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The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 07/18/14

Guests: Nina Khrushcheva, Kathryn Higgins

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. At the Web site of the Iranian state-run media company that`s called Press TV, they`ve got a special news section just for news about the United States. So, it`s basically the news about America from Iran. And so, according to Iran`s state-run media, these are the top stories in the United States right now. Number one, obviously the story that has transfixed America, congress staffer arrested on gun charge. That`s the very top story. Second story, U.S. foreign aid clobbers third world. Also, they`ve got a story about the curse of American exceptionalism. Big business loves desperate workers. And then their main international story, U.S. taxes pay for Israeli war crimes. There`s actually two features on that one -- American and Israeli war crimes. And then their politics feature of the day is this. Hillary Clinton motto: Represent banks. They`ve also got a business section on their American coverage, as typified by this headline: economic lynching in the United States. So, this is Iran`s state-run media. And, yes, it is in the English language, but it is very much the work of the Iranian government. And a lot of different countries have English language state-run media. That`s sometimes about us but sometimes just their English language take on the world. Sometimes you can tell from the awkwardness of their use of English language you`re not dealing with a typical language news source. Like this headline today at one of the official Chinese newspapers, U.S. chicken off to China again. And actually when you read the story, I think that may grammatically be technically accurate, but "U.S. chicken off" is a hard way to start any sentence no matter what comes after those three years even if it`s technically accurate. So, sometimes you can tell because of the story selection. Sometimes you can tell by the way they write their stories. But there`s always a little bit of awkwardness, right? There`s a little bit of friction in state-run media trying to look like normal news. And in March of this year, at the not quite state run but definitely state sponsored TV channel that`s called "Russia Today", an American anchor working at that ostentatiously Putin-friendly outlet decided that she`d had enough of "Russia Today" and how they wanted her to cover the news, and she ended up quitting her job at "Russia Today" while she was on the air and she quit with a flourish. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TV ANCHOR: As a reporter on this network, I face many ethical and moral challenges, especially me personally, coming from a family whose grandparents, my grandparents came here as refugees during the Hungarian revolution, ironically to escape the Soviet forces. Personally, I cannot be part of a network funded by a Russian government that white washes the actions of Putin. I`m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth and that is why after this newscast, I`m resigning. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: That was in march. An American broadcaster working for "Russia Today" resigning on the air. Her name is Liz Wahl, resigning in protest of what she called the network`s whitewashed coverage of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and specifically of Russia invading Ukraine. So, that was four months ago on "Russia Today." And then today today, it happened again. Although this time it happened on Twitter and not on the air. A London-based journalist working for "Russia Today," she started earlier today tweeting things from her "Russia Today" Twitter account, things that definitely did not toe the Russia today party line. She said things like, "Yes, we do work for Putin. We are asked on a daily basis if not to totally ignore then to obscure the truth". She also tweeted what she said was sort of tongue and cheek, "Russia Today" style guide. "Rule number one, it`s always Ukraine`s fault." She says that`s the "Russia Today`s" first style guide, right? After a couple hours of conversing in that vain with people on Twitter, "Russia Today" journalist Sarah Firth ultimately said, "I resign from Russia today. I have huge respect for many in the team" she says, "but I`m for the truth." She later explained that the way "Russia Today" was covering the Malaysia Airlines disaster in eastern Ukraine. She said that was the straw that broke the camel`s back for her. That`s why she could no longer in good conscience stay working at that network. And it should be noted that the coverage that "Russia Today" has done of the plane being shot down in Eastern Ukraine, it is kind of a stunner whether or not it has anything to do with camels or straw. I mean, here, for example, is the first big exclusive that "Russia Today" had about the plane being shot down in eastern Ukraine. You can`t find this story online anymore unless you go to the Internet archive, Wayback Machine because "Russia Today" has since taken it down. But this was their big scoop that they posted yesterday afternoon. This is what they posted yesterday as their big scoop on what really happened in eastern Ukraine. According to "Russia Today" sources, see, the real target was not some innocent Malaysian Airliner full of Dutch people and AIDS researchers, according to "Russia Today`s" resources, the real victim here, the real intended target was actually Vladimir Putin. They were trying to shoot him down. See, Russia`s the victim here. Putin is the victim here. They were shooting at him. Everybody rally around President Putin, the poor victim. "Russia Today" posted that as their big scoop yesterday afternoon then later to uproarious laughter took it down and now, they once again have started shedding embarrassed journalists from their payroll. And as ridiculous as this kind of stuff is from Russian state-sponsored media, you did expect them to try this, right? I mean, they have every incentive, no matter how ridiculous it looks, they have every incentive to make Russia look slightly more sympathetic here, to try to make themselves look like the victim instead of the villain, to at least try to muddy the waters as the whole world recoils in shock at what either Russia or Russian-supported forces appear to have done. And so, yes, their state-controlled media is trying to create this ridiculous counter-narrative about what might have happened there. The only reason they`re trying to create a counter-narrative is because the narrative-narrative in the rest of the world now sounds something like this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: As we sit here, the remains of nearly 300 people, of innocent infants, children, women, and men, are strewn across a blackened, smoldering landscape in Ukraine. Those victims came from at least nine different nations. They could just as easily have come from any of ours. We must treat all of them as our own victims. We must stop at nothing to bring those responsible to justice. This appalling attack occurred in the context of a crisis that has been fueled by Russian support for separatists through arms, weapons, and training, and by the Russian failure to follow through on its commitments and by its failure to adhere to the fundamental principles of the U.N. charter. This war can be ended. Russia can end this war. Russia must end this war. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: That`s America`s U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power speaking today at the U.N. Security Council basically laying all of the blame for this disaster at Russia`s feet in no uncertain terms. President Obama today at a press conference at the White House basically did exactly the same thing. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Over the last several weeks, Russian-backed separatists have shot down a Ukrainian transport plane and a Ukrainian helicopter and they claimed responsibility for shooting down a Ukrainian fighter jet. Moreover, we know these separatists have received a steady flow of support from Russia. This includes arms and training. It includes heavy weapons. And it includes anti-aircraft weapons. Set aside what`s happened with respect to the Malaysian Airlines, a group of separatists can`t shoot down military transport planes, or they claim, shoot down fighter jets, without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training, and that is coming from Russia. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: And that is coming from Russia. And that is why Russia is doing everything it can to try to change the narrative. Make Vladimir Putin the intended target of that surface-to-air missile. Sure he was. Sure. But as both President Obama and Samantha Power made clear today in their remarks, what happened in eastern Ukraine yesterday did happen in the middle of a war, between Russia and Ukraine. There are two sides to that war. And frankly, it may be uncomfortable to note it, but as much as Russia is invested in not seeming like such a bad guy here, Ukraine, for its own reasons, is also invested in making sure that Russia seems like the bad guy here. Ukraine has just as much incentive as anyone to make sure this disaster, this terrible act, makes them look as good as possible and Russia look as bad as possible. It doesn`t mean Ukraine is lying when they`re doing it, but have every incentive to spin this as much as they can in their own way. And so, the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian officials are the source of claim after claim after claim after claim, most of which are being run by a very eager western media, even though almost none of these claims have been independently verified. And the one thing all these claims have in common is that they all, all, all point to Russia. And maybe all of them are true, but it`s worth asking how would we know if they`re all true? I mean, Ukrainian intelligence officials have released audio recordings that they say are tapped phone conversations between Russian military officers and pro-Russian rebels in which the two sides there talk about having accidentally shot down the civilian plane. It should be noted that no news sources have independently verified those intercepts. It is just the Ukrainian government`s word that that`s what those recordings are. And you may believe those alleged intercepts are real and that really happened. That conversation really happened. Those voices really are who the Ukrainians say they are. You may believe it, but there`s no actual factual corroboration of that. It`s just a claim from the Ukrainian government. Also, the head of the Ukrainian security services says that the missile launcher that shot down the plane yesterday, he says it only crossed over the border from Russia into Ukraine right before the shoot-down. And, yes, that is what he says, but nobody has corroborated that and there is no factual supporting evidence. The Ukrainian government today also released what they say is a video of what they say is the missile launcher that is probably the one that shot down the plane being moved back into Russia on the back of a truck. The video they released is an 11-second video. About 9 of those 11 seconds just show a random hedgerow somewhere. And the 1 1/2 to 2 seconds or so that purport to show something, they do maybe show a missile launcher. We`ve got it on a loop here so you can see what you think. There`s no factual corroborating evidence to suggest where that picture was taken, if that is indeed a missile launcher or when that picture was taken. The Ukrainian military uses these missile systems, themselves. They could have shot that picture anywhere in the country of Ukraine. Do you know what every hedgerow looks like in the Kiev suburbs? They say, no, no, no, this is last night. This is right after the shooting. This is them getting it out of Russia. News sources all over the United States and all over the American media have been running with the claim today that that is the missile launcher that shot down the plane being moved back into Russia. No news agency has independently corroborated that. It`s just what the Ukrainian government is saying on basis of that blip on the tape which actually shows nothing that is conclusive, even though it may, in fact, be true. An adviser to the Ukrainian minister of internal affairs is now being quoted saying that not just that missile launcher was being sent back to Russia last night. In addition to that missile launcher getting sent back to Russia last night, he says also the flight data recorders from the plane that crashed were also handed over to the Russians in the dead of night last night, handed over the border. And maybe that happened, but no news agency has been able to corroborate that, either. Ukraine`s foreign minister says one of the military commanders of the pro- Russian separatist groups bragged on the Russian version of Facebook right after the plane was shot down that he and his men had shot down that plane. That claim has since been picked up by media all over the world. Samantha Power cited that claim in her U.N. testimony today, in fact. But, again, it is basically just what the Ukrainian government is saying. That supposed post has been deleted, and it is not at all clear that the account where the post was actually belongs to this separatist commander who`s being credited in all those stories. There`s no confirmation at all that this account is his or that he, in fact, is the one who said this supposedly damning thing. And when the press, and particularly politicians, laugh at the assertions from some governments, but then eagerly take at face value and repeat uncritically the things that are said by other governments who have just as much a reason to be spinning something like this, it may be comforting in terms of reassuring what we want to believe about this, but it doesn`t help. Doesn`t actually clarify what happened. And more importantly, it helps the conspiracy theorists, right? Because it makes nobody seem credible. And if nobody seems credible, then anything is possible. By muddying any sense that there is any real truth to get at here, it makes it less likely that the people who really did this in real life and who, therefore, ought to be held account for it, actually will be held accountable. The way that the American media and the Western media as a whole and the politicians who pay attention to that media have been running with this un- sourced stuff, as if this ought to be the basis for action for any of it is corroborated, right now is a problem in the way this story is moving forward and what`s ultimately going to happen in terms of accountability. But with that in mind, it is possible to focus very tightly on the most important parts of what we really do know. For example, we know because it`s public information, because the flight information is public, we know that the airliner that came down in eastern Ukraine yesterday was flying at a height of over 30,000 feet. And we know because of the technological limitations of these ubiquitous shoulder-fired missiles that lots of people have access to in that region. We know that those types of easy to use one-man, one-missile weapons, we know that those kinds of weapons are not able to reach an aircraft flying at 30,000-something feet. We know that the weapons that exist in that region that are capable of hitting an aircraft at that height are weapons that aren`t shoulder-fired missiles. They`re instead ones that look like these: vehicle-mounted surface-to-air miss. They`re about 18 feet long. They can easily hit a target flying in the 30,000 foot range. Whereas shoulder-fired missiles -- there we go -- shoulder-fired missiles max out at closer to 10,000 feet. And vehicle-mounted surface-to-air missile systems have been around since these particular ones that exist in that part of the world, they`ve been around since the 1970s. There`s lots of different iterations of them. And they`re used by both Russia and Ukraine. And these surface-to-air missiles on vehicles like these, they`re not just point-and-shoot weapons. You don`t learn to use one of these things on a firing range or plinking away in the backyard the way you might with small arms or even something like a rocket-propelled grenade launcher like somebody who could teach you to use in a day or a stinger missile used to shoot at a helicopter, right? These kind of missile systems that can shoot something down from tens of thousands of feet in the air, they take more than one person to operate. They`re radar-guided systems. They`re complicated. We talk with an editor at "Jane`s Defense Weekly" today who told this sort of weapon system that can take down on airliner at 30,000 feet, this sort of weapon system takes week ors months of training to master. Nobody volunteered to fight with the separatists a few days ago and then started shooting missiles like this, is what he told us. So that much we know just in terms of the technology and the technological constraints here. That`s part of the factual record. And here`s something else that`s part of the factual record that becomes newly relevant and newly central to what happened here, and it happened in the United States, at the Pentagon 2 1/2 weeks before this plane was shot down yesterday. And all of a sudden, it`s really, really important. On June 30th, so 2 1/2 weeks ago, an Air Force general named Phillip Breedlove, who`s the U.S. commander of NATO forces in Europe, he gave a relatively short press briefing at the pentagon. He answered questions from the press. And in that press briefing he said NATO had observed that surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft missile systems, not just the shoulder-fived ones, but the big vehicle-borne surface-to-air missiles designed to shoot down airplanes, those had been observed in eastern Ukraine and just across the border in western Russia. OK? And this is 2 1/2 weeks before the plane was shot down. He said it was NATO`s observation that Russian forces had started training the separatists in Ukraine on how to use those complex anti-aircraft weapon systems that can shoot down planes that are 30,000 feet in the sky. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REPORTER: What is the latest information on Russian supplies of arms to the separatists, and do they include anti-air weapons? GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE, U.S. COMMANDER OF NATO IN EUROPE: To your last specific question, yes, they do include that. What we see in training on the east side of the border is big equipment -- tanks, APCs, anti-aircraft capability. And now, we see those capabilities being used on the west side of the border. REPORTER: So the aircraft that were shot down recently, you think were likely shot down with Russian-supplied weapons to the separatists? BREEDLOVE: I think we need to allow the facts to be sorted out before I report it, and so I would say now it`s a good -- it`s a very good likelihood. REPORTER: You`re seeing on the eastern side, does that involve MANPADS or is that vehicle-borne? BREEDLOVE: We have not seen training of MANPADS, but we have seen vehicle- borne capability being trained. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: We have seen vehicle-borne capability being trained. This is sort of a dry Pentagon press briefing from 2 1/2 weeks ago and they`re talking about something that wasn`t getting that much attention at the time. But all of a sudden, what he just said there is maybe the most important thing in the whole world because what he said there shows -- and this is 2 1/2 weeks ago he`s speaking -- shows that 2 1/2 weeks ago, the commanding general of NATO had told the world at the Pentagon that NATO saw the Russians training the separatists in eastern Ukraine about how to use these vehicle-borne surface-to-air missiles that are designed to shoot down planes from a very great height. That was 2 1/2 weeks ago on June 30th. Essentially proclaiming that the separatists were in the process of becoming capable not just of shooting things down lower than 10,000 feet, shooting things with shoulder-fired missiles like we knew they were capable of, but as of 2 1/2 weeks ago proclaiming the separatists were in the process of learning to shoot much higher. They were getting trained by the Russian on weapons systems that were there on the ground that could shoot down planes higher up in the sky, well above 10,000 feet, way higher than they could shoot down before. They warned us that that was in process 2 1/2 weeks ago. And then on Monday of this week, they proved that it was true because on Monday of this week, it was a Ukrainian military transport plane, cargo plane, apparently an AN-26 which was shot down over eastern Ukraine while it was flying at over 20,000 feet. You can`t do that with a shoulder-fired missile. That happened on Monday. Either the Russians or Russian-backed separatists or some combination thereof in that border region on Monday proved that they had advanced anti- aircraft capability and they successfully used that capability to take down a Ukrainian plane flying higher than they`re supposed to be able to shoot down. That was Monday they proved they could do it. And then on Thursday when it happened a second time, it wasn`t a Ukrainian military plane. This time it was a passenger jet that took off in Amsterdam. You don`t have to believe any froggy voiced Ukrainian government alleged intercepts or 1 1/2-second-long snippets of tape that could have been shot anywhere, or unsourced self-serving claims by advisers to ministers in order to see that, because what we know is all available in open-source information and it is checkable and it`s not anonymous sources, it`s all out there in the open. This is something that happened that`s hard to do, that not everybody can do it. The Russians have been training the separatists on how to do it. They shot down a plane at over 20,000 feet once already this week. And the second time it happened this week, it became implausible to deny responsibility for that shoot-down by saying it couldn`t have been them. They don`t know how. They don`t have the capability. That is not conjecture. That is what we know. And given that, what do we expect Russia to do next? Because saying that Vladimir Putin is the victim here is not going to work anymore. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: I want to point out there will likely be misinformation as well. I think it`s very important for folks to sift through what is factually based and what is simply speculation. We`re working with the entire international community to make sure that the focus is on getting to the bottom of this thing and being truthful. And my concern is obviously that there`s been a lot of misinformation generated in eastern Ukraine generally. This should snap everybody`s heads to attention and make sure that we don`t have time for propaganda, we don`t have time for games. We need to know exactly what happened. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: President Obama today speaking from the White House cautioning against the plentiful misinformation that`s out there already. And talking about the importance of actually figuring out what happened here for real. One of the wild cards in whether or not we can do that in this case is Russia, itself, which has a particularly lurid history when it comes to writing itself into or out of history according to what works best for the government in power. Every government does it. Russia does it I own way. Joining us now is Nina Khrushcheva. She`s a professor of foreign policy and international affairs at the New School. She`s also, I should mention the granddaughter of former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Professor Khrushcheva, thanks very much for being with us. NINA KHRUSHCHEVA, WORLD POLICY INSTITUTE: Thank you. MADDOW: First of all, I just want to ask, in the big picture -- your assessment of how Russia is handling this incident so far, and what you expect they are going to do as the world sort of looks for accountability here. KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, it`s handling it like Russia would handle an incident in which it has a hand. It clearly has a hand in it, so it`s trying to pretend it has no hand in anything. I mean, we`ve seen it already just in the very, very near past, we saw it with Crimea, because Putin first denied his involvement in these rebels who wanted Crimea part of Russia. Then, suddenly, it became part of Russia and he admitted his involvement. Then, now, he`s denying anything in the Donetsk Republic and Ukraine trying to become part of Russia. Now, we have the same thing with this incident. And yesterday, Vladimir Putin came out and said, well, it`s all Ukraine`s fault, in fact, you`re blaming somebody else. You`re blaming the victim in this. And the last point of that -- of that statement was that, oh, we express our condolences. So in some ways this is a very Russian propaganda. I`m glad that Barack Obama used the word propaganda, because anything that Russia ever puts forward as a public statement really sound very much like propaganda and always serves the state rather than serves the cause. MADDOW: The international view of the way that Russia has handled this in the past, I think as you say, it`s a sort of typical -- we`ve seen that voice from the Russian government in the past. Internationally, it`s viewed as propaganda, as almost bizarre denial. Does it play for a domestic audience, though? Is that who the audience is for this? KHRUSHCHEVA: It does. It really does play for the domestic audience because domestic audience already is preconditioned to think, especially in the 15 years of Vladimir Putin, is that, look, we tried to be friends with the West, we lost the Cold War, we admitted it, but the West is always out to get us, the NATO expansion, the NSA, the Edward Snowden. I mean, I`m only talking about recent events, Iraq war. All these things we really tried but it`s the West`s fault they treat us this way, so why cannot we treat them very similarly? So, it does play well with domestic audience, in some ways also Putin. Putin is so strong in this messages and very kind of eyes that are not transparent at all. So, he really thinks the gaze also translates into European kind of Europe gets scared that it`s not going to get relationship with Putin. And so, I think he does it first for domestic audience hoping that it translates internationally for some states that still think that Russia is very important as a balance to the United States. MADDOW: As the, I think the American media in particular has been looking, maybe I should say a broader international swath has been trying to figure out what Russia will do and how they will react here. The touchstone everybody keeps going back to is Korean Airlines in 1983. And we`re going to talk about that a little later on in show. I think there is something of interest there. But that really was heart of the Cold War in terms of the way that the Soviet Union decided that wasn`t their problem, it was actually a heroic action that they took. The rest of the world may have thought it was a civilian airliner, but they knew it was a spy plane. Since then, in the post-Cold War Russian era, are there other things we should be looking to in modern Russian history that might predict the way Russia is going to act or might explain how they`ll treat this? KHRUSHCHEVA: But I think actually -- I think that `83 downing of Korean Airline actually is a very good example of this because it was the height of the cold war, but also almost the end of the Cold War, because the height of the Cold War leader already was dead in 1982. So Russia was sort of scrambling to -- it was already a rotten empire, Soviet rotten empire to no end, so it`s `83. So, it actually rot to the ground two years later and Mikhail Gorbachev came in in `85. So, this is something Putin should be looking at, is when you think you`re all powerful, you really can manipulate your audience, international or domestic, that`s where you should become very, very careful because Russia is not -- I mean, it is a rotting empire today. That`s why I think Putin is presenting such a strong persona is because ultimately it`s on colossus on clay legs. I think that`s what he does. MADDOW: That`s fascinating. So, when you were sort at your weakest is when you may have the least clear view of your own credibility and may push it -- KHRUSHCHEVA: Absolutely, because weak states have weak liberties. MADDOW: Fascinating. Nina Khrushcheva, professor of foreign policy and international affairs at New School University, thank you very much. It`s very helpful to talk to you about this. KHRUSHCHEVA: Thank you. MADDOW: All right. The Russian contention that that plane was shot down because actually Ukraine was tries to shoot Vladimir Putin out of the sky, which was the lead story on "Russia Today" yesterday, that was only the beginning of the craziness it turns out in terms of how this is being explained, and we`ve got more on that ahead. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: As we were just discussing on September 1st, 1983, a Korean Airlines flight number 007 was on its leg from New York City to Seoul, South Korea. It stopped in Anchorage, Alaska, on the way. And as it headed from Alaska west toward its final destination, that plane drifted into Soviet airspace and a Soviet fighter jet tracked the airliner as it headed back out toward international airspace. But before it could get there, that Soviet fighter fired at the 747 with two missiles. The jet was hit. The jet fell into the Sea of Japan. All 269 people on board including a U.S. congressman from Georgia were killed. And the Soviets were totally unrepentant about that. They claimed that that Korean civilian jetliner was actually an intruder spy plane into the Soviet Union. It wasn`t a commercial plane. It certainly wasn`t an Asian one. It was an American spy plane violating airspace to provoke the Soviets or steal Soviet secrets or both. Nine days after that plane was shot down, "NBC Nightly News" ran a remarkable lead story about those Soviet claims that it was a spy plane including footage of the Soviet pilot who actually shot down the Korean passenger plane explaining why he did it. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REPORTER: Soviet television news showed scenes from an airplane cockpit over the peninsula. The radar screen clearly shows where land and sea are located, the commentator said, therefore it`s difficult for the Korean airliner pilot not to know where he was. A Soviet reporter interviewed the first pilot who intercepted the airliner. "The intruding plane did not have any lights on," he said. "There`s an alert," the commentator says. "United States planes are again trying to violate Soviet airspace. They tried ten times this day." A Soviet television reporter interviewed the pilot who downed the Korean airliner. He fired four warning bursts of tracer bullets across the nose of the plane, he said. Flashed his lights, waggled his wings. The intruder did not respond. The pilot said he received a clear and definite order. No doubt in his mind that the plane, never referred to as an airliner, was the enemy. Soviet media continually repeat government charges that the plane was on a spying mission, backing up their charges with a mixture of packets and government views. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: That was September 1983, Soviets denying vigorously even the existence of the hundreds of civilians who they killed when they shot down the passenger jet. Insisting it was a U.S. spy plane. There was no civilians in there. Thirty years later, again, a civilian jumbo jet is shot out of the sky. Again, Russia is in the middle of the story. Again, here comes the crazy. This guy, Igor Girkin, also called Igor Strelkov, he`s top pro-Russian commander in eastern Ukraine. He`s fairly high profile guy. He told a pro-rebel Web site today he was told by people at the crash site that a significant number of the bodies at the crash site weren`t fresh. He says they were drained of blood. They were already decomposed. This pro-Russian separatist leader is claiming this is all a conspiracy, what happened yesterday in eastern Ukraine. He says actually that plane was already full of corpses when it crashed. The crash was a planned hoax to make the Russians and the pro-Russian forces looked bad. They filled up a plane with dead bodies and then purposely crashed it in eastern Ukraine. And on the one hand, who cares, right? I mean, the rebels, pro-Russian separatists are as implicated as anyone here, right? So, why take them seriously? On the other hand, we are learning today that those same separatists also claimed to possess one of the key pieces of the investigation right now, the black boxes from the plane. Now, we do not know for certain that they have them. They claim they`ve got them. If this, indeed, was a shot-down situation, if the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, maybe the black box won`t matter, right? They`ll show the plane was flying normally, hit by a missile and all over, with likely no warning signs at all from the pilots or anything else in the plane. But in cases like that 1983 Korean airlines flight, the black box in that one turned out to be really important because, yes, it was just shot down by a missile. By two missiles, in fact. But when they shot down that passenger jet in 1983, the Soviets had secretly recovered those black boxes and the Soviets held on to them for years. They locked the black boxes up. They were never made public. For years while those black boxes were hidden away, the Soviet conspiracy theories it was a spy plane, there was no civilians, it was an American military plot, the government started circulating those theories. And then when the Soviet regime started to collapse years later, the real content of those black boxes from the Korean airliner finally surfaced. Russian President Boris Yeltsin turned over the original black boxes from the Korean plane to the United Nations. And as NBC news space consultant James Oberg reported, none of the original Soviet conspiracy theories about that Korean jetliner were true, of course. When the truth came out, those conspiracies were disproven by the data on those boxes. They weren`t spy planes, they were civilian planes. Everybody finally had to come face to face with it when the evidence was made plain. In yesterday`s shot down, it is still unclear whether or not the pro- Russian rebels actually have custody of those black boxes like they say they do. I mean, the status of those black boxes is still unclear. But what is clear is that those separatists who claimed to possess a potentially key part of the investigation, a key thing that could disprove the crazy conspiracy theories already coming out of Russian and pro-Russian side of this, they are now also in addition to saying they have the black boxes, they`re also now on the ground locking down the entire investigation scene, the entire crash site, which explains why there was gunfire at the crash site today. And we`ve got more on that, next. (COMMERICIAL BREAK) MADDOW: This one of the most visually incongruous photos I`ve ever seen. In the background of the photo, see a picture perfect field of bright yellow sunflowers, something out of a Van Gogh painting or something. Rows and rows of sunflowers essentially as far as the eye can see. In the foreground, though, that`s a group of Ukrainian coal miners searching that area if front of the field for fragments of plane -- the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane that was shot down somewhere over that field yesterday. Off duty Ukrainian coal miners along with rescue workers and policemen all teamed up today to search through that sunflower field to try to find remnants of that airplane or personal affects from the 298 passengers and crew members who were onboard. This was the scene just a short distance away. A lone white flag in the middle of a wide open field signifying a body was found at that specific location. And all Ukrainian officials have identified more than 180 bodies on the ground from that flight. The search for those victims went on for hours today. It went on all through the day until it was weirdly abruptly called off at around 7:00 local time tonight. The rescue workers on the scene for all orders all at once without warning they had to leave the scene. They were instructed it was time for them to go. And those orders came from the pro-Russian militants who are in control of the crash site. Quote, "The rebels did not explain anything. They just said it`s over, you`re done, you can resume at 6:00 tomorrow. They control the territory." That`s what one of the Ukrainian officials taking part in the search told NBC News today. "They control the territory." Rescue workers who are in that field have located dozens of bodies but those bodies right now remain in that field. They`ve been there, again, all night. And they`ll be there all night again tonight just like they were last night until the Russian separatists who control the area give rescue workers the permission to remove the bodies. Quote, "None of the bodies are in the refrigerators yet. Everything is on the ground. We will take them when the rebels let us." Ordinarily, when a passenger airplane goes down, not just in this country but around the world, the immediate crash site is sealed off, secured as best as it can be, and put under the control of local authorities or at least emergency response officials. In this case, though, here`s who`s in charge of the crash site. The pro- Russian separatists who are suspected of being responsible for this crash in the first place. Those are the rebels that have set up checkpoints along the road toward the crash site. They apparently have the power to call off the search and rescue operation and tell everybody to leave with all the bodies still lying in the fields. And the crash site, itself, is anything but secure. I mean, this is an armed pro-Russian rebel standing on top of part of the wreckage. It`s a free for all at the scene. People are in and out, leaving flowers or anything else, taking whatever they want. It`s all mediated by the groups that are considered most likely to be responsible for what happened in the first place. This is sort of a nightmare right now for the people who are tasked with investigating what happened here. And the question of who investigates is still sort of up in the air. The U.S. government has announced we`re sending one NTSB investigator and two FBI agents to Ukraine, but as of now, they`re headed to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev which is very far from the actual crash site. The United Nations today offered to assemble a team of international investigators to head to the scene. The only international team that`s been on site so far was a team of about 30 observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Members of that group arrived earlier today. They`re reportedly met with gunfire during their visit by the pro-Russian rebels who control the site. The first reports indicated the gunfire might have been directed at the observers in the sense they were being shot at but it now appears the rebels were shooting either at someone else or into the air. An official from that group told reporters today, "They did not have the kind of access that the group expected. They did not have the freedom of movement that they need in order to do their job." How does a job like this get done, under circumstances like this? I`ll have more on that in a moment. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TOM COSTELLO, NBC NEWS: Late in day, Ukrainian rescue teams told NBC News that Russian-backed separatists ordered them out of the crash scene for tonight and European observers reported shots fire by rebels. The separatists are thought to have already recovered the plane`s black boxes, though it`s not known what they`ve done with them. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: NBC`s Tom Costello reporting tonight on what is supposed to be an investigation of this plane crash site in eastern Ukraine, but it`s a site that`s controlled by the rebel group suspected of causing the crash. It`s a crash scene where the bodies have been left out in a field for the second night now, and it`s a scene where nobody quite knows who will have access to the crash site in the coming days or to what degree they`ll be allowed to actually investigate. Joining us now is Kathy Higgins. She`s a former member of the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board. She`s taken part in a number of investigations including TWA Flight 800 in 1996. Ms. Higgins, thanks very much for being with us tonight. KATHRYN HIGGINS, FORMER NTSB MEMBER: Happy to be with you. MADDOW: So, there are several international parties and investigations, organizations involved here. We know the United States has sent personnel including one NTSB investigator. Who do you expect would be taking the lead here? Who ought to be taking the lead here? HIGGINS: In an accident like this, it`s the country where the accident actually occurred. So, in this case, it would be Ukraine, although as you highlighted, it`s complicated because Ukraine, while the accident happened within their boundaries, they don`t control the area where it actually took place. So, they have the lead, they have asked for help from United States and other organizations. That`s the team that`s being assembled. MADDOW: When you -- as a former member of the NTSB, when you look at the footage of people -- just random people including some rebels who may be have their -- maybe implicated in some way in the crash in the first place, when you see people combing through the side, taking things away, walking on parts of the wreckage, poking through it, do you feel like they are contaminating the investigation scene in a way that`s going to impede the investigation? HIGGINS: I think they`re making it much more difficult. Essentially, it`s a crime scene, it`s an accident scene n. An ordinary situation, that scene would be taken control of by the authorities, the local law enforcement authorities and then the investigative authorities and the evidence would be protected. That`s not happening here and we can only hope that when the investigators get on scene, when there is some agreement reached with the leaders of the rebel commanders, that they will reach an agreement that allow the investigators to do their job and there will be enough evidence and wreckage left so they can reach cob collusions. MADDOW: In terms of what conclusions they are going to be able to reach, if investigators do get access to voice and data recorders and if it turns out this plane was brought down by a missile, will the voice and data recorders be able to sort of conclusively prove that? What would you expect those recorders to show if it was in fact hit by a surface-to-air missiles, as U.S. official`s they think it was. HIGGINS: Well, the voice recorder and it`s really an audio recorder. So, we call it a voice recorder because ere were listening to transcripts of the pilots. But it also picks up other sounds in the cockpit and in the flight itself. So, if it was hit by a missile, which is what is the theory that is most prominent, the sound of that and break up of the plane, the noise of that should be captured on the audio recorder. The data recorder is used to track all of the various activities of the plane and it will correspond with the voice recorder. So, it will show when the plane loses power, to reach a conclusion about exactly what happened. MADDOW: If the black boxes are in the hands of the rebels, can they tamper with them in a way that would erase or damage that data in a way investigators wouldn`t be able to put it back together? HIGGINS: Hopefully, that would not happen. We don`t obviously know who has them. What has happened to them? It would be a significant breach of international protocol for those boxes to be tampered with. The Russian Federation is part of a authority. They are one of the major countries who are participating. They have to follow the rules including Russia. Hopefully, that will not happen. MADDOW: Kathy Higgins, former member of the NTSB, National Transportation Safety Board -- thank you very much for your time tonight. Thank you. HIGGINS: Thank you. MADDOW: We`ll be right back. We`ll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: It is just about daybreak in eastern Ukraine. And in about an hour, it`s believed the Russian separatists who controlled the territory where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 went down. It`s believed they will allow international investigators back to the debris field to analyze is scene, starting about an hour from now, if they keep to their word, but there`s no reason to think they will. The efforts to investigate so far, let alone the efforts to get those bodies out of the field -- those efforts have been complicated, so far to say the least. But they are to resume shortly and MSNBC is going to continue our coverage of the downing of Flight 17 tonight and all weekend. Stay with us. Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD". Ari Melber is sitting in for Lawrence tonight. Good evening, Ari. THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END