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Malaysian Flight Crashes in Ukraine

Aired July 17, 2014 - 14:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We are just now at the top of the hour at 2:00 p.m. on the East Coast of the United States. And if you're just joining us, I just want to bring you up to date on all that has happened.

We are anticipating comments from President Obama to be made, probably in about 10 minutes or so. We anticipate him to be discussing this situation. We know calls have already taken place between Russia and the White House between Vladimir Putin and President Obama. Whether or not the president will talk about the details of that or not, there's still a lot we don't know. But the plane left Amsterdam, heading for Kuala Lumpur, 280 people on board, 15 crew members on board, as well, a total of 295 souls on board. No information on what has happened to them, though it is simply, frankly, hard to imagine anybody surviving something like this.

Thirty-three thousand feet or so, 32,000 feet, the plane was flying at when it was believed to have been shot out of the sky according to Ukrainian officials. At least they say a rocket was fired, a missile was fired that hit the aircraft. Questions remain about who fired it, what their intent was, whether it was a mistake, whether they knew it was a civilian airliner. Two Ukrainian military airlines had been brought -- planes have been brought down in previous days. One of them a Antonof (ph) transport plane. So there's still a lot of questions at this hour.

I'm here with Richard Quest, our Fareed Zakaria, also Lieutenant Colonel Rick Franconia. Also with us is Peter Goelz, aviation analyst and former NTSB managing director. Also CNN aviation analyst Miles O'Brien.

Peter, I want to start with you. Just in terms of getting access to the crash site, how important and what sort of a time frame is it crucial that investigators get access to that site in?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, it's critical that they get there as soon as possible for a couple reasons. One is for the investigation. But most importantly, for the humanitarian side, for the recovery of victims. And I have to tell you, Anderson, the idea that the Ukrainians are going to put the stake on this that they're going to investigate this accident is going to be unacceptable to a large part of the world. There has to be an independent, impartial investigation of this tragedy. And the traditional ICAO guidelines allowing Ukraine to step forward is not going to be accepted. We need an independent investigation.

COOPER: You're saying that because of the international makeup of those on board, which we -- assuming given the flight path -

GOELZ: That's right.

COOPER: We believe there are a large number of most likely families, people going on vacation. Even among the wreckage, we saw a guide book for Bali and Lamback (ph), a beautiful chain of islands in Indonesia, that perhaps someone going -- fly to Kuala Lumpur would have been heading to onward once they landed in KL (ph).

GOELZ: Yes. Family members are going to demand an impartial investigation. We'll remember when KAL went down, the Russians avoided for years any acknowledgment of their involvement in the ordering of the shoot down. I don't believe the Ukrainians are going to have the stature to be able to conduct what's going to be viewed by the world as an impartial investigation given the political situation there. And the family members deserve an impartial investigation.

COOPER: And, Peter, I mean you investigated TWA Flight 800. And we talked about this a little bit in the last hour though, getting that black box, how critical is that? Obviously in other crash it's critical. How critical was it in the TWA flight?

GOELZ: Well, its - well, it was critical to get it because it told us -- it confirmed that this catastrophic and horrific event, it told us when it occurred and where it occurred. It did not give us much more information from that because it was -- the black box was pretty rudimentary by today's standards. And in this case, I would say the -- if the plane came apart, and in a dramatic fashion, it may not give us much information. But it will tell us when and where it happened. And the truth will probably be in the metal. And, unfortunately, in the condition of the victims. They may show damage from outside missile blast.

COOPER: Again, echoing the importance of getting to the site as quickly as possible, being able to recover.

GOELZ: Absolutely.

COOPER: The -- those victims and also the parts of the aircraft itself.

GOELZ: And, Anderson, the investigation, getting there, conducting the investigation, it has to be done without a hint of political gain on the part of the investigators.

COOPER: There's also the other aspect in this, which is NATO countries, other countries in the region, as our Barbara Starr was reporting in the last hour, all looking at their radar information, their satellite information, to try to see if they can pinpoint where -- whatever missile system was used, where it was, when exactly the device was launched and exactly what occurred. Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is joining us in London.


hearing from the Ukraine prime minister, just a bit more detail about the sort of investigation they want to see happen. They've already said, he says, formed their own governmental commission, but they are appealing for an international investigation, not only of this, but also of the downing of an illusion 76. That's a large passenger cargo plane on the 14th of July near that same area, and also of an AN-26 cargo plane on the 16th of July too. They want all three incidents internationally investigated together, of course, part of their broader narrative. This is something which the separatists may well be behind here.

Now, you pointed out this Buk missile system, which many people are talking about. It is not something we have seen much of on social media. The separatists are very key often to parade their weaponry. We've seen lots of amateur video of columns (ph) of their armor moving around. And they mostly have light artillery that's mobile, some ground (ph) rocket launcher systems it seemed as well. We haven't seen this.

There is, on social media, and I say it's deeply unreliable at times, but there is a tweet purportedly claiming to have been from the Donetsk's People's Republic, that's the separatists, in which they say they got their hands on one of these Buk systems, but that has since been deleted. It's been found in some caches on the Internet too. So there will be a lot of confusion as to who potentially had what.

But it's tricky to see the logic test necessarily of giving a device quite so sophisticated with a devastating range if it did come from Russian sources like Senator McCain hinted, giving that to a bunch of separatist who your relations with are slightly frayed. It's going to be extraordinarily tricky to work out quite what happened too.

And I should point out, Anderson, one little thing I feel slightly uncomfortable with, when you see the plane come down in the amateur video we've been showing, there's a substantial explosion. And if we're seeing the version of events being held out (ph) by Ukrainian officials, it had a six-mile journey from having been hit, the point of impact, right down to the ground. Interesting to work out quite what could have exploded when it still hit the impact of the ground there, what fuel could still have been in any wreckage there. So a lot of questions still to be answered. But certainly Prime Minister Yatsenyuk moving forward in Ukraine to make sure international bodies, like the International Organization for -- sorry, the International Civilian Air Authority Organization come (ph) involved and try and assist - and try and assist in this, Anderson.

COOPER: Richard Quest joining us, along with Fareed Zakaria and Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona.

You -- it doesn't surprise you that there would be (INAUDIBLE).

QUEST: Oh, no, no, no because what could have happened and the - it's -- you don't need to blow the aircraft out of the sky for it to fall out of the sky. This missile only had to hit the aircraft in some part, a wing, a tail plane or whatever. COOPER: In fact, as Peter Goelz -- as Peter Goelz said, it really -

when an aircraft is hit like this, it, in his words, unzips and falls apart.

QUEST: All the fasteners around will start to fall apart. That's what they saw in TWA 800 and all the others. So it's essentially the plane could have come out of the air in one piece, but extremely distressed because obviously it has been hit by a missile. And what you're seeing there is the fuel explosion.

COOPER: Fareed.

FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, CNN'S "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": You know, what this reminds us is of the enormous kind of power of asymmetry now and asymmetrical warfare, that you have these weapons systems that even 10 years ago you would not have had. That a few people, a handful of people, not particularly well-trained, could take out a commercial airplane flying at 35,000 feet in the sky. The fact that you have radar that can do this - we've democratized violence in a sense and made it accessible.

But what we haven't done is created systems and structures to control or regulate and so that's why you can have something like this happen. Some group. All it needed was to be given this weaponry, easy to operate, and yet can cause devastating damage.

COOPER: Then you look at other areas of the world where this has the potential. I mean you look at ISIS in, you know, fighting in Iraq right now, getting all this weaponry which the U.S. left behind and the U.S. helped train the Iraqis on, the idea that a group like that could get a missile system or something.

ZAKARIA: And that - and in that case it wouldn't be a mistake. This appears to have been a rogue operation gone terribly awry. But in those cases, those groups are often trying to kill civilians.

COOPER: David Soucie, a safety analyst and an accident investigator, also author of "Why Planes Crash" joins us from Denver.

David, we haven't talked to you thus far. What are your thoughts on the information that's come out so far?

DAVID SOUCIE, CNN SAFETY ANALYST: Well, Anderson, in every investigation I've ever run, the most difficult thing is to not to jump to the most common and most accepted answer right away. There's other things. If you do that, you miss what's right in front of your face. And if you look at that video, the first thing you see is the impact and the explosion. If this were a missile, do you think that the aircraft would have come down with no smoke, no trail, nothing at all and just simply hit the air - hit the ground and explode on the ground? I don't think so. There would be evidence of that in the air and the aircraft would have followed it. You would have been able to follow that down to that impact point. The evidence is right in front of us. I'm very hesitant to jump to the missile idea at this point.

COOPER: But, David, I want to come back to you on that topic, but President Obama is starting to speak. Let's listen in.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is wonderful to be back in Delaware. Before I begin, obviously the world is watching reports of a downed passenger jet near the Russia/Ukraine border. And it looks like it may be a terrible tragedy. Right now we're working to determine whether there were American citizens on board. That is our first priority. And I have directed my national security team to stay in close contact with the Ukrainian government. The United States will offer any assistance we can to help determine what happened and why. And as a country, our thoughts and prayers are with all the families of the passengers, wherever they call home.

I want to thank Jeremy for that introduction. Give Jeremy a big round of applause. It is great to be in the state that gave us Joe Biden.

COOPER: The president is speaking in Wilmington, Delaware. This was, obviously, a pre-planned event. We wanted to just hear his comments on the crash again. His -- him saying that they are trying to determine whether or not there were any Americans on board this flight.

Again, which gets to the point, Richard Quest that you and I have been talking about over the last several hours about the international nature, no doubt, of the passengers on this flight. We won't have a manifest yet at this point, nor would we release names until obviously they are given to family members, but certainly you have people coming from all around Europe heading to points in Asia for vacation.

QUEST: We believe 23 Americans, according to what we're hearing, four French (INAUDIBLE) and then, of course, from Amsterdam. And that doesn't include those who were inbound to Europe on their summer vacation from southeast Asia and from that part of the world. So this is going to have a truly global footprint in terms of those who were on board. And China, of course. Let's not forget, China - I would expect - I would expect there would have been an element -- a number of Chinese people on board.

COOPER: Before we went to President Obama, we heard from David Soucie saying - and, David, we should point out, has led many investigations into crashes saying, don't jump to conclusions about it being actually a missile that you don't actually see a plane coming down in that video. Could be other explanations for that, the quality of the video, the distance of the video. What do you make of it, Richard?

QUEST: I think David makes a very good point, that you don't jump to conclusions. And that the most -- you know, every investigation we've ever known has always turned into something different than what we started with. And we're hearing a missile, because that's what we're being told. It's really significant that we make this point. We haven't come up with this ourselves. That's what the Ukrainians are saying. That is what people -- the defense minister. That is what we're hearing, the Buk missile. So that is where this is coming from. But is there a possibility of other options? Absolutely, of course there are.

COOPER: We're getting a statement, I believe, from the State Department. Let's listen to that. JEN PSAKI, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: We have seen the same reports

you have. At this point, we do not have any confirmed information about casualties, the cause or additional details. Our thoughts and prayers go out to those on board, their families and loved ones. We're closely monitoring the situation. The secretary is, of course, aware of these reports and we're seeking additional information.

Our embassy in Kiev is also in close contact with the Ukrainian authorities on this incident. But at this point, those are all the details that we have.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jen, so you have seen the reports apparently coming from the manifest that there were 23 U.S. citizens on board. Even if you don't know if that's actually correct, can you say whether you have that information from the manifest, that apparently there were 23 U.S. passengers aboard?

PSAKI: We've seen the public reports. I spoke to our team right before I came out here. We don't have any additional details at this point on American citizens. We're looking to, of course, obtain that information. As soon as we have it available, we'll make it available to all of you.

COOPER: For the State Department speaking there.

Again, we are getting pieces of information as we have been on the air for the last several hours. And this is the way it always happens, little pieces of information that are just starting to build the larger picture of what has occurred here.

The key questions we still don't know, exactly what sort of device or what it was that brought this plane down, who was in control. If it was, in fact, a missile, who was in control of it. What their motivation was and what their knowledge was when they launched a device. Were they aware it was a passenger jet? At this point, there's hard to see any strategic reason why any of the groups involved in that region would aim to try to bring down a civilian passenger airline, though they have brought down a Ukrainian military aircraft, two other Ukrainian military aircraft over the last several days. Again, there's still a lot we don't know.

Our Jim Sciutto, chief national security correspondent, is joining us in Washington.

Jim, let's just kind of review, if we could, the information that we have now that you have been getting. You've been talking to Ukrainian authorities a lot. You've been talking to folks from NATO. Lay out the broad picture, kind of the broad brush for those who are just joining us.

SCIUTTO: Well, I'll tell you, the perspective of Ukrainian officials -- and it is good that we add a caveat here, because there are political elements involved in this conflict that would lead Ukrainian officials to immediately point the finger at pro-Russian separatists or indeed Russia. But they are indeed doing that. And they're taking it out of the theoretical category and saying explicitly that they believe that this plane was shot down. And, in fact, with specificity, saying that they believe it was a Russian-made Buk, b-u-k, missile system that was used to take it down at altitude at about 33,000 feet.

And in speaking with them, they made the point to me that two weeks ago, pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine captured just such a missile system inside what was a Ukrainian base and at the time bragged about it. There were Russian television reports showing pictures and video of that captured weapon system at the time. And in addition to that, they cite as evidence previous strikes against Ukrainian planes over the last several weeks, half a dozen or so. Just two this week. On Monday, a Russian military - oh, sorry, a Ukrainian military transport plane and then earlier this morning, a Ukrainian military jet shot down, which Ukrainian officials say were shot down by pro-Russian separatists using weapons supplied by Russia.

And this is a very important point, Anderson, because when Ukrainian officials point the finger at pro-Russian separatists inside Ukraine, they are at the same time pointing the finger at Russia, because they say, and U.S. officials believe this to be true as well, that Russia is arming those separatists with very capable weapons, including weapons we knew to this point shoulder-fired missiles. But this would be a step up, because this is a launcher-fired missile, much bigger with a much higher range, that is the Buk system that Ukrainian officials accuse of being behind this crash.

So from the Ukrainian perspective, they're very clear now on who is behind this. But, of course, as David Soucie and others have said, it's early in this investigation for it. We can say that's definitely true.

But let me just share a quote with you I shared with you earlier. I want to share it again. This coming from the Ukrainian foreign minister. When asked, who's behind this? He said, quote, "it is clear as day. It's the separatists. They have been hunting our planes for weeks." And that's - that is a fact. In fact, Ukrainian separatists have - pro-Russian separatists have shot down a number of Ukrainian planes over the last several weeks. And indeed earlier today at around the time that this plane disappeared, one of these separatist leaders - and we've seen this tweet -- claimed to have shot down what he believed to be - to have been a Ukrainian military plane, and saying, you know, we warned you, stay out of our skies. It's around the same time that this plane disappeared and that's another piece of evidence that Ukrainian officials are citing to me as a sign that it is pro- Russian separatists who were behind taking down this Malaysian passenger jet. So that's their perspective, Anderson.

COOPER: And our Nick Paton Walsh is getting some more information on the separatists. He joins us now from London.


WALSH: I've just been speaking to a man called (INAUDIBLE), who's on the security council, as they call it, of the Donetsk People's Republic. That's the separatists. A Russian citizen himself though, but he's been giving me their perspective on this. He says right now they have separatists prosecutors, from what they recall (ph) the Donetsk People's Republic, at the scene investigating. They're appealing to the Ukrainians to help them do this investigation and to the international community to assist as well. But, he says, and this is his speculation, no evidence, but they are concerned about the potential for a rocket attack to potentially destroying the investigation site imminently. And that's something he's put out there. Obviously I said there's no evidence from that from any other sources at all. He calls this instance a provocation by the Ukrainian side here, suggesting that perhaps they did this themselves (INAUDIBLE). Obviously, international condemnation of the separatists.

He says himself that they do not have any weapons system in their possession that's capable of doing this. The most sophisticated they have are the range of about three kilometers in total. So repeating what we'd seen on social media before. But goes on to say, actually, he says he's heading there himself, imminently, and will be there in minutes now to try and work out exactly what did occur here. So a bid by the separatists, as they always do, to appear a functioning government. We don't know who these prosecutors, who they've appointed, necessarily are, if they have any expertise at all in aviation disaster investigation. But this is obviously their bid to try and show that they have a plan of their own and blame this squarely at the Ukrainian authorities.


COOPER: But, obviously, I mean, they have no experience in investigating something like this.

WALSH: Absolutely. No. I mean they've barely been functional themselves as -- as you might even call a self-declared government for any more than a couple of months. So, I mean, routine services for the people they purport to govern as a main (ph) (INAUDIBLE) sophisticated (INAUDIBLE).

COOPER: And, Nick, I'm sorry - Nick, I'm sorry, Ukraine's president is speaking and I just want to bring that to our viewers now live.

We lost the feed, obviously. We'll try to get that - get that back. Let's go back with -- to Nick Paton Walsh in London.

As we were talking about, I mean the idea of separatists investigating this crash site obviously to the families of all those on board -- to the families, the 295 people on board this plane, probably from all around the world, that is absolutely not going to be acceptable that some sort of international body with experience investigating a crash would not be able to get access to this site.

WALSH: I think the issue for the separatists, if they wish to have any sense of responsibility in this and for the international community they are calling for help from would be to allow international investigators to there. But we're talking about a phenomenally dangerous place, themselves separatists, warning they think that area might be rocketed in hours ahead.

I should give it a context here. You know this civil war, although out of the spotlight because of the Middle East recently, has been raging absolutely violently in the past few weeks. And the separatists are very much, I think it's fair to say, on the run. They've been moved out of their strong hold Slaviansk (ph), pushed back to the main cities of Donetsk (INAUDIBLE). They're fracturing, some say, in leadership. They still have many militants. They have increasingly heavy weaponry turning up in their hands. People asking where's that coming from? The finger from Ukraine pointing certainly towards Russia.

But increasingly, when I was there two months ago, you weren't talking about regular exchanges of artillery between these two sides. It was small arms clashes. Now, the currency of that war is heavy weaponry. So when we see something like this occur, of course all suspicions are going to ask immediately what kind of weapons have gone into whose hands in an area like that. You know, you don't have to say how terrifying, frankly, it is when you're flying a civilian passenger jet out of that particular area when a few days earlier I'd seen in the mayor's office, self-declared mayor of Slaviansk (ph), (INAUDIBLE) missile man pads, as they're know, which can, if fired, actually take any plane, helicopter out of the sky. So a lot of fears about weapon proliferation now in that area, and quite who let those weapons out in the first place towards separatist hands.


COOPER: We -- we're going to take a short break. When we come back, Ukraine's president, we will bring you his comments. We want to also talk back to David Soucie about his thoughts and perhaps there was not a missile involved, why he may believe that. A lot more to learn. Let's take a short break. We'll be right back.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Prime minister, hold on. Prime minister. Well, I've expressed my condolences and I asked (INAUDIBLE) to get involved in investigating this terrorist act - action. I would like to draw the attention that we do not call it an incident of catastrophe but terrorist action.


COOPER: That's Ukraine's president's comments made just a short time ago. When he uses the term terrorists, by the way, he's referring to separatists in eastern Ukraine, that Ukrainian forces have been battling, some with greater success, I should point out, in the last several weeks than they have been over the last several months.

Our Jill Dougherty, who's a Moscow bureau chief for CNN, is joining us now on the phone.

Jill, obviously a lot we still don't know at this moment. But again, the pieces are starting to come together somewhat.

JILL DOUGHERTY, FORMER CNN MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF (via telephone): Oh they are. But I -- that said, I think you really have to bear in mind that this area where that plane went down is an area of very severe conflict. There is a lot of confusion about who had what kind of weapons.

I've been monitoring the Russian media, and they are back and forth with all sorts of theories, conspiracy theories really, about who might have had some type of interest in shooting down a plane. In fact, one of them, of course, this is not confirmed at all, it's based on an unnamed source, but talking about the fact that it might have been an attempt to shoot down President Putin's plane, who was returning from an international flight. But in any case, that, of course, is not confirmed.

But I think you really have to bear in mind that there are a lot of gray areas that aren't coming out at this point. Let's talk about the Ukrainian military. They, as we've seen over the past few months, are not in good shape. Were they -- let's say that they did have these weapons, which obviously they do. They deny that they use them. But could it be that in the heat of battle, they might have thought that that plane was not a passenger plane? That it was for some ulterior motive, Russians, et cetera? There are all sorts of possibilities.

And I think, as some people on CNN recently have been noting, it's very important that they get -- that the investigators get in there and get the black boxes, begin to investigate as soon as possible. There are reports in the Russian media that the black boxes already have been found. Where -- if that's true, where will they be sent? There are all sorts of issues like that that have to be resolved very carefully and completely dispassionately, without any political overtures or any political concept of who might benefit from that decision as to who did it.

COOPER: It's an important point you make, and the idea, frankly, that even Ukrainian authorities in Kiev or certainly - or Russian authorities would be the ones analyzing black box information or even analyzing the crash site. That is something that probably up to certainly family members of those on board this plane, that would be unacceptable given the political nature of all this and given the hostilities that we have seen over the last three-and-a-half months between these two nations, let alone with these separatists. So there's a lot still obviously to be determined.

And as Peter Goelz was talking about, it is vital to try to get access to this crash site as quickly as possible by some sort of international team, international investigators, people that actually have experience on the ground. It's not clear really that Ukrainian authorities or certainly we know separatist authorities do not have experience in any kind of crash investigation like this.

I'm joined by our Richard Quest here onset.

Still, I mean, again, a lot we don't know.

QUEST: Right. Can I just say, I've just - I've just received an e-mail and a text from a pilot in Europe who basically said it could have been me today. Flew from Moscow -- I've had two or three of these from pilots now saying, flew from Moscow or flew over that particular area, which was not part of the restricted zone by either (INAUDIBLE) or the European Aviation Safety (ph) or the FAA. So pilots out there are now starting to say, hang on, why were we flying in this part of the world, which is clearly where the gravity of danger was greater than we realized?