by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
Members of Congress who have been briefed by intelligence officials say they are baffled by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
The Boeing 777 has been missing since March 7, when it lost contact with air traffic controllers about an hour into its flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing.
Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak said Saturday that communications systems on the missing flight were deliberately disabled by someone on the plane and the last known signal came more than seven hours after takeoff.
Lawmakers said they sought out information from multiple federal agencies about the missing plane, but what they heard still left them stumped.
“Basically we’re back where we started,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told The Hill this week. “I’m not aware of any progress. I’ve been talking to people … for the last four or five days, but in many ways we’re back where we started.”
King is the chairman of the House committee that deals with counterterrorism and intelligence issues.
He said the leads about the potential whereabouts of the plane, which was carrying 239 passengers, have been conflicting.
“The Chinese lead didn’t work out, the Malaysians are taking back what they had said about the plane detouring, and of course there’s the [theory] that the plane flew for four hours, which others are saying is not true,” King said.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) this week said he was also at a loss when it came to the whereabouts of the missing plane.
“We can’t get any good determination about what happened to the flight based on the collection points that our intelligence services are engaged in,” Rogers said in an interview Tuesday with CNN. “And you know, not knowing its direction at the time that they lost contact is incredibly frustrating.”
U.S. officials have since come to believe that the Malaysia Air plane was located over the Indian Ocean, based on communications that were sent via satellite by the airplane’s engines.
Rogers and King have both been critical of the Malaysian government’s handling of the search for the missing jetliner.
“The Malaysians have not been fully cooperative in making this a scientific search pattern using all the assets very wisely,” Rogers said. “So, you start out in one place and you’re 500 miles away the next day. That tells me they’ve got a lot of gaps to try to fill and hopefully, that will come together.”
King noted the “contradictory” information coming from the Malaysian and Chinese governments.
“Ever since this started on Saturday, it’s been intense, it’s been 24/7, and I would say even more so now with these different leads, these contradictory leads, the total confusion almost that’s coming from Malaysia and to some extent from China,” King said during an interview Thursday with CNN.
“If the Malaysian Air Force thought back on Saturday that the plane possibly had detoured or turned around, why did they wait until just the other day to tell us that?” King said. “Also with China, why did they wait so long to make those images available, whether or not they’re turning out to be valid?”
Other lawmakers have raised questions about the security process for international airlines after it was revealed that two of the passengers on the flight had used stolen passports.
A group of lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee has launched a push to strengthen background check requirements for international flights.
“While we are still awaiting details on what happened to Flight 370, we do know that two individuals, Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza and Pouri Nourmohammadi, were able to board an international flight carrying American passengers by using stolen passports,” the lawmakers wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
“While these passports were in the Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) database of INTERPOL, they were not cross referenced against it by either the airline or the appropriate authorities,” the letter continued. “This dramatically illustrates a serious flaw in airline security, one that INTERPOL has raised for years, but has not been appropriately dealt with by the international community.”
The letter was signed by Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), Candice Miller (R-Mich.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).
The lawmakers said it is “imperative for passenger safety and aviation security that we close this loophole to help ensure the safety of the traveling public.”
“While many countries, including the United States, routinely access the SLTD database, many others do not,” the lawmakers wrote. “In fact, according to INTERPOL, passengers boarded airplanes more than one billion times in 2012 without having their passports screened against its databases. Allowing people to use stolen passports to travel about the world puts lives, including those of Americans, at risk.”
Malaysian officials have pleaded for patience as the search for the missing plane enters its second week.
Malaysia Air said on Friday that it is “fully aware of the on-going media speculations and we have nothing further to add to the information we have already provided.
“Our primary focus at this point in time is to care for the families of the passengers and crew of MH370,” the airline said in a statement. “This means providing them with timely information, travel facilities, accommodation, meals, medical and emotional support.”
Acting Malaysia Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein has added that the country has “nothing to hide” about the fate of the missing plane.
“I believe it is important to get you [the media] informed,” he said in a press conference on Wednesday.
Lawmakers were unconvinced, however.
“So far they seem to have dropped the ball at every level,” King said of Malaysia’s efforts to locate the missing plane in a separate CNN interview on Wednesday.
“I hate to be, you know, the Monday morning quarterback, but it appears as if they’ve done nothing right so far,” King said.