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In Airliner Search, Countries Still Wonder What Parts To Play


The FBI is about to become a lot more closely involved in investigating the disappearance of Malaysia Air Flight 370. Bureau investigators are said to be getting their hands on copies of a hard drive taken from the pilot's home. The drive was part of a flight simulator. These copies may still contain data that had been deleted.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports it's an example of closer international cooperation in an effort to solve the mystery.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: From the earliest days of the disappearance of flight 370, U.S. government agencies have said they were available to assist Malaysian authorities. But until now, those agencies have mostly sat on the sidelines. The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board sent representatives to Kuala Lumpur, but they have yet to be called on in any official capacity.

Former NTSB managing director Peter Goelz says that's unfortunate, because they could have helped.

PETER GOELZ: They've sent over some of their best investigators, particularly knowledgeable radar experts. And, you know, had they been given the raw data from the radar tracks, I think we would have gotten a better picture quicker.

NAYLOR: One reason for this is that there's actually very little international law that deals with the disappearance of a commercial airliner. While there is an international law of the sea, there is no corresponding law of the air. The International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets standards for civil aviation, but is largely silent on an international investigation such as the one into flight 370.

Brian Havel directs the International Aviation Law Institute at DePaul University. Havel says the disappearance of the Malaysian Air flight has revealed gaps in the law.

BRIAN HAVEL: I think this situation, since it's so unusual, is creating new issues of to what extent states ought to collaborate, with what level of resources they should collaborate and so on. So I think we're in a frontier area here as far as international search and rescue is concerned.

NAYLOR: Right now, Malaysia is leading the investigation as it was a Malaysian airliner which took off from Malaysia. But other nations have interests, too. The flight was headed for Beijing and most of its passengers were Chinese. The airframe of the Boeing jet was built by a U.S. company, while the aircraft's Rolls Royce engines are from Great Britain. In addition, several nations, including the U.S. and Australia, are involved in the search for the jet across vast areas of ocean. Havel says that search is a pretty ad hoc operation.

HAVEL: They're operating subject to international diplomacy, cooperation, comity, good will, that sort of thing. It's not really something that's organized under international law.

NAYLOR: U.S. officials say they've been standing by ready to help Malaysian authorities if asked. At his news conference today, Attorney General Eric Holder said there have been discussions.

ERIC HOLDER: I've not had direct contact with my counterpart in Malaysia, but there has been contact between the various investigative agencies, the FBI here and the relevant agencies in Malaysia, and that conversation, all those conversations are ongoing.

NAYLOR: Some Republicans in Congress have asserted that the FBI should take over the probe from Malaysian authorities, an idea dismissed by former NTSB managing director Goelz.

GOELZ: We can't just go over and take over because this is an investigation being run by a sovereign country. If the plane is found in someone else's territorial water, then the investigative landscape changes.

NAYLOR: When an Air France jet crashed into the Atlantic a few years ago on a flight from Rio, the black boxes on board were eventually recovered by technicians from The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. That Massachusetts facility has also offered its assistance in this case, but so far has heard nothing from Malaysian authorities.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.



This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.