Return to Transcripts main page


Egyptian Airliner Crashes into Mediterranean Sea; Officials Suspect Bomb. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired May 19, 2016 - 17:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN: That's it for "THE LEAD." I'm Jake Tapper. You can follow me on Twitter, @JakeTapper. I now turn you over to Jim Sciutto in THE SITUATION ROOM.

[17:00:06] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Focus on terror. An Egyptian airliner vanishes over the Mediterranean. Officials say the likeliest cause is terrorism. Working assumption is that the plane just fell out of the sky or was brought down by a bomb.

Search for wreckage. An urgent hunt is now under way for debris and for clues that can tell investigators what happened to the airliner. What can the cockpit and flight recorders reveal about the plane's final moments?

And American help. The U.S. deploys a long-range patrol aircraft to aid in the search. The president has been briefed and U.S. investigators are ready to step in if they are asked.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is on assignment today. I'm Jim Sciutto, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

SCIUTTO: Breaking news: an urgent search now under way in the Eastern Mediterranean after EgyptAir Flight 804 went down on a flight from Paris to Cairo. Sixty-six people were on board. The hunt is now on for debris that will provide clues into what happened. Greek officials say controllers first lost radio contact with the airliner before it swerved sharply, plunged in altitude and finally disappeared from radar.

The early theory among U.S. officials is the plane was brought down by a bomb. They say there were no known threats to the aircraft or this route and that no matches have come up in comparing the passenger manifest to terror watch lists. Officials say the plane went through maintenance and security checks, noting that terrorism appears more likely than a technical failure.

Our correspondents, analysts and guests have full coverage of the day's breaking news. We begin with CNN's Brian Todd with the very latest. Brian, what are you learning about what brought this plane down? BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, tonight U.S. officials telling

CNN they are operating under a theory for now that this plane was taken down by a bomb. And in a gut-wrenching development for the relatives of those on EgyptAir Flight 804, Egyptian authorities have now had to walk back on their initial reporting that wreckage from the plane had been found.

As of this moment, no wreckage of the plane has been confirmed or been located. The investigation now at a very early but critical stage.


TODD (voice-over): Tonight, a frantic search in the Mediterranean for signs of wreckage.

AHMED ADEL, VICE CHAIRMAN, EGYPTAIR: The search-and-rescue teams are now turning into a search and rediscovery.

TODD: EgyptAir's vice chairman says all the maintenance checks for the plane were conducted properly. The Airbus A-320 is a workhorse, considered one of the safest passenger planes in the skies. And this plane vanished during what's considered one of the safest portions of any flight, cruising altitude, about 37,000 feet.

Tonight, U.S. officials tell CNN they're operating on an initial theory that this plane was taken down by a bomb. As investigators learn more, that theory could change. Egypt's top aviation official for now believes terror is likely.

ADEL: The possibility of having a different action or going and -- having a terror attack is higher than the possibility of having a technical...

TODD: At 11:09 p.m. local time, the plane took off from Paris en route to Cairo.

1:24 a.m., it entered Greek air space.

At 1:48 a.m., the plane checked in at the next control point, Kea Island, south of Athens. Greek officials said the pilot was cheerful and thanked the air traffic controllers.

2:27 a.m., the first sign something was wrong. Despite repeated calls from air traffic control, the pilots did not respond. Then, just two minutes later, the plane's signal dropped from radar.

At some point after initially losing contact, a Greek official says the aircraft took a precipitous drop in altitude, from 37,000 to about 10,000 feet. In the 24 hours before its disappearance, the plane had stopped in Asmara, Eritrea; Cairo; in Tunis, Tunisia; back to Cairo; then to Paris.

ADEL: In each and every destination that you have mentioned where the aircraft was stopped, it was checked.

TODD: According to a U.S. official, that included a security sweep of the plane in Paris before the final take-off.

(on camera): The sweep at the Paris airport, would that have picked up any kind of a bomb?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB, FORMER FAA CHIEF OF STAFF: The going presumption has always been yes, but now we have the crash in the desert in Sinai. They found the device inside a soda can in Sanaa that prior to that would not have been picked up by the detection system.


TODD: For that reason, analyst Michael Goldfarb says counterterror officials will now have to investigate everyone who could have come in contact with this plane at four different stops in four countries, as well as their friends, their relatives, anyone they might have communicated with. Jim, it is a herculean task to try to investigate everyone now who's come in contact with them.

SCIUTTO: No question. That task undoubtedly will be helped, if and when they find the so-called black boxes, the flight data voice recorders. Why is that? What kind of and flight boxes, what information is on there?

TODD: Well, Jim, aviation experts telling us tonight that finding the cockpit voice recorder is important, but especially the flight data recorder. That's crucial. Because that recorder can tell investigators if there was a catastrophic structural event on the plane and they can measure that with the characteristics of the debris field to determine if, in fact, there was an explosion.

SCIUTTO: Brian Todd, thanks very much.

The early theory from is that a bomb took some U.S. officials is that a bomb took the plane down. Listen to the homeland security chairman for the house, Mike McCaul.


REP. MIKE MCCAUL (R-TX), HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: The threat indicators are very likely that they were dealing once again with a Sharm El-Sheikh type of attack, an insider threat or a bomb could have been placed on that aircraft, either one using a timing device that would have started at Cairo, or whether it was cargo hold in Paris as it departed for Cairo. This is the kind of threat that keeps you up at night.


SCIUTTO: That was Mike McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. Let's get the latest on the investigation from CNN justice reporter Evan Perez.

Evan, at this point, what hard evidence is there that this was or could have been a terrorist attack?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, there really isn't, not yet at this point, Jim. It's really what officials have, is a theory going on what they don't have.

And what we don't have is any kind of S.O.S., any signal from the pilots that something was wrong on this aircraft. If something was going wrong, if something was amiss, they would have had time to radio in and to say that something was wrong. If someone was trying to break into the cockpit, they would have had time to do the same thing. Three security officials on board this aircraft.

So that leaves you with this leading theory, and again, not based on any hard data. But really, what they're going on is that you have a threat environment -- you know this from talking to officials -- that really is focused on western Europe, the rise of Islamist extremists there, as well as in Egypt, where you have an ISIS affiliate that is gaining steam.

So that's the threat. They're focused on trying to figure out who was on this aircraft. The manifest is going to be very important, as you reported earlier. Nothing was found in an initial check against a watch list. They've got to dig deeper to try to figure out everybody who's had access to this aircraft, including the flight manifest, people who were on passengers as well as the crew.

SCIUTTO: And you make a good point, both the starting point and presumed finishing point are in areas that have terror threats: Paris, France and Egypt. Evan Perez, justice reporter, thanks very much.

As the search for wreckage continues, the search for answers is really just beginning. Let's turn now to CNN aviation correspondent Richard Quest.

Richard, you've been talking to officials. What are they telling you about the evidence that brought down this plane?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's pretty much as Evan and as the U.S. Justice Department says. When a plane leaves the sky in this manner, 37,000 feet, the number of reasons why are remarkably fewer and far between.

Nefarious activity of a bomb or hijacking, and the mechanical failure, massive, catastrophic mechanical structural failure, or pilot error. And that's it, Wolf -- sorry, Jim. That is the entire parameters.

Now, in this particular case, we also have the Greeks reporting that they saw the plane swerving as it came out of the sky. That has to be taken with a certain pinch of salt. That could well be the plane just falling out of the sky and not under any form of control.

We have the fact that debris has not yet been found or confirmed to be found. That's likely to happen over the next few hours. And put it all together, and you've got the plane having been through Eritrea and through Tunis, having left Paris, as well.

Now, any one of those facts on their own should not lead you to any individual conclusion. But put it all together, and you start to end up with what seems to be a general direction towards nefarious activity. One point here on this plane, having been to Tunis and Eritrea and

then Paris. If all procedures had been followed exactly accordingly as they were supposed to have done, then that plane should have been swept many times. It should have been swept in Tunis. It should have been swept in Cairo. And it would have been swept in Paris. Seals would have been put on panels. Cubbyholes would have been investigated and looked at.

What you can't guarantee or check on, of course, the weak link in many cases, is what goes on the plane in the hold. What the passengers are putting on.

And Jim, there you're talking about Paris, Charles De Gaulle. If that proves to be the weak link, then aviation has just moved into a different league when it turns into the security questions.

SCIUTTO: And we do know now, Richard, that they are looking at ground staff at Charles De Gaulle as one part of the investigation.

Just briefly, how accurate is the radar data actually, particularly considering where the plane was. The radar station is presumably at least a couple of hundred Miles away. Those swerves that we're hearing, talking about it, is that necessarily an accurate portrayal of what happened in those final moments?

QUEST: No. No, absolutely not. I've been skeptical about the swerves from the beginning. It's only the Greeks that have said the swerves -- the Greek minister talked about the swerves.

For that -- briefly, for those swerves to be true, you know, it suggests that -- we've got no other radar data from what's known as ADSB, no other profile. Those swerves, I believe, will eventually prove to be the plane breaking up when radar had ceased to be tracking the aircraft. I may be wrong, but so far, nobody else has come out and confirmed that they saw the plane on radar falling out of the sky. I would put the swerves with the skepticism at the moment.

SCIUTTO: And as always, all the information. Often the first draft ends up up not being true as the investigation continues.

QUEST: Absolutely.

SCIUTTO: Richard Quest, thanks very much.

Joining us now, the National Safety Council president, also former National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman, Deborah Hersman. Deborah, thank you for taking the time tonight.


SCIUTTO: So if you were investigating this, as you have many accidents in the past, given what is known right now, what steps would you be taking now to determine the actual cause of this crash?

HERSMAN: You know, the first 24 hours are really a scramble for everyone involved. So you want to lock down any perishable evidence, make sure that you know who those people are that were in contact with the aircraft the last time it was down, any maintenance that might have been done. They're looking for the aircraft. So, you know, we're already seeing that they've revised a statement that they found the debris.

That's an important piece of this, is to really wait until they have good, hard evidence to determine what happened. Finding those black boxes, as you mentioned at the top of the hour, is critical.

SCIUTTO: That's right. And already a reversal on whether they found the wreckage. Earlier, they said yes. Now they say no. Deborah Hersman, please stay there. We're going to bring you back right after this break. Please stay with us. We have a lot more hard questions to ask as we look into the loss of this EgyptAir jet.


[17:17:14] SCIUTTO: Welcome back. We're back with the former NTSB chairwoman, Deborah Hersman, as we continue to follow the breaking news, the mystery of what brought down an EgyptAir passenger jet with 66 people on board.

The Paris to Cairo flight vanished during the night over the Mediterranean Sea. Deborah, as you look at this with your experience, once the wreckage is found -- and our latest information is that it has not been found yet -- what signatures will investigators be looking for on the debris to get an initial assessment of what happened?

HERSMAN: You know, they want to locate the four corners of the aircraft first, the nose, the tail, the two wings. They're going to be looking to check those control surfaces to make sure that they are intact. And certainly, if there is any sign of an explosion or foul play, they're going to be looking for markers of that. They can find those things in the equipment but one of the very important pieces is, again, those recorders. They can tell them a lot of information, as well.

SCIUTTO: When we look at where this plane went down, it's not the South Indian Ocean like we were talking with MH-370. They generally know where it went down. More confined space but very deep water. How long could it take to recover the flight data and voice recorders in these conditions, once they locate the debris?

HERSMAN: You know, it really depends on how far away the assets are that can retrieve them. There are some specialized pieces of equipment that often they need to be able to scan, side scanning sonar, being able to retrieve those black boxes. to have kind of the robot technology to be able to do that.

But depending on when that equipment arrives, it may already be en route or how deep the water is where they find it, they may be able to do it with other teams. So they're just going to have to have the right equipment on scene, be in the right place and make sure that they don't miss anything. SCIUTTO: So certainly a lot of steps between now and then. Once they

do presumably find them, what are they going to be looking for and listening for, I suppose I should say, and also looking for in the data to determine the cause of the crash?

HERSMAN: So the really important thing is those two black boxes -- and they're actually orange -- that they're going to be looking for. The flight data recorder is going to have potentially hundreds or a thousand parameters. Everything from speed and direction to kind of control surface positions.

The cockpit voice recorder can be tremendously helpful, because they can hear the communication not just between air traffic control and the pilots, between the pilots and each other, between the pilots and the cabin crew. And investigators at the NTSB back to TWA 800 actually used sound signatures on the cockpit voice recorder to really understand the explosion that occurred in that fuel tank in TWA 800. So they can do a lot with the equipment that they have.

[17:20:08] SCIUTTO: We have a flight data recorder here on the table here in this studio with me just so our viewers can get a sense of what they look like. As you say, they're actually orange; they're not black.

But my understanding is that it's a particular -- if this were an explosion, it's a particular audio signature and length of the audio signature. Is that right? That would determine is it's an explosion or some other sudden, catastrophic event.

HERSMAN: That's right. They can really slow it down, and if you think of a video slowing it down frame by frame, they can do that with the audio recording and isolate other sounds out. And they can really look at that sound signature and try to determine where in the aircraft it might have originated and what it might be telling them.

But I want to -- I do want to share, this is technology that is decades old. One of the things the NTSB has recommended for a long time is inward facing video recorders. We really need to think about those as far as eliminating any ambiguity about the cause of event, particularly when it occurs and there might be some human error or there might be some action in the cockpit. That can be ruled out very quickly with video.

SCIUTTO: No question. So much more data we could be getting out of planes in light of technology today. Deborah Hersman, former NTSB, thank you for joining us.

HERSMAN: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: We want to get the insight of our experts now. I'm joined now by CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes. He's former assistant director of the FBI. CNN national security commentator and former House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers; CNN aviation analyst and former NTSB managing director Peter Goelz; also, CNN aviation analyst Miles O'Brien. Gentlemen, please stay with us. We have new information coming in.

We want to get your thoughts on that. We're going to take a quick break. Please stay with us. We've got a lot of hard questions to answer.


[17:26:17] SCIUTTO: Welcome back. We are following breaking news. The crash of EgyptAir jet with some 66 people on board. U.S. Officials tell CNN the early theory is that the plane was taken down by a bomb. The jet vanishing from radar during an overnight flight from Paris to Cairo.

CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon is in Cairo at the Cairo Airport. Arwa, what are Egyptian officials saying now about the status of the investigation?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they also are echoing that notion by the U.S. that this was more likely to be an act of terrorism as opposed to some sort of technical failure.

That being said, the vice chairman of EgyptAir is saying that he stands corrected. He had earlier stated that the wreckage of the plane had been found. That is no longer the case. This is still very much a plane that is missing with a search-and-recovery mission. Well... (AUDIO GAP)

SCIUTTO: We just lost our audio from Arwa Damon, live there in the Cairo Airport. So I want to bring back our aviation law enforcement expert Peter Goelz, former NTSB managing director.

Let me ask you first: We had this back and forth as to whether they found debris. First, they said they didn't. Now they said -- first they said they didn't; now they said they did.

When they do find this debris, what signatures, what evidence are they going to be looking for on the wreckage they find to give an indication as to what brought the plane down?

PETER GOELZ, FORMER NTSB MANAGING DIRECTOR: Well, they're going to look at how the wreckage came apart, and they're going to look for the telltale signatures of explosions. The NTSB actually destroyed, blew up a 747 following TWA 800 so that it could map and photograph the destructive power of different sized explosive devices. So we know what the telltale signatures are, the acid-washing, pitting, outward tearing of the skin. So that's what they're going to look for.

But it's unlikely that they're going to get much valuable information off the floating debris. I mean, that's stuff that is just -- the real information probably is 1,500 feet down or more.

SCIUTTO: The debris that's on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea right now?

GOELZ: That's right. SCIUTTO: Miles O'Brien, just after it entered Egyptian air space, at

least the early radar information is that the plane swerved, they say 90 degrees to the left, 360 degrees to the right, plunged 15,000, then 10,000 feet, dropping off radar. We know that that radar data is not perfect, especially considering the distance from the plane on those radar stations, but listening to that, hearing that, what does that tell you?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, it tells me probably the aircraft was intact. And moving the timeline back a couple of minutes, we know, from the moment when air traffic control tried to reach the craft and they didn't respond, at least for those two minutes, there was trouble, some kind of trouble on that aircraft.

So this wasn't an instantaneous event, whatever it was. It has all the hallmarks of a deliberate event. But the question is: Does all of this jive with the idea that there might have been a bomb on board? Or was something else happening that might have caused this?

And we don't know how long the plane was in trouble. We know it was at least two minutes. But the previous communication with the aircraft was 30 minutes prior to that.

So sometime in that timespan something happened, and it wasn't instantaneous. Generally speaking, when you look at the history of these bomb attacks, you don't have these kind of precursor events nor those kind of maneuvers.

SCIUTTO: Mike Rogers, we know Najim Laachraoui -- he was one of the Brussels attackers, the airport suicide bombers -- he was reported by some Belgian outlets to have worked at the airport in Brussels. Certainly alarming.

[17:30:01] Has that been a goal to infiltrate airport ground staff with operatives?

MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: Well, we saw that in Egypt already with the Sharm el-Sheikh crashed the Russian airliner. They had clearly infiltrated the inner workings of the airport. So Paris went back recently and has done a scrub of employees working at the airport, anticipating something like this. But the challenge is, do you get them all or when were they radicalized? They may have been radicalized after.

Now there's no indication, by the way, yet that someone at the airport did anything inappropriate. But what an investigator will do is now go back and look at everything that touched that airplane from the routine maintenance that happened a couple of days before this flight to everybody that did all the services leading up to the flights.

SCIUTTO: You mentioned the idea before we went on the show that that could have been an opportunity because typically a plane is moving in and out of these airports very quickly but when it had a routine maintenance, it's parked there for some time. Is that an opportunity?

ROGERS: It is only -- in the sense that if you're authorized to be in that area, there will be periods where that aircraft is not -- there's not a lot of activity around the aircraft. There may be a small maintenance crew, there may be no maintenance crew. And so we have seen in the past on intelligence reports that there was interest in targeting the maintenance cycle of these airplanes because it was easier to get at. Doesn't mean it is easy, it just meant it was easier to get at these aircrafts. So the investigators are going to have to look at that just as a precautionary measure.

SCIUTTO: It's about opportunity, I imagine.

Tom Fuentes, so we have multiple stops here. Because it wasn't just Paris. This plane had been in Eretria, it's been in Tunisia, it also previously been in Cairo. So you have four potential points when, if it's determined this was a bomb, something could have been put on that plane. What kind of challenge is that for investigators now that they have to go through the ground staff, everybody who touched the plane in four different countries?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: That's right. Four different countries, and you're looking at, at each country, at each airport, hundreds of people would have access to the plane. From the luggage handlers to the maintenance people, to the housekeeping to the catering service, to the crew and the passengers themselves. That's several hundred people each times four. And that's the challenge.

Are you going to interview 5,000 people now when we don't know even yet if it's a mechanical failure or not? And this report of a radar, this kind of reminds me of MH-370. The radar said it went this way. The radar said it went that way. And we know that plane was more than 100 miles from Cairo. How accurate is the radar? Do we really know that's what it did? We will know when we get the flight recorders recovered. But right now do we really know?

SCIUTTO: Right. We got a long way to get in there.

But, Peter Goelz, you have experience here dealing with Egyptian authorities investigating a catastrophic crash, going back to 1999, the loss of a plane off the coast of Nantucket which the NTSB, which you were with, ruled as a pilot suicide. The Egyptians still to this day resist that explanation. They say mechanical.

How confident are you in this process that the Egyptian authorities will be transparent?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, you know, that's an interesting question. If it's an accident and Egypt really has to follow the ICAO rules, there's transparency built into it. But if it's a terrorist event, there's no law of international statute that says that any country has to be transparent about an investigation into terrorism. It's clear -- it was clear to us in 1999 what happened. Once you saw the transcript from the voice recorder, you understood what took place in that plane and it was horrible.

The Egyptians, for whatever reasons, never accepted that, even though at the time of the reading and the listening, they did agree. So I mean, I think -- I think we're in a gray area now. It serves the interests I think of the Egyptians to be upfront about terrorism right now because they can point to Charles de Gaulle airport, saying where your security?

SCIUTTO: Mike Rogers, so if I'm listening at home and I hear that the French authorities recently scrubbed all the ground staff at the Charles de Gaulle Airport, the main airport in Paris there, that would strike me that they had concern about security at that airport. Does that make sense?

ROGERS: It does. It was more of the fact that the information that came out of the Brussels investigation, the Brussels terrorist attack clearly showed that there were relationships within individuals at -- in Brussels and in Paris. And I think that was a precautionary note and I would argue that they are doing their due diligence. They are just scrubbing to make sure they hadn't missed something in the background or there hadn't been some recent radicalization of someone that might provide an access point for a terrorist in getting an explosive on an aircraft.

SCIUTTO: Tom Fuentes, as you look at this, the kinds of groups that would have the capability to do something like this, if it's determined to be a bomb, to get a bomb on plane, I mean, it's over water, that raised some questions as to whether there was a timing device on board. We're talking about technological capability here if it does turn out to be a bomb. What groups, beyond the obvious, I suppose?


[17:35:02] FUENTES: The one group traditionally trying to bring down aircraft for many years is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula out in Yemen. Now they have perfected being able to make PETN-based devices that a passenger can bring on the plane, like Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, and then somehow detonate it while in flight. However, you have all of these employees from the catering services to the luggage handlers to the maintenance who have access to the cargo hold. It doesn't have to be sophisticated.

They can stick any device in that cargo hold that's not going to be noticed by the captain doing the walk-around preflight or anybody else if they want to hide it in that hull and you had that with the Egypt crash of the flight leaving Sharm el-Sheikh going to St. Petersburg, Russia, where the device got put in the cargo. So that's the challenge.

And even if Paris scrubs all the employees that worked directly at De Gaulle Airport, usually the food carts are prepared off site. The catering service prepares all the trays, all the carts, somebody could put something in one of those, attach it to the bottom of the cart, it gets put on the -- it gets brought to the airport and put on the plane. Who scrubs their employees?

SCIUTTO: Makes very clear how many potential weak points there are as you talk about just one airplane and all these stops.

Tom Fuentes, Mike Rogers, Peter Goelz, Miles O'Brien, thanks very much. Please stick around.

Coming up, Egypt's early and somewhat surprising claim that terrorism, not a technical failure, is the likely cause of this crash. Its government has resisted conceding terrorism in past airline disasters. We'll take a closer look at why this time may be different.


[17:41:07] SCIUTTO: Our breaking news this hour, an urgent search is under way for wreckage and clues after an Egyptian airliner goes down in the Mediterranean carrying 66 people on a flight from Paris to Cairo. The early assumption by U.S. officials is that a bomb may have taken the plane down. Egyptian officials are also learning towards terrorism.

Let's go to CNN global affairs correspondent Elise Labott. What are you hearing about this Egyptian assessment this early in the game?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: Well, that's right, Jim. The Egyptians wasted no time saying they believe that Flight 804 was brought down by a terrorist attack and the government's long history of ruling out terrorism in its aircraft makes today's quick embrace of a possible attack all the more significant and it raises real questions about air travel to Egypt.


LABOTT (voice-over): Just hours after the plane disappeared from radar, the Egyptian government said the plane was likely brought down by an act of terrorism.

SHERIF FATHY, EGYPTIAN AVIATION MINISTER: If you analyze the situation properly, the possibility of having a different action or having a terror attack is higher than the possibility of having a technical issue.

LABOTT: The plane went down a day after Secretary of State John Kerry was in Cairo for urgent talks with Egypt's president about the growing terror threat. Today, Kerry was quick to offer help.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: The United States is providing assistance in the search effort. And relevant authorities are doing everything they can to try to find out what the facts are of what happened today.

LABOTT: It took four months for Egypt to acknowledge terrorists were to blame for last October's bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt's Sinai, killing all 224 aboard. That was months after ISIS posted photos of a bomb it says it planted in a soda can to bring down the plane. And Russia, the U.S. and other countries publicly said terrorists were responsible.

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: That was a direct reflection on the lack of professionalism of the security forces at the airport. And it was a blow to their tourism industry. So they needed -- they were resisting any indication that they were responsible for this. LABOTT: To this day, Egypt insists the 1999 crash of EgyptAir Flight

990 was brought on by mechanical failure, even though American investigators released a transcript of a cockpit voice recorder they say confirms their findings the pilot deliberately nose-dived the plane into the Atlantic Ocean killing 217 passengers and crew.

French officials say this time it may be easier for Cairo to point the finger at terrorism, after Flight 804 made stops in Tunisia and Eritrea before being searched in Paris.

GOELZ: It says, listen, you know, Egypt tries to do the best job that it can in combating terrorism. We have our hands full. But a country like France, with far more resources than we do, they weren't able to catch this. This is a big job and we all got to do it together.

LABOTT: With President Al-Sisi under fire for human rights abuses, a nod to terrorism could also validate claims his crackdown is in the name of security.

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: The government can say, look, we are vulnerable and we need to ensure that not only our citizens are safe but that foreign visitors and others who are on airplanes are safe.


LABOTT: And if the plane was brought down by terrorism, this will be a devastating blow to Egypt's tourist economy, which suffered a 40 percent loss in revenue after MetroJet crash. And the economy is really boosted by its terrorism, Jim. The Egyptian government is saying that it had plans to revive the tourism industry. But with this it will certainly questions about future air travel to Egypt.

SCIUTTO: Tremendous costs on all sides, no question.

Well, the early assumption by U.S. officials is that this was an act of terrorism. I want to bring in now CNN justice correspondent Evan Perez, CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen, and CNN contributor Michael Weiss, he is senior editor at the "Daily Beast," also co- author of "ISIS: Inside an Army of Terror."

[17:45:09] Gentlemen, we're getting new information now and we're going to follow up on this new information right after this break. Please stay with us.


SCIUTTO: An urgent hunt is under way for clues to the crash of EgyptAir Flight 804 in the Mediterranean. U.S. officials say the working theory is that the airliner was brought down by a bomb.

Back with our panel of experts looking at possible terror links.

Evan, if I can begin with you, there was no mayday call from this plane. Why are U.S. officials, intelligence sources focusing on that detail? [17:50:03] EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, simply

because, Jim, they believe that if there was a catastrophic failure, something was wrong with this aircraft. You have -- this is a modern aircraft. A fairly well-maintained aircraft from all indications. There would be redundant systems in there that would give them time to be able to make that mayday call, even if there was a hijacking attempt, they believe that certainly the three air marshals or security officials on board would have given them time to be able to make that mayday call.

SCIUTTO: Reinforced door, I imagine.

PEREZ: Right, exactly. And, you know, the other thing that we have been talking about a lot is the swerves that were picked up allegedly by radar. The Greek officials have talked about, we are told that, you know, that kind of information is really not that reliable, that -- you know, the radar might be picking up pieces of the aircraft as they were falling to the sea. So again these are all early indications until they find wreckage, until they find the data boxes, we will be speculating on what happened.

SCIUTTO: And those stations presumably a couple of hundred miles from this aircraft.

PEREZ: Exactly.

SCIUTTO: Michael Weiss, if this were determined to be an explosion, it happened over the sea, a couple of hundred miles from the Egyptian shores. Presumably that would provide for some level of technology, right? Technology advancement to the bomb to have a timer or something like that. Is there any indication -- do you learn anything from where this catastrophic event took place if terrorism was the cause?

MICHAEL WEISS, SENIOR EDITOR, THE DAILY BEAST: We may learn eventually. I think it's too soon to tell, although somebody on Facebook believe it or not made a very good observation. This flight took off about 24 minutes late, and it would have landed, you know, around the time of the explosion had it taken off on time. So you can imagine if this was some kind of IED or bomb set to a timer, perhaps the timer was meant to detonate the device when it was on the tarmac in the airport in Cairo. This was intended under that theory to be a terrorist attack perpetrated on Egyptian soil rather than in midair.

SCIUTTO: Peter, you've written extensively about airport security and terror -- as it relates to terror. We know that just recently French authorities went through Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris looking very closely at airport staff and taking some of them out of their jobs. What does that say to you about their level of concern? Had they identified a threat or risk at the airport or is that precautionary?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I don't -- I should know the answer, Jim. But I mean, I think that this is the weakest link and Sharm el-Sheikh showed it. And we've had, you know, people who joined ISIS working at the Minneapolis airport. We've had people who joined Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group, working at the Minneapolis airport. We've had people at Heathrow airport in the U.K. communicating with members of al Qaeda.

I mean, and obviously there are a lot of people who work at airports. And they're not subject to the same scrutiny that they are typically in the United States, but even in the United States, we're seeing people who aren't necessarily put there by ISIS, but they are kind of self recruiting to these groups. So this is, you know, a major flaw in the way that we conduct our security.

SCIUTTO: And we have four airports to deal with here of course because you have the Paris airport but it stopped in Cairo, Tunisia and Eritrea before the plane disappeared.

Evan, if I can ask you, there's enormous concern for U.S. bound flights originating in Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East. This one, of course, did not go to the U.S., it was going onto Egypt. Is security more stringent for flights leaving Europe and elsewhere overseas if they're coming towards the U.S.?

PEREZ: There are. There are stricter rules, frankly, that the TSA imposes, that the U.S. government imposes on any U.S. bound aircraft or even aircraft that are going to overfly U.S. territory. For instance, the airlines are required to hire their own security contractors who go in and search and make sure that this aircraft doesn't have anything, that it's not supposed to be on there. So beyond the people who, as Peter just mentioned, were the weakest link of the system, and we spent trillions of dollars on security, but that is the weakest link, the U.S. says that they have additional security requirements that aren't really required, for instance, by EgyptAir or by other countries.

So they feel that they do have enough security in Charles de Galle and in other European airports. You know, the concerns remain. I mean, this is a very, very porous system and it's only as good as the weakest part of that.

SCIUTTO: Some of that would be security you would see, for instance, that extra interview you get before you get on the plane. But I assume some of it is you don't see.

PEREZ: Some of it is stuff you don't see. These are people who are below the aircraft, and that's exactly right. You know, we've had a couple of incidents recently in Somalia where the aircraft had bombs on them. And so that's the kind of thing that's been worrying them. How are people seek -- secreting these types of devices on to the aircraft without being detected.

SCIUTTO: There's more than one way.

Evan Perez, Peter Bergen, also Michael Weiss in New York, thanks very much for joining us.

And coming up, breaking news. An Egyptian airliner vanishing over the Mediterranean. Officials say the likeliest cause is terrorism because the plane simply fell out of the sky. The working assumption that a bomb brought the plane down.



SCIUTTO: Happening now breaking news. Terror suspected. Investigators are scrambling to figure out why a flight from Paris to Cairo vanished during the safest part of the flight. U.S. officials say a bomb may have brought down the jet with 66 people on board.

Intensifying search. American jets are joining the hunt for debris and clues. And the U.S. is sharing intelligence. Stand by for new information from terror and aviation experts this hour.

And it's done. Hillary Clinton flatly declares she will be the Democratic nominee, urging a defiant Bernie Sanders to do his part for party unity. She's also dismissing Donald Trump as unqualified to be president.