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THE SITUATION ROOM

Officials: Pings Suggest Plane Flew 4+ Hours; White House Search May Expand To Indian Ocean; Russian Military Drills Near Ukraine Border

Aired March 13, 2014 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Jake, thanks very much. Happening now, breaking news, the mystery of flight 370 as they sit through conflicting information. Investigators have new reason to believe the missing airliner could have flown for several hours after the last radar reading was received.

New details about the signals from the airliner apparently received by satellites. We're taking a closer look at how planes transmit such data and how it can help the search.

And the U.S. military is expanding its search towards the Indian Ocean and adding a powerful new asset to that hunt. We'll get an update from a navy ship commander deployed in the region.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: We have new information in the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370. Here are the latest developments. U.S. officials say investigators have pings, pings suggesting the missing airliner may have flown for several hours after the last radar reading was taken. The hunt for the missing airliner is expanding to the west. The U.S. navy may send a destroyer to the strait, leading to the vast Indian Ocean where the White House now says a new search area may be open.

During a search of clouded in confusion with false leads turning into dead ends, anxious families grow even more desperate. We're taking a closer look at the role of the Malaysian government of giving out conflicting accounts and holding back critical information. We have the kind of coverage only CNN can deliver. Our correspondents are standing by along with our top analysts and our experts. Let's begin with our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She has new information -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a senior U.S. official tells me that they are working with the Malaysians now, that there are so-called pings of information, signals that they believe very strongly came from this aircraft as it was flying west away from Malaysia. These pings are now being analyzed, and it is what in great part leading to the expansion of the search area into the vast Indian Ocean. The official says the pings coordinate, correlate, if you will, with the type of aircraft and the type of engines that were, in fact, this airplane. So, this is a very strong clue. None of it, Wolf, is 100 percent. This has been a very confusing story. The information garbled, and at times, not accurate. U.S. officials are still being very cautious. But, behind the scenes, there is an expectation that the U.S. navy will move its destroyer, the "USS Kidd" from where it has been searching off Kuala Lumpur, off Malaysia, due west through Strait of Malacca on into the Indian Ocean.

This is a vast area to search, but they believe now that they have some information at least that indicates this plane may have flown up to four or five hours out into the Indian Ocean and that may provide the final answer about what happened to this flight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: If it flew four or five hours after the transponders stopped transmitting signals back to ground station, it could have gone a lot further than the Indian Ocean, right?

STARR: They have calculated at this point the range of the aircraft based on the fuel that they thought would have been left from the last time they had communication with it. There is also -- so that's part of why they're looking there. But there are also some indications, Wolf, that the satellite that picked up the pings were able to -- you know, they've been able to do some calculations about where all of this came from.

So, the clues are adding up, but it is far from certain and far from the final answer -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr reporting for us from the Pentagon, thank you.

With a possibility that the plane flew for hours, maybe four, maybe five hours longer than thought, the vast Indian Ocean may now become the new focus for an expanded search. Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He's working this part of the story -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, speaking to U.S. officials involved in this investigation, it's my understanding that these pings, Barbara was talking about, are one important new clue that they're now connecting to other clues they already had that leads them now into direction of the Indian Ocean, the other key clue.

That radar signature that we've been reporting for the last couple of days that showed the plane go north, take this turn, and then head out towards the Indian Ocean, they add to that the sense of the range Barbara mentioned as well. The amount of fuel it had in its tanks when it lost contact could take it about this far. What that creates, then, is a search area that's bigger because that plane, of course, could have turned at any point along this way.

They're not sure it creates a very big search area. And when you compare this search area to the search area we were considering before over here, much shallower waters, much busier space here, lots of ships going around, much deeper waters, much wider, fewer ships going around. That's going to be a challenge going forward. You remember when we talked about the Air France crash in 2009, it took place in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

It took them two years to find the fuselage of that airplane looking under the water, a very deep water with submersibles, but they knew in general where that plane went down. Here, they're working on less information. So, you can imagine a very long search operation here. And, you know, as they're doing that, imagine those deep waters as well. This is going to be what they're going to be looking and listening for, that flight data recorder. We always call it the black box. It's actually an orange box. We have one right here, but the bigger that search area is, the deeper the water is, the harder it is to find.

BLITZER: Yes. We've also got some emergency locators. We're going to show our viewers what that is all about plus the transponder and the switch the transponder. Standby for a moment. I want to introduce the former NTSB managing director, Peter Goelz, who's with us, also the former FBI assistant director, CNN law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes.

Peter, let's talk about this new development and it's a huge development now because if in fact this plane flew four or five hours after the transponders stopped sending signals to ground stations, it opens up a whole new (INAUDIBLE), where could this plane be?

PETER GOELZ, FORMER NTSB MANAGING DIRECTOR: Yes. I mean, you're absolutely right, Wolf. And there's two things. One, it's good news a little bit, because it's showing that the agencies and the Malaysian government are cooperating more, that people are looking at the radar data together. They're looking at the satellite data together. They're making decisions that our government and their government can agree on.

That's a plus. But as you said, this area is tremendously large. This is an impossible task. They've got to narrow it down more.

BLITZER: And you believe, correct me if I'm wrong, that as a result of this new development, the likelihood that there was some catastrophic mechanical failure as opposed to some human getting involved and doing this, the likelihood of mechanical failure has reduced, human involvement has grown.

GOELZ: That's right. It diminished. Once they confirmed that the -- that the plane did take a left turn, that it was flying on a path out over the Indian Ocean, the mechanical structural challenges reduced, human increased.

BLITZER: So, where does that leave the investigation now, Tom? You've been involved in these kinds of investigations in the past. And I know there's relatively good cooperation with the authorities and Malaysia, but there are a lot of questions out there.

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, Wolf, there's excellent cooperation between the royal Malaysian police force and the FBI. There's no question about that. But, what this means is that even from the beginning, they would have been looking at the human element in this and that did it get hijacked or did the pilots deliberately fly there?

But the new information tends to confirm the speculation that came from the source of the air force general or whoever he was from the Malaysian Air Force that that plane did make that turn. It did go west toward the Indian Ocean or farther, could go as far as India or Pakistan if it stayed on that course.

BLITZER: It could have reached India or Pakistan. It had enough fuel to do that.

FUENTES: It had enough fuel to do that. So, what that says is somebody was flying that plane in that direction on purpose. Whether it'd be a hijacker or the pilots themselves, someone was in control of that plane while it stayed in the air and kept flying --

BLITZER: Somebody took that -- this is the transponder and just turned it like that, turning it off. And we're going to get to that in a moment. But there's no doubt that you've been checking with intelligent sources here in Washington. Do they think it was terrorism? Do they think it was pilot suicide? What do they think is going on here?

SCIUTTO: I tell you, their assessment has been consistent every day since this plane disappeared, and that assessment has been nothing yet to indicate an act of terror, but they're not ruling out terror. And you heard the director of the CIA, John Brennan, echoed those comments in public a couple of days ago.

So, I went back to them today with this new information. I said, does this change that assessment? And they said even with this information stays the same. Still nothing. No hard indication of terror, but they leave that option open.

BLITZER: When you look at the raw data, how reliable is this information that there were these pings coming from the engines, going up to satellites and they were determining that this plane could fly for four or five hours? How reliable -- Barbara just said it's not 100 percent reliable.

GOELZ: It's not 100 percent, just like the radar is not 100 percent. There's some art to interpreting this data. And I think they've got to get the pings. They've got to confirm it through a second or third source, but I think they're headed in the right direction. It sounds more compelling that all the agencies are now agreeing with this decision.

BLITZER: Here's what's worrisome and I assume it's worries to U.S. -- it's taken six days for us to learn all of this and you say there's good cooperation with the Malaysian police, but what about the Malaysian military, the rest of the Malaysian government, because there's been a lot of confusing statements including flat denials earlier in the day of what we're now reporting? FUENTES: Right. I think the confusion has been the information of the different interpretations of radar and pings and transponder and the possible directions are really beyond the expertise of law enforcement. So, even the best cooperation and even most of the military people, this has to be now the art and science of the best technicians in the world looking at that data and making the interpretations and having time to actually integrate that data together from the different sources.

BLITZER: What are you hearing from U.S. officials? Are they satisfied, frustrated, angry? For them to send ships to the Indian Ocean now, they must believe this information is pretty good.

SCIUTTO: No question. And I have heard frustration early on that there was some concern that all of the raw data was not being shared. That some of the data was being shared after Malaysian authorities made their own interpretations when it would be helpful, particularly, when you have this wealth of experience and knowledge with the NTSB, FBI, et cetera, to share the raw data so that you could make those judgments which you said is an art, really. It's not purely a science.

The other point I would make on terror is just that it doesn't have to be a traditional act of terrorism. There is pilot suicide. There are other incidents that come to mind. No evidence of that, but there are other possibilities that investigators are considering.

BLITZER: Someone can commandeer of that plane for whatever reason. Not necessarily some political terrorist reason but for some other reason. Who knows? Quick question, this is the switch, the on and off switch for the transponder. This is a small device. Why do they give pilots the option of turning off the transponder to begin with, because it's so critical for folks at air traffic to know what's going on?

GOELZ: Well, they give the pilots in today's planes the ability to squawk an emergency so that if the plane is in difficulty, they can immediately squawk that it's under a hijacked situation. It would be very rare occasion where you would turn off your transponder, only in some sort of severe electrical situation.

BLITZER: So, there's a legitimate reason for a pilot to have that option?

GOELZ: There is, but it's very rare.

BLITZER: Because there are two of these on a 777.

GOELZ: It's very rare. That would be very seldom.

BLITZER: I can't tell you how many people have sent me tweets asking, why do these pilots even have that option of turning this off since it's so critical and I'm not sure we have a good explanation for that. But, maybe they -- guys, thanks very much. Don't go too far away. Coming up next in our SITUATION ROOM, a special report, the U.S. brings a powerful new search capability to the hunt for the missing airliner. We're going to get details from the U.S. navy commander. He's aboard a ship in the region and they're searching.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to our SITUATION ROOM special report. A navy destroyer involved in the search may be headed toward the Indian Ocean right now. The White House says that could be the focus, the new focus of the hunt for the missing Malaysia Airliner. Joining us on the phone right now, Commander William Marks of the U.S. Navy's 7th fleet. He's aboard the "USS Blue Ridge" which is the command ship for the southern fleet.

Commander, once again, thanks very much for joining us. So, is the "USS Kidd" one of these ships now heading towards the Indian Ocean?

VOICE OF COMMANDER WILLIAM MARKS, U.S. NAVY'S 7TH FLEET: It is. Yesterday, we sent the "Kidd" south after the Gulf of Thailand. It is now in the Strait of Malacca in that northwest section. So, that is to the west of Malaysia, west of the Gulf of Thailand where we were previously searching.

BLITZER: So, how long will it take for the "Kidd" to get to the Indian Ocean?

MARKS: It made a turn just a little while. So, it's technically going through the strait which is the very entrance to the Indian Ocean. Probably not what most people think of kind of smack in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We're still very much close to Malaysia right now.

BLITZER: And the reason the "Kidd" is moving towards the Indian Ocean right now is, what, because of those pings from the engines that went up to the satellites? Is that right?

MARKS: Well, most of us (ph) has shifted to the west here. I can't really get in through details of why we're shifting to the west. That's really for the Malaysian government and a few other folks to tell you. But there are indications we have and we're adjusting accordingly.

BLITZER: Do you have specific coordinates that you're moving towards or are you going to just be part of this massive search in this huge body of water?

MARKS: Well, what we're doing right now is moving to the northwest entrance of the Strait of Malacca up to the Andaman Sea. So, a couple of things are going to happen. One, we do have a search (ph) right now fairly close to the Strait of Malacca, but what that does, as the area increases, the ships and its helicopters become less effective because they're kind of a close-in search asset.

And the P-3 and now a P-8 which we are just now sending right now should arrive today, those are long-range search assets. Those become even more important.

BLITZER: And this new technology, the Poseidon technology, you're using that as well. Tell us about that.

MARKS: Yes. So, the P-8 Poseidon, that is the very latest in our patrol craft technology. Up here in seventh fleet in the pacific, we get the newest and latest technology and that's part of the rebalance to the pacific. So, the P-8 represents a huge leap forward in technology for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance. So, yes, it's a big leap forward.

It's essentially the best plane the navy has going for that right now, one of the best planes in the world. So, that adds a huge capability. That's arriving later on today and we'll get that immediately into that search rotation.

BLITZER: And you'll be able to -- you need that technology. The Indian Ocean, the depth of the Indian Ocean, it's a lot deeper than the South China Sea, for example, the Indian Ocean, 12,990 feet. That's almost 113,000 feet. South China Sea, almost 4,000 feet. To give you an example, the Empire State Building, 1,250 feet. So, this new technology, the Poseidon technology, the other technology you have, how deep can that search for?

MARKS: Well, right now, essentially when you have such a huge area, we're focusing on the surface search and the radar we use for the surface search. So, it's essentially going to be the surface to the water. But really, if you think about this, it's a completely new game now. Before I described the box in the Gulf of Thailand kind of like moving chess pieces around, well, it's completely new game, and now, it's like we're on a football field.

So, we went from a chess board to a football field. So, now, you have to come up with new strategies and new tactics. So, that's developing right now as I speak. And we'll see especially with the P- 8 -- with its longer range and better senses.

BLITZER: So, just to sum up, commander, the search now in the Indian Ocean, based on new information you've received. You don't want to share the details of that information, but it's solid enough for the U.S. navy to be moving ships in that area, but this is a major, major undertaking. It could take a while, right?

MARKS: Yes, that's correct. And at this point, fatigue starts to become a factor. You have to look at that. We have 700 sailors about in the area. They've been out there every day working 24 hours a day. So, you have that personal fatigue. You also start to have equipment fatigue. You cannot operate equipment continuously 24 hours a day and not give it maintenance and not rest it.

So, we're looking very closely at personal and our equipment fatigue. We flew out chaplain and great (ph) counselors because it's demanding on a mental and physical level. So, we're watching that very closely.

BLITZER: A quick follow-up, Jim Sciutto, our chief national security correspondent, commander, he has a question. Go ahead, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Commander Marks, thanks very much. I wonder if I can ask you because Malaysian officials are telling our troops on the ground in Malaysia that the primary search area is still to the east side of the Malay Peninsula. U.S. navy moving assets now to the west side out to the Indian Ocean. Is it your information that this is now the focus of the search, the Indian Ocean and that the U.S., because of these new indications is giving up in effect on the eastern side or are they still covering both, as you say, the chess board and the football field?

MARKS: Well, it's important to realize it's a coordinated international effort. And so this was -- we're not out here freely and it's not just something the U.S. navy (INAUDIBLE). So, this was by request of the Malaysian government. They asked the navy to move our ship to the west and to the Strait of Malacca. And, so, we look at every request and if we can support that, we do.

And so, in this case, we can support that and so that's where we're going. But it is coordinated so certain ships and aircraft are staying on the east and then some go to the west and we're moving to the west.

BLITZER: All right. Commander, thanks so much for sharing that information with our viewers here in the United States and around the world. Commander William Marks of the U.S. navy's seventh fleet. He's aboard the command ship, the "USS Blue Ridge" right now. We'll check back with you tomorrow, commander. Thanks very much. You've been a big, big help to us throughout this week. Good luck to all the men and women of the United States navy and Marine Corps.

Coming up, how planes can communicate by satellite pings even with the transponders disabled? More of the breaking news coverage right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. U.S. officials telling CNN Malaysia Airline flight 370 may have flown for hours after its last transponder signal. CNNs Tom Foreman is joining us now with a closer look at how planes can communicate even when the transponders are disabled. What are you finding out, Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. A modern jumbo jet is really a flying communication station. That's why it's so astonishing to think that this plane took off in some 40, 45 minutes after taking off, that it went utterly silent, that one system might fail is one thing. That all of them would fail is different. So, let's talk about these communication systems on board a jet like this.

And I want to start with the cockpit, because that's where you have the most basic communication system on a plane like this. The radio. It's used by pilots all the time. They used it on this flight, apparently, without incident until shortly before they disappeared. Even if they were to have a catastrophic fire or a giant loss of pressurization, the masks they would put on in the cockpit have microphones in them that they can easily key to send out a distress signal and yet nothing came out to the radio system from this plane after it disappeared.

On the underside of the cockpit is where you would find the transponders we've been talking about so much. The transponders work with ground radar in the sense that a radar system pings this plane from the ground and says I see a plane there. The transponders in a sense are electronically answering and saying, yes, we are this Malaysian Air flight and this is where we're located and this is where we're going.

The transponders were turned off in this plane. That's not a hard thing to do according to the pilots because right next to them they can turn it off quite easily but there's no good reason why it would have been turned off especially at the very moment that the plane disappeared.

Let's spin this around and talk about another part of this. We hear a lot of talk about the flight data recorders. So that's them in the back there. The tail end of the plane. There's a voice recorder and there is a data recorder. They have an enormous amount of information about everything that is happening to this plane about the angle of the plane, where all the flats are. Every system on board is being recorded there.

Tremendous amount of information and voices from the cockpit so you can hear what's going on there. The problem is these do not transmit. They carry that information. They can be collected later to review an incident but they don't send out any information which brings us to one of the last systems we have to talk about because this is the really important one right now, Wolf. And that is the ACAR system.

The ACAR system is a system that transmits information in an ongoing way about some of the systems on the plane. When we've talked all day about the idea that the engines were transmitting information about their fuel usage, their performance, aviation analysts have suggested that would have been through the ACARs system. Up until now we've largely been told there is no information coming out of the plane but now it seems there might have been and if so it was somehow coming out of the ACAR system or some parallel system.

But if that proves to not be the case, Wolf, if this turns out to be another false lead, it will be another instance of where this plane went utterly silent despite all these different ways in which it could communicate with the ground and just didn't.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, this lead is strong enough to convince the U.S. Navy to move ships to the Indian Ocean believing this airliner could have flown for four or five hours after those transponders went dead.

Tom Foreman, thanks very much. Let's dig a little bit deeper now. Joining us the pilot and author, Bill Palmer, he's in San Diego. The aviation expert Clive Irving, he's in London, he's a senior consultant -- consulting editor of the "Conde Nast Traveler," and a contributor to the Daily Beast. Also the former NTSB investigator Tom Haueter. He's here in Washington with me.

Clive, first to you, there have been so many conflicting reports over these past six days. Do you think these pings, the new pings that we're learning about today are pointing in the right direction? And why are we just getting this information now?

CLIVE IRVING, CONTRIBUTOR, THE DAILY BEAST: I think it's very significant that the U.S. Navy is moving those considerable assets into the Indian Ocean. I don't think they would be doing that not just by being asked to do by the Malaysians but without some kind of sense that it was worth the expense and attrition of moving such incredible equipment out there into what is -- I don't think this has ever happened before, that the searchers had to go into what you could call the big void.

This is an area which is not covered by radar. It's not -- it's very difficult to tell whether there's any satellite coverage of it because there's no reason for it to be satellite coverage. There's nothing basically to be watched.

Satellites can, of course, be moved into position from where they are. They can be moved into a different orbit if they're asked to be moved and if there's a purpose for moving them. But if there is no satellite actually watching this area of the Indian Ocean, then there would be no satellite record of the appearance of this flight. So I think what we are now dealing with as journalists and investigators is what kind of equipment is necessary.

If we are faced with this unprecedented challenge of the vastness of the Indian Ocean, I think as well-equipped as the U.S. Navy is, it may need the help of other navies, too, because the area is so great and if this plane flew on on its auto pilot until it ran out of gas, it would be basically nearly to the east coast of Africa.

BLITZER: It could -- certainly beyond India and Pakistan.

All right. So this is the switch, Tom, for the transponder that you can easily turn on and off. I'm still not clear why pilots even have that option of turning it off and making the plane invisible to ground communication. This is the transponder itself. So once this goes dead --

TOM HAUETER, FORMER NTSB INVESTIGATOR: Right.

BLITZER: How reliable are those pings that would enable investigators to now determine it may have flown for hours towards the Indian Ocean?

HAUETER: Well, I don't think the movements we see are based on pings from ACARs data. I think what we're seeing -- because everything is moving right now, what the Malaysian government said this morning was that based on information from looking at the primary radar they are now expanding the search area. I think what's happened that the team has gotten together, they've gotten all the radar data from both the military and from the civilian side, they've broken the code on it and they can finally look at the primary data and they've come out with a plot that's starting to make sense.

That's why they're moving assets to the area. Because ACARs data says it's been up for hours, doesn't tell where you are. From what I'm hearing it sounds it's precise enough that they picked up something from the radar information to give them a better idea.

BLITZER: So the -- well, let me bring Bill into this conversation. What do you think this new information that we're getting that the plane may have flown for several hours after the transponders failed? Does it point more to mechanical failure, pilot suicide, hijacking? What's your sense?

BILL PALMER, PILOT: Well, it's hard to speculate. I mean, we have so few data points to go by that you can draw the lines of possibilities in just about any direction you want to go. But the -- you know, to turn off the transponder is quite easy for somebody to disable the ACARS data if in fact that was -- is much more sophisticated and we require much deeper knowledge of the airplane to be able to do that.

So if that was done intentionally, it would be not a trivial bit of knowledge to accomplish. So I guess it would be key to know if there is any data being transmitted by the airplane or not and if not, then I think it's likely to conclude that some event took out the power to the transponder and that ACARS transmitter at the same time.

BLITZER: Bill Palmer, Clive Irving, Tom Haueter, guys, thanks very much.

Lots to digest, there's no doubt about that.

Up next, as false leads turn into dead ends, families are growing more desperate. So what role is the Malaysian government playing in giving out confusing and sometimes conflicting information? And how difficult would it be to find the Malaysian jet in the vast Indian Ocean?

I'll speak with a scientist who led the deep ocean searched for an ill-fated Air France flight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get back to the breaking news. Officials say pings or signals suggest the missing airliner may have flown for several hours longer than originally thought. But after false leads and dead ends, the search for the missing airliner has been a series of bitter frustration.

So what role is the Malaysian government playing in giving out confusing and conflicting information?

Brian Todd has been looking into this part of the story for us. Brian, what's going on?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the latest denial from Malaysian officials now only adds to all this confusion. Today they denied reports that data showed the plane had been flying for at least four hours past its last contact. Now, as we've been reporting, sources telling CNN there were signals showing the flight may have been in the air longer than originally believed.

All of this making it hard to know what to believe every day this mystery goes unsolved.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): It's been confusing from the first moment Flight 370 went missing? When did it vanish?

Malaysian officials first said it disappeared at 2:40 a.m. local time Saturday morning. A day later, after issuing six statements, a new time on when it was lost. 1:30 a.m.

Where did it go? The flight path a major point of confusion for six days. Malaysian officials said it first vanished in the South China Sea. Then a Malaysian Air Force official said it turned sharply, flew hundreds of miles west. Another Malaysian official then said that's not correct. Then we were told there was a radar blip heading into that area but they're not sure if that's the missing jet.

STEVE WALLACE, FORMER FAA ACCIDENT INVESTIGATOR: There is a consistent failure to get the most accurate information before the world's best experts who I assure are there ready to help.

TODD: Wednesday, Malaysian Police tell CNN they searched the home of the pilot. A day later --

HISHAMMUDDIN BIN HUSSEIN, ACTING MALAYSIAN MINISTER OF TRANSPORTATION: Reports suggesting that the Malaysian Police searched the homes of the MH-370 crew are not true.

TODD: Now sources close to the family say police have been outside the captain's home but haven't gone inside.

Critics say the Malaysians are constantly giving conflicting accounts, holding back on information, can't control the flow of information, and if American officials were in charge --

WALLACE: You'd organizational meetings immediately, you would have groups formed to look at different areas, experts on weather, experts on maintenance, experts on -- air traffic control, every aspect of it.

TODD: There's no indication the Malaysians haven't done that and they fiercely defend their handling of this. They say they only hold back information when there's more analysis needed.

HUSSEIN: This is a crisis situation. It is a very complex operation and it has not always been easy. TODD: Analysts say part of the problem could be cultural. There's been one coalition governing Malaysia for decades. Its leaders not used to being challenged.

JAMES KEITH, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO MALAYSIA: They haven't had to account for themselves in ways that they have to now in the glare of international publicity.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: And it's not just the Malaysian's dealings with the media that's been an issue. Vietnamese officials temporarily suspended part of their search this week complaining of insufficient communication from the Malaysians. But Malaysian officials say they've not held anything back from other countries and have been in regular contact. Have even asked American experts for their help in analyzing radar data -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And there have been some strains with China -- between China and Malaysia as well.

TODD: Right.

BLITZER: Two-thirds of the passengers aboard that aircraft were from China.

All right. Thanks very much for that.

Let's get some more now, Malaysian officials bundled the investigation and the search. Joining us now, once again, our law enforcement analyst, the former FBI assistant director, Tom Fuentes.

Peter King, a congressman, Republican from New York, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, he's very irritated with what he sees as the lack of cooperation from the Malaysian government. He says, from his perspective, what he's seen, what he's been briefed on, there's been so many problems and he's frustrated. He's not very angry. And I've heard that from other U.S. officials as well.

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, I think, right now, Wolf, there's not a lot the U.S. can do to help other than what they've done and send NTSB and FAA experts there to look at the radar, look at the data and try to find out exactly what it all means.

The biggest problem that I've seen from the Malaysian government is the public relations aspect of this as they don't know how to get a unified message out. I think they have conflict within of the information going between military and civilian authorities and senior officials in the government.

I think from an investigative standpoint, my understanding is that the, you know, work is going forward in a cooperative manner. They are sharing information with us as it might -- as needed by us but there's really not much for the U.S. to do in this situation. The Malaysians themselves have to conduct and lead and coordinate and get everybody to be doing the right amount of investigation in the right direction.

BLITZER: What several experts have said to me is they're well- intentioned, the Malaysian authorities.

FUENTES: Right.

BLITZER: But they don't have a whole lot of experience in dealing with a disaster like this. They really need help, especially from the United States.

Should the U.S. simply take charge of this investigation?

FUENTES: No. The U.S. can't take charge. But --

BLITZER: Well, they could if the Malaysian government said take charge.

FUENTES: Well, that's different if they ask for assistance.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But they ask because clearly they don't have a lot of -- history and a lot of experience in dealing with something like this.

FUENTES: Well, this is something, you know, that I've seen all over the world, that you have governments who don't want to admit that they can't handle something like this when it happens and they are simply overwhelmed.

You know, here in the U.S. we have so many different types of crisis situations. We do things that at a task force, multiagency manner, so we're used to coordinating the efforts of a wide range of federal, state, local, and international agencies. Many governments in the world don't foresee that they are ever going to face that degree of a problem and really when it happens they are overwhelmed.

BLITZER: Here's what bothers me, you know, ask if it bothers you. One day the Malaysian Police, the Kuala Lumpur Police say that they're going into the home of the pilot -- the two pilots to investigate what is going on. There has been a history, as you know.

FUENTES: Right.

BLITZER: The pilot suicide in EgyptAir, Silk Airlines plane.

FUENTES: Right.

BLITZER: The next day the Malaysian government said they're just outside, they're not going in. Shouldn't they go inside? Shouldn't they be investigating what were on the computers? What was going on with these pilots? Wouldn't that be prudent?

FUENTES: I think so and I'm not sure why that wasn't done or what they're thinking at this moment but certainly you would want for both pilots and for the whole crew, and for all the people, the caterers that dealt with that aircraft, everybody, you know, passengers, workers, anybody that had any access to that plane before it left the ground or while it was in the air needs to be investigated.

Phone records, you know, here we're just so used to that, get the computers, look at the e-mails, look at the phone records, what are they thinking, what are they doing, interview family and friends and colleagues. Does the person have a mental problem?

There's such a degree of intensity when we investigate these kinds of things and again there maybe just not sure to challenge someone with a high status --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: It's not that they're bad. Just lack of experience.

All right. Thanks very much, Tom Fuentes, for that.

We're going to continue the breaking news. Just ahead, debris from that crash at sea. Some of -- potentially some floating, all scattered. What might searchers be looking for? And I'll speak with an expert who led the recovery effort of Air France Flight 447.

Our special report continues when we come back.

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BLITZER: We get back to the breaking news about Malaysia Flight 370 in just a moment, but first, a potentially ominous development. Thousands of Russian troops conducting drills near the country's border with Ukraine right now.

Let's go to our senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh. He's in Crimea.

Nick, what are you seeing? What's the latest?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, here in Crimea we've seen the continued movements of what are obviously Russian troops around bases. There are actually one today, in fact, where Russian pressure, of course half the base to surrender.

But the pictures you just saw, Wolf, are from a different part of Ukraine, Kharkiv. That's another city in the east on the Ukrainian- Russian border where 8,500 Russian troops moved on to the Russian side of the border to conduct drills which the Ministry of Defense said to familiarize themselves with unfamiliar territory. That's causing a lot of alarm bells to ring quite specifically right now because there's been a clash between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in another eastern city in Donetsk where one person was killed.

We don't quite know their affiliation politically. And 17 people were injured. That violence is causing many Ukrainians to be concerned about what we might see in the east of the country. I think most Russian officials consider Crimea to be a done deal. A referendum is going to happen on Sunday regardless of the last-minute diplomacy between John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov tomorrow in London.

The fear is, does it stop here? Is what we're seeing on the eastern borders of Ukraine perhaps a harbinger of something to come in the days ahead -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And this referendum that's supposed to take place on Sunday, by all accounts the vote in Crimea is going to be for Crimea to leave Ukraine and become part of Russia. Is that the expectation?

WALSH: Well, certainly, the ballot paper doesn't give you much choice really. It says, do you want to be part of Russia or do you want to go back to the 1992 constitution which leaves Crimea as being an autonomous part of Ukraine? Very wordy way basically of saying of Crimea being an autonomous republic.

So the choice really is to leave Ukraine either way. And I think we're expecting a vote to do that on Sunday most likely bringing the country into the Russian federation. A lot of news here of that already under way. Suggestions of electricity being brought here, mobile phone services being changed. The Crimea de facto government taking control of oil and gas here. A lot moving very fast, Wolf. Diplomacy really it seems over, frankly.

BLITZER: Yes --

WALSH: And that's not going to change -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ominous developments in Crimea and Ukraine in the border area with Russia.

Thanks very much, Nick Paton Walsh, for that report.

Coming up, we'll get back to the breaking news as our SITUATION ROOM special report on the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 continues.

Did the plane fly for hours after its last transponder signal?

And this note later tonight 10:00 p.m. Eastern here on CNN, an all-new episode of CNN's original unscripted series "CHICAGOLAND."

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