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Putin's Next Move?; Grieving Families Dragged from News Briefing; Missing Plane's Pilot Deleted Data From Simulator; New Info About Flight 370 Route Change

Aired March 19, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Files were deleted before February 3 from that flight simulator belonging to the pilot of the missing Flight 370. Will the FBI be able to recover these files? If so, what secrets could they hold?

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. For a time, it seemed as if the search area would never stop expanding, but now the Australians are narrowing the search in the Southern Indian Ocean. Are they finally on to something?

Also, a mother of one of the missing passengers pushed beyond her limit because she says Malaysian authorities are keeping her in the dark. U.S. authorities handle families much differently in moments like these. Should the Malaysians be doing it differently?

Also, in world, Russian flags raised at a Ukrainian naval base seized in the disputed territory of Crimea. Will Russian President Vladimir Putin be satisfied with annexing Crimea, or does he have other former Soviet republics circled on his map?

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to THE LEAD.

We will begin with the world lead. Incredibly, we're now into the 13th day since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished without a trace with 239 people on board. Now, days after we watched the search expand and expand into two different hemispheres, Australia says now it has -- quote -- "refined" its focus in the Southern Indian Ocean after a U.S. official said the plane is most likely somewhere on the southern end of the search area.

And today, we may know the reason investigators turned up nothing so far from the flight simulator they seized at the captain's home. Malaysian officials say some data was erased from it before February 3. The Malaysians are trying to restore the files with an assist from the FBI. Investigators seized computers from both the pilot and the co-pilot's homes.

Is it strange that the data would be deleted on the simulator? We will get answers from the experts about that in a moment. There's also more to that sharp left turn that the plane made, the turn that sent it veering off course to parts still unknown. We know that at 1:19 a.m. local time, the co-pilot gave the final verbal communication to the ground, that now haunting, "All right, good night." Now, a law enforcement official tells CNN that the route was changed in the cockpit computer at least 12 minutes before that transmission before the co-pilot, though we should also note Malaysian authorities say that that is still in dispute.

Australian officials say that information from the U.S.' National Transportation Safety Board helped them refine the area they're searching to the southernmost part of the plane's route. One U.S. Navy aircraft is helping out in that narrowed-down area.

Let's bring in chief national correspondent Jim Sciutto.

Jim, give us the big picture here about the focal points of this search.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, you remember we have talked about these two possible routes, right?

You have got the northern route and the southern route. U.S. officials I have talked to are becoming more focused here. One reason, because there's a lot of radar coverage up here, particularly China in the west, Pakistan, India, and they feel if the plane had come north, those radar stations would have been likely to pick it up. The U.S. also has a lot of satellite coverage here and they haven't so far picked up wreckage from the plane.

They're beginning to focus more down here. They haven't eliminated this, but focusing more down here. And as they focus south off the coast of Australia, they're even able to refine that area more so to a patch about this size. Remember, we talked yesterday about three million square miles.

We're talking here a much smaller portion, 230,000 square miles, still big, about the size of France, but much smaller than the continental United States, which is how I would characterize it yesterday. How did they get to this point? Combination of flight path, assuming that plane continued that last track that we saw, as well as the amount of feel it had before it would have run out of fuel assuming it continued that path.

Plus, there's a factor here of current. And over time and the 12 days since the plane went down, presumably, if this is true, that the wreckage would have moved in this direction, and that's why they're beginning to focus here. Still a very large area, but much smaller than the area we were talking about just 24 hours ago.

TAPPER: and, Jim, what kind of assets are they using in this area now? What are they searching with?

SCIUTTO: Primarily with planes and they're using four P-3 Orions, American, Australian, New Zealand P-3 Orions, as well as the new P-8. That's an American Ariel Castro. It's brand new to Asia. And it can see farther and it can travel farther.

The trouble is it's still a heavy lift for them because those planes are coming from here, 1,600 miles. As they get out here, they're about at the end of their range, so they can't stay on station for very long. They have got to turn around and come back after they got a little piece of this area and return again, but these are powerful aircraft.

Still, Australian authorities made an estimate as to how long it's going to take them. They said at least a few weeks. Remember, too, as those planes are searching, they're only searching on the surface of the water. They can't peer under the water to look for wreckage or to listen for the black boxes' pings. They can only look for wreckage floating on the surface of the water.

And if indeed this is the area where that plane went down, that's the first signal we would have of it is some wreckage found in that area.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

Let's talk more about the latest that we know about Flight 370 and the search with our panel.

Anthony Roman is a commercial pilot and the president of Roman and Associates, a global investigation firm, and Steve Wallace is a CNN aviation analyst and former director of the FAA's Office of Accident Investigation.

Steve, I will start with you.

The focus has now turned to the southern area of the search zone in the Indian Ocean. Out of most normal shipping lanes, as an investigator, what makes the most sense to you, to focus on this one particular area, do you think, or should they be searching multiple areas at once?

STEVEN WALLACE, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, I take heart in what I just heard, that the U.S. NTSB officials have really helped narrow this down to this area because of the evidence in this investigation, which has come out slowly and a lot of it has been very kind of questionable.

These north and south arcs from the Inmarsat satellite, I think that's some of the most credible evidence that we have. So, that combined with the known fuel burn of this airplane and the fact that the northern leg, you're kind of eliminating, because there are just so many radars up there among countries that are little bit hostile to each other in some cases that are watching the skies very carefully.

So, I think the investigators have decided, well, we didn't see up there, it must have gone on the southern part of the arc. The fuel burn, of course, is somewhat a function of the altitude and power settings of the airplane, so they can't compute to a certainty exactly how far it would have gone.

TAPPER: Anthony, we should point out that just because we're being told this information is coming from the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, doesn't mean that it actually is coming from the National Transportation Safety Board. There are a lot of ways that the United States and Australia, we should note, do surveillance on the planet and on the region. If they were likely to have gone through any of these secret capabilities, it would likely be released in a way with some deniability through the NTSB.

And I imagine that you would argue, you would agree that that is going on right now, the U.S. and Australians and other allies are doing everything they can, even with technologies they don't acknowledge to have?

ANTHONY ROMAN, COMMERCIAL PILOT: I think that's very true.

I think that the U.S. is using all -- and its allies are using all of the assets, including classified assets. And that's really the crux of the issue here in terms of releasing information and how that information is released. We don't want to sacrifice classified sources, but, certainly, we want to assist in the investigation. And these -- these capabilities, I'm sure, are tremendous.

TAPPER: Now, we know, Anthony, that the FBI is now helping Malaysian officials try to retrieve the data that was deleted from the captain's flight simulator that he had in his home. It was deleted some time before February 3. Is it common to delete data from a simulator?

ROMAN: It is. I have a flight simulator at home as well from my corporate flying days.

And these simulations eat up a tremendous amount of hard drive. And, fundamentally, these home simulators are simply enhanced personal computers. So, you have to periodically delete files. I don't see that as sinister in any way. However, they need to be investigated. Those files need to be recovered.

TAPPER: Of course. Are flight simulators at home common, uncommon?

They're pretty common. You know, pilots are in the business of aviation because they love aviation. It's much more than a job. It's a tremendous passion that extends well beyond their flying for whatever agency or corporate outfit they're flying for.

TAPPER: And, Steve, what do you make of the fact that, according to all the data we have, all the evidence, the flight's path was reprogrammed to a new waypoint at least a few minutes, if not 12 full minutes, before the first officer said, "All right, good night"?

WALLACE: It's not entirely clear to me how that conclusion was reached, because it was the ACARS data. Nobody has said that the ACARS data went from this airplane and was received at this location.

So, the source of that, I don't know, we read it in the newspapers, so, I haven't seen the trail of that evidence. But...

TAPPER: Assuming that that information is accurate, the significance would be what? (CROSSTALK)

WALLACE: Well, that would certainly tilt, as so much of the evidence has, shift the focus towards some kind of a deliberate act.

But if I could just add a couple of things on that simulator issue as well -- I agree with everything Anthony said -- pilots have these things, they love flying.

You wouldn't need the -- we hope they find a fantastic clue in there, but you don't need to practice diverting a plane. It's very easy to do. If a rogue pilot wanted to compute the fuel burn to a certain destination, he can easily do that on a Web site, on a flight planning program. So I'm not -- I don't think the simulator, we're hopeful, is going to prove to produce any super evidence.

TAPPER: All right. We will have more on the simulator later. Great context. We appreciate it. Steve Wallace, Anthony Roman, thank you so much.

Coming up on THE LEAD: desperate pleas from a mother demanding answers about her missing son, highlighting the frustration felt by so many. Could Malaysian officials take a page from how the United States does this when it deals with victims' families?

Plus, the FBI is now racing to find out what was deleted from the captain's flight simulator. How quickly can these files be recovered?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. More now in our world lead.

There may be no pain like the pain of a grieving parent and those whose loved ones were on board missing Flight 370. While they're not hiding their frustrations with the slow leak of information from the Malaysian authorities, today, we watched as grief stricken families were literally dragged away from the news briefing where they had come to demand answers. One woman whose son was on board made her pain her anger now.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (translated): We are victims' family from Beijing. We have been here more than 10 days. There are more than 20 of us here.

REPORTER: What have Malaysian Airlines told you in the past days?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They just kept brushing us off, saying keep waiting and waiting for information. I don't know whom we are going to wait until it's already 12 days, my dear.

I don't know whom we are going to wait until it's already 12 days, my dear. I don't know where my dear in -- 12 days. My son, where is my son? They just brushed us off.


TAPPER: Just heart wrenching. My son, where is my son, she said.

Let's bring in Atika Shubert in Kuala Lumpur.

I can't even imagine what that woman and all those families are going through, Atika. You've spoken to some of them. What are they telling you?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, for the most part, they're telling me that it's not just the lack of information, it's the fact that there's so many bits of conflicting information. For example, the fact that they suddenly found out that the plane may have not crashed, but that it in fact flew for hours and hours after it made that westward turn, and then the realization that the signal that the satellites have been getting could have been gotten from the ground. There were hopes then that perhaps the plane had landed and perhaps had been hijacked and everyone still could be saved.

But then yesterday at the press briefing, Malaysian officials say they're focusing now on a huge stretch of the Indian Ocean, which suggests, of course, that it crashed into the sea. So, what family members are telling me they feel like this roller coaster of emotion where their hopes are up, then they're suddenly crushed. All they really want at this point is some concrete information on where the plane is and some kind of closure, Jake.

TAPPER: It's heartbreaking.

Atika Shubert in Malaysia, thank you so much.

Grief feels the same. No matter where you're from, but how would this investigation and the information that the families are getting about this investigation, how would it be different if it were led by the United States?

Our Suzanne Malveaux has that story.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's been 13 days since Malaysian Flight 370 has disappeared and families of the passengers are beginning to unravel.

It's an anguish Heidi Snow knows all too well.

HEIDI SNOW, LOST FIANCE IN TWAA FLIGHT 800: He was a strong, young hockey player.

MALVEAUX: She lost her 24-year-old fiance Michel Breistroff in the crash of TWA Flight 800 on July 17th, 1996. She waited for weeks in JFK's Ramada Plaza Hotel for any information. SNOW: We had people who were quiet. We had people who were crying. We had people who were screaming. I was just extremely sad and just really wanted to talk about him a lot. That hope is what I held on to.

MALVEAUX: Snow's hopes were dashed five weeks later when the airline confirmed her fiance was dead. It would take four years for the NTSB to wrap up its investigation. The crashes of TWA Flight 800 and Value Jet 592 in the Everglades in 1996 led to tougher laws in the United States to protect victim's families -- start first with the flow of information.

MARY SCHIAVO, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: The Family Assistance Act was passed. And that gives families the rights to have briefings from the NTSB in the beginning of the investigation, daily briefings, sometimes twice a day.

MALVEAUX: When possible, families are granted access to the crash.

SCHIAVO: It gives them rights to view the site when the plane the found. It requires the airline to help them out financially and take care of them. It gives them access to personnel and to information.

MALVEAUX: And most importantly, U.S. laws provide protection during the agonizing grieving process.

SCHIAVO: The NTSB in the briefing rooms always has a separate room for the families so they don't have this horrible scene like today with the poor families being dragged away.

MALVEAUX: For Heidi Snow, it's a state of limbo when families are most vulnerable.

SNOW: We're all just in such a state of grief at that time. We want as much information as possible and patience begins to wear thin as the days go on.

MALVEAUX (on camera): It was just last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation showed that it meant business, issuing the first fine under the '97 law to Asiana Airlines for failing to help families in the July crash in San Francisco. A half million dollar penalty was slapped on the Korean Airline for being too slow to notify passenger's families and failing to adequately provide a telephone number for assistance.

Suzanne Malveaux, CNN, Washington.


TAPPER: Our thanks to Suzanne Malveaux.

Coming up next, what did he delete? The FBI now trying to recover the data the captain of Flight 370 erased from his in-home flight simulator. But is the real question how the files were deleted? We'll have more on that coming up.


TAPPER: Welcome back to continuing coverage of our world lead.

It has been 13 days since Flight 370 and its 239 souls on board vanished. Investigators appear no closer to solving how the plane disappeared, but could the key to this entire mystery be somewhere in the digital recesses of a hard drive?

Malaysian officials revealed this morning that the pilot of Flight 370 deleted data from the flight simulator in his home. Is this a case of digital housekeeping or something more complicated? Perhaps even something nor sinister?

For more on this, I want to bring in CNN justice correspondent, Pamela Brown.

Pamela, what can you tell us about this?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, I just spoke with the law enforcement source who says the simulator's hard drive is being handled with a great deal of urgency right now. It is a top priority as investigators try to rebuild the pieces of data that were deleted more than a month ago according to Malaysian officials.


BROWN (voice-over): Sources say FBI agents are already combing through the hard drive from the flight simulator from the home of Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, where today Malaysian officials confirmed files had been deleted sometime before February 3rd.

SHAWN HENRY, FORMER EXEC. ASST. DIRECTOR, FBI: The FBI's very sophisticated capabilities and they're oftentimes able to retrieve files that appear to have been deleted, but actually weren't. They were artifacts of those left on the hard drive.

BROWN: While experts of the forensics lab in Quantico, Virginia, right now are trying to retrieve missing files from that hard drive, they're also looking at how the data was deleted.

HENRY: I think that if you were just deleting files off of the hard drive in order to provide more room, you'd just delete it once. You wouldn't go through the extra effort to completely destroy the file and make it irretrievable.

BROWN: Many in U.S. law enforcement are baffled because Malaysian investigators left that simulator in the pilot's house for a week before retrieving it. But officials say only some of the data was deleted and there's no indication at this point the pilot was trying to cover his tracks in any way.

HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, ACTING MALAYSIAN TRANSPORT MINISTER: I would like to take this opportunity to state that the passengers, the pilots and crew remain innocent until proven otherwise.

BROWN: While the FBI may uncover key information from that hard drive, the most important piece of evidence is yet to be found -- the plane itself.

HENRY: You've got to look at the totality of the evidence and it's just not there right now. The most important piece is going to be when you find the physical structure. That's going to demonstrate whether it was mechanical failure or intentional act. If it was intentional act, then you're going to start to backtrack again, looking at whether it was a hijacking, pilot action or terrorism.


BROWN: So, while there are experts with sophisticated technology looking at the hard drive at Quantico right now, there's a lot of graphic data they have to go through and it's a complicated, multilayered process to break through all the data. It could take weeks to have the complete picture of what's on that hard drive. And as my source said, Jake, we're really grasping at straws now. No one is running on anything white hot at this point.

TAPPER: Hardly reassuring, grasping at straws.

Breaking news now in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Investigators now believe they have uncovered some key information about that hard left turn that the plane took.

Let's bring in justice reporter Evan Perez.

Evan, tell us what you've learned.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Jake, you know, one of the things that people are focusing on is how investigators can try to determine what happened when the plane deviated from its course, where it was scheduled to go, which is towards Beijing and turned west, and then it ends up in the Straits of Malacca and then disappears.

Well, we know from new information that we've gotten from investigators is that, you know, the investigators have been able to pinpoint some way point that the aircraft appeared to go towards. They found at least two waypoints that the aircraft traveled directly to.

And so, one of the things they're doing is to try to figure out how could that happen. There's a couple of ways, you know, pilots would deviate from their course, which is to actually manually turn the aircraft or just specifically enter coordinates for those waypoints. And so, what they believe is because of the precision with which the aircraft traveled, they now believe someone actually entered those coordinates for those two points in order to come off course.

Now, obviously, this doesn't answer the question everybody has. Why did someone do this? Who did this? This is still obviously an open question, but this gives them some more confidence they know someone did this, whatever was done inside the cockpit was done deliberately and now, they're still obviously, they have to figure out where to find the airplane to try to put more information on this together, Jake. TAPPER: And Evan, just for those of us who are not completely literate when it comes to aviation, way points are just points of reference that everyone in the aviation community agrees upon and the idea they would fly specifically over to these way points means there was a precision there, is that right?

PEREZ: That's right. I mean, think of them as navigational beacons essentially. And so the way -- especially if you're flying in the dark, you're just heading -- you're turning the aircraft and telling it where to go to. And especially with these very sophisticated aircraft that have radar and everything else to guide them, they basically just put the coordinates to tell the aircraft where to travel to. And that's why they believe that this aircraft went precisely to these particular way points that were off course from where the aircraft was supposed to be headed.

TAPPER: So, more information indicating this was done purposefully.

PEREZ: That's right.

TAPPER: Evan Perez, thank you so much.

Coming up on THE LEAD, you would think airlines would make enough for charging for luxuries such as seats or allowing us to check our baggage so they could be able to afford the most advanced tracking equipment available. So, why does this search hinge on Eisenhower-era technology?

Plus, armed men storm Ukraine's naval headquarters, declaring the base to now be Russian territory, as some wonder if Vladmir Putin has his sights on other neighboring countries.