Media coverage of the unexplained disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 and its 239 passengers and crew has been strangely passive. Each day the press repeats the latest official announcements and speculation with little independent criticism or analysis. As reporter Michal Wollf observed in the London Guardian, "'missing' stories trump all others for their intensity and stickiness, fueling the imagination of journalists and audiences alike." Reporters and pundits have squandered precious ink and airtime reflecting on a cascade of officially announced "dots," while, at the same time, they have failed to connect some of the more obvious dots. Two, in particular.
MH370 was initially reported to have vanished from radar surveillance around 1:30 AM Saturday, March 8, while cruising across the South China Sea at 35,000 feet en route to Beijing.
The media's initial obsession with the story was based on the presumption that the plane crashed at sea. Then came a flood of high-tech evidence that established the plane had been intentionally redirected and flown off in a new direction.
The media currently has returned to the crash scenario and the "drama of the search"—providing extended coverage of an unprecedented air-and-sea mission extending over tens of thousands of square miles of open ocean. Even the discovery that the last hourly "ping" emitted by the plane was recorded 7.5 hours after the plane took off has failed to counter the mad rush to "find the missing wreckage" — it has only expanded the area of the search.
We now know the plane Boeing 777-200's Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) was manually turned off 40 minutes into the flight and its transponder was switched of 14 minutes later.
The major failure to solve the mystery may have been the failure to follow the earliest and most obvious clue.
The First Clue
After remaining silent for three days, the Malaysian military announced it had tracked the plane after it "vanished." The Malaysian military revealed that, at the time of its sighting, MH370 had flown west for some 45 minutes after its standard tracking systems had been turned off. The military's radar reported MH370 had reduced its cruising altitude by 5,000 feet and was flying west in the northern portion of the Malacca Straight, approximately 200 miles northwest of Penang.
Two sets of radar tracks (one civilian, one military) both showed MH370 turning to the southwest and heading for the middle of the Indian Ocean.
On Tuesday, March 11, the military's tracking system was used to produce a map of MH370's new path. Despite press reports that described the plane as "doubling back," the Malaysia jet actually made a left turn that carried it across the Malaysian Pennisula and over the Malacca Straight.
This raised an obvious connect-the-dots question: If the plane was still flying, where was it headed? (Flying in "stealth mode," the plane would be free to speed directly towards its final destination. There would be no need to zig-zag through the skies to confuse pursuers.)
In this case, connecting the dots requires nothing more than a map, basic math and a ruler. Anyone can repeat this exercise.
Take the Malaysian military's March 11 map and simply extend the flight path out into the India Ocean. How far would Flight 370 need to travel before reaching a destination where the plane could land?
According to a March 13 report in the Wall Street Journal, US officials claimed that Flight 370 remained airborne "for up to four hours past the time it reached its last confirmed location." At cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, a Boeing 777 travels at 564 mph (910 km/h). That comes out to a little more than 2,200 miles.
But before anyone could grab a ruler and start pushing a pencil across the map, China stepped in to provide a major distraction.
A 'Red Herring'
On Thursday, March 13, Chinese authorities released a satellite image that showed three "suspicious floating objects" in the waters of the South China Sea.
Suddenly the focus of the search went into reverse. Instead of looking west, the entire operation refocused to the east. After numerous overflights by Malaysian and Vietnamese aircraft, pilots reported no signs of the mysterious debris. China subsequently apologized for releasing the photo. One US official, described as "close to the plane investigation," called the Chinese satellite photo a "red herring."
When news broke that satellites had recorded little-known "pings" that the aircraft had emitted on an hourly basis, the focus shifted again. This time, instead of looking east (or west), the new parameters for the Great Search became two huge arcs—one extending as far north as Khazakstan; the other curving south over tens of thousands of miles of ocean west of Australia.
On March 15, US investigators proposed that the jetliner's most likely last-known position was in a zone about 1,000 miles west of Perth, Australia. As a result, US planes and vessels are now part of a massive (and likely futile) effort to survey 2.4 million square nautical miles of ocean.
Maps and Misdirection
On March 15, a new map was released that purported to show the Malaysian military's tracking of MH370's last-known position. Strangely, this map no longer showed the plane "doubling back." Instead of a making a sharp 45-degree turn to the southwest, the new map showed MH370 making an 80-degree turn that pointed north toward the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
On March 16, the Associated Press began to resurrect the theory that MH370 had plummeted into the ocean. Instead of following the original Malaysian military radar path over the Malacca Straight, the AP was now promoting the idea that the plane might have flown over as many as 11 countries—before crashing.
Forgotten in all the hoopla about the "highly complex, multinational effort" that now included search teams from 25 nations, was the fact that the best information on the plane's last known destination had it heading west—not toward any major national land mass, but towards the Indian Ocean.
But this vast expanse is not just water. The Indian Ocean contains a critical "dot" that the press has, so far, managed to miss—one of NASA's 33 emergency landing sites, a leftover from the days of the Space Shuttle. This unique site also happens to be designated as an official Extended Range Twin Engine Operations (ETOPS) emergency landing site for commercial jets that may encounter in-flight problems while crossing the Indian Ocean. This ETOPS site is listed as being able to handle anything from an Airbus A330 to a Boeing 777.
The Pentagon's Secretive 'Dot' in the Indian Ocean
What is this unique outpost? It is the former UK naval base on Diego Garcia, an island that was brutally expropriated from its native population, the Chagos Islanders, by the British. Diego Garcia has since been leased to the US. This strategically important base is believed to be under the control of the CIA and was, in fact, used during the CIA's "rendition" program to transport abducted "terrorist" suspects to various "black sites" where they were imprisoned and tortured.
So let us return to our map, pencil and ruler.
It turns out that, if you take the Malaysian military's initial map from March 11 and extend the path of flight MH370 for 2,142 miles (1,609 km)— 3.8 hours of added flight time—it exactly intersects with Diego Garcia.
Diego Garcia is the Pentagon's greatest strategic asset in the Indian Ocean. It has served as a staging ground for US military invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The site is outfitted with the most advanced surveillance systems available—including an array of radar and tracking systems.
In short, if the wayward Malaysian airliner was flying anywhere in the Indian Ocean (let alone directly over Diego Garcia), the military monitors embedded at the Pentagon's premiere regional airbase would have known about it.
So, if we ignore the red herrings and refuse to be distracted by the media/military maneuvers dedicated to scouring 2.5 million square nautical miles of deep ocean waters off Western Australia, we are left with a question: What can the Pentagon's assets at Diego Garcia tell us about the flight path and destiny of Malaysia Flight 370?
The Pentagon Is Silent
Unfortunately, the Pentagon isn't talking. Not even to Malaysia. Malaysia's Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has publicly complained that the US has refused his requests for information gathered by US satellites and ground stations. Malaysia has asked for data from Washington's secretive spy bases in Australia (at Pine Gap and at the Jindalee Operational Radar Network), to no avail. Similar requests sent to the Five Eyes network (Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the US), to France and to China have been rejected. Although the US has "possibly the best ability" to track the plane, the defense minister acknowledges that the US is likely to remain unwilling to share its information on "national security" grounds.
There are some very bizarre theories circulating about how Diego Garcia might be part of an intricate global conspiracy involving the missing plane but none of these plots are rooted in any responsibly resourced research. The important question for the moment is: What light can Diego Garcia's military and intelligence apparatus shed that might help us learn the fate of 227 missing passengers and 12 crewmembers?
Things We Didn't Know until Now:
Flight 370 continued to emit hourly "pings" for 7.5 hours after takeoff. These messages are released even if the plane is on the ground—as long as the aircraft's power is still on.
Rolls Royce, the manufacturer of the jet's engines, is able to monitor the performance of its jets remotely with reports generated every 30 minutes. Information from Flight 370 was broadcast to a centralized global receiving station based in Derby, UK.
The two passengers who boarded with stolen passports were ruled not to be suspicious. They were "apparently seeking to emigrate illegally to the West." (By flying to China.)
The Boeing 777-200ER is reportedly equipped with a computer-driven "fly-by-wire" (FBW) system — an autopilot that can be "hacked" by an external agency. In theory, such planes can be skyjacked by other aircraft flying nearby. A properly equipped interloper would then be able to operate the 777 as if it were a drone.
A profile of the passengers produced a surprising discovery: 20 ticket holders (12 from Malaysia; 8 from China) were identified as being "electronic warfare experts." They were all employees of Freescale Semiconductor, a US company based in Texas. One of the Freescale's shareholders is the shadowy Carlyle Group, whose advisory board includes former CIA Director and President George H.W. Bush and whose clients have included the construction company owned by the family of Osama bin Laden.
Gar Smith is a prize-winning investigative reporter and the author of Nuclear Roulette. He is just as baffled by the Flight 370 mystery as anyone.