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Still facing abyss of questions, what gives Malaysia confidence in its Flight 370 conclusion?

March 24, 2014 at 6:12 PM EST
After 17 days of searching for the missing airliner, Malaysian officials announced that they believe it went down in the Southern Indian Ocean and that no one survived. Michael Schmidt of The New York Times joins Judy Woodruff to discuss lingering questions for the Malaysian authorities in light of their conclusion.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For a closer look of the state of investigation, we turn to Michael Schmidt of The New York Times.

Michael Schmidt, welcome.

So what gave the Malaysian government the confidence finally to say that this plane is lost and in the South Indian Ocean?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, The New York Times: What they said today was that it was satellite information that came from a British company that had basically tracked the plane off the coast of Australia.

But what happened again today is that the Malaysians didn’t really provide a lot of evidence for why they believed this satellite information, and that immediately created questions among the family members, saying, where is the real proof that you guys know that the plane went down?

And all of a sudden, the Malaysian government is once again on the defensive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, is — are reporters and others who have been looking into this able to piece together what that evidence may be, what the technology is?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Well, we were only given a little sliver of it today by the prime minister.

And basically what reporters and what we’re forced to rely on is what the government was saying. And what happened was that they didn’t really explain what this was and how it actually worked, and because of that, these questions still remain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why weren’t they able to come up with this sooner, Michael?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Well, that’s an interesting question, because here we are two weeks out, and now it seems like the investigation and the search for it has sort of hit a high gear, but the question is, why didn’t this happen sooner?

And I think the problem was is that the Malaysians didn’t have a lot of experience dealing with issues like this, and they were really caught flat-footed. And in the first week, they didn’t share information with anyone else. They were very reluctant to do that. And basically a lot of time was lost initially.

And now we’re seeing — we’re getting some answers and they’re seeing some debris and such, but here we are two weeks out, and I think that’s been really frustrating for the families.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of the debris, the investigators you’re talking to, folks in that community, are they saying that they’re confident that they they’re going to be able to eventually know what happened to this plane?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: No, I don’t think so.

As we have seen, there was a report at the end of last week that there was debris that they saw off the coast of Australia, but then, when they flew — when they tried to find it, they couldn’t. And now we have other reports of other debris that they’re now searching for.

But I think the idea that they’re confident that they’re actually going to find this is not true, because, as we reported, the ocean air moves very quickly, there’s very high winds. It’s a very difficult area to search, and that makes this all the more difficult.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But there is, I guess, a U.S. Navy ship going there with the capability of picking up the sonar, the signals from the data recorders; is that right?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Yes, but that’s only within 20,000 feet of the — the ping would have to be within 20,000 feet of that, and that’s not a lot of area in the area that they’re working. They don’t really have a very specific like down to several miles that they’re looking.

They just have sort of this general area off the coast of Australia, so I think this could go — this could drag on for many, many more weeks, if not months. In previous cases, it’s taken them years to find stuff like this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, separately, is there anything new on the investigation into what happened to the passengers on the plane, the pilots? We know that the chief pilot had a flight similar simulator. Any more information on that or anything related?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Well, the FBI here is looking at that hard drive, and they’re trying to figure out if there were deleted files, what was deleted on that hard drive?

The Malaysians tried to look at the hard drive and they couldn’t access these deleted files. So the FBI is digging into that, but they haven’t reported anything back to the Malaysians yet, which sort of shows that they haven’t found anything. So that’s what the Americans are working on here.

And in terms of what happened on the plane, we don’t really know much more than we did two weeks ago. And that’s sort of the whole problem with the story is that here we are, you know, this far out and we don’t really know much more about the fact — all we basically know is that this plane headed south and they still don’t know where it is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Schmidt with The New York Times, we thank you.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me.