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Mystery of Flight 370: Reviewing New Clues from the Cockpit; Russia Defies the World; Oscar Pistorius Trial Continues

Aired March 18, 2014 - 05:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news overnight. The search for the missing Malaysian jetliner refocused this morning. Crews scouring the waters off Australia, as we receive new clues from the cockpit, new information that this plane could have been preprogrammed to go off course.

Who programmed those computers and why? The key questions this morning. We have live team coverage tracking all the latest developments.

Also breaking news this morning, crisis in Ukraine, Crimea declaring its independence, Russia defying the world, what -- recognizing what many are calling illegitimate vote and now facing serious sanctions, but perhaps leveling sanctions of its own. President Vladimir Putin prepares to address the world in just a few hours. We are live with the very latest there as well.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm John Berman. It is Tuesday, March 18th. It is 5:00 a.m. in the east.

And we do begin with the very latest on the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

It has now been 11 days -- 11 days since this jet went missing, and this morning, Malaysian officials are admitting they're simply not sure what happened in the cockpit.

It is not clear, they now say, if the final word spoken to air traffic controllers came before or after the plane's data reporting system was shut down. That is a reversal from Malaysian officials.

This morning there are new reports that the plane's turn off course was preprogrammed in to the flight computer.

One of the key questions was, were those coordinates entered before takeoff or after the jet was already in the air? The other question, who entered those new coordinates?

This morning, the search has extended to the waters off Australia. A United States ship is pulling out, being replaced by U.S. air resources.

Our Jim Clancy is live in Kuala Lumpur with the latest this morning. Good morning, Jim.


We've got a massive search under way, and it is an air search in the Indian Ocean right now. You know, on that northern part of the arc, we have heard back from so many governments saying, we didn't see a trace of Flight 370 on our radar screens, either civilian or military. As a result -- and the U.S. has said this for some time -- they think it's much more likely that this plane may have taken the southerly route there, and the last satellite handshake contact put it someplace over the Indian Ocean or possibly Indonesia.

Now, the Indonesians and the Australians have divided up the search quadrants. The Indonesians are going to be looking in the tropical areas, the Australians in others. The U.S. is moving more air assets in. The Australians are bringing in air assets.

All of this to come together and try to search as much of that water area as possible. As you noted there, now there's uncertainty. We had thought that there was evidence that pointed to the pilots. Well, now they say nobody can be sure about that. There's no motive for the pilots. China reporting that none of its passengers -- and that was the majority of passengers, more than 150 out of 239 people aboard the flight -- they say nobody's got a link to terrorism. This list has been cleared. This manifest has been cleared in the past by intelligence agencies.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us right back at catastrophic failure, and the question, did the pilot program the onboard navigation system to take him closer to an airport where he could have brought that plane down after some kind of catastrophic failure?

Why didn't he do it? We don't know. Fire in the cockpit, any other kinds of problems that might have happened on board there. Those are still unanswered questions that can't be answered until we retrieve the flight data recorder.

Back to you, John.

BERMAN: All right. Jim Clancy in Kuala Lumpur.

Jim mentioned right there this new report that the flight's computer, the navigation computer, was programmed to take it off that course from Beijing. The question is, why was it programmed and by whom? Former FBI agent Jeff Beatty says, if it's true, that it was programmed to take it off course, it could actually remove one possibility from the list of what could have happened to the jet.


JEFF BEATTY, FORMER FBI AGENT: (AUDIO GAP) I see some encouragement here, because if you've programmed -- if you're the pilot and you program something into the computer and the aircraft begins a turn, you don't need to fly another four or five hours to commit pilot suicide. This kind of takes off the table a little bit in my mind, one of those scenarios that probably families were most fearful of. So, some good news there. One can make an inference of some possible good news.


BERMAN: All right, everyone on board that jet is now being closely scrutinized, including the pilots. Both were experienced.

So far, nothing has emerged to definitively point the finger at them. Other, of course, than the fact that whoever flew this plane off course had to have known how to operate a Boeing 777.

Our Saima Mohsin is live in Kuala Lumpur with more on this investigation, more on this official search into the backgrounds of these pilots.

Saima, what do we know this morning?

SAIMA MOHSIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, John, I've spent the last few days trying to take a look at the two main people that were inside that cockpit when this plane disappeared. Who are they? What were they doing? What are their interests?

And of course, the police have been into their homes over the weekend, one week after the flight disappeared, finally searching through, speaking to their families, questioning them and going away with evidence from the co-pilot's home.

They walked away with small shopping bags, really, I can describe them as. Don't know what was inside them.

From the pilot's home, they took away a flight air simulator. Now, a simulator that his friend, Peter Chong, told me -- a friend he met through social activism, working in the community, for example -- that he was simply a man enthusiastic about flying, that liked to take it home, set himself challenges. And, of course, as Jim says, if that course was reset trying to save the plane, should it have been catastrophic failure, then this would also lend itself.

Here was a man who would have practiced these scenarios and sadly, then, he would have faced that in real life.

Let me tell you about the pilot, Captain Zaharie. A lot of questions being raised about his political affiliations. Was he a political activist?

Now, we've been going through the checklist here, trying to tick off what we know about that. I've spoken to a member of the People's Justice Party, that is a party that he was affiliated with. His friends told me he was a silent member of that party.

Earlier today, I spoke to a politician who says, look, yes, he was a member of the party. He would come to our events, our rallies sometimes I spotted him there, mostly social events, but he was an activist in the sense that he was a citizen of Malaysia, of Kuala Lumpur, who wanted to contribute, who wanted to make a change, and my party represents change in Malaysia within a democratic system. There is simply nothing sinister about Captain Zaharie, what this politician told me.

He also said, when I asked him straight up, is he an extremist? Did he hold extreme political views? He said, no, not at all. Please don't go down there. This is not what our party stands for. We are not extremists, and he certainly wasn't.

And of course, his friend also told me that, you know, this was a guy who was a family man, committed to his career, committed to his family. He had three children, a grandchild, a doting father and grandfather.

And also, in his community work, by the way, he used to work with underprivileged children in Kuala Lumpur, taking them out, taking them on day trips, and I saw a photograph of him setting up a goal post for one of the groups he contributed to.

So, no motive and, seemingly, two very normal men at the helm of that plane -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Saima Mohsin for us in Kuala Lumpur.

Of course, this look into the pilots is key, if only to rule them out as a possibility for what went wrong with this plane.

Many of those who had family members on board, they're still holding out hope that there's some explanation that would allow for their family members to still be alive. Still, they're not happy at the slow pace of the search and the lack of information they're getting from Malaysian officials.

Our Pauline Chiou is live in Beijing. She's been following that part of the story.

Good morning, Pauline.


And these families are frustrated because there is no one here to answer their questions. There's no one from the Malaysian government, no one from the embassy, no one from the Chinese government, and just legal representatives from Malaysian Airlines that come here every day to give them some briefings or to try to answer their questions. So, that's part of the frustration for the families.

And at this briefing early this morning, one woman stood up and made this passionate plea.


CHIOU: She's saying, "We have only one child. We are respectful Chinese people. It's hard to control your emotions when you might have lost your loved ones. We just need the truth. Don't use them as political pawns." Now, many of these families only have one child, because there is that one-child policy in China, so the sons and daughters on this Malaysia airlines flight, for many of these families, their only children.

Also, John, we noticed that the family members were asking very technical questions to Malaysia Airlines, and they were asking questions like what would a passenger have experienced on this flight, if, indeed, it had been flying at 35,000 feet and gone up to 45,000 feet and down to 5,000 feet?

What would that have done to your body? What would that have done to a passenger? What if they stayed conscious?

These are the kinds of questions they're trying to get answers to, but these legal representatives can't answer it, answer these questions. But it also gives you an indication, John, that these family members just want to know if their loved ones felt any pain or discomfort during this experience.

BERMAN: In the absence of any actual information from the airline or Malaysia, you can tell these families are grasping for whatever they can.

Pauline, this morning we're learning that China is stepping up its search now for the jet, both on land and in the air. What can you tell us about what China's now doing?

CHIOU: Yes, China has beefed up its resources as it's looking through that northern corridor. You might remember, we've been talking about that. That goes from the border of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and all the way down to northern Thailand. Well, much of that arc goes through western China.

And the Chinese foreign ministry announced today that they have beefed up their resources. Now they've deployed 10 ships, several airplanes as well as 21 satellites. That's up from 10 satellites earlier this week. And part of that is to try to enhance any sort of imaging that they get, any sort of sign of this plane and where it might be along that corridor.

BERMAN: So, an intensified Chinese participation in this investigation joining the many other nations now involved with the search.

Our Pauline Chiou in Beijing for us this morning. Thank you very much. We appreciate it.

Of course, we will continue to follow the mystery of Flight 370, all the new developments this morning.

But first, there are new developments in the crisis in Ukraine. New developments that put the United States and Russia even more at odds, even in more direct confrontation. Russian President Vladimir Putin set to speak in just a little bit. We're live with the breaking news right after the break.


BERMAN: All right, important news this morning happening today in Moscow. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, set to address the Russian parliament to explain his decision to recognize Crimea as an independent nation. This comes just hours after the United States and European Union sanctioned some of his top advisers over Crimea's referendum vote to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.

Now, Ukraine calling up troops, preparing for possible conflict.

Our Michael Holmes is live in Simferopol, which is in Crimea, this morning.

Michael, what's the latest?

MCHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, the Crimean application, of course, John, to join the Russian federation, is in. Vladimir Putin signing a decree accepting that. The procedure, if you like, moves along. The Duma votes, the parliament, in the days ahead on that. And as you mentioned, Vladimir Putin set to speak to the Duma in less than four hours from now.

Sanctions announced yesterday by the European Union and the U.S. are starting to sink in, although it was curious, yesterday at least one of the targets of those sanctions said he was proud to be on the list, said he saw it as pretty much a badge of his service to Russia.

Those sanctions, of course, do take time to bite, and they are to be done in stages. The more this goes along, the more stages Russia takes, the more sanctions will be put in place against individuals and assets and visas and the like. Sanctions here, too, among the Crimean leadership, the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the speaker are all on that list.

Those leaders, of course, grappling with some realities now. Their water, their gas, their electricity all comes from Ukraine.

And when you look at the map, Crimea, of course, is a peninsula. The only way to connect with Russia is via water at the moment. They're talking about building a bridge. That's going to take some time, but there is no land access from Crimea to what will be mother Russia, if this all goes ahead.

And importantly, too, Crimean leaders have nationalized state facilities, including some crucial and very, very valuable oil and gas reserves in the Black Sea that are Ukrainian, but Crimea says not anymore, and we're going to hand them over to Gazprom the Russian energy giant. You're talking billions and billions of dollars of reserves there. So, that's going to be a real sticking point going forward.

You know, you mentioned the moving of troops, the Ukrainian military, of course, no match for the Russian military, but they are making some partial mobilizations. They're worried about those 8,500 Russian troops on the eastern Ukrainian border and whether they want to have a little bit more of Ukraine than just Crimea -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Our Michael Holmes in Simferopol in Crimea this morning. The situation between Russia, Ukraine, the United States, the European Union showing no sign of thawing this morning. Our thanks to Michael for that report.

All right, at the Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa this morning, a crime scene photographer is on the stand answering questions about what he saw at the home where Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend. He testified that there was blood on the walls near Pistorius' bed, some distance from the bathroom where the shooting took place.

An alleged wannabe al Qaeda terrorist now in custody after being arrested near the Canadian border. Twenty-year-old Nicholas Toussaint appeared in a courtroom on Monday. The California man is accused of trying to get to Syria to join an al Qaeda-linked terror group. He is now charged with attempting to provide material support to foreign terrorists, and if convicted, he could face 15 years in prison.

Federal prosecutors say self-described 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed should not be allowed to testify at the trial of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law. Sulaiman Abu Ghaith is charged with conspiring to kill Americans and acting as the spokesman for al Qaeda. Mohammed, who is in prison in Guantanamo Bay, says that Abu Ghaith has had no role -- he had no role in planning military operations. Arguments on that issue are scheduled for today.

BERMAN: Another very big recall for General Motors, this time involving faulty airbags. The automaker is recalling more than 1.2 million SUVs that may have a wiring problem that could cause their side-mounted airbags to not deploy. This comes at the same time that gm is recalling more than 300,000 full-sized vans to make the instrument panel more safe and 64,000 Cadillac XTS sedans for overheating brakes.

All right, global stock markets mixed right now. Asia closed higher, taking a cue from Wall Street, which saw big gains yesterday. Europe, though, seeing some losses in the early going. Futures also slightly lower here. Worries over the crisis in Crimea still weighing in on investors.

If the West does decide to ramp up sanctions, it is Russia that has the most to lose. Investors pulled $33 billion out of Russia's economy in January and February. That number could grow as high as $55 billion by the end of this month.

Beyond that, Russia's exports to the E.U. account for a full 15 percent of its GDP. It will be interesting to see if the Europeans stop buying, though, what Russia is selling.

All right, 19 minutes after the hour. There are new developments on missing Flight 370. Were the pilots planning to take that plan off course before they even took off? Who reprogrammed those flight computers? We have live, team coverage ahead. Plus, trees ripped from the ground, severe storms battering parts of the country. Indra Petersons tracking the very latest. That's coming up next.


BERMAN: All right, we are following the very latest on the search for Malaysia airlines Flight 370, now missing for 11 days. A news conference scheduled for just minutes from now. We will bring that to you live. In the meantime, the search is focused on the waters off Australia, amid reports that the plane's turn off course may have been preprogrammed into the flight computer.

Again, we'll bring you the very latest on that and whether officials comment on that development in just a few minutes.

First, this morning, North Carolina is waking up under a layer of ice after serious storms dragged down trees and left roads in really bad shape. There were some very big accidents on a lot of the interstates near Greensboro and officials are warning drivers, stay home this morning, if you can.

One person who never gets to stay home, Indra Petersons. She has a look at the forecast.

Good morning, Indra.


Yes, once again, we're still talking about a lot of that cold air making its way farther down south. D.C. right now, about 32, Atlanta going down to about 36 this morning. So definitely that cold start and that low that really brought all the trouble is still in place this morning. You can actually tell, a little bit of icing is still out there. But the good news is this guy is expected to make its way offshore by early afternoon.

Unfortunately, there is another system out there. So, here we go again. You guys, this is supposed to be spring, right, just a few days away? But there comes another winter storm. We're talking about cold air behind this as it tracks across the country.

Here's the piece of good news, though, it is moisture-starved. We're not looking for a lot out of this, but the bulk of it will be rain as it makes its way across.

So, what are we looking at? Behind the low, cold and windy conditions, but ahead of it, a warm front, so milder conditions, not the big type of storm we have been seeing, unless you're farther to the north. That's where you'll see heavier snow, parts of Minnesota, also places like Wisconsin, but generally, everyone else just looking for light rain, cruising in tomorrow night into the day thereafter -- John.

BERMAN: Wisconsin will be snowed in while you're watching the badgers play in the tournament. You'll be OK, though. PETERSONS: Yes, right.

BERMAN: All right. Thanks, Indra.


BERMAN: We have breaking news on the search for missing Flight 370. This morning, the search is refocused and intensified.

We are expecting a news conference, a briefing from the leaders of this investigation just minutes from now. What will they say? What have been the developments over the course of this day? We'll take you there live, next.