If A Tree Falls In the Woods...
So let's take an airliner. Call it an Airbus, and let's say it's flying out of Malaysia.
Let's analyze every bit of signal we can get from it, from DC to light and then some:
At the low end, which is low power, we've got noise and interference. A little above that we've got shortwave - what it uses to communicate with other airliners and the control tower. In flight, it gives off heat. As it flies about it blinks and announces its presence to anyone looking in its general direction. These are active signals that we can absorb. Big enough antenna, sensitive enough thermal imager, we see it.
It will show up on radar if we ping it. An active infrared sensor (like the one that turns on your garage lights) will react to its presence. Obviously, we can see the airplane; it's not invisible. These are passive responses we can instigate. Shine a radar beam at an Airbus and you will see an Airbus.
It's noisy, too. If it flies overhead we hear it. Should the weather be right, we'll see its contrail.
That's what you get out of an airliner.
...And Nobody Hears It...
There's a supposition that we live in a perpetual surveillance state since the NSA is on our phone all the time but this understanding does not take into account the realities of physics or organization. Intelligence is broken up into different disciplines that collect and collate their information differently.
- HUMINT (HUMan INTelligence) is what the traitor told you. That's the pilot's buddy saying "he's got a flight simulator at home". This is classic James Bond shit, Mata Hari using her feminine wiles to learn the Nazi invasion plans.
- IMINT (IMaging INTelligence) is what you can photograph. Largely done by satellites. Contrary to Hollywood notions, IMINT has more in common with mowing the lawn than the all-seeing eye. Satellite orbits are highly predictable and changing them is very expensive - a KH-11 costs about as much to get into operation as a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier costs to get out of the shipyard and every time you use propellant, you shorten its useful life. While modern electro-optical intelligence satellites provide near-real-time data on whatever they're pointed at, there are a limited number of them, a limited number of relays to get the information to the ground, and a limited number of professionals to analyze that IMINT. In order for useful IMINT of a wayward airliner to exist, that wayward airliner would either have to be under task already or nearly on top of something that already is. As a general rule of thumb, IMINT does not often touch the middle of the deep blue sea unless there happens to be something interesting there. It happens - a CORONA accidentally imaged a Soviet ASAT test in the Arctic back in the early '80s - but the odds are stacked against it.
ELINT (ELectronic INTelligence): telemetry and other signals data that does not contain speech or other human elements. This is the engine telemetry talking to BAE, LORAN signals, etc. ELINT is captured by big skookum dishes up in space, by big skookum dishes in curious places (there's a Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Hawthorne, NV, for example - they exist to snoop on Russian ELF sub communication) and by a dragnet of ship and air-based intelligence vehicles. Some of the broad-band stuff gets picked up but by and large, if you want this stuff, you have to seek it out. Say you want the telemetry of a North Korean missile test. You park a flotilla of "fishing trawlers" off the coast of Pyongyang and loft a squadron of AWACS. No flotilla? No trawlers? Not a lot of data for you.
COMINT (COMmunications INTelligence): This is control tower conversations, in-flight internet packets, etc. This stuff is much easier to grab at the source - Kuala Lumpur Control streams on the Internet, FFS. Commercial airline traffic isn't encrypted so this stuff is yours for the taking.
...Did It Make A Sound?
There are distinct groups that pay attention to some of this stuff and ignore the rest. The NRO cares about anything gathered from space. They'll share that information around with anybody with similar interests on the chain of command. Anything flying over the ocean is the purvey of naval intelligence which has its own satellites. Fishing trawlers are generally CIA/NSA joint operations and AWACS are DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency). The NSA will intercept any signal over the air or over a trunk, be it copper, fiber or cans with string. It all gets shared around on something called A-Space, which is basically Facebook for spooks.
Not In My Woods It Doesn't.
That's assuming you have spy satellites. Giant skookum radar dishes. Flotillas of trawlers, squadrons of AWACs, Mata Hari listening to pillow talk.
We're talking about Malaysia.
Who have so far been extremely reluctant to engage the assistance or participation of any other government. Probably because it's going to make them look really, really bad.
Look. Malaysia has half as many muslims as Saudi Arabia or Iraq and twice as many as Tajikistan or Kuwait. A lot of them are militant. The plurality of the world's muslims don't live in South Asia, they live in the Pacific Rim... and they're not non-violent. KL, meanwhile, has been trying to show itself as a prominent world power for the past twenty years: the Petronas Towers exist solely to say "Hey world, we're legit." Balance that against a fundamentalist faction that doesn't want women to learn how to read and you have the makings for some real social tension.
The Ockham's Razor on the situation is that the government of Malaysia had some embarassing indications that "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Within US" about the pilot and either couldn't get its shit together in time to do something about it or chose not to act because of the potential dust-up of cracking down on a fundamentalist pilot without a really, really good reason. So now they're looking at a no-win situation where the whole world is going to second-guess their every move no matter what they do; if they hand the investigation over to the guys who actually have all the shit listed above they're nothing but a province all over again.
Kuala Lumpur, May 1969:
Kuala Lumpur, May 2012:
Cockups before conspiracy. Somebody somewhere had a pretty strong indication that something bad was going to happen to an airliner and now that it did happen, a whole lot of mud is going to be on a whole lot of faces. By controlling the investigation, Malaysia hopes to make everybody remember the shiny color sunset skyscrapers rather than the dirt roads and black'n'white.
It's not a particularly glamorous interpretation, but it's been my experience that behind every grand conspiracy theory there's a tiny, regrettable fuckup that might actually hurt somebody's career if it came to light.