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Did the U.S. Miss Signs Portending Airliner Shoot-down?

Did the U.S. Miss Signs Portending Airliner Shoot-down?

By Alexis Simendinger - July 24, 2014

The violence in eastern Ukraine with Russia that took down a civilian airliner was not “contained,” President Obama said last week.

As the United States continues to make its case that Russia is implicated in the deaths of 298 air passengers because of its support for fighters operating in the rebel-held sector of Ukraine, officials have publicly discussed risks known to the administration well before the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.

While the U.S. has not identified who destroyed the passenger jet, there remain questions about what the administration understood to be happening in the violent region where separatists operated. What risks had been assessed leading up to the tragedy? In other words, did the government connect all the dots?

Senior administration officials declined to discuss whether intelligence information offered the president an early warning system of his own that suggested deadly missiles and passenger aircraft could collide over Ukraine.

“We don’t talk about anything in the PDB,” said a senior administration official said, when asked whether Obama had been advised before the crash about worrisome activities in Ukraine, as part of his classified intelligence summary known as the President’s Daily Brief.

After 68 years of producing a daily, all-source intelligence summary in printed form, the Central Intelligence Agency, working through the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, fulfilled Obama’s request to present the data electronically to him and his national security advisers. The president has received U.S. intelligence assessments in tablet format since Feb. 16.

Obama understood before the Malaysian Airlines flight plummeted from 33,000 feet that there were mounting dangers, and those factors remain under international discussion as the crash is investigated, administration officials said. Based on evidence and intelligence described in the week since the crash, no official has suggested the tragedy could have been averted, although Russian President Vladimir Putin has blamed Ukraine for creating a violent climate in which civilians perished.

It remains unclear exactly how the United States, the government in Kiev and the international intelligence community shared assessments before the crash, gauging the dangers posed by sophisticated missile launchers they knew that both pro-Russia separatists and Ukraine defense forces possessed.    

First, the president knew that aircraft in eastern Ukraine had been targeted more than a dozen times already, although the targets were military planes flying at lower altitudes. The shoot-downs were not a mystery. “Pro-Russian separatist fighters have demonstrated proficiency with surface-to-air missile systems and have downed more than a dozen aircraft over the past few months, including two large transport aircraft,” the U.S. Embassy in Kiev said in a July 19 statement.

Obama, in White House remarks Friday blaming Russia and Putin, said “this is not the first time a plane has been shot down in eastern Ukraine. Over the last several weeks, Russian-backed separatists have shot down a Ukrainian transport plane and a Ukrainian helicopter, and they claimed responsibility for shooting down a Ukrainian fighter jet. Moreover, we know that these separatists have received a steady flow of support from Russia. This includes arms and training. It includes heavy weapons, and it includes anti-aircraft weapons.”

Second, a senior administration official said Obama was advised prior to the crash that some commercial airlines, as early as last spring, ceased flying routes over eastern Ukraine, to protect the safety of passengers and crews. Korean Air, Asiana, Qantas and China airlines were among the carriers that chose new routes in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

After Flight 17 broke apart, Eurocontrol, the European flight safety organization, said the plane was at 33,000 feet when it disappeared from radar, just 1,000 feet above restricted air space. Ukrainian authorities had previously closed the same flight route from 32,000 feet down to the ground, leaving open the higher flight path.

U.S. intelligence officials who briefed reporters Tuesday at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence refused to answer questions about any warnings or advisories the U.S. government may have shared with peer civil aviation organizations worldwide prior to the Malaysian Airlines incident. The Federal Aviation Administration has not commented.

White House National Security Council spokesman Ben Rhodes, appearing on MSNBC Tuesday, said the FAA is responsible for sharing warnings that affect the traveling public, as it did this week when it grounded U.S. carriers from flying into Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv after a Hamas rocket landed approximately a mile away.

Referring to the FAA, he said the administration shared aviation risk evaluations in Ukraine -- before the crash -- but he did not elaborate.

“We provided warnings, for instance, in Ukraine about the hostilities there in the last several weeks,” Rhodes said. 

Third, the intelligence community advised the president before the Ukraine tragedy that Russian-supplied vehicles and weaponry, including missiles, were known to be operating in Ukraine. The president, Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, backed by the intelligence community, said in the last week that a sophisticated SA-11 surface-to-air missile, which the administration believes was deployed by Russian-backed separatists, detonated beneath the Malaysian Airlines jet, killing all aboard. Officials have said they surmised from available data that the separatists made a mistake, perhaps believing their target was a transport plane.

The administration has not made public any hard evidence that links the downed plane directly to Russia. The administration has conceded that Ukraine, too, possessed the same type of SA-11 missile system, but has asserted that Ukraine did not use the system in the week before the explosion.

In presenting a public case against Moscow and to describe Russia’s influence over the separatists, officials described information they collected prior to plane crash, threads now woven into an indictment against Russia.

In March, Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk appealed to Obama during an Oval Office visit for U.S. security and intelligence assistance to bolster his country’s defenses. In April, the administration declined to share U.S. intelligence with Ukraine as Russia amassed forces along its border, according to U.S. lawmakers. And by June, as the United States and NATO publicly acknowledged that Russia supplied anti-aircraft weapons to separatists inside Ukraine, the Kiev government again appealed to the United States for assistance. At the time, the Pentagon would not confirm that Ukraine sought U.S. help to electronically jam the separatists’ superior anti-aircraft systems, as was reported.

Gen. Philip Breedlove, head of the U.S. European Command, confirmed last month that Russian forces were supplying anti-aircraft weapons and training to the separatists, but he said the U.S. government was not ready to link the downing of Ukrainian aircraft this spring and summer to the weaponry supplied by Russia, which made its way to eastern Ukraine.

“We need to allow the facts to be reported out,” Breedlove told reporters at the Pentagon. “We have not tied the string together yet,” he said.

The deaths of 298 people on Thursday appeared to tighten that tentative string.

“We have been able to get [intelligence] information out more quickly in part because we have more resources on this, but in part because there are not a lot of competing theories,” Rhodes told reporters at a briefing Monday. “There’s no alternative theory that makes any sense to us.”

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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