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Solving the mystery of vanished EgyptAir Flight 804

The mysterious disappearance of EgyptAir Flight 804 and its 66 passengers somewhere over the Mediterranean Sea has left the international community scrambling for answers. For more on what could have happened to the flight, Hari Sreenivasan talks to former National Transportation Safety Board chair Deborah Hersman and former Deputy National Security Adviser Juan Zarate.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    We return to EgyptAir Flight 804 and what could have happened to it.

    Deborah Hersman served as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 2009 to 2014 and is now president of the National Safety Council, a nonprofit organization devoted to reducing preventable deaths and injuries. And Juan Zarate was deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism during the President George W. Bush administration. He's currently the chairman of the Financial Integrity Network, a consulting firm.

    Deborah Hersman, I want to start with you.

    At this stage, what are investigators thinking about? What are they looking for?

  • DEBORAH HERSMAN, Former Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board:

    Really, the first 24 hours, they're focused on response, recovery and search for the aircraft, and so you can see clearly that's something that was a focus in this investigation.

    But you want to gather any perishable evidence that might exist. You want to make sure you know who needs to be interviewed, that you're able to connect all of the dots very early in the investigation and grab any of that information.

    Analyzing the radar data is going to be important, because what they need to do now is pinpoint where that aircraft is, so they can identify not just the aircraft, the parts and take care of the humans, but also get those black boxes, which are really important to the investigation.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Juan Zarate, given what little evidence has come out so far, what are the signs that point to fowl play?

  • JUAN ZARATE, Former Deputy National Security Adviser:

    Well, there aren't many signs.

    And part of the reason you want to gather as much data and forensics as possible early on is try to give you clues. But authorities are indicating there weren't signs in terms of intelligence that a threat was pending or threatening this particular airline or this route.

    There has been no claim of responsibility yet, and certainly we don't have any evidence that we have seen physically that would demonstrate this is terrorism. But we know terrorists have historically targeted aircraft. It has psychological, human and economic impact.

    We know that al-Qaida and ISIS have been perfecting technologies and trying to hit us on aircraft over the years, whether it's the underwear bomb plot out of Yemen, the shoe and liquid bomb plots out of the U.K., or even the downing of the Metrojet, the Russian airliner out of the Sinai by ISIS.

    They have been trying to do this. And they have had expert bomb-makers trying to figure out ways of evading the security technology that we have, Ibrahim al-Asiri, the master bomb-maker in Yemen who has been training individuals for years, as well as the Khorasan group, a senior group of al-Qaida figures in Syria that up to 2014 were trying to perfect non-metallic devices that could get on aircraft.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Deborah Hersman, given the laundry list that Juan Zarate just went through, and the fact that this is an aircraft that has a pretty good safety record, that both the pilots that were in the cockpit have experience flying this aircraft, does that lead you to think that maybe this wouldn't be a mechanical issue?

  • DEBORAH HERSMAN:

    You know, it's so early in the investigation, we really don't have that much factual information that is specific to this event.

    And so it is, you know, really speculation at this point if anyone tries to identify what the cause is. There may be people who have deeper information within the intelligence community, but the information that's been released publicly — in the U.S., we investigate as if it's an accident until we find evidence of criminal intent, and then it's turned over to the authorities and the FBI.

    But, in this investigation, there's not much to go on, at least that's been publicly shared at this point.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Juan Zarate, what about those — looking at the different links in the chain? Where are the vulnerabilities? Is it at the airport, is it in transit, is it the cargo holds?

    Just recently, France got even tighter about airport security, which you would think that this would be less likely that an attack was somehow planned or planted inside France.

  • JUAN ZARATE:

    You are right, there are weak links in the global airline industry and system, in terms of security.

    First of all, no system is perfect. And so if you have terrorist actors constantly trying to probe defenses and innovate, they're likely to get through once in a while, so that's the reality.

    But you also have to rely on airport security in third countries. It's part of the reason why the Department of Homeland Security has tried to forward-deploy some of their assessments and their security protocols, vetting individuals and cargo before it heads to the United States.

    But you have to rely on foreign partners, and capacity-building is important. You also have the insider threat problem. You referred to the French. The French had revoked the security clearance of about 50 individuals at Charles de Gaulle last year precisely because of concerns.

    And those are concerns that were manifest in the Sinai downing, as well as the Mogadishu airline attack which didn't result in the downing of the aircraft, but was certainly was an insider job. And, finally, the new technologies themselves. These are very smart individuals who have time and space to operate.

    And what I worry about, even though we can't — we shouldn't speculate and we can't definitively say what has happened, is, you have had a quickening of the threats and capabilities from groups like ISIS, and certainly an intent to hit aircraft. And that's what I think worries individuals, especially when France and Egypt are involved.

    They are prime targets for jihadi groups.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Deborah Hersman, it seems that the terrorists are deploying technology faster than the aviation industry is. And what about the sort of global web of satellites and sensors that could tell us where every given aircraft is at any given time, especially after the Malaysian Air disappearance?

  • DEBORAH HERSMAN:

    Yes, this really started back after Air France 447 in 2009.

    That recovery operation took two years and cost $40 million. With Malaysia in 2014, 370, cost about that much in the first month, and so the real question that we should be asking is, why do we not have better technology to locate any aircraft where they are?

    I can locate my kids with their iPhones anywhere that they are. We need to have need better technology on aircraft. And NTSB has recommended that we not only have more frequent sending of location. They want it to be sent once every minute, so that we can pinpoint location better. They want those recorders to last not 30 days, but 90 days.

    And they also have recommended that an important package of information, small bit, small package of data be sent that's triggered, if there is some event where you see a deviation from expected parameters, that you would send some information from the flight data recorder, so that you don't have to pull that recorder up from the bottom of the ocean to know what's going on.

    So there's a lot of technology, including cockpit video recorders, that hasn't been taken advantage of that we could do more with.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Deborah Hersman, Juan Zarate, thank you both.

  • JUAN ZARATE:

    Thank you.

  • DEBORAH HERSMAN:

    Thank you.

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