The Taking of MH370 | Book Review


A little after midnight on Saturday, March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport for its six-hour flight to Beijing Capital International Airport. It made its last contact with Malaysian air traffic control 38 minutes after takeoff, then dropped off ATC radar. It was tracked by Malaysian military radar for another hour before flying out of Malaysian-monitored airspace. The plane’s satellite communication system continued to make hourly “handshakes” with an Inmarsat satellite until 8:19 a.m. The plane has not been seen or heard from since, its 227 passengers and 12 crew presumed dead.

International authorities eventually concluded that the airline crashed into the Southern Indian Ocean, the crash officially ruled an accident. This conclusion was reached by a highly technical analysis of the plane’s satellite metadata. Malaysia, China, and Australia conducted massive maritime searches for the airline beginning in 2014, but ended those searches in January 2017. A private company reopened the search for six months in 2018, but like the previous searches, found nothing. Over the next few years, airplane debris belonging to MH370’s type of plane, a Boeing 777, was found on islands in the Western Indian Ocean or washed up on countries in East Africa. Together with the radar and satellite metadata, these debris are the only evidence of MH370’s fate.

Jeff Wise is a Harvard-educated science reporter who specializes in aviation and psychology. He has followed the disappearance of MH370 since the beginning, and in this book reaches a startling conclusion at odds with the official account: The plane didn’t crash (on accident or through a terrorist event). It was taken by Russian operatives and flown to Yubileyniy, a Russian controlled airstrip in Kazakhstan. The most likely reason for the hijacking—and hence murder of 239 souls—was to distract Western authorities from Russia’s 2014 depredations in Ukraine.

I know, I know—that’s crazy talk, right? It is a measure of Wise’s journalistic skill and aviation expertise that The Taking of MH370 carries you along with it almost to the end of the book. Wise highlights multiple anomalies in the data points acknowledged by all authorities, focusing on four in particular: (1) The satellite metadata “came out of nowhere.” For unexplained reasons, the aircraft’s satellite data unit (SDU) powered off, stopped transmitting, then sometime later rebooted and started transmitting again. Authorities have not adequately explained why this happened.

(2) The satellite metadata “transmitted an unexpected clue.” Normally, metadata does not transmit information about where and how a plane is traveling. But for technical reasons involving the SDU’s manufacturer, the age of the Inmarsat satellite, and the plane’s path along a north-south axis, its flightpath could be inferred. Wise finds this “awfully convenient.”

(3) The satellite metadata “couldn’t be cross-checked with any other evidence.” The Inmarsat data is the only hard evidence we have as to reconstruct MH370’s flight.

But (4) “when evidence later emerged that could have confirmed the turn south [instead of north to Beijing], it didn’t.” The massive years-long maritime search found no airplane. The debris that washed ashore showed evidence of being in the water for a shorter period of time than required had the plane crashed into the ocean when MH370 did. Also, debris showed up in places that were hard to reconstruct given knowledge of weather and ocean currents. And, again referring to the SDU’s reboot, Wise argues that the reboot signal contained serious anomalies never explained by authorities.

Had Wise left the matter with these anomalies, his book merely would’ve demonstrated how little we actually know about the fate of MH370, indeed, how weird reality unfortunately can be. It’s the Russia angle that pushes his book from acknowledging the weird to speculating the crazy. Think of it this way: Wise makes much of the fact that the satellite metadata pointed investigators in one direction, but the plane was never found. Fair enough, but he takes this as dispositive that the plane never went in that direction. But that’s not quite right, logically speaking. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, after all.

And anyway, other than speculation, what precisely is the evidence for Russian involvement? Honestly, I couldn’t see any that was persuasive. No one tracked MH370 to Kazakhstan. No satellite metadata places it in the vicinity. No satellite observed it. (And given that this is a Russian military airstrip, one assumes the U.S. is watching it closely.) I grant that Putin is a bad man and that Russia wanted to distract the West from what Russian forces were doing in Ukraine, but the fact that the story of MH370 took Ukraine off the front pages does not constitute evidence of the taking of MH370.

Indeed, the evidence Wise cites of Russia’s use of disinformation to distract its enemies and pursues its policy directives points us away from his conclusions about MH370. Toward the end of the book, Wise cites Russia’s use of disinformation in the 2016 U.S. presidential election as proof of its nefarious intent. Russia’s nefariousness, I think we can all agree, goes without saying. But here’s the problem: We know what they did and what they’re doing, right down to the name and address of the GRU officer unleashing bots on Facebook and Twitter. When Russian-backed Ukrainian forces shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 four months after MH370 disappeared, according to Wise, we could literally observe via satellite the truck that fired the missile. Given U.S. penetration of Russian intelligence operations, given our satellite observations of their military, it’s difficult for me to believe that Russia could’ve taken MH370 without the U.S. observing it. (And yes, I realize this is an absence-of-evidence argument too.)

Thus, in assessing The Taking of MH370, all I can say is that it is both fascinating and maddening. Fascinating for guiding readers through the weirdness of the data and evidence that all must use to come to a conclusion about MH370’s fate. Maddening because it lands on an explanation that, without direct evidence in its favor, grounds the event in malign human action. I don’t like the Russian government any more than Wise, but I don’t think they’re farsighted and competent enough to pull off this complex a con. Of course, the reason why conspiracy theories are so powerful is because they make tragedy explicable and therefore meaningful.

But what if the fact is simply that anomalies happen and reality is weird?

Book Reviewed
Jeff Wise, The Taking of MH370 (The Yellow Cabin Press, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

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The Other Woman | Book Review


When Daniel Silva publishes a new Gabriel Allon novel, I read it as quickly as I can. I get up early to read it, catch a few pages during breaks throughout the day, and stay up late until it’s finished. Some people binge-watch their favorite shows on Netflix. I binge-read spy books.

And so it was with The Other Woman, the latest installment in Silva’s long-running series. In it, Gabriel Allon, chief of Israel’s Mossad, discovers there’s a mole near the top of a Western intelligence agency. Discovering who the mole is and what agency has been compromised before any more damage can be done is the engine that drives the plot forward.

As with all murder and suspense books, my chief criterion of a well-told tale is whether it keeps me turning pages. If a suspense book especially doesn’t grab my attention and force me to keep reading because I absolutely must know what happens next, then it’s not a very good suspense book. By that criterion, The Other Womanis a success.

The book also kept my attention because the plot hinges on Cold War history. I can’t go into detail without spoiling things, so I’ll just say that James Jesus Angleton’s description of counterintelligence as “a wilderness of mirrors” is an apt description of The Other Woman’s plot. Angleton was obsessed that Russia had a mole in the CIA, an obsession grounded in the all-to-real treachery of Kim Philby and the other members of the infamous Cambridge Five, but his obsession also tore relations between Western intelligence agencies apart. That kind of obsession is in play here too.

One of the downsides of page-turners is that you often only see the plot’s weaknesses in hindsight. That was the case here too. In the moment, I thought the Cold War-related plot (again, no details because…spoilers!) worked well. But on reflection, I started to think it was highly implausible. Once you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I’m talking about, and you can draw your own conclusions.

Even with this caveat, The Other Womanis an entertaining read, a trip down Cold War Memory Lane, and a reminder that in the real world, the New Boss of Russia is the same as the Old Boss, and neither is the good guy.

Book Reviewed
Daniel Silva, The Other Woman (New York: HarperCollins, 2018).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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