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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Mystery of Flight 370; President Obama Meets With Ukrainian Prime Minister; Malaysian Officials Retracting, Clarifying Statements; Could FAA Warming Be Key to Plane Mystery?

Aired March 12, 2014 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have been very firm in saying that we will stand with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in ensuring that that territorial integrity and sovereignty is maintained.

I think we all recognize that there are historic ties between Russia and Ukraine, and I think the prime minister would be the first one to acknowledge that.

And I think the prime minister and the current government in Kiev has recognized and has communicated directly to the Russian Federation their desire to try to manage through this process diplomatically.

But what the prime minister, I think has, rightly insisted on is, is that they cannot have a country outside of Ukraine dictate to them how they should arrange their affairs, and that there is a constitutional process in place and a set of elections that they can move forward on that in fact could lead to different arrangements over time with the Crimean region.

But that is not something that can be done with the barrel of a gun pointed at you. And so Secretary Kerry is in communications with the Russian government and has offered to try to explore, with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov, a diplomatic solution to this crisis.

We are in close communication with the Ukrainian government in terms of how we might proceed going forward. But we will continue to say to the Russian government that, if it continues on the path that it is on, then not only us, but the international community, the European Union, and others will be forced to apply a cost to Russia's violations of international law and its encroachments on Ukraine.

There's another path available, and we hope that President Putin is willing to seize that path. But if he does not, I am very confident that the international community will stand strongly behind the Ukrainian government in preserving its unity and its territorial integrity.

Let me just make two final points. Obviously, because of the political turmoil, the economic situation in the Ukraine has become more challenging, not less. And that's why I'm very proud that, not only as critical members of the International Monetary Fund, the IMF, we are working with the prime minister and his team in a package that could help to institute necessary reforms inside of the Ukraine, but also help to stabilize the situation, so that people feel confident that in their daily lives they can meet the basic necessities.

We're also asking Congress to act promptly to deliver on an aid package, including a $1 billion loan guarantee, that can help smooth the path for reform inside of Ukraine and give the prime minister and his government capacity to do what they need to do, as they are also organizing an election process.

So I would just ask both Democrats and Republicans, who I know are unified in their support of Ukraine, to move quickly to give us the support that we need, so that we can give the Ukrainian people the support that they need.

And then finally, Mr. Prime Minister, I would ask that you deliver a message on behalf of the American people to all the Ukrainian people, and that is that we admire their courage. We appreciate their aspirations. The interests of the United States are solely in making sure that the people of Ukraine are able to determine their own destiny.

That is something that, here in the United States, we believe in deeply. I know it's something that you believe in deeply as well. And you can rest assured that you will have our strong support as you move forward during these difficult times.

Thank you.

ARSENIY YATSENYUK, UKRAINIAN PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Mr. President.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: So, President Obama meeting with the interim Ukrainian prime minister in the Oval Office just moments ago.

The prime minister said Ukraine would not give up the Crimean Peninsula to Russia.

CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta is live at the White House with the latest.

Jim, we're hearing that the Pentagon is considering beefing up the U.S. military presence in the region. But what can the president really offer the interim prime minister of Ukraine right now in terms of pushing Putin out of Crimea?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, that is the big question at this point.

And while you did hear the president urge Congress to go ahead and get busy and pass some financial assistance to Ukraine that this administration has pledge to that prime minister, Yatsenyuk, the diplomatic options are really what they're looking at, at this point.

Secretary of State John Kerry is headed to London to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. And I did talk to a senior administration official this afternoon, Jake, who said that Secretary Kerry would not be going over there unless the Russians were showing some willingness to engage on the diplomatic path forward.

And you recall earlier this week the State Department saying that the secretary would not make such a trip unless the Russians were taking concrete steps in that direction. And so this administration official was telling me, Jake, that they do feel like that's the case.

But I want to tell you, Jake, about something that was really striking that we heard from the Ukrainian prime minister just a few moments ago. He came out to the stakeout position that you're very familiar with over here at the White House, Jake, and I asked him just before he left whether or not he believes President Putin would back down.

And he said very sharply that President Putin, if he's allowed to take Crimea, he predicted he would try to take other parts of Ukraine. So the prime minister, Yatsenyuk, who is going to be speaking at the Atlantic Council in about -- in a few minutes from now, before meeting with House Speaker John Boehner, is making a very plain and candid assessment of where he thinks things are right now in Ukraine and in Crimea, if events keep moving forward with this referendum and Russia's anticipated or at least possible annexation of that peninsula -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you so much.

ACOSTA: You bet.

TAPPER: Turning now to our lead story, our world lead.

If it's possible, those investigating the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 seem even more baffled today than they did yesterday. There is still no sign of the plane or the 239 people who were on board. Keep in mind that, even when Air France Flight 447 disappeared in 2009, pieces of wreckage were first seen within a day or so and were confirmed within five days, even though it did take two years to find the plane itself.

This time, nothing. Not a trace. Malaysian authorities today more than doubled the search area. It now covers 27,000 square miles, in part because the Malaysians have had trouble agreeing on where the plane last was and when. Generally speaking, this far into the investigation, you would hope to see a search grid narrowed, not expanded.

A senior Malaysian air force official Tuesday told CNN that a military radar tracked the plane to the extreme west coast of the country, indicating that perhaps it had turned around and flew about an hour in the wrong direction. But then the prime minister's office said no evidence showed the plane flew back across land.

Today, in yet another contradiction and correction, the Malaysians now say the radar records do show a plane, though not necessarily Flight 370, but a plane crossed back over and out of the country around that time.

Despite conflicting information from officials, Malaysia's defense minister defended his country's handling of the crisis today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DATUK SERI HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, MALAYSIAN DEFENSE MINISTER: This is unprecedented, what we're going through. Coordinating so many countries together is not something that is easy. We're looking at so many vessels and aircraft, so many countries to coordinate, and a vast area for us to search. And each time that passes, I fear that the search-and-rescue becomes just a search.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Not to project too much here, but the families of these missing passengers probably don't want to hear how tough the searchers have it while looking for their vanished loved ones.

We want to really make clear just how wide an area this search is covering and how conflicting some of the information is at this point.

Tom Foreman has been mapping out this 27,000-square-mile search zone and he's in the virtual room.

Tom, where exactly are they looking?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Jake.

The trend line of this search is going in exactly the wrong direction. Let me bring in the map and explain what I'm talking about. We know where the plane took off. We know where it was heading, and we know that it vanished without a trace. But that's about all we know, and it has become very, very confused as each period of hours has passed since that time, partially because of this, because there have been many reports of people saying, I saw something or I heard something or maybe I saw something, and that has led the authorities to start looking in many far-flung places.

The result? Look at what has happened to the search areas. They started off in one general location. Now it has spread across land to other bodies of water. And there's no sign of when it's necessarily going to stop. That's because they're trying to respond to every possibility out there.

Yes, they have a lot of resources, some 42 or more different ships out there, around 39 aircraft, a dozen different countries helping, but no matter how many resources you have, you have got to go block by block through all these search areas and see if you can spot anything.

And that takes a tremendous amount of time, especially when you consider ocean currents can move things. So, after you have searched an area, you may have to go back again just to make sure.

The tremendous scope here does not seem to represent the magnitude of effort to find this plane, as much as it represents the confusion over where to look. And that, Jake, is why so many of the families are frustrated and frankly why some of the countries involved in the search seem to be getting frustrated too -- Jake. TAPPER: Baffling.

Tom Foreman, thank you.

Coming up next: an FAA warning just months ago that the Boeing 777 could break into pieces midair. So was the Malaysia Airlines plane checked before Flight 370? Now the head of the company admits he does not know.

Plus, a troubling new broader search area has some experts questioning if Malaysian authorities have a handle on this investigation. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

We're going to continue our world lead and day five of the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The Malaysian officials are under fire for how they've been giving information to the public on the latest of this investigation. Have they've been handling the search correctly? And if not, can anything be done about it?

Joining me now is Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB. He's now the senior vice president at O'Neill & Associates.

Mr. Goelz, thanks so much for being here.

PETER GOELZ, FORMER NTSB MANAGING DIRECTOR: Thank you.

TAPPER: Let's run down this list now. So, there's been misinformation and corrections from the Malaysian authorities on whether wreckage had been spotted, on where the last radar detection of the plane was, on whether passengers checked in but didn't board the plane, on how the men who were using stolen passports, who they were, their description.

At best -- at best, they're bad at communication. At worst they are incompetent.

Have you ever seen it this bad?

GOELZ: This is the worst I've seen it in recent time, and there's a reason for this. You know, anytime there's an accident, an international one like this, there's chaos during the first 24, 36 hours. That's why there's a treaty that everyone signs, the Malaysians have signed. It sets out the procedures and the process.

How do you take on an investigation of this magnitude? How do you involve the other countries that have an interest in this? How do you control rumors and release factual information?

To this day, the Malaysians have not followed that treaty. The Americans are not being involved in the way in which they should as an accredited representative. They are there under the rights of an international treaty that not had the kind of access they should have. And that's the reason the radar data could have been mis-analyzed.

TAPPER: Do you think that another country -- even though it was Malaysia Airlines, do you think that another country should now be in charge of this investigation?

GOELZ: Well, all Malaysia Airlines -- all Malaysia has to do is invoke the treaty and involve the interested parties, which includes China and the United States and the structure is there that will help get to some factual information.

TAPPER: Why don't they? Why don't they invoke the treaty?

GOELZ: I think there's -- I think there's a great deal of national pride involved in the operations of a national airline. And when something like this happens, particularly with the overlay that perhaps something nefarious was going on in the cockpit, boy, the military steps in and says, we're going to control this. Civil aviation takes a back seat to it. Even the prime minister's office apparently is not in control.

TAPPER: You saw something similar like this that when Egypt Air, the pilot committed suicide with all the passengers on board.

GOELZ: It was a very delicate situation, but in that case, the Egyptians actually delegated their authority to the United States. Now, they grew to be very unhappy with that once the investigation progressed because the NTSB determined that the co-pilot flew the plane into the water. But they delegated the authority to the NTSB. We had the resources to get it done. And the NTSB called the shots as they saw them.

TAPPER: It's got to be excruciating for the poor family members of the passengers. There was an editorial in a Chinese-run state newspaper that said, quote, "The information Malaysia released to the public is very chaotic. Is the Malaysian military hiding anything on purpose?", unquote.

It seems the majority of these passengers were Chinese. Do you expect the Chinese to get a little more aggressive when it comes to the investigation? That's a state-run newspaper.

GOELZ: Right.

TAPPER: That's the Chinese government saying -- Malaysia, you're not impressing us.

GOELZ: It would not surprise me if the Chinese foreign ministry called the Malaysian ambassador and said, listen, this has got to stop. We have over 200 citizens that died on it -- potentially died on this plane, and we want to know what happened. Get it under control.

TAPPER: Let's turn to the fact that the search grid has now expanded to 27,000 square miles. Is it even possible to search an area that large? GOELZ: It's preposterous. You know, we -- TWA Flight 800 crashed nine miles off the coast of Long Island in 200 feet of water. We saw it go down. The wreckage was on fire the next morning. It took us three days to find that wreckage.

It is extraordinarily hard to find wreckage in open ocean. And -- I mean, a need until a haystack easy assignment compared to this.

TAPPER: There are several reports, different sightings, alleged sightings. How do you know which ones to take seriously as an investigator?

GOELZ: Well, that's where the involvement of the other countries and their investigators come in. The team that the NTSB sent over and I'm sure the team that Boeing sent over, are all experienced investigators. They've seen cases like this before. They can give the advice that says, listen, you know, you want to look at this but this is not serious.

For instance the radar track showing the plane going back over the land, that was a primary return. It's very hard to track those and it's impossible to identify who it was. There's no reason why it couldn't have been another plane.

TAPPER: Let's talk about that radar blip. How much credibility do you give that report? Yesterday, it seemed like this was the new information, then the prime minister's office said it wasn't. Now, we're being told it was an airplane but not necessarily Flight 370. What do you make of all this?

GOELZ: I think you've got to bring in as wide a team of experts to study the radar, to study as many different radar returns, tracks that you can get, and then make a decision. You're going to say, well, there was a track that intersected but they have no idea whether it was the missing aircraft or not.

TAPPER: Do you think they're going to find this plane?

GOELZ: Aviation can't stand a vacuum. Boeing and the rest of the aviation community are not going to allow a cloud to be over an aircraft as ubiquitous as the 777. They are going to keep after this until they find it and solve it.

TAPPER: And, lastly, sir, I know we want to avoid speculation, but you did work for the NTSB. What do you think is the most plausible theory at this point based on the information we have?

GOELZ: Well, the only thing you can do is you start to narrow the options. And frankly, right now, the options that are, you know, highest on the list, you've got to look inside the cockpit. Something happened to turn off that transponder and we don't know why. It could have been the flight crew. It could have been someone from outside the flight deck that entered the cockpit.

I think that's got to be near the top.

TAPPER: But you think, based on what we know, human had something to do with this.

GOELZ: You can't eliminate that. It's got to be near the top.

TAPPER: Peter Goelz, formerly of the NTSB -- thank you so much for your expertise. We appreciate it.

Coming up next, the type of plane that disappeared, the FAA raised a very serious alarm about it long before Flight 370 vanished. Could that hold the key to learning what happened?

Plus, young parents on a much-needed vacation, teenage sweethearts traveling back after visiting family. Just some of the passengers on board Flight 370. Their stories, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. More on our world lead.

The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the Boeing 777 that vanished has long been considered one of the safest types of airliners around. And yet, we've learned just weeks ago the Federal Aviation Administration approved an order asking that hundreds of 777s be checked for cracks and corrosion issues. The concern that if these problems were to go undetected, they could possibly lead to decompression problems and, quote, "a loss of structural integrity of a plane," unquote. Meaning essentially that an aircraft could break up midair.

Joining me is Michael Goldfarb. He's the FAA's former chief of staff.

Michael, thanks so much for joining us.

Can you explain what prompted this directive?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB, FORMER FAA CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, first of all, just to go back for a second on the speculation, you know, at the end of the day, we normally find that the speculation is wrong and it's a variety of things. I think right now everybody's guessing because of the absolute mystery of how this could have disappeared off radar, how we have no clues at all where is it is. Having said that --

TAPPER: But we've never had a mystery like this in recent decades.

GOLDFARB: No, we haven't. Even Air France, the aircraft recording system back to Air France on day one indicated through data that there was something wrong with that plane.

TAPPER: Right. But we saw wreckage within a day.

GOLDFARB: Right, right. So, we also have to rule out that it's only in the ocean. We don't know it's in the ocean. It could be over the jungle. It could be over land, so that's another issue.

But back to the FAA --

TAPPER: You think it's possible -- GOLDFARB: Absolutely.

TAPPER: -- possible that it landed somewhere?

GOLDFARB: Well, I don't know about that. I don't believe that it landed safely.

TAPPER: But possible that it is on land.

GOLDFARB: Possible it crashed on land, yes, absolutely. There's no reason to rule any of that out. The radar feed from the military is highly unreliable as Peter Goelz, your last guest, talked about. There's no identification of the aircraft itself. It could have been a helicopter, a bird. It could have been a piece of debris.

Let's go back to the FAA.

TAPPER: OK.

GOLDFARB: If you read those A.D.s you wouldn't fly, because they scare you, but they're technical term. In fact, that airworthiness directive is as run-of-the-mill as a recall on a car. So, the airplane has issues all the time. So, one plane found a 12-inch propagated crack near the satcom antenna on a Boeing 777 and the FAA looked at that and decided an alert went out to all airlines to basically fix that at their next scheduled repair.

Had that been an emergency repair, had the FAA felt in fact that there was a safety flight critical issue, those planes would have been grounded. The 787 last year that was grounded because of the lithium battery concern, it would have grounded the fleet.

They didn't ground the fleet. So, that's just one point that leads us into the investigation. And finally on that, Malaysia Air, we don't know if they could fly with that airworthiness directive. Did they make the fix, the February fix that was landed, did they fix that problem or not. So, lots of lots of questions, but it puts back in physical and mechanical into the mix more than some others had suggested.

TAPPER: So, I understand and I respect the notion of putting this into context and perspective. We don't want to make this a bigger deal, this airworthiness directive that these 777s might suffer from corrosion and there could be a loss of structural integrity of the plane. It doesn't necessarily mean anything beyond a recall. But as we've seen with General Motors, sometimes these warnings come and mean -- 13 people were killed as a result of these cars, these flaws.

GOLDFARB: Absolutely. Absolutely.

I believe it's top of the agenda in the discussion between NTSB, Boeing, and the Malaysian authorities and FAA. So, clearly, this is on the table, but what I'm telling you is that when you look at the language, you say, oh my God, the plane's going to fall out of the sky. Not necessarily so. It could be routine or it could be a problem. If Malaysia didn't comply, we do have a problem. It may have nothing to do with this crash.

TAPPER: In light of what's happened, could the FAA -- should the FAA be taking a more hard line approach into looking into this corrosion and crash issue.