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Mystery of Flight 370; Malaysian Authorities Update Media; Plane's Turn West Programmed into Flight Computer

Aired March 18, 2014 - 05:30   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Breaking news overnight: the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 taking to new waters. The plane vanished 11 days ago. This morning, new clues on how the plane may have steered so far off course. Who preprogrammed the in- flight computers? We have live team coverage, just ahead.

Also, Russia ready to defy the world, recognizing part of Ukraine as an independent nation, facing sanctions, facing warnings from the United States and other countries.

What will President Vladimir Putin say this morning? What's in store for the people of Crimea? We are live with the breaking developments.

Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. Great to see you this morning. I'm John Berman. Thirty minutes past the hour right now.

This morning, the questions continue to mount 11 days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared with 239 people on board. This morning there are new reports that the plane's turn off-course was preprogrammed into the flight computer. Malaysian officials now say it's not clear if the final words spoken to air traffic controllers came before or after the plane's data reporting system was shut down. The Malaysian officials changing the timeline there.

The focus of the search is now in the waters off Australia. That is just one of the places they're looking. There is news that the United States has stopped searching by water. Now U.S. assets are primarily from the air.

These are live pictures from Kuala Lumpur, where authorities plan to update the media in just moments. These briefings have been key. This is where we find out what has been new over the course of the day in the investigation over there. We will bring that to you the minute it happens.

Our Jim Clancy is on the phone right now in Kuala Lumpur.

Jim, what can you tell us about the latest developments today?

JIM CLANCY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via phone): Well, the search is being pressed, as you well know. The Chinese are searching their land areas, because part of the possible flight path, the northern arc passes through China. They have already cleared all of their passengers, saying none of them have any known ties to any terrorism, this after a second background check on all of the Chinese passengers that were considerable.

But as the air and sea search continues and more assets continue to come in, there are always hiccups in the process. Indonesia denied a Japanese plane permission to fly through its air space today, although the Indonesian president's office telling CNN's Kathy Quijano that it wants to cooperate fully. This is an administrative snafu and it will probably be corrected, but it gives you an idea of how complex it is.

There are states involved. There's a lot of work to be done. So this is all pressing forward as quickly as possible, John, because they know that every minute counts.

We're 11 days into this. If they hope to find debris, they have to move quickly. Back to you.

BERMAN: And Jim, this morning the word that the flight computer may have been preprogrammed to take this flight off the course it was set to go on to get to Beijing. That doesn't necessarily mean it was taken off course, though, for nefarious purposes, though, does it?

CLANCY: No, it doesn't. I mean, there's been an assumption that the plane was hijacked or that the pilots have something to do with this for political or other purposes, but those kinds of motives have never been proven, and I think with the change in the timeline that you've discussed there with Malaysian officials hear about the shutdown of key communications, key communications systems, I think questions are going to be raised anew about the possibility of a mechanical problem.

And the pilot, really only an experienced pilot would be able to punch in the numbers, the automated pilot system, in order to reach a waypoint -- what's called a waypoint, a designated area that is near something that they want -- he wants to reach. He might have been trying to get the plane --

BERMAN: All right, Jim.

CLANCY: -- to an airport and get the passengers safe on the ground.

BERMAN: All right, that's our Jim Clancy on the phone from Kuala Lumpur. At this moment we are about to hear any second now from Malaysian officials right now leading this investigation. That man in the suit, the black suit and the tie there, is the defense minister, also the acting transportation minister. He has been delivering all the updates over the last few days. Let's listen.


HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, MALAYSIAN TRANSPORTATION MINISTER: We have entered a new phase, which brings new diplomatic, technical and logistical challenges. Today I would like to give you an update on the logistical and diplomatic aspects of this search. The search-and- rescue operations have taken on a new international dimension. The search is still coordinated by Malaysia, but our partners have taken an increasing role in organizing and carrying out operations, both within their own territory and also within agreed search sectors. My colleague, the Foreign minister, Datuk Seri Anifah Aman, will give a more detailed statement on our diplomatic efforts in a moment.

On the logistical front, over the past 24 hours, we have been working hard with other countries to narrow the search corridors. Our focus is on four tasks -- gathering information from satellite surveillance, analysis of surveillance radar data, increasing air and surface assets, and increasing the number of technical and subject matter experts.

On satellite surveillance, I cannot disclose who has what satellite capability, but I can confirm we have contacted every relevant country that has access to satellite data. On analysis of data in the southern corridor, Australia and Indonesia have agreed to take the lead of their respective parts of the search corridor. In the northern corridor, China and Kazakhstan have agreed to lead in the search areas closest to their countries.

On air and surface assets, I've spoken to almost all ASEAN leaders to request further support, including assets with deep ocean surveillance detection capabilities. We're also asking our international partners who have assisted as before to take another look at their primary radar data.

In the northern corridor, we have divided the search area into seven quadrants. Each of the seven quadrants is 400 nautical miles by 400 nautical miles, or 160,000 square nautical miles in total. We have also divided up the southern corridor into seven quadrants. Just like in the north, each quadrant covers an area of 160,000 square nautical miles.

The entire search area is now 2.24 million square nautical miles. This is an enormous search area, and it is something that Malaysia cannot possibly search on its own. I am, therefore, very pleased that so many countries have come forward to offer assistance and also support to the search and rescue operation.

In terms of the deployment-specific assets, today the royal Malaysian Navy deployed two more ships to the southern corridor. This deployment includes a Super Lynx helicopter which can operate from either ship. This brings the total number of mission ships deployed to the southern corridor to four with two Super Lynx helicopters.

Today, Malaysia also deployed two C-130 aircraft in the Indonesian sector of the southern search corridor.

Other countries are also contributing the following assets. The United States has deployed one P-8 Poseidon and will redeploy the P-3 Orion aircraft. Australia, as I mentioned yesterday, has deployed three P-3 Orions and one C-130 Hercules. New Zealand is redeploying a P-3 Orion to support Australian search efforts. The Republic of Korea has committed one P-3 Orion and one C-130 Hercules. Japan has committed two P-3 Orions, two C-130s and one Gulfstream jet. The UAE has committed one C-17 aircraft and one Bombardier Dash 8 aircraft. The assets from Korea, Japan and UAE are currently in Malaysia awaiting orders from their respective governments.

Aside from deploying its assets to the northern corridor, China has also made arrangements with Australia to deploy an aircraft to the southern corridor.

I would like to clarify what has been said about ACARS and the sequence of events before the air turnback. On Saturday, we stated that I, quote, "based on new satellite information, we can say with high degree of certainty that the aircraft communication addressing reporting system, ACARS, was disabled just before the aircraft reached the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia. Shortly afterwards, near the border between Malaysian and Vietnamese air traffic control, the aircraft transponder was stopped.

These findings were drafted together with representatives from the lead international investigators, based on the information available at that time. Yesterday, Malaysian Airlines clarified that we cannot determine exactly what ACARS has been disabled, only that it occurred within a specific time range from 1:07, approximately when the aircraft reached the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia and the last ACARS transmission occurred to 1:37, which was the next scheduled reporting time.

This is indeed the case. It does not change our belief as stated that up until the point at which it left military primary radar coverage, the aircraft's movements were consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane. That remains the position of the investigating team. It is also important to recognize that the precise time ACARS was disabled has no bearing on the search-and-rescue operation.

We know that the last known position of the plane as confirmed by the international investigation teams was in either the northern or the southern corridor, which is where our search-and-rescue efforts are focused. Our priority has always been to find the aircraft. I am aware there is also a lot of interest in the Royal Malaysian Police investigation into the passengers and crew of MH-370.

I hope you understand that I cannot comment on the specifics of the investigation, which is still ongoing. I would also like to state that the search for MH-370 is bigger than politics. I urge all Malaysians to put our differences aside and unite during this difficult time, as we focus on finding the aircraft and the 239 people on board.

The search for MH-370 remains our top priority. We will continue to provide you with operational updates, including further information about assets being deployed, as soon as they are available.

In the last few days, we have been intensively contacting our friends across the search regions. The cooperation we saw in the first phase continues in this new phase. In fact, there's even more commitment to assist us in this much larger and more complex multinational operation. In the meantime, our thoughts remain with the families and friends of those on board.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And now I express the pleasure of the minister of foreign affairs to deliver his statement.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just wanted to give you briefly what the foreign minister has attested to us. First is to seek the assistance from the search-and-rescue operations, and there are 25 countries that's involved, and we have sent 12 diplomatic notes to the northern corridor and two to southern corridor.

Now the response has been excellent and this is due to the good relations that we have with all countries and especially the prime minister who had called many of presidents to seek their assistance. And there are nine other countries that does not fall under the two corridors, which the minister has explained, that has come forward to assist, namely, the U.S., South Korea, Japan and others.

Now this is a very complex issue. We are talking about 25 countries and how to coordinate these 25 countries with different ideologies and systems of government. But two reasons, two main reasons, one is, of course, I said we have excellent relationship with those countries that's involved. Two, because this is something that is of concern to all of us on a humanitarian aspect.

Now I have been calling the foreign ministers, all those that are involved, and the prime minister has spoken to many presidents of the countries and the prime ministers. And as I said earlier, where and when that these assistance that are required, where a country cannot mobilize their assets, then we will come and assist them from the operations center here.

Now let me tell you that during our conversations, it's -- as I said earlier, it is a very, very complex issue which covered a very wide area, and therefore, we fully appreciate all the cooperation that has been given to us. And those foreign ministers that has been constantly calling me to offer assistance.

And I just came back from Europe and all those countries that have met, they have expressed sympathies on what has happened and also offered whatever assistance that is required of them in order to locate this aircraft.

Now whatever it takes, I think it's very, very clear, the minister has made it very clear, our main objective is to look at where the aircraft is. Politics is not involved here, and I do not think, I do not think anybody should seek publicity of what happened now. This is an issue of major catastrophe, and therefore, all efforts should be focused on finding the plane.

Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, ladies and gentlemen, we will open for Q&A. We will start with a precession with the local media. So we'll start on this corner, please. OK. Identify yourself, sir.



BERMAN: All right, we're going to keep following this news conference for you, bring you any new details that come out of it. Let me just quickly summarize what we just learned. The search area for Flight 370 is now just simply enormous. It's expanded to 2.24 million square nautical miles. That is a very, very large search area.

They outlined how so many countries are now involved with that search, both on land, on sea, and now under water. They've called in some deep ocean surveillance resources to look into what may have happened and where that flight may have gone.

Another key statement from the Malaysian defense minister, they still believe the facts point to a deliberate action by someone on board that plane. Now that could mean a whole range of different things. There are so many questions about what that might mean.

I want to bring in a guest right now, Steve Wallace is with us. Steve is an aviation expert. He has looked into this kind of thing before.

Steve, let me ask you this. You're the former director of the FAA Office of Investigations. Steve joins us from Washington.

Steve, one of the things that we've been discussing all morning is the flight computer. There are reports this morning that it was programmed on this course that took it away from Beijing. The question is, was it programmed on the ground? Was it programmed in the air? And who did program it?

I want to ask you this. Could a pilot -- is that something that a pilot could program in the air quickly to take it off its current course? And why would a pilot do that?

STEVEN WALLACE, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: It is absolutely something that a pilot could program quickly, and very often, particularly to, say, if you're flying in a busy corridor in the United States, you're reprogramming those things any time the controller, for whatever reason, has to change your route. So it's really very, very simple.

And in fact, any pilot qualified flying the airplane could do it easily. And even for an intruder or unauthorized person, it would not be difficult to learn how to do that.

BERMAN: But if it does happen or if it did happen in this case, it would indicate that someone did, in fact, do it, someone did point this plane in a different direction. The reason for that, we're not quite sure, but a pilot could do that, as you said, to avoid heavy traffic. Could it also to be to, perhaps, as some have speculated, get to a point where they could land safely?

WALLACE: Absolutely. I think, still, this is incredible that this far into the investigation everything is still on the table. The -- I mean, it is clearly shifting from, you know, this combined civilian, kind of my area, and criminal investigation, but the emphasis seems to be shifting based on the evidence towards some unauthorized criminal act.

BERMAN: Now we did speak to an aviation expert earlier who suggested that maybe there was something wrong with the flight. If there is some kind of mechanical issue, could you program in those waypoints quickly enough to try to help you address that mechanical issue?

WALLACE: You could, but there really wouldn't be any reason to, and there are multiple means with this very modern, sophisticated airplane, to make a distress call. They clearly were between air traffic control facilities, but they were in a position where they could have called the one they were just talking to or the one they were supposed to talk to. They can immediately program an emergency code into the transponder. It's universally known to pilots. And yet, instead, the transponder, apparently, was turned off.

BERMAN: Now these waypoints, this computer programming, would that indicate anything about altitude? Because one of the things we've been hearing over the last few days is this plane may have flown as high as 45,000 feet, you know, going down quickly to 20,000 feet. Is that something that'd be programmed into the computer as well?

WALLACE: Well, it's separate from the waypoints, but you can just -- you can just dial in another altitude, and the modern flight management system like this, you could say go to this altitude at this point. That is a bit more complicated. That requires real familiarity with the flight management system.

But I don't put a lot of stock in these altitude reports because if they are measured by military radar that's designed to detect the position and altitude of an intruder out near the end of its range, I'm not sure how much confidence we can have in those altitude reports.

This airplane is certified only to fly to 43,000 feet, but it could -- clearly has the capability to fly a bit higher than that.

BERMAN: Now we just heard from the Malaysian defense minister, somewhat defensively defending his nation's reordering of the timeline of what happened there. He said they now no longer can say that the ACARS system was turned off before the last point of vocal contact. They simply don't know if it was before or after, but it's very possible there was voice contact between the co-pilot before the ACARS system -- that's a data transmission system -- was somehow disabled, before the radar was somehow disabled.

But this official, this defense official went on to say that in no way affects where they are now searching for this flight because that doesn't impact this satellite system that detected it flying for five to seven hours afterwards on one of these two giant arcs. Does that make sense to you?

WALLACE: Well, I think that there isn't a huge amount of significance of whether the ACARS was switched off and the transponder was switched off and the airplane turned. The sequence of the events to me is really not so important. What it does reflect is a pattern we have seen from the beginning of this investigation, which is that the evidence seems to keep changing.

And the other thing that is very difficult for kind of a western world accident investigator to grasp is the notion that the defense minister is leading this, his acting transportation minister -- what really is lacking here is an independent accident investigation agency that takes charge on day one and runs an -- runs an investigation with, you know, the best international experts and a high level of transparency.

BERMAN: Quickly, Steven, can you recover from that? Can you recover from that lack of coordination, since it did not appear to be existent in the first few days?

WALLACE: Well, I think that's the good news. As with every press report, press conference, I think they're getting better at that, and I think they're getting better at doing what they should have done on day one, which is get the most -- best vetted evidence before the best experts in the world.

And you know, there's more to this investigation than searching for the aircraft. That may be priority number one, but you know, as we see now, there's a focus on these other things, the pilots' history and the passengers and that sort of thing.

BERMAN: All right, Steve Wallace. Thank you so much for being with us, shedding light on this situation.

WALLACE: Thank you.

BERMAN: Former head of FAA investigations. Really appreciate you being with us.

WALLACE: Thank you.

BERMAN: There have been many developments this morning. We've been listening to the Malaysian defense minister outlining the developments overnight in the investigation into the mystery of Flight 370. We'll tell you all these breaking developments right after this.


BERMAN: All right, this morning we are following all the developments in the investigation into the missing Flight 370. The mystery continues this morning. We'll get back to the developments in just a moment.

First some other news, 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 Pistorius's house the night that Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend. He's testified that there was blood on the walls near Pistorius' bed some distance from the bathroom where the shooting took place.

A California man now in custody, accused of being an alleged wannabe al Qaeda terrorist. 20-year-old Nicholas Toussaint was picked up near the Canadian border. He is accused of trying to get to Syria to join an al Qaeda-linked terror group. He's charged with attempting to provide material support to foreign terrorists. If convicted, he could face 15 years in prison.

Happening today, in a New York court, federal prosecutors are expected to argue that self-described 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed should not an 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 spokesperson for Al Qaeda.

Mohammed, who is in prison in Guantanamo, says Abu Ghaith had no role in planning military operations.

Additional testing is set for today at the site of that deadly gas explosion in east Harlem, in New York, as authorities try to figure out what led to the blast that killed eight people. Most of the rubble has now been removed and arson investigators plan to begin pressure testing gas lines.

Autopsy results show that most of the victims died from smoke inhalation or from blunt force trauma.

A third person has now died from injuries suffered in that awful crash at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, when a car plowed into a crowd outside a music venue. 21-year-old Rashad Owens is facing murder charges. Police say he was driving drunk and fled from them, leading to the crash. Right now at least seven of those injured remain hospitalized.

General Motors recalling more than 1.5 million more vehicles this morning, this time for airbag, brake and design issues. 1.2 million SUVs are being recalled over a wiring problem that could cause their side-mounted airbags not to deploy at the same time.

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.

That's a quick look at the headlines. The big story this morning, we're of course, following all the developments into the investigation into missing Flight 370. The mystery continues. We have just heard a briefing from Malaysian officials about the latest developments today.

"NEW DAY" begins with all that right now.