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THE SITUATION ROOM
American Voice of Al Qaeda Killed
Aired September 30, 2011 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOE JOHNS, CNN ANCHOR: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, breaking news, the targeted killing of an American citizen by the United States government. This hour, new details of the assassination of top al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki.
Killed with him, another American who played a critical propaganda role for al Qaeda, putting out its English-language online magazine, a man who once said he was proud to be an American traitor.
But there are serious questions about whether the killings are legal. Critics are slamming them as summary executions.
Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Joe Johns and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
He was an American citizen who preached violent hatred toward America, and as leader of an al Qaeda affiliate, he was linked to multiple terror plots, including the Fort Hood massacre. Now, just months after taking out bin Laden, the United States has killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader of Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
U.S. and Yemeni officials tell CNN al-Awlaki died in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen, along with another American man who produced an al Qaeda English-language online magazine. President Obama says it's proof U.S. anti-terror efforts are working.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Earlier this morning, Anwar Awlaki, a leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in Yemen. The death...
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
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. In that role, he took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans. He directed the failed attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009. He directed the failed attempt to blow up U.S. cargo planes in 2010. And he repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women and children to advance a murderous agenda. (END VIDEO CLIP)
JOHNS: CNN's Tom Foreman is working the breaking news for us.
And, Tom, you're learning more about how this went down.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, exactly, Joe.
The simple truth is, of all the places in the Middle East where al Qaeda has been a concern, the place where authorities have hunted al-Awlaki has always been in Yemen, which has been a troubled place in many, many different ways, and they have tried very hard to get him there.
For example, if you move down here, you can look in the southern part of the country. In 2009, there was a cruise missile attack down here where they attempted to strike against al-Awlaki in the southern part of the country. That failed. In May of this year, they went in with Predator drones and fired Hellfire missiles at a convoy. They thought they had him, but apparently at that time he had changed cars with another jihadi, and so they did not get him that time either, all of which led to sort of a mythology about him and whether or not he could ever be caught.
But this thing that happened today in Khashef is a different story. Let's go up there and look at the place where this came down. This is about 85 miles south of the Saudi Arabian border. You can see that there's really not a whole lot here in this area, very small, very remote area.
If you look at it from above, you can see there aren't many houses here. Nonetheless, Yemeni intelligence officials found out some time back, not terribly long ago, that they believed that al- Awlaki had a safe house in this area. They had identified it, they had intelligence on the ground and they also had reason to believe that he was going to try to make a transit from this place to this town down here. This is about a 50-mile trip.
So they were watching it very closely, and about 10:00 this morning, that's when it all came together. What happened at that time is based on this intelligence that he might be trying to come out of here, Predator drones were in the area. There were also manned aircraft flying at a further distance, which could also have aided in the attack, if need be.
The drones were being controlled, we're told here at CNN, by CIA officials, working in concert with Yemeni security officials who knew about all of this going on as we understand it. In any event, they believed that al-Awlaki was making this transit from this town to another about 10:00 in the morning. They did not know in the process apparently that Khan was with also him, or if they did we haven't heard details about that yet.
Nonetheless they came in with drones, they struck, and about five miles outside of the city where he had a safe house, one of the United States' great enemies, as far as the administration's concerned, has been taken down -- Joe.
JOHNS: Tom Foreman, thanks for that.
Two top al Qaeda leaders killed by the United States in less than five months, first Osama bin Laden and now Anwar al-Awlaki. What impact will this latest death have on this terror network that's become so much of our lives?
With us right now is CNN national security analyst and terrorism expert Peter Bergen. Put this in context for us, for the person just sitting down in front of their television. They know Anwar al-Awlaki must be a big deal; otherwise we wouldn't be talking about him as much as we are. But how high in the organization did he go, and what does this mean for the organization?
PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, he didn't lead al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is the organization that tried to bring down Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
He's one of the leaders. And he's not the leader. He's also not the bombmaker who basically built the bomb that the so-called underwear bomber tried to put on the plane. The reason we're talking about him is he speaks English, he's an American citizen. If you do the thought experiment where he didn't speak English, we wouldn't be talking about him.
He's not a big deal in the Arab world. He doesn't have a lot of -- but clearly he recruited people in the United States, was able to inspire them to actually go through with acts of violence, in Britain and in Canada also. So it's significant. It's not Osama bin Laden. The idea this is the new Osama bin Laden I think is overkill.
JOHNS: But you still sort of know them by their deeds, and this was a man whose name was associated with a number of different incidents, some failures like the Times Square bombing, some successes.
BERGEN: Sure. Unfortunately, there was an e-mail exchange between Major Nidal Hasan and Anwar al-Awlaki in which Major Nidal Hasan essentially said is it OK to kill American soldiers?
JOHNS: This is Fort Hood.
BERGEN: Yes. And so several months before the Fort Hood incident, he had about a dozen exchanges with e-mails with al-Awlaki, essentially trying to get religious sanction for what he was about to do.
So that's clearly -- you can see why he was -- why al-Awlaki suddenly became an important person in the last couple of years for the United States government to try and find.
JOHNS: But you agree he was a very inspirational figure and he was able to recruit a lot of people in the organization?
BERGEN: Sure, sure. And over time, the U.S. government's view of him has changed. They think that he moved into more of an operational role. So that he wasn't just somebody who was sort of a cleric on the sidelines. So, it's a big deal. Is it Osama bin Laden being killed? No, nothing like it.
JOHNS: Now, talk to me about Samir Khan. This is an individual who was directly involved in the al Qaeda magazine called "Inspire."
JOHNS: What about him?
BERGEN: Well, Samir Khan, he's sort of like an Internet guy, very tech savvy. They put out seven of these magazines. In one of the magazines, they took me on personally. They critiqued me for saying that al Qaeda was a big loser in the Arab spring. They took on Fareed Zakaria.
JOHNS: They criticized people on CNN in "Inspire" magazine?
BERGEN: Right. They grew up in the West.
JOHNS: Did you take it as a compliment?
BERGEN: Well, it was interesting. I mean, I responded on CNN saying I don't think you're correct, and I think the Arab spring is a big problem for you guys, and, of course, have not heard anything since.
But the point is that they engaged with the West. Some of these magazines were kind of stupid. Samir Khan wrote an issue where he was suggesting al Qaeda should put blades on a tractor and drive them into a crowd. Now, even Osama bin Laden, some of the materials in the compound, said that seemed like a pretty stupid idea.
They were putting out these magazines, and they were in English, and that's why they got a lot of attention.
JOHNS: Does this put a dent into al Qaeda in Yemen, now that these are eliminated?
BERGEN: Yes, I think it does. But I think this is part of a larger -- there's been a huge -- in the last I would say 18 months, there's been a series of American drone strikes. There are U.S. special forces in Yemen, and the Yemeni military's helped, cooperating to some degree. They're under a lot of pressure. This is just added pressure.
JOHNS: Peter Bergen, thanks so much for this.
BERGEN: Thank you.
JOHNS: Less than a decade ago, al-Awlaki was preaching here at a mosque in the Washington area, and news of his killing is drawing strong reaction from worshipers are there.
CNN's Lisa Sylvester talked to some of them. Lisa, what did they tell you.
LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Joe.
I spoke to several members at that mosque after prayers today and they are really putting distance between themselves and al-Awlaki, noting that those were his views, not theirs, that the message that they heard at the mosque is one of peace and tolerance, not violence and hatred.
SYLVESTER: At the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, a call to Friday prayers. Here, hundreds of devout Muslims come to worship. The mosque has been labeled controversial, embattled, even dubbed the 9/11 mosque.
Two of the 9/1 hijackers worshipped here in 2001. The Fort Hood alleged shooter, Nidal Hasan, also attended services here.
And Anwar al-Awlaki, radical American-born cleric, who used the Internet as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda, was the imam here from 2001 to 2002. Worshipers we spoke to, many of them young professionals, said they do not in any way share al-Awlaki's radical views.
Monsoor Rashid is not only a member of the mosque. He works for the Army National Guard.
MONSOOR RASHID, MOSQUE MEMBER: Actions of some of the folks that go to this mosque doesn't represent what the mosque is all about. I live in the area. I grew up, born and raised in America. We don't obviously feel the same way.
SYLVESTER: Jouaad Syad shares similar views.
JOUAAD SYAD, MOSQUE MEMBER: I would say in a way we're not glad that he's dead, but at the same token, it's helpful, you know? We're trying to clear our name. He definitely does not represent what Islam is all about.
SYLVESTER: The mosque's current imam, Johari Abdul-Malik, says it was only after al-Awlaki left in 2002 that he began preaching violence.
Abdul-Malik declined interview requests, and instead issued a statement saying -- quote -- "We reiterate that as an American faith community we do not accept violence nor extremism." But the same statement adds -- quote -- "We have rejected the use of extrajudicial assassination of any human being and especially an American citizen, which includes al-Awlaki. We reiterate our commitment to due process under law and justice, and are concerned that the alleged drone attack sends the wrong message to law-abiding people around the world."
Arsalan Iftikhar is a human rights lawyer and author. He says for the members of al-Awlaki's former mosque this is a time to turn the page.
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR, AUTHOR, "ISLAMIC PACIFISM": I think that there might be people who might not have fully agreed with the methodology used but again I think that there are going to be very, very few people in the Muslim community who are going to lose any sleep at all over the death of Anwar al-Awlaki. And if anything, he was a stain on the community both here domestically and globally.
SYLVESTER: And al-Awlaki helped with that online al Qaeda magazine called "Inspire." It was the new addition that was just put up in fact a couple of days ago.
Now, the imam at his former mosque said, with his death, al- Awlaki will no longer be able to spread his message of hate over the Internet -- Joe.
JOHNS: Lisa Sylvester.
The al-Awlaki killing is stirring up controversy, with critics calling it an illegal summary execution by the United States government. We will check the facts with CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.
Also, did al-Awlaki's father ever consider helping the U.S. find his son? CNN's Paula Newton interviewed him. She will join us live as well.
Plus, the intelligence that led to this high-value target. I will talk to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, as we follow the breaking news.
JOHNS: Breaking news: the American-born leader of al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate killed in a U.S. drone strike. The U.S. government had been hunting for Anwar al-Awlaki for some time, and last year his father filed a lawsuit to prevent the United States from trying to assassinate his son, a case that was actually thrown out in district court.
CNN's Paula Newton interviewed al-Awlaki's father. She joins us live from Perugia, Italy, where she is covering the Amanda Knox murder trial.
Paula, did al-Awlaki's father ever consider helping U.S. officials try to find his son?
PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: He didn't consider helping trying to find him, only because he could never get guarantees that he would be treated anything other than a suspected terrorist.
He always believed after talking to U.S. officials, that what they wanted was to assassinate him and that's what he said he felt was wrong. When I spoke to U.S. officials, they admired Dr. Nasser. They know all he wanted to do was help out his son but at the same time, they did not think that he as a father really had a realistic impression of what his son was now into online.
And, Joe, this was a guy who showed me pictures of a jovial, easy-going, well-educated American boy. That's the way his father always described him to me. He showed me pictures of him at Disney World and he just described him in a way which would juxtapose to a terrorist.
You can imagine what the U.S. officials are saying to him about his son, and he just didn't believe a word of it. But more than that, he believed that it was illegal that they tried to assassinate him. He said at the very least they should just capture him and put him on trial.
He was a very tormented man throughout in my rapport with him. I tried to get ahold of him today. Cannot. I will continue trying.
JOHNS: So he was sort of oblivious to the notion that his son had become a radical? Did he at least see signs of his son becoming a radical as he grew up?
NEWTON: And you have to think about the milieu in Yemen.
Many people, as you know, were not happy with the way the war on terror was being prosecuted. His son was one of those people. I think, as a father, it was very difficult for him to come to terms the fact that he was advocating violence. And I think when we started talking about the Fort Hood shooter, which I spoke to him about specifically, he did not really look at the evidence and say that it pointed to inciting violence.
He said, yes, he did not agree with the radical views of his son, but he thought that what he was getting into was a complete departure and was being embellished by U.S. officials. I think in the last few months, he was convinced that his son was becoming a much more dangerous person.
But crucial here, Joe, he would never help the U.S. authorities find him. And more than that, Joe, he would always tell me that he has friends, tribespeople in Yemen that would help protect his son.
JOHNS: Paula Newton in Perugia, Italy, thanks for that reporting.
It's not just al-Awlaki's father who says his son's killing is illegal. There's a huge controversy surrounding the targeted assassination of U.S. citizens by the American government in the name of fighting terrorism.
Let's bring in CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.
And, Jeff, here's what the ACLU said today. "If the Constitution means anything, it surely means that the president does not have unreviewable authority to summarily execute any American whom he concludes is an enemy of the state."
How strong is that argument, in your view?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the Obama administration says right after 9/11 the Congress authorized the use of military force against al Qaeda.
This assassination, this attack on this gentleman is part of the war. And they can chase al Qaeda wherever they are. They killed bin Laden in Pakistan. They killed this guy in Yemen. And they're going to catch them wherever they can. So, the Obama administration does not worry, is not worried that they lack legal justification.
JOHNS: Well, that question, though, continues, no due process, an American citizen in a foreign country, when, for example, back in Germany, World War II, there were Germans who actually came to the shores of the United States and were arrested and given a trial. It's a very different situation.
TOOBIN: It is a different situation. It's a different kind of war.
And it is true that we are dealing in somewhat uncharted legal terror here. Remember, this -- those Germans came to our shores. They literally -- the Kiran (ph) group, as they were known, they came to the shores off Long Island and they were arrested there. We did not give people trials who we were fighting in Germany during World War II.
We killed those people if we could. This is the equivalent, according to the Obama administration, that this is a war, he's a soldier, we're going to kill him if we can.
JOHNS: Now, another interesting point. You heard Paula Newton talking about it just a minute ago. His father, al-Awlaki's father, actually went to court to try to get the court to say the United States should not assassinate his son, but he wasn't successful with this lawsuit. Tell us why he didn't get anywhere.
TOOBIN: He wasn't for the simple legal issue of what's called standing.
The court said, look, we are not going to deal with the legality of this order to kill your son. You, as the father, don't have standing. You don't have the legal right. You don't have, as the lawyers say, a legal injury at risk here. You didn't suffer anything because of this order. That's your son. You don't get to assert his rights in an American courtroom. So the judge in Washington threw the case out.
JOHNS: So you would have to wonder, who would have the power to assert on behalf of a son in an example like this? Who would have the power, the standing, to do that?
TOOBIN: Well, Joe, I think that's one of the interesting issues about this legal debate. We can have a theoretical discussion, but could anyone go to court and find this practice by the Obama administration illegal?
Frankly, I have my doubts. So, I mean, I think the Obama administration, like all administrations, cares about following the law. But could this actually ever be tested in a courtroom? Could a wrongful death suit be filed on behalf of this guy who died in Yemen?
Frankly, I doubt it. So I don't think we're ever going to have a definitive answer to the question of whether this is legal.
JOHNS: Jeffrey Toobin, thanks so much for that.
TOOBIN: OK, Joe.
JOHNS: You will hear what the secretary of defense tells CNN about the killing of al-Awlaki -- the exclusive next.
JOHNS: Digging deeper into the breaking news this hour, CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson shows us his appeal and his threat.
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Silenced, Anwar al-Awlaki, al Qaeda's articulate English- language mouthpiece.
Although he never made the U.S. most-wanted terrorist list, he was the first U.S. citizen ever placed on the CIA hit list, his killing not the first attempt on his life. In May, he narrowly escaped a missile fired from an unmanned U.S. drone. al-Awlaki's followers revered him for his theology. He taught Muslims to attack Americans.
ABU MUWAZ, HEAD OF SALAFI YOUTH MOVEMENT: He reminds me of, for example, Sheik Osama bin Laden and also Ayman al-Zawahri in terms of he's soft-spoken and at the same time the knowledge that they have, the foundations that they have.
ROBERTSON: An American citizen born to privilege, the son of a Yemeni government minister, he was educated at several U.S. universities before becoming an imam in California, then Virginia.
While a preacher, the commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks says he met three of the 9/11 hijackers. He was also accused of inspiring Fort Hood shooter Major Nidal Hasan and Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and recruiting underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner Christmas 2009.
Al-Awlaki's appeal, his charisma and manipulative use of English will be sorely missed by al Qaeda's Yemen franchise, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. His inspirational messages were popular, selling thousands upon thousands of DVDs, offering both recruitment and money- raising opportunities for the radical and his allies. His killing plays into Yemeni politics in a big way. President Ali Abdullah Saleh had been targeted three months ago in an assassination attempt. He had just come back from Saudi Arabia, where he had been recovering from his wounds. He's returned to a Yemen on the verge of civil war. Al Qaeda has taken control of three provinces.
Saleh wants U.S. backing to shore up his failing 30-year leadership. Helping the U.S. bring down al Qaeda is how his supporters hope he will get it.
JOHNS: Now let's bring in CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson.
And, Nic, in terms of operations, what does this mean for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula?
ROBERTSON: Well, it certainly means a psychological blow.
Awlaki was hugely influential in recruitment, if you will. His sort of DVD sales, thousands upon thousands, his online sort of speeches also very popular, will mean it will be harder for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to get the same levels of money flowing to them, the funds that they will need to continue with their operations. So it will hurt them in that way.
Although he is -- or has played a role in recruitment, recruited the underpants bomb, tried to bring down that airliner over Detroit Christmas 2009, he is not somebody that has sort of been at the forefront of the bomb building and some of the other exploits of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen.
So, it will have an impact, but it's unlikely to dent their operations in the long-term -- Joe.
JOHNS: You say he recruited the underwear bomber, but the question is now about the man who created that bomb, the bombmaker, if you will. How dangerous is he, and how important to U.S. and other authorities?
ROBERTSON: Ibrahim al-Asiri, the bombmaker who made the underpants bomb in 2009, who made, using similar powerful explosives in 2010, the printer bombs, is still on the loose, and al Qaeda now has operational control, effectively, over three provinces in the country. And this gives Asiri the bomb maker a greater ability and space to make his bombs. He's -- makes very sophisticated weapons.
So he poses perhaps the more real operational bomb-making challenge to the United States. He is the man behind the two last principal attacks against the United States.
JOHNS: Anwar al-Awlaki worked openly on the Internet, persuading Muslims to embrace his violent brand of Islam. But in Yemen, he had all but vanished into the desert, nearly impossible to find for the men tasked with killing him. Ahead, more on how he was found after all these years.
JOHNS: More on this hour's breaking news, the death of al Qaeda leader, Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen, it's raising lots of questions, including how the United States can be sure it got its target.
JOHNS: Joining me now is Congressman Mike Rogers of Michigan, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
And Congressman, first question is, how did you get the news on this? And how do we know this man is dead?
REP. MIKE ROGERS (R), MICHIGAN: Well, there are lots of ways to do it. And I got it in the early morning hour this morning. But there are, A, the intelligence on the fact that it was him in this particular convoy was exceptionally good, very high degree of confidence. And then there is intelligence -- ways to collect different streams of intelligence following the attack that also confirms the fact that it was Anwar al Awlaki.
JOHNS: So what are we talking about here? Pictures? Does someone have possession of the body? Is there DNA evidence? You know, how do we know for sure?
ROGERS: Well, we can't talk about all the ways that we know, but it is a high degree of confidence. So, clearly, we have been tracking this individual and trying to find him. There was a shot against Anwar al-Awlaki earlier this year that didn't go well.
And so, you know, they were fast on this guy, and so all of the streams of intelligence that you might imagine would be collected -- source information, technology, other ways to try to pinpoint where he is and who he is and all of those things -- were culminated into the decision to actually go ahead and make sure that an air strike was committed on this particular event.
And so with all of those factors -- and then what happens afterward is, you know, again, sources are talked to, other things to confirm the fact that it was him. So I have a very high degree of confidence that it was him. Also, which was a great get today, was his partner in crime, if you will, Samir Khan, who is equally as dangerous and part of the communications network that was trying to recruit U.S. citizens to do jihad here in the United States.
JOHNS: We definitely want to get back to more of that in just a moment. But what else can you tell us about this attack? Our sources say it was a U.S. missile from a U.S. drone. What was the role, if you will, of the Yemeni government in eliminating this individual? ROGERS: Well, I will say we have a good partnership with the Yemeni government. The counterterrorism forces there have been very good partners with the United States. Their capabilities have been getting better and better. We've tried to help along the way where we could possibly do that. And you know they were really partners in this particular effort.
You know, again, this was considered an air strike, so that's where we should leave that. But it was an operation that clearly was effective, and it really combined everything. It combined efforts with liaison services, the Yemenis, our sources, maybe some of their information, and all of that was put together to find him in this particular place. It sends a pretty clear signal to the rest of the bad guys out there: "Listen, it's just a matter of time. We're going to find you. You may want to change your ways now."
JOHNS: How was the U.S. able to figure out his location? Did, for example, the United States know that he was in a particular area for a long amount of time? And how are they able to figure out that he was in this particular car that they ended up targeting?
ROGERS: Joe, I can't tell you everything. We still want to get more bad guys. But I can tell you this: it really is a combination of a whole host of things. It's running good human source information. That's where somebody talks to an individual who is willing to cooperate because they see the travesties of what al Qaeda is doing in a country like Yemen, let alone to the United States and our western allies. So those people are providing information.
We have some technical means, satellite things and other -- other ways that we continue to isolate an individual and try to find where that individual is, his pattern of life is. So wherever that pattern of life is, we, you know, can with our help of our Yemenis friends and others, focus in on that person. And that noose just keeps getting tighter and tighter until it accumulates into what you saw today.
JOHNS: One of the controversies that always arises in a situation like this is about the nature of the United States government targeting such an individual, in this case an American citizen. You, of course, by background, you have a criminal justice degree, and you're also a former FBI agent. Is it wrong or right to target an American citizen in this way who has not been given the due process and protections of the U.S. Constitution?
ROGERS: Well, I think I'm going to argue with the premise of your question. Here is an individual who renounced his citizenship, who declared war on the United States, and openly joined an organization that had declared war on the United States, has taken affirmative action to that end, meaning, you know, the Christmas Day bomber was his plot. The cartridge bombs that he was trying to get on airplanes to blow up over the United States, that was his plot. The fact that he recruited and had something to do with Major Hassan, the shooting that killed U.S. soldiers in Texas. All of those things were Anwar al-Awlaki. He was vocal in it. He talked frequently of it.
So this is not the same as saying some U.S. citizen that stumbles into the terrorist network. This was very, very, very different and very, very isolated. Once he took the case to renounce his citizenship, declare war on the United States, he became an enemy combatant, and he was treated accordingly.
JOHNS: The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki can't come at a better time for Yemen's president. Could the al Qaeda cleric's assassination persuade President Obama to back off of calls for him to step down?
JOHNS: One week ago, Yemen's president returned from Saudi Arabia to a country seething with anger. Today his government is praised for helping to find al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Coincidence? No one can say for sure.
CNN foreign affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty looks at whether the assassination will buy Yemen's president some time.
JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Flush with the news that terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed in Yemen, President Barack Obama praises Yemen for its help.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The success is a tribute to our intelligence community and to the efforts of Yemen and its security forces, who have worked closely with the United States over the course of several years.
DOUGHERTY: But less than ten days ago, Mr. Obama was urging Yemen's president to step aside.
OBAMA: We must work with Yemen's neighbors and our partners around the world to seek a path that allows for a peaceful transition of power from President Saleh.
DOUGHERTY: Ali Abdullah Saleh, in office for 33 years, puts the Obama administration on the horns of a dilemma.
PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: He can say, "Hey, you know, my government was sort of -- my military's been, you know, part of these successful attacks on, you know -- the United States should kind of keep me in place."
DOUGHERTY: Since February, Saleh has been trying to put down an Arab Spring-type uprising. Just this week, protesters were gunned down by Yemeni security troops, forcing the State Department into an uncomfortable bit of diplomatic straddling.
VICTORIA NULAND, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: Our counterterrorism cooperation is undertaken with the counterterrorism forces in Yemen and is for that specific purpose. That doesn't change the fact that, whether it's in Yemen or anywhere else in the world, we oppose the use of force against peaceful demonstrators. DOUGHERTY: Meanwhile, the violence and political chaos in Yemen continue. Saleh, who was severely burned in an attack on his presidential compound in June, forcing him to flee to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, is back, increasing domestic tensions. And one expert says, ironically, that might have helped to destroy al-Awlaki.
CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK, YEMEN EXPERT: For a long time, the assumption has been the Yemeni government would not take action against Anwar al-Awlaki or others for domestic Yemeni political considerations. But clearly, that's changed now. And the Yemeni government, you know, in some parts must feel vulnerable with everything that's been going on to extend themselves in this way.
DOUGHERTY (on camera): Al-Awlaki's death is not changing President Obama's view of the Yemeni president. Just hours after the terrorist was killed, the White House called on Saleh to stop all violence against his people and to begin the transfer of power immediately -- Joe.
JOHNS: This just in to CNN. The new defense secretary is reacting to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. Until this summer Leon Panetta was director of the CIA, which was hunting for al-Awlaki. Here's what he told CNN's Erin Burnett in an exclusive interview.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm curious. There's been discussion of the ACLU today saying he's an American citizen. Perhaps the fact that it was a CIA drone which killed him was possibly illegal because he didn't have a trial, and he's an American citizen. Are you confident that you're clear legally here?
LEON PANETTA, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: This individual was clearly a terrorist, and, yes, he was a citizen, but if you're a terrorist, you're a terrorist. And that means that we have the ability to go after those who would threaten to attack the United States and kill Americans. There's no question that the authority and the ability to go after a terrorist is there.
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JOHNS: Be sure to check out Erin's new show, "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT," beginning Monday night at 7 Eastern, right here on CNN.
A check of the day's other top stories is next. Then, cyber terror attacks on U.S. power and water supplies. We'll show you what the people in this lab are doing to prevent it.
JOHNS: Here's a look at this hour's "Hot Shots."
First, in Vietnam, a man anchors fishing boats in preparation for an incoming typhoon. In Belarus, people celebrate a traditional festival marking the end of harvest gathering.
In England, a woman runs through the early morning mist. Much of Britain is experiencing unseasonably hot weather.
And in Australia, a child watches chimpanzees share a coconut in their newly renovated exhibit.
"Hot Shots," pictures coming in from around the world.
Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in the situation right now. Lisa, a CNN survey put our worst chances of a double-dip recession at 50/50. But a group of economists is saying this is actually wishful thinking?
LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. The Economic Cycle Research Institute, which pumps out popular predictions of where the U.S. is headed, says we are just beginning a recession or it is staring us smack in the face. The institute says the downturn could last less than a year and without major job loss, unless the European debt crisis sends the U.S. economy reeling. Yesterday, a government economic report showed meager second-quarter growth.
And the very same bacteria responsible for killing 15 people who ate tainted cantaloupe now prompting a lettuce recall in 19 states and Canada. The FDA had a California grower recalling chopped or shredded Romaine has been recalled after a sample test turned up Listeria. No illnesses have been reported.
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 there may be a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for taxpayers in the Solyndra solar plant debacle. When the California company went bankrupt, the government was left holding a hefty bag, a half-a-billion-dollar loan. But experts say the government could recoup millions if -- if another company buys the state-of-the-art facility or the company itself.
And the Pentagon is making more changes after the military's turnabout on the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy less than two weeks ago. A new memo says military chaplains are able to officiate any same-sex wedding, if they want, whether on or off a military base, as long as state and local laws allow -- Joe.
JOHNS: Wow, what a change that is.
SYLVESTER: I know that they had been going back and forth. There was some guidance that they were going to, then they weren't. Now it's going forward.
JOHNS: Change comes slowly. Thanks, Lisa.
Unprecedented access to the government lab dedicated to preventing what some call a cyber Pearl Harbor. Details of the frightening scenarios they're playing out.
JOHNS: What would happen if cyber terrorists launched an online attack against a chemical plant or power and water supplies? Government experts are working those scenarios right now in an unlikely location, and CNN's Dan Simon was given unprecedented access -- Dan.
DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Joe, when you think about the state of Idaho, you're likely to think about one thing: potatoes. It is, after all, the driving force of the state's economy. But just a few miles away from here in the town of Idaho Falls, government workers are trying to protect the country from terrorism. Not from bullets or bombs, but from computers. It turns out that Idaho is ground zero in the fight against cyber terrorism.
MARTY EDWARDS, DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY: This is an example of one vendor's systems that we have under test.
SIMON: Leading that fight is Marty Edwards. His job is to prevent cyber criminals from breaking into systems that control everything from a city's power grid to the water supply.
EDWARDS: As these systems become more connected to networks in general and to the Internet, there's a lot of concern about people being able to manipulate these systems for ill intent.
SIMON: To show what can happen and what's being done about it, the Department of Homeland Security invited CNN and other media outlets for a rare look inside the Idaho National Laboratory.
This section was made to look like a water treatment or chemical plant. Another was built to represent a power substation. Both where specialists can run a wide array of experiments, including injecting a power grid with a computer virus that could knock out electricity for a wide area. The key is to see how the system reacts and what software upgrades can be done to prevent it from happening in the first place.
(on camera) We don't want to frighten people, but these threats are real.
EDWARDS: Absolutely are real. But I think the average American doesn't understand that the vast majority of the infrastructure around them is controlled by computer devices. And as we all know, we can get viruses on our systems at home. These systems are susceptible to similar types of events.
SIMON (voice-over): And viruses have the potential to leave entire cities or entire regions with contaminated water and without power.
In 2007, for instance, the lab conducted a then-classified experiment known as Aurora. The government test showed how hackers could not only shut off an electric generator, but actually destroy it.
Any major knockout could be dubbed a cyber Pearl Harbor. Worse yet, even if there were an attack, the experts might not even know it.
JOE WEISS: Can there be a cyber Pearl Harbor? Absolutely. Would we know it's a cyber Pearl Harbor? I don't believe so.
SIMON: Security specialists like Joe Weiss worry about cyber criminals staying one step ahead, by being able to inflict damage without leaving a trace.
WEISS: Can you hide a plant shutting down and the lights going off? No. Can you not know that it was cyber that caused it? The answer is yes.
SIMON (voice-over): Just like the potatoes, cyber terrorism comes in many different varieties. The Idaho National Laboratory is trying to identify all of them, but most important, to try to prevent attacks from happening -- Joe.
JOHNS: And remember, beginning Monday, THE SITUATION ROOM moves up an hour. Be sure to join us from 4 to 6 p.m. Eastern on weekdays. "JOHN KING USA" will follow at 6 Eastern. And the new "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" airs at 7 p.m. Eastern. For international viewers this program will remain on at the same time.
I'm Joe Johns in the situation room. For our international viewers, "WORLD REPORT" is next. And in North America, "JOHN KING USA" starts right now.