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THE SITUATION ROOM
Flight 370 Search Setback; Donald Sterling Fights Back
Aired May 28, 2014 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news: a stunning setback in the search for Malaysia Flight 370. Some officials are now rethinking one of the strongest clues. Has the massive operation been scouring the wrong part of the Indian Ocean this entire time?
Donald Sterling vows to fight, the disgraced Clippers owner denying NBA charges and promising a battle -- quote -- "to the bloody end" to keep his team even as a deadline nears for bids to buy it.
American suicide bomber. Insurgents say a U.S. man carried out a deadly attack in Syria for a group with ties to al Qaeda. Will other Americans fighting in the war bring home this kind of deadly tactic?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Let's get right to the breaking news, very disturbing new information about the search for Malaysia Flight 370.
What was believed to be the best hope of finding the missing plane is now being called a false hope. Some experts are now saying flatly that underwater signals picked up in the early weeks of the search were not from the plane's black boxes.
Our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh, has been working this story for us.
Rene, what are you finding out?
RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it all boils down to this. For seven-and-a-half weeks, we were searching or they were searching for something that was not there. The U.S. Navy is on camera and talking to CNN tonight. We're told the black boxes weren't in the search zone and most likely neither is the plane.
MARSH (voice-over): It was the most promising lead, and now we know it's false, new information the U.S. Navy has concluded these four underwater signals were not from the missing plane's black boxes.
(on camera): From the U.S. Navy standpoint, these sounds were most likely not from the black boxes?
MIKE DEAN, DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR SALVAGE AND DIVING, U.S. NAVY: Yes, I would have to say at this point based on all of the imagery data we have collected and looked at, if that block box were nearby, we would have picked it up.
MARSH: When detected in April, the pings boosted confidence the plane would be found.
ANGUS HOUSTON, CHIEF SEARCH COORDINATOR: The four signals previously acquired taken together constitute the most promising lead.
MARSH: But now the Navy says the sounds could have been from the search ship itself or other electronics.
DEAN: We may very well have been in the wrong place, but, again, at the end of 30 days, there was nothing else to listen for.
MARSH: After searching 329 square miles of ocean floor, the Bluefin- 21's mission is over. The search continues in August, when private companies take over. Meantime, a new potential lead. CNN has learned a sound that could have been the plane crashing was detected by underwater microphones.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our analysis is designed to detect nuclear events and earthquakes. And my understanding is, yes, that Curtin University are looking at the data specifically with a view to finding if there's any evidence of any impact from the Malaysian aircraft.
MARSH: The United Nations Nuclear Test Ban Organization has a network of is 11 hydrophone stations that pick up many sounds, even ice breaking thousands of miles away in Antarctica. But could it hear a plane hitting the water?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's possible, but the circumstances that would allow it would have to be very particular.
MARSH: Well, this is a long shot because the data from the signal detected appears to be inconsistent with other data about the position of the plane, but scientists continue to analyze it. This just goes to show they are following up on every possible lead. They tell us that they hope to have a decision as far as their findings go in the near future.
BLITZER: Stand by, Rene, because this is a very significant reporting that you have done.
Let's get some more now. Joining us, our aviation analyst Peter Goelz, the former managing director of the NTSB, and our aviation correspondent Richard Quest.
Peter, what do you make of this information, the U.S. Navy now suggesting those four pings were not from the Malaysian airliner?
PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, it's pretty devastating, but it's not surprising. Remember, the frequencies were wrong and we had that one outlier ping that was 20 miles away from the first two. But, still, this is a devastating announcement.
BLITZER: What do you think, Richard? Because it looks like, if, in fact, the U.S. Navy is right, those four pings were not from the so- called black boxes. They may have been looking in the wrong place.
RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And Peter has summed it up. It's devastating.
And let me remind you exactly why everybody was so optimistic that it was from it. As Rene pointed out in her report, Angus Houston said, described it as a very stable, distinct, clear signal not of natural origin, believe to be consistent with the description of a flight data recorder.
So it's not as if everyone was on a frolic of their own here. It was very much based on what was being said, but there's no question, if they now, as they sound, do not believe that this is the black box recorder, then they have to go back to the only bit of information that they still believe in, which is the Inmarsat handshakes and the track of the aircraft and where it went down, or where they say it went down, and that means a much bigger, much more detailed and a much longer search.
BLITZER: Rene, I remember at the time there were suggestions that maybe those pings weren't from these black boxes, but were really from some other device, including from the ship itself. But they seemed to reject that at the time.
MARSH: That's right.
And, you know, when you look back at things now, it's almost as if we wanted it so badly, or at least the Australians wanted it so badly to be from the black boxes, because we knew that the frequency wasn't the exact frequency that it needed to be. It was slightly off. And the reasoning behind that was, oh, well perhaps it's the pressure of it being so deep down in the water and on the ocean floor.
And then we also knew that they weren't able to pick up the detections again. They picked it up once and they couldn't reacquire it. Well, if it was from the black boxes, they should have been able to reacquire it. So, it was almost as if we wanted to or they wanted to believe that it was truly from the black boxes and they thought of reasons as to why maybe we saw these irregularities, but essentially now we're hearing that, you know, it doesn't seem like they were from the black boxes at all.
BLITZER: And, Peter, think of the false hope this gave. First of all, there's a lot of money, and time, and effort that was simply wasted if in fact those pings were not from the black boxes.
GOELZ: Well, this means the investigation is going to go on for many months, probably years. The swathe of ocean they're going to have to search is tremendous.
And, you know, it goes back to the sensitivity of the devices. I remember when we searched for TWA 800, which was not at all as difficult as this one, we had to clear the area of all vessels. We had to make sure that the search vessels, everything was shut down. I'm not sure that they weren't in a rush.
BLITZER: Who do you -- Richard, I'm -- you know, people are going to look back and start making some -- get involved in the blame game, if you will. Who's going to be blamed for this blunder?
QUEST: Oh, everybody, ourselves included, no doubt. Everybody's going to be blamed, Australians for wanting it to be, the acoustic center in Australia, the searchers.
But I think it's really unfair to blame or to heap too much blame on the Australians. They were racing -- let's have a moment of sobriety here. They were racing against a clock. They had a 30-day window. The area was believed to be the right area by the endurance of the aircraft, by where the handshakes said it should be.
So everything pointed to being in that particular area, and then they suddenly start to get the pings. Now, perhaps with hindsight, we all (INAUDIBLE) should have been more skeptical, but, at the time, that was the best they had to go with.
And they were working their damndest going up and down the ocean in that area because they had nowhere else to search, Wolf. They were searching there because that's where the evidence pointed they should be.
BLITZER: U.S. Navy now on the record that those pings were not from the black boxes. All right, guys, thanks very much. Rene, thanks for your reporting. Peter Goelz, Richard Quest, thanks to you guys as well.
Up next, more breaking news: Donald Sterling responding defensively, defiantly to the NBA, vowing to fight to keep the L.A. Clippers.
Plus, we have chilling new details of an alleged American suicide bomber. We're getting more information about the deadly attack and why U.S. officials are so concerned.
BLITZER: There's breaking news in the scandal rocking the NBA, the embattled L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling now vowing to fight to keep the team. The league wants to force him to sell the team because of the racist remarks he made.
CNN's now obtained Sterling's new response to the NBA in which he denies the charges against him.
Our own Brian Todd is working the story for us.
What's the latest, Brian? What are you finding out?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this 26-page document from Donald Sterling is combative and he cites examples of other bad behavior in the NBA, hinting strongly he's going to air some other dirty laundry if the league goes through with its attempt to throw him out.
And we have learned Donald Sterling has made a dramatic turnaround and apparently no longer wants his estranged wife to deal with the sale of the L.A. Clippers.
TODD (voice-over): A stunning reversal. Just days after agreeing to let his estranged wife, Shelly, handle the sale of the L.A. Clippers, Donald Sterling is apparently disavowing that deal, his lawyer telling ESPN that he's now pledging instead to fight to the bloody end to keep the team.
DAVID CORNWELL, SPORTS ATTORNEY: The back and forth with his wife is frankly insane. It's not becoming of an NBA owner, and it is a blemish on the NBA itself. This back and forth is silly.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Donald, do you think it's fair?
TODD: Apparently not silly to Donald Sterling. The crux of it is a letter obtained by CNN's Rachel Nichols from a source sent by a Sterling attorney to the NBA last week. It says the 80-year-old owner agrees to the sale of his interest in the Clippers and authorizes his estranged wife, Rochelle Sterling, to negotiate with the National Basketball Association regarding all issues in connection with a sale.
But, today,a different lawyer for Donald Sterling told CNN in an e- mail it's now Donald Sterling's view that the letter does not authorize Shelly Sterling to finalize a sale of the team without Donald's permission, setting up yet another he said/she said for the Sterlings.
CORNWELL: The idea he can rescind it just because he doesn't want to do it anymore says more about him as a person than it does about his ability to rescind this agreement.
TODD: Tonight, Donald Sterling is fighting back hard against the sale on another front in a blistering 26-page denial of the NBA's charges against him, saying he should retain ownership of the Clippers and that a jealous rant to a lover never intended to be published cannot offend the NBA rules.
Sterling cites others in the NBA being given lesser punishments than him for speech-related conduct, including Lakers star Kobe Bryant being caught on TV calling a referee an expletive and an anti-gay slur and another NBA owner supporting a ban on gay marriage and criticizing people with AIDS.
BRADLEY SHEAR, SPORTS ATTORNEY: The tone of the document and the response was that, look, if this is something that would destroy my life, a situation, it could happen to any one of us, so, therefore, we need to make sure that all of us understand that.
TODD: Neither that other owner nor Kobe Bryant or the Lakers would comment on Donald Sterling's references to them in his document.
The NBA in this release we just got tells us tonight its advisory and finance committee met today and reviewed the responses that Shelly and Donald Sterling's lawyers submitted contesting the attempt to oust them. And, Wolf, the NBA says the board of governors is still going to meet on June 3 and vote to try to take away the team from the Sterlings.
BLITZER: And on top of this, Shelly Sterling still is going forward with her efforts to sell the team?
TODD: Apparently so. A source familiar with the situation tells us Shelly Sterling and her advisers were looking to get the first round of formal bids for the team either today or tomorrow. It could happen very soon.
BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much.
Let's dig a little bit deeper with our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, CNN's Rachel Nichols -- she's the host of "UNGUARDED WITH RACHEL NICHOLS" -- and our CNN anchor Don Lemon.
Rachel, first to you. We heard Brian talk about this letter. Can you clear up how much sway it actually has?
RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: All right. Here's the situation with the letter.
The letter gave Shelly Sterling some currency. It gave her some authority. It allowed her to go to the Bank of America and have them set up the bid process, which, by the way, is complicated and not something they would have done just on her say-so. It also allowed all these billionaires floating around who want the Clippers to say, hey, she has some authority to vet these bids and take some offers on the team.
But here's what it doesn't do. It doesn't give her the authority to sell the team. We have been saying on the show over and over again the Clippers are not private property. The Clippers are a membership in an association. It is the NBA who grants anybody the authority to say who are going to be members in that association.
It also grants the NBA the authority to say who is the controlling owner. Donald Sterling is the controlling owner. And that is not something he can just sign away in a letter. No matter how valid that letter is, he can't sign away controlling ownership to her. The NBA board of governors would have to approve her as the controlling owner before she would be allowed to sell anything on her own.
So, the bottom line here is, Donald Sterling remains the controlling owner of the team. He would have to sign off on any ownership transfer no matter what that letter says. And from right now with what we're seeing from his filing to the NBA and what his lawyers say, he wouldn't sign off on that transfer. So, Shelly can take bids, she can solicit, see what is out there, which might be a smart move for the Sterlings to kind of see what they could get. But they can't actually sell the team unless Donald Sterling physically signs off on it. And, hey, these guys change their story every day. If I were the NBA, I would also want some sort of assurance that the NBA isn't going to get sued by the Sterlings down the road. All of that would be necessary for -- quote -- "a voluntary sale."
And, by the way, the NBA, Wolf, still would love a voluntary sale. They don't want to be forcing one of their owners out. But they would need all of that to come together for a voluntary sale before they would back off on this June 3 taking the team away from them.
BLITZER: All right, Jeffrey, what do you say on the legal part of this, because you have said this letter suggests there's a two-track strategy?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Right.
I think these two approaches are less contradictory than they seem. Shelly is the good cop. Shelly says, I want to sell the team, let's make a deal. Don -- Don is the bad cop. He says, no way I'm going to sell.
Shelly can go to a prospective buyer and say, well, you know, I need another $100 million to get Don, because Don is impossible, Don is terrible, he's crazy.
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Please don't call him Don. Can you just call him Donald, please? Just, you know, it makes me a little weird.
TOOBIN: I apologize. I never confuse the two of you, actually, but if you want that, that's OK.
TOOBIN: But the -- all of it is designed, I think, to get a higher price. That's what they want, because this thing is going to be sold before June 3 or after June 3.
BLITZER: What do you think, Don?
LEMON: I -- Wolf, you know, I think they're working in cahoots, but I'm not -- quite honestly, I'm confused.
I have letters from every single day, it seems like, between the Sterlings, between Donald Sterling, between Shelly Sterling, the NBA. And so I'm like, where are we now? I don't believe -- I think that they are working in cahoots and they're working in tandem. And I don't exactly know what their strategy is. Jeffrey may be right that it's all about getting the highest bid. But, frankly, I'm a little bit confused as to what is going on. Are they going to sell? Are they not going to sell? And I think the best explanation that we have gotten for the viewers is just what Rachel said, which many of us have been trying to explain to people, saying, how can you just take someone's personal property away because of a conversation they had? It was illegally -- it's not personal property.
It is a membership into a club, like belonging to a country club. If you do something wrong in that country club, regardless of how much you have paid to get in, they can kick you out. They have the right to do it.
BLITZER: And I think all indications are, Rachel, that next week, June 3, the NBA board of governors, all the owners are going to meet -- 29, 29 other owners. If you get 23 vote to expel Donald Sterling, it's over.
NICHOLS: First, I love Don Lemon's use of the word cahoots. I feel like I'm in a '40s crime caper here. This is good stuff.
NICHOLS: But I have got to tell you, what's happening next here is, yes, they will have this June 3 board of governors hearing. What's very interesting in looking at this document that Brian Todd was referencing, this is a speech on Donald Sterling's part to the other owners.
You notice at the end of Brian's report he was talking about, hey, this is a private conversation. This could happen to any one of you. In fact, he specifically mentions Rich DeVos, the owner of the Orlando Magic, saying, hey, Rich, you have some made statements that are going to be controversial.
This is definitely the tack that we expected the Sterlings to take, basically buddying up to their other owners to say, hey, this could happen to you.
LEMON: Right. Yes.
NICHOLS: But here's the catch about that and here's what we expect the NBA to say. The NBA is going to say, first of all, this is no longer a private conversation. It has been broadcast around the world. And what may or may not stand up in a court of law has nothing to do with this.
NICHOLS: This actually in real life has been broadcast anywhere. And it has -- no, no, no, it has real-life implications, real-life damage, sponsors pulling out, players threatening to boycott.
So, that's point one. And point two of all of this is this idea that you could say something and have these opinions and remain an NBA owner. The NBA has been clear and Adam Silver has been very clear, you cannot be a bigot and be an owner of an NBA team, to have membership of this club. We won't allow it.
BLITZER: Don, you are going to have more on this later tonight, when you anchor our special, 10:00 p.m. Eastern, CNN TONIGHT, later tonight, because we have run out of time right now.
Guys, as usual, thanks very much.
LEMON: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: When we come back, we're following some more breaking news. We have more details of a suicide bomb attack allegedly carried out by an American. And now there's growing concern he was not the only one.
BLITZER: There's breaking news out of Syria, where insurgents with ties to al Qaeda say a deadly suicide bombing at a government checkpoint was carried out by an American man.
CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom is working the story for us.
What are you finding out, Mohammed?
MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a lot of new, disturbing details that we have been getting just in the last few minutes.
Insurgents in Syria, many of them with links to al Qaeda, claiming that an American citizen has now become the first American suicide bomber in Syria, that he carried out a suicide operation on Sunday. You see video there. This is a still that's been making the round on jihadist forums. This allegedly is a picture of Abu Hurayra, the American.
There you see him holding a cat. There's a video that's also been posted on many jihadist forums that alleges to show the operation as it happened. It was a massive explosion, a truck that allegedly was packed with at least 17 tons of explosives. Here, you're seeing another portion of the video where these insurgents are packing artillery shells into one of the trucks that we believe was part of this operation that targeted a government checkpoint in Idlib, Syria, this past Sunday.
Later on in the video, you see one of the trucks approaching the checkpoint. Then a massive explosion occurs. There you go. There's the video, a huge shockwave.
Now, American officials, one law enforcement official telling CNN that this was a U.S. person. They're not going as far as to call this person a U.S. citizen. They're saying that possibly it was a U.S. resident. They're saying they're not going to be able to know until they can conduct DNA tests. But frankly seeing the size of that explosion, it's very unlikely there will be remains that they will be able to test and actually confirm that this is who the jihadists are saying it is -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Very disturbing information. Mohammed, thanks very much for that report.
We will leave you on a very, very different note.
One of the most remarkable and acclaimed women in America has died. Maya Angelou was a poet, a mother, a writer, an actress, and an activist, among many other things. She arose from a brutal childhood that included sexual abuse to become a literary force who counted among her friends Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah Winfrey, President Bill Clinton, who asked her to compose and read a poem for his first inauguration.
President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom back in 2011, the nation's highest civilian honor. She died this morning at her home in North Carolina. Maya Angelou was 86 years old.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Now let's step into the CROSSFIRE with Stephanie Cutter and Newt Gingrich.