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Explosive May Have Caused Metro Jet Crash; Press Secretary Speaks On Plane Crash; Egypt Plane Crash Raises U.S. Security Concern; Investigation Continues Into Metrojet Crash; U.K. Delays Flights Over Info Pointing Towards Midair Explosion. Aired 1-1:30p ET
Aired November 4, 2015 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 6:00 p.m. in London, 9:00 p.m. in Moscow. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: And we've got breaking news that we're watching, the reaction from the United Kingdom on the Russian plane crash mystery. The office of Britain's prime minister, David Cameron, has now said, publicly, it is very possible the plane was brought down by what is being described as an explosive device. Here is the statement from the British government. As more information has come the light, we have become concerned that the plane may have been brought down by an explosive device.
The White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, was asked about that only moments ago. Here is what he said.
JOSH EARNEST, U.S. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I understand about the situation. Let me start by saying that there is -- I don't have any new information to share from here about the ongoing investigation. The Egyptians continue to lead that investigation. Obviously, the Russians are involved because of the substantial number of Russian citizens who lost their lives in this tragic incident. And I don't want to say anything that would interfere with or prejudice the outcome of that ongoing investigation. We obviously have a strong desire to get to the bottom of what exactly happened there.
As it relates to the procedures for aircraft operating in and around the Sinai Peninsula, let me share some information about the FAA. First of all, the FAA has a notice to airmen, that was published earlier this year, assessing that the -- that U.S. civil aviation operating into, out of, within or over the Sinai Peninsula is at potential risk from hazards associated with extremist activities.
So, let me be clear that this is actually something that has been in place from the FAA prior to this tragic incident over the weekend. So, this isn't what's called a no-TAM that has been in place since March 20, 2015. And, essentially, it advises civil aviation to avoid flight operations in the Sinai Peninsula at altitudes of below 26,000 square feet.
Now, my understanding is prior to this March 2015 announcement, there actually was a previous no-TAM that was in place that urged flight operations above 24,000 feet that had been in place for -- since at least 2014. So, there have been rules, advisory rules shared by the FAA to civil aviation operators about the potential risks associated with operating in air space over the Sinai Peninsula.
Now, the second relevant piece of information for you to understand is that there are no U.S. carriers that regularly operate out of the Sinai Peninsula. And, in fact, the airport in question at Sharm El Sheikh is, in fact, not the last point of departure into the United States for any airline, including foreign airlines that do operate in the Sinai Peninsula.
If it were the last point of departure for any aircraft operating in -- operating regularly in the United States, there would be a whole set of security regulations that would be imposed to ensure the safety of the traveling public.
So, I say all of this to illustrate that there is a longstanding policy or at least policy related to security precautions for aviation in and around the Sinai Peninsula that's been in place prior to this tragic incident over the weekend.
So, obviously, the British officials are announcing steps that they have concluded are in the best interests of ensuring the safety of the traveling British public, and I'll let them speak to any decisions that they have made about that.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: On the elections yesterday --
BLITZER: All right. So, there you have Josh Earnest, the White House Press Secretary. Remember, 224 people were killed in that crash in Sinai. We also have learned that the cockpit voice recorder is partially damaged. It will take more time, more labor to pull the sound data and get it accurately.
[13:05:10] CNN's Phil Black is joining us on the phone from London, Ian Lee is joining us from Cairo. Phil, first to you. What can you tell us about this unexpected statement just released by the British prime minister's office because it's very alarming? The implication being they suspect a bomb on board the plane brought the plane down.
PHILIP BLACK, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Yes, Wolf, the statement was just a short time ago from the prime minister's office on Downing Street and it makes saying that the British prime minister spoke to the Egyptian president to ensure that all possible security measures were being put into place at this airport at Sharm El Sheikh. Interestingly, and then goes on to announce a series of precautions. So, I just think, perhaps, that it wasn't -- the British government wasn't satisfied with that Egyptian response. The language is what is so alarming. It says that while the investigation is underway, and as more information has come to light, the British government has become increasingly concerned that the aircraft may have been destroyed, in fact, by an explosive device.
And so, what they have done is they have effectively grounded U.K.- bound aircraft from Sharm El Sheikh, for the moment, while they send in their own people to conduct a security assessment, aviation experts and security experts they say, on the ground in Sharm El Sheikh.
And then, only once that assessment is finished, and they say it'll be finished today, then will then decide how to proceed from there. The government admits that this will concern people who are already in Sharm El Sheikh or thinking of traveling there, but they say they believe it is a necessary precaution.
So far, though, they are not changing their travel advice. They're not warning people to stay away. What they are doing is simply assessing, they say, the security measures that are in place, so U.K.- bound flights leaving Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Because we've just gotten word, Phil, that British Airways and the Budget Airline, Monarch, they've already -- as a result of this statement from the prime minister's office, they've decided to suspect all flights into and out of Sharm El Sheikh.
I want to go to Ian Lee who's in Cairo for us and has spent time in Sharm El Sheikh. The concern I'm told, Ian, is that security on the ground at Sharm El Sheikh, at that airport, and the fear is that, potentially, through cargo, through food, somehow, perhaps, a bomb got onboard that Russian plane, that -- with 224 people onboard. What can you tell us about security at that Sharm El Sheikh airport?
IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Sharm El Sheikh is on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. And it -- and as you know, in the northern part, we've seen a very bloody insurgency, ISIS- affiliated militants killing hundreds of people. And they came out and claimed responsibility for this flight. And so, having this airport on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, there could have been something smuggled down south and put on the plane.
Now, we haven't seen a lot of operations, many at all, carried out by ISIS in the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula. But it's not out of the question. I have flown through that airport quite a few times. And while you do have layers of security when you go in, your bags are initially screened before you even go to the counter, and then before you get on the plane, you go through another metal detector and they usually pat you down. But it's once those bags go through -- once you check them in, what the security is like there.
Now, the Egyptian officials have told us that they were not going to increase security at Sharm El Sheikh or the airport, that they didn't believe it was necessary because their main focus right now is on the mechanical issue. They believe that the reason why this plane went down.
And maybe that is what triggered this response from the British government, that they didn't believe the Egyptian authorities were taking the proper security measures, as we heard from Phil, that they are sending a team here to assess that, to see if anything needs to happen. And the United States government has also issued a warning about traveling to the Sinai Peninsula as well.
And, really, when you watch this investigation closely, Wolf, it is at times like a pendulum. On one side you have a mechanical issue. On the other side, you have a bomb that brought down this plane. And as we've swing it -- seen it swing both sides, right now, it definitely sounds more like a bomb. Especially when you have the British government, while they're saying that not 100 percent they believe this -- that a bomb took this plane down. They're saying that it feels like a possibility -- Wolf.
BLITZER: They certainly are. Ian, stand by. Phil Black, I want you to standby as well.
James Risch, the Senator from Idaho is joining us. He's a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and also the Intelligence Committee. Senator, what are you hearing? Because I know you've been briefed. There are certain things you can say, certain things you can't say. But give us a sense of what you're hearing right now.
[13:10:09] SEN. JAMES RISCH (R), IDAHO, FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Well, I think the analysis that was just made, the fact that the pendulum is swinging back and forth. On the one hand, you have the Russians and the Egyptians who not want this to have been a bomb. The Russians, for obvious reasons, they're trying to keep their populous engaged with the idea that they should be in Syria.
And the Egyptians, they have a tremendous financial interest in this. Sharm El Sheikh -- as you know, between Sharm El Sheikh and the pyramids, they account for a tremendous amount of revenue for the Egyptian government. Sharm El Sheikh is a place where there are a lot of Europeans that vacation, there's a lot of Russians that vacation. If you put all these facts together, the British were not unreasonable in what they said today.
BLITZER: Because a statement like this, coming from the prime minister's office in London, David Cameron's office, saying the plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device. An explosive device is, clearly, a bomb. You don't issue a statement like that and then tell all British carriers, don't fly in or out of Sharm El Sheikh. And make sure that the British citizens who may be stranded there right now are OK.
RISCH: Yes. Well, Wolf, a couple of points on that. First of all, the British actually fly directly in and out of Sharm El Sheikh. So, they -- they're a little farther ahead than we need to be in that respect. I think what's important here is if indeed their theory is correct, and if indeed the media statement that was put out by ISIL there in the Sinai, saying that they did it and they did it because of Russia's involvement in Syria. This is a lesson for the United States, right here and right now, and that is if they're going to do this to Russia, they're going to do this to us. And they're going to be looking for the same kind of opening, if indeed that's what happened to Sharm El Sheikh. And, like I said, if you put all these facts together, that conclusions is not an unreasonable conclusion that the -- that the British have reached.
BLITZER: Because the ISIS, they -- people in Sinai, they've put out another statement claiming responsibility and, basically, taunting the Russians, the Egyptians, others, you figure out how we did it. But they're claiming they did it. But there's some suspicion that it was ISIS. There is -- because they didn't necessarily have the bomb- making capability, whereas AQAP, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, they do have that bomb-making capability.
RISCH: Well, and they network. There's no question that they --
BLITZER: You think ISIS is working with AQAP?
RISCH: To a degree. And probably greater and lesser in different enterprises. But it's -- you can't dismiss by saying, well, they don't have access to this, that is ISIS. They certainly would have access to this if they wanted to have access to it. But I think this is a real wakeup call for us as we view how we're operating around the world, particularly in that part of the world. Because, look, you and I have been talking about this for months, the fact that ISIS is going to do everything they can to reach out and reach Americans.
Now, if, indeed, all this theory is correct, they have reached out and touched the Russians in a way that is a very bad thing and is demonstrative of what could happen to us.
BLITZER: So, the investigation clearly has moved. I mean, they're looking at all the remains. They're looking at all the activity that went on in the Sinai, in the desert there. But they also are taking, obviously, a very close look at what happened at that airport?
RISCH: Well, somebody is. But, remember, the investigations going on there is being done by the Russians, since it was a Russian airplane, and the Egyptians who -- obviously, it happened on Egyptian --
BLITZER: Well, the French also because it's a --
RISCH: -- land.
BLITZER: -- it's an airbus.
RISCH: But those two organizations, those two countries, have a real vested interest in reaching a conclusion that this was not a terrorist act, as suggested by the British at this point.
BLITZER: Yes, the British are clearly suggesting that. You know, it's worth remembering, from a U.S. perspective, there are still 725 or so American troops in Sinai right now. They -- part of this multi- national force observer --
BLITZER: -- mission that's been there since 1979. Four American troops were injured in an improvised explosive device in September. Are you comfortable having that many American troops right in the middle of Sinai?
RISCH: Well, Wolf, I am, at this point and I'll tell you why. I've been there. I've been to Raqqa. I've met with the MLF troops. They have done a fantastic job of keeping peace, if you would, on the Sinai Peninsula. In one of the most dangerous parts of the world with Israel on one side and Egypt on the other. Israel and Egypt, of course, are both interested in seeing that things are quiet on the Sinai Peninsula.
This thing is blown up now. I suspect that their -- the American troops, all MLF troops, are going to be very, very cautious in what they do. There's a long distance between Raqqa in the north and Sharm El Sheikh in the south. And as your people pointed out, they are two very different parts of the Sinai Peninsula. Nonetheless, because of the Bedouin activity there, because of the Palestinian activity there, those areas are very much connected.
And if indeed this plays out, as has been suggested, I suspect you're going to find a very closely interwoven network there on the - on the Sinai.
BLITZER: Yes, but this is obviously a major development. The British government now formally publicly saying this plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device.
RISCH: Everyone needs to sit up, take notice and take that very, very seriously.
BLITZER: All right, senator, thanks very much for coming in.
RISCH: Thank you.
BLITZER: Senator James Risch joining us.
We're going to have much more on the breaking news ahead with the U.K. now saying more information points to a midair explosion in that Russian crash in Sinai. Our aviation and terror experts, they're standing by. We're going to talk about all the evidence that's just now coming in. Stay with us.
[13:20:15] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: And the breaking news, the major developments right now in the crash of the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Some British Airlines, they're now delaying, or at least postponing, suspending all service to the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el Sheikh in the southern tip of Sinai. This after the British government just put out a statement saying, "as more information has come to light, we have become concerned that the plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device." Meaning, of course, a bomb.
Let's go the CNN's Phil Black. He's in London outside number 10 Downing Street for us.
You're hearing about more cancellations, delays. The British government issuing a pretty stiff warning.
PHIL BLACK, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf.
So the British prime minister says that he spoke to the Egyptian president yesterday to insure that all security measures possible are being put into place at Sharm el Sheikh. Despite that conversation, the British government now says it is taking these additional precautions. The implication being perhaps that they were not satisfied by the answers that were provided by the Egyptian government.
So, as you say there, they have announced that despite the fact the investigation is ongoing, they are concerned, as more information has come to light, that this aircraft may well have been brought down by an explosive device. Those precautions they've put into place are to effectively ground U.K. bound flights from Sharm el Sheikh while their own assessment team goes there on the ground and accesses the security measures. Aviation experts, they say, who will finish their work today and then after that they will decide how to proceed forward from there.
So far we've been told by major airlines, like British Airways, at the moment, they don't have any further flights scheduled from there tonight, but they do have tomorrow. They're waiting to see what happens with that security assessment, what advice they get from the government. Easy Jet, the budget airline, has put on hold two flights that were due to leave there tonight and travel - until they hear precisely what to do next from the British government.
The timing here, Wolf, is interesting because tomorrow the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is due here at Downing Street for talks with the British prime minister. And what this announcement from the British government does is really depart in a very significant way from what has been the public politician of both the Egyptian government and the Russian government. They have dismissed the suggestion of terrorism up until now as unsubstantiated speculation. The British government, in making this announcement, is saying that it believes its concerns are certainly well founded enough to, in the short term at least, ground these aircraft and assess the security precautions that are in place at Sharm el Sheikh Airport, Wolf.
BLITZER: Phil Black outside number 10 Downing Street in London.
I want to bring in our guests. Our aviation analyst Peter Goelz, CNN international anchor and aviation correspondent Richard Quest, and our terrorism analyst Paul Cruikshank.
Richard, the British prime minister's office issuing this statement, the plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device. What's your take on this?
RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: It's a game changer, Wolf, in this one. Notice it's not done in a sort of off the cuff comment in a press conference or a news conference or a speech. It's a statement. It was designed to be read and parsed to the enth (ph) degree. While the investigation's still ongoing, we cannot categorically say why it crashed. But as more information has come to light, we've been concerned the plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device. You do not put that sort of announcement out, you do not suspend flights, you do not start sending more consular officials into the region to check on security unless you are absolutely - or at least well on the way to a conclusive determination.
And one point, Wolf, the Egyptian tourism minister yesterday, I asked him about security at Sharm. He said it conformed to all international regulations. They were constantly reviewing it. but he said, so far, they have no evidence that it was indeed a bomb.
BLITZER: It's a - really, as you say, Richard, it's a game changer.
Peter Goelz, what's your assessment of this late breaking development?
PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, I think there's been obviously some conflict at the top of the investigation at the very beginning. You've had Metrojet saying one thing, you've had the Egyptian government saying a number of other things, and now we have the British government stepping in and saying, you guys really need to look at a this. We're deeply concerned.
I think the possibility of a bomb has always been there. And as we're slowly eliminating some other options, like a missile, and as people are getting a look at the wreckage, I think that's what's driving these kinds of statements.
BLITZER: Paul, you're an expert on terrorism. ISIS in Sinai issuing another statement today saying they did it and they're taunting the Russians, the Egyptians, you figure out how we did it. What's your reaction when you hear that kind of statement coming forward?
[13:25:01] PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, so far, Wolf, there's been quite a lot of skepticism that this could be terrorism, but I think this British statement does change the equation. There was an audio tape put out today by ISIS in the Sinai again claiming responsibility but saying we're not going to tell you how we did it, you're going to have to figure that out eventually. We might tell you.
I think there's continued skepticism that ISIS in Sinai did this, but clearly, you know, it is possible that they - they could get an explosive device on board an aircraft, especially if they managed to recruit somebody, an insider, at Sharm el Sheikh Airport and have them sort of put a device on a plane. More difficult to get a device through airport security. You'd be looking probably at other groups like al Qaeda in Yemen to try and get through those scanners.
But clearly this British statement has changed the equation. But just to put it into some form of context. Just in June, we had 30 British holiday makers killed by an ISIS gunman in (INAUDIBLE) - in Tunisia. So clearly there's a great deal of risk aversion from the British government point of view. They want to be doing everything to protect the security of British holiday makers and to be seen to be doing everything as well, Wolf.
BLITZER: And, Richard, just give us some context, because you know this area, the Sharm el Sheikh. I've been there. I'm sure you've been there as well. This is, in fact, a very, very popular resort. A lot of Europeans, a lot of Russians, a lot of Asians, they go there, coral reefs. It's - they've got lovely hotels. It's a wonderful place to visit. But, presumably, this is going to undermine tourism to that part of Sinai.
QUEST: Excellent point, Wolf, because what we have seen, and this - we have seen both through the Arab Spring, and we've seen through the Middle East terrorism, the resilience of Sharm el Sheikh. Somehow tourists have managed to divorce, if you like, in their minds as Egypt has often fallen into chaos and civil unrest, people have managed to divorce the fact that Sharm el Sheikh is part of Egypt, and so the tourist numbers have traditionally held up extremely well. And, in fact, if you look at Egypt's tourism numbers for 2015, they're going to be at almost record levels. So if there is now the - the reality, and we don't know but if there is the reality, Wolf, of an explosive device out of Sharm, then this is exceptionally damaging, obviously, for - for the country, for the industry, to say nothing about the deteriorating security situation.
BLITZER: And to get an explosive device like that on board an Airbus with 224 people on board and to have it explode at a specific time, if you will, if, in fact, that is what occurred, that requires a lot of sophistication by the bombmakers, indeed.
All right, guys, stand by. We're going to stay on top of the breaking news.
There's other breaking news we're following as well, this time right here in the United States where five college students have just been stabbed on a university campus in California. We'll have a live report. Stay with us.