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Fasten your seatbelts, Putin conspiracy theories taking off

Robert Bridge
Robert Bridge

Robert Bridge is an American writer and journalist. He is the author of 'Midnight in the American Empire,' How Corporations and Their Political Servants are Destroying the American Dream. @Robert_Bridge

Robert Bridge is an American writer and journalist. He is the author of 'Midnight in the American Empire,' How Corporations and Their Political Servants are Destroying the American Dream. @Robert_Bridge

Fasten your seatbelts, Putin conspiracy theories taking off
A former CNN 'aviation expert' has teamed up with a British 'sleuth' outfit to accuse Vladimir Putin of masterminding the 'hijacking' of Malaysian Air Flight MH370, as well as Flight MH17, which went down in Eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

Jeff Wise, the very same CNN expert who led the world on a global goose chase to find Malaysian Flight MH370, now wants the world to believe President Putin is personally responsible for both Malaysian Air disasters.

For those who missed Wise and CNN's non-stop marathon coverage of Flight MH370, which went missing on March 8, 2014 with 239 people on board, every conceivable explanation was offered up for public consumption.

With the disappeared plane mystery grinding into its second week, Wise participated in a CNN panel discussion that could have been scripted by David Lynch for a Lost Highway segment.

During that episode, CNN host Don Lemon asked without a hint of irony if it would be "preposterous" to suggest that a black hole was responsible for the disappearance of MH370. Yes, very preposterous, but no matter. Mary Shapiro, former Inspector General of the US Dept. of Transportation, was happy to remind Lemon in strained yet patient teacher-speak that a "small black hole would suck in our entire universe, so we know it's not that..."

Richard Quest, not to be outdone by a Lemon, raised the sanity stakes when he wondered - out loud for all to hear - why psychics with crystal balls hadn't been allowed to participate in the search and rescue mission.

"It sounds preposterous but [psychics] have been used before," said Quest, whose remark attracted mostly blank stares and the sound of chirping crickets.

Veteran television interviewer, Larry King, ridiculed his former employer for its reporting on MH370, which he very diplomatically labeled "abysmal."

“Since day two, they’ve advanced nothing in that story but conjecture. It was breaking supposition, breaking speculation. It was never breaking news,” King said in an interview on The Rubin Report.

Indeed, if the media industry had award ceremonies for the most insane theories involving not just one Malaysian aircraft, but two, then Jeff Wise and his friends at Bellingcat would certainly be hauling home gold-plated trophies.

After describing Russia as a “paranoid fantasist's dream" (does that make Wise a ‘paranoid fantasist?’), Wise forwarded information that he thought would incriminate the Kremlin in the MH370 mystery.

Reveling in ‘revelations’ that could have been lifted from Wikipedia, Wise noted that Russia is equipped with "technically advanced satellite, avionics, and aircraft-manufacturing industries." And if that amazing feat of investigative journalism fails to convince you that Putin pirated the airliner to Kazakhstan, well then this next morsel of information certainly will: There were three Russians on board the ill-fated flight [Gasp]!

Who could have guessed in their wildest dreams that Russians occasionally convey themselves by means of air travel, and sometimes in gangs of three!

"Two of them reportedly had Ukrainian passports from Odessa and... might have been secret agents," Wise surmised, as mentioned by Business Insider. Then, after finding photos of the ethnic Russians online, Wise behaved no better than a bouncer at a corner bar, proclaiming they looked like the type that would "battle Liam Neeson in midair."

Some might call that comment bizarre, possibly even outright racist. Not living up to the family name, Wise fingered three Russians out of a line-up of 227 passengers from 15 different nations as the most likely suspects to overpower the aircraft. Talk about narrowing things down.

And what made Wise think fated flight MH370 was heading for Kazakhstan (which, incidentally, is not part of Russia, which further complicates matters)? Well, because the last blip received from the wayward aircraft placed it "somewhere" in one of two vast corridors stretching from northern Thailand to Kazakhstan, or a southern one going from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean. In other words, an area about 150 times the size of the Sahara Desert.

So out of the fantastic number of possibilities, Wise postulates the theory that the Russian-passengers-turned-hijackers broke into the aircraft's control room and "spoofed" the plane's navigation system to make it appear like it flew in another direction, but actually headed to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, as the Daily Mail reported.

When asked why Putin would want to steal a passenger plane when Russia already has its own shiny fleet, Wise found himself fresh out of material: "I had no idea."

But that didn't stop him from offering up some zany zingers anyways in an article for New York Magazine: "Maybe there was something strategically crucial in the hold, or maybe [Putin] wanted the plane to show up unexpectedly somewhere someday, packed with explosives. There’s no way to know."

Come again? Excuse me, but when has there ever been something “strategically crucial in the &%$# hold" of a commercial airliner, and when has Russia ever been charged with sending a passenger jet "packed with explosives" anywhere?! 

Aside from some sort of thinly veiled contempt for Russia, what could have made Wise compose such an awful work of fiction? The answer, it seems, appeared in the very next paragraph.

In a foggy stream of semi-consciousness, Wise suddenly sounds like he had just checked into a 12-step rehab clinic for unemployed missing plane experts: "The more I discovered, the more coherent the story seemed to me. I found a peculiar euphoria in thinking about my theory, which I thought about all the time. One of the diagnostic questions used to determine whether you’re an alcoholic is whether your drinking has interfered with your work.”

Suddenly, I was wishing Wise would stop unloading dirty laundry into my lap. But he didn’t, and frankly it was getting embarrassing.

“By that measure, I definitely had a problem. Once the CNN checks stopped coming, I entered a long period of intense activity that earned me not a cent."

It is unclear if Wise is attempting to employ alcoholism as a metaphor to describe his giddy addictiveness for blaming Russia for air tragedies, but it would have been more prudent – all things considered - had he said his 'work has interfered with his drinking.' Whatever the case may be, we know one thing for sure, Wise was feeling the pinch since the "CNN checks stopped coming." That kernel of information speaks volumes.

Could this have been the real reason that his spouse's eyes would "glaze over at dinner" when the subject of MH370 was chewed over. Was she expressing some feminine angst over her husband’s work, and especially now that he was hanging around town with "a group of borderline-obsessive amateur aviation sleuths," as he described these Dostoyevsky-type characters in the opening line of his New York Magazine piece?

Later, Wise provided information about his working relationship with CNN that almost sounds like a confession obtained via brutal police interrogation: "We were paid by the week, with the length of our contracts dependent on how long the story seemed likely to play out. The first couple were seven-day, the next few were 14-day, and the last one was a month. We’d appear solo, or in pairs, or in larger groups for panel discussions—whatever it took to vary the rhythm of perpetual chatter."

Now let me get this straight. Wise and his fellow guests were "paid by the week, with the length of our contracts dependent on how long the story seemed likely to play out," as he confesses. Thus, it would behoove the 'experts' to keep the ball bouncing - and those CNN checks arriving - for as long as possible, right?

Thus, dragging Russia into the daily debate debacle was a perfect way to keep those checks and chatter rolling.

MH17: Wise teams up with Bellingcat for maximum chatter

So now we can see the bad influence those "border-line obsessive amateur aviation sleuths" were having on our unemployed CNN ‘expert.’

Citing the craftiwork of one Eliot Higgins, a self-taught British blogger who runs Bellingcat, a 'citizen journalist' site, Jeff Wise is now peddling the idea that Putin's Russia was responsible for shooting down Malaysian Flight MH17 on July 17, 2014, killing 283 passengers and crew on board. You know, because it was the most logical thing Russia could have done.

Cui bono? Certainly not Russia.

As Ulson Gunnar patiently explained in New Eastern outlook: "From the moment the airliner was shot down, the US, NATO and Ukraine have used the incident to indict Russia and more specifically, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the court of public opinion. It has used legal maneuvering and its well-oiled press to turn the investigation of the disaster into a witchhunt with an inevitable outcome already eagerly determined to implicate Russia.

Along similar veins, Higgins and company goes to conspicuous extremes to 'prove' that particular state actors - and most notably those who don't heed the commands of the US and NATO - have some sort of self-destructive tendency to engage in activities that go directly against their best interests.

Case in point. The August 2013 Syrian gas attacks in opposition-controlled areas on the outskirts of Damascus amid clashes between government and rebel forces. Washington, ever on the prowl for more regime-change prey in the region, was quick to blame the tragedy on President Bashar Assad. But Assad, who holds a degree from a medical school in the United Kingdom, did not maintain his grip on power for 16 years by being a dummy. So he certainly got the message loud and clear when Barack Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross the "red-line," thus provoking a US military response (and we all know how those things end).

Now ask yourself this question: Would Dr. Assad really go ahead and do the very thing that would invite a vampire into his home? Highly unlikely. In fact, Obama’s warning most likely encouraged the Syrian opposition - or those sympathetic to their cause - to carry out the attack, knowing full well that the Syrian government would be blamed. This is not rocket science.

Carla Del Ponte, a leading member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, agrees. She said her team's numerous interviews with witnesses and victims on the ground in Syria following the attack indicated there were "strong, concrete suspicions" that the opposition was responsible for the use of the nerve gas sarin against civilians.

As far as the Syrian government being responsible for the attack, Del Ponte stated emphatically: "We have no indication at all that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons."

Back to Bellingcat. These Wise-endorsed guys chose to ignore these comprehensive on-site investigations, preferring to pontificate on the subject from a great distance, saying the "complexities of manufacturing sarin" and the types of rockets used to deliver the gas precluded the possibility that the Syrian rebels - with known links to terrorist groups as well as shady state players (like Turkey) - carried out the attacks.

So now Mr. Higgins has waded waist-deep into the MH17 mess, sloshing around with an assortment of social media posts, Tweets and blurry photographs to prove his case that Putin’s Russia had some sort of plausible reason for targeting a Malaysian Airline’s commercial aircraft.

I personally spent many tedious hours bouncing around in various Russian vehicles, radios blaring, getting vertigo watching Bellingcat’s collection of dashcam videos, as well as Instagram photos and other social media postings, and the result – if I may spoil the plot - was completely unconvincing. 

First, a personal note: It is rather unbelievable that these 'citizen investigative journalists' think it somehow strange that Russian military convoys – some of them certainly containing BUK anti-aircraft missiles – were bumping around the Russian-Ukrainian border at the very same time Ukraine was in the midst of a national crackup.

Please imagine had a similar political crisis been playing out in Mexico, for example, and a nuclear-armed foreign country (Russia?) was antagonizing the situation on the ground in Mexico City, at the same time vilifying Washington – much the same way that US Senator John McCain and Victoria Nuland were doing in downtown Kiev as they agitated the crowd against Russia as the protests were just beginning.

Would it really surprise anybody to see an endless convoy of US military vehicles racing towards the Mexican border with a head of steam – just in case?

And then there's Bellingcat's painfully pretentious bias against Russia, which is immediately discerned in the first footnote of their report, entitled "Zaroshchens'ke Revisited," which reads: "Instead of using 'pro-Russian separatists' or a similar formulation, the terms 'Russia' or 'Russian troops' are used in this report..." That is a very ugly and unfortunate footnote, and only serves to tell the reader everything they need to know about this group.

In the wild world of Bellingcat, even rebels of ethnic Russian origin who have taken up arms against pro-Kiev forces are denied their legal status as legitimate Ukrainian citizens. This sort of partisanship stains the work of this organization and further compromises its dubious analysis.

Bellingcat’s ‘proof’ Russians shot down MH17

Although it would be impossible to mention every flaw in the Bellingcat report, a few examples can demonstrate the general approach. For example, after the Russian Ministry of Defense released satellite evidence clearly demonstrating that the Ukrainian military had BUK anti-aircraft missile launchers in the village Zaroshchens'ke on July 17, Bellingcat had nothing concrete to refute the evidence aside from brief footage of a BBC interview with a single elderly villager, and a laughable comment via Twitter by Dutch reporter Rudy Bouma that provided no names of the ‘witnesses’ nor a link to a report.

Another example. Bellingcat attempts to prove that 'Russian troops' - again, as they prefer to call the Ukrainian rebels - had control of the village of Shaposhnykove on July 17. This is crucial to their argument since they assert the BUK missile that brought down MH17 was fired from this area under 'Russian control.'

The basis for this assertion is that the area had purportedly come under attack six days after the air tragedy – June 23 - by pro-Kiev forces. Since not even the villagers could say who was firing at them, it is highly doubtful Bellingcat is any more clued up on the matter. Furthermore, pro-Kiev soldiers attacking the village six days after Flight MH17 went down tells us nothing; they may simply have been attempting to retake the territory after having been forced out by the military of the self-proclaimed republics in Eastern Ukraine.

Nor does Bellingcat mention a concluding statement from a BBC reporter, cellphone in hand, that negates their original argument: "I just got off the phone with a spokesman with the Ukrainian anti-terrorist operation and he says they didn't shell the village. But fighting is getting worse and so is the information war that makes it so hard for us to get the facts."

Bellingcat continues the speculation game as it points to "circumstantial evidence" that the village was under "Russian control" at the time of the downing of MH17. Why? Because the abovementioned BBC journalist is accompanied by a person "not coming from the village" and serves as "a local coordinator between the Russian troops and population of the village."

Since no polite invitation was extended to the BBC journalist to view the pro-Kiev BUK launch site, Bellingcat interprets this to mean that such a launch site never existed.

"Tellingly, none of the locals or militiamen used the opportunity to show a Western journalist the traces of the Ukrainian Buks claimed by the Russian MoD to be just north of Shaposhnykove on 17 July 2014 or even the launch site of the missile in the area."

But would the BBC reporter risk a 4-kilometer trip to the north of Shaposhnykove while the area was coming under rocket fire? 

In any case, no solid, irrefutable evidence is presented, just a lot of heated speculation based on hearsay and Bellincat preconceived notions.

That pretty much sums up the way Bellingcat carries out its investigative work. Starting with the basic premise that Russia is to blame - no matter what the facts may say to the contrary - the group works backwards using an array of social media postings, maps and videos in order to arrive at its predetermined conclusions.

Although the product appears cutting edge at times, every other line betrays an inherent desire to pin the blame on Russia - no matter what the facts are. This eventually forces Bellingcat into a corner with nothing left but outlandish claims and groundless conclusions that no amount of social media buzz can ameliorate.

After all, facts are facts and there is simply no eluding them. But for Jeff Wise and Elliot Higgins, facts are mere play things that they toss around with gleeful abandon. Yet such groundless accusations can have tremendous repercussions in the world of reality.

Had Wise and Higgins really been interested in presenting an unbiased case against Russia, they could have started by asking some simple questions that even the Dutch parliament is now asking: Where is the satellite data that the United States claims that it has from July 17, 2014? Why was Russia’s satellite data ignored by the Joint Investigative Team (JIT) – comprised of the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium and Ukraine - investigating the crash of MH17? Why did Ukrainian air traffic controllers direct the Malaysian flight above a conflict zone, while earlier flights were circumvented? Why were Ukraine’s primary radar systems not operating on the day of the catastrophe? Why has Malaysia, a significant participant in the tragedy - been left out of the JIT? Finally, why was Ukraine permitted a seat at the JIT?

As Gunnar emphasizes, Kiev is "a possible suspect in the investigation," as it had "confirmed to possess weapons capable of reaching the altitude MH17 was flying at when it was allegedly hit" – so Ukraine's "inclusion in JIT represents a monumental conflict of interest."

Tellingly, on such monumental questions, Wise and Higgins are largely silent, and that speaks more about their biased attitude towards Russia than any real desire they may have for shedding light on two Malaysia Airlines crashes, one of which has had deleterious consequences for Russia-Western relations and world peace.

That's a fact no dashcam video or Tweet can dispel.


The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.