MH-17 Mystery: A New Tonkin Gulf Case?
In 1964, the Tonkin Gulf incident was used to justify the Vietnam
War although U.S. intelligence quickly knew the facts were not what
the U.S. government claimed. Now, the MH-17 case is being exploited
to justify a new Cold War as U.S. intelligence again is silent about
what it knows, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
July 17, 2015 "Information
One year ago, the world experienced what
could become the Tonkin Gulf incident of World War III, the
shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine. As
with the dubious naval clash off the coast of North Vietnam in 1964,
which helped launch the Vietnam War, U.S. officials quickly seized
on the MH-17 crash for its emotional and propaganda appeal – and
used it to ratchet up tensions against Russia.
Shocked at the thought of 298 innocent people
plunging to their deaths from 33,000 feet last July 17, the world
recoiled in horror, a fury that was then focused on Russian
President Vladimir Putin. With Putin’s face emblazoned on magazine
covers, the European Union got in line behind the U.S.-backed coup
regime in Ukraine and endorsed economic sanctions to punish Russia.
Russian-made Buk anti-missile battery.
In the year that has followed, the U.S. government
has continued to escalate tensions with Russia, supporting the
Ukrainian regime in its brutal “anti-terrorism operation” that has
slaughtered thousands of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. The
authorities in Kiev have even dispatched neo-Nazi and
ultranationalist militias, supported by jihadists called “brothers”
of the Islamic State, to act as the tip of the spear. [See
Merges Nazis and Islamists.”]
Raising world tensions even further, the Russians
have made clear that they will not allow the ethnic Russian
resistance to be annihilated, setting the stage for a potential
escalation of hostilities and even a possible nuclear showdown
between the United States and Russia.
But the propaganda linchpin to the West’s extreme
anger toward Russia remains the MH-17 shoot-down, which the United
States and the West continue to pin on the Russian rebels – and by
extension – Russia and Putin. The latest examples are media reports
about the Dutch crash investigation suggesting that an anti-aircraft
missile, allegedly involved in destroying MH-17, was fired from
Yet, the U.S. mainstream media remains stunningly
disinterested in the “dog-not-barking” question of why the U.S.
intelligence community has been so quiet about its MH-17 analysis
since it released a sketchy report relying mostly on “social media”
on July 22, 2014, just five days after the shoot-down. A source
briefed by U.S. intelligence analysts told me that the reason for
the intelligence community’s silence is that more definitive
analysis pointed to a rogue Ukrainian operation implicating one of
the pro-regime oligarchs.
The source said that if this U.S. analysis were to
see the light of day, the Ukrainian “narrative” that has supplied
the international pressure on Russia would collapse. In other words,
the Obama administration is giving a higher priority to keeping
Putin on the defensive than to bringing the MH-17 killers to
Like the Tonkin Gulf case, the evidence on the
MH-17 case was shaky and contradictory from the start. But, in both
cases, U.S. officials confidently pointed fingers at the “enemy.”
President Lyndon Johnson blamed North Vietnam in 1964 and Secretary
of State John Kerry implicated ethnic Russian rebels and their
backers in Moscow in 2014. In both cases, analysts in the U.S.
intelligence community were less certain and even reached contrary
conclusions once more evidence was available.
In both cases, those divergent assessments appear
to have been suppressed so as not to interfere with what was
regarded as a national security priority – confronting “North
Vietnamese aggression” in 1964 and “Russian aggression” in 2014. To
put out the contrary information would have undermined the
government’s policy and damaged “credibility.” So the facts – or at
least the conflicting judgments – were hidden.
The Price of Silence
In the case of the Tonkin Gulf, it took years for
the truth to finally emerge and – in the meantime – tens of
thousands of U.S. soldiers and millions of Vietnamese had lost their
lives. Yet, much of the reality was known soon after the Tonkin Gulf
incident on Aug. 4, 1964.
Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1964 was a young Defense
Department official, recounts – in his 2002 book Secrets –
how the Tonkin Gulf falsehoods took shape, first with the panicked
cables from a U.S. Navy captain relaying confused sonar readings and
then with that false storyline presented to the American people.
As Ellsberg describes, President Johnson and
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara announced retaliatory airstrikes
on Aug. 4, 1964, telling “the American public that the North
Vietnamese, for the second time in two days, had attacked U.S.
warships on ‘routine patrol in international waters’; that this was
clearly a ‘deliberate’ pattern of ‘naked aggression’; that the
evidence for the second attack, like the first, was ‘unequivocal’;
that the attack had been ‘unprovoked’; and that the United States,
by responding in order to deter any repetition, intended no wider
Ellsberg wrote: “By midnight on the fourth, or
within a day or two, I knew that each one of those assurances was
false.” Yet, the White House made no effort to clarify the false or
misleading statements. The falsehoods were left standing for several
years while Johnson sharply escalated the war by dispatching a half
million soldiers to Vietnam.
In the MH-17 case, we saw something similar.
Within three days of the July 17, 2014 crash, Secretary Kerry rushed
onto all five Sunday talk shows with his rush to judgment,
citing evidence provided by the Ukrainian government through social
media. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” David Gregory asked, “Are you
bottom-lining here that Russia provided the weapon?”
Kerry: “There’s a story today confirming that, but
we have not within the Administration made a determination. But it’s
pretty clear when – there’s a build-up of extraordinary
circumstantial evidence. I’m a former prosecutor. I’ve tried cases
on circumstantial evidence; it’s powerful here.” [See
Latest Reckless Rush to Judgment.”]
Two days later, on July 22, the Director of
National Intelligence authorized the release of a brief report
essentially repeating Kerry’s allegations. The DNI’s report also
cited “social media” as implicating the ethnic Russian rebels, but
the report stopped short of claiming that the Russians gave the
rebels the sophisticated Buk (or SA-11) surface-to-air missile that
the report indicated was used to bring down the plane.
Instead, the report cited “an increasing amount of
heavy weaponry crossing the border from Russia to separatist
fighters in Ukraine”; it claimed that Russia “continues to provide
training – including on air defense systems to separatist fighters
at a facility in southwest Russia”; and its noted the rebels “have
demonstrated proficiency with surface-to-air missile systems,
downing more than a dozen aircraft in the months prior to the MH17
tragedy, including two large transport aircraft.”
Yet, despite the insinuation of Russian guilt,
what the public report didn’t say – which is often more significant
than what is said in these white papers – was that the rebels had
previously only used short-range shoulder-fired missiles to bring
down low-flying military planes, whereas MH-17 was flying at around
33,000 feet, far beyond the range of those weapons.
The assessment also didn’t say that U.S.
intelligence, which had been concentrating its attention on eastern
Ukraine during those months, detected the delivery of a Buk missile
battery from Russia, despite the fact that a battery consists of
four 16-foot-long missiles that are hauled around by trucks or other
I was told that the absence of evidence of such a
delivery injected the first doubts among U.S. analysts who also
couldn’t say for certain that the missile battery that was suspected
of firing the fateful missile was manned by rebels. An early glimpse
of that doubt was revealed in the DNI briefing for several
mainstream news organizations when the July 22 assessment was
The Los Angeles Times
reported, “U.S. intelligence agencies have so far been
unable to determine the nationalities or identities of the crew that
launched the missile. U.S. officials said it was possible the SA-11
was launched by a defector from the Ukrainian military who was
trained to use similar missile systems.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The
Mystery of a Ukrainian ‘Defector.’”]
The Russians also
challenged the rush to judgment against them, although
the U.S. mainstream media largely ignored – or ridiculed – their
presentation. But the Russians at least provided what appeared to be
substantive data, including alleged radar readings showing the
presence of a Ukrainian jetfighter “gaining height” as it closed to
within three to five kilometers of MH-17.
Russian Lt. Gen. Andrey Kartopolov also called on
the Ukrainian government to explain the movements of its Buk systems
to sites in eastern Ukraine and why Kiev’s Kupol-M19S18 radars,
which coordinate the flight of Buk missiles, showed increased
activity leading up to the July 17 shoot-down.
The Ukrainian government countered by asserting
that it had “evidence that the missile which struck the plane was
fired by terrorists, who received arms and specialists from the
Russian Federation,” according to Andrey Lysenko, spokesman for
Ukraine’s Security Council, using Kiev’s preferred term for the
On July 29, amid this escalating rhetoric, the
Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a group of mostly
retired U.S. intelligence officials,
called on President Barack Obama to release what evidence
the U.S. government had, including satellite imagery.
“As intelligence professionals we are embarrassed
by the unprofessional use of partial intelligence information,” the
group wrote. “As Americans, we find ourselves hoping that, if you
indeed have more conclusive evidence, you will find a way to make it
public without further delay. In charging Russia with being directly
or indirectly responsible, Secretary of State John Kerry has been
particularly definitive. Not so the evidence.”
But the Obama administration failed to make public
any intelligence information that would back up its earlier
Then, in early August,
I was told that some U.S. intelligence analysts had begun
shifting away from the original scenario blaming the rebels and
Russia to one focused more on the possibility that extremist
elements of the Ukrainian government were responsible, funded by one
of Ukraine’s rabidly anti-Russian oligarchs. [See
17 Shoot-down Scenario Shifts”and “Was
Putin Targeted for Mid-air Assassination?”]
Last October, Der Spiegel reported that the German
intelligence service, the BND, also had concluded that Russia was
not the source of the missile battery – that it had been captured
from a Ukrainian military base – but the BND still blamed the rebels
for firing it. The BND also concluded that photos supplied by the
Ukrainian government about the MH-17 tragedy “have been
manipulated,” Der Spiegel reported.
And, the BND disputed Russian government claims
that a Ukrainian fighter jet had been flying close to MH-17, the
magazine said, reporting on the BND’s briefing to a parliamentary
committee on Oct. 8, 2014. But none of the BND’s evidence was made
public — and I was subsequently told by a European official that the
evidence was not as conclusive as the magazine article depicted.
[See Consortiumnews.com’s “Germans
Clear Russia in MH-17 Case.”]
Dog Still Doesn’t Bark
When the Dutch Safety Board investigating the
crash issued an interim report in mid-October, it answered few
questions, beyond confirming that MH-17 apparently was destroyed by
“high-velocity objects that penetrated the aircraft from outside.”
The 34-page Dutch report was silent on the
“dog-not-barking” issue of whether the U.S. government had satellite
surveillance that revealed exactly where the supposed ground-to-air
missile was launched and who fired it.
In January, when I re-contacted the source who had
been briefed by the U.S. analysts, the source said their thinking
had not changed, except that they believed the missile may have been
less sophisticated than a Buk, possibly an SA-6, and that the attack
may have also involved a Ukrainian jetfighter firing on MH-17.
Since then there have been occasional news
accounts about witnesses reporting that they did see a Ukrainian
fighter plane in the sky and others saying they saw a missile
possibly fired from territory then supposedly controlled by the
rebels (although the borders of the conflict zone at that time were
very fluid and the Ukrainian military was known to have mobile
anti-aircraft missile batteries only a few miles away).
But the larger dog-not-barking question is why the
U.S. intelligence community has clammed up for nearly one year, even
after I reported that I was being told that U.S. analysts had veered
off in a different direction – from the initial blame-the-Russians
approach – toward one focusing on a rogue Ukrainian attack.
For its part, the DNI’s office has cited the need
for secrecy even as it continues to refer to its July 22 report. But
didn’t DNI James Clapper waive any secrecy privilege when he rushed
out a report five days after the MH-17 shoot-down? Why was secrecy
asserted only after the U.S. intelligence community had time to
thoroughly review its photographic and electronic intelligence?
Over the past 11 months, the DNI’s office has
offered no updates on the initial assessment, with a DNI spokeswoman
the absurd claim that U.S. intelligence has made no
refinements of its understanding about the tragedy since July 22,
If what I’ve been told is true, the reason for
this silence would likely be that a reversal of the initial rush to
judgment would be both embarrassing for the Obama administration and
detrimental to an “information warfare” strategy designed to keep
the Russians on the defensive.
But if that’s the case, President Barack Obama may
be acting even more recklessly than President Johnson did in 1964.
As horrific as the Vietnam War was, a nuclear showdown with Russia
could be even worse.
reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The
Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest
book, America’s Stolen Narrative,
either in print
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