- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
Five days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, U.S. intelligence officials are still not certain who fired the missile that felled the doomed airliner, nor have they conclusively linked the attack to Russian military forces, according to senior intelligence officials.
“The leading theory” at this point, said a senior intelligence official, is that pro-Russian separatists equipped and trained by Russia fired the deadly surface-to-air missile on July 17, killing all 298 passengers aboard. But U.S. analysts aren’t sure whether the shooters were trained directly by Russian military forces or if they learned how to fire the missile while serving in the Ukrainian military, officials said.
In a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, three senior intelligence officials laid out the evidence and showed that the Obama administration is no closer to decisively pinning the blame for the shoot-down on Moscow or Russian President Vladimir Putin. A mountain of circumstantial evidence points to the Russian-backed separatists. But “there’s no Perry Mason moment” in the intelligence, said one official.
The officials offered little new information about the MH17 investigation, except to say that U.S. intelligence analysts are now persuaded that the jet was downed by accident, likely by forces who believed they were taking aim at a Ukrainian military aircraft. The officials circulated widely available information, including photographs of the suspected missile launcher posted to social media in recent days, and pointed to voice recordings posted to YouTube of separatists acknowledging that they shot down a jet, which they later discovered was a civilian plane. One official stressed that analysts weren’t relying solely on social media information, such as tweets and online videos. But nothing in the agencies’ classified files has brought them any closer to definitively blaming Russia.
In the days since the shoot-down, President Barack Obama has made clear that he holds Putin responsible for, at the very least, creating the unstable and confused wartime conditions in eastern Ukraine that set the stage for such a tragedy. The president emphasizes Russia’s “extraordinary influence” over the separatists, and that he expects Putin to rein them in and force them to negotiate a political settlement with Kiev. “Russia has urged [the separatists] on,” Obama said in brief remarks at the White House on Monday. “Russia has trained them. We know that Russia has armed them with military equipment and weapons, including anti-aircraft weapons. Key separatist leaders are Russian citizens.”
The senior intelligence officials likewise emphasized Russia’s military support to the separatists and said this helped build a case against Moscow as being ultimately responsible for providing the missile launcher that was used to shoot down MH17. The officials showed reporters a satellite photo of what they said was a camp in Rostov, Russia, near Ukraine’s eastern border, where separatists have been trained. A photograph taken Monday shows the camp apparently filled with military equipment, indicating that it remains an active training ground. The officials also said that as recently as Tuesday, intelligence showed that as many as 20 military vehicles were moving from Russia into Ukraine, indicating that Russia has little intention of scaling down its activity in the region.
The officials were especially concerned with countering various theories put forward in the Russian press that claimed Ukrainian military forces shot down MH17. Dismissing the stories as “propaganda,” the officials spent about half of the briefing debunking claims that a Ukrainian SA-11 battery or an attack plane was the guilty culprit.
One official said the intelligence agencies wanted to avoid a repeat of the Russian invasion of Crimea, in which Russian media dispensed stories that the soldiers who’d occupied the territory weren’t really directed by Russia — a claim that has been widely debunked.