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CNN TONIGHT

Terror in Skies; Chaos in Iran; Mississippi Fires Kills Nine

Aired December 28, 2009 - 19:00   ET

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


ANNOUNCER: Tonight, al-Qaeda claims responsibility for the failed Christmas day attack on a U.S.-bound airliner. President Obama warned those behind the blast that the United States won't let the attempt go unanswered.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: We will continue to use every element of our national power to disrupt, to dismantle, and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us.

ANNOUNCER: Al-Qaeda said the attack was in retaliation for U.S. strikes in Yemen. CNN has learned that U.S. involvement in Yemen is deepening. What role does Yemen play in the war on terror?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war. That's the danger we face.

ANNOUNCER: A powerful explosive that's what authorities say the device aboard Flight 253 contained, so how did someone on a government watch list manage to get a visa and board a plane with a potentially deadly device?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

This is CNN tonight live from New York. Here now, John Roberts.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening and thanks very much for joining us. President Obama tonight warned those responsible for the failed Christmas day attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 that they will be found and held accountable.

The president also ordered a review of air safety procedures and the nation's watch list system. Al-Qaeda said the attack was in retaliation for U.S. air strikes in Yemen. Tonight there is rising concern that Yemen could be the next front in the war on terror.

We have extensive coverage of the investigation of the attack and its impact on the war in terror and we begin with Ed Henry who is traveling with the President. He's in Honolulu tonight.

Ed, why did the president wait three days to come out and speak to the American people about this incident?

ED HENRY, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, White House says it insists that the president doesn't like to jump right out there on terrorism issues and basically comment before all the facts are in, potentially alarming people, but also potentially giving more attention to terrorists.

But I can tell you that when Republicans first criticized the president for not speaking out sooner, White House says here Hawaii kept telling me the president didn't really need to come out, he was going to let others step out front and center, people like Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano.

But as you know, Janet Napolitano seemed to sort of slipped up yesterday on CNN and say that the system had worked, the president decided to come out. It was time to reassure the American people. He said he's ordered into investigations into figuring out what went wrong and also said he's beefing up aviation security.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: We will not rest until we find all who were involved and hold them accountable. This was a serious reminder of the dangers that we face and the nature of those who threaten our homeland. The American people should be assured that we are doing everything in our power to keep you and your family safe and secure during this busy holiday season.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Now very interesting that the president added the U.S. will not just beef up its defenses, but also will stay on offense against terrorists in places like Yemen. And as you noted, an affiliated al-Qaeda group today claimed responsibility for the attempted terror attack and said it was in retaliation for recent air strikes against al -Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

The U.S. has not confirmed involvement publicly in those air strikes, but it's clear from the president's comments today and from what we're picking up from the White House privately that they're sending a clear signal that they plan to keep the heat up on al-Qaeda, other terrorists in Yemen, John.

ROBERTS: Ed, you were also the first to report some police activity at the Obama family compound tonight there in Hawaii. What you can tell us about that?

HENRY: Quite a bit of drama because the president had to cut short a golf match and his motorcade was leaving the golf course very rapid speed to get back to his rental home here at the north side of Hawaii. Then reporters on the scene saw an ambulance leaving the scene and stepped up police and law enforcement presence, kind of a scary few moments.

It turned out that a child, a family friend of the Obama's who was staying at the compound basically fell, cut his chin. Initially they thought he'd need stitches. It turned out it wasn't even that, but enough concern because the president was playing golf with the father of this child. They wanted to get the motorcade over to the home and make sure everything was good. Things calmed down enough though that the president ended up resuming his golf game. We were told the first family is safe and sound, John.

ROBERTS: I imagine there was a lot of concern there. Ed Henry for us in Honolulu tonight. Ed, thanks so much.

Federal authorities tonight are trying to determine just how suspect, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab was allegedly able to bring an explosive device on board Flight 253. Our homeland Security Correspondent, Jeanne Meserve has been following the investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEANNE MESERVE, HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The failed Christmas day attack was in retaliation for alleged American strikes on terror targets in Yemen. According to a claim of responsibility purportedly from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

It hails as a great deed, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab's use of an advanced bomb, which got through security, quote, "defying the legend of American and international intelligence services." It also promises more attacks. A U.S. counterterrorism official says the statement appears to be authentic and it seems credible that the group had some involvement in the attempted attack.

The government of Yemen where al-Qaeda and the Arabian Peninsula operates says Abdulmutallab visited the country from early August to early September.

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: You do worry that next time the lesson they'll take from this is next time what we need is two or three guys on each plane and several planes so that we can have some assurance at least one them does blow up. So I'm not sure I would take a whole lot of comfort from it.

MESERVE: A law enforcement official says at least part of the explosive device on the Northwest flight was sewn into Abdulmutallab's underwear. Forensic analysis of how it was made and who made it is continuing. Intelligence officials say the U.S. was unaware of Abdulmutallab before November 19th when his father warned the U.S. embassy in Nigeria about his son's worrisome radicalization.

U.S. officials say the information was thin, limited, one of 100 such reports of suspicious activity, the U.S. receives every day and did not meet the threshold to put Abdulmutallab on the terror watch list. But critics say there was a failure to connect the dots including his use of cash to purchase a one-way ticket that he didn't check luggage And perhaps most importantly the British decision to deny him a visa last May.

RANDY LARSEN, THE INSTITUTE FOR HOMELAND SECURITY: I just don't believe that we'll ever have a scenario where we'll get more advanced warning of an attack on America. It's hard to imagine that this will happen. And yet we failed to put that information together. MESERVE: The Secretary of Homeland Security is admitting that existing systems failed and review is under way to see how watch list protocols and aviation screening can be improved.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MESERVE: Two prisoners released during the Bush administration from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility are among the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group claiming responsibility. Counterterrorism officials say they are still investigating just how tightly linked that organization really is with the attempted bombing, John.

ROBERTS: Certainly they would appear to want to be linked to it at the very least. Jeanne Meserve for us tonight. Jean, thanks so much.

As we reported, al-Qaeda today claimed responsibility for the attempt to detonate an explosive device aboard Flight 253. The group said the attempt was in retaliation for U.S. attacks on targets in Yemen. The Yemeni government today confirmed that the suspect in the Flight 253 attack was in Yemen for several months this year. Our Barbara Starr at the Pentagon tonight, she has the latest on Yemen's role on the war in terror.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: This is the front line in the new U.S. founded secret war against al-Qaeda terrorists in training camps here in Yemen. Al-Qaeda now claiming the attack against Northwest Airlines Flight 253 was in direct retaliation.

CNN has confirmed U.S. involvement is deepening in Yemen. In recent weeks, several air strikes, and al-Qaeda operative, you'll guises fellow fighters. A Yemeni official tells CNN shortly after this the man is killed in yet another raid. General David Petraeus sounded warnings months ago.

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS, U.S. CENTCOM COMMANDER: That's where al- Qaeda and the Arabian Peninsula has established its headquarters, this is a concern.

STARR: In recent months, both general Petraeus and John Brennan, President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, personally warned Yemen president that al-Qaeda was targeting his inner circle. A Senior U.S. official confirms to CNN that intelligence agencies and military special operations teams are helping Yemen, providing intelligence, training, and weapons.

U.S. officials say they gave Yemen intelligence on al-Qaeda targets but won't say if American warplanes or armed drones conducted the recent strikes. Senator Joe Lieberman offered one of the few public hints.

SENATOR JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I), CONNECTICUT: We have a growing presence there and we have to of special operations, Green Beret's intelligence. If we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war. That's the danger we face.

STARR: That's one reason the U.S. is so worried about the claims by the Northwest Airline suspect. He says he traveled to Yemen and was given bomb-making materials by al-Qaeda. Look at the map and you see the immediate potential for disaster.

Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen are within striking distance of Saudi oil facilities. Hundreds of vulnerable cargo ships past the coastline each year. One reason al-Qaeda has established Yemen as its safe haven, the government there is already battling tribal rebels in both the north and the south.

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.

STARR: A senior U. official tells CNN that Yemeni President Salih has grown more accepting than recent weeks of U.S. assistance that he understands now the situation in his own country fighting al- Qaeda has grown dire, John.

ROBERTS: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon tonight. Barbara, thanks.

The device carried on board Flight 253 reportedly contained a very powerful explosive. ABC News has obtained these exclusive photos tonight of the bomb that was allegedly in Abdulmutallab's underwear. PETN that's the chemical, that's in the same family as nitroglycerin.

It the same explosive that convicted terrorist Richard Reed tried to detonate on an American Airlines flight in December of 2001. You'll remember that the PETN explosive device was secreted in his shoes. Our senior international correspondent, Nick Robertson joins me now, and Nic, you've got a firsthand look at this explosive, and just how powerful it can be. How deadly could it be?

NIC ROBERTSON, SENIOR INTERNATION CORRESPONDENT: It could be very deadly and has been deadly in the past. It's been around for about 100 years. What we saw today was just a tiny amount of this explosive PETN, about enough to fill the cap of my pen here.

Put on a piece of aluminum about double the thickness of the skin of an aircraft and that tiny amount, much smaller than Abdulmutallab is alleged to have taken on that Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas day, and the detonation that we saw really pushed a big dent into this piece of metal.

We were told by the expert the amount of explosives he had on the plane would have definitely broken through the skin of the aircraft creating a large hole in the side of it. One of the other interesting features about this explosive is that it takes a lot to set it off. You need a detonator. You could wear it about your person, could you put it on the ground and hit it with a hammer and it won't go off.

It's very, very stable. So it's ideal material for somebody doing what he was alleged to do, which is carry it a long way on an aircraft, not worry about bumping into people. Not worry that it's about to go off when you least expect it, John.

ROBERTS: Nick, we're just looking at the pictures here of the demonstration, the gentleman there who's putting the PETN on that piece of aluminum. You say that that was about double the thickness of the aircraft skin. And there we see, the PETN with a detonator in it and you running away here from the explosion.

You said that if that had have gone off and we saw the explosion there, have blown its way through the side of the airliner. Could it have brought the airliner down? We've seen planes fly with substantial holes in them in the past. Would that have been a guaranteed kill or would it be left up to chance in?

ROBERTSON: You know what the experts are telling us it really depends just exactly what it ripped through, which direction would the blast have gone if it had hit some the sort of control of the aircraft, if it had been able to penetrate the fuel tank beneath it that was perhaps partially empty at that stage, that could have had an additional explosion. The best guess it could have been it hard to remain stable. It would definitely, definitely put it down, it's very hard to say, John.

ROBERTS: And Nick, you're also getting new information tonight on the al-Qaeda linked to the suspect in this case. What are you learning about that?

ROBERTSON: Well, they are telling us, and we don't know if it's true or not, that they put Abdulmutallab on the flight with this explosive device. And they call it an advanced bomb and they say they've tested it. And if you look at what we know about the bombs that have been used in that region.

The only place we've heard about PETN sewn into sort of some kind of underwear garment in the groin area being used was in Saudi Arabia by somebody who would come from Yemen to attack the deputy interior minister in Saudi Arabia injuring him slightly.

It was exceptionally a suicide attack. But is that what they're referring to, is this a genuine claim that they tested it there and they knew it was safe to put on aircraft? Clearly they're claiming that this is one up for them, that they've been able to figure out a way to get around airport security services and the threat is that there's more people who have the training or the equipment who are ready, willing and able and capable to go ahead and use these devices elsewhere, John.

ROBERTS: All right, difficult to know if security here is playing catch-up or can actually get one step out in front of these people. Nic Robertson tonight. Nic, thanks so much.

We'll be following developments throughout the night here on CNN. Nic is going to have much more on all of these tonight on "AC 360."

Tonight, President Obama is condemning the latest government crackdown in Iran saying history is on the side of the protesters. Thousands of demonstrators poured on to the streets of Tehran and other major city this is weekend to dispute President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection. Joining us with more on the unrest in the international condemnation of Iran's government, CNN contributor, Reza Sayah. Reza, we've also got some breaking news tonight on a high profile arrest there in Iran.

REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, there are all sorts of indications that while in this major political crisis, Iran's hard line leadership is engaging in a campaign of intimidation and repression by going after anyone they deem to be part of the opposition movement by arresting them.

And we have a high profile arrest tonight, this time Iranian officials detaining the sister of world renowned Iranian human rights lawyer and activist Shirin Ebadi, of course, the winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace prize. We just got off the phone with Mrs. Ebadi. She's obviously concerned about her sister's arrest.

Her sister knew she was living in an apartment in Tehran according to Mrs. Ebadi with her husband and two sons when around 9:00 p.m. local time on Monday night, a little more than six hours ago, Mrs. Ebadi says that three individuals and a woman from the Ministry of Information came to her home, they searched her home and eventually detained her and also confiscated her computer.

Mrs. Ebadi tells us that her sister is not politically active, she's not a member of the opposition movement, and she believes she was detained in order to intimidate her, but she is telling us and there you see a picture of the Nobel Peace prize winner, but she tells us she doesn't plan to stop her human rights work outside of Iran. She's been outside of Iran ever since the disputed election on June 12th, John.

ROBERTS: All right, Reza Sayah. Thanks so much.

When we come back, airline security measures, they didn't prevent an explosive device from being wrought on board Flight 253. Is there any way to keep the skies safe? >

And the president's response to the failed attack. Why did he wait three days to weigh in on a matter of such importance to the American people? Those stories coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: If you fly you know drill, take off your shoes, your jacket, your belt, empty your pockets, take your computer out of your bag, but liquids in three ounce containers and make sure that they're on a quart size plastic bag. Well, despite all of that security, someone almost pulled off an active mass murder aboard an airplane. As Louise Schiavone reports for us now that is leading the calls for sweeping changes in airport security tonight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LOUISE SCHIAVONE (voice-over): Shoes off, jackets off, laptops and wallets through x-ray machines. Even after all of these procedures failed to catch a terror suspect flying into Detroit on Christmas day, we found passengers are still ready to do their part.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've always been welcome to having my shoes taken off.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't mind if they pat me down, I really don't. I'm flying with my wife and kids, my mom. Whatever they need to do. I'm not too worried about the invasion of privacy. Safety should come first.

SCHIAVONE: Despite the screenings and despite the administration recently signed off on security arrangements at the Lagos Nigeria Airport, 23-year-old Nigerian Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab flew freely from Lagos to Detroit allegedly intending to blow up his plane.

The suspect has been rejected for a British visa according to some reports and he was placed on a U.S. terror watch list as a potential threat, but only after he had been approved for travel to the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It doesn't sound like all is well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I feel like security is lacking. If we have a watch list, it's because we should be on top of that.

SCHIAVONE: Tom Blank is a former TSA official.

TOM BLANK, TSA FORMER DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR: The threat is real and the threat is continuing. And this better a lightning volt that will jolt us awake and come to the realization that we are not putting the resources to aviation security that we need to put to it and that we have to recalibrate how security relates to our privacy consideration.

SCHIAVONE: Bill McGlashen is a flight attendant with U.S Air and a spokesman for the Association of Flight Attendant representing 50,000 members across 20 airlines.

WILLIAM MCGLASHEN, ASSOCIATION OF FLIGHT ATTENDANTS: You can't have a missing link in security. You cannot. If you do, this is what happens. And we have not really secured all of those links yet.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHIAVONE: John McGlashen says that Congress needs to mandate compulsory, advanced aviation security training for flight attendants and yes, he says passengers should still take off their shoes and jackets for airport security, John.

ROBERTS: The failed attack on Flight 253 raises critical questions about airport and America's ability to keep an eye on terrorists. Joining me now is Larry Johnson. He is the CEO and co- founder of Berg Associates. It's an international consulting firm. He's a former deputy director of the state's department counter terrorism office.

Larry, great to see you. This all raises a question. Eight years after 9/11, how much better are we at screening people who go aboard aircraft?

LARRY JOHNSON, CEO, BERG ASSOCIATES: We're better than before 9/11, but let put it in the right context. This is 15 years after al- Qaeda made its first effort successful to put a bomb on the plane, that was Ramzi Yousef, the bomber of the first World Trade Center in1993.

In December of '94, he took components on board a Philippine Airline flight, built it in the bathroom, placed it under a seat, got off at the next stop, plane took off and blew up in midair. So we've known about this threat for 15 years and it's stunning that despite knowing that even to this day there is no effective technological solution in place at the airports for passenger screening in terms what have a passenger takes on board a plane and for carry-on luggage that would prevent a bomb. That's sad reality.

ROBERTS: So you're saying that there's nothing in the existing system that could have prevented this fellow from bringing this on board?

JOHNSON: Nothing that's required and in place. There are a variety of systems, two basic types. One called trace detector, basically think of a dog's nose. It sniffs out elements left over. The problem with the trace detector, though, is that someone who is skilled can package it in such a way that you will not pick up the trace elements of the explosive.

The other one is a bulk detector, something like the CT scan used right now for checked baggage. That has a little bit better success and there's still some limitations there. The point is that since 9/11, we have put this place professionals it at the security check points, that's a good thing. They have required to x-ray and submit and look for explosives in checked baggage. But if the passenger boarding spots, that's still a massive vulnerability and there's no quick fix to it.

ROBERTS: Let's look at the progression of airport security. After 9/11, you cooperate take on board any sharp objects for fear that hijackers might take over the crews as they did at 9/11. Then Richard Reed comes along, you have to take off your shoes. And then these people come along trying to get liquid explosives on aircraft. Now you're limited to amount of explosives. Goodness know what is eventually will come out of this latest attack. It always seems like we're preparing for the last attack as opposed to the next one. Are we simply playing catch-up here or are we simply react something.

JOHNSON: We're not even playing catch-up. I disagree with you in the sense, I go back to the Pan Am 103 bombing when I first started at the U.S. State Department in the counterterrorism office. It took us from 1988 until 2001 to start putting in place requirements to screen checked baggage for explosives.

That was over 13 years. And now we've had since 1994 where we know a person, an al-Qaeda operative, brought a bomb on board and we still have not put in place the technologies at those check points that can prevent it. I don't even not sure we're reacting. This is not waiting until the horse escapes the barn. We wait until the horse escapes, the barn is burnt to the ground and then we run around saying quick, somebody, capture the horse.

ROBERTS: Earlier today you were talking about the idea of the U.S. government need sing some sort of Manhattan project style of program to come up with new technology at the airport. You can detail some of that for us?

JOHNSON: There's been a little bit of that effort at FAA, but there has not been -- you've not marshaled the resources of all the national laboratories. We have an enormous network of national laboratories across this country initially in place to build nuclear weapons and prepare to deal with the Soviet threat.

That threat's gone away. These national labs have been looking for a mission in life. The one thing that no president has done, not President Clinton, not President Bush or not President Obama yet, have marshaled those national laboratories and say let put a Manhattan project together to develop viable technology that will detect explosives that people can hide on bodies. The good news we face is that foreign lit al-Qaeda guys are fairly incompetent at this.

ROBERTS: All right, Larry Johnson, thanks so much.

Coming up tonight, much more on that failed Christmas day terror attack and a father says he missed five years of his son's life and just wants to be called dad. We'll have the latest on this father and son reunion. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: An apartment fire in Starkville, Mississippi killed nine overnight and so far no one knows what caused it. Among the victims six children ranging an age from four months to six year old. The fire broke out before dawn around 4:00 a.m. Firefighters say the flames spread so quickly, there was little time for the victims to escape to safety.

In Florida, a father and so that are together again after years of separation. They are back in the United States after a bitter international custody battle that took five years to resolve. The child is nine years old now. The boy's mother took her son to her mate difference Brazil, divorced his father, remarried, and then died last year during the birth of another child. Her family fought ferociously for custody of the boy. Eventually the Brazilian supreme court cheered the way for little Sean's return.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's very real. There he is, there's my boy. Who has grown a foot. He's a big boy. But it is very real because he's here and I can hold him now and I can hug him and I can tell him and look him in the eye how much I love him. It's the rebirth of our family.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ROBERTS: His father says is he still waiting to hear one hinge for his son Sean to call him dad. Father and son are staying with relatives in Orlando. David Goldman says, he's not said at least when he's going to bring Sean back home to New Jersey.

Turning now to the economy and some good news for retailers. Holiday shoppers spent a little bit more this year. According to numbers released by MasterCard Adviser Spending Pulse, retail sales rose 3.6% from November 1st through December 24th. The boost was led by electronic sales which were up almost 6%. Online sales saw a large increase as well, up 15.5%, but online sales make up only a small percentage of all retail sales.

Coming up, President Obama speaks out about the attempted terror attack, but critics say he should have done that much sooner. And days after a man managed to smuggle explosives on to a flight, the president says security has been enhanced. But are the new security measures enough?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: The president today warned that the United States will respond aggressively to terrorism. The president spoke today from his vacation residence in Hawaii. It was the first time since the Christmas day incident that the president addressed the American public. Our senior political correspondent Candy Crowley joins us.

Candy, why did it take three days for the president to come out and talk to the American people will all this?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Obama administration spokesmen have told our Ed Henry who is out in Hawaii with the president that at first they said we just don't see the need for the president to be out there, that Janet Napolitano, homeland security secretary is out there, the communications spokesman, Robert Gibbs, would be out there and the president didn't feel the need to reach to the microphones. They also talked about how it would elevate the act if the president spoke to it. Nonetheless three days later, he came out and said much of what he might have been able to say in the first 24 hours and as you know, he took some hits for it, not just from Republican, but we're now seeing Democrats publicly say he really should have come out in that first 24 hours simply to reassure the flying public and the American public that he was doing everything he could be doing as a fairly simple message. And there are people who think that the president is not quite yet comfortable first in the arena, the foreign policy arena, and point out that, in fact, when the president was a candidate, as you remember Russia invaded Georgia and it took a couple days for then candidate Obama to make a statement about it, whereas John McCain was out early and made an issue of the fact that candidate Obama had not come out and talked. So a lot of people thinking he could have used his presidential power for reassurance in the last 24 hours. But on the other hand, I don't think a month from now two months from now we're going to care too much how long it took him to come out.

ROBERTS: One statement that did get a lot of attention that you highlighted on state of the union was from the homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano. You were pressing her on a particular point and her answer seemed a little unusual. Let's play that and then we'll talk about that exchange on the back side.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: If it was properly screened and get on anyway with that, it doesn't feel that safe.

JANET NAPOLITANO: 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 could actually have been done with whatever substance he had. Those are all undetermined issues right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: The point that you were talking to her about was her statement that the system seemed to work in this case. What did you make of all that?

CROWLEY: Well, I made of all of it that she came out with one message, and that was to say that we just want you to know that the system worked, we notified the planes that everything was okay. But in fact it got sort of tumbled around in her words. You hear her say it's just one individual out of thousands. Well, of course it only takes one individual. She said it worked and he was stopped. Well, he was stopped because his bomb didn't work and people were willing to leap over airline seats to wrestle him to the ground. So it was I think one of the reasons that people could point to and say this is why the president should have been out there because, number one, when they put him out there on jobs or the economy or anything they say the president's you're best spokesman. Well, yes, is he. So it's not just the office of the commander in chief. This is a man particularly blessed with rhetorical powers who could have so easily talked reassuringly as he did today, in essence given much the same speech he gave today, without having someone else out there who obviously had to come back and clean up a little what she'd said.

ROBERTS: All right. Candy Crowley for us tonight. Thanks.

Joining us now for more on the attempted terrorist attack is Fred Burton, the author of "Ghost, Confessions of a Counter Terrorism Agent." Fred Burton is one of the world's foremost experts on corporate security, terrorists and terrorist organizations.

Fred, good to have you with us. Are you surprised that eight years after 9/11 a terrorist was able to walk through security with a bomb attached to his person?

FRED BURTON, EXPERT ON COUNTER-TERRORISM: John, I'm not surprised in the least. We've been following the developments of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and first reported in September this innovative kind of improvised explosive device that they were working on. So in essence this comes to no surprise to me in the least. ROBERTS: Al Qaeda bragged today in an e-mail posting or web posting that it had been testing a new type of explosive designed to get through security and bragged about the fact that had Abdulmutallab was able to get through security. Does this represent a whole new level of threat to the United States?

BURTON: Well, when you look at this as my colleague Larry Johnson mentioned earlier on your program John, this is a challenge when it comes to securing an aircraft. In essence a sophisticated bombmaker can set back and look at this as a proof of concept kind of run, very similar to the Richard Reed case. Al Qaeda wants to see what will work and they're able to sit back and design an improvised explosive device to get through the system. So in essence this proof of concept did not work, but it came very close at being successful. I think they had a firing train malfunction with the design of this device, but to be blunt, it's pretty fright anything.

ROBERTS: So what do the terrorists do now, do they look at this and say this attempt didn't work, we had a problem with the construction of the device, let's go back and refine it, let's go back and make it a little more sophisticated and try again?

BURTON: Yes, in essence that's what they would do. But remember we've had a series of strikes in Yemen which has eliminated many high value targets within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And with any luck, the bombmaker was taken out in those strikes. Time will tell. But if the bombmaker is on the loose, I'm afraid we'll see a modification and the next time they possibly could get it right.

ROBERTS: What about connection between al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Guantanamo Bay detention facility? Because at least a couple high ranking members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula went through Guantanamo, were released from Guantanamo, went through a terrorist retraining program in Saudi Arabia and ended up back plotting terrorist attacks again. Can we expect that there are more people like that out there?

BURTON: Well, I think there are more out there as evidenced by this attack here on this inbound flight to Detroit. But let's look at the success recently with the strikes in Yemen. The body count is still not in, but we think that numerous al Qaeda in the Iranian peninsula high value targets were eliminated about.

ROBERTS: Fred, good to have you with us. Thank so much for sharing your expertise.

BURTON: Thank you for having me on.

ROBERTS: Coming up, more on the failed Christmas day terror attack. A classmate tries to make accepts for his friend's arrest.

And the war on the border, dropping nationwide, but there is one glaring and violent exception.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ROBERTS: One man who knew the passenger accused of trying to blow up the Detroit-bound flight says he was stunned by the news. He called the suspect a peaceful and devoutly religious man. Mary Snow spoke with a classmate of the suspect.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Mokedi is having a hard time making sense of how his former schoolmate Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab could now be a suspected terrorist. Mokedi, who's from Nigeria, is seen here as a student, went to the same school as Abdulmutallab in the West African nation of Togo. When you first heard this news, what was your reaction?

EFEMENA MOKEDI, FORMER CLASSMATE OF ABDULMUTALLAB: I was shocked, and I was surprised and I didn't believe it until I saw more photographic images that showed -- this was a student I went to school with. So once I saw that, I was like, man, this is unbelievable, out of this world. We would have never guessed, you know.

SNOW: What was he like?

MOKEDI: He was a peaceful person, you know, a friendly person, sociable, and someone, if you had a problem you could always go and talk to. He was always willing to help students. A lot of teachers in the school liked him, because he was an intelligent kid.

SNOW: Was he a religious kid?

MOKEDI: Religion was a key aspect of his life, and he was someone, you know, that always prayed and followed the traditions of his religion.

SNOW: Was there anything that he ever talked about that made you think he was a radical?

MOKEDI: No, never.

SNOW: Mokedi, who's 20, says he last saw Abdulmutallab in 2007, when Mokedi left Nigeria to come to the U.S. He described the boarding school he attended with Abdulmutallab in Togo as a small elite school. He says while the two mostly talked about basketball, they sometimes did discuss religion. Mokedi is a Christian, and says he did ask Abdulmutallab questions about negative perceptions about Islam.

MOKEDI: What we saw on TV, they were being portrayed as bad people. That's what led me to curiosity even to talk to him and ask him, is it true? He said, no, do I value coming to a school with a bomb or something. No, it was always peace. That's the main philosophy of general is about Islam.

SNOW: Mokedi says in the last few days he's been keeping in touch with former schoolmates on Facebook.

MOKEDI: They were all shocked, some of them were terrified. Some of them didn't want to talk about it. Some were like I can't believe it. Some of them are like this is unbelievable. Some of them said I don't even want to believe that it's him.

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SNOW: Mokedi says he last saw Abdulmutallab this 2007 and never kept in touch with him after that.

ROBERTS: So you said that some of the people he's been keeping in touch with on Facebook are terrified by this whole thing. How does he feel?

SNOW: Absolutely in disbelief. He says he cannot fathom his former friend being a suspect at this point. But is he scared, as well.

ROBERTS: Mary Snow for us, thanks.

Abdulmutallab never passed through any security checkpoint in this country. He boarded the Detroit-bound plane in Amsterdam. Tonight airports across this country are reviewing their procedures to prevent a similar attack. CNN Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence is in Michigan tonight. That's the destination of Flight 253 and he joins me now.

Chris, what are airport officials doing to beef up security measures tonight?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well John, if you're flying on a domestic flight, the differences you'll see are more law enforcement personnel in the airport, also more of those bomb-sniffing dogs around the security area. And an increase in gate screening. That's when you get to the gate and they pull certain people out of line to check their carry-on bags. It's a secondary screening method.

If you're flying internationally, a U.S. official is now telling us that the TSA has already revised at least part of its new directive. They hastily put into place right after that Christmas day, they hastily put into place a new one hour rule that says within an hour of landing, you can't get out of your seat, you can't have a blanket on you, they have to disable all those in-flight entertainment systems if they contain that movie map display because they didn't want passengers to know exactly where they were in the flight pattern and how close they were to landing. So now it's being left up to the crew's discretion whether or not enforce that.

As to the items Abdulmutallab snuck on to that plane, some say that yes a physical search of him might have picked that up, but that search may have been more intrusive than a normal search that is done today. Also, body scanners which are those big machines where you walk through it and it takes the x-ray, that also may have picked it up. The TSA announced that it's just bought about 150 more of those, but those cost about $100,000 a pop. So it's expensive and they're only used in about seven airports right now.

ROBERTS: Chris Lawrence for us outside the Detroit airport; Chris, thanks.

Coming up, violent crime in the United States is dropping, but an all out drug war if raging across our border with Mexico.

Later on, actor Charlie Sheen spends part of his Christmas in police custody. We'll have all of the details and some of the 911 tapes from the incident. Stay with us.

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ROBERTS: Drug-related violence in Mexico is rising with some areas referred as war zones. Violence on the U.S. side of the border however is declining. But as Bill Tucker now reports, while this is good news, the battle with the drug cartels is far from over, and we should warn you his report containing very graphic images.

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BILL TUCKER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: More than 15,000 people have been killed in Mexico since its president, Felipe Calderon, engaged federal troops in the war against drug cartels three years ago. The violence shocking and graphic. Earlier this year it was the focus of hearings in Washington where lawmakers expressed concern about its impact on the United States.

REP. LORETTA SANCHEZ (D), CALIFORNIA: The United States and this Congress cannot ignore our role in assisting our neighbor and ally in this fight and, of course, in preventing that violence from slipping into the United States.

TUCKER: But the latest FBI crime statistics show violence for now at least is not slipping over but dropping in cities on the U.S. side of the border. The number of murders in Brownville, Texas, Laredo, Texas, Tucson, Arizona and San Diego California are lower. The head of the southwest border's sheriff's coalition credits the decline to several factors. Increased patrols by local law enforcement, greater cooperation between local and state police and successful interaction with federal agencies like the U.S. border patrol. But this sheriff from Texas warns --

SHERIFF SIGIFREDO GONZALEZ, JR., SOUTHWESTERN BORDER SHERIFF'S COALITION: We're seeing an increase in assaults against police officers on the border. They're ramming our vehicles and our officers are getting shot at. The violence is still there.

TUCKER: Just this weekend a border patrol agent was shot and wounded while on patrol in Arizona. One long time observer of politics in Mexico says he sees drug violence in Mexico intensifying and becoming more of a threat to the U.S.

GEORGE GRAYSON, AUTHOR, "MEXICO: NARCO-VIOLENCE AND A FEDERAL STATE": They're the ex-army Special Forces who have gone to the dark side and now have the meanest, leanest cartel in the country. So I wouldn't be surprised to see more blood-letting as they try to take over the turf that was once occupied by the Beltre Lavos.

TUCKER: Congress has agreed to help fund Mexico's war against the cartels voting to commit $1.3 billion to the fight.

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TUCKER: However, according to a report at the beginning of December, only a fraction of the money that's been allocated has been spent. The head of the Southwest Border Sheriff's Coalition thinks at least some of that money should be funded to local law enforcement in the United States to help fund their efforts, John, to keep the violence out of here.

ROBERTS: But bottom line is you can't really reduce crime to any great degree on this side of the border without cooperating with the Mexicans on their side?

TUCKER: That is true. At least that's the theory and the thinking. If they can get it under control, it makes it easier to keep it under control on this side of the border.

ROBERTS: Bill Tucker, thanks so much.

Coming up at the top of the hour in for Campbell Brown tonight is Rick Sanchez. He's with us now with a sneak preview of what's coming up. Hi Rick.

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to be looking at a lot of stuff having to do with this attempted terrorist attack on the United States. You know, we're going to start with what everybody wants to know about, PETN. This is about 80 grams of a substance that looks like it. You will seek where the line is, where my finger is. What is it? What can it do? How is it detected? We're going to ask all of questions that many Americans want answered tonight.

Also, one of the most important questions that Americans want answered tonight, why wasn't this guy put on the no-fly list?

Also tonight, one of the top TV actors, top paid guys in all of Hollywood is being charged with two felonies. We're going to tell you what it is and what happened. John, back to you.

ROBERTS: What does he make, $825,000 an episode for "Two and a Half Men?"

SANCHEZ: That's a lot of mullah.

ROBERTS: All right. Rick, see you tonight.

Coming up four minutes from now. Still ahead on this program, a belligerent Ivana Trump is escorted off a plane in Florida. We'll tell you what she did to deserve that, coming up next.

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ROBERTS: Actor Charlie Sheen was arrested in Aspen, Colorado on Christmas day. His wife Brooke Mueller called 911 claiming that Sheen had a weapon and was threatening her.

BROOKE MUELLER: My husband had me...with a knife...(inaudible) for my life and he threatened me.

OPERATOR: OK. Are you guys separated right now?

MUELLER: Yes, right now we have people that are separating us, but I have to file a report.

OPERATOR: OK. Are there people there? Does he still have the knife?

MUELLER: Yes, he still does.

OPERATOR: And what's your husband's name?

MUELLER: It's Charlie Sheen.

ROBERTS: Sheen was arrested on suspicion of assault and criminal mischief and released on bond. He's due in court on February 8th. Prosecutors say they will then decide whether or not to press charges.

Reality TV star Jon Gosselin's New York apartment was vandalized but was it nothing more than a publicity stunt? Gosselin claims furniture was smashed and electronics stolen and a note stuck to the dresser with a butcher knife and he has hinted his ex-girlfriend is to blame. The attorney for his ex says she's being framed and this is nothing more than a publicity stunt. The Gosselin's attorney says they plan on pursuing felony charges.

Police in Florida say Ivana Trump was belligerent and had to be escorted off a plane. Authorities say children were running up and down the aisles, and Trump started to curse at them. When flight attendants tried to calm her down, she grew even angrier. Sheriff's deputies then asked her to leave the plane but she refused. She was eventually escorted off of the aircraft. No charges have been filed at this time.

That's going to wrap it up for us. Thanks for being with us tonight. Please join us again tomorrow evening, and I'll see you bright and early tomorrow on "AMERICAN MORNING" on 6:00 a.m.

Next in for Campbell Brown, Rick Sanchez.