Plane Shootdowns in the Propaganda System

The U.S. media treatment of the destruction of the civilian airliner Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, effectively blamed on the East Ukraine “separatists” and especially Putin and Russia, follows a long-established pattern of rapid and indignant acceptance of politically serviceable official claims, despite a long record of official deception on such matters. When we contrast this with the media’s handling of cases where the U.S. or Israel have shot down civilian planes, the contrast and double standard are dramatic and even grotesque.

When THEY Do It

KAL-007. My old favorite is the Soviet shooting down of Korean airliner KAL-007 on August 31, 1983. This was a period in which the Reagan administration was in the midst of a major arms buildup and associated assailing of the “evil empire.” As with the assassination attempt on the Pope in 1981, this event was welcomed as an outstanding propaganda opportunity, and administration denunciations of the Soviet Union were fast and furious. The plane was far off course and flying over Soviet space and near Soviet naval facilities, and it failed to respond to radio challenges from a Soviet fighter plane. A good case has been made that it was on a military mission as well as transporting civilian passengers (P.Q. Mann, “Reassessing the Sakhalin Incident,” Defense Attache, June 1994; David Pearson, “K.A.L. 007,” the Nation, August 25, 1984). The Reagan administration claimed that the Soviets had deliberately shot down a civilian airliner, although it was known from the radio message intercepts—edited for the media to sustain the propaganda lie—that the Soviets had not identified it as a civilian aircraft.

The media got on this propaganda bandwagon with enthusiasm, denouncing the Soviets as “barbarians” and engaging in “cold-blooded murder.” The New York Times had 147 news items on the shootdown in September 1983 alone, covering 2,789 column inches, and for 10 consecutive days it ran a special section of the newspaper devoted to the case. This “savage act” of the Soviet Union as James Reston pointed out, “garnered it the hatred of the civilized world” (NYT, September 4, 1983). The Times editorialized on September 2, “That there is no conceivable excuse for any nation shooting down a harmless airliner.”

This propaganda campaign was a great success for the United States, as the Soviet Union was widely vilified and suffered some temporary harassment at airports around the globe. As reporter Bernard Gwertzman noted in a year-later retrospective, U.S. officials “assert that worldwide criticism of the Soviet handling of the crisis has strengthened the United States in its dealings with Moscow” (NYT, August 31, 1984). As the evidence grew that KAL-007 had been on a spy mission, and as the Reagan administration itself quietly acknowleged that the Soviet pilot had not known that this was a civilian airliner, this fresh evidence was either ignored, kept at a very low-key, or dismissed as unproven or Soviet propaganda. It didn’t interfere at all with this propaganda triumph. Gwertzman needed to make no qualifications as he noted so complacently the success of the official and media campaign against barbarism.

On January 18, 1988, the New York Times published an editorial titled “The Lie That Wasn’t Shot Down.” In it the editors acknowledged that the Reagan administration knew within hours of the shootdown that the Soviets had not recognized 007 as a civilian plane and that the Administration had “misled the American people and the world.” But the paper itself was an integral part of that lie-program, as it rushed into furious denunciations and massive coverage without the slightest scepticism or investigative effort. It took the paper five years to admit that it had been a gullible agent of propaganda and it also admitted that it hadn’t done the research leading to this conclusion. Over the five year period, the paper had downplayed or ignored a stream of investigative efforts to seek out the truth on this subject, the editors preferring to leave the lie that they had so aggressively and intensively disseminated to be corrected by others.

The Times and its mainstream colleagues did a similarly poor journalistic but fine propaganda job in dealing with the December 1988 bombing and crash of Pan Am-103 at Lockerbie, Scotland, with 270 casualties. It was immediately suspected that Iran had been behind this bombing, and a case was soon developed charging the Popular Front For the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC) acting as an agent for Iran. This was believed to be a response to the U.S. shooting down of Iranian Air Flight 655, a civilian airliner, with 290 deaths, in July 1988, just five and a half months before Locker- bie. The case for the PFLP-GC and Iranian connection was accepted and duly disseminated by the media. But only a year or so later,  geopolitical changes caused the U.S. and Britain to want to placate Syria, the home of PFLP, and Iran, influential in Lebanon, to get them to help oppose Iraq and free hostages in Lebanon. In short order, the case against the PFLP (and indirectly, Iran) was set aside and the general-service villains Muammar Qaddafi and Libya were brought into play as the bombing agents.

The political opportunism in this shift failed to alert the mainstream media, who fell into line on the new target as thoroughly as they had the old (where a much better case had been developed). Libya was pressed to cough up two of its citizens who were accused of carrying out the attack and when it refused to do so the “international community” imposed costly sanctions on Libya until it finally gave way and agreed to allow them to be tried under Scottish law by Scottish judges in Camp Zeist in the Netherlands. The trial judges found one of the two Libyans guilty, although they acknowledged that all of the evidence was “circumstantial.”

There were many indications that it was tampered with from the very beginning as the CIA and FBI were on the scene at Lockerbie within two hours of the crash and virtually took over management from the Scottish authorities (for a good account, see John Ashton and Ian Ferguson, Cover-Up of Convenience: The Hidden Scandal of Lockerbie). The decision was a shocker to experts like Scottish law professor Robert Black and UN observer Hans Kochler, both of whom found it “incomprehsible” (Kochler) and “the most disgraceful miscarriage of justice in Scotland for a hundred years” (Black, in Scotsman, November 1, 2005). There was an appeal, and a June 2007 decision by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission spelled out six separate grounds on which the 2001 decision may have been erroneous. But before a new trial could be held, the prisoner Ali Al-Megrahi was granted a medical release and returned to Libya.

The mainstream media failed to note the oddity that only one of the alleged partners in the crime was found guilty, which suggested that the Scottish judges, under heavy political pressure and with the media having taken guilt as a given, decided that they must throw at least one bone to the dogs as a necessary political gesture. The media, while acknowledging with the judges the purely circumstantial nature of the case, had failed to call attention to a remarkable number of violations of rules of evidence and courtroom procedure, that appalled Black, Kochler and apparently the Scottish Review Committee. At no time did any of the 15 Times editorials on the Pan Am 103 shootdown and Libyan connection express the slightest reservation about the process or substance of the charges against the Libyans. The media were indignant at the medical pardon of Al-Megrahi, but just as they ignored the substance of the Review Board’s decision and analysis, so they ignored the possibility that the release was in good measure to avoid the consequences of that review. But the two Libyans who were tried—especially Al-Megrahi, and Libya via multi-year sanctions and a successful portrayal of Kaddafi and Libya as terrorists—took substantial hits. At the same time the West boosted its image of being a campaigner for justice and global law and order, despite the fact that, in this case, its leaders seriously abused the nominal principles of justice on the basis of which they supposedly brought this case.

When WE Do It

This Iranian civilian airliner was shot down in July 1988 by order of the commander of the USS Vincennes, on duty in the Persian Gulf as part of U.S. support for Saddam Hussein in his war of aggression against Iran. Unlike 007, Flight 655 was not off course and posed no threat to the U.S. attacker. The New York Times, which had had an editorial entitled “Murder” in connection with the 007 shootdown and had asserted back in 1983 that, “There is no conceivable excuse for any nation shooting down a harmless airliner,” predictably found one for the 655 case: “the incident must still be seen not as a crime [let alone “murder”] but as a blunder, and a tragedy.” Neither the UN Security Council nor International Civil Aviation Organization condemned the United States for this action, although both had done so as regards the Soviet Union in the case of KAL 007.  Of course, the Security Council took severe action against Libya in regard to Pan Am 103. There was no punishment whatsoever meted out to Captain Will Rogers (reputedly nick- named Rambo), who got a “hero’s welcome” on his return to San Diego five months after the shootdown (Robert Reinhold, “Crew of Cruiser That Downed Iranian Airliner Gets a Warm Homecoming,” NYT, October 25, 1988), and was subsequently awarded a Legion of Merit award for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service.”

The Iranians were naturally angry at this reception and treatment of the man responsible for killing 290 Iranian civilians and were possibly a bit resentful at the workings of the system of international justice as it impacted them. Polls indicated that the warm greeting Rogers received in San Diego was not an aberration—the public was pleased with his accomplishment.

This reflected the fact that media coverage of the 655 shootdown had focused on official claims about the reason for the deadly act, not the plight of the victims and the grief of their families—which was the heavy and continuing focus of attention in both the 007 and Pan Am 103 cases. The alleged suffering of Captain Rogers got more attention than that of the 290 victims and their families. We are back to the contrast between “worthy” and “unworthy” victims and the “useful purpose” of the focus of attention, as seen by the U.S. establishment and media.

Israel Shoots Down a Libyan Airliner

On February 21, 1973, Libyan civilian airliner, Flight 114, got off course in a sandstorm, entered Israeli airspace over the Sinai Peninsula, and was shot down by Israeli fighter planes, with 108 lives lost. Israel was condemned by the International Civil Aviation Organization and censured by the United States, but, although it had knowingly shot down a civilian airliner, no penalties were imposed, no recriminations were directed at Israel. It was not accused of murder, a slaughter, a heinous crime, or barbarism—words applied to the Soviets in 1983. Israeli leader Golda Meier was welcomed to Washington within a week of the incident without the intrusion of any embarrassing questions from media or politicos.

The New York Times had 25 articles on this shootdown (versus 147 for 007), and no special section of the paper devoted to the case. Most interesting was their editorial on the incident, which asserted that “No useful purpose is served by an acrimonious debate over the assignment of blame for the downing of a Libyan airliner in the Sinai peninsula last week” (March 1, 1973).

But just as intensive coverage and debate served a useful purpose in the 007 case, helping demonize the “evil empire,” so minimal coverage and the avoidance of debate served the interests of U.S. ally Israel. We have here an open admission of a double standard and politicized journalism.

Russia and Its Ukrainian Clients May Have Shot Down an Airliner

The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine on July 17, 2014 was a propaganda windfall for the U.S. war party and its Ukrainian client, as it fed nicely into the ongoing demonization of Putin and an allegedly aggressive Russia and could justify harsher policies toward Russia, more military aid to the Kiev regime and support for its pacification war. The analogy with the 007 case is strong, as the use of the shootdown in 2014 to advance the aims of the war party is similar to that of the Reaganites in confronting the “evil empire” in 1983.

An important difference in the two cases is that in 1983 the identification of the party that did the shooting down was clear, although Reaganites chose to lie about the Soviet motive to score their points, whereas with Flight 17 who shot the plane down is uncertain at the time of writing (August 2). Obama and Kerry rushed to blame the East Ukraine “separatists” for the action, along with Russia, for allegedly supplying them with missiles. Russia was also blamed for not calling off the separatists and for underwriting their resistance.

Obama and Kerry quickly asserted separatist-Russian guilt in the shootdown, claiming solid evidence, which they have not produced for public examination. The Russians have denied separatist and their own responsibility and have submitted evidence to the UN and a public showing that Flight 17 veered off course and was being followed by a Ukrainian Air Force fighter plane that wound up within 3 to 5 kilometers of the Malaysian plane (see letter dated July 22  from the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General. One can actually watch this on a 29-minute video at the RT website). Russian Lieutenant-General A.V. Kartapolov asks: “Why was a military aircraft flying in a civilian aviation airway at almost the same time and the same altitude as a civilian passenger aircraft? We would like to have this question answered.” The Russians have repeatedly called for an international investigation of the facts of the case, while urging that the United States make its evidence available for inspection.

It is not clear at this point who shot the plane down, but it is clear that the separatists and Russians had no incentive to do this, so that if they were responsible it would have been a sad error and politically very costly to them. The Kiev government, on the other hand, did have an incentive to do this if it could be attributed to the separatists and Russia, and it has been so attributed even though the evidence on guilt has not been clear. As with 007 and Lockerbie, U.S. propaganda power is such that lies can be made to fly (007) and villains can be chosen and altered according to political convenience (Lockerbie, from Iran to Libya), so with Flight 17 huge propaganda points have been scored before the facts are clear. This propaganda triumph has rested heavily on media cooperation, and media propaganda service in this instance has easily equaled that in the 007 and Lockerbie cases. One key point of propaganda service is the general acceptance of the Obama-Kerry claim of separatist-Russian responsibility for the shootdown. As with 007, no questions are asked and the truth of the Kerry assertion that the evidence is definitive is accepted without insisting on seeing that evidence, despite Kerry’s notable recent record of false statements. (On these false statements, and more, see Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity Steering Committee, “Obama Should Release Ukraine Evidence,”, July 29, 2014.) Another remarkable feature of media coverage is their acceptance of the Obama/Kerry assumption that the ultimate responsibility for anything unpleasant going on in Eastern Ukraine is Putin and his policy—his support of the “separatists” and his failure to call them off and to accept and even support Kiev’s pacification effort.

The Times had an editorial, “Vladimir Putin Can Stop This War” (July 18), which epitomizes this one-sidedness. The United States could even more easily stop this war by insisting that its Kiev client and proxy cease its offensive in the East and negotiate a settlement with the “separatists.” This is not discussible in the Times and mainstream media more generally.

For the media, the United States has a right to actively aid the Kiev government, rather far from U.S. borders; but Russia has no right to aid nearby separatists in what is a combination civil war and U.S. proxy war against Russia. Russia is allegedly managing and “orchestrating” the separatist actions in East Ukraine (Sabrina Tavernise, “Orchestrated Conflict,” NYT, June 15, 2014); the United States never “orchestrates” conflicts, it is just an outsider helping the legitimate government of Ukraine to achieve stability and fend off that foreign aggressor. These are institutionalized truths in a beautifully working, if somewhat crude, propaganda system.



Edward S. Herman is an economist, author, and media critic.