Return to Transcripts main page


Investigation Into Downed Malaysian Airliner Continues; Flights to Tel Aviv Banned; Outrage Mounts, Action Lags

Aired July 22, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: Thinking of flying overseas? Could you be in the flight path of a war zone?

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

The world lead. Bad time to book a flight to Tel Aviv, the U.S. government banning all flights to and from Israel's main airport after rocket fire makes it far too dangerous.

Also in world news, allegations of tampering with evidence and disrespecting victims' bodies. Why hasn't at international coalition stepped in yet to remove control of the Flight 17 crash site from those who may have shot down the plane?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If there is one person who could have survived, it's our daughter.


SCIUTTO: Just like every Flight 17 family, they don't know the for sure if their loved one's body has been recovered, their frustration, even their flickering hope that somehow, she's alive.

Hello. I'm Jim Sciutto filling in again today for Jake Tapper and beginning today with our world lead, two major stories calling into question how much of the world is actually safe to fly over anymore. With trauma still fresh after a passenger plane was shot out of the sky over Ukraine, the U.S. government is now banning all flights to and from Israel's main airport for 24 hours.

The reason, one of the thousands of rockets launches by Hamas from Gaza struck about a mile from Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. Hamas is the Palestinian group labeled as terrorists by the U.S. that controls Gaza. Israel's so-called Iron Dome system is highly effective against Hamas rockets, but it's not 100 percent foolproof.

And we don't want to the equate Hamas' rocket capabilities with the much more sophisticated missile system that shot down Flight 17 or with the technology that Israel is using to battle Hamas, but if just one of those rocks met a passenger airplane even on the ground, it could feel like Flight 17 all over again.

Israel gets more tourists from the United States than anywhere else in the world, more than 26,000 last year alone. Probably not as many this year.

Our own Wolf Blitzer, host of "THE SITUATION ROOM," is standing by live in Jerusalem.

Wolf, as American Airlines canceled flights there now, other international carriers, I wonder if people in Israel, Americans and others, are feeling trapped because they can't fly out.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, they're not feeling trapped yet.

El-Al, the Israeli national airline, they are flying to Europe, they are flying to Asia, they're flying to the United States. Not all of the international carriers have canceled flights. There are some that are still operating. But you're right, a lot of the major European airlines, the three U.S. airlines, United and Delta, U.S. Airways, they have all canceled flights at least for 24 hours. We will see what happens then.

But, look, there had been a cutback, a serious cutback in tourism over the past couple weeks in any case as those rockets and missiles were coming in from Gaza. The sirens were going off. All of a sudden, a lot of trips to Israel were canceled. Hotels opened up, flights became vacate to begin with. Now it's only intensifying.

Don't forget, this happens a day after the State Department issued a travel advisory warning that U.S. citizens should go to Israel only if it's really essential. Nonessential travel to Israel and the West Bank they said is not recommended, and certainly no travel to Gaza is recommended. So this is a bad time as far as the travel industry in Israel is concerned, the tourism industry.

It's a win, if you will -- and Israelis are pointing out they're pretty angry about this FAA decision and the decision of the U.S. and international airlines. They say it's a win for Hamas. Remember, last week, Hamas was warning international aircraft, don't come to Israel, don't come to Tel Aviv. You will be in danger. The Israelis said, don't worry, there won't be any danger.

Now they got lucky, Hamas with this one rocket hitting just about a mile or so from Ben Gurion and causing these airlines to at least reconsider their flights for now. I do think, I do think, Jim, that what happened to the Malaysia Flight 17 certainly is in the back of the minds, if not the front of the minds, of a lot of these aircraft -- airliners and the FAA. They want to err on the side of caution.

And right now with rockets coming in near Ben Gurion Airport, they said maybe it's best not for U.S. carriers and others to fly in.

SCIUTTO: It will be interesting to see if other international carriers -- hard for them not to follow the lead of the U.S. and the FAA.

But I wonder what kind of threat do these missiles which are clearly much less sophisticated than the kind of system that brought down the Malaysian flight, what kind of threat do they pose to a plane? Are they guided at all or would it just have to be in effect a lucky strike?

BLITZER: It would have to be a very lucky strike.

You remember Hamas over the past two weeks, they have launched more than 2,000 rockets and missiles into Israel. And when Israel detects them going towards a populated area or a sensitive area, they launch their Iron Dome anti-missile system that works about 85 to 90 percent of the time.

If it's going to an open field area, they don't bother with the Iron Dome. In this particular case, that rocket was going, as you correctly point out, towards Ben Gurion Airport, which clearly is a target of Hamas. They got lucky the Iron Dome didn't pick it up and it destroyed that one house nearby. It caused some jitters for Delta when that Flight 468 from New York, JFK, to Tel Aviv was on the way.

As it was passing Greece, it made a quick U-turn back to Paris and didn't come to Tel Aviv. Now we know why.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And shutting down that airport has long been a goal of Hamas, so something of a step forward there from their perspective, I imagine, declaring victory.

Wolf Blitzer, interesting. We will see you at the top of the next hour for "THE SITUATION ROOM," of course.

Turning now to the disaster of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the victims' families in the middle of an excruciating way to learn if their loved one remains have even been found. Officials now say at least 200 bodies have been recovered but 298 people were on board. Sorting out the victims' identities and forensic testing of bodies will have to wait until they're finally returned to the Netherlands where this flight originated.

The flight -- first transport of those bodies is expected to arrive there tomorrow. The remains have been in Kharkiv, Ukraine, for less than 24 hours. They were moved there by train from the crash area which is in a region of Eastern Ukraine controlled by these pro- Russian rebels.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is in Kharkiv, Ukraine, where the grim journey is about to continue.

Nick, how many bodies were actually on the train and do we have a sense of the timeline as to when they're finally going to be identified to give families really the closure they have been waiting for?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Jim, let's deal, first of all, with the numbers.

We simply don't know definitively how many bodies that were on the train that arrived here this morning in the railway station nearby and is now being unloaded, the bodies in the words of one Dutch official being repackaged so they can be transported back to Amsterdam. We're hearing two different versions of events. The rebels have

suggested about 282 intact bodies were on that train and 87 body parts. Those are figures echoed by a Malaysian security official who was on the train himself who spoke to me earlier. But here's where the confusion begins. Dutch officials themselves say they have a reliable source saying to them only about 200 were put on that train.

They so far think that's the number they may eventually find. They accept they haven't been through all five refrigerated carriages today and they have only managed to unpack the first and are moving onto the second. But there's a potential discrepancy there. And one explained to me the real difficulty here when you have an air crash, people's remains sadly scattered over a huge area and even in well-advanced countries it's often hard to comb through fine enough to get all the remains together and work out who was who.

This is the difficulty now in the days ahead. Jim, they have to move all these bodies back to Amsterdam. That will take until Friday, the first leaving tomorrow at 11:00 local time, 50 flying back to Amsterdam. They have to wait until Friday to get them all back there and then begin the intense testing to work out who's who.

There could still be suggestions that not all of them were on that train. That could be the real fear certainly for relatives waiting anxiously for news, Jim.

SCIUTTO: It's grim even to discuss, but in air crashes you have to accept the possibility that some of the remains are not intact.

I wonder where you are, Nick, as us see this. Just in the way the bodies are being treated, the way they're being transported, the condition they are as transported in the bags, do you have a sense they're being treated both carefully and I think most importantly for families respectfully from what you have seen?

WALSH: Well, I have not been to the crash site myself but there were suggestions of course owing to the fact there is a civil war raging there -- there were fears that potentially they may not have been given all the dignity that would normally be afforded in peacetime.

Speaking to the Malaysian official who traveled on the train, he spoke of in his mind a good atmosphere. He didn't feel threatened himself by separatist militants before or after. When they arrived here, now, of course, with more resources available, all full measures can be given to try and give them as much dignity as possible. The Dutch going as far as to fly coffins in from Amsterdam and are now putting what they have into the coffins for flight back to Amsterdam itself, a very lengthy and labor-intensive process perhaps designed to compensate for what happened near the crash site and how awkward and in many ways tragic that must have been for those who observed it.

But, yes, when an air crash like this happens, the remains and the wreckage scattered over a 14-kilometer potential area. That's why it will be perhaps so hard maybe for investigators here to definitively answer how many bodies they have actually managed to recover because they may not get access back to the crash site. There's a war going on here, Jim, at the same time.

SCIUTTO: No question . Nick Paton Walsh on this next grim, sad stage in the coverage of MH17. Thanks very much.

In the wake of a passenger plane being shot out of the sky and this news that airlines are suspending operations into and out of Tel Aviv and Israel, a lot of travelers are probably asking is it safe right now to fly over any troubled region in the globe? And there are many.

I want to bring in Michael Chertoff. He was secretary of homeland security under President George Bush. He now works in the private sector as the executive chairman and co-founder of the Chertoff Group.

Thank you for joining us very much.

As you look at the response in Israel to this one rocket getting close to the airport, is it your sense that the two incidents are connected, that Israel -- American airlines would not have taken this step had there not been the shoot-down of MH17 just a few days ago highlighting the danger of missile strikes against civil aviation?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, FORMER U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Jim, I think it was the prudent thing to do, and I think they probably would have done it anyway.

But I'm sure the message was not lost that when a missile hits a plane, even if it's kind of a rarity, it's horrible consequence. So I think that in a sense the Malaysia airline incident must have reinforced the importance of being better safe than sorry.

SCIUTTO: No question. I think travelers would appreciate that. In fact, lots of questions in Eastern Ukraine as to why airlines, other airlines weren't making the same decision that some had made to not fly over that region.

But I wonder now, if you were in the Obama administration as you were in the Bush administration, the sad fact is, there are many war zones across the world, many of which aircraft regularly fly over. They regularly fly over Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. What kind of conversations would you be having with the president now, with the FAA, and what would you recommend to the president? Would you recommend we look at this flight path as we're showing on the air right now showing all these planes going over war zones and say we have to rethink this?

CHERTOFF: Well, let's separate two kinds of missile threats to aircraft. One is what we saw over the Ukraine which was a quite sophisticated missile with a range that exceeded 30,000 feet.

And that's obviously something that's capable of bringing down an aircraft at cruising altitude. That is not normally what one sees in the hands of terrorists. There have been a couple of occasions in the last 20 years where for some reason or another, it was an accident and a plane was brought down.

But I would not think that's the really serious issue here. I think the bigger issue is what do you do about parts of the world where the airport itself is in an insecure area? And that means a plane coming down to land or taking off or the airport itself might come under attack by a less sophisticated weapon.

There are less sophisticated weapons in the hands of terrorists. We know there are shoulder-fired anti-air missiles that got out from Gadhafi's Libya and have now spread about in other parts of the world. That's where my focus would be is more on the destination city and the safety of that airport than it would be cruising altitude.

SCIUTTO: But you bring up a good question there because until last Thursday, when MH17 was taken down by this very sophisticated high- altitude surface-to-air missile, what you just described had been the focus of counterterrorism officials, the shoulder-fired missile getting a plane on takeoff and landing, more in the category I think of what we're seeing today in Tel Aviv, a rocket coming close to the airport, not something that could hit at high altitude.

But other security analysts have made the point to me that these long- range surface-to-air missiles are not just in Eastern Ukraine. The Syrians have them. It's possible ISIS could maybe get their hands on something like that. Did MH17 put us in a new era of the threat to civil aviation with the possibility that others could get their hands on this kind of missile system?

CHERTOFF: Well, it suggests anytime you're dealing with an ungoverned state that has access to very sophisticated missiles like high- altitude anti-aircraft missiles, you do have an increased risk.

But I want to put it in perspective, Jim. It's still much less than the risk that we face when we're dealing with an area that has an insecure airport, where there are many more different kinds of threats to aircraft. While I think obviously if you're flying over Syria, you're flying over Lebanon where Hezbollah has sophisticated missiles, you want to bear that in mind, the larger issue will be those parts of the world where the airport itself is situated in a dangerous location.

SCIUTTO: And you make a good point, because I don't want to exaggerate the threat to our viewers either. There are threats and there are threats. Clearly in some of these war zones, there's a much greater threat than elsewhere.


SCIUTTO: But I just wonder, in light of what we learned after the situation in Eastern Ukraine, some airlines are in fact changing their flight patterns and they avoid that area now, what would you recommend to Americans who are taking an international flight in the coming days? Should they look at the map and say -- perhaps ask their airline if they have any concerns over some of the countries they're flying over or should they rely on regulators to make recommendations to the airlines?

CHERTOFF: You know, I think we should note the FAA had anticipated the problem in Ukraine and had recommended airlines avoid it. You know, obviously people are going to be concerned and interested. I don't know that I would pepper the airlines with questions because I know, I'm quite confident and frankly I do work with the airline industry that they are very, very focused on this issue.

What I would think travelers should ask themselves is about the destinations they're going to, because that's where some of the security is not in the hands of the airline. It's not in the hands of the U.S. government. It's in the hands of the host country.

We've seen attacks on airports in Karachi, Pakistan, fighting around Tripoli and, of course, we've seen rockets aimed at Tel Aviv. And that suggests that's where the greater vulnerability is and where frankly I would focus my attention as a traveler.

SCIUTTO: And that's fair advice. You could say that's where the homeland begins, right, which is even where Americans travel.

Thanks very much, Mr. Secretary.

Coming up on THE LEAD, they've been suspect number one since Flight 17 went down. So, why have pro-Russian rebels been allowed to basically camp out at the crash site without any international intervention?

Plus, did a couple of reporters just find evidence of what brought down the plane? We'll have the answer after this.


SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Five days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was blasted out of the sky, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that the United States has a, quote, "compelling case" implicating Russian- backed rebels, showing they're responsible for the deaths of 298 innocent people.

Vladimir Putin's government, though, dismissing all finger-pointing as baseless. Putin's ambassador to Malaysia demanded the U.S. step up and show its evidence. One problem? We still don't know the for sure who's just behind this crime, those same separatists are parceling out evidence bit by bit to investigators, even the bodies. There were fears that they've tampered with the wreckage.

And with so many questions, just when will the U.S., Ukraine and the world do more to change that?


SCIUTTO (voice-over): From leaders in Australia --

TONY ABBOTT, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: What we have seen is evidence tampering on an industrial scale.

SCIUTTO: -- to the U.K --

DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Compounded by sickening reports of looting of victims' possessions and interference with the evidence.

SCIUTTO: -- to Ukraine where MH17 now lies scattered in pieces.


SCIUTTO: International outrage is mounting, fury at the thought of a commercial airliner being shot out of the sky and at the pro-Russian rebels now lording over the wreckage.

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

SCIUTTO: So far, though, aside from voicing anger, no country has taken significant action to wrest control of the site from the rebels. And over the last five days, the elements, looters roaming press and curious locals have already compromised what many now call an international crime scene.

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: We are not only outraged at the attack itself, we are enraged by what has happened since.

SCIUTTO: The U.N. Security Council has unanimously demanded access to the site. But trying to take control of a crime scene from the rebels suspected of the crime is not without its challenges.

POWER: Russia blamed Ukrainian air travel controller for this attack rather than condemning the criminals who shot down the plane.

SCIUTTO: Rebels released bodies to international investigators just yesterday but they've been reluctant to open the scene to professional investigators, and made a media spectacle of the simple task of handing over the plane's flight recorders.

Clues as to what happened here are still infuriatingly muddled by mismanagement and interference. Those trying to collect evidence are returning with little more than photographs and anecdotes.

DANIEL BAER, U.S. REPRESENTATIVE TO OSCE: The first day in particular, they showed up had really terrible treatment. People were visibly drunk on the scene and they weren't allowed to see much of anything.

SCIUTTO: The leader of the pro-Russian rebels a suspect now in this crime seems defensive, even amused by it all, rolling his eyes at the question of accountability.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR, NEW DAY: Why weren't the bodies taken care of and given dignity sooner?

ALEXANDER BORODAI, LEADER, DONETSK PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC (through translator): You know, it's a fantastic story. The thing is that as soon as members of OSCE arrived, they notified us if we start moving the bodies, then we will be responsible.

SCIUTTO: So now as the victims' bodies move one step closer to home, this question: when will the international community finally gain control of the scene where they perished?


SCIUTTO: And while leaders in Europe and across the globe drag their feet, the French just went ahead today and sold the Russians a brand- new warship.

With Europe's financial ties to Russia, can we expect any real action on MH17?

I want to bring in the host of CNN's "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS", Fareed Zakaria himself.

It's great to have you on to talk about this.

Before we get to Europe in particular, this -- the French continuing with the sale of advanced warships to Russia, I just wonder where is the outrage? Because the responses so far you're talking about incremental increase in sanctions, still negotiating access to the site seem -- do not seem to match the enormity of this crime.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": You're right, Jim. Wee seen a pretty strong rhetoric coming out of Samantha Power and President Obama. We've seen some of it coming out of the British prime minister finally and the Australian prime minister. Very little you notice out of continental Europe, the big powers, Germany, France, even the Dutch have been remarkably restrained given the enormity of the tragedy here.

And I think that part of the problem here is that Europe has very deep economic ties, very deep energy dependence on Russia. In the French case in particular, France has always prided itself in being, you know, a kind of bridge to Russia. They've always prided themselves on being a big military exporter. The way they think about it, if they didn't do this stuff, the Americans would be dominating the arms industry.

So, there are a lot of national interests that are coming in the way of what you rightly said should be a kind of international response. There should be a sense that the international community is acting, but instead what you're seeing is separate national interests -- the French national interests, the German national interests trumping what should be an international humanitarian interest.

SCIUTTO: You know, there are national interests and there are national interests. On the one hand we talk about for instance Germany's dependency and many other countries dependency on natural gas. You know, you need that to heat your homes, et cetera. But when you're talking about making profits in the case of the French on a major warship -- I mean, that just seems almost too much to believe, particularly five days after this plane went down.

ZAKARIA: The French are remarkable because they are the heirs, of course, of the French Revolution -- liberty, equality, fraternity all that kind of thing. They're remarkably real politic in the way in which they approach the world. This was true even during the Cold War. They have always tried to pursue an independent often, what is called Gaullist foreign policy which is not particularly interested in human rights and those kind of things, follows France's national interests.

And what they would tell you is that thousands of jobs on the line in France because, as you know, Jim, when is you sell one of these warships, you also sell service contracts. You sell maintenance and so the there is a kind of continuing economic relationship and it doesn't appear that France has what I thought they might do was just delay all this for a few months as you say, just the appearance of it would seem to be almost unseemly. Five days after this horrific tragedy.

SCIUTTO: So, tell me about the U.S. response. The president getting criticism for flying to fund-raisers now rather than to Europe to finally rally European consensus on how to respond. Do you think the administration is open to fair criticism here?

ZAKARIA: You know, I think that the administration in substantive terms often does about the right thing. You can't start a war over this. You've got to remember Russia has about a 30-1 advantage over Ukraine in terms of its defense budget, in terms of the size of the military.

So, the reality is Russia is very powerful on the ground. That's why it has been impossible to wrest control of the site. The Ukrainian government is the in effect not in control of its own territory because these rebels get support from Russia. So, there are limits to what you can do. But I think that the

administration somehow seems to lack a sense of coherency and strategy and central purpose. The former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was on my program last Sunday and he said, I agree with everything the administration was doing. I just wished they were more focused and energetic and purposeful about it.

I think there is that sense that there is an almost reluctance to take the leadership role here that naturally falls to the United States. And it's unfortunate because I said in terms if you were to tick off the policies, there isn't much more you could do they weren't doing. Lindsey Graham when he was asked famously said, well, they're not calling Putin a thug.

Well, you know, if that's your best -- if that's the best alternate policy you have, a rhetorical flourish, there's not much there.

SCIUTTO: The question I suppose now, is this event now enough to be the catalyst for not only for Europe to move, but more forceful action coming from Washington, I imagine. Fareed Zakaria, thank you as always.

You'll have much more this weekend on "GPS". That's on Sunday, 10:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time right here on CNN.

Coming up here on THE LEAD, it was a chaotic seen after Flight 17 went down. And pro-Russian rebels took control of the crash site. So, have two reporters found the evidence that investigators couldn't get to?

And later, parents left with so many questions after learning their 25-year-old daughter was on that plane. Now, they're begging for answers and if you can believe it, still holding out hope that she might still be alive.