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Multinational Search for Flight 370 Debris; Crimea Officially Joining Russia

Aired March 21, 2014 - 04:30   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news overnight. Happening right now: a search by air and water to find the missing Malaysia jetliner vanished 13 days ago with hundreds of people on board. Debris spotted in a satellite image believed to possibly be linked to that missing plane.

We're bringing you live, team coverage of everything that unfolded overnight.

Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow, in for Christine Romans today. It is 4:30 a.m. here on the East Coast.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Berman. Great to see you this morning.

A lot going on with new developments in the hunt for really what is a needle in a haystack in one of the most remote places on the planet.

This is the latest in the search for those two pieces of debris that could maybe be from Malaysia Flight 370: five jets, four from Australia, one from the United States, scouring the search zone overnight in the south Indian Ocean, overnight our time. It is daytime there. We are told the visibility in that area, as it is daylight there, is said to be ideal, but it will not last. Conditions will worsen in a hurry.

At this point, there's no trace of those two floating objects that were picked up by satellite imagery several days ago. That's at this point.

Australian maritime boss John Young, he's giving an update on the search. Let's listen.


JOHN YOUNG, AUSTRALIA'S MARITIME SAFETY CHIEF: Although the search area is much smaller than we started with, it nonetheless is a big area when you're looking out the window and trying to see something by eye. So, we may have to do this a few times to be confident about the coverage of that search area.


BERMAN: As we said, they are scouring the area at this minute. Some of the first planes that are flying out today -- and it does take several hours even to get there -- should be arriving back in Australia soon.

We're covering every angle of this.

Our Jim Clancy is live in Kuala Lumpur, where he has been for nearly two weeks.

Jim, what's the latest this morning?

JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, two weeks. And let me tell you, just from our experience here, don't get your hopes up about one report, one clue about debris. We've seen many over the course of all of this, and we haven't been very lucky. There's no reason to think that we're suddenly going to get lucky now when we turn and look in a much, much larger area of the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean.

But there is still a grasping for any tiny shred of evidence, any bit of new information. Let me show you the scene here at the Sama Sama Hotel. Just a few days ago when the defense minister/acting transport minister, Hishammuddin bin Hussein, came out to talk to reporters, he was trying to make his way through the lobby of the hotel. He was mobbed as everybody was really competing, trying to get any shred of evidence they can get.

The bottom line, he said there is nothing new, cautioning that while everybody wants to see some results, while the families deserve to see some results, they just aren't there yet. He said cooperation between international groups, agencies, countries was improving. They were getting the help. He conceded that Malaysia does not have the resources, does not have the planes to do all of this.

And ending by really saying that, you know, I went to the mosque today and said a prayer that we were going to find something, something that will bring some comfort to the families of those missing aboard Flight 370 -- John and Poppy.

BERMAN: You know, as those planes are flying overhead at this minute over that search area, the investigation into possible causes does continue, Jim. You know, there are reports that the FBI bi says it will be able to retrieve at least some of that data from the flight simulator in the pilot's home that had been deleted. Can you tell us anything about that this morning?

CLANCY: Well, he did not say anything. He said, you come to the press conference, he indicated once again that he was getting cooperation. He said he talked to some British officials today. They are willing to send some experts here. They've already got experts from around the world, including from France, from the United States, people to assist them, especially in some of the technical aspects of all of this. They have multiple radar tracks that show the plane, they have multiple radar systems that saw Flight 370. They have to bring all of that data together. They've been doing that over the course of the past 10 days or more as they try to do it.

But as we reach the two-week mark, we realize the clock is ticking, that if we are going to find some evidence, if you're going to be able to track that back to an airliner, if it's on the bottom of the ocean or somewhere in the remote jungles, you know, on the island of Sumatra, wherever it might be, you're going to have to find it and find it soon. We need to find something because we need to find the evidence that will tell us who, what, how this took place, and perhaps even why -- John, Poppy.

BERMAN: All right. Jim Clancy in Kuala Lumpur. We are, in fact, at a critical juncture, if for no other reason, the weather over the search area right now off the coast of southern Australia really only good for another day.

HARLOW: Into the weekend, it's going to get bad again.

BERMAN: Very, very bad.

HARLOW: And this is a visual search, as we told you earlier. They have not had any radar detection, so this is all relying on eye, and the weather matters. It is critical for that.

Flight 370 disappeared two weeks ago now. It has been 14 days of unimaginable despair for those who know and love the 239 people on board that aircraft. The latest debris sighting in the south Indian Ocean, it is bringing hope to some, it is bringing tears to others.

Our Pauline Chiou has been spending time with the families of all of those on board Flight 370. She joins us now live from Beijing.

Pauline, we understand that Malaysian officials are briefing the families on the search, really for the first time. And I'm interested to know, are they satisfied with the amount of information they're getting, and what are the key questions they're asking?

PAULINE CHIOU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In a short answer, no, they are not satisfied. And yes, for the first time, they have a high-level meeting with Malaysian officials, Malaysian government officials and also airline officials.

Now, I was in the room with these 400 relatives as they asked questions. It was really impressive when you realize how much they've studied this information. They've had 14 days to go over all of the data. Their questions were very pointed and methodical.

One woman got up and asked about civilian radar as well as military radar. She said, "Where is the civilian radar in a building?" And the military officials said it's in one room. Where is the military radar? It's in another room.

It's in the same building. The two teams are separated by a wall. So, the question is, why weren't these two teams monitoring civilian and military radar sharing the same data and they're under the same roof? That's one question.

Another person got up and asked the Malaysian air force official, could another country's military have shot down this plane? Now, the Malaysian air force official said, very carefully, based on the data and radar at this point in time, shooting by the military is not highly possible.

So, as you can see, Poppy, for about three hours, these relatives were asking very smart, pointed questions. They're really holding these officials' feet to the fire.

HARLOW: Pauline, was there any explanation for that answer as to -- because there are so many unknowns in this, they don't have so many answers, they don't even know which direction the flight flew in for a number of hours, so did they say why they think that that's not a possibility?

CHIOU: They didn't say why, and I was watching the body language and the way this official was answering that question. He was thinking very carefully how to word it, and when he said, at this point in time, shooting by the military is not -- and then he sort of mumbled and paused -- and then he said, "Highly possible."

I think there are national security issues here at play. The military's trying to be very careful what they release and what they don't release, and that in itself is very frustrating for these relatives. These are 154 Chinese passengers whose relatives, most of them are here in Beijing.

They say, listen, put self-defense aside, put politics aside. Two weeks has passed. If our relatives are alive, you need to find them. Just forget about all of this information that you might have to protect. These are 239 people whose lives we need to save.

HARLOW: And, Pauline, before we let you go, quickly, what is the sense in the room? Is it more a sense of hope, holding out hope, or do most of the people think that they may have lost their loved ones and they just want answers?

CHIOU: My sense is that it's a mixture, but there are still quite a number of people who have hope, and I can detect that from the questions that they're asking. For example, there was a man who stood up in this briefing today, and he was asking about the Australian debris. And then he also said, I've heard that there are two uninhabited islands near this search area. Are you going to check this out? Do you know about these islands?

And the Malaysian official had said, listen, we have to confirm that this debris is from the airline first before we do anything.

HARLOW: Right.

CHIOU: But of course, if it is confirmed, we will send our search planes and ships over in that area. But, Poppy, I thought it was so interesting, just the fact that he was talking about two uninhabited islands in the Indian Ocean. We don't know if that actually exists, but the fact that he's asking it shows that these families are still hanging on to anything, anything that can give them hope.

HARLOW: And understandably so. Pauline, thank you. We appreciate the reporting.

I know it's got to be difficult just to be there with all of the emotion and everything that these families are going through. Thank you.

BERMAN: The United States front and center at this moment in the search for Flight 370. Right now, one of the U.S.'s most sophisticated surveillance planes is in the air over the southern Indian Ocean.

I want you to listen to CNN's chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto describe the role that the United States and other nations are playing right now in the hunt for Flight 370.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: (AUDIO GAP) deployed its P8 Poseidon, most advanced surveillance aircraft. It can see very far and can travel very far and stay on station for a very long time to search for this. It's also got a P3 Orion taking part as well.

You know that the U.S. is looking at its satellites in this area, commercial, and perhaps some military, to see what they can add to these images that we've seen already.

In addition to that, the U.S. and Australia, along with New Zealand, the U.K. and Canada, are part of what's called the Five Eyes. This is really the U.S.'s closest allies in terms of sharing intelligence, and you can be sure they are able to share intelligence that we can't do even with allies in Europe, Germany, France, et cetera. That includes the most sensitive satellite data, the most sensitive radar data.

One thing we've become aware of is that Australia has some very advanced, over-the-horizon radar, which could come into play in a search like this.


BERMAN: Just hope they're using all of the resources they can to find whatever debris might be out there.

Forty-two minutes after the hour right now. The visibility in the southern Indian Ocean is ideal right now.

HARLOW: It is, thank goodness. Bad weather coming in over the weekend, but there is not much more time for this window of opportunity, because it is going to be closing. Our meteorologist, Chad Myers, is tracking the conditions in the zone where possibly, possibly, debris from Flight 370 is. Listen.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: John, poppy, why, what a difference 24 hours made in the weather down here across parts of Australia. We had ugly weather yesterday. I mean, white caps everywhere. Think about looking for a white plane with white caps everywhere. Didn't happen.

Now, for today, now finally ending, it's getting dark down there pretty soon, things have been perfect. High sun, lots of sun, clear skies, calming seas and very, very few white caps. So, that has really helped tremendously.

Yesterday, honestly, there wasn't even a chance of finding anything out there, the weather was so bad. Now it has certainly changed. High pressure in control of the area for just one more day.

Need to really get some debris going here, find some of this stuff, because there's another storm on the way. Not really for rain. In the next 48 hours, the rain is well to the west of the area that they found those things here.

Now, the debris here -- there's the debris. And look at this red zone here. This is 48 hours. This really comes in, so for them, almost on Sunday.

This is a major windstorm. I mean, we're going to have 40 to 50-mile- per-hour winds. Again, back to the white caps, 30, 40-foot seas out there and very, very difficult conditions for any kind of search or rescue out there.

So, you really need to get some things done today, and again, tomorrow, good weather for them -- John, Poppy.

HARLOW: Yes, we absolutely do. We'll be tracking every moment of it, bring you the latest as soon as we have it, the latest breaking developments here on the mystery of Flight 370. What happened?

First, though, also straight ahead, the crisis in Ukraine, Crimea formally joining Russia. Russia's relationship with the west also hanging in the balance. We're going to take you live to Moscow with the breaking developments overnight.


HARLOW: Back to our coverage of the search for Flight 370 in a moment.

Now to other important news this morning, this is the day that Crimea officially becomes part of the Russian federation. Russia's lower house of parliament voting 443-1 in favor of the treaty signed Tuesday by Vladimir Putin. One final procedural vote is slated for the upper house. That will seal it.

That is triggering another round of dueling sanctions. The United States, also the E.U., black-listing more Russians with ties to Putin. Russia responding by banning nine U.S. officials. Among them, John McCain. The Arizona senator not exactly broken up about it, saying, quote, "I guess this means my spring break in Siberia is off." But this is a very, very serious situation.

I want to go to Fred Pleitgen, who is in Moscow for us this morning.

Fred, tell us the latest. I think it's new sanctions on 16 government officials as well as four Putin insiders coming from the White House?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, yes, you're absolutely right. Good morning, Poppy. It's new sanctions against a lot of Vladimir Putin's inner circle. They certainly hit much closer to home to Vladimir Putin than that first round of sanctions, and you can see that the reaction from the Russian government has been one that's been far more sensitive than we saw before.

First of all, you obviously had counter sanctions by the Russian federation against nine U.S. officials, including, as you just noted, John McCain, who seems absolutely devastated by being on that list, as did John Boehner, who is also on the list as well.

But the Russians are also saying, at least some of them who are on this list, that they are bewildered by this. The Russian bank, Rossiya Bank, who is also on that list, is scrambling to make sure people who do banking there are able to get their money. Visa and MasterCard abroad have stopped Russians using that bank from getting money out of their accounts.

So, it's something that's certainly making the Russians feel that this more real than before, but at the same time, we have to say, the Russians are indeed still pressing ahead on the Crimea issue.

As you said, today there is a procedural vote in the upper house of parliament. That session is going on as we speak, so we do expect in the next hour, maybe hour and a half, for them to ratify that treaty. After that, all it needs is Vladimir Putin's signature, and then, at least as far as the Russians are concerned, Crimea is permanently part of the Russian Federation.

Of course, the U.S. doesn't recognize that at all, as says the rest of the international community, but that's certainly not fazing the Russians at all at this point, Poppy.

HARLOW: Yes. Now, we'll be watching the eastern border of Ukraine, see what happens there.

Thank you, Fred. We appreciate it.


BERMAN: All right. We do have some breaking news just into CNN. There have been the planes, the ships searching that area where they think there could be debris in the southern Indian Ocean.

The first plane is back from the search area. No sign of debris, the pilot says. We will bring you more of his report, also some analysis of what this search entails and the complications. That's live after the break.


BERMAN: All right. Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone.

The search for Flight 370 now a race against time -- five jets, four from Australia, one from the U.S., taking the air overnight, trying to locate possible debris from the missing jetliner in one of the most remote places on the planet.

The first plane has just returned back from the search area. The pilot moments ago telling reporters that his flight did not spot any debris. There are four more in the air right now. They will be reporting back on regular intervals. We will report to you what they tell us as it happens.

We want to talk more about the complications for this search, what it entails. There's one man who knows probably as much about it as anyone on Earth.

I want to bring in Remi Jouty. He is the director of France's BEA. It's the Bureau of Inquiry and Analysis for civil aviation safety. It's like France's NTSB. He led that agency in the investigation into the Air France 447 crash.

Remi, thanks so much for being with us. I really appreciate it. You've been through something like this before.

So let me just ask you right out. You've seen these images of the debris, the possible debris, these two images. Do they hold out hope for you? Does it make sense that these could be pieces of the plane?

REMI JOUTY, BEA DIRECTOR: Well, I think it's way too early to tell and nobody can know for sure. We will know only when it is possible to get closer sight of those objects, we'll know.

BERMAN: You've been through an investigation. You know, there's no two investigations exactly alike, but the Air France crash, that plane missing for several days before something was spotted, but something spotted much more quickly.

What do you think the biggest complications are right now for investigators?

JOUTY: I think the biggest complication is that we really don't know where the aircraft might be. So, the area of uncertainty is much bigger than what it was for the Air France 447 search.

BERMAN: And without any certain sign of debris over the last two weeks -- and again, we are waiting to get more clarification on what these two pieces might be -- but without the advantages, the sightings you had, do you think they will be able to find any success?

JOUTY: Well, if debris are found in the ocean, first thing is that we will know that the aircraft has fallen into the ocean, which is not yet known. Second thing is that maybe it will be possible based on this information and other information, like satellite communication, to develop reduced area of uncertainty, which is small enough to launch underwater searches, but we are far from here now, I believe.

HARLOW: Key to all of this, of course, is recovering that data recorder, the so-called black box, which after Air France Flight 447, which you investigated, wasn't found until two years later but still had that key information, that key data.

What we know right now is that there have been no radar detections, none of those pings that will go off for, I believe 30 days. We haven't cited any of those.

How much more challenging does this make this, the fact that they're not getting any indications of that?

JOUTY: Well, the first thing is that the underwater location beacons are emitting only for 30 days, which means it is almost already too late to have realistic hope of launching underwater searches based on those things. So, it means if it is possible to reduce the area of uncertainty to something manageable, underwater searches would then have to be launched based on the radar which is more complicated.

BERMAN: Remi Jouty, thank you so much for being with us. You've been through this kind of investigation before. Love having your expertise.


BERMAN: Again, we do have breaking news on the search for Flight 370. The first flight is back. We'll give you a full update right after this.