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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Fmr. FAA Chief of Staff Michael Goldfarb Talks Missing Malaysian Flight; Criticism of a Chaotic Investigation; China Satellite Images May Show Crash Site

Aired March 12, 2014 - 16:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: In light of what's happened, could the FAA, should the FAA be taking a more hard-line approach into looking into this corrosion and cracking issue or is it premature to say that?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB, FORMER FAA CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, they did that in the Hawaiian Air flight in the early 1990s. The plane's skin literally came off, a flight attendant was sucked out of the plane. The plane landed safely. But from that flight on, aircraft that flew over the oceans have a corrosion problem with salt air, so they put in anti-aging aircraft programs in all the major carriers since then. So a plane can be 12, 13, 14 years old, fly over the ocean -- I think this was 12 years old -- but if it has an aggressive program to maintain its anti -- to maintain the integrity of the aircraft, it's not a problem at all to fly. So they've been pretty good historically on this.

Here's the biggest --

TAPPER: The FAA.

GOLDFARB: Here's the biggest problem. There's two tragedies, the loss of the plane, the families, the Malaysia's handling of this, the chaos between the military and civil side of the Malaysia, who's on first, what is the search area? The other concern is we've got to find probable cause, because you board a 777 this evening for London, you want to know for sure that the problem of this aircraft didn't migrate to the rest of the fleet. And that's why it's imperative for Boeing and the FAA to get to the root cause of this crash.

TAPPER: How concerned are you by the way the Malaysian authorities have handled the investigation?

GOLDFARB: They're getting a hard rap. Before we put too much blame, I think they were overwhelmed by the magnitude of this and it only got worse for them. I think there might have been some cultural differences between the military use -- military air space in many countries is 60 percent; they control a lot more than the United States. So you have the military culture, you have the civil culture, two different fiefdoms, so to speak. Information isn't getting shared.

I'm more concerned where Malaysian Air is. Why haven't we heard yet what was on their report from that plane before its last contact? Why don't we know if it, in fact, it complied with the airworthiness directive? So it's a very complicated story. Lots of blame to go around. And yet the search widens and the information is --

TAPPER: And we need to have an answer to that question, did they follow the airworthiness directive for the Boeing 777? Thanks so much, Michael Goldfarb. We appreciate it.

Coming up next, officials who seem to have no clue about the vanished jet, adding to the anguish of loved ones. Next, we'll talk to our reporter who was in the room today as the story changed yet again.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. We have some breaking news to report on missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Chinese officials say their satellite images may, I underscore, may show the location of the plane. We're continuing to gather information about this.

Let's go to our own Andrew Stevens, who's standing by in the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. Andrew, what do we know?

ANDREW STEVENS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Details very sketchy at moment. Obviously, Jake, this was a message sent out by the State Administration of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense. We think it's the umbrella body which takes in space administration as well.

They say that on March 9th they saw a suspected crash at sea. This is their words. And that there were three pieces of debris, the biggest being about 24 meters by 22 meters from that crash zone. Now, there are satellite images out and they've also given coordinates of where they saw that crash.

I've just got the Google Map up here and looking at where it would have been, which wasn't actually far from the original flight path. It is well into the South China Sea roughly halfway between Malaysia and Vietnam. This is the State Administration for National Defense saying that on March 9th suspected crash at sea. There were three suspected floating objects.

That's about all I can tell you at moment, Jake. Early days. I'm just looking at the date, though. This is March 9th, this is a Sunday. That flight took off on -- early on Saturday morning, very late Friday night, early Saturday morning. So we need to get a lot more background checks on this, but that's what they are saying at the moment, which as I say it's on the flight path, but a lot of the theories now are pointing very much towards the plane actually going towards -- going to the West, going totally the opposite direction on the other side of Malaysia.

TAPPER: All right, Andrew, stay with us. I want to go to Michael Goldfarb here, former official with the Federal Aviation Administration. When you see a report like this, the Chinese government saying that on Sunday they detected an image that was 22 by 24 meters in the -- apparently in the South China Sea. What does that say to you?

GOLDFARB: Well, Sunday? It's Wednesday. It's three days out and we're just getting this information now. Had we had that information -- the image was taken on Sunday, three days ago. Where has that been? That would have greatly helped.

TAPPER: If you look right now, I want to show you, Michael. Just look right there. You can see there is the image, the satellite image, and we're going to continue to try to get more. You can see it's still downloading right now. I don't know if that means anything to you.

GOLDFARB: No. I mean, it may or may not be useful. It does kind of confirm -- a lot of Doubting Thomases have got the notion the plane did that hard turn based on that military feed. So this would bring it back, Jake, to where we had originally thought its flight path was.

TAPPER: To the east. To the northeast.

GOLDFARB: And it makes sense given what we know. So that will have to be confirmed but certainly if that's the case, boy, that's a lucky hit because otherwise we're facing weeks and months of searching incredible amounts of the sea.

TAPPER: When you express -- I don't know if it's frustration or what about the fact that this image was taken, the image that people are saying, from the Chinese government of what may be the plane, we don't know -- that it was shot -- this image came from Sunday and today is Wednesday. Are you expressing frustration that the Chinese government apparently withheld it or that it took three days for them to go back and look?

GOLDFARB: Both. Both. One would think with an international crisis of this magnitude affecting so many Chinese citizens, if they had that image, where was the report of that on Sunday?

TAPPER: Of course you would know better than I, is it not possible they were just going back in time and just because of sheer manpower they couldn't see every image and --

GOLDFARB: Possibly, but by Sunday night, I mean, they know that grid, they know that area, they have their images from their satellites. That should have been reported much earlier than this. But it's part and parcel of what we've been experiencing here, which is a very chaotic, disorganized investigation that has led us all over the place while valuable time on the search is being lost.

TAPPER: Put on your former hat as a former official of the Federal Aviation Administration. Is this now likely the number-one lead?

GOLDFARB: Well, it's the only lead.

TAPPER: It's the only lead.

GOLDFARB: Yes, it's the only credible lead. They'll have to run to ground that image. Hopefully it will be better than the military painting of the radar on the West turn of that aircraft. So, yes, sure.

TAPPER: It makes it more sense because it was north and east of --

GOLDFARB: It makes more sense. It does. It does nothing to explain the cause. It does nothing to explain any of that. It simply implies that that was the flight path from Kuala Lumpur.

TAPPER: All right, Michael, stand by. I want to go to Richard Quest with CNN. He's in New York. Richard, your reaction to this news that the Chinese government has released this image taken on Sunday showing a floating object, three suspected floating objects. Their sizes are 3x18, 14x19, and 24x22 meters. Your thoughts?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Michael Goldfarb, as has put his finger beautifully on the position -- it's the only lead and, not only that, it is the most probable lead. Because it puts the plane where it should be roughly. It puts the plane to the East of Vietnam, around the Gulf of Thailand, into the South China Sea, which is exactly where one would have expected the plane to be if there hadn't been this turning off to the left and the Straits of Malacca.

So from the simple logistics and logic of the argument, this is far more relevant than anything else we've seen. And also it coincides roughly with this letter, this report, this rumor from an oil rig worker who said they saw some burning debris, which was being discounted in the last few hours but now obviously is getting some credence.

One other thing, Jake. You know, the Chinese -- look, I'm not an Sino expert by any means but they certainly wouldn't be releasing this information if they felt there was something inappropriate or improper about its credence and credibility.

TAPPER: Richard Quest in New York. So let's just reset for a second. We have this breaking news from the Chinese government specifically from the State Administration of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense, looking at all of the satellite images, trying to track down Malaysia Air Flight 370.

They found this image that they just released. It comes from Sunday morning, 11:00 a.m. I presume local time. Sunday morning. Three suspected floating objects. Their sizes are 13 by 18 meters, 14 by 19 meters, 24 by 22 meters. These are the images just released by the Chinese government.

Michael Goldfarb, formerly of the Federal Aviation Administration, three images of this size. Is that consistent with an airplane or are we just looking for any debris at all?

GOLDFARB: Back to what Richard Quest said about the methodical nature that the Chinese would do in terms of releasing this information. So the fact that it may have been late, but the fact that they released it, they certainly have a good feel for this. Do we know it's debris from the aircraft? Absolutely not. But it's the first solid lead consistent with the path of this plane out of Kuala Lumpur. So we'll find out more. That's very encouraging information. It could wash out like the other leads, it may not be related, but it certainly looks more promising.

TAPPER: And knowing the Chinese government, Richard Quest, I would find it hard to believe that they haven't already checked this out at greater length than just the satellite image.

QUEST: Every sinew inside all of us is saying exactly the same thing, Jake. We may not -- look, I'm just going to simply say it outright. It's pretty inconceivable that the Chinese would risk the level of embarrassment of putting out this statement, which is detailed, which has got coordinates which match the flight plan, and then putting out pictures which clearly they have analyzed to the nth degree.

And it might not be, but this is the closest, this is the best, this is the most reliable information, and this is exactly the sort of information that people like Michael Goldfarb, in his previous life, his previous job, were hoping and praying to get their hands on because it takes them much closer to the cause.

TAPPER: Do we have Peter Goelz ready? Peter Goelz formerly of the National Transportation Safety Board is going to come with us in a second.

What do you think, Michael, as somebody who used to work for the FAA, what do you think is the reaction right now? Is the U.S. making sure that the United States authorities who are looking for this flight and the allied countries that are also searching, are people going to that spot right now?

GOLDFARB: I imagine so. As Richard Quest said, I think it can be relied on with a high degree of fidelity, so absolutely. We've had so many turns on this we're a little weary of every new lead, but this one really resonates. It will be checked out and hopefully it will begin to answer all the questions of the speculation of what happened to this aircraft.

TAPPER: If you're just joining us, let me reset for you. Obviously the world has been consumed with this flight that disappeared, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and just in the last few minutes the Chinese government has released these satellite images officially from the State Administration of Science, Technology, and Industry for China's national defense.

These images according to the Chinese government show -- they are from Sunday morning in the South China Sea of three suspected floating objects. Their sizes are 13 meters by 18 meters, 14 meters by 19 meters and 24 meters by 22 meters.

Let's go to Andrew Stevens in Kuala Lumpur. Your reaction to this news, this information from the Chinese government, and tell us as somebody who covers that part of the world and the Chinese government what your best guest is in terms of what this vetting process was before the Chinese government would release this information. STEVENS: Well, that's the interesting question. I was actually in Beijing. I went to Beijing when the flight disappeared and it was very quickly apparent that this was going to be from a top-down approach a major priority to sort out what was going on by the Chinese. The Chinese president himself, Jake, Xi Jinping, said he wanted an all-out effort to find this plane.

Now what strikes me is if these images were taken on Sunday, it is now Wednesday and they are now surfacing. My question is has the Malaysian government been made aware of them before? I was at a press conference here about four hours before. The Chinese ambassador was actually sitting in the front row of that press conference. He wasn't talking, wouldn't say anything about how the search has been handled, but he did say that he had been privately briefed.

Now, if those images we've seen, and I'm sure as Richard was saying your other guest, have been vetted like the Chinese would vet them because they would not want to risk losing face over something this big or this critical, if they were good to go, the Malaysian government is still very much focusing not so much in that area, but still towards the west. So there seems to be a slight discrepancy about what the Malaysia government knows at this stage and when they were told.

TAPPER: And of course the Chinese government as opposed to the United States government where there would be all sorts of questions from a nosey press, what did they know, when did they know it, why weren't we told sooner, there are not the kind of press freedoms in China --

STEVENS: It's not going to happen.

TAPPER: We'll probably never know exactly the story. If you're just tuning in, the Chinese government has released satellite imagery that seems to show three floating objects, the pictures were taken on Sunday morning in the South China Sea. I want to now go to Peter Goelz, former official with the National Transportation Safety Board, to get his reaction to the release of these satellite images from China.

Peter, what's your take? As Michael Goldfarb, formerly of the FAA said, this is not just the best lead. This is the only lead. What's your reaction to these images?

PETER GOELZ, FORMER NTSB MANAGING DIRECOTR: I agree completely with Michael. As has already been identified it's where it's supposed to be. There was always great skepticism about this turn, 90-degree turn crossing back over the island. So I think they've got to get vessels and aircraft there as quickly as humanly possible, track where it might have drifted in the intervening time and get some eyes on the wreckage as soon as possible. This opens up the door back to an aeronautical problem and not a human problem.

TAPPER: Peter, when you were with the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, did you ever have to deal with the Chinese government? GOELZ: We had a couple of accidents in China in which U.S. products were involved and we did deal with them. It was always a cautious relationship. It does not surprise me that China was somewhat reluctant or they were slow to come forward. You know, they may not want to reveal what kind of satellite capabilities they have and exactly what they're looking at in that region of the country, that region of the world.

TAPPER: I just want to bring people in if they're just tuning in for this information that the Chinese government has revealed these new satellite images from the South China Sea from Sunday morning. These very, very large floating images as officials and experts from ten different countries scour the ocean in the region trying to find any hint of what may have happened to Malaysia Air Flight 370 with the 239 passengers including -- and crew members on board.

The Chinese government has released this information, these satellite images, showing these three immense floating objects, in meters 13 x 18, 14 x 19, 24 x 22. I'm sure a member of my staff will translate that to feet in the coming seconds.

Michael Goldfarb, when you were with the FAA, did you have to deal with the Chinese government at any point?

GOLDFARB: No. I had to deal with the Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie and the international incident that that occurred. I think Peter Goelz through NTSB has had that experience and it's a good point about being cautious yet again. That's a conflicting objective. Those three days cost us enormous amount of lead time on this debris field. So that's the concern there.

TAPPER: The question of course is whether or not these images from Sunday morning were discovered on Sunday and vetted by the Chinese government over the last three days or whether --

GOLDFARB: At any point it's the first piece of good news we've had in five days on this.

TAPPER: Just to give people an idea, good news, of course, being a relative term.

GOLDFARB: Relative term.

TAPPER: To give people an idea of how big tease these floating objects are, one is 43 by 59 feet, one is 46 feet by 62 feet, one is 79 feet by 72 feet. What you would expect if you were looking for an airplane that crashed. I want to go to Tom Foreman now. Tom, give us some idea of where exactly these images are from when it comes to the search area. The grid expanded today to 27,000 miles.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The grid was very big. Today we have initially it started off an area right in here and then they went into areas over in here and areas in here. Tremendous amount of area being pulled in. I want to point out what we had in this case is this location is right about here. If you look down to this part of just south of Vietnam, down in this area, so this is very much in keeping with the general range of where they thought the plane was.

It would absolutely be within the initial search area, not the expanded search area. And as you noted just a few minutes ago absolutely contrary to the idea that the plane went this way, there were people over here who said they heard things and saw things and thought it went that way. But remember there were also people up in this area who said they saw something. So this would be absolutely in keeping.

As you mentioned the size of the pieces there, you remember, Jake, the Air France pieces, some of those pieces coming out of the water also very big pieces of airplane. That all is at least in keeping with the facts as we know them.

TAPPER: Peter Goelz, formerly of the National Transportation Safety Board, when you hear of objects this large, 79 feet by 72 feet, 46 x 62 feet, 43 x 59 feet that is obviously consistent with what you would expect to find at the site of a plane crash.

GOELZ: Well, it could be. The key thing is to get the eyes on the ground there as quickly as possible. I want to make one other point. It's one thing -- this is another strike against a military run accident investigation. It's one thing to have the military asking the Chinese intelligence whether they have, you know, any assets that they can add to it. It's quite another thing if you have a civil aviation investigation in which you have a group activity asking for assistance. The governments are much more likely to respond positively.

TAPPER: So right now, I want to ask a question about these floating objects that the Chinese government located in this photograph, this image from Sunday morning. Peter Goelz, formerly of the NTSB, would these objects theoretically still be floating?

GOELZ: They could be. Certainly there will be a lot of light debris in the general area if they can track it correctly, but some of the pieces could still be floating. The vertical stabilizer on Air France was floating. A number of them could still be floating.

TAPPER: And how do authorities find them now? Obviously they go to the region where this image is from. How do they find them if they have sunk deep into the water?

GOELZ: Well, you use -- you bring in people who are experienced in that field, you drop down remote controlled, underwater vehicles with high-resolution cameras and you start the search on a systemic basis and it works. If you've got the general area, the techniques are there, that they will find the wreckage.

TAPPER: Michael Goldfarb, formerly of the Federal Aviation Administration, obviously the time for questioning China is much, much later. Right now, U.S. officials are going to be focused on let's get as much information as we can from the Chinese government, from the authorities, when they got the information because they're going to need to know, it's not the same thing if these images came from earlier today versus when the Chinese government says they came from Sunday morning.

GOLDFARB: I think there's credibility behind these images. I think the teams are being assembled to go to that area. I believe they will absolutely be able to find the wreckage. They have the technology to do it and the relief that everybody feels from having to look 27,000 miles across oceans and jungles isn't possible. So this at least gives a chance that the black boxes will still be pinging. They have 30 days in them.

TAPPER: It's only been five days.

GOLDFARB: Air France was five days. This is a hopeful sign in the investigation.

TAPPER: How does the U.S. government and others, how do they negotiate those waters? Because obviously there are all sorts of territorial issues or do people just forego --

GOLDFARB: Peter might have a better answer in terms of international treaties. I would imagine in a crisis that they work together. I have a hard time believing they would put the boundaries between them at this stage, but I don't have the answer right now.

TAPPER: Peter, of the 239 individuals who were on this flight roughly 150 of them, 154 were from China or Taiwan. So this is a very important cause for the Chinese government. When searches like this happen and the treaty is not invoked, you were talking earlier on the show about the fact that the Malaysian government has not invoked the treaty that exists for the purposes of searches like this. Is it difficult to negotiate to get to places like this if they are in Chinese waters for example?\

GOELZ: Certainly, it can be. But in this case with such widespread publicity and interest, my guess, is as soon as they uncover the first piece of wreckage they identify they're going to switch this to a civil-led investigation and invoke the treaty. They may be doing that now. This is their first and only solid lead. So I think it's time to move beyond a military-led investigation and bring in the aviation experts.

TAPPER: Peter, obviously we don't know what this is yet. It could actually not be related to this missing flight at all. But as somebody who's done these investigations, what is your basic thought when you see these satellite images?

GOELZ: Well, I would say this is as good as information as we have. We have got to confirm it as quickly as humanly possible.

TAPPER: Just to repeat, the size of these images is quite stunning. I have it in meters but also in feet, it's up to 72 x 64. These are big images, Peter, consistent as you say it's not proof positive, but consistent with what you might expect to find.

GOELZ: It could be wing to wing portions of the wreckage could meet those specs.

TAPPER: Michael, your thoughts. We're about to close out the hour here and go to Wolf Blitzer.

GOLDFARB: I think the size of the pieces, everything we've heard in the last half hour about this breaking news from Chinese gives good cause to believe that we've now perimeterized the area to focus our search. That's a huge relief to everybody to be able to at least be able to look for this. I think it's a high chance that they're going to confirm this is pieces of the wreckage.

TAPPER: And the information of course not expected to be positive. We expect this to be the site of a plane crash.

GOLDFARB: There is no good news in that.

TAPPER: But there is some potentially some resolution --

GOLDFARB: From the aviation safety standpoint, it's a very positive news, for the families and everybody else, it may bring a close to a chapter that's been excruciatingly painful.

TAPPER: OK, Michael Goldfarb, formerly of the Federal Aviation Administration, Peter Goelz, formerly of the National Transportation Safety Board. You've been listening to breaking news, China, the Chinese government releasing satellite images from Sunday of three immense floating objects that appear to be from an airplane, one 43 by 59 feet, one 46 by 62 feet, one 79 by 72 feet.

I now throw it over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."