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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

New Info in Flight 370 Mystery; Putin's Next Move?; FBI Searching Pilot's Hard Drive for Clues; Putin Could Push Deeper into Ukraine

Aired March 21, 2014 - 16:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Every word the pilots of Flight 370 purportedly said to the ground during the time investigators believed the plane may have been sabotaged.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead, from before takeoff to that final "All right, good night," a new report claiming to reveal all the communication from the pilots to air traffic control. Does any of it reveal what went wrong aboard that vanished plane?

Questions continue to arise over Malaysia's handling of the search. Now Australia's taking the lead, following one of the most promising clues yet. We will ask our guest, Australia's ambassador to the U.S., have the Malaysians dropped the ball?

And breaking new, White House on edge. A senior Obama administration official tells me they are -- quote -- very concerned" -- unquote -- Russian troops may attempt another massive land in grab in Ukraine and that could be eminent. So what is Putin's next move?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We will begin with the world lead, as the mystery of what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the 239 people on board that it was carrying it enters its third week. We're now getting a clear picture than ever before about what transpired on board. A new report claims to have everything the two pilots said to ground control from before takeoff to their very last verbal check-in, that now haunting "All right, good night."

"The Telegraph," a British newspaper, said it has gotten ahold of the transcript that reveals the final 54 minutes of communication from the plane. Remember, investigators believe the cockpit computer could have been reprogrammed to fly off course before the plane ever left the ground, so the plane may have been sabotaged during or even before this 54-minute window, when the pilots were still keeping contact, this as searchers follow what investigators have called the hottest lead yet, satellite images showing potential debris about 1,500 miles off the coast of Australia.

Malaysia has asked the U.S. for more help, including remotely operated submersibles to assist with the underwater search. The U.S. has spent $2.5 million on the search so far, according to the Pentagon today. Now, CNN has not been able to independently verify the contents of the "Telegraph" report. But "The Telegraph"s reporting is highlighting some potentially unusual moments between the cockpit and air traffic control.

So, let's bring in our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh.

Rene, what exactly is being revealed here?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we should first say we have not officially gotten our hands on that transcript as yet.

But the paper is reporting that the transcript of the conversation between the pilot and air traffic control, overall, it was pretty routine, with the exception of one thing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A purported transcript that details what Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 told air traffic controllers from takeoff until it disappeared has been obtained by London's "Telegraph" newspaper.

On commercial flights, one pilot usually flies while the other handles radio calls. The conversations match with what Malaysian investigators and U.S. officials have told CNN, that the recordings indicated a normal flight. "The Telegraph" says the radio calls were slightly casual, but gave no sign the plane was about to disappear.

At 1:07 a.m., a message saying that the plane was at 35,000 feet, a potentially odd sign identified by the paper, because that same communication had already been given six minutes earlier. At 1:19 a.m., Malaysian authorities say the co-pilot makes his final transmission to air traffic control, "All right, good night."

Two minutes later, the transponder that helps air traffic controllers track the plane goes off. Flight 370 has not been heard from or seen since.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: All right, well, the newspaper says they have asked Malaysia Airlines, as well as the civil aviation authority, to confirm these transcripts, but the prime minister's office would only say they would not release that data -- Jake.

TAPPER: Rene Marsh, thank you so much.

Let's bring in our expert panel to digest this latest development on what the pilots on Flight 370 said.

You know Miles O'Brien. He's a CNN aviation analyst, a pilot, and a science correspondent for "PBS NewsHour," and Michael Goldfarb of course is an aviation consultant and former chief of staff for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Miles, Michael, thank you so much for being here.

Miles, let me start with you.

Does anything stand out to you in what we know so far about this transcript?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, we don't know enough about it.

I will tell you this. It's quite possible that the transcript they got is incomplete. It could be some ACARS transmission. It could be air traffic control to the crew.

You have to remember that it's not just one tape rolling somewhere. There's the tower frequency, there's ground control, there's the center frequencies. In order to get this all compiled would take quite a bit of work. I'm not sure that "The Telegraph" has done this. We don't know yet.

TAPPER: And, Michael, what exactly -- what conversations are recorded at all? I mean, every single one of them and in different places, as Miles explained?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB, FORMER FAA CHIEF OF STAFF: Jake, until the handoff, absolutely.

They have all that information, but I agree with Miles that it's so early and there's other data points that they will put together to kind of try triangulate this information to see if it's credible in the sense that something unusual is happening.

From the draft transcript that you have received, it doesn't appear that there's really anything out of the ordinary. We're kind of just trying to find something there. But it was fairly normal, normal transactions between pilot and ground.

TAPPER: Let turn to some other questions I have about the flight that I have also heard from our viewers. This no man's land, Miles, when Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia hands over, says goodbye, and the pilots say "All right, good night," before Ho Chi Minh picks up, there is this no man's land. Is that common? Does that happen a lot?

O'BRIEN: Yes.

Every time you have flown the North Atlantic, you have been in that no man's land, where the radar drops off and it's up to pilots to self- report. Basically, what the controllers do is send the flights off in a gate fashion, kind of like a conga line. You're supposed to maintain a certain speed and altitude, and you report it along the way on a high-frequency radio.

But you're not under positive radar control. And there are all kinds of little places in the U.S. at lower altitude where the same thing happens.

TAPPER: And how long is it usually? Is it just for 10 minutes? Is it for an hour, if the pilots want it to be hours?

O'BRIEN: If you're flying the North Atlantic, it's a couple of hours for sure before you're reaching radar.

So it's a matter of hours. In this case, it might be just a little quick dead band between the range of the two radars at each location. It's not -- I wouldn't worry too much about that. That kind of thing is very common in the system and there are ways to control, guard against collisions in those situations.

TAPPER: I think it's just -- it's news to a lot of us who are not pilots or FAA chiefs of staff that there is time when planes don't...

(CROSSTALK)

GOLDFARB: Over the North Atlantic and in those oceanic regions, there are just position reports every 15 minutes through a third party, Aering or SEDA, that communicates back to ground control or the airlines.

So, we don't have radar coverage over that part of the world. In the Pacific, we have what is called ADS-B, which is a satellite uplink down to the ground. So, there's a better tracking on the Pacific Ocean. That's where we want to go, and, unfortunately, we just haven't put that infrastructure in yet.

TAPPER: Michael, knowing what you know about the air traffic controllers in Kuala Lumpur, did they do anything wrong?

GOLDFARB: We don't know that yet. It's curious that there was no alarm when that plane was missing in the handoff or at least -- we call it the graveyard shift, but those folks are awake. And they don't have a lot of traffic that time of night, so they should have been able to do something.

Jake, more significant -- and we were talking about this -- is the data package, the telemetry. I think Miles brought that up earlier. It's inexcusable in this day and age that Malaysia Air chose not to put in that app. And that app was an upgrade to ACARS. We would not be here now, 10 days later, had they been reporting continuous information back to Malaysia air ops, as the Air France plane did. it would have helped us parameterize where the search was at a much earlier stage. We would have more than a handshake. We would have had a bear hug with those satellites.

TAPPER: It's about $10 a flight, I think I read, this upgrade?

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Inconsequential amount of money, yes, whatever it is.

GOLDFARB: Penny-wise, pound-foolish here. Look at the reputational costs. Look at the hundreds of millions of dollars that we're spending right now. That data package would not have solved this crash, but it at least would have given us a baseline to know where to look. TAPPER: I think one of the things we wonder about, Miles, again those of us who are not expert pilots is, if it's that essential, why isn't it mandated as so many things we hear about, such as the...

O'BRIEN: We should have the FAA guy talk about that a little bit.

But, yes, why don't the airlines do a lot of things? It's a tough business. And they don't make a lot of money typically. It's very difficult and they are reluctant to add costs. As far as the regulators go, it's different to regulate in that environment.

GOLDFARB: It is.

In the United States, all airlines do have this upgrade and one would have to ask both Boeing and Airbus, don't include it like rust proofing when you buy an aircraft. Include it in the base package that everybody has to have that upgrade. It should not be discretionary for airlines that fly large jets and people globally.

TAPPER: Miles, the Malaysians are also looking into this flight -- that the pilot supposedly made about eight minutes before takeoff from the cockpit. Is that a relatively normal occurrence?

O'BRIEN: The cell phone call? Well, technically, he shouldn't do it.

TAPPER: You're not supposed to make cell phone calls?

O'BRIEN: No, you're supposed to have a sterile cockpit. You're not supposed to do that kind of stuff.

However, it happens all the time, particularly if there's a delay. I have frequently made cell phone calls myself waiting for clearance to tell somebody at the other end that I'm a little bit delayed.

TAPPER: When you refer to a sterile cockpit, what do you mean?

O'BRIEN: Well, in the takeoff component and as you're on final approach, before 10,000 feet, a sterile cockpit implies you're not talking about sports or whatever. You're talking about flying the airplane and staying focused on that. And that's an important concept in crew safety and ultimately aviation safety.

TAPPER: And then there's this other report about Inmarsat, saying that the plane flew steadily away from their satellite signaling, that may have been on autopilot. This is obviously one of prevailing theories right now.

What does it tell you?

GOLDFARB: Once again, we don't know that critical moment when it turned. We don't know if it was nefarious or the pilot trying to come back to an alternate airport because of an emerging problem.

But surely on autopilot, and that pilot can fly that route for the six or seven hours that the NTSB believes it did until that crash point or that point in the ocean that it went down. Payne Stewart's plane, a slow decompression, loss of consciousness, flew for several hours in the United States before it went down.

And we have had other things. So, it's not unusual that it may have been on autopilot. Were the crew and passengers conscious? We just have so many questions than we have any answers for right now.

TAPPER: Miles, we're all watching this search for debris in the Southern Indian Ocean. If they don't find debris, is there any chance they are going to find this plane?

O'BRIEN: You know, I hate to make purely definitive statements, but I think not.

I think, without debris, I don't know -- it's a big world. It's a big ocean. And without debris, they have some idea where to begin, I don't know what would happen.

TAPPER: That's a terrifying thought.

Miles O'Brien and Michael Goldfarb, so good to have you.

Miles, welcome back. Good to see you.

O'BRIEN: It's a pleasure.

TAPPER: Coming up next, looking for hard evidence, the FBI combing through the hard drive from the captain's home flight simulator. And they are not just looking for deleted files.

Plus, a 3-year-old on a trip with her parents, all of them now missing passengers on Flight 370 -- how the families of the missing are coping as the wait continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Continuing our world lead. It's not just planes, ships, and high-tech underwater gear that could be critical in solving the mystery of Flight 370. The FBI is hoping some good old fashioned forensics will also help shed some light on what happens, specifically, the FBI is looking into a flight simulator that was found at the pilot's home to see what, if any, files he may have deleted.

Joining me now with more on that is CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown -- Pamela.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Jake.

I want to point out, first off here, that there is nothing at this point indicating that the pilots were the plane's disappearance. But with few clues as to what happened of Flight 370, sources say the FBI is throwing it has at figuring out what's on the copy of the hard drive containing information from the captain's home flight simulator and both of the pilot's laptops.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BROWN (voice-over): It's day two for cyber experts in the U.S. who are meticulously combing through the hard drive from the captain's home flight simulator. They are looking for flight paths that he may have programmed in and whether he intentionally went to great lengths to cover his tracks and purge files.

BRYAN CUNNINGHAM, CYBER SECURITY EXPERT: I would expect by now they would know the answer to the question, was information deleted in ways that were not routine?

BROWN: Some experts say the fact that the files were deleted more than a month before the flight disappeared could be telling.

CUNNINGHAM: I would be a little bit surprised if data that was deleted that far back in time turns out to be the smoking gun because the flight was not for several weeks after that. So you would think that if it was a sophisticated plot, that they would want to be practicing and rehearsing and researching up to almost the last minute.

BROWN: Investigators will also use data glean from the browser history of both pilot's laptops to build profiles of them.

CUNNINGHAM: Did they test out different route, not just on the simulator, but with satellite, Google Earth, mapping software?

BROWN: This morning, Malaysian officials confirmed they are still investigating a report about a possible call made from the cockpit right before takeoff.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: At this point, U.S. officials haven't revealed what information they have gleaned from that hard drive and how sophisticated the deletions were. So, again, too soon to (AUDIO GAP) to any conclusion about the pilots, the hard drive may be key or it could be an insignificant part of this process. We just don't know.

TAPPER: All right. Thank you, Pamela Brown.

So, what exactly are investigators looking for on this flight simulator and what sort of questions should they be asking about the two pilots?

I want to bring in Philip Mudd. He's a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, and he's worked for both the CIA and the FBI, working on counterterrorism and intelligence.

Mr. Mudd, thanks so much for being here.

PHIL MUDD, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: Sure, thank you.

TAPPER: Good to see you in person.

So, what exactly should the FBI and investigators be looking for on the simulator? MUDD: They are looking to try to understand a human being who's not a lot different than me and you. Look, we leave a digital trail every day that offers clues about our lives. You go to an ATM, you e-mail, you text, you phone. All those are digital exhaust that might indicate something about intent. Did he look at and then delete a file, for example, and then you match that up with all these other digital clues and start to say, we'll never have access to this human being, but do we begin to understand what is going on in his mind?

This is about understanding intent and whether he was trying to learn something about flying form a flight simulator that tells us what was in his mind.

TAPPER: You're a former FBI official. When you hear what the current FBI agents are looking for in the flight simulator, what does that tell you about their investigation, where they are, what they are looking for?

MUDD: It tells me that we're at an early stage. There are two characteristics that we're looking at here. One is, what happened to the plane? Mechanical? Electronic?

The second is what happened inside somebody's brain. What we're trying to do without having access to either the crime scene or the criminal, potentially, is to understand those both together when the number of clues we have is so minimal.

When we're at stage one of this investigation.

TAPPER: That's very discouraging. When you hear about them looking through the laptops or the flight simulator -- look, there's not going to be a file, a letter from -- an e-mail from Ayman al-Zawahiri saying take this plane and put it into the ocean. There's not going to be a Google search for making plane disappear.

So, what exactly beyond just anything -- what exactly are they looking for? Are they looking at every cookie, every Web site that this person has visited, every e-mail they've sent? Anything at all?

MUDD: Absolutely. You're looking at every bit and bite coming out of those laptops, coming out of a cell phone, coming out of -- again, an ATM transaction.

What if it turns out that the day before he took $400 out of the ATM? That would tell me something interesting. Why is somebody who intends, if he was responsible for this, who intends to take down an aircraft taken money out?

Every single clue, when you have as little as we have today, every single clue is helpful.

TAPPER: And you talk about -- we're in stage one of this, even though we're entering week three. What was your reaction when you saw the satellite photos that are the best clue we have?

MUDD: My reaction is, we're leading with our hearts, and not with our heads. I understand that. There's grieving families.

But let me go back to my old life for a second, which is a bit more cold blooded, life at the CIA. You tell me that an expansive ocean, we have days' old photographs showing specks of white in the midst of current changes in temperatures, changes in weather? That's the clue that we're focused on? You know, if you lay out the probabilities, the chance that we'll see those specks again and the chance that it's a piece of an aircraft, I'd say easily, less than 1 percent chance that we'll ever find something there related to the aircraft.

That's all we've got. So, I hope we find something. I hope it's useful. But my hat as an analyst and what I did for a living tells me, I'm sorry, we're never going to see that stuff. And if we do, the likelihood it's linked is going to be low.

TAPPER: Philip Mudd, thank you so much.

Coming up, the White House on edge after intelligence from the field has the Obama administration, quote, "very concerned," unquote, that Russia could invade Ukraine again in days.

Plus, it's being called the most inaccessible spot on the face of the Earth. So, how do search teams even begin to find clues in such a vast expanse of water? Well, I'll ask the Australian ambassador to the United States, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Some breaking news now. After already claiming Crimea, there is now real apprehension that Vladimir Putin could push even further into Ukraine, perhaps as soon as this weekend. Sources tell me that the Obama administration is, quote, "very concerned" that the Russians are not being truthful when they say their troops currently positioned on Ukraine's eastern and southern borders are merely there for training exercises.

Now, that is based on intelligence from the field, sources tell me. A senior administration official cautioned that they are not certain Russia is planning an imminent move deeper into Ukraine but they are, quote, "very concerned".

Yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel held a roughly hour-long phone call with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, in which according to a Pentagon readout of the call, Shoygu provided, quote, "assurance that the troops he has arrayed along the border are there to conduct exercises only, that they had intention of crossing the border into Ukraine, and that they would take no aggressive action," end quote.

But Obama administration officials have received intelligence suggesting there is reason to be skeptical of Russia's claims, and that Russia, as soon as in the coming days, could use any number of pretext to justify pushing military incursions deeper in Ukraine, whether expressing a need to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians or to protect transportation lines from Russia to Crimea, or to protect the energy supply to Crimea from the rest of Ukraine.

At the White House briefing today, national security adviser, Dr. Susan Rice, spoke directly to this issue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SUSAN RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: It's not clear what that signals. The Russians have stated that they are intending military exercises, obviously given their past practice and the gap between what they have said and what they have done, we're watching it with skepticism.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Officials say that Russian troops could accomplish a move like this very quickly and theoretically before any other nation could even raised objections after the border was crossed. The news comes as we've been watching a crackdown by forces loyal to Vladimir Putin at Ukrainian military bases across Crimea. One Ukrainian has been killed so far in this annexation.

Coming up, we're just getting some new information on those deleted files from the captain's home computer. We'll have that next.

Plus, what did Australia know and when? With such sophisticated radar and surveillance technology, is it possible that they could have detected Flight 370 in any way? I'll ask the Australian ambassador to the U.S. coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)