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US intelligence officials just gave a very unsatisfying briefing on MH17

Ukraine's rebels herd reporters in Donestk
Ukraine's rebels herd reporters in Donestk
Rob Stothard/Getty Images

Senior US intelligence officials spoke to reporters on Tuesday to share some of the latest intel on the shoot-down of flight MH17 last week over eastern Ukraine. They did not offer much that was not already known, or at least widely presumed.

The jet was most likely shot down by separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine using a Buk surface-to-air missile system (also known as SA-11 system), according to press accounts of the briefing. They showed photographic evidence to back this up.

For Americans and Europeans, this has been the conventional wisdom for some days; the point of pushing it out appears to be at least in part to counter Russian efforts to suggest that the Ukrainian government was responsible.

While it would be disturbing if this is really all that American intelligence have learned in five days of investigation, it's important to note that after the disastrous intelligence failures leading up to the 2003 Iraq War, US intelligence agencies have become more cautious about releasing information publicly without absolute confirmation.

What's perhaps more interesting is what the US intelligence officials would not say: that the attack was deliberate or that Russia pulled the trigger. The officials said they suspected the rebels fired on a commercial airliner mistakenly; this too had become conventional wisdom, as the rebels had only previously fired on Ukrainian military aircraft, but the hint of possible confirmation is something.

As for Russia, the officials said that the attack occurred "under conditions created by Russia" and that Russia has been generally arming and training the rebels, including with anti-aircraft weapons — but stopped well short of blaming Russia directly.

That assessment may well change as US intelligence gets more information; the officials admitted, for example, that they were not sure whether or not Russian officials were present when the missile was fired, or whether the rebels who fired it had been trained in Russia. But it's noteworthy that they have placed the blame so squarely on eastern Ukraine rebels that were trained and backed by Russia while declining to blame Moscow itself.

Maybe it shouldn't be surprising that American intelligence officials would take a generous view of Russian responsibility for Russian-backed rebels. As the analyst Dan Trombly put it on twitter, "Bemused so many are shocked US would say training+equipping proxies doesn't equate to direct involvement in their later use." If anyone is going to be sympathetic to the idea that proxy rebels sometimes misbehave in ways that embarrass their sponsors, it's going to be American intelligence agents.

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