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CNN BREAKING NEWS
International Security Alert Issued; President Obama Confirms Packages Held Explosive Materials; Obama: "Credible Terrorist Threat Against Our Country "; Gibbs, Brennan Hold Briefing on Explosives in Suspicious Packages
Aired October 29, 2010 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: We're continuing our coverage of this breaking news. Suspicious packages found in the U.K., also in Dubai. An Emirates Airlines plane recently touched down in New York at JFK airport and is being checked out by the authorities, the FBI, the Port Authority there, out of an abundance of caution.
In fact, we just got word from an official with Emirates Airlines saying the escort of U.S. fighter jets was due to an abundance of caution from earlier events from Dubai and London. He said no evidence of any tangible threat. Obviously the plane is being checked out as you can see there at JFK.
Also, we are awaiting an address from the U.S. president, Barack Obama, to all of this news today. And he's going to be doing that from the White House in the briefing room. That's where we find Dan Lothian, White House correspondent.
Dan, we're told it's not going to be a long address.
DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, just a few comments from the president lasting, we're told, between three to five minutes, expected to come out here at quarter after the hour.
We had been told that the president or someone else would be making some remarks, and then that official word came a short time ago. After the president makes his statements here in the briefing room, then the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, will come out here and brief reporters, along with John Brennan, the president's top counterterrorism adviser, giving more details about this investigation.
To remind a bit, the president first learned about this terror plot at 10:35 last night. At that time, he directed both his intelligence and law enforcement agencies to first of all, make sure that the American public was safe, and then also figure out whether or not this was part of a wider threat. Since that time, the president has continued to get updates from his national security team.
What is interesting thing about all of this is that, even though the president did learn of this last night, it did not interrupt his schedule, at least his public schedule. This morning, he still went out to a Maryland event which was focused on the economy. And he still plans to do a campaign event -- event, rather, tonight in Virginia and then, of course, has a busy schedule this weekend, while at the same time, his national security team continues to monitor and deal with this crisis.
HOLMES: Yes, and we're also looking to hear from the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, John Brennan. Might he be talking about potential changes to the sort of security that Americans in particular and people around the world might be facing?
LOTHIAN: That's right. We expect that that will happen.
But first and foremost is what you will hear, some additional details perhaps about this investigation, and also what the administration has been doing and will continue to do to make sure that Americans are kept safe.
I mean, this administration from day one has talked about how this terrorist threat continues to be very real. And while the polling will show that this is not top in the minds of most Americans, I think what most people care about right now across the country is the economy. But, nonetheless, terrorists always continues to be a major threat. This administration has talked a lot about it. We will talk more about that in a few minutes as well.
HOLMES: Yes. And we will be hearing from you afterwards. Thanks very much, Dan Lothian, White House correspondent -- Fred.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: All right. As we await the comments from the president of the United States, we want to reach out to Diane Feingold, who -- Feinstein -- Feinstein -- who's also on the phone with us right now. She's the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
So give me your reaction, Senator, to all that is taking place.
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA (via telephone): Well, I have been briefed by Mike Leiter, who is head of the Counterterrorism Center, and by David Grannis. He's our staff director.
And essentially what I know is pretty much what has been reported. And that is that there were two at this point not precisely identified, but believed to pseudo-explosive devices that were one found in Dubai and one in the United Kingdom, and that the information about this came from a bona fide source and was traced and tracked, and they found the packages. One was UPS. And the other was FedEx.
I was told that they were headed to a synagogue in Chicago. Obviously, they did not get into the United States. So, that's the good news. I think an (INAUDIBLE) look is being taken at packages. This is a novel, new thing, and that is using FedEx and UPS planes to perhaps bring in something that might be explosive.
But, at this point, I asked my people specifically. They could not be specific that this, in fact, was an explosive device. WHITFIELD: But it sounds as though you believe, just like many other analysts who have been on the air with us, believe that this was indeed a dry run. If that's the case, what is being learned from this as it pertains to what better security measures might want to be put in place in this country or perhaps even with our allies abroad to make sure that the next try is not successful with a real explosive device?
FEINSTEIN: Well, I think that's a very good question.
And chain of things will no doubt be put in play with respect to the inspection of packages that are shipped through FedEx, through UPS, through other delivery services, to see that nothing that is actually explosive can be moved in this manner.
It could well be a dry run. I have no evidence of that, though. But obviously if somebody goes to the extent to try to fabricate a weapon for some reason or other, you have got to look at it as a potential dry run and I think take some additional steps to look at packages more seriously.
WHITFIELD: California Senator Dianne Feinstein, thanks so much for your time. Appreciate that.
FEINSTEIN: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you. Bye-bye.
HOLMES: All right, let's go to homeland security Jeanne Meserve, who's standing by I believe in Washington as we wait for the president to speak in -- at the White House in the next few minutes, less than 10 minutes.
So let's have a bit of a chat, Jeanne.
From your perspective, too, I would like to talk a little bit about the screening that goes on. What sort of level of screening is done for packages that actually arrive in the United States? This was found in the East Midlands near Birmingham in the U.K. and also in Dubai. So obviously what was not picked up in Yemen was picked up there. What would be picked up once the plane lands in the United States?
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Michael, I'm sort of trying to connect a couple of dots here.
But what I think happened in this particular instance is that there was some very specific intelligence which was passed to the United States by an ally which related to these specific packages which were addressed to synagogues in Chicago. And that is how they were able to find these. It wasn't screening that caught them. It's that they had this very specific piece of intelligence.
Cargo screening has been a very contentious issue over the years. There have been members of Congress who have been complaining for years that there isn't adequate screening of cargo, a lot of attention, of course, being given to passengers. But there are some who have said, you know, passengers can be sitting with a bomb under their feet and no one would know it because of the level of screening that's being done on cargo.
Now, there have been new rules. There was a deadline this summer that was put in place for cargo screening. There's supposed to be a 100 percent look at cargo going on to the aircraft. I'm not actually totally certain how the implementation of that has gone at this point in time.
HOLMES: Badly, apparently, Jeanne. I actually just got a note. Apparently, it's 60 percent it's running at, 60 percent. It's meant to be 100 percent.
MESERVE: Well, you know, it's a highly problematic thing to screen this, because stuff often comes to an airport in a big pallet. And the screening of this can present some sort of technological challenges. And then there are people who debate, well, what's really screening? Is it enough to walk a dog past one of these things and see if they pick up the scent of explosives or do you have to run them through some sort of machine?
If you're going to insist that it has to be machines, those are expensive. Where does the screening take place? Does it take place at the shipping facility or does it take place at an airport? There are a whole bunch of issues here, not to mention the fact that some of this cargo is sensitive and they have to move it quickly.
I know I did a story several years ago about them shipping exotic animals out of Florida. And shippers down there were very upset that the thought of tropical fish or snakes or whatnot sitting on a hot tarmac potentially while they were waiting for screening. So this has been a very thorny and frankly a very contentious issue for some time.
HOLMES: Good information. Thanks for that, Jeanne -- Jeanne Meserve there in Washington.
Of course, we're waiting for the president to begin his comments. You can see the briefing room starting to fill up now. It's due to come up in just literally minutes, six or seven minutes.
So, we will slip in a quick break -- be right back.
WHITFIELD: All right, welcome back.
Momentarily, the president will be making comments from the briefing room out of the White House after he learned at about 10:00 last night that two suspicious packages had been located on cargo planes, one at East Midlands Airport about 100 miles north of London, the other at Dubai Airport, both FedEx cargo planes, UPS cargo planes being involved here. And the real tie to these packages is that they are believed to have originated in Yemen, and were making their way transatlantic to Chicago with addresses to Chicago synagogues. And we learned through our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve, that these packages were not located because they had been screened, but instead because of intelligence information, tips that had led investigators to these suspicious packages.
Once these packages were located, inside, they were to look like toner cartridges, ordinary items for anybody's computer or perhaps even printer. Instead, what was located inside were circuit boards and wires. And we have heard from a number of analysts who have said that these are markings that were intended to be located, that perhaps this could have been a dry run being linked to al Qaeda, which has found its -- a homeland, so to speak, a stronghold, in Yemen.
So, all these moving parts taking place. The White House, the president to comment about four minutes or so from now. When that happens, we will take those comments live.
Meantime, let's check in retired ATF Special Agent in Charge, former Special Agent in Charge James Cavanaugh, who is joining us right now from Nashville.
So, what do you make of all these details we're learning about these obvious components, that it was not a explosive device, these were components that might lead to an explosive device, that maybe they were dry runs? How do you see all of these parts?
JAMES CAVANAUGH, FORMER ATF SPECIAL AGENT IN CHARGE: Yes, Fred, it's a very interesting development. I think the intelligence agencies worldwide and certainly Mr. Brennan and the team here in the U.S. have done a great job thwarting this, whatever it happens to turn out.
There are three real possibilities here. The most likely thing is that it's a dry run, that al Qaeda and its affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula is trying to probe whether they can get a mailed or shipped partial bomb into the United States. That's the most likely scenario.
WHITFIELD: OK. Go ahead.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I would say, secondly, it could be some sort of extortion attempt as well, where some group or persons in Yemen want to ship it to a synagogue in Chicago and once it arrives make some claim that I got this through and if you don't do something I want, for example, related to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, move the settlements off the West Bank or whatever, will be some more.
So it could be something like that as well. WHITFIELD: And thank goodness these discoveries were made because of intelligence. So, A, that tells you about I guess the sophistication or perhaps the reliability of intelligence.
But might it also underscore that there are gaping holes as it pertains to screenings, that screenings are not the result -- this is not the result of great screening, but instead intelligence?
CAVANAUGH: Exactly, Fred. It is intelligence.
And what we have got to remember, that terrorists are not going to be targeting cargo planes. There's only a few people on them, a pilot, a co-pilot, a navigator. There may be a loader or two. But the cargo plane is just the delivery mechanism for their explosive device.
If they could get these through, for example, if it's a dry run, then they could then maybe send more, multiple devices. What will be an interesting development today and what maybe we will hear from the president is, was there trace evidence of explosives on these materials?
If there's trace evidence of explosives or actual explosives in some kind of weight, whether that's HMTD or TATP or PETN, if any of that is around this, then I think, you know, it really ups the level of it as a serious event, still may be a dry run, but the perpetrators have access to and may also be manufacturing explosives, a little change from the normal al Qaeda tactics in the theater over there, suicide bombers as well in London and Madrid.
And also, we can't be lulled into the fact that all these people, al Qaeda inspired and al Qaeda affiliates are flubs. You know, we had Richard Reid, the shoe, the passengers jumped him. We had Mutallab in Detroit, he couldn't light his skivvies on fire, the passengers jumped him. And we had this bumbling bomber in Times Square, Faisal McGruber (ph), he left his keys in the car.
But we can't be lulled by the fact that they bumbled. What we have to understand, and I think our intelligence services did and it's a credit to Mr. Brennan and the whole United States team --
WHITFIELD: Yes, that these attempts are being made.
CAVANAUGH: And we know the capabilities of al Qaeda. They are expert bombers.
WHITFIELD: OK, fantastic.
CAVANAUGH: They can get us. So we're got to really pay attention.
WHITFIELD: All right, retired ATF special agent in charge, thanks so much. James Cavanaugh, thank you for your time.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Fred. HOLMES: And while we wait for the U.S. president to begin to speak at the White House press briefing room, I want to bring in Fran Townsend who's a national security contributor.
Fran, thanks for being with us once again. You know, when we -- we were just hearing there that there's been some bumbles in the past. You only going got to get lucky once, don't you?
FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: That's exactly right. And I was talking to a senior New York City police department official yesterday and he described to me how close the Times Square bomber got to actually setting off a successful device. He put it together correctly. He made two tweaks in terms of the kinds of materials he used and it was enough to thwart that bomb. But it wasn't that he wasn't trained. He was trained, it was put together correctly. It would have been an effective device had he not substituted two materials.
And so let's not -- while it was not successful, it was close enough to being very concerning. We've seen continued threats coming out of Yemen. Both the Fort Hood shooter who had contacts back in Yemen with Anwar Al-Awlaki, the Imani cleric, and the underwear bomber, the failed underwear bomber on Christmas Day in Detroit. And so, both -- we've seen consistent threats coming out of al Qaeda and the Arabian peninsula --
HOLMES: And how frustrating is that for U.S. intelligence -- sorry. Sorry, Fran. But how frustrating must that be? Cause, you know what? They can't do a lot about it, about Yemen, I mean.
TOWNSEND: That's right. This is incredibly frustrating.
I remember going back to my time in the White House from 2004 to 2008, I had multiple conversations with President Saleh of Yemen, just as John Brennan, the current homeland security advisor, is having them today.
Yemen has not been a consistently productive partner. They have all sorts of threats both in the north from the al Houthi tribe that they're fighting, and in the south, they've had bread riots. President Saleh does not have a particularly capable government, nor have they demonstrated the political will to take on this issue.
HOLMES: So where does that leave the U.S. intelligence community when it comes to dealing with the breeding ground that Yemen become with an impotent government that can't do anything even if they really wanted to, particularly in the outlying areas outside of the capital? What does the U.S. do?
TOWNSEND: Well, the U.S. really then must rely on its allies throughout the region. You have a very good and very strong counterterrorism capability in our allies in Saudi Arabia. We have very good allies in Jordan, in Israel, throughout that region and including north Africa. And so what you do is you hope you can rely on them and their intelligence services to pass us information. And it looks like that exactly what happened in this case.
HOLMES: Yes, Fran, before I let you go, this issue of screening and while this looks like it may have been circumvented by good intelligence, which is always an encouraging thing, the issue of screening is worth talking about when it comes to cargo coming in to the United States. Under the 9/11 act meant to be 100 percent this year, 60 percent.
TOWNSEND: Right. Most people -- I think you're quite right, most people don't realize, for example, cargo that is carried on passenger planes, the requirement was only in 2009 that it be 50 percent of that screened and the 100 percent screen didn't go into effect until September of this year.
And we should note for our viewers that there's a difference between saying that cargo is screened and saying it's actually inspected. Those are two different things. Screening may involve a physical inspection, but it may not. You may look at the trusted shipper. You may not actually go in and examine the packages themselves.
There's not a requirement for 100 percent inspection of cargo, and that ought to be a concern. We know in seaports is a requirement that they get to 100 percent screening by 2012 and both the prior administration that I was involved in and the current administration say they're not going to be able to do that in seaports by the deadline in 2012.
So cargo is a real challenge for law enforcement and intelligence officials.
HOLMES: Absolutely, and so much of it, too.
Fran Townsend, the national security contributor, really appreciate that.
We're going keep an eye on that what's going on there at JFK airport, that plane being checked out. Waiting for the president to begin to speak. He's running just a little bit late.
We'll be back after this.
WHITFIELD: OK, want to show some new images right now.
We mentioned that momentarily the president of the United States will be going to the briefing room to talk about what's taking place as it pertains to national security. Right now here is the latest pictures, images right here of the president meeting with the national security team.
The president will be having some strong comments about what he learned about 10:00 last night as it pertains to those suspicious devices that were found in cargo planes abroad that were addressed for U.S.-bound. We'll be hearing from the president momentarily -- Michael.
HOLMES: While we wait, I want to get Fran Townsend back in. Fran, national security contributor. I want to pick up on something we were talking about before and that is the intelligence thing.
You know, what is interesting here, too, is it appears that the president was advised about this incident, about the discovery within an hour of it happening. Does that suggest to you that they were on alert for something?
TOWNSEND: We know from sources we've talked to that the U.S. intelligence community was concerned about the packages used to mail explosives. And so they had been focused as a whole intelligence community on this issue.
And then it was last night that they got some sort of specific tip and that was confirmed again by British authority to focus on the packages that were in the Midlands Airport in the U.K. and the package was recovered in Dubai.
And so, clearly there was some sort of intelligence cueing that took place so that they focused on those two. The planes that were --
HOLMES: Fran, I'm going to stop you there. I want to get back to you.
The president is about to speak. Let's listen.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good afternoon, everybody.
I want to briefly update the American people on a credible terrorist threat against our country and the actions that we're taking with our friends and our partners to respond to it.
Last night and earlier today, our intelligence and law enforcement professionals working with our friends and allies identified two suspicious packages bound for the United States; specifically, two places of Jewish worship in Chicago.
Those packages have been located in Dubai and East Midlands Airport in the United Kingdom. An initial examination of those packages has determined that they do apparently contain explosive material.
I was alerted to this threat last night by my top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan. I directed the Department of Homeland Security and all of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies to take whatever steps are necessary to protect our citizens from this type of attack.
Those measures led to additional screening of some planes in Newark and Philadelphia. The Department of Homeland Security is also taking steps to enhance the safety of air travel, including additional cargo screening. We will continue to pursue additional protective measures as long as it takes to ensure the safety and security of our citizens.
I've also directed that we spare no effort in investigating the origins of the suspicious packages and their connection to any additional terrorist plotting. Although we are still pursuing all of the facts, we do know that the packages originated in Yemen. We also know that al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, a terrorist group based in Yemen, continues to plan attacks against our homeland, our citizens, and our friends and allies.
Now John Brennan, who you will be hearing from, spoke with President Saleh of Yemen today about the seriousness of this threat and President Saleh pledged the full cooperation of the Yemeni government in this investigation.
Going forward, we will continue to strengthen our cooperation with the Yemeni government to disrupt the plotting by al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula and to destroy this al Qaeda affiliate. We'll also continue our efforts to strengthen a more stable, secure and prosperous Yemen so that terrorist groups do not have the time and space they need to plan attacks from within its borders.
The events of the past 24 hours underscores the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism. As usual, our intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland security professionals have served with extraordinary skill and resolve and with the commitment that their enormous responsibilities demand.
We're also coordinating closely and effectively with our friends and our allies who are essential to this fight.
As we obtain more information, we'll keep the public fully informed. But at this stage, the American people should know that the counterterrorism professionals are taking this threat seriously and are taking all necessary and prudent steps to ensure our security. And the American people should be confident that we will not waver in our resolve to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates and to root out violent extremism in all its forms.
Thank you very much.
WHITFIELD: All right, the president of the United States here not taking any questions, but instead wanting to address what he's calling a, quote, "credible terror threat against our country."
He said those two devices that are located last night in London at the East Midland Airport north of London 100 miles or so as well as Dubai he says, quote, "do indeed include explosive materials."
Our CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry was also listening intently there outside of the White House. And the president also said this particular investigation now certainly underscores it volatility of national security at the same time it underscores the importance of the vigilance of national security.
ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It does. The fact that he also noted that there were, in fact, explosives in these two packages that started in Yemen, headed, as he noted and we've been reporting about, to Jewish organizations in the Chicago area.
One thing he did not mention, but we should, is that the president of the United States himself is headed to Chicago Saturday evening for a campaign rally. Obviously, we have no idea at this point if there was any connection, when that package is supposed to arrive, but he's headed to Chicago tomorrow night.
He's also headed tomorrow to the Philadelphia area where some of the planes were getting extra screening, as he noted, earlier today. And that is also because of a campaign event there. So those may be coincidence, but we should point out the president is heading U
I think what's important to underscore, he was trying to make the points of working with allies like the United Kingdom to snuff out this threat, but also he is talking about vigilance in dealing with Yemen and al Qaeda of the Arabian peninsula.
As Fran Townsend has been underscoring this, is the same group tied back to the underwear bomber on Christmas Day, the attempted terror attack there in Detroit, that Northwest Airlines jet coming in from Amsterdam. I was in Hawaii with the president at that time. He had several days of briefings coming out, talking about vigilance.
You know, there's a lot of this going on behind the scenes when you talk to senior officials, but the president has been speaking about it publicly very little because, thankfully, none of this has risen to the level we've seen today.
But it certainly warranted him now coming out and addressing the American people to also reassure them now given what's transpired about some of the new measures that the Transportation Security Administration. And Jeanne Meserve has been reporting about all day, various measures they've been taking to try to make sure something like this doesn't happen again.
But obviously, you can't underscore enough the fact that it was because of vigilance by the U.S. counterterror officials, counterterror officials presumably from other nations as well, that this was snuffed out, Fred.
WHITFIELD: All right. And you wonder if the president is going to modify his plans this weekend which was going to be concentrate on the upcoming midterm elections if, indeed, he'll embark on the travels as you mentioned to Chicago and Philadelphia. Ed Henry, let us know when you know. Thanks so much -- Michael.
HOLMES: National security contributor Fran Townsend has been standing by throughout.
Fran, I have to say that what we're talking about before the president came out, the fact that he was alerted within an hour of these things being discovered. The Saudis recently told the French that Yemen and al Qaeda was thinking of an attack up front. I'm starting to think, does this point to a good source inside al Qaeda and Yemen? TOWNSEND: I think it does. Look, the intelligence here has been extraordinary and the real news that the president made here is this is the first confirmation we have that these packages contained explosive material. And he did credit foreign allies. We know from a British source that there was a tipoff about these packages.
And so, I think that this very much points to -- we have -- there's some ally who's given us this getting the information and they obviously are getting it. And the president said it was credible from a good source.
HOLMES: So, obviously, that's good news. Of course, the fear would have to be that the discovery of these devices will flesh out that source in a way I supposed. As you say, the breaking news there is that there were explosives in this thing. There was no dry run.
TOWNSEND: That's exactly right. And those -- to the critics who've been out there all day today saying that the administration and counterterrorism officials were overreacting, the president right then proved him wrong. I mean, once you know that -- they couldn't have known this until they tested it. But they had to act as though they were presuming there were explosives in there until they knew otherwise.
That's what they did. They had these materials.
The other thing they'll be looking at now is how these packages were built, these bombs were built, because all bomb-makers have a certain signature. They will look if they can trace back based on how it was built to the origination.
When the president says we're going to look -- we're going investigate how these -- where they originated in Yemen, that's what he's referring to. They're going to look to see if they can identify a bomb-maker.
HOLMES: All right, Fran. Appreciate that. And we'll check in with you again. Fran Townsend, national security contributor -- thanks for that.
WHITFIELD: All right. And now, back to the White House. We just heard President Obama say indeed explosives were found in those devices.
Let's listen now to Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I wanted to run you all briefly through a tick-tock of some of the events of the last few hours starting, as you know, from that earlier statement that at 10:35 p.m. last night, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, John Brennan, alerted the president of the credible terrorist threat.
The president directed U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies and the Department of Homeland Security to take steps to ensure the safety and the security of the American people and to determine whether the threats were a part -- are a part of any additional terrorist plot. John provided the president with additional updates throughout the evening.
From 11:00 p.m. on Thursday to 12:00 a.m. on Friday, Brennan held a phone call to discuss the threat with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, FBI Director Robert Mueller, NCTC Director Mike Leiter, TSA Administrator John Pistole and officials from the Central Intelligence Agency.
At 1:00 a.m. on Friday, Brennan and Senior Director Nicholas Rasmussen of the national security staff had a secure video teleconference to discuss the threat with officials from across the intelligence community, including NSA, CIA, TSA, NCTC and FBI, as well as the FAA, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, Northern Command, the Coast Guard, and other White House officials.
At 5:15 a.m., Brennan held a phone call with British deputy secretary -- deputy security advisor, excuse me, Ollie Robbins, to receive an update on the suspicious package identified in the East Midlands of the United Kingdom. Brendan and Robbins held a call at 7:30 a.m. on the same topic.
At 8:00 a.m., John held a secure video teleconference to discuss the threat with officials from NCTC, CIA, DOD, FBI, TSA, CPB, NSA, DHS, and FAA.
At 9:15, John held a phone call to discuss the threat with the President Saleh of Yemen.
At 10:00 a.m., Brennan held a phone call to discuss the threat again with Director Mueller and a third phone call with Ollie Robbins shortly afterwards.
At 10:15 a.m., John, national security advisor Tom Donilon and deputy national security advisor Dennis McDonough discussed the threat with the president at the president's daily brief.
These are the activities from this morning that were coordinated out of the White House. Obviously, this, as you can see from the rundown, has encompassed activities throughout the government, but agencies also were doing a lot and have been doing a lot since we were first made -- first made the president aware last evening.
I'm going to direct some traffic -- while John answers some question, I will remind you that this is an active investigation involving sensitive intelligence. So, there's a limit of what John will be able to talk about publicly here -- Jake.
QUESTION: Mr. Brennan, if you could talk about what we know beyond the fact that this was from Yemen and there were people in Yemen, the AQAP, who want to harm us if there's more that can be established and create a direct link beyond the country of origin.
JOHN BRENNAN, ASST. TO PRES. FOR HOMELAND SECURITY: As Robert said, this is an active and ongoing investigation. We're working very closely with partners in Yemen and United Arab Emirates, as well as in the United Kingdom and the other countries as well. We know that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been trying to carry out attacks against the U.S. and western interests, as well as against Yemenis.
So, as we continue with this investigation, we are trying to understand who is behind it, the responsibility, and make sure we understand the scope of the threat that we might face. We've identified these two packages right now. They have been isolated and they have been made inert. So, therefore, what we're trying to do now is to make sure that we are able to address any other threats that might be out there.
QUESTION: A quick follow up. So you said you've identified two. What about reports that there are up to 15 packages out there that you're looking for? Is that possible?
BRENNAN: What we are doing is making sure we take a close look at other packages that might also have some type of materials in them of concern. Both of these packages that we've identified to date originated in Yemen. And so, I think it is very prudent for us to make sure that other packages that might be coming in similar routes or from Yemen as well are looked at carefully. And that's what we're doing right now.
But there are only two packages right now that have materials of concern.
QUESTION: The president describes it as a credible terrorist threat against the United States. Can you say whether that was actually an attempted terrorist attack or some sort of practice run for something down the line?
BRENNAN: I think, as the president noted, it does appear that there were explosive materials in both of these packages, that they were in a form that was designed to try to carry out some type of an attack. The forensic analysis is under way. We are relying heavily and working closely with our partners in this regard.
But, clearly, from the initial observations, the initials analysis that's done, that the materials that were found and the device that was uncovered was intended to do harm.
QUESTION: Do harm -- do you have any sense on the extent of the harm or the extent of the damage that could have been done by this? And secondly, are you looking in to the possibility that al-Awlaki was involved in this?
BRENNAN: I don't want to speculate at this point in terms on what the damage could be from the devices, the explosives, the material that we found. That's the analysis that's under way. It's still at the very early stage of that analysis. We're working closely with the partners.
Clearly, what we are doing is looking at all of the individuals that we think might be involved, al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula has been rather open in its venom toward the United States, toward Western interests. There are a number of individuals there that we're very concerned about. So, we're looking at all possibilities.
When I had my conversation with President Saleh this morning, he did pledge the full cooperation of the Yemeni government. We are working closely with him. And we are going get to the bottom of this plot.
QUESTION: If al-Awlaki's name will come up, is he considered the top suspect?
BRENNAN: Anybody who's associated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is a subject of concern.
QUESTION: Give us a sense of the quantity of the explosive, even if your analysis hasn't been term in the quality of it yet?
BRENNAN: We have had some preliminary discussions with our partners. I don't want to go into the details about the quantity or exact types of materials because I think this is still preliminary and I wouldn't want to say something that was going to be then corrected in the future.
QUESTION: Are there any --
DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Prior to learning about the plot, was the intelligent community aware of this option as a possibility? Using cargo planes with packages to attack?
BRENNAN: I think, over the years, al Qaeda has demonstrated that is focused intently on the aviation sector. A lot of its plots are focused on trying to carry out attacks against aircraft, using aircraft, also, as potential missiles as we well know. So, the aviation industry has taken those steps over the years, especially because al Qaeda -- and when I'm talking about al Qaeda, I'm not just talking about al Qaeda in the Fattah area in Afghanistan, I'm talking about the franchises, including in Yemen, which have demonstrated very clearly that not only are they intending to do certain things against this homeland, but as we saw last Christmas Day with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, that they will, in fact, take steps to carry out those intentions.
LOTHIAN: The cargo planes, though, were those ever focused on as a possibility?
BRENNAN: We've been concerned about passenger aircraft and cargo planes, commercial airliners and others for many, many years.
QUESTION: Are there any suspects in custody?
BRENNAN: Not to my knowledge, no. QUESTION: Is there any reason to believe that this plot goes beyond cargo flights to -- to regular or passenger travel? And is there any consideration being given to put out embargo packages from Yemen, originating in Yemen, or even urging people to reconsider travel plans?
BRENNAN: We're looking at all possibilities at this point. We don't want to presume that we know the bounds of this plot. So, we are looking at all types of packages, air travel, whatever. We just want to make sure that we are going to whatever length we need to, to ensure the safety and the security of air travel at this point.
GIBBS: Elaine (ph)?
QUESTION: Embargo on any packages originating in Yemen?
BRENNAN: We are working with the Yemeni government right now. I do believe that it would be prudent and we have taken some steps to ensure that packages that come from Yemen are going to be carefully screened. We're working with the Yemeni government right now.
So, at this point, one of the reasons why we looked at some planes that are coming down from Philadelphia and Newark today is because they were, in fact, carrying cargo from Yemen. So, we have had these interesting means to discuss all these options. I don't want to go into details of this because this is all part of the security measures that are in place. But several of the measures have already been instituted.
QUESTION: Can you walk us through the decision to send fighter jets to escort that Emirates flight into JFK today?
BRENNAN: These are the decisions made by the U.S. military, Canadian military, Air Force. If there was a threat -- and my understanding -- I've only seen some of the preliminary reports about this, is that there was concern about possible cargo on that flight. And so, again, with the abundance of caution, sometimes, Air Force, our Air Force, the Canadian air force, will scramble some jets to make sure that everything is OK.
QUESTION: There's been a lot of concern of threats against European targets. Is this all related to any to that chatter that picked up in recent weeks?
BRENNAN: Well, as you well know, we issued the travel alert because of concerns about al Qaeda carrying out attacks in Europe. One package was uncovered in East Midland's airport in the U.K. We are looking at all the parts of the puzzle that we have been piecing together over the past several weeks from al Qaeda.
But we're not presuming that this is part of that plot. We're not presuming that we disrupted that plot. We need to maintain our vigilance and that's the message that we share with our European partners. GIBBS: Chuck?
CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS: Considering what the targets were in Chicago, the Jewish places of worship, any extra precautions that you're putting out for synagogue?
BRENNAN: The FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other domestic agencies are looking at that very carefully and have reached out to the appropriate private sector entities, as well as the organizations, to ensure that any other potential targets of such attacks are alerted. So, we're working very closely with state and local officials.
TODD: Big picture, the Yemeni cooperation considering this is now multiple terrorist -- attempted terrorist attacks looks like emanating from Yemen. Is it fair to say that we don't have the best cooperation yet with the Yemeni government?
BRENNAN: I would say that over the past 22 months or so during this administration, and even the prior administration, there has been a steady improvement in that cooperation. I would say the CIT. cooperation right now with Yemen is better than it's been ever before. That doesn't mean that it can't improve more. It needs to improve more.
I've been out to Yemen four times during the past two years. We're working closely with them. And we found we are courageous partners. Many Yemenis have lost their lives in the battle against al Qaeda.
QUESTION: Have U.S. authorities been able to inspect these packages have we increased our presence or would plan to do so in Yemen?
And, Robert, Philadelphia and Chicago are involved in this. Will the president's travel plan this weekend (INAUDIBLE).
BRENNAN: We're working close with the authorities both in Dubai as well East Midlands airport so that we can participate in whatever investigative efforts that are under way.
GIBBS: And let me just add, the president's travel plans both this evening and tomorrow at this point are not expected to change. And I think, at the end of the statement, the president was clear, as you can see from John and others who have been here overnight that our counterterrorism professionals are on the job, and the president is not going to change his schedule and there's no cause for Americans to change their schedule.
QUESTION: Robert, do you expect this issue to come up during the campaign events at all in the next few days?
GIBBS: I have not talked to -- I'll get some guidance from the speech writers to see if this gets mentioned. Certainly, I will say, as the president said, we will take the opportunity if need be throughout the weekend to continue to update the public on information as it -- as it comes in. Chuck?
TODD: What Al Qaeda has done in the past is they're targeting other countries during an election season. Are you taking that into account that there's anything, that this is more than just a coincidence this time?
BRENNAN: There's never a day that we relax our guard against al Qaeda and its potential to carry out attacks or attempts to do that, whether it's Election Day or any other day of the year.
GIBBS: Yes, sir?
QUESTION: I wonder, Mr. Brennan, if you could back that tick- tock up just a little bit. What did you know at the time when you briefed the president last night? And were these packages discovered through random screenings or was there something that tipped you off?
BRENNAN: Well, I knew enough last night to be able to brief the president, number one. Number two, I think American people should feel particularly good that since 9/11, the U.S. government has built up a very, very capable and robust intelligence law enforcement, homeland security system.
And as a result of the strength of that system, information became available that we were able to act upon very quickly. And we were able to locate these packages. So I'm not going to go into the details about how we became aware of it, but the redundant layers of security, the tremendous work of the counterterrorism professionals, law enforcement, homeland security intelligence, was the reason why we were able to succeed.
QUESTION: Let me just follow up on that. You're saying then that you were aware of this plot not because of the packages, but because of something else?
BRENNAN: I'm saying that whenever you pull a string, there's a reason you start to pull that string. And we had a reason to pull it.
And as a result of what we were able to uncover in East Midlands Airport, with the very strong cooperation of British authorities, we were able to also then take additional steps. And that's why those prudent measures were taken today, to ensure that we were able to identify any other packages that might be out there of concern.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that? Did you direct the authorities in the East Midlands to look for this package?
BRENNAN: We were working very closely with our British partners to identify -- locate, identify, and isolate that package.
QUESTION: To be clear, sir, which of the two packages was found first? Was it Dubai and that led to East Midlands? Or was there any connection?
BRENNAN: The first one we found was East Midlands.
QUESTION: So that -- did that lead you to Dubai, then?
BRENNAN: The first one we found was East Midlands.
GIBBS: Christie (ph)?
QUESTION: John, the other packages that are being looked at, were they also addressed to destinations in Chicago or also to Jewish organizations?
BRENNAN: There were two packages, as I said, that we identified, one in Dubai and one in East Midlands. Both of them were addressed to synagogues in Chicago.
QUESTION: Can you see if any of the packages that you're looking at now are (OFF-MIKE)?
BRENNAN: With all the mail that goes through the system, I'm not going to say that there isn't something. But, again, the only two packages that we have been able to identify of concern are the one in Dubai and the one in East Midlands. All the other efforts that we have under way is to see whether or not there's something else out there of concern that we can similarly isolate.
QUESTION: Are they the Chicago synagogues the one next to the president's house, where I believe he will be staying this weekend?
BRENNAN: Mr. Brennan, can you just clarify? So you found the first package after the president was briefed on this issue last night? Is that correct?
BRENNAN: Yes. From a sequencing standpoint, yes.
QUESTION: And is it your belief that the institutions in Chicago were the targets of the attack and not, say, the cargo flights? Because you made some reference to the security of cargo flights and so forth. The intent was to injure people at these institutions?
BRENNAN: It is less than 24 hours since we first started to look at this very intensively, and so it's still the very early stage of the investigation. And the analysis, as far as the intended target, the impact of the explosives, how it could have been used -- and I don't want to speculate at this point, at this time.
GIBBS: Yes, sir?
QUESTION: Can you just give us any more detail on just the size of these packages? Are these letter bombs? Are they large boxes? And is it your belief they were designed, perhaps, to explode when opened? Can you give us more detail? BRENNAN: They were not letters. They were larger than that. Think about bread boxes or so in terms of maybe size. We don't know yet how they were intended to be activated.
QUESTION: So we don't know (OFF-MIKE)?
BRENNAN: There are a number of things that we know, and we're piecing together those puzzle pieces, and we're working very closely with the British authorities. But at this point there's a lot of forensic work that needs to be done, and it's still early.
BRENNAN: Mr. Brennan, is the terror threat level being raised? Also, was there any discussion with these planes in the air, the president's shoot-down authority, or landing them elsewhere?
BRENNAN: No, there was no discussion of that. What we were looking for were packages. And therefore, we took the steps that were appropriate to ensure that we were able to identify where packages were globally, as well as where they might be as they were coming into the United States. And so the measures that we took were appropriate to the concern that we had at that time.
BRENNAN: You know, we are right now making sure that we are able to stay as vigilant as possible. There's been no adjustment of the threat level in terms of color-coded, whatever else. But as a result of this, we're making sure that we work very closely with our state and local officials, and law enforcement and homeland security and intelligence communities are very much on their guard.
QUESTION: I want to clarify -- and it follows up on Ian's (ph) question. With the packages themselves, what made the packages suspicious, or something else led you to the packages?
BRENNAN: As I said, the American people should be very pleased that we were able to get insight into the fact that there were suspicious packages out there that we had to find. And I'm not going to go into those operational details. I think that's the reason why we have a security system in place that has these redundancies and the ability to detect things from inception, all the way to the possible execution of an operation. So, we were on to this, but I'm not going to go into details about how we knew.
QUESTION: So it's fair to say you were looking for these suspicious packages?
BRENNAN: We were looking for packages that were of concern.
GIBBS: Yes, sir? QUESTION: Any impact whatsoever on the president taking a trip in terms of threat level assessments?
BRENNAN: No. Whenever the president travels, we take a very careful look at what the threat environment might be and look at what the terrorist environment is. So we're taking this into account. But at this point, there's no effect.
GIBBS: Yes, sir?
QUESTION: Mr. Brennan, early on there had been a lot of speculation that this might be some kind of a dry run. Given what you do know about these packages now, would you say that this was more than just a dry run?
BRENNAN: I'm concerned that since there were explosive materials in it, a traditional dry run is something that you would not necessarily use with explosive materials. That said, I don't know yet what exactly the intent was at this point.
There are a lot of different scenarios that some people have speculated about, but -- and what we're trying to do is wrestle this to the ground by doing the good forensic analysis, as well as taking a look from an intelligence standpoint and trying to piece together what we might know, have known in the past, and that would give us a sense of how this was going to be used.
GIBBS: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you.
You said al Qaeda had changed their locations (INAUDIBLE). And also, these are the same people. And finally, does this threat of these packages have anything to do with the Pakistani men arrested from Virginia? Because he's spoken about that attacks will be taking place in the Washington area.
BRENNAN: There is no indication whatsoever that the individual arrested yesterday had anything to do with this plot. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is an organization of several hundred individuals that are dispersed throughout the country. They are murderers and they are determined to carry out attacks against innocent lives, whether they be Yemeni, Americans, Westerners, or others.
We are working very closely with the Yemeni government, and we've been able to make some significant progress against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula inside of Yemen, working with those partners. We'll continue to do this. If anything, this just demonstrates to us and I think to the Yemenis as well that we need to redouble our efforts so that we are able to destroy al Qaeda. And we will.
QUESTION: Finally, (INAUDIBLE) the president's plans next week (INAUDIBLE)?
BRENNAN: We share on a regular basis with the Indian government. The Indian government is one of our best CT (ph) partners. GIBBS: Josh?
QUESTION: Do you think, Mr. Brennan, in the past, when there have been specific attacks as highlighted by the administration that terrorists have had to modify their ways because of the hurdles that the government has thrown up in front of them? Do you think that's the case that we here, the use of cargo planes instead of passenger planes, intense scrutiny that passenger aircraft have gotten in the last year or so since they've come under being used as a vehicle for attacks?
BRENNAN: Absolutely. The al Qaeda organization has tried to adapt to all of the obstacles and hurdles we put in front of it. And that's why we have to remain very agile, we have to make sure that we stay one step ahead of them.
But clearly, they are looking to identify vulnerabilities in our system and take advantage of those vulnerabilities. But, fortunately, because of, again, the good work of the people here, as well as the very important partnership that we have with our allies overseas, we've been able to stay ahead of them.
QUESTION: Are you surprised that they keep focusing on airplanes so long after 9/11, that still remains an attraction for them?
BRENNAN: There's nothing about al Qaeda that would surprise me anymore, and that's why we have to be prepared to deal with every eventuality that is out there.
QUESTION: How does your response to this -- it's 24 to 36 hours -- to this incident differ from the response to Abdulmutallab over the holidays last year? And what did you learn from last year, the attempted Christmas Day bombing, that helped you better prepare for this?
BRENNAN: You know, in so many aspects (ph) they're very different, because you're dealing with two packages, as opposed to an individual. But in other respects, there are similarities.
Whenever something like this happens, what we want to do is that we make sure that we take all appropriate measures to identify additional threats that are out there. Whether it's somebody who arrived in Detroit, or whether a package is found in East Midlands, we're trying to find are there other individuals that are trying to blow up a plane, are there other packages out there?
And so the community kicked into gear right away and took those step so that we would find out where those packages were and take the appropriate steps with TSA, FAA and others. And the system worked very, very well.
GIBBS: Sam, do you have a follow-up?
QUESTION: Yes. I was just going to ask you, how do you respond to -- there's accusations that this is all happening a couple days before an election, used to sway the election towards Democrats. How do you respond to that?
GIBBS: I think John briefed the president at 10:35 last night, off of very credible terror information. And after -- I think that's largely put to rest any speculation that may be out there after the testing the president talked about that showed apparent explosives in those devices.
As John said, counterterrorism officials at all levels of our government quickly went into action in order to take the steps necessary to protect the American people. That has -- that is exactly what has governed his actions and the actions of those in the government since that time.
QUESTION: Mr. Brennan, how many credible threats have come from Yemen in the last two years?
BRENNAN: There are a number of threat streams that we've been following, a number of individuals that we're very concerned about.
QUESTION: What number?
BRENNAN: I wouldn't put a number to it.
QUESTION: Dozens? We know of under 10. How many --
BRENNAN: Well, it's a question about whether or not there's reports of a threat that may be separate from other reporting. Is it part of the same threat stream?
Sometimes we're concerned that al Qaeda is trying to carry out some type of attack. So we might have dozens upon dozens of reports related to that one attack. So, over the past year, the intelligence community, the counterterrorism community, has been kept very busy with reports about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula trying to carry out attacks in Yemen, in that region, as well as again the United States.
QUESTION: Is the AQAP the primary threat to the United States?
BRENNAN: I think my concern is outside of the Afghan-Pakistan area, where the al Qaeda core and senior leadership reside, I would say that the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the most active operational franchise right now of al Qaeda, and that this is one that deserves a lot of our attention.
QUESTION: Any concerns, Robert, that the president is going to be having a rally tonight while all the cable channels and local news stations and everybody else is going to be airing this terrorism scare?
GIBBS: No. Again, Chip, I think the president was quite clear on this that we are taking this threat very seriously. At the same time, he is not and I don't think the American people should have any reason to change the way they go about their lives or change their schedule. I will say this, that regardless of whatever season we're in, our commitment, Democrat and Republican, to keep this country safe will not waiver.
QUESTION: Will he talk about this tonight?
GIBBS: Again, I'm going to check on that when I go back.
Listen, we want to get John back to working on this. We will, as we get information, update you if there are any additions to his schedule or what have you over the course of the weekend, to stay in touch. And we'll let you know as we get more information.
Thank you all.
HOLMES: All right. A news conference there. The press secretary, Robert Gibbs, and the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, John Brennan.
Interesting there what Mr. Brennan didn't say. Of course, he's got to be very careful in a situation like this to not give away any information that might help America's enemies when it comes to this apparent attempted attack.
Also what was interesting there was the fact that the president was briefed about this before the first package was found. At this point, to very good intelligence.
Fredricka, I mean, this points to a source being there that told them this was going to happen.
WHITFIELD: A credible source.
HOLMES: A credible source, obviously within al Qaeda -- or probably within al Qaeda in Yemen, who knew that this was going to happen, tipped them off. They were able to brief the president before it was even found. So they knew what they were looking for.
WHITFIELD: Yes. And the immediacy of being able to address that issue, that information from the intelligence sources, and then be able to make a discovery of this device. And we heard the president say, emphatically, it was indeed a explosive device, or they were materials of explosive device nature.
HOLMES: Yes. This sort of has gone from being any talk of a dry run to obviously an attempt.
WHITFIELD: Yes. It's the real deal.
All right. Our Wolf Blitzer takes it from here.
Michael Holmes, thanks so much. Good to be with you here.
HOLMES: Good to be with you. WHITFIELD: I'm Fredricka Whitfield, here in Atlanta.
Wolf Blitzer up next with "THE SITUATION ROOM."