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Bluefin-21 Nears End of Mission; Ferry Death Toll Rising; Obama: North Korea "Dangerous"

Aired April 24, 2014 - 04:00   ET


POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: an underwater search for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 nearly complete. So far, though, nothing has been found. What happened next as search crews turn up empty-handed?

This as Malaysian investigators reveal they have finished their report on the vanished jetliner, but they're not telling anyone what they know yet. Why?

Live team coverage straight ahead.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: The death toll rising in the South Korean ferry disaster. Divers pulling more bodies from the sunken ship, this as the investigation into what went wrong turns to the ferry's billionaire owner. We're live with the very latest.

HARLOW: And breaking news overnight. President Obama revealing what the U.S. may do if North Korea continues its nuclear program. We'll take you live to Tokyo, rather, with what he said overnight.

BERMAN: We're taking you live everywhere.

HARLOW: Everywhere this morning. We are, indeed.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Poppy Harlow.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. It is Thursday, April 24th. It's 4:00 a.m. in the East.A

And we do begin with the latest on the search for Flight 370 and the somewhat disappointing news to officials overnight, that the latest lead, that piece of metal that washed ashore on the Australian coast, this piece of metal was not from the jet, which, of course, has now been missing for more than six weeks. This news comes as an unmanned sub is now very close to finishing its scan of the ocean floor, and so far, it, too, has found nothing.

So, let's get the latest this morning from Erin McLaughlin live in Perth.

Erin, what can you tell us this morning?

ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John. Well, I think officials are disappointed, but not exactly surprised that that object of interest that washed up on shore on the coast of western Australia, about 190 miles from here, did not turn out to be connected to MH370. That determination made after a thorough analysis by the Australian Transportation and Safety Bureau, photographs of the object. They're not exactly saying what it is, though it would seem to be just another piece of sea junk that turned up onshore, the kind of sea junk that really has muddied the waters, so to speak, for this ongoing visual search.

Every day, around a dozen planes and a dozen vessels go out on to those waters searching for any signs of MH370. And so far, found nothing but garbage. Australian officials even saying that at this point, it looks very, very unlikely that they will find any sign of MH370 from that visual search. So, the focus really now on the Bluefin-21.

As of this morning, we understand from the Joint Agency Coordination Center, that it was on its 12th mission, having scoured about 90 percent of that narrowed search area, so far finding no signs of the missing plane, but authorities still looking. No timetable as of yet as to when it's going to finish that up, no concrete timetable. In fact, we're hearing conflicting things, some Australian officials saying it could be wrapped up in a matter of days. The Australian defense minister yesterday saying it could be a matter of weeks -- John.

BERMAN: What about that conflicting time frame right there, Erin? Because you've been reporting this, you know, for days now. There are those who are saying it could be today, tomorrow when it's done, it's 90 percent complete with the search, then just yesterday telling us that it could be two more weeks. What's the basis of this conflict?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, we've reached out to the Department of Defense here in Australia. No comment so far on those quotes. David Johnston telling "The Associated Press" that it could be as much as two weeks, that they want to be very thorough in their search efforts. But if you look at it, they were finished with about 80 percent of the search area yesterday, finished with 90 percent today, so they managed to cover about 10 percent of that more narrowed search area in just a matter of a day, so seems like they're on track to finish in the next few days, but, again, they're trying to get more clarity from officials.

BERMAN: They seem to be closing in. And this area is an area of some of the greatest depth in this search, Erin?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, that's what some analysts have been saying, but so far, authorities not exactly clear on why it could take them longer, potentially, to search the last remaining portion of that more narrowed search area, which, again, is the most likely place, they say based on the information they have, that they're going to find that black box.

So, the defense minister quoted yesterday as saying they want to treat it very carefully. It's very important that they either rule in or rule out that particular search area -- John. BERMAN: Erin McLaughlin live in Perth, Australia, where the Bluefin- 21 now in its 12th search under water. Thanks, Erin.

HARLOW: Meanwhile, there are new demands this morning that Malaysian authorities make clear exactly what they know about why Flight 370 disappeared. The transport minister says a preliminary report on that has been completed. Families are calling on authorities to release it now and let the world see everything that is known.

Sumnima Udas is live in Kuala Lumpur with that part of the story.

It is interesting, because they got an extension beyond that typical 30 days that one is given to write up a report on a tragedy like this. They got an extension, but still, they're not releasing it to the public.

SUMNINA UDAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. They got an extension because of the complexity of this particular incident. Now, they are required to submit a written report within 30 days. That's according to the International Civil Aviation Organization. But they're also allowed to mark that report as confidential, according to ICAO, and that is a bit unusual, given past incidents, for example, Air France, which crashed a few years ago. They didn't keep that report confidential, but Malaysia has opted to do that.

Why they have to do that is still a bit unclear, but for the families of those passengers on board MH370, this is just another example of how Malaysia is perhaps not being transparent enough. They keep saying they feel like authorities keep hiding something from them, and this for them is yet another example of that -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Have they said, Sumnima, if they're going to eventually make it public? Is this just temporary?

UDAS: You know, that question was asked at a press conference here yesterday, and they said they haven't decided on that yet. According to ICAO rules, the preliminary report can be made confidential, but the final report has to be made public.

HARLOW: There is an internal investigation team that has now been set up, separate from the Malaysian authorities' investigation team, but an interesting, important caveat here, is that they, this new internal investigation team, cannot do or isn't doing any criminal investigation. So, what is their goal? What is their purpose?

UDAS: The main purpose of this international investigation team is really to evaluate and investigate what exactly happened with MH370 so something like this doesn't happen again. And authorities keep saying the purpose is not really to portion blame, but to really make sure they know everything so that this kind of incident doesn't happen again. The criminal aspects of the investigation will still be handled by the police in Malaysia.

Now, this team will be made up of international and national experts. They'll be recruiting those experts according to international standards. They say they'll be looking into the flight recorder data, the structural aspects of the plane and also the psychology of those on board, particularly the pilots and the crew members.

So, this is a long-term investigation. But the main purpose really, and the significance, is to show that Malaysia is being transparent so that nobody questions the credibility of this investigation.

HARLOW: All right, appreciate the reporting for us this morning. Thank you, Sumnima.

BERMAN: Now to our other major story in South Korea, where divers are making slow progress working their way through the capsized ferry, looking for victims and any possible survivors, though hope is fading at this point.

This morning, more than 130 people remain missing. Divers have now retrieved nearly 170 bodies from aboard. So many of them high school students.

And today, classes resume at their school south of Seoul. That has to be so difficult. This as investigators are now digging into the history of the owner of the vessel, reportedly, reclusive billionaire with a complicated past.

Our Nic Robertson is live in Jindo in South Korea with the latest on this.

Good morning, Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, John. Well, the ship's -- the company's owner, if you will, has had his home premises and offices searched, along with, we understand, about 20 other senior officials within the company. The police have investigated their properties as well. He hasn't been charged yet. Certainly, he is a character seen here as something of a recluse, a faceless millionaire is how some people refer to him here. He hasn't been charged, 11 members of the ship's crew have. That search that the divers are making focusing on the fourth floor today.

Also today, we're hearing anger from some of the families. They're frustrated. They don't think that the authorities are doing quite enough. They're not able to answer quite enough of the families' questions. The government is putting up a minister today to try to placate, if you will, and answer the families' outstanding questions. The question for many people is this still a rescue or is it just a recovery mission at the moment, because there were no air pockets found on the ship? And for the divers, as well something --

BERMAN: We seem to have lost Nic Robertson in Jindo in South Korea.

Nic reporting on the fact that at this point, no air pockets have been found in the search of this vessel, meaning it's almost impossible at this point, more than a week after this disaster, that there are any survivors, which makes this painful for the families, as the classmates of those students who died head back to school in Seoul. We'll be following that all day.

HARLOW: They are still treating it as a rescue operation, the government not calling it a recovery operation at this point. They want to be very cautious to do everything certainly that they can. We'll get back to Nic as soon as we can.

Meantime, breaking news this morning, President Obama revealing what the United States plans to do if the country keeps building its nuclear program, talking about North Korea there. We'll bring you comments from the president overnight.

BERMAN: Then, really interesting news. New this morning: a major blow for electronic cigarettes -- the FDA issuing a ban for some smokers. That's coming up next.


BERMAN: Happening right now in Japan: President Obama preparing for an event really like no other, a formal state dinner with the emperor. This comes after meetings focused on the issues facing that region in Asia, including the newest provocation from North Korea, possibly planning for another nuclear test.

White House correspondent Michelle Kosinski also preparing for the state dinner live in Tokyo.

So, Michelle, what did the president have to say about North Korea today?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He used words like provocative, irresponsible and dangerous, calling it the most isolated country in the world, in part because of U.S. actions to isolate it. And in fact, President Obama urged China to participate in that, to put on more pressure to try to do something about the near constant provocation coming from North Korea.

Here's part of what he said.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We can continue to apply more and more pressure on North Korea so that at some juncture, they end up taking a different course. In the meantime, they're dangerous, and we have to make sure that we are guarding against any provocations getting out of hand. We are not surprised when they engage in irresponsible behavior. That's been their pattern for the last couple of decades. And what we have to do is to continue to try to contain and mitigate the potential damage that this behavior has, as we continue to put pressure on them so that we can see a shift.


KOSINSKI: That's the biggest security issue facing South Korea, which is the next stop on this trip for the president, but it's interesting hearing him use very similar language in describing the situation with North Korea as he uses in describing the situation with Russia in Ukraine, the use of sanctions and putting constant pressure, looking for a diplomatic solution but still considering that country to be dangerous, and in both cases, not really seeing this method work. What the administration has constantly said is that it's a long-term goal, that over time, these nations become more and more and isolated and it hurts their own people. But whether we'll see progress any time soon on either of these frightening situations, we don't know. That remains to be seen, John.

BERMAN: It requires patience. It is a hard sell for the president, but it is the case he makes repeatedly.

Michelle Kosinski in Tokyo, thanks so much.

HARLOW: New details this morning about the teen who stowed away in a plane as wheel well on a flight from California to Hawaii. The 15- year-old is Somali and had only recently moved with his father and stepmother to Santa Clarita, California. Now, his father tells "Voice of America" his son was having trouble in school and talked constantly about returning to Africa. Authorities say getting back to Somalia was the teen's goal when he scaled a fence and then hid inside that wheel well. He is still in the hospital this morning being treated for injuries that he suffered at 38,000 feet. Doctors say it is just a miracle that he survived.

BERMAN: Some nonviolent felons could receive clemency, this under a new Justice Department proposal aimed at reducing the high costs and overcrowding in prisons. Those who have served at least 10 years in a federal jail and have clean jail records are eligible to apply for early release. Officials say they expect many of the applicants will be drug offenders sentenced under tough guidelines. The mandatory sentencing guidelines that are no longer in effect.

HARLOW: Meantime, two Penn State alumni are planning to bring Joe Paterno back to state college, in a sense, now that the town has approved their proposal to put a $300,000 life-sized sculpture of the former football coach right downtown. In a move that divided the school and residents, a statue of Paterno was removed from campus two years ago following the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

BERMAN: Georgia gun owners are handling a new bill signed into law that greatly expands where residents can carry licensed concealed firearms, including some bars and school zones, and in some cases, churches. Critics nicknamed it the "guns everywhere bill", calling it extremism in action. Supporters say it provides important constitutional protections for the state's law-abiding gun owners.

HARLOW: Now on hold, the decision in Washington state to ban construction in landslide-prone areas. The Snohomish County Council, which is considering that ban after a devastating slide in the town of Oso that left at least 41 people dead, but there are concerns the policy might stop families from rebuilding homes that were damaged by the slide. The council plans to take up that proposal once again next week.

BERMAN: Breaking overnight: for the first time ever, the FDA today will impose new rules on electronic cigarettes. This is a big deal with a growing trend. This will control how they're sold and to whom. The rules will require that makers seek FDA approval for their products and would ban their sale to anyone under 18 years old. Manufacturers will still be able to market products online, and they will be able to sell flavored versions. These are two very controversial things they do. Sales of e-cigarettes in the U.S. are expected to top $2 billion this year.

HARLOW: It is really interesting, because there's the argument that they are a gateway, some say, to getting people to smoke, and then there are other people I know that smoke them say this helped me quit. Very controversial.

BERMAN: But up until today, it's been the Wild West in terms of regulation.

HARLOW: Absolutely, now they're regulating. We've been waiting to hear from the FDA would do on that.

Meantime, it seems all Internet data is not created equal. The FCC is announcing a proposal that would allow companies to pay Internet providers for faster lanes to distribute content. Now, this could be a major blow for this net neutrality.

What is that? That is an idea that users should all have equal access to any legal content on the web. Consumer groups warn of rising prices and diminished competition. The rules will likely be voted on by the end of the year.

BERMAN: It's really interesting. It sounds wonky, the net neutrality and the e-cigarette thing, these are two issues that will have a direct effect on your life. It may sound wonky here. So pay attention, folks.

All right. Twenty minutes after the hour.

Crisis in Ukraine, it is escalating as the United States and Russia blame each other for violent protests that have left the country really on the brink of conflict. So, is there any solution in sight? We're live in Kiev with the latest.


BERMAN: New developments this morning in Ukraine, where the government says a group of pro-Russian militants attacked a military unit overnight, apparently looking for weapons. That as the government is claiming success in its efforts to oust pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country.

The reality on the ground may be very different, though. This is a very sticky, dicey situation with an American journalist now being held hostage.

And new accusations from Russia that the U.S. is orchestrating the regime change in Ukraine, calling it a "color revolution," that coming from Sergey Lavrov overnight.

I want to go straight to Frederik Pleitgen. He is live in Kiev this morning.

What is the latest you can tell us on this situation? It is becoming increasingly confusing, complex, and finger-pointing between the United States, Russia and Ukraine somewhere in the middle.


You're absolutely right. The situation is very murky. However, one of the things that we can certainly say is that things have become more violent and there certainly is escalation, rather than de- escalation. We had that incident in the town of Mariupol, which is on that southeastern coast of Ukraine, where the Ukrainian side says that the city hall there was taken over by its forces.

Again, however, our team in the east of Ukraine was able to reach one of the Russian separatists who is in that building, and he says it's still being held by the pro-Russian separatists. So, very unclear what's going on there.

Then, you have that attack on a military base where apparently several people were wounded. There was an attack on a pro-Russian checkpoint, apparently, as well, where there were also casualties and a Ukrainian military helicopter was fired on, apparently, also sustained some bullet holes but was able to return to its base.

So, at this point in time, it is a very murky situation. The Ukrainian government says that its anti-terror operation there is ongoing. However, it seems as though the tensions are ratcheting up. Both sides blaming each other and Ukrainians certainly say they believe that the agreement that was reached in Geneva is one that appears at this point to be null and void, Poppy.

HARLOW: Right. And this as just hours ago, Sergey Lavrov said in an interview that, basically, the United States is using Ukraine as a, quote, "pawn in a geopolitical game." The State Department firing back at those comments.

And now, you have hundreds of U.S. troops landing in Poland and the surrounding countries. I mean, it is -- the developments here. Give us a sense of the feeling on the ground there now that you have U.S. troops, not in Ukraine but nearby.

PLEITGEN: Yes, you're absolutely right. It's very significant and the situation here remains tense. The U.S. troops that are being deployed, it's only 600, and if you look at the broader picture, it seems a pretty lopsided thing. You have 600 U.S. troops on the one hand and 40,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine.

However, that deployment is still very significant and it's hard to overstate how significant it is. You look at nations like Poland that are on Ukraine's border and on Russia's border. You look at nations like Estonia. They've for years been calling for more U.S. presence on the ground and for them, every single American they believe is a deterrent against Russia. It also does a lot to bolster the government here in Kiev. It shows that the U.S. is very serious about remaining engaged. The U.S. is not going to back down in this situation, so that troop deployment, while small, is still one that is very significant.

What also is very significant, Poppy, is that it's going to be an ongoing thing. It's not like the troops will conduct an exercise and go back. There will be a rotational basis, where troops are going to go in and out. So, it is something that shows a longer term commitment.

Nevertheless, as we've been saying, right now the situation remains tense. Those comments by Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, are ones that really fueled the situation, essentially blaming the U.S. for what's been going on here in Ukraine, and there certainly have been allegations also thrown the other direction, the U.S. saying that the Russians so far have not made good on their commitment to de- escalate the situation, Poppy.

HARLOW: All sides flexing their muscles. We will continue to follow this.

Appreciate the reporting this morning. Frederik, thank you.

BERMAN: Twenty-eight minutes after the hour.

Happening right now, the underwater search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, it is nearly complete and nothing has been found. What they are saying this morning about a new strategy. Live team coverage, coming up next.