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CIA Not Ruling Out Terror; Interpol Downplay Terror with Plane Link; Malaysian Air Force Traces Flight 370 to Small Island In Straits Of Malacca; Interview with Rep. Adam Schiff

Aired March 11, 2014 - 13:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: By the way, just to remind you again, be sure to tune in tonight, "WEED 2: CANNABIS MADNESS". It airs at 10:00 p.m. Eastern time and Pacific.

Thanks, everyone, for watching. My colleague Wolf takes over the baton now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from the CNN Center, and we're following breaking news. How did a plane with 239 people on board just vanish without a trace? That's what experts and investigators are trying to figure out right now, four days into the mystery of Malaysia airlines Flight 370.

Here is what we know right now. The director of CIA says he's not ready, repeat, not ready to rule out terrorism in the plane's disappearance. Listen to what John Brennan said just moments ago.


JOHN BRENNAN, DIRECTOR, CIA: Well, it's close to now 13 years since 911. And I think the memories and tragedy of 911 have receded in the minds of many people. And this is not the time to relax because we know there are terrorist groups that are still determined to carry out attacks, including against -- especially against aircraft.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Has there been chatter that would indicate any kind of terror link in this mystery?

BRENNAN: I think there's a lot of speculation right now, some claims responsibility have not been confirmed or corroborated at all. We are looking at it very carefully. We, CIA, are working with FBI and TSA and others. Our Malaysian counterparts are doing everything they can to try to put together the pieces here.

But, clearly, this is still a mystery which is very disturbing. And until we actually can find out sort of where that aircraft is, we might have an opportunity to do some other forensic analysis that will lead us in the -- in the right direction.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: At this point, you're not ruling out that it could be --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- some sort of terror.

BRENNAN: Not at all.


BLITZER: Not ruling out. He says not at all. The head of Interpol, the international police agency, is, though, downplaying -- seemingly downplaying, the possible link to terrorism. Ron Noble saying indications increasingly point to some other explanation. More on this coming up.

Malaysian authorities, meanwhile, have identified two passengers traveling on stolen passports. And they say it's unlikely they were part of a terrorist group. The two passengers traveling with the stolen passports were young men from Iran. Authorities say they entered Malaysia using valid Iranian passports, but they used stolen Austrian and Italian passports to board the plane.

Our Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson is joining us from London. He's investigating what's going on. Nic, police say there is no evidence the two young men were part of any terrorist group. What do we -- what do authorities say they know about these two individuals?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they believe that they were young men. One of them, the one on the route to Frankfurt, was going to meet his mother there. Indeed they say it was his mother who raised the alarm when he didn't get off that flight. And it seems that he was trying to illegally immigrate to Germany, at least. Coming, initially, as you said, from Iran, using his own passport, along with the other young Iranian, getting to Kuala Lumpur a week before flight MH 370.

What we -- what we are hearing, though, from Interpol, from the secretary general, Ron Noble, is specific to these two men. But as far as they were concerned where there was so much focus on the question of whether or not they were on board with stolen passports to commit terrorism, he seems pretty clear on that. This is -- this is what he said.


RONALD NOBLE, SECRETARY GENERAL, INTERPOL: The more information we get, the more we're inclined to conclude that it was not a terrorist incident. And if you read what the head of police from Malaysia said recently about the 19-year-old, whose photograph is here, wanting to travel to Frankfurt, Germany in order to be with his mother. It's part of a human smuggling issue and not a part of a terrorist issue.


ROBERTSON: So, that rules out, it appears, those two young Iranians. But there are more than 200 other people on that flight. And what we understand from the Malaysian police is that the investigation is looking at sabotage hijacking. The possibility of a psychological breakdown of someone on board or personal issues between crew or passengers on board that aircraft. The fact they're not talking about mechanical failure, talking about the potential of hijacking and sabotage. Pretty much hijacking and sabotage fall under the auspices of terrorism, certainly in many circumstances, Wolf.

So, you can see that the Malaysians, too, while ruling out these two individuals, traveling on the stolen passports, there's a lot of room left open for the potential it could be somebody else on there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And what do you make of what we just heard from John Brennan, the CIA Director? He seems to be going out of his way, first of all, talking about the threat from terrorists against aircraft, U.S. aircraft, other aircraft. But then, he says he's not ruling out terrorism, not at all. Those are pretty pointed words he's saying.

ROBERTSON: Absolutely. Look, we know Al Qaeda likes to target aircraft. They have had various plots, 911, the Bojinka plot, the liquid explosives plot coming out of Europe as well. And there was even -- Al Qaeda was even been on the record of saying that the pilot should administer a drug to the co-pilot so he can take control of the aircraft.

What has investigators so focused and had so concerned is now this period of time that it appears the aircraft was operating with a transponder off. How did it come off? How did the plane fly so many hundreds of miles back the route that almost it had come on at 90 degrees, to that route at least, cross over Malaysia again? How did that happen?

The aircraft was flying. The transponder was off. There were two people in that cockpit at least. Were there other people? Was it hijacking in that way or had the air crew taken control irresponsibly? Again, this is all speculation. But these are all the loose ends that are out there. And it's caused by this period of time that the plane was flying with a transponder off, an extended and unexpected period of time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson with the latest from London. Nic, thanks very much.

So, if the terror angle seems to be played down, at least by some, what does that leave others for explanations? Let's bring in Congressman Adam Schiff. He's a Democrat from California. He's a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: All right. So, what do you make of what John Brennan, CIA Director, is saying when he says, not at all. He emphasized those words, not ruling out terrorism. What are you hearing?

SCHIFF: Well, I think he's exactly right, at this point. We really can't rule anything out. We do know a lot more about these two passengers, but we probably know more now about those two passengers than we do with the other more than 200 who were on board. So, we're scouring the manifest, seeing if we can make any connections with any other passengers on board. We're looking for any kind of chatter. Was there any evidence that we had before this of an airline plot around this time or in this location?

So far, I think it's fair to say that nothing has leapt out at us. It could be, you know, a plot that was hatched in Southeast Asia that didn't involve someone on the aircraft, but someone who put something on the aircraft. So, you know, we can't rule anything out. I think that's certainly fair to say. You just don't have a plane of this size go completely missing and be able to rule out any possibility.

BLITZER: Because you remember, all of us remember, before the Sochi winter Olympic Games, there was a threat alert that was issued by the U.S. about toothpaste bombs getting on planes. There seemed to be some targeting of aircraft. Have you heard anything, in all of your briefings, linking what just happened here with this Malaysia Airlines' plane and that earlier threat that had been so widely disseminated?

SCHIFF: Wolf, I haven't. I really haven't seen any indication of linkage between the disappearance of this plane and the threats that we were so concerned about around the Olympics. And that's exactly what we're looking for, connections to those threats. But also did we hear any kind of chatter about airline plots that might be connected to this? Were there things we saw earlier but didn't make the connection and now, with this missing plane, there may be a connection? Are there groups taking responsibility? Sometimes that can be misleading.

So, you know, we're looking into all of this. You know, we've seen also cases in the past where there were psychiatric problems among the pilot or crew. That could be a cause and a factor. It still could be a mechanical failure but we're going to be obviously scouring all the intelligence leads while we search for the aircraft.

BLITZER: What are you -- what are you hearing about the pilot and the co-pilot?

SCHIFF: Not very much. They were both very experienced. I think the early analysis looked at whether this was a problem with their training. Did they not have enough hours in the air? Was this similar to the situation of the plane that crash-landed in San Francisco? But, you know, the pilots look well-trained. The airplane looked like it was in good condition. The weather was good. This is why it was so mind boggling that this plane has just completely vanished.

BLITZER: Are you getting the kind of cooperation from the Malaysian authorities that you would anticipate in a situation like this? I raise the question because some have criticized Malaysia for giving out all sorts of conflicting information.

SCHIFF: You know, I think we're getting good cooperation. I haven't heard of any problems. Probably the biggest concern is not the cooperation we're getting now, but the fact that so many countries don't check the Interpol database, so they don't look for these stolen passports. We, and other countries -- not all countries, but certainly we and the British and others make sure that we tap the databases that can tell us whether people are flying with stolen documents. And these two on this plane may have been completely innocent of the downing of the plane. But it doesn't mean that this is not a gaping security of vulnerability that needs to be fixed because it could lead to terrorists to take advantage of this in other cases.

BLITZER: Adam Schiff, as a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thanks for joining us.

SCHIFF: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Aviation experts have some theories about what might have happened to Flight 370. We're going to talk to a former managing director of the NTSB about possible scenarios. That's coming up.

Also, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee has some harsh words for the CIA over the alleged hack of Congressional computers.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: And the breaking news, some more mysterious information just coming into CNN from the Malaysian Air Force. The Malaysian Air Force says it has now traced the last travel of Malaysia airlines Flight 370 to Pulau Perak. That's a very small island in the Straits of Malacca, according to the senior Malaysian air force official. The official declined to be named because he's not authorized to speak to the news media.

But the official says that about 2:40 a.m. local time, the civilian and military radar lost all contact with the aircraft. The Strait of Malacca is in the body of water that separates the Malay Peninsula from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It's many hundreds of miles from the usual flight path for aircraft traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. So, it was way, way off course, according to this Malaysian Air Force. No explanation, obviously, given. Still no sight of any debris. No sight of this airliner.

Peter Goelz is joining us right now. He's the former NTSB managing director.

So, the Malay -- this Air Force official from Malaysia, Peter, is now saying the plane was hundreds of miles off course from where it would have been going if on a normal route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. What do you make of that?

PETER GOELZ, FORMER NTSB MANAGING DIRECTOR: Boy, it's even more perplexing. But I think what it starts to narrow the options down. If this report is true, it means a couple things. One is, was there someone unauthorized in the cockpit, ordered the transponder turned off, ordered the plane to fly, you know, 90-degree turn off course. Second is, did one of the pilots do it themselves? Is this something that was commanded by one of the flight crew? It's really increasing the concerns. But you've got to zero in now on the flight crew and their background. Were they in any kind of financial difficulty? Were there other concerns being raised? And you've got to go look at who was on that plane.

BLITZER: The two pilots, one I think 53 years old, very experienced. The younger co-pilot, 27 years old. Obviously a lot less experienced. Both Malaysian pilots. Both seemingly with good reputations. But there have been histories, and you can remind us, of when pilots deliberately wanted to bring down their aircraft. I'm referring to that Egypt Airline crash -

GOELZ: Exactly.

BLITZER: And that Silk Airline crash. But tell us about those.

GOELZ: Well, both. In both cases, the NTSB determined that the pilot (INAUDIBLE) the aircraft. In the case of Silk Air, turned off the flight voice recorder and dove the plane from 30,000 feet into a river. He disabled his co-pilot. In the Egypt Air, the co-pilot took control of the plane while the flying pilot was out of the cabin on a restroom break. They actually got into a struggle in the cockpit to get control of the plane. And, unfortunately, the co-pilot turned the engines off and the plane crashed into the North Atlantic. So you do have two cases where pilots have deliberately flown their planes into the ocean or into the ground.

BLITZER: And is it that -- is it that easy, Peter, to simply push a button and the transponder goes off and then no one can monitor where that plane is heading?

GOELZ: It is not difficult. You can either -- you can either turn the transponder off in the flight controls in front of you. You can -- because you can use it to squawk for a hijacking. Or you can turn the circuit breaker off, which would shut down both the transponder, you can shut down the voice recorder, you can shut down access to the data recorder. So -- and in the case of Silk Air, that's precisely what the pilot did during the final moments of that flight.

BLITZER: Hold on for a moment because I want you to react to this next report. Andrew Stevens is joining us now, our correspondent in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

So update our viewers, Andrew, what we're learning precisely and what it may suggest.

ANDREW STEVENS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're hearing, Wolf, now is that the last reported position or the last position the plane was seen was over a small island in the strait of Malacca. Now, this is on the opposite side of the country of Malaysia to the flight path where it's supposed to be going.

So what we can tell you at this stage is that the plane officially was last contacted and was last seen at a way point heading towards Vietnam on its way towards Beijing. Then the transponders apparently were switched off. The secondary - or the -- it was still able to be tracked by radar. It's called primary radar. The plane then did what apparently it looks like a u-turn. It went back across the country of Malaysia to the other side, the west coast, which is the Strait of Malacca, and was last seen that -- on radar over a little island which is in the middle of the Strait of Malacca, between Malaysia and Indonesian, about 200 kilometers or so, 150 miles or so off the west coast of Malaysia.

That's what we're hearing at the moment. We don't know what happened then. But the actual plane disappeared, the radar contact disappeared at around about 2:40 a.m. That's about two hours after it took off and about an hour after the -- its last official position, just as it was entering Vietnamese air space from Malaysian air space.

So at this stage, Wolf, looks like evidence is growing, the Malaysian air force, we're hearing -- we've been talking to a senior air force official here. He can't give his name, because he's not -- he's not responsible for speaking to the media. But certainly he is telling us this is what the situation is, where this plane went. So we're talking about -- looks like basically a u-turn back across to the other side into the Straits of Malacca.

BLITZER: So basically what you're saying, Andrew, based on this information from this Malaysian air force official, is the search that's been underway for four days, that search has been going on in totally unrelated waters, right? They haven't even started this search. If you hear where this plane disappeared, this Malaysian air force official, saying it disappeared hundreds of miles away.

STEVENS: Well, no, Wolf, they have been searching in that area. They've been gradually expanding the search, expanding the search. They began the search looking over the last known contact point of that plane. But as the days have rolled on, they have started searching across the Straits of Malacca.

It's been a little bit difficult to follow because the authorities have obviously been aware of this for some time but they haven't let this information out. But by looking at what they're doing with the search pattern, that pattern has been going further and further out across the Straits of the Malacca into where that air -- where that plane was last seen and sort of unofficially, if you like.

Just, from my understanding of this, Wolf, when the plane was last officially seen, the transponders were on. It was sending a signal which verified it was that particular aircraft. When the transponders were turned off, a primary radar, which is used by both the military and the civilian authorities, continued to track the plane or track what they thought was the plane. They couldn't actually confirm whether it was the plane. But certainly it looked like it was the same plane carrying on, but just veering off and going back over Malaysia. So that alerted them to the fact that they had possibly turned around, and they started searching in that area a day after the initial search got going in the area where it was last officially seen.

So, yes, they are looking in the Straits of Malacca. That search extends ever further out at this stage. No indication that they found anything.

BLITZER: They still haven't found anything. I assume they're searching not just over the waters but over land as well, nearby land, is that right?

STEVENS: Correct, yes. The search area includes basically the spine of Malaysia, if you like. And on into the waters of Malacca. On the other side of that is Indonesian, the island of Sumatra. At this stage, I'm not aware that they're searching on the island of Sumatra, but certainly searching on the mainland of Malaysia as well, because if this information is correct, and it very much looks like it is, that plane would have crossed over. But its last actual -- what they think its last position was, was the islands of this Paola Paraq (Ph). It's a tiny little rock basically in the middle of the Straits of Malacca. It's a rock roughly in the middle of the straits between Malacca and Indonesian Sumatra. So it's suggested the plane was flying over water when it was last seen.

BLITZER: I want you to stand by, Andrew, because we're getting more information. And, once again, we want to welcome our viewers in the United States and now around the world, as well. We're following the breaking news, a Malaysian air force official now telling CNN this plane was way, way off-course. Looked like it made a dramatic u-turn. Malaysian air force radar tracking this plane for an hour after the transponder apparently was shut down.

Peter Goelz is still with us, former NTSB managing director.

Peter, give us your analysis of what we just heard in that report from Andrew Stevens in Kuala Lumpur.

GOELZ: Well, I think the most important thing is that finally government officials are starting to come clean with exactly how much they know from other radar sites. You know there was -- it was clearly -- this is a busy strait. It's a busy air space. There had to be other radar units tracking this flight and where this flight showed up. TWA Flight 800 had eight different raiders that were monitoring it at any given time. If this is true, it really is zeroing in on what was going on in the cockpit and why. And it's -- once they started to expand their search in the opposite direction of where the flight was headed, that was the tip-off. They knew something was going on.

BLITZER: And what's so intriguing, Peter, and I want your analysis of this, it looks like at least for an hour that aircraft, that Boeing 777, was flying without its transponder on.

GOELZ: Right.

BLITZER: So somebody had deliberately or maybe there was a mechanical failure or whatever, but that transponder was off for an hour at least if you believe this Malaysia air force official.

GOELZ: That's correct. And it's -- you know it's - you have to have a very deliberative process to turn the transponder off. And if someone did that in the cockpit, they were doing it to disguise the route of the plane. I mean there might still be mechanical explanations on what was going on, but those mechanical explanations are narrowing quickly.

BLITZER: Is it theoretically possible that the transponder just breaks down for whatever reason, but the rest of the flight is OK? That you can fly a commercial airliner like that, a Boeing 777, without any other problems, even though the transponder has collapsed or failed?

GOELZ: Well, I mean, there are redundancies throughout the aircraft. You now, having a transponder go down does not shut down your communications. The flight crew can still communicate. They would be informed that the transponder was down. They could communicate with flight controllers. This kind of deviation in course is simply inexplicable.

BLITZER: Yes, I totally agree.

Hold on for a moment. Andrew Stevens is holding by - holding on in Kuala Lumpur, Peter Goelz.

Jim Sciutto is our chief national security correspondent.

You've been doing some digging and some reporting on the latest developments and the intriguing comments, Jim, from the CIA director, John Brennan, that he's not ruling out terrorism. In his words, quote, "not at all." What else are you hearing?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, no question. I mean, first of all, truly remarkable developments today. The idea that one, the plane in a completely different location than was originally thought. In fact, on the other side of that peninsula. And two, also the circumstances vastly different from the working theories. A sudden event that disabled the aircraft or brought it down. In fact, made a u-turn and was flying for an hour. So -- and these, of course, then changed the calculations about what the possibilities are.

As you say, had an opportunity to ask the director of the CIA a question about this this morning. He was speaking at a Council on Foreign Relations event. So I asked him about this transponder being turned off and does that give him any further suspicion, the agency any further suspicion that this was an act of terror. His response was that they are still looking at that as a possible explanation. That they have not ruled out terrorism for this flight. And he mentioned another -- a number of other questions that were raised as a result. One, turning off the transponder. You know, the possibility of these passports and so on. So it looks like they're keeping these lines of inquiry open. And, of course, as the circumstances change, that makes something like this more plausible.

And it is different, and I will say, Wolf, because you and I have had a lot of conversations about this in the last few days, he left the door open to terrorism more so than U.S. and intel officials have been doing in the last even 24 hours.

BLITZER: He certainly did, when he emphasized the words "not at all" and then he himself in response to another question spoke about terrorists are still out there, they're determined to go after aircraft. He was the one that seemed to be suggesting maybe there is -- we don't know -- maybe he knows a lot more, obviously, than we know. Maybe there is some sort of connection.

Let me go back to Andrew Stevens in Kuala Lumpur.

Andrew, you're there in Malaysia and there's been some criticism of Malaysian authorities for not sharing all of this information with other countries, with other investigations that have now been underway. Are they sensitive to some of that criticism we're hearing about the Malaysian investigation?

STEVENS: They're definitely sensitive to it. And they come back and say we have been as open as we possibly can, Wolf. And they are, quote -- one of the U.S. commanders in the seventh fleet is saying how impressed he is with their handling of the rescue or the search operations and the fact that there does seem to be a reasonably open line of communication. But certainly there has been a lot of criticism, particularly from the family members.

Just want to go back to something of what Jim was saying about leaving the door open on the two passport holders because Malaysian police, over the past 24 hours or so, have been - have been steering the line of this investigation into much more of a -- this more likely a people smuggling operation than anything. If you think about there were two Iranian nationals who traveled on these passports. One was 19 years old, one was 28 years old. One was going on an Austrian passport, the stolen Austrian passport, on a flight that took him from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, on to Amsterdam and then to Frankfurt. His mother is in Frankfurt. The other one traveling under an Italian passport was going to Copenhagen. That was the final destination there.

And they say this looks at this stage, at least, more likely to be a people smuggling operation and perhaps an asylum-seeking operation than a terror - a terror concern. So that's what we're getting on the ground here. Certainly they are getting criticized for not having enough information going out, Wolf. They say they're doing what they can.

BLITZER: All right, stand by, Andrew. Jim Sciutto is our chief national security correspondent.

Jim, you wanted to weigh in.

SCIUTTO: Yes, I just want to clarify. When I said the CIA director was leaving the door open, not to those passports being a terrorist event, because that's the same information we've been getting since yesterday, that it fit a pattern, U.S. intelligence officials have told me, of human smuggling rather than tied to any terror event.