Return to Transcripts main page


Al Qaeda Leader Killed in Yemen; Interview with Republican New York Representative Peter King; Some Question Killing of Terror Leader Who Was American Citizen; Proof That Al-Awlaki is Dead?; Florida Move Causes Primary Calendar Chaos; Listeria Prompts Lettuce Recall; Knox Appeal Wrapping Up; $1 HP CEO Salary; Death by Mail; U.S. Kills Second Major Terrorist in Months; Iran Warships Off U.S. Coast

Aired September 30, 2011 - 17:00   ET


JOE JOHNS, GUEST HOST: Happening now, new information about the death of one of the world's most infamous terrorists. Anwar al Awlaki killed by an air strike in Yemen. This hour, details on how the operation went down, and the next big terror target.

President Obama calls al Awlaki's death a major blow to Al Qaeda, but critics say his administration crossed a dangerous line by killing a U.S. citizen without charges or a trial.

And some high profile terror suspects are believed to have links to al-Awlaki. We'll look at his deadly legacy as a top Al Qaeda recruiter, schemer, and propaganda man.

Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Joe Johns. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

He is the most important Al Qaeda leader to be taken out since Osama bin Laden. The breaking news this hour, we're learning more about the air strike in Yemen that killed Anwar al-Awlaki.

First, a reminder of why this American born cleric was so dangerous. President Obama says al Awlaki took the lead in planning to murder Americans. He's been linked to those terror suspects of the decade, including the so-called underwear bomber, the accused Ft. Hood attacker, three of the 9/11 hijackers, and the man who allegedly tried to blow up a car in times square in New York. We have in depth coverage of the mission to kill al-Awlaki and the legal, political, and global implications.

First to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. What have you learned?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Joe, right up front, several administration officials now say it was a CIA hit.


STARR: The CIA and Pentagon had been working with the Yemenis for nearly two years to kill the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We had always had tremendous concern that after getting bin Laden that someone like Awlaki was a primary target because of his continuing efforts to plan attacks against the United States.

STARR: Several U.S. officials tell CNN it was a joint effort between the Pentagon and CIA working with the Yemenis. A CIA drone fired a missed at a convoy driving 80 miles east of the capital of Sana'a. Awlaki was in one of the cars.

Sources say the U.S. military also provided crucial targeting information, essentially trekking al-Awlaki at all times through a variety of sensors. Officials will not say if U.S. troops were on the ground.

Also killed, American Samir Khan, an al Awlaki aide from North Carolina who published the influential jihadist magazine "Inspire." Two other operatives were killed as well, officials say.

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE: Anwar al-Awlaki's great power was his ability to speak to his vulnerable audiences in the west, people who weren't on the radar of authorities or security officials. That's changed now. But all of his material, his sermons, the audiotapes, the videotapes, those are still online.

STARR: But Al Qaeda in Yemen is still a threat.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: While he was important, he wasn't the leader or even the number two leader. So this Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, its leadership and key lawmaker are still out there, so it's not like the threat from this group has ended.


STARR: The Yemeni tribesman who recovered the bodies from the wreckage say they were burned beyond recognition. But it was very early today that administration officials were publicly saying they were certain that they knew al-Awlaki had been killed. So Joe, this raises a fascinating question. Who was on the ground or who or what was flying overhead with what sensors that made the U.S. so certain it had its man?

JOHNS: Absolutely. And sort of asked another way, we know what the United States did. We know they provided the missile. We know they provided the drone. The question is whether the Yemeni government simply opened the door and how much more they did than that.

STARR: Oh, absolutely. We don't know the answer to it yet. One clue is a Yemeni government official said today that this was a joint U.S. intelligence-sharing operation between the U.S. and Yemen. But let's be very clear. The U.S. basically conducted the operation. They want to make sure the Yemenis get credit for it due to the difficulties that government is having in its own country. So the U.S. doesn't want a heavy footprint in public on this one.

JOHNS: And that of course may have something to do with why the administration had sort of a muted response to this compared to what happened with Osama bin Laden. Thanks so much for that reporting, Barbara Starr.

President Obama says al-Awlaki's death shows there's no safe haven for terrorists, but critics are raising questions about his decision to target and kill an American citizen. Let's bring in our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin. Jessica?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Joe. We are told by national security officials that it is typical in an instance like this that the president after an administration wide review would give the order to capture or kill al-Awlaki. But as you have made clear just now, the White House itself is staying mum on this subject.


YELLIN: It's President Obama's latest successful strike on a wanted Al Qaeda terrorist.

BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The death of Awlaki is a major blow to Al Qaeda's most active operational affiliate. Awlaki was the leader of external operations for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

YELLIN: But this time, it's different. Awlaki was an American. This may be the first killing of an American target with no trial, no indictment.

VINCENT WARREN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: The problem here is the U.S. has done something I don't think it's done before. It has killed a citizen without any due process. This is about rule of law to keep us all safe.

YELLIN: Warren's organization sued to take Awlaki off a terror kill list and lost. The White House wouldn't offer a legal justification for targeting an American.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This goes to the assumptions about is circumstances of his death and I'm not going to address that.

YELLIN: An adviser to the U.S. state department explained the government's logic for killing anyone on the terrorist capture or kill list regardless of nationality.

MICHAEL LEITER, DIRECTOR NATIONAL COUNTERTERRORISM CENTER: A state that is engaged in arm conflict or in legitimate self-defense is not required to provide targets before the state may use lethal force.

YELLIN: There's no question this administration viewed Awlaki a threat for some time. LEITER: I actually consider Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula with al-Awlaki as leader probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland.

YELLIN: Politically the White House has support from both parties. Republican Congressman Peter King says, quote, "It was entirely legal." And from a top Democrat --

REP. C.A. DUTCH RUPPERSBERGER, (D) INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: It's legal, legitimate, and we're taking out someone who has attempted to attack us on numerous occasions.


YELLIN: Joe, I just spoke to a U.S. government official who said in this instance, I just had the legal justification to kill is self- defense under both international law and under U.S. law. According to this official, here is essentially a man, al-Awlaki, who had been linked to two plots, who has demonstrated that he is capable of more, and has sworn to kill, therefore is seen as a true threat to the United States.

The first obligation is to attempt to capture this person. But under law, it is -- but under international law and under this war of terror law, if you cannot capture, you are therefore allowed to kill. These are unusual times and that is the justification, Joe.

JOHNS: Jessica Yellin, thanks so much for that.

The one thing they did not say in that statement clearly is talking about the issue of imminence and whether you can go after a person if they're an imminent threat or not.

Let's bring in CNN national security contributor Fran Townsend, the former Homeland Security adviser to President Bush. She serves on the CIA and Homeland Security external advisory board. There is just so much to talk about here. There is that issue of imminent threat, but perhaps the most important thing is a lot of people talking about no due process here. An American citizen being essentially executed by order, presumably of the president of the United States himself. There's no due process, but you tell me there is a process.

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: That's right. And what I would say to you while there's no due process in the sense of an article three court, there is inside the government. Before any of this would have been authorized by the president, there's an entire both legal and policy process this goes through. The lawyers are involved. They look at all of the intelligence. They've got to satisfy themselves about the credibility, about the imminence of the threat, the legality of it.

And then by the time it goes all the way through an inner agency process including the lawyers, that's when it goes to the president. If it's approved, a capture or kill, it goes then to the director of the CIA or whatever has authority to take action.

JOHNS: Do you think it's easy or hard to make the case that he was an imminent threat?

TOWNSEND: I think it's easy. This is a guy -- you went through it. It's Nidal Hasan. He has links all the way back to two 9/11 hijackers. You saw the computer cartridge case where he tried to blow up cargo planes. So, this is a guy and the Christmas underwear bomber. This is a guy who has consistent and persistently taken action directed against the United States.

JOHNS: From your sources, what went into this operation?

TOWNSEND: You have the Yemeni security services. Obviously they're distracted with their own sort of internal strife and chaos. But there's been -- I am told by both sides, that the counterterrorism cooperation the last three months is the best it has ever been and there has been a real change of information. That also includes, by the way, I suspect, regional partners.

JOHNS: Now, is there any video? Do you have pictures of what happened? You know, we talked so much about this in the case of Osama bin Laden, which by the way, authorities were much more forthcoming with information than they have been this time.

TOWNSEND: I'll say this. If there are videos or pictures, we will never see them. If it was in fact as has been reported a drone strike, typically, there is a, it's a grainy black and white sort of video, but there will be very precise video that help them assure themselves just before the button got pushed that they were locked on to the right target and got the order probably from the CIA director.

JOHNS: I have to push you just a little bit on this issue of an American being killed. It's created tremendous buzz. First of all, to your knowledge, is this unprecedented? Has it happened before?

TOWNSEND: I think it is unprecedented. I've tried to think about any other circumstance. I've worked in the Bush administration. This was a decision by the Obama administration, and I think they were absolutely perfectly within their rights. John Brennan, my successor, who is currently in the White House, made his public speech at one point and said no one should be able to use the flag to wrap themselves in a shield that prevents us from taking action to protect all Americans, and I think that's right.

JOHNS: Fran Townsend, I thank you so much for coming in. It's really great to have you as a resource here at CNN when working our way through a story like this.

TOWNSEND: Thank you very much, Joe.

JOHNS: Stand by for a closer look at the other look at the other American citizen killed today. He spread Al Qaeda's message in a magazine.

And who moves up on the list of America's top terror targets? We'll talk about the next big threat.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) JOHNS: Anwar al-Awlaki's American roots played a critical role shaping him into one of Al Qaeda's most powerful rising stars, a man some said could one day become Osama bin Laden's heir apparent. CNN's Deborah Fayerick traced al-Awlaki's rise in the United States and filed this report in August of last year.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Be careful. Do not trust the enemies of Allah.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: When Anwar al-Awlaki speaks, he speaks largely to a western audience, inspiring and recruiting young men to join his insurgency using the Internet and his American credential to do so.

(on camera) How dangerous is he considered on a scale on one to ten?


FEYERICK: Counterterror expert Sajjan Gohel calls radical cleric al-Awlaki Osama bin Laden's heir apparent.

GOEHL: Often, United States is seen as strategic hub for getting the message out. It's a country that has enormous resources and potential for recruitment is large and significant.

FEYERICK: If anyone knows, it is al-Awlaki. Born in America, he spent his teen years in Yemen before returning to the U.S. to study engineering at Colorado State University. He soon realized a talent for preaching at a mosque near campus, where Mumtaz Hussain remembers him as a pious young man.

MUMTAZ HUSSAIN, ISLAMIC CENTER AT FORT COLLINS: He gave two sermons. It was long time ago, but they were very good.

FEYERICK: Good enough that without formal training al Awlaki found himself preaching at the Denver Islamic Society. He began recording CDs on Islam and the prophets.

MOHAMMAD NOORZAI, FORMER ISLAMIC BOOKSELLER: They are thirsty for knowledge and he comes across in a very simple way to explain to you what Islam is all about.

FEYERICK: From Denver, al-Awlaki moved to San Diego in 1996 with his new wife. Al Awlaki was finding his voice when he became a spiritual adviser to this mosque on the edge of San Diego. His sermons were usually in English.


FEYERICK: His neighbor said they enjoyed talking about things like the orient and Taj Mahal.

HIGGIE: He liked to go albacore fishing, so every once in a while he would bring me some albacore fillets that his wife cooked up.

FEYERICK: Awlaki was also pursuing a masters in educational leadership at San Diego State University.

GOHEL: He spent a lot of time learning not only the American society but how people think in a society.

FEYERICK: It was in San Diego that al-Awlaki met an associate of this blind cleric, in prison for plotting to destroy New York City landmarks. It was also there these two eventual 9/11 hijackers attended his mosques.

GOHEL: It's too much of a coincidence that the successor to Al Qaeda ideologically was connected to two of the individuals that planned the worst terrorist attacks that we have ever seen.

FEYERICK: There's no evidence he knew of the 9/11 plot, but al- Awlaki's neighbor remembers his ominous good-bye.

(on camera) August 2001, he comes and says, we're leaving. What was the conversation?

HIGGIE: He said I'm going back to Virginia and shortly after that, to Yemen. I said, well, I do hope you'll be coming back to San Diego soon. And he said, no, he said, I won't be coming back. He said, in a little while, you'll understand why.

FEYERICK (voice-over): Traveling across-country, al-Awlaki become prominent in a church in Virginia. One of the hijackers followed him there. He said about pursuing a PhD in human resources at George Washington University.

LT. COL. ANTHONY SHAFFER, CENTER FOR ADVANCED DEFENSE STUDIES: What makes him most scary, he's actually adapting best business practices to a terrorist process.

FEYERICK: Imam Johari Abdul Malik, who arrived at the Falls Church mosque after al Awlaki left, said the radical cleric subverts the faith and preys on its followers.

IMAM JOHARI ABDUL MALIK, DAL AL-HIJRAH ISLAMIC CENTER: If you look at the statistics, most of the people who have been so-called radicalized, they know little about their religion. They have been mobilized by their passions, by their feelings, by their urges, by their insecurities.

FEYERICK: Al-Awlaki appears to know nothing about flying planes or building bombs, but counterterrorism experts say his message is his most powerful weapon.

Deborah Feyerick, CNN, New York.


JOHNS: Let's dig deeper now on who Anwar al-Awlaki really was. Joining us is CNN Paul terrorism analyst Paul Cruikshank. He's an alumni fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York university School of Law and an investigative reporter specializing in Al Qaeda. So, simple question really for you is now that he's dead, just how much a force was he really in the first place or simply a huge symbol here in the United States of an American who became an enemy of this country?

PAUL CRUIKSHANK, CNN TERROR ANALYST: Well, Joe, this was a big blow against Al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliates. He's emerged as the driving force to launch attacks against the United States. His fingerprints were all over the targets, the underwear and the package bomb plot last October. He's also been an inspiring figure for the -- there's been a string of cases where individuals implicated in these terrorism cases were deeply influenced by al-Awlaki's message.

JOHNS: Let's dig deeper on that issue right there. Why was he so inspirational?

CRUIKSHANK: I think the key thing here is he that had big mainstream audience before he fully joined Al Qaeda's fold. There was something in the way he spoke, a sort of calm eloquence, which was appealing. He also knew how to push all the right buttons. He was someone who was very influential and inspiring in these pro Al Qaeda radical circles in the west.

JOHNS: You've just described what we in the political world and the United States describe as charisma. Let's talk also about Samir Khan. This is the other gentleman who was actually killed with him in this United States attack. He, too, is an American and affiliated with the Al Qaeda magazine known as "Inspire."

CRUIKSHANK: That's right. He's an American, born in Saudi Arabia. He came to the United States when he was around six years old. He came to New York City. He was radicalized here in New York City. He then moved to North Carolina, started a pro jihadist blog and in October of 2009, moved to Yemen, joined forces with al-Awlaki, and from there started putting out this magazine called inspire, which was put out every few months trying to urge followers in the west to launch attacks in the west themselves, also providing a how-to guide in terms of launching these attacks. Counterterrorism officials on both sides of the Atlantic were really disturbed by this magazine and the practical advice given. So the fact that Samir Kahn appears to have also been killed today is also a deeply significant blow, Joe.

JOHNS: Who is next big threat to the United States now that he's been eliminated?

CRUIKSHANK: Well, I think that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is still a significant threat to the United States. The bomb maker is still at large and a lot of the senior leadership is still at large. Al-Awlaki wasn't the top leader of the group. It's been able to take advantage of political turmoil in Yemen to expand operations over there, so a lot of concern about Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

But I think there's great concern that one of his followers may launch a revenge attack. And I think terrorism officials on both sides will be really watching out for this in the weeks ahead. In central Pakistan is still a threat against the west, still a threat coming from lots of different places, Joe.

JOHNS: Paul Cruickshank in New York City, thank you so much for that.

CRUIKSHANK: Thank you.

JOHNS: So, how can anyone be sure Anwar al-Awlaki is really dead, and who if anyone here in the U.S. has seen the evidence to document it? I'll ask the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Peter King.

Plus, GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul slamming the attack that took al-Awlaki down. Why he says it's setting a sad precedent.


JOHNS: President Obama says the death of Anwar al-Awlaki is a significant milestone in the war against Al Qaeda. Administration officials are not hesitating to say the terrorist recruiter is dead.

But as we've reported, tribesmen who witnessed the air strike in Yemen say the victims were burned beyond recognition.


JOHNS: Joining us now, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Republican Peter King of New York.

And, Mr. Chairman, off the top, how do we know this man is dead?

If the bodies were burned beyond recognition, it doesn't sound like there are any photographs.

How do we know?

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: Joe, I've been speaking today to top officials in the intelligence community. Obviously, in their mind, al-Awlaki was tracked, he was followed. They are convinced that he was in the vehicles that were hit. And they are so cautious, the last thing they would want to do is to come out and say that he's dead and then it turn out that he's not.

So they would have to be satisfied beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Obviously, I wasn't there. I didn't see the bodies. The people that I spoke, I trust. I trust them anyway. But in addition to that, they would not be coming out and saying this if there was even a possibility that Al-Awlaki could ever show up alive.

JOHNS: What was he doing when he was killed?

KING: Well, these are operational details I'm not going to go into. My understanding was he was in a convoy and that that was intact. But that's really as far as I'm going go to on that, other than to say that my understanding is, also, that in this operation, that the Yemenese were extremely cooperative and helpful, that this was a joint operation that we allocate the responsibility or the credit maybe one way or the other. But the fact is Yemen -- the Yemenese were very much involved.

JOHNS: I'll just ask you directly, have you personally seen any pictures from this scene in Yemen?

Is there any video or pictures that you're personally aware of?

KING: I have not seen it, but I have absolutely no doubt that he's dead based on the people I've spoken to and knowing how cautious they are and how they would not have come forward unless they were absolutely certain that he was the man.

JOHNS: Now, do you have any problem with the notion of the president of the United States ordering the assassination of an American citizen in another country?

KING: Joe, the only problem I would have is if the president had no issued that order. To me, the fact that you have a man who has American blood on his hands, a man who has sworn to kill Americans, a man who, by all our intelligence estimates and analyses, has clearly, in many ways, become the leading al Qaeda terrorist in the world. He was the one that our intelligence officials were most concerned about. No.

And the fact that he's an American citizen, to me, makes his conduit -- conduct all the more reprehensible. I fully support the president. I can be as partisan a Republican as anyone, but I'm saying on this issue that President Obama did exactly the right thing and I would give him a medal for doing it.

JOHNS: You know, a lot of people will say even in World War II, when German combatants were captured here in the United States, they were given a trial. But in this case, an American citizen was not.

KING: Joe, if we had the opportunity to capture and bring him for trial, that's one thing. There was no opportunity. You take your opportunities as you get them. And the only opportunity we had to get him was the way we did. And to me, to allow him to get away under some thought that perhaps in the future we can capture him, I mean how many Americans lives could have been lost in the meantime?

We're at war. President Obama is our commander-in-chief and I give him credit for issuing this order.

JOHNS: One last question, because this issue has certainly created so much buzz on the Internet and elsewhere. Even presidential candidate, the Republican, Ron Paul, has weighed in.

We have a graphic of what he said: "To start assassinating American citizens without charges, we should think very seriously about this."

What's your response to that? KING: Well, we did think very seriously about it. The president gave it a lot of thought. And as Fran Townsend said before, this is a process that had to work its way through, with lawyers and advisers, consultants. The president gave it a tremendous amount of thought and did what he believed he had to do and I support him issuing that order.

To me, it would have been irresponsible not to, to allow this man, who was, really, the greatest of the -- the leading recruiter that al Qaeda had, to allow him to go on continuing to recruit people to kill Americans, because we wanted to make ourselves feel good, that was absolutely wrong. You know, Ron Paul, I like Ron Paul personally. He's a friend of mine. But he also, basically he's said in the past that the U.S. brought on 9/11. And now he's saying that we have to give this serious thought.

I agree we have given it serious thought. We did. And we should be thankful the president did what he did.

JOHNS: As chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, you certainly are privy there are a lot of information.

Did you get any other information about other plots, other plans to kill Americans that al-Awlaki might have been involved in?

KING: We saw Al-Awlaki's fingerprints on a number of other plots. And let me also say, ironically enough, in late October, next month, my committee was planning on holding a hearing on al-Awlaki, tracing him back through before 9/11, right through the present and how extensively he has been involved in various plots.

So, no, there is no doubt in my mind at all that al-Awlaki was planning more operations, that al-Awlaki actually was using scientists to find ways to use more deadly devices and -- and so I would just say that this is a great moment for America and the president of the United States has every reason to be proud of himself and I'm especially proud of the men and women of our intelligence services and our Special Operations Forces.

JOHNS: Congressman Peter King of New York, the committee of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Thank you very much for coming in.

KING: Joe, thank you, as always.

Thank you.


JOHNS: A mosque in Washington suburbs knows Al-Awlaki better than most worshippers there. Spoke to us about the man they knew as an American imam before he became an al Qaeda cleric.

And Florida Republicans are going all in for their primary. A bold move could force some big changes in the election calendar. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JOHNS: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Lisa, Florida is pushing its primary to January 31st. As we expected, several other states are changing their dates. Here we go.

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, got the list right here, Joe. Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada are vowing to move their primary dates to stay ahead of Florida in the nomination process.

They don't have to decide until tomorrow. Florida legislators ignored GOP wishes and rules to move the presidential primary. The Republican National Committee hasn't said what if any stiffer penalty will be handed to Florida for violating those rules.

And the very same bacteria responsible for killing 15 people who ate tainted cantaloupe now prompting a lettuce recall in 19 states in Canada. The FDA and the California Grower are recalling chopped or shredded romaine after a sample test turned up Listeria. No illnesses have been reported.

Prosecutors say Amanda Knox is lucky that there isn't a death penalty in Italy finishing final arguments saying she quote, "killed for nothing." The American is appealing her murder conviction. Her lawyers maintain Italian police made serious mistakes in collecting evidence. Knox is expected to speak on Monday.

And HP's new CEO, Meg Whitman, just signed on for a grand total of $1 a year. That's her salary. Her predecessor was shown the door with almost $10 million in cash and severance to bonuses.

Whitman is eligible for bonuses and does have an option to buy $1.9 million shares, but HP stock prices have to go up for Whitman to cash in. Also, Steve Jobs is in apparently in that a dollar salary.

JOHNS: All about the options at the end of the day, right? If you have confidence in yourself, bring up the stock, you make money.

SYLVESTER: But you know what? People like that because when you actually have to perform, you actually have to do something. You have to be effective.

JOHNS: The stockholders like it, too. Thanks so much, Lisa.

Remember beginning Monday, THE SITUATION ROOM moves up an hour. Be sure to join us from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. on weekdays. "JOHN KING USA" will follow at 6:00 Eastern and the new "Erin Burnett Out Front" airs at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Before al Qaeda cleric Anwas Al-Awlaki was plotting terror attacks from Yemen, he was in the Washington suburbs. We spoke with Muslims who once worshipped with the man known as the Osama Bin Laden of the internet.

And Iranian warships armed to the teeth and possibly prowling the American coast.


JOHNS: Ten years ago, Americans were in the grip of terror from a series of anthrax letters mailed to news organizations and Capitol Hill. The plot killed five people and led to a hunt for a rogue scientist.

The government named Stephen Hatfield as the so-called person of interest only to clear him later. This weekend, I'm taking a closer look at the documentary, "Death by Mail."


JOHNS (voice-over): Five years after the attack, anthrax investigators are nowhere near an arrest.

ED MONTOOTH, FBI INSPECTOR IN CHARGE: I wouldn't say stuck. What I would say is it just meant there would be a lot of long days trying to get through all the potential subjects.

DAVID WILLMAN, AUTHOR, "THE MIRAGE MAN": Some of the investigators who really, I believe, helped turn the tide in the investigation, they were working on their own time.

JOHNS: Working on old leads including the man Nancy Haigwood had flagged years earlier, Bruce Ivans.

NANCY HAIGWOOD, SCIENTIST: Those years between 2001 and 2004, 2005. He was not an apparent suspect and then the vice started to squeeze.

THOMAS DELLAFERA, POSTAL INSPECTOR TEAM LEADER: We'd look at his e-mails. He starts to become very interesting to us.

JOHNS: The e-mails to former colleagues, where Ivans reveals psychological problems. June 2000, he's taking Celexa for depression, but what is really scary is the paranoia.

MONTOOTH: We just kept gathering more and more e-mails because he was somebody that needed more and more scrutiny.

JOHNS: July 2000. My symptoms may not be those of depression or bipolar disorder. They may be paranoid personality disorder.

MONTOOTH: And yet, he is -- he's somebody that is working with some of the most deadly pathogens that we have.

JOHNS: August 2000, 13 months before the anthrax letters. I wish I could control the thoughts in my mind. It's hard enough sometimes controlling by behavior.

MONTOOTH: Which then makes you calling the question, if he's thinking that, was he capable of carrying out the anthrax attack?

(END VIDEOTAPE) JOHNS: Bruce Ivans denied being the anthrax killer. In Sunday's "Death by Mail," we'll follow the trail of evidence and explain why the FBI's top subject was never charged. That's Sunday night, 8:00 Eastern.

A second major al Qaeda leader killed by the United States in only a matter of months. Will it help President Obama's re-election efforts?


JOHNS: CNN is giving the GOP presidential contenders the chance to make a last pitch to Florida voters before the state's new January 31st primary day.

We're now partnering with the Republican Party to host the presidential debate that month in Jacksonville, Florida. So, be in tune for that.

Meanwhile, what, if anything, does the killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki mean for the president's re-election? Joining us now in our strategy session, CNN political contributor, Roland Martin, also, contributor and former Bush speech writer, David Frum. He is editor of

You look at this and it seems like we've been there before. Osama Bin Laden was eliminated. There was some thought he was going to get President Obama a big bump because he did something no one else was able to do. Now, we've got Anwar Al-Awlaki. He has been eliminated. Is the president going to get a bump this time?

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: How this helps the president, it removes the national security conversation out of next year's presidential campaign.

At the end of the day, the election is going to be about the economy. You can talk Iraq, Afghanistan, you can talk about killing as many terrorists as you want to. It will boil down to folks' pocketbooks.

DAVID FRUM, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Winston Churchill won World War II, saved civilization and still lost the next election. People don't use the ballot to say thank for foreign policy successes.

They'll build you a library. They'll buy your book. They'll put a statue to you. That's now how they use their vote. Their vote is about the future, what the economy's going to look like in the next four years.

MARTIN: Buy a failure could hurt you as President Jimmy Carter, what took place with the hostage rescue in Iran. So again, this kind of issue with the economy driving everything, it's going to overlap anything.

JOHNS: So, this president can't even go on the campaign trail and really push this thing to get votes? MARTIN: No, he can. Again, though, how he has neutralized if you will, this conversation on the GOP, is that it's not going to be an issue. We heard national security, foreign policy, a huge part 2008 presidential campaign. It's not going to be that big of an issue in 2012. If he had failures, it would be a big talking point for the GOP?

FRUM: And unfortunately for him, he has a lot of failures at home. That's what people use their ballots to discuss. What is the state of the economy? Look in 2004 that was a very close presidential election.


FRUM: And George Bush very nearly lost because people were uneasy about the economy, because things weren't growing rapidly as enough. In this case dealing with an economy that may not be growing at all, may be shrinking.

JOHNS: To your point.

FRUM: Ohio, carries the president.

JOHNS: Right, a new CNN/ORC poll really sort of underscores what you're talking about here. We have a graphic of it. This was asked, what, September 23, 25th?

Economic conditions today, how are they? Ten percent of respondents said good, 90 percent said poor. So this sounds like a hill that's going to be very hard for the president to climb, even though I guess you both know, there was an uptick yesterday, suggesting things might be improving just a bit for the president.

FRUM: Right, well, the president relies a lot on this number that says more people blame George Bush than blame him. I think when his supporters mention that they misunderstand what these polls are saying.

The question is not whose fault is it, that voters may give the president a pass on whose fault it is. We knew whose fault it was in 2008 when we elected you to fix it, but it's not fixed. If you bring the car to the shop and it's making a noise and they don't fix the noise, you don't blame them for the noise. You blame them for not fixing the noise.

MARTIN: It also hurts that fact that all the president will say they have done a lot to reform Wall Street. In many ways they have not. They have operated from the margins.

So when you do not see anyone paying the price, when you haven't seen anyone from Wall Street going to jail, when you haven't seen the perp walk, folks are saying, OK, wait a minute. These folks caused the problem now what in the world are you doing. So that hurts him as well. They also had a difficult time trying to convey the actions they took stemmed an even deeper recession.

FRUM: It could have been worse. It's never much of a re- election argument.

JOHNS: OK, but once again, talking about this whole issue of who gets blamed, and the vice president even, you know, weighed in on this over the past couple of days. We have a poll here asking, who is more responsible for current economic problems? Bush and the Republicans or Obama and the Democrats? Fifty two percent said Bush and the Republicans.

MARTIN: But the problem with that is Bush is not on the ballot in 2012.

FRUM: That is -- that shows a backward looking view. They have to look forward. What are you going to do to fix the problem? And the president, the president laid down his big jobs speech. If people are convinced of his approach, that that may help him.

But the fact is results are grim. And at three years, and four years if the results remain as grim as they are now, just the general principle you fire the guy. Even if he's just unlucky, get us a luckier president.

JOHNS: What point do the voters start looking at this president and saying, this is now on your watch?

MARTIN: Election Day. Look, I mean, you can sit here and talk about every poll, but until you know who the GOP nominee is, until you're able to contrast what that person is saying with the president, then you don't know. Again, 2004, Bush, a generic democrat in 2003, at this point be Bush. Who won re-election?

JOHNS: Roland Martin, David Frum, thanks so much for this. We'll be talking about this for several months.

FRUM: You know it.

JOHNS: You're learning more details now on how the U.S. can be sure Anwar Al-Awlaki really met his doom and he was killed despite hiding in one of the world's most lawless regions. Tom Foreman is at the data wall with a look how he was tracked down.


JOHNS: Armed Iranian ships, just a dozen miles off the coast, that's the potential situation the U.S. is facing right now. CNN's Brian Todd has the story.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Joe, up to now, Iran's challenges to the U.S. have been mostly confined to the Persian Gulf region. But now the Islamic regime wants to take that gamesmanship right to America's doorstep.


TODD (voice-over): From one of Americas most powerful enemies, a direct threat to the east coast, Iran's top Navy commander says his country will move naval ships into the Atlantic, quote, "with a powerful presence close to the American marine borders."

The Iranian admiral says his nation would only be reciprocating American military patrols in the Persian Gulf, just miles from Iran's shores. He didn't say when, how many or what kind of vessels Iran would send. The sabre rattling gets a quick brush-off from U.S. officials.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We don't take these statements seriously, and given that they do not reflect at all Iran's naval capabilities.

TODD: It may be a matter of distance and resources.

(on camera): Any Iranian battle group would have to travel 950 miles to get close to America's east coast. Experts say that would be difficult. Iran's Navy doesn't have many friendly ports where refuel and do maintenance, and communications are a challenge.

(voice-over): But this noise laughingstock navy. It's patrolled in the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Experts say it's got three-kilo class submarines and ships capable of launching missiles with the names Nor and Nasser.

(on camera): They could conceivably get as close as 12 miles from the U.S. coast in international waters, but let's say an Iranian ship is between 12 and maybe 50 miles out. Could one of those Nor missiles or Nasser missiles hit the U.S. mainland?

ERIC WERTHEIM, U.S. NAVAL INSTITUTE: Well, this is a picture of an Iranian frigate launching that nor missile. It's got a 75-mile range, but it's not really fitted to the larger ships that would make the travel over here. So if it were fitted, then, yes, it can gauge not a land target, but another ship up to 75 miles.

TODD (voice-over): Eric Wertheim says the missiles wouldn't be quite as accurate if they tried to hit land targets. Analysts believe it was a missile supplied by Iran fired by the terrorist group Hezbollah, which damaged an Israeli ship in 2006, killing some Israeli sailors. I asked an expert, Alex Vatanka, why Iran would want to project power they may not have so far away from their borders.

ALEX VATANKA, MIDDLE EAST INSTITUTE: The reasons are again all based on being able to justify their own grip on power in Tehran, justify the billions they spend on defense expenditure in that country when people really have other important things to worry about.

TODD (on camera): Thing likes economic problems brought on by international sanctions. Vatanka and other analysts say this savor rattling maybe enough for Iran's leaders right now just to give off that distraction and that they may never actually follow through on this threat because of all of the logistical challenges -- Joe.