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U.S., other governments say it’s likely Iran shot down Ukrainian passenger jet

Editor's Note: In this piece, we refer to Volodymyr Zelensky as the prime minister of Ukraine. He is actually the country's president. We regret the error.

According to the U.S. government, evidence is mounting that an Iranian missile was responsible for the crash of a passenger plane near Tehran Wednesday. Iran denies the charge, but the U.S. says radar, satellite and photos indicate it is "highly likely" -- raising the question of why civilian aircraft were flying amid a conflict. Nick Schifrin reports and joins Judy Woodruff and Miles O’Brien.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The evidence is mounting tonight that an Iranian missile knocked a passenger airliner out of the sky this week near Tehran. Iran denies it, but the United States and several other governments say it is highly likely.

    Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin begins with this report. And a warning: Some of the scenes in this story could be disturbing to some viewers.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There were no survivors, 176 lives lost, leaving behind only family photo scrapbooks, charred shoes, the remnants of a plane wing.

    And now Western officials say the Ukrainian passenger jet that went down was shot down. At 6:12 a.m. local on Wednesday, the flight took off from Tehran's International Airport bound for Kiev. After two minutes, it reached about 7,300 feet, and contact was lost.

    U.S. intelligence officials and a senior administration official tell "PBS NewsHour" the U.S. assesses Iran fired this Russian-made missile defense system, mistaking the passenger jet for a U.S. military jet.

    Five hours before, at 1:00 a.m. local, Iran's military launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq. U.S. intelligence officials assess, after this attack, Iran was on high alert, fearing that U.S. aircraft could attack inside Iran.

    U.S. officials say their assessment that Iran shot down the plane is based on photos, radar data, and satellite information, including infrared detection of the missile launch.

    More than 60 passengers were Canadian, and, today, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blamed Iran.

  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau:

    We have intelligence from multiple sources, including our allies and our own intelligence. The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. This may well have been unintentional.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump hinted it was Iran, but emphasized the human toll.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It's a tragic thing. When I see that, it's a tragic thing. But somebody could have made a mistake on the other side. Could have made a mistake.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Iran's civil aviation authority today denied the accusation, saying it was — quote — "physically impossible" for a missile to have hit the plane.

    But, tonight, video emerged of what appears to be a missile hitting the plane, and other videos show the plane going down, and the impact caught on a CCTV camera.

    Today, Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky didn't blame Iran, but called for an international investigation.

  • President Volodymyr Zelensky (through translator):

    Undoubtedly, the priority for Ukraine is to identify the causes of the plane crash. We will surely find out the truth.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Nick joins me now, along with our aviation correspondent, Miles O'Brien. He is in Florida.

    Hello to both of you.

    So, Nick, you have been talking to experts all day long. What are they saying about how this could have happened?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So there are questions about the system that Iran was using and questions about user error.

    So, first the system, Judy. The U.S. intelligence assessment is that this was an old Russian short-range missile defense system called Tor or SA-15. The hardware on that system is considered relatively reliable, but the computer software is not as sophisticated.

    And it's that software, that it's not about targeting, but it's about knowing which plane is in the sky. And so the experts I spoke to — and they are just experts. They're outside of the government. Experts I spoke to said maybe the software couldn't determine which kind of plane it was.

    And that's where you get user error. The time the operator of the system had to decide what to do was seconds. The operator is sitting there just hours after that major Iranian attack on U.S. bases in Iraq, fearing that there could be U.S. jets, military jets, in the sky.

    And this is the fundamental nature of conflict, Judy, that miscalculations can happen. And this happened, by the way, to the U.S. 1988, U.S.-Iran tanker war, the USS Vincennes — it's a warship — was skirmishing with Iranian boats in the Persian Gulf, and had actually accidentally entered Iranian waters, when it discovered or thought it had discovered an Iranian military jet coming toward the ship.

    That was actually a civilian jet, but it didn't know that. It didn't quite know what it was. And so it fired; 298 people died in that mistake that the U.S. has made in the past.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Miles, from a civilian aviation perspective, what are the questions that are being asked tonight about this?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, I think an important question, Judy, is, Iran was on high alert in the wake of the missile attack in Iraq.

    A prudent thing to do would have been to make it a no-fly zone for civilian airliners, at least in the immediate aftermath of that. As Nick is pointing out, you have a system that is old already. We don't know how well-maintained it was. We don't know how the software was working or what it was doing.

    We don't know how well-trained that crew was. But we do know they were on hair-trigger alert. That civilian aircraft has a transponder, and it would have kicked out crucial information on what it was and what it wasn't.

    But the civilian system and the military system, wherever you go in the world, is not well-integrated. And on a good day, that can cause trouble. This wasn't a good day. This was a very bad day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    No question.

    So, Nick, what is Iran saying? What are they doing about all this?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, as we reported, Iran has denied this accusation coming out of U.S. intelligence officials.

    The head of the Civil Aviation Organization called them illogical rumors. That's what he said today. They have been providing some details. They said other civilian airliners were in the air at the same time, and that the plane didn't go down immediate, but it was hit — or some kind of mechanical failure — that's what Iran is saying — and tried to turn down, turn back to the airport.

    Iran has said it was willing to work with Ukrainian authorities. But, Judy, this is crucial. Iran has said it is not willing to hand over the black boxes to U.S. officials.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so that raises the question, Miles. Help us understand or remind why those black boxes matter in understanding how something like this could have happened.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, the objective data in those black boxes would be able to settle that alleged dispute here.

    I mean, the Iranians are saying it was impossible for them to shoot it down. That's patently not true. This aircraft was 4,000 feet above the ground, 7,000 feet above sea level, well within range of surface-to-air missiles.

    So that's wrong on the face of it. The black boxes will settle it, because the data in there will be able to explain it. There might be some cockpit voice recordings that would be crucial. And that's why it's important that those boxes end up in some sort of objective hands, so that the world can make an assessment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to just come back to both of you on this question of no-fly zone, both you, Nick, and you, Miles, because people are asking, in retrospect, why were passenger planes, civilian aircraft, still flying in a place where basically there was war?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's a very good question that Miles raises.

    We do know that U.S. officials were saying, avoid that airspace. And they were saying that in the days leading up to this accident, because we believe this was an accident. But we don't know why Iran had decided — Iran hadn't decided why not creating a no-fly zone — and, obviously, as Miles was saying, it would have been a prudent effort, and it obviously would have saved a lot of lives.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Miles, do I hear you saying that if Iran had done that, civilian aircraft wouldn't have been flying?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Correct.

    Look what happened in the United States after 9/11; 4,500 aircraft were put on the ground in short order. There was a no-fly zone. It is the prudent thing to do in a situation where everybody is on hair-trigger alert. That didn't happen in this case. And the fog of war took over.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just such a tragedy. Such a tragedy.

    Miles O'Brien, Nick Schifrin, thank you both.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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