Why MH17's Black Boxes Will Be Weak Witnesses in the Ukraine Probe

A Donetsk People's Republic official (left) and Colonel Mohamed Sakri of the Malaysian National Security Council signing documents during the handing over to Malaysia of the black boxes recovered from the crash site of the MH17 jet Photograph by STR/Getty Images

Five days after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the jet’s black boxes are finally headed from Ukraine to the U.K. for analysis. But there are limits to the questions that might be answered from the data recorders. The far more revealing remains of the jet, meanwhile, remain scattered across fields in a war zone, and international officials fear that the wreckage has been tampered with.

“After the crime comes the cover-up,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters on Tuesday, amid reports that large sections appear to have been chopped apart. “What we have seen is evidence-tampering on an industrial scale, and obviously that has to stop.” The flight from Amsterdam carried 298 passengers and crew members, including 28 Australians.

Rebels who control the disputed area of eastern Ukraine relinquished the Boeing 777′s voice- and flight-data recorders to representatives from Malaysia, and the Belgian military will transport the black boxes from Kiev to the U.K. for analysis. Most of the victims’ remains are being flown to the Netherlands.

Part of the resolution for attaining the victims and the plane’s data involved telephone calls between Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Alexander Borodai, a rebel leader who calls himself prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic. “In recent days, there were times I wanted to give greater voice to the anger and grief that the Malaysian people feel and that I feel,” Najib said, according to the BBC. “But sometimes, we must work quietly in the service of a better outcome.”

The data and voice recorders can verify the flight’s precise location, altitude, speed, and direction, confirming that the plane was flying at 33,000 feet—or 1,000 feet above the restricted airspace in the region—along with other routine flight-performance metrics. The black boxes may also help to address the question of whether military fighter jets were near the commercial flight to Kuala Lumpur, as Russian officials have asserted and Ukraine has denied. The recorders also could shed light as to whether the crew even knew a missile had been launched.

Forensic evidence from the victims, too, could help to illustrate the sequence of events and how quickly the plane broke apart. Victims’ families are keen to know why so many of the victims were unclothed, how quickly they expired, and the specific cause of death.

The most telling evidence is likely to be collected from pieces of the 777 fuselage, which broke apart and lies scattered over a wide area. Puncture marks seen in photos of the wreckage are consistent with damage that would be caused by high-velocity shrapnel from a missile, the New York Times reported on Tuesday, citing an IHS Jane’s analyst who examined photographs the newspaper had taken at the scene. The SA-11 Gadfly missile system—the kind that U.S. and European officials believe downed the jet—is designed to detonate before it reaches a target, spreading shrapnel across an area as wide as 300 feet and increasing the chances of a strike.

But the crash site—considered a crime scene by most nations as they urge unfettered access to the debris—has clearly been compromised in the days since the shoot-down, with reports of people picking through passenger luggage and sections of the aircraft, including the cockpit, sawed apart, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the agency that has been overseeing the site.

OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw told reporters on Tuesday that sections of the aircraft had been “hacked into” with saws and that pieces have been moved. At his news conference in Canberra, Australia’s Abbott complained of “random individuals roaming all over the site, picking over remains, picking over wreckage.”

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