Questions without answers
Wieslawa Lewandowska talks to Prof. Romuald Szeremietiew about the possible deeper causes of the plane crash at Smolensk.
Wieslawa Lewandowska: – Since the first days after the plane crash with the President aboard we have heard the assurance of the government that the state is functioning well and all services are still very effective. In your open letter to Prime Minister Donald Tusk you have claimed the opposite. Where does this criticism come from?
Prof. Romuald Szeremietiew: – This does not result from any special desire to criticise this government but the knowledge, which I acquired gaining academic degrees in the field of defence and holding the high posts in the department of defence. Apart from the investigation of the direct causes of the crash at Smolensk one should analyse the activities of the appropriate state services and of those directing the services that preceded the crash and find out what they did and what they failed to do. I think that those responsible for the safety of the operation ‘The flight of the President and the state delegation to Katyn’ failed to fulfil their obligations, speaking most mildly.
– We remember very well that earlier many a time the President had troubles with his means of air transportation, the fleet which is at disposal of the government. We remember embarrassing discussions, quarrels about the plane; who is to fly on the plane…
– Indeed, it testified about bad manners of some high-ranking officials and also revealed the functioning level of the services responsible for preparing air transportation for the most important people in the country. The worst thing is that very few people worried about such situations and on the contrary, these cases were subjects of jokes.
– How should the state services have organised the operation ‘The flight of the President and state delegation to Katyn’ professionally?
– The aviation law calls such flights HEAD because the most important people of a given country are aboard. The Air Operation Centre (COP) is responsible for security of such flights, according to the instruction of the minister of defence. Above all, severe criteria must be fulfilled in the area of security, especially on international flights. Practically speaking, it means that those holding the highest posts should not travel on one aircraft and the group of important people should not be big. At least two destination airports should be chosen: main and supplementary. Both should be thoroughly examined by the state services, concerning not only the physical safety of people (Government Protection Bureau-BOR) but also the technical aspect; the conditions of the airports – what equipment is there, is it compatible with the equipment of the plane. The co-ordinator of the whole operation must keep stable contacts with the crew and services at the selected airports and make suitable decisions during the flight.
– And this was not the case in this crash?
– No, it was not! Those responsible for the flight of the President of the Republic of Poland to Smolensk did not fulfil their fundamental duties and recklessly presupposed that nothing wrong would happen. They did not even know what was the change of the equipment at the airport as compared to the landing of the planes with the Polish and Russian prime ministers aboard a few days before. If one wants to see this negligence one can find it relatively easily.
– However, the government claims that it was the Presidential Chancellery that should be blamed for that…
– It is true that the list of the delegation was made by the Presidential Chancellery. By the way, the list had to be changed, for example at first it included Minister Bogdan Klich who did not take part in the delegation.
But what has that to do with the responsibility for the organisation of the flight? It was the minister of defence that had all the instruments to realise this task and not the head of the Presidential Chancellery or the head of National Security Bureau. Let us imagine that some organiser of a trip goes to a carrier. The carrier ensures a coach and establishes the tour on dangerous mountain roads. A crash happens. The carrier claims that the driver should have chosen a safer tour. He explains that he did not know how many people would be on the coach and he blames the organiser of the trip.
– It is said that these special security measures were not taken because the flight of the President was treated as a private visit.
– The Polish President did not fly to Russian at an official invitation and there were no plans of official meetings with the Russian authorities. The Russian party treated the presence of Lech Kaczynski at Katyn as a ‘private visit’. However, it did not release the Russians from the responsibility for the condition of the airport but it did not oblige them to make special efforts envisaged for official occasions. But the Polish party was in a different situation. For the Polish services a safe flight of the President and delegation required the highest care.
– Which means that the involvement of the Polish services must have been higher.
– The services should have made what should be done within the framework of their normal and not some extraordinary obligations. Common sense tells us about it! But as we can suppose the responsible people and institutions did not do obvious things. Allegedly some BOR officials waited for the plain at the Smolensk airport; what they were doing there and what their tasks were we do not know. Minister Klich stated that supplementary airports were chosen but BOR did not know anything about that. We do not know how these airports were selected, whether proper safety measures were taken and if so, what measures. Was a car transport for the delegation from these airports prepared? There are many questions, more and more, and the number of answers is clearly smaller. The Russians proposed to land in Moscow in the critical situation, which would have meant that the President would not reach Katyn that day. But it also means that they did not know about the supplementary airports, that the Polish officials had chosen according to the words of Minister Klich.
– Do the omissions of the Polish governmental services you enumerated in your letter to Prime Minster Tusk result from incompetence or perhaps from the disregard of the President, which would be nothing new?
– I think that first of all we are dealing with incompetence connected with common thoughtlessness and certain nonchalance: we have succeeded so many times and we will succeed this time.
– In your letter to the Prime Minister you demand the dismissal of the minister of defence. Why?
– In my opinion it is him that made the biggest remissness. And today his explanation that he did not know that the commanders of all sorts of the Polish forces were aboard one plane is very irritating. If he had not known that his discredit would have been even bigger! Let me remind you that this flight was operated by a military unit subordinated to the minister of national defence and thus the safety of the flight and the course of the whole operation was within the competence of this minister. It is him that has proper services to secure the flight from the technical and counter-intelligence aspects. That could not have been done by several officers of the Government Protection Bureau! Today we know that the service of counter-intelligence did not cut a dash (they arrived at the airport after the crash late evening) because all mobile phones and laptops of the most important people were in the hands of the foreign country for several hours. It was enough to copy the data. And we have not got the so-called black boxes.
– Do you think that if the Polish services had done their jobs well, if the HEAD operation had been prepared well, the crash might not have happened?
– If this flight had been properly organised and secured then in case of difficult conditions of landing – due to the fatal condition of the airport, bad weather or some sudden breakdown – our services would have reported that in advance to the co-ordinator of the operation and the supplementary airport would have taken over the plane and there would have been an appropriate team. If a crash would have happened we would have had at least a team of our specialists at the airport and they could secured the area and all things that were important for the security of our country. They would have stayed in the Polish hands. But it did not happen. I think that this negligence is very big and highly blameworthy.
– You blame the minister of defence and the Prime Minister explains that the affair is too complicated to look for the guilty…
– I do not understand the stand of the Prime Minister. If the words of Minister Klich had been true that would have meant that no regulations had been broken. And how can we refer that to his statement concerning the NATO procedures, which include the document of the chief of the headquarters of the Polish Army dated on 9 August 2006 ‘Instructions for air transportation of army forces and armament and military equipment.’ In Poland reliable investigations concerning the organisation of the flight to Smolensk should be conducted without any delay. Such investigations could answer the question whether the crash could have been avoided and they would allow to make conclusions in order to make the functioning of services in this respect better. But I cannot see such a will. The minister of national defence does not realise that he failed to do something, that he did not know things which he should have known, and yet he explains that it is not him but Minister Tomasz Arabski, the head of the Chancellery of the Prime Minister, that decides which plane a given delegation is to fly.
– …and the head of the Chancellery of the Prime Minister claims that he did not take any decisions!
– Exactly! In the end it will turn out that we should blame the commander of the 36th Special Assignment Regiment and the regiment will be punished by being dissolved. But the 36th regiment is subordinated to the commander of air forces, i.e. the minister of national defence. And it is the minister of defence that is the main responsible person. In Poland there is no other regiment assigned to this task. The investigation of the direct causes of the crash looks unclear, too. Why did the Polish government agree to the position of petitioner, which the Russians appointed it and why should we patiently wait for the results of the Russian investigations? Such behaviour in case of investigation that is very essential to the Polish state is not permissible.
– Prime Minister Tusk reassures that the Russians do their best and what is appropriate.
– Maybe they do and I do not presume the bad will of the Russians. However, we should not forget that the Russian legal system does not enjoy reputation even among the Russians themselves. I was also moved by the reaction of the Russian society and the behaviour of the Russian authorities, especially when they decided to make some documents concerning Katyn officially accessible and they even published them. I can see all these gestures but there is still the question of responsibility for the tragic event involving the Polish plane and the death of the head of our country. It is the Polish public prosecutor that should investigate this crash.
– Do you think that it would have been possible for the Polish officers to conduct the investigation?
– I want to remind you that in August 2009 during the Air Show in Radom a Belarusian military aircraft crashed and two pilots were killed and it was the Belarusian prosecutors that conducted the investigation and they immediately took over the remains of the plane and the black boxes. The Polish services did not have any access to them. Why? The Chicago convention, which Prime Minister Tusk mentioned, regulates the procedures in case of a crash of a civilian aircraft. In case of a crash of some state aircraft, e.g. a military plane, the country that possesses this aircraft has the right to demand investigation being conducted by its own commissions and prosecutors. The reaction of the Belarusians was similar. The Belarusian prosecutors could freely act in the territory of Poland and the Polish prosecutors only assisted them. It was a Polish military plane that crashed at Smolensk. The Polish government behaved passively and allowed Russia to investigate the case, being satisfied with some imprecise participation of the Polish prosecutors. So either the Polish government did not know how to behave or they knew but they were afraid to demand a Polish investigation and were afraid to incur the dissatisfaction of the Russian authorities.
– The fact that the Russians immediately showed exceptional activities of the investigations led to numerous speculations about hidden causes of the crash…
– Many factors indicate that the Russian authorities do not want to be blamed for this Polish tragedy; especially that the tragedy is symbolically connected with Katyn. For the Russian authorities the crash in this place is a terrible blow in every way: prestigious, propaganda, political. So I think that speaking about some Russian assassination attempt is rather nonsensical. In my opinion, there were extremely many unfavourable circumstances. And the technical condition of the airport in Smolensk might be blamed as well. However, at every end there is negligence of the Polish services.
– What if it turns out that it was a pilot error, which was suggested almost at the very beginning?
– Even if this was the direct cause the main guilt falls on the members of the Polish government that is responsible to organise and secure transport of the important state delegations. Even if you try to explain the crash by the difficult situation of the Polish air forces, technical shortages and insufficient training of Polish pilots (including the training in the special 36th regiment responsible for VIP air transport), you must blame the Ministry of National Defence.
– Don’t you share the optimism of Parliament Speaker Bronislaw Komorowski that a Polish pilot can fly even on the stable gates?
– This specific compliment concerning Polish pilots can refer to very distant times when aircrafts were not so complicated machines as they are now. To fly on stable gates to Smolensk? Today pilotage requires special carefulness during pilots’ training, which is expensive. And planes for VIPs should be navigated by the best pilots, having great experience, measured by the number of flight time. Whereas in the elite 36th Special Assignment Regiment the pilots have been assigned lower officers’ ranks (lieutenant, captain), which means that experienced pilots cannot be promoted and have relatively small wages. And very bad equipment, old and used planes. No wonder that pilots quit their jobs in the regiment and the previous commander also left. Negative phenomena increase in the whole military air forces, which independent experts and observers show. It is stressed that the situation is worse under the leadership of the present head of the Ministry of National Defence.
– Could the dismissal of Minister Bogdan Klich – which you demand in your letter to Prime Minister Donald Tusk – contribute to improvement in the Polish army in any way?
– Indirectly, it could. Let us hope that his successor would be better. There is another matter. In this concrete situation the minister of national defence should be held politically responsible for negligence of his duties. It would also be a sign that the Prime Minister treats this matter seriously. But it is not the case. I am worrying about the Polish Army and I am worrying about Poland.