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Al Qaeda Bomb Maker Killed?; U.S. to Put More Pressure On Russia over Ukraine; Death Toll on Sunken Ferry Rises to 128; Next Best Option in Missing Plane Search?

Aired April 22, 2014 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Jake, thanks very much.

Happening now, breaking news. Terror takedown. Al Qaeda's top bomb maker possibly killed in a massive anti-terror operation that's left dozens of militants dead. So how big of a blow is it to the group's deadly campaign?

Crisis unraveling. Vice President Joe Biden makes a show of U.S. support in Ukraine as a politician is found tortured and killed in the eastern part of the country. Can Washington help keep Ukraine from falling apart?

Next phase. CNN is learning exclusive new details about the search for Malaysia Flight 370 and what happens after the Bluefin mission is complete? How do officials plan to move forward?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: And we're following the breaking news. Was al Qaeda's top maker killed in a massive U.S.-led anti-terror operation? It's potentially one of the most important terror takedowns since the death of Osama bin Laden. And officials in Yemen are working right now to confirm whether Ibrahim El Asiri may be among dozens of militants killed.

It's just one of the major international stories our correspondents are covering around the world this hour.

Let's begin with our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She has details of the breaking news about the strike against al Qaeda in Yemen.

Barbara, what's the latest you're hearing?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was a covert mission by the U.S. to help the Yemenis take down al Qaeda. So covert, so secret it is not being acknowledged. A U.S. official tells me it's like it never happened.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) STARR (voice-over): CNN has learned U.S. personnel used Russian-made helicopters with night vision gear to secretly fly Yemeni troops into the remote southern mountains of Yemen, a further sign of how much the U.S. would risk to help Yemen launch this week's unprecedented raid on the al Qaeda stronghold.

U.S. officials say the American personnel did not engage on combat on the ground. It was just part of the U.S. assistance in the attacks.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: We continue to work with them on their counterterror capabilities inside their own country. But I'm not going to speak to specific operations.

STARR: Even before the ground assault, the CIA used drones to attack al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP. Fighters, weapon sites, and a training camp near a meeting of 100 fighters last month that was videotaped. U.S. officials were unnerved after viewing al Qaeda's leader in Yemen, Nasr al-Wuhayshi, addressing the group, saying, "We must eliminate the cross. The bearer of the cross is America."

WILL MCCANTS, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: You have to believe that it was a message designed not to encourage AQAP but to warn the United States that an attack was coming.

STARR: While the raids were not targeting al Qaeda's top bomb maker, Ibrahim al Asiri, a Yemeni government official tells CNN they are conducting a DNA test on one fighter killed, a Saudi citizen. Could al Asiri have been there? U.S. officials don't believe he was, but the DNA testing could take days.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If there's anywhere to hide in Yemen, inaccessible mountains in the south would be a good start.

STARR: Al Asiri is a top target. The U.S. believes he's designing new bombs to get past airport security and more attacks against the U.S.


STARR: Now, the U.S. hopes this latest round of attacks disrupted, if not destroyed, that training camp and any potential new al Qaeda plots against the United States.

But still, Wolf, that video is out there: 100 al Qaeda fighters. What was that all about? Why did they feel so confident they could be in front of the world with many of them showing their faces -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara has been ahead of the curve on this story. She's the one who broke the story of that video last week. Barbara, thanks very much.

Let's get some more now with retired U.S. General Richard Myers. He's the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. And CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom. He's reported extensively from inside Yemen.

And Mohammed, let me quickly get your reporting. What are you learning about the drone strikes plus the Yemeni special operations attack?

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, today we found out that the Yemeni government had sent in commandoes to a province called Shublo (ph), which is in the southern part of the country. This was on Sunday night. They tracked down a vehicle with some -- a vehicle that contained militants. They believe they were high-value targets. There were Saudis among them.

Ibrahim al Asiri, perhaps the most wanted man in Yemen. He's the top bomb maker for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. They believed at the time he may have been amongst these militants. They said there was a firefight that ensued. They killed these people. Helicopters whisked the bodies away. DNA testing is being done.

Now, while there still is skepticism about reports that Ibrahim al Asiri may have been killed, the Yemeni government is feeling a lot more confident about disclosing the fact that they believe that he possibly was one of the people that was killed in these strikes. That would be a huge blow to the AQAP in Yemen.

But the fact of the matter remains that top-tier targets have been taken out in the past, and that hasn't degraded the capabilities of the organization. So it remains to be seen, even if he was killed, what kind of a blow would that have to the training centers, to the recruitment abilities of this organization.

BLITZER: AQAP, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

General Myers, how important is it to go after these high-value targets? Because you kill some of them. Others are going to spring up.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS, FORMER HEAD OF JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: I think it's really important. You saw on the video where they said that they were trying to stir up the followers and target America. If that's true, then you -- you have to go after them.

I don't think that's sufficient in the end to defeat al Qaeda in the world (ph). But I think it's important that we go after them in this case.

But as Mohammed said, al Qaeda regenerates. They have a lot of followers there. Not all of them killed. Their resolve, their will still always comes back, and they always regenerate.

BLITZER: This operation clearly did result in the killing of several dozen militants. Terrorists. Whatever you want to call them. To make a decision like that, the president of the United States, he personally would have to authorize that. He'd bring the chairman of the joint chiefs, his national security advisors in. They would sit around and say, is it worth the U.S. sending drones in with Hellfire missiles or providing chopper support for Yemeni forces?

MYERS: I don't know specifically in this case, but that would be, Wolf, a very typical scenario where you bring all your national security advisers together and you say, should we take this option? Are there -- they would discuss are there civilians nearby that could possibly be harmed by these missile strikes and so forth? They would weigh all of that before the decision was made. My guess is probably was taken into account (ph).

BLITZER: Mohammed, you've done extensive reporting from inside Yemen. This clearly is a very collaborative U.S.-Yemeni military operation. How unusual is that?

JAMJOOM: Well, it's not unusual for them to be collaborating. Most of the time they don't talk about it. But because of this tape that Barbara first reported on last week, and because it was so embarrassing, according to my Yemeni sources, to the U.S. and the Yemeni governments to see at least 100 AQAP leaders, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, really sitting comfortably there, willing to appear on camera and basically thumbing their noses at the Yemenis and the U.S., a decision was made that they had to strike far, they had to strike fast, and they really had to show the world that they were trying to go after and vanquish this group.

Look, Ibrahim al Asiri is a high-value target because his fingerprints have been on any number of the major attacks that have been attempted against the U.S. and other countries in the region in the past few years. You're talking about the cartridge bomb plot. You're talking about the underwear bomb plot. You're talking about even an attempt to assassinate the deputy interior minister of Saudi Arabia in 2009. So they've been wanting to get him for quite some time.

Since this tape appeared, the U.S. and Yemenis decided, "We've got to make a show of force right now to tell AQAP we're not going to put up with this and that we're really going to go after their camps and their training.

BLITZER: It's usually a recruitment too, these videotapes, but you have 100 of them walking around, boasting pretty sophisticated high- resolution, high-definition video there. What was your take on this when it came out? Did that spark this operation?

MYERS: I don't know all of the intelligence that led up to that. I think the fact that at least the U.S. has said we're not sure that high-value al Qaeda target was there, maybe there was other intelligence that they were pinging off of.

But something like this is, as Mohammed said, in your face. And it would worry a lot of people. It would worry the Yemeni government and the Yemeni people and Americans, because they threatened America. It also worries the Saudi Arabians, because it's in their -- it's in their backyards. So most of these countries for sure would be worried, and anybody that's caught in the -- in the blast effect of whatever they decided to do.

BLITZER: And you say they're DNA testing now of one Saudi citizen who was killed in this operation who may or may not be Ibrahim al Asiri, the bomb maker?

JAMJOOM: Yes, at least one person who is Saudi is being tested. We don't yet know where the body is. Some Yemeni government officials indicated perhaps in Saudi Arabia. But it's too early to tell at this point. But they say that could take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. We've seen in the past when they've attempted to confirm the death of these high-value targets, sometimes it takes up to two weeks.

Clearly, there is a consensus emerging among the Yemenis. They would like this to be Asiri. This would be a huge "get" for them. But they are also continuing to stress these operations are not over. They're continuing to try to go after these targets in places like Shubwa (ph) and Abiem (ph).

BLITZER: So they have his DNA, Ibrahim al Asiri, that they can check it?

JAMJOOM: They do. They do. Because Ibrahim al Asiri has been such a thorn in their side of the Saudis and the Yemenis for so long, and the Americans, that in case they were in a situation like this, they wanted to be able to confirm very quickly.

BLITZER: If they got him, it's a big deal.

MYERS: It's a huge deal. And they didn't get him, but they got a lot of other extremists that we saw in that film. That's a big deal, too. It doesn't mean that the threat is over, but it's a big deal, at least temporarily, to thwart their objectives.

BLITZER: Mohammed, thanks for your excellent reporting.

General, don't go away. We've got more to discuss this hour, more breaking news.

Ominous developments in Ukraine, a politician found tortured and killed and now the United States is deploying paratroopers to the region. Stand by.

We now have exclusive new details of Plan B, as it's now being called, as the search for Malaysia Flight 370 is about to enter a brand-new phase.


BLITZER: We're following more breaking news. Fresh signs the situation in Ukraine may be unraveling.

The country's acting president says two tortured bodies have been recovered in Eastern Ukraine. One of them a member of a local parliament. At the same time, the Pentagon now says its sending Army paratroopers to neighboring Poland for, quote, exercises.

Our chief national correspondent Jim Sciutto is working this story for us. What's the latest?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're learning now that, in fact, the U.S. is going to be expanding its commitment, expanding these exercises in Europe. When I was speaking to officials over the weekend, they were talking about two companies, one company going to Poland, another going to Latvia and the Baltics. Now it's going to be four companies, one each to Poland, Latvia, the other two Baltic states Lithuania and Estonia. A strong message to all those countries which are NATO allies.

At the same time we're hearing that it is likely before the end of the week the U.S. will impose new economic sanctions on Russia, as well. So in effect, a one-two punch. Greater economic pressure on Russia to show Russia, to show Moscow that the U.S. will not accept Russian military action in and around Ukraine.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): As Vice President Biden met with Ukrainian leaders today, in Kiev masked gunmen still walked the streets in the east, occupied government buildings there, a situation the vice president demanded Russia stop.

JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We call on Russia to stop supporting men hiding behind masks in unmarked uniforms sowing unrest in eastern Ukraine.

SCIUTTO: Russia denies it's behind the unrest. Photos obtained by CNN appear to show Russian involvement. U.S. officials say Moscow is directing actions on the ground with intelligence agents and Russian special forces and that there are 40 to 50,000 troops deployed on Ukraine's eastern border.

Soon, more U.S. troops will be deployed nearby. The Pentagon confirming what CNN first reported over the weekend, that the U.S. is sending four companies from the Army's 173rd Airborne, based in Italy, to NATO allies Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for military exercises.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: Since Russia's aggression in the Ukraine, we've been constantly looking at ways to reassure allies and partners.

SCIUTTO: The White House also announced a $50 million aid package for Ukraine, which is struggling financially.

As a diplomatic agreement to end the crisis falls apart, the U.S. is threatening another round of economic sanctions on Russia.

Still, Russia's prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, vowed today that Russia can go it alone economically, becoming less reliant on the international banking system, and selling more oil and gas to China.

GOP Senator John McCain dismissed Russia as a declining economic and political power.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Look, Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country. All these guys gas and that's really all that is sustaining them. I take that back. It's a gas station run by a mafia that is masquerading as... SETH MYERS, HOST, NBC'S "THE LATE SHOW": Originally, I thought that was a little rough.


SCIUTTO: So we're seeing a very strong message from Washington to Moscow here. The vice president on the ground in Ukraine, just a few hundred miles from where the U.S. says Russian special forces and intelligence agents are operating, and he's declaring, one, the U.S. will never accept what he called Russia's illegal occupation, rather, of Crimea and, two, restating Washington's strong support for Ukraine. And, Wolf, now the administration is backing that up with these military exercises and greater financial pressure.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, stay with us. I want to bring back the former retired joint chiefs chairman, General Richard Myers. Is that going to scare Putin if the U.S. sends troops to Poland, a NATO ally, of Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, send some more troops to prepare for these exercises, a few hundred troops? Is that really going to have an impact on Putin?

MYERS: Wolf, I think it's really more meant to reassure our NATO allies that we take the situation seriously. We understand how they can be a little bit nervous about what Russia is doing -- has already done to Crimea, what it's doing on the eastern border of Ukraine. So I think it's more reassurance than...

BLITZER: Then why are these so nervous? These are NATO allies, Poland and these three other Baltic states. They're NATO allies, and under the NATO agreement, as you well know, an attack on one NATO ally is an attack on all NATO allies. The Russians know if they were going to go into Latvia or Lithuania, Estonia or Poland, that would be an attack, in effect, on the United States.

MYERS: Absolutely. Absolutely. Under Article 5.

BLITZER: So why are these countries so nervous? They don't trust the United States and the other NATO allies?

MYERS: It's not a matter of trust. It's a matter of just being reassured when something's happening very close to your home, and just you want some reassurance that the folks you're counting on are going to be there. So this is -- I think this is one of those.

BLITZER: Because they are, as you well know, Jim, they're very nervous right now.

SCIUTTO: No. No question. And there is a school of thought that Putin, in effect, wants to test that alliance to some degree.

But it's been interesting in the last several days to see President Obama. You heard it from Chuck Hagel, restating that article 5 commitment and now you have...

BLITZER: The NATO 5 commitment? SCIUTTO: The NATO Article 5 commitment. And now you have these troops exercises. And numbers, pure numbers, not big, right? You've got 40, to 50,000 troops over here from the Russian side and these are just a few hundred. But one point Admiral Kirby and others have made clear, this is going to be a continuing presence. It's not just going to be a one-off kind of exercise. These troops are going to go in and out and rotate it as a consistent military message to Russia.

BLITZER: Last week -- as recently as last week, I was speaking with one Polish diplomat who asked me a serious question. How many U.S. troops are in Poland right now? And I had no idea. There were like 8 or 12. Something like that. That's obviously not a very significant number.

MYES: No, it's not. The one thing I would say, though, that -- for the NATO countries, any -- if they want to be reassured, they need to help with this by putting some real money to their defense budgets there. They've been underfunding defense for many, many years for lots of reasons, and if they're really serious about this, they've got to help. It can't be just U.S. alone.

You saw that story in "The New York Times" today about a new strategy that the Russians now are undertaking, combining special operations, covert operations, cyber warfare to try to get their so-called strategic interests under way. What did you make of that?

SCIUTTO: Well, it's interesting, because we have this impression. It's easy to say, well, the Soviet military -- Soviet -- the Russian military saw its best days during Soviet times and they haven't moved forward. It's old-fashioned blunt force. So this is a much more strategic use of force, much more deft, right, and it shows that they've learned.

When you look at activity in Georgia, it was rockets. It was artillery. This is special forces on the ground, an information campaign. It's psy ops, that sort of thing. And I think you can say, and I'm sure the general will agree, that they would have looked to U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and learned something.

MYERS: I think so. Where I first read this was admiral retired.

SCIUTTO: Yes. He was quoted in the...

MYERS: Right. I think his observations are right on. This is a lot more sophisticated than they probably gave Russia credit for. Maybe we're misreading that. I don't know. But they're handling this in a pretty deft way.

BLITZER: Walk us through what's going through Putin's mind. Why is he doing this? Because his economy was moving in the right direction. Russia was moving in the right direction, more accepted around the world, relations with the Europeans, the export of energy resources to Germany and other countries, booming Russian economy. What is going -- what's going through Putin's mind?

MYERS: I wish I could tell you, Wolf. Everything you've said is true. The economy was doing much better. I'm affiliated with at least one company that does a lot of business there. We want to keep doing business there. We're really nervous right now about continuing that.

So none of this is good for their economy. We've seen that in their ruble, in their markets. This is -- this could be an economic catastrophe if they keep pushing international norms and behaving in ways that aren't acceptable.

BLITZER: And we keep seeing Secretary Kerry meet with the foreign minister of Russia, Lavrov. My sense is -- and correct me if I'm wrong -- Lavrov's influence may be negligible in all of this right now. He's really not a major player, but you know more about this than I do.

SCIUTTO: I think you have to -- it's hard to say it's not a damaged relationship between Kerry and Lavrov, right? Because we saw them working very closely on the deal to get chemical weapons out of Syria. That was a Kerry/Lavrov association. You've seen them working very closely on Iran and other issues.

So here's one where Kerry has had a lot of interaction with him, including the Geneva agreement just three or four days ago which has gone nowhere. And it's a combination of things. The trust has to be affected not just in that relationship but the broader relationship. But real questions about whether he has -- he has power and influence with President Putin.

BLITZER: When you were chairman of the joint chiefs and top military men at the Pentagon, the U.S. Russian military to military relationship was pretty decent.

MYERS: It was actually very good to the point that they were sending some of their noncommissioned officers to school in Europe, which was just unheard of. But that was my assumption. I don't know if that's still going on. My guess is probably not, given where the state of relations are today. But yes, they were -- they were very good.

It's disappointing to see how far they've fallen, and I think building trust between the U.S. and Russia is really important, not just for the region over there but for world peace.

BLITZER: Does it make sense for the U.S. to supply weapons, lethal weapons to Ukraine?

MYERS: I think the second and third effects of that have to be thought through. I don't -- I'm sure they're worried about that right now. But is their armed forces ability to use those weapons in a responsible way...

BLITZER: Ukrainian?

MYERS: Ukrainian armed forces. Can they do that? And I think that's a big question mark. Their armed forces isn't all that strong. So I'd worry about that. I'd worry about using inappropriate ways, civilian casualties, all those sorts of things that come with that. BLITZER: Jim, is there any serious debate within the Obama administration on whether to sell weapons to or at least provide weapons to Ukraine?

SCIUTTO: Absolutely not. And from what I know and based on the exact point that the general made, which is that the effects minimal, considering the amount of Russian force there, and the danger is greater. So they're really talking about applying military force outside of Ukraine to reassure those NATO allies.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, General Myers, thanks very much.

When we come back, we're learning exclusive new details about what could be the next phase in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Just ahead, what top officials are now revealing about the investigation and the possibility of widening the search.

Plus, take a look at this. You're looking at a live picture. A frantic search underway for survivors. As the death toll climbs, one week since that massive ferry went down. We're live from the search area, where divers have finally gained access to a critical part of the ship.


BLITZER: We're learning exclusive new details about what could be the next phase in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, if the underwater Bluefin, now just hours from the end of its current operation, fails to turn up any evidence of the plane.

Australia's transport safety chief reveals only to CNN officials are now hammering out a new agreement, proposed by the Malaysian government, dealing with the possibility of widening the search, among other critical issues.

Let's go straight to CNN's Miguel Marquez. He's joining us from Perth, Australia, where the Bluefin's tenth mission is underway. The air search is about to resume. What's the latest, Miguel?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The latest is that they are looking really at two tracks here. They're admitting the fact that perhaps Bluefin-21 will not come up with anything in this initial search. At the same time, they are looking down the road to other attempts to both manage the remains and debris from MH-370 when they finally do find it.


MARQUEZ: Bluefin-21, the autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV, searching the most promising area deep beneath the southern Indian Ocean.

If it finds no trace of MH-370, it could be replaced with a larger, towed mapping device, capable of capturing a wider picture of the sea floor. Or, as in the case of Air France Flight 447, several AUVs searching simultaneously. This is how those AUVs saw Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, a smudge on a dark screen. From the air, the search for debris from the Malaysian Airliner has never stopped, despite terrible odds.

MASTER AIRCREW ANDREW BURROWS, ROYAL NEW ZEALAND AIR FORCE: But that's the nature of the game. We're looking for absolutely anything that could possibly be MH-370.

MARQUEZ: Hundreds of sortees (ph) air crews from New Zealand, the U.S. and Australia flying hundreds of thousands of miles, blanketing the southern Indian Ocean like a patchwork quilt. Still, no signs of the plane.

For families, frustration at the response of the Malaysian government and airline, and the pace of the search. Legal means now being considered in the U.S. against aircraft maker Boeing, hoping to force answers and action.

SARAH BAJC, PARTNER OF PASSENGER PHILIP WOOD: We don't feel we have a whole lot of other choices because we're certainly not getting any answers without it.

MARQUEZ: With the search so far turning up nothing, answers may come only more slowly. A reset of the search under consideration, shows the sea floor mapping HMS Echo, one of two ships searching beneath the surface heading toward port.

And the U.S. Navy says the principle search ship, Australia's Ocean Shield, was resupplied with food by helicopter from the U.S. Naval supply ship Cesar Chavez. But it cannot be refueled at sea. The Ocean Shield may soon have to return to port.


MARQUEZ: Now, if it does have to come back to port, obviously, that will probably be a natural point at which they will reset this search and they will either widen out the search for Bluefin-21 or they will bring in additional resources. And over the next weeks, perhaps, months, conduct a much broader search across a larger area of the southern Indian Ocean. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Miguel, thanks very much. We'll check back with you.

Let's bring in our panel. Joining us once again, Richard Quest as well as our aviation analyst, the former NTSB managing director, Peter Goelz. Also our law enforcement analyst, the former FBI assistant director Tom Fuentes.

These new search guidelines that Miguel was talking about, the agreements between Australia and Malaysia to deal with various things if in fact they would be necessary, whether debris handling, care of human remains, investigation area changes, asset deployment, what does that say to you that they are thinking along these lines?

PETER GOELZ, FORMER NTSB MANAGING DIRECTOR: Well, I think we saw this coming a few weeks ago. A, there's very difficult decisions if and when they found the wreckage on how to treat the remains at that depth. Secondly, they are getting ready for the long haul. This search is going to go on for months, if not years. And the Australians, I think, have the capability and the commitment to oversee that search. The Malaysians want it done in a way that maintains their primacy. So it's a good deal I think being worked out, a wise one.

BLITZER: Let's go to the Malaysian capital. Richard Quest is our man on the scene there. Richard, what is the latest that you're hearing on the ground from Malaysian authorities and others there?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: It's a nuts-and-bolt arrangement. Everything that has been done so far has been brought together with a certain degree of urgency, Wolf. The ship set sail, the search had to be done within 30 days because of the pingers. Now, of course, if there's a failure to find anything, they have time to regroup. And that means to put in place a proper agreement, and that's what they will do.

Malaysia and Australia are firm allies. There's nothing controversial in this. I suspect the biggest controversial issue is going to be who is going to pay for it all as in when they do reach a deal and how the search gets widened. But things like handling human remains and the custody of debris, not least the black boxes. That is a housekeeping issue, if you'd like.

BLITZER: Tom, you've worked on a lot of these kinds of investigations. How important are these latest developments?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I think they are just what we would expect at this point in the investigation, this point in the search. So, I think it's just standard to reassess the equipment they're using, the search area that they have and how they'll treat the airplane and what's in the airplane when they find it.

BLITZER: Richard, the weather is pretty bad out there. A cyclone in the middle of the Indian Ocean, it's really set back the aerial search. But here's the question: they haven't found anything at all on the surface in all of these aerial searches. Is it simply a waste of time?

QUEST: Well, that depends on where you are sitting, Wolf, doesn't it? I mean, the families would say they are looking in the wrong place. They need to go back to square one and reappraise the evidence and the various pieces of data. They need to release the pieces of data so that others can make a conclusion.

We've already been told that they will wind down the air search because the chances are very low. My feeling, and from what I'm hearing from the people I talk to, they will look for a natural pause in all of this. And as Miguel says, the resupply of Ocean Shield, the failure to find anything in the first third, if you like, or in the first tranche closest to the biggest or the most promising ping, that will give everybody a chance to regroup. And I think then you may start seeing air assets return to nations of origin, you may see them really saying there's no point in continuing that part of it, and a regrouping.

But that does not mean everyone is going home, switching off the lights and forgetting all about it. It merely means it's time to rethink that which has been done.

This is unprecedented, Wolf. We've heard it said a million times. But now I'm talking to those people involved. They cannot be emphasized sufficiently enough. Nothing like this has ever been seen before.

BLITZER: Is that true, Peter? You did a lot of these kinds of disaster investigations.

GOELZ: Richard is right. It's completely unprecedented. And the mysteries -- there are so many mysteries and there are so few hard data points. I think the situation is when they get to the natural pause, they are going to rethink it, start again.

BLITZER: Do they need a new team to come in with fresh eyes, fresh thinking, take a look at the Inmarsat data, take a look at the pings that they think they heard and say, you know what, we're going to reassess what is going on?

FUENTES: I think probably, yes, it would not hurt to have a new team look at most of the information. With regard to the Inmarsat satellite, I don't know how many other teams or how technical or proprietary to the company that information is. It might be only Inmarsat can figure out its own system and analyze that data.

BLITZER: Because there are a lot of folks out there -- thinking all of the assumptions that they've been working on, since they haven't found anything, probably are wrong.

GOELZ: Well, I don't know if they are wrong but I think a new team could certainly requestion them. And I don't think you need to move on beyond the original team. You've just got to bring in a new set of eyes to look at it. I mean, this is tough work, as we've seen.

BLITZER: Richard, you're there in Kuala Lumpur. Those families, they are distraught. We've seen them crying every day, and it's totally understandable. Are you getting any sense at all that the Malaysian authorities are going to provide at least some answers to those several dozen questions that they put forward?

QUEST: I have to say, Wolf, I'm not sure why they haven't so far. And I do ask that question. And why hasn't some of what seems to be fairly rudimentary and basic questions not been answered. What I would say is, let's see this next technical team going to Beijing. If this next technical team going to Beijing fail to be able to provide some fundamental answers to the pretty basic questions that have been asked, then the Malaysians have some serious questions about why they are unable to do so. And I'll be the first person to be asking that question.

On this question of new eyes, they are all men of science looking at all of this and technology. They will welcome fresh eyes to give a new perspective and maybe spot something that they've missed so far.

BLITZER: All right. I'm going to ask all three of you to stand by. We have more to discuss.

Also, coming up, it could be the next big option in the search for Flight 370. Our own Brian Todd, he has a live behind-the-scenes look at a critical piece of technology capable of doing more than the Bluefin can.

Plus, the frantic search for survivors, one week since a massive ferry went down. We're live from the search area where divers are now zeroing in on a critical part of the ship. Kyung Lah is on the water for us. Stand by. We're going there.


BLITZER: Breaking news: the site where the massive ferry went down off the coast of South Korea one week ago surrounded this hour by cranes and warships, and the death toll has just climbed to a new high. Today, divers managed to access the ship's cafeteria where many of the passengers are believed to have gathered.

CNN's Kyung Lah is on a boat not far from the search area. She's joining us live with the latest information. What are you learning, Kyung?

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I can tell you what we're seeing is that the search has been active. It has been ongoing. It has happened throughout the night and now at daybreak you can see it happening right behind me.

I want you to focus in on -- you see that yellow crane there? Well, directly to the right of that yellow crane you see two of off-white buoys. Those buoys marks the spot where the sunken ferry is below. It's about 20 meters below, those two buoys. And then around it you can see these orange rafts. Those rafts are where the divers come for relief, come for some air and it's from there that they dive deep under the water.

And what's happening under the water is that they are going in through various access points, going in through the cabins, feeling around with their hands hoping to feel something, someone. That's what's happening under the water.

And as we widen out here, the reason why I want you to take a bigger picture look is you may notice that there's a tremendous number of ships here. The reason why that they're spaced so far apart, one mile, three miles, seven miles, and 10 miles throughout this entire area is because of body drift.

They are concerned that the bodies have left the ferry and that they are now starting to float out to sea. It is a huge concern here. They want to bring all the bodies home to the families for positive identification -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Kyung, the death toll has just gone up, right? LAH: The death toll has just risen to 128 throughout all of this ever since the disaster began just about a week ago. We're almost at the exact one-week mark of when this disaster began. The numbers have not gone down. They have found survivors just on that first day. Ever since then, Wolf, they have only pulled -- bodies out. The new death toll stands at 128.

BLITZER: And 174 people, many of them teenagers, are still missing.

Kyung Lah on the scene for us, thank you.

When we come back, it could be the next best option in the search for missing Flight 370.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Brian Todd at the place where they operate and maintain these high-tech vehicles capable of going to great depths in the ocean. And if you think these are tiny little drones, think again. This ROV here bigger than a minivan. We'll show you what they're capable of just ahead.


BLITZER: Could be the next critical device in the underwater search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Our own Brian Todd is just outside Washington, D.C. with a closer look at the Orion. That's capable of doing more than the Bluefin-21.

Brian, tell us what you can about the Orion.

TODD: Well, Wolf, this is the Orion right now. It's towed on cables like this. It can scan the ocean floor about three-quarters of a mile in each direction and it can go much deeper than the Bluefin can go. Many analysts believe if the Bluefin can't find wreckage of the missing plane, this should be the next vehicle in the water.


TODD (voice-over): The Bluefin-21 has scoured the search area, pushed the limits of its depth capability, and so far found nothing. But the ocean floor is deeper in some places than the Bluefin can go and this may be the next best option.

MARK HEINRICH, PROJECT MANAGER, PHOENIX INTERNATIONAL: This is the Orion system. It's the Navy's towed side-scan sonar system.

TODD: We got a behind-the-scenes look at the Orion at Phoenix International, the undersea search team which operates the towed pinger locator and the Bluefin-21. The U.S. Navy owns the Orion. Phoenix runs and maintains it.

Project manager Mark Heinrich showed us the Orion and the Curve, a remotely operated vehicle that can recover wreckage. Their advantage over the Bluefin? Orion can go a mile deeper, about 3.7 miles down, can stay down much longer, days or weeks at a time, unlike the Bluefin's 24 hours. It's towed with a cable, so it's not as bothered by rough seas caused by bad weather. Orion doesn't have a camera like Bluefin does, but does have side-scan sonar.

HEINRICH: The producers which send out the signal, which basically sends out a sound signal to the sea floor and that signal bounces off the sea floor and comes back, which paints a picture of the bottom of the ocean.

TODD: And there's another advantage for Orion.

(On camera): One key capability that the Orion has which the Bluefin does not have is the ability to transmit images and data in real time. That gets sent up here to a control room on the surface of the ship, where a pilot and copilot of the Orion are watching it in real time, looking at the images, sometimes taking a screen grab and analyzing it on a different screen.

(Voice-over): If the Orion spots something, it's taken out and the Curve is sent in. The Curve can spot wreckage in the pitch dark.

HEINRICH: They are flood lights, basically. They'll light up as far as the ROV can see on the sea floor.

TODD: And can pick debris up with its manipulator arms. So why wasn't this system used immediately in this search?

MIKE DEAN, DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR SALVAGE AND DIVING, U.S. NAVY: To move Curve, Orion, their handling systems, you're talking about 300,000 pounds of equipment, several aircraft to move all of this stuff, and then the deck space on ship to be able to operate it all.


TODD: Now officials here say these vehicles are ready to deploy to the Indian Ocean if they are requested. They have to be ready on about four hours' notice. It takes about three days to fly them to the Indian Ocean, Wolf, and they say it might take another week to deploy them.

BLITZER: They are getting ready, though, presumably. What are some of the limitations, though, Brian, of the Orion?

TODD: Well, officials here say that it's got -- you know, it cannot go to the very bottom of the ocean. It's got to be elevated at about maybe 1,000 feet off the ocean floor because it's towed and it does not have the ability to kind of zigzag in inconsistent patterns like the Bluefin can, but it stays down much longer. But because it's towed, it's got to go in that lawn mower pattern and it can sometimes hit a hill or a mountain on the ocean floor. It's been known to do that on occasion, but again, it can stay down a lot longer and it's got much greater depth capability than the Bluefin.

BLITZER: We'll see if it heads over there.

Brian Todd, thanks for that report. Coming up, a possible new plan in the search for Malaysia Flight 370 as officials weigh new options. CNN is learning exclusive details.

And hundreds of U.S. troops deploying around Ukraine. We're going to get the latest from the top U.S. ambassador to a group monitoring the crisis.