While there is much speculation about the cause of the Ukrainian airliner that crashed after take-off from Tehran’s airport this week, killing all 176 people on board, there is presently very little factual information to go on.
Western intelligence has indicated a surface-to-air missile likely hit the plane in what may have been an “unintentional” act – an assertion Iran quickly dismissed.
As with any other crash, the world aviation community needs to know what caused this one in the interest of ongoing flight safety.
Political tensions between Iran and the US may make the investigation more challenging, but they should not prevent a thorough systematic analysis from occurring and the cause of the crash to ultimately be established.
The flight recorders hold the key to establishing what actually happened and why. And here’s where the political tensions are most problematic – Iran initially said it would not hand over the black boxes to the manufacturer of the aircraft, Boeing, or the US.
But new reports say Iran has now invited the US National Transportation Safety Board and Boeing to take part in the investigation.
Under the International Civil Aviation Organisation Annex 13 convention, the US has the right to appoint an adviser to the investigation, as does the aircraft manufacturer. The convention presumes a level of cooperation between all parties involved in crash investigations, which could prove difficult in this case. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a proper investigation won’t or can’t be conducted.
Responsibility for the investigation sits with the Iranians, but under the UN Civil Aviation Conventions, they can request assistance from any other country, if they don’t have the capacity to conduct it themselves.
There are many other countries with the necessary expertise to assist, including recovering flight data from recorders with very significant damage. France, Canada, UK, the Netherlands, Germany and Australia could all help, for example.
Other countries can only step in, however, if invited by Iran or if Iran chooses not to conduct the investigation.
What’s most important is that whoever leads the investigation must have access to all the information – the wreckage itself, flight data, radar data, maintenance records, crew data, flight plans, load sheets, and passenger and cargo manifests. Otherwise, the wrong conclusions can be reached.
There also needs to be a parallel field investigation analysing the wreckage.
First, investigators should be ensuring they have accounted for all the wreckage. If some parts separated from the aircraft in-flight, they may be found some distance from the main wreckage site and may hold key clues that could lead to a better understanding of the cause of the crash.
As such, the terrain under the flight path needs to be surveyed carefully to locate all items from the aircraft.
Clearly, it will also be important to examine the wreckage of the engines for any evidence of pre-crash damage.
For example, if a fire had been burning inside the engine cowling, there may be evidence of scorching. Analysis of the internal engine components should also make clear whether the engines were still delivering power when the plane made impact with the ground or if there was a pre-crash structural or component failure.
Investigators should also look at the wing and fuselage surfaces next to the engines for any pre-impact damage. If an engine failure occurred, there may be evidence of impact damage from engine components after they burst out of the armoured casing.
Analysing the aircraft engines, wing and fuselage surfaces may also provide evidence if the aircraft was struck by a missile.
This was the case with Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which was shot down over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people aboard. There was clear evidence of the aircraft structures being penetrated from outside the plane by high-speed particles.
Similar forensic analysis can be conducted on the remnants of the Boeing 737 in Iran, even if a high degree of fragmentation occurred in the crash. This should reveal the truth if a missile was responsible.
Of course, it would be usual for the aircraft manufacturer to be involved. After all, it knows more about the technologies involved in building and operating the aircraft than anyone else.
That said, there are many global agencies that also know a lot about the engineering and operation of the B737-800 plane, such as the airworthiness authorities in other countries, who could be called upon to participate.
No doubt, Ukraine will be heavily involved, as will Canada, due to the number of Canadians who lost their lives in the crash. So, if Boeing was excluded from the investigation, it might be a set-back, but not a show-stopper.
Boeing is, however, responsible for assuring the ongoing safety standards for the global B737 fleet, so whether it is directly involved in the investigation or not, it is imperative the reasons for the crash are shared with global aviation agencies, the manufacturer and all other airlines.
It is worth reflecting in these sad occasions that the purpose of a crash investigation is to prevent future incidents. Unless the actual cause of this crash is understood, any possible problems in the global flight safety system may go unrectified, making the risk of future crashes higher than it otherwise would be.
The impact of the crash on the families of the victims is also immense and immeasurable. This is another reason why a proper, thorough and systematic investigation is so important. It ensures those who have tragically lost their lives, and their families and friends, will not have suffered in vain.
About two weeks since a transcript of Donald Trump’s phone conversation with the Ukrainian president was revealed, his approval with all polls in the FiveThirtyEight aggregate is 41.6% and his disapproval is 54.0%. Trump’s net approval is -12.4%, down 2.5% since last fortnight’s article.
With polls of registered or likely voters, Trump’s approval is 42.2% and his disapproval is 53.9%, for a net approval of -11.7%, down 3.4% since last fortnight. The Ukraine scandal has had a small but discernible impact on Trump’s ratings.
As I wrote previously, I did not expect this scandal to have a serious or lasting impact, as better-educated voters already detest Trump, while lower-educated voters are far more focused on the economy. Indeed, after an initial drop, Trump’s ratings have stabilised recently.
While there has only been a modest drop in Trump’s ratings, support for impeachment has risen sharply. Before the Ukraine scandal, 51.0% opposed impeachment and 40.1% supported it, according to the FiveThirtyEight tracker. Currently, 49.2% support impeachment while 43.3% are opposed. Support has risen strongly among Democrats and non-aligned voters, but only modestly with Republicans.
The vast majority of Trump disapprovers now support impeachment, but the Ukraine scandal has not converted many Trump approvers into disapprovers.
Despite the increased public support for impeachment, there is very little chance that the Senate, which Republicans control 53-47, will reach the two-thirds majority required to remove Trump from office before the November 2020 election. In the RealClearPolitics average, Trump has well over 80% support for the Republican presidential nomination, with the other three candidates at about 2% each. Republican senators are very unlikely to go against their party’s base.
In head-to-head polling against the three leading Democrats in RealClearPolitics averages, Trump trails Joe Biden by 7.4 points (7.7 points last fortnight). He trails Elizabeth Warren by 4.5 points (4.0) and Bernie Sanders by 5.2 (4.8).
Last week, there were worse than expected September industry surveys for the services sector in both the US and Europe. However, the US added 136,000 jobs in September and the unemployment rate dropped to 3.5% – the lowest since 1969. The one negative aspect of this jobs report was that hourly pay dropped 1c after increasing 11c in August.
The low US unemployment rate is not just because of low participation. The employment population ratio – the percentage of eligible Americans who are employed – increased 0.1% to 61.0% in September, its highest since December 2008, near the beginning of the global financial crisis.
My view is that, bad as Trump’s ratings are, they would be worse without the strong US economy; this explains why Trump’s ratings improved during September as the recession talk from August faded. If the US jobs reports continue to have good news until November 2020, Trump will have a reasonable chance of re-election.
There are two economic policies being pursued by the right that could undermine the global economy. One is the US/China trade war, where talks this week are unlikely to make progress. The other is Brexit, particularly a no-deal Brexit. A no-deal Brexit may occur on October 31, but is more likely after an election that current polling indicates the UK Conservatives would win.
In the RealClearPolitics average of Democratic national polls, Warren and Biden are virtually tied, with Warren at 26.6% and Biden 26.4%. It is the first lead for anyone other than Biden. Sanders is at 14.6%, Pete Buttigieg at 5.6%, Kamala Harris at 4.4% and nobody else has more than 3%.
Since the September 12 Democratic debate, Warren’s support has increased at the expense of Biden, Harris and Sanders. Some of Sanders’ recent drop is probably due to his October 1 heart attack.
In early state polls, there have been no new polls since last fortnight in Iowa, with Warren leading Biden by 23.0% to 20.3%. In New Hampshire, the two polls taken since the September 12 debate have Warren leading Biden by one to two points.
The big exception to Warren’s rise is South Carolina, which is the last of the four early states to vote on February 29. Owing to strong black support for Biden, he has a lead over Warren exceeding 20 points in three post-debate polls in that state.
The next Democratic debate will be held on October 15. Contrary to my previous expectations, the 12 qualifying candidates will not be split over two nights, but instead appear all on one night. The threshold has been increased for November and future debates, and so far eight candidates have qualified for the November 20 debate.
I wrote for The Poll Bludger about Brexit and the September 29 Austrian election results, in which the conservatives won, but need an ally to reach a majority. My latest Poll Bludger article is about Brexit and the October 6 Portuguese election, a rare triumph for the left in a democratic world that is trending to the right.
The Canadian election will be held on October 21. The CBC Poll Tracker has the Conservatives and Liberals virtually tied in voting intentions, with the Liberals ahead on seats, but short of a majority.
The latest Australian Newspoll, conducted September 26-29 from a sample of 1,660, gave the Coalition a 51-49 lead, unchanged since early September. Primary votes were 42% Coalition (down one), 33% Labor (down two), 13% Greens (up one, and their best Newspoll since 2015) and 6% One Nation (up one).
Scott Morrison’s net approval was +4, down six points. Anthony Albanese’s net approval was -1, up four points. Morrison led Albanese as better PM by 50-31 (48-28 previously).
Voters favoured prioritising the US relationship over China by 56% to 25%. All figures from The Poll Bludger.
Amid the news last week that the perpetrators responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) will be put to trial next March, a report was released identifying further suspects responsible for escorting the missile to and from the launch site.
Who were the investigators behind the report? The CIA? MI6? No. It was Bellingcat, a large group of mostly volunteers working from laptops using only information available to anyone with an internet connection.
In February, Bellingcat also identified a third suspect alleged to have been involved in the poisoning of MI6 double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the United Kingdom last year.
Bellingcat describes itself as citizen journalists, but its activities illustrate a growing phenomenon my colleagues and I call “citizen intelligence.” This is work that would count as intelligence gathering or analysis within an intelligence organisation, but it’s undertaken by citizens operating outside the traditional intelligence ecosystem.
Citizen intelligence has been made possible by the internet in various ways.
Since its advent, we’ve seen an explosion of “open source” information. That is, data that’s accessible without any special organisational privileges. For example, just by opening Google Earth you can view satellite data of the kind only available to analysts in government agencies not many years ago.
There are now free new tools for gathering and analysing these vast troves of information, such as the analysis platform Maltego. Aspiring citizen analysts can now train themselves using resources available online or in workshops offered by various organisations.
Expertise in intelligence work is no longer the preserve of those hired and trained by traditional organisations. Powerful collaboration platforms, such as Google Docs, allow interested individuals to work effectively together, even when scattered around the world.
We’ve all seen how global, cloud-based marketplaces such as Amazon, Airbnb and Uber have transformed their respective domains. Citizen intelligence could grow even faster if a suitable marketplace is developed. At the SWARM Project, we’ve begun exploring the potential design of a platform where those seeking intelligence can transact with those willing to provide it.
What might that look like? A marketplace for citizen intelligence could be built on a “sponsored challenge” crowdsourcing model.
Imagine an organisation with an intelligence question. Say, for example, the organisation wants to identify potential threats to a proposed infrastructure development in an unstable region. The organisation pays to have the question posed as a challenge on the platform, with a prize for the best answer. Groups of citizen analysts self-organize and submit reports. When the deadline is up, the best report garners the prize – and bragging rights.
There are reasons to think that crowdsourced citizen intelligence could match, or outperform, traditional intelligence organisations on some kinds of tasks. Traditional organisations have advantages, such as access to classified information and highly trained analysts, but crowdsourcing has compensating strengths.
Many intelligence organisations are small and under-resourced for the number and complexity of issues they are supposed to handle. Crowdsourced intelligence can potentially draw from much larger pools of citizens. For example, the analytics crowdsourcing platform Kaggle has over a million people signed up, and it gets literally thousands of teams competing on big challenges.
With scale comes diversity. Large groups inherently possess more diverse knowledge, expertise and perspectives. A question like the one in the example above might require fluency in an obscure dialect, or specific technical know-how. No intelligence agency can maintain in-house everything it might need for any problem.
Crowds can be more agile than agencies, which are risk-averse bureaucracies. For example, individuals can more quickly access and use many of the latest analytical methods and tools.
Perhaps most importantly, intelligence work by unpaid volunteers is driven primarily by passion. Passion certainly exists within agencies, but is often stifled in various ways.
The SWARM Project ran a tournament-style experiment in 2018 that illustrated how everyday citizens can sometimes beat the professionals. Teams tackled four tough, fictional intelligence problems over four weeks. Some teams were made up of analysts provided by organisations with intelligence functions, some of analysts recruited via Facebook, and some of citizens (non-analysts) recruited via Facebook.
On average, the citizen teams outperformed the professional analysts – and some of the citizen reports were astonishingly good.
Citizen intelligence will likely create some headaches for intelligence agencies. For example decision makers might increasingly look to citizen sources over formal intelligence agencies – particularly where citizen intelligence delivers reports more quickly, or with more “convenient” findings.
On the other hand, citizen intelligence could have a lot to offer intelligence organisations. A suitably designed marketplace might enable the traditional agencies to take advantage of the power inherent in the crowd. Such a platform could be a “force multiplier”, at least for certain aspects of intelligence.
In view of these potential threats and opportunities, the Australian intelligence community should get on the front foot, shaping the future of citizen intelligence rather than just reacting to it.
This is a condensed version of a presentation given at the Technology Surprise Forum, Safeguarding Australia Summit, Canberra May 2019
Dutch prosecutors will launch a criminal trial in The Hague on March 9, 2020. But the accused are beyond the jurisdiction of the court, and will most likely be tried in absentia. This means the accused will not be physically present in the court room.
The prosecutors argue the four accused were jointly responsible for obtaining a BUK TELAR missile launcher (a launcher for self-propelled, surface-to-air missiles allegedly owned by the Russian military) in the city of Kursk, and launching it from Ukraine.
They say the four men are responsible for the atrocity because they had the intention to shoot down an aircraft, and obtained the missile launcher for that purpose.
While investigators have not accused any suspects of actually firing the missile, they say in future they may identify others with that responsibility.
For the victims and their loved ones, these Dutch criminal trials present the best hope of legal acknowledgement for the tragedy.
On July 17, 2014, flight MH17 was travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down over Ukraine.
The Joint Investigative Team (JIT), led by Dutch authorities and comprising investigators from Malaysia, Australia, Belgium and Ukraine, concluded in 2016 that the flight was shot down by a Russian BUK missile.
The JIT identified the launch location as a field in eastern Ukraine, which at the time was in territory controlled by pro-Russian fighters.
The countries central to the investigation – including Australia, which lost 38 people – and the victims’ families have explored a range of legal strategies to assign blame for the attack.
Some civil claims on behalf of victims’ families are ongoing before the European Court of Human Rights.
And hearings are ongoing before the International Court of Justice, where Ukraine seeks to make a case against Russia. Ukraine cites the MH17 atrocity as characteristic of broader Russian aggression and lack of respect for Ukrainian sovereignty and independence.
The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected this week’s announcement, in line with its earlier rejections of the JIT conclusions. It said:
Once again, absolutely groundless accusations are being made against the Russian side, aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation in the eyes of the international community.
Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier called the crash a “terrible tragedy”, but said Russia bore no responsibility for it.
Russian officials have claimed they were prepared to assist the investigation but had been “frozen out” of it.
Three of the four accused are Russian nationals, believed to be living in Russia.
Igor Girkin is a former colonel in the Russian security service. At the time of the atrocity, Girkin was the minister of defence in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, a pro-Russian separatist region of Ukraine.
The other two Russian accused, Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, are former Russian military intelligence agents who worked under Girkin.
Leonid Kharchenko is the only Ukrainian national accused. Investigators are not certain of his current location. At the time of the atrocity, Kharchenko led a separatist combat unit.
The specific charges in relation to the four named suspects will be:
Causing the crash of flight MH17, resulting in the death of all persons on board, punishable pursuant to Article 168 of the Dutch Criminal Code
The murder of the 298 persons on board of flight MH17, punishable pursuant to Article 289 of the Dutch Criminal Code.
The investigation is ongoing and continues to call for witnesses to assist.
Dutch investigators will issue international arrest warrants for the four accused and place them on international wanted lists. But they won’t issue extradition requests because they know already that no extradition of nationals is available under the Ukrainian or Russian constitutions.
It seems impossible for the Dutch court to gain actual jurisdiction over the Russian accused. Potentially, should Ukrainian authorities apprehend Kharchenko, he could be tried via video-link.
The Netherlands and Ukraine have entered into an agreement that would permit such an arrangement and – should Kharchenko be convicted – allow for his imprisonment in Ukraine.
The charges and any penalties originate in Dutch, rather than international, criminal law. Convictions for murder or the intentional downing of an aircraft could result in sentences of up to life imprisonment.
It’s fair to question the value of a prosecution without a court having actual jurisdiction over the accused. The only real answer is that such a trial would enable the presentation and adjudication of evidence and the judgement of a court as to whether charges are made out.
As time goes, the chances of successful prosecutions decline. Meanwhile, interested countries and the victims’ families continue to call for legal redress for the atrocity.
It is also legitimate to ask whether a court can ensure a fair trial for accused persons tried in absentia.
Although it is not explicitly prohibited by international human rights law, the absence of defendants and presumably any legal representative from the courtroom means the accused will not hear the evidence against them or have the ability to present a defence.
Given the four named accused are beyond the actual jurisdiction of the Dutch courts, it can be argued that they (and, at least in the case of Russia, their country) are wilfully avoiding the process of justice. This may be, for some or many observers, sufficient justification for trying them in their absence.