By Alexander Bolton - 07/17/14 05:16 PM EDT
Senators who received a classified briefing from intelligence officials Thursday expressed alarm over what they described as suspicious circumstances of a downed Malaysia Airlines jet with 295 people aboard.
Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, emerging from a classified session in the Hart building, said the plane likely exploded at high altitude.
While the lawmakers did not explicitly point the finger at pro-Russian militants, they suggested the circumstances raised grave concern about Russia’s involvement.
“Even before today’s events, though, it was clear that Russia was escalating its support for the separatists, which is obviously very concerning,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “Russian-based separatists have shot down more done than a dozen planes, helicopters in Ukraine over the past few months.”
Feinstein cautioned it’s too soon to draw any conclusions.
“If evidence emerges that Russia was involved, that would obviously be extremely concerning,” she said.
U.S. officials say the plane was shot down and was likely hit by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Lawmakers said the investigation is in its preliminary stages but added that the wreckage is consistent with a high-altitude explosion, such as one caused by a missile strike.
“The likelihood of the aircraft impacted by some sort of missile is very likely because we see that the wreckage — published reports of the wreckage — is spread over a long distance,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a member of the Armed Services panel, who attended the briefing. “The aircraft was hit before it hit the ground, was coming apart before it hit the ground.”
McCain said he also saw a report that the flight manifest indicated there were 23 Americans aboard but added it needs to be corroborated.
He said his comments were based on published reports.
McCain said the crash was not likely an accident but warned against jumping to conclusions.
If pro-Russian separatists are linked to the crash, it would point directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin, he added.
“The separatists could have only gotten that capability from Russia and so therefore the culpable party here is Vladimir Putin,” he said.
McCain said the theory Russia played a role was supported by confirmed reports in recent weeks that separatists have shot down several aircraft including a transport plane that was flying at 21,000 feet.
The Ukrainian government initially blamed a Russian military jet.
Feinstein said international investigators should be allowed to examine the crash site and the plane’s flight recorder.
Feinstein said the flight manifest is not yet available but could become public soon.