Kagan's Wife's Coup
But Kagan is perhaps best known these days as the husband of neocon Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, one of Vice President Dick Cheney's former advisers and a key architect of last year's coup in Ukraine, a "regime change" that toppled an elected president and touched off a civil war, which now has become a proxy fight involving nuclear-armed United States and Russia.
In an interview last year with the New York Times, Nuland indicated that she shared her husband's criticism of President Obama for his hesitancy to use American power more assertively. Referring to Kagan's public attacks on Obama's more restrained "realist" foreign policy, Nuland said, "suffice to say . . . that nothing goes out of the house that I don't think is worthy of his talents. Let's put it that way."
But Nuland also seems to have mastered her husband's skill with propaganda, presenting an extreme version of the situation in Ukraine, such that no one would dare quibble with the details. In prepared testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, Nuland even slipped in an accusation blaming Russia for the July 17 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 though the US government has not presented any proof.
Nuland testified, "In eastern Ukraine, Russia and its separatist puppets unleashed unspeakable violence and pillage; MH-17 was shot down."
Now, it's true that if one parses Nuland's testimony, she's not exactly saying the Russians or the ethnic Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine shot down the plane. There is a semi-colon between the "unspeakable violence and pillage" and the passive verb structure "MH-17 was shot down." But anyone seeing her testimony would have understood that the Russians and their "puppets" shot down the plane, killing all 298 people onboard.
When I submitted a formal query to the State Department asking if Nuland's testimony meant that the US government had developed new evidence that the rebels shot down the plane and that the Russians shared complicity, I received no answer.
Perhaps significantly or perhaps not, Nuland presented similarly phrased testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday but made no reference to MH-17. So, I submitted a new inquiry asking whether the omission reflected second thoughts by Nuland about making the claim before the House. Again, I have not received a reply.
However, both of Nuland's appearances place all the blame for the chaos in Ukraine on Russia, including the 6,000 or more deaths. Nuland offered not a single word of self-criticism about how she contributed to these violent events by encouraging last year's coup, nor did she express the slightest concern about the actions of the coup regime in Kiev, including its dispatch of neo-Nazi militias to carry out "anti-terrorist" and "death squad" operations against ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Nuclear War and Clashing Ukraine Narratives."]
Everything was Russia's fault -- or as Nuland phrased it: "This manufactured conflict -- controlled by the Kremlin; fueled by Russian tanks and heavy weapons; financed at Russian taxpayers' expense -- has cost the lives of more than 6,000 Ukrainians, but also of hundreds of young Russians sent to fight and die there by the Kremlin, in a war their government denies."
Nuland was doing her husband proud. As every good propagandist knows, you don't present events with any gray areas; your side is always perfect and the other side is the epitome of evil. And, today, Nuland faces almost no risk that some mainstream journalist will dare contradict this black-and-white storyline; they simply parrot it.
Besides heaping all the blame on the Russians, Nuland cited -- in her Senate testimony -- some of the new "reforms" that the Kiev authorities have just implemented as they build a "free-market state." She said, "They made tough choices to reduce and cap pension benefits, increase work requirements and phase in a higher retirement age; . . . they passed laws cutting wasteful gas subsidies."
In other words, many of the "free-market reforms" are aimed at making the hard lives of average Ukrainians even harder -- by cutting pensions, removing work protections, forcing people to work into their old age and making them pay more for heat during the winter.
Nuland also hailed some of the regime's stated commitments to fighting corruption. But Kiev seems to have simply installed a new cast of bureaucrats looking to enrich themselves. For instance, Ukraine's Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko is an expatriate American who -- before becoming an instant Ukrainian citizen last December -- ran a US taxpayer-financed investment fund for Ukraine that was drained of money as she engaged in lucrative insider deals, which she has fought to keep secret. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Ukraine's Finance Minister's American 'Values.'"]
Yet, none of these concerns were mentioned in Nuland's propagandistic testimony to the House and Senate -- not that any of the committee members or the mainstream press corps seemed to care that they were being spun and even misled. The hearings were mostly opportunities for members of Congress to engage in chest-beating as they demanded that President Obama send US arms to Ukraine for a hot war with Russia.
Regarding the MH-17 disaster, one reason that I was inquisitive about Nuland's insinuation in her House testimony that the Russians and the ethnic Russian rebels were responsible was that some US intelligence analysts have reached a contrary conclusion, according to a source briefed on their findings.
According to that information, the analysts found no proof that the Russians had delivered a BUK anti-aircraft system to the rebels and concluded that the attack was apparently carried out by a rogue element of the Ukrainian military.
After I published that account last summer, the Obama administration went silent about the MH-17 shoot-down, letting stand some initial speculation that had blamed the Russians and the rebels. In the nearly eight months since the tragedy, the US government has failed to make public any intelligence information on the crash. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Danger of an MH-17 'Cold Case.'"]
So, Nuland may have been a bit duplicitous when she phrased her testimony so that anyone hearing it would jump to the conclusion that the Russians and the rebels were to blame. It's true she didn't exactly say so but she surely knew what impression she was leaving.
In that, Nuland appears to have taken a page from the playbook of her husband's old mentor, Elliott Abrams, who provided misleading testimony to Congress on the Iran-Contra Affair in the 1980s -- and even though he was convicted of that offense, Abrams was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush and thus was able to return to government last decade to oversee the selling of the Iraq War.
US Intel Stands Pat on MH-17 Shoot-down
Robert Parry / Consortium News
(March 14, 2015) -- Despite the high stakes involved in the confrontation between nuclear-armed Russia and the United States over Ukraine, the US intelligence community has not updated its assessment on a critical turning point of the crisis -- the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 -- since five days after the crash last July 17, according to the office of the Director of National Intelligence.
On Thursday, when I inquired about arranging a possible briefing on where that US intelligence assessment stands, DNI spokesperson Kathleen Butler sent me the same report that was distributed by the DNI on July 22, 2014, which relied heavily on claims being made about the incident on social media.
Russian-made Buk anti-missile battery
So, I sent a follow-up e-mail to Butler saying: "are you telling me that US intelligence has not refined its assessment of what happened to MH-17 since July 22, 2014?"
Her response: "Yes. The assessment is the same."
I then wrote back: "I don't mean to be difficult but that's just not credible. US intelligence has surely refined its assessment of this important event since July 22."
When she didn't respond, I sent her some more detailed questions describing leaks that I had received about what some US intelligence analysts have since concluded, as well as what the German intelligence agency, the BND, reported to a parliamentary committee last October, according to Der Spiegel.
While there are differences in those analyses about who fired the missile, there appears to be agreement that the Russian government did not supply the ethnic Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine with a sophisticated Buk anti-aircraft missile system that the original DNI report identified as the likely weapon used to destroy the commercial airliner killing all 298 people onboard.
Butler replied to my last e-mail late Friday, saying: "As you can imagine, I can't get into details, but can share that the assessment has IC [Intelligence Community] consensus" -- apparently still referring to the July 22 report.
A Lightning Rod
Last July, the MH-17 tragedy quickly became a lightning rod in a storm of anti-Russian propaganda, blaming the deaths personally on Russian President Vladimir Putin and resulting in European and American sanctions against Russia, which pushed the crisis in Ukraine to a dangerous new level.
Yet, after getting propaganda mileage out of the tragedy -- and after I reported on the growing doubts within the US intelligence community about whether the Russians and the rebels were indeed responsible -- the Obama administration went silent.
In other words, after US intelligence analysts had time to review the data from spy satellites and various electronic surveillance, including phone intercepts, the Obama administration didn't retract its initial rush to judgment -- tossing blame on Russia and the rebels -- but provided no further elaboration either.
This strange behavior reinforces the suspicion that the US government possesses information that contradicts its initial rush to judgment, but senior officials don't want to correct the record because to do so would embarrass them and weaken the value of the tragedy as a propaganda club to pound the Russians.
If the later evidence did bolster the Russia-did-it scenario, it's hard to imagine why the proof would stay secret -- especially since US officials have continued to insinuate that the Russians are guilty.
For instance, on March 4, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland fired a new broadside against Russia when she appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In her prepared testimony, Nuland slipped in an accusation blaming Russia for the MH-17 disaster, saying: "In eastern Ukraine, Russia and its separatist puppets unleashed unspeakable violence and pillage; MH-17 was shot down."
It's true that if one parses Nuland's testimony, she's not exactly saying the Russians or the ethnic Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine shot down the plane. There is a semi-colon between the "unspeakable violence and pillage" and the passive verb structure "MH-17 was shot down." But she clearly meant to implicate the Russians and the rebels.
Nuland's testimony prompted me to submit a query to the State Department asking if she meant to imply that the US government had developed more definitive evidence that the ethnic Russian rebels shot down the plane and that the Russians shared complicity. I received no answer.
I sent a similar request to the CIA and was referred to the DNI, where spokesperson Butler insisted that there had been no refinement in the US intelligence assessment since last July 22.
But that's just impossible to believe. Indeed, I've been told by a source who was briefed by US intelligence analysts that a great deal of new information has been examined since the days immediately after the crash, but that the problem for US policymakers is that the data led at least some analysts to conclude that the plane was shot down by a rogue element of the Ukrainian military, not by the rebels.
Yet, what has remained unclear to me is whether those analysts were part of a consensus or were dissenters within the US intelligence community. But even if there was just dissent over the conclusions, that might explain why the DNI has not updated the initial sketchy report of July 22.
It is protocol within the intelligence community that when an assessment is released, it should include footnotes indicating areas of dissent. But to do that could undermine the initial certitude that Secretary of State John Kerry displayed on Sunday talks shows just days after the crash.
Though the DNI's July 22 report, which followed Kerry's performance, joined him in pointing the blame at the Russians and the ethnic Russian rebels, the report did not claim that the Russians gave the rebels the sophisticated Buk (or SA-11) surface-to-air missile that the report indicated was used to bring down the plane.
The report cited "an increasing amount of heavy weaponry crossing the border from Russia to separatist fighters in Ukraine"; it claimed that Russia "continues to provide training -- including on air defense systems to separatist fighters at a facility in southwest Russia"; and its noted the rebels "have demonstrated proficiency with surface-to-air missile systems, downing more than a dozen aircraft in the months prior to the MH17 tragedy, including two large transport aircraft."
But what the public report didn't say -- which is often more significant than what is said in these white papers -- was that the rebels had previously only used short-range shoulder-fired missiles to bring down low-flying military planes, whereas MH-17 was flying at around 33,000 feet, far beyond the range of those weapons.
The assessment also didn't say that US intelligence, which had been concentrating its attention on eastern Ukraine during those months, detected the delivery of a Buk missile battery from Russia, despite the fact that a battery consists of four 16-foot-long missiles that are hauled around by trucks or other large vehicles.
I was told that the absence of evidence of such a delivery injected the first doubts among US analysts who also couldn't say for certain that the missile battery that was suspected of firing the fateful missile was manned by rebels. An early glimpse of that doubt was revealed in the DNI briefing for several mainstream news organizations when the July 22 assessment was released.
The Los Angeles Times reported, "US intelligence agencies have so far been unable to determine the nationalities or identities of the crew that launched the missile. US officials said it was possible the SA-11 was launched by a defector from the Ukrainian military who was trained to use similar missile systems." [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Mystery of a Ukrainian 'Defector.'"]
The Russian Case
The Russians also challenged the rush to judgment against them, although the US mainstream media largely ignored -- or ridiculed -- their presentation.
But the Russians at least provided what appeared to be substantive data, including alleged radar readings showing the presence of a Ukrainian jetfighter "gaining height" as it closed to within three to five kilometers of MH-17.
Russian Lt. Gen. Andrey Kartopolov also called on the Ukrainian government to explain the movements of its Buk systems to sites in eastern Ukraine and why Kiev's Kupol-M19S18 radars, which coordinate the flight of Buk missiles, showed increased activity leading up to the July 17 shoot-down.
The Ukrainian government countered by asserting that it had "evidence that the missile which struck the plane was fired by terrorists, who received arms and specialists from the Russian Federation," according to Andrey Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine's Security Council, using Kiev's preferred term for the rebels.
Lysenko added: "To disown this tragedy, [Russian officials] are drawing a lot of pictures and maps. We will explore any photos and other plans produced by the Russian side." But Ukrainian authorities have failed to address the Russian evidence except through broad denials.
On July 29, amid this escalating rhetoric, the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a group of mostly retired US intelligence officials, called on President Barack Obama to release what evidence the US government had, including satellite imagery.
"As intelligence professionals we are embarrassed by the unprofessional use of partial intelligence information," the group wrote. "As Americans, we find ourselves hoping that, if you indeed have more conclusive evidence, you will find a way to make it public without further delay. In charging Russia with being directly or indirectly responsible, Secretary of State John Kerry has been particularly definitive. Not so the evidence."
But the Obama administration failed to make public any intelligence information that would back up its earlier suppositions.
Then, in early August, I was told that some US intelligence analysts had begun shifting away from the original scenario blaming the rebels and Russia to one focused more on the possibility that extremist elements of the Ukrainian government were responsible, funded by one of Ukraine's rabidly anti-Russian oligarchs. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Flight 17 Shoot-down Scenario Shifts"and "Was Putin Targeted for Mid-air Assassination?"]
In October, Der Spiegel reported that the German intelligence service, the BND, also had concluded that Russia was not the source of the missile battery -- that it had been captured from a Ukrainian military base -- but the BND still blamed the rebels for firing it.
The BND also concluded that photos supplied by the Ukrainian government about the MH-17 tragedy "have been manipulated," Der Spiegel reported.
And, the BND disputed Russian government claims that a Ukrainian fighter jet had been flying close to MH-17, the magazine said, reporting on the BND's briefing to a parliamentary committee on Oct. 8. But none of the BND's evidence was made public -- and I was subsequently told by a European official that the evidence was not as conclusive as the magazine article depicted. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Germans Clear Russia in MH-17 Case."]
When the Dutch Safety Board investigating the crash issued an interim report in mid-October, it answered few questions, beyond confirming that MH-17 apparently was destroyed by "high-velocity objects that penetrated the aircraft from outside."
The 34-page Dutch report was silent on the "dog-not-barking" issue of whether the US government had satellite surveillance that revealed exactly where the supposed ground-to-air missile was launched and who fired it.
In January, when I re-contacted the source who had been briefed by the US analysts, the source said their thinking had not changed, except that they believed the missile may have been less sophisticated than a Buk, possibly an SA-6, and that the attack may have also involved a Ukrainian jetfighter firing on MH-17.
Since then there have been occasional news accounts about witnesses reporting that they did see a Ukrainian fighter plane in the sky and others saying they saw a missile possibly fired from territory then supposedly controlled by the rebels (although the borders of the conflict zone at that time were very fluid and the Ukrainian military was known to have mobile anti-aircraft missile batteries only a few miles away).
But what is perhaps most shocking of all is that -- on an issue as potentially dangerous as the current proxy war between nuclear-armed Russia and the United States, a conflict on Russia's border that has sparked fiery rhetoric on both sides -- the office of the DNI, which oversees the most expensive and sophisticated intelligence system in the world, says nothing has been done to refine the US assessment of the MH-17 shoot-down since five days after the tragedy.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America's Stolen Narrative.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.