By Eric van de Beek
Audio forensic expert Akash Rosen analyses phone taps of rebels in eastern Ukraine.
In the six years since the MH17 crash many phone calls intercepted by the Ukrainian secret service SBU have been presented to the public; all of them suggesting the rebels in eastern Ukraine are to blame. However these wiretapped conversations have major issues. And in fact, the only person who was caught talking about downing a Boeing was a colonel from the Ukrainian army.
In September 2018 the Russian Ministry of Defense presented an intercepted phone call in which a person can be heard saying: "If this keeps going on we will down another Malaysian Boeing and everything will be great again." The Ministry identified this person as colonel Ruslan Grinchak of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, who in July 2014 headed the 164th Ukrainian Armed Forces radio-engineering brigade. In this capacity he was responsible for the airspace in eastern Ukraine.
Apart from one newspaper, de Volkskrant, the media in The Netherlands did not report about this intercepted conversation. Apparently they thought it was not worth mentioning. But the Dutch Public Prosecution Service and the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) thought otherwise. JIT interviewed the person Grinchak was talking to - and the prosecutor added the intercept to the case file of the criminal trial against the suspects of the downing of MH17. For some unknown reason Grinchak was not interviewed himself. Since parts of the intercept contain censor beeps the lawyers of the accused Oleg Pulatov have requested the court to provide them with an uncensored version.
Only a few will know about the Grinchak intercept presented by the Russian Ministry of Defense in 2018, but many, if not all, know about the tapped phone calls of the rebels in eastern Ukraine; some of them strongly suggesting they took down MH17.
"Birdie flying towards you"
A week after the crash of Malaysian flight MH17 the Ukrainian secret service SBU put an intercepted phone call online in which then sub-commander of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) Igor Bezler can be heard. He is informed by one of his men, Stelmakh, that a 'birdie' is flying towards him. Bezler subsequently orders him to report this upwards "to the commanders". According to the SBU this conversation took place only two minutes before MH17 was hit. They presented the intercept as evidence Bezler had coordinated the downing of the civilian airliner.
Snapshot from video with intercepted conversation Igor Bezler. Put on YouTube by SBU
This intercept and the others made public by the SBU very much influenced public opinion. Within a week the majority was convinced the rebels, and probably Russia too, were to blame.
Unjustly so. Even the Dutch public prosecutor, who's keen on proving the rebels downed MH17 with a Buk missile, felt compelled to admit that the SBU had falsely suggested Bezler was involved in the incident. "The investigation revealed that the time between this conversation and the launch of the missile was so short that it was questionable whether the conversation could have contributed to the downing of the aircraft," as they diplomatically put it in their March 9, 2020 opening statement at the MH17 trial. "We did not, and as things currently stand in the investigation still do not, consider that there is a provable criminal case against Bezler in relation to flight MH17."
In the court session of June 9, the prosecutor went into more detail about this conversation. He said that there was less than a minute between the ending of the conversation and the downing. According to the prosecutor it takes at least two and a half minutes for a Buk TELAR installation to reach readiness stage 1. He furthermore said that it is unknown whether Stelmakh was reporting his own observation or that of a third party and that there is no evidence the information had reached the crew of the Buk TELAR.
From this the prosecutor did not conclude the conversation may have been about another incident on another day and that the SBU had antedated the audio. They simply reasoned away the issues with the "birdie conversation" by suggesting Stelmakh had probably spotted a civilian aircraft that was flying by shortly before MH17 arrived on the scene.
"We have just shot down a plane"
The SBU had falsely incriminated Bezler in another video too. It was put on YouTube only six hours after the crash, when the debris was still smoldering. In the video Bezler can be heard saying: "A plane was just shot down. Minyor's group. It went down outside Enakievo."
Snapshot from video with intercepted conversation Igor Bezler. Put on YouTube by SBU
According to the SBU, this call was recorded approximately twenty minutes after the downing of MH17. Yet this was contradicted by Bezler. The conversation was about the downing of a Ukrainian SU-25 fighter jet the day before, he told JIT when interviewed by them. And indeed, on July 16, 2014 the rebels reported that they had hit a Ukrainian SU-25 over Gorlovka. This was confirmed by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense. Bezler had - by the way - downed a 'Sushka' before over Gorlovka a month before, on June 16. The prosecutor presented an intercepted conversation - according to them recorded on June 16 - in which 'Bez' (Bezler) is given the credits for having downed this plane.
Gorlovka, where the fighter jet was hit on July 16, is clearly "outside Enakievo". The main MH17 crash site at Grabove is certainly not. The distance between Enakievo and the main MH17 crash site is much bigger (over 30 kilometers) than the distance between Enakievo and the location where the SU-25 was shot (around 17 kilometers).
Gorlovka is 'outside' Enakievo. Grabove is clearly not.
The Public Prosecution Service seemed to have taken Bezler's statement serious. They checked if the SBU had antedated the conversation. However, their conclusion was rather vague. "The investigation looked to see whether it could be determined if the conversation had actually taken place on a different day," prosecutor Dedy Woei-A-Tsoi said during the June 8, 2020 court session. "This is not the case."
What did she mean by this? That JIT had excluded the possibility the conversation had taken place on another day? Or that JIT wasn't able to determine if the conversation had taken place on another day?
The prosecution seems to be beating around the bush with the aforementioned Bezler taps. And they have a reason to do so. If they admitted Bezler was indeed talking about another incident or other incidents, this would indicate the SBU had antedated the intercepts. This would be devastating for the credibility of the SBU and by extension for all evidence provided by the SBU.
It's not only Bezler who says his conversations were taken out of context. One of the four men that are standing trial, former DPR-commander Sergey Dubinsky, has stated in an interview with Bonanza Media that one of his conversations that was intercepted by the SBU took place on July 16 and not on July 17 as the SBU alleges.
Apparently the SBU did not have phone taps at hand that convincingly proved their allegations, and so they started fabricating evidence. Not only by taking phone intercepts out of context; also by tampering with the audio. Akash Rosen of OG IT Forensic Service, a private digital forensic investigation firm in Malaysia analysed the video the SBU had put on YouTube within six hours after the crash. In May 2019 he put out a report in which he presented his findings.
Image from audio analysis by Akash Rosen. Five intercepted phone calls as presented by SBU on YouTube six hours after the crash
In the video five intercepted conversations are presented. The first one is the aforementioned conversation with Bezler who reports to someone identified by the SBU as Vasyl Geranin that his men
had shot down a plane. From differences in background noises Rosen concludes that the conversation between Bezler and Geranin consists of separate audio segments that were glued together.
Conversations number 2, 3 and 4 are between an unidentified rebel 'Major' who reports to another unidentified rebel 'Grek' at 4:33 pm that 'Cossacks' had shot down a plane; subsequently at 5:11 pm that civilian deaths had been found; and at 5:32 pm that he was sure a civilian plane had crashed. In these conversations Rosen found suspicious differences in background noises, as well as differences in spectrum frequency. But even more striking: the voice characteristics of the audio segments attributed to Greg do not match. Two different men seem to be talking to Major. And even more hilarious: the same goes for the audio segments attributed to Major. He too seems to be talking to Greg as if he is a split personality, talking in two different voices.
Snapshot of one of the three conversations between 'Major' and 'Grek'. Put on YouTube by SBU.
The fifth and last conversation from the SBU video is between an unidentified 'Militant' and Cossacks commander Nikolai Kozitsyn. The militant reports to Kozitsyn that much to his surprise he found it was a passenger plane that was shot down, as on TV it was reported it was a Ukrainian Antonov transport plane. Of all conversations analyzed Rosen found this conversation stands out in terms of tampering. And again: voice characteristics do not match. The militant talking to Kozitsyn, as presented by SBU, are in fact two militants, while clearly two different voices can be identified.
Fifth and last conversation from SBU video between 'Militant' and Cossacks commander Kozitsyn.
Rosen discovered something else that may be of importance. After the video was uploaded to the SBU's YouTube channel, on 17th July 2014, it was modified on November 1st 2018.
It is unclear why SBU went to such great lengths to edit the audio of the five conversations they presented in the video. Taking conversations out of context sufficed to get what Ukraine wanted: the western media pointing fingers at the rebels from day one.
Audio analysis left unreported
Rosen's analysis was left unreported. Apparently the mass media thought it was of no importance. The Dutch prosecutor however decided otherwise. Rosen's firm is a household name in Malaysia, and its investigations are accepted in court. The prosecution therefore knew it couldn't neglect Rosen's report. It included Rosen's findings in the case file, for the defense lawyers to read. However, at the court session of March 10, prosecutor Dedy Woei-A-Tsoi made it clear it had done so reluctantly. Rosen's report may say something about the audio clips in the YouTube video that he investigated, she said, but it doesn't say anything about "the complete intercepted conversations that are contained in the case file and have been thoroughly investigated".
This may be true, but Rosen was not granted access to the original files. He worked with what he had: a video on the YouTube channel of the SBU, which was presented to the world as the real thing. From this he drew interesting conclusions, among which the conclusion that some audio fragments were heavily tampered with, especially the conversation between the unidentified 'Militant' and Cossacks commander Nikolai Kozitsyn. Rosen labelled this conversation as 'fake' and 'inauthentic'. But the prosecution rejected this conclusion by saying that Kozytsin had publicly confirmed that he had taken part in the conversation. However this is a misleading statement. Kozytsin may have said what he said in the intercept, but still the conversation as presented by the SBU is fake and inauthentic because two different persons are presented by the SBU as one and the same person.
Intercepts Ukrainian military
With all agitation surrounding the intercepted calls from the rebels, one would almost forget there's something essential missing here. Apart from the aforementioned intercept of the Ukrainian colonel Ruslan Grinchak in which he talked about bringing down a Boeing, there are no intercepts made public of conversations between members of the Ukrainian army about the incident with MH17. Such intercepts are simply missing from the case file. The lawyers of Pulatov have addressed this issue in their opening statements at the June 22 session of the MH17 trial. Not only did they mention these intercepts are conspicuous by their absence. They also noticed the prosecutor had not even bothered to inquire with Ukraine to see if such intercepts are available.
MH17 downed by fighter jet
On June 26, 2020 the prosecution presented new intercepts of conversations between the rebels. Again, from none of these intercepts it follows they have shot down MH17. Instead they talk about having hit a Ukrainian fighter jet with a Buk and about a Ukrainian jet having hit MH17.
Phone tap presented by Dutch Public Prosecution Service on June 26, 2020.
The prosecution will no doubt cherry pick from these conversations by stressing the rebels had got hold of a Buk and by rejecting all reference to warplanes. But this will not stand. Even if none of these intercepts are tampered with, no simple conclusions can be drawn from them. The phone calls were recorded in a time of war. The rebels knew they were being wiretapped. Before the day of the crash the SBU had already published many intercepts. And so the rebels were using secure phones, to encrypt their calls. When using their normal phones they did what soldiers sometimes do under such circumstances: they deliberately disseminated disinformation to mislead the enemy, perhaps for instance about being in the possession of a Buk installation, to discourage the Ukrainian air force from flying over their territory. Also in times of war, there's often a lot of confusion. Some echelon may report to another a fighter jet is downed, while the jet was only hit and managed to return to its airbase.
Like with many other intercepts the taps that were presented on June 26 in court raise questions. For instance, about the way one of the four suspects, Sergey Dubinsky, was informed by his men about what had happened. First Leonid Kharchenko informs Dubinsky "We've just brought down a Sushka" and then, according to the prosecutor, three hours later Dubinsky asks Oleg Pulatov "Did our Buk shoot or not?"
Why would Dubinsky ask Pulatov if their Buk had shot anything, if Kharchenko had already told him?
Wanted: the original audio
The intercepts presented by SBU shortly after the crash had been prepared for publication on YouTube in a rush. It will therefore not be hard for any audio expert to prove they were manipulated. Things will be different with the audio the prosecutor received from the SBU among which the above-mentioned conversations the prosecution presented in court on June 26. If the SBU wanted to manipulate these taps, before handing them over to the prosecutor, they have had all the time of the world to do so. Pulatov's lawyers noted that the SBU had been in the process of selecting intercepts until April 2016. It's therefore conceivable that manipulations of these files are much more sophisticated.
Nonetheless "even the best-faked audio can still be proven to be fake", Akash Rosen says, when asked for a reaction. He calls on the prosecution for transparency about the technical methods used to validate the authenticity of the audio files - and he offers his service to the defense to investigate the original audio files.
Where was Pulatov?
Until now the lawyers of Pulatov have not commented on the content and the timing of the intercepts. They however found there's a serious problem with the way the SBU located Pulatov's phone calls. According to the SBU Pulatov was using two different GSM's. On June 16 and June 17, 2014 each GSM communicated with another transmission mast. This happened six times. In theory one phone can contact more than one mast at the same time. But it is unlikely this was the case, Pulatov's lawyers think. "The masts are at a distance from each other such that it's probable the GSM's were not at the same locations," they said.
The lawyers furthermore noted that the JIT had received no intercepts from 53 conversations that were held between 15:00 until 15:30 on the day of the crash. The intercepts were available, but contained no audio, the SBU had told the JIT. The lawyers requested a clarification from the prosecutor about the missing audio of these intercepts. According to the case file none of the accused was involved in any of these conversations.
On July 3 the court however postponed a decision on all requests concerning telecom data and intercepts until it is clear whether Pulatov will testify in this regard and, if so, what the bottom line of that testimony is. "As long as the accused has not specifically commented on the intercepted conversations attributed to him personally, and it remains unclear whether, and if so, how he contests them, the court cannot assess which investigation steps are necessary for a proper defense to be conducted," the court argued.
On March 3 2020 Akash Rosen presented yet another audio analysis of wiretaps. These were put online by the SBU the next day after the crash. Rosen again found the audio in the video was heavily tampered with.
Acknowledgments to Hector Reban, whose blog postings helped me to interpret the Bezler taps and the Dubinsky tap mentioned in this article. Most notably this posting: MH17 and open source intelligence, a suspicious narrative - part 5: common goals