IWP professor Eugene Poteat – a retired CIA specialist on new technologies and the president of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) – was interviewed by Poland’s conservative Niezależna Gazeta Polska(Independent Polish Gazette) on the suspicious Smolensk Plane Crash.
The catastrophe which occurred above Smolensk in Russia on 10 April 2010 claimed the lives of the Polish President, Lech Kaczyński; his wife, Maria; and numerous other members of Poland’s political elite and military top brass. In total, 96 Poles perished in the crash. Since then, Moscow has stonewalled on the issue, creating the perception of a brazen cover-up. Meanwhile, unsettling pieces of evidence have continued to surface as both Moscow and Warsaw offer no convincing explanations.
Thus, quite a few observers, including Prof. Poteat, have suggested that the crash might have been an assassination. As he pointed out: “The Russians had the means, motive, and opportunity.” Prof. Poteat emphasized that Russia is still ruled by former KGB officers who fought the US and the West during the Cold War and continue to perceive the trans-Atlanticist world as a threatening enemy. The former CIA new technologies expert also mentioned the unsettling fact that the Polish Foreign Ministry suffered two unprecedented and paralyzing cyberattacks on 6 and 10 April – i.e. four days before the crash and on the very day on the disaster. Was the Kremlin behind them?
To read the full English version of the interview, please see below.
Two years ago you wrote in Charleston Mercury that Polish Air Force Tu-154 crash in Smolensk was no accident. Now an assassination theory is considered a serious hypothesis and some notable scientists, including professors from USA, claim that the plane broke up over the ground. Would Russians have had a reason for killing the Polish president, many anti-communist politicians and senior Polish officers?
Poteat: True, my original article in the Charleston Mercury suggested assassination rather than an accident. One need only look at Russian history since the Bolshevik coup and the long string of murders, assassinations, and killings carried out by their intelligence services, to recognize that history can – and often does – repeat itself. Like people, nations tend to continue the same habits and vices they’ve had in the past. The same quick, dirty solutions to inconvenient, embarrassing problems. So, I suspect they could well have been behind the crash that killed the top Polish government, military, and other officials. Officials who were coming to their country to commemorate an embarrassing event of Russia murdering thousands of innocents. So….as for motives, the Russians had strong reasons to commit such a crime.
Simply: the Russians had the means, motive, and opportunity. First, the main driving force was to save face. The Russians had every reason to want the Smolensk event to fail or not take place, since it would only cause the Russians to be seen by the world as the murderers they were, and still are.
Second, Russia is ruled primarily by former intelligence officers, with no adult supervision. Many are clever thugs. These are the successors to those who committed the Katyn massacre and other atrocities over the years. Further, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Poland – in the eyes of Russia – had the audacity to shed the Russian yoke, join NATO, and vote in a pro-Western government. All of these are an insult to Russia. So eliminating the Polish government automatically created a leadership vacuum into which the Polish vice president and his pro-Russian, anti-NATO cronies, could be rushed into power. It was an opportunity Russia could not let pass even if the means would involve a staged, ugly crash. Something to be quickly swept under the carpet.
History readily reveals Russia’s vile means of managing their smaller neighbors and rivals, as was the case with the White Russians after 1917, Poland in 1939, Katyn in 1940, Ukraine in the 1920s, Czech Republic in 1968, Georgia in 2008, and hundreds of individuals they consider adversaries or critics over the years . One of the best ways for the Russians to kill the detested Smolensk event was literally handed to them with their planned arrival, en masse, on a single airplane. Russian technical expertise at providing false signals to create accidents permitted them the perfect opportunity to eliminate the entire Polish delegation and solve a number of problems with one staged accident. So yes, the suspect in this case had every reason, motive, and means to commit this horrible crime. My original article threw down the gauntlet. Others have now picked it up, continuing the quest for truth.
The investigation of the Smolensk crash by the Russian government was conducted in gross violation of international standards and led to the destruction and suppression of key evidence. Two years after the crash we still await receiving “black boxes” and the wreckage. Would American authorities allow Russians to behave like that if the president of the USA was killed on Russian soil?
Poteat: These days we hear the phase “Too Big to Fail.” Well, it also applies to crimes. In this case: “Too Big To Convict.” Unlike individuals, countries can act more irrationally than individuals, to cover up obvious crimes. There have been genocides and mass murders in the past, as there will be in the future. Some are acknowledged and quickly forgotten, while others are never acknowledged and become part of a fervently believed, historical myth of a country. Turkey’s genocide of the Armenians, and their unwavering denial of it, being a famous example of myth become sacrosanct.
In the latest attempt to cover up an act of genocide, Russia’s actions immediately after the crash were typical of a murderer covering up his crime by the destruction and suppression of key evidence. Yes, even though it played out on a world stage, nations have the freedom to deny, obfuscate, hide, and misdirect investigations to supply only their ‘official’ version of events. They quickly cleared the crash site of the wreckage which could have included any evidence that ran counter to their claims it was an accident and not a crime. They blamed the pilot, the bad weather, and essentially removed a key witness — the Russian control tower operator — who would not support the ‘official findings.’ They quickly recovered bodies and sealed them in locked caskets-no viewings or autopsies permitted. Their actions were all in violation of international agreements regarding international plane crashes. If the crash was an accident, as Russia claimed, the airplane’s black box could have supported them. Instead, they confiscated the black boxes, preventing examination. Is there any doubt, from this list, that this wasn’t a cover-up?
If the crash had been an American plane loaded with our officials, the Russians still would have engaged in the same charade. It has little to do with the size or power of the countries involved. They would still have tried to place the blame on the victims, do their usual cover-up, etc. There are still many around the world, including here in America, that are willing or naive enough to let the Russians go unchallenged-and enough lawyers to find a way to avoid compliance with international agreements, when needed. Since the crash involved smaller, weaker neighbors, I think Russians knew the Americans were preoccupied with the commitments in the Middle East and gambled they could get away with the crime. This is precisely how it’s done. It is a common scenario throughout history of bad acts being performed while greater powers are diverted by bigger issues. And in this situation, there was a greater prize at the end: a stranglehold on Poland with insertion of many more pro-Russia leaders. After the crash, a new, pro-Russia government came to power in Poland, and they do as they are told. Their first assignment: raise no questions about Russia’s criminal behavior and highly questionable accident investigation. Wave it quickly away, and try to get the country to forget about it. Disparage those who continue to question the crash and the highly suspect investigation.
Two months before the crash Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs unexpectedly reappointed a retired diplomat Mr. Tomasz Turowski and tasked him with organizing the Polish delegation visit to Russia. Turowski was at the landing field of the Smolensk airport during the crash. In 2011 Polish press revealed that Turowski had been one of the most dangerous „illegal” spy in communist Poland (f.e. he was working undercover in Rome during the time of a failed assassination against Pope John Paul II) and had worked in the department supervised by Soviet services. Do you consider it an unfortunate oversight or something worse?
Poteat: Poland bears some of the blame. It should have been far more diligent in vetting personnel for such critical jobs. Clearly Russia would see to it that as many Polish government jobs as possible are filled with those more loyal to Russia than Poland. Russian intelligence is alive, well, fully embedded, and at work in Poland, (as they are here in America). No nation has suffered more than Poland. One has to ask: When will Poland learn?
On 6th April 2010, few days before the crash, there was a huge server and electricity breakdown in Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (no access to servers with secret data, intranet, e-mail, faxes, telephones etc.). Polish diplomats say they have not seen anything like that in their career. On 10th April, when TU-154 was crashing, there was a similar breakdown – Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs could not even receive a list of passengers by e-mail… Were Russian intelligence agencies able to conduct such a cyberattack?
Poteat: Yes, Russian intelligence agencies understand the role cyberattacks can play in peacetime espionage as well as wartime, and have developed effective, offensive, and defensive cyber warfare capabilities. Kaspersky Laboratory, a Russian information-technology firm is recognized as one of the world’s most knowledgeable cyber space organizations. It was Kaspersky’s experts that recently identified and described a new computer virus, called Flame, as the largest and most complex virus to date. Such large and complex viruses usually require nation state support. It was Russian cyberattacks that brought the economy and government of Estonia to a standstill. NATO cyber experts had to pitch in to help restore Estonia to normalcy. Russia also conducted cyberattacks against Georgia that preceded their military attacks. So sudden oddities in data processing should have immediately raised suspicion and caused a halt in the visit, but didn’t. Russian cyberattacks could be seen as a warning of possible imminent military or other hostile attacks. In the West, cyber space means freedom in communications and expression, But Russia sees it as just another weapon to attack foes -as well as a tool for fraud, for disabling targets, and to cover up crimes. Proving this, however, is still a science in its infancy, and cybercriminals like Russia know it.
At the moment of the very crash, no officer of the Government Protection Bureau [Poland’s equivalent of the United States Secret Service] was present at the landing field of the airport. After the crash the head of the Bureau – general Marian Janicki – was honoured with one of the highest civilian award in Poland. What would happen to the director of the U.S. Secret Service if he did not secure the flight which ended with the death of the president of the USA, the chief of the General Staff and other senior military officers?
Poteat: Clearly, Poland has no real security or protection against Russian aggressiveness, attacks or criminal behavior short of an all-out war that might bring in NATO. The U.S. Secret Service would never think of acquiring an official airplane from an adversary or enemy, and certainly never send our President’s official airplane to an enemy for overhaul and upgrades in the first place [and, no doubt, discover that hundreds of hidden listening devices were installed]. What Poland did was like sending the cabbage patch to the goat. Again, one has to ask: When will Poland ever wake up and accept its current awkward position that requires immense caution?
When the Polish aircraft was approaching to Smolensk, Russian air traffic controllers acted secretly on the orders of the general Vladimir Benedictov who was in Moscow then (he made phonecalls to them; Benedictov had commanded special operations air units during the war in Chechnya and now is one of the top officers of Military Transport Aviation). Do you consider it a normal procedure?
Poteat: I would consider General Benedictov’s and the traffic controllers’ actions, before, during the approach, and afterwards, to be normal procedure when planning a crime and ensuring its cover-up. For example, the traffic controllers lied to the pilot by telling him he was on-track for a safe landing when he was well to the left of the extended center line of the runway-undoubtedly under orders from more senior officials. After performing his role, the traffic controller quickly disappeared. That tells you all you need to know.
The Tu-154 which crashed in Smolensk had been repaired few months before the crash by two Russian companies. First one belongs to Oleg Deripaska – an oligarch and a friend to Vladimir Putin; Deripaska was interrogated by the FBI in cases of money laundering and having links to organized crime. The second company is controlled by Sergey Chemezov – a former undercover KGB agent who in 1980s worked with Putin in East Germany. Would you trust these people and give them the presidential plane as the Polish goverment did?
Poteat: Sending the Tu-154 back to Russia for repairs and upgrades was a serious mistake in the first place. But as long as Poland is divided politically, there will always be pressure from those that favor Russian business and industrial connections to use those over Western ones, making it virtually impossible to completely turn to Western democracies with their better and safer industries. Until Poland finally and fully sheds the Russian yoke, as did Estonia, Poland must expect continuing interference, betrayals, and sabotage from Russia. And, knowing that, Poland must act with far greater caution. I realize that is not an easy way to live.
Polish authorities did not ask American specialists for help with the investigation of the crash. Moreover, they do not want to release the satellite photographs from the day of the crash (U.S. state agencies sent them to Poland after the crash) and did not let professor Michael Baden, an American forensic pathologist of world renown, assist in examinations of the Smolensk crash victims’ remains. Is Polish government’s attitude surprising for you?
Poteat: Neither Polish nor American government attitudes and responses to the crash surprise me. I think both were wrong and regrettable. Poland should have asked for American assistance, and America should have demanded that an investigation be carried out in accordance with the Chicago Convention that governs international air crashes and adheres to the bilateral 1993 agreement that joint commissions conduct the investigation. But even if asked, there is no certainty – with its own plate full of complex international issues – that America would have found sufficient agreement to quickly respond. Just because Russian violation of agreements is S.O.P. [standard operating procedure], there’s no excuse to give them a free pass when doing so. But these events sometimes slip beyond the reach of legitimate investigation and punishment because great nations are distracted or busy with other problems. That might have been the outcome with a call for American involvement. And Russia probably calculated they could count on that being the case, much the way a robber breaks into your house after he sees you depart for vacation.
The presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney, has branded Russia as America’s number one geopolitical enemy. Barack Obama also seems to be more restrained when talking about Russia (compared with what he was saying 2-3 years ago). Does it mean there is a chance that the USA will soon reset a “reset” policy?
Poteat: The White House pressed, struck, pounded, and hit that well-worn Russia “reset” button, and now expects future relations with them will be non-adversarial. A relationship of trust. Picking up the pro-Russia banner, VP Joe Biden, referring to Mitt Romney’s call that Russia is America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe, exclaimed, “He acts like he thinks the Cold War’s still on. I don’t know where he’s been.” The Cold War is surely over because Joe Biden and the White House have deemed it so. Michelle Van Cleave, former Director of Counterintelligence Executive (NCIX), recently wrote that Russian spying in the US is, if anything, on the rise. We do not hear much about it because, she points out, our Justice Department is kept busy with White House-generated legal wars over the CIA’s enhanced interrogation of the Islamic terrorists who brought down the twin towers. Last year’s arrest of ten deep cover Russian spies ended with them being hurried home without interrogation. The SVR [KGB] rezidentura in the US, Sergei Tretyakov, (defected in 2000), concurs, saying that nothing has changed…that the Russian spies are here and busy. They are busy here, and they are busy in Poland.
Putin has great expectations of his new White House disciple and, understandably, is rooting for Obama in the election [elections are such a bother – another point they both agree on]; a win means clear sailing for US/Russia relations and the end of the US missile defense plan. Should Mitt Romney win, however, Putin faces a different, independent-minded student…one that will not tolerate Russian brinkmanship or manipulation. Devoid of strings of control, that special relationship would be history…as much of an illusion as that reset button.
As with any crime where there is strong circumstantial evidence pointing to a suspect with a long history of having committed similar crimes, and with a history of covering up his many other crimes, and with a strong motive for committing the crime, and with the means and know-how to commit the crime. The suspect is a major country that doctored the evidence- a jury would be unable to convict without hard, smoking-gun evidence, or credible witnesses, so the criminal goes free. Sadly, throughout history, this has happened many times. The court of public opinion, however, will have no trouble seeing things as they truly are, and openly declaring the criminal guilty; but, for those who have lost their leaders, their loved ones, their exalted colleagues, this is little comfort. For all those outcries carry little power to bring the perpetrator to justice. The history of many countries is filled with similar episodes of bitter unfairness, with little chance to bring to justice those who committed the crimes. Even when it is common knowledge which party is guilty, the world stage presents problems of forcing an honest examination and equitable resolution.
Poland may have to swallow this bitter experience, and use it to never forget, and forever alter her behavior and level of trust. When your country is permeated with enemies, as Poland currently is, every move must be made skillfully to avoid falling into another trap concocted by those around you, in league with your enemies. It is not an easy lesson to learn, nor a pleasant way to live, but this will happen again until Poland is fully free of Russian hegemony and connivance.