News Brief: Ukrainian Jet Disaster, War Powers, Boeing 737 Max

Jan 10, 2020
Originally published on January 10, 2020 6:59 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What really brought down a passenger plane after takeoff from Tehran?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, leaders of multiple nations say they think they know. That plane crashed on a night of high tension as Iran launched missiles at U.S. targets this week. Leaders of Britain and Australia have indicated what happened, as does Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. This may well have been unintentional.

GREENE: Canada, Britain and Australia all share intelligence with the United States, where officials have been silent in public but have concluded the same as Trudeau.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jackie Northam has been following this story. Jackie, good morning.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note that Trudeau is talking about this because more than 60 Canadians died in that plane crash. What evidence did he cite in blaming an accident by Iran?

NORTHAM: He wasn't specific. He said that intelligence from various sources, including Canada's own intelligence agency, indicates that the Ukrainian airline was brought down by a surface-to-air missile shortly after takeoff from Tehran's international airport. And remember, this crash came just hours after Iran launched missile attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq. And that was in retaliation for the U.S.-targeted killing of a senior Iranian military commander, Qassem Soleimani, last Friday. So you can imagine, Steve, this whole region was on high alert. And the U.S. and other nations were closely monitoring Iran for missile launches the night of the crash, using satellites, and most likely saw the launch of an anti-aircraft missile.

INSKEEP: Yeah. I mean, we can imagine the scenario in which this would happen, where Iranians are on the alert for an attack and detect a plane and shoot it down by mistake. That's a scenario, we should mention. We don't have all the details confirmed there. But how has Iran explained this crash?

NORTHAM: Iranian officials quickly came out after the crash and said it was a mechanical failure. And they've stuck with that explanation since. But, you know, it was met with a lot of skepticism. First of all, the crash had just happened. There hadn't been an investigation.

And aviation analysts say a mechanical failure wouldn't have set a whole airplane on fire so quickly, which is what happened. And also, Steve, this was a 3-year-old plane. There was some reports that Iranians claim that this - you know, the accusation of a shoot-down was psychological warfare.

INSKEEP: OK. Are Iranians allowing foreign investigators onto the crash site to check all that out?

NORTHAM: Well, about 45 Ukrainian investigators are already in Iran. And late last night, the Iranian government sent out an official notice about the crash. And what that does is it triggers the involvement of other countries in the investigation - and that includes the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and Boeing. Remember, this was a Boeing aircraft.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

NORTHAM: But this is where it gets tricky because the U.S. has sanctions on Iran. And U.S. law restricts any travel to Iran or sharing of information. In fact, the NTSB cannot communicate directly with the Iranians. And whether the NTSB or Boeing representatives go to Iran will likely have to be OK'd by the State Department and or the Treasury Department. And by the way, Iranian officials are saying that it could take one to two years to complete the investigation.

INSKEEP: Well, it does take a while to figure out a plane crash. Will the Iranians turn over those flight data recorders?

NORTHAM: The Iranians may allow foreign investigators onto the site, but it's hard to say how much access they're going to get. All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly yesterday interviewed a spokesman for the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. And he told her that the U.S. would not be given the aircraft's black box because - it said the Iranians don't know what the U.S. is going to read into those black boxes. So this is a long process ahead, you know, for the crash investigators.

INSKEEP: Jackie, thanks for the update.

NORTHAM: Thanks very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jackie Northam.

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INSKEEP: House Republicans say they would like to limit the power of the president to launch a war against Iran.

GREENE: Right. The House approved a War Powers Resolution. It demands that the president consult Congress, quote, "in every possible instance" before using force against Iran. Democrats passed it with support from three House Republicans. Alissa Slotkin, a Democrat from Michigan, introduced it.

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ELISSA SLOTKIN: If our loved ones are going to be sent to fight in any protracted war, the president owes the American public a conversation.

GREENE: And we should say one of Slotkin's stepdaughters is an Army officer.

INSKEEP: The White House criticized this resolution. So what would it actually do? NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales is here. Good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are the president and Congress fundamentally arguing about here?

GRISALES: This goes back to what is now an age-old argument for this administration and Congress - is the Constitution. Congress argues that the Constitution empowers them with declaring an act of war. The president says, no, I withhold that power as a result of authorities that were given to the office after the 9/11 attacks.

INSKEEP: So the president's the commander-in-chief. That's the longstanding conflict here. The president gives orders to the armed forces, but Congress is supposed to be the one that declares war. So now the House steps in with this resolution. If it passed, does that mean the president would have to check in with Congress before doing anything against Iran?

GRISALES: According to the White House, no. White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said yesterday that this, quote, was a "ridiculous resolution, just another political move because, under well-established Supreme Court precedent, it's nonbinding and lacks the force of law." So the resolution also has language that the U.S. has a right of self-defense against Iran. So the president should notify Congress under this resolution, but under certain scenarios, he wouldn't have to.

INSKEEP: Would not have to do that. So what we're hearing here then is that this is, I mean, in some ways, not that extreme, right? It's saying, if possible, check with Congress. Notify Congress afterward if you have to act quickly in self-defense.

GRISALES: Yes, some folks would argue that. Exactly. Trump also addressed the recent attack that garnered him all these concerns in a rally last night tied to the killing of this Iranian general. Let's take a listen.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And we have Bernie and Nancy Pelosi - we have them all. They're all trying to say, how dare you take him out that way? You should get permission from Congress. You should come in and tell us what you want to do.

GRISALES: But Democrats argue the resolution they passed last night will have the force of law. And since it falls under the War Powers Act, they also said it doesn't require the president's signature. But this has been approved in just one chamber. So for now, it doesn't have much impact other than sending a strong message to the president that he must seek congressional approval for military action against Iran.

INSKEEP: War Powers Act - that's a law from the 1970s that says Congress can weigh in and limit the president's authority once some kind of military operation has begun. But is the Senate likely to pass this at all?

GRISALES: So the Senate Democrats think they have a shot. They need four Republicans to support them. And so far, two have said they have signed on. And Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia says he has the support. He thinks he's very close. And two more members have expressed concerns. So he's up to four or, he said, even seven more Republican members who could support him.

INSKEEP: Claudia, thanks so much.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: NPR's Claudia Grisales.

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INSKEEP: This airplane is designed by clowns. That is how one Boeing employee described the development of the company's troubled 737 Max aircraft.

GREENE: Yeah. So Boeing released documents yesterday that show employees boasting about misleading federal regulators during the certification process of this aircraft. The documents date to before the grounding of 737 Max planes, which came after two deadly crashes in 2018 and 2019. Those accidents combined killed 346 people.

INSKEEP: NPR's David Schaper spent much of the evening going through these documents. David, good morning.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What stood out to you?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, the first thing that stands out to me is the level of effort made to deceive regulators and Boeing's customers. Those would be the airlines that would fly the 737 Max. And the main goal here was to keep pilot training on what was essentially a new plane to a minimum and to keep regulators from requiring simulator training for the pilots.

There are notes from meetings going back to 2013 in which they try to downplay the significance of the MCAS flight control system and deceive regulators about it. That's the system that played a major role in those two deadly crashes. One talks about - or brags about - Jedi mind-tricking regulators and customers. One says, I still haven't been forgiven for God for all the covering up I did last year. That's in a 2018 message referring to how they misled the FAA.

Another message is, quote, "I have used the words misleading and mischaracterizations a lot in the last two years." And then the second thing that strikes me is how some employees are trying to do the right thing - complaining about safety problems, complaining about a safety culture. One calls it a culture that the company has created of good enough, and that is an incredibly low bar.

Another message - employees ridicule colleagues involved in developing the plane, calling it, as you referred to earlier, the airplane designed by clowns who are, in turn, supervised by monkeys. And yet one more message calls into question the safety of the 737 Max, asking one fellow employee, would you put your family on a Max simulator-trained aircraft? I wouldn't. And the other employee says, no.

INSKEEP: David, listening to you, I'm shocked not by the quotes but by the volume of the quotes. You could imagine anybody making a stray remark in an email that they don't entirely mean - gallows humor, a little cynical. But you just - that's a lot of emails you've just quoted.

SCHAPER: Yeah, I mean, there are well over 100 pages. And, you know, Boeing officials say that they were written by just a small number of employees, primarily technical pilots and personnel involved in the development and certification of the Max and those who experienced some of the problems in the simulators.

And they do say that some of these are the same employees involved in sending other damaging emails and internal messages that had been disclosed last year. The company says that they are inconsistent - these sentiments and language used in these communications - with Boeing values. And the company is taking appropriate action in response. But it does speak to a larger problem.

INSKEEP: Does this increase the chance that Congress would take some kind of action?

SCHAPER: Well, many in Congress are pretty upset. Peter DeFazio, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, calls these incredibly damning and painting a deeply disturbing picture of the lengths Boeing was apparently willing to go in order to evade scrutiny. So there could be some congressional action taken by the - both the Senate and House committees that are reviewing these plane crashes and some of the circumstances that led up to them.

INSKEEP: David, thanks for reading for us.

SCHAPER: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's David Schaper covering the release of emails from Boeing on the 737 Max. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.