The Spectator

Will we ever find out what happened to flight MH17? It is getting less and less likely

Will we ever find out what happened to flight MH17? It is getting less and less likely
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The Ukrainian government has failed to secure the crash site, as much as 25 square kilometres of territory, where debris from flight MH17 has fallen. The site is in rebel-held eastern Ukraine and the region's pro-Russian separatists have prevented international observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe from examining it. There are even reports that a drunk separatist gunman fired a warning shot to forestall investigators from conducting their examinations despite assurances from rebel commanders that observers would have safe access to the crash site.

While workers from the Ukrainian government's Emergencies Ministry have searched much of the site, the plane's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, the so-called 'black boxes', have not yet been found. There are reports of locals and militants moving debris and bodies and even saying they will conduct their own autopsies of the victims.

— Paul Sonne (@PaulSonne) July 19, 2014

Although Ukraine has said it has compelling evidence of Russia's involvement in the shooting down of the plane, there has been no authoritative investigation, and the chances of there being one recede on every delay and interference with the tragedy's wreckage. As Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British Ambassador to the United States said, Russia's obfuscation, part of its ongoing information war in eastern Ukraine, is redolent of its actions following the order for a Soviet fighter to shoot down a Korean passenger jet in 1983.

— Christopher Meyer (@SirSocks) July 19, 2014

In The Spectator in 1986, Philip Knightley reviewed Seymour Hersh's 'The Target Is Destroyed', an investigation into flight KAL007 which was shot down by a Russian fighter jet. Hersh found that, less than three years after the accident, it was impossible to gather the whole story of the flight. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that we will find out the full details of the shooting down of flight MH17.

Here is Knightley's review, from our archive:

This is the sixth book on the shooting down of Korean Air Line's flight 007 by a Soviet jet fighter over the Sakhalin peninsular on 1 September 1983. There have also been hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles on the subject. The reason for such intense interest is not hard to understand: the two super powers con- fronted each other in a shooting situation and both behaved appallingly.

The Soviet Union blew the KAL jumbo out of the sky, killing all 269 passengers and crew, and has insisted ever since that 007 was an American spy plane and therefore its action was justified. The United States suppressed its own intelligence that the shooting down was an unfortunate error and used the incident for political purposes.

The result was that Soviet-American relations deteriorated to the lowest level since the Cuban missile crisis 20 years earlier, with some of the Pentagon hawks arguing for a response ranging from the breaking of diplomatic relations to military action.

Seymour Hersh, an American investigative journalist who first made his name with an account of the My Lai massacre, set out to write what he felt was the real story of the shooting down of Flight 007 - the abuse of communications intelligence. Probably because of his reputation he achieved access to sources normally beyond any author or reporter. Dozens of people in the US intelligence community, some of whom had never spoken to a journalist in their lives, agreed to see him.

The Soviets granted him permission to visit Moscow and conduct interviews about the disaster. High-ranking Soviet defence ministry officials and military officers gave him their version of events. He interviewed Japanese military and government officials. Yet in the end Hersh is forced to conclude that the whole story of Flight 007 may never be told. There are too many imponderables, and the men with crucial evidence — the flight crew of 007 — are dead.

But, given this, Hersh tells a powerful and frightening story of Soviet incompetence and intransigence matched only by American opportunism and manipulation of public opinion. Hersh says that the 007 incident demonstrated the importance of honest intelligence in a world where the concept of deterrence is predicated on the assumption that the men with their fingers on the trigger have accurate information.

Yet he concludes, 'Those in Washington who chose to increase international tension, and their counterparts in Moscow who responded in kind, were acting in ignorance of the facts and realities.'

The facts were there. If the story has a hero he is Major General James C. Pfautz, then head of US Air Force Intelligence. When the first news of shooting trickled through to Washington from American signals and communications intelligence outposts in the area, Pfautz set to work to prepare an intelligence brief. He was sceptical from the beginning that the Soviets would deliberately shoot down a civilian plane without any of their forces on alert, so be began with the cock-up theory.

There was an RC-135, a US intelligence- gathering plane, a modified Boeing 707, in the area where Flight 007 had been shot down. Had the Russian fighter pilot mistaken the KAL jumbo for the RC-135? Pfautz's staff checked with tanker pilots who had done refuelling at night of RC-135 missions in the North Pacific. They told of the enormous difficulty of distinguishing between the two planes. One tanker pilot told of approaching within 500 yards of a Japan Air Line jumbo before he realised that the aircraft was not the RC-135 he was supposed to refuel.

All Pfautz's early suppositions were eventually confirmed by hard intelligence. The Russians thought Flight 007 was the RC-135, which had been on a mission just outside Soviet airspace, now intruding over Soviet territory. The pilot of the Russian fighter, flying below 007, failed to see it was a commercial airliner. He fired a warning burst of cannon shells. The crew of 007 probably did not see them. He was ordered to shoot down the airliner. He said, 'Holy shit!', but he went ahead and obeyed his orders.

In Washington, leading members of the administration, who knew if not all this, at least enough to make them cautious, decided that the incident offered a marvellous opportunity to slam the Russians, to provoke world outrage at the Soviet Union's callous indifference to human life. The official version would be that the Russians had knowingly and cold- bloodedly shot down a civilian airliner that had inadvertently strayed into Soviet air space and that American intelligence intercepts of Soviet signals traffic confirmed this.

The administration machinery worked quickly and smoothly. The intelligence material was doctored to support this case. Complaints from Soviet experts that the English translation of the intercepts was wrong and out-of-context and would eventually rebound on the administration were ignored. Officials gave special briefings to the press 'to put the proper spin' on the intelligence material.

Hersh says it all worked brilliantly. The United States scored a stunning propaganda victory over the Soviet Union, which, instead of coming clean and admitting a tragic error, found itself stuck with the 'US spy plane' story for which it was unable to offer any concrete evidence.

So convincing had been the administration's presentation of its version, says Hersh, that when the National Security Agency told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee three weeks later that the agency had now concluded that the Russian fighter pilot did not know that his target was a civilian airliner, 'most of the senators seemed to care little'.

Major General Pfautz remained dismayed about the administration's handling of the affair. He said that he had always felt that the United States reacted 'spastically' to the Soviet Union without getting all the facts. 'I feel there's hope for mankind if at a time of crisis we can say "Hey, we think they've screwed up." If you hold the rhetoric until we get all the facts in, the other guy might say, "Hey, maybe they're not so bad after all".'