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Flight 370 Search Zone Shifts; GM CEO On Capitol Hill; Malaysia Airlines Changing Cockpit Security; Limits on Overall Donations Struck Down

Aired April 2, 2014 - 16:00   ET


BILL WEIR, CNN GUEST HOST: It isn't what investigators are saying about the passengers of Flight 370 that's alarming. It's what they're not saying about the crew.

I'm Bill Weir, and this is THE LEAD.

In the world lead, four days, that's how long those pingers on the black boxes may have left, if they're even still working at all. As the search zone shifts yet again, more ships are on the way to intensify the hunt for the missing plane.

And investigators finally admit what CNN has reported for days, that the plane's disappearance is considered a criminal act. Somehow, they say they have cleared every single passenger on board of suspicion, but they have yet to do the same for the dozen crew members.

Also in world news, he was linked to the group that took 52 Americans hostage in Iran and held them 444 days. Now he's seeking a visa to come to the United Nations as Iran's ambassador. But should the U.S. let him in?

Welcome to THE LEAD. Jake Tapper has a little bit of laryngitis. And, today, I think he sounds like Barry White. His doctor disagrees, so in his stead, I'm Bill Weir here for next hour.

We do begin with the world lead. A short time ago, Malaysia's prime minister arrived in Perth, Australia, the base of operations of course for the search for the missing Flight 370. And that flight, of course, disappeared 27 days ago after taking off from his country with 239 souls on board.

The prime minister is the one who broke the news to families more than a week ago that investigators now believe that plane went down somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Malaysian officials, of course, have taken a heavy beating, criticism for their handling of this baffling mystery. And more ships are on the way to the search zone as we speak. A Pentagon spokesperson tells CNN the U.S. has spent nearly $3.5 million on the search. That's just for efforts in the air. The U.S. hasn't spent a dime yet on undersea operations.

But let's bring in our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh.

Rene, why is the search zone being shifted again? RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes, again, and, Bill, we will tell you last Friday up, until this Tuesday, crews had been scanning one area off the coast of Australia, but now they say they have searched that area, they found nothing, so they're shifting the zone again.

As for the criminal investigation and who may be responsible for the missing plane, officials now say some people have been ruled out, while others remain under the microscope.


MARSH (voice-over): Twenty-five days in, and Malaysian police say they remain focused on the pilots and anyone who had contact with Flight 370 before takeoff, ranging from those who prepared onboard food to ones who packed the cargo.

KHALID ABU BAKAR, INSPECTOR GENERAL, ROYAL MALAYSIAN POLICE: This is a criminal investigation. It is ongoing. We have not concluded the whole thing.

MARSH: Malaysian investigators have been treating the disappearance of Flight 370 as criminal since March 16, four areas of interest, hijacking, sabotage, and personal or psychological issues.

So far, police say all passengers have been cleared in those four categories. As for mechanical failure, it's still on the table. Aviation authorities are investigating that. Wednesday families of Chinese passengers were briefed privately on the latest. Malaysian officials called it a good meeting. Family members had a different take.

STEVE WANG, SON OF PASSENGER: I don't think it just give us any useful information, because they just led us to ask questions for -- we just asked four or five questions, and after that, they said the investigation team is very busy.

MARSH: Meantime, the search zone shifted yet again; 10 planes and nine ships are now zeroing in on an area in the Indian Ocean slightly eastward of the April 1 zone, where they found nothing. Despite the dead ends, there's no talk of quitting.

KIM BEAZLEY, AUSTRALIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: I think if you ask the Australian prime minister what our long-term intentions would be, he would say we will be searching for this aircraft until hell freezes over.

MARSH: More ships have been dispatched, including a British submarine with advance sonar. The Australian ship Ocean Shield reaches the zone in another day. On board is a pinger locator, designed to find beacons on the black boxes, which will stop pinging in days, if they haven't already.


MARSH: And what about those satellite images? We haven't seen any new ones in a while, and it really is unclear why. If you remember, we saw many day after day just last month. It could be officials are tired of being wrong. Those images gave false hopes.

Many of those objects turned out to be garbage. But one experts suggests it could be that the best eyes, people on ships and in planes are already in the zone, so he says you only use satellite images when you don't have anything else -- Bill.

WEIR: All right, Rene Marsh, appreciate your reporting there.

Let's bring in our CNN aviation analysts Miles O'Brien, David Soucie, men we have become quite acquainted with over the last 27 days.

Good to have you both back in.

Miles, what do you make of this new emphasis from the Malaysian airline on cockpit security, that no one pilot can ever be alone up there? Is that a law already in the States?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: It is. That's standard operating procedure, post-9/11 procedure in the U.S., the reinforced cockpit door. Any time one of the flight crew leaves the cockpit for any reason, another crew member, a cabin crew person, or if there's another flying member of the crew, a backup pilot, will go on board and be on the flight deck.

This is for security. This is also to help frankly see who is -- when he comes back to the door to identify that the right person is at the door and open the door for that person.

This is surprising to a lot of us who follow aviation that Malaysia had not followed that procedure up until now. What this tells us, this emphasis, is that there's a lot of focus on a deliberate act. Was it a passenger or a member of the cabin member the somehow commandeered the flight and got into the flight deck alone, or was it in fact one of the flying pilots that was there alone and was able to do something, the term we have been using a lot is nefarious?

So you can imagine a scenario where a high-time captain could convince a low-time junior first officer to go and get him a cup of coffee and be alone in that flight deck.

WEIR: Interesting. We are going to get more into later in the show this idea that the Malaysian authorities have cleared everybody, every passenger on that.

But, David, let me talk to you about the Malaysian inspector general saying that this mystery -- quote -- "may never be solved."

At some point, you have got to wonder, is this lost hope, is this realism? Is he setting expectations? We have never seen anything like this, so it's hard to know where the line is. Right?


And remember where that's coming from. It's coming from the investigation of the criminal intent. When he says it will never be solved, I can understand that from a criminal point of view. Even evidence at the site may not give them any clues as to whether it was criminally invoked or not. So I want to kind of at least in my mind hope that he's not saying we will never solve the mystery, because I think we will with the evidence we find when we find it.

I'm convinced they will keep going and keep going until they find something, until hell freezes over.

WEIR: And, Miles, in terms of the search, as we heard there, 3.5 million bucks on airplane surveillance there. Why not put an aircraft carrier out there?

O'BRIEN: I have been asking this question, Bill, since, you know, the beginning and did in fact ask the chief spokesman at the Pentagon, Admiral Kirby, about it.

He said, well, the George Washington, which is the aircraft carrier in Japan, Seventh Fleet, which could be there in less than a week if it started steaming with those nuclear power plants going, could be on site and eliminates a lot of the issues with range, can put helicopters in close proximity to potential wreckage sites, a lot of eyes on target, as it were.

He said, well, the George Washington has tasks and missions currently and frankly no one's asked to have it. It's sort of up to the Malaysians to say, hey, we could use an aircraft carrier. Given the conditions now and the conditions in the future, winter coming, why not put more aircraft and ships on target?

WEIR: I suppose it's a strategic question as well, but if any country can afford an extra aircraft carrier in that area, it would be us.

What about this, David, the families of these 18 Chinese passengers meeting privately for three hours today with the Malaysian government? We're spoiled after, you know, in a dark way, when the NTSB has control of investigations like this. At least they give you something every day. Do you get the sense that they just don't have anything to share? What do you make of finally they get this meeting?

SOUCIE: To me, that's just some management of trying to do some more personalized communication. They got a lot of fault for texting out the messages that they had before. I think they're trying to personalize this. They're trying to manage their losses, as far as what they're -- how they're telling people that they don't know much.

I think that's really a critical part of the investigation right now, is just managing the fact that they don't know anything, you know?

WEIR: And, Miles, if they can't hear a ping and let's just say they can't find any flotsam from the plane, how long do they just keep following that grid across the Indian Ocean?

O'BRIEN: Well, until the weather becomes too adverse.

And pretty -- eventually, they will have to quit for the winter, and that's when it gets -- it's a hard thing to say to the families, we have found nothing and now we can't even go out and search because the seas are too high. There's just no chance we can even retrieve any wreckage.

Hopefully, they can keep going for a while. We will have to see how the weather goes. But it's such a large area that they're really going to have to get lucky to find even a piece of wreckage at this point. Finding a piece of wreckage after all this time and then backtracking to where the plane went in the water, that's a whole other matter.

WEIR: Right. Right. And do you get the sense, David, that the Aussies are taking over? And would that be a good thing if they did?

SOUCIE: It's more than a sense. They have been officially dictated to have everything from -- everything they find -- I don't care if it China, whatever ships, whatever boats, whatever airplanes find anything, it has to be centrally located.

And that's a classic example of how to handle this investigation. It has to be controlled. Everything has to be indexed. Everything has to be kept track of in one singular point.

WEIR: They say they even had an air traffic controller up there to keep track. But you would like to think that means the skies are filled with search planes, but only 10 at any one time.


And before, we were talking about throw everything we have got at it. And that makes sense, but to me it looks like they're having a hard time managing even what they have now, if you look at how that search place, the search pattern has moved. It doesn't seem to be sensible to me, but I don't have all the information, so I'm not judging them. I'm just saying it doesn't look very sensible.

WEIR: Right.

David Soucie, Miles O'Brien, as always, appreciate your insight, fellows.

And coming up, it is not an answer, but it is a response, the strict new rules Malaysia airline pilots will have to follow, even though there's still no clue as to what happened in that cockpit.

And General Motors CEO hearing on more apologies on the day after the company has dragged -- discovered to have dragged its feet on a potentially deadly problem for 10 years. Would this stop you from buying a GM car?


WEIR: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Bill Weir, in for Jake today. And more on our world lead.

Now that investigators are removing much of the suspicion about passengers, scrutiny remains intently on the pilots and the crew of Flight 370. While there's not a shred of the evidence that the captain or co-pilot had anything to do with that sudden turn from the flight plan, Malaysia Airlines is putting strict new guidelines in place for its cockpits.

And our justice correspondent Pamela Brown is following this for us.

And we could start I guess with confirmation, what we have been reporting for a lot of days here, that this is criminal.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no, absolutely. But now, Malaysian officials are saying this on the record as we've been talk about on the show, Bill, and saying this is a criminal investigation. Also, we're learning from sources close to Malaysia Airlines, Bill, that the company sent out a memo to its employees basically boosting cockpit security.

Here's a couple of notes from that memo. One new rule prohibits any pilot or first officer being left in the cockpit alone. And then also if either need to leave the cockpit a senior cabin steward must take their place until they return.

Now -- and also, a new development today, Bill, that you've been talking about, is the fact that investigators say they have cleared all 227 passengers from being responsible for bringing down the plane. So that means that they are basically ruled out that those passengers were involved in a sabotage, hijacking, those other scenarios that we've been discussing, those possible theories. But I've spoken to an investigator here in the U.S., and he says basically -- he says how can you be so sure that these passengers didn't play a role in bringing down the plane?

Let's take a listen.


SHAWN HENRY, FORMER EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, FBI: You're talking about investigating passengers which resided in 14 different countries, which requires tremendous coordination internationally across law enforcement agencies. And to say that everything's been cleared is an outrageous statement in my mind. It takes many months to do a thorough investigation to look for any potential motive.


BROWN: However, police do say they will continue questioning passengers' relatives and anyone else who may have had access to the plane. But again as we heard there from Sean Henry, who was formerly with the FBI, it seems a little premature to clear all the passengers.

WEIR: You don't have to be a cop to say that doesn't make sense, how could they have gone through that list. Is this the equivalent of FBI in Malaysia or local police?

BROWN: Well, this is what we also need to make clear, we're dealing with a language difference here so perhaps something was lost in translation. I mean, that's been something that the experts I've been speaking to have been concerned about from the beginning because during the press conferences you hear certain words, we don't know if they said "cleared" means we didn't find anything in their background to mean alarming. But, of course, that says but to us is that means they've ruled out these passengers having any development.

So, perhaps there's a discrepancy with this, but, yes, it's the Malaysia police saying, look, we've cleared them.

WEIR: OK. Let's say that's true. Let's say they managed somehow to knock 227 people off the list. So, that leaves the crew and the pilots, which they've had 27 days to look into now. So how do you think that goes?

BROWN: Well, you know, authorities have been focusing a lot on the crew, of course, ever since this investigation really began. They've been focusing on the captain and the co-pilot from that doomed flight. So, if for no other reason than they were in charge in the cockpit but a senior Malaysian government official told CNN that they found nothing to indicate either of them are responsible for the plane's disappearance and at this point they're not accusing them but they're also not letting them off the hook along with those other crew members who had access to the cockpit.

But they continue to investigate down (AUDIO GAP) detail here, bill. We're talking what the crew members ate, if they ate the same meals, of course and who even prepared food. So, they're looking at everything.

And also interesting to note here, even though they're saying it's a criminal investigation, they're also saying that they're not ruling out mechanical malfunction as a possible cause. So bottom line, they just don't know why that 777 is missing.

WEIR: Don't know anything.

BROWN: They don't know anything.

WEIR: That's the latest on day 27.


WEIR: Pamela, thank you so much.

And coming up on our politics lead, the Supreme Court rules that it is your right to pump money to as many candidates as you want. But what does that mean for the future of elections?

And in the world lead, he was part of the group that stormed the U.S. embassy in Iran and took Americans hostage. Now he's been tapped to represent his country at the United Nations. And American lawmakers and former hostages -- they are livid.

Stay with us.


And we turn now to the politics lead. Another column of campaign finance reform just crumbled.

Today, the Supreme Court struck down the overall political donation limit. Now under the new ruling, you can still only give 5,200 bucks to a candidate per election cycle. But now, you'll be able to give 5,200 bucks to as many candidates as you want.

Chief Justice John Roberts says the cap on total donations intruded, quote, "without justification on a citizen's ability to express the most fundamental First Amendment activities," unquote.

Arguing on the other side in dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the change will create, quote, "huge loopholes of law and undermines, perhaps devastates what remains of campaign finance reform."

And American lawmakers, as you might imagine, are equally split.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: What I think this means is that freedom of speech is being upheld.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: All it does is take away people's rights because as you know, Koch brothers are trying to buy America.


WEIR: Let's bring in Dana Bash with more on this.

Good to see you.

So, tell me about the real-world implications. How is it going to affect this election cycle?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, when it comes to which party is going to benefit more, which is sort of along the lines of conversations that I've been having with sources today, it seems as though in a bipartisan way, there's sort of an agreement that it's probably going to be a wash that Democrats and Republicans are going to make more -- they have more money, particularly in the campaign committees because it's not just individual candidates but the campaign committees also can get unlimited donations from individuals.


BASH: But what opponents are really upset about is that it's not so much this specific decision. They see a pattern at the Supreme Court for just chipping away at limits for federal donations and that this is just the latest step for Citizens United, what was the biggest, but there could be more to come given the way the Supreme Court is ruling on all these issues. WEIR: Yes, Citizen United is, of course, a scourge for Democrats in this town. And President Obama got scolded by Samuel Alito. Remember that in the State of the Union?

But does this mean they lose power? Is this money that would have gone into a super PAC, so-called "dark money" now coming out into the light?

BASH: That is sort of the counter way to look at it. And some sources I talked to, even Democrats, are looking at it that way, saying, you know what, if there is a really rich person out there who has wanted to give more than the limits have allowed until today, then their only option was to get to these outside groups. Now, they can give in a more regulated, directed way to campaign committees and also to candidates.

The downside, of course, is that as somebody who watches members of Congress on Capitol Hill, many, many days, every day almost run from their committee rooms and run from their votes outside the Capitol to use every waking moment to dial for dollars.

WEIR: Right.

BASH: This is going to have to do that even more because there's more money available to everybody, which means they're going to have to spend more time raising money.

WEIR: I think most people would be stunned to realize how much time lawmakers spend asking strangers for money.

BASH: Yes, a lot.

WEIR: And this makes it worse.

BASH: Instead of doing the jobs their constituents sent them to do. I will tell you that to a person on both sides, they don't like it, and that's a bipartisan disdain.

WEIR: Dana Bash, thank you.

BASH: Thank you.

WEIR: In other politics news now, after the White House's muddled response to the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, he took the blame and then he took the exit. But former CIA deputy director, Michael Morell, today denied any kind of cover-up or political influence behind the edits he made to those now infamous talking points used by the White House. Yet he claims he was not the one who removed the reference to al Qaeda.

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee remain suspicious that the White House was pulling Morell's strings at the time.


REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: You made significant substantive changes for the White House, whether it was on behalf, we don't know, but we know you are the one who made those changes.

MICHAEL MORELL, FORMER CIA DEPUTY DIRECTOR: Ma'am, if you look at the record, what you will see is the changes I made were fully consistent with what our analysts believed at the time.


WEIR: Four Americans were killed in the September 11th, 2012, attacks in Benghazi including ambassador Chris Stevens.

For days afterward, the administration blamed a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim video which turned out to be false.

Up next here on THE LEAD, he has a duty to contribute to peace, security, and human rights, but has hostage-taker on his Iranian resume. So, now, the White House is under pressure from people on both sides of the aisle and from former hostages to keep him out of the country.