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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Mystery of Flight 370; Still No Closer to an Answer; U.S. Officials Probe Batteries Theory

Aired March 14, 2014 - 16:00   ET

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


BILL WEIR, CNN ANCHOR: A full week now since Flight 370 vanished without a trace, now investigators trying to figure out if a stash of batteries on board played a role.

I'm Bill Weir. And this is THE LEAD.

The world lead, was it sabotage? Was it hijacked? A new report is reviving the worst fears among investigators that something sinister happened aboard Flight 370.

Also, what did the pilots see? Could they have actually landed somewhere undetected? We're going to take you virtually inside the cockpit to recreate the path of the vanished Malaysia Airlines plane.

And the buried lead. There are no hard answers, only theories, some a lot more plausible than others. Imaginations are running wild around the globe over the need to solve this maddening mystery. We will take a look at some of the most outlandish theories about this plane's fate.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I am Bill Weir, filling in for Jake Tapper today.

And we begin with the world lead. It's now a solid week since contact was last made with Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and this has become one of the most baffling mysteries in the history of aviation. Now a new theory is emerging today about what happened to the plane and those 239 souls on board.

U.S. officials tell CNN that investigators are now looking at whether lithium batteries in the cargo hold may have played a role. You might recall that this is the kind of battery, lithium, that has been blamed for causing fires aboard planes in the past. But an aviation industry source also tells CNN that the plane must have been intact for at least five hours, because the communication system was still sending out pings during all that time.

All of this new information comes after Reuters, citing unnamed sources, reported evidence that the plane may have intentionally and secretly flown off course. Reuters say military radar shows Flight 370 traveled on for hours after going silent, zigzagging way off the flight plan, between waypoints, which are these points on the globe pilots use to orient themselves along well-traveled established air corridors. That either means that the pilots were still at the controls or someone else with flight experience had taken them over. Meanwhile, another report claims that two of the plane's communication systems were shut down at separate times. This is ABC's reporting.

They cite two U.S. officials in saying that the data reporting system was shut off at 1:07 a.m. and the transponder, which sends out location and altitude information, that one shut down at 1:21 a.m., which seems to discount the idea that there was some all-at-once cataclysmic event on board that plane.

Now, according to Reuters, radar shows that the plane was last headed towards a waypoint that could take it over the Andaman Islands. And so the search is being intensified around that island chain, also in the Indian Ocean as well, crews casting a wide net, and yet, of course, they have still found nothing, not a trace.

But here's one more wrinkle. Chinese researchers say they recorded a -- quote -- "sea floor event" about an hour-and-a-half after the plane's last known contact, which could be consistent with a plane crash. But that, of course, would put the plane somewhere close to its original course east of Malaysia and discount all this other information about those pings.

So, clear on that? Probably not. It's so hard to keep up with this dribs and drabs of information. We will take a closer look at the search area and try to parse all of this.

I'm joined now by Steven Wallace, former director of the Office of Accident Investigation for the FAA.

Good to see you, Steve. Thanks for being with us.

(CROSSTALK)

WEIR: Let me just start with the lithium battery story that we have gotten now. The question that pops into my mind is, why are we getting this kind of information this long after that plane disappeared?

STEVEN WALLACE, FORMER DIRECTOR, FAA OFFICE OF ACCIDENT INVESTIGATION: Well, there's a consistent pattern in all of the evidence.

There's doubts about its quality and it keeps arriving kind of slowly in dribs and drabs. And to say lithium batteries is kind of like saying stolen passports.

WEIR: Right.

WALLACE: So red flags start to go up. Of course, there was a terrible UPS cargo plane fire attributed to lithium batteries.

But there are very, very strict rules about how they need to be packaged and transported. And, of course, if there were a fire in the cargo hold, this airplane has the latest in detection and suppression. The crew would have been making emergency calls. WEIR: Sure.

WALLACE: So, I wouldn't jump...

WEIR: But does this indicate that after a dearth of information from the Malaysian government for so long, somebody finally connected with the Americans, looked at the cargo manifest and thought, oh, look, lithium batteries, and that takes on a life of its own?

WALLACE: Well, I think that's exactly right, because this investigation has just been kind of poorly organized.

First, we had the radar data that said it turned to the west. And then we had the Chinese satellite image, which was so big that it couldn't have been floating debris from the airplane.

WEIR: Right.

WALLACE: And so evidence -- and now we have these waypoints. Would you like me to speak to those waypoints?

WEIR: Well, I want to get to that in a second, but the thing was five hours intact, regardless, if we believe that all of these waypoints -- so that seems to discount some sort of slow-burning fire. It couldn't be a fire that burn slow enough to keep them in the air and yet sent them off course, a lot of conflicting things.

Let's take a look at some maps now. This of course is where the search started. This is the original path of the plane. But then came that left turn that we have been fascinated by that gives some indication that somebody was at the stick of that plane and changing things.

First of all, explain these pings. Are these coming from satellites pinging off of the plane, or the plane is sending out some sort of a signal?

WALLACE: So, it's not entirely clear to me, but my understanding is, is that the ACARS, the data link that went off, I don't know, 14 to 21 minutes before the transponder signal was lost, well, that sends out packets of information on like the health of the engines and things like that, either to the airline or the engine manufacturer.

So, my understanding is that these were sort of like blank pings from that equipment. And how the positions were derived from that, I'm not sure. I would point out here that, in this modern age, waypoints are just everywhere. So, this airplane, it's not clear either whether this airplane flew directly over these waypoints or it just kind of got near them.

WEIR: Right.

Is this consistent -- I can actually draw on here. So if the activity was this way and it goes this way and changes, or regardless of that, does that indicate that somebody at some point is punching those coordinates into the cockpit somehow, or that they are just coming close enough to these waypoints that that's the reference that we know roughly where they were?

WALLACE: Well, that's an excellent question.

So, if you -- if this airplane were flying on a flight management computer system and those waypoints were put in, the airplane would hit them right on the button. And if someone was flying the plane manually just -- and this is obviously not a direct flight path to anywhere.

WEIR: Right.

WALLACE: Because it zigzags. Well, then you might sort of just get near them.

WEIR: Right. And I guess the way for us as motorists to think about this is, this might be equivalent to where the 101 and the 405 meet in Southern California.

That's how pilots can gauge it. But when we first saw that pattern, we thought, ooh, that's somebody who knows what they are doing. Did you infer that?

WALLACE: No, I wouldn't jump to that conclusion, only because I don't know with any certainty that we really went precisely to these waypoints.

But if the aircraft were shown to have flown exactly to a series of waypoints, that would suggest that someone either knew how to fly it there manually or that it was programmed into the...

(CROSSTALK)

WALLACE: And, again, this is Reuters reporting unnamed sources.

WEIR: Right.

WALLACE: We have to take all of this with not a grain, a block of salt. But I'm sure there are people trying to study these -- the wave patterns, the wind patterns. If they do find anything, they have to be able to triangulate where that plane went down, right?

WALLACE: Absolutely.

WEIR: OK. Steven Wallace, thanks so much for your time.

WALLACE: Thank you.

WEIR: Good to see you.

Coming up next, following every possible lead with new information suggesting the plane was intentionally led astray, as we just said. The pilots in the cockpit that day are being scrutinized. So are the passengers on that flight. But could that answer be in the cargo?

Plus, think of the possibility of stealing a plane and hiding it. Is that too far-fetched? Well, my next guest says he was involved in a CIA plot to do exactly that.

Stay with us, everybody.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WEIR: And welcome back to THE LEAD.

More now on our world lead. With every new piece of information comes possibilities for what may have happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Now, while investigators have employed plenty of fancy gadgets and massive search teams, the key to solving this mystery might boil down to the same strategy you might use to find a missing set of keys, retrace your steps.

CNN correspondent Pamela Brown has more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): "All right, good night," those were the last words heard from the cockpit of Flight 370. While we don't know whose voice that was, one of the first questions for investigators, who were the two men at the controls of Flight 370, the pilots, first officer 27-year-old Fariq About Hamid, who was new to the controls of the Boeing 777, and 53-year-old Zaharie Ahmad Shah, seen here in a YouTube video he posted with his own flight simulator in the background.

TOM FUENTES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think, certainly, if it was here in the United States, the pilots, all information about them would be looked at very closely. And that would include the searches of their residences, to search for their computers, what kind of e-mail traffic they have, cell phone traffic.

BROWN: But Malaysian police say they have not searched their homes, despite early reports they did.

DATUK SERI HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, MALAYSIAN TRANSPORT MINISTER: Reports suggesting that Malaysian police searched the homes of the MH370 crew are now true.

BROWN: Investigators are also looking at the pilots' past behavior. A passenger on a flight co-piloted by Hamid told CNN's Piers Morgan Hamid let her and her friend take pictures and even smoke in the cockpit.

If the pilots didn't do anything to sabotage the plane, what about the rest of the crew and the passengers? Despite Chinese reports raising concern about a passenger of Uighur descent on the flight, one official tells CNN it wasn't a pervasive concern for investigators.

FUENTES: Do any of the names match up to any of the databases? That would be the National Crime Information Center. Do they have a criminal record? Do they have any information on any of the watch lists that may come up? Is there anything about their travel documents or attempts to apply for visas in the United States? BROWN: Officials tell CNN, so far, they haven't found any terrorism connections with the plane's passengers. That covers the "who". Now, the "what". The cargo -- investigators are looking into concerns that lithium batteries in the cargo that have caused previous crashes could have played a role.

FUENTES: You could have something on the aircraft that doesn't cause a catastrophic explosion but maybe causes a fire and fire is extremely dangerous. It may have led to power failure and other problems going on.

BROWN: One official says at this point, investigators have no reason to believe any of the cargo was put on the plane with any malicious or criminal intent. If the batteries on the plane did cause a fire, that still doesn't explain other anomalies, like the pings, indicating that the plane may have flown for five hours towards the Indian Ocean.

Pamela Brown, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WEIR: After a full week now, so many theories have come and gone and then come again. Just when you startling yourself the idea this plane being hijacked, stolen mid-flight and maybe even landed somewhere secretly, it sounds completely outlandish until you meet a guy like Robert Baer, CNN's national security analyst, former CIA official, who joins us now.

Bob, good to see you.

And let me get this straight. You actually trained for this sort of thing back in the '80s?

ROBERT BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, back in the '80s we were always looking at Soviet airplanes, advanced ones, that we wanted the technology. We were always looking to recruit a pilot that would fly one of these airplanes out and in one occasion, we did find one and he was going to fly out over the Indian Ocean, call in a mayday, dive down to a low altitude. We knew the surrounding radar. We could read the screens.

And he was going to fly to an undisclosed island, land it, we were going to cover the airplane with a huge tarp so it couldn't be seen by satellites so that at that point the Russians would simply think they lost an airplane, it would stop looking for it, they wouldn't know the technology was gone.

But you know, thinking that somebody hijacked this airliner in that fashion is truly outlandish. It would almost take a state to accomplish this and there's no reason that a state would hijack this airliner. I just offered it, as you said, an outlandish theory.

WEIR: Right, well, it makes sense I guess in the context of the Cold War, but who would want to do this in this part of the world, to this country, and who would be capable of such a thing? It would have to be a state actor, correct? Or do you think there are terrorist groups sophisticated enough?

BAER: You know, I couldn't imagine -- I don't think they are. You know, you would need the cooperation of a trained pilot who would have to know these routes, have to know about radar pings and the rest of it and then have a landing strip. You know, I just don't buy off of that.

I can't but, you know, like any intelligence community, you have to look at all possibilities and systematically exclude them.

WEIR: Let's systematically go back to the two Iranian nationals with the fake passports. We sort of discounted them. They didn't hit on any watch list. What are your thoughts on these guys, given a few days and a few new details?

BAER: Well, I mean, Bill, look, who's vouched for them except Iran? I mean, Iran doesn't have a great record on terrorism. I mean, I don't -- I don't know who these guys were but when you call up Tehran as Interpol did and say are they OK and Iran says, yes -- I don't necessarily believe them. But I'm a skeptic.

WEIR: Right. And the other one that was floated was the Uyghurs, the sort of the Chinese ethnic group blamed for a train station attack in southern China, a pretty primitive one. What do you know about that group?

BAER: They are capable of conducting a hostile act against China but they would definitely need assistance from a trained group to hijack an airplane like this.

WEIR: Right.

BAER: And trained pilots. By themselves, they couldn't do it.

WEIR: Right. So, if -- given your cloak and dagger background, if we were really focused on this terror idea, where would you start? Would you try to get the manifest? Would you try to interview folks that live in Beijing? I mean, how would you even proceed?

BAER: I'd get that manifest, find out who else traveled on a false passport. I would imagine there's more than the two Iranians. Find out about the pilots. I would go through their houses, go through their phones, e-mail, everything to find out any radical ties, Islamic radical ties. That needs to be excluded right away.

WEIR: What are your thoughts on the fact that the Malaysian government said they hadn't even bothered to visit the pilot's home?

BAER: It's completely unprofessional. I mean, I don't care where the pilot is. Americans would do that. I don't care. You know, they would look into the pilots' background and pull psychiatric records or whatever it took. You know, that's what they should be doing.

I don't trust the Malays at this point. They've given so much contradictory, false information that they're not a good source of information at all. WEIR: Do you think that comes out of inexperience, incompetence or there's something more?

BAER: Well, they're embarrassed by what happened, that they lost an airplane, and it's a slight to their dignity and the rest of it, and the government's, and this is a political catastrophe for them and, you know, they are trying to cover up as best they can.

WEIR: If you're one of those loved ones sitting and waiting, you know, dignity be damned.

Bob Baer, thanks so much for your insight. Always good to talk to you.

And coming up next, just what is it like to fly a Boeing 777 and how hard is it to turn off the communications with the ground. We are inside a cockpit live and you'll see what the pilots may have experienced on Flight 370.

Plus, if a plane this big needed to or wanted to land somewhere other than an airport, could it on that chain of islands? My next guest, a former pilot, says yes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WEIR: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Jake Tapper away on this Friday. I'm Bill Weir, filling in.

And continuing with our world lead, among the many unanswered questions surrounding the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, what exactly was happening inside that cockpit just moments before the flight lost contact? While we may never know for certain, there are ways for investigators to at least try to get a sense of what the pilot and co-pilot of that flight may have experienced in the night skies over the South China Sea.

CNN's Martin Savidge is live inside the cockpit of a Boeing 777 simulator, just outside of Toronto, replicating the exact path of the flight from takeoff to disappearance -- Martin.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Bill, let me just show you exactly where we are because this is a crucial moment of the flight. We took off 45 minutes ago, simulation, Kuala Lumpur.

We're now 4.4 nautical miles away from VTOD (ph), this reference point in the navigation. It's a point in the sky, but for this story, a critical one. It is the last point at which flight 370 actually was known to exist and still be seen on radar. It was actually at that time or shortly after that waypoint that the crew radioed in and said, all right, good night.

And it was shortly after this particular moment that we began to see some failure of systems on board, especially when it came to navigation.

What we've done is taken the simulator and we've plotted in everything that we knew about that flight, the time at which it took off, the route in which it followed, it was headed to Beijing, the altitude, we're at 35,000 feet. Nobody is touching the controls because right now we're flying just as they were at that time on automatic pilot. Everything set to try to replicate what it might have looked like, what it might have felt like. It can only go so far but, again, a night sky outside.

All of this demonstrating to us what happened in the moments before.

Let me show you a quick thing. This is a transponder. Much has been made about it. The transponder is, of course, the device that gives out the signal that identifies on radar who you are and where you are. Can you turn it off? Yes, you can. Three clicks, like this, would shut it down.

Would you ever turn it off? Absolutely not, say the experts, Bill, but it can be done. So, you learn a lot just by sitting in the cockpit.

WEIR: It is. We've been trying to get a perspective of what that must have been like and this has been so helpful throughout the day here on CNN.

Martin Savidge, I appreciate it.

Let's turn now to the guy who knows the inside of that cockpit as well. He's flown this plane quite a bit.

I want to bring in Anthony Roman, an FAA licensed commercial pilot, former flight instructor, happens to own a global corporate investigations firm specializing in security and terrorism concerns.

Anthony, great for being -- thank you for being with us today.

What do you make of this new information about this lithium battery fire theory? What do you think?

ANTHONY ROMAN, COMMERCIAL PILOT: Well, I really don't give that much credence at all. This aircraft, it flew a very deliberate course. Albeit, a little erratic for the endpoint that it reached, it flew waypoints in a very straight and level fashion. So if there was a fire on board, the suppression systems would take over, the pilots would be fighting it, they'd radio for help, they'd set their transponder which Mr. Savidge was just talking about to code "7700", which would denote an emergency. And help would have been sent out right away.

So, I don't think it's very credible.

WEIR: The only way it is credible is if the reporting on the side, as you were saying, the pings, the waypoint route that you were discussing, if that is false information and for whatever reason that maybe this set off some sort of cataclysmic event. But let me ask you about that before we move to the waypoints because I want you to explain that. Could a fire started in the cargo hold shut off that transponder Martin was just showing us in a way that's consistent with what we heard from the plane?

ROMAN: Well, fires in aircraft are insidious. If the fire suppression system which, you know, failed, which is very unlikely, that fire would spread very, very quickly.

And the 777 has had a recent history of smoke in the cockpit, burning smell in the cockpit where aircraft had diverted and made emergency landings. And actually in one instance in 2011 was at the gate filled with passengers, the pilot smelled smoke in the cockpit, then a fire quickly developed. They attempted to put it out, they couldn't and they evacuated the aircraft. So, I don't think it's a likely scenario of it (ph).