US faces in­tel hur­dles in down­ing of air­liner

The Covington News - - THE WIRE -

ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — A se­ries of unanswered ques­tions about the down­ing of Malaysia Air­lines Flight 17 shows the lim­its of U.S. in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing even when it is in­tensely fo­cused, as it has been in Ukraine since Rus­sia seized Crimea in March.

Cit­ing satel­lite imagery, in­ter­cepted con­ver­sa­tions and so­cial me­dia post­ings, U.S. in­tel­li­gence officials have been able to present what they call a solid cir­cum­stan­tial case that the plane was brought down by a Rus­sian-made SA-11 sur­faceto-air mis­sile fired by Rus­sian-backed sep­a­ratists in Eastern Ukraine.

But they have not of­fered proof of what they say is their strong be­lief that the sep­a­ratists ob­tained the so­phis­ti­cated mis­sile sys­tem from the Rus­sian govern­ment. And they say they have not de­ter­mined what, if any, in­volve­ment Rus­sian op­er­a­tives may have had in di­rect­ing or en­cour­ag­ing the at­tack, which they be­lieve was a mis­taken at­tempt to hit a Ukrainian mil­i­tary air­craft

Moscow an­grily de­nies any in­volve­ment in the at­tack; on Satur­day the Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry ac­cused the U.S. of wag­ing “an un­re­lent­ing cam­paign of slan­der against Rus­sia, ever more re­ly­ing on open lies.”

U.S. officials said they still don’t know who fired the mis­sile or whether Rus­sian mil­i­tary of­fi­cers were present when it hap­pened. De­ter­min­ing that will take time, they said, if it’s pos­si­ble at all. As one put it, “this isn’t ‘24,’” re­fer­ring to the TV se­ries that of­ten ex­ag­ger­ates the speed and ca­pa­bili- ties of the Amer­i­can spy­ing ma­chine.

On Fri­day, a U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial noted that in­tel­li­gence agen­cies had been “heav­ily in­volved” in track­ing the flow of weapons from Rus­sian to Ukrainian sep­a­ratists, and that “avail­able in­tel­li­gence points to Rus­sia as the source of the SA-11 that downed” the jet­liner. The of­fi­cial spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss sen­si­tive in­tel­li­gence.

In­tel­li­gence rarely meets the “be­yond a rea­son­able doubt” stan­dard re­quired to con­vict in a U.S. court, said Michael Hay­den, a for­mer direc­tor of the CIA and the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency.

“We know what hap­pened,” he said in an in­ter­view while at­tend­ing the Aspen Se­cu­rity Fo­rum. “Rus­sia is re­spon­si­ble for the shoot­down of the jet, re­gard­less of a few of the finer de­tails we have yet to de­ter­mine.”

The Malaysian air­line in­ves­ti­ga­tion il­lus­trates the chal­lenges fac­ing the $80 bil­lion-a-year U.S. in­tel­li­gence ap­pa­ra­tus, which is spread thin as it grap­ples with an in­creas­ingly un­pre­dictable world.

In the weeks af­ter Rus­sian troops took over the Ukrainian re­gion of Crimea in March, U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies ramped up col­lec­tion in the area, adding satel­lite and eaves­drop­ping ca­pa­bil­ity, said cur­rent and for­mer U.S. officials who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to dis­cuss clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion.

But spy satel­lites or­bit the Earth and there­fore don’t of­fer per­sis­tent, hov­er­ing sur­veil­lance the way drones do. The U.S. does not ap­pear to have cap­tured an image of the mis­sile be­ing fired, officials say, although sen­sors de­tected the launch and an­a­lysts were able to de­ter­mine the tra­jec­tory.

Had an imagery sen­sor on a low or­bit­ing satel­lite cap­tured the launch, it could have pro­duced in­tel­li­gence-rich pho­tos of plumes of smoke and the launch ve­hi­cle, said David Dep­tula, a re­tired Air Force gen­eral and ex­pert on in­tel­li­gence sys­tems. A com­pany called Sky­box Imag­ing has been able to shoot short bursts of full mo­tion video from its satel­lites, so pre­sum­ably the mil­i­tary also has that ca­pa­bil­ity.

But weapons can be hid­den from satel­lites. Although U.S. an­a­lysts said they knew that tanks and other heavy weaponry were flow­ing from Rus­sia to the sep­a­ratists, officials said they were un­aware that the sep­a­ratists pos­sessed work­ing SA-11 mis­siles, which can hit air­craft fly­ing at high al­ti­tudes, un­til af­ter the pas­sen­ger jet was shot down.

Cred­i­ble hu­man sources are the holy grail of in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing, but the CIA, which has a medium-sized sta­tion in Kiev, was not in a po­si­tion to re­cruit in­for­mants quickly among the sep­a­ratists in what is es­sen­tially a war zone, officials said.

What the CIA did in­stead was to step up its co­op­er­a­tion with Ukrainian in­tel­li­gence, de­spite con­cerns that the Ukrainian ser­vice is pen­e­trated by the Rus­sians.

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