An amateur report alleging Russian doctoring of satellite photos on the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 case – a finding embraced by The New York Times – is denounced by a forensic expert as an 'outright fraud'
Forensic experts are challenging an amateur report – touted in The New York Times – that claimed Russia faked satellite imagery of Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile batteries in eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, the day that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot out of the sky killing 298 people.
In a Twitter exchange, Dr. Neal Krawetz, founder of the FotoForensics digital image analytical tool, wrote: “‘Bad analysis’ is an understatement. This ‘report’ is outright fraud.”
Another computer imaging expert, Masami Kuramoto, wrote, “This is either amateur hour or supposed to deceive audiences without tech background,” to which Krawetz responded: “Why ‘or’? Amateur hour AND deceptive.”
On Saturday, The New York Times, which usually disdains Internet reports even from qualified experts, chose to highlight the report by arms control researchers at armscontrolwonk.com who appear to have little expertise in the field of forensic photographic analysis.
The Times article suggested that the Russians were falsely claiming that the Ukrainian military had Buk missile systems in eastern Ukraine on the day that MH-17 was shot down. But the presence of Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile batteries in the area has been confirmed by Western intelligence, including a report issued last October on the findings of the Dutch intelligence agency which had access to NATO’s satellite and other data collection.
Indeed, the Netherlands’ Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) concluded that the only anti-aircraft weapons in eastern Ukraine capable of bringing down MH-17 at 33,000 feet belonged to the Ukrainian government, not the ethnic Russian rebels. MIVD made that assessment in the context of explaining why commercial aircraft continued to fly over the eastern Ukrainian battle zone in summer 2014. (The MH-17 flight had originated in Amsterdam and carried many Dutch citizens, explaining why the Netherlands took the lead in the investigation.)
MIVD said that based on “state secret” information, it was known that Ukraine possessed some older but “powerful anti-aircraft systems” and “a number of these systems were located in the eastern part of the country.” MIVD added that the rebels lacked that capacity:
“Prior to the crash, the MIVD knew that, in addition to light aircraft artillery, the Separatists also possessed short-range portable air defence systems (man-portable air-defence systems; MANPADS) and that they possibly possessed short-range vehicle-borne air-defence systems. Both types of systems are considered surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Due to their limited range they do not constitute a danger to civil aviation at cruising altitude.”
I know that I have cited this section of the Dutch report before but I repeat it because The New York Times, The Washington Post and other leading U.S. news organizations have ignored these findings, presumably because they don’t advance the desired propaganda theme blaming the Russians for the tragedy.
In other words, the Times, the Post and the rest of the mainstream U.S. media want the Russians to be guilty, so they exclude from their articles evidence that suggests that some element of the Ukrainian military might have fired the fateful missile. Such “group think” is, of course, the same journalistic malfeasance that led to the false reporting about Iraq’s WMD. Doubts, even expressed by experts, were systematically filtered out then and the same now.
Further, it is dishonest journalism to ignore a credible government report that bears directly on an important issue, especially while running dubious Internet analyses and accepting propaganda claims from self-interested U.S. officials seeking to make the case against Russia.
For instance, the Dutch report contradicted The Washington Post’s early reporting on MH-17. On July 20, 2014, just three days after the crash. the Post published an article with the title “Russia Supplied Missile Launchers to Separatists, U.S. Official Says.”
In the article, the Post’s Michael Birnbaum and Karen DeYoung reported from Kiev that an anonymous U.S. official said the U.S. government had “confirmed that Russia supplied sophisticated missile launchers to separatists in eastern Ukraine and that attempts were made to move them back across the Russian border.”
This official told the Post that Russia didn’t just supply one Buk battery, but three. Though this account has never been retracted, there were problems with it from the start, including the fact that a U.S. “government assessment” – released by the Director of National Intelligence on July 22, 2014, (two days later) – listed a variety of weapons allegedly provided by the Russians to the ethnic Russian rebels but not a Buk anti-aircraft missile system.
In other words, two days after the Post cited a U.S. official claiming that the Russians had given the rebels three Buk batteries, the DNI’s “government assessment” made no reference to a delivery of one, let alone three Buk systems. And that absence of evidence came in the context of the DNI larding the “government assessment” with every possible innuendo to implicate the Russians, including “social media” entries. But there was no mention of a Buk delivery.
The significance of this missing link is hard to overstate. At the time eastern Ukraine was the focus of extraordinary U.S. intelligence collection because of the potential for the crisis to spin out of control and start World War III. Plus, a Buk missile battery is large and difficult to conceal. The missiles themselves are 16-feet-long and are usually pulled around by truck.
U.S. spy satellites, which supposedly can let you read a license plate in Moscow, would have picked up these images. And, if for some inexplicable reason a Buk battery was missed before July 17, 2014, it would surely have been spotted during an after-action review of the satellite imagery. But the U.S. government has released nothing of the kind.
In the days after the MH-17 crash, I was told by a source that U.S. intelligence had spotted Buk systems in the area but they appeared to be under Ukrainian government control. The source who had been briefed by U.S. intelligence analysts said the likely missile battery that launched the fateful missile was manned by troops dressed in what looked like Ukrainian uniforms.
At that point, the source said CIA analysts were still not ruling out the possibility that the troops might have been eastern Ukrainian rebels in similar uniforms but the initial assessment was that the troops were Ukrainian soldiers. There also was the suggestion that the soldiers were undisciplined and possibly drunk, since the imagery showed what looked like beer bottles scattered around the site, the source said. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “What Did US Spy Satellites See in Ukraine?”]
Subsequently, the source said, these analysts reviewed other intelligence data, including recorded phone intercepts, and concluded that the shoot-down was carried out by a rogue element of the Ukrainian government, working with a rabidly anti-Russian oligarch, but that senior Ukrainian leaders, such as President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, were not implicated. However, I have not been able to determine if this assessment was a dissident opinion or a consensus within U.S. intelligence circles.
Another intelligence source told me that CIA analysts did brief Dutch authorities during the preparation of the Dutch Safety Board’s report but that the U.S. information remained classified and unavailable for public release. In the Dutch reports, there is no reference to U.S.-supplied information although they do reflect sensitive details about Russian-made weapons systems, secrets declassified by Moscow for the investigation.
An NYT Pattern?
So, what to make of the Times hyping an amateur analysis of two Russian satellite photos and reporting that they showed manipulation. Though the claim seems to be designed to raise doubts about the presence of Ukrainian Buk missile batteries in eastern Ukraine, the presence of those missiles is really not in doubt.
And it makes sense the Ukrainians would move their anti-aircraft missiles toward the front because of fears that the powerful Ukrainian offensive then underway against ethnic Russian rebels might provoke Russia to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Shifting anti-aircraft missile batteries toward the border would be a normal military preparation in such a situation.
That’s particularly true because a Ukrainian fighter plane was shot down along the border on July 16, 2014, presumably from an air-to-air missile fired by a Russian plane. Tensions were high at the time and the possibility that an out-of-control Ukrainian crew misidentified MH-17 as a Russian military jet or Putin’s plane cannot be dismissed.
But all this context is missing from the Times article by reporter Andrew E. Kramer, who has been a regular contributor to the Times’ anti-Russian propaganda. He treats the findings by some nuclear arms control researchers at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies as definitive though there’s no reason to believe that these folks have any special expertise in applying this software whose creator says requires careful analysis.
The new report was based on the filtering software Tungstene designed by Roger Cozien, who has warned against rushing to judge “anomalies” in photographs as intentional falsifications when they may result from the normal process of saving an image or making innocent adjustments.
In an interview in Time magazine, Cozien said, “These filters aim at detecting anomalies. They give you any and all specific and particular information which can be found in the photograph file. And these particularities, called ‘singularities’, are sometimes only accidental: this is because the image was not well re-saved or that the camera had specific features, for example.
“The software in itself is neutral: it does not know what is an alteration or a manipulation. So, when it notices an error, the operator needs to consider whether it is an image manipulation, or just an accident.”
In other words, anomalies can be introduced by innocent actions related to saving or modifying an image, such as transferring it to a different format, adjusting the contrast or adding a word box. But it is difficult for a layman to assess the intricacies involved.
To buttress the new report, Kramer cited the work of Bellingcat, a group of “citizen journalists” who have made a solid business out of reaffirming whatever Western propaganda is claiming, whether about Syria, Ukraine or Russia.
Bellingcat’s founder Eliot Higgins also had raised doubts about the Russian photos – using Dr. Krawetz’s FotoForensics software – but those findings were subsequently debunked by Dr. Krawetz himself and other experts. While Kramer cited Higgins’s earlier analysis, the Times reporter left out the fact that those findings were disputed by professional experts.
Dr. Krawetz also found the new photographic analysis both amateurish and deceptive. When I contacted him by email, he declined an interview and noted that Bellingcat fans were already on the offensive, trying to shut down dissent to the new report.
In an email to me, he wrote: “I have already seen the Bellingcat trolls verbally attack me, their ‘reporters’ use intimidation tactics, and their CEO insults me. (Hmmm … First he uses my software, then his team seeks me out as an expert, then he insults me when my opinion differs from his.)”
If it’s true that the first casualty of war is truth, the old saying also seems to apply to a new Cold War.
[For more on Bellingcat and its erroneous work, see Consortiumnews.com’s “MH-17 Case: ‘Old’ Journalism vs. ‘New.’”]