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News Wrap: Satellite image of debris shifts Malaysia plane search to remote stretch of Indian Ocean

March 20, 2014 at 6:02 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Russia and the West stayed locked in a stare-down today, as the crisis over Ukraine continued to build. Announcements of sanctions flew back and forth between Washington and Moscow. And, in Crimea, the Russians intensified their pressure on Ukraine’s military. We will have a full report right after the news summary.

This day has seen a new flurry of activity and hope in the search for a missing Malaysian airliner, the new focus, an area in the southern Indian Ocean.

We have a report from Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: This morning, Australian and American surveillance planes set out in search of the remains of Flight 370 after satellite imagery pinpointed possible debris floating below.

They dropped yellow marker buoys over the spot. They’re designed to record the ocean’s drifting currents and so detect where that debris might drift next. But clouds prevented any glimpse. One plane spotted only two passing pods of dolphins and a freighter. That ship, a Norwegian car transporter, was diverted from its course to investigate, but its Filipino crew have seen nothing so far.

A satellite recorded two objects, this one thought to be up to 24 meters long, though, after so many false leads, caution is the order of the day.

JOHN YOUNG, Australia Maritime Safety Authority: This is a lead. It’s probably the best lead we have right now, but we need to get there, find them, see them, assess them to know whether it’s really meaningful or not. And I caution again, they will be difficult to find.

TONY ABBOTT, Prime Minister, Australia: We don’t know what that satellite saw until we can get a much better, much closer look at it. But this is the first tangible breakthrough in what up until now has been an utterly baffling mystery.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Flight MH370 left Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. heading for Beijing 12 days ago. The last good night from the co-pilot came at 1:19 a.m., about 40 minutes after takeoff. Just after that, communications were turned off.

At 2:15 a.m., the plane turned sharply west off course. A satellite carried on picking up a signal for the next seven hours, the plane heading somewhere along one of these two vast corridors. Today, satellite images show potential debris close to the southern corridor, over 1, 500 miles west of Perth in Australia.

At Kuala Lumpur airport, the world’s press was hungry for eyewitness confirmation, which never came, 12 days on, the relatives of 239 missing people still left in the agonizing dark. The jet may have crashed into the ocean, but the mystery of what really happened could go on for days, months or even years.

GWEN IFILL: We will have more on the huge challenges in the search for Flight 370 later in the program.

Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair was fined $20,000 today for sexual misconduct, but given no jail time. He was initially accused of sexual assault, as the Pentagon acknowledged the problem is widespread within the military. But the case against Sinclair crumbled, and he pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

Today, he appeared upbeat after leaving court at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

BRIG. GEN. JEFFREY SINCLAIR, U.S. Army: It’s been a very difficult time for me and my family. It really has. The system worked. I have always been proud of my Army. All I want to do now is go up north and hug my kids and see my wife.

GWEN IFILL: Sinclair is retiring immediately, but a disciplinary board could yet reduce his rank and his pension. We will talk to a reporter who’s been covering the court-martial later in the program.

In a separate case, a military judge acquitted a former Naval Academy football player of sexual assault. Joshua Tate was accused of attacking a female classmate at an off-campus party in 2012. Tate said the sex was consensual. Prosecutors argued the woman was too drunk to consent. Two other Navy football players were charged, but the charges were later dropped.

International criminal gangs are making California their number one American target for cyber and other crimes. The state attorney general reported today California leads the nation in hack attacks and identity theft. The report also estimated more than $30 billion is laundered through the state economy every year.

Wall Street rebounded today. The Dow Jones industrial average gained 108 points to close at 16,331. The Nasdaq rose 11 points to close at 4,319. And the S&P 500 added 11 to finish at 1,872.

Leaders on both sides of the aisle paid tribute to Robert Strauss, who died Wednesday. For decades, he was a major Washington figure, advising presidents of both parties.

Power broker, peacemaker, deal negotiator. Robert Strauss’ career in politics began as a law student at the University of Texas, where he worked on Lyndon Johnson’s first congressional campaign. By 1972, he’d become chair of the Democratic National Committee, after George McGovern’s shattering loss in the presidential race that year.

Strauss set about rebuilding the party and helped engineer the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter. He served as the president’s personal representative in Middle East peace talks that led to the Camp David accord. But he also moved easily across party lines, as a trusted adviser in the Reagan administration and as ambassador to the Soviet Union under President George H.W. Bush.

ROBERT STRAUSS, Former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union: I’m old-fashioned enough to believe still that politics does end at the water’s edge, and believe that I can serve in the tradition of others who have made that step.

GWEN IFILL: In 1992, Strauss returned to Dallas to work at the law firm he co-founded in 1945 and to lecture at the University of Texas. Robert Strauss died Wednesday at his home in Washington. He was 95 years old.

The Kansas preacher who led his Westboro Baptist Church on a fiery crusade against gays has died. Reverend Fred Phelps organized anti-gay protests nationwide, even picketing funerals of AIDS victims and soldiers. That led to a major free speech ruling in 2011. That’s when the Supreme Court barred grieving families from suing Westboro Baptist for damages. Fred Phelps was 84 years old.