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Good Night Malaysian 370; Potential Leads in Search Come Up Empty; Honeymooners on Flight 370; Families Cope with Loss; North Korean Artillery Fire for Attention?; South Korea Responds

Aired March 31, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from the CNN Center in Atlanta. We're learning new information about the final communication between the crew of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane and the air traffic controllers.

Here's what we know right now. Malaysia's transport ministry says the last voice transmission from the cockpit was, quote, "good night Malaysian 370." Previously, a Malaysian official told CNN and other news organizations the last known words were, quote, "All right, good night."

The latest objects retrieved from the Indian Ocean turned out to be fishing equipment and a dead jellyfish. 11 ships and 10 aircrafts scoured the area today, without finding anything connected to the plane.

And an Australian ship carrying a U.S. ping detector set sail today to join the search. It will take about three days to reach the area.

Malaysian authorities say they've asked investigators to release the full transcript of the final communication with the missing plane, Flight 370.

For more on that and the latest on the search effort, let's go to Perth, Australia. Paula Newton is standing by. Paula, what's the significance of this new information about the last voice communication with the cockpit, with the plane's captain and co- captain? How does it differ specifically from earlier language, and what's the assessment, the change? What does it mean?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the assessment, from what he had said earlier, first off, they first said it was the co-pilot who said this, and then now it turns out that they want to look at their transcript again and look at the audio. And now, they can't decide if it's the pilot or the co-pilot. More than that, though, it comes ever so slightly closer to what normal protocol would be. But we're told it's still not normal protocol for a pilot or a co-pilot to say either, or.

But, secondly, Wolf, actually, it puts a lot of the credibility of the Malaysian government, again, at the heart of this. We've been hearing from the relatives of those missing from that flight again and again that they cannot take this. They can't take all the contradictory information. They want to know what's right. And they're saying, look, if you had taken a look at the transcript, why didn't you know this before? Especially if it's so very material to whether or not Flight 370 was routine up until the point it disappeared from radar -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's not just the transcript, Paula. They have an actual recording of the conversation between the captain, the co-captain, as well as ground control, the air traffic controllers. They don't even need a transcript. They can just listen and now it's taken so long to change, "all right, good night" to the official, according to the press release from the Ministry of Transport of Malaysia, "Good night Malaysian 370." What's taken them so long?

NEWTON: Well, they are still confused about whether or not it is the voice of the pilot or the voice of the co-pilot. So, even with that audio recording, as you say, Wolf, they're still verifying it. And I think vthat perhaps the families could have taken it if they came out and said, look, we just don't know. But in releasing the early information and then being definitive that it was the co-pilot, now going back on that, obviously, the families throughout this are saying, look, what do you know? What do you really know? And if you know something, we want to see the evidence of how you know that.

I should say, Wolf, that the Malaysian government has said at the next -- their next meeting with those family members, they will release the full transcript of those last few moments of that flight.

BLITZER: I'm sure they want more than the transcript. They want the actual audio recording of that conversation. The full transcript in the -- in English, as it was provided, that would be an excellent start. But the audio recording, they should release that as well.

Let's talk a little bit about the search, Paula. What's going on right now? Because even though they have come up so far with nothing, they're stepping up the effort.

NEWTON: Absolutely. It's ramping up here. Into the fourth week, we're now into a completely different phase of this operation. A couple of things, Wolf. One is we have now -- we could have up to 12 ships in the area scanning that ocean surface, along with at least 10 airplanes in the air tomorrow. More than that, perhaps a handful of helicopters. What that means is when they spot debris, they'll be able to go and investigate it very quickly, within a matter of hours.

And then, there is the tow pinger locater and that Blue Fin 21 which will look for the flight data recorders. That Ocean Shield, that Australian ship, with that very important U.S. Navy equipment and commanders have set off for the search site. They won't be there for a couple days.

But it means that if they can narrow that search zone, they might have a shot at looking at that ocean floor and looking at it for those crucial flight data recorders. I have to tell you, Wolf, though, talking to the lead commander on that operation, the U.S. Navy captain, Mark Matthews, he tells me the search area has to be a thousand times smaller than it is right now for him to have a good look at the ocean bed there -- Wolf. BLITZER: What a daunting, daunting challenge. Paula Newton in Perth for us, thank you.

Let's bring in our panel of experts to get their perspective on these latest developments. Mark Weiss is an aviation analyst, former 777 pilot for the -- for American Airlines. Peter Goelz is a CNN Aviation Analyst, a former NTSB managing director. Tom Fuentes is a CNN Law Enforcement Analyst, former assistant director of the FBI.

Peter, first to you. What do you make of this revised final communication from "All right, good night" to "Good night, Malaysian" not Malaysia, not Malaysia Airlines, not MH, but "Malaysian 370." What, if anything, should we read into that?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, what you read into it is, now you understand why the Chinese families are so upset with the Malaysian government. This kind of correction, which is not minor, is just simply inexcusable and inexplicable. What, they need to release the tower tapes right away. Let people hear them. There's nothing secretive on them. And how they could -- how they could screw this up is just incomprehensible.

BLITZER: It shouldn't be that complicated to actually listen to the final communication and see precisely what the pilot or the co-pilot had to say.

Now, Mark, you're a 777 pilot. You're leaving Malaysian air space. You're going into Vietnamese air space. You want to complete the conversation with ground control, air traffic controllers in Malaysia. What would you normally say?

MARK WEISS, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, you know, what's come out is much more typical and much more related to ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization, standard phraseology. Malaysia, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, that would be acceptable. But, you know, there was questions about who was talking on the radio.

And one simple way to find this out, particularly remembering that this pilot had -- the co-pilot had about 2,700 or 2,800 hours, relatively new into the 777. On the ground, in Kuala Lumpur, that airplane would have been taxied out and on the ground by the captain. And the radio transmissions on the ground would have been from the co- pilot. So, it -- then in the air, typically, whoever is flying the airplane, the other pilot would be working the radios. So, it's an easy way to understand who is making that communication.

BLITZER: And would you say, normally, "Good night, Malaysian 370"?

Weiss: Yes, that's much more in keeping with "All right, good night". Yes, typically, I do that. But one of the things that's never come out was what was the time lag between that transmission and the Vietnamese air traffic controller trying to make contact, either with another aircraft in the area, because they hadn't picked up Malaysia 370 on radar, or when the Malaysia -- when the Vietnamese controller would have made his first call to Malaysia 370. That's an interesting time lag that hasn't come out yet. BLITZER: Tom, this is not that complicated to release at least the transcript, the official transcript not a translated version. There was a transcript the newspaper published that was translated into Mandarin and then translated back into English. Obviously, the retranslation, you can lose important nuances. You can lose important words. Why don't they just release the transcript and maybe hold off on the audiotape, if they don't want to release that, but why not just the transcript?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Wolf, I agree. I have no reason why they wouldn't. They've made their own bad situation worse for themselves by not doing it. And this change, you know, is, as Peter mentioned, inexcusable. They've known since the first night what was said to air traffic control on the radio and how it was said and probably who said it.

And three, four weeks later, they shouldn't be guessing at it and revising that. You know, the -- it is excusable that there is many things they don't know when analyzing radars and satellites and all that type of information. But this is one thing they absolutely do know. So, they should be able to put this out accurately and they should have been able to do this many days ago.

BLITZER: Tom -- Peter -- let me bring Peter in because you're an NTSB investigator. If this were an NTSB U.S. investigation, you would have released that transcript right away.

GOELZ: Well, it would actually have been -- the tower tapes would have been released by the FAA, shortly after the accident, approved by the NTSB and put on the record. And the transcript would have -- would have come later. But the tower tapes themselves would have been public information fairly quickly and could have been listened to (INAUDIBLE) by everybody who wanted to have them.

BLITZER: This underscores why these families are so, so upset right now, understandably SO. Two hundred thirty-nine people were on that plane. We don't know the whereabouts of these people, but their family members, understandably, are so frustrated.

All right, thanks, guys. Don't go away.

Up next, we tell the story of what two of those passengers. A young couple on their honeymoon.

And later, rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula right now where both North and South Korea, they're holding their own live fire military exercises, and they're even shooting at each other.


BLITZER: There was a touching visual in Kuala Lumpur today for the passengers and the crew members of Flight 370. Family members attended a Buddhist temple where they chanted and meditated together. There were 239 people on board, each with their own story. That includes one couple who were on their honeymoon.

Our Sara Sidner takes a closer look.


SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This was supposed to be the happiest time of their lives. Newlyweds, Norli Akmar Hamid and Muhammad Razahan Zamani, were on their way to their honeymoon in Beijing. Zamani was particularly excited because after safely up for a whole year, he was taking his very first trip abroad with the woman he adored.

MOHAMMAD SAHRIL SHAARI: First time going offsite in the country.

SIDNER: The first they have been on a honeymoon, cousin, Mohammad Sahril Shaari said. The honeymooners never made it to their destination. Their plane left on March 8th, Flight MH 370, from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.


SIDNER: He was so excited to go. He was already on the plane. It was just a matter of reaching his destination. I just feel so helpless, he says. We really don't know. And we have never experienced these things before.

Shaari says he's been to every family briefing, listened to every detail, and felt every bit of heartbreak as the days change to weeks without any sign of the missing plane.

SIDNER (on camera): When we met you, you were smiling and talking with us. How do you stay so positive during all of this turmoil?

SIDNER (voice-over): "It is difficult. We look happy on the outside, but we're dying inside. Only God knows what's inside of me."

He says one of the worst days for the family was this day.

NAJIB RAZAK, MALAYSIAN PRIME MINISTER: It is therefore, with deep sadness and regret, that I must inform you that, according to this new data, Flight MH-370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean.

SIDNER: Malaysian officials then informed the families all lives were lost. But a few days later, the acting transportation minister talked of the remote but possible chance of finding survivors.

HISHAMMUDIN BIN HUSSEIN, ACTING TRANSPORTATION MINISTER: I'm always hoping against hope, and I'm praying. And (INAUDIBLE) also in any remote manner has always been to find for survivors.

SIDNER (on camera): Who do you believe?

SIDNER (voice-over): "I prefer to believe Mr. Hishammudin because he has vowed to carry on searching till we find this plane, while our prime minister has said that the plane ended in the Indian Ocean, though he didn't say it had crashed or anything like that."

Leaving a lingering hope that this marriage did not end in tragedy. Sara Sidner, CNN, Kuala Lumpur.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's really pretty shocking. One day the prime minister says one thing, the next few days later, the minister of transport says something very, very different. Understandable why these families are so angry right now at Malaysian authorities. We're going to have much more on the coverage of the mystery of Flight 370. That's coming up.

Also, live fire military exercises in South Korea prompting North Korea now to launch its own drills, and both sides end up shooting at each other. This is a very dangerous situation. One miscalculation right now could trigger even worse. Stand by.


BLITZER: We get back to the search for Flight 370 in it a moment.

But first, tensions right now very high on the Korean peninsula as both North and South Korea engage in live fire military exercises. This is video of Operation Twin Dragon, an annual naval drill involving the United States, Australia and South Korea. At the same time, North Korea began its own drills and reportedly fired live shells into South Korean waters. And that prompted South Korea to fire right back. The White House condemned the North, saying, and I'm quoting now, "North Korea's actions are dangerous and provocative. Its continuous threats and provocations aggravate tensions and further its isolation. We remain steadfast in our commitment to the defense of our allies and remain in close coordination with both the Republic of Korea and Japan."

Victor Cha is the author of the book, "The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Future." He's joining us now from Washington, where he's senior advisor Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Victor, thanks very much for coming in. So what's going on here? Is this posturing by North Korea or is there something bigger, more sinister going on?

VICTOR CHA, KOREAN CHAIR, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC & INTL. STUDIES: Well, I think, you know, the first cut would be its posturing. They're trying to get attention. They want to try to push the U.S. back to talks.

But the second cut is that if we look for the past month, North Korea has been carrying out a series of short-range, long-range, anti-ship, artillery shell, all sorts of different tests. And there seems to be a rising crescendo in the activity for the past month. I count about 90 missiles, short-range and long-range missile tests and yesterday over 600 artillery shells.

BLITZER: Sometimes the North Koreans do these kinds of things just to get some attention, if you will. I remember when I was in Pyongyang back in December 2010, it was a very tense time, as well. It calmed down shortly thereafter, but it sometimes seems they just want some attention. Is that your reading?

CHA: Yes, I mean, it could be the case, Wolf, that they're looking for attention. You know, we're focused on Crimea and other sorts of issues.

The other way to look at it is, they could be learning from Crimea that while the United States is distracted, the North Koreans can try to change the playing field a little, maybe slant it in their direction by pushing the U.S. back to talks, you know, while the United States is focused on other issues.

BLITZER: What do you make of the fact that North Korea actually notified South Korea ahead of time it would begin its own drill near that so-called northern limit line?

CHA: Well, I mean, I think that's clearly a good thing. And the North Koreans and South Koreans are on a hair trigger with one another. So providing that sort of notification is good. Nevertheless, they were firing shells into South Korean waters. And by South Korean rules of military engagement, they are obligated to fire back. The thing I would worry about is if the North follows up, and if they kill somebody, then we're in a pretty bad situation because the South will have to retaliate in a meaningful way.

BLITZER: That's what happened back in 2010. North Korea fired at a South Korean war ship and actually hit and killed a whole bunch of South Korean sailors. And then they fired at a town in a disputed area along the border. The tensions were sky-high at that - at this time.

Let's not forget, Victor, you know this well, that there are, what, almost a million North Korean troops north of the DMZ, the demilitarized zone. Nearly a million South Korean troops, about 30,000 American soldiers along the DMZ. One miscalculation and that place could explode.

CHA: I think that's exactly right, Wolf. You put your finger on it. You know, these things may seem like small things, but they are on a hair trigger. And because of the array of forces on the peninsula, you can get an action-reaction dynamic that escalates fairly quickly. That's something we all want to avoid, of course.

BLITZER: Is Kim Jong-un, the new leader of North, is he really in charge or is some general really in charge?

CHA: I mean, from all the pictures we see, it looks as though he is in charge. He may have some trouble sort of consolidating his power, but he appears to be in charge. It also seems to be the case that he's much of more willing to take risks than his father. Again, these exercises coming in the middle of U.S. ROK annual scheduled military exercises is a bit of a departure from the past in the sense that the North has always complained before and maybe done something after the exercises, but they haven't done this large an array of military actions in the middle of these exercises.

BLITZER: Victor Cha with CSIS, the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Victor, thanks very much.

CHA: Always a pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: In Pakistan, the former president, Pervez Musharraf, arrived in court in a police convoy to answer charges of treason. He was formally charged with subverting the country's constitution and imposing, quote, "emergency rule." Musharraf pled not guilty, saying the country actually prospered during his nine years in office. If he is found guilty, he could face the death penalty.

The former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was convicted today in one of the largest corruption scandals in Israel's history. The bribery conviction should send Olmert to prison and definitely ends any hopes he had of returning to national politics. The charges stem from his time as mayor of Jerusalem before he became prime minister in 2006.

Malaysian officials released the transcript of the final words from the cockpit of Flight 370 today. I'll ask a pilot with 30 years of flying experience what he thinks of this revised language. Stay with us.