Propaganda, Intelligence and MH-17
Propaganda is the life-blood of life-destroying wars, and the U.S.
government has reached new heights (or depths) in this art of
perception management. A case in point is the media manipulation
around last year’s Malaysia Airlines shoot-down over Ukraine
By Ray McGovern
August 19, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - "Consortiumnews"
- During a recent interview, I was asked
to express my conclusions about the July 17, 2014 shoot-down of
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, prompting me to take
another hard look at Official Washington’s dubious claims – pointing
the finger of blame at eastern Ukrainian rebels and Moscow – based
on shaky evidence regarding who was responsible for this terrible
Unlike serious professional investigative
reporters, intelligence analysts often are required by policymakers
to reach rapid judgments without the twin luxuries of enough time
and conclusive evidence. Having spent almost 30 years in the
business of intelligence analysis, I have faced that uncomfortable
challenge more times than I wish to remember.
So, I know what it feels like to confront issues
of considerable consequence like the shoot-down of MH-17 and the
killing of 298 passengers and crew amid intense pressure to
choreograph the judgments to the propagandistic music favored by
senior officials who want the U.S. “enemy” – in this case,
nuclear-armed Russia and its Western-demonized President Vladimir
Putin – to somehow be responsible. In such situations, the easiest
and safest (career-wise) move is to twirl your analysis to the
preferred tune or at least sit this jig out.
But the trust-us-it-was-Putin marathon dance has
now run for 13 months – and it’s getting tiresome to hear the P.R.
people in the office of Director of National Intelligence James
Clapper still claiming that the U.S. intelligence community has not
revised or updated its analysis of the incident since July 22, 2014,
just five days after the crash.
Back then, Clapper’s office, trying to back up
Secretary of State John Kerry’s anti-Russian rush to judgment, cited
very sketchy evidence – in both senses of the word – drawn heavily
from “social media” accounts. Obviously, the high-priced and
high-caliber U.S. intelligence community has learned much more about
this very sensitive case since that time, but the administration
won’t tell the American people and the world. The DNI’s office still
refers inquiring reporters back to the outdated report from more
than a year ago.
None of this behavior would make much sense if the
later U.S. intelligence data supported the hasty finger-pointing
toward Putin and the rebels. If more solid and persuasive
intelligence corroborated those initial assumptions, you’d think
U.S. government officials would be falling over themselves to leak
the evidence and declare “we told you so.” And the DNI office’s
claim that it doesn’t want to prejudice the MH-17 investigation
doesn’t hold water either – since the initial rush to judgment did
So, despite the discomfort attached to making
judgments with little reliable evidence – and at the risk of
sounding like former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – it seems
high time to address what we know, what we don’t know, and why it
may be that we don’t know what we don’t know.
Those caveats notwithstanding I would say it is a
safe bet that the hard technical intelligence evidence upon which
professional intelligence analysts prefer to rely does not
support Secretary of State Kerry’s unseemly rush to judgment in
blaming the Russian side just three days after the shoot-down.
‘An Extraordinary Tool’?
When the tragedy occurred U.S. intelligence
collection assets were focused laser-like on the Ukraine-Russia
border region where the passenger plane crashed. Besides collection
from overhead imagery and sensors, U.S. intelligence presumably
would have electronic intercepts of communications as well as
information from human sources inside many of the various factions.
That would mean that hundreds of intelligence
analysts are likely to have precise knowledge regarding how MH-17
was shot down and by whom. Though there may be some difference of
opinion among analysts about how to read the evidence – as there
often is – it is out of the question that the intelligence community
would withhold this data from President Barack Obama, Secretary of
State Kerry and other top officials.
Thus, it is a virtual certainty that the Obama
administration has far more conclusive evidence than the “social
media” cited by Kerry in casting suspicions on the rebels and Moscow
when he made the rounds of Sunday talk shows just three days after
the crash. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Kerry told David Gregory that
“social media” is an “extraordinary tool.” The question is, a tool
The DNI report two days later rehashed many of the
“social media” references that Kerry cited and added some
circumstantial evidence about Russia providing other forms of
military equipment to the rebels. But the DNI report contains no
mention of Russia supplying a Buk anti-aircraft missile system that
Kerry and the DNI cited as the suspected weapon that downed the
So, why does the administration continue refusing
to go beyond such dubious sources and shaky information in
attributing blame for the shoot-down? Why not fill in the many
blanks with actual and hard U.S. intelligence data that would have
been available and examined over the following days and weeks? Did
the Russians supply a Buk or other missile battery that would be
capable of hitting MH-17 flying at 33,000 feet? Yes or no.
If not supplied by the Russians, did the rebels
capture a Buk or similar missile battery from the Ukrainians who had
them in their own inventory? Or did some element of the Ukrainian
government – possibly associated with one of Ukraine’s corrupt
oligarchs – fire the missile, either mistaking the Malaysian plane
for a Russian one or calculating how the tragedy could be played for
propaganda purposes? Or was it some other sinister motive?
Without doubt, the U.S. government has evidence
that could support or refute any one of those possibilities, but it
won’t tell you even in some declassified summary form. Why? Is it
somehow unpatriotic to speculate that John Kerry, with his checkered
reputation for truth-telling regarding Syria and other foreign
crises, chose right off the bat to turn the MH-17 tragedy to
Washington’s propaganda advantage, an exercise in “soft power” to
throw Putin on the defensive and rally Europe behind U.S. economic
sanctions to punish Russia for supporting ethnic Russians in Crimea
and eastern Ukraine resisting the new U.S.-arranged political order
By taking a leaf out of the Bush-Cheney-Tony-Blair
playbook, Kerry could “fix the intelligence around the policy” of
Putin-bashing. Given the anti-Putin bias rampant in the mainstream
Western media, that wouldn’t be a hard sell. And, it wasn’t. The
“mainstream” stenographers/journalists quickly accepted that “social
media” was indeed a dandy source to rely on – and have never pressed
the U.S. government to release any of its intelligence data.
Yet, in the immediate aftermath of the MH-17
shoot-down, there were signs that honest intelligence analysts were
not comfortable letting themselves be used as they and other
colleagues had been before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
To buttress Kerry’s shaky case, DNI Clapper
arranged a flimsy “Government Assessment” – reprising many of
Kerry’s references to “social media” – that was briefed to a few
hand-picked Establishment reporters two days after Kerry starred on
Sunday TV. The little-noticed distinction was that this report was
not the customary “Intelligence Assessment” (the genre that has been
de rigueur in such circumstances in the past).
The key difference between the traditional
“Intelligence Assessment” and this relatively new creation, a
“Government Assessment,” is that the latter genre is put together by
senior White House bureaucrats or other political appointees, not
senior intelligence analysts. Another significant difference is that
an “Intelligence Assessment” often includes alternative views,
either in the text or in footnotes, detailing disagreements among
intelligence analysts, thus revealing where the case may be weak or
The absence of an “Intelligence Assessment”
suggested that honest intelligence analysts were resisting a
knee-jerk indictment of Russia – just as they did after the first
time Kerry pulled this “Government Assessment” arrow out of his
quiver trying to stick the blame for an Aug. 21, 2013 sarin gas
attack outside Damascus on the Syrian government.
Kerry cited this pseudo-intelligence product,
which contained not a single verifiable fact, to take the United
States to the brink of war against President Bashar al-Assad’s
military, a fateful decision that was only headed off at the last
minute after President Barack Obama was made aware of grave doubts
among U.S. intelligence analysts about whodunit. Kerry’s sarin case
has since collapsed. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The
Collapsing Syria-Sarin Case.”]
The sarin and MH-17 cases reveal the continuing
struggles between opportunistic political operatives and
professional intelligence analysts over how to deal with
geopolitical information that can either inform U.S. foreign policy
objectively or be exploited to advance some propaganda agenda.
Clearly, this struggle did not end after CIA analysts were pressured
into giving President George W. Bush the fraudulent – not “mistaken”
– evidence that he used to make the case for invading Iraq in 2003.
But so soon after that disgraceful episode, the
White House and State Department run the risk that some honest
intelligence analysts would blow the whistle, especially given the
dangerously blasé attitude in Establishment Washington toward the
dangers of escalating the Ukraine confrontation with nuclear-armed
Russia. Given the very high stakes, perhaps an intelligence
professional or two will summon the courage to step up to this
Falling in Line
For now, the rest of us are told to be satisfied
with the Sunday media circus orchestrated by Kerry on July 20, 2014,
with the able assistance of eager-to-please pundits. A review of the
transcripts of the CBS, NBC, and ABC Sunday follies reveals a
remarkable – if not unprecedented – consistency in approach by CBS’s
Bob Schieffer, NBC’s David Gregory (ably egged on by Andrea
Mitchell), and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, all of whom hewed
faithfully to a script apparently given them with two main talking
points: (1) blame Putin; and (2) frame the shoot-down as a “wake-up
call” (Kerry used the words repeatedly) for European governments to
impose tight economic sanctions on Russia.
If the U.S. government’s hope was that the
combination of Kerry’s hasty judgment and the DNI’s supportive
“Government Assessment” would pin the P.R. blame for MH-17 on Putin
and Russia, the gambit clearly worked. The U.S. had imposed serious
economic sanctions on Russia the day before the shoot-down –
but the Europeans were hesitant. Yet, in the MH-17 aftermath,
both U.S. and European media were filled with outrage against Putin
for supposedly murdering 298 innocents.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European
leaders, who had been resisting imposing strong economic sanctions
because of Germany’s and the European Union’s lucrative trade with
Russia, let themselves be bulldozed, just two weeks after the
shoot-down, into going along with mutually harmful sanctions that
have hurt Russia but also have shaken the EU’s fragile economic
Thus started a new, noxious phase in the
burgeoning confrontation between Russia and the West, a crisis that
was originally precipitated by a Western-orchestrated coup d’état in
Kiev on Feb. 22, 2014, ousting Ukraine’s elected President Viktor
Yanukovych and touching off the current civil war that has witnessed
some of the worst bloodshed inside Europe in decades..
It may seem odd that those European leaders
allowed themselves to be snookered so swiftly. Did their own
intelligence services not caution them against acquiescing over
“intelligence” from social media? But the tidal wave of anti-Putin
fury in the MH-17 aftermath was hard if not impossible for any
Western politician to resist.
Just One Specific Question?
Yet, can the U.S. concealment of its MH-17
intelligence continue indefinitely? Some points beg for answers. For
instance, besides describing social media as “an extraordinary
tool,” Kerry told David Gregory on July 20, 2014: “We 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.”
Odd that neither Gregory nor other “mainstream”
stenographers have thought to ask Kerry, then or since, to share
what he says he “knows” with the American people and the world – if
only out of, well, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind. If
Kerry has sources beyond “social media” for what he claims to “know”
and they support his instant claims of Russian culpability, then the
importance of his accusations dictates that he describe exactly what
he pretends to know and how. But Kerry has been silent on this
If, on the other hand, the real intelligence does
not support the brief that Kerry argued right after the shoot-down,
well, the truth will ultimately be hard to suppress. Angela Merkel
and other leaders with damaged trade ties with Russia may ultimately
demand an explanation. Can it be that it will take current European
leaders a couple of years to realize they’ve been had – again?
The U.S. government also is likely to face growing
public skepticism for using social media to pin the blame on Moscow
for the downing of MH-17 – not only to justify imposing economic
sanctions, but also to stoke increased hostility toward Russia.
The Obama administration and the mainstream media
may try to pretend that no doubt exists – that the “group think” on
Russia’s guilt is ironclad. And it seems likely that the official
investigations now being conducted by the U.S.-propped-up government
in Ukraine and other close U.S. allies will struggle to build a
circumstantial case keeping the Putin-did-it narrative alive.
But chickens have a way of coming home to roost.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a
publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city
Washington. He is a 30-year veteran of the CIA and Army intelligence
and co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
(VIPS). McGovern served for considerable periods in all four of
CIA’s main directorates.