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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Ukrainian Officer Killed In Crimea's Capital; Putin Flaunts His Defiance At The West; Thai Radar Backs Up "Left Turn" Theory; Did Terrorists Play A Role In Missing Plane?; Vets Receive Belated Medals Of Honor

Aired March 18, 2014 - 16:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In World, the first death came today in the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula. A Ukrainian officer was killed in a military base in Crimea's capital after the base was stormed by armed, masked men widely believed to be pro-Russian forces, according to the Ukrainian government.

Meanwhile, a tear-streaked standing ovation for Russian president Vladimir Putin, who today put pen to paper on a draft of a treaty that will officially make Crimea a part of the Western federation, whether the West likes it or not.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (via translator): In our hearts, we know Crimea always has been and always will remain an inalienable part of the Russia.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Speaking from Poland today, Vice President Biden fired back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: Russia has offered a variety of arguments to justify what is nothing more than a land grab.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Ukraine's interim president, Olexandr Turchynov, went further, telling reporters were told that Putin is, quote, "mimicking the fascists of the last century," unquote. And while the treaty still needs parliament's approval, don't expect the kind of drama of democracy you might see here in Washington, D.C. before that happens for Putin is pushing this through the Duma is pretty much a formality.

I want to bring in CNN's Nick Paton Walsh. He's in Simferopol in the regional capital of Crimea. Nick, first tell us about the death at the base. What is happening there now? NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well bizarrely, just hours after Vladimir Putin talked about how the annexation of Crimea had been bloodless, we have the first Ukrainian military death in the Crimea. This bizarre, quiet invasion at a base here, a photogrammatic (ph) headquarters -- the captain was wounded, shot in the neck, and the chief warrant officer killed by a shot in the heart. That's according to the Ukrainian defense military statement.

Now we know from having our team on the ground there that there was signs of a shootout, glass broken, heavily armed, burly men bursting in and then later leaving, believed to be Russian (INAUDIBLE). But as you know, Jake, they are not wearing insignia here and not identifying themselves. And I think the concern is that we have a lot of similar bases around the Crimean peninsula. I was at one myself just a few hours ago. They, too, had Russian troops turn up, race at the gates, heavily armed. Alongside, actually, I should say peaceful pro Russian local protesters who were asking the Ukraine troops inside to surrender.

I think really now this is technically, in Moscow's view, part of Russia. Those Russian troops may feel emboldened to move in. I think there are a lot of very nervous Ukrainian soldiers out there tonight. Jake?

TAPPER: Nick, the White House announced that President Obama will meet next week with G-7 members to discuss what is going on in Ukraine. G- 7 of course - that's the G-8 without Russia. Is there any hope, do you think, that Crimea is not completely lost to Russia at this point?

WALSH: No, that's it, frankly, Jake. I'm sorry, there's no way Vladimir Putin -- you saw the display there -- is going to reverse course. In fact, when the idea was originally floated that the G-8 might become the G-7, his spokesman said - that's Russia's - sorry, that's the G-8's loss, not Russia's loss. So a very defiant Vladmir Putin. I think it's fair to say actually he always seems to court isolation and distance from what he usually refers to as his Western colleagues and partners. That was the tone of the speech, almost looking to see if the Soviet Union era respect for Russia could be revived by doing things like this, by flying in the face of international opinion.

A very interesting choice of words he consistently used. In fact, almost mocking the U.S. statements this is a violation of international law, saying at one point really, they recognize international law now, do they? Making references to obviously the invasion of Iraq in 2003. So, a very strident speech in the Kremlin. A lot of popularity within the room there. Of course, you bear in mind, Russia's political scene is entirely homogenous and he's pretty much the only preeminent decision maker in Russia at all. So a different audience certainly he faces than Barack Obama would do in the West. But certainly I think many worried about where this goes next, particularly with tensions high in eastern Ukraine, Jake.

TAPPER: That's right. And the response to the sanctions as well very mocking from the Russians. Nick Paton Walsh, thank you so much. When we come back, the possibilities are as vast as the search area, but CNN has just learned that investigators have crossed off one possible terror lead in the search for Flight 370. Stay with us for that.

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TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Continuing our World Lead. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, coming back to our latest developments. Based on data, a law enforcement official tells CNN that someone likely reprogrammed the plane's cockpit computer to veer off course. "The New York Times" reported similar news. So does that mean that the pilots were involved?

And joining me now is New York Times aviation safety reporter Matt Wald. Matt, first of all, we should disclose that your brother works at CNN.

MATT WALD, AVIATION SAFETY REPORTER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Correct.

TAPPER: But let's get to the most important thing here: based on the timeline that we have, this turn that you reported on, you and your colleague, Mr. Schmidt, broke the news on, must have been programmed before the co-pilot said, "all right, good night" to air traffic control, right?

WALD: That would appear to be the case. Yes. And you can enter the programming into a computer called the flight management system. Ordinarily you file a flight plan with air traffic contrl, and either you upload that plan into the flight management system or you enter it manually. Along the course of a flight you can control it because air traffic control sends you around some weather or around some traffic. What we understand is that this was changed, possibly still at the gate, possibly later, to program in this turn in a routined, controlled, unhurried fashion.

TAPPER: So that would seemingly rule out -- they say "all right, good night" and then they do something because the transmission has already happened. And also it would seem to rule out that this turn was done as a panicked response to something, such as a fire in the cockpit or something like that?

WALD: That's the clear implication. It was intentional. It was premeditated.

TAPPER: And just so we're clear on this, this is not a theory. This is what your sources say was transmitted back through the ACARS system?

WALD: Yes. I should clarify with two things. First of all, some other news organizations reported this earlier. Second of all, there are some people out there who do not believe it. But our understanding from federal officials is, this is a little bit like the blind men and the elephant because officially our government is not supposed to say anything. The Malaysians are in charge. The Malaysians have said a lot of things. Sometimes they have contradicted themselves later on. But what we understand from Americans involved in this investigation is that this turn was made by programming the computer, and that that was reported back to the ground through what's called the ACARS system.

TAPPER: Why are we hearing about this now and not last week?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it started to percolate through the investigators last week. We did get to it until now.

TAPPER: All right, thanks to the "New York Times" Matthew Wald.

As new clues bolster the theory, the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was deliberately fallen off course. The one nagging question for investigators, beyond where the plane ended up, is why? Why would anyone do this? CNN has learned that investigators have been able to rule out at least one possibility, that the plane was targeted by the same group behind a Malaysia hijacked plot in 2001.

Let's go live now to CNN senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson for the very latest -- Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Jake, the burdens of this is really coming out in a trial that is under way in New York right where British al Qaeda member giving evidence via video link from the U.K. against Osama Bin Laden's son in law who is on trial in the United States.

He has talked about five Malaysians that he met, one of whom was a pilot and they were going to hijack an aircraft. And this was all part of a plot that was supposed to take place shortly after 9/11 under the auspices and planning of Khalid Sheik Mohamed, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks against the United States.

Now what we have learned from U.S. investigators, although this evidence has been given in court now and came to light to British investigators and U.S. investigators many years ago was actually known about in 2001 and what the investigators tell us is that the Malaysian authorities also knew about it, that they moved on this Malaysian al Qaeda link group at that time, some of them had training inside Afghanistan and al Qaeda training camps there pre- 9/11 and indeed the so called pilot in this case had never fully trained as a pilot.

So although this information is coming out into the public domain now and may seem to imply that the group in Malaysia could have been responsible for this, it was all tied up over ten years ago and that's why it could be removed from the what could be that are still out there if you will --- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, so important context. Nic Robertson, thank you so much.

The 2001 hijack plot is one of several leads that investigators have been chasing to figure out whether terrorists had anything to do with Flight 370's disappearance. A Chinese official said today background checks of Chinese officials on board showed no ties to terrorist organizations. Meanwhile, there's been intensified investigation at the pilots.

Joining me now is Seth Jones. He is the associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation. Seth, thanks so much for being here. First off, Malaysian officials say they have thoroughly investigated the group behind the 2001 plot and it has nothing to do with flight 370. Do you think it's too early to know for sure or do you take them after?

SETH JONES, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY AND DEFENSE POLICY CENTER: Well, right now, what we know is that there's no evidence right now that any individuals involved in the 2001 plot were behind this attack. We also know at this point from Chinese and Indonesian officials that they scanned the passengers and a list of passengers and have found no evidence of anyone connected to groups, like the East Turkish movement so no evidence tied to anyone claiming it or connected to any of these groups.

TAPPER: When we discuss the possible scenarios, if it was a terrorist act, how come there hasn't been any chatter? You've been scouring some areas of websites typically trafficked by these extremist groups. Have you seen anything that has raised any flags?

JONES: Yes, I was actually scanning earlier today some of the jihadist forms, some of the more extreme ones. They are quite mixed. Some individuals have said an act like this would be legitimate, especially if there was Chinese on board. They have repressed the Uighurs in parts of China. There is a jihadist movement, but there's been strong push back from some of these Jihadist forums that there were Muslims on board so it was at its core an act not supported by Islam.

TAPPER: Right. We've seen nobody murder Muslims more than al Qaeda and terrorist groups.

JONES: That's correct.

TAPPER: We know that the pilot was part of the Asia's opposition political party. Does that raise concern that his politics may have played a role or is that just propaganda from the opposing party?

JONES: I think I find it very hard to believe at this point that the pilot himself, even though he supported the opposition movement and one of the leaders had just been convicted of sodomy charges, that he would take that and down an airplane. I mean, I think in general when people do something like this, there are other things, marital problems that are impacting someone's view. Not a lot of evidence that he has ever supported anything along these lines.

TAPPER: And if it was terrorism, 12 days after the fact wouldn't someone claim responsibility by now?

JONES: Jake, after some people of time they do claim credit. In a few cases we've seen, including al Qaeda after September 11th, they waited a little bit of time because they wanted to get people out of training camps, out of concern that they'd be struck by a counterterrorism forces. This is exactly the purpose that these groups do these things, they want to get it out in the media. The fact that nobody has claimed credit makes me think that this is an act of terrorism.

TAPPER: All right, Seth Jones, of the Rand Corporation, thank you so much for your expertise. We appreciate it.

When we come back, finally getting the recognition they deserve today, 24 medals of honors were given out by President Obama, today, some to service members who were mainly overlooked decades ago because of their religion or their race. We'll take a look at one of them coming up.

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TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. The Buried Lead today is a long overdue honor for some of the bravest men to ever wear an American military uniform. Their great courage was not given sufficient recognition for decades. And in some cases, more than half a century. Because even as some of these heroes took on a dictator who believed he was part of the master race, they may have been passed over by this country because of their races or creeds.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): The president this afternoon honored those who served with exceptional valor, even if most were not there to hear it.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Some of these soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal.

TAPPER: The review that led to not prejudice of days' past but rather on existing honors. The 72-year-old former staff sergeant, Melvin Morris, a Vietnam veteran, is one of only three honorees still living. Morris in 1970 was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest honor. Now four decades later, the Pentagon has upgraded that award to the nation's highest, the Medal of Honor.

SSG MELVIN MORRIS, MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENT: When I received the single service cross, I thought that was it. I wasn't worried about anything else above that and it makes me feel very proud that they are going back and looking at records and rewarding people for being missed.

TAPPER: Morris served a full 23 years in the army. He joined at age 19.

MORRIS: Going into war, it didn't bother me. When the call came, I knew I was going to meet it.

TAPPER: And he did. In 1969 he earned his medal in Vietnam that left many on his team wounded and their leader dead.

MORRIS: It came to me that I had to recover his body.

TAPPER (on camera): Leave no man behind? MORRIS: Leave no man behind at any cause.

TAPPER (voice-over): Under heavy enemy fire, Morris recovered the body of his sergeant and then he went back in to retrieve sensitive documents, maps that had fallen on the battlefield.

MORRIS: I went in throwing grenades and I threw and threw and threw, I don't know how many. But I had given orders, don't come and get me. We've already lost enough and I got shot in the chest by enemy shoulder. I got hit again in the right arm and then I got hit in the left hand, the left ring finger. When I got wounded the first time I checked to see if I had an exit wound. I didn't have a hole in my back.

TAPPER: Morris made it out and after a few months recuperating he returned to the war zone.

MORRIS: I was back in Vietnam in 1970.

TAPPER (on camera): Did you see more action while you are there?

MORRIS: Plenty of action and I got decorated again that year.

TAPPER: When you were in the army, did you ever feel discrimination?

MORRIS: I was a green beret most of the time I was in the military. You bond together. You have to. With the tag work that we did. And so no, not really.

TAPPER: At the end of the day, you are all green?

MORRIS: All green at the end of the day. Seriously green.

TAPPER: It's such an honor to meet you. Congratulations.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Sergeant Morris recently caught up with the man who helped air lift him out of Vietnam. That man told Morris he had his dog tags and by the way, the metal I.D.s are what stopped Morris from killing him. He tucked it into his pocket and it stopped the bullet. We're glad it did. It was an honor to meet Sergeant Morris and Mrs. Morris. Thank you so much for spending with us.

Make sure to follow me on Twitter @jaketapper, all one word and also @theleadcnn. Check out our show page at CNN.com/. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I turn you over to Mr. Wolf Blitzer. He is right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM" -- Mr. Blitzer.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Jake, thank you.