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After Shoot-Down, Obama Confers With Leaders, Security Team

After Shoot-Down, Obama Confers With Leaders, Security Team

By Alexis Simendinger - July 18, 2014

President Obama conferred Thursday by phone with his secretary of state and members of his national security team in the hours after a shoot-down of a commercial airliner carrying close to 300 passengers.

The president, traveling in Delaware and New York to promote his domestic agenda, monitored global events, which by midday also included an escalation of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza.

“We're working to determine whether there were American citizens on board,” Obama said in describing the downed plane as “a tragedy” during the outset of an economic event in Delaware. “That is our first priority.”

The president said America’s “thoughts and prayers are with all the families of the passengers wherever they call home.”

By the end of the day, officials said it was still unclear whether Americans were among those killed.

Conjecture that pro-Russian separatists -- who have battled the Ukraine government for months -- may have slaughtered innocent civilians sent shock waves through international capitals as intelligence teams worldwide sought to uncover evidence of what occurred and who is to blame.

Ukraine’s government denied responsibility. Russian President Vladimir Putin, one day after the U.S. imposed additional economic sanctions on a quartet of Russian banks and companies, spoke with Obama by phone, mentioning the downed jetliner at the end of their conversation. Putin has denied Russian involvement and blamed Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Yuriy Sergeyev, tweeted Thursday that "Ukraine will present the evidence of Russian military involvement into the Boeing crash. This crime should be fully investigated."

The U.N. Security Council announced an emergency meeting Friday morning, requested by the United Kingdom, at which the need for an independent and credible investigation will be the topic.

Obama, arriving in New York Thursday afternoon for a pair of Democratic donor events, discussed events by telephone with, and extended condolences to, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands. (The flight was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.) The president, with Ukraine’s approval, hastened to dispatch a team of U.S. crash investigators to Ukraine.

As Thursday wore on, the administration’s worries about securing evidence at the crash site mounted. Obama and Rutte, whose country lost 154 travelers aboard the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777, “agreed on the need to assure immediate access to the site of the incident to international investigators in order to facilitate the recovery of remains and to carry out a thorough investigation.”

Obama seeks a “prompt, full, credible and unimpeded international investigation,” the White House repeated in a written statement late in the day. White House officials offered few details Thursday about U.S. agencies and personnel who would help uncover what happened. But prior administrations, during similar tragedies, contributed information from U.S. intelligence agencies, defense experts, FBI explosive specialists, and personnel from the National Transportation Safety Board, among other resources.

The president spoke with his senior advisers by phone, including CIA Director John Brennan, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Stephanie O’Sullivan, Deputy National Security Adviser Lisa Monaco, and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

Obama also spoke with Secretary of State John Kerry by phone about the downed jetliner, as well as the worsening situation in the Middle East. Kerry canceled remarks he planned to deliver Thursday in Washington.

U.S. intelligence data indicated that a surface-to-air missile struck Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 at 33,000 feet over Ukraine, leaving no survivors. Within the hostile border zone between Ukraine and Russia, the precise missile launch location and the identity of the perpetrators remained murky. And because a beneficiary from an attack on civilians seemed hard to fathom, U.S. analysts openly wondered if fighters had erred in their target selection.  

The jet wreckage, captured in video of the crash site televised around the world, prompted hundreds of passenger planes to divert around Ukraine rather than fly through its airspace.

The United States, allied with European nations, has tightened sanctions against Russia for months, responding to Moscow’s provocations in Ukraine. Obama has repeatedly urged Putin to de-escalate hostilities along the Ukraine border and to use his influence to end pro-Russian violence inside Ukraine.

U.S. stocks tumbled initially and gold prices soared Thursday as investors reacted to the tragedy, and later to Israel’s ground assault on Gaza.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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