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Flight 253 Disrupted Again; President Obama's Interrupted Vacation; Beefed-up Air Security; London Ties to Terror; Nigeria Terror Ties; Violent Protests in Iran; Sneaking a Bomb on Board; Scrutinizing Airline Security; Tracing a Suspected Terrorist's Path
Aired December 27, 2009 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DREW GRIFFIN, CNN ANCHOR: Terror on flight 253 again for the second time in three days. A security scare on the same international flight.
Welcome to this Special Report. CNN's global resources have gathered all the newest, most in depth information about this troubling case, what happened today and was it related to the failed Christmas day attack? What's being done to prevent this security lapse from happening again and who is ultimately responsible?
Hello. I'm Drew Griffin at the CNN center in Atlanta. We have every angle of this covered with Martin Savidge at the Detroit Airport, CNN senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry in Honolulu, where the president is monitoring the situation.
Kara Finnstrom is at LAX where concerned travelers are coming and going as this story develops, and both Richard Quest and senior international correspondent Nic Robertson, they're both in London where parts of the investigation are unfolding.
And our Christian Purefoy is in Nigeria now, home to the Christmas day suspect and the man involved in today's incident as well.
We'll begin with the latest security disruption. Martin Savidge at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. A deja vu moment.
MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was exactly about it. It was almost too much to be believed as we watched it unfold today.
Drew, here's how it began. It was shortly after noon here in Detroit when CNN received word that there was an international flight inbound to Detroit that had declared some sort of emergency. There was a problem on board, and the crew was asking that emergency vehicles and law enforcement meet it the moment it landed on the ground. And then the real shocker. The revelation that it was flight 253.
As you point out, the same exact flight number, the same airline, Northwest Airlines, traveling from the same city of origin in Amsterdam coming into Detroit declaring a problem as it made its approach. The redundancy and how it reflected what had happened on Christmas day was shocking. Obviously, everyone here, their nerves were on edge. Security immediately responded, and the same visual drama played out.
The plane landed safely. It was then taxied to a remote part of the airport here at Detroit, about a mile away from the terminal, surrounded by emergency vehicles, and the question was, what had happened? What was going on on board the aircraft? The passengers still had not been released.
Eventually, though, word came out from government sources and officials here at the airport that this was not as serious a situation as the one that had evolved on Christmas day. Apparently it was a passenger who the crew thought had been acting suspiciously moving up and down the aisles, spending a lot of time in the bathroom, and at times appearing to be combative with the crew.
They declared the emergency, word went all the way to the White House, but it turns out it was not a security threat. Several hours after it began, the all-clear was given, the passengers were allowed to come to the terminal, and everything eventually resolved itself.
But the images were very, very disturbing to see, including the bags of the airplane lined up on the taxiway for bomb-sniffing dogs to go over. And then you saw police officers with assault rifles guarded many of the entrance ways to and from the airport taxiway.
Very troubling day. It all ended well, but it just shows you how security levels and nerves are on the rise. Drew?
GRIFFIN: All right, Martin Savidge in Detroit tonight.
And the man charged in that Christmas day bombing attempt on Northwest flight 253 is now out of the hospital and in a federal prison. The Associated Pressed reporting Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has been moved to a facility about 50 miles outside Detroit.
That is according to his attorney, Miriam Siefer, a chief federal defender. She says she has not had an in-depth conversation with the 23-year-old Nigerian man since he was charged yesterday. But the attorney says she is planning to fight the government's request for a DNA sample during a hearing tomorrow. Abdulmutallab is not expected to be at that hearing.
Trouble on a Detroit-bound plane has now interrupted President Obama's vacation in Hawaii twice in three days. He was notified about today's disturbance about hour and a half after the flight landed. We're told the commander in chief asked officials to keep up the heightened security measures.
But critics are asking is that really enough?
Chief White House correspondent Ed Henry traveling with the president.
Ed, how much can the president do from Honolulu?
ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Drew, he can stay in the loop with some classified briefings from his staff, and he also put his Homeland Security secretary out there on the Sunday talk show circuit where she basically declared that the suspect was not part of some larger plot.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions about whether the Obama administration could have done more to snuff out this threat much sooner.
HENRY (voice-over): The president's Homeland Security secretary tried her best to reassure the American public by shifting focus to what happened after the attempted terror attack in Detroit on Christmas day.
JANET NAPOLITANO, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: One thing I'd like to point is that the system worked. Everybody played an important role here. The passengers and crew of the flight took appropriate action.
Within literally an hour to 90 minutes of the incident occurring, all 128 flights in the air had been notified to take some special measures in light of what had occurred on the Northwest Airlines flight.
HENRY: But Senator Joe Lieberman, chair of the Senate Homeland Security committee, said the problem is the system did not work before the detonation.
SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (I), HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: The truth is he broke through all of homeland security. If it was not for our good fortune, grace of God that the explosive did not go off, 300 and many more on the ground, probably in Michigan, would have killed.
HENRY: Pressed on how the suspect was able to get explosive chemicals on to the flight from Amsterdam, Secretary Janet Napolitano said on CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION" the president has ordered a review, but so far there's no evidence of improper screening.
CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: If he was properly screened and he got on anyway with that, it doesn't feel that safe.
NAPOLITANO: Well, you know, it should. This was one individual of literally thousands that fly and thousands of flights every year. He was stopped before any damage could be done, and now the forensics are analyzing what actually could have been done with whatever substance he had in whatever amount.
HENRY: But all it takes is one individual, and Republicans are demanding to know how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was allowed on the plane, just weeks after his father visited the U.S. embassy in Nigeria to express concern about his son's ties to radicals.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: It's amazing to me that an individual like this who is sending out so many signals could end up getting on a plane going to the U.S.
HENRY: Administration officials tell CNN after the father's visit to the embassy, Abdulmutallab's name was placed into a broad database of suspected terrorists but there was insufficient evidence to put him on either a no-fly list or subject him to secondary screening, which might have detected the explosives.
NAPOLITANO: He was on a general list, which over half a million people are, everybody had access to it. But there was not the kind of credible information in the sense of derogatory information that would move him up that list.
HENRY: Now the secretary added that in addition to the first investigation into how the suspect got those explosives onto the plane, the president has now ordered a second review into watch list procedures to see whether they need to be updated to help prevent terror attacks. Drew?
GRIFFIN: Ed, after watching the secretary's performance on Candy Crowley's show this morning, I have to ask you she heads a $50 billion security agency and says, the system worked apparently because passengers intervened and prevented this? Is this what the system relies on?
HENRY: It was pretty shocking to hear the system worked. She said that on some other programs as well. In one program she said it worked like clockwork. It didn't really seem to work that way when you dial it back about what happened before that flight took off.
I think very clearly this administration is trying to shift the focus to what happened once, you know, the plane was landing and then as you say the passengers jumped in. But that might not give the American flying public a lot of reassurances about what the TSA, what the Department of Homeland Security is doing.
Now, in fairness, White House officials stressed she was only talking about the tail-end of all of this, and they acknowledge that they're now reviewing what happened beforehand. But as you note, this is raising a lot of questions about what the administration could have done much sooner in this process to snuff this out. There's a lot that's still unanswered.
GRIFFIN: Well, from your vantage point -- I don't mean to put you on the spot and get you to comment on the news, but just from your own reporting, is there any kind of outrage from the administration officials that you've been able to talk to that this was allowed to happen? That this guy whose name was on a list was not screened properly or was not given a secondary screening?
HENRY: You know it's a good question, and I don't feel on the spot. What's interesting is that I've gotten just the opposite from White House officials. Instead of, you know, expressing outrage about how this guy got on the plane, they've sort of been outraged by some of the questions about all this, and basically saying look, this is a really big list of terrorists we're watching.
You can't scrutinize every last one. Just because they do one thing doesn't mean that you keep them off the plane. And in fairness, there is some of that that we have to note. I mean as the administration points out, 550,000 suspected terrorists on a list to investigate every last one of them would take thousands and thousands of FBI agents.
But on the other hand I am surprised that they're not expressing more outrage about how did this guy get on the plane. I mean it seems to be a fundamental question. And instead of expressing outrage herself, for example, Secretary Napolitano, instead today she kept trying to highlight the positive. And I think that's why there's going to be a lot of tough questions on Capitol Hill as soon as Congress comes back in January.
GRIFFIN: Yes, there does seem to be a matter of factness about the fact this guy got on board with what was indeed an explosive device.
Ed Henry from Honolulu. Ed, thank you very much.
Well, today is one of the busiest travel days of the year. Air passengers around the world now dealing with tighter security than ever because of the Christmas day incident aboard Northwest flight 253. It means a more visible police presence, longer lines, longer delays.
Airlines are implementing slight variations, but generally the new security rules require this. More physical pat-downs at the gate, more frequent checks of carry-on bags, and in the last hour of a flight, an international flight, no standing in the aircraft, no blankets or personal items on the lap, no touching of carry-on baggage, no using the restrooms in the last hour of a flight unless escorted by a crew member. And federal officials urge passengers to stay vigilant and report any suspicious activities.
Well, how are air travelers faring in light of the new security measures in this post-Christmas travel crush? We have global coverage with CNN's Richard Quest live in London and here in the United States CNN's Kara Finnstrom live at Los Angeles International Airport.
Let's begin with you, Kara.
KARA FINNSTROM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, crush is the right word for it. Check out these crowds behind me. These folks who are headed to the Philippines. And you know, airport officials tell us they always have big crowds here this time of year, but now they've got these extra screening measures to contend with so the lines are even a bit longer.
And you can see, look at all the big boxes here, all the big bags, all of these has to go through extra screening, so security officials saying allow yourself some extra time, especially if you're traveling internationally.
Jason is joining us live. And I understand you are going to Bangkok today. Tell us a little bit about your concerns getting to the airport in time and getting through screening.
JASON, TRAVELER: I really don't have a lot of concerns. The TSA does a great job at screening their customers, but as the incident in Detroit showed us, we have to still remain very vigilant because these individuals from al Qaeda still want to attack our nation.
And so some security is good, but it needs to improve because as this incident in Detroit showed us, we still have to remain very vigilant. I feel completely comfortable traveling internationally or anywhere in the world or the U.S. as long as we have the TSA screening.
FINNSTROM: All right, thank you for joining us. We'll let you catch your flight. I want to pan over and give you a look at one of the x-ray screening machines. It is not busy right now, but it has been very busy throughout the day.
Officials say they are also doing a lot of hand searches of a lot of the different boxes that come through here. And I spoke with one of the families that was heading to the Philippines just a short while ago, Drew. They said they actually allowed themselves a couple extra hours tonight because they always take lots of boxes of goodies from America home to their family and friends.
And that they're going to be waiting for them and they don't want to disappoint them so they're still traveling with their big boxes. They're just allowing some extra time to get through security, and the sentiment that we just heard from Jason is one we've been hearing again and again.
Haven't seen a lot of frustration here tonight. We've been seeing people who say they want extra security in place. They're a little inconvenienced but they're glad for that extra security.
GRIFFIN: Kara, thanks live from LAX. Let's go to London now. And I think the biggest effect is on overseas flights coming into the U.S. At least that's what I've been hearing from passengers.
Richard Quest, you're in London. What's the situation there?
RICHARD QUEST, CNN ANCHOR: The situation is that flights to the United States are being severely delayed. Airlines like British Airways have announced that now they're introducing a one-handbaggage rule only which cause an enormous amount of inconvenience to business and leisure travelers alike.
But that's just a reality check, Drew, because the truth is because the TSA has now mandated that airlines do these increased searches, the sort of things you were just talking about, and more physical patdowns, pretty much -- my sister flew to the United States today and told me to tell me that just about every passenger, in fact, every passenger was now patted down on the BA flight from London to Phoenix.
Handbaggage is now going to be opened time and again. Questions will be asked. People will be asked, what is that liquid? Is it drinkable? If it's drinkable, please drink some of it. And that's going to be the way of the future.
And the secretary for the Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, in that interview with Candy Crowley earlier today, she also emphasized that the procedures would be different from airport to airport, not because they were being arbitrary, but because they want to keep the alleged terrorists exactly on their toes.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NAPOLITANO: We have instituted more screening, what we call mitigation measures at airports, so I would advise you during this heavy holiday season just to arrive a bit early and to know that we're going to be different -- doing different things at different airports. So don't expect to do the same thing at one airport when you transfer through to another airport.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
QUEST: And if you take a look at the sort of chaos that is now being felt here, I think it would subside fairly quickly. We will get back to something approaching normality. I don't think we're going to see anything like what we saw two years ago when, of course, the first no bags and then no liquid and gels rules came into effect, but clearly today there was quite a lot of confusion from the traveling public.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Coming into the plane in Mexico City, they searched all of our bags individually. The security guys, and then they searched us like a body search, each one of us. The three of us. But I assume that that was the only thing that happened in this particular flight.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the last hour we came in, we had to make sure we were seated and had nothing on our lap and no pillows and blankets. (INAUDIBLE) just I think precaution.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
QUEST: The fact is, Drew, the unthinkable has happened, the unspoken has taken place. What the officials always knew was a possibility, that somebody could evade and avoid the detection system and get a substance on board. That reality has happened.
GRIFFIN: All right. Richard, thanks a lot. We'll see you later on this evening. Great reporting as usual.
Again, we tell you those security rules that are being felt around the world like London and later on next hour, "LARRY KING LIVE" is going to have the very latest on today's new scare on this other Northwest flight. That's tonight at 9:00 right here on CNN.
There are so many questions and layers to this investigation, we'll uncover what we know bit by bit throughout this hour. We're also tracking developments in Iran where political tension has turned into all-out mayhem.
GRIFFIN: Well, it is not like this hasn't happened before. In fact, nearly eight years to the day shoebomber Richard Reid, remember him? Now sitting in a supermax in prison in Colorado. He also had ties to Great Britain, tried detonating explosive on board an American Airliner.
CNN's senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is live in London. You have covered him. Now we have another one to deal with here. Nic?
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Now there's another one to deal with, Drew, and the police here and the security authorities around Britain are concerned that potentially there could be other people waiting to follow in his footsteps, and that is one line of investigation that's not going on here in central London. It's happening around the country.
Terrorism officials will be monitoring any connections, friends that Abdulmutallab may have had while he was here in Britain, to see if there's anyone else who may be being prepared to follow in his footsteps.
The investigation, though, in the apartment building that he lived in here is going very slowly. One of the reasons it's going slowly is in other investigations the police have had to do such things as take down false ceilings, search for hidden objects.
In one terrorism investigation here they found a computer thumb drive that gave them a trove of information. It was hard to hunt it down. And that's perhaps why this investigation here is taking a lot of time.
It doesn't appear to be producing red-hot leads at the moment. Overnight, tonight again the search of the premises here by the counterterrorism police has been suspended. But we are learning more details about Abdulmutallab. We learned from his high school teacher he was a very devout Muslim, but in a classroom group discussion about the Taliban, when all the other students in the class argued against the Taliban, Abdulmutallab argued for the Taliban.
It gives you some idea of the young man, sort of mental state that he had when he came here to Britain in 2005 to study at a university just around the corner from here. Three years later, by 2008, his family were worried enough about the fact that he was becoming radicalized, mixing with the wrong people here that they wouldn't allow him to go off to Saudi Arabia or Cairo where he wanted to go and study.
We've also learned another very interesting detail about Abdulmutallab. He applied to come back to Britain this year on another student visa, according to British media reports, but was turned down by British authorities. When we asked the British home office here about this, they refused to confirm or deny it. They didn't want to knock this report down.
It gives the indication here that even British authorities were concerned about the -- about this man and about his motivations. So we're building a picture here. His schoolteachers worried about his behavior. His family worried about his behavior and even British officials this year worried about his behavior and friends -- Drew.
GRIFFIN: All right, Nic, thank you so much, reporting from London. And I just took a slight pause there because, Nic, we have a new high school photo of this suspect, Uma Abdulmutallab. There he is in 2001. Shortly after 9/11 this would be on a field trip, we are told.
These pictures coming in to us from a teacher. Blurred members of his class there. Obviously, we want to protect their identities, but this is Abdulmutallab on a field trip in London. I recognize Buckingham Palace there. But you can see what we heard from yesterday during his court appearance described as a boy face, a very mellow kind of kid, slight in stature, and this seems to match the person we have here as we look at him in 2001 on a field trip in London.
Well, as we've been reporting, this suspect, the 23-year-old Nigerian national, his father is a retired banker who apparently was concerned that his son may have been radicalized by Islamic extremists.
CNN's Christian Purefoy is live in Nigeria's capital of Abuja.
Christian, what have you been able to uncover there about the suspect who's now facing serious charges in the U.S.?
CHRISTIAN PUREFOY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Drew. Well, investigations are continuing in Nigeria to find out how and why, what are the motives for this attack, particularly from his base here in Nigeria.
The Information Ministry gave a press conference earlier today detailing some of the investigations. Here's what the minister had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DORA AKUNYILI, NIGERIAN MINISTER OF INFORMATION: Nigerian security agencies are working hand in hand with international security agencies on this matter. The man in question has been living outside Nigeria for a while. He sneak into Nigeria on the 24th of December, 2009 and left the same day.
(END VIDEO CLIP) PUREFOY: Now, this corroborates with other investigations going on in Nigeria, particularly by the aviation authorities of Nigeria who say that the suspect left Lagos on the 24th via Amsterdam on a KLM flight to Detroit. And they said that that ticket was paid for in cash in a neighboring West African country of Prague, Ghana, over $2,000 to for that ticket.
But no contact details were left. He was seen checking into the flight of about 8:30 local time, with his shoulder bag.
As you mentioned, Drew, his father had previously gone to the American embassy in Nigeria and reported him for fear of -- you know, he was becoming radicalized. We spoke to a security source here who says that Abdulmutallab was not on any high priority security list.
So it does seem that he has exposed a weakness in the western security system. That he's -- you know, he's coming and he's attacking from a country that previously has no grievances against the west, like many Middle Eastern countries -- Drew.
GRIFFIN: Christian, you had some great reporting yesterday about how his family was trying to handle this, how this man went to, I guess, another country and said, I don't want to have anything to deal with you, the family anymore.
And I know the father reported him to the U.S. embassy, but did he report him to the Nigerian government and did the government take any action or got into the position where they could? Because obviously he flew out of Lagos.
PUREFOY: So far the Nigerian government are saying that this is a security matter. They can't say if it was reported. But it has to be said that it is unlikely that he did do so officially. Nigerian families particularly from the north are traditional close-knit, they would want to sort out this problem themselves.
It is an amazing step that the father actually did go and report this to the American embassy. Many northern Nigerian families on Muslim regions in Nigeria are sort of split between the Christian south and a Muslim north. Would want to sort this in-house, in- family. And it's surprising that he didn't.
And it is surprising, as well as you mentioned, this -- the father of the family are a very rich, respectable family in Nigeria. The father was the chairman of one of Nigeria's oldest, most respectable banks, First Bank in Nigeria. So this son would have wanted for nothing.
Some of the houses, some of the schools he grew up in are very rich, very wealthy compared to the rest of the 70 percent of Nigerians, according on the U.N. who live on less than a dollar a day -- Drew.
GRIFFIN: Yes, he's getting the nickname in some tabloids "the privileged terrorist." And I should point out, Christian, that we did see a picture of the father's home in Nigeria during your live report. Thank you so much. There's the home there, obviously, a gated home. Christian Purefoy from Nigeria tonight. Thank you.
The spotlight now shines, though, on Yemen. Experts saying it's a growing hotbed of terrorist activity. How the U.S. is dealing with that problem. Also, more bloodshed in Iran. The latest on the biggest anti-government protest we've seen there in months.
GRIFFIN: If you're just checking in on the news, you won't believe what happened in Detroit today. Another security alert today on Northwest Airlines flight 253 out of Amsterdam.
Yes, the same route, the same plane number. Emergency crews surrounded the plane after the pilot alerted officials about a passenger who locked himself in a rest room for an hour. After investigating authorities say the man was belligerent but genuinely sick. They determined he did not pose a threat to that plane.
Now to the earlier Detroit security incident. This man, the man charged in the Christmas day attempt to blow up Northwest flight 253 is out of Michigan hospital. Investigators trying to piece together his background.
You're looking at the new image, I think pretty soon, that we're going to obtain of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who, according to the Associated Press, has been moved to a federal prison about 50 miles from Detroit.
The Iranian capital today has been the scene of some of the bloodiest protests in months. Anti-government demonstrators facing off here against police and security forces. A number of people killed, hundreds under arrest.
As Reza Sayah tell us, there are conflicting reports about whether the nephew of a key opposition leader is among the dead.
REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This turned out to be one of the deadliest days in Iran since the disputed elections on June 12th. Among the dead according to an opposition Web site, and this could be the biggest development of the day, was the nephew of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi who according to the Web site died in Revolution Square on Sunday.
Iran state-funded press TV citing police reports that the young man who was killed in Revolution Square was not Mir Hossein Mousavi's nephew. In the meantime, we'll show you some dramatic video that really illustrates how intense these protests have gotten.
This is amateur video showing a group of protesters surrounding what appears to be a police van, smashing it up and then dragging out what looks like a horrified driver. This was not an isolated incident. More video showing protesters setting fires to a besieged headquarters. The clashes, according to witnesses, lasting throughout the day and into the night. Also reports of clashes in cities like Isfahan, Mashhad, Tabriz and Iraq (ph). All of this activity taking place on a major religious holiday of Ashoura, the day Shia Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of their prophet Imam Hossein. Sunday in Iran marks the seventh day after the passing of Ayatollah Montazeri as well as, the dissident cleric who was a huge figure in the opposition movement who passed away last week.
Symbolism and martyrdom are extremely significant in Shia Islam. And on Sunday we saw the opposition movement used martyrdom and symbolism to demonstrate against what they call an unjust regime.
Reza Sayah, CNN, at the Iran desk in Atlanta.
GRIFFIN: And the White House, which has been criticized for not doing enough to support the protests in Iran, did release a statement today. Here's what it said.
"We strongly condemn the violent and unjust suppression of civilians in Iran, seeking to exercise their universal rights." The statement goes on to say, "Governing through fear and violence is never just."
We are continuing to cover the Iranian protests from all angles. So we've got an in-depth special coverage for you on the unrest in Tehran. Reza Sayah is going to join me live tonight at 10:00 Eastern Time here in the newsroom.
Well, President Obama may not be saying much about the attempted attack, but today his Homeland Security chief said a mouthful. We'll let you hear Janet Napolitano explaining how the suspect already flagged on a watch list made it on-board a flight.
Plus you have to toss out your water bottle when heading through airport security, so how does a bomb get past? Sneaking explosives onto a plane may be easier than you think. And we have the video to prove it.
GRIFFIN: The failed airline terror attempt on Christmas day is already a fodder for political bickering. Michigan Congressman Peter Hoekstra is the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. He says the bomb attempt should be a wake-up call about the global terror threat especially because the suspect is claiming connections to al Qaeda, possibly in Yemen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. PETE HOEKSTRA (R), MICHIGAN: If you don't identify the problem, which is radical jihadist terrorism, we will not be in a position to solve the problem and keep America safe. I think the other reaction is 90 people in Gitmo are Yemenese. The president wants to send these individuals back to Yemen.
That is a mistake. They will find their way back onto the battlefield. They need to stay in Guantanamo. Closing Gitmo is a bad idea, sending these people back to Yemen and other parts of the Middle East is just a bad idea.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GRIFFIN: The response from the administration today came from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. She says there is, so far, no indication Friday's thwarted attack is linked to a larger terror network. She says that even though the suspect was on a terror watch list, there wasn't enough information to keep him grounded.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NAPOLITANO: You have to understand that you need information that is specific and credible if you're going to actually bar someone from air travel. He was on a general list, which over half a million people, everybody has access to it, but there was not the kind of credible information in the sense of derogatory information that would move him up that list.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GRIFFIN: It turns out there are at least four different watch lists ranked according to level of perceived threat, and the list this guy was on apparently didn't even require a secondary patdown.
Well, how do you get explosives onto a plane? You walk through security. The airline terror suspect made it on board, and he's not the only one who has slipped through.
Our Homeland Security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve, live in D.C., and Jeanne, you've seen TSA drills where screening has failed right in front of you.
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. In early 2008, Drew, we were given exclusive access to covert testing done by the Transportation Security Administration. Done with the goal of improving screening systems and screener performance. What we saw may open your eyes and show you how someone with an explosive strapped to his body might get through airport security.
UNIDENTIFIED TSA COVERT TESTER: This is a back and equipment detonator into the plastic explosive.
MESERVE: It isn't an actual improvised explosive device, just a very good copy that should set off alarms just like the real thing.
UNIDENTIFIED TSA COVERT TESTER: Slide it in to get it deeper in there so that it's more difficult and is concealed better.
MESERVE: This undercover team from the Transportation Security Administration applies a chemical that mimics explosive residue.
UNIDENTIFIED TSA COVERT TESTER: You can't see it. OK. I think we're ready to go.
MESERVE: Then they head for Tampa International Airport. No one knows they're coming until the airport's top security official gets a call five minutes before the test begins.
UNIDENTIFIED TSA COVERT TESTER: But I'd ask that you not speak to anyone on your staff to alert them of this test.
MESERVE: At the checkpoint the tester is wanded and patted down right where the fake IED is concealed, but the screener does not catch it. If this were a real bomb, it just made it past security.
TSA won't give exact numbers, but screeners fail these tests more often than they pass them.
DAVID HOLMES, TSA ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATION: We're designing our test not so much to indicate or to show or to highlight performance or absence of performance at a particular airport, but we're highlighting where the vulnerability exists at the airport.
MESERVE: At Tampa the team breaks cover immediately to show the screener his mistakes.
UNIDENTIFIED TSA COVERT TESTER: We'll have you do it again and we'll go over everything so I can show you exactly what you did wrong.
MESERVE: Again, wanding and patting misses the fake IED. Only when the tester tells the screener to go a step further and lifts up the shirt, does the screener find it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh I see it now.
MESERVE: Apparently aware of the consequences if this had been the real thing, the screener appears devastated, but every screener at this checkpoint will be taught today's lessons.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we all have to be sharp to stop them from coming into the sterile area. You know that.
MESERVE: Now that test was done back in 2008. Since then techniques for making and concealing bombs have evolved and so does screening. Including to changes to pat-down techniques. But it appears that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab didn't get a pat-down or go through a body imaging device or have his possessions swabbed for explosives because he had never been tagged for any kind of additional scrutiny by airport security -- Drew.
GRIFFIN: And Jeanne, I think that's the real question here. Why this guy didn't raise to a higher level. I think these are the questions that they're going to be asking in Washington in the coming weeks because he never even got to the point where he would get to the screening that would have detected this stuff.
MESERVE: That's right. And I think that's exactly why the administration is saying today we're going to sit down and we're going to look at these categories, determine how people are put in the different groupings that would require additional screening. But you know, this is a big task.
As you heard officials say today, there are half a million people on these lists, and clearly it would be very problematic for airline flying if everybody had to get additional screening. And imagine what might happen. You know, Drew, as well as anybody, because it's happened to you, how many people end up on these lists incorrectly.
And the TSA has set up a redress process but it's imperfect. And imagine if there were that many more names of people that they have to screen additionally. It does -- it really is a very difficult problem but one I guess they're going to try and set their minds too now to see if they can find a better way.
GRIFFIN: All right, Jeanne Meserve, in D.C., all weekend long. Great stuff, Jeanne. Thanks.
Just ahead a closer look at the possible role Yemen might have played in the Christmas day bomb plot. A former assistant director with the FBI will join me to talk about it.
GRIFFIN: Joining me now is Tom Fuentes, the assistant former FBI assistant director of International Operations and now a CNN contributor.
Tom, we talked earlier today, and I want to ask you about this DNA. There's going to be a hearing tomorrow. The suspect is going to be asked to give up a sample of his DNA, which apparently according to his attorney he's going to try to fight.
Why the DNA? Is that a matter of routine for investigations like this?
THOMAS V. FUENTES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, in a situation like this, Drew, they're going to want to, again, verify his identity, for one thing, and for a second thing any other bags that he may have touched or clothing or other articles possibly in the airports in Lagos or Amsterdam before boarding the plane.
Or may have discarded something in a waste basket that turned up and they've located and want to be able to compare whether DNA samples match him, or on the plane itself when they did the crime scene investigation. Did he leave something in the bathroom? Did he throw something in the storage bin or leave something in the overhead bin?
So there would be a number of articles that may they may want to compare to him personally.
GRIFFIN: Tom, this suspect supposedly has told investigators that he is connected to al Qaeda. How do you go about determining if that's just a bunch of talk or if he really is? FUENTES: Well, in a situation like this, they're going to -- much of the investigation is going to rely on host country services. So the government of Nigeria, their law enforcement authorities working with the FBI offices in Lagos, in Abuja, the Yemeni authorities working with the FBI office in Sana'a.
Of course, we have the offices in London working together and other countries in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for example. Those countries are going to be the ones to request his phone records and any Internet records, interview neighbors.
All investigation, all logical checks of who he is, where he's been, who he's associated with, what he has said to friends and neighbors and associates, is going to have conducted by the authorities in those countries providing that assistance to the FBI for the information then to be transmitted and the evidence to be transported back to the U.S. for the prosecution in Detroit or another city if a different venue was chosen.
GRIFFIN: And one of the wildcards was whether or not Yemen would be helping out. You found out earlier today that the country is not only going to help but is helping already.
FUENTES: Yes. A senior security official from the government of Yemen talked to me earlier this afternoon and said that his government will be making an official announcement tomorrow.
But in the meantime wanted me to be able to say on their behalf that they're cooperating extensively and diligently with the FBI office in Sana'a and other U.S. authorities to try to determine whether he actually entered the country as he claimed to have done.
He told me that their databases are not as robust and efficient and capable as U.S. databases, so it will be difficult. They tried to determine if he flew in and any of the known identities that he may have turned up, but he also cautioned that if he crossed the land border with Saudi Arabia they may never be able to determine exactly when he entered or left the country.
They are also conducting investigation at language schools, religious institutions, all other known al Qaeda hideouts, if you will, to try to determine whether or not he actually did go there and meet with people and what he may have planned on doing once he met with them.
GRIFFIN: All right, Tom Fuentes from San Francisco. Thanks, Tom. We're going to have more on Yemen coming up ahead. Experts say it is a growing center of terrorist activity. We're going to talk about how the U.S. is dealing with it.
And at the top of the hour, "LARRY KING LIVE" will have more on today's new scare aboard that Northwest Airline flight into Detroit today. That's just about seven minutes from now.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) GRIFFIN: Now to the Yemeni connection. The man accused of trying to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas says he does have al Qaeda connections, and federal officials say he got his explosives and marching orders from inside Yemen. Security experts have been keeping an eye on Yemen for a while now.
Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr tells us why.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Drew, could the attack on the U.S. airliner in Detroit possibly, possibly have been retaliation for a U.S. attack on al Qaeda in Yemen?
STARR (voice-over): In Yemen eulogies for those killed in a recent air strike on al Qaeda hideouts. U.S. officials privately acknowledged they've provided secret intelligence on several al Qaeda targets to Yemen's government, but won't say if U.S. fighter jets or armed drones were involved.
All of this happened before the suspect in the attack against Northwest Airlines flight 253 claimed he traveled to Yemen and was given bomb-making materials there. A claim that has the U.S. worried.
Al Qaeda in Yemen has already been the focus of secret U.S. military and intelligence operations for months. General David Petraeus sounded a warning about Yemen earlier this year.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, COMMANDER, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE IRAQ: That's why al Qaeda and the Arabian peninsula has established its headquarters. This is a concern.
STARR: And with tribal rebel movements on the rise in Yemen, the central government can't fully control the country, al Qaeda has found a new safe haven.
JON ALTERMAN, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: There is a very real sense that the central government is losing control over most of the country. That al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is setting up bases hosted among tribes.
STARR: Look at the map, and you see the potential for disaster. Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen are within striking distance of Saudi oil facilities. Hundreds of cargo ships pass the coastline each year. They come through the Suez Canal in one direction and the Indian Ocean in another. Ripe targets for attacks.
The bottom line, experts say, al Qaeda in Yemen may now be able to attack the United States.
PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: The important thing here is if indeed this does lead back to the Yemen cell, most of the attacks that we've seen in the past have been in Yemen or in Saudi Arabia. The Yemeni affiliate there has not been able to do out-of- area operations like al Qaeda central on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. And this would represent an out-of-area operation and a significant one.
STARR: U.S. officials won't talk about their involvement in the air strikes because the goal now is to make it look like the Yemenis are in the forefront. But make no mistake, officials say Yemen needs U.S. help to fight al Qaeda and time is of the essence.
Barbara Starr, CNN, Washington.
GRIFFIN: I am Drew Griffin at the CNN center in Atlanta. I'll be back in one hour with all the latest news. But right now a special edition of "LARRY KING LIVE" begins now.