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by John Helmer, Moscow

The US satellite images proving that a BUK missile brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 on July 17, 2014, have existed for twenty-three days – between July 20 and August 12, 2014. Since then they ceased to exist.  Since then too, for almost six years, no US Government official has claimed in public, nor told Dutch police, prosecutors, or military intelligence officials in secret, that the images can be viewed with the naked eye.

A week ago, on March 23, Hendrik Steenhuis, a judge of The Hague District Court, ordered the production and disclosure of these US satellite images as evidence in the trial of four men accused of transporting the missile to its launch site, participating in the order to fire, and intending to kill all 298 people on board the aircraft.

Steenhuis, the presiding trial judge, gave Dutch prosecutors until June 8 to comply with the order and prove the satellite images exist. If they do not, the foundation of the case against the four accused, and against the Russian military and political command for ordering the BUK launched, will collapse.

Lawyers with experience in comparable international tribunals are sceptical of both Judge Steenhuis’s order, and of the likelihood the US Government and Dutch prosecutors will obey it.  Christopher Black was a Canadian lawyer for the defence in the Yugoslav trials beginning in 1993, and the Rwanda trials commencing in 1994. He says: “In our trial at the ICTR [International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda] we pushed the judges to order the prosecution to produce what they claimed they had. Several times under our browbeating, they did make such orders. But they were never followed up. The prosecution never complied, even when a couple of times they were roasted by the judges for disregarding their orders. They didn’t care and nothing was done. We think it was all window-dressing for the press in order to make the judges appear neutral when they were part of the prosecution.”

The test of the Dutch prosecutors’ compliance begins now with the record which US and Dutch officials have made of the satellite evidence over the past six years.  

“There [are] a number of questions to be put to the Public Prosecutor regarding the completion of file” (Min 30:52 )”, Steenhuis (right) read to the court from the text of his ruling on March 23.  One of them, according to the judge, arose from a “roundtable discussion of standing parliamentary committees on the 22nd of January 2016” (Min 31:53). There “it states that the United States has access to classified satellite images allegedly showing the missile being fired, and these have been shared with Dutch intelligence services.” (Min 32:05). “This has been made in a statement by Mr Langbroek who is a satellite expert. Further, it is stated in the [parliamentary committee] documents that the United States has no objection to declassifying this information.”

Left, Judge Hendrik Steenhuis; right, Dr Marco Langbroek. Langbroek publishes a regular satellite tracking report of  observations made at Leiden. Langbroek’s work has been supported by the University of Leiden and the Royal Dutch Air Force.

“The question,” Steenhuis continued, “is whether this is correct and if so, whether the Public Prosecution is considering adding this information to the record through the MIVD or by declassification” (Min 32:27). MIVD (Militaire Inlichtingen- en Veiligheidsdienst) is the acronym for Dutch military intelligence, headed by Major-General Onno Eichelsheim. The judge was ordering the prosecution to bring Eichelsheim to court to testify as a witness, or his reports, or the US satellite images themselves.

The Steenhuis order and the reference to parliamentary testimony by Marco Langbroek, a Dutch satellite expert, can be read here and here.

At the time of the destruction of MH17, the US Secretary of State was John Kerry (lead image, left). He is the only US Government official to say that satellite images of the shootdown on July 17, 2014, existed. If they did, then on July 18, Kerry did not instruct the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, to say so in her written report to the UN Security Council (UNSC).

“Let me share with you,” Power began,  “our assessment of the evidence so far.” She went on to read that the US assessment was that MH17 was “likely [sic] downed by a surface-to-air missile, an SA-11, operated [sic] from a separatist-held location in eastern Ukraine…. We cannot rule out [sic] Russian technical assistance in operating the [missile] systems… If [sic] indeed, Russian-backed separatists were behind this attack on a civilian airliner, they and their backers [sic] would have good reason to cover up evidence of their crime. Thus, it is extremely important that an investigation be commenced immediately… Yesterday [July 17] President Obama assured Ukraine’s president Poroshenko that US experts will offer all possible assistance [sic] upon his request [sic]… All evidence [sic] must remain undisturbed…”  

The qualifiers have been added to reveal, not only that the US Government was not claiming it had satellite evidence, but that the evidence it had did not prove the allegations it made with more than “likelihood”.  Power did make clear that if the Ukraine or an international investigation she proposed made the request, “US experts will offer all possible assistance”, and that “all evidence must remain undisturbed.” At that point in time, if US satellite images existed for evidence, the US Government was promising not to “disturb” it and to hand it over on request to Ukraine and to those governments “whose citizens were victims of this tragedy”.  

US ambassador Samantha Power delivering the first US report on the MH17 crash at the UN Security Council (UNSC) on July 18, 2014. Source: https://www.youtube.com/

Two days later, July 20, Kerry announced on NBC’s Meet the Press: “We picked up the imagery of this launch. We know the trajectory. We know where it came from. We know the timing.  And it was exactly at the time that this aircraft disappeared from the radar. We also know, from voice identification, that the separatists were bragging about shooting it down afterwards.”    Kerry’s reference to Ukrainian-sourced interceptions of telephone calls and social media posts from “pro-Russian separatists” repeated Power’s reference to the same thing. The new evidence which Kerry – Kerry alone — introduced was satellite imagery.

Kerry repeated this only once. That was on August 12, 2014, in Sydney, Australia, where he was participating in the annual ministerial conference of US and Australian security officials. “US Secretary of State John Kerry revealed yesterday the Americans then saw the airline vanish from sight. It had 298 passengers and crew aboard including 38 Australian citizens and residents. ‘This type of weapon, all the evidence of it was seen on our imagery,’ Mr Kerry said after the annual AUSMIN [Australia-US Ministerial Consultations] summit. ‘We saw the take-off. We saw the trajectory, we saw the hit. We saw this aeroplane disappear from the radar screens. So there is really no mystery about where it came from and where these weapons have come from.’”

This is what a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch reported Kerry as saying he had seen. The official record issued by the two governments didn’t say so. The communiqué was as qualified on August 14 as Power’s report to the UNSC had been four weeks before.  The communiqué  said the US and Australia “condemned Russia’s support for and enabling [sic] of the continued destabilisation of eastern Ukraine; destabilisation which led [sic] to the shooting down of a passenger airliner, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, killing all 298 on board. Both countries affirmed their commitment to completing a full international investigation into the attack — – an appalling tragedy and terrible act of senseless [sic] violence.”

The term “senseless” implies that US and Australian officials had already concluded that whoever was culpable, the shootdown was neither an act of war nor an act of intentional murder – the charge which is now proceeding in trial in The Netherlands.

In the record which US, Dutch and Australian government officials have made since August 2014, there has been no claim that they have seen US satellite imagery to substantiate what  happened to MH17. Instead, there have been repeated requests, resolutions,  and orders for the production by the US of all the evidence available.

  • On July 29, 2014, in the report of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) into the MH17 incident, it was decided to “urge the Netherlands, supported by concerned States and organizations, to continue and finalize the independent international investigation; [and to] call on all States to provide all possible assistance to other investigations related to the loss of MH17 which may be undertaken by relevant national and international authorities”.
  • On October 10, 2015, the chairman of the Dutch Safety Board (DSB), Tjibbe Joustra (lead image, 3rd left), told a Dutch newspaper Volkskrant,  that he was “confident that it will become clear who is to blame. ‘How did the Buk firing installation get there? Who ordered it? I expect it to be possible to clarify it,’ he says.” Joustra was speaking in the future tense. But that future did not arrive for Joustra. He never saw satellite images; he never said publicly that he had been briefed by an official who claimed to have done so. Instead, when Joustra retired from the DSB in 2019, and gave Volkskrant a departing interview on his tenure in office, he omitted to mention MH17 altogether.
  • On October 13, 2015, the Dutch Safety Board (DSB) released its analysis of the evidence for the destruction of MH17. Technical analyses of the evidence from Dutch Government laboratories were included as appendixes. The full report can be read here. The details and references can be followed here.
  • On January 22, 2016, Langbroek, the satellite expert, briefed members of  Dutch parliamentary committees for defence and security who were reviewing the MH17 investigation to date. .“At least three of these [US satellites] had sight of Ukraine at the time of this happening and may have observed this potential ,” Langbroek said. Another seven satellites for monitoring signals from a missile launch “would in principle have targeted the region of Ukraine.” Radar and photographic satellites were also available. “One of these satellites, USA-161, had a view of Ukraine at the time of the disaster.” According to Langbroek, “in this context, it is much more important, especially in light of the letter of January 21 [2016], that the Americans have offered to declassify some of the material. A year ago [2015], Ms. Victoria Nuland, who is a kind of Secretary of State within the United States government, said that these data had already been shared with the intelligence services of the Netherlands. She also said she thinks the Dutch are likely to ask for declassification. Then she said: ‘I think we will be able to help in that regard’; in other words, she thinks this is possible. That is an important point. Certainly if the information is used for prosecution of people, it is important that the material is declassified, that it is all verifiable. That is an important point. I hope it will also happen, because the letter from the Minister states that everything goes through the intelligence services.” Langbroek’s evidence was discovered by Judge Steenhuis and given prominence in his ruling on March 23, ordering the prosecutors to produce the satellite images. Read more.
  • On February 12, 2016, an internal minute of discussions among senior investigators of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) recorded that no US satellite images had been delivered to the investigators, nor had they been briefed by US or Dutch intelligence officials. For details of the document, read this.
  • On March 6, 2016, Secretary of State Kerry backed  away from his original claims about the satellite images. He was responding to a letter from Thomas Schansman, father of Quinn Schansman, one of the victims on board MH17 and a dual US-Dutch citizen.   Schansman had written to Kerry requesting to know what satellite and radar data the US held. Kerry’s reply was evasive.  Schansman later told Robert Parry, a US reporter: “the message is clear: no answer on my request to hand over satellite and/or radar data to DSB [Dutch Safety Board] or public. For the documents, read this.  
  • On September 21, 2016, the head of Dutch military intelligence, Major-General Eichelsheim,  reported to the JIT that there was no US or NATO satellite intelligence to substantiate the firing of a BUK missile at MH-17. For the details, read this.   
  • On September 28, 2016, Fred Westerbeke (lead image, right), the chief prosecutor for the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), announced “the first results of the criminal investigation into the downing of flight MH17”.   “In response to a Dutch request for legal assistance, the US submitted a report [sic] in which they present their assessment [sic] of the information regarding the shooting down of flight MH17. This report can be used in court [sic]. The conclusion [sic] of the American authorities is that flight MH17 was shot down by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile, i.e. a BUK-missile, which was launched from a site about six kilometres south of the village of Snizhne in Eastern Ukraine.” Qualifiers have been added for emphasis. Westerbeke was not claiming the US satellite images were directly available to the prosecution. Instead, he claimed to have seen a US “report” and an “assessment”. Also, Westerbeke claimed, “the Dutch Military Intelligence Service (MIVD) and the (Dutch) National Public Prosecutor on Terrorism have been able to view the underlying state-secret (intelligence) material and based on that information and the explanation provided, they support the fact that this conclusion is drawn.” Westerbeke knew he was contradicting the secret reports from Eichelsheim of the MIVD; he did not know the MIVD secrets would become public knowledge later.
  • On August 28, 2017, the Moscow radio, Ekho Moskvy, broadcast an interview with then-US ambassador to Moscow, John Tefft (lead image, 2nd from left).  Asked about the release of the satellite evidence, Tefft said this would not be released publicly because to do so would expose US intelligence “sources and methods”. The next day the interview was reported by Florian Roetzer and published in German in Telepolis.
  • On October 17, 2017, Westerbeke gave an interview to Novaya Gazeta.  He claimed that the US satellite images had been produced and that one of his staff had seen and studied them.

Pavel Kanigin was Westerbeke’s interviewer. Source: https://novayagazeta.ru/

Westerbeke refused to say the satellite “photos”, as he called them, would be released. He then added his own qualifier: “they are just a fraction of an immense body of evidence. It is all about the evidence of our eyewitnesses that is worth more than all data from the radars or satellites.”

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