Investigation Points To Russian Role In Downed Malaysia Airlines Jet NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Aric Toler about new details in the international investigation of Flight MH17, which was downed in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Toler works for Bellingcat, which conducts citizen investigative journalism.
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Investigation Points To Russian Role In Downed Malaysia Airlines Jet

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Investigation Points To Russian Role In Downed Malaysia Airlines Jet

Investigation Points To Russian Role In Downed Malaysia Airlines Jet

Investigation Points To Russian Role In Downed Malaysia Airlines Jet

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/495816949/495816950" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Aric Toler about new details in the international investigation of Flight MH17, which was downed in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Toler works for Bellingcat, which conducts citizen investigative journalism.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

An international investigation has provided new evidence of Russian involvement in the downing of a passenger jet in eastern Ukraine in 2014. All 298 people on that flight were killed. Today the joint investigation team led by the Netherlands said that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile launched from territory controlled by pro-Russian fighters.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

They also concluded that the missile system called a Buk was brought into Ukraine from Russia. Russia has denied any involvement, and a foreign ministry spokesperson called this investigation biased. Today the investigators released a lot of evidence in the case, including recordings of phone calls.

SIEGEL: Here's one of those calls from the night before the downing of the flight. And according to the investigators, in this call, a separatist fighter asks for a Buk missile system to fight back against air attacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Russian).

SIEGEL: He says, "if I can receive a Buk in the morning and send it over there, that would be good." Investigators tracked the path of the missile system using posts on social media, photos, videos and data from cell phone towers. Here's some of the investigation team's video.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: In Snizhne, it passed by an apartment building, then the last moving images of the Buk-Telar that are available show the system while driving towards its final destination.

SIEGEL: A lot of the evidence from social media was first compiled by independent citizen journalists from the website Bellingcat. Aric Toler worked for Bellingcat gathering publicly available evidence. Though without benefit of the phone recordings available to international investigators...

ARIC TOLER: Of course we don't have access to the original recordings, and we can't record them ourselves. But we've gone through and to the best of our ability verified and corroborated elements of the phone calls. For example, in one of the phone calls, someone mentions coming in on a convoy, and we looked through, and we found a video of the day before of the convoy that this person was driving. We even found his car, his SUV.

SIEGEL: This presentation of evidence both what you as a journalist, what your group gathered, and what we see the investigation team presenting must draw upon hours and hours and hours of pictures and video that people have taken with their cell phones.

TOLER: Yeah, it's like finding a needle in a haystack but maybe even harder than that. We've looked through thousands of hours of material, and we've dug through thousands of - tens of thousands of witness accounts and posts from Russian social media.

So you go through a thousand selfies of soldiers from the Russian border and stuff, and then you see one in the background. And you see, you know, a license plate that you recognize, or you see a missile launcher that you recognize.

SIEGEL: These thousands of hours of images that were taken - do they reflect a special alertness that is a fact that people were urged to or spontaneously decided to document everything going on around them? Or is this life today?

TOLER: A little bit of both. One factor that is heavily involved in how we find so much material in Russia and Ukraine is the phenomenon of dash cams. You always see these crazy videos of people fighting in the streets or a comet blazing across the sky in Russia and Ukraine because the cameras on the dashboard in cars are so common because of insurance reasons there.

Because of that, we have a very good entryway to what's going on in Russia and Ukraine because all of these normal citizens have their dash cams in their car. And when they get home and see a tank drive by, they go home, put it on YouTube. They get a couple thousand views. That stays up there.

We can use these videos and photographs as data points to construct what happened, what the chronology of an event was and find out what the route of certain convoys were and so on.

SIEGEL: But from your standpoint and that of Bellingcat which did so much in investigative reporting here, it sounds like you would say the joint investigation team did a pretty thorough job.

TOLER: Absolutely. And you can tell that they - there's a lot of investigation research they've done they've not yet published. They were pulling their shots a little bit. You could tell because they have much more information that if they were to publish would become political quickly 'cause it relates to Russia.

So of the information they released, it's very well researched. They have many, many points of verification between the intercepted phone calls. They have photographs and videos (unintelligible). They have what I've heard are dozens if not hundreds of witnesses who have come forward to them.

For example, we work just with open source information, but they have access to much, much, much more than we do. So they bring together all these different data points to show very conclusively that this plane was shot down by a Russian missile launcher from separatist-controlled territory.

SIEGEL: Aric Toler of the citizens investigative journalism website Bellingcat spoke to us from Kiev, Ukraine, via Skype.

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