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STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING

Interview With Janet Napolitano

Aired December 27, 2009 - 09:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


CANDY CROWLEY, HOST: This is CNN "State of the Union" report for Sunday, December 27th. I'm Candy Crowley. John King is off.

We begin this Sunday morning with new details emerging about the Christmas Day attempted terrorist attack against the Northwest Airlines flight carrying 289 people. Here is what we know so far -- the suspect, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has been charged with trying to destroy -- to destroy the airplane. Federal authorities say the Nigerian national boarded the Northwest flight in Amsterdam, Netherlands, with a device attached to his body. The airplane was forced to make an emergency landing at Detroit Metropolitan Airport when Mutallab tried to ignite the device, which investigators say contained a powerful explosive known as PETN.

We have reports from Michigan, London, and Lagos, Nigeria. We want to begin with Deborah Feyerick at the Detroit airport in Romulus, Michigan. Deborah.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Candy, this investigation is in full throttle. Authorities in more than half a dozen of countries are trying to track down who this guy met with and how he became radicalized.

Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab detonated an explosive device attempting to blow up a Northwest passenger plane with some 290 people on board. The 23-year-old Nigerian, who witnesses say looks a lot like a teenager, comes from a very prominent Nigerian family. He attended one of the best universities in London and was living in a multimillion-dollar apartment in central London. His father was chairman until recently of Nigeria's major bank.

Now, even the father feared that his son was going down a very dangerous path and becoming radicalized. About three months ago, he went to the U.S. embassy, warning officials that he feared his son was about to take part in jihad. The son had contacted him by a text message, saying that he was leaving school in Dubai, where he had just started studying, and instead was going to Yemen to pursue Islam. Now, Yemen is where the suspect would later tell officials that he got this explosive device and where he learned how to use it. And according to the criminal complaint, the instructions meant going into the plane's bathroom as the plane was beginning its descent into Detroit, and he was there for about 20 minutes, witnesses say, came back to his seat, then tried to conceal the device with a blanket. Moments later, it ignited. Now, quick-thinking passengers were able to put out the flames which had began to go up the side of the airplane wall. They were also able to subdue the suspect. That suspect now at a local Michigan hospital. He is being treated for second and third degree burns. He did appear before a judge yesterday. He was very calm, very polite. He had said he had a much better day than the day earlier when he tried to detonate this device. He is facing charges of attempting to bring down that passenger plane using an explosive device. Clearly, Candy, more charges to follow, including likely attempted murder of all those people on board that passenger plane, that plane having landed safely. Candy.

CROWLEY: Deborah Feyerick in Romulus, Michigan, thanks so much. More details are also emerging about the suspect, who, as Deborah mentioned, had been a college student in Great Britain. CNN's Phil Black is outside of the London house where Abdulmutallab lived. And he has that part of the story -- Phil.

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Candy, for the second day now, British police have been searching an apartment in the building behind me. This is Mansville (ph) Street, in a wealthy part of central London, and it is where the suspect, Abdulmutallab, lived while studying here in London at London's University College.

This was between September 2005 and June 2008. British police say they are working very closely with U.S. officials to investigate this British connection, to essentially piece together his life here during those years, to determine to what extent, if any, his time living in this city influenced or impacted upon his decision to carry out this attack. To what extent was he radicalized here, or did he have any contact with extremist elements of London's Muslim community, which have in the past proved such a rich source for terror plots.

Two facts have emerged. One, it was from the U.S. embassy in London that he obtained the tourist visa that he used to take that flight to Detroit. And we now know that, having completed his studies here and left London, he tried to come back. This was just in May of this year. He applied for a six-month study visa to return to London, but that was rejected on the grounds that the college he claimed to be studying at was a fake. Candy.

CROWLEY: Phil, let me ask you. We were talking here before the show and sort of noting that one of the U.S.'s strongest allies, the strongest ally, Great Britain, seems to have been sort of a hot bed for a number of these suspects that crop up, for radicalization. What is it in the temperature there that seemed to grow some of these terrorists?

BLACK: In recent years, there is no doubt, Candy, that London in particular has proved, as I say, a rich source for home-grown terror plots. There is a strong Muslim community here in various London suburbs, and within those, there have been extremist elements that have plotted both here, travelled abroad to train, and in some cases actually attempted to carry out attacks. We have seen terror strikes on the streets of London. We famously saw the liquid bomber blot that had influenced travel around the world to such a strong degree. But this is different. This does not fit the regular profile. He is not from one of those neighborhoods where you see those sorts of plots emerging. It will be interesting to see just what the British connection was or to what extent it has influenced his decision to carry out this attack, Candy.

CROWLEY: Phil Black in London, thanks very much, underscoring what we know. We have a lot more questions right now than we have answers.

Now to Nigeria. Christian Purefoy is in Lagos with details on the investigation there.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRISTIAN PUREFOY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Nigerian airport authorities have now confirmed that Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a KLM flight from Lagos via Amsterdam to Detroit on the 24th of December. The ticket was bought in Accra, Ghana, and paid for in cash. They say no contact details or telephone number were left during the purchase.

He was seen boarding the flight at about 8:30 local time and spotted carrying a shoulder bag.

During the first leg of the journey, from Lagos to Amsterdam, the suspect was in seat 20b, but later moved to seat 19a from Amsterdam to Detroit.

His father had previously reported him to the American embassy in Nigeria, fearing he was becoming radicalized. However, a security source we have spoken to in the Nigerian Aviation Authority says that no one by the name of Farouk Abdulmutallab was put on the high security list.

Christian Purefoy, CNN, Lagos, Nigeria.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: President Obama remains on Christmas vacation in Hawaii, but has been getting frequent briefings on the investigation into that attempted airplane bombing. International airline passengers, as well as those traveling here in the United States, now face even tighter security checkpoints, and the Obama administration is reviewing security measures that are already in place to address the terrorists threat.

Joining us now from San Francisco is homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: Secretary Napolitano, thank you so much for joining us. If I am about to get on a plane today in the U.S. or headed toward the U.S., I think my big question is, is this part of a larger plot, or do you think this is a lone wolf? NAPOLITANO: Well, right now, we have no indication that it's part of anything larger, but obviously the investigation continues. And we have instituted more screening and 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 are going to be 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.

But the traveling public -- this is my message for you, Candy. The traveling public is very, very safe in this air environment. And while we continue to investigate the source of this incident, I think the traveling public should be confident in what we are doing now.

CROWLEY: So, just to finish up on the question-- I do want to talk to you about security measures -- but do you think -- has there been any evidence of the Al Qaida ties that this suspect has been claiming?

NAPOLITANO: Right now, that is part of the criminal justice investigation that is ongoing, and I think it would be inappropriate to speculate as to whether or not he has such ties.

What we are focused on is making sure that the air environment remains safe, that people are confident when they travel. And one thing I'd like to point out 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. We instituted new measures on the ground and at screening areas, both here in the United States and in Europe, where this flight originated.

So the whole process of making sure that we respond properly, correctly and effectively went very smoothly.

CROWLEY: Well, it seems as though the reason this plane did not explode is that the explosion failed and then you had some quick passengers who jumped on him when he lit this fire. So let me ask you about how he could have gotten on the plane, with this substance, the PETN. I mean, we get on, you can't have more than 3.4 ounces of toothpaste and you can't have more than 3.4 ounces of anything in a little bag, and so I think people are thinking, so how does he get on with an explosive? How does that get past security?

NAPOLITANO: Well, we are asking the same questions, looking at what happened in Amsterdam as he transferred flights to a flight that was U.S.-bound. We have already been working with the airport and airline authorities there to see what kind of screening, screening equipment was used. We have no suggestion that he was improperly screened, but we want to go through and see. We're always ...

CROWLEY: I'm sorry, but if he was not improperly screened or properly screened, and yet you want Americans to feel safe on the planes, and so if it 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 literally of thousands that fly and thousands of flights every year. And he was stopped before any damage could be done. And now the forensics are analyzing, well, what actually could have been done with whatever substance he had and whatever amount. Those are all undetermined issues right now. And then we will go back and see about that technology, about that screening, just as we will go back at the president's request and look at how we put people on different types of watch lists. Those are things that had been in place for many years. They have been the procedures that we have utilized.

And again, once this incident occurred, what I really think deserves attention is everybody responded quickly, effectively, without panicking and shutting down the airline systems or air travel. What we did is dealt with the incident, put out additional security measures both at airports here and abroad, and made sure that the flights that were in the air were indeed safe.

CROWLEY: Let me ask you, because you are right, this was one individual, but that's really all it takes. If a plane explodes, it just takes one individual. So let me ask you about those watch lists. Here is someone whose father came to the U.S. embassy and said I am worried about his ties, I am worried that he is becoming increasingly militant. He is on a list, but somehow no none looks at him more closely, apparently, than any other passenger. Is there some way -- I mean, it seems to me there is all these computer lists, and this one has suspected ties, and that one -- and this is the no-fly list. Is there not some way to merge this information so that he would have popped up someplace?

NAPOLITANO: Well, there is no suggestion that -- he was on what's called a tied list, which has half-a-million-plus names on it. And there is no suggestion that that was not shared information. The issue was, was there enough information to move him to the more specific lists, which would require additional examination or indeed being on no-fly status. And to date, it does not appear that there was any such information to move him from that tied list, which was shared and everybody had it, but to a more specific list which would require different types of screening at the airport.

CROWLEY: So not even a father coming in, knowing what his son has been up to and reporting this to the U.S. embassy, is not enough? I mean, what puts you on the watch list if that is not enough?

NAPOLITANO: Well, indeed you can -- let's not get into that, because for one thing, we need to ascertain exactly who said what to whom and when. But also, you have to understand that you need information that is specific and credible if you are going to actually bar someone from air travel. He was on a general list, which over half a million people, everybody had access to it. But there was not the kind of credible information, in the sense derogatory information, that would move him up the list.

Now, one of the things I think we will be doing over the next weeks is really looking at those watch lists procedures in light of this occurring and saying, OK, do those need to be changed? They have been in place for a number of years. Do they need to be adjusted in light of this event, just as we will look at our screening and screening technology once we know for sure what he had and what he had access to, to see whether any of that needs to be changed.

We are always dealing with a changing environment. But we do it and we do it really very, very quickly and very thoroughly across the entire air environment, through airports both domestically and internationally. And that has happened over this weekend.

CROWLEY: Secretary Napolitano, let me ask you. It seems to me when Richard Reid got on the plane and tried to light his shoe with explosives, we all began to take off our shoes. When some British terrorists began to put substances together, that's when we got the 3.4. Now we have this man, so an hour before your flight lands, everybody has to have everything off their lap and they can't use a blanket and they can't put a pillow there. It feels as though we're always a little bit behind the curve, we've always correcting the last problem. Is there an attempt to kind of look forward and say, OK, what else is missing here when we look at this picture that we -- the little loopholes, if you will, that we can close here?

NAPOLITANO: Oh, absolutely. And that work is ongoing all the time. But we also recognize that it is important that we anticipate that someone could indeed get on a plane with intent to do harm, regardless of everything that we do. And that requires, then, everybody to know what to do when that occurs, which is what happened here, and the ability to immediately get information out to flights that are already in the air, as well as flights that are on the ground. And we exercised that. So we are constantly looking for new technologies, new methodologies and the like, as you suggest. But also, always practicing and exercising what needs to happen in terms of information sharing, not just with airports, airlines, but also with other law enforcement, state and local throughout the country and the like, practice that information sharing, getting products out quickly, smoothly, to make sure that additional measures are shared immediately for the protection of the traveling public.

CROWLEY: In terms of additional measures, was there a U.S. marshal on that flight? We are told there was not. Why not?

NAPOLITANO: We do not have air marshals on all flights. They are assigned on a random basis.

CROWLEY: So it's not a budget cut thing? There are also reports out there that there were some budget cuts in the U.S. marshal program, and that's why there was not a U.S. marshal on that plane?

NAPOLITANO: Well, the federal air marshals are part of our system, and indeed we share them, and we share -- they are posted randomly on different flights. And as far as I know, on this flight, there was not one. But that was not the result of budget cuts. That is just the result of the fact that he happened to be on an airplane that did not have one.

CROWLEY: Do you have the resources you need to keep flights in America and to America safe?

NAPOLITANO: Well, we are also looking at that.

CROWLEY: We have lots more questions to ask in the days ahead, but I know we are out of time. Secretary Napolitano, thank you so much for joining us.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: The question remains whether the man accused of trying to bring down that Northwest Airlines flight has ties to a terrorist group. We will get analysis from two terrorism experts who really know their stuff, next on "State of the Union."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: This is "State of the Union." I'm Candy Crowley. The recent attempted attack raises new questions about the terror threat to the United States and the strength of terrorist groups around the world.

Joining us now to talk about that and more, former CIA acting director John McLaughlin and CNN terrorist analyst Peter Bergen.

So where to start?

I think that the big question is, we'd heard about how Al Qaida was being dismantled and we'd, you know, ruined their leadership and they were dispersed. Do you think this has Al Qaida marks on it? And are they making a comeback?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, it certainly feels that way, Candy. This man had been in London, where there is frequent evidence of recruitment by Al Qaida, Al Qaida-related people. He claims to have been in touch with Yemenis. And Yemen is a place where Al Qaida is on the move, a strong movement there.

And I think it's an exaggeration to say that Al Qaida has been weakened to the point where we don't have to worry about it anymore. That's true of a conventional enemy, if you're talking about something like the former Soviet Union. When it was weakened, we could stop worrying.

When a terrorist group is weakened -- remember, every time you attack a terrorist group, it doesn't necessarily defeat them; it just changes them. And so what they've done in the last two or three years is change their tactics. They are now dispersed. They have safe havens of sorts in the tribal areas of Pakistan, one growing, I think, in Yemen. In Somalia, I think it can be claimed that they have a safe haven of sorts, people related to Al Qaida.

And so we're dealing now with a much more difficult to contain and attack movement. So there are many places where a person can be radicalized, instructed and propelled into a terrorist act. We don't know yet whether this individual fits that mold, but it has that feeling to it. CROWLEY: Does it have the same feeling to you?

Are there -- are there signs that you add up and go, "Al Qaida?" BERGEN: Yes, I absolutely agree with everything John has said. And I mean, I think there is a recent terrorist attack that we should look at pretty carefully. Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who's the senior counterterrorism official in the Saudi Kingdom, long a target of Al Qaida -- he was -- he narrowly escaped being assassinated by a man concealing in his underwear a PETN bomb.

Now, PETN is exactly the same explosive that was used in the Detroit plot. It's quite an unusual explosive. It was also used in Al Qaida's attempt to bring down an American Airlines plane back in December of 2001, the so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid.

And in the case of the Prince Nayef assassination attempt, this guy originated in Yemen. As John has indicated, Yemen is probably -- I think is probably the second-most important place in the world, right now, for an Al Qaida presence. Very similar to Afghanistan, there's a civil war going on. It's a very poor country. The government doesn't control it. Bin Laden's family, of course, comes from Yemen. The USS Cole attack was directed from Yemen.

We've seen multiple attacks -- or attempted attacks on the American embassy there. Al Qaida has a strong foothold in Yemen. And the fact that this guy has said that he got the device in Yemen, I think, just speaks for itself. I think that's very plausible.

CROWLEY: So you guys are, sort of, scaring me here, because what -- what you're saying here is that this isn't necessarily there's going to be another one, another one, another one, like, within the next couple days, but that these individuals with very little substance strapped to their underwear, for heaven's sakes, can get on a plane and there is really no way to detect it. And you're talking about a movement that's still strong, although different than when we first -- when Al Qaida first came into our sights.

MCLAUGHLIN: Yes, we have to remember, with terrorism, you know, the whole point of it is to deal great damage to large powers, powerful countries and powerful people with minimal material and minimal numbers of men and women. And so they use what everyone calls asymmetric means to do this.

And we can't -- we can't have a mindset that says, if we just continue to kill them or take them out in numbers, that it will diminish the threat in some sizable way. They don't need a lot of material to do this.

There are ways to detect what occurred here, but they are very intrusive. It is possible to use full-body scanning machines, for example, which we did experiment with a couple of years ago. They are difficult to maintain and expensive. But that's an option.

You can pat down everyone that comes into an airport, but that is something that would, I think, deal a financial blow to the airline industry and also make travel very difficult. So, you know, what we have to think about with these folks who carry out these operations is, they will look at what they've done in the past; they will look at where they failed in the past, and then they will go to school on that, so they will be sitting somewhere right now thinking, well, this didn't work; what do we need to make it work?

And so, on the U.S. government side, we need to do the same thing. We need to, kind of, put ourselves in their heads and ask ourselves what would we do to get through the systems we've built? Because that's what they are doing now.

CROWLEY: Right. Well, Peter, I mean, I asked the secretary exactly that. I said, shouldn't we -- I feel as though we're always addressing the last terrorist incident, where, you know, somebody puts explosives in their shoes; we then take our shoes off, except for that's, sort of, the past and we need to, kind of, be moving forward.

Do you think that they're outfoxing us?

BERGEN: Well, I mean, of course they're trying to. PETN is a plastic explosive. It's not going to show up in a metal container. As John indicated, I mean, unless we search, including cavity searches, by the way, every passenger getting on a plane, that's the only way you can guarantee they don't have PETN on them.

CROWLEY: Doesn't this beg, then, for intelligence on the ground in these very places that you're talking about?

I know you've been in all of these countries, Peter. So is there a U.S. presence, be it in the form of informants, in these places that can help, kind of, reveal these things before they get to the point where we really can't detect them?

BERGEN: Well, I mean, there's -- you know, Yemen -- and John can address this better than I can, but, I mean, Yemen has been a subject of intense American interest since the USS Cole attack, and that was in October of 2000, before 9/11.

The problem is the government is -- it doesn't have great (inaudible) capability. You know, I mean, I think John can address the kind of intelligence cooperation that has existed.

CROWLEY: I mean, is there -- in these countries that seem so -- where, obviously, an American would stick out, are there people that are helping inform us on what's going on?

MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, absolutely. You know, one of the things we have to worry about, at this point, is all of the parts of the world that are essentially ungoverned or less governed. And those parts of the world are increasing. And Yemen is one of them. Peter has indicated there are problems in the north, problems in the south; the government doesn't have full control, the areas in Pakistan.

There are other parts of the South Asia, parts of Southeast Asia, parts of East Africa. And there is a very sizable and intense intelligence-gathering effort under way in those areas. This is a guy who got through. That's what I would emphasize to you. There are many people who don't get through. There are many people who are detected. There are networks that are disrupted.

CROWLEY: There are success stories somewhere; we just don't hear about them?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, of course you don't hear about them, but there are success stories.

And in the case of Yemen, I was mentioning to Peter earlier, after 9/11, when we had chased Al Qaida out of Afghanistan in early 2002, the place we thought they would go, other than the urban areas of Pakistan, was to Yemen, in part because large parts of the country are lawless, unpatrolled, ungoverned, receptive to extremist movements.

And so we made then a very sizable commitment to Yemen and made some progress for some years.

As Peter indicated, the Yemenis are difficult to work with. They don't have capabilities. They are dealing primarily with an effort to control their own country. And you have to keep your hands on that problem all the time or it will get away from you. I think the U.S. government's been doing that, but this guy got through.

CROWLEY: I want you both to stay put, because we are going to have much more with John McLaughlin and Peter Bergen after this break. "State of the Union" will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: You are watching STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Candy Crowley. But more importantly, I am back with John McLaughlin and Peter Bergen, both terrorism experts extraordinaire. We really appreciate your being here.

So let me see if I have this straight. You, Peter, really believe that this is part of something larger, this is just not what we call the lone wolf?

BERGEN: This is not some guy who, you know, got a recipe off the Internet and then nearly brought down this plane. By his own account he hooked up with al Qaeda in Yemen, I take that at face value. A PETN bomb, this is a military grade explosive. This is something that is complicated, some -- an experienced bomb-maker had to make it and then had to insert it in some way into his clothing.

He is part of a larger conspiracy and a larger conspiracy probably that is traceable to al Qaeda in Yemen.

CROWLEY: And what does that mean, a larger conspiracy? There are other people out there getting ready to do what he tried to do?

BERGEN: It's not implausible, Richard Reid, the so-called "shoe bomber," had a -- there was another shoe bomber, something that is forgotten, a guy called Saajid Badat, he got a case, as it were, of cold feet, did not go through with the attack. But he had the shoe bomb components in his house in England. And he is now in jail and he has got a 13-year prison term.

So it's not implausible without being a Chicken Little that this guy is not the only person with a PETN bomb somewhere in the world, and certainly this is a methodology which al Qaeda -- this almost succeeded. We are going to see a repetition of this in the future.

CROWLEY: So I think we could all agree it would be best if we could stop it in whatever country it's being put together. The question is, once somebody slips through and there was not the intelligence to stop him, is there a limit to where we can go at the gate, as it were? I mean, it seems to me, again, that every time something happens, there is a new form of security.

So what -- you know about, you know, privacy versus what law enforcement would like to do. MCLAUGHLIN: You know, I think the climate, Candy, in the last couple of years has been one of great controversy about intrusiveness into people's private lives, the tension between on the one hand your desire for security, on the other hand, your desire for privacy.

I think that -- hard to say and document, but I think that influences the way people in official positions think about their options in situations like this. I mean, if you were to inconvenience thousands of passengers over some suspicion you have, and then it turns out to have been wrong, that would be equally criticized.

CROWLEY: We would be here talking about it.

MCLAUGHLIN: We would be here talking about it. And so you've got to weigh that in mix here. And I think incidents like this may push that pendulum a little further over toward the end of the spectrum that says, you know, we would rather have security and maybe give up a little privacy.

CROWLEY: From what you can tell looking at this situation now, the CIA and the FBI and what they have done, what we know of, does it looks like they are communicating? Does it look like everybody knew the lists, and whose father went to what embassy? And can you tell anything looking at this?

MCLAUGHLIN: Yes. Well, you know, on that one, I think we need to know more. But my instinct at this point would be to say, yes, people are cooperating. If you look back at the Zazi case, for example, which you have discussed on camera many times, things worked well in that case.

So everyone communicates. In the case of this list that the fellow was on, my hunch is he was just put on it on a couple months ago, investigations were under way to determine whether there was sufficient cause to pursue that. You know, had this -- had those investigations gone on for a longer period of time, he might have been elevated to another list.

My hunch is though we don't know what his father said exactly, a concerned parent expresses issues.

CROWLEY: Well, I am a concerned parent but I probably would not go to a U.S. embassy to say, listen, I think he is really dangerous. I mean...

(CROSSTALK)

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, we still need to know exactly what he said.

CROWLEY: Yes, yes.

Peter, let me ask you, because you brought up Yemen, and -- both of you did and talked about how this seems to be a boiling cauldron at some level for al Qaeda, what does the U.S. -- is there anything the U.S. can do? I mean, it doesn't seem to -- I mean, we are in Afghanistan. We are trying to settle that down. Do we need to be there? Can we be there? What should the U.S. do?

BERGEN: Well, just last week there was a major strike by the Yemeni air force using intelligence garnered from the United States, and it took out two leaders of al Qaeda in Yemen, maybe 30 other al Qaeda members, maybe even the Yemeni-American cleric who was the inspirational leader behind the Major Hasan Fort Hood attack.

So I mean, the United States is doing quite a lot in Yemen. I mean, I don't think there is -- and of course, one of the issues here is the Guantanamo detainees, about half of them are Yemeni, and the United States has started to allow some of them to return.

But the kinds of -- you know, this incident may raise that issue as a potential problem, because Yemen al Qaeda detainees have escaped from Yemeni prison, you've now got, you know, perhaps an "al Qaeda-in- Yemen" operation, nearly bringing down an American airliner. And I think that Guantanamo release process is going to be complicated now by this story.

CROWLEY: In the end, is there any way to stop anybody from getting through, intelligence, getting through security? I mean, I sort of got the feeling -- you heard Secretary Napolitano say, well, you know, it was just one individual, but the fact of the matter is that one individual can spread a lot of terror, that being the whole point of being a terrorist.

So is there really nothing in the end that can be done more? Do you feel like, look, this is obvious, we need to do this?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I think the answer to that is a lot is done that stops a lot, but the whole point of terrorism is for one person to get through. And I don't think you can ever have a system that absolutely assures that one person will not get through.

You can tighten the system to the point where the odds of that diminish dramatically, but everyone politically and publicly has to decide, where do you want the balance to be between inconvenience and lack of privacy on one hand, and security and assurance on the other? And that -- that line is always moving. CROWLEY: Yes. And internationally, U.S. foreign policy, when you look at some of these trouble spots, doing everything we can do at this point? Or are there some obvious holes that you think the U.S. needs to do this?

MCLAUGHLIN: No. I think we are doing what we can do. And, you know, the 30,000 extra troops for Afghanistan that the Obama administration has signed on to, I mean, that is part of this.

Al Qaeda central -- I mean, if indeed this is traceable back to Yemen, and I think it is, this is the first example of an out-of-area operation by a Yemeni affiliate.

MCLAUGHLIN: It usually -- the attacks that are directed at the West, United States, are out of the tribal areas in Pakistan, this is something new.

But I think that, you know, to the extent that you -- that the handle can be put on this, that that handle is being put on it by the United States. But you know, obviously somebody will get through eventually. I mean, they almost did on Christmas Day.

CROWLEY: Absolutely. Peter Bergen, thank you very much, CNN terrorism analyst. John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA, that's why we call you to talk about this stuff. You were great, thanks.

Coming up, we will give you the latest information on another trouble spot. Violent clashes between protesters and security forces in Iran. Stay with us.

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CROWLEY: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. Tension are high in Iran. A massive crackdown is under way. Police are patrolling the streets of Tehran in an effort to put down anti-government rallies that have been popping up during a major religious observance. CNN's Reza Sayah is live from our international desk in Atlanta -- Reza.

REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Candy, once again widespread protests in the streets of Tehran, and clashes between security forces and members of the opposition movement throughout the day. And based on what we are hearing from witness accounts, these are some of the most intense protests we have seen in the last few months.

Very graphic video and pictures have been coming in to the Iran desk showing bloodied victims. Let's show you one of the pictures, we've pixelized this picture because it is graphic in nature. This picture purportedly shows one of the victims who was shot and killed, according to an opposition Web site during the protest on Sunday.

That Web site saying a total of three people were killed. Iran state-run news agencies deny anyone was killed during these protests, but based on what we're hearing from witnesses, what we're seeing with these graphic pictures, they tell a very different story. The intensity of these protests appear to be ratcheting them up. Let's look at some new video that is showing a sign that bears the name of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and there you see protesters who have ripped down that sign and kicking it.

Two things -- two major events really converged to make this day especially emotionally charged. First off, Sunday marks the seventh day after the passing of dissident cleric Ayatollah Montazeri, he passed last week. Of course, he was a fierce critic of the regime. In Shia Islam it is customary to remember someone's passing seven days after they have passed away.

Also on Sunday, it is Ashura, a major religious holiday in Shia Islam. It is a day in Iran where every year Shia Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, the revered prophet.

For the past 30 years the Islamic Republic of Iran, the government, has owned this particular holiday. They have used it to advance their particular cause. But today, Candy, it was the opposition movement who made its mark on this very important holiday -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Reza, we all know that revolution in most places begins on the streets, but they seem so outnumbered, certainly so outgunned. There is no help coming from the international community at least that we can see. What is, at least in the near future, the end-game here for these protesters?

SAYAH: Well, Candy, I wouldn't be so quick to say they are outnumbered. They certainly appear to be outgunned and out-muscled, but based on some of these pictures we are seeing, they are coming out en masse.

And what we are seeing are two sides that are digging in and not backing down. And at some point something has got to give. When that something gives, we don't know. But these are two sides that are determined and they are both getting to be more radical.

And we should note one thing that has come into the Iran desk, we are getting reports that the nephew of opposition leader, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, has been killed. Once again, these are unconfirmed reports that are coming in to the Iran desk.

Of course, the candidate in the disputed election on June 12th, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who has acted as an opposition leader for this movement, reports coming in that his nephew has been killed.

If indeed these reports are true, that will be big news. We will be following these events closely, Candy. We will bring you the latest when they become available.

CROWLEY: Reza, I know you will. Thank you so much.

Turning to another part of the globe, President Obama is waking up in Hawaii this morning. John King on another hardship tour, is going to take a behind-the-scenes look at Christmas in an island paradise.

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KING: Bette Midler there, "Mele Kaliki Maka." Maybe you did not know she was from Hawaii.

Well, the first family is off on Christmas break in Hawaii, where the 44th president was born back in August, 1961. This is his first Christmas as president and second holiday trip back home since winning the White House in last year's election.

Let's take a closer look. On the mainland, we say merry Christmas. In Hawaii, they say "mele kaliki maka." The average temperature in the mainland, a little chilly, 32.5 degrees. In Hawaii, 76 degrees. Be jealous there.

Here's what Santa looks like on the mainland. In the islands, well, he gets a board and shorts, even flip-flops.

In our "American Dispatch" this week, we traveled to Honolulu to retrace some of the young Barry Obama's steps and to take a peek at what it's like to celebrate Christmas in an island paradise.

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KING: It is home for the holidays, Hawaiian style. Santa and Mrs. Claus lounging barefoot by the water, flashing the shaka sign, aloha. There is no snow, but Christmas is nonetheless festive. Santa looks a little different here, not so round in the belly. And those board shorts might be a tad out of place in the North Pole, but the crowds still line up for pictures. And this is a scene played out around the world every Christmas season.

Plenty warm enough to indulge in ice cream for a holiday treat, and to stop at this Baskin Robbins is to also retrace presidential history. Locals say young Barry Obama worked here long before he switched to politics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a very small place. They know that he worked there. We lose some people there. They go in and start having ice creams, (inaudible).

KING: Jack Christensen (ph) thrilled the president and his family are celebrating Christmas in Hawaii. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody gets really excited. You know, local boy makes good. And the media plays it up and all that stuff. So it's a big event when he comes to town.

KING: And maybe big for business. Uncle Jack, as he prefers to be called, guides a walking tour of Obama's old Honolulu haunts. The hospital where the future president was born. The apartment building he called home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He lived with his grandparents, the Dunhams, in apartment 1008. So it's that building, the count down three, apartment is from the left end. That's where Barry Obama, as he was called at that time, lived with his grandparents.

KING: Around the corner, the courts where young Barry developed a passion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And they're important, because they really show the environment that he had and a greater advantage of other inner city kids. And we know this wide open space in the sunshine, and you realize he could play basketball almost any day of the year there.

KING: Punahou is another tour stop.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the heart of his adolescent development. This is the environment in which he got that great education. You can tell from reading his books that he had really good English teachers at Punahou.

KING: Students and teachers at the school now call the president an inspiration.

CALLA CHANG, JUNIOR AT PUNAHOU: You get this feeling like I can do whatever I want, and, you know, nothing is really going to hold me back.

KING: Kehaulani Kealoha-Scullion teacher social studies now, but remembers Barry Obama from her days as a student.

KEHAULANI KEALOHA-SCULLION, PUNAHOU TEACHER: I was always at basketball games. And I remember that he was always a team player. And even if he didn't start that game, that he was with the team. I remember him being funny, you know, doing antics on the court before the game and in warmup. That's what I remember most about him.

KING: The sun, the waves and breathtaking views are what bring the tourists here. But the Obama presidency adds a new wrinkle and new inventory for the souvenir shops. The president from Hawaii playing ukelele, or flashing the shaka sign with his surfboard. Aloha Hawaiian style, just in case you need a little something extra under the tree.

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KING: I brought a few home, you know. Mele kaliki maka. As you know, one of our goals is to get out of Washington as often as we can. We made it our pledge on "State of the Union" to travel to all 50 states in our first year. So far, we've been to 48. That leaves just two. Wyoming and Utah still to come. Check out CNN.com/stateoftheunion, where you can see what we've learned when we travel to your state.

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CROWLEY: I'm Candy Crowley and this is "State of the Union." John King is off. A 23-year-old Nigerian national is in federal custody this morning, charged with trying to bomb a Northwest Airlines flight. The jet was carrying 289 people when it was forced to land at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on Christmas Day after the suspect attempted to ignite an explosive device.

CNN is covering every angle of this story. This hour, we'll have reports from Michigan and Lagos, Nigeria.

CROWLEY: I want to begin with CNN's Deborah Feyerick. She's at the Detroit airport in Romulus, Michigan, with the latest on the investigation. Deborah?

FEYERICK: Well Candy, we can tell you that this investigation is at full speed. Authorities in half a dozen countries investigating who this guy met with, how he became radicalized and also how he was able to bring this explosive device onboard two planes as he traveled transatlantic here to the United States.

Now Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab detonated that explosive device onboard that Northwest passenger plane, 290 people onboard. The 23-year-old Nigerian, who witnesses say is very calm, very polite, looks more like a teenager, was raised in a very good family. His father, a former chairman of one of Nigeria's preeminent banks. The boy was studying mechanical engineering at one of London's top universities and living in a multimillion dollar apartment.

So, again, how did he go down this path? But his father did fear that he was going in the wrong direction. He even contacted the U.S. Embassy about three months ago when his son text messaged him that he was going to leave school in Dubai where he was studying and instead travel to Yemen. The father warning U.S. officials that he feared his son wanted to take part in some sort of jihadi operation.

Now Yemen is the place where the suspect allegedly got this device and learned how and when to detonate it. And those instructions which are contained in the criminal complaint, show that he took -- that he went into the plane's bathroom just as the plane was approaching the Detroit Airport. He was there for about 20 minutes. Got back to his window seat and then the device, which he tried to conceal with a blanket, then exploded.

Now quick thinking passengers were able to react quickly. They were able to subdue him and put out the flames. Clearly some very frightening moments onboard that plane. The suspect right now is at a local hospital. He is being treated for second and third degree burns. He is being charged with trying to bring down that plane. More charges clearly to follow including most likely attempted murder. Candy?

CROWLEY: Deb, pursuing the al Qaeda or possible al Qaeda connection now, has any more been said about that? Was the suspect saying anything? Have authorities looked into that and found anything to kind of back up his claim of an al Qaeda connection? FEYERICK: You know, and that's what's so interesting. When he was taken into custody, he immediately told authorities that he did have extremist affiliations. So right now the FBI and other authorities trying to track down exactly what that means. Did he have formal al Qaeda training? Did he train with some other similar terror group? They want to know that because, again, they're not sure whether this is the beginning of something or whether it's the end. And that's what they need to know. Candy?

CROWLEY: Deborah Feyerick in Romulus covering all the questions and the answers for us, thanks.

Now tonight, Christian Purefoy is in Lagos with details on the investigation there.

PUREFOY: Nigerian Airport authorities have now confirmed that Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a KLM flight from Lagos via Amsterdam to Detroit on the 24th of December. The ticket was bought in Accra, Ghana and paid for in cash. They say no contact details or telephone number were left during the purchase.

He was seen boarding the flight at about 8:30 local time and spotted carrying a shoulder bag. During the first leg of the journey from Lagos to Amsterdam, the suspect was in seat 20-B but later moved to seat 19-A from Amsterdam to Detroit. His father had previously reported him to the American embassy in Nigeria fearing he was becoming radicalized.

However, a security source we spoke to in the Nigerian Aviation Authority says that no one about by the name of Farouk Abdulmutallab was put on a high security list. Christian Purefoy, CNN, Lagos, Nigeria.

CROWLEY: Still, many, many questions unanswered including how about Abdulmutallab's managing to board that flight in Amsterdam with an explosive device, what additional steps should the U.S. be taking to thwart the terrorist threat?

Joining us now from San Francisco is Tom Fuentes. He is a former FBI assistant director of international operations. Just the guy I want to talk to because in a previous panel, we talked about how there's always can be one guy that slips by. And I asked what's going on on the ground in terms of a U.S. presence in some of these countries that seem to be sort of the boiling pot for some of this terrorism? So can you walk me through maybe what the FBI, the CIA might be doing in places where we're seeing some of this come from, Somalia comes to mind, and others?

TOM FUENTES, FORMER FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: OK. Candy, thank you. The FBI has 75 offices around the world, including Lagos in Nigeria and now Yemen. And work very closely with the law enforcement and intelligence services who are responsible for terrorism, organized crime, financial crimes, the whole array of issues that affect the U.S.

There's not enough presence. I spent my last 4.5 years in the FBI in charge of the Office of International Operations running that program. I can tell you it's a very bureaucratic struggle to increase a single agent, analyst, language specialist for every one of those offices going through a very arduous process in Washington to get the approval for each individual body, each individual office. I know that colleagues at Immigration Customs Enforcement and TSA within the Department of Homeland Security go through the same process of going through their departments, through the State Department, through the embassy, Office of Management and Budget, House Appropriations Committee. So this is a huge process to increase that presence.

The importance of it is that the rest of the world does not look at terrorism as a military problem or exclusively an intelligence problem. They believe it's a law enforcement issue. They believe that their law enforcement services -- which may include the intelligence services -- need to gather evidence, present it in court and prosecute these individuals.

And that's exactly what what's going to be happening in this case. We're asking the Nigerian authorities, the Yemeni authorities, the U.K authorities to do just that, gather information, gather intelligence, provide it to the United States so that the prosecutors in Detroit can use that in U.S. district court.

CROWLEY: So it sounds a little bit like you were and probably still have frustrated with the bureaucracy as well as maybe the lack of resources overseas for the FBI and others who are over there trying to help some of these countries combat terrorism?

FUENTES: Yes, that's true. And, again, talking to my colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies, they all face the same issue of wanting an increased presence in the embassies throughout the world so that they can improve, enhance the partnerships or in some cases create additional partnerships with those host countries services.

Much has been made in this case of the father supposedly going to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria. That has not been confirmed. Sources of mine said they're still trying to find what record was created if he actually did that, who he spoke to, who the information was disseminated with.

I can tell you in my last couple of years in the FBI of trying to increase the resources of the FBI to not just have an office in Lagos in the southern half but also to have an additional office in the capital, in Abuja, the U.S. Embassy there. So that's in process still of being created on a full-time basis.

And that's what it's going to take. The Nigerians are the ones that are going to have to submit the appropriate documents to telephone companies, Internet service providers to do all of the investigation that's going to be necessary. U.S. services do not have the authority to conduct independent investigations in sovereign countries. They need the partnership of that host country and that's established by being there every day, side by side, working with them and establishing the trust relationship before the plane falls out of the sky or the navy ship is blown up or the U.S. Embassy is attacked. We need those relationships. It takes people, it takes time, it takes money and we need the political will to actually do that. CROWLEY: One last question, Tom. Once someone slips through whatever is going on on the ground in some of these countries and comes to the magnetometers and the other searches that go on in an airport, is there anything more that you think should be done that you would put money into if you were running things?

FUENTES: Well, I'm not an expert in passenger screening or strictly aircraft security. Obviously, others have talked about the full body scans which people do not want to have implemented or full body searches which people are reluctant to allow or the mere efficiency of trying to do that.

No one else has mentioned the possibility that we haven't talked about the housekeeping people that clean that aircraft, the caterers that put food on it, the mechanics that had access to the storage bins above the passenger compartments. What if the material was already placed on that aircraft? No one even discussed that as a possibility yet.

CROWLEY: So lots of frightening possibilities. I'm not sure whether to thank you or not. But we certainly thank you for your expertise. Tom Fuentes, who is the former FBI assistant director of international operations. We really thank you.

FUENTES: You're welcome, Candy.

CROWLEY: Just ahead, we turn to Howard Kurtz and his "Reliable Sources" for a look at Diane Sawyer's first week as ABC's new nightly news anchor.