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New Theories Emerge About Missing Plane; Official Says Plane Likely in Indian Ocean; Inside the Cockpit of a Boeing 777; Investigating Terror Angle

Aired March 14, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. There are new theories emerging right now about what may have happened to that missing Malaysia Airlines jet seven days after it simply vanished into thin air. Here's the latest information we're getting. U.S. officials say an automatic system on the plane was pinging satellites for hours after air traffic controllers lost all contact with the aircraft. Investigators think the plane continued flying during that time.

A senior U.S. official says there's a significant likelihood, potentially at least, it's now at the bottom of the ocean but no conclusions can yet be reached.

A Reuters report suggests the plane was deliberately flown hundreds of miles off course towards the Andaman Islands. That's part of India. The news agency says that heightened suspicions that increase the opportunity that foul play may have been involved. And the search area for the missing plane has expanded further into the Indian Ocean as well as the South China Sea.

The United States today sent the destroyer, the USS Kidd, to scour the Indian Ocean in search of the aircraft.

Let's bring in our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr. Barbara, does the ship movement seem to give credence to the comment by a senior U.S. official that the plane may be at the bottom of the Indian Ocean right now?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly it is one working theory at this point, Wolf. You know, the Malaysian officials -- countries from across the region sending their ships, their aircraft to look for any sign of a debris field from this aircraft. That's going to be the first thing they're going to look for. And actually, a U.S. Navy aircraft, a longer range surveillance aircraft flew its first mission into the Indian Ocean earlier today. Flew out about a thousand miles, didn't report seeing any debris field and came back.

The Kidd will use its helicopters. There will be more surveillance flights. They're going to look at this from the surface of the ocean, from the air, anything they can use. Basically, though, they want to stay with ships and aircraft, at this point, because that's their best chance of using those very specialized radars to look out and see if they can find anything that looks like debris on the ocean surface. If they find it, then they will hone in on that area. But a number of nations participating in this now, as the Malaysians are beginning to share more information, clearly, about what they know, some of those pings, some of that data received by satellites now being used to calculate perhaps where the best opportunity to -- opportunity to look may be.

BLITZER: Barbara, yesterday, I spoke with the -- with a commander, commander William Marks of the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet in the pacific, and he told me that the search was expanding dramatically going, in his words, from a chessboard to a football field. Give us an update on how extensive this U.S. and international search operation has now become.

STARR: Well, you know, Wolf, it started on the east side of the Malay Peninsula, basically, you know, if you look at the map in the Gulf of Thailand. Relatively speaking, that's a fairly constrained piece of water. They had a lot of ships in there, a lot of aircraft and within days the, you know, expression you heard is it's saturated with searchers. They were able to look very quickly at every bit of that water, they say, and didn't find anything. Some of the data now pointing them to the west side of the Malay Peninsula into the Indian Ocean. That is thousands of square miles of ocean.

I think it's safe to say they won't be looking at all of it. They're able to calculate how much fuel might have been left on board, the range of the aircraft, the data they got making them focus in on a much more specific area. It's still very large. It's going to take a lot of time. But perhaps, perhaps, with the information they have in hand and the clues we're seeing, they can begin to focus in on it.

I should add, the Indian military, the Indian Navy and their aircraft are coming at this from the other side, through the Bay of Bengal, sort of at the northwest top end of this piece of water. They are joining the search very actively. They're looking in the more northern area, the U.S. looking in the more southern area -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr with the latest information from the Pentagon. Thank you. So, was the missing plane deliberately flown toward that remote island chain in the Indian Ocean? Could it have landed somewhere or is it more likely that it crashed into the Indian Ocean?

Let's discuss the latest theories with Tom Fuentes, he's the former FBI Assistant Director. He's now a CNN Law Enforcement Analyst. If this Reuters report is true that the plane deliberately seemed to be moving toward the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, it's part of India, what does that say?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, the question would be, how far did it fly in that direction, you know, it -- and whether it turned at all and how precise is their information about knowing that it flew that way? Because if it flew over Indonesia on its way over the Indian Ocean, Indonesia has 17,000 separate islands.

Now, we see on the map here, the large islands of Sumatra and below it Java. But there are 17,000 islands the majority of which are not even inhabited. So, if the plane crashed into the jungle on one of those even uninhabited islands, there'd be almost no one to know about it and it would be almost hard to see through the jungle canopy to see the debris.

If you recall, when the 911 hijackers, when we had the crash in the field in Pennsylvania, that plane dove into the ground so deep that it was barely visible in an open field. It was difficult to see from the air much less if it would have been a wooded area or a jungle area with leaves and trees blocking the ground view. So, that's another issue.

BLITZER: Let me -- let me bring John Goglia into this conversation, a former NTSB board member and aviation security expert. What's your assessment of these various theories, John? Because it just seems to be getting more confusing by the hour.

JOHN GOGLIA, FORMER BOARD MEMBER, NTSB, AVIATION SAFETY EXPERT: Well, based on the information that's been running around, and we have to look at it with a very jaundiced eye, it clearly indicates a purposeful act. Somebody turned the transponder off. Somebody attempted to disable the ACAR system. We know the airplane turned off course. We have reports of signals being emitted from the -- from the airplane in a different course than what was originally set for the air -- the flight. All of that indicates somebody did that. Not the airplane. It wasn't a catastrophic failure. Somebody has accomplished these tasks, especially the ones that were accomplished (ph) over time. So, it clearly is beginning to look like a terrorist or an act of piracy.

BLITZER: Yes, or foul play. Tom, you agree with that?

GOGLIA: Or suicide.

BLITZER: Yes. Tom, go ahead.

FUENTES: Yes, I would agree with that that --

BLITZER: That the notion of catastrophic mechanical failure less likely. The notion that someone deliberately turned off the transponders and directed this plane in this direction for whatever reason more likely?

FUENTES: Yes, and that requires two things to be true. Is one that -- you know, that it was deliberately turned the direction it was turned and deliberately continued to fly which would indicate that it didn't explode over the original flight path where the original searches were conducted. And, you know, secondly, though, the data would have to be accurate concerning the tracking and whether it was going to one way point or another. That would require knowledge of the sophistication of the radar system Malaysian Air Force used compared to the sophistication of the airport at Kuala Lumpur.

You know, we sent over NTSB and FAA inspectors and experts to look at the data. How modern is the equipment they're looking at? How high is the resolution of the information to know that it's, you know, accurate enough to make these kind of judgments? BLITZER: So, John, if a plane was flying for five hour after losing contact -- communications contact with ground control, how accurate are these pings that have now been detected pointing this plane in this direction of the Indian Ocean?

GOGLIA: Well, they're pretty accurate, to give you that something sent a signal from some point. And the point has to be triangulated. It's not being broadcast on that lat-long and giving you that data. It's just telling you that it's out there.

Now, there is systems that can provide that information, but we're told that Malaysians didn't pay for the Boeing health monitoring system. It's a fee-based service. And they only put it in for their engines and the engines will tell you a number of parameters based on the engine's needs, not so much the airplane's needs. But one of them is the altitude so they can tell us how high the airplane is. But it not going to tell us what direction the airplane is going in.

BLITZER: I'm going to have John --

GOGLIA: So, there's a lot of deduction going on.

BLITZER: Yes, go ahead.

GOGLIA: A lot of deduction going on based upon -- deduction based upon the scarce information we now have.

BLITZER: I want you to stand by, John, and I want Tom to stand by as well. We'll take a quick break. Up next we're going to go inside a Boeing 777 cockpit simulator to find out what the pilots who fly this jet have to do to keep it in the air.

Plus, another possible lead into the whereabouts of flight 370. It involves a seismic event off the coast of Malaysia. We have details of that coming up as well.


BLITZER: A key question in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, exactly what happened in the cockpit that night? CNN's Martin Savidge is joining us now. He's just outside Toronto. He's inside the cockpit of a Boeing 777 simulator. Martin, that's quite an array of lights and buttons for pilots to worry about. Show us that high-tech equipment, how it works, what pilots would have been doing that fateful night.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, hello, Wolf. You're right, it does look very daunting, initially when you look at this. But much of the systems aboard this extremely modern aircraft are automated. I won't say that anybody can fly this plane, that certainly is not the case. But the days of when you used to have to fly in the old analog world, they are a world away from this cockpit.

What we've done, we've loaded into this simulator everything we know about flight 370, that's the Malaysian airliner that's now vanished. We loaded in the destination. We took off from Kuala Lumpur. We're en route to Beijing. We're essentially following the same route that they had mapped in. We've got it logged in on the very complicated GPS system that they have here that can navigate the airplane. We'll eventually get up to 35,000 feet. That was the altitude at which the plane was at. We can even fly to Vitod (ph), which is that way point where it's thought to be the last area that the aircraft reported in on. Everything we simulate, even the sky at that time of night, is reflected by this airplane. It's all real, but it's actually a simulator, Wolf. And the idea is to let you have the feel in the airplane. And right now we're still maneuvering through the air thanks to Mitchell Castada (ph), who is the pilot actually in control here. And we're very quickly going to auto pilot.


BLITZER: What's pretty shocking to me, Martin, and I'm sure to a lot of our viewers, is how easy it is to turn off the plane's transponder. That's the transponder that sends signals to ground control stations telling where the plane is, all sorts of very important information. First of all, show our viewers how easy it is for a pilot or someone who gets into that cockpit to turn off the transponder.

SAVIDGE: Sure. Yes. OK. So here's the big, huge dashboard. The transponder you're talking about is located right here, right next to my knee. And it looks relatively small. It is. But it's hugely important to the navigation of the airplane, as you point out. The way you would turn it off -- and you would, I stress, never do this while flying in the air, but to turn it off, you would take it and turn this small switch three clicks to the left and, boom, you've turned it off. That essentially means this signal is no longer broadcasting, telling the air traffic controllers on the ground who you are, where you are or what you're doing. Doesn't mean you don't show up on radar, you do, you're still a blip, but now you're an unidentifiable blip.

One other thing I'll show you about the transponder. If you put it back on, and if it was a hijack situation, someone's now in the cockpit with a gun to your head, you don't want to use the radio, you can actually send a signature. You reach down, clear this out. You'd enter a code. This is not that code. But it could go like this and now you're transmitting an emergency message that everyone on the ground immediately gets, alarm bells, you've been hijacked. The plane is not in your control.


BLITZER: But what's chilling is, if you remember reading the 9/11 Commission, of those four planes that were hijacked on 9/11, three of the transponders were shut down right away by the hijackers. They obviously had training in a cockpit. They knew what they were doing. They immediately shut down the transponders. How long would it take to shut down or disable the plane's other key instruments, giving indications to air traffic control or others on the ground where the plane was?

SAVIDGE: The transponder's very easy because of the fact that when you're on the ground, you are supposed to turn it off. You're no longer needing radar. So that's why the on/off switch is so accessible. The other equipment you talk about, whether it be the radios, and there are many frequencies that they could be using, whether they use the ACARS system, that's the system that basically transmits what the airplane is doing. Even the engines are reporting in without necessarily the pilots input. To disable those, that's something far more complicated. It's not as simple as an on/off switch. You literally might have to get into some of the circuit breakers and other more convoluted systems to try to shut them down. What that says is, if somebody was shutting them off, and shutting them off in a series over time, they knew what they were doing. It wasn't just somebody who happened to stumble into the cockpit. This is someone who is very familiar with the flight deck of a 777-200.

BLITZER: Martin Savidge in that simulator for us. Martin, a good explanation. Thanks so much.

So, was the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 a deliberate act? That's a key question for investigators as the search for the plane goes on. We'll speak live with our national security analyst about the role of the CIA in this investigation.


BLITZER: As investigators try to figure out what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, they're looking at a number of possibilities, including the possibility of terrorism. The CIA director, John Brennan, the other day said they're not ruling out the notion of terrorism, in his words, quote, "not at all." Our national security analyst Robert Baer is joining us now from Irvine, California. He's a former CIA clandestine officer. Also joining us to see - to discuss what's going on, Tom Fuentes, our CNN law enforcement analyst, former assistant FBI director.

How likely is it that terrorists may have commandeered this aircraft and done with it whatever they wanted? What do you think, Bob?

BOB BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, you know, that's sheer speculation at this point. I always discount the conspiracy theory. But now that it's clear -- it's fairly clear that this plane's been diverted and that somebody with knowledge of a Boeing 777 did divert it, it suggests there was terrorism or at least someone in the crew had other motivations.

And that's really what the CIA is looking at, who on that plane would have an interest in either crashing it into the ground or stealing it? You know, they're running through the passenger list at this point, they're pounding on the Malays to give them full disclosure on who got on that airplane. Who else besides the two Iranians got on with fake passports. There could have been others. And then also going to the Chinese, looking at the individual passengers, trying to figure out motivations.

BLITZER: There's a lot they have to go through. This -- there's a paragraph, Tom, that jumped out at me from today's "Wall Street Journal" lead story. And I'll put it up on the screen. "U.S. counterterrorism officials are pursuing the possibility that a pilot or someone else on board the plane may have diverted it toward an undisclosed location after intentionally turning off the jetliner's transponders to avoid radar detection, according to one person tracking the probe. At one briefing, according to this person, officials were told investigators are actively pursuing the notion that the plane was diverted, quote, with the intention of using it later for another purpose."

That sounds -- you know, obviously we have no confirmation of that.


BLITZER: But if that's what U.S. officials are briefing various national security types, that would be explosive.

FUENTES: Well, it would be, Wolf. I mean you're talking about not crashing it into the ocean, not crashing it into land, but taking it somewhere where it could land without detection and mentioned that Indonesia has 17,000 islands, but the radius, given the flight, fuel and the speed of that aircraft, if it was in one piece and flying capable, you could go 3,000 miles. So that plane could be on the ground, it could have been taken back east, they could have turned the direction around again and landed in the Philippines or in northern Australia or taken into India or taken to even another part of China. And, you know, the areas of possible landing, now you have to look at, is there a flat, open area big enough to do that?

But the other thing about it, if you're going to steal the aircraft, once you land it, you're going to have to be able to refuel it, you're going to have to service it and you still have 250 people to deal with. You know, what would you do with them? And especially you'd have to make sure that they were not able to make cell phone calls and start pulling out their equipment or locator beacons, if they carry that, those passengers. So, you know, that's - that's part of the difficulty of that theory is that you have 250 people to deal with and the aircraft has to have a big enough, strong enough landing strip to put down on and then be able to service it and do something with it.

BLITZER: But that notion, it does sound pretty farfetched, Bob, but I'm anxious to get your assessment, that they deliberately took this plane, they landed it with - in the words of this official, with the intention of using it later for another purpose. How farfetched do you think that theory is?

BAER: Yes, I think it's fairly farfetched, but it's not completely impossible. You can take an airplane like this -- we used to do that when I was in the CIA, especially with helicopters, and you can fly it, use it as a weapon by flying it behind another airliner in a flight route into an American city, for instance, so it would show up rather than two blips on a radar screen, it would show up as one. I've seen this done with five helicopters coming in, in the coast of the Middle East showing up as one blip. But, you know, that would take such sophistication, almost take the sophistication of a government to do that and also to beat the radar or landing this airplane, you'd immediately have to cover it up before satellite coverage started the next day. You'd have to make sure there's no I.R. coverage so they could see it at night. I mean this is just enormously complicated. And if this was an individual group like al Qaeda, it's a capability I can't imagine that they've obtained.

BLITZER: Bob Baer, thanks very much for your expertise. Tom Fuentes, thanks to you as well.

We're learning more and more about the data signals that Flight 370 sent out for several hours after the plane disappeared. Are they significant? Our panel of experts getting ready to weigh in on that and other new developments emerging right now.