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What kind of missile could have downed the Malaysian plane?

July 17, 2014 at 6:05 PM EDT
How safe was it for a Malaysia Airlines plane to be flying in airspace over conflict-torn Eastern Ukraine? Gwen Ifill talks to former intelligence official Charles Duelfer and Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, about potential geo-political reverberations and what will help investigators piece together what happened.
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GWEN IFILL: Later today, Russian President Putin laid the blame on the Ukrainian government for renewing military operations against the rebels.

We look at some of the many questions surrounding this with Charles Duelfer, who spent more than 25 years working for government national security agencies. In 1983, he was the State Department’s top analyst investigating the shootdown of a South Korean airliner by the Soviets. And Jim Hall, the former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board. The board investigated the crashes of TWA Flight 800 and Egypt Air 990 while he was chairman.

Gentlemen, thank you both for joining us.

Charles Duelfer, what would it take to shoot down a commercial airline flying at 33,000 feet?

CHARLES DUELFER, Former CIA Official: Well, unfortunately, there is a lot of capacity in the region to do that.

The Russians have missile systems to do just this. And apparently these missile systems have now come into the hands of both Ukraine and Ukrainian separatists. So, it’s not a difficult task for a sophisticated army.

GWEN IFILL: Is it possible to confuse a commercial airliner with a military transport plane?

CHARLES DUELFER: Well, in fact, this is probably what happened in 1983, when the Russians shot down a 747. They were suspicious that it was an American surveillance aircraft. My guess…

GWEN IFILL: This was the Korean airline…

CHARLES DUELFER: That’s the Korean airliner from — in 1983.

If you take one of these military systems and you take it out of an overall air defense system, where you have just got a small unit, and they’re looking at aircraft outside of any other data, they could look up and misidentify an aircraft.

I think that’s possibly what happened in this case, where they may have thought they were aiming at an Antonov, a transport aircraft which would be associated with the Ukrainian military, and in fact have been aiming at this 777.

GWEN IFILL: Jim Hall, we look at the airspace. We know about the conflict in Ukraine. How safe was it for that airliner to be flying through that airspace at that altitude?

JIM HALL, Former Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board: Well, we don’t know for sure.

The integrity of this investigation, which I agree should be an international investigation, is critical, in my opinion, to all of the nations in that region. And so the airspace, as I understand it, was cleared for commercial flight.

So either we’re looking at a criminal act and the dastardly act that took 295 lives, or a horrible mistake. And the world needs to know that, or it’s going to have, as I said, a chilling affect on international aviation.

GWEN IFILL: Jim Hall, you have investigated unexpected — and I guess they are all unexpected — crashes and accidents before. What is the first thing you look for to determine whether in fact it was a terrible failure of the aircraft itself or someone’s decision to take it down?

JIM HALL: Well, of course, most of that information is going to be contained in the black boxes. Hopefully, they are in the process of being recovered, the flight data recorder, the cockpit voice recorder.

You are going to be looking obviously at the air traffic control tapes and any other type of information that you might have that involved communications between the ground and this aircraft.

GWEN IFILL: Charles Duelfer, President Putin apparently informed President Obama about this in a phone call earlier in the day, which would lead one to believe that he was trying to say this was not — we had nothing to do with this, or I guess he wouldn’t have brought it up.

In the past, especially in the Korean airliner incident, is this something that anybody would readily admit to, or did this have to be unearthed in the investigation?

CHARLES DUELFER: I think the Russians learned from their experience in 1983, where they handled it very badly by denying it for a long period of time. And then they were caught out because the United States intelligence had collected the communications, which was very blatant. And they were played in the Security Council.

I would add to what Jim has said about the crash investigation. There’s going to be a lot of intelligence information. This is one of the most heavily surveilled places on the planet, where they have satellites which are looking for just missile launches because we’re concerned about attacks from Russia.

So there will be a lot of supplementary data. I think the case — this will be an answerable thing. People will know why this airplane went down. The open question will be who has responsibility for it. And that’s where I think we’re going to see Russia maneuvering to try to shift responsibility and Ukrainians trying to place responsibility on Russia, if not the separatists.

GWEN IFILL: Jim Hall, let me ask you a little bit about this idea of being able to trace the cause for the plane going down.

This is — even though it’s Malaysia Airlines and we spent a lot of time talking about the Malaysia Airlines jet that went missing within the last six months, what is different here in terms of the number of ways to monitor this flight path and what happened when impact presumably occurred?

JIM HALL: Well, of course, the most significant difference is that we have the wreckage, regrettably.

We know where it’s located, which does set up a certain international protocols in terms of an investigation, which I’m pleased to hear — and I hope both sides in the Ukrainian dispute will agree to an international investigation of this matter.

But having the evidence and hopefully having the information on the black boxes and having the recovery of those black boxes and the cooperation of the various countries that this aircraft flew through in providing this information will have a more transparent and a more detailed investigation into this Malaysian accident than we have seen today in the previous one.

GWEN IFILL: And let me ask you one more question about that.

The airspace wasn’t closed where this flight was maneuvering through. At least it was flying above the closed portion of the airspace, but it has been closed now. Is it your understanding now or would it be your advice if you were in a similar position to keep that closed for the length of this investigation?

JIM HALL: Well, I think that’s just common sense at this point.

There are obviously individuals on the ground that have weapons capable of reaching the altitude of the most sophisticated aircraft flying now. So, until that dispute can be managed, we certainly need to embargo that airspace.

GWEN IFILL: Charles Duelfer, put your diplomat’s hat on for a moment.

You know that — we — Jim Hall just talked about the potential international reverberations here. What do you see, especially given that this was a touchy war zone in the first place, reverberating from this kind of accident/intentional attack?

CHARLES DUELFER: There’s going to be some serious arguments about whether the Russians are behaving responsibly with respect to their clients, particularly with respect to having them have access to these types of weapons, which outside of the command-and-control of an organized state, you get an airliner passing through airspace, and they have no way of checking, is this a civilian aircraft or is it a friend or a foe?

That normal structure doesn’t exist. So, I think a lot of the diplomatic argument will take place on that point. And, again, I think the intelligence surrounding this, both from the United States, from the Ukrainians, is going to be very interesting. And I think if they do have tapes of communications, those are going to be very damning in a lot of ways.

GWEN IFILL: Charles Duelfer, Jim Hall, thank you both very much.

CHARLES DUELFER: Thank you.