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News Wrap: Military radar shows missing Malaysian flight veered off-course

March 11, 2014 at 6:02 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The search for that missing Malaysian Airlines flight took an unexpected turn today. It now develops that the plane was spotted hundreds of miles from where it was supposed to be.

John Sparks of Independent Television News has this report from Kuala Lumpur.

JOHN SPARKS: It’s got to be there, but no one knows where. For the fourth day in a row, a small armada of ships, planes and helicopters scoured the waters around Malaysia, looking for the jetliner and its passengers and crew, and for the fourth day in a row, they found nothing.

Here’s a member of the Vietnamese rescue team.

MAN (through interpreter): Some objects were spotted in this area, so we came right here, but we haven’t found a thing.

JOHN SPARKS: They have got little to go on, and what they do have is contradictory. Today, a Malaysian military source said the plane wasn’t headed to Beijing, its intended destination. Instead, it changed course.

On Saturday morning, Flight 370 left Kuala Lumpur, and we were told that civilian radar lost contact with it here, near the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand. However, military radar shows the aircraft veering west, then flying over the Malacca Straits for an hour. It’s a big discrepancy for those trying to find it.

Still, Malaysian police eliminated one line of inquiry today. They provided new details about the identities of two men who boarded the flight with stolen passports.

Here’s the first.

INSPECTOR GEN. KHALID ABU BAKAR, Royal Malaysian Police: He is 19 years old. And he’s an Iranian. We believe that he is an Iranian.

JOHN SPARKS: His name, Pouria Nour Mohammed Mehrdad, and police said his journey had nothing to do with terror.

KHALID ABU BAKAR: We believe he is not likely to be a member of any terrorist group, and we believe that he is trying to migrate to Germany.

JOHN SPARKS: The second man later identified as Delavar Syed Mohammad Reza.

The press conference was another raucous affair with journalists scrapping for a picture of the two men. Interest in the plane’s disappearance is intense, and the media has had little until now to pass on.

At a Beijing hotel, friends and relatives of those on board continue their vigil. But the fourth day has brought them little. A small number have decided to travel to Malaysia, better to do something, perhaps, than sit and wait.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on today’s surprising news about the missing flight, we turn to Peter Goelz in Washington. He’s a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Peter Goelz, thank you very much for joining us.

And I just want to point out that, at this hour, there are still conflicting accounts of where the plane was when it was last heard from. But, having said that, it does appear the transponder on the plane was either turned off or stopped working at the same point the plane took a sharp turn.

Tell us just quickly, remind us, what is a transponder and what would be the explanations for it being turned off?

PETER GOELZ, Former Managing Director, NTSB: Well, the transponder is a critical piece of electronics on every airplane.

And when the aircraft is painted by a radar signal, it responds back and says, I’m aircraft 427, I have got — I’m at this altitude, I’m going at this speed. So it identifies the aircraft for air traffic controllers and for other aircraft in the area.

There is little reason to ever turn off your transponder, because it is essential that the controllers see you, that other aircraft see you, that you are identified in the sky. Now, even in an emergency situation, the transponder uses very little electrical power. It would be one of the last items you would shut down in some sort of inexplicable electrical malfunction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So…

PETER GOELZ: This is very troubling.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, would it require a human gesture to turn it off or some — you’re saying some sort of mechanical or electrical failure?

PETER GOELZ: Well, it could — you know, it would most likely take a human gesture, a human action to turn it off. It could be done from the flight deck. It could be done by a circuit breaker.

But the idea that a malfunction would take place is very unusual.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what are the pilots’ options in this case? Because there are reports that the plane continued flying for at least another hour before apparently they lost contact altogether. What does that tell you?

PETER GOELZ: Well, I mean, it tells you that something was going on in the flight deck, in the cockpit that shouldn’t have. There was something happening.

Either there was a — some sort of takeover of the cockpit. There was some sort of decision made by the flight crew that was outside the norm. And it’s — it is not beyond the realm of possibility that one of the flight crew members took over the aircraft.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just very quickly, does this — does this new piece of information in your mind make it more or less likely that there was foul play of some kind?

PETER GOELZ: Oh, I think you have got to — I think it moves the issue of foul play up. You have got consider it more strongly now.

And I think, I mean, on a broader case, the Malaysian government, this investigation appears to be being managed by the military. And it has not gone to the civil aviation authorities. They have not started an accident investigation, so the U.S. is not fully participating yet or other countries. It’s very troubling on how the information is being managed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Many questions still remain.

Peter Goelz, we thank you.

PETER GOELZ: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Ukraine, Crimea’s parliament voted today to declare independence, if its people vote in favor of joining Russia.

A referendum is scheduled for Sunday. Meanwhile, the prime minister of Ukraine appealed to Russia, the U.S. and Britain to abide by a 1994 treaty. It guaranteed Ukraine’s security in exchange for giving up Soviet-era nuclear weapons.

ARSENIY YATSENYUK, Prime Minister, Ukraine (through interpreter): We are not asking anyone for anything extraordinary. We are asking for just one thing. Military aggression has been used against our country. Those who guaranteed that this aggression will not take place must from the one side pull out troops and from the other side must defend our independent, sovereign state. This is the demand of our country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Ukrainian prime minister is traveling to Washington to meet with President Obama tomorrow.

The top U.S. and Russian diplomats talked again today, but made no progress toward resolving the Ukrainian crisis. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The State Department said it wasn’t satisfied with the Russian’s responses. Moscow said the two sides will keep talking.

A student leader in Venezuela was shot and killed last night, amid the growing protests in that country. It happened in San Cristobal, where anti-government demonstrations first erupted last month. National Guardsmen battled students in residential neighborhoods, firing tear gas and plastic pellets.

A dispute between the CIA and the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee blew up publicly today. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein accused the agency of improperly searching a computer network set up for senators to review classified material. It was part of a probe into interrogations of terror suspects.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-Calif., Senate Intelligence Committee Chair: The CIA’s search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution, including the speech and debate clause. It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The head of the CIA, John Brennan, later disputed any claim that the agency tried to obstruct the Senate investigation. He spoke at an event in Washington.

JOHN BRENNAN, CIA Director: We are not trying at all to prevent its release. As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that.

When the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The issue has now been referred to the Justice Department to determine if there were any criminal wrongdoing.

Japan today marked the third anniversary of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed 19,000 people and triggered a nuclear plant meltdown. The quake was the strongest in Japan’s history, and the massive tsunami wave wiped out entire coastal communities with little warning. Three years later, 270,000 people are still displaced. Today, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to do more to rebuild.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average lost 67 points to close at 16,351. The Nasdaq fell 27 points to close at 4,307. And the Standard & Poor’s 500 was down nine points to finish at 1,867.