DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It appears now that an Iranian missile hit the Ukrainian airliner that went down after takeoff from Tehran this week. All 176 people onboard died, many of them Canadian citizens. British, Australian and Canadian prime ministers say the intelligence is pointing to Iran. Here's Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau.
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PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. This may well have been unintentional.
GREENE: I want to start with NPR's Jackie Northam, who has been following this story. Hi, Jackie.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Morning, David.
GREENE: So Trudeau, the first leader to come out and say this definitively, what exactly is he saying in terms of what he is seeing?
NORTHAM: Well, Trudeau wasn't specific about what evidence there is, but he said that intelligence from various sources - and that includes Canada's own intelligence agency - indicates that the Ukrainian airliner was brought down by a surface-to-air missile shortly after takeoff from Tehran's international airport. The U.S. and other nations were closely monitoring around for missile launches on the night of the crash using satellites, and most likely saw the launch of an anti-aircraft missile. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the possibility that the plane had been hit by a missile can't be ruled out, but it still hasn't been confirmed, and he's asked the U.S. and other Western nations to release any evidence they have that the Ukrainian aircraft had been shot down.
GREENE: And, of course, we've seen video, heard eyewitnesses saying this plane was just engulfed in flames shortly after it took off. I mean, how is Iran explaining this at this point?
NORTHAM: Well, Iranian officials came out quickly and said it was a mechanical failure. And, David, they've stuck with that explanation since - you know, this was met with widespread skepticism. First of all, the crash had just happened. There hadn't even been an investigation. And aviation analysts say a mechanical failure wouldn't have set a whole airplane on fire so quickly. Also, this is a 3-year-old plane. But Iran said that the idea that it was hit by an Iranian missile was psychological warfare.
GREENE: Well, a lot of questions about whether the Iranians are actually going to allow foreign investigators to come into Iran onto the crash site. Where do things stand right now?
NORTHAM: Right now, about 45 Ukrainian investigators are already in Iran, and, obviously, Iranian investigators are on the ground, as well. Late last night, the Iranian government sent out an official notice about the crash, and what that does is it triggers the involvement of other countries in the investigation, and that will include the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, as well as Boeing. Remember, this was a Boeing aircraft. But this is where it gets tricky because the U.S. has sanctions on Iran, and U.S. law restricts any travel to Iran or any sharing of information. In fact, the NTSB cannot communicate directly with the Iranians. So whether the NTSB or Boeing representatives go to Iran will have to be OK'd by the State Department and/or the Treasury Department.
GREENE: And what about the black box that is always so important in every crash like this?
NORTHAM: Well, they've retrieved the black box. You know, the Iranians say that they'll let the U.S. onto the site, but, you know, they're saying that they will not give the U.S. the black box because they don't trust what the Americans are going to do with it, frankly. So there's a lot of work ahead, David.
GREENE: All right, Jackie. Thanks for your reporting. We really appreciate it.
NORTHAM: Thanks, David.
GREENE: That's NPR's Jackie Northam. And I want to turn now to someone very familiar with crash investigations like this. It's Mary Schiavo. She is the former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, on Skype this morning. Thanks for being here.
MARY SCHIAVO: Good. Good to be with you. Thank you.
GREENE: I want to just pick up on what Jackie was talking about at the very end there - Iran saying that if the U.S. gets this black box, they might read things into it. They might interpret it differently. Is that how black boxes work?
SCHIAVO: Well, it can be, yes. There's - couple layers here. First of all, when you download the black box, it's very important to use a black box lab, a lab that is capable of downloading the information, that the boxes won't be damaged in the download in terms of damaging the information stored thereon and that you do a good download. That depends upon the capabilities of the lab. Iran hasn't been known to have such a lab, but you literally can have a lab such as this - you know, you can buy it from contractors. You can have it delivered. Or you could contract with Canada, France, Great Britain, Australia - they all have great labs and, I'm sure, would help. The second part comes on the data interpretation.
SCHIAVO: And Iran has said that they will make the data public. Now, the actual voices, if there are any voices on the CVR, you know, after the - whatever happened happened, usually, they just do a transcript of the CVR so you don't hear the person's voices, you know, in distress in their last moments of life. But Iran has said they're going to make this all public, and they're going to post it on their public docket, which is exactly how the NTSB and other aviation nations do it. So at that point, the world can interpret what the black boxes have determined or have revealed.
GREENE: Well, what do you think we might learn that would clear this up? I mean, you have Western officials saying this is clearly a - what they see as a missile strike and Iran saying that's impossible.
SCHIAVO: Well, you know, and, sadly, the world has had many experiences with this - most recently, the shootdown of MH17, you know, over Ukraine. And the way you rule out mechanical failure is, obviously, look at the black box data, the flight data recorder, and see if there was nothing wrong with the plane. I'm sure they've already reviewed what's called the ACARS data, the automated messages from the plane itself. But for residue from explosives, you examine the pieces of the wreckage for explosive residue. The signature of a missile is very different from an exploding aviation fuel, for example, so you can tell what kind of explosion it was, and the human remains will also contain or can also contain explosive residue.
GREENE: So are you convinced that there will be a moment when the world can say with certainty that this may have been a missile and that Iran won't be able to get away with denying it, or, as you mentioned the Ukrainian - the crash over Ukraine, that this could be an open question that we might never clear up?
SCHIAVO: Well, I think the world is going to know, you know, soon. I think most nations will post their intelligence and their satellite viewings and will make it pretty clear. In the case of MH17, obviously, Russia to this day denies that it was a Russian missile or that Russian separatists had anything to do with it. And the funny thing about most shootdown instances, other than when - a notable exception is when the United States shot down an Iranian civilian jetliner by mistake. The United States admitted its mistake and paid damages - most shootdown cases go on the record, on the books forever, as saying that the entity that shot it down denies it. So the world will pass judgment and will - you know, the facts will soon come out, and it will seem obvious to the world. But perpetrators tend to deny these things in perpetuity.
GREENE: Jackie also mentioned that that it could be complicated for U.S. officials, investigators to go into Iran because of the sanctions and the diplomacy. Have you ever experienced an investigation like that? And how could that change things?
SCHIAVO: Well, you know, surprisingly, because of the treaties - and remember back to your days in civics in high school - treaties trump domestic laws of any nation - so we are signatories to all the treaties; most of these other countries are. Curiously, Iran has not signed all of the ICAO treaties, but yesterday, they put out their statement that they are going to follow Annex 13, which is ICAO's guidelines how to conduct an investigation properly. So I really don't think it's going to be as big a hurdle as people think, that the United States can simply give the NTSB personnel. There won't be many of them, and it's usually a small contingent of, you know, a few people that go over to participate. But here's the flip side - the NTSB really doesn't have a big role because the world believes there was no problem with the Boeing aircraft...
GREENE: And sadly, Mary Schiavo, we'll have to stop there. So much to talk about. We appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.