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Russia Accused of Tampering; Conflict in Israel; Grieving Families Left in the Dark

Aired July 21, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN GUEST HOST: Do you believe the Russians bear some responsibility for shooting down Flight 17? If you're like most Americans, the answer is a resounding yes.

I'm Jim Sciutto. And this is THE LEAD.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What exactly are they trying to hide?


SCIUTTO: The world lead, President Obama accusing pro-Russian rebels of tampering with the crash site in Ukraine and pressuring Vladimir Putin to use his power to get those rebels to back off.

And it's this type of missile believed to have brought down Flight 17. How many of these systems are out there? How easy would it be for terrorists to get their hands on them?

Also in world news, not all those killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are Israeli or Palestinian. American citizens are now dying while fighting for the Israelis, as the consequences from Gaza hit home on U.S. shores.

Hello. I'm Jim Sciutto, filling in today for Jake Tapper.

And we begin today with the world lead.

Bodies used as the bargaining chips after days of dispute over how to handle the remains from the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Pro-Russian rebel who control the scene have finally allowed a train to pull away, this train carrying almost 200 bodies out of the 298 people who likely died on the plane. The train is bound for part of Ukraine still under government control.

Ultimately, the bodies are supposed to be handed over to the Dutch. President Obama today along with Ukraine's government accused these separatists of tampering with the scene and blocking access to investigators. The U.S. believes a surface-to-air missile blew the plane out of the sky and was fired from part of Ukraine held by those pro-Russian rebels.

But the American people are going further than that. In a brand-new CNN/ORC poll that we're releasing right now here on THE LEAD, a huge 80 percent believe that it's either very likely or somewhat likely that a separatist group launched that missile.

Secretary of State John Kerry alleged right here on CNN that the Russians have at least trained these rebels on how to use such a missile system. And while Russian President Vladimir Putin denies any involvement, you, our viewers, frankly don't believe him. And 85 percent of those we polled say that Russia is either directly or indirectly responsible for shooting down this plane with 298 people on board.

All of this is making a serious dent in the way Americans view Russia as a whole. Look at this poll showing the unfavorable opinion jumping an incredible 23 points just from February, now to 78 percent.

Today, CNN has all the angles covered on the downing of Flight 17.

Our Ivan Watson is in Donetsk, which is still a war zone, we should viewers.

Ivan, it seems there's been some positive progress today, a little more access to the site and also this promise from the pro-Russian rebels to hand the black boxes over. Do we know that they have followed through on that promise?

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We still don't have confirmation that that's actually happened. And the thing is, is that the Malaysian prime minister, who announced this agreement on the handing over of bodies, on the handing over of black boxes, on providing access to the crash zone for an international team of investigators, he announced that the handover should have happened at 9:00 p.m. local time.

I'm looking at my watch. It's 11:00 p.m. now. That hasn't quite taken place yet. We have teams waiting at the headquarters of the so- called separatist government here, waiting for that handover to take place. And they say it just hasn't happened yet.

And a surprising element here is that as recently as last night, the self-declared prime minister of this Donetsk People's Republic was not announcing whether or not he actually had the black boxes in his possession. He said he had technical objects in the rebels' possession, but he couldn't identify them as being those flight data recorders.

And then the next day, the Malaysian prime minister announces that the rebels do in fact have these data recorders and they're going to hand them over. So there have been some games played here. There hasn't been a lot of transparency certainly when it comes to the black boxes on the part of the rebels.

SCIUTTO: Yes, zero transparency, you might say. Like, with so many things here, there have been constant delays and they seem to be intentional.

And one problem there, Ivan, is that this remains a war zone that you're in right now. You hear of people at the scene hearing artillery blasts, gunfire. What's happening there right now in terms of the fighting?

WATSON: Well, we have been listening to artillery throughout the day and the evening as well coming from the northern edges of this separatist-controlled city.

There's clearly been fighting taking place between Ukrainian military units and the rebels. And it does call into question some -- any possibility of a cease-fire around the crash zone to allow international investigators there. It also adds some questions. How can a train full of the bodies of the victims come here to Donetsk -- it's supposed to be the first stop -- and then cross front lines from rebel-held territory to Ukrainian government-controlled territory, where the bodies are then supposed to be flown to Amsterdam?

How is that going to work when artillery has been shelled at this city with city administrators saying at least five civilians killed? And we witnessed as residents terrified are fleeing trying to get out of this place. They're not talking about MH17. They're talking about trying to escape this civil war -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: One of the most sickening facts of this whole thing is the bargaining over bodies and their loved ones there waiting in 12 different countries for those bodies to come home.

Thanks very much to Ivan Watson in Eastern Ukraine.

Well, between the bodies, heaps of twisted steel and charred vestiges of the lives lost in the attack, the crash site might be the largest crime seen in the world today, but the first four days after the plane went down were mostly lost, Russian-backed separatists denying access to the scene, Firing shots even at international observers, even delaying the return of bodies, as we said.

The last development not only could delete key evidence from the equation, it leaves those grieving families in a painful, painful limbo.

President Obama reacted this way earlier today.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That's the least we can do. That's the least that decency demands. Families deserve to be able to lay their loved ones to rest with dignity.


SCIUTTO: It appears that the dead are now finally being turned over to the proper authorities, granted, very slowly. But will investigators ever be able to figure out exactly what happened to the plane?

We are going to bring in now CNN aviation correspondent Rene Marsh.

It's been four days. That's a lot of the days for this very important crime scene to be scrubbed of very important evidence. RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely.

We're talking about four days without complete access to the accident site, four days where investigators are simply unable to do their work. And there are still many outstanding questions. Where did this missile come from? Who fired it? Critical evidence now contaminated at the crash site and some now say nothing meaningful will come from this site now.


MARSH (voice-over): As air crash disaster investigations go, this one promises everything, but delivers almost nothing. It has witnesses, debris fields, black boxes and experienced accident investigators not far away in Kiev.

But what this catastrophe has lacked so far? Immediate and complete access.

OBAMA: As investigators approached, they fired their weapons into the air. The separatists are removing evidence from the crash site, all of which begs the question, what exactly are they trying to hide?

MARSH: Crash investigators usually race to the accident scene for one reason. Evidence disappears.

MARK DOMBROFF, ATTORNEY: We don't know what's been removed. We don't know what's been disturbed. It's -- in a sense, it's significantly important in terms of how the aircraft broke up, did it completely break up in flight, or did it break up after impact with the ground.

MARSH: In this case, it's a crash site in chaos. On live TV, a Sky News reporter going through a passenger's suitcase.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We shouldn't be doing this, I suppose, really, but look...

MARSH: Armed pro-Russian rebels allowing some journalists, but blocking investigators from the scene immediately following the crash. Rebels caught on camera removing what appears to be at least one of the black boxes. The rebels now saying they will hand it over to Malaysian investigators today.

Aviation experts say it's critical they keep their word.

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: They can do extraordinary work with just a nanosecond of sound particularly on the voice recorder. You can be able to tell the direction in which the sound is coming from.

MARSH: Ukraine has asked the Netherlands to lead the investigation. But Flight 17 went down in an area outside of Ukraine's control. Pro- Russian rebel who's may have shot down the plane have a hold on the site and have no accident investigation experience.

DOMBROFF: The question really becomes here as to how much are we ever going to learn about the dynamics that took place that led up to that firing taking place, the pulling of the trigger, so to speak.

MARSH: Aviation attorney Mark Dombroff represented the United States when the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Flight 007 in 1983. In that case, the Soviets hid the black boxes from the world until the fall of communism.


MARSH: Well, in any ordinary investigation, within hours, an investigative team would be on site. They would be documenting the scene, looking at the condition of the wreckage, how did the pieces of the plane land, essentially trying to determine the sequence of how the plane broke up in the air, even looking for fragments of the missile. All of that very critical evidence, critical information which could kind of piece this all together.

Yes, we know what happened to the plane, but, again, still so many outstanding questions. Who and where did this missile come from?

SCIUTTO: And key evidence, fragments of the missile, so they can actually identify how this plane went down. Thanks very much to our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh.

Among the many other nagging questions that are still hanging, was the Russian military in Ukraine when this missile brought down Flight 17? And is it possible the Russians even pulled the trigger?

As our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr reports, U.S. officials may never know for certain but their suspicions are strong.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The U.S. intelligence on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 now pointing to Russian involvement.

OBAMA: We know that Russia has armed them with military equipment and weapons, including anti-aircraft weapons. Key separatist leaders are Russian citizens.

REP. MIKE ROGERS (R-MI), CHAIR, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: They certainly have blood on their hands at the very least.

STARR: The U.S. dossier to prove it assembled by military and intelligence analysts scouring data from spy satellites, radars and phone intercepts.

It began when, unknown to the world, Russian rebels secretly moved a heavy arsenal of weapons into place, weapons that would lead to the shoot-down, according to U.S. intelligence.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: There was a convoy several weeks ago, about 150 vehicles with armed personnel carrier, multiple rocket launchers, tanks, artillery, all of which crossed over from Russia into the eastern part of Ukraine, and was turned over to the separatists. STARR: Within minutes of Flight 17 dropping off radar, the U.S.

suspected a shoot-down. Experts narrowed in on two pieces of critical intelligence. First, a surface-to-air missile system had been activated in a separatist-controlled area in Eastern Ukraine. A moment later, a U.S. satellite captured the heat signature of a midair explosion.

KERRY: We detected a launch from that area and our trajectory shows that it went to the aircraft.

STARR: The conclusion? A Russian-supplied Buk, or SA-11, surface-to- air missile launcher shot down the flight. The evidence? U.S.- verified telephone intercepts concluded the separatists had an SA-11 system as early as Monday, July 14. And further evidence of a Russian connection? U.S. intelligence has now identified a facility just across the border inside Russia where rebel fighters have been trained on surface-to-air missile systems.


SCIUTTO: All right, Barbara, so you listen to this evidence, this case has built frankly quickly from the U.S. side. U.S. intelligence, they have the type of missile. They have where they believe it was fired from in Eastern Ukraine and they believe Russia supplied the missile and may have trained it.

That's a pretty strong case. How confident do you find, speaking to your sources, that the U.S. is that Russia was involved in this?

STARR: Well, very confident, Jim.

Everyone I have talked to for the last several days is pointing to this mounting trail, this dossier of evidence, if you will, including satellite feeds, radars, feeds, telephone intercepts that have been verified by U.S. intelligence. They don't see any other evidence of any other explanation.

Could Ukraine have done it? They have looked at that and they say Ukraine had no weapons in the region that would have been capable of shooting down this civilian airliner. All the evidence pointing to Russia, the question now still to be answered, as you said, were Russian personnel actually at the scene at the time the missile was fired?

SCIUTTO: Well, a damning case already. And it brings some damning damning ramifications to come. Thanks very much to Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Coming up, he devoted his life to helping others, even volunteering not long ago in the country where he later died, Ukraine. Next, the brother of one Flight 17 victim shares his family's grief as they fight simply for information.

Plus, they're accurate nearly 100 percent of the time, surface-to-air missiles like the ones used to take down Flight 17, and they might already be in the hands of other terrorists. If (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


The families of the 298 people who died on Flight 17 know very little about the fate of the victims and what the next steps are. Of course, we all remember how stingy Malaysia Airline officials were with information after MH370 disappeared over the Indian Ocean earlier this year. Once again, they're not exactly being forthcoming, and that's enormously frustrating for the families, and while the bodies may finally be leaving the crash scene four days later, families have no idea when they'll be able to bury loved ones.

Joining me on the phone is Paul de Kuijer. His brother was on Flight 17.

Paul, I want to thank you for joining us. I've got three siblings myself. I can only imagine the pain you and your family are going through right now.

PAUL DE KUIJER, BROTHER OF MH13 VICTIM: Well, Jim, thanks. Thank you very much for having us in.

SCIUTTO: I want to ask you just in the simplest terms to tell us about your brother. What was he like?

DE KUIJER: Well, obviously, I mostly knew my brother just in a family setting. I always assumed that he was a talented person but not much more than that. I mean, only in the last few days from all the reactions that came in after the accident, I now know that he touched so many lives and he was in fact maybe even a remarkable person. He was someone with a lot of weaknesses, as well, obviously, but he devoted his life to trying to change the world around him for the better. He used to work on democratization projects in Sierra Leone, Malaysia, Russia and Ukraine, as well. So he was a person that was very much devoting his life to changing the world.

SCIUTTO: Well, as you've been speaking, we've been seeing pictures of him surrounded by the friends that he made around the world and the big smiles they had, the big smiles he had, as well.

Just for victims' families like yourself, relatives, one of the greatest shocks for me and the many people I think watching the story is just the idea that you don't have any information and you don't even have the dignity of knowing where your brother's body is now. Have you learned anything in the last 24 hours? Even simply, is it on this train for instance that's finally leaving the crash scene?

DE KUIJER: No, we don't know that yet. I mean, obviously, it's a very difficult situation for the authorities, as well. But as you said, this is the most frustrating for us right now.

We want to know where my brother and the son of my parents is right now. We still don't know it. We don't know whether they recovered his body, whether it's on train, whether it will be coming to the Netherlands soon. These are the big questions we have right now. We are understanding of the situation. We are understanding of the

fact that the Dutch authorities, international authorities have only recently gained access to the crash site. And I think even though it's terrible but we still have to wait to hear more as things evolve.

SCIUTTO: Paul, let me ask you this. There's been a lot of talk about who is behind this, a lot of accusations flying. Who do you blame for this and what do you want to see done now?

DE KUIJER: Well, thank you very much for posing that question because this is one of the issues we have been discussing within my family quite heavily the last few days. I mean, my brother used to work on projects in Ukraine and Russia. He made many friends on both sides of the border.

And if I -- if I want to remember one thing of my brother it's that he believed very much, his conviction was that conflicts like these are not solved by tough words are, solved by military intervention but are solved by dialogue. And the last thing he would have wanted is his death or even the tragic incident that caused his death to contribute to even a more difficult situation there in the conflict.

So, I mean, I still believe in dialogue. I still believe in the possibility that this conflict that is not over, it's not just a crash, it's not just a plane shot down but it's much more than that. I still believe that dialogue can solve this.

However, I mean, we have to acknowledge that we are rapidly approaching a point where the international community has no other option than to conclude that some elements of the Russian leadership can no longer be part of the international community because they're simply not taking the responsibility that comes with that position.

So I don't have the answers of what should happen now, but I want to urge everyone to at least rationally think about the next steps because before we know it, this tragic incident will devolve in something even worse and that definitely won't bring back my brother and other loved ones that were on the plane.

SCIUTTO: I have to say, that's a very noble thought at an extremely difficult time for you and your family. And I applaud you for it.

Paul, I want to thank you for taking the time. I want to share all of our thoughts here at CNN with you and your family at this just heart breaking moment. Thank you for joining us.

DE KUIJER: Thank you so much. Thank you.

SCIUTTO: When we come back, as the evidence mounts, it's becoming harder for Vladimir Putin to distance himself from the shooting down of flight 17, but will he be punished for his country's alleged involvement?

And later, he was born and raised in Texas but he died in the Middle East. Why one young American felt compelled to fight with the Israeli army and the family left with his choice next. That's coming up next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)