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THE SITUATION ROOM

Crisis in Ukraine; Search for Flight 370; At Least 65 al Qaeda Militants Killed; Death Toll Climbs to 128 in Sunken Ferry; Supreme Court Upholds Affirmative Action Ban; Obama Visits Mudslide Victims as Death Toll Rises

Aired April 22, 2014 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, a CNN exclusive: new information about the next phase of the search for the Flight 370. We could be only hours away from a critical turning point in the entire operation.

Plus, claims of terror and torture. Ukraine launches a new crackdown against pro-Russian forces after a shocking discovery, and now the U.S. is deploying hundreds of troops.

And the first cry for help. We now know who placed the first distress call as a ferry was sinking, and it's raising more questions about the conduct of the crew.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

CNN is learning about a new agreement in the works right now to set critical guidelines in the search for Flight 370. Stand by for exclusive new information.

Also this hour, the air search is expected to resume after being disrupted by a tropical cyclone. And the Bluefin-21 is now on its 10th dive. It's almost finished scanning the current underwater search area. CNN has a major presence in Perth, Australia, the base of the operations for the search, and we have our team of experts here in THE SITUATION ROOM to break down all the new developments.

Let's bring in our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown. She's got the latest information -- Pamela.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

Wolf, we're learning Malaysian and Australian officials are working together to come up with a long-term game plan if nothing turns up in this targeted search area. They're considering the zone where they are right now and probably bringing in new tools to help in the search effort.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): The Bluefin-21 is almost done searching here. The underwater six-mile radius zone, considered the most likely area where the plane went down. DAVID GALLO, CO-LED SEARCH FOR AIR FRANCE FLIGHT 447: If they were thinking, if you remember, that this was the bull's eye that they were going to throw the one dart of the Bluefin into the bull's eye, I think it might be time to make the bully's eye a bit bigger and expand that area.

BROWN: Crews could finish searching that zone in the next day. If nothing is found, investigators will regroup but it's not necessarily back to square one.

MICHAEL KAY, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: We only have a specific amount of data, a certain amount of date that that has led us to this part of the world. I think we have to be encouraged that we've been led to this very specific and small part of the Indian Ocean.

BROWN: The Bluefin has only searched around the second ping which was thought to be the most likely area. Now, Malaysian and Australian officials are working out an agreement for what comes next. It includes what happens to any debris when it is found, how human remains will be treated and the undersea search.

Investigators could widen or shape the undersea search zone, perhaps to include more pings or change techniques, like using a towed underwater vehicle that could cover a larger area. But the passengers' families aren't convinced that experts are doing everything that they should.

SARAH BAJC, PARTNER OF PHILIP WOOD: Well, we'll keep going back to wanting to start over with the investigation. You know, what they are doing now, searching in the ocean, is like continuing to wanting to bail out a boat when the hole in the boat hasn't even been found yet.

BROWN: Meanwhile, surface ships continue scouring the sea for wreckage, search planes were curtailed today due to tropical cyclone Jack, churning near the search zone. It's the second time a major storm like this has gone through this area since the Malaysian plane went missing.

In Beijing today, families of passengers on the plane hoping for a technical briefing were disappointed for a second day in a row.

It comes after a briefing Monday where technical experts did not arrive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's nothing much I can tell you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And, meanwhile, the head of the investigation's next of kin committee is traveling to Beijing to meet with Chinese officials and families. And one more note, Wolf, we know experts are still examining the hard drives of the captain and co-pilot, but so far nothing too suspicious is jumping out at them.

BLITZER: FBI experts?

BROWN: FBI, Malaysian officials as well, still poking around on the hard drives and following up on leads, but nothing too big.

BLITZER: The hard drives from the computers from the pilot and the co-pilot and the simulator that the pilot had in his home, they're taking another look at that?

BROWN: They are still examining it as they have from the very beginning. It's not that they are going back to look at it, it's been an ongoing process ever since the FBI received those hard drives.

BLITZER: All right, Pamela Brown, stand by.

Let's go to Perth, Australia, right now. That's the staging area for the search. CNN's Miguel Marquez is our man on the scene for us.

You have got more exclusive reporting on the next phase of the search, Miguel. What can you tell us about a timetable?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, there's two different timetables. One, they want to finish the search they are doing now and it looks like they are just about completed with that.

If they do not find that airliner down there, then they will regroup, go back to the drawing board, figure out whether or not they are going to search in that area or if they are going to broaden out that search in a much bigger fashion using different devices in order to scan larger parts of the ocean, or as in the case of 447, Air France 447, use several autonomous underwater vehicles all at the same time, so they are on a 24/7 sort of basis looking at a wide swathe of the ocean there.

They know the plane is down there, it's just a matter of finding it. At the same time that is happening, Malaysian officials talking to Australian officials and others who are organizing this about the way forward once they find that wreckage, how that debris is processed, and most importantly, how the dead, the individuals who remain on that plane, how they are taken from that and how they are processed and identified once they are brought to the surface -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Following that cycle. I take it the weather has improved and the aerial search on this day at least will continue?

MARQUEZ: Yes, we believe the aerial search will be back up. It's still a little early yet. The cyclone has now turned into a low- pressure system and it's rainy out there and there's lots of waves, so that does tend to make the surface search very, very difficult.

They have not made a decision on whether it will go today. They have flown in worse conditions, but it is so many days on since that plane went down, it would be difficult in perfect conditions for them to find something, so they may let it go for another day -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Miguel Marquez in Perth, Australia, thank you.

If and when the plane's black boxes are found, experts in Australia, they say they are ready to help analyze the data, a job that's a lot more complicated than you might think. CNN's Michael Holmes gives us an exclusive look into a lab where that investigation might play out.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a nondescript government building in Australia's capital, Canberra, the secrets of Malaysia Flight 370 might one day be unlocked.

(on camera): What's this room, Neil?

NEIL CAMPBELL, AUSTRALIA TRANSPORT SAFETY BUREAU: Well, this is our audio laboratory. It's a specially designed screen room, so it's shielded.

HOLMES: From electronics and audio?

CAMPBELL: That's right, outside signals. And as well, it's got very good soundproofing.

HOLMES (voice-over): Inside the Australian Transport Safety Bureau laboratory where Neil Campbell and his team forensically examine data recorders not just from planes, but trains, even ships.

(on camera): Now, the reality is there are very few countries in the world, just a handful of them, who have the technical know-how to work out what's inside one of these things, and this lab is one of those places.

(voice-over): Boxes from other investigations torn apart, burned, damaged in many ways suggest a tough assignment, but here they say the story of what happened is usually found.

CAMPBELL: A lot of our work is with undamaged recorders and it's very easy to download them, perhaps as you would a USB memory stick.

HOLMES (on camera): But even with really damaged ones, your success rate in getting the information off is good.

CAMPBELL: Yes, we have always been able to recover the information from the recorders we have received.

HOLMES (voice-over): He's a measured, cautious man, prerequisites for a job that involves not just knowledge, but patience, lots of patience.

CAMPBELL: From the flight data recorder, we obtain a raw data file.

HOLMES (on camera): Just ones and zeros.

CAMPBELL: Which contains just ones and zeros.

HOLMES (voice-over): The boxes contain a wealth of information, up to 2,000 separate pieces from the data recorder alone, high technology built into a waterproof, fireproof, shock-proof shell. At the end of this complex chain of information and analysis can be this, an animated representation of a tragedy, this one from a 2010 training flight, two dead after a simulated engine failure went wrong.

CAMPBELL: A lot of the symmetry, which couldn't be controlled, and the aircraft ended up impacting the terrain, unfortunately.

HOLMES (on camera): And you are able to recreate this thing from the black boxes?

CAMPBELL: That's right. This is based on flight data recorder information.

HOLMES (voice-over): The size of the boxes is deceptive in some ways, the vast majority of it containing technology that supports the brain very deep within, surprisingly small, but containing everything Neil Campbell needs on a handful of computer chips.

(on camera): In a box this big, that's what you need?

CAMPBELL: Yes. That's the crucial bit.

HOLMES (voice-over): But they have to be found first, Malaysia not a country with the technical ability to decipher the boxes. Nothing's been decided, but it is highly possible that if they are found, they will end up here, where Neil Campbell and his team say they are ready to attempt to unlock a mystery like no other.

Michael Holmes, CNN, Canberra, Australia.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let's bring in our panel of experts, our aviation analyst Peter Goelz, our law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes, and joining us from Perth, Australia, Geoffrey Thomas, editor in chief of AirlineRatings.com.

The Australians or the U.S., who should take charge of investigating the so-called black box, the flight data recorder, if it's found?

TOM FUENTES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think there's a good chance that if the Australians get it, they will have some help from the NTSB when they go through the analysis, so I think it will be a joint effort, but from all accounts, both are the best. Both are outstanding.

BLITZER: I know your former colleagues, Peter, at the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, they'd like to get the first crack at this.

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: They certainly would, and they feel they have the most experience of any safety board in the world at taking down and getting the data out of a damaged FDR, but, you know, they have worked with the Australians, they will work with them again. This will be a joint effort and it's going to go to the lab that's got the right equipment to do the job right the first time. BLITZER: Technically, Jeffrey, the Malaysians have control, supposedly, authority to give this recovered flight data recorder, or the cockpit voice recorder, to anyone they want to inspect it.

I assume politically it might be more advantageous for Malaysia to let the Australians have a crack at it, as opposed to the U.S. What's your sense?

GEOFFREY THOMAS, EDITOR IN CHIEF, AIRLINERATINGS.COM: Well, that's an interesting observation, but possibly the thing that might govern this is the fact that the locality of Australia with Malaysia, it's much closer, obviously.

And as has been suggested, I believe that if Australia does get the boxes to examine and decode, they have got all the equipment necessary, the same as the United States, obviously, but the U.S. would work with Australians on this, so it really would be a joint effort based possibly in Canberra simply because of the geography of being so close to Malaysia.

BLITZER: What's the latest, Geoffrey, you're hearing on the ground in Perth about the search operation, the aerial search, the underwater search, what's going on?

THOMAS: My sense on this now is that there may be one or two more missions of the Bluefin to cover this initial second ping area that they are looking at. This is where the strongest ping was.

My understanding is, then may move it to the first ping, which is further north, but I don't believe they will then go to the third and the fourth ping, so that's what I believe they will do with the Bluefin-21, but there is serious consideration now to bring in other assets like the towed Orion, which gives data in real time, also able to go deeper. So I think the next phase will probably be a two-part situation, where we move to the first ping and possibly deploy the Orion as well.

BLITZER: Tom, there was an interesting tweet today from the acting transport minister of Malaysia.

I will put it up on the screen. "I was told that the Chinese navy also has deep-sea search capability. Going to check with them tomorrow."

The Chinese are not going to be brought into the underwater search operations?

FUENTES: Good question. I don't know, you know, whether he's making that statement politically to, you know, show cooperation with China. You know, we don't know exactly...

BLITZER: As far as you know, Peter, do the Chinese have an excellent underwater search capability that maybe the U.S. or the Australians don't have?

GOELZ: I would guess anyone that's got a serious submarine fleet has got underwater search capable.

I'm surprised that this is the first time they have asked the Chinese what their assets are. I would have thought that within the first week or 10 days, all of the countries involved would have let the Malaysians know what assets they have.

BLITZER: I was told, Geoffrey -- maybe you know more about this than I do, a couple weeks ago the Chinese do have something, I think it was called the Blue Dragon, something along those lines, that can go deep underwater at incredible depth. Do you know anything about this?

THOMAS: Look, indeed, they do have that capability. I'm not exactly sure of the name, but it does end with Dragon, I do know that, but, yes, they do have that capability. They have demonstrated it recently, and, in fact, Wolf, as you suggested, it's pretty well common knowledge that they are one of the handful of countries that does have that capability.

BLITZER: Geoffrey Thomas, Peter Goelz, Tom Fuentes, guys, thanks very much. More on this story coming up later.

But let's get to another major story we're following right now. U.S. troops, they are on the move to response to rising tensions with Russia and the dangerous crisis in Ukraine. The Pentagon announced today it's expanding military exercises in Poland and the Baltic region. A total of 600 U.S. troops will be involved, all this as Ukraine ordered a new anti-terror crackdown, citing the discovery of two tortured bodies and claiming the crimes were committed with the support of Russian forces.

We're joining now by Daniel Baer. He's the United States ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. That's the group that is trying to monitor this crisis in Ukraine.

Ambassador, thanks very much for joining us.

First of all, what do you make of these two bodies, one member of parliament who were apparently tortured and killed?

DANIEL BAER, AMBASSADOR TO THE ORGANIZATION FOR SECURITY AND COOPERATION IN EUROPE: Well, obviously, Wolf, there have been a series of very concerning human rights violations that have gone on, particularly since the Russian incursion in Crimea began.

There's been many reports of torture in Crimea since Russian troops came in there, and these two latest incidents of torture are obviously deeply concerning. In addition, we have seen journalists taken hostage in recent days. Tonight, there's a young American journalist who is reported to have been captured.

We, obviously, have great concern about all of these human rights abuses and it's part of the reason we have been working so hard to bring a diplomatic solution to the instability.

BLITZER: You're talking about the American journalist Ostrovsky? Is that who you're talking about? BAER: Exactly.

He's been really intrepid, Wolf. He's been doing reporting on the ground for the last few weeks, and I think a lot of us who follow Ukraine day by day, hour by hour have depended on him and a bunch of other young independent journalists just like him who have been really getting information out in the midst of really, really tough circumstances.

So certainly our thoughts are with him and his family tonight.

BLITZER: So who's responsible, based on everything you know, Ambassador, for the abduction of this American journalist?

BAER: Well, I don't think we know exactly who's responsible right now. We have heard reports that he's been taken. There have been some things on social media in the last hour. I was seeing reporting that he is not harmed, but, obviously, it's a very murky situation, and this really underscores the need to de-escalate the situation in the East.

We have been making clear for weeks now that Russia's participation in the instability is unhelpful, it's unjustified. It's not contributing to a de-escalation on the ground. And, obviously, after the talks last week in Geneva on Thursday, we had some hope that immediately steps could be taken to de-escalate the situation.

Unfortunately, Russia has not taken the steps that it needs to take to implement that statement in Geneva.

BLITZER: These monitors who have been sent in from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and you're the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, how secure are they, how safe are they, when they go into these areas?

BAER: Well, obviously, they are intrepid and doing great work on behalf of the whole international community.

There are over 40 countries represented in the initial tranche of monitors that are on the ground right now, and we care a great deal about their safety. And, in fact, today in a special permanent council meeting in Vienna, I called upon participating in the OSCE, all 57, to take steps to ensure the safety of those monitors, because we do depend on them, on the information that they are providing, on the independent assessment that they are providing on the ground.

Today in Vienna also, it was decided that we'd immediately take steps to raise the levels, the number of monitors from the current 100 to 500, which is allowed in the mandate.

BLITZER: Those photos that the Ukrainians released yesterday showing what they say were really Russian paramilitary or Russian military special operations forces being responsible for at least part of the takeover of Eastern Ukraine, those buildings of the Ukrainian government, do you have any doubt that this is an operation that's being undertaken by the Russian government? BAER: I think there are more than just one set of photos. There's plenty of video evidence.

Everything, all of the evidence that we have seen leads to the inevitable conclusion that there's a Russian hand behind what is going on in Eastern Ukraine. What is happening in Eastern Ukraine would not be happening without Russia's engagement. That doesn't mean that there aren't other actors engaged, but it's clear that what is happening would not be happening without Russia's engagement.

And so when we see these highly armed, highly professional paramilitaries taking over public buildings, it's quite clear that they are being coordinated, they're being organized, and this is part of the reason why we have called on Russia to take steps to de- escalate, to send the message to those who are illegally occupying these buildings that Moscow does not support this illegal occupying of buildings. Moscow wants people to come out, to disarm, to take advantage of the amnesty and the arms buy-back that is available to them.

That was what Moscow committed to do through the foreign minister in Geneva last Thursday, was to support that plan for those initial steps. We're still waiting for the Russian Federation to make good on its commitment.

BLITZER: Daniel Baer is the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Ambassador, we will continue to check back with you. Thank you very much.

The Obama administration is struggling to handle the worst confrontation with Russia since the Cold War and is now facing similar challenges in its response to the civil war in Syria.

Our foreign affairs reporter, Elise Labott, is taking a closer look at all this for us.

What are you seeing, Elise?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, with both Syria and Ukraine, the president has effectively taken the military option off the table.

When the U.S. threatens consequences, do either President Assad or President Putin find the or else threatening enough?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LABOTT (voice-over): Horrific images of a possible chlorine attack in Syria, children gasping for breath, men choking and foaming at the mouth. Even as inspectors on the ground rid Syria of its most deadly chemical weapons, Western officials see fresh signs the regime continued to gas its own people, violating a deal which scrapped plans for U.S. military strikes, a deal held today by the secretary of state. JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We now have the majority percentage of chemical weapons moved out of Syria, and we're moving on schedule to try to complete that task.

LABOTT: Critics say U.S. policy to contain President Assad has been high on rhetoric.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Syrian civil war is not solved, and yet Syria has never been more isolated.

LABOTT: But administration officials stress they are trying to change the military balance, sending American anti-tank missiles and other equipment to the opposition.

Yet Assad seems unimpressed, even taunting the world this week of talk of reelection. It's a similar U.S. playbook for dealing with Ukraine and a similar problem. With no military threat, will other pressures work?

OBAMA: We're united in our determination to isolate Russia and impose costs for Russia's action.

LABOTT: The White House says it wants to sever Russia's political and economic ties to the world, suspending Russia from the G8 and halting cooperation with NATO. But President Putin has laughed off those costs.

ANDREW WEBB, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT: The tolls are not necessarily going to be effective. And what you end up with is a big gap between Western rhetoric and Western action.

LABOTT: In Ukraine today, Vice President Joe Biden warned Moscow the price will go up if Moscow reneges on a deal reached last week to ease tensions.

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have been clear that more provocative behavior by Russia will lead to more costs and to greater isolation.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LABOTT: And, Wolf, U.S. officials can't point to any signs Russia is holding up to its end of that bargain struck in Geneva and they warn a new round of sanctions could come as early this week, but analysts say there isn't a sense sanctions will change the calculus in Moscow.

Wolf, they say he -- Putin has determined as long as he doesn't launch a full-on invasion of Ukraine, there isn't much more punishment in store and he can live with the current costs -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Elise Labott reporting for us, thank you, Elise.

Still ahead, is an al Qaeda bomb maker dead? Could be one of the terror group's biggest losses since Osama bin Laden was killed.

And divers pulling more bodies from the wreckage of a sunken ferry, as they reach a location where many teenage passengers may have been hunkered down.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: "CROSSFIRE" won't be seen tonight so we can bring you some new developments in some of the urgent stories we're following here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Yemeni officials are now working to determine if this man, take a look, this man, al Qaeda's chief bomb maker, was among those killed in a massive raid that targeted the group's branch in the Arabian Peninsula.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is over at the Pentagon and she's working the story for us.

Barbara, what's the latest information you're getting about these very dramatic weekend raids?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Ibrahim al-Asiri, al Qaeda in Yemen's master bomb maker, was he there? Right now, U.S. officials are telling us they don't think so. They know that DNA is being tested and they will await the results, but for now they don't think at least that they got him in this raid.

What is so interesting, Wolf, is that we have learned Yemeni commandos were flown into Southern Yemen on Sunday in Russian-made helicopters piloted by Americans. They are not saying whether they were CIA, U.S. military, special forces, but it was Americans that piloted those helicopters, Russian-made helicopters, into Southern Yemen to carry the Yemeni commandos in.

They wanted to maintain a low profile and they didn't want it to look like American helicopters were there, but they needed some expert pilots to get them into this very remote region to go after these targets, including a major terrorist training camp -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know the U.S. government has had some time now to digest the videotape. You showed it to our viewers, the first reporter to do so last week, of that massive meeting that these al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula militants had in Yemen, what, in March.

What are the latest thoughts you're hearing from U.S. government sources?

STARR: Well, look, there's a couple of things that they are looking at there that have been quite unsettled.

You know, obviously, 100 al Qaeda fighters that thought they could get away with meeting out in the open, but look at that. Look at those terrain features. They even went a step further. They allowed themselves to be filmed with mountains, shrubbery, terrain showing.

Pretty easy for the Yemenis to understand exactly the region where this was taking place when they see those terrain features. This is an area in two provinces called

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: "CROSSFIRE" won't be seen tonight so we can bring you some new developments in some of the urgent stories we're following here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Yemeni officials are now working to determine if this man -- take a look -- this man, al Qaeda's chief bomb maker, was among those killed in a massive raid that targeted the group's branch in the Arabian Peninsula.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is over at the Pentagon. She's working the story for us.

Barbara, what's the latest information you're getting about these very dramatic weekend raids?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Ibrahim al Asiri, al Qaeda in Yemen's master bomb maker, was he there? Right now U.S. officials are telling us they don't think so. They know that DNA is being tested. They're going to await the results, but for now they don't think, at least, that they got him in this raid.

What is so interesting, Wolf, is that we have learned that Yemeni commanders were flown into southern Yemen on Sunday in Russian-made helicopters piloted by Americans. They are not saying whether they were CIA, U.S. military, special forces, but it was Americans that piloted those helicopters, Russian-made helicopters, into southern Yemen to carry the Yemeni commandos in.

They wanted to maintain a low profile. They didn't want it to look like American helicopters were there, but they needed some expert pilots to get them into this very remote region to go after these targets, including a major terrorist training camp -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know the U.S. government has had some time now to digest the videotape. You showed it to our viewers, the first reporter to do so last week of that massive meeting that these al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula militants had in Yemen, what, in March. What are the latest thoughts you're hearing from U.S. government sources?

STARR: Well, look, there's a couple of things that they're looking at there that have been quite unsettled. You know, obviously, 100 al Qaeda fighters thought they could get away with meeting out in the open, but look at that. Look at those terrained features. They even went a step further. They allowed themselves to be filmed with mountains, shrubbery, terrain showing, pretty easy for the Yemenis to understand exactly the region where this was taking place when they see those terrain features.

This is an area in two provinces called Shabwah and Abyan. It looks like this, so it began to provide the key intelligence to figure out perhaps where some of these people were. And the key question is, was that intelligence critical enough, was it crucial, did it lead to those raids we saw over the weekend -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, stand by. Because I want to bring in our national security analyst, Peter Bergen and our CNN correspondent, Mohammed Jamjoom, who reported extensively from Yemen, one of the few western reporters that do so. What are you learning, Mohammed, about this joint U.S.-Yemeni military operation?

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's fascinating how much the Yemenis are talking about this now. They are clearly hopeful that this was, in fact, Ibrahim al Asiri who was killed. There still is skepticism from some officials I'm speaking with in Yemen. There have been many times in the past when the Yemenis have been burned. They've been premature in announcing the death of a high-value target. Turns out that they weren't actually killed.

Yemenis are saying there's very credible evidence that they did kill him. They know they got a Saudi. They believe it was a high-value target. The intel led them to this area, where they believe Asiri was, and they think there's a chance now that they got him.

If they did, that is a huge victory for them, but the Yemenis are also saying it's not enough just to take out these high-value targets. They need to continue these massive and unprecedented operations that they've been undergoing with the Americans, and they need to really try to degrade the capabilities of AQAP and go after the training camps and those recruitment camps.

BLITZER: Peter, remind our viewers who Ibrahim al Asiri, the master bomb maker, is.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, this is somebody who's pretty cold-blooded. I mean, this is a guy who sent his own brother to try and kill the then-minister of the interior in Saudi Arabia, Prince Nayef. That was the first time that he came to public notice. That attack didn't succeed, but it killed his brother. So somebody who would send his own brother on a suicide operation is somebody who's pretty cold-blooded.

And of course, he also has great skills. He's managed to get undetectable bombs onto both American passenger planes and also cargo planes bound to the United States. Luckily, both of those were detected.

What are you hearing, Barbara, when you hear these reports of U.S.- Yemeni cooperation, these drone strikes, helicopter strikes going out to these targets, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula? Is this a new phase for the United States? Is the U.S. now engaged in what they call boots on the ground in Yemen?

STARR: Not boots on the ground per se, Wolf. We are told there was no U.S. combat forces on this mission over the weekend on the ground. But they did pilot the helicopters.

What the U.S. has been doing off and on very quietly, U.S. Special Forces had been assisting in training the Yemenis in counterterrorism.

Why might we be seeing so much progress now to get after AQAP, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, after months of it seeming to be on the back burner? Well, there's a new government in Yemen. They want to get after this group. But the Yemenis are also seeing al Qaeda come after targets in their own country, so they now have a much more motivation, perhaps, to get after al Qaeda in their country and willing to take the U.S. assistance to do it.

What the U.S. is worried about is people like Ibrahim al Asiri are not plotting just to attack Yemeni targets but plotting to attack U.S. targets. That's the big worry, Wolf.

BLITZER: I assume, Peter -- and you know a lot about this -- that if -- let's say they got this master bomb maker, Ibrahim al Asiri. He's trained apprentices, others, who could fill some of the void if he's gone.

BERGEN: Certainly, U.S. officials I've spoken to say that they think Asiri has trained others. And so yes, his techniques can certainly survive him.

BLITZER: So there will be others who can get the job done, because usually when the U.S. or others go ahead and kill al Qaeda elements, there's others who fill that vacuum.

JAMJOOM: Absolutely. Time and again, Wolf, we've seen top-tiered leadership figures in Yemen that have been taken out, and yet al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is a resurgent organization. They are still recruiting people. They are still plotting terror attacks, not just in Yemen, outside of Yemen, as well.

And one of the most striking things that I've noticed about this operation so far, what I'm hearing is the fact that there are actually Yemeni boots on the ground in these areas. I think that this is (ph) -- these are very scary, difficult places to enter. The Yemeni military does not want to go into places like this, so unless they feel sure that they can take out some high-value targets, they're not really going to make that attempt. The fact that they're doing that and the operations are continuing really shows -- indicates just how serious they are.

BLITZER: Mohammad Jamjoom, Peter Bergen, Barbara Starr, a trio of excellent journalists helping us appreciate what's going on.

Jut ahead, the mounting death toll as divers continue with a very dangerous search through a sunken ferry. We'll have a live report from the scene on the new developments. There she is. Kyung Lah, she's on the water. We're going there live in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Breaking news. Another jump in the death toll in the South Korea ferry disaster. A hundred and twenty-eight people are now confirmed dead. A hundred and seventy-four are missing, many of them teenagers.

We're also learning more about what went wrong and who made that first desperate call for help. CNN's Kyung Lah is on a boat off the coast of South Korea, very close to the submerged ship.

Kyung, what is the latest you're seeing and hearing?

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There is a desperate search, Wolf, happening right under the water, under this sea that you're seeing right here. Divers are using their hands to feel around the sunken ferry, because they simply cannot see. That's how murky this water is, and so it is very dangerous.

If you look and scan across the horizon, you'll see all of these military vessels. The reason why there are so many is that they're worried that bodies may drift out of the ferry and disappear.

While all of this is happening, the investigation into why this accident happened continues.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAH (voice-over): Today we learned that the first call for help came not from the captain, but from a boy onboard. The South Korean coast guard tells CNN that call happened a full three minutes before the ship's crew made its first distress call.

More grim news from the search zone, as search-and-rescue divers plunge into the cold, murky water, hoping to find survivors nearly a week after the tragedy.

The search here is dangerous. Divers swim down more than 100 feet, following guide ropes that lead them into the submerged ferry, where they can barely see a foot in front of them. The low visibility and debris make it nearly impossible for them to find their way around.

Authorities say the efforts are still a search-and-rescue operation, but no survivors have been found since 174 people were rescued last week soon after the ferry went down.

Divers entered the ship's cafeteria on the third floor Tuesday and continue their focus on the third and fourth level inside the lounge and cabin areas where they believe many of the students are located. The tough conditions and high body count are taking a toll on divers.

BARD YOON, DIVER (through translator): The conditions are so bad, my heart aches. We're going in thinking there may be survivors. When we have to come back with nothing, we can't even face the families.

LAH: Meanwhile, two more crewmembers were arrested Tuesday, bringing the total of those facing charges to nine. Their heads bowed and covered, they said they tried to reach the lifeboats as the ship was tilting over.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Well, we slipped, so we could not do that.

LAH: Cheonghaejin Marine, the ferry operator, has posted an apology on its Web site. "We prostrate ourselves before the victims' families and beg for forgiveness," the Web site said, "We beg for forgiveness from the victims' families and pray for the dead."

Small consolation to family members on the shore, called into white dome tents to identify the remains of their loved ones.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAH: What you're looking at live back here at the search site, that is a crane. There are five of these cranes that are dotting the area. They are not being used yet. They signal the next phase of recovery. They will head toward the ferry and attempt to lift this ferry. It is 6,000 tons, Wolf. It will not be very easy -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Based on everything you're hearing, Kyung, do they really believe there are air pockets left inside that sunken ship, and they might find some survivors?

LAH: The government isn't saying that this is a recovery. They're calling this a search for survivors, but what you say and what you believe, they are two different things. Everyone here is saying that they're going to try to find survivors, that there may be air pockets, but what they believe every time you ask them, is this even a possibility, a lot of these divers start to cry. Even government officials, police, they start to break down, because the possibility is so slim.

BLITZER: Heartbreaking story, indeed. Kyung Lah, thank you very much.

Just ahead, the United States Supreme Court's historic ruling today. Could it mean the end -- yes, the end -- of affirmative action on college campuses? We'll explain.

And President Obama's visiting with the families hit hardest by Washington state's mudslide as the death toll climbs even higher.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The U.S. Supreme Court is taking another shot at federal affirmative action laws in a major ruling today, upholding Michigan's ban on using race as a criteria in college admissions.

Let's discuss what's going on.

Joining us, our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, and our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

So, Jeff, is this an end to affirmative action on college campuses?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's the end of it in Michigan. We'll see about the rest of the country, because, you know, the University of Michigan said, we want to have affirmative action. We want to have race be one factor in admissions, but the voters of Michigan voted that policy down. They said we don't want any affirmative action, 58 percent of the voters in Michigan in a referendum said get rid of affirmative action. The Supreme Court said the voters had a right to do it.

So, this could be a road map for other states, voters, state legislators, that want to get rid of affirmative action because now the Supreme Court is giving it the OK.

BLITZER: Yes, it was a 6-2 decision. Elena Kagan refusing herself.

But, Gloria, what are the political implications of this? You know, as Jeffrey just said, it could give encouragement to those who oppose affirmative action by -- just take it to a referendum. If you think you can win in your state, as occurred in Michigan, then maybe you can stop affirmative action in your state.

But on a larger stage, I think this puts the issue of race front and center again as we head into 2014, as we head into 2016. You look at this Supreme Court. You look at what it did with the Voting Rights Act not too long ago. You'll be able to point to this decision and say, oh, is this the beginning of the end of affirmative action?

And Democrats are clearly going to use that on the campaign trail. And I guarantee you during a 2016 campaign, the Supreme Court will be high on the debate list.

BLITZER: And it's not just state colleges, Jeffrey. Private colleges are potentially involved as well?

TOOBIN: Absolutely. The issue here is, you know, who decides? Who will decide whether race will be a factor in admissions?

And what the Supreme Court has said now is that the voters can make that decision. State legislators can make that decision. So, politicians can't pass the buck to the universities anymore. They have to say, are they in favor or are they not in favor of the use of race? So I think it just injects race again into the politics of every state, the country, even more dramatically than it's been in the past.

BORGER: You know, and Justice Kennedy said look, this is not about how the debate over race is going to get resolved in the end, but it's about who should resolve that debate. In this particular case, the court said the voters resolved it. They made a decision, and that's what you ought to stick with.

BLITZER: Gloria Borger, Jeffrey Toobin, a very, very important decision by the U.S. Supreme Court today. Thanks for that analysis.

Just ahead, scenes of devastation seen from the president's helicopter.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama is in Washington state right now. He is touring the damaged communities hit by a massive mudslide. It's his last stop in the United States before beginning a week-long four- nation tour of Asia, including Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea. CNN's Ana Cabrera is joining us now from Washington state, the scene of where the president has been touring.

This is still a heartbreaking experience, not only for him, but, Ana, from the folks who live there.

ANA CABRERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is a resilient community, Wolf. We do know the president is just wrapping up his meeting with family members of the victims of the landslide, as well as first responders. He has witnessed the overwhelming devastation here, and he's also seen signs like this, signs of a resilient community, really united by this tragedy. We can tell you two bodies were pulled from the debris just this week. Two more people are still missing.

And we had a chance to go into the landslide zone to give you a look at what the search effort is like today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CABRERA: Is this the last zone to be searched?

BEN WOODWARD, SEARCHER: No. It's not the last zone.

CABRERA (voice-over): The work seems never ending. It's been one month since a mountain slide plunged into the town of Oso, Washington.

Searcher Ben Woodward took us right into the heart of the slide.

(on camera): What was here before the landslide?

WOODWARD: You know, houses, sparse houses, trees.

CABRERA (voice-over): We walked along what was once a highway. The surroundings don't even resemble the community that once flourished here. Yet, this is progress.

WOODWARD: Where we're standing was under at least 10 feet of water a few weeks ago.

CABRERA (on camera): Water and mud still creating the biggest challenges for these search crews. We're told water was above my head when that landslide first hit.

What they had to do is create a water channel with pumps to be able to move the water out of this area just to give search crews access to look here.

(voice-over): Special machinery like this floating excavator just arrived to help search for the missing in the obstacle-filled wreckage.

(on camera): This gives you an idea of what search crews are up against -- logs, mud, piles of debris stacked 20 to 40 feet high in some places.

(voice-over): The slow, sloppy, and dangerous work comes with an emotional toll. So far at least 41 victims have been recovered in the disaster zone. A Washington spruce tree left standing in the middle of the slide area now serves as a makeshift memorial to honor lives lost.

(on camera): This is a special place for the searchers that are out here.

WOODWARD: Absolutely.

CABRERA (voice-over): Woodward says it provides a source of strength for the ongoing recovery effort.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CABRERA: Now, when the search itself is over, there are still months ahead of cleanup and rebuilding -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Ana, the official death toll now is?

CABRERA: Is 41. But we do know there are at least two people still missing.

It's really amazing when you look at where we were a month ago. And at one point, there were well over 100 people missing. And even as they have continued to whittle it down, they're keeping out that hope that they'll be able to bring closure to all of the families that are affected in this community.

This is one of the biggest natural disasters ever to hit Washington state. It's been comparable to Mount St. Helens and that eruption that claimed 57 lives here in Washington -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ana Cabrera, thank you very much.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. You can tweet me @WolfBlitzer. You can tweet the show @CNNSitRoom. Be sure to join us tomorrow live or DVR the show you won't miss a moment.

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