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Ferry Disaster Search; Biden Warns Russia; Interview With Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline; Dive Teams Reach Cafeteria Area of South Korean Perry; Bluefin-21 on 10th Underwater Mission

Aired April 22, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: You will not walk this road alone, Vice President Biden tries to assure the Ukrainians. Do they buy it? Does Putin?

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. He was speaking to the Ukrainians, but his warning was aimed at the Russians roosting on the border. The vice president comes bearing a $50 million gift for Ukraine, but Republicans want to know, why are weapons not part of the offer? Also in world news, a desperate initial call for help, but not apparently from the crew of that sinking South Korean ferry, CNN now confirming that a boy was thinking quicker than those at the helm as the disaster was happening.

And our money lead today. If there is one shred of evidence that those on board Flight 370 are dead, it has not been found. Yet, Malaysian officials are talking about issuing death certificates anyway. Will relatives accept that?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We will begin with the world lead.

What happened to you, Russia? It's like the U.S. can't even recognize you anymore, man. And by that, I mean it won't recognize Russia's seizure of Crimea from neighboring Ukraine. Vice President Joe Biden said so today during his during to Ukraine's capital, Kiev.


JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No nation has the right to simply grab land from another nation. No nation has that right. And we will never recognize Russia's illegal occupation of Crimea and neither will the world.


TAPPER: Native Americans shaking their heads somewhere.

While Biden was speaking, the White House puts your money where his mouth is, announcing a $50 million assistance package for Ukraine, which includes nonlethal aid for security forces. That's diplo-speak for no weapons. The veep's visit comes at a time when the Obama administration is putting stocks into claims by Ukrainian officials that photos prove Russian forces are operating in their country. Some of these so- called men in green who have seized government sites in Eastern Ukraine do look similar to Russian special forces who invaded the country of Georgia in 2008.

But CNN has not independently verified the photographs. Russia has scoffed at these claims, though, keep in mind, it has also about 30,000 troops perched along Ukraine's border, according to NATO's count.

Biden warned Russia of more sanctions if it doesn't end its "provocative behavior."

But Republicans such as Senator John McCain have a question about the effectiveness of the Obama administration's message.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Or else what? What is the vice president saying? If they continue to do this, what will we do?

No one in America wants boots on the ground. I totally accept that. But to keep telling everybody, don't worry, we're not going to have boots on the ground, we're not going to have boots on the ground, can we go one press conference without saying that?


TAPPER: The U.S. has banned visas and frozen assets on some Russian officials. Now the State Department says that the idea of sanctioning Russian President Vladimir Putin personally is not out of the question, though the Kremlin dismissed that idea as -- quote -- "absurd."

And while the U.S. is not committing to sending weapons to Ukraine, it's about to launch a major show of force with the help of Ukraine's neighbors. The Pentagon is not even trying to hide its motivation here. It says this is a direct result of what is going on in Ukraine right now.

Also in Ukraine right now, our own senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon.

Arwa, explain what the Pentagon is planning to do here.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they are going to be dispatching a few hundred troops to various countries in the region as part of a training exercise.

This is very much a symbolic gesture, Jake, also meant to send a warning to Russia. And when it comes to countries in the region, especially those that were part of the former Soviet Union, there's understandably a lot of concern. They do, many of them, have their own Russian-speaking population. So this is meant to, to a certain degree, alleviate some of their concerns, but at the end of the day, this move by the United States is not going to be altering the current dynamics on the ground at this stage, Jake.

TAPPER: Now, Arwa, you earlier reported on two bodies pulled out of a river from in the area, from what you are reporting. What can you tell us about that?

DAMON: These are two bodies that were pulled out from the river over the weekend, as far as the information that we are getting.

Only one of them has been identified so far. That is the body of a local politician who was part of the current acting president's political party. Both bodies were discovered mutilated, very difficult to identify.

The family, according to one of the local heads of this party, going to the morgue, identifying the body at this stage. It really just goes to show you that despite the Geneva Convention, whatever agreement may have been come to there, it's not had much of an impact on the ground.

We have that incident that took place, yet another incident where three pro-Russian demonstrators, protesters were killed at a checkpoint. We have had the takeover of yet another police station, the police chief there taken into custody and detained by these pro- Russian protesters. That took place yesterday, but there's been absolutely no indication whatsoever that the situation here is de- escalating.

In fact, tensions on the ground seem to be increasing as times goes by, all of this of course incredibly concerning.

TAPPER: Arwa Damon, thank you so much. And please stay safe.

Congressman David Cicilline of the House Foreign Affairs Committee is in Ukraine as part of a congressional trip. He's met with local leaders there, as well as with Vice President Biden, and he joins me now live from Kiev.

Congressman, thanks for being with us.

It's not just Republicans calling for lethal aid to the Ukrainians. It's the Ukrainians themselves. Presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, she has asked Congress to provide weapons to the Ukrainian military. Why are we saying no?

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Well, I think, you know, the more important point, Jake, is that at this point, part of the reason that we're here in a bipartisan delegation is to reaffirm to the Ukrainian people the support of the United States, to kind of see the facts on the ground.

We met with the acting president. We met with governor in the Eastern province, Eastern region, with civil society organizations that are working here. And I think what everyone thinks or understands is that we're at a very critical stage in this crisis.

We will have -- there will be elections on May 25. I think the agreement in Geneva gives an opportunity for Putin to back up some and to de-escalate the situation.

I think if he doesn't do that and he proceeds and attempts to interfere with these elections in any way, then we will have an opportunity to impose sanctions and to consider other options. But I think everyone is focused on what we can do to support Ukraine, to support their democratic aspirations and de-escalate the situation, rather than escalate it.

And there's still an opportunity to de-escalate it. I think these elections on May 25 are going to be critical. We have to insist that they be free and open and that there not be interference by Russia in those elections. And I think that will be a critical turning point for Congress.

TAPPER: And, Congressman, have you seen any evidence that things are de-escalating? All of the evidence we have from our reporters on the ground in Eastern Ukraine is that tensions are only ratcheting up and that the pro-Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine who have seized control of various government buildings say that they are not part of any -- anything brokered in Geneva, and they're going to keep doing what they are going to do.

What evidence do you have that this...


TAPPER: ... in Geneva has been successful?

CICILLINE: Well, I think, first of all, we see tremendous evidence of Russian propaganda, really sending out misinformation and exaggerating a lot of things that are under way.

What we saw, also, is the Ukrainian people's determination. We went to the Maidan, where the revolution began. We went to a city about 250 miles from here where they are doing a lot of work to both build up their military, rebuild their democracy.

These are determined people. And we have to stand with them. I don't think there's any evidence that it's de-escalated yet. I think the Geneva agreement is that opportunity. As the vice president said today, it's time for Russia to do what they said they would do and stop talking about it.

So, there's an opportunity for that. I think we need to keep the pressure on. I think we want to demonstrate, as part of the international community, that we stand with Ukraine as they attempt to protect their democracy, in the hopes that we will persuade Putin to back off.

If he doesn't back off and he continues with aggressive actions, we need to be prepared to enact serious sanctions, to impose a real punishment on him that will have an impact on his economy and his leadership and rally the international community to be part of that.

But we have to, I think, get through these elections and ensure that, as the president announced today, that there are resources so there are free and fair elections. That will then be a turning point, I believe, for Ukraine. They will have a democratically elected president and an opportunity to move forward. But we have to make it clear to Putin that this behavior is not acceptable.


TAPPER: Congressman, with all due respect, Crimea has already been seized. Vice President Biden said we cannot stand by and allow one country to take land from another. Hasn't that already happened?

CICILLINE: There's no question it's happened.

So, now the responsibility we have is to be part of the world community, the global community in responding to that and imposing some punishment. We cannot permit that kind of active aggression, a violation of international law to go unpunished.

The question is, can we impose sanctions, can we take actions which will impose punishment, short of joining or being part of a military action? I think we have a responsibility to exhaust those things first and attempt to impose serious sanctions on Vladimir Putin and on the Russian Federation, and, again, working with NATO and the international community, strengthen Ukraine.

The best -- the most dangerous thing for Vladimir Putin is a successful, democratic Ukraine, a strong Ukraine. And that's what we have to help accomplish by supporting them in every way that we can.

TAPPER: Congressman, aren't there Russian special forces or at least operatives of some sort in Eastern Ukraine right now?

CICILLINE: I don't think there is any question that there are Russian representatives or agents in parts of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian people, I think, know that. And this is, again, will be the responsibility of the Ukrainian people to stand up their democracy to respond to this, to be sure that elections go forward on May 25, to be sure that they are building the capacity both on the governance side and on the defense side to respond to this.

But this sort of Putin's playbook, to be destabilizing, to put into places around the region forces to destabilize Ukraine and to destabilize the Eastern part in particular. I think the Ukrainian people know that and I think they will continue to respond to it.

But we have a responsibility as part of an international effort to do all that we can. We did a billion dollars in loan guarantees. The vice president announced additional aid today. I think the international community will continue to do their part. But this is a -- you know, we went to the Maidan, where we saw 105 individuals' pictures, memorials of people who gave their life for the Ukrainian democracy and these are people who are committed and determined to do this, and we need to stand with them.

TAPPER: Congressman David Cicilline in Kiev, thank you so much for you time. We appreciate it.

Coming up on THE LEAD: The first call of help and it came not from the captain or from the crew of the sinking ferry, but from a boy, a passenger on the ship. So just what was the crew doing? New details coming up next live from South Korea.

Plus, with the first underwater search for Flight 370 almost complete and still no wreckage found, one family member says she wants the investigation to start over from the beginning.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

In other world news, before the captain or even crew members made the calls for help aboard a sinking South Korean ferry, first responders might have first been alerted about a problem by a student who made this desperate plea, "save us." Someone described as a student called emergency officials asking for help three minutes before the Sewol crew made the first distress call. The boy reportedly said the boat was sinking and he was transferred to the coast guard.

There have been 121 confirmed deaths from the accident and that number could rise dramatically in the coming hours, that's because dive teams have reached the cafeteria where many of the missing 181 passengers are thought to have been trapped.

CNN correspondent Kyung Lah is live from Jindo, South Korean, with the latest on the rescue effort -- Kyung.

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we're actually on the water. We're just outside the exclusion zone where this active search is still going on. It's continued in the overnight hours. It's just the early part of the day here.

I want to give you a sense, though, of what we're looking at. See these banks of lights behind me? All of this is coming from the boats in this very active search. If you look above, there are flares being dropped from planes to help light up the night's sky. This is something that they are doing so divers know exactly where they are because this is extremely, extremely murky water. The currents are quite good today.

If I can have you looked at one other thing, this barge that you're looking at, that barge is where the sunken ferry is. It's right below that. The search continuing as the investigation picks up steam.


LAH: Today, we learned that the first call for help came not from the captain but from a boy on board. The South Korean Coast Guard tells CNN that call happened a full three minutes before the ship's crew made its first distress call. More grim news from the search zone as search and rescue divers plunge into the cold, murky water hoping to find survivors nearly a week after the tragedy.

The search here is dangerous. Divers swim down more than 100 feet following guide ropes that lead them into the submerged ferry where they can barely see a foot in front of them. The low visibility and debris makes it nearly impossible to find their way around. Authorities say the efforts are still a search and rescue operation but no survivors have been found since 174 people were rescued last week, soon after the ferry went down.

Divers entered the ship's cafeteria on the third floor Thursday, and continue their focus on the third and fourth levels inside the lounge and cabin areas where they believe many of the students are located. The tough conditions and high body counts are taking a tough toll on divers.

BARD YOON, RESCUE DIVER (through translator): The conditions are so bad, my heartaches. We go in thinking there may be survivors. When we have to come back with nothing, we can't even face the families.

LAH: Meanwhile, two more crew members were arrested on Tuesday, bringing the total of those facing charges to nine. Their heads bowed and covered, they said they tried to reach the lifeboats as the ship was tilting over.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): But we slipped so we could not do that.

LAH: Chonghaejin Marine, the ferry operator, has posted an apology on its Web site. "We prostrate ourselves before the victims' families and beg for forgiveness", the Web site said. "We beg for forgiveness from the victims' families and pray for the dead."

Small consolation to family members on the shore, called into white dome tents to identify the remains of their loved ones.


LAH: Back here live on the Yellow Sea, at the search site, you can see the flares dropping to the water below, trying to help the rescuers as they deal with this very dark water.

Jake, you mentioned that they've reached the cafeteria. The number expected of the missing expected to drop. The death toll expected to rise.

And to give you a sense of how scary it is, divers tell us that the way that they are figuring it out, how they find the bodies, is that they are literally using their hands to feel around in the cabins and see if they can feel any dead bodies -- Jake.

TAPPER: Kyung Lah, thank you so much. A horrific story out of South Korea.

Coming up on THE LEAD, the underwater search for Flight 370 is nearly complete, and still no sign of the plane. Are search teams even looking in the right spot? Plus, he wasn't buying climate change until he witnessed it first hand. On this Earth Day, the images that changed this photographer's mind after he traveled to the ends of the earth with his camera.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In world news: there's still a sliver of hope that the Bluefin-21 will find signs of missing Flight 370 under water, but that hasn't stopped investigators from looking ahead to plan B.

The underwater vehicle is on its tenth mission to find the flight's black boxes or any other plane wreckage. But it's running out of places to look. It's already covered 2/3 of the six-mile radius where those possible black box pings were detected. And in the event that nothing is found, once the entire area is searched, Australian and Malaysian officials want to have the next steps already in place.

CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown is here with more.

Pamela, does this mean investigators will have to go back to the drawing board?


I don't think they have to start all over, per se, but investigators are now game planning their next move, and considering widening their search from where they are right now and possibly new tools to help in the search efforts.


BROWN (voice-over): The Bluefin-21 is almost done searching here. The underwater six-mile radius zone, considered the most likely area where the plane went down.

DAVID GALLO, CO-LED SEARCH FOR AIR FRANCE FLIGHT 447: If they were thinking, if you remember, that this was the bull's eye that they were going to throw the one dart of the Bluefin into the bull's eye, I think it might be time to make the bully's eye a bit bigger and expand that area.

BROWN: Crews could finish searching that zone in the next day. If nothing is found, investigators will regroup but it's not necessarily back to square one.

MICHAEL KAY, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: We only have a specific amount of data, a certain amount of date that that has led us to this part of the world. I think we have to be encouraged that we've been led to this very specific and small part of the Indian Ocean.

BROWN: The Bluefin has only searched around the second ping which was thought to be the most likely area. Now, Malaysian and Australian officials are working out an agreement for what comes next. It includes what happens to any debris when it is found, how human remains will be treated and the undersea search.

Investigators could widen or shape the undersea search zone, perhaps to include more pings or change techniques, like using a towed underwater vehicle that could cover a larger area. But the passengers' families aren't convinced that experts are doing everything that they should.

SARAH BAJC, PARTNER OF PHILIP WOOD: Well, we'll keep going back to wanting to start over with the investigation. You know, what they are doing now, searching in the ocean, is like continuing to wanting to bail out a boat when the hole in the boat hasn't even been found yet.

BROWN: Meanwhile, surface ships continue scouring the sea for wreckage, search planes were curtailed today due to tropical cyclone Jack, churning near the search zone. It's the second time a major storm like this has gone through this area since the Malaysian plane went missing.

In Beijing today, families of passengers on the plane hoping for a technical briefing were disappointed for a second day in a row.

It comes after a briefing Monday where technical experts did not arrive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's nothing much I can tell you.


BROWN: Meanwhile, the head of the investigations next of kin committee is traveling to Beijing to meet with Chinese officials and families, and he says he has to talk to them before announcing any action plans. Of course, we're going to be eagerly awaiting that, Jake.

TAPPER: Pamela, in terms of your Justice Department sources, what are they telling you? Anything turned up on the computer or on the flight simulator? Are they helping with the investigation in Malaysia?

BROWN: They are helping with the investigation in Malaysia. There hasn't been a formal request by Malaysians to bring in an FBI team but there have been agents helping there since day one. They have been in the command post and they are actually going through the hard drives still, the five hard drives from the co-pilot, the captain, looking to the simulator.

But my sources are telling me, Jake, that so far, there's nothing big jumping at them that would implicate either of them. But they are following up on leads. We know from the captain's simulator that there were routes in there that he didn't normally travel, and a few curious searches on the computer, what do during flight emergencies. But sources say there's nothing that jumps out at them that says, this makes sense, implicating them.

So, this investigation is ongoing. But as of now, they're not ruling anything in or out and they're just waiting eagerly for that black box. TAPPER: Very frustrating.


TAPPER: Pamela, thank you so much.