Coffee House

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

19 July 2014

7:30 PM

19 July 2014

7:30 PM

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.

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.

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”.’

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Show comments
  • BoiledCabbage

    The Russians are bad news. Any chance to undermine them should be taken, whether or not its the truth. The Soviet Union was a lamb compared to modern Russia.

    • LoicMarsillac

      I think that’s precisely what they’re doing old chap.

  • Radford_NG

    James Delingpole (in* Breitbart-London*) and Richard North both reported that rebels had captured a squadron of Soviet missile launchers from the Kievian forces by 29 June.All the evidence (from Kiev) shows that one of these was in the hands of Don Cossacks–most famous previously for being drunk and beating up on the Jews.They had fired one at what they took to be a Kievian supply plane and destroyed it to much rejoicing,until they found the wreckage of a civil airliner.

    Anti-Russians are claiming the BUK launchers were sent from Russia,although its unlikely the Russian army would hand over such equipment,and only highly trained operatives could fire one;again unlikely given the information around and the number of ex-Soviet army men.This is an attempt to implicate Russia directly.

    The Russians are trying to cover up what happened and blame Kiev;while ordering the BUKs are handed over to them.

    The EU, the British and European establishment,Obama and Hilary Clinton,the Australian PM(who knows nothing about the EU’s activities:and most of the media are engaged in hate-speech against Russia and Putin.

    For Richard North see

  • artemis in france

    There are two reasons why this plane was shot down. It was flying over a war zone when previous Mh17s hadn’t taien this route (what is it with Malaysian Airlines’ pilots and their liking for diverting from agreed routes?) and the separatists were in the habit of shooting down Ukrainian military aircraft and mistook this plane for a transport and troop carrier. That’s it. It appears that other airlines’ pilots had refused to fly this route because of the danger. Duh.

    • kyalami

      Lots of airlines had flown similar routes in earlier days, including Lufthansa. This flight had been diverted from a different path to avoid bad weather.

      • Advocatus_Diaboli_69

        Precisely. Malaysian Airlines aren’t the only airline to have flown this route.

  • HookesLaw

    I fail to see the relevance of this long spiel to the matter in hand. It is quite evident what happend – the Russian backed rebels shot down a commercial jet liner at 33,000 feet with a missile. Quite why may be in question – but overwhelmigly it was probably a matter of incompetence.

    • Advocatus_Diaboli_69

      I agree. Now try convincing the Russians.

    • Sean Lamb

      It is not so hard. In the ’80s the US were prepared to gamble with civilians lines in order to test Soviet air defences and then used the resulting catastrophe for political purposes.
      Here a catastrophe is being used for the identical political purposes. The difference is that in the 80s there was only one party who could have shot down the plane.
      In this case there are essentially 2 parties (or 3 depending on how you define it). The Ukrainians could have requested the plane to lower its altitude (actually they did) and change its flight path to manoeuvre it into the killing zone and then used their radar stations to target the plane. Or a stand alone anti-missile battery from the separatists could have fired a blind lucky shot.

      In either case the politicians and media on both sides use the dead as meat to further their own agendas.

  • Roger Hudson

    You need to confess that with this article you are taking part in the propaganda war, smear and counter-smear.
    Sufficient evidence exists to make clear conclusions possible.
    The ‘black boxes’ are a red herring, catastrophic hydraulic loss and possibly cabin pressure on break up, pilots voice recorders won’t tell much as an up-shot is usually not detectable before impact. As for why engineers from Boeing need to investigate i can’t imagine, just PR bullshit.
    What do we know:
    Kiev have used large ‘Candid’ military transports in the area, one was shot down last week.
    A picture of a BUK was taken before the incident in a rebel held town.
    There is video of a diagonal missile trail and people shouting because they think they have seen a Kiev transport hit.
    Locals report bodies falling from the sky, did you spot the toilet paper drifting down on film?
    Radio traffic intercepts identify the rebel unit/gang ( a miners militia is mentioned) who fired, then talk of civilian bodies and a Malay student passport, the talkers realise the SAM unit shot a wrong target.
    We can conclude it was a cock-up, no conspiracy, typical in a civil war.
    A lot of people don’t seem to want to accept such a huge loss of life can be a banal cock-up of war.

    • kyalami

      If it was a cock-up, there still remains the evil act of letting separatists/terrorists have such weapons.

  • rtj1211

    I don’t know where you think you get your information from, but anyone whose information sources are wider than the DT, the DM and 10 Downing Street’s propaganda hymn sheet will be well aware that the black box was found and taken to Moscow. Whether it will be doctored there, who knows. That is why other international figures are calling for it to be opened up by an independent grouping.

    Either you know this and are doing your Goebbels-esque propaganda, just like you claim the Russians engage in (they may well do as well) or you are singularly incompetent at journalism.

    • HookesLaw

      This is a pathetic article by The Spectator – another one.

  • Andy

    We already know what happened. What we don’t know is was it a Russian separatist finger on the button or a Russian finger. I bet the former aided and abetted by Russian Intelligence.

    • HookesLaw

      Its a bit worrying that Wee Dougie might be in charge in a future crisis.

  • Baron

    The tragedy happened over Ukraine, it is up to Kiev to secure the area either by negotiation or by force. It’s very likely the delay is deliberate as it further inflames anti-Russian sentiments.

    • Advocatus_Diaboli_69

      it is up to Kiev to secure the area – just like that, eh? There’s a civil war going on and the are is held by Russian backed rebels. What makes you think the Ukrainians can secure quickly enough before all the evidence is destroyed?

      • Roger Hudson

        Enough photo, film and speech evidence is already out.
        Bits of planes are less important than the locals collecting to the mortuary quickly. It will be a DNA identification job.

      • Baron

        Well, isn’t the first duty of every government secure its territory, guarantee safety of its people? If they, together with their allies, cannot do it, there should be an election, other bunch of politicians may do better.

    • HookesLaw

      Pathetic truly pathetic.

    • telemachus

      What evidence do you have for your assertion

      • Baron

        The Malaysian airline spokesman said so, asked for an explanationof both the diversion and the lower height.

  • pearlsandoysters

    Quite true, there are too many imponderables coupled with spin on both sides, so it’s virtually impossible to get to the truth. Journalists are enthusiastically engaged in whipping up hysteria and peddling some half-backed sentiments. No one seems to be really interested in what happened rather in telling “their side” of the story and gaining advantage over adversary. An international cooperation at its rock bottom.

  • swatnan

    We still don’t know who was responsible for Lockerbie.
    But MH17 was downed in disputed territory in a conflict zone. There is no proper administration in control to carry out examinations.

    • rtj1211

      I think the powers that be know perfectly well who was responsible for Lockerbie. It’s just that it doesn’t fit their geostrategic plans to let everyone know.