'The Rachel Maddow Show' for Wednesday, March 25th, 2015
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Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW
Date: March 25, 2015
Guest: Jim Tilmon, Jim Hall, Craig Whitlock
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. Thank you.
CHRIS HAYES, "ALL IN" HOST: You bet.
MADDOW: And thanks to you at home for staying with us for the next
We have breaking news to report tonight involving new details
reportedly late tonight by "The New York Times" concerning that passenger
airline crash that took place in southern France yesterday. That crash
killed 150 people. It has dominated headlines around the Western world
since it happened.
Well, "The New York Times" is reporting some new details tonight
about with what transpired in the cockpit in the moments leading up to that
crash. They are very troubling new details.
What we have known about this crash up until tonight is that this
plane, an Airbus 320, taking off from Barcelona, was headed toward
Dusseldorf in Germany. This Airbus 320 took off as normal yesterday
morning. It reached a safe cruising altitude of 38,000 feet. It leveled
off for about four minutes.
And then over the next eight minutes, it went on what has been
described as a controlled, fairly slow, not particularly steep, straight
descent, before crashing into the mountains, or crashing into the French
Alps, killing all 150 people onboard.
What has remained unclear is why. What caused that controlled
descent in the first place? What led that plane to not, say, drop out of
the sky suddenly? Because something catastrophic happened in the air. To
not send any distress calls, indicating that anything was wrong, but
instead, just to silently make this controlled, steady decline right into
Why did it happen? How did it happen?
The answer in situations like this usually derives from the black
boxes onboard the plane, the cockpit voice recorder, an audio recording of
what`s taking place in the cockpit, and the flight data recorder, which is
a record of all of the airplane`s myriad diagnostics.
Well, officials in France reported last night that they have been
unable to locate the memory card that fits inside the flight data recorder.
But they have located the cockpit voice recorder. And it is that cockpit
voice recorder that has yielded these new developments tonight.
Now, to be clear, the French authorities have not publicly disclosed,
officially disclosed what is on that cockpit voice recorder. But a source
of "The New York Times" describes as a senior military official involved in
the investigation, an official who reportedly has heard those tapes from
the cockpit voice recorder, that official has described to "The New York
Times" tonight what he says is on the tapes. What he says, you can hear
happening in the moments leading up to that crash.
Rather than sort of extrapolate from "The New York Times" reporting,
I`m going to tell you exactly what they`ve got.
Here`s how they describe it tonight. Quote, "Evidence from a cockpit
voice recorder indicated that one pilot, one of the two pilots, left the
cockpit before the plane`s descent, and was unable to get back into the
cockpit. A senior military official involved in the investigation
described very smooth, very cool conversation between the pilots during the
early part of the flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf. But then the audio
indicated that one of the pilots left the cockpit and could not re-enter."
Quote, "The guy outside is knocking lightly on the door. There is no
answer," the investigator said. Quote, "And then he hits the door
stronger, and no answer. There is never an answer."
The investigator continues, quote, "You can hear he is trying to
smash the door down."
We don`t yet know the reason why one of the guys went out. But what
is sure that at the end of the flight, the other pilot is alone and does
not open the door."
This official goes on to say, "So far, we don`t have any evidence at
this point that points to a technical explanation, so we have to consider
the possibility of deliberate human responsibility."
Deliberate human responsibility by the remaining pilot who locked the
other pilot out of the cockpit and then possibly, deliberately crashed the
plane into the Alps?
Presumably, it could also be non-deliberate human responsibility.
Right? You can imagine a scenario in which the remaining pilot inside the
cockpit was somehow incapacitated in the cockpit after the other pilot left
to use the bathroom or do something else in the passenger compartment.
The other pilot left, the remaining pilot, something happened to him.
That remaining pilot could have had a heart attack, with his hand on the
throttle. He could have fallen in or died for some other reason.
It is conceivably possible, I suppose, that a hijacker could have
entered the cockpit once one pilot had stepped out. And then overpowered
or killed the remaining pilot. And then that hijacker is who deliberately
crashed the plane.
In any of those circumstances, though, if this is what happened, it
is harrowing to imagine the locked-out pilot realizing that he can`t get
back in, hammering away helplessly at that locked door, as the plane starts
its eventually fatal eight-minute descent into the mountains.
But again, this new potential partial explanation for what happened
is from an official who is described by "The Times" as a senior military
official involved in the investigation. I should tell you emphatically
that NBC News has not independently confirmed these new details that have
been provided to "The Times." A spokeswoman for the French agency
investigating this accident declined to comment on this new reported
information when asked by "The Times" tonight.
But in terms of this breaking news, it is this new report from "The
Times" that the cockpit voice recorder may indicate that one of the pilots
of this German passenger plane was locked out of the airplane`s cockpit in
the moments leading up to this crash. The pilot was unable to get back in
and he could be heard on the cockpit voice recorder trying to smash the
door down in order to get back into the cockpit, before that plane crashed.
For reference and for context here, this is the press release from
the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration that was released in January 2002,
specifically January 11th, 2002, four months to the day after the attacks
of 9/11. This was the press release in which the FAA announced mandatory
new standards for reinforced cockpit doors on all commercial passenger
aircraft authorized to fly in the United States with more than 20 seats on
The FAA`s new rule, announced four months after 9/11, required newly
strengthened doors that, quote, "resist intrusion by a person who attempts
to enter using physical force." That new rule required cockpit doors to
remain locked. It required an internal locking device so that it can only
be unlocked from inside the cockpit.
Which is an excellent improvement in the rules if what you`re trying
to prevent is a bloody-minded hijacker storming the cockpit from the
passenger compartment of the plane, ala 9/11. But if it is the pilot who
wants to crash the plane, who has locked himself or herself inside that
cockpit, or if it is a healthy pilot who is locked out, when the co-pilot
inside the cockpit has died or become incapacitated or who has gone nuts --
well, in that case, then this rule about the doubly reinforced doors that
resist all physical force -- well, then that rule could be a death warrant.
Joining now is Jim Tilmon, former airline pilot, aviation industry
Mr. Tilmon, thank you so much for being here tonight. It`s pleasure
to have you here, sir.
JIM TILMON, AVIATION EXPERT: My pleasure, Rachel.
MADDOW: It is normal for pilots to leave the cockpit from time to
time, right? Maybe to use the bathroom or some other reason. That in
itself isn`t out of the ordinary, is it?
TILMON: No, it`s not out of the ordinary at all. It happens all the
MADDOW: When a pilot does leave the cockpit, does the door of the
cockpit automatically close behind him or close behind her once they pull
that door shut behind them?
TILMON: No, it`s not automatic that the door closes. They close it
physically. And, of course, it does lock.
And the only way back into the cockpit is by virtue of someone inside
the cockpit flipping a switch, making sure it`s in the right position so
that you can either use your code or you could ask them to open the door.
But another part of this that I`m puzzled about is that protocol for
most airlines says that at no time is there only one pilot in the cockpit.
That somebody else should be with them. It may very well be a flight
attendant that comes in there and sits there so there are two people in the
cockpit at all times to take care of emergencies like the ones we`re
speculating about now.
So, I`m curious to know if there was another person there, and if we
can hear that person`s voice, or their entry into the cockpit later on.
MADDOW: In terms of that rule, or at least that protocol, in the
event that a pilot had to leave to use the bathroom or do any other normal
thing, and a flight attendant was then introduced into the pilot to sit
with the second pilot who was still there, what would that flight
attendant, for example, be expected to be able to do? Presumably they`d be
able to open that door. Also to ensure there were no shenanigans in the
TILMON: Well, they would obviously be capable of opening the door.
What else goes on in there I cannot tell you. I think it`s a great puzzle
right now as to what really transpired in that cockpit.
The airplane is very sophisticated, Rachel. It is so sophisticated,
that it will not allow you to do things that are going to destroy the
airplane. You have to follow certain procedure in order to make changes.
In order to do that, you would have to be able to program into that
console, the computer, the fact that you want the nose down, you want the
airplane to maintain the same air speed. You want the airplane to maintain
the same heading. You want the airplane to maintain stability as it flies
on that descent.
And the only thing you want changed is altitude. And from all of the
parameters that I`ve seen so far, that`s what happened. The only thing
that changed, once that airplane started to make its deviation, was
altitude. Everything else was steady.
Can that be done just by mystery or whatever else? No. Human
activity has to do that somehow.
MADDOW: Captain, tell me, just one last clarifying question on these
doors. You mentioned that a pilot leaving the cockpit for whatever reason
would have to get back in either by asking to be let in, or by inputting
some sort of code, or presumably you think some sort of key.
Wouldn`t there be multiple means by which a pilot could re-access the
cockpit if the door wasn`t -- if somebody inside wasn`t trying help him or
her get back in?
TILMON: Not that I know of. It`s kind of a fool-proof situation.
You can only get back in if the switch is in the right position to allow
entry into the cockpit from the cabin. And that switch not being in the
right position would mean there`s nothing you can do. That door is
bulletproof. You can`t kick it down, you can`t knock it down, you can`t
wish it down. It`s got to have the right configuration, or no entry at
MADDOW: Jim Tilmon, former airplane pilot, aviation industry expert,
very clarifying to have you here tonight, sir. Thank you very much.
TILMON: My pleasure.
MADDOW: Thank you.
Joining us is Jim Hall. Mr. Hall is the former chairman of the
National Transportation Safety Board.
Mr. Hall, thank you very much for being with us tonight.
JIM HALL, FORMER NTSB CHAIRMAN (via telephone): Glad to be with you,
MADDOW: I guess I would just ask basically your reaction to these
latest reported details from "The New York Times," and what Captain Tilmon
just said there, in terms of what that might indicate about what happened
in this crash.
HALL: Well, Rachel, if the information is correct, it`s most
unfortunate. We had a situation while I was chairman of the NTSB with
Egypt Air of which it was the opinion of the National Transportation Safety
Board that the co-pilot had put the airplane in a dive to crash it after
the captain left the flight deck. It was for that reason we made a
recommendation for cameras in the cockpit.
It just makes no common sense, in this age of terrorism, that we have
cameras at 7-Eleven, and we don`t have cameras in the cockpit to answer
questions like this. We can`t continue to have unanswered aviation
accidents, and not expect an impact on travel that links all of our world.
MADDOW: Mr. Hall, imagining a scenario in which there was no
homicidal or terroristic intent. Imagine a scenario in which one of the
pilots left for an innocuous reason, to use the bathroom, let`s say nobody
else from the flight crew was asked to sit in, in place of the pilot, and
so the co-pilot or the other pilot was alone in the cockpit alone at that
Let`s say that pilot had some sort of medical incident, had an
aneurysm, had a heart attack, passed out for some reason, the way you
understand the controls of this type of aircraft and the way we know -- we
seem to indicate that this plane crashed, could this plane crash this way
without somebody trying to crash it this way?
HALL: Well, you know, all of that`s going to come out, Rachel, once
we have the information on the flight data recorder. But if we had these
answers, these questions unanswered, the way to answer these questions is
with cameras in the cockpit. And that`s why it`s so important that the
pilots unions let their opposition to the cameras in the cockpit be stepped
down in favor of the safety of the traveling public.
MADDOW: Jim Hall, former NTSB chairman, thank you for talking with
us tonight, sir. I really appreciate your input here.
HALL: Glad to do it.
MADDOW: We will have more tonight on this breaking news, this "New
York Times" report that one of the pilots of the crashed Germanwings flight
may have been locked out of the cockpit before that plane crashed, that
indication tonight according to "The Times" from an official who has heard
the cockpit voice recordings. Again, it has not been confirmed by
officials in France, the aviation authorities are looking into this. It`s
also not been confirmed by NBC News at this point.
But that provocative report from "The New York Times" suggesting that
one of the pilots was desperately trying to get back into the cockpit,
pounding away on that door while whoever was left in the cockpit left in
there at the time the plane crashed.
We`ll have that more and lots else on the show tonight still ahead.
Stay with us.
MADDOW: So, a new war appears to have started tonight in the Middle
East. There`s also new news in American presidential politics tonight.
And, of course, we`re following the now late-breaking new on the crash of
Germanwings Flight 9525. This report from "The New York Times," the
cockpit voice recorder may indicate that one of the two pilots might have
been locked out of the cockpit trying to get back in before the crash.
We`ve got more ahead on that, including a live report from the near
crash. Please stay with us.
MADDOW: So, we`ve got more on the breaking news about the
Germanwings passenger airline crash in southern France early yesterday.
"The New York Times" is now reporting tonight that before the plane went
down, only one pilot was still inside the cockpit. According to a military
official involved in the ongoing investigation, reportedly has heard the
cockpit voice recordings, what can be heard on those cockpit voice
recordings is apparently that one pilot exited the cockpit, that pilot was
then locked out and could be heard on the tapes pounding on the door
fruitlessly trying to get back inside the cockpit, while the plane was
going down, and only one of the two pilots was still in the controls -- in
the control area of the aircraft.
I should note that NBC News has not independently confirmed these
But joining us now is Claudio Lavanga. He`s an NBC News reporter,
who is near the crash site in the French alps.
Claudio, thanks for joining us tonight.
I just have to ask whether or not this news from "The New York Times"
is making waves there at the crash site, whether people are talking about
this as a potential explanation for what might have happened there in the
CLAUDIO LAVANGA, NBC NEWS: Well, Rachel, it`s 2:00 in the morning
here. It just came out about an hour ago, this report. So, we have been
trying to find independent confirmation of that scenario report in "The New
York Times." But as I said, it`s very late, or early in the morning.
We`ve been trying to contact those officials that we`ve been talking to all
But it`s quite difficult, of course, to reach them. And I believe
the first time we`re going to hear from them, or we`re going to get some
kind of denial or confirmation of that report will be tomorrow morning.
But let me tell you something. Well, today, of course, we were all -
- there were a whole bunch of theories flying around. The most credible
one was those two pilots were in some way lost consciousness during the
flight, because otherwise it would not explain why that plane -- it didn`t
nose dive. It just slowly descended into the mountain.
The control tower figured out there was something wrong. They called
the pilots, the pilots did not respond. They did not send out any distress
signal. That was the most credible theory.
But this would certainly explain -- this scenario reported by "The
New York Times" is certainly another theory that would explain what
happened. I mean, it would make the unexplainable explained, especially in
the view that the aviation authorities, even the CEO of Germanwings and
Lufthansa, the parent company, were left baffled by this whole situation.
Even today, during the press conference today they said, we cannot
figure out how or why an experienced pilot on a healthy aircraft in fair
weather just went down on a mountain for no apparent reason.
Well, this is a credible scenario. But we will probably have to wait
for tomorrow morning for some kind of independent confirmation.
MADDOW: Claudio, the source tonight from "The New York Times" is an
unnamed official who is said to have access to the cockpit voice
recordings. A military official said to be involved in the investigation.
In terms of the French authorities who are heading up this investigation,
what do we know about how much they have been able to extract in terms of
audio from that cockpit voice recorder? How much of a recording they`ve
got to work with, and whether that is something that we at least would be
able to get either confirmation or denial presumably sometime tomorrow,
once other officials can comment what`s on those tapes?
LAVANGA: Well, today during a press conference in Paris this
afternoon, the aviation authorities did say they managed to extract an
audiophile from that black box in which they heard what they said, they
could hear the audio of some voices, which of course were from the pilots
or one pilot. They heard some sounds.
But they said that they had to interpret those voices. So to do
that, it would have taken a few days or weeks. Well, if it comes out that
report from "The New York Times" is confirmed, it is true, that means they
did already interpret, of course, those voices, just waiting to gather more
information on what really happened on the second pilot that was left in
the cockpit before they revealed it, because, of course, if this is
confirmed, then another question opens up. What happened to the pilot left
in the cockpit?
As you said at the beginning of the program, you know, that opens up
to a whole bunch more scenarios, Rachel.
MADDOW: NBC News reporter Claudio Lavanga -- Claudio, thank you for
being with us, especially so late at night. Appreciate you being there for
All right. We`ve got lots still to come tonight, including John
McCain, finally having a fervent wish of his granted from the 2008
presidential campaign. It was a wish that a lot of other people found
creepy when he said it, but his wish has been granted tonight.
Stay with us.
MADDOW: The first attack inside the United States by an al Qaeda
affiliate after 9/11 was eight years later, in 2009, on Christmas Day. It
was on a flight en route to Detroit from Amsterdam. As that flight
approached Detroit, a young man attempted to set off a bomb that he had
stuffed into his underwear. That bomb did not work, didn`t bring down the
plane. It did, however, manage to give him burns on his inner thighs.
But that underwear bomber, that was the first post-9/11 attack inside
the United States by an al Qaeda affiliate. That was December 2009.
Nine months later in September 2010, a UPS cargo plane was flying
from Dubai to Germany when 22 minutes into that flight at 32,000 feet, a
fire suddenly ignited on board that cargo plane. The crew tried to turn
back to Dubai. They told air traffic control the cockpit was filling with
so much smoke, they could no longer see inside that plane. But they
weren`t able to turn back and that UPS cargo plane crashed, both pilots
died. And nobody really ever knew why it had happened.
But then the following month, in late October 2010, intelligence
officials intercepted two packages that were bound for the United States
from Yemen. The packages were headed for Chicago. Inside those packages
were printer cartridges that had been turned into very powerful bombs.
Explosive material had been loaded into the printer cartridges along with
the circuit board from a cell phone.
Those bombs by all accounts was fully functional. One of those was
apparently was minutes away from blowing up when it was intercepted and
And the reason why this is bombs were discovered was not because of
x-ray detection or bomb-sniffing dogs or something, they were made
successfully in a way that would have evaded all of those anti-explosive
technologies. The reason the printer cartridges were discovered at all was
just because of a tip from what appears to possibly have been an al Qaeda
double agent to Saudi Arabia intelligence that this plot was under way.
Saudi officials shared that information with U.S. intelligence. That
included the tracking number of those packages, and that`s how they were
able to track and stop the printer cartridge bomb plot.
But those totally undetectable packages got out of Yemen. They made
it as far as Germany in one case and as far as the U.K. in the other case,
those printer cartridge bombs were ready to be transferred onto planes
bound for the United States. They were only found due to that tracking
number and that tip.
And then eventually al Qaeda in Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian
Peninsula took credit for those bombs and the previous UPS cargo plane bomb
that previously had been unsolved. And that`s how al Qaeda in Arabian
Peninsula, al Qaeda in Yemen, got the top-tiered designation as the most
dangerous terrorist group in the world because it was them. They
successfully got significant quantity of explosives onto U.S.-bound
aircraft three different times, once in 2009, twice in 2010.
They also blew up the U.S. embassy in Yemen in September 2008. That
attack killed 16 people.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in Yemen, they`re really
active. That`s not even considering all the people who Anwar al Awlaki
influenced by means of his preaching in his propaganda to carry out their
own lone wolves of active terror, including Nidal Malik Hasan, who carried
out the Ft. Hood attack.
So, al Qaeda in Yemen is the real freaking deal. I mean, not just
after bin Laden was killed, but even before bin Laden was killed, the most
pointed threat to the United States homeland from a radical Islamist
terrorist group operating overseas was al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,
al Qaeda in Yemen, right? Before ISIS came along and got everybody`s
attention, AQAP, this al Qaeda group was the main international terrorist
group, who is the focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts because they were
seen as being such a direct threat to the United States of America and U.S.
As such, they became the target of a war, that the U.S. never
declared openly, but that the U.S. did fight pretty effectively. With the
quiet support of the strong man ruler who ran Yemen for a generation until
he was ousted in an Arab springs style revolution four years ago. And then
after him, with the support of the president, who replaced him once he was
toppled in that Arab spring revolt. The U.S. has quietly but relentlessly
attacked al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with an intense war using, yes,
But also, a pretty big if mostly secret contingent of U.S. special
operations troops, really elite level U.S. commandos who have quietly been
operating in Yemen, targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for years.
And that apparently included them operating a very low-profile U.S. air
base in Yemen called Al Anad, outside the southern coastal city of Aden.
Well, this weekend those Special Operation forces, those elite troops
that have been at that air base, they abandoned that air base. And today
the Iran-backed Shia rebels who are right now in the process of taking over
the country of Yemen by force, the Houthi rebels overran that U.S. base and
broadcast this video of their fighters running through the place and
ransacking anything they could.
In the face of those rebels, the country`s president had already fled
Yemen`s capital several months ago and taken refuge in the southern city of
Aden near that secret U.S. base. Today, the country`s president didn`t
just flee the capital, he fled Aden, too. Today, he fled the country. He
escaped the country by boat bound for Lord knows where. People are
guessing maybe Djibouti. There`s another U.S. drone base there,
So, there are a few different things that are important here. One is
the sobering realization this is the fourth country that to some degree has
collapsed after an Arab Spring style revolution, right? After Libya and
Syria and Iraq, maybe it`s the fifth one if you count Egypt, too, right?
So, that`s the world falling apart file. Countries that collapse after
Arab springs style revolutions.
Then, there`s also the World War III file, which applies to this
case, which applies to about is about to happen next in Yemen and what, in
fact, has started happening tonight, because the rebels that have just
taken over Yemen and sent the country`s president fleeing by boat, those
rebels are Shiite rebels who are supported by Iran. The president who was
just ousted and all the powerful Sunni tribes in Yemen, who supported that
president, or didn`t, but who make up the other major political force in
that country, those groups are supported by Saudi Arabia.
So, Saudi Arabia today responded to these events in Yemen by massing
its troops on the Saudi border with Yemen. And then there was more
breaking news tonight. This has officially now turned into an
international conflict. In addition to just massing their troops on the
border, tonight, Saudi Arabia has announced that the Saudi Arabian air
force has just started bombing those Iran-backed rebels inside Yemen.
So, a new international war in the Middle East. And, yes, Yemen has
clearly politically collapsed. Yemen has collapsed into civil war. In
addition, tonight, it appears that Yemen is exploding into a proxy war that
may involve other big, powerful countries, with big modern militaries who
hate each other and who are now facing off against each other across the
territory that has already descended into chaos.
And the special surprise cream filling for American concerns in all
of this, is that there is this whole side that`s supported by Iran, right,
this whole side that is supported by Saudi Arabia which is now bombing the
Iranian-supported side, right? The Iranian supported side, the Saudi
Arabia supported side.
But there is also separate from that a huge slog of Yemen that is
governed by neither of those factions. That is where al Qaeda is, al Qaeda
in the Arabian Peninsula, which is now either joining up with ISIS or
starting to call itself ISIS, depending on who you believe.
So, the Iran-backed rebels just overthrew the government in Yemen.
That was the government that was letting U.S. troops secretly fight a very
effective war against al Qaeda/ISIS in that country. That permission, that
drone base, even the U.S. embassy are all over now.
So, that war that the U.S. was quietly waging in Yemen without ever
talking about it in this country, that`s over now. And if you are
concerned about the threat, particularly the international threat of al
Qaeda and ISIS working from a place like Yemen from which they have already
tried pretty effectively to bomb the United States before -- I mean, maybe
it`s OK that it`s not U.S. special forces and drones in Yemen fighting them
there anymore, right? Maybe it`s OK if the new guys who have taken over,
these Iranian-backed fighters, maybe they themselves will be able to take
on al Qaeda and ISIS.
They say they want to. They say they don`t need the U.S. that they
will destroy al Qaeda and ISIS in Yemen. They say they`re more opposed to
al Qaeda and ISIS than the United States is and they`ll take care of them.
It will be fascinating to see if they can do it. And by fascinating,
I mean terrifying. I mean, the stakes are as high as they could possibly
In 2007, when he was running for president against Barack Obama,
Arizona Senator John McCain had one of his more memorable moments on the
campaign trail. He was speaking to a veterans group and he was asked about
the possibility of the United States going to war with Iran, and this is
how he answered --
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb -- anyway.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb-Iran. Anyway.
Eight years now after John McCain ran for president by singing his
little diddy about going to war with Iran, today we finally did. Not the
way John McCain hoped, though. Today, we finally went to war with Iran,
emphasis on "with."
This is amazing. Yesterday, we reported that Shiite ground troops
being led by Iran`s revolutionary guard, in the fight against ISIS, in the
city of Tikrit in Iraq, those ground troops led by Iran were being
supported for the first time by U.S. air power. This time last night we
reported that U.S. planes were flying surveillance missions over Tikrit in
support of that battle against is in Tikrit.
Well, today NBC News reports it might have been surveillance flights
yesterday, but today, it`s U.S. planes actually dropping bombs in support
of that ground mission. Which, again, includes a small number of Iraqi
military forces, but also mostly Shiite militias, being led by Iran`s
So, it`s Iran`s ground troops, Iranian-led ground troops on the
ground, and its U.S. pilots dropping bombs to support them in the air. We
really have gone to war with Iran -- with, with them. It`s very awkward.
And there are two reasons that could be hard to get a bead on things
like this. Particularly when really radical almost hard to believe things
are happening at a very rapid place in a lot of different places in the
world, right? Part of the reason it can be hard to see this stuff clearly,
sometimes even to report on it clearly, is because a lot of it`s secret,
either officially secret or de facto secret.
I mean, it`s one thing for the U.S. to empty out our embassy in Yemen
as we did last month. It`s another thing to empty out a Special Forces
military base that maybe we might have guessed U.S. troops were operating
in Yemen but we didn`t really know it was in Yemen until we were told it
was over. Until we were told those 125 elite commando U.S. Special
Operations forces were being pulled out. Were being pulled out of where?
We were operating a base where?
The first video I have ever seen fed into a newsroom here in this
building of the U.S. operated air base at Al Anad in Yemen, the first video
I`ve ever seen of that air base was the video we got in today from the
Houthi rebels overrunning it after it was emptied out.
So, part of the reason we know we were there, is we were told that we
left. Part of why this stuff can be hard to follow is that it`s more or
less secret. It`s kept even secret from us, the American people.
The other reason it can be hard to get a bead on this stuff is that
what takes up the most space in the news in our country is politics. And
we don`t have much politics about this stuff in our country. In part
because our politicians just do not want to talk about it. There`s no
partisan percentage in it, so they don`t want to discuss it.
Right now, though, we are at a moment when our politicians do have to
talk about some of these things. Tomorrow, the House Foreign Affairs
Committee will hold another hearing on the president`s request to authorize
military force against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, even though the U.S.
military has already been exerting that force for eight months now.
Maybe the fact that we`re bombing in support of Iranian-led ground
troops, Iranian-led ground troops, maybe that will get the attention of
some members of Congress. Maybe it will get some members of Congress to
attend that hearing. Who knows? That provocative enough for you guys?
Congress was also host today to the new president of Afghanistan who
has just asked for and received an extension of the U.S. military presence
in Afghanistan. President Obama has said we would go from 10,000 troops in
Afghanistan to 5,000 troops by the end of this year. Instead, we`re going
to keep 10,000 troops there all year long.
"The New York Times" reporting that part of the reason the U.S. has
been happy to agree to that is so we can continue to operate our military
base in eastern Afghanistan, which is another one of those missions that we
know U.S. personnel carry out, but we do not much talk about in this
country. The drone base in eastern Afghanistan from which we launch drones
that drop hell fire missiles not only in Afghanistan but in Pakistan.
Congress will also be forced to talk about Afghanistan, at least in
partisan and inflammatory ways this week, with the news today from the U.S.
Army that the Army is bringing charges of desertion and misbehavior before
the enemy against Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was kidnapped by the
Haqqani Network and held in Haqqani and Taliban custody for five years in
Afghanistan and Pakistan before the Obama administration rescued him last
year by swapping him for five Taliban prisoners who`s being held at
Bowe Bergdahl already did five years in captivity in Taliban custody.
If he`s court-martialed on the desertion charges, he`s facing up to five
years in prison on that count. On the other count, the misbehavior count,
he could face up to life in prison.
Even though our Congress will do almost anything to avoid talking
about the war in Afghanistan, now in year 14, if the political firestorm
that erupted after Bowe Bergdahl was rescued last year is anything to go
by, Congress will at least have to talk about Afghanistan as sort of an
ambient contextual factor for that story while they try to score partisan
political points on the issue of getting Bowe Bergdahl freed.
And on top of all that, and simultaneous to all that, Congress right
now has to consider the budget that has been put forward by the Republican
leadership in both the House and the Senate, which may have two really
interesting consequence for what we`re doing on national security and the
great lengths we go to, to never talk about it as a country.
The first is that the Republican budget this is year are entertaining
the idea of going back to the Bush/Cheney administration practice of
putting funding for the war efforts into emergency line items. So, we
treat it as a surprise, oh, look, every year, year 14 of the war, what a
surprise. We treat it as a surprise, that we had no idea it was coming.
And the budget for the war effort doesn`t actually factor into the real
budget. It`s free money.
The war is, again, has become free in accounting terms because we
refuse to acknowledge there is any really real cost to them.
There`s also one really specific line item in the Pentagon`s budget
request this year, which popped out of the "Washington Post" today like a
hell fire missile. That is the Pentagon has requested an extra $1 billion
this year, specifically for reaper drones, because this year they are
asking to buy double the number of reaper drones that they bought just last
And according to this fascinating piece by Craig Whitlock at "The
Washington Post" tonight, part of the reason the Pentagon is hugely upping
the number of drones it`s trying to buy is because so many of our drones
keep crashing. They keep crashing all over the place, in Syria and in
Yemen and in Afghanistan.
And in this global moment, we are having of fast-moving transnational
chaos of ISIS and al Qaeda and disappearing borders and proxy wars and
fighting alongside our enemies, and being invited by foreign countries to
please extend our wars inside their borders, and the American public not
much knowing where we are fighting, or how, and American politicians never
talking about it, weirdly one of the strangely specific ways we can find
out what our country is doing in this chaotic world right now is by
noticing where and when our drones crash, because sometimes that is the
only way we find out that we are flying drones there in the first place.
Craig Whitlock joins us next. Stay with us.
MADDOW: Here`s a headline worth paying attention to -- look -- "How
crashing drones are exposing secrets about U.S. war operations."
The premise is that one of the more unusual ways we`re finding out
now about where we are fighting as a country and how is when our unusually
crash-prone drones fall down somewhere we didn`t expect them to be. That
drone crash decoder story is by Craig Whitlock, who`s the Pentagon national
security correspondent for "The Washington Post."
Mr. Whitlock joins us now.
Craig Whitlock, thanks very much for being with us.
CRAIG WHITLOCK, THE WASHINGTON POST: Thanks, Rachel. Thanks for
MADDOW: Do U.S. drones crash a lot? Do they crash more than you
WHITLOCK: They do. I`ll give you just one statistic. Everybody`s
heard of the predator drone that the U.S. Air Force has flown for about 15
years. CIA flies them, too. More than half of the predator drone fleet
acquired by the Air Force for the last 15 or 20 years has crashed. And by
crashed, I don`t mean a little crash, I mean they`re destroyed or totaled.
So, yes, they do crash a lot.
MADDOW: Most of the predator drones that the U.S. has flown over the
past, what did you say, decade?
WHITLOCK: In the last 1 years. Let`s say, since the start of the
war in Afghanistan.
MADDOW: Most of them have crashed?
WHITLOCK: That`s right.
MADDOW: Astonishing. When you hear that, for example, when I was
reporting a few days ago on the reported crash in Syria, one of the things
that was interesting about that was the possibility that that drone
crashing might have been shot down. So does that mean that more drones
will get shot down, or that U.S. piloted aircraft would get shot down?
Another thing that was interesting is the risk that something might -
- something important might fall into enemy hands by them capturing the
wreckage of the drone. But the third interesting thing was, oh, I didn`t
know we had those drones flying over -- flying over Syria. Since then I`ve
sort of come to believe that my second concern, the idea that the wreckage
itself might be useful, that that might be overblown. It doesn`t seem like
anybody`s doing anything handy with the drones once they`re crashed, does
WHITLOCK: I think that`s right. I think that`s an overblown
The drone itself, the aircraft isn`t very high-tech. They almost
sound like lawn mowers. They`re powered by basic fuel. What makes a drone
-- more advances, the way it takes video and it sends that video back to
analysts in the United States or other military bases. But the aircraft
itself is nothing fancy. It kind of looks like something that got souped
up and patched together.
So, onboard, the components, there can be some sensors, or cameras
that are high-tech. But really, the plane itself is not.
MADDOW: As we have seen crashes in places like Yemen, where the U.S.
has not been very eager to talk about what our operations are there, and
we`ve seen so much drama just in the last week, and even tonight, when
those drones come down in those places, it can be a window into what U.S.
operations are like in those states. That itself has got to be an
intelligence concern for the parts of the military or the CIA flying these
Is there an effort to make them less crash-prone so that, in part, we
don`t find out where they`re being flown?
WHITLOCK: Well, I think there`s an effort to make them lass crash-
prone so they don`t fall out of the sky so often. I think it`s more for
safety reasons and saving money.
I mean, it is a concern, though, when they crash somewhere that
wasn`t expected. As you may recall a couple years ago, there was a very
advanced surveillance drone that crashed in Iran. It was a high-flying,
high altitude one, that finally the Pentagon and by extension the CIA, were
forced to admit they had launched this from Afghanistan into Iran.
And the Iranians, you know, assembled bit of it and said they had
captured it. So, up until then it was sort of a wink and a nod that U.S.
had been conducting surveillance in Iran but, you know, here was tangible
proof of it.
We saw the same thing in Syria last week. We knew Americans were
flying drones and planes in Syria, of course, but everything thought it was
to attack Islamic State or ISIS, in the eastern part of the country. But
this one crashed on the Mediterranean coast, near a town called Latakia,
which is a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. This is not a
place where it was known that there was Islamic State targets.
So, clearly, there was two possibilities. Either this drone had just
flown off course, which is possible, but seemed unlikely in this case, or
it was being used to spy quietly on Assad stronghold. That, presumably, is
why the Syrian military shot it down.
MADDOW: Such a weird way to find out what we`re doing, but I guess
we use -- use all the means available.
Craig Whitlock, Pentagon national correspondent for "The Washington
Post:" -- thanks for reverse engineering this information. It`s a
fascinating look at it. Appreciate you for being here.
WHITLOCK: Sure thing.
MADDOW: All right. We`ll be right back. Stay with us.
MADDOW: There`s a lot going on in live news tonight. For a quick
recap of the top of the hour breaking news tonight, "The New York Times" is
reporting some very provocative new details about that crash of the German
passenger aircraft yesterday, which killed 150 people. An unnamed source
involved in the investigation is telling "The Times" tonight that audio
indicated one of the pilots of that plane may have been locked out of the
cockpit in the moments leading up to the crash. The pilot was unable to
get back into the cockpit but he can reportedly be heard trying to smash
the door down before the plane crashed into the mountain.
Lawrence O`Donnell is going to have much more on that at the top of
the hour as we continue to learn more on this breaking news story. We`ll
be right back.
MADDOW: This is just one of those nights. States across the Midwest
are under a severe thunderstorm watch tonight. Multiple tornadoes reported
in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
In Oklahoma, thousands of people right now are without power. The
first Oklahoma tornado was spotted in Tulsa just before 6:00 p.m. local
time. Trucks and cars along Interstate 35 did overturn in the course of
tonight`s storm. There are also reports of one tornado in Oklahoma in Sand
Springs, destroying a gym. And police in Sand Springs are reporting
massive destruction to a mobile home park there.
Tonight, Tulsa County sheriff`s office says one person has died,
multiple people are injured.
We will update you as we learn more.
MADDOW: This has been one of those breaking news nights where you
almost can`t keep up with the news on all fronts, from the tornadoes in
Oklahoma and Arkansas, to a new war break out in the Middle East as Saudi
Arabia starts to bomb Yemen tonight. The White House just putting out a
statement saying U.S. is providing logistical and intelligence support to
that effort, but not participating directly.
Also, this new details reported tonight about one pilot possibly
being locked out of a cockpit during the crash of that German airliner
We`ve got more on that story coming up right now live on "THE LAST
WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL".
Good evening, Lawrence.
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