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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Mystery of Flight 370; Thai Radar Backs Up "Let Turn" Theory; Did Smoke-Filled Cockpit Take Down Flight 370?

Aired March 18, 2014 - 16:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Welcome to THE LEAD.

We have been watching President Obama awarding 24 Medals of Honor, 21 of them posthumously, to African-American, Latino, and Jewish veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. We're going to have a profile of one of those individuals, one of the three living recipients at the ceremony today later in the show.

But let us turn now to the world lead. It is now 12 days since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished with 239 people on board. And while we're all still waiting for that aha moment, the big reveal, when it all becomes clear, Malaysian authorities investigating the two pilots today say they have found nothing yet to indicate, nothing that this was a premeditated act.

Investigators seized computers from the pilots' homes and even took a flight simulator from the captain's house. The Malaysians have shared with U.S. officials some of their initial findings, which is to say no significant findings. So far, no e-mails, nothing on the flight simulator to indicate that this was a planned event.

Investigators also reviewed conversations between the cockpit and air traffic control and found nothing suspicious there either. Now, contrast that with our latest information about the flight path. Based on data, a law enforcement official tells CNN that someone likely reprogrammed the plane's cockpit computer to veer off course.

How do investigators know that? Well, "The New York Times" reports that 370's flight management system reported the course change through the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system, which you probably know now probably as the ACARS system. But is that really the case?

Let's bring in our justice reporter, Evan Perez, and our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh.

Evan, "The New York Times" is reporting that this flight change information was conveyed through ACARS, but what are you hearing?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, there is so much confusion over all these communications systems that these aircraft had.

I'm told by officials that they have gotten this data from Malaysians, that the Malaysians have shared this with British and U.S. officials. And the data indicates that, at some point, someone changed the program of where this aircraft was headed, and put in coordinates for it to head west from its course that it was over the Gulf of Thailand.

Now, how that information was transmitted, that, simply, I don't know. And that's one of the many questions, of course, that this brings up. But they do know -- they believe with some certainty that the aircraft veered from its course on its way to Beijing and did so on purpose because someone changed the heading in the computer system, Jake.

TAPPER: Now, Rene, whether or not this information about the programming change for the flight path, whether or not that was conveyed through the ACARS system, that's significant. Explain to us why.

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Jake, I have been spending the day speaking to a lot of people who are familiar with the ACARS system, and they are just baffled.

They do not understand how anyone could get any information or data about whether a flight plan was changed midair or if something was preprogrammed into the flight management system based on ACARS, because they say this.

ACARS does not translate anything having to do with GPS. ACARS only gives specific information. And that's information about the health of the plane. These pilots that I spoke to who are very familiar with the 777 say they don't know any way in which that particular system could let anyone know whether someone preprogrammed that turn into the original flight path or the itinerary, so to speak.

Whether they are basing it on ACARS, whether they are basing it on data from radar, that's unclear. Different people have different sources. But here's why any of this really matters, because you may be watching at home and you may say, OK, this is an incremental change here. But it matters because, if someone did indeed preprogram something or that flight plan into the flight management system a long time ago, then that would show essentially that someone -- was premeditated. This was a premeditated action.

If it happened moments before the turn, then that would simply show that perhaps it was an emergency or perhaps there was an intruder -- Jake.

TAPPER: A very important detail. Rene Marsh and Evan Perez, thank you.

That of course is not the only new information we have to share today about Flight 370. Now a second government is coming forward with radar data that supports the theory from Malaysian officials that the plane made a very, very sharp, very intentional turn off course.

Remember, crews are now scouring along two potential flight paths across 2.25 million square nautical miles, which is an area about as big as the continental United States.

Let's bring in chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.

Jim, what are we hearing out of Thailand today?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: This is the other big clue today and it's radar data, as you say.

You will remember that, earlier, this flight path, this left turn off its original path up to Beijing was first picked up by Malaysian radar at three points along this path. We now learn today that Thai radar, kind of covering an area like this, also picked up a blip from the plane, again going in this direction.

First, it picked it up when it was still Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and then it picked up another blip which was unidentified until now which they believe to be the plane carrying it out here. So, combined with the information that Evan and Rene were talking about, a signal that that turn was a deliberate act and combined with corroborating evidence that it carried it out in this direction, investigators very confident that's what happened.

Now, the trouble is, where did it go from there? You come out here and you have those two arcs that you just showed where that last bit of satellite data came, which really then opens up the search area, which is too big for our magic wall, in fact extending out here, and as you said, the size of three million square miles, 2.25 nautical miles, the size of the United States.

That's the problem. They get the plane coming this way. They got pretty good confidence. The trouble is, what happened then? And it's a very, very big area for them to look into now.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto, stick around. We have got a lot more to talk about.

Coming up, as we have been reporting, it now appears that the cockpit computer was reprogrammed. Why is that information so significant to investigators? That's coming up next.

Plus, could the pilots have done it to respond to some sort of mechanical problem in the cockpit? One pilot says yes. And he will explain ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

And continuing our world lead, what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the focus has increasingly turned to the pilots, especially after reports from "The New York Times" and confirmed by CNN that the plane's first turn to the west was almost certainly programmed by someone, someone in the cockpit.

But investigators have yet to find anything suspicious in the pilots' homes or communications. So, what does this all mean?

Let's bring in Mary Schiavo. She's a CNN aviation analyst and now represents victims and their families suffering from negligence of airline, automotive, commercial trucking, motor coach and rail companies.

And, of course, let's bring back CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.

Mary, let's start with you. Lots of developments today, the Thai military radar and the fact that the plane's computer was reprogrammed probably before the co-pilot said, "All right, good night" to air traffic control.

What do you think is the most significant development today on the story?

MARY SCHIAVO, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, the most helpful development is the Thai radar, but the most significant is probably this flight computer data because there's more than one way to get that waypoint into the computer. The most obvious way is you're flying along and you have your navigation screen in front of you. It's a glowing computer screen and you see a waypoint that you want to go to.

And you literally put your right hand down and you punch in that waypoint code, like there's like four letters or numbers on that code, and the plane turns. Or you can turn your auto pilot. You can instruct the auto pilot to turn and the auto pilot will go to that waypoint, and then that's in the computer but you didn't punch in it.

So we know it happened. We know they were going to the waypoint but the biggest mystery is still how, why, who?

So -- but we at least now have a better heading thanks to the Thai government. Most helpful.

TAPPER: Before we get to the Thai military's information, let's talk for a second about the reason why it's so significant whether or not this information about the direction of the plane being reprogrammed, whether it was transmitted through the ACARS system or not.

Jim, if it was transmitted in a different way, then that means we have less of an idea of whether it was done because there was a crisis on the plane. Explain.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Right. Well, it's a fair question. I think that one significance, one reading of this new information today or the confirmation of information about this being intentionally plugged into that flight management system computer is that it does undermine the theory that some sudden catastrophic event on board caused this to happen.

TAPPER: A fire in the cockpit?

SCIUTTO: Well, maybe a slow-moving event could lead a pilot to then make a change and he's looking for another runway, and that's a possibility that some experts have talked about, but not something that sort of made all of the systems crash at once, right? Someone had the presence of mind and time to plug in a new direction in there.

So, you could have had a crisis but it wasn't a sudden crisis, you know, a bomb that ripped the plane apart, or, you know, a sudden decompression. It doesn't seem now. It looked like he at least had time to make that decision. So, at least undermine that one theory and that's significant to a point.

TAPPER: And then the other thing, of course, Mary, is that if it was on the ACARS system, we believe that the last transmission investigators have said, the last transmission was at, I believe, 1:09 a.m., whereas the last communication, "all right, good night", is two or three minutes after that. If this change of direction was programmed, reprogrammed before he said, "all right, good night," that means that there theoretically wasn't some sort of crisis he was dealing with because he would have said that to the control tower.

SCHIAVO: Right. Ordinarily the pilot not flying handles the radio communications which would have been the co-pilot in this case because they said that he is the one that spoke those words. So, you would assume that if they were having an onboard emergency or a crisis or a problem, they would have said so and they would have tried to communicate not only with air traffic control, you often tell your problems back to your airline. Again, you'd use ACARS. You can communicate to your airline through ACARS.

But there's also some discrepancy on that timeline. At one point we said -- we didn't say -- the investigators said that, first, ACARS went silent and then the transponder did. And now, they are some thought that perhaps that timeline is wrong and both occurred after that last transmission, the last communication.

So that is something that we're going to have to wait for the evidence to catch up with the investigation and hopefully they'll be able to sort that out, because that is key to showing what they knew in the cockpit, what did they know and when did they know it? That's sort of the clue that we're looking for from that timing.

TAPPER: And, Jim, I was talking to somebody who used to be a tough ranking official at the FBI. He said that this kind of changing data is exactly why, when you're an investigator, you're not supposed to come up with a theory until you have all of the facts, because then the inclination is to make the data fit the theory as opposed to vice versa. We keep getting changing information on this story.

SCIUTTO: It works the same for journalists. You don't report the story until you know the facts.

TAPPER: Right.

SCIUTTO: And that's -- you know, I spoke to intelligence officials again and I ask them every day and I'm driving them crazy with the same questioning, has your appraisal changed about a potential link to terrorism? They tell me every day, "We have no evidence of established link to terrorism, but we haven't closed that path." And that's their attitude. You know, you can be sure they've been doing their homework even before this search took place today, at the computers and emails and the pilot simulator, checking their names against terror watch lists, et cetera.

So, they haven't found it yet. It doesn't mean that they might not find somebody down the line that, you know, that changes their mind on that, but that's their position. So, you know -- and like you say, for other kinds of theories, you know, was their smoke in the cabin, et cetera? Until they see data, they're not going to create that -- they're not going to sit with that theory at all. They're going to wait to see it. They haven't had anything hard yet.

TAPPER: And, Mary, you've done a lot of work with families of these sorts of tragedies. What's the responsibility of the Malaysian and U.S. government when it comes to how careful they are in the information they release to the families?

Because obviously they want information. They want anything they can get. But at the same time, you have to be careful. You don't want to tell them one thing one day and correct it in the next.

SCHIAVO: You know, over the years, I've worked with hundreds of families in many different crashes and the hallmark of each of them is they want information and they're smart enough. Somehow they are just terrible circumstances make them able to take on all kinds of information and process it, but they hunger for it.

And if this was in the United States, that wouldn't be an issue because we have something called the Family Assistance Act, which is the law, and the family of crashes fought for that law and got it passed. And that requires government officials to brief them sometimes daily on the information as it is unfolding.

So, not only does the fact that they don't know everything or the information is unfolding day-by-day, the family want that information. So, saying that you need to shield them from what you don't know is kind of the exact opposite of my experience. They want to know everything. They want to know what you don't know and they want to know where the investigation is. And if it was in the United States of America, they'd have that briefing every day.

And the NTSB does do that. They take care of the families and provide them what they know and what they don't.

TAPPER: And we've seen some very moving and disturbing images today from Kuala Lumpur of families threatening hunger strikes because they are so -- they want information. They want to know what happened.

Mary Schiavo and Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

Coming up, not everyone is convinced the missing jet is the result of something sinister. Could any of the plane's movements be explained by a catastrophic disaster in the cockpit? Coming up next, one pilot says he believe the pilots were trying to save Flight 370. Plus, there were three Americans onboard that night, 50-year-old Philip Wood and two little girls. What we're learning about the two small passengers, coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We're continuing our coverage of our world lead. Investigators are slowly gathering puzzle pieces in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

The problem is, none of these pieces seem to fit together. While the latest information seems to indicate the plane was programmed to intentionally steer off course, there's actually another much simpler explanation for what could have happened, experts say, and that would explain why the plane possibly took an unexpected turn just before it vanished.

CNN's Athena Jones has more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Theories about what caused Flight 370 to vanish abound.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The ACARS movements were consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane.

JONES: Could hijacking or renegade pilot or terrorism explain what Malaysian authority say was a deliberate decision to turn the plane off course? Probably not, some pilots are saying.

LES ABEND, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, FLYING MAGAZINE/777 PILOT: I just do not believe that this could be a nefarious event. I see a professional flight crew that tried to handle the situation.

JONES: There's a simpler explanation that can account for what happened. A fire perhaps caused by an electrical problem leads the cockpit to fill up with smoke, like in this simulation.

Under this theory, the flight crew does what any experienced pilots would do, putting on their oxygen masks, turning the plane towards the closest airport to try to land safely, punching the destination into the flight computer.

ABEND: The objective really is to get yourself on the ground as quickly and as safely as possible.

JONES: The plane turns west, but smoke soon fills the cockpit, overwhelms the cockpit and shorts out the plane's communications system. With the pilots incapacitated or worse, and no one awake to land the plane, it keeps flying on its last program course, passed any airports and eventually runs out of fuel and crashes somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Swiss Air 111 heavy is declaring Pan, Pan, Pan. We have smoke in the cockpit.

JONES: Fire has caused fatal accidents before, like the 1998 flight of Swiss Air flight 111 of Nova Scotia.

ABEND: I think it's a very plausible idea.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Our thanks to Athena Jones for that report.

Of course, there are problems with the smoke-filled cockpit theory. Namely, there was no distressed signal or mayday call from the cockpit crew.

Now, a little more on some of the passengers on Flight 370 that night. We know that there were three Americans on board. We have heard a bit about Philip Wood, a 50-year-old Texas man and father of two.

But who are the other two Americans? Well, Nicole Meng is four and Yan Zhang is 2. We know that they have U.S. passports but that's about all we know. It's unclear who these little girls were traveling with.

We've tried to find out more about these little girls, but we've been told by authorities that without waivers from the families, there's nothing they can tell us about them except that they are among the 239 missing. A horribly tragic story.

When we come back, a known al Qaeda terrorist says he knew of a plot to hijack a Malaysian passenger jet over a decade ago. What authorities are saying about that ahead.

Also, an escalation of violence in Ukraine has masked men storm a military base, leaving one dead. Now, Ukraine's military is authorizing the use of force in return. What could go wrong?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)