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Interview with State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki; What Next for Flight 370 Search?; Crisis in Ukraine; Bluefin-21 May Expand Search Area; Divers Found Cabin Crammed with Bodies

Aired April 25, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Ukraine's prime minister said today that Russia wants to start World War III.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead, split focus, President Obama managing or trying to the U.S. response to the crisis in Ukraine, while also on a trip to Asia. He says targeted sanctions against the Russians are -- quote -- "ready to go." But even he doesn't seem sure about the steps taken thus far. Does anyone know what to do next?

Also in world, remember when we were this close to finding Flight 370? Well, those hopes have faded faster than the black box pings. There's still nothing to show for all the searching. So what now?

And the politics lead.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Oh, don't make me do this.


TAPPER: That's House Speaker John Boehner. And, yes, he's been teased for shedding more tears than Claire Danes, but this time Speaker Boehner is doing the mocking, comparing his own party to cry babies, saying they are too afraid to tackle a vital issue.

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

We will begin with the world lead.

A busload of 13 people, most of them military observers from Europe, have been taken hostage by pro-Russian militants in an Eastern Ukraine city held by separatists, according to Ukraine's Interior Ministry. It's an ominous sign, and we have already seen plenty of those, that the situation inside that country is spinning out of control.

President Obama again today warned Russia of imminent consequences, but did so at a time when much of his attention has been taken up by his trip through Asia.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TAPPER (voice-over): This afternoon, Ukraine is ablaze in conflict, literally ablaze. Smoke from roadblocks and a destroyed Ukrainian military helicopter are darkening the sky.

The Ukraine prime minister today accused Russia of wanting to start the third world war. This issue is preoccupying the president, even as he tours through Asia. He took time to talk to the leaders of Europe today to discuss what is next for Ukraine, not that the president's trip to Asia is behind the scenes so picture-perfect, in addition to whatever awkwardness was apparent when he offered for Japan in its bitter land dispute rivalry with China.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So, obviously, this isn't a red line that I'm drawing. It is the standard interpretation over multiple administrations of the terms of the alliance.

TAPPER: The president's failure to reach a Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, trade deal that would part of his much ballyhooed pivot to Asia, was a disappointment and led critics to deem the trip all sushi, no success.

Today, the president landed in South Korea, just in time for those neighbors to the north in Pyongyang to begin what looked like preparations for a fourth nuclear weapons test.

OBAMA: The United States and South Korea stand shoulder to shoulder, both in the fact Pyongyang's provocations and in our refusal to accept a nuclear Korea -- North Korea.

TAPPER: Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that Secretary of State John Kerry has been pushing has scattered to the winds like a handful of sand.

OBAMA: This is a problem that's been going on for 60, 70, 80 years. We didn't anticipate that we were going to solve it during the course of a six- or nine-month negotiation.

TAPPER: There are limited successes here and there, but behind the smiles, the administration's ability to solve international problems seems faltering.

OBAMA: There are no guarantees in life generally, and certainly no guarantees in foreign policy.

TAPPER: No guarantees paired with little room for error leaves the administration on precipitous footing. And as Ukraine threatens to erupt, the president assures the nation that he's prepared.

OBAMA: We will continue to keep some arrows in our quiver, in the event that we see a further deterioration of the situation over the next several days or weeks.


TAPPER: One of those arrows in his quiver is sanctions, further sanctions on Russia. Senior U.S. officials tell CNN that those sanctions the president is talking about won't come this weekend.

They are actually expected to come down next some time next week, but Ukraine, of course, is on the brink now, the country bracing itself for the very real possibility for war.

Let's bring in our chief national correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, I want to start with this hostage situation in Eastern Ukraine. What do we know?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: These are observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the OSCE.

They were entering or attempting to enter the town of Slavyansk. And some of these pro-Russian militants that we have been talking about and reporting about recently took them and they accused one of their members of being a spy for the Kiev government. This is a group of international nations, half a dozen nations. They had some Ukrainian security guards and in effect they're accusing of trying to bring a spy in.

U.S. official says this kind of abduction, these kinds of abductions have been happening more often. And they leave no doubt as to who they hold responsible to say Russia very much has the ability to control these groups, and they are not doing that.

TAPPER: The OSCE is supposed to be brought in to help keep the peace, not be held hostage.

SCIUTTO: No question. That's exactly their role.

And they have had issues like this before. Early on in the crisis, they were trying to get into Crimea when things were messy there. They were blocked by pro-Russian separatists, this kind of thing. And this has been part of the discussions between the U.S. and Russian officials and Ukrainian officials to get observers on the ground there, one, to monitor to kind of keep the peace, not as peacekeepers, but to monitor the situation, and back up Russian claims that Russians, if they are indeed under threat there, are actually under threat.

TAPPER: I want to turn to the sanctions that are being proposed by President Obama. You have spoke to some Ukrainian officials. Are they happy?

SCIUTTO: They are not happy.

Of course, whenever they comment, they will always preface those comments by saying we are thankful for all the support that the U.S. and the West have offered to this point. But when you talk about this next round of sanctions being much like the first, targeting individuals, perhaps some institutions, they say that's not what we need now. That's not enough.

They have asked explicitly for weaponry. I went to U.S. officials and they said, listen, we're open to additional requests from the Ukrainians. We are not open to weaponry.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has totally brushed off the effectiveness of sanctions. Now Josh Rogin over at the Daily Beast is reporting that Putin has decided to cut off all high-level communications between the U.S. and Russia, at least in the short- term.

Let's bring in Jen Psaki. She's the spokeswoman for the State Department.

Jen, thanks for being here.


TAPPER: The Daily Beast reporting about Putin cutting off contact, high-level contact, at least in the short-term, can you elaborate on any of that?

PSAKI: Well, Jake, what I will say is, we still continue to work with Russian on a range of global issues, whether that's the removal of chemical weapons from Syria -- we're up over 90 percent -- or on the P5-plus-one talks to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapon.

I have seen the story and certainly the comments. But, in practice, we have continued to work with Russia, even while we have had strong disagreements about the steps they have taken in Ukraine.

TAPPER: Ukraine's prime minister says the Russia want to start World War III. If that is true, what is the U.S. prepared to do about it?

PSAKI: Well, we certainly hope that's not the case.

We continue to believe there's no military solution to what is happening on the ground in Ukraine. We're watching issues like troop movements very closely. We're working closely with the Ukrainian government, but out effort remains on a political issue here. And that's what we continue to works toward.

TAPPER: I will be frank. It doesn't look like whatever the administration is trying to do in Ukraine is working. Can you point to an example of success with the president's Ukraine policy?

PSAKI: Well, Jake, we have put in place several rounds of sanctions. Obviously, we're not just...


TAPPER: But they are not working, Jen.

PSAKI: Well, they are working.

Regardless of what the Russians say, the facts on the ground, the impacts on their economy, is a striking difference from what they are saying. TAPPER: Right. But, by the administration's own words, the Russians have agents in Eastern Ukraine. They have expanded beyond Crimea. So whether or not the sanctions are taking effect, they don't appear to be having any sort of deterrent effect.

PSAKI: Well, Jake, what is happening in Eastern Ukraine right now, beyond Crimea, is really focused around Slavyansk.

That's the area where we have seen the OSCE monitors be captured. That's the area where we have seen a lot of activity by the separatists. But, again, this does not mean that we should not still continue to take actions, including additional sanctions, putting additional consequences in place.

We are seeing an impact. We have seen even President Putin admit this week that there's an impact on the Russian economy from the steps we have taken.

TAPPER: Why not consider what several Republicans and even some Democrats are calling for, which is military aid to the Ukrainian military so they can defend themselves?

Of course, they will never be able to match Russia, but they might be more of a deterrent if they have weapons in their possession that the U.S. has provided.

PSAKI: What we don't want to get into here is a proxy war with Russia. And you're right. You touched on it. We're never going to get to the point where the Ukrainian military can match what the Russian military is capable of.

But our hope here is to de-escalate, prevent military action, address what is happening with Russian separatists. And we're continuing to work on that.

TAPPER: I want to shift to North Korea, because today North Korea said that it detained a 24-year-old American they described Miller Matthew Todd. Probably, his name is Matthew Todd Miller.

As he was seeking asylum, they say -- it apparently happened on April 10, more than two weeks ago. They announced it while President Obama was in South Korea, not surprisingly. How long has the U.S. government known about Matthew Miller being in North Korea?

PSAKI: Well, Jake, there are a range of reports out there about a U.S. citizen. Because of privacy concerns, I can't discuss them.

I can tell you that, as in any case, we are in touch with our protecting power, which is Sweden, to look into more details about these reports.

TAPPER: All right. Jen Psaki, State Department spokesperson, we appreciate it. Thanks for coming on.

PSAKI: Thank you, Jake. TAPPER: Coming up next, the unexplored area is rapidly shrinking in the patch of ocean where that robo-sub is searching for Flight 370 still coming up snake eyes, so what is the next move?

And, as more bodies are pulled from that doomed ferry off South Korea, rescuers are now painting a very grim and tragic portrait of its final hours.

Stay with us.


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

In other world news, we are 50 frustrating days into the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, 50. And investigators find themselves staring down this harsh reality. They may have wasted weeks searching the wrong haystack for their needle.

The Bluefin-21 is scouring the remaining 5 percent of the search zone where the plane's black boxes were thought to be, based on those pings. But if it comes up empty again, investigators will more than likely have to stretch the search area out even farther.

Here with more is CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown.

Pamela, what other strategy changes can we expect in the days to come?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, experts and officials involved with this search say that a decision has been made to expand the search to areas adjacent to the six-mile radius around the second ping where the bluefin is now. But with nothing turning up so far and with so many unanswered questions, the passengers' family members are venting their frustration and demanding the Malaysian ambassador in Beijing speak to them.


BROWN (voice-over): Fifty days spent searching for Flight 370, and still nothing, fueling frustration among passengers' family members. Outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing, families of the Chinese passengers angry, demanding answers, chanting "no more delays, no more lies."

REPORTER: What do you concretely want from the Malaysian government right now?

STEVE WANG: The truth. The thing they're hiding.

BROWN: With the Bluefin coming up empty, crews are now expanding the search to areas adjacent to the six-mile radius surrounding the second ping.

JEFF WISE, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: It's really a hot mess right now. We were given in very strong indications and strong language that the plane would turn up with these pings have been detected. That is a powerful piece of evidence that the pings do not correlate to the wreckage. The wreckage was not where it was promised.

BROWN: Still, no word of whether submersibles like the Bluefin will be deployed.

FABIEN COUSTEAU, OCEAN EXPLORER: It would be wonderful to have a fleet of them to be able to cover a larger area in a same amount of time, but as you pointed out, there are few of them out there. There are other tools out there, ROVs, AUVs, and, of course, submersibles, that have their depth limits, that can be used in this particular circumstances, in the right order and in the right fashion. And only if we have tangible evidence of where to search.

BROWN: Now, we're learning resources are pulling out of the search. The Royal Navy today says the HMS Tireless, the only submarine in the search is done, saying there is no longer any prospect of detecting black box pings and now one of the surface ships, the HMS Echo returning to port to refuel, living it out of the loop for now.


BROWN: And officials have said the area to the north of where they're searching now is also seen as a promising spot based on the strength of the ping there. So, the expectation is that the Bluefin could make its way there as the search expands. But, Jake, the fact that we're nearly two months in, and really, the only thing that we have to go off of are the pings and satellite data where the plane might be is, of course, just adding to family members' frustration.

TAPPER: I can only imagine the pain.

Pamela Brown, thank you so much.

I want to bring in CNN analysts Dave Soucie, author of "Why Planes Crash", and Rob McCallum, an ocean search specialist.

David, I'll start with you. The Royal Navy just withdrew the HMS Tireless submarine from the search. Does this mean investigators are frankly giving up and losing hope entirely?

DAVID SOUCIE, CNN SAFETY ANALYST: No. Again, I think it's a distribution of assets. It indicates to me that they are taking a little bit of time to regroup, to understand where they are with it, reassess, and then move forward again. So, I don't see something that it's something that they are giving up. There maybe a little bit less urgency though. But I don't see it as anything giving up at all.

TAPPER: The SMS Tireless submarine is being withdrawn. Rob, the SMS Echo is headed to Perth, it will arrive in Perth in coming days to refuel and restock. Do you agree with David that there is a waning sense of urgency in this search?

ROB MCCALLUM, CNN A NALYST: Yes, I do. You know, there's always a sense of urgency in the beginning of a search, first to look for survivors and then to try and capture any debris or in this case pinger signals. But once those chances are gone, then there needs to be a tempo shift, if you like, and it's about accuracy rather than speed.

So, whatever is done from now on, we need to be very, very sure that we haven't missed anything, than once an area is being searched, it can be ruled out of the equation and that's going to be the focus in the weeks ahead.

TAPPER: David, why did the emergency beacon for the plane not work? Why didn't the beacon theoretically send a distressed signal to satellites overhead? I thought as soon as it crashed or hit the water, that was supposed to happen.

MCCALLUM: You know, that's a very good question. And the emergency locator beacon is mounted in such a way that it's really an anti or deceleration device. It's not looking for a hard impact like a hard landing, that sort of thing. They just don't go out in that scenario. So, there's that fact and the other fact is that they're not designed to work under water.

So, once they go under water, there's no effect for it. It's more of a land-designed unit. However, if there was a hard impact, where the aircraft entered the water really at a steep angle, it would go off. But remember, it takes 50 seconds for it to ping and it only pings once for half a second every 50 seconds.

So, if that aircraft hit the water, split, and sunk very quickly, it's probable that the signal would not have escaped the water. It would have been underneath the water at that time.

TAPPER: It sounds like a very narrow window for that even work. Rob, the Malaysian prime minister tells CNN that they will be releasing their preliminary report next week. They've already given it to the United Nations.

Is there anything in particular that you expect to come to light, anything in particular that you'll be looking for?

MCCALLUM: No. I think it's just good to have those open books and the main audience, if you like, will be the families. The official information is already available to search controllers and it's being used to inform the search as it proceeds.

And the primary bit of evidence that everybody is working off of at the moment other than these pinger signals is that data from the satellite, those handshakes. That's what led us down to that part of the world and what will keep us here for the time being.

TAPPER: David, is it possible that these pings that authorities were such a strong sign of the plane, there were four different rounds of pings, is it possible they just got it wrong?

SOUCIE: No. Not in my eyes. What they did is they went after the ping that's in the center of all of the pings. So, that's one approach and you could do it that way and the reason they picked that location is because the equipment that they had aboard the ship could look in that area. So I don't think that it was the most promising area for finding the aircraft although it was broadcast that way and appeared to be that way. But I think the most promising area is where they had a long period of pings, which is the number one ping for two hours they got it there.

But remember, that's a much deeper part of the ocean, a much more difficult area to search. There's more rocks, there's more ridges. It's on a slope. There's a lot more to searching in those other areas. But, you know, I think expanding the search is the right thing to do and I don't think we should give up on the idea that those pings are real and that they are from the aircraft.

TAPPER: David, if you're saying that the first ping, that they weren't looking in that area even though it was the most promising, that sounds like the person looking for their keys under a specific street light because the light was better than where they actually lost their keys. It sounds like a bad decision was made.

SOUCIE: I don't think it's a bad decision because, you know, it's possible it could be under the number four ping. But in my estimation -- and I'm not expert. I've got to quality that. But if you're looking at those pings and the dome that it would have created coming from that ping, then I would have started the search from within that area that it was most likely that the stronger signals were coming from.

If we knew what the amplitude was of those pings, which they haven't told us, then you could narrow it down better and that may be just well the reason that they used the number two ping, because its amplitude may have been higher. If that was true, and I knew about that, that's where I would go, too. But I think the number one ping is where they are headed and I think that's -- their best chance at this point of finding the aircraft.

TAPPER: David Soucie and Rob McCallum, thank you so much.

Coming up on THE LEAD: divers searching the sunken ferry in South Korea make a gruesome discovery. We'll you all the latest from the scene.

Plus, Speaker John Boehner is taking public shaming to a whole new level. We'll tell you what the House speaker's GOP colleagues did that bring him to tears -- crocodile tears, that is.


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

In other world news: a discovery onboard a sunken South Korean ferry paints a horrifying picture of its final moments before it sank. Dive teams found the bodies of 48 girls wearing life jackets. They were crammed into a cabin meant to hold only 30 people. Officials believe the girls sought refuge in the same room when the ship began to go under. The tragedy became the focal point of a meeting between President Obama and South Korea's president.

Obama paid his respects to the victims and offered condolences to their families. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know my visit comes at a time of great sorrow for your nation. And again, on behalf of all Americans, I want to express our deepest condolences -- our aedo -- to all the families who lost loved ones on the ferry Sewol. So many were young students with their entire lives ahead of them.

I'm a father of two daughters of the same age or close to the same age as those who were lost. And so, I can only imagine what the parents are going through at this point, the incredible heartache.


TAPPER: CNN correspondent Kyung Lah joins me now on the phone from Jindo, South Korea.

Kyung, even though search teams had essentially given up hope on finding any survivors, these latest discoveries have to be very difficult.

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): It's very difficult because divers are still going down there, Jake. We're on the water. We can definitely see that there's still this effort to try to find people, even though these discoveries are becoming increasingly more gruesome. Divers are now trying to reach another room where they believe there are 50 girls who sought refuge, girls who were huddling together as the water was rising around them.

So, it is horrific in finding. It is horrific in thinking about what these children went through. They are also expanding the search now. The government and the search teams here are asking that nearby fishing boats and towns become involved. They are asking the public to report anything unusual they see.

What we've seen on the water is that they are trying to make sure that the bodies don't drift and the site -- scanning the search zone, Jake, it certainly seems that they are concerned that they were not successful in containing the bodies to just to the immediate search area. So, it is getting increasingly more difficult, 185 people dead so far. There's still 117 missing.

TAPPER: Kyung, divers say that the life vest that the victims were wearing may have made it harder for them to escape. Of course, you're not supposed to put on your life vest until you're out in the air.