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EgyptAir Crash Examined; U.S. Officials: Early Theory Bomb Took Down Plane; Greek Official: Plane Wreckage Not Found. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 19, 2016 - 16:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

I want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is THE LEAD.

And we're going to begin with some breaking news on the crash of EgyptAir Flight 804. Egyptian officials now say they have found the wreckage, including life jackets and pieces of plastic in the Mediterranean Sea. They are now labeling their mission a search-and- recovery mission, not a rescue mission, meaning that they sadly anticipate that there will not be any survivors.

The Egyptian government already acknowledging that they believe this is likely an act of terror. U.S. intelligence officials telling CNN today their early theory is that this was a bomb that took down the plane.

And let me offer this caveat. This is a breaking and developing news story. We will tell you what authorities and investigators believe, but often, especially early on after a disaster, based on new information, authorities change their assessments.

Here is what we know right now. EgyptAir Flight 804 was traveling from Paris to Cairo early this morning with a total of 66 people on board; 56 of them were passengers, including one child and two infants; 10 of the 66, they were crew members.

We're learning that a group of families of those passengers are just arriving in Cairo having flown from Paris. Now, moments before entering Egyptian airspace, according to Greek officials, the plane made some abrupt turns and then plunged, plunged steeply shortly before disappearing from radar altogether.

We're covering this story with CNN correspondents and terror experts here in the United States and across the globe.

But, first, let's bring in CNN aviation correspondent Rene Marsh.

Rene, there are still so many questions surrounding the final moments leading up to the disappearance this plane. If -- if this was indeed a bomb on board, how big of a bomb would it need to be to bring down this plane?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, at that altitude, 37,000 feet, it really wouldn't have to be that big of a bomb.

A small amount of explosive could essentially tear that aircraft apart because of the air pressure at that altitude. But before investigators are able to definitively say what brought that plane down, they need to get their hands on the critical black boxes, as well as the wreckage.

And not long ago, one airline official telling CNN they believe they have located that wreckage.


MARSH (voice-over): As distraught families rush to Cairo airport for word on their loved ones, the U.S. Navy has deployed a P-3 Orion aircraft to help in the search. Officials in Egypt and the U.S. believe this was likely an act of terrorism.

SHERIF FATHY, EGYPTIAN AVIATION MINISTER (through translator): If you look at this situation properly, the possibility of a terror attack is more likely than a technical problem.

MARSH: At 11:09 p.m., the plane takes off from Paris en route to Cairo; 1:24 a.m., it enters Greek airspace. At 1:48, it checks in at the next control point, Key Island, south of Athens.

Greek officials say the pilot is cheerful and thanks the air traffic controllers; 2:27 a.m., the first sign something is wrong. Despite repeated calls from air traffic control, the pilots do not respond. Then just two minutes later, the plane's signal drops from the radar.

Greek officials say the aircraft plunged from its cruising altitude of 37,000 feet down to 10,000 feet, when it disappeared from radar. EgyptAir officials say the plane, a widely used Airbus 320, was relatively new and the pilot very experienced.

AHMED ADEL, VICE PRESIDENT, EGYPTAIR: He has 6,000 hours, total flying hours, 2,000 on this type, good reputation, and he was a colleague of mine.

MARSH: A U.S. official says the plane made stops in Eritrea and Tunisia, but was swept by security when it stopped in Paris before leaving for Cairo.

This is just the latest incident for EgyptAir. In May, a man falsely claiming to be wearing a suicide vest hijacked a plane with 72 people on board. And in 1999, U.S. investigators said a deliberate act brought down an EgyptAir airplane near Nantucket Island, killing more than 200 on board.

In Egypt in October, a Russian Metrojet airliner crashed after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh Airport. ISIS claimed responsibility for placing a bomb on board.


MARSH: Well, Jake, after a situation like this, of course, a top concern is airport security. We do know that airports like LAX, they have announced that they have heightened their security in light of this incident.


But, overall, I can tell you the Department of Homeland Security, they are waiting for more definitive information before they take any action, if any -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Rene Marsh with all of the latest, thank you so much.

Let me bring in aviation correspondent Richard Quest now.

Richard, thanks for joining us.

The plane that went down is an A-320. How common is this plane? How old was this specific aircraft?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, the plane itself is the absolute workhorse of global aviation for short-haul flights. More than 8,000 have been ordered.

There's about 5,000 of them flying in the air. Its Boeing rival is the 737. And, Jake, you just got to look out of the window at any airport, and you're going to see, particularly here in Asia, where I am, or in Europe, even in the U.S., you will see dozens of the A-320 family which ranges from the A-318, rather smaller version, right the way up to the A-321.

So, extremely popular, very well-liked by the aviation industry and by passengers, an exceptionally reliable plane that frankly is the backbone of much of aviation at the moment.

TAPPER: All right, Richard, stick around.

I want to bring in someone else to join us, CNN counterterrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank.

Paul, the working theory right now is that this was an act of terrorism. The House Homeland Security chairman, Congressman Michael McCaul, just said -- quote -- "It's most likely an act of terrorism."

Have there been any claims of responsibility and who might potentially be behind this?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Jake, no claims of responsibility at all, no credible claims certainly from terrorist groups such as ISIS or al Qaeda.

There's been a real deafening silence from ISIS. They have put out statements on all sorts of other operations in Syria and Iraq, but nothing about this. And by point of comparison, when that Metrojet went down over the Sinai Peninsula back in October, the last day of October, they put out a statement out the same day just a few hours later claiming responsibility for that attack.

ISIS very trigger-happy, very quick to claim credit for attacks over social media. Does this delay mean perhaps it wasn't ISIS? Investigators will be looking into that, of course, if it's terrorism at all.

When you look at all these international terrorism groups, the group that is most capable of pulling off an attack like this is not ISIS. It's al Qaeda, because al Qaeda has been developing new types of explosive devices to try to beat airport security.

They have Ibrahim al-Asiri, a master bomb maker in Yemen, who is coming up new generations of underwear devices, shoe bombs, also experimenting with surgically implanting bombs into human beings, according to recent intelligence, Jake.

Concern that al Qaeda in Yemen sharing that technology with affiliates, such as Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia. And with that Somalian group, we saw in February of this year an actual bombing of a Somali airliner, Daallo Airlines Flight 159, which took off with a sophisticated laptop bomb inside.

Fortunately, it went off not at high altitude. Only the bomber was blown out of the aircraft. The plane managed to get back down on the ground. They found more laptop bombs after that. There was another attempt in Somalia.

So, you're looking perhaps at the scenario of al Qaeda possibly being responsible for this, but early stages, because, right now, Jake, there is no concrete evidence that this is terrorism. That is just a working theory.

TAPPER: Right.

CRUICKSHANK: They want to put me on the bone of that theory in the hours ahead.

TAPPER: Right, no concrete evidence as of yet.

Richard, one way that these investigators are conducted -- investigations are conducted is looking at similarities with past aviation disasters. Given what we know and your encyclopedic knowledge of other previous airline disasters, which one does this most resemble as of right now?

QUEST: Well, if you're talking about the possibility of a mechanical issue rather -- vs. a bomb, then you're looking at Air France 447 and you're looking at AirAsia over the Java Sea, because both of those cases, the aircraft fell out of the sky at altitude.

In this case, the EgyptAir plane was flying at flight level 37,000 feet, 370. And it just literally stops. The profile of the aircraft just stops. Now, we have heard these reports of supposedly swerving pieces, 90 degrees to the left and then to the right, and that's starting to look less likely.

It's starting to look more as if it's though the plane breaking up. But those are the two on mechanical. One final point, Jake. If it is terror and the bomb or device got on in Paris, then you're talking about a very different security issue here.


Charles de Gaulle, you're into a completely different league to anything we saw with Sharm el-Sheikh.

TAPPER: All right, Richard Quest, Paul Cruickshank, stick around. We're going to come back to you.

U.S. intelligence officials are working right now on the early, early theory that a bomb may have taken down this EgyptAir plane. So, if that does turn out to be the case, how could explosives have gotten on board the flight if the plane was screened in Paris, which is supposed to have intense security?

More breaking news on this tragedy when we come back.


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

We're following breaking news out of Europe, where U.S. officials believe it is possible, it is their working theory that a bomb may have taken down a plane headed from Paris to Cairo; 66 people were on that flight, including three children.

If this was indeed an act of terrorism -- and we do not know it to be that yet -- but, if it were, that would make it the third large-scale attack affecting Paris in the past year-and-a-half.

[16:15:03] CNN correspondent Atika Shubert is live now from Paris at Charles de Gaulle airport where Flight 804 took off Wednesday evening.

Atika, what are you learning?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what airport officials are telling us is that they are at the highest level of security here and they have been for months. Remember, of course, as you pointed out, they had those terror attacks in November and the Brussels attacks, and they've taken extra steps to make sure that the security is as ratcheted up. What they've done, for example, is that when we go through screening, check for any liquids, laptops, all of that kind of thing, that's what personnel here at the airport go through before they are included in any of the security areas as well.

We also know that personnel are screened by police, they are screened every few months again and in December the airports here at Charles de Gaulle and Orly, actually removed dozens of employees from their post because they feared that they may have links to radical Islamist groups. So, they removed them from their jobs that allowed them to have access to secured areas. So, these are the steps that the airport has taken in recent months.

What they are now looking at now is whether or not there were any weak links in that security chain.

TAPPER: Atika Shubert at Charles de Gaulle airport, thank you so much.

Let's bring back aviation correspondent Richard Quest and CNN counterterrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank. Also joining me now for this discussion, CNN safety analyst, David Soucie. He's a former FAA safety inspector. And CNN aviation analyst Mary Schiavo, she's a former inspector general for the Department of Transportation.

Thanks for joining us.

Mary, let me start with you. This plane had two prior stops but then, of course, after landing in France had a security sweep specifically in Paris before this doomed flight. Since investigators are working on the working assumption, on the hypothesis that this appears to have been terrorism, that that's the most likely theory -- how easily could someone have planted a bomb on the plane after this mandatory security sweep after touching down in Paris?

MARY SCHIAVO, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, it also depends on what kind of a bomb. There are sort of two different vectors, of course. There was anybody who would be loading the bags on the plane, who would be doing any of the maintenance on the plane, et cetera. When the plane comes into the airport -- that this is based on the U.S. standard because the U.S. required enhanced security back in 2014 because of these new less detectable bombs that were being developed by AQAP, and then at that time the plane has to be swept when it comes in.

They look in everything. They look in the cupboards. They look in the various carts. They seal off the trash bins in the bathroom. They look at the cargo hold. It's quite extensive.

But that's a requirement for each of the flights bound for the U.S. It can be different and it varies country by country. And so, once that sweep happens, they put the baggage on. So, all the workers that do those functions would still have access to the plane.

And, remember, the U.S. concern for enhancing security out of Paris and other European airports in 2014 were these bombs that were liquid that would be concealed in laptops and cell phones and so the enhanced security included turning on your electronics and you couldn't board with one that didn't turn on.

TAPPER: Richard, since authorities are becoming so well-versed on the kinds of bombs that are being devised in order to prevent them from getting on the plane, we saw this more than a decade ago with shoe bomber Richard Reed, not to mention attempted underwear bomber Abdulmutallab. If there were device brought on to the plane, are there specific places where it would be more damaging?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Oh, absolutely. No question about it. You know, if you're going to put, God forbid, you're going to put a bomb on a plane, you want to get it at the structurally weakest point of the airport, and also as close as you could, for example, to the fuel tanks, which is why, for instance, the MetroJet bomb was so significant because in that case it's believed to have come on board in a soda can and it was detonated over the wing and, of course, the fuel tanks are in the wings themselves and the belly tank of the aircraft.

So, yes, if you're wanting to bring down the aircraft, that's the place that you aim for. However, one does need to point out, it's not as straightforward as that because these aircraft are built to withstand some pretty phenomenal forces that they will take just in the normal course of aviation. Somalia example we spoke about earlier, it's a good example of how much force they can take. But if you blow up the fuel, that's a different matter.

In the case of the aircraft, this plane went to Eritrea, and it went to Tunis and back through Cairo where it should have been swept and sealed before going up to Paris.

[16:20:07] And since it was at an E.U. airport, entering an E.U. airport from a non-E.U. destination, it should have been swept and all of the panels should have been resealed by the crew who would have inspected them. This is what European airlines would have done before the plane would have departed.

So, the aircraft itself is one aspect to it, Jake. The question, as Mary rightly points out, what passengers or others may have put on the aircraft is something else.

TAPPER: And, David, go into more detail, if you could, about what exactly is happening to that airplane after arriving from a non-E.U. country into Paris during that security sweep. How extensive would that be?

DAVID SOUCIE, CNN SAFETY ANALYST: Well, there's some question about that. Mary brought that up as to various countries have different requirements. If it's going into the U.S., it gets a very detailed sweep, but the requirements going into the country before it leaves again, that's what determines how much depth they go into.

So, they check under all of the seats, but there's some hidden areas as well that you can get into and I'm not at liberty to go into too much detail of those things, but there are areas that are hidden. But we're well aware of those. If there's anything accessible, there's a way to get something, even as small as Richard pointed out, even a small as a can, a small pop can, those areas are searched very well and they're dragged through the entire process.

Now, how well they carry them out as individuals in the crew after it already have taken two flights, that can be where there are some weakness there and that's where I would be concerned about.

TAPPER: All right. Richard, Paul, David, Mary, thanks so much.

After a Russian plane was brought down in Egypt last fall, last October, Egyptian Air officials took months to admit that criminal activity was behind the crash. Egyptian officials rather, not Egyptian Air.

So, why were they so quick this time, these Egyptian officials, to say that terrorism was indeed the likely cause of today's crash? We'll go into that next.


[16:26:37] TAPPER: Welcome back.

We're back with our breaking news: the crash of EgyptAir Flight 804, 66 people, including three children, were aboard the Airbus A320, flying from Paris with the destination of Cairo.

Right now, there is a massive search and recovery operation under way in the Mediterranean where airline officials say the wreckage has been spotted. At this point, U.S. and Egyptian officials believe the cause of the crash was likely, likely terrorism and not technical error, although I would offer the caveat that often early information coming from authorities in times like this is not always accurate and often it's not as updated.

Let's go to CNN's Arwa Damon, who joins me now live from Cairo International Airport where flight 804 was scheduled to land.

Arwa, why do Egyptian officials believe that this was likely an act of terrorism?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's based on the information that they have at hand and that is that there was no distress call from the pilot or co-pilot, that they were both very seasoned. They had clocked thousands of flight hours between the two of them and they have no cause to suspect that the aircraft itself may have had some sort of technical or mechanical malfunction that would cause it to so suddenly plummet so quickly without giving the pilot the chance to make any sort of distressed call.

Now, that being said, it's not entirely unprecedented that a plane would completely disappear from the sky. But it is a phenomenally rare occurrence and the altitude that the aircraft was at, 37,000 feet, that is according to aviation experts one of the safest points in any flight. The real danger --

TAPPER: We're losing Arwa Damon's transmission.

But let's bring in breaking news now if we can.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: We now have new information coming in about the EgyptAir debris field. Let me get right to CNN aviation correspondent Rene Marsh.

What are you learning? RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: You know, Jake, we've been

talking a lot about this debris and that's going to be a critical part of this investigation. Earlier today, we know the vice chairman of EgyptAir told CNN that the wreckage from EgyptAir 804 had been found about 150 nautical miles north of the Egyptian coast.

Now this breaking news, Greek officials say it is not. I repeat it is not the wreckage of the plane. So at this point, wreckage from EgyptAir Flight 804 has not been discovered. The search continues. But that is the breaking news here.

Of course, that is going to be so critical in piecing this all together, not only the wreckage and black boxes. But, again, Jake, that headline is, Greek officials are now saying they have not found the wreckage of this plane.

TAPPER: All right. Rene Marsh, thank you so much.

A reminder, that as I said at the top of the show, often the early information given by authorities immediately after tragedies needs to be updated and sometimes it's contradicted by other authorities. After the Paris attacks, security was stepped up at Charles de Gaulle airport.