- 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.
In the weeks before Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, U.S. intelligence agencies were tracking a steady buildup of heavy weapons in the region, including tanks and rocket launchers flowing across the border from Russia and into the hands of Moscow-backed separatists. But U.S. analysts didn’t confirm that a surface-to-air missile capable of striking a commercial airplane had made its way into the fighters’ hands until after the jet was destroyed on July 17, according to senior U.S. intelligence officials, who briefed reporters earlier this week.
That assessment was at odds, though, with public statements by the rebels themselves, who claimed in late June that they’d obtained a weapon that might bring down a commercial jet. In addition, Ukrainian officials said that they had spotted an SA-11 missile launcher, known as a Buk, in rebel hands at least three days before the downing of MH17.
The question of what U.S. and Ukrainian authorities knew about separatists’ weapons, and when, has taken on new urgency following the downing of MH17 and the death of all 298 people aboard. The risk of another shoot-down hasn’t completely abated. In the days since the crash, U.S. intelligence have spotted more heavy weapons moving into Ukraine. Officials said they can’t be sure that surface-to-air missiles aren’t among them, nor can they confirm that separatists, or Russian forces, have removed all SA-11 missiles from the country. And on Thursday, a State Department spokeswoman told reporters that U.S. intelligence agencies "have new evidence that the Russians intend to deliver heavier and more powerful multiple rocket launchers" to separatists and that Russia is firing artillery on Ukrainian military positions. The spokeswoman didn’t say whether the rocket launchers included the SA-11 system.
Neither Ukrainian security officials nor the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration had warned airlines prior to the shoot-down not to fly over eastern Ukraine, despite high-level discussions in both governments about the buildup of Russian heavy weaponry. Following the plane crash, the FAA banned all U.S. carriers from flying over the region. But questions remain about why authorities didn’t issue a warning sooner.
An FAA spokesperson didn’t respond to multiple emails and phone messages asking whether U.S. intelligence agencies had provided any warning about a threat against airliners prior to the strike. A White House spokesperson referred queries on the matter to the FAA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). And a spokesperson at the ODNI deferred to the White House on the question of what intelligence was shared about aviation threats.
The lack of clarity on whether airlines were warned to stay clear of eastern Ukraine is prompting scrutiny of the FAA and the intelligence community on Capitol Hill. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote to President Barack Obama on Monday asking what U.S. intelligence agencies knew about SA-11 missiles in eastern Ukraine and why the FAA didn’t alert U.S. carriers in the area.
"It’s only right to assume that our intelligence collectors were fully aware of SA-11 missiles in eastern Ukraine, from day one," Joe Kasper, Hunter’s spokesman, told Foreign Policy on Thursday. "So at some point, that information should have been shared, specifically with the FAA in this case," Kasper said. He noted that after Russian forces invaded and occupied Crimea in February, the FAA issued a notice barring U.S. carriers from flying over the area. "But there’s no evidence whatsoever that the FAA was alerted of SA-11s in the area so the [notice] could be updated," Kasper said, adding: "Either there’s no process in place for notifying the FAA or someone dropped the ball."
For two weeks prior to the crash, there were ominous signs that the separatists posed a potential threat to civilian aviation. On June 29, the military forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a self-proclaimed state within eastern Ukraine, claimed in a tweet to have obtained a Russian Buk system. Two days later, the government of Ukraine imposed a ban on commercial airliners flying below 26,000 feet in the Donetsk area. At that altitude, however, an airliner would still be vulnerable to an SA-11, which can reach targets higher than 70,000 feet.
Then, on July 14, three days before the MH17 crash, separatists shot down a military cargo plane flying at about 21,000 feet. That was outside the range of simpler missiles than the SA-11, and the clearest indication yet that separatists had a weapon capable of shooting down an airliner. Ukrainian and U.S. officials were sharing information about the separatists and the flow of Russian weapons. But neither country imposed a flight ban in the area. The Ukrainians raised the minimum altitude again, this time to 32,000 feet — still well within the range of an SA-11.
U.S. officials now say that an SA-11 may have been moved into Ukraine as early as July 14, the day that the cargo plane was shot down. But even earlier, U.S. officials knew that the separatists had a small number of the missile launchers and discussed the threat with their counterparts in Ukraine, the Wall Street Journal reported.
"We knew they had them. Our thought was that they weren’t working. When we saw the transport airplane shot down, it was, ‘Holy Christ, they must have gotten these things working,’" an unnamed senior U.S. official told the newspaper.
A spokesperson for the Director of National Intelligence told FP in a statement, "Before the MH17 incident, there was no intelligence to indicate separatists intended to target civil aircraft, and our first indication that they had an operable SA-11 was July 17, the day of the crash." It’s still not clear whether the FAA was aware of an SA-11 system in eastern Ukraine that might not have been working, but could still pose a threat to aviation if it were fixed. But regardless, the steady buildup of Russian weapons in the hands of the separatists was widely known and discussed at top levels of government in Ukraine and the United States.
On June 30, one day after separatists in Donetsk tweeted that they’d obtained a Buk launcher, Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme commander of NATO in Europe, said at a news conference that while the United States had not yet seen any air defense vehicles crossing the border into Ukraine, "we’ve seen [separatists] training in the western part of Russia" on how to use them. Breedlove did not specifically comment on the SA-11, a type of air defense weapon.
Asked by a reporter if he thought "heavy weaponry" was moving across the border, Breedlove replied, "I do, absolutely." The general also said that the United States had seen the fighters being trained by Russia to use "vehicle-borne" weapons, of which the SA-11 is one.
Four days after Breedlove’s comments, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko about Russian "heavy weapons and materiel" moving over the border and into separatists’ hands, according to a White House statement describing the call. Biden said Washington was "prepared to impose further costs on Russia if it fails to withdraw its ongoing support for the separatists."
On July 10, the two leaders spoke again about "the need to hold Russia accountable for its continued support for the separatists, including its provision of heavy weapons and equipment across the border," according to the White House. But while both men agreed that international monitors should be sent to Ukraine to watch military activity on its border with Russia, and to monitor a potential cease-fire, there was reportedly no discussion about threats to civilian airliners.
Even though the United States was tracking a progression of weapons from Russia, there are several reasons why analysts might have missed the SA-11, a senior U.S. intelligence official said. For starters, if there were heavy clouds in the area, that could have obscured objects on the ground from the view of space-based satellites. Also, the Russians may have taken steps to avoid detection, either by moving the Buk on its own, rather than in a conspicuous military convoy, or by moving the system when the Russians thought U.S. satellites might not be passing overhead.
As questions linger about why the FAA didn’t warn airlines sooner about flying over eastern Ukraine, the agency has come under further scrutiny this week for its decision to prohibit U.S. carriers from flying into and out of Israel. The Israeli government criticized the move, accusing the United States of handing a victory to Hamas, which has been firing rockets into Israel from Gaza. The FAA said it issued the ban after a rocket fell within a mile of Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. But rockets have been falling on Israel for weeks without any response from the FAA, which lifted the ban late Wednesday.
When asked if the FAA’s flight ban to Israel reflected a more cautious approach to air travel following the downing of MH17, an official at a major U.S. airline said the two events were not connected.
"The simple answer is ‘no,’" said the official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss his carrier’s consultations with the FAA. "Reports of a rocket or associated debris near Tel Aviv: It’s specific to that."
But that raised the question of why the FAA didn’t place travel restrictions over eastern Ukraine, when U.S. officials have been saying for weeks that separatists possessed lethal weapons that are far more sophisticated than the rockets fired from Gaza.
Kate Brannen and John Hudson contributed reporting.