U.S. technical intelligence and overhead satellite images that haven’t been made public document the likelihood that a surface-to-air missile fired from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine shot down the Malaysian airliner, according to American intelligence officials.
One of the officials described as solid the theory that a Russian-made SA-11 missile hit the airliner and said it was done under conditions that Russia helped create. All three officials, who discussed intelligence matters today on condition of anonymity, stopped short of claiming Russia’s direct involvement, though none ruled it out.
While providing the most complete U.S. briefing so far on evidence in the disaster, the intelligence officials stopped short of saying they know with certainty who fired the missile and didn’t release classified information to document their case.
Malaysian Air Flight MH17 was shot down on July 17, killing all 298 passengers and crew. U.S. officials have indicated they believe that pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine downed the plane and that Russia supplied the missile, and spokesmen at the White House and State Department billed today’s intelligence briefing as laying out the evidence.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his opponents are using the crash for “selfish political gains,” and officials in Moscow have suggested that the plane was hit by Ukrainian government forces.
The U.S. intelligence officials said they are confident that they detected the missile launch in eastern Ukraine at the time of the downing in an area controlled by the Russia-backed separatists.
The U.S. doesn’t think the missile could have come from Ukraine’s military because it had no missiles within range of the crash site at the time, the officials said. The Ukrainian military also had no motive for shooting down the airliner because it was fighting a ground war against rebels who presented no threat from the air, the officials said.
An attack by a Ukrainian Su-25 plane against the commercial airliner -- a possibility cited by Russian officials -- isn’t plausible because the damage shown in photos on the ground suggest a surface-to-air missile and not the damage associated from a short-range missile carried on an Su-25 plane, they said.
Intelligence officials who briefed reporters showed photos posted on social media that they said buttress their case. They also cited voice recordings of rebels claiming credit for shooting down a plane at the time the airliner was destroyed.
The U.S. has verified the authenticity of those recordings by finding voice matches of the rebels in other recordings, they said. They described themselves as confident that the recordings weren’t doctored, as Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, yesterday said was the case.
The intelligence officials also cited a video posted on social media that the U.S. says shows a missile battery crossing the border from Ukraine back into Russia. They said they’re relying on a posting made on social media for the location of the missile movement, while acknowledging that Russia has disputed the location.
Churkin said yesterday at the UN that the video was shot in Ukraine, not Russia. The U.S. intelligence community is now sorting through data to verify the location, the American officials said.
The officials said they’ve seen an increasing volume of heavy weaponry crossing the border from Russia and that Russia has provided training to the rebels -- some of them Russian citizens -- including in the use of air-defense systems.
Russia has continued to arm the rebels since the shootdown, the officials said. The U.S. has observed deliveries of tanks and multiple-rocket launchers going from Russia into Ukraine, they said.
Russia has deliberately provided weaponry to the rebels that match what Ukraine’s military has in its inventory to make it easier to deny Russian involvement, one official said.