Christmas came early this year, folks. For quite some time, John Schindler was riding high as the King of the Russia Grifters. This is because unlike McKew, Mensch, Dworkin, or Garland, Schindler actually has a background in intelligence. Sure, someone like Eric Garland can tweet about “This is America” being a Russian propaganda video with subliminal coded messages in the background and there will be no consequences because everyone outside his personal audience of #Resistance wine moms knows that he’s always been a batshit buffoon with zero background knowledge. But a guy like Schindler, who’s taken seriously by other ex-spooks and mainstream media outlets? He’s got a reputation to maintain, right?
Let me tell you, dear readers. When it rains, it pours, and today was a goddamned Biblical flood.
Of course griftshark Molly McKew smelled the blood in the water and had to chime in.
So what actual evidence does veteran intelligence operative Schindler come up with? Well not much, as it would turn out. I’m not going to go through this line-by-line but I’ll provide the highlights.
“From the outset, right-wing allies of the fallen president smelled a rat—a Russian rat, that is. Poles know their neighbor well, and Kaczyński had no illusions about Vladimir Putin’s thuggish regime. It seemed beyond suspicious that Poland’s government died in a disaster on Russian soil—particularly when the Kremlin is led by a man who came of age in the KGB, the very same people who executed and covered up the Katyń massacre.”
In case you’re not familiar with Schindler, he’s very much inclined to the right. In fact a lot of the stuff he writes sounds like the kind of stuff you hear from American paleoconservatives who tend to love Putin. I get the feeling that Schindler’s only beef with Trump is the Russia ties. But as for the people he’s talking about in Poland, keep in mind these are the same people who claim that Lech Walesa worked with the secret police.
Also, like any good conspiracy theorist, Schindler misrepresents the “official story.”
“However, investigators determined that the crash occurred due to a chain of human errors and could be explained without nefarious mystery. Russian and Polish official inquiries into the disaster, both published in 2011, were not in complete agreement, yet they broadly concurred that pilot error was to blame. Both reports asserted that Smolensk, a military airfield lacking modern civil navigation aids, was shrouded in dense fog that fateful morning and, on the approach, the pilot (who was overtaxed by managing the landing and radio contact with the Smolensk tower simultaneously) misjudged the glide slope and flew the Tu-154 into a forest a half-mile short of the runway. After hitting a birch tree with its left wing, the aircraft spun and flipped on its back, hitting the ground with sufficient force to kill all passengers on impact.”
Here there is an important detail Schindler is leaving out, one which is substantiated by audio longs from the cockpit recorder. It seems that the possibility of diverting to another airport due to the low visibility may have been discussed in the cockpit. The crew decided not to, presumably out of fear of angering the president after a similar incident in 2008. Now I suppose you can doubt that was a factor, but you shouldn’t leave it out because it is significant.
Next Schindler talks about the handling of the investigation on the Russian side:
“Even more embarrassingly, the Kremlin was remarkably slipshod in its handling of the dead. Sent home in sealed coffins, many of the bodies had been swapped or misidentified. In 24 cases of reexamination in 2016, half of the coffins opened contained the wrong remains. Even the coffin of President Kaczyński included the remains of two other victims. Such carelessness inevitably led to questions about what else the Russians had mishandled—or worse.”
First of all, a lot of this can be explained in two words- It’s Russia. They don’t have a great record on handling accidents and disasters like this. It’s amazing Schindler doesn’t take this into account. I mean he seems to realize that Putin is a dictator presiding over an extremely corrupt authoritarian society, right? That kind of society naturally leads to things like bodies being mishandled and investigations getting botched.
Do I think Russian authorities may have deliberately held back some things? Of course. Even though relations were better back then, Putin, his inner circle, and his security agencies still had a paranoid mindset. No doubt they saw this as a source of potential embarrassment and probably suspected that if they turned over certain evidence the evil Americans would use it to concoct some kind of “provokatsiya,” as they like to call everything. So by holding things back they may have risked looking guilty of hiding something, but in their minds they denied their enemies some major propaganda material.
Also, it’s very important to note that when the Russians are behind something, their standard tactic is to start putting out dozens of alternative explanations in order to muddy the waters. We saw it with MH17, with the Salisbury poisoning, and now with the Douma chemical attack. The fact that Russia’s actually stuck to the same story in this case suggests they might actually be innocent in this case (apart from having a dismal air safety record).
And speaking of stories, Schindler only tells us one version of Law and Justice’s assassination story, the one that involves bombs being on the plane. Now to be fair, his reasoning is that a veteran air crash investigator claims to have found evidence of an explosion inside the plane prior to the crash. However, that’s not the only theory that’s been floated. For example, one version seriously alleges that the Russians may have used “artificial fog” near the airport.
Throughout the article Schindler puts the term conspiracy theory in quotes. For you newbies out there, if someone is continually complaining about the hypothesis they advance being dismissed as a conspiracy theory, it’s quite possibly a conspiracy theory. And before we take this conspiracy theory apart, let me remind you that this particular theory alleges not only a conspiracy involving Russia, but also with the Polish government at the time. So yeah, it’s a conspiracy theory.
First let’s start with the problem of motive. I typically hate these qui bono arguments because they are as weak as they are incredibly easy to twist and manipulate. That being said, Russia had absolutely no reason to assassinate the president of a NATO country in 2010. Sure there was the Georgian War in 2008, but 2010 was well within Obama’s “reset,” rising American investment in Russia, and pre-Magnitsky Act. Putin had officially stepped down to become prime minister, making him look far less dictator-y than he would in 2011 when he announced his plan to return to the presidency after changing the constitution. This is also the era when visa-free travel to the EU for Russian citizens was being seriously discussed. The South Stream pipeline as in the works, Viktor Yanukovych was in power in Ukraine. The West was still happily accepting boatloads of dirty money from Putin’s cronies. Why screw all that up?
As I already pointed out, however, motive arguments are often weak, either way, so let’s look at the concrete facts. Dismissing the idiotic artificial fog machine claims let’s look directly at the bomb-on-plane version Schindler goes with. Schindler’s best evidence is that the guy saying he found evidence of an explosion prior to the crash is a well-known air crash investigator. That’s great but people with credentials get things wrong all the time. One of my personal role models, James Randi, has spent the better part of his life duping scientists or watching scientists get duped. According to Randi, there are several reasons why this happens, one of which is that people with expertise and a lot of experience often have trouble admitting when they made a mistake. For example, you could be a veteran member of some US intelligence agency, and then, possibly because it helps your career, start endorsing the idiotic conspiracy theory of an authoritarian, far right party led and supported by delusional idiots. It could happen.
Here’s a video of Schindler’s expert telling Polish authorities his opinion. It appears he’s giving his opinion based on what he was shown by them, and it’s not clear what exactly he was shown or how it was presented to him:
Whatever he saw, there are huge problems with the bomb theory. First of all, I’d imagine security for the Polish president is more or less as tight as it would be for any number of world leaders. Would the Russians seriously think they could get a bomb on the plane, undetected, in Warsaw?
More importantly, the weather around Smolensk was very crucial- you can’t have the president’s plane just exploding in mid-air on approach. Someone could catch that on a phone camera. Some eyewitness would talk. So how could the Russians be sure the visibility would be so poor at that airport at that time? Russia is known for having very unpredictable weather. Also, how did they know the pilot would not divert? How would they have activated the bomb then? If you claim it was on a special timer, how could they be sure the plane wouldn’t be delayed in Warsaw? Or that it wouldn’t divert to Moscow, or that it wouldn’t land quickly on its first attempt in Smolensk and then blow up on the ground in front of media cameras? The plane exploding in air, on the ground, or pretty much anywhere else except where it actually crashed would blow the whole thing wide open.
Also, we know very well that Russia has a much subtler way of eliminating opponents- poison. Wouldn’t President Kaczynski probably eat at some point in Smolensk? Poisoning would be a far safer bet. Oh what’s that you say? Poisoning would have led to suspicion? Well his fucking plane crashing in the fog led to a bunch of conspiracy theories so what’s the difference in that case?
A lot of Poles joined in that Twitter thread to drag Schindler for his antics, but being a veteran intelligence operative, he was able to fend them off using the finest tradecraft:
And of course there’s the time-honored rhetorical tactic that is definitely not used by conspiracy theorists:
Kremlin POV, “just asking questions.” Classic.
If I seem harsh on these people you need only to look at these two responses. See I spent some time living in a dictatorship where people who question the authorities are often accused of working for foreign intelligence agencies, where everything that goes wrong is a vast Western conspiracy, and where you’re told you can never really know what happened. In other words, I lived in a place run by John Schindlers, and it kind of sucks. It’s literally destroying that country and to be honest I don’t see too much hope for it.
Schindler, McKew, and all these other authoritarian grifters are basically building an American version of the paranoid Putinist mentality. And what’s worse is that decision makers just eat all this up because it’s exactly what they want to hear. Democrats losing all over the country? It’s the Russians! No need to change your weak-ass platform or campaign strategy! People upset about a pipeline or police brutality against black Americans? It’s just the Russians getting them riled up through Facebook! No need to actually engage with the American people and actually solve anything.
I cannot overestimate the danger of allowing this kind of paranoid, conspiratorial attitude to spread further than it already has in this country. Once you’ve lowered yourself to the Kremlin’s level, they’ve got you. That’s when they can tell everyone: “You see? They’re no better than us.”
That’s how they win.