When Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014, Australian politicians and the mainstream media, especially the Murdoch newspapers, were quick to apportion blame. Responsibility for the disaster was immediately attributed to Russia, either directly or thorough Russian support for the so-called “separatists” in the Donbass region.
For the Australian politicians and media it was a case of “guilty as alleged” although at that time in the immediate aftermath of the disaster there was no evidence upon which to form any conclusions.
Three days after the crash the United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press TV program said that the US had
“picked up the imagery of this launch. We know the trajectory. We know where it came from. We know the timing. And it was exactly at the time that this aircraft disappeared from the radar.”
Mr Kerry did not specify how the US had this information, but it was a reasonable inference at that time that the data had come from US satellites.
Since Mr Kerry’s remarks it has been established by independent investigators that the US had at least three satellites in geo-stationary orbit over Eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014 Two of these satellites are of the SBIRS type (GEO-1 and GEO-2), and a Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) satellite. Between them they are able to perform continuous surveillance of the area of interest.
Some commentators have endeavoured to downplay the significance of this by suggesting that factors such as cloud cover impeded surveillance capability. This is self-evidently nonsense. As one of their prime functions is to detect missile launches, their defensive capability would be hopelessly compromised if something as simple as cloud cover impeded their capacity to provide a timely warning of missile launches.
The capability of these satellites certainly includes the ability to detect and track the launch of a BUK missile, the weapon most commonly described as the cause of the disintegration of MH17. They can similarly track an air-to-air missile, which is the alternative hypothesis that has been advanced.
There has been a great deal of contradictory information from official sources about this satellite data, which is itself suspicious. For example, on 19 December 2015 the Dutch chief prosecutor and coordinator of the criminal investigation into the disaster, Mr Fred Westerbeke, told the Dutch daily newspaper NRC:
“Satellite images showing how on July 17 Flight MH17 was shot out of the sky by a rocket do not exist. There has been a misunderstanding about this… There is no conclusive evidence from intelligence services with the answers to all the questions.”
If Mr Westerbeke was correct, then it clearly contradicts the claims made by Mr Kerry 17 months earlier. But Mr Westerbeke then contradicted his own earlier statements in a letter to the families of the Dutch victims in February 2016. In that letter Mr Westerbeke stated:
“The US authorities have data generated by their own security forces, which could potentially provide information on a rocket trajectory. These data have been confidentially shared with the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service (DISS). The DISS and the Public Prosecutor are now investigating in what form the US state secret information can be used in the criminal investigation and what will be provided in a so-called official report to the Public Prosecution. That special report can be used as evidence by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT).”
It seems a reasonable inference on the basis of that statement that the secret US satellite data does disclose the required information. Specifically, it answers the major question: who fired the missile and from where?
The issue that is publically troubling the JIT is how to use sensitive intelligence data in a public forum such as a trial of accused persons. The undisclosed problem for the JIT is twofold. If, as is widely suspected, the satellite data show that the BUK missile was fired by Ukrainian forces, then that will contradict 20 months of relentless anti-Russian propaganda. The western media are not good at admitting the error of their ways.
The second problem is the agreement of 8 August 2014 whereby the members of the JIT agreed not to disclose any information unless all the parties agreed. As one of those parties, Ukraine, is a prime suspect, it is unlikely that the evidence will ever be revealed if it in fact implicates Ukraine.
It is still the case that the Australian government has never acknowledged the existence of the 8 August 2014 agreement. It has not bothered to tell the Australian public why it entered into such an agreement when the public interest would demand a transparent and full investigation of the worst disaster to be inflicted on Australians since the Bali bombings of 2002.
Given the existence of Mr Westerbeke’s letter to the families of Dutch victims it is difficult to understand why the Australian media are persisting with the claim that the Americans have refused to release the data. Paul Malone’s claim to that effect in the Canberra Times of 12 March 2016 is plainly wrong. It is possible of course that Mr Malone is aware of the facts, but the two problems identified above prevent him disclosing those facts.
Apart from detecting the launch of a missile, the satellite data can pinpoint the precise point from which the missile was fired. In the present case that is supremely important.
The Report of the Dutch Safety Board (DSB) into the MH17 disaster, published in October 2015 only went as far as to narrow the location of the launch site to an area of 320 square kilometers. This was territory contested by both Ukrainian and separatists forces. Despite the uncertainty and non-attribution of culpability in the DSB Report, Australian politicians falsely claimed that the report “proved” that Russian backed separatists were responsible.
Apart from a complete failure by the Australian media to correct this false information, they have also failed to address two further pieces of relevant evidence found in the DSB Report.
The first piece of evidence is found in the technical appendices of the DSB Report. Appendix T (from the Dutch Intelligence Services) has clearly not been read by any member of the Australian mainstream media. This appendix stated, inter alia:
- Although the separatists had captured a Ukrainian military base at Donetsk, the BUK systems located there were “not operational” and therefore “could not be used by the separatists.”
- Although there was information pointing to the fact that the separatists had been supplied with heavy weapons by the Russian Federation, there were no indications that these were powerful anti-aircraft systems.
- Although the separatists were trained to use weapons systems, there are no indications that they were being trained to use powerful anti-aircraft systems.
- There was no evidence of any intention by the separatists to shoot down a civil aircraft.
Reports in the mainstream media imply that the firing of a BUK missile is a matter of pointing it at the sky and pushing the proverbial button. As Appendix T makes clear however, extensive training in their use is required.
Not only must the crews be trained to a high level of proficiency, for which Appendix T notes there is no evidence in respect of the separatists, the firing of a BUK missile also require the ancillary use of radar systems. Again, there is no evidence that the separatists had such radar equipment.
There was evidence however, that radar equipment of the Ukrainian armed forces was operational at the relevant time and in the relevant location. The Russian authorities at a press briefing given on 21 July 2014 disclosed this. Again, the Australian media ignored this evidence.
Contrary to the vague generality of the DSB Report as to the launch location, we have a report by the Russian manufacturer of the BUK missile, Almaz-Antey, released at the same time as the DSB Report.
Almaz-Antey produced a detailed analysis of the data. Their conclusion was that the BUK missile was launched from the Zaroschenskoe area, which was under the control of the Ukrainian armed forces at the time. This report has never been mentioned in the Australian mainstream media, probably because its conclusions do not fit the official narrative.
Thus, Mr Malone in the Canberra Times states that the JIT investigation is “widely expected” to “confirm that the missile was launched from separatist held territory.” It would only be “widely expected” by those reliant upon the constant stream of disinformation and concealment of evidence common to the mainstream media’s coverage of the MH17 disaster.
It was noted above that there was an alternative hypothesis about the cause of MH17’s crash, namely an air-to-air missile, presumably fired by one of the Ukrainian fighter aircraft identified in the area in the Russian briefing of 21 July 2014.
The Russian forensic expert Albert Naryshkin comprehensively advanced the air-to-air missile theory in July 2015. His report (available only in Russian) concluded that although the specific weapon could not be unequivocally identified, the specific nature of the missile damage to the aircraft meant that the most likely weapon was a Python air-to-air missile.
This particular weapon was adapted for use by the SU-25 Scorpion fighter that was the type of fighter observed by Russian radar data on 17 July 2014 and reported on at the 21 July 2014 briefing.
The merits or otherwise of this hypothesis are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that it was not considered by the DSB and any mention of it is conspicuously absent from the Australian media.
Three further recent developments are worth noting. The first of these was the Coronial Inquest held in Melbourne in November 2015 in respect of the Australian victims. The inquest has been reported by John Helmer on his website. Suffice to note here that the coronial inquiry was deeply flawed. It was marked by secrecy, the suppression of evidence, conflicts of interest, and a manifest desire to simply parrot the official line regardless of other evidence that is progressively emerging.
It accepted without question the conclusions of the DSB Report, even though that Report is incomplete, does not ascribe culpability as it awaits the JIT investigation, and for the reasons mentioned below, is far from flawless.
The second development worth noting is that both the Dutch and the Russians have released letters addressed to the families of the victims.
The Russian statement is by the Deputy Head of the Federal Air Transport Agency of the Russian Federation, Oleg Storchevoy. Mr Storchevoy takes the opportunity to address some of the misinformation about what Russia has and has not done to assist the official inquiry.
He notes, for example, that Russian primary radar data was provided to the DSB, together with telephone conversations and other data, in August 2014. Russian primary radar data was in fact the only such data available, as the Ukrainians had for some reason switched off their radar at the critical time.
The Russian data supplied to the DSB confirmed increased activity by Ukrainian BUK missile systems within the conflict zone ahead of the tragedy. That evidence was ignored by the DSB.
It might be interpolated here that the separatists have no air force, so the need for anti-aircraft systems to be active remains obscure. No explanation has been forthcoming from the Ukrainians.
Mr Storchevoy also drew attention to the unprecedented cooperation offered by Almaz-Antey, the BUK manufacturer which again was ignored by the DSB.
Mr Storchevoy noted that Russia has repeatedly pointed out that the Dutch technical investigation was performed in an extremely non-transparent and biased manner. He said that the Dutch authorities should also explain how they distorted facts and concealed data, and ignored important data supplied by the Russians.
These and other questions posed by Mr Storchevoy are legitimate and deserve careful consideration and response. Perhaps needless to add, no report of Mr Storchevoy’s statement has appeared in the Australian mainstream media.
The second letter was written to the families of the Dutch victims by the head of the JIT inquiry, Mr Fred Westerbeke.
Mr Westerbeke’s letter discussed, inter alia, that conclusions about the technical analysis of the aircraft debris should be available in the latter half of 2016. Importantly, as noted above, he confirmed that the Americans had provided data about the missile trajectory although the form in which that data can be used is unsettled.
Mr Westerbeke also said that the analysis of other data, including intercepted telephone calls, location data from telephones, images (unspecified), witness statements and technical calculations would enable “certain inferences” to be drawn about the rocket’s track.
Reference was also made to the English blogger Eliot Higgins who operates under the name of “Bellingcat.” Despite repeated critical analysis of Higgins’ falsification of data and manifest other errors, he continues to be reported in the western mainstream media as a reliable source.
Why western intelligence agencies, with their vast resources, would defer to one man operating out of his house in Leicester is explicable only if Higgins is seen as a useful conduit for what is invariably anti-Russian propaganda.
Westerbeke obliquely dismisses Bellingcat as a resource, as “providing no evidence of direct involvement of members of a Russian unit” in the shoot down on MH17. The claim of Russian direct involvement is one of the more sensational of Bellingcat’s claims faithfully and uncritically reported in the western media.
In the light of the Westerbeke letter, the Australian Federal Police were asked whether they agreed with the contents of the Westerbeke letter. Westerbeke had signed the letter on behalf of the members of the JIT (which includes Australia).
They were also asked whether a similar letter would be sent to the Australian families. The AFP’s response was a non-answer, saying only that the queries had been forwarded to the JIT!
Information has also been sought from the Prime Minister’s on what compensation the Australian victim families might expect. Under the relevant Australian legislation victims of terrorism are eligible for compensation up to $75,000. That possibility was raised by a number of mainstream media outlets in Australia in July 2014. In order to be eligible the Prime Minister must declare that the deaths of the Australian citizens were as a result of a terrorist attack.
The government had announced on 9 October 2013 that payments would be made to the victim’s families of other terrorist attacks pursuant to the prime ministerial declaration. The payments have been applied retrospectively, starting with the events of 11 September 2001. To date there have been 10 such declarations, the latest being the Paris attacks of 13 November 2015.
The Australian government has not declared the shooting down of MH17 to be a terrorist act fore the purposes of the legislation. The reasons for this are unknown, although comment has been sought from the Prime Minister’s office.
Australian victim families still have other remedies available under the provisions of the Montreal Convention of 1999. Under Article 21 of that Convention damages of (approximately) $215,000 are set.
Potential liability of the carrier, in this case Malaysian Airlines, is however unlimited unless it can prove that the death “was not due to the negligence or other wrongful act or omission of the carrier or its servants or agents.”
Given that the evidence appears to suggest that MH17 either flew over a war zone of its own volition or was directed to do so by Ukrainian air traffic control, discharging that onus may prove difficult.
Proceedings seeking various declarations have been launched in the New South Wales Supreme Court by Tim Lauschet (2015/210056) against Malaysian Airlines, but that case is still at a preliminary stage.
The only clear point to emerge in Australia in the 21 months since the disaster is that the government and the mainstream media are determined to, on the one hand deny the public vital information about the disaster, and on the other hand maintain the fiction that the disaster was the fault of Russian backed separatists.
That line serves to justify the sanctions imposed on Russia and the continuing demonization of President Putin. If only Prime Minister Turnbull’s plea for an intelligent and adult dialogue was sincere. If that were the case the Australian public would be better informed than they are. It seems a very vain hope.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.