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Ukrainian Crisis; The Search for Flight 370; How Long Will Investigation into Pilots Last?

Aired March 27, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Planes will soon be in the air to chase new leads in the search for Flight 370, that is, if the weather cooperates.

I'm Jim Sciutto. And this is THE LEAD.

The world lead, fresh satellite images showing objects that could be debris from the vanished plane. Will the weather permit searchers' planes to zero in on any of it before it all drifts away?

And this investigation keeps coming back to the men at the controls. As speculation flies about possible motives, the captain's son is now coming forward to defend his father's honor.

Also in world news, he got a scathing reprimand from the president of the United States, and Vladimir Putin just doesn't seem to care one bit. U.S. officials say he's doubled the number of troops near the border. Is Russia ready to risk a full-blown war?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, filling in again for Jake Tapper.

And we begin again with our world lead. New satellite images are now driving the search for Flight 370, which disappeared 21 days ago now without a trace and with 239 people on board. A Japanese satellite has the most recent pictures taken yesterday, which appear to show about 10 objects floating in the Southern Indian Ocean.

The biggest one looks rectangular, about 13 feet by 26 feet, and Thailand providing another fresh lead with its own satellite images. These were taken on Monday and appear to show about 300 possible objects on the water. They range in size from six feet to 50 feet. Any one of them could be a piece of the plane.

Now, if you plot these recent discoveries on the map, you can see them concentrated in a general area far off the coast of Australia, but confirming them has proven difficult, like everything else in this investigation. With luck, searchers will get some eyes in the sky again soon after terrible weather forced their planes to turn back earlier.

The Navy says air crews were beaten up by the turbulence. Some ships did remain out there, though, to keep that search going, more satellite images, but not a lot more answers.

So, let's bring in our expert panel for more.

We have captain Tim Taylor. He's a sea operations specialist and president of Tiburon Subsea Services, an ocean research corporation. We also have Miles O'Brien, CNN aviation analyst, science correspondent for "PBS NewsHour."

Thanks so much for coming on, Miles.


SCIUTTO: I want to begin with you because I think this is something that I imagine our viewers are struggling with, because every day, every other day, there are new satellite images that show specks that possibly could be debris, but every day they are in roughly the same area.

As you begin to piece these pictures together, is it reasonable to conclude that we're beginning to see a debris field here, that this is more evidence of a contiguous debris field?

O'BRIEN: Layperson's response, in a word, yes.

I think we have got three things to think about here, their location, first of all, the sheer numbers, the similarity of a lot of these objects. I would presume a trash pile may have different gradations and shades and I don't see that.

Finally, what I see -- maybe I'm trying to see it -- are shapes, aerodynamic shapes, which would fit an airplane. There are some pieces there that could be pieces of fuselage, maybe even the horizontal stabilizer. So I think this is very promising.

SCIUTTO: Yes, one of the key thing is shape, I imagine.

Tim, as you know, they have had to suspend the close-up searches. They will look from miles above the sky from satellite and then they send the planes in to get a closer look and they have had trouble with weather.

Can you explain to our viewers the difficulties of going from a satellite image to actually locating and picking up eventually with one of the ships out there, recovery ships, picking up these pieces? How hard is it to go from miles up in the sky to a couple hundred feet above the water?


And we're not only fighting Mother Nature. We're fighting Mother Nature. She has the home field advantage. It's late in the fourth quarter, and she's killing us. We have got to come back. We have got to find these things.

But what you're doing with these satellites is, you're looking at a satellite image, and then you're not being able to put a ship on location until days later. And then -- then you're not able to put a recovery -- you're not even finding this stuff. You are chasing it.

Every day is a delayed image. Weather is knocking you down. It is almost an impossible task, and the target is moving.


SCIUTTO: The target is moving every day and you have got the weather, as you mentioned. We're told that the next flights might not be up until as far from now as Sunday. That's another three days away. That can move a lot of miles in that time.

TAYLOR: And in different directions.

The data -- the data links are -- it's a positive thing that they are getting multiple positive hits from different satellites from different countries. They may be able to identify the same pieces of wreckage and follow them over time.

But as it gets longer and longer and longer and dispersed farther and farther, the odds just go exponentially against tracking this back, if it is the wreckage, to where it went in the water.

SCIUTTO: It's incredible. When you look at these pictures of the way the currents move, you kind of imagine all these neat little arrows, but in fact it's these swirls, it's like 1,000 washing machines there.

Miles, there was a great interview in the AP that talked to some of these spotters and the challenge that they have looking out the airplane, eyes glazing over, 30 minutes to 60 minutes kind of staring at the same patch of ocean, and even particular challenges, like some of the seaweed apparently in this part of the ocean is orange, and they look for orange objects and they have had a lot of false alarms.

But I know you have been up with searchers regarding the Steve Fossett, when he went down in Arizona. Tell us what it's like when you're staying out of a plane and how much a challenge it is to pick this stuff up.

O'BRIEN: Well, here's a little footage from September of 2007.

I flew my plane out to Minden, Nevada, and flew a civil air patrol mission one day and got a keen appreciation for the challenges. The Nevada desert is kind of like the ocean. There's a lot of junk in the Nevada desert, leftovers from mining days.

And, as we searched, it's amazing how your eye will play tricks on you and make you think you're seeing an airplane, when it's an old wheelbarrow from a silver mine. This is the kind of thing these guys are up against.

And so you really have -- the key is, what the civil air patrol does, is you have to do it in incremental shifts. An hour is a long time. Really less than -- I know these crew rotate people through, but it's very fatiguing, and, of course, human nature is, you want to find something. That orange seaweed, you want it to be that life raft, right? SCIUTTO: Yes. They are also talking about tricks that they use, like moving their eyes in an X-motion, so they don't get glazed over.


O'BRIEN: There's a certain pattern that you're supposed to do and all that. I wasn't very good at it.

SCIUTTO: These guys are professionals, of course. They're soldiers. They're sailors and airmen.

It's great that you bring up Fossett too, because that was a case. That was on land and it was in Nevada, right, just a piece of Nevada. It took them two years to find...


O'BRIEN: Yes. No. And it was found really kind of a hiker going through the woods found some I.D. cards that had been carried away by an animal. So you can imagine how that all ended up.

But the truth was that search, which lasted an intense search for a month, and there was private searching after that, did not yield anything. It was a hiker.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Yes. Sometimes just luck just plays a part.

So, Tim, let's look to the next steps in the search. Weather is going to deteriorate over the next several days. That must make it harder, I imagine, to use model forecasts to figure out where those currents are bringing all this debris. How much of a challenge is that? Days, weeks? What does this push -- how far does this push the search out?

TAYLOR: It's getting almost to the point of impossibility.

Even the best mathematicians, unless they get so many clues and they recover so much, right now, even if they do recover something, it looks like it's going to be so minimal that it's still not enough to plug it back, especially since it's been three weeks.

Miles just said, they lost a plane on land and they couldn't find it. OK? This is in the middle of the ocean in the most remote part of the world that nobody goes. So it's daunting.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And then the land is not moving like that ocean is, constantly moving targets.

It's a sobering thought, but, unfortunately, that's reality. Thanks very much to Miles O'Brien, Tim Taylor for joining us.

And coming up on THE LEAD: Accusations against the captain of Flight 370, but is there any real evidence? What the former CEO of Malaysia Airlines is now saying about the veteran pilot.

Plus, planes grounded earlier, as conditions over the Indian Ocean deteriorate. Will the search be able to resume in just a couple of hours? Stay with us. We will have an update.


SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD, and more now on our world lead.

Though we still don't have any concrete proof Flight 370 even crashed into the Indian Ocean, investigators say that, if it did crash, we cannot rule out the possibility it was a deliberate act.

They are not only interviewing the pilot and co-pilot's family members and friends, but closely scrutinizing their actions in the days leading up to the flight.

CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown joins us now with more.

Are they finding anything worrisome as they do this?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: So far, no, but we're still early on in the investigation, Jim.

Sources I have been speaking with say that investigators haven't found anything that would support or rule out the idea that either pilot planned to take down that plane. Now their family members are breaking their silence for the first time.


BROWN (voice-over): With few clues to work off of, sources say examining the two men in the cockpit is still a top priority.

But those who knew them best are speaking out in their defense. In an interview with CNN's Jim Clancy, the former CEO of Malaysia Airlines said that he knew veteran Captain Zaharie Shah well.

ABDUL AZIZ ABDUL RAHMAN, FORMER CEO, MALAYSIA AIRLINES: He's an excellent pilot and I think also an excellent gentleman. I think they are going the wrong way pointing a finger at him.

BROWN: And the current CEO of Malaysia Airlines also defended him and his co-pilot, Fariq Hamid, following the plane's disappearance.

RAHMAN: Based on their records, they had been quite exemplary.

BROWN: Shah's youngest son, 26-year-old Ahmed Seth, defended his father in an interview with "The New Straits Times" Tuesday night, saying he understands his father better than those criticizing him.

"I have read everything online. But I have ignored all the speculation. I know my father better," he said.

Sources tell CNN that despite speculation of deliberate action to divert the plane, investigators haven't yet found any evidence to suggest a premeditated act by either pilot. A U.S. official tells CNN that a preliminary review of the captain's simulator and both pilots' computers have not yielded a so-called smoking gun so far. The captain, seen here in a new tribute video posted online, did not leave a suicide note, a source in Malaysia tells CNN. And no evidence was found in his home to suggest financial or marital problems. Captain Shah, seen here going through airport security, was a respected pilot who had been with Malaysia Airlines since 1981, flying more than 18,000 hours. The 53-year-old was married with three grown children. CNN is not showing the faces of his entire family.

Captain Shah's daughter was reportedly a student studying in Melbourne, Australia. The family home was here in a gated community. But a source close to the family says his wife routinely stayed somewhere else when he was flying. Shah was a public supporter of Malaysian opposition party leader Anwar Ibrahim and attended pro- democracy rallies.

In his free time, he posted videos like this one online -- showing him in front of his home flight simulator, talking not about his job but about his interests in home improvement projects.

Less is known about Shah's co-pilot, Fariq Hamid. He was engaged to his flight school sweetheart. After recently finishing his training on a 777, he was on his first flight in the cockpit unsupervised on the jumbo jet.


BROWN: And the FBI is expected to hand over analysis of the hard drive soon, evidence that's pulled from it could provide clues or leads for Malaysian officials to follow up on and that could end up being important in this investigation. But as of now, again, we are reiterating, no smoking gun has been found. And as one official I spoke with put it, these pilots are victims until proven otherwise -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Do we have unrealistic expectations about how quickly they would come to some working theory here? I mean, this is a slow -- this could be a long plotting, slow investigation, couldn't it?

BROWN: Right. And from an investigative standpoint, you know, the people I've spoken to who have done this type of investigation say this is still very early on. You know, three weeks in we're all looking for answers, but if you think about the first week, they are trying to kind of wrap their heads around what might have happened, there was a lot of focus on mechanical failure. So, they really only had a couple of weeks to really sort of dig in to the background of the passengers and the crew members. And, of course, this investigation keeps going back to the pilots because there's nothing else to explain the plane's disappearance.

SCIUTTO: Right. We may have to sort of dig down and wait a long time. Be prepared for that.

Thanks very much, Pamela Brown, justice correspondent.

So, where does this investigation into pilot's background go from this point?

Joining me now is former FBI and CIA counterterrorism official Phil Mudd.

Phil, I wonder if you could comment on that. You know, we've been -- we want answers certainly and more importantly, regulators and officials want answers, and the families want answers. But realistically, should we be bearing down and expect this to take weeks, months before you have any hard answers?

PHIL MUDD, FORMER FBI AND CIA COUNTERTERRORISM OFFICIAL: I think we should. You think about the avenues of investigations that the investigators have to pursue, that's ground crew, crew on the plane, the guys in the cockpit, that's -- the passengers on the plane. And then expand that out. Associate's family who might have had conversations with them weeks ago.

I have respect for the family who's defending the pilot, but I don't think the investigators are either accusing or letting him off the hook. This is just the way the investigation is going to unroll in a situation as complicated as this.

SCIUTTO: Do you think we should prepare ourselves for the possibility, that in light of all of the mysteries around it, in light of the fact that the biggest piece of evidence, right, is sitting in the bottom of the southern Indian Ocean in very difficult conditions, should we prepare ourselves for the possibility that you never get a hard answer to what happened here and why?

MUDD: I think there's a possibility of that. Look, if we have a crime, we don't have the criminals or the crime scene. I was listening to the earlier conversation about the expansive Indian Ocean they're looking at. I used to look at that kind of imagery as a CIA expert.

This is going for a needle in a haystack. So, three weeks in, I agree it's early, but we don't have a shred from e-mail, instant messages, friends, family, anything in terms of things like what this fellow searched for on Google. We don't have anything in the ocean that suggests to me we found a plane.

So, if we're thinking we're going to get quick answers, I think we're going to be disappointed.

SCIUTTO: Let's talk about that, you bring up motive, because they've been looking at the hard drives, they've been talking to family and friends. And to our knowledge, at least at this point, they haven't turned up anything hard on motive and yet, Malaysian officials have said a number of times that they are leading towards the idea that this was a deliberate act.

In your experience, and you've covered a lot of investigations like this, involved in them and led them, how unusual would it be to have a deliberate act without a clear motive or indication of a motive?

MUDD: I think that would be a bit surprising, especially in the 21st century. Think of yourself, think of myself, think not only of the conversations we have with friends and family and associates, think of the monstrous digital trail you leave. Did he never look at anything on the Internet if there was a conspiracy that was related to the conspiracy, did he never send an e-mail, did he never send a text message?

To me, this is hard to believe in the 21st century.

One other quick point, as a career analyst, I've seen analysts make one consistent problem over time and that is confusing the difference between what we know and what we think. I'm not persuaded yet myself that we know this was not a catastrophe that had to do with the mechanics on the plane, that had to do with something that happened with the electrical system. We're running to the pilots because we don't have any other answers.

SCIUTTO: Let's talk about resources for a second, because as you described this protracted process without answers, even the possibility of no answers, how long does the FBI and NTSB, other U.S. organizations involved in this investigation, how long do they invest those resources, that money, that manpower, before they give up or at least take a back seat and pull back until something new is discovered?

MUDD: There will, unless this is a resolved, there will always be an investigator 10 years, 20 years, 30 years down the road looking at this problem. You remember, we looked at the FBI case that many Americans have forgotten, Whitey Bulger for years, he was a Boston organized crime fellow who was only found in California years after we lost him. You remember Eric Rudolph, who was the abortion clinic killer stuck in the mountains in North Carolina, looked for him for years.

So, you've got to remember one thing, there's Americans dead here. This is potentially a crime scene. The guys I witness at the bureau, the investigators, the agents, the analysts, they will not let this bone go until there's an answer.

SCIUTTO: Well, that's a relief (AUDIO GAP). I'm sure it's a relief for the families as well, the most involved. Thanks very much to Phil Mudd.

Coming up next, satellites continue to find possible debris in the southern Indian Ocean. But search teams haven't spotted anything. Do they need a new strategy?

Plus, almost zero visibility and waves as tall as office buildings. What are teams up against as the search is set to resume just a few hours from now.


SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

And continuing with our world lead. (AUDIO GAP) satellite images adding new urgency in the hunt for debris from Flight 370. But it's one thing to have pictures from space of these potential objects, quite another to spot them with a naked eye and much closer up.

So far, searchers haven't found a single scrap from the plane. And as our Rene Marsh reports, conditions are so rough in that patch of the ocean, planes could be right on top of the debris and miss it.


RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The search for Flight 370 is concentrated about 1,500 miles off Australia's West Coast. Five countries photographed floating objects that could be linked to the missing plane.

Australian satellites detected two. Then the Chinese spotted this. The French photographed 122 objects. Thailand satellite spotted 300. And Wednesday, the Japanese detected 10.

But search crews eyeballing the Indian Ocean have not found a sign of Flight 370 or any floating objects believed to match those captured on satellite.

WILLIAM WALDOCK, EMBRY-RIDLE AERONAUTICAL UNIVERSITY: It's not perfect. It's a combination of the ability of human eye and surface conditions.

MARSH: Bottom line, a visual search among waves that can be as tall a two-story building is the best option but not a perfect one.

WALDOCK: Assume 100 percent coverage, meaning you're actually physically looking at every square inch of the search area. The best we normally get on a long-term average is about 78 percent probability of detection.

MARSH: And that's in calm water. Waldock predicts the waves in the Indian Ocean make detecting degree during a first search only about 50 percent. Big waves also make it hard for planes and ships to detect objects on their radar.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The type of wreckage or object that we're looking for is so close to the water line that our radar would not be able to pick it up. So, we are very reliant on lookouts, binoculars.

MARSH: With weather grounding searchers, Waldock says twice as many ships are needed.

WALDOCK: You've still got to go out and you've got to look. And one of the things that you start believing in, if you do this enough, is luck.

MARSH: He says the best bet for crews: focus on finding the larger debris field. It's easier for the human eye to detect.

Rene Marsh, CNN, Washington.


MARSH: Searchers are no doubt anxious to get their planes back over the water to spot something, anything in these possible debris fields. It takes four hours, though, just to get out there from the base of operations in Perth, Australia.

Earlier, planes had to turn back because of horrendous weather conditions on site. We're talking about almost zero visibility, as well as severe turbulence, banging these planes and their crews around. But things might be looking up.

I want to bring in our chief meteorologist Chad Myers. (AUDIO GAP) in the CNN weather center.

Chad, as you're looking down there, is it going to get any better? Are these planes going to be able to get up in the air and start looking for these things again?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: The search area, Jim, is much better today for their search, starting here at sunrise, in about two and a half hour or so.

Yesterday, it looked like they were searching for a bar of Ivory soap in a bubble bath. The entire ocean was foam. You know, the waves were high, 20 to 30 feet high. The tops were getting blown up by 50 mile per hour winds and that just causes the surface to literally turn white. Think about looking for something white in the ocean when the ocean is already white. It just didn't happen, they had no chance.

Plus, they couldn't get any elevation anyway because the setting were so low, no sense of flying above the cloud when you're looking for something on the surface. So, today, at least at this point in time, the winds are about 20 to 30 miles per hour. There's a lot of bumpy weather though between Perth and this area. If anything stops the search today, it will be the bumps through here, because remember, these are turbo props. These are not jets flying at 45,000 feet. They are flying at 15,000 or 20,000 feet, have to fly through that bad weather, through that turbulence to get this much better weather.

Now, here, because there's a big hole in our map here, that means there's very little wind for the next two days, very little wind. So that seas will calm down. It takes a while but the seas will calm down. Visibility gets a whole lot better. Very little of the way of cloud cover until at least Saturday. Today really for them could be completely the best day we've had in a long time, and only high clouds on Saturday.