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Russian Fighter Jet Flies Too Close For Comfort; How Cell Phones Factor Into Missing Malaysia Air Flight; Congress And Unpaid Taxes; Obama, Putin Talk On Phone;

Aired April 14, 2014 - 16:30   ET



In other world news: call it too close for comfort. U.S. officials say a Russian fighter jet made a dozen low-altitude passes over the USS Donald Cook in the Black Sea this weekend in what could be most direct confrontation between the United States and Russian forces in years. Officials say the plane appeared to be unarmed but the Pentagon is still calling the fly-by provocative and unprofessional. And if that's not reminiscent enough of the Cold War for you, guess who was in Kiev this weekend? The CIA director, John Brennan. That's the fact what we've learned today from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, even though the CIA had already refused to comment on Russian media reports that Brennan was in Kiev.

Meanwhile, the crisis on the ground threatens to spill over. Pro- Russia protesters, that's what we're calling them now, have control over the police headquarters of another Eastern Ukrainian city and are refusing to blink as the ultimatum from the Ukrainian government passes without apparent consequences.

Nick Paton Walsh has been following all of this from Donetsk, Ukraine.

Nick, it's starting to look like the Ukrainians' threat of force against these protesters didn't have a lot of teeth. What is the situation where you are right now?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you're right, Jake. We are seeing minimal sign of the Ukrainian government and law enforcement in this area at all. I went to the (INAUDIBLE) behind me, and people in there actually are no longer worried about the siege at all. They said we saw a Ukrainian military helicopter with an armed attack helicopter escort pass over the center of Donetsk earlier on today, but this broader threats of force and anti-terror operation held out by the interim president if the deadline for disarming wasn't met by the pro-Russian protesters has really passed that instant (ph).

We have another one, too, 48 hours ago which passed with a pretty aborted attempt at a security operation to free the town of Slaviansk, where much of the pro-Russian militant violence has in fact been focused. There are reports now, some on Russian media, of Ukrainian armor movements happening in this area, but we have not seen any substantial efforts. And as you mentioned yourself, a remarkable admission from the White House that CIA director John Brennen did in fact come to Kiev. That will feed the Russian belief - or the Russians claims, certainly -- that they are pushing extraordinarily hard for state-backed media in Moscow, that somehow the West is fueling this, orchestrating this, when of course, Washington itself says Russian is more likely behind it.

Frankly, if you look at the organization, the coordination of what is happening here, while there are no obvious signs of Russian involvement, something other than these local protests, at times quite rag-tag, must be calling the shots here. Jake?

TAPPER: And Nick, this jet nearly buzzing a U.S. ship, from that to the continuing riots, do you think the area is gearing up for an actual armed confrontation?

WASLH: You know, Jake, this is an extraordinary, surreal time to be in Ukraine. And I've been covering this for over a decade. Ukraine has never been a place of political violence. But we're seeing such tension being fermented here. The anger in the pro-Russian protesters' voice and in their behavior against those who don't share their opinion is quite so remarkable. It's like someone's in the touch (INAUDIBLE), and they don't quite know what it's connected to.

We have these 40,000 Russian troops across the border and they're overshadowing everything here. If the Ukrainian government moves in with any sense of force at all, Russia may militarily be enough (ph). What everyone is very worried about at the end of the day is the Ukrainian government. Damned if they do, damned if they don't. If they don't intervene strongly, they may lose respect in eastern Ukraine if not sway the territory here entirely, fall out of the control of the central government. But if they don't -- if they do move, they run the risk of the Russian military coming in heavy handedly. It's a lose-lose, frankly, and I don't really know what NATO can do to assist, either, given nobody really wants to stir the Russian bear too hard. Jake?

TAPPER: Nick Paton Walsh in Ukraine, thank you so much.

In other world news, they helped expose just how much the government is really watching you. Now both "The Guardian" and "The Washington Post" have won the higher honor in journalism for it. The Pulitzer Prize. No specific reporters were named, but several played a role using secrets lifted by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Some of them, such as Glenn Greenwald, who is now with First Look Media, and Barton Gellman with "The Washington Post" have appeared right here on THE LEAD to talk about their stories.

As for Snowden, he's presumably still in Russia where he has been granted temporary asylum. "The Boston Globe" also won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, which happened one year ago tomorrow.

Coming up, did one of the pilots of Flight 370 try to make a phone call minutes after the plane's last communication? Sources say the co- pilot's phone was picked up by a cell tower, but why weren't any passenger phones recognized as well? That's coming up. Plus, they write the tax laws, but these members of Congress are no strangers to tax problems of their own. A first on CNN investigation coming up.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. More now on our World Lead.

It's one of the first things we're all told to do when we get on a plane, turn off our cell phones. But did the pilots from Flight 370 do that, too? CNN's justice correspondent Pamela Brown joins me with more. Pamela, there's been these reports that the pilot or co-pilot's phone was on. What are your sources telling you?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: So, this based on data that Malaysians shared with U.S. investigators, Jake. And essentially we're learning here that the co-pilot, the first officer's cell phone was on and searching for service nearly half an hour after the plane's communications mysteriously shut off. And so we're learning, Jake, that this is unusual, the fact that the phone was on. That it's standard operating procedure for crews to shut off their phones.

So, the fact that the phone appeared to be on and appeared to connect with a cell tower in an area in Penang, Malaysia, which is about 250 miles away from where the plane turned around. That tells you something: that the phone was on. It reaffirms the data that the plane did turn around and made that westward turn. And that it must have been flying at a low enough altitude for the cell phone to connect with that cell tower. But important to make clear here, Jake: there's no indication that an actual phone call was made.

TAPPER: Does that mean that a call wasn't made or just that they don't know?

BROWN: They don't know. And that's a good point. So, he could have attempted to make a phone call, and just because there was communication between the tower and cell phone doesn't mean that he could have actually made a cell phone that would have connected.

And also interesting to note here, Jake, is that the cell tower, as far as we know according to sources, only picked up the co-pilot's cell phone. Only detected the co-pilot's cell phone, which is an indication and suggests that his was the only cell phone that was actually turned on and not on airplane mode.

TAPPER: Do we know whether he turned it on and whether it had been on the entire flight? Do we have any way of discerning that yet?

BROWN: That's a good question, and we don't have any way of discerning that at this point. We just simply don't know if he turned it on during the flight which, of course, would be telling if he did, or if it was on from the moment the plane took off. So those are, of course, questions that the investigators are asking. And they've searched passengers' phone records as well as the crews' phone records. And again, no indication that any phones calls were placed. TAPPER: And so, it's just this one phone. Because one would think if there was some precipitating event and everybody was alarmed, a lot of phones would go on. But we only know of this one.

BROWN: We only know of this one. And I think that's interesting. It's sort of curious, if you will, the fact that the cell tower only picked up one phone and if other phones were turned on, it likely would have picked up those phones as well, according to experts I've been speaking with.

So why it was on, we just don't know. It doesn't tell us who was alive, who was dead and what the motive was, but it is certainly is curious.

TAPPER: Interesting. Another data point. Pamela Brown, thank you so much.

Let's bring in our panel of experts for more on this. Keith Masback is CEO of the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. And Captain John Gadzinski is a former pilot and aviation consultant for Four Winds Consulting.

Captain Gadzinski, I want to start with you. How unusual is it for a pilot to have his phone on in flight?

CAPT. JOHN GADZINSKI, AVIATION CONSULTANT: It's pretty unusual but it's not unheard of. Normally we have a what's called a "before push checklist," which is the last checklist that you do before you push the plane back, start the engines and get ready for taxi. That's normally the time that the pilots look at their phones and put them into airplane mode or turn them off. Every once in a great while you'll see a guy that will forget to do that and keep his phone on, and he'll find his battery pretty much drained by the end of the flight.

The way that you can find that out is you can tell which cell towers are listening to that phone and connecting with that phone during the taxi out and takeoff of the plane, and that should be a fairly easy thing for the authorities to do as when the jet took off. They should be able to tell whether his phone was on because they can tell when the airplane pushed, when the airplane taxied out, when the airplane was cleared for takeoff on the runway. And if there were cell phone towers hitting on the cell phone at that point in time, then you know he may have just left it on. If it was not being hit and he turned it on some point in time in flight, then that may be another clue that might tell us something further down the road.

TAPPER: Interesting. Keith, what do you think is the next logical step in this investigation?

KEITH MASBECK, CEO, U.S. GEOSPATIAL INTELLIGENCE FOUNDATION: Well, I think, Jake, what do we know? We know that this cell phone hit, the cell phone affiliation from Penang sort of correlates with those Inmarset pings and this air defense radar data. So, there are some things that we know. I think we've touched on just in the last few minutes some things that we don't know, this odd sort of thing that no other phones were on on that plane? What we hear is like, 30 percent of people forget to turn off their phone or just don't comply. Over in Asia, where you have an proliferation of cell phones, even before we had them necessarily as widely used as United States . So, that seems odd to me. I'm thinking as an intelligence professional that that sort of stands out here.

TAPPER: What would it indicate to you? What would it suggest to you?

MASBECK: I think we've got to see some further investigation. We've seen piece parts, right? We're seeing pieces of information come out over time. And I think what we're going to see as this investigation continues is dribs and drabs of information as they go back through the data, as they follow new leads. I think I'd be surprised to see that this would be the only cell phone on on that aircraft.

TAPPER: John, if the transponder stopped working due to some sort of mechanical issue but the co-pilot's phone could still get a signal, would it not have made sense for him to make a mayday call using the phone? That's obviously a hypothetical, but it would have made some sense, I would think.

GADZINSKI: Well, what makes this incident really an outlier is there are many backup systems and communication devices available to the crew. The transponder was definitely a backup means. And you have to remember, they had two -- at least two operating and independent radios for voice communication. They had one operating radio for ACARS communication, and they had the transponder for radar signal and communication.

And for all of those things to be shut out, to stop working, means either a massive electrical failure, which is highly unlikely with an aircraft with that many backup systems, or something else that we can't even imagine right now. Which really points to the fact that it is very important that we find this airplane because these are some clues that don't -- aren't normally uncovered in the normal safety systems research that we do.

TAPPER: Keith, how can investigators use this new information to piece together what happened? If you were in charge of the investigation, taking this data point that the phone was on, what else would you now be looking for?

MASBECK: Well, I would want to see the records from the phones that are associated with the other passengers on that manifest. As the pilot pointed out, we're going to be able to see that. Those phones would be affiliated while that aircraft was taxing and taking off and before it got to altitude and left Malaysian airspace and outside from where it could communicate with the cell phone towers. So, I think that would be very, very interesting at this point. And that would tell us a little bit more about this idea that we have this single phone that affiliated. So that would be the first place I'd go.

TAPPER: Keith, Captain John, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it. I hope that Malaysian government officials heading this investigation are listening.

Coming up, this just in: what do you say to another world leader after one of his military jets throws a little chin music at your navy in the middle of the Black Sea? Well, President Obama is just getting off a potentially very awkward phone call with his friend, Vladimir Putin.

Plus, they're responsible for writing the tax laws, yet several members of the powerful House, Ways and Means committee, well, they have had tax problems themselves. Our CNN investigation is coming up.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD, our "Money Lead" now. Tax day is tomorrow. I don't know if you need any reminding. But while Americans are scrambling to make sure all 1099s are in order, you'd expect members of the House Ways and Means Committee, the ones who write our nation's tax laws, you would expect that they would know how not to run afoul of the IRS. But as our own Chris Frates reports, some of those lawmakers continue to face tax problems of their very own.


CHRIS FRATES, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The powerful House Ways and Means Committee is responsible for writing our nation's tax laws. Yet a CNN investigation has found that at least eight of the committee's 39 members have faced tax problems of their own. Take New York Congressman Tom Reed. He's been late paying his property taxes not once, not twice, but 46 times since 2005. According to county records, he racked up more than $6200 in penalties and interest on more than $100,000 in taxes.

On this stunning lakefront property in New York Finger Lakes and this corning home, Reed missed a combined 16 tax payments in nine years. These four buildings had a total of 20 late payments in the past eight years and the list goes on.

(on camera): What happened? Why were you late on your taxes?

REPRESENTATIVE TOM REED (R), NEW YORK: Well, it's just like a lot of people. These are things that just happen and they were paid in the allotted time.

FRATES (voice-over): But unlike a lot of people, Reed is a member of Congress writing our nation's tax laws.

(on camera): Should you be helping write the tax laws if you are having trouble following them?

REED: Well, I mean, this is real property tax bills, which is different than what the Ways and Means Committee does with income tax. We're paying them within the allotted time and that's it.

FRATES (voice-over): Reed likened the late tax payments to missing a utility bill, saying that while he was late and paid penalties because of it, the taxes never went unpaid. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's outrageous.

FRATES: Steve Ellis is with Taxpayers for Common Sense.

STEVE ELLIS, TAXPAYERS FOR COMMON SENSE: Nobody wants to feel like a chump when they are paying their taxes and if they see that their lawmakers, the ones who actually write the tax laws are not paying their bills, it's going to make them wonder why they are paying theirs.

FRATES: Then there is Ohio Congressman Jim Renacci. For years, he fought state tax officials, refusing to pay nearly $1.4 million in backed income taxes, interest, and penalties. Renacci declined several interview requests. But a spokeswoman said he was, quote, "appealing a unilateral and retroactive tax."

But the Ohio tax commissioner disagreed writing in the final ruling that his fellow Republican, quote, "failed to act in good faith." Renacci finally paid his bill. Another Ohioan, Representative Pat Tiberi was criticized for not paying employment taxes on his campaign workers instead of hiring employees for the 2008 and 2010 campaigns, he hired consultants as independent contractors and avoided the payroll taxes. The Republican said the practice was above board.

(on camera): And you feel like you followed the IRS?

REPRESENTATIVE PAT TIBERI (R), OHIO: Absolutely. We have a tax lawyer. That's a reason why campaigns are so expensive because we have a CPA who does our filing. We have tax lawyers that are on call to make sure that we follow the letter of law.

FRATES (voice-over): Tax issues by other Ways and Means members run the gamut from the tiny. Paul Ryan had to pay a $59 fine for understating his income to the mundane Indiana Republican Todd Young paid $1,500 in tax penalties after a mortgage escrow mix-up to the outrageous, Florida Republican Vern Buchanan's IRS problems cost him $2.5 million.

But perhaps the biggest price was paid by New York Democrat Charlie Rangel who lost his chairman of the committee. He was centered in part because he failed to pay taxes on the rental income from his Swank Villa in the Dominican Republic.

ELLIS: Lots of Americans run on foul tax laws, but you think the people who are actually writing it wouldn't get this wrong.


FRATES: We checked out every member of the committee, both Democrats and Republicans. And while some of these tax issues could happen to anybody, others are more egregious. But regardless of their severity, the fact remains that 20 percent of the men and women in charge of writing the national's tax laws have had tax problems themselves -- Jake.

TAPPER: Chris Frates, thank you for that. When we come back, the Pentagon is calling the move provocative. So what did President Obama say to Vladimir Putin about the Russian fighter jet coming very close to a U.S. Navy ship? Their phone conversation just ended. We've got the details coming up next.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Some breaking news now on the crisis in Ukraine. Moments ago we learned that President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone this afternoon. According to the National Security Council, the chat comes after the news that a Russian jet reportedly flew way too close to a Navy warship in the Black Sea this weekend, making about a dozen low level passes on the USS Donald Cook and heightening an already tense situation in the region.

CNN White House correspondent, Michelle Kosinski has the story. Michelle, what are we learning about this call?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, so far, you know, when these things happen, we hear from both sides. We get a summary usually first from the White House and then from the kremlin and their vastly differing accounts of what went on in that meeting or phone call. It almost seems like it's an entirely different conversation. That's what happened the last time President Obama and Putin spoke on March 28th.

This time though we know that the call took place. That's been confirmed, but so far we're just hearing the summary from the kremlin and they are saying that the protests that have been going on beyond Crimea and now into Eastern Ukraine are the result of, as the kremlin puts it, the Kiev's authorities inability and unwillingness to take into account the needs and the Russian speaking populations within that area.

Blaming it on Kiev, basically, saying that they haven't done enough to cater to the people there and take their rights into account and the kremlin called America's use of the term meddling, accusing Russia of meddling in Ukraine, they called that inaccurate. And that the kremlin called on Ukraine to craft a new constitution that would focus on those other populations within Ukraine.

Well, the U.S. take -- we don't have the read-out on the phone call just yet. We expect that very soon, but the U.S. is seeing this entirely differently and increasingly over the last couple of weeks, we've seen the Obama administration use much stronger language in defining that situation. We haven't seen additional action.

In fact, today the press secretary was just barraged by questions from reporters as to why the U.S. hasn't taken further action against Russia because, you know, clearly the situation is escalating. In fact, we know that President Putin spoke to President Yolanda France today and the White House said that Russia has been involved in a campaign to undermine and destabilize the Ukrainian government. That's pretty strong language and that's been continuing -- Jake. TAPPER: Michelle Kosinski at the White House, thank you. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I turn you over to Wolf Blitzer now. He is in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Jake, thanks very much.