Blame ISIS for Russian Jet Crash? Put Up Evidence or Shut Up

Suspicion is not good enough when we are talking about what would be the worst terrorist attack on civil aviation since 9/11.

LONDON — Wittingly or unwittingly, British authorities have triggered a sudden blizzard of assertions that the Russian Airbus A321 that crashed in Egypt was brought down by a bomb on board. Until 10 Downing Street, apparently acting on their own initiative, decided to send their own aviation security experts to the airport at Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh to “assess” the level of security, British and American intelligence agencies were limiting the chance of a bomb being the cause to a “possibility.”

The Brits have provoked, within hours, a chorus of endorsements that terrorism was involved, but without any single piece of definitive evidence to prove it.

Stopping prudently just short of such evidential confidence, 10 Downing Street said “we cannot say categorically why the Russian jet crashed. But as more information has come to light we have become concerned that the plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device.”

Reports by CNN, NBC News, and the Associated Press originally cited a single, anonymous U.S. intelligence official who said that ISIS was involved.

Multiple U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that it was too soon to say definitively that a bomb aboard the airplane was responsible for the crash. But none of them would rule out that possibility, either, and acknowledged that a bomb is one scenario that intelligence agencies have been considering since the day of the crash.

"Intelligence officials are starting to lean that way," a U.S. official told The Daily Beast of the bomb scenario.

Notably, the intelligence so far that tends to support the theory of a bomb has been technical in nature, including intercepted communications from within terrorist groups and indications from satellites of some intense heat signature at the time of the crash--possibly from an explosion.

U.S. lawmakers are being briefed on the unfolding situation. Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN, "It is certainly possible that it was an explosive, but it’s also possible that this was a structural problem with the plane." Schiff pointed specifically to the tail section of the plane, which had suffered damage during a rough landing in 2001 in Cairo.

“So at this point, I don’t think we’re prepared to draw any conclusions,” Schiff added. “But obviously we’re investigating it, and directing our intelligence resources to try to determine the cause of the crash.”

The British action has focused on the security at Sharm el-Sheikh airport. This coincided with a visit to Downing Street by Egyptian strongman and president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. In their statement, Downing Street said that British Prime Minister David Cameron called al-Sisi yesterday evening “to discuss what measures the Egyptians are taking to ensure the highest possible security arrangements at Sharm el-Sheikh airport….”

The Egyptian leader is very concerned about the affects of the Russian airliner crash on his country’s tourist industry; 2,000 British tourists are in Sharm el-Sheikh and more were due to leave for there on Thursday.

General al-Sisi has insisted that the Egyptian army and special forces have tight control over the restricted zone of the Sinai and that flights into and out of Sharm el-Sheikh are at no risk from terrorists.

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“When there is propaganda that it crashed because of ISIS, this is one way to damage the stability and security of Egypt,” he declared late Sunday.

Given the president’s confidence in the security situation there, it is therefore surprising that the British experts are being allowed to make this very public intervention. If they had suspicions of a bomb having been planted on the Airbus, it follows that they would want to get an urgent review of the screening of passenger baggage at the airport, not simply whether passengers themselves were being rigorously screened before boarding.

It is of course possible that the “information has come to light” hint in Downing Street’s cryptic announcement is a result of not just what Cameron was told in his phone call to al-Sisi but also what British officials may have been told today by either president al-Sisi or the officials traveling to London with him.

Where would such evidence come from and why would it be left to the Brits to first give such dramatic emphasis to it, knowing that a media frenzy would follow?

There is as yet no consensus of opinion that terrorism was involved nor any known grounds on which to base that opinion. What is beyond doubt true is that the Airbus broke up so suddenly and violently in mid-air that the crew had no chance to communicate with controllers. Unverified reports from Russia claiming to have had access to the cockpit voice recorders from the Airbus said “sounds uncharacteristic of routine flight were recorded preceding the moment that the aircraft disappeared from radar screens.”

Such a recorded onset of sounds of mechanical distress would be consistent with a precipitated structural failure rather than the kind of instantaneous detonation of an explosive device planted either in the cabin or in a cargo hold.

Perhaps surprisingly, the most adamant voices resisting the idea that the airplane was brought down by a hostile act have been from Russian authorities. When officials of the airline, speaking without any access to the findings of investigators, insisted that the crash was the result of “external influences” they were rapidly slapped down by Russian investigators.

Investigators have downloaded data from the Airbus’s flight data recorder and are beginning to analyze it. But the “black box” is of very limited value in the case of a sudden disintegration of an airplane. The device captures thousands of parameters of data indicating the performance of the airplane’s systems and the actions of the pilots but this flood of data would be terminated instantly as the airplane broke apart.

The recorder would be more instructive about what did not overtake the airplane rather than what did.

For example, if there were early indications of an engine problem or an imminent failure of a system it would show up. In this case, one thing that investigators would certainly look for would be any sign of a problem with the airplane’s pressurization system—the onset of a “leak” of pressure might indicate a sudden structural weakness that could lead to an explosive decompression when the pressurized air in the cabin seeks out the weak point and a violent blast of air results.

If there were a bomb planted on the airplane, either among the passengers in the cabin or in the cargo hold, evidence of this would be found not from the flight data recorders but as a result of old-fashioned, low-tech gumshoe work by investigators on the ground who “read” the wreckage for signs of an explosive and who seek out the exact the site of the initial blast on the airplane.

It would need that degree of evidence and certitude to justify the rush to judgment now being made as a result of the announcement from the British defense establishment via 10 Downing Street and a single, faceless U.S. official. Right now there is no such evidence being provided.

— Additional reporting by Shane Harris and Nancy A. Youssef.