One of the strangest aspects of the ongoing information war about what happened to Malaysian Airlines flight 17 on July 17, 2014 has been the extent to which the US government has relied on social media and government messaging-friendly journalists to define the specifics of its case.
For Americans old enough to remember JFK’s Secretary of State Adlai Stevenson presenting US reconnaissance photographs of Soviet nuclear missiles at the United Nations in October 1962, or a younger generation that recalls Colin Powell’s notoriously debunked presentation prior to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, there are both positive and negative poles to contrast with this odd situation.
Remember that Random British Guy Who Became Human Rights Watch’s Go-To Guy on Who Gassed Civilians in Syria?
A great deal of the Obama Administration’s case that Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad regime gassed over a thousand of his people at East Ghouta on August 21, 2013 relied on the George Soros-funded NGO Human Rights Watch. HRW’s September 2013 report on the atrocity in turn, cited a little known British amateur military analyst named Eliot Higgins. The Human Rights Watch report referenced Higgins findings, using Google earth and known facts about Syrian free flight rockets, to argue that only the Assad regime’s forces could have fired the chemically-tipped rockets used in the atrocity.
Higgins findings were later disputed by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology trained, former US government advising arms control expert, Dr. Theodore Postol. As someone who had actually worked for the US government on arms control issues, Dr. Postol ripped Higgins assertions about Syrian free flight rockets and their range apart as amateurish. Postol praised some of Higgins work regarding weapons systems used in YouTube videos from the Syrian civil war, but correctly pointed out that it’s impossible for Higgins to prove many of his Syrian assertions sitting in England far away from the crime scene (as of this week, Mr. Higgins has never been to Syria, though he recently gave a presentation on ‘open source journalism’ in Jordan).
On April 15, 2014 the Minnesota-based website Mint Press published a detailed report on the controversy, titled "The Failed Pretext for War”. The story dovetailed with legendary reporter Seymour Hersh’s assertion in The London Review of Books ("The Red Line and the Rat Line") that the East Ghouta attack may have been a Saudi or Turkish planned false flag to justify a US-led war to remove Assad. The Mint Press published Higgins rebuttals’ to Dr. Postol, while giving the MIT expert the last word. In rebuttal, Higgins supporters attacked the small Mint Press organization as being run by Shi’a Muslim Americans with a pro-Iranian agenda that had allegedly misreported facts.The Mint Press responded by standing by its story and claiming that one of the sources for it was pressured to retract a byline under Saudi government pressure. Others attacked Seymour Hersh as a conspiracy theorist despite the release of recordings that prove high level Turkish military and intelligence officials discussed a false flag operation at a religious shrine inside Syria, the Suleyman Shah tomb, to be blamed on the Assad regime.
US/NATO Arguments for Russia/Novorossiya’s Guilt in MH17 Get ‘Eliot Higgins-ized’
For those of us who’ve been closely following the social media arguments surrounding "pro-Russian separatists” alleged guilt in the downing of MH17 and who also paid attention to the East Ghouta controversy prior to President Obama backing off his "red line” to attack Damascus, it’s been "deja vu all over again”, to quote baseball legend Dizzy Dean. The curious coincidence of how heretofore stay at home dad living in Liecester, England could become the social media point man for two geopolitical watershed moments involving Russia or a Russian allied regime within the same year, does not seem so interesting to the BBC and Dutch journalists who cite Higgins. Nor was it remarkable to the German journalists from Berlin-based Correctiv, a non-profit news organization that likely few people around the world had heard of before itsuddenly produced a story about MH17this past week. By happy coincidence Correctiv made its first ‘big story’ splash in the English-speaking world the same week that the European Union and variousBaltic states leaders were discussing new ways to counteract 'Russian propaganda’.
The Gaping Holes in the US MH17 Case That Washington’s Army of Social Media Warriors Refuse to Discuss or Downplay
No Western mainstream media journalist that we know of, aside from the Associated Press’ Foggy Bottom correspondent Matthew Lee, has pressed the State Department to produce intelligence direct from US sources rather than relying on Ukrainian or social media warrior proxies to produce the goods. The closest approximation Correctiv mentioned was a satellite photograph of a field in the Donbas that the US Embassy in Kiev published on their Facebook page. But sometimes a field is just a field, especially when reporters only get to it weeks or months after the fact.
Eyewitness testimony can be useful if the individuals presenting it can be reliably placed near the crime scene. But anonymous eyewitnesses produced months after the fact whether by Ukraine’s SBU security service or Russian TV ought to be treated skeptically. The problem with Western media is that they only cast doubt on the latter and not the former, and play up silly theories or fake photographs published in the Russian press while completely ignoring Kiev’s bizarre claims. For example, that the Russians shot down MH17 as part of a false flag targeting an Aeroflot jetthat had flown over minutes earlier in order to justify an invasion that somehow didn’t happen. Or thatthe Russian security services planned to assassinate members of an MH17-related Dutch delegation visiting Kharkovonly to be foiled by the heroic vigilance of the SBU. The same SBU, incidentally, that has produced the majority of the photographs Eliot Higgins and his ‘crowdsourced’ (read: a handful of people with unclear expertise who agree with him that MH17 is all Russia’s fault) Internet team have relied upon for their claims. And the same SBU, that seems to maintain aggressive but poor English speaking trolls to police the comment threads of Mr. Higgins website, BellingtheCat.
What would objective, very difficult if not indisputable, ‘smoking gun’ evidence look like, if not Mr. Higgins and the Ukrainian SBU’s photostreams and fun with Google Earth scrapbook?
IF MH17 was shot down from a field near the eastern Ukrainian town of Torez, as the US government states, then there can be little doubt the US National Security Agency has intercepts of the electronic signature of an SA-11 BUK ‘Kupola’ radar emitting just before the airliner went down. Whether such intercepts were acquired by NSA antennae on the ground, NATO AWACS flying on station hundreds of miles to the west over Poland, or the USS Vela GulfAEGIS cruiser on station in the Black Sea on July 17 is immaterial to the traditional ‘sources and methods’ excuse Washington always gives for failing to deliver intelligence goods matching its ‘we know, we know, we know’ certitude.
American satellite images of the MH17 wreckage, to cite another missing piece of the puzzle, remain top secret, even as Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland claims it has been supplied to the international investigative team, in order to ‘protect the integrity of the ongoing multi-national investigation’ - a claim impossible for the press to confirm due to a most curious gag order involving all parties to the investigation, including the Malaysians. Kuala Lumpur complained bitterly until its investigators were finally admitted into the NATO-led investigation, and to this day Malaysians are calling for the release of the autopsy data about MH17's pilots to determine if they were killed by SAM shrapnel or air to air missiles and gunfire.
This odd silencing of the investigators, especially the Malaysians who have no NATO axes to grind with Moscow, is dismissed as nothing unusual in International Civil Aviation Organization supervised inquests by armies of #MH17 government narrative guardians on Twitter. Only paid Kremlin trolls, the 24/7 monitors of the #MH17 hashtag declare, would dare ask why a potential suspect in the case, the Ukrainian government, should be granted a veto over the release of any evidence for years to come.
What is certain is that State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf’s promise that the US might release more detailed intelligence of the kind the AP’s Matthew Lee sought in vain in late July remains unfulfilled six months later. The only information we have about what US spy satellites may have seen comes from four very different sources:
1) US and British news outlets eager to parrot nameless Obama Administration officials line that they have the ‘smoking gun’ space based infra-red signature of a rebel BUK launch the day after the shoot down -- such SBIR is never released, even in a sanitized format to ‘protect sources and methods’
2) The Russian Ministry of Defense presentation of July 21 saying the Americans had a satellite directly overhead when MH17 went down and calling on Washington to release the pictures, something the US government has stubbornly resisted doing
3) Former Associated Press Iran-Contra reporter Robert Parry, whose sources tell him US intelligence analysts only spotted soldiers in Ukrainian army uniforms surrounding the BUKs within range that US satellite/s were able to photograph on July 17 (interestingly, Eliot Higgins in a January 10 post at his BellingtheCat blog makes reference to Perry but not the specifics of what Perry’s source told the journalist about the custody of the BUK being unclear)
4) the remarks of the Netherlands' MH17 criminal investigation chief Fred Westerbeke, who told the Dutch NRC Handelsblad newspaper on December 19, 2014:
"Satellite images showing how on July 17 flight MH17 over Ukraine was shot out of the sky by a rocket do not exist. There has been a misunderstanding about this. There are no satellite images in the sense of a movie where you see a rocket going into the air. There is no conclusive evidence from intelligence services with the answer to all the questions.”
Westerbeke’s statements may answer the question as to why the US and NATO allied governments in desperation, without any "smoking guns", have turned to an army of amateur investigators, including bloggers tainted by prior debunking of their Syria arguments such as Mr. Higgins.
First the BUK was Seized by Donbas Militia from Ukrainian Armed Forces, Now it Comes from Russia: Der Spiegel’s Contradiction and Other Difficult Questions for Correctiv and Eliot Higgins to Answer
Only conspiracy theorists, we’re told, would ask why the US has failed to release any "smoking gun" evidence - even in highly sanitized form to protect those precious "read the license plates in the Kremlin parking lot” capabilities disclosed by Popular Mechanics or Larry Bond techno thrillers back in the late 1980s. As Correctiv’s story admits, the closest the State Department came to releasing any satellite photography - outside of the previously mentioned US Embassy in Kiev Facebook page shot of an empty field - was presenting a Google Earth image of the southeastern Ukrainian terrain where MH17 crashed, with a child-like yellow highlighter arc of the alleged rebel BUK SAM’s flight path drawn over it.
The interim report released by Dutch investigators on September 9, citing only vague "multiple high energy objects” as the cause of MH17’s destruction, did nothing to resolve questions as to why the United States continues to hold back its "smoking gun" intelligence. If the Russians in fact supplied the Novrossiya forces with not only a BUK but a trained crew, the question remains starkly unresolved as to how a competent trained air defense officer could confuse an airliner flying on a fixed course at 32,000 feet for an incoming Ukrainian fighter or transport plane.
In Correctiv’s version of what happened on July 17, the fact that Ukrainian air defense specialists accidentally shot down a Siberian Airlines Tupolev passenger jet in 2001 and Kiev lied about it for months is spun into a narrative that BUKs are incredibly indiscriminating weapons and Russian air defense specialists could be as incompetent as their Ukrainian counterparts from nearly 14 years ago. This seems to be stretching the facts to fit the case rather than the other way around.
Correctiv goes on to cite nameless, faceless NATO arms and air defense experts who claim with little credibility that the BUK system is only capable of telling ‘friendly’ aircraft with Russian military identification friend or foe (IFF) systems squawking blue from ‘enemy’ aircraft. Enemies being everything else that flies within the BUK's range. One wonders if Correctiv's unnamed retired NATO military experts are right, considering Russian air defense officers haven't blown a single airliner out of the sky over Russia in all their simulated firing exercises since collapse of the Soviet Union.
Correctiv also never asks Eliot Higgins, the primary source for their story, why the Novorossiya militia were so inept after MH17 was shot down that they simply drove around numerous Donbas towns with an uncovered launcher on a trailer for Kiev’s sympathizers in the Donbas and the whole world to see before finally getting it to Russia. For want of a tarp?
If the Novorossiya or Russian army regulars were guilty of shooting down MH17, why didn’t they just blow the damned thing up or take it apart before shipping the pieces out in a sealed truck with no one the wiser?
Such are the simple problems of logic with the Eliot Higgins and Correctiv version of events. But Higgins and Correctiv have even more challenges to overcome in proving their case.
For one thing, while Germany’s respected news magazine Der Spiegel picked up the Correctiv story, Der Spiegel and Russia Insider readers likely recall that the magazine was singing a different tune in October. In a story that still blamed the Novorossiya militias for the shoot-down, Der Spiegel cited German intelligence sources who stated that the BUK that shot down MH17 actually was stolen from Ukraine. What this means is that either Der Spiegel’s sources were wrong then and correct now, or both Correctiv and Eliot Higgins are wrong. For another thing, the Obama Administration itself has been very cautious not to agree with Kiev’s initial claims that "a Russian officer pushed the button” on the SAM launcher that brought down MH17. In late July the Associated Press was told by its sources that US intelligence analysts couldn’t be certain as to the BUKs operators. Thus Correctiv is contradicting both what Der Spiegel reported earlier and the Obama Administration’s quiet walk back from initially blaming Russia rather than pro-Russian militiamen for the catastrophe.
A Most Important Question: Why Does the ‘Russian BUK 3*2’ Nearly Match Ukraine’s BUK 312 Serial Number?
Higgins and his defenders here will reply: so what? Maybe the German Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) spooks Der Spiegel cited in late October were wrong about the BUK having been captured by the rebels from Ukraine’s arsenals. Or perhaps an inoperable BUK was seized and the Novorossiya forces brought in a Russian BUK using the 'trophy' weapon as a decoy. (Incidentally, Higgins never provides any proof that the BUK he describes being towed around the Donbas by the Novorossiya militia was ever operational, he and his supporters simply assume this). Or perhaps the Obama Administration was saying less than it knew about Russian involvement in order to give Putin a face saving ‘out’: throw the Donbas militia under the bus, rather than the Russian military. But here again we must point out a huge problem with Eliot Higgins and his allied social media warriors’ (such as the Ukraine at War or Interpreter Mag bloggers') case.
In late July the SBU inserted at least one photograph of its own that Higgins social media confederates like Interpreter Mag's Catherine A. Fitzpatrick have admitted was a fake. Or rather, as University of Kansas Russian Studies graduate student Aric Toler (@AricToler) has described it on Twitter, an innocent "flub" that was quickly corrected when Russian bloggers pointed out the SBU fakery.
No one disputes that the SBU peddled a photograph of one of its own BUK launchers with the serial number 312, taken months before July 17. But even if the "fruit of a poisoned SBU evidence chain tree" argument is set aside, since this isn’t a court of law, Higgins and Toler have another big problem. The BUK that Correctiv, Higgins and Toler insist "definitely" came from Russia by an amazing coincidence just happens to have the same first number 3, and last number 2, as the Ukrainian BUK 312 that everyone including Mr. Toler admits is Ukrainian...
3 stands for third (Lugansk) division
1 stands for battery number, ours was number one
2 stands for one of the two service units in each battery, ours was number two
For all their claims to crowd sourcing military knowledge, neither Higgins nor Toler has produced an explanation for why a Russian BUK photographed operating in Russia or allegedly brought to Ukraine would match the numbers of a Ukrainian air defense unit’s own BUK. This is the case despite what we've observed as possible attempts by apparently Ukrainian (government? SBU?) based tweeters with poor English skills to helpfully provide Mr. Toler with some reasons (excuses) for this amazing coincidence.
The logical conclusion is, despite Mr. Toler’s fanatical insistence that there are no similarities in appearance between the Ukrainian BUK and the Russian, that the numbers are more than coincidental. Even if Msrs. Toler and Higgins stubbornly repeat their case that the two photographed BUKs aren't one and the same, the numbers matching up suggests some sort of provocation or post-hoc modification or photoshopping of the numbers to match or nearly match up. It isn't beyond the SBU's capabilities to paint one white semi-truck that towed its own BUKs around Ukrainian-held territory to look like another truck in Russia as part of a disinformation campaign.
Russia’s Air to Air Shoot down Radar Evidence and the BBC Russian Service Witnesses of a Ukrainian Jet That Won’t Go Away
Furthermore, despite the ham handed moments such as attributing the incompetence of Ukrainian SAM crews over a decade ago Russian SAM operators today, the Correctiv story represents some progress. It is the first Western publication that we know of to admit Donbas rebel accusations that desperate Ukrainian (and the long rumored Polish?) SU-25 pilots, having been shot down over the Donbas battlefields, may have placed innocent passengers lives at risk by hiding behind civilian airliners before diving into attack runs. This corroborates what the wife of the Novorossiya commander Motorola told the Anti-Maidan YouTube channel in mid-June, in a video published a month before MH17 was shot down. Yet Correctiv is curiously vague about what ought to be a bombshell revelation pointing to Kiev sharing in the guilt for the disaster, and which most certainly will be of interest to the German lawyers suing the Ukrainian government for criminal negligence in failing to close its airspace.
The Consequences for Washington of Amateur Hour and the US Outsourcing its Syria, MH17 Cases to Social Media
Max van der Werff, the Dutch blogger who together with Russia Insider contributor The Saker has done outstanding work challenging Eliot Higgins and Aric Toler on the Ukrainian government’s "rebel BUK smoke trail" photographic evidence has a good saying: assume everyone is lying until proven otherwise. That goes for witnesses produced by Kiev and those who debut on Russian TV five months after MH17 bolstering each side’s case for blaming the other.
As President Ronald Reagan used to say back when the US government didn’t need to rely on social media ‘warriors’ to make its case to the world for serious policies: doveryai, no proveryai, trust but verify. In this case, if the US wants to impose sanctions and assign guilt on the Russian government for MH17, it can and must do better than the likes of the frequently debunked Eliot Higgins and the team at Correctiv in Berlin amplifying his social media "analysis". Otherwise, American foreign policy is likely to continue experiencing embarrassing failures like the climb down from President Obama’s 2013 "red line" in Syria, and continue to be questioned by nations like Malaysia that have no dog in the NATO-Russia fight.
Thanks to the rise of RT, CCTV, Al-Jazeera and other global news networks and the Internet, the era of Anglo-American information war predominance that carried Washington through its wars from Desert Storm to Kosovo is over. Washington better get used to it by finding ways to present its critical intelligence in credible formats rather than outsourcing the job. When you see the same social media warriors advancing Washington’s narrative on Syria one year instantly transformed into go-to experts for its case in Ukraine in the next, ask them why the US government needs their Google Earth wizardry if it has the goods. The Occam's razor simplest and most likely explanation is that, as with the East Ghouta attacks about which US intelligence analysts and high level Pentagon officials had grave doubts, Washington is bluffing. The US government simply doesn't have the smoking gun MH17 intel to make its case and therefore needs an army of sock puppets and talking points-repeating "journalists" to make the case for them.
UPDATE Saturday, 17 January 2015: On January 17 Eliot Higgins, as if in response to this piece, reposts what he says is 'proof' that the BUK he's found photos of operating in Russia from June is the same one that the 'separatists' were allegedly towing around Donetsk using a white semi-tractor trailer. Once again, Higgins makes no effort to explain how a Russian BUK operating in Russia would use the numbers 3(unknown middle digit) 2 which are nearly identical to the 312 number of Ukraine's BUK launcher identified by all parties as being clearly Ukrainian that the SBU got caught in late July trying to pass off as being in separatist hands. Furthermore, some individuals may have doubts about whether Higgins' imagery which he swears up and down has not been tampered with or photoshopped in any way hasn't been manipulated to create the illusion of a match. We invite Russia Insider readers and members of the press who keep an open mind to take a look and decide for themselves.