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EARLY START

Multinational Search for Flight 370 Debris; Crimea Officially Joining Russia

Aired March 21, 2014 - 05:00   ET

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


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POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news overnight. Searching for the wreckage of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Planes and ships scouring a remote southern section of the Indian Ocean. One of them has just returned to the base. Did they find anything, any debris that some believe could be part of that vanished jetliner?

We're going to bring you live coverage of all the latest developments overnight.

Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow. This is EARLY START.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Berman. Good to see you this morning. Five o'clock right now in the East, March 21st.

We're going to tell you the breaking news we have this morning. At this moment, still no sign of Flight 370. Five jets, four from Australia, one from the United States, flying over the search zone in the southern Indian Ocean overnight, looking for those two objects that could possibly be connected to the missing jetliner.

One of these search planes has just returned moments ago from the search area. It had to fly several hours even to get there.

HARLOW: Right.

BERMAN: The first plane is back. The pilot moments ago reporting no success, no sign of any debris. There are four more planes out there right now still searching. We'll bring you the news of what they say as it comes in.

We begin our coverage from Kuala Lumpur. Our Jim Clancy is there.

Jim, what can you tell us?

JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, I had a chance yesterday to sit down with one of the people that is very close to this investigation, a source that has to remain anonymous, talking about where do we understand what theories are out there. And I can tell you, from what he told me that all of the investigators are going back and revisiting their theories. And they are just that, theories, because there has been so little evidence produced over the past two weeks, much less than any of these people ever imagined.

They're going back and they're retesting these theories, they're going back to examine the pilots, they're going all the way back and looking at the two Iranians that got on the plane on false passports, and it was thought they were just trying to immigrate to Europe. They're going right back down the passenger list. They're exploring the possibility of a mechanical failure.

He told me that U.S. investigators think it is a coincidence too far that this plane just signs off to the Kuala Lumpur air traffic control tower, and before it can sign in to the Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnamese air traffic control tower, it suffers some kind of catastrophic problem and has to veer off course, a coincidence too far. They're pursuing that direction. They're looking at the pilots.

We talked to Hishammuddin bin Hussein, the defense minister, today. He was involved in a melee with the media as he came into the hotel, trying to make his way to one of the upper floors where they have meeting rooms, before they give us the press briefing.

And you know, he said there is nothing new to report. But that crush of journalists really tells the story of how desperate everyone is, the families, the media, and yes, even Malaysian officials, for the last scrap of information that might tell us something about Flight 370 and how it disappeared that night 14 days ago -- Poppy, John.

BERMAN: Jim, you bring up a great point here. I think the hope associated with these two possible pieces of debris has obscured what had been an investigation into the possible causes of what happened to this plane. You say they've been going back over every piece of information.

That flight simulator from the pilot's home for a day or two had been one area where they really wanted to delve in and get some more information. The FBI reportedly thinks it can get some of that deleted information off that flight simulator.

CLANCY: Certainly, they have experts that can do that. And once again, the defense minister telling everyone, we're getting good cooperation from people. He talked to the British today, and they were willing to send some experts. The French are here. They're helping with the investigation.

Malaysia depends on these international resources very much. The defense minister was outright. He said, look, we don't have these kinds of resources. We don't have these kinds of surveillance aircraft. We're very much dependent on the international community, and they are in contact with everybody that's involved.

Not just the people in the southern arc, the Australians, the Indonesians, but also those countries on the northern arc, as they try to pursue every single possibility. But thus far, we don't have any new data, any of the real evidence, and that is frustrating -- Poppy, John.

BERMAN: And where Jim is standing right now, we do expect to hear from the Malaysian defense minister, acting minister of transportation over the next half hour or so. We'll bring you that as it happens. Thanks to Jim.

At this moment, the search team is flying over that area in the south Indian Ocean, where they did spot those two objects that could be pieces of debris. They need to get a much better look at them.

Right now, these are the satellite images. Everyone's saying it's the best lead so far in this desperate attempt to find the missing jetliner. The question is, at this point, what are the odds they will have any success?

We're going to turn now to John Blaxland, senior fellow from Australian National University. He joins us live from Canberra, Australia.

John, I think the first question I want to ask you is this -- those satellites spotted something in the sea five days ago. Five days later, is it possible now? Why haven't more satellites been focused on areas around that to see if they could pick something up? Shouldn't we be seeing more images, if there really is debris there at this point?

JOHN BLAXLAND, SENIOR FELLOW, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: Well, there's no question that additional imagery requests have gone out, and whatever satellites have been passing over that area I'm sure have been passing their imagery to the analysts of the Australian Geospatial Imagery and Intelligence Organization to analyze and then pass on to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority boat as well as the air force people and the navy, U.S. Navy boat, operating their surveillance aircraft.

The problem is that while you get the data, if you can't see anything, there's nothing to show. So, that picture is now five days old, I should say. I had done some analysis of the current flows from the buoys and from the wind analysis, and they've figured out rough estimated area where that flotsam and jetsam probably is right now and they've focused into that narrow band to really get some eyes on to what might be in the water. And it really truly is the eyeballs looking out the window to try and identify what's there.

HARLOW: Right. You know, John, my question for you is this. You're a former military officer, so you know sort of what the government sees versus what civilians like us see.

I think there are a lot of questions out there right now about whether those satellite images that we've been showing our viewers over the last 24 hours are of the same quality and specificity as those in the military, in governments globally working to find this plane, what they're seeing. Is there any difference whatsoever?

BLAXLAND: Look, the key thing is that we've got to remember that when that photograph was taken, when that imagery was taken, this was not considered a high-priority area for high-resolution images to be taken.

BERMAN: Right.

BLAXLAND: So, take a high-resolution image on a stretch of southern ocean waters, you need to redirect a satellite to do that, and that takes time. And then you've got to get the data out.

So, really, that's the best you're going to get at this stage from something that was identified five days ago. You know, if you were to look at other higher priority areas, like the North Korean border, the DMZ, if you'd like, that's monitored all the time, you know? There are very high-resolution imagery of that all the time.

Southern ocean? Hey, this is something that only a couple days ago none of us were thinking about focusing on. So, the question about whether or not there is better high-resolution imagery, sure, you can get better ones, but to do it of the southern ocean, that takes a redirection of effort. That takes time.

The analysts then have to get the data, they have to scour through it, and it's really minutia. They've got to go through minutia, because don't forget, the item that we saw five days ago was just below the surface.

HARLOW: Right.

BLAXLAND: It's actually hard to identify what it is.

HARLOW: Absolutely.

BERMAN: That's why those planes and those surface vessels headed to the area will be key in this search. A painstaking process, as John Blaxland explains.

Thanks so much for being with us, John, this morning. Really appreciate it.

One of the things they've been dealing with over the last few days is the weather.

HARLOW: Yes.

BERMAN: At this moment, visibility in the south Indian Ocean, it's ideal.

HARLOW: But that window of opportunity for searching is going to be closing again soon.

Our meteorologist Indra Petersons is looking at the conditions in this zone.

This is critical, because they're not getting radar detections. This is all about line of sight, from the air and from the sea, and another storm is coming in?

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: I mean, that's the one thing we continue to be talking about, how treacherous this region is. You can actually see yesterday the cold front that did push through the search area. But keep in mind, although it has pushed out of the search area itself, of course, it's still in between land and where they need to be looking, so the pilots do still need to go through it.

But notice back in the distance here, you can see -- remember, we're shifting towards summer. This is the southern hemisphere. They're shifting towards winter. So, once again, we're still going to be talking about more and more storms every several days moving into the region.

Now we can take you in a little bit closer, a CNN exclusive. We actually have the search zone really in a high resolution here, so you can kind of see as go forward in time our model here, where we can see more clouds will be moving into the region, especially increasing that cloud cover by Sunday. So, that window is very narrow before that visibility, again, starts to go closer towards zero.

Also, some rain will start moving into the area, likely Sunday in through Monday, but the winds, this is what we talk about when you talk about that region especially.

Look at this -- when you look at the yellows and now even oranges and reds, these are 40, 50-mile-per-hour winds. So, by Sunday you really see the stronger winds moving into the region. Of course, we know those strong winds correlate to very strong wave heights, also those white caps they were looking at yesterday, so that will be concern as they make their way forward. We'll start to see instead of five and 10-foot waves, they'll be moving up again towards the 15 to 20-foot waves they saw just yesterday.

So, really another day before they see the treacherous seas again.

HARLOW: Yes, thank you, Indra. And this coupled with the fact that it takes them hours to get out there and the planes have at best two to three hours to search the area and go back.

PETERSONS: Right. They don't have that line of sight, that nice, clear line of sight with choppy waves.

HARLOW: Big challenge ahead. Thank you, Indra. Appreciate it.

Well, it's been 14 days since Flight 370 vanished, 14 days of unimaginable anguish for those who know and love the 239 people on board that plane.

The latest debris sighting in the south Indian Ocean, it is bringing hope to some, it is bringing tears to others.

Our Pauline Chiou has been spending time in Beijing with the families, the loved ones of those on Flight 370. She joins us now.

Give us a sense, first, Pauline, of the atmosphere in the room, because for the first time, they have been debriefed from the authorities there on what is known.

PAULINE CHIOU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, for the first time, unbelievably, after two weeks, high-level officials from the Malaysian government and also Malaysia airlines have come as the so-called high- level team here to Beijing, and this is a meeting that the relatives have been asking for, for days now. And they did get some answers, although as a whole, they were not satisfied with the answers.

The atmosphere in the room was tense, it was serious. It was packed. There were 400 to 500 relatives there in this banquet room that has been turned into a news briefing room. They were facing a panel of these executives and high-level officials.

And these relatives asked very pointed questions like lawyers, very methodical questions about civilian radar and military radar. And in one woman's very intense line of questioning, we did find out that Malaysian civilian radar and Malaysian military radar are housed in the same building. In fact, they're right next door to each other. The two teams separated by a wall.

You might remember that civilian radar lost contact with the flight after 1:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, March 8th. Military radar lost contact with them after 2:00 a.m. and then the plane apparently kept flying for another six, seven hours.

So, the question is, why weren't these two teams in the same building sharing data? So, that's one question, that's one issue that has come out of this news conference.

And also the issue of the competency of the Malaysian government and their resources. That came up time and time again among the relatives.

Also, another person stood up, Poppy, in this briefing and asked about one theory, and this man said, could another country's military force have shot down this plane, because we haven't seen any sign of this plane? And the Malaysian royal air force official said very carefully -- and he was choosing his words very carefully -- he said, based on the data and radar, at this point in time, shooting by the military is not highly possible.

Poppy, this was a really intense three or four hours of questioning. You could tell that the relatives, as one woman put it, she said it's been 14 days of pure agony. You could tell that they have been over all of these bits of information in their minds over and over, and now is their chance to ask the officials in charge.

HARLOW: Of course. Of course, they can't think of anything else. Our hearts go out to all of them.

Pauline, appreciate it. Thank you.

Well, we will continue to follow the latest breaking developments on this mystery of Flight 370 all morning long.

BERMAN: But first, the United States and Russia in a war of words and now a war of sanctions.

HARLOW: Right.

BERMAN: Will the crisis in Ukraine now escalate? We are live with the late-breaking developments right after this.

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HARLOW: We'll have more coverage of the search for Flight 370 in a moment.

First, your other top stories.

Crimea officially becoming part of the Russian Federation this hour. Russia's upper parliament house has just approved a treaty to annex the peninsula. That makes this transition permanent. Russia's lower house of parliament already voted 443-1 in favor of the treaty.

These developments triggering another round of dueling sanctions. The United States and the E.U. black-listing more Russians with ties to Putin. Moscow responding quickly, banning nine U.S. officials.

Fred Pleitgen is in Moscow this morning.

Fred, one of those officials, Senator John McCain.

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: One of those officials, senator John McCain, you said it, Poppy, and he seems absolutely devastated by the news that he had been put on that sanctions list. He tweeted, saying that I guess this means he won't be able to spend his spring break in Siberia. So, he was sort of making a mockery of everything.

However, we have to say, the Russian officials are doing exactly the same thing. One of the entities that was put on that sanctions list was the Rossiya Bank, and Vladimir Putin was quoted here in Russian media a couple minutes ago as saying now he wants to open an account in that bank.

So, really the two sides dueling somewhat, almost a little too shallow for the seriousness of the situation, because of course, we do still have Russian forces on the Crimean peninsula. And as you said, the Russian Federation Council, the upper house of Russian parliament just a few minutes ago permanently approved the treaty to annex Crimea, the vote there 155-0. So, unanimous vote. Big celebrations going on in the upper house of Russian parliament.

But of course, this is only going to lead to additional confrontation between the U.S., the E.U. and the Russian Federation, Poppy.

HARLOW: Absolutely. We'll be following that. But the rhetoric back and forth, back and forth on twitter and elsewhere.

Appreciate the reporting. Thank you. We'll get back to you.

BERMAN: All right, today's "Road Warriors," a look at the changing needs of today's business traveler. Renaissance Hotels hoping to attract a younger crowd by offering some unique music experiences. The hotel chain is now partnering with entertainment groups AEG and Universal Music to bring the guests music.

The Renaissance will now host local musical acts and offer a concierge-type service for exclusive service to some AEG shows just for renaissance guests. The 155-property hotel chain is taking a page from other luxury-focused brands by making nightlife a part of the business plan. As part of the official rollout, renaissance and universal music hosted an emerging artist event at last week's South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin.

Next week, they are hosting a concert at one of their New York City locations with indie rock band Group Love.

I know, Poppy, that's one of your favorites. We'll see --

HARLOW: It is all I listen to. I've never heard of it, but --

BERMAN: I've never heard of group love, but I'm sure they're fantastic, just like Barry Manilow.

HARLOW: Yes.

BERMAN: All right. Breaking news overnight, the latest into the investigation into missing Flight 370. At this moment, the planes searching overhead in that possible debris field. The first plane is back. We'll tell you what the pilot said, right after this.

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BERMAN: All right, the search very much on this morning, investigators flying over the southern Indian Ocean, hoping to answer the key question, do these satellite images you're looking at right now, released yesterday, do they show debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?

We've got an expert with us to look more closely now at those images.

HARLOW: Yes, satellite imagery analyst Sean O'Connor joins us on the phone from Indianapolis.

Sean, thank you for being with us. You were an intelligence analyst with the U.S. air force. So, we're going to put these pictures up, and I want to get your take on what you make of these satellite images that are now five days old.

Do you think they are a strong indication that this could be debris from missing Flight 370?

SEAN O'CONNOR, SATELLITE IMAGERY ANALYST (via telephone): Yes, hi. There's a chance that they could very well be debris. The problem is, you don't have good enough resolution to conclusively identify these as, say, aircraft fuselage parts, aircraft components, luggage or anything like that. So, there's obviously something there, and the sizes you're dealing with make it look that it's not going to necessarily be something natural.

So, it's a very good chance it could be debris of some sort from the aircraft.

BERMAN: Quickly, Sean, is there a way to get a better look with different satellites right now or a different look from these very images that have been taken?

O'CONNOR: No, your best chance is going to be to do exactly what they're doing right now, which is to go out and actively search for this debris pile so they can bring it on board and investigate it. You're about at the limit of your resolution capability with the smaller of the two objects they've identified.

BERMAN: Just can't get in any closer than it is right now.

HARLOW: Yes.

BERMAN: All right, Sean O'Connor, an expert in satellite images, helping us understand what we're looking at, understanding at this point, at least, this is the best look they have, which explains why the planes are flying overhead at this moment and why the ships are heading there to try to get eyeballs on that area, because it might only be through that that they understand whether these are pieces of debris from Flight 370.

HARLOW: And remember, that area is now very different. That area was five days ago when those were taken. So, with the weather, they could have shifted very much.

We're going to bring you more live, team coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, right when we get back.

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