Updated. Unverified information posted about the downing of MH17 over Ukraine is irresponsible. Rachel Maddow exposed tonight just how much of what we supposedly knew about this story is actually a kind of reckless gossip. It's gossip that could have consequences far more tragic than the downing of a civilian aircraft. We should resist the impulse to engage in it.
I haven't had time to post much lately, but the coverage of the Malaysian airliner apparently shot down over Ukraine, including at least one poorly-written diary on DK, shows that a lot of unverified material is being posted and being used to support conclusions that are not supportable. For reasons that I shall discuss, this is an important enough issue to take time I need for other tasks to do this post.
Rachel Maddow did a good job of dissecting what is known and what is not known at this point. What is known is that the jet was flying at an altitude too high to be reached by a shoulder launched missile, and that therefore a weapon like the Buk surface-to-air missile was likely to blame. Ukrainian rebels are believed to have seized these weapons from the Ukrainian military, though of course the Russians also could have supplied them to the rebels. And it's pretty clear that the rebels know how to use such weapons, because they have shot down Ukrainian military aircraft.
Rachel got a bit ahead of the facts in indicating that the Russian military trained Ukrainian rebels in using these weapons. Certainly they might have, but it's also possible that Russian nationalists who trained in the military provided the training without the sanction of the Russian government. It's difficult for me to believe that the Russian government, with its centralized decision making, would have farmed out control of surface to air missiles to a unit not under close control. Without access to sophisticated radar, the Buk missileis incapable of differentiating civilian and military aircraft. It's extremely difficult to believe that Russia would knowingly shoot down a civilian aircraft. And so what this chain of reasoning leads us to is the conclusion that if Russian- or Russian-backed forces shot down the aircraft, it was very likely a tragic accident.
Nor can we at this stage completely neglect the possibility, unlikely as it might seem, that the Ukrainian military fired the missile. As Professor Stephen Cohen noted, they are the ones with a motive for creating an incident of this kind.
Reviewing the history of the KAL 007 incident, what that teaches us is that when big powers clash, they use incidents like the accidental downing of an airliner for political goals. In KAL 007, the US military had been playing cat-and-mouse games with Soviet forces in the area and the US military failed to recognize that the airliner had strayed off course (and, by the way, into a NORAD restricted zone, according to Wikipedia). So the US had some indirect culpability for what happened. Furthermore, the US knew the shoot-down was accidental, yet chose to use it for political purposes. And, interestingly, the US Air Force destroyed records it had that could have shed light on KAL 007's flight path.
Given that history, a repetition is likely to seriously exacerbate Russian-American relations. Assuming the downing of the aircraft was a tragic accident, the Russians will view American attempts to exploit it for political purposes with justifiable rage.
We are drifting into a new Cold War. We may already have entered one. Those who remember the Cold War, when on several occasions we came within inches of incinerating the world , will concede that no political goal, no matter how lofty, is worth resurrecting the Cold War.
None. No, not even shaming the Russians into doing their part to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of irresponsible actors. When one looks at the sorts of groups we arm around the world, America is not blameless in that regard.
Posting unverified information on a topic this sensitive is irresponsible. If we end up in a new Cold War, it will be because demagogy overcame reason. It is not enough to blame our leaders for this eventuality. We too are responsible for keeping this from becoming an emotion-driven debate.
Update: It seems that Robert Parry, a seasoned journalist, shares my misgivings about the rush to judgment. Unlike me, he has sources in the CIA. He says:
Regarding the shoot-down of the Malaysian jetliner on Thursday, I’m told that some CIA analysts cite U.S. satellite reconnaissance photos suggesting that the anti-aircraft missile that brought down Flight 17 was fired by Ukrainian troops from a government battery, not by ethnic Russian rebels who have been resisting the regime in Kiev since elected President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown on Feb. 22.I promise that if it turns out that that source is correct, and the Ukrainian military did shoot down MH17, I will not jump to the conclusion that they did so to frame the Russians.
According to a source briefed on the tentative findings, the soldiers manning the battery appeared to be wearing Ukrainian uniforms and may have been drinking, since what looked like beer bottles were scattered around the site. But the source added that the information was still incomplete and the analysts did not rule out the possibility of rebel responsibility.
Parry also reminds us that President Obama said, “It’s an insult to human reason and to the legitimacy of this institution to suggest that anyone other than the [Syrian] regime carried out this attack [of sarin gas].” That. of course, turned out to be wrong.
Take your time, folks. The facts do come out eventually.