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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

U.S. Officials Probe Batteries Theory; Officials: Plane Likely Crashed In Indian Ocean

Aired March 14, 2014 - 16:30   ET

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


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- developed. They attempted to put it out. They couldn't and they evacuated the aircraft. So I don't think it's a likely scenario.

BILL WEIR, CNN GUEST ANCHOR: Let's talk about the idea that -- this is just hard. Some people out there in your profession want to give as much hope to the loved ones. Others think it's a disservice to them but this idea that somehow, either a forced landing, a terrorist takes it and they try to put down somewhere in the Andaman Islands, is that even possible with a plane this size? Wouldn't you need a huge runway to land that thing?

ANTHONY ROMAN, COMMERCIAL PILOT: Well, in a normal set of circumstances, you would want a runway of at least 10,000 feet. It wouldn't use the entire runway to stop, but that would be a comfortable landing for this aircraft. But in this particular instance, my staff, now I put on my investigator's hat rather than my pilot's hat, my staff researched all of the airports on the Malaysian Peninsula and the last reported pings along the course that you've outlined. There are dozens of airports along that route, some 6,000 feet long, some 8,000 feet long, some 5,000 feet long.

Now, if I were flying a heavy jet during the evening and I had some kind of emergency where I lost all of my communication systems, the transponders, the radio, the ACARS, I lost it all, but I still had control of the airplane and I believe this airplane was still in control simply because it flew a very deliberate course.

So if I were a pilot and I could control that aircraft, there is something called pilot engine dead reckoning and the pilot knows his last known position, he can use his watch and estimate his speed and then they can know when they are going to reach the Malaysian Peninsula or some of those islands, which would be a little more difficult to get to.

But in those instances, the pilot would see ground lights. I understand it was a clear night. And they would then navigate to a major metropolitan center and circle about it as they are descending, locating an airport that has a rotating beacon, a light that shines and blinks white and red denoting an airport.

So the pilots know how to find those airports and they could have successfully landed on a runway shorter than 10,000 feet. Now, perhaps they've run off the end of the runway, but they would have bled so much inertia that it would have made the impact much more survivable for the passengers.

WEIR: Let's play out the theory that the cockpit was commandeered in some way that maybe not a skilled pilot actually took the stick, but was trying to force the captain into taking that left turn. There are panic buttons to be certain, right, there are ways to send out a distress call in that case?

ROMAN: Well, the way to send out a distress call in those instances is the transponder if you cannot use the radios and that transponder was shut off at the beginning of this scenario.

WEIR: Anthony Roman, great insight from you. Appreciate your time here today.

ROMAN: My pleasure, Bill.

WEIR: Coming up next, it has happened before. Other planes vanished without a trace. Is it possible Flight 370 will never be found?

Plus, how would officials know if it was an accident or something more sinister? A key investigator for the Pan Am Flight 103 disaster says the most important question to ask now, is the plane still a potential threat.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WEIR: We have some breaking news in the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370. For days investigators and search crews have puzzled over which direction that plane took. Now it seems analysts may have narrowed it down significantly. I want to bring in our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr with some new information about where this plane may have gone. Barbara, tell us.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Bill. Well, people have been talking about the vast area of the Indian Ocean. CNN has learned there is a classified intelligence analysis conducted by the Malaysians, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, the FAA and U.S. military analysts that may have narrowed this Indian Ocean down a fair bit. I know you are going to follow along with me on this as we begin to look at a map.

What we have heard is this classified analysis took all of the radar data that we've talked about, the satellite pings we've talked about. All of the information and looked reasonably at what the path the plane might have taken would be. As you look at that map, the plane we know from radar made a turn back over the Malay Peninsula.

What this classified analysis tells us is the data shows it might have turned one of two directions. First up, north. North into the Bay of Bengal off of India. That is the place now that both the Indian military and some U.S. military assets are looking. Again, based on the data and the calculations.

The southern search box, it might have turned south and flown for some distance in a south easterly direction. That is the calculation. We've heard about those Andaman Islands. We are hearing about it flying further south in the south easterly direction. Now, this isn't perfect knowledge again.

These are calculations based on the analysis, but done by very expert U.S. government analysts working with the Malaysians based on the satellite data, based on the radar data and based on all of the pieces of information that they have from the so-called pings of the aircraft, which we know went to the satellite constellation and they picked some even more specific information.

WEIR: Barbara, I'm you're remote magic wall operator here. These are rough approximations of the areas you're talking about. But you understand, I just want to make clear, they divvied it up, U.S. efforts down here and the Indian Navy is searching up here?

STARR: To some extent that's right. Now in -- let's start with the south. That's where we talked about the "USS Kidd" has entered the northern end of the Strait of Malacca and it's going to moved out into the Indian Ocean, look around and see what debris field it can find. The U.S. also has some surveillance aircraft that can fly very long distances. They have already done a mission up to 1,000 miles.

Out in the Indian Ocean, they are in the northern search box with the Indian military who is also looking in the Bay of Bengal off the Coast of India. But you know a lot of this is going to move around, based on what they get, as they begin to grit it off, look through the grids, clear some certain areas in the coming days we'll see things move around, some of those assets.

But what it does tell us, Bill, is that it's not the whole Indian Ocean which is massive, which is probably impossible to fully search. It begins to narrow down the highly probable areas where they are looking.

WEIR: But this is what is significant about your reporting, Barbara. This is yet another new area to search. This southern turn that we're talking about hasn't even been discussed before.

STARR: Well, it comes really as you exit the -- look at the northern end as I'm looking at the map with you, the northern end of the Strait of Malacca. They've talked over the last couple of days, once they started saying that they wanted to go into the Indian Ocean that they would exit through that northern end of the Strait of Malacca. A little further down from where you're pointing and come out into -- come out into the Indian Ocean.

What we -- yes, down there. That's it. And so what we now know is as they enter the Indian Ocean, you know, which we only started to hear about yesterday, we now know much better a little further south that's the area they are going to focus on. That's what the calculation is telling them. Again, though, not perfect knowledge. This is the analysis that they've done.

Things may move around a bit. Meteorological wind patterns, wave patterns could move things around, but this is where they are going to start. What it tells us, not the whole Indian Ocean. They've got a good idea of where they want to begin to look out there in that vast body of water. WEIR: You know just how troubling this is when not the whole Indian Ocean is the best news we can seize on. Barbara Starr, thank you so much. Let's bring back Anthony Roman. He is FAA licensed commercial pilot, a former flight instructor and corporate security expert. What do you think about this now, this new information, Anthony?

ROMAN: I think this is wonderful news. I think it's some of the most positive information we have received in days. The Malay government was very slow to provide information and to call in individuals who are absolutely genius at looking at this data and have the background to try and analyze it. If we now limit where we are searching, the likelihood of locating this aircraft is now much better than it has been before.

WEIR: Now, let's just say -- hope against hope that maybe a helicopter from one of these 13 countries participating in this search sees a life jacket, a bit of spots on the surface because anything else by now certainly would have sunk. How can you figure out, given the tides and wind patterns over the last seven days where to narrow the search?

ROMAN: Well, NASA has wonderful resources and researchers and has databases and computers that quantify this information all the time. So that would be reasonably easy data to obtain.

WEIR: All right, Anthony. Appreciate it.

When we come back, coordinating the massive search effort with the United States now fully involved, who takes the lead? I will ask one of the key investigators of Pan Am Flight 103 when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WEIR: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Bill Weir in for Jake Tapper today. We are continuing our breaking news of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 a full week ago now. U.S. officials are telling CNN at this hour that an analysis by several U.S. agencies along with the Malaysian government shows that the plane likely crashed into the Indian Ocean along one of two possible flight paths.

The search now involves 57 ships, 48 aircrafts, planes and helicopters from 13 countries and this includes the U.S., China, Japan, India, a lot of big players, a lot of different governments to coordinate so you can't help, but wonder if this is all slowing down the effort to give some peace of mind to the loved ones who have been waiting so long.

Joining me now George is former U.S. acting and deputy attorney general. He was involved in the oversight supervision of Pan Am 103 investigation. That one was simple compared to this, right?

GEORGE TERWILLIGER, FORMER U.S. ACTING AND DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: Right. Had a U.S. flag carrier with a plane down in the U.K., a tradition ally of the United States, a country with which we were joined at the hip --

WEIR: American airline -- you have obvious jurisdiction.

TERWILLIGER: Right.

WEIR: How much of this do you put on the point that all of these countries are involved and Malaysia doesn't have a National Transportation Safety Board the way we know it?

TERWILLIGER: Or a lot of experience dealing with this is I think it evident from the way we've dealt with it publicly. But the fact of the matter is that the U.S. and the U.S. government have an extremely strong interest in finding out what happened to this plane and whether it's just an accident, there is an interest in that from the aircraft safety point of view. But if there was some kind of incident on the plane, which led to an accident, sabotage or hopefully not, but if there were an act of terrorism, our government needs to know who, why, and how.

WEIR: Now, as implausible as it may be for any of us, that the plane is somewhere intact, that's a threat, right? That's considered a threat? It affects the investigation whether that is even a consideration?

TERWILLIGER: Well, of course, as remote as that possibility may seem and think about it, on September 10th, 2001, the idea of flying three airplanes into major buildings in the United States seemed pretty remote as well. So until that remote possibility is nailed shut as no longer a possibility, then the people who have to worry about security in the United States and who administer our counterterrorism program are going to worry about where this plane is because it's a potential weapon of mass destruction.

WEIR: Do you get the sense that the Americans, as good as they are, best in the world at finding this sort of plane has been deferential to the Malaysians up until now?

TERWILLIGER: Well, I think it's appropriate to be deferential particularly on the public level. You're not going to get more cooperation by embarrassing our friends in Malaysia. On the other hand, one would hope that behind the scenes there's a very studied effort going on to exert American leadership and work with our Chinese counterparts who have an equally strong interest and capability in the matter.

WEIR: My goodness. So many layers on this thing. Diplomatic.

TERWILLIGER: Wait until the plane is found and we start to untangle the legal issues to see how complex those layers will be.

WEIR: At this point, we'll take that. George Terwilliger, thank you so much.

Coming up, a full week later, still no closer. Of course, conspiracy theorists are having a field day. We have some unbelievable explanations to debunk about this missing jet, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WEIR: Welcome back to THE LEAD and our continuing coverage of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Alien abductions, secret islands, even invisibility cloaks is some of the wild explanations as to what may have happened to this missing airliner. Given our primal need to know how stories end, our primal fear of catastrophic loss, I suppose it's not hard to understand why.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WEIR (voice-over): The search area is so vast and the facts so few. Is it any wonder that this monster void is filled with every possible theory from plausible to outlandish?

GARY MARCUS, PSYCHOLOGY PROFESSOR, NYU: A lot of conspiracy theories are wrong, but that doesn't mean all of them are wrong. It could be that one of them in this actually is right. We just don't know yet.

WEIR: The most desperate need for resolution comes, of course, from the most disastrous of events. The kind that must, must have an explanation outside of indiscriminate fate or a lone gunman. Conspiracy theories still swirl around the Kennedy assassination and the death of Princess Diana, even crashes like TWA 800 even though those events had images, sounds, witnesses, and exhaustive investigations. But here now, with no concrete clues, imaginations run even wilder.

MARCUS: One of the risks in the internet age is that our natural tendency to believe our own ideas and ignore other people's ideas gets exacerbated because it's too easy to go to a web site that supports your own theory and not go to a web site that counsels for the other theory.

WIER: Especially coming from an authority figure like the Malaysian politician who tweeted that the flight may have vanished into a new Bermuda Triangle. Others were quick to echo and even map that bizarre idea. A local police chief floated the concept that this could be part of an elaborate life insurance scam.

KHALID ABU BAKAR, MALAYSIAN INSPECTOR GENERAL OF POLICE: There could be somebody on the flight who has bought huge sums of insurance who wants the family to gain from it.

WEIR: Then there's a theory that the flight could have been spirited to North Korea. They had enough fuel and hiding it, with the stealth technology of military invisibility cloaks.

MARCUS: A lot of our theorizing in general is influenced by something called motivated reasoning, which means that we look for things that make us happy when in reality, it's not very likely.

WEIR: On Thursday, a shaman known as quote, "King of the Witch Doctors" performed rituals at the Kuala Lumpur airport, chant praying for guidance on the flight's whereabouts and the 239 souls on board.

MARCUS: The more unknowns, there are more rooms for people's minds to race ahead. WEIR: Or maybe we could all just go with Occam's razor, a belief that the simpler theory is usually the most accurate if only we had one.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WEIR: One more theory getting tons of attention on Reddit today focuses on the bizarre numerical coincidences, Flight 370, the flight disappeared on the third month and 7th day of the year. Malaysia Airlines flies nearly 37,000 passengers every day. Curious but we're going to keep looking for the facts here at CNN and here on THE LEAD, Jake Tapper is back on Monday. I'm Bill Weir. I'll turn you over now to Wolf Blitzer, right over there, in "THE SITUATION ROOM" -- Wolf.