Robert B. Murrett Interviewed on CNN’s The Situation Room

Maxwell School Professor of Practice Robert B. Murrett, Deputy Director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s The Situation Room on March 21, 2014, regarding the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.


MALVEAUX: So, Wolf, we’re talking from satellite to visual to sonobuoys to robotic submersibles. This is all about narrowing that search field to find this missing plane and of course we’re talking about time that is quickly running ou.

Wolf BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Suzanne, for that.

Joining us now retired Vice Admiral Robert Murrett. He’s the former director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency along with the former Joint Chiefs chairman, retired General Richard Myers.

Gentlemen, thanks very much for coming in.

General Myers, first to you. How extraordinary is this search right now? You’re a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Have you ever seen anything like this before?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS, FORMER JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: You know, yes, probably we’ve had searches of this magnitude before and what is encouraging here is the number of nations that are participating and it sounds like Malaysia has put out the calls and my guess is there will be more because given the size of the area they’re searching, they’re going to need a lot of eyes on that area. And maybe — I mean, we don’t even know if this is the right area.

BLITZER: But a lot of those nations, they don’t like each other. So here’s the question. Will they all contribute their best? Will everyone give them their best high-tech equipment or will they hold back?

MYERS: In my experience, for something like this, which is along the scale of a humanitarian issue, they’ll give their best equipment and their best people for this. They want — they want to do well.

BLITZER: Admiral, you’re an expert on radar and satellites. You understand this stuff a lot better than I do and our viewers do. Why is it so difficult, given the technology out there, to find a 777?

VICE ADM. ROBERT MURRETT, FORMER DIR., NATIONAL GEOSPATIAL- INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: I think there’s a couple of factors at work there, Wolf. The first is the delay, so to speak, that we had between we didn’t know which area needed to be searched most carefully, and it wasn’t really until, I guess, about last Saturday, about a week into the disappearance of the aircraft that people really knew that we needed to focus on the southeastern Indian Ocean off the west coast of Australia.

I think the second factor is the challenges, a tenet with an open ocean search over a vast area of ocean, especially given the currents and so on over the week or so before we knew with any precision at all where to look for the missing aircraft based upon the delay that we talked about earlier. And I think the third factor is the — just the challenges for any kind of technical sensor or for the surveillance flights that we’ve talked about here tonight, when surveying the high seas because of wind states, the darkness, fog, just the —

BLITZER: You saw those satellite images that were released.


BLITZER: Showing a large chunk of something, smaller chunk of something from a commercial satellite, you’ve spent your career looking at those kinds of images. Did that look like a 777 to you?

MURRETT: We don’t know, Wolf. I mean, it was a piece of, you know, lots of (INAUDIBLE) in the ocean. There are a lot of things out there. There wasn’t enough — and you need to go to an imagery analyst to look at it in detail but there wasn’t enough precision in that and (INAUDIBLE) wherever it was.

BLITZER: The first — the first week or so everyone wasted time apparently looking totally in the wrong direction, General. How big of a problem was it?

MYERS: Well, it’s always a problem and there are still some question now and as time goes on, if this is really where the plane went down —

BLITZER: In the southern Indian Ocean.

MYERS: Southern ocean. The bigger pieces likely could have sunk, then you have smaller pieces that are going to be dispersed by the currents and by the wind down there and so it becomes more difficult. It’s not going to be as concentrated I think it might have been the first few days.

BLITZER: Do commercial satellites have the same capability as a U.S. government satellite? Because — I mean, you’ve studied these and I don’t want you to give away any sensitive or classified information. But how good is the resolution from way up there to look down atop of the water and see something on your — the government satellites as opposed to commercial satellites?

MURRETT: Wolf, I can’t comment on the capabilities that we have (INAUDIBLE) for our government compared to the commercial ones. I can only say that I’m very confident if we had any data at all that was actionable on the government side, it’s like General Myers would (INAUDIBLE), we’d be providing it.

BLITZER: Even if it would compromise national — if compromised sources and methods, you’d still show those messages?

MURRETT: I don’t know if we need to go there, Wolf. There are ways of releasing data. You know, we’ve had a lot of experience, the gulf oil spill, for example, Hurricane Katrina, we’ve gotten fairly proficient, I think, in the organizations like over the past several years in releasing data that needs to be released without compromising where it came from.

MYERS: And I know there’s some government agencies in particular Air Force Space Command that on their own has been using some of their resources to help look and nobody has asked them to do that. They did that early on.

BLITZER: They just volunteered. Have they found anything?


BLITZER: Have you — from all your indications, your sources, have you heard if they’re making any progress in really locating where this airliner is?

MYERS: No, I have not heard anything.

BLITZER: Have you?


BLITZER: So is it your sense — and both of you are experts in this area — that — and I’ll ask General Myers first that this was a mechanical failure or an individual or individuals were responsible for the disappearance of this aircraft?

MYERS: First, you don’t know. Nobody knows and I don’t think anybody that opines is — knows. They are all guessing. Probability, when an aircraft mishap happens, probability is, it’s pilot error. That’s been historically true since Oroville and Wilbur flew, so you’d have to go there first. Mechanical is down that list. And then misconduct by somebody — an aircrew member or somebody — some passengers, somebody — terrorism or something like that I think would have to be considered.

BLITZER: As far as your concerned all of those options —

MYERS: They ought to be all on the table and people that are investigating ought to keep their intellectual aperture wide open to address all of these.

BLITZER: Do you agree with all of that?

MURRETT: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Is — do you have confidence that the Malaysians know what they are doing when it comes to this — or do they need an international consortium to come to their aid?

MURRETT: I would say, and as General Myers mentioned earlier, I think the international consortium coming together is important. Perhaps they could have come together earlier. I don’t want to pass on judgment but certainly the fact that so many people are participating is just (INAUDIBLE) and I think a good sign.

BLITZER: Do you have any indication of when we’re going to find this plane?

MURRETT: We don’t. You know, the — just one thing I’d mention, Wolf, I mean, the part of the world assuming that the search should be focused on the Southern Indian Ocean, I mean, it’s very, very challenging. Just when — compare and contrast, for example, this aircraft had, say, gone down to the Mediterranean, it would be a simple task to find debris and locate it but in this part of the world, it’s just several orders of magnitude.

BLITZER: One final question. If it had gone north over land, towards India or Pakistan or Kazakhstan, you think there would have been some indication of that? MYERS: It’s possible. All of those countries have radars. They might have picked something up. Again if the transponder is off, they’re looking for what we would call a skin painting on the aircraft. It would be a lot more problematic but yes, I think it’d be a lot easier search even if it went down over land in a general area, an easier search than the ocean search. A sea state makes such a difference.

BLITZER: General, Admiral, thanks very much for coming in …

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