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Key Moments In Missing Plane Timeline; Search For Missing Plane Covers 11 Nations; Plane Investigation Shifts To Pilots; Plane Investigation; Sanctions for Russia; Crimean Vote

Aired March 17, 2014 - 13:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We're focusing in on some key moments. Key moments of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, missing now for more than 10 days. There are new questions about a crucial period when the plane was crossing between Malaysian and Vietnamese air space. Earlier, Malaysian authorities said a communications system was shut down before the verbal message from the cockpit saying, "all right, good night."

Now, they say they're not sure exactly when the system was shut off. Malaysian officials say they cannot confirm the Malaysian newspaper report the plane may have dropped below 5,000 feet. The report is from the "New Straits Times." Aviation experts say that's not low enough to evade radar detection.

India's military now says radar near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in not as closely watched as other areas. That raises the possibility the plane might not have been picked up if it flew through that area.

We want to focus in on the key art of the timeline of Flight 370. We're talking about a 15-minute period when the plane was crossing into Vietnamese air space from Malaysian air space. It's also the time period when two, repeat two, communications systems stopped working.

Let's bring in our Aviation Correspondent Richard Quest. He's been working the story for us. So, what do we know, Richard, about this sequence of events during these critical few moments?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I'm pleased you said, stopped working, because that seems to be crucial. And we don't know why. Whether -- we can't make the leap to say switched off, disabled. We just know, stopped working.

So, Monday, let's go through what we actually know. We know that at 12:41, the plane, MH 370, departs from Kuala Lumpur. It's a five and a half, six-hour flight up to Beijing. That much we know. We know at 1:07, there is the last transmission from the plane's automatic reporting system. We know this because it's been told to us by the CEO of the airline, and it's been in the news conferences.

Then 1:19, last verbal communication. This is a significant one, Wolf. This is where the co-pilot -- we know it's the co-pilot. That's been confirmed at a news conference. The co-pilot says, "All right, good night." And that's the last verbal communication.

Go to another press conference during the week. We know 1:21, the transponder. This is the bit that sends the signal out that the name of the plane, the altitude, the direction, the speed. We know that stops working.

So, these are facts that we know on the time line. Then move forward. Civilian radar has already confirmed they lost contact with the plane at 1:30.

Now, this is when it gets more tricky, Wolf. Bear with me. 1:07, we had that ACARS reference. At 1:37, the next ACARS message should have been sent from the plane but it wasn't. So, sometime in that period, either it was disabled or it failed. But we know between 1:07 and 1:37, they were the key times.

Finally, 2:15, we get military radar, last detects the plane. And 8:11, the satellite makes its last so-called handshake.

Now, Wolf, pull all this together. And what we come back to is a very fine line, a very defined area where between 1:07, 1:19, 1:21, 1:37, the incident was taking place -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, this -- these are critical moments, as you correctly point out, two systems stopped working during that same rough period, the handover, between the Malaysian and Vietnamese air space, that handover was taking place. So, would that be an optimal time for someone to do something wrong in this particular place?

QUEST: Absolutely. And it seems to be -- I mean, the conspiracy theorists say that is exactly the point upon which you would do it.

Let's go back, if we can, to the previous page on this time line. Keep -- here we are, we're on exactly the page. So, the previous one. The one that -- the exact page of the first shows exactly where 1:37, next ACARS transmission. This is the key bit that we don't fully understand. Why did this transmission not take place? Was it because it had been disabled? Was it because it was not working? Wolf, that is the answer that we are looking for, at the moment.

And if you look at the map, you can see exactly just how wide this search area has now become. Remembering where we are over here, Wolf. We've left over here, heading up this way. But the incident happens, the plane turns around, and then you end up with this vast arc where they're continuing to search. More than two dozen nations are now involved, ships, planes, and the focus of attention, Wolf, firstly appear over these countries. But deep, deep, deep into the south Indian Ocean where Australia -- it was announced today, Australia is now taking the privacy.

BLITZER: Yes, I think Australians have good technological capabilities over there.

All right, stand by, Richard, we're going to get back to you. This -- the little data that is available on Flight 370 is being fed into the Boeing 777 simulators to see what can be learned about the plane's possible flight path and location.

Our own Martin Savidge has been doing that on a flight simulator just outside Toronto. Also, joining from us New Orleans is James Bernazzani. He's a former deputy director of the CIA's Counter Intelligence -- Counter Intelligence Center.

Martin, let's start with you. The revised time line suggests the so- called ACARS system made its final transmission after the cockpit signed off with Malaysian air control. So, does that lend more credence to a potential mechanical failure as opposed to someone doing this deliberately?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know what? We've gone over that, Mitchell Casado, the pilot here, and I, and, really, I'm not sure we have come to any strong conclusion as to whether this means that this was an accident or deliberate. If you have these shutdown over time, it certainly sounds deliberate. But the fact that the ACARS system would be first, why?

MITCHELL CASADO, PILOT TRAINER, BOEING 777: You know, it doesn't lend any credibility to the theory that it -- or either way. It could have been mechanical, although I believe that it's highly unlikely that that system were to fail. So, with the systematic approach with which it was shut down, that suggests to me that it was shut down by somebody. So, --

SAVIDGE: We could point out to you, Wolf, that the ACARS system could actually be accessed by going through what is, sort of, the big, huge GPS system. This is used how you input -- how you're going to travel. Here, you see ACARS right here. You can access it now. And you can begin to, if it was an emergency, use this system to start transmitting messages. But you could also shut down aspects of the ACARS system by certain key entry.

So, the real question here is, was ACARS totally dismantled or was it -- its ability to report somehow degraded? In other words, shutting it down using this key board or did somebody actually pull a wire? And I don't know if we've got the answer to that.

BLITZER: Because earlier, Martin, we had been told, and maybe this is incorrect, that someone had to go below the cockpit, actually, to shut down that ACARS system. You couldn't just do it from within the cockpit. But what you're saying is, aspects of it could be shut down, even while a pilot or co-pilot is seated?

SAVIDGE: Right, this would seem to, sort of, get it at the problem that many experts have seen that even though the ACARS system is said to be shut down, there is still a report that comes over the satellite. And ACARS is believed to be that system. So, in other words, it's like there's no information coming but there's definitely a signal coming out so that somehow, perhaps, they degraded, shut down certain reporting aspects but didn't cut it off all together.

But, again, there is so much more we would really need to know in order to make that final judgment.

BLITZER: All right, I want to come back to you guys. Hold on for a moment.

James Bernazzani, you're a real terrorism expert. You've worked in the government. Based on what we've learned so far, do you suspect, credibly, this was an actual terrorist act?

JAMES BERNAZZANI, FORMER DEPUTY DIRECTOR, CIA COMMUNICATION CENTER: I think the human factor is emerging. I think when you look at the human factor, there's three main investigative conductors (ph), the pilots acting on their own, an inside job, or a classic cockpit breach. If you're looking at the inside job, you look at everybody who touched that aircraft.

I think one of the major developments that we may pursue is the flight simulator of the pilot. Everybody should be focusing on that pilot and that flight simulator. But one must ask the question, did anybody else have access to that simulator to learn how to fly the 777? And, if so, did that pilot provide that training?

BLITZER: And what would -- if it were a terrorist act and the plane simply disappeared, for it to be a credible terrorist act, wouldn't it have had to land someplace so that that plane could be used down the road in some sort of horrible way?

BERNAZZANI: Yes, the terrorists are students of history. And relative to a hijacking and hostage situation, such as TWA 47 in Beirut, Lebanon, the passengers were held in exchange for prisoners held by Israel. It was the Lebanese Hezbollah who perpetrated that act. And as a result of the exchange, the Israelis, although they won't admit to it, let 700 fighters go. And so, we don't know this yet, Wolf. Basically, all theories are still on the table. But in the focus of human factor, one must look at if the plane is intact, it most probably will be, eventually, for prisoner exchange. If it's not intact, then there is a lot of forensic work to do and we're in for the long haul.

BLITZER: Got to learn lessons from this. I want you to stand with us, James. Richard, Martin, everyone stay put. We're going to talk more about the focus now on these two pilots and anyone else on that plane who may have had experience in the cockpit. Our panel standing by. Much more coming up.

And later this hour, the crisis in Ukraine. (INAUDIBLE) specific targets, individuals for sanctions. We're going to talk about that strategy with the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Bill Richardson.


BLITZER: The mystery of Flight 370, the investigation is shifting toward the pilots and all those on board the plane who may have had some experience flying airliners.

Richard Quest is still with us. James Bernazzani is with as well. But let's go to Martin Savidge first. He's over near Toronto's main airport in a flight simulator.

Martin, Malaysian investigators removed this flight simulator from the captain's house. So what exactly could we learn from that simulator?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, I agree, and I think Mitchell Casado, the pilot agrees, that that could be a key piece of evidence and information. And explain why, Mitchell.

MITCHELL CASADO, PILOT TRAINER, 777 COCKPIT SIMULATOR: Well, the flight data or the flight simulator is like any other computer, it stores data, it stores the roots. Anything he did with that, any tinkering, any planning he did or practicing maneuvers, that's all going to be stored on the hard drive.

SAVIDGE: So in other words, if he had sort of preplanned this, if he had wanted to actually try it, he could have loaded all that information into the simulator -

CASADO: Absolutely.

SAVIDGE: As if it were the real flight?

CASADO: Yes, absolutely he could have. And that's going to be important for investigators to look through now and see if he - if there was any kind of premeditation to any of this.

SAVIDGE: Yes. I mean the problem with a tool like that, of course, is that it could be used by a pilot to practice, to hone their skills, or it could be used by anyone who might have aviation skills to plot something bad.


BLITZER: James, do you think the Malaysian authorities are really handling this investigation well? Are they inviting the top experts around the world, including from the U.S. government, in as their full cooperation?


BLITZER: Yes, James, that's for you.

BERNAZZANI: Oh, I'm sorry. Yes, Wolf, I think what people have to understand is that do not confuse intention with capability. The United States has the experience because we have been victimized by terrorist incidents and we bring a wealth of knowledge relative to investigative pursuit that perhaps the Malaysians wouldn't have, not because they don't have the capabilities as far as the conceptualization of what happened, because they've never been through it before. But, unfortunately, the United States has been through this before. And the fact that the FBI is now arriving to assist with the concurrence of the United States Department of State I think will advance this investigation and to bring it to a logical conclusion.

BLITZER: Could - BERNAZZANI: One aspect of this human factor investigation, relative to the flight simulator, not only is the flight simulator of value, but now with that theory of perhaps the training was done by somebody who was visiting this fellow's residence to learn to fly the 777, the investigators will begin to look at the communication devices of this pilot, his e-mails, his phone calls from his cell phone or his land line to see who is - who he was in contact with leading up to the mystery of where this aircraft is.

BLITZER: I asked the question, Richard Quest, because yesterday the Malaysian authorities gave us one line when that so-called ACARS system stopped working and today they revised it, a significant revision. And, you know, the credibility is beginning to be questioned.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, what they did was they clarified, Wolf, because what we knew is that at 1:07 there was a transmission by this Automatic Data Reporting System known as ACARS. Aircraft Communication and Reporting System. So we knew that happened at 1:07.

Now, we all jumped the gun and we assumed that if there wasn't another one, then it failed after that. But if we move to the -- and therefore we had the last verbal communication, and you had the transponder stopping. And we all thought that clearly that must be the moment. But if we move to the next set of the time scale, you'll see exactly. But instead what we now know is at 1:37, there should have been an ACARS. There should have been an ACARS. So you have a window, Wolf, between 1:07 and 1:37. It's a 30-minute window. And in that window, we know two things happened. We know the transponder stops, and we know "all right, good night," but we do not know at what pointed ACARS was disabled. All we do know is that in that 30-minute window potentially it was the moment because at 1:37 it didn't chirp as it was supposed to.

BLITZER: It's really an important clarification because it helps underline if, in fact, these two systems, the transponder and the ACARS were switched off at different times or the same time, and it's a very significant development in terms of trying to come to grips with what actually happened.

Guys, thanks very much. We're going to stay on top of this story. Investigators, they're checking the background of all the people, all 239 people on board the missing flight, Flight 370. We're going to meet with family members in Malaysia's capital.

Also coming up, there's a developing situation in Ukraine. President Obama today expanding sanctions against Russia as a response to Crimea's independence decree. We're standing by for a closer look.


BLITZER: We'll get right back to the search for the Malaysia Airlines plane in a few minutes.

But first, the vote is in. Crimea one step closer to becoming part of Russia again. President Obama signed an executive order freezing the assets of several Russian officials involved in the Crimean incursion. The list includes members of Russian President Vladimir Putin's staff. Here's part of what the president said a little while ago.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As an initial step, I'm authorizing sanctions on Russian officials, entities operating in the arms sector in Russia, and individuals who provide material support to senior officials of the Russian government. And if Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine, we stand ready to impose further sanctions.


BLITZER: Back in Crimea, ethnic Russia are celebrating their victory. Nearly 97 percent of those who voted, voted to break away from Ukraine. All of this still subject to approval by Russia's parliament. President Putin is scheduled it address the parliament, by the way, tomorrow.

Let's discuss what's going on, the response from the U.S. Joining us is the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson.

Governor, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: All right, so the president is keeping his post mode (ph) promise of sanctions, imposing these sanctions, about a dozen people, Ukrainians, Russians, including some top aides to President Putin. He says they were responsible for this military incursion and the Crimea referendum. But if they were responsible, President Putin was totally response, but he personally is not on this list for sanctions. Why?

RICHARDSON: Well, what the president is doing, President Obama, is gradual sanctions, to see if the Russians pull back. I think that's the correct response. You don't want to have officials like Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov involved because you're negotiating with them. So I think what needs to happen now, Wolf, is followed by the U.S.'s serious sanctions by the Europeans, especially Germany, because they have the most economic contact and all kinds of issues with Russia.

Now, the key issues for us are, what are we going to do in light of this Soviet aggression? I think we've got to take some steps, energy- wise, defense-wise. I would bring those missiles back to Poland, some energy security issues like export of natural gas to provide some of our European friends relief from the Russians. But I think you have to look at the strategy short-range and long-range.

BLITZER: You said Soviet. You meant Russian, right? You're not seeing a revival of the Soviet Union or anything?

RICHARDSON: No, but the key questions are, are the Russians going to go beyond what they did in Crimea? I don't think so. Are they going to go into other parts of Ukraine? And then the second question is, how effective and intensive are the sanctions from the United States and Europe going to be? I think start -- the proper start was what the president did. Now it's up to the Europeans. The key are going to be France, England and especially Germany. You know, Russia has to weigh what's happening. Ten percent of their exports have already -- a lot of their exports have been affected. Their currency has gone down 10 percent. So what you're seeing is a number of economic squeezes on Russia already happening. Two of their pipelines have been disapproved.

BLITZER: But you know that the Russians, by all accounts, they're going to respond to the U.S. and European sanctions with their own retaliation, if you will. This thing could really escalate.

RICHARDSON: That's right, it could escalate. But Russia has to really be careful because so far they've been on a roll. But now when the sanctions start to bite, like those two pipelines that weren't approved by the Europeans, like economic sanctions that would follow from Europe and Germany, possible economic sanctions from the United States. You know, there's a lot of Russian investment in America. Yes, the Russians can retaliate, but they also have to recognize that in the region, for instance, they've got problems with Poland. We should enhance our relationship with countries like (INAUDIBLE), some of the former Soviet satellites.

And it's important that Russia view this in the context of not just rekindling their old Soviet empire, but their relationship with the west. This is an interdependent world. We and the western countries, Europe, have leverage over Russia. It's mainly economic through trade, through energy, through all kinds of economic incentives. And at the same time, we can put them in a political isolation. So Russia has got to be careful. This is not just a one-way street.

BLITZER: Bill Richardson, thanks very much for joining us.

RICHARDSON: Thank you.

BLITZER: Let's go to Crimea right now, get a sense of the mood on this day after that referendum. Our own Nick Paton Walsh is in Simferopol.

So how accurate is that 97 percent figure, those who voted 97 percent approving the referendum to rejoin Russia? What's it like over there right now, Nick?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, if you really bear in mind that this has been an extremely kind of one-sided democratic process, if you can call it democratic at all, then 97 percent isn't a huge surprise given the 10 to 12 percent (INAUDIBLE) ethnic minority here who boycotted the election and we simply haven't heard a pro Ukrainian voice at all in the week running up ahead of it. So perhaps those who bothered going to polling stations I'm sure were nearly all wanting to join the Russian Federation.

You know, you can't deny there was a large part of the population here who want closer ties with Russia. A lot of that is fueled by misinformation about the intentions of the new government in Kiev, suggestions that they have dominated or in (ph) the sway the far right extremists. So, yes, we saw a lot of positivity and passion for this referendum, but you also have to bear in mind too, despite the irregularities we witnessed at polling stations, I saw one where only a fifth of the voters were actually on the electoral roll. The rest just turned up and showed their passports and were allowed on by officials. Despite that, the biggest irregularity was the fact that there are over 20,000 Russian troops in the Ukraine in (INAUDIBLE), the Crimean, enabling the vote to happen. It's calm today, Wolf.