The Cable

U.S. Intelligence No Closer to Pinning MH17 Downing on Russia

Five days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, U.S. intelligence officials are still not certain who fired the missile that felled the doomed airliner, nor have they conclusively linked the attack to Russian military forces, according to senior intelligence officials.

"The leading theory" at this point, said a senior intelligence official, is that pro-Russian separatists equipped and trained by Russia fired the deadly surface-to-air missile on July 17, killing all 298 passengers aboard. But U.S. analysts aren't sure whether the shooters were trained directly by Russian military forces or if they learned how to fire the missile while serving in the Ukrainian military, officials said.

In a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, three senior intelligence officials laid out the evidence and showed that the Obama administration is no closer to decisively pinning the blame for the shoot-down on Moscow or Russian President Vladimir Putin. A mountain of circumstantial evidence points to the Russian-backed separatists. But "there's no Perry Mason moment" in the intelligence, said one official.

The officials offered little new information about the MH17 investigation, except to say that U.S. intelligence analysts are now persuaded that the jet was downed by accident, likely by forces who believed they were taking aim at a Ukrainian military aircraft. The officials circulated widely available information, including photographs of the suspected missile launcher posted to social media in recent days, and pointed to voice recordings posted to YouTube of separatists acknowledging that they shot down a jet, which they later discovered was a civilian plane. One official stressed that analysts weren't relying solely on social media information, such as tweets and online videos. But nothing in the agencies' classified files has brought them any closer to definitively blaming Russia.

In the days since the shoot-down, President Barack Obama has made clear that he holds Putin responsible for, at the very least, creating the unstable and confused wartime conditions in eastern Ukraine that set the stage for such a tragedy. The president emphasizes Russia's "extraordinary influence" over the separatists, and that he expects Putin to rein them in and force them to negotiate a political settlement with Kiev. "Russia has urged [the separatists] on," Obama said in brief remarks at the White House on Monday. "Russia has trained them. We know that Russia has armed them with military equipment and weapons, including anti-aircraft weapons. Key separatist leaders are Russian citizens."

The senior intelligence officials likewise emphasized Russia's military support to the separatists and said this helped build a case against Moscow as being ultimately responsible for providing the missile launcher that was used to shoot down MH17. The officials showed reporters a satellite photo of what they said was a camp in Rostov, Russia, near Ukraine's eastern border, where separatists have been trained. A photograph taken Monday shows the camp apparently filled with military equipment, indicating that it remains an active training ground. The officials also said that as recently as Tuesday, intelligence showed that as many as 20 military vehicles were moving from Russia into Ukraine, indicating that Russia has little intention of scaling down its activity in the region.

The officials were especially concerned with countering various theories put forward in the Russian press that claimed Ukrainian military forces shot down MH17. Dismissing the stories as "propaganda," the officials spent about half of the briefing debunking claims that a Ukrainian SA-11 battery or an attack plane was the guilty culprit.

One official said the intelligence agencies wanted to avoid a repeat of the Russian invasion of Crimea, in which Russian media dispensed stories that the soldiers who'd occupied the territory weren't really directed by Russia -- a claim that has been widely debunked.

Rob Stothard / Getty Images News

The Cable

FAA Bans All Flights to and From Israel

This post has been updated.

In a move likely to put a dent in Israel's vital tourism and export sectors, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibited all U.S. airlines from flying to and from Israel for up to 24 hours because of escalating violence between Israel and Hamas. The move came after a rocket strike landed about one mile from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, according to a statement by the FAA. Although the ban only applies to U.S. airlines, other major carriers, including Air France, Lufthansa, and KLM, have also canceled flights to Israel.

"Due to the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza, all flight operations to/from Ben Gurion … by U.S. operators are prohibited until further advised," reads a statement by the FAA.

The first airline to respond to the Ben Gurion incident was Delta, which diverted an Israel-bound Boeing 747 with 273 passengers to Paris and suspended all flights to Israel indefinitely "to ensure the safety and security of our customers and employees," according to a statement on the company's website.

The FAA's move comes after two weeks of deadly fighting between Israel and Hamas, with the militants lobbing volleys of rockets into Israel and Israeli forces responding with airstrikes and an expanding ground offensive aimed at destroying tunnels used by Hamas to stage attacks on the Jewish state. It also follows the downing of a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine, which resulted in the death of 298 people.

On Tuesday, United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon called on Israel and Hamas to end the violence in Gaza, which has killed 620 Palestinians and 27 Israelis.

The FAA's decision reflects the growing concern within Israel about the size and reach of the Hamas arsenal. At the start of the current fighting, Israeli security officials estimated that Hamas had roughly 11,000 rockets and missiles, many of them crude devices that routinely explode midflight or crash harmlessly near the border with Gaza. Those officials say that Israeli strikes have destroyed roughly 2,500 of those rockets, while Hamas has fired off more than 2,000 more. Despite the growing intensity of the Israeli assault, those figures mean that Hamas still retains more than 60 percent of its arsenal. The bigger concern to Israel is the rockets' range, with projectiles being shot down over Tel Aviv, Ashdod, and Ashkelon.

Israeli officials concede that their Iron Dome missile defense system isn't foolproof and have long worried that some of the missiles would get through. Ben Gurion airport has been a source of particular concern because a direct strike on a passenger jet has the potential to decimate Israel's tourism industry, a key part of its overall economy. If the FAA-mandated suspension lasts beyond the initial 24 hours, the move could have fast and potentially far-reaching implications for Israel.*

According to Jerusalem Post reporter Niv Elis, Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said Tuesday that the cancellation of flights was a mistake and could encourage Hamas. "There is no reason for the American companies to stop their flight and give a prize to terror," he said. A spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Aaron Sagui, downplayed the differences of opinion between Jerusalem and Washington. "We understand that this was a procedural decision of the FAA given the situation in Israel," he said. "Our aviation officials are in contact with the FAA, and we are confident that after they learn all the facts, they will resume flights. Israeli airliners are flying and the airport and Israeli airspace are safe." 

The flight ban was apparently distressing enough to the Israelis for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to raise the issue with Secretary of State John Kerry during a phone call on Tuesday. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed the nature of the phone call in a statement and insisted that the FAA's notice "was issued to protect American citizens and American carriers." 

"The only consideration in issuing the notice was the safety and security of our citizens," said Psaki. 

Meanwhile, far-right pro-Israel hawks in the United States are speculating that the Obama administration's travel directives are designed to exert pressure on Israel into agreeing to a cease-fire -- though no evidence exists to support the claim.

Correction, July 22, 2014, 3:10 p.m.: The Federal Aviation Administration suspended flights from the United States to Israel for 24 hours. An earlier version of this article stated in one place that the suspension was for 24 days. (Return to reading.)

Photo via Getty Images