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New details on missing plane emerge, shifting investigation’s direction

March 16, 2014 at 6:21 PM EDT
With new information released Sunday about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, authorities have taken both the search and investigation in a new direction. Where are investigators focusing their efforts? Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Michael Schmidt, who has been covering the story for the New York Times, about the current focus on the pilot and other recent developments.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: For more the disappearance of the Malaysian jet liner, we joined now from Washington by Michael Schmidt of the New York Times. He’s been covering this story for them.

So where are investigators focusing their efforts now? We’ve heard that they’ve looked through the homes of the pilots and tried to find any connection to terrorism there.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT:  Yeah, they have access now to a flight simulator that one of the pilots had in his house and they’re going through that. They’re also going through some computers that they found there and are also talking to his family members.  So as of today, as we’ve seen the story has changed so much, the focus is now on the pilot.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And how much access do American investigators or U.S. agencies have to the fruits of these investigations?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: They actually don’t have a lot. In terms of raw data and where the plane may have been and satellite imagery and sort of pings that have come off of the plane, the U.S. has a fair amount of access to that information. But U.S. investigators don’t know a lot about the Malaysian investigation. The Malaysians have not asked for formal help from the Americans. And the FBI has less than a handful of guys on the ground there.  So in terms of the actual investigation of who these people were and what their motivations may have been the U.S. has far less visibility. And that’s something that has frustrated officials here in Washington.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, in some of your reporting you pointed out that Malaysian radar essentially picked up this aircraft going in different places. Malaysian military radar did. But nobody sent up a warning flare. That there were actually jets ready to scramble but nobody did.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Correct. There’s a lot of questions that have come out about the Malaysians – why they haven’t been sharing more information sooner. Why it took it more than a week for them to come out and make the declaration that they did the other day about the transponders and about how they thought that this was foul play. And sort of as the American look at this they think ‘well, we have a lot of expertise in this and we could really help.’  But the Malaysians don’t want to look like they can’t do it on their own and they don’t want us to come in and do it for them.  So the U.S. kind of stands on the outside, like many of us,  and looks in and sort of theorizes what happened. But they don’t seem to know much more than any of us do.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So how costly has that time been. In the amount of time that all these planes and ships have been searching, really in the wrong area.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Look, the problem is that the ocean there is just so big and it’s so vast and there’s only so much area that can be covered. And because the transponders went off, they have very little clue of where it could be. If they plane had hypothetically blown up as it was going on its route, then they would have a clear idea of where to look. There would be a sort of a narrow area they could look through in the water, but  they have essentially an entire ocean to look at and that is really, really difficult. And there’s even some folks who think they may not even ever find it. So, that’s probably the biggest issue here is that there’s just so much water.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So Michael, based on all your reporting, what do you think the most likely scenario is?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Unfortunately, I think that the plane is probably at the bottom of the ocean. It seems pretty far-fetched to think that the plane was taken somewhere, landed and no one detected it.  And if you talk to aviation experts, they say it’s very difficult to sort of hide a plane of this size and for it to end up on land somewhere without anyone finding it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Michael Schmidt from the New York Times joining us from Washington, thanks so much.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me.