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Malaysia Airlines Flight Crashes In Ukraine; 280 Passengers and 15 Crew Members Onboard Plane; Malaysia Plane Shot Down

Aired July 17, 2014 - 13:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm also here with Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona. Again, just in terms of capabilities, though, we have not seen separatists heretofor able to bring down a plane at this kind of an altitude. They have brought down two Ukrainian transport planes, or at least one was a transport plane, two Ukrainian military planes earlier, but they were not high flying at 33,000 feet.

LT. COLONEL RICK FRANCONA, UNITED STATES AIR FORCE: Right. Yes, this would require, as we were talking about, a more sophisticated system. Talking about, you know, hitting it inadvertently, it would be very difficult for that to happen. Generally, once you're locked onto the target, it goes to that target. And if it veers off of that target and is no longer being guided, they self-destruct.

COOPER: But are you -- but when you're -- when you're targeting a plane at that altitude, are you clear on exactly what kind of a plane it is?

FRANCONA: You would -- no, it's a return on your radar.

COOPER: Right. So, --

FRANCONA: It'll be -- it'll be a certain size, you can estimate the size of the aircraft. You may have other sensors that tell you what it is. But, you know, once you're getting radar returns and you -- and you engage the weapon, it just follows the radar path right up to the aircraft.

COOPER: To Bob Baer's earlier point that this is all trackable, that we will soon know where this missile, if that, in fact, is what it was fired from. Do you believe that? Is --

FRANCONA: If we have the right sensors in the right place at the right time, yes.

COOPER: Right, if you were monitoring (INAUDIBLE.)

FRANCONA: Yes, if you were looking for it, the radar signals can be intercepted. You can analyze those after the fact. Can you even sometimes detect the launch of the missile? But your sensors have to be aimed at that -- at that spot at that time.

COOPER: And do we know if Ukrainian government, which, I mean, their military capabilities have come under a huge amount of questions over the last couple of months. Although they have -- FRANCONA: Yes.

COOPER: -- improved lately whether they would have the capabilities of monitoring that area?

FRANCONA: The Ukrainian armed forces would be able to detect the radars. That would -- that's very easy to do.

COOPER: So, they should be able to -- whether one believes them or not, but they should be able to identify where this -- where this --

FRANCONA: They should be able to not only --

COOPER: -- missile was fired from?

FRANCONA: -- identify where, they should be able to tell us what kind of radar it was. There would be multiple radar signals. There'd be -- there'd be a search radar. There would be an acquisition radar. There'd be a guidance radar. So, they should be able to determine all that. If they have that information, that surely indicates a launch of a weapon and that this was a shoot down. Absent that, we don't know. Was this an on-board explosion? Was it hit with something?

COOPER: There's questions also about command and control of a -- of a device like that over who exactly would make such a call to actually fire that kind of a weapon. How organized the command and control it is.

FRANCONA: The Russian air defense, when they move, they're all networked together. And someone is in charge. Now, if this is a division asset, the division commander, of course, would make that decision. But if -- as Bob was saying, if they were provided to the separatists, and I think that would be a remote possibility, you know, the systems are self-contained. Once you've got the -- you know, the radar system and the missile system and you've got it up and running --

COOPER: Someone locally can do it.

FRANCONA: It's very easy to do. Yes, yes.

COOPER: It's not a centralized command.

FRANCONA: No, it would not have to be controlled, say, at a filter center up where -- in the chain of command.

COOPER: But, again, you believe the likelihood that one -- the -- any of these separatist groups, that we have seen operating over the last three and a half months in this conflict, that they would have the weaponry capable of bringing down a plane at this altitude?

FRANCONA: I agree. I think that's exactly right. Hitting something at 33,000 feet requires a much more sophisticated capability than a man pads or something that a dissident group would have.

COOPER: Our Jim Acosta is standing by at the White House. We've been hearing reports about conversations between Russia and the United States. Jim, what are you hearing?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right. Well, we reported earlier this morning, Anderson, that President Obama and Vladimir Putin had a phone call earlier this morning to talk about those sanctions that the U.S. imposed on Russia. And it was unclear, according to White House press secretary Josh Ernest, as to whether or not President Obama and Vladimir Putin talked about these reports of this plane crash.

And now, we can confirm, according to the press secretary, that president Putin did note these reports to President Obama near the end of their phone call. So, they did talk about it just briefly. It's not clear as to how much they talked about it or what they discussed, in terms of covering that bit of news. But they did talk about it.

One thing we should also point out, Anderson, you've been talking about, you know, what are the capabilities of these separatists and what may have caused that plane to come down? We should point out that senior administration officials briefing reporters yesterday on a conference call about these sanctions that the U.S. imposed noted that some of the defense firms that were being sanctioned were responsible for the production, and I'm just reading from this, of a range of material from small arms to mortar shells to surface-to-air missiles to tanks.

The senior administration officials also noted that on July 14th, Ukrainians lost a transport jet which was shot down from an altitude of 21,000 feet with a crew on board. And the senior administration official noted, Anderson, that only very sophisticated weapons systems would be able to reach this height.

And so, this is part of the concern the president was expressing yesterday in the briefing room here at the White House when he announced these sanctions is that this flow of arms and fighters from Russia and Ukraine, that's what the U.S. is alleging, was further de- escalating the crisis in Ukraine, and that is why the United States decided to bring forth these sanctions.

But the headline, Anderson, is that these two presidents did talk about this plane crash earlier this morning. We're digging for more details as to exactly what they did discuss, though -- Anderson.

COOPER: We'll come back to you. I want to go to Capitol Hill now where Senator John McCain is standing by live. Senator McCain, what do you make of the information that you have heard thus far?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Thus far, we really don't know what caused it. But the fact is they were able to, quote, "separatists" who were able to shoot down an aircraft at 21,000 feet shows that there was capabilities. I do not want to leap to any conclusions because we -- as you mentioned, it could be an explosion. It could be all kinds of reasons.

But if it was a missile that took this plane down, then it has to be a very sophisticated weapons system. And the Ukrainians do not have that capability. So, if it is the case, we're going to have to act and act in the most stringent fashions, including real sanctions, including giving the Ukrainians the ability to defend themselves, which we have not done so far.

COOPER: When you say the Ukrainians themselves don't have that system, are you talking about the Ukrainian government in Kiev or are you talking about Ukrainian separatists?

MCCAIN: The Ukrainian government in Kiev. The separatists -- you know, I don't know because they are Russian, as we know. They're not separate, Russians and separatists. We all know that. The head of the separatists is a KGB army guy or FSB army guy. So, whether they gave them that capability or whether it was a Russian capability is really almost a difference without -- a distinction without a difference. But, again, we don't want to jump to conclusions until we have absolute facts of the case.

COOPER: Do you have any information about people on board, if there were any Americans on board this flight? Do you -- have you been given any kind of a briefing, at this point?

MCCAIN: No, we have not. I just talked to some Intel people, and they aren't sure yet exactly what happened here. But, you know, it's horrific. I remember back when they shot down a Korean airliner and the repercussions that that had throughout the world. And this is even worse in many respects.

COOPER: How closely -- I mean, obviously, you have been watching the situation in eastern Ukraine very closely over the last three and a half months. I was there really at the height of the crisis several months ago. It did seem for a time that Vladimir Putin had, at least according to published reports, withdrawn a number of his forces, but it does seem, over the last several weeks or so, that those forces have been rebuilding along the -- along the border.

MCCAIN: And more disturbing than that, they've shot down several aircraft, as you know, over the last few weeks, including the transport that was as high as 21,000 feet. I think Putin was disappointed that he didn't get more support both in eastern Ukraine, Odessa, other parts of southern Ukraine. But most of us who get to know Vladimir figured that he was not going to give up easily and that he would continue to try to foam in disorder in eastern Ukraine which, as we all know, is the most important part of the Ukrainian economy. So, I never believed he was going to go quietly. But it's impossible to assume that something like this would do anything but have the most negative effects.

COOPER: Do you -- just for clarity sake, because you've been very careful on not laying the blame for this on anybody's side, at this point. The previous two planes that were brought down, do you believe that Russia played a role in bringing those planes down or is that -- is that not clear?

MCCAIN: Oh, well, I think that it's pretty clear that the, quote, "separatists" or Russians themselves or capabilities that were moved -- separatists don't manufacture this stuff. So, it was Russian equipment that was either moved into eastern Ukraine or from Russia itself. Most likely moved into eastern Ukraine. So, they have been doing it. But, again, it's impossible for me to imagine this thing being, if it is a shoot down, nothing but a tragic mistake on their part, from their point of view, much less the humanitarian aspect of it.

COOPER: Right. It would seem that there's no strategic reason or any kind of a reason to bring down -- for any side to bring down a passenger jet. It doesn't serve a strategic goal in any sense.

MCCAIN: In fact, if, if, I keep emphasizing if, it was a missile that was launched either by Russia or the, quote, "separatists" which, in my view, are indivisible, this would have the most profound repercussions. It would open the gates for our assisting, finally, the Ukrainians, giving them some defensive weapons. The sanctions that would be imposed, as a result of that, that would just be the beginning. So, I just cannot believe that no one in their right mind would want to shoot down an airliner.

COOPER: Senator John McCain, I appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

COOPER: We'll continue to consult with you and others on Capitol Hill. Our Nick Paton Walsh is standing by in London. Nick, I understand you have new information you're hearing from NATO.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Not from NATO but I was speaking to informed individuals who can basically explain to me what kind of capability there is for tracking incidents like this. Three possible different ways that are in NATO's assets. One, a ground radar that they have but that doesn't reach far enough into Ukrainian territory outside. They say -- the informed individuals say, to be able to track something like this happening in Ukraine.

Another option, there are NATO AWACS monitoring planes flying over Poland and Romania, now part of the heightened alert NATO's in to monitor that area because those NATO members feel increasingly threatened because of what's happening in the Ukraine. Now, they would not be able to pick up this either. People, of course, talk about space satellites, the belief that, obviously, we're all being constantly monitored by an assets that the U.S. have in the sky. But my understanding is that ballistic missiles are picked up and tracked by that. That's ground to ground. That's a scud or an ICBM, something pretty enormous. That's tracked by these satellites. But what I understand is not a surface-to-air missile.

So, there may be something else out there, perhaps, in the U.S. military armory which can look at things like this. There may be a radar in play that people aren't overly aware about. But according to these informed sources I've spoken to, we're pretty sure that the major assets NATO have don't have some sort of magic rewind button they can press and look at in real-time and see exactly what happened. The people who do -- and this is where it's going to get particularly interesting or complicated as the blame game begins. We heard Senator McCain just there. Those who do are the Russian military, of course. It's their border space. Their capabilities. They will know precisely what happened, as I'm sure the Ukrainians will have their own capabilities, too. And as this blame game continues, they're going to, of course, have their own versions of events that they wish to put out. But it's interesting to see that we may not magically, in the next few hours, have a crystal-clear picture from NATO certainly as to what they think has happened here -- Anderson.

COOPER: And Richard Quest who's joining us as well here in New York. I mean, you know, we've been focusing on this as sort of a geopolitical incident. We've been focusing on this as a military incident. But just as a -- as a -- as a human tragedy, we're talking about 280 passengers, 15 crew members on board this plane. This is a plane that left from Amsterdam at 12:15 heading to Kuala Lumpur. There will be people from all over the world on board this airline.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Not only -- yes, is the short answer on that. But look at the date. It's late -- it's mid to late July. This is a holiday flight for people from Europe going to K.L. and then right the way through the region of --

COOPER: K.L. being Kuala Lumpur.

QUEST: Kuala Lumpur. And vice versa from Asia. This is -- this is the certain peak of the European summer holidays. So, you're going to have vacation. You have business travelers. Did the -- you could have a disaster rescue operation in Kuala Lumpur similar to what we saw. One thing I need to just tell you. I've just been talking to some pilots in Europe this morning. One pilot, in particular, flying back from Moscow this morning was said that there was activity flying over the area, was told, you know, there was activity in the region. There are many pilots that have, for a long time, been extremely concerned about flying over this conflict zone because of the dangers.

Now, this pilot I spoke to this morning regularly flies across eastern Ukraine, Donetsk on his way to Moscow. Not once or twice, frequently. And he says they are all concerned and scared at what they know have been happening. I see in the last couple of moments, Transaero, the Russian airline, says it will no longer fly over Ukrainian. Lufthansa saying it will no longer fly over Ukraine. That might be put -- that might be closing the stable door after the horse is bolted.

COOPER: But it --

QUEST: But it's clearly been an issue for some time.

COOPER: It, of course, raises the question now -


COOPER: And a question that will be asked certainly by the family members of those on board this plane is, why wasn't that done sooner? Why were planes continuing to fly over such a troubled region, considering that two planes, and one, as Senator McCain was pointing out, had been shot down already at 21,000 feet. QUEST: That's exactly the point. And we know that the FAA had a warn -

a prohibition against flying over Crimea and the Black Sea for U.S. carriers. So there's no doubt that this was a known risk of flying over this eastern part. It shouldn't have been as big a problem as it has been, but clearly what we're looking at now is the most horrific example of that.

COOPER: Miles O'Brien is joining us from D.C. on the phone.

Again, Miles, I mean, you know this flight path well. You're a pilot yourself. And just talk about a little bit about what is happening now behind the scenes not only with Malaysian Airlines but all the various countries in the region in terms of dealing with the family members of those on board this flight.


COOPER: Yes, Miles, you're on the air.

O'BRIEN: OK. Yes, my apologies.

You know, what I can tell you is this. A civilian airliner at flight levels generally is going to be flying down corridors in the sky that would make it very clear what it was doing, what its intent was and the fact that it is not a non-friendly object. So it -- you have to ask a couple of questions. Was there some sort of weather in the region which would have caused this airliner to deviate off of that known flight path, which could have aroused some sort of suspicion that was, as it turns out, wrong suspicion, which might have made someone on the ground at the controls of a surface-to-air missile to determine that this was an aircraft with some sort of unfriendly intent.

The other question you have to ask yourself is, you know, since April, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has prohibited U.S. carriers from flying anywhere near this region because of the concerns of what we're just talking about here right now. And you have to ask why an airline crew, why airline dispatch would make a conscious decision to fly across a war zone, in essence. Not declared war, but a war zone is what it is. And so was that, frankly, the straightest -- the shortest distance between two points is a straight line that takes you right through that area and this is probably a fuel-saving, time-saving decision. We'll have to see how that plays out as we hear from Malaysian Airlines.

The other thing we have to remember, this horrible, unfortunate coincidence that we're talking, apparently, about Malaysian Airlines. In this case, we've already seen pictures of wreckage on the ground. We will know pretty quickly what happened here. A very -- an experienced aviation investigator will be able to determine if it blew up from the inside out or outside in, if there's the presence of the kind of fuel that is used for the surface-to-air missiles, rocket fuel, in essence. This will be something that will -- can be found out fairly definitively fairly quickly. So I think we'll get answers, but it's not a pretty picture when you consider the decision to fly in this zone and who actually made the call to actually launch that surface-to-air missile. It goes right back to Korean Airlines 007, back in the early - 1983. One of absolute depth of the Cold War when the Soviets, in that case a fighter jet, shot down a 747 with 290 people aboard.

COOPER: We should also point out, Russia 24 news agency is reporting that the black box has been found, and the crash place identified some 60 kilometers, they say, from the Russian border.

Nick Paton Walsh is joining us again from London.

Nick, I understand you have some more information about separatists on the ground.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're hearing from the pro-Kiev governor of the Donetsk region, a man called Sergei Taruter (ph), a billionaire appointed there by Kiev. He's released a statement in which he says, "at this moment separatists are preventing any Ukrainian investigators from getting to that particular site." He says that will severely hamper their ability to perform any kind of investigation. He also hints later on in the statement the possibility that that may, in fact, be being done deliberately to hide the remains and hinder any investigation going forward. He offers his condolences, too, to the family and asks the separatists to try and permit an investigation here.

But, yes, as you've seen, clearly, they are -- this came down in territory held by separatists where the Ukrainian military does not have a strong presence. And it seems now, of course, that the Ukrainian government itself may have an extraordinarily hard time getting anybody to that place to begin an investigation, all of which will slant what we hear in the days ahead, Anderson.

COOPER: Which truly then raises questions, Nick, about who would actually undertake any kind of investigation, what would happen to the black box. The idea if separatists are holding this area, that whole - that still has to be worked out.

WALSH: Absolutely. I mean, I think, obviously, the Ukraine authorities, this war they're fighting is because they don't control that territory. The separatists do not have the capability to analyze a black box. You have to also ask yourself whether the Russians want to take that on board and then analyze it themselves. That's a big step for them in case it's something they have to give to the international community in a more transparent fashion. And they may not like, necessarily, what it contains.

I mean it's very messy, the relationship between the separatists and the Russian government. They were repeatedly asked by Moscow not to hold a referendum about the independence effectively of Donetsk. They ignored that, pushed ahead. People have said that this public fissure between the separatists and Moscow is for show, that they're really secretly still being run. But I think it's pretty clear now that the Ukrainian military's on the advance, the open statements of dismay and shock from separatists, they're not getting more Russian help, makes it pretty clear that they're not getting what they expected out of Moscow. And that's really, I think, going to be key now. Do they look to Russian officials to move in and investigate, or does no real investigation actually happen? We're in a very violent civil war at this point, Anderson.

COOPER: I want to go to Peter Goelz, formerly with the NTSB, National Transportation Safety Board, a CNN aviation analyst.

Peter, obviously, an extremely complicated - I mean if, in fact, separatists are now preventing Ukrainian authorities, which would seem to make sense since they control that area, from actually getting to the crash site, how would this be investigated?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, I think that that's a great question. ICAO is the obvious organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization. They must demand immediately an independent, impartial investigation with safety guaranteed by the Ukraine, by Russia, to put a team in there. You know, the -- following -- you did the -- an extraordinary special on TWA on Tuesday night. I was - I, you know, managed that investigation. We did an enormous amount of testing with the FBI and the U.S. Navy on missile strikes and commercial aircraft. There's an enormous amount of information in the resources of the U.S. We'll know what kind of missile, where it struck. It may not be in the black boxes, but we have a lot of information.

But the key thing is for the international community to demand an immediate, independent investigation. We can't leave this in the hands of the Russians or the Ukrainians or the Ukrainian separatists.

COOPER: Peter, what sort of information - I mean, if it was, in fact, a missile strike, would there be information in the black box that -- that could kind of illuminate that, that could give you information?

GOELZ: Well, there could be. Yes, there could be depending on how the missile detonated and how the plane came apart. But it also could have been, as it was in TWA, both the voice recorder and the data recorder ended in a nanosecond. And there was - there was only the briefest sound on the voice recorder. But a voice analysis, a sound analysis of that showed that it was a certain kind of explosion. It was not similar to say the Lockerbie explosion. It was a lower order explosion, which indicated that it was a fuel air explosion. So there is a, say, a wealth of material and information in the U.K. and in the United States that can help solve exactly what happened here.

COOPER: Peter, when you see the pictures that we've seen of large pieces of fuselage, the flag from Malaysia Airlines clearly visible on pieces of the aircraft -

GOELZ: Right.

COOPER: Does it surprise you that an aircraft hit at 33,000 feet, that there would be these large pieces on the ground?

GOELZ: No, it's perfectly explainable. The - you know, once the plane's -- the integrity of the aircraft body is compromised, it literally unzips and comes apart in these kinds of large pieces. It is a horrific tragedy. And if you look at TWA, the reconstruction that's kept out near Dulles Airport now at a training facility, you can see very similar pieces of wreckage.

COOPER: And, I mean, for, again, you know, I keep coming back to the fact that there were 280 people on board this plane, there were 15 crew members on board this plane, 295 people in all.

GOELZ: Right.

COOPER: I'm not even sure how to ask this question, and maybe just think about how you would answer it, but, I mean, is - does -- are they killed instantly? I mean, is - is something like this -

GOELZ: Well, I don't - it is - it is a painful question, and it is asked, you know, after each event. On something like this, where it appears as though the plane came undone at a high altitude, most likely death would be instantaneously. On KAL007, where it was shot down by a Russian fighter plane, the plane struggled in the air and came down over a much longer period of time. But on something like this where the wreckage is over a vast amount of territory, my guess is it came undone at altitude, and thankfully, in this kind of tragedy, death was very quickly, was quick.

COOPER: Two hundred and ninety-five people on board. And just in that image, we saw a guide book, a "Lonely Planet" (ph) guide book for Bali and Lombach (ph). Again, the idea which you brought up, Richard, that these are people heading on vacation. These are people probably with their families going on vacation to Bali, to other places.

QUEST: Absolutely no question in my mind. This time of the year, that plane is full of holiday makers on their way to lifelong holidays. Now the --

COOPER: You know what, I'm sorry -


COOPER: I'm just -- I'm told that we're getting some more information from Jim Sciutto.

Jim, what are you hearing?


Well, I've just been told by the Ukrainian foreign ministry that it is their belief that this plane was taken down by a Russian-made Buk missile system that you have mentioned before on the air. This is a truck-mounted missile system. They believe that this was a system used to take this plane down, that it occurred at 10,000 meters, about 33,000 feet.

They also make the point that a couple of weeks ago Russian separatists claimed and bragged to have captured such a Buk missile system inside eastern Ukraine, in fact at a Ukrainian base, and that there were pictures on Russian television of this captured Buk missile launcher. And officials also telling me -- there's a picture up on the screen right now.

COOPER: Yes, we're showing our viewers. This is the Buk system that you're talking about.

SCIUTTO: This is the Buk system. Yes.

And the official I spoke to in the foreign ministry said that one reason that they're concluding this is that this is the only missile that could hit a plane, a passenger jet like this, at an altitude of 10,000 feet. But, anyway, that's the conclusion they're coming to already, that this was the system there, as you're seeing on the screen that shot down this plane.

COOPER: So let me just stop you there. Let me just, for clarification's sake, so, again, this is coming from Ukrainian officials. But basically this is a guess by them. They're not saying at this point that they have radar that has confirmed that this is a Buk system. They're saying simply, this is the only kind of system that could have brought down a plane at this altitude, correct?

SCIUTTO: I'm told, Anderson, that it is not just a guess, that this assessment is coming from the Ukrainian military. Now, obviously part of that is an assessment based on the capability of the missile. But they have not told me - I do not know if they have missile-tracking data.


SCIUTTO: But it is at least their belief that this is the system that took down the plane.

COOPER: And you're saying, again, because it bears repeating, because this is an important point that you raise, that Ukrainian separatists, so-called separatists, Senator McCain sort of qualifies that term or uses that term cautiously, but that certainly those fighting the government in Kiev for separation or a connection with Russia in eastern Ukraine, that they had bragged about getting their hands on a Buk system previously?

SCIUTTO: That's right. Not only bragged about it, but shown pictures of it in their possession and that the Russian television had done reports on this as they captured this weapons system.

Another indicator, Anderson, just as the Russian - as the Ukrainian government, rather, makes this conclusion about this being the system that took the plane down, is just what I told you earlier when we spoke a short time ago, that they're - that they're also looking at evidence that the plane came apart at altitude, which would, from their perspective, and our experts' perspective, indicate the possibility of a missile strike at least. So I think what you have here is the Ukrainian government looking at a number of indicators here and saying they believe it was a Buk missile system that was used to take this plane down. But again, as you referenced and as we repeatedly referenced as we've spoken, these are early conclusions as the clues are just coming in.