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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With Maryland Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger; Terror Threat; Alex Rodriguez Holds Press Conference; A-Rod Speaks Out about Suspension; Obama's Setbacks Against al Qaeda; Terrorist Mastermind Working to Outsmart U.S.; Military on Alert in Countries with Closed Embassies

Aired August 5, 2013 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, U.S. forces are on the move to respond to a potentially terror attack after U.S. officials broke into communications at the highest level of al Qaeda. The terror group's master bomb maker also may be involved. He could pose more danger to Americans than any other terrorist.

And Yankees star Alex Rodriguez about to speak out this hour about his suspension from Major League Baseball and his plan to appeal.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

U.S. officials say an attack could happen anywhere in the world at any time. We can now report that the newest terror threat appears to have been ordered by none other than Osama bin Laden's successor. A shutdown of U.S. embassies and consulates has been extended. Nineteen American diplomatic missions in the Middle East and Africa, they are now closed and will remain closed for the rest of this week.

Our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence is joining us now. He's got more on the threat, the U.S. response. What's the latest, Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, local security teams have closed access roads and even installed extra blast walls outside some American embassies and a newly formed quick reaction team of 500 Marines is now ready to deploy within four hours from its base in Spain.

And while U.S. officials still don't know if the al Qaeda threat involves embassies or trains, airplanes or air bases, new revelations clearly show why they're telling the Americans to take it seriously.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE (voice-over): The cascade of warnings and American embassy closures was triggered by an intercepted communication, which is now being revealed as a direct order from al Qaeda's leader.

CNN has learned Ayman al-Zawahri ordered his new deputy in Yemen to basically do something and launch an attack. That deputy, Nasir al- Wuhayshi, high on the U.S. target list, along with another Yemeni, al Qaeda's master bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri. JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The threat emanates from and maybe focused on occurring in the Arabian Peninsula -- Peninsula, rather, but it could potentially be beyond that.

LAWRENCE: The message directly links the central al Qaeda group that carried out attacks on 9/11 with AQAP, its affiliate in Yemen. Analysts say, unlike 2001, senior leaders give broad instructions, not step-by-step orders on carrying out a specific attack.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: You have a separate chain, to some extent, of experienced technical people and leaders who actually carry out attacks, make bombs, put the equipment together.

LAWRENCE: On Monday, senior administration officials met to talk about a resurgent al Qaeda. U.S. military and intel assets were being redeployed around the world in light of the new threat.

Special operations teams have been placed on high alert overseas. Drone surveillance has been stepped up and analysts are collecting more satellite images trying to pinpoint a target.

MARIE HARF, SPOKESWOMAN, STATE DEPARTMENT: We are going to keep evaluating information as it comes in.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE: CNN obtained the information about the al Qaeda leader's involvement over the weekend. We did not report Zawahri's name and that level of detail at the time because U.S. government officials had concerns over the sensitivity of that information. Since then, other media outlets have reported that, including "The New York Times," and because it is now out there in such a wide form, CNN has now decided to go ahead and report that.

BLITZER: All right, Chris, thank you for that explanation. Chris Lawrence over at the Pentagon.

Let's get some more now with our CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank and he's here in Washington. Also joining us, our national security analyst Fran Townsend and she's in New York. She's the former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush. She currently serves on the CIA's external advisory board as well.

Paul, we're talking about intercepting some sort of communication between Ayman al-Zawahri, the al Qaeda leader, and someone else. What does that mean?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: It's very unlikely that Ayman al-Zawahri would have actually sent an e-mail himself because that would just invite a drone strike on his position in Pakistan.

He's more likely to have used the same technique that bin Laden did in his compound in Abbottabad, which actually is write out a message on a Word document, and then give it to a courier on a thumb drive who would then send it to presumably to another courier in Yemen, to then pass this leader in Yemen Wuhayshi. BLITZER: Fran, you're an expert on this subject. A sensitive subject. Now that Ayman al-Zawahri and his top aides know the U.S. intercepted this communication between the al Qaeda leader and someone else presumably al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, they suspect the U.S. has this capability and they're going to try to change their communications so this will undermine what the U.S. had, right?

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Wolf, that's exactly right, which explains why U.S. government officials initially asked media outlets to please not report that it was a communication between Zawahri and the leader of AQAP, the Yemen affiliate.

Those two individuals understand precisely how they communicated, whether it was, as Paul suggests, through a cutout in a thumb drive, whether it was by telephone or a cell phone of some sort. They know precisely how that communication took place and they will absolutely not use that again knowing that the U.S. government was able to intercept it.

BLITZER: And so we don't know in terms of how the interception took place whether it was stolen from some Web site or something like that, from some sort of cafe where they were sending these e-mails, if they were e-mails, or if there was an informant or something along those lines, right?

CRUICKSHANK: That's absolutely right. We don't know that for sure at this point whether it was an electronic intercept or they managed to get ahold of the courier. That's right, Wolf.

BLITZER: What's your analysis, Fran, on what's going on right now? How serious is this current threat? Because the longer it goes on, the more Americans are going to probably say, well, nothing has happened, it can't be that bad.

TOWNSEND: That's right, Wolf, but we should remind our viewers that look, one of the reasons the government takes the risk and makes it public is to buy themselves time, buy themselves time to identify the individuals involved, the bombers, the tactical people, the explosives to disrupt it and to perhaps use whether it's drones or foreign intelligence services to actually thwart the plot.

So while there will be things we don't see, it doesn't mean the U.S. government and its allies aren't taking action. This is an incredibly serious threat. When you have got Zawahri himself and the head of AQAP in Yemen discussing this sort of a plot, you know that it's serious.

Remember, Zawahri issued a video statement talking about the Muslim brothers around the world who were incarcerated. We have seen these prison breaks with 2,000 al Qaeda-related or affiliates have escaped from prison in eight countries throughout the region. There's a lot of activity in addition to this intercept that have caused the U.S. government and its allies to take this quite seriously.

BLITZER: You wrote an article, Paul, about this new al Qaeda leader, the number two al Qaeda leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, and it comes at a time when I just got a press release from the embassy the Republic of Yemen here in Washington, D.C., listing 25 suspected terrorists that are now on their most wanted list, including this Nasir al-Wuhayshi.

Tell us about it.

CRUICKSHANK: This is a man with significant pedigree in the jihadist movement. He was bin Laden's private secretary in Afghanistan. He then built up AQAP after escaping from jail in Yemen in 2006.

He's seen within the al Qaeda movement as a potential long-term successor to bin Laden. He has the same sort of calm, humble charisma that bin Laden had as far as his followers are concerned. Seen as perhaps the new bin Laden, someone who could one day fill his shoes.

BLITZER: Doesn't he realize that being the number two al Qaeda leader may be the most dangerous job in the world? Because the U.S. often gets the number two. It's the number one. They got bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri is still around.

CRUICKSHANK: Well, that's absolutely right. But Wuhayshi has been on the U.S. radar screen for quite some time. He's in hiding somewhere in Yemen. He's quite good at keeping safe for the moment, Wolf.

BLITZER: Fran, now that they know that the U.S. is on to something, isn't it possible that may call the whole thing off?

TOWNSEND: Unlikely that they will call the whole thing off, Wolf. More likely that they will delay it, which as you mentioned earlier, will cause Americans to say wait a minute, we had this big threat warning and nothing happened. That's a good thing.

It gives us time to disrupt. And frankly, our allies in the region, especially the Saudi security services who understand better than anyone in world al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, it gives them time to help to act against the group.

BLITZER: The Yemeni government and the leader of Yemen was just at the White House last week. They have been pretty important players in this as well, right, Fran?

TOWNSEND: Absolutely, Wolf. And they have grown capability with the help of the Saudis, the Americans and their allies. They have grown a real security service that's been very cooperative both with Western governments and in the region.

BLITZER: Fran Townsend and Paul Cruickshank, guys, thanks very much for coming in.

Up next, a U.S. intelligence insider says an attack still could happen any moment. U.S. embassies aren't necessarily the target.

And we're standing by to hear directly from Alex Rodriguez, the Yankee slugger about to speak out about his suspension from Major League Baseball. There you see the Yankee manager, Joe Girardi. He's speaking to the media. I suspect A-Rod will be speaking soon.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Some top members of Congress are calling the new al Qaeda threat a wakeup call, that the terror group is, in many ways, they say, stronger than it was in many ways even before 9/11.

And joining us now, Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger. He's the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

Let's get right to it.

Is the threat, according to your analysis, as significant today as it was on Friday, when we first learned about it?

REP. DUTCH RUPPERSBERGER (D), MARYLAND: Yes, it is. It's a very serious threat. I've seen the intelligence. It's a threat coming from the highest levels of al Qaeda and especially focused in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen and -- and areas like that.

If you recall, in the past, the -- the attacks, really that were attempted and didn't go off -- the underwear bomber, the cartridge bomber, the Times Square, that was all emanating from Yemen.

Yemen has focused on the United States and attacking the homeland.

So we're very concerned about this. But we're concerned about other parts of the world. And our highest priority is to protect Americans wherever they are in the world.

And the best defense against terrorism is intelligence.

BLITZER: So as far as the intelligence community, Congressman, is concerned, do they still anticipate some sort of attempted terrorist plot to unfold within the next few days?

RUPPERSBERGER: We have to take every precaution that is necessary to protect American lives and that's what we're doing. We want to put everyone in the world and Americans on alert. And with that, we also are asking people, if they see anything unusual, to let the authority know -- authorities know right away.

So we have to make sure that we take every precaution. And that's why we're maintaining and that's why the president is -- has decided to take this into next Friday at this point. We're attempting to get all the information we can, all the intelligence we can through -- from our allies and other people.

But we take this threat very, very seriously.

BLITZER: So as far as timing is concerned, you're worried it could help literally at any moment?

RUPPERSBERGER: Well, that's the concern. And we're concerned about techniques. We know that al Qaeda has understand and has learned some of our sources and methods, so they're not planning the big attacks and letting a lot of people know. That's what happened with the attempted attacks just in the United States. And -- and because of that, we're concerned about different techniques, about, you know, putting explosives plastic explosives on people's bodies so those explosives will not be detected.

They're -- they're continuing to move and trying to find ways to attack us and kill Americans and our allies.

So we have to be vigilant and we have to take every precaution. And we want to make sure that -- that Americans are aware. And we also want the bad guys, we want the people who are attempting to kill us every day know that we understand the threats there and we're doing everything we can to stop it.

BLITZER: Do you think all this publicity surrounding the -- the U.S. actions now, in the aftermath of these fears, may have derailed these plots or convinced the terrorists out there, if they were planning on doing something, not to do it now?

RUPPERSBERGER: It's a good question, but that's part of the tactic. Not only are we letting Americans throughout the world and the United States know that there's a possible -- that there's not a possible, there is a threat that is out there but it also sends a message to al Qaeda, you know, we're getting intelligence and we're going to do what we can to stop it. And we're doing everything we can, ever -- everything that we can do legally to get information to find out who's doing it, where it's going to happen and -- and to try to stop it.

BLITZER: And just to recap, the threat emanates from Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen...

RUPPERSBERGER: No, I didn't say -- I didn't say it emanated. I said we're concerned that that's where a lot of the planning and that's where the focus might be. We don't have as much detailed intelligence as we would like, but we do have intelligence on the -- on the actual threat itself.

So we're worried about al Qaeda and -- and where they are anyway in the world. There could be people that they've sent and put in place way before we heard or knew of this threat. That's why we have to be aware.

BLITZER: So it could be here in the United States, it could be in Europe, it could be in Middle in the Middle East?

The -- the U.S. intelligence community doesn't know?

RUPPERSBERGER: We have to be ready. And that's why we don't have the exact specifics. But let me say this. You know, part of what al Qaeda tries to do, and terrorists, is disrupt. Americans should live their lives just as they have every day, but just be aware.

That -- we don't -- we don't want people to stop, but we want them to be aware. I wouldn't take an -- a vacation to Yemen, though. I mean that just doesn't make sense -- or other hot spots. And that's why we've closed the embassies in those hot spots throughout the world, because we think, at this point, they might be the most vulnerable.

BLITZER: If the embassies are reopened, is that a sign that the threat has gone away?

RUPPERSBERGER: Well, I can't -- I can't discuss that at this point, because I don't know. But we're attempting to get intelligence. We're getting briefed on this on a regular basis and we have all the mechanisms that we use and working with our allies to find out what's going on and whether or not this -- the threat has -- has dissipated.

But, again, you don't want to be in a position where you're saying everything is OK and then all of a sudden we're vulnerable and we get attacked.

So we're taking every precaution that we can to protect Americans throughout the world, and our allies.

BLITZER: You referred to this bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri this Yemeni bomb maker. I think he's originally from Saudi Arabia, but he's believed to be in Yemen right now.

Is he key to this potential plot?

RUPPERSBERGER: He -- he very well could be. And there are other people that have a lot of expertise that are working with al Qaeda and attempting to put together -- find ways to kill us and to make sure they can go through areas where, as an example, through an airport so they wouldn't be detected. That's why they're doing research and development.

These are serious people who are attempting to kill us and they're very smart. And we have to stay a step ahead of them.

So, you know, we have to be aware of the bomb maker. He's very good at what he does. And he is a -- he is an enemy of -- of the United States and he wants to kill Americans.

BLITZER: Dutch Ruppersberger is the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks very much.

RUPPERSBERGER: OK, Wolf.

We're standing by. We're awaiting Alex Rodriguez. We expect him to come to this microphone there in Chicago where the Yankees are playing tonight, his first public comments about today's 211-game suspension. As soon as we see A-Rod start speaking, we're going there live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ALEX RODRIGUEZ, NEW YORK YANKEES: -- tough surgery and a rehab program and being 38.

I am thrilled and humbled to have the opportunity to put on this uniform again and to play Major League Baseball again.

And I feel like I was 18 years old back in Fenway Park in 1994 when I went in to face the Red Sox for the very first time. And it's been 20 years. Just very excited to have the opportunity to go out there and play baseball and help my team win and prove to myself, my teammates, the fans of New York, the fans of baseball that I still have a shot to play the game at a high level and I'm going to give it my best.

QUESTION: The ball players accepted (OFF-MIKE) What went into your decision?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, there was a lot. I'm not going to get into any of that today.

I think obviously disappointing with the news today, no question about it. But what we have always fought for is for the process. And I think we have that, and at some point we will sit in front of an arbiter and give our case. And that's as much as I feel comfortable telling you right now.

QUESTION: In your statement today, you said you were disappointed in the penalty that MLB imposed, but you didn't deny the charges. Do you deny that you used PEDs?

RODRIGUEZ: Like I said, I think we will have a form to discuss all of that and we will talk about it then.

QUESTION: Alex, do you feel that this is a witch-hunt by Major League Baseball?

RODRIGUEZ: A what?

QUESTION: A witch-hunt.

RODRIGUEZ: I don't want to discuss that.

I don't know what the motivation is for any of this. But I'm going to respect the process. I feel good that we have an opportunity to do that in the right platform. And we're going to follow the B.A. and state our case.

QUESTION: What are the likelihoods that during the process of the appeal and you see the evidence that Major League Baseball may have against you, that you would drop that appeal and go on, as life goes on?

RODRIGUEZ: I'm sorry. You have got to repeat that first part of that question.

QUESTION: What are the chances that after -- during the appeal, you see the evidence that Major League Baseball has against you, they have to show you that, is it likely that you would back away from the appeal and go on and take the punishment? RODRIGUEZ: If I'm understanding your question properly, we have seen everything.

And, again, there will be a time and a place for all of that. And when the time is right, we will all speak more freely.

QUESTION: Alex, if the appeal process does not go your way, have you come to terms at all with the idea that your baseball career could possibly be over?

RODRIGUEZ: Say that first part again.

QUESTION: If the appeal process does not go your way, have you come to terms yet personally with the idea that your baseball career could possibly be over?

RODRIGUEZ: I have got to tell you, I haven't thought that far ahead, but I am so excited to have an opportunity to wear this uniform and help this team win.

There's a lot of baseball to be played for us this year. And I hope that for one moment with this appeal process, we have an opportunity to talk about the greatest game in the world, to take a little bit of a time-out from this, and give the fans of baseball an opportunity to focus on all the great stories that are happening in baseball right now.

Above all, I'm a huge baseball fan. And I hope that we can put the light on a lot of this. So hopefully today we can take a time-out and take a deep breath and focus on all these great baseball stories.

QUESTION: Alex, Friday was when you were mentioned -- you mentioned there were a couple of different parties that were trying to keep you off the field. You didn't specify, but the perception was that it was the Yankees were one of them.

I was wondering with you coming back now and being among the team, the general manager here is -- now, do you have to talk to Brian Cashman at all coming back or talk to anybody to clear the air or try to clarify what you had said (OFF-MIKE)

RODRIGUEZ: Well, I spoke with Cash last night -- I mean, yesterday afternoon. And we just talked about playing third base today, being back. He welcomed me back.

And for me, it's going to be business as usual. I have got a job to do. We have -- I have 24 teammates in there. We have a mission to enter the postseason. Obviously, we have challenges ahead of us. But I think my focus is what can I do to help this team win? I'm trying to talk to all my teammates, understand what's been happening here the last three or four months, kind of get in the groove as quick as I can and help lead this team, help lead this offensive team to where we need to go.

QUESTION: Two quick ones. First of all, based on your conversations with your attorneys with the union, do you expect to play through the season, just based on the timing of the appeals process?

RODRIGUEZ: I haven't gotten any indication of the timing of anything. I'm so focused on tonight, and it's been a long time for me.

And the last time I was on the field, it wasn't pretty. It was against Detroit in the playoffs and against Baltimore. And I was horrific. So I have an opportunity now to come in and hit in the middle of the lineup, hopefully get some big hits, and help this team enter the playoffs.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) said today, referring to your comments Friday night, he said they were -- he thought they were counterproductive and he thought Alex probably isn't that happy with those comments.

(CROSSTALK)

RODRIGUEZ: Who was not happy?

QUESTION: Michael Weiner was saying that perhaps you were not happy, looking back, with those comments. Wondering how you feel about them a few days later.

RODRIGUEZ: I said what I said.

That's Friday night. Today is another day. And I'm focused on what my job is and my responsibilities to the New York Yankees and the fan base of New York. I do want to thank all the fans and some of the media people that are here today and my Dominican people and all the Hispanics all over the world.

I mean, the support I have gotten has been incredible. It's been the toughest fight of my life. By any means, am I out of the woods? This is probably just phase two just starting. It's not going to get easier. It's probably going to get harder. But I am humbled and I'm thankful for the support.

QUESTION: One thing I don't quite understand, you have said there's a time and a place to talk about stuff. If you didn't use PEDs in this recent -- why don't you just say it?

RODRIGUEZ: There's a lot of things that have been thrown to the wall. And I think when the time is right, there will be an opportunity to do all of that.

I don't think that time is right now and I don't want to interfere or get in the way of anything that -- with due process.

QUESTION: In 2009, you asked fans to judge you from that point forward in your press conference at spring training. What would you say to them now, the people who took you on your word then?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, I would tell them that, you know, please have some patience. Let this process play out. And, you know, in due time, we will have an opportunity to reset.

QUESTION: A lot of stuff has gone on in the last few weeks and months with the Yankees, between you and the Yankees. Do you feel that they want you back?

RODRIGUEZ: If I'm productive, I think they want me back.

I think -- I feel tremendous support from our clubhouse. I feel great support from my manager. I think overall, we all have the same goal. But you know, New York is about winning championships. It's about producing. And hopefully, I'll have an opportunity to do that and help us all reach our goal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Over the course of the last however long, any decisions you made, any action chose to make, if you regret -- are there regrets? If there are things you regret, I'm wondering about what those might be.

RODRIGUEZ: You're talk about specifically over...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

RODRIGUEZ: Look, Tim, there's nothing about it has been easy. All of it has been challenging. I'm sure there's been mistakes made along the way. We're here now. I'm a human being.

And I've had two hip surgeries. I've had two knee surgeries. I'm fighting for my life. I have to defend myself. If I don't defend myself, no one else will. There's a process. I'm happy the process in due time hopefully -- whatever happens happens.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One in Espanol. (SPEAKING SPANISH)

BLITZER: All right. Since they're going to Spanish, we'll break away. But you get the gist of what Alex Rodriguez has to say.

He was suspended by Major League Baseball today for 211 games, the rest of this season, all of next season. Could cost him $31 million. But he's appealing, so that means he could still play during the appeal process -- appeals process, and he will be playing tonight for the New York Yankees.

Ben Reiter, "Sports Illustrated," is joining us right now. What's your immediate reaction to what we just heard, Ben?

BEN REITER, "SPORTS ILLUSTRATED": One thing is clear, Wolf. Whatever Alex Rodriguez did during his time away it was not taking acting classes. The pregnant pauses, the biting of the lip in his introductory statement. None of that was very believable.

But that's really beside the issue here. That's not at issue. He did not deny that he took performance-enhancing drugs in this press conference. He declined to address that question. What he really said again and again was let's let the process play out. Let's trust the process. That's referring to the grievance process that's about to begin here.

And that's really related to the length and severity of this penalty: 211 games. That's simply unprecedented. We've had major-league players commit violent crimes who have not gotten that suspension. Hate crimes. Multiple failed drug tests.

So that's really where we are right now. At issue is not whether Alex Rodriguez did or did not take performance-enhancing drugs. If he didn't, he'd be the victim of one of the greatest conspiracies in sports history. What's really at issue is this very, very severe penalty, and I think that A-Rod probably played it right in focusing on that process.

BLITZER: And now it will be up to, what, an outside arbiter to decide whether or not the suspension goes forward or doesn't go forward? But this could take weeks, if not months, for that outside arbitration to take place. In the meantime, he will continue to play, he will continue to get paid, right?

REITER: That's absolutely right. Major league baseball -- the union chief today projected that this grievance could last through November or December. Of course, the major league season only goes into October if the Yankees are fortunate enough to make the playoffs.

So I think at this point, health permitting, we should expect to see Alex Rodriguez on the field for the rest of this season. What happens after that, we'll just have to wait and see.

BLITZER: He's batting cleanup tonight, right?

REITER: Batting cleanup, playing third base for the New York Yankees, who actually need him, as Derek Jeter went back on the disabled list today. So the Yankees might not want to pay his contract, but if he can be a shell of his former self, they could certainly use his bat.

BLITZER: They certainly could. We'll see how he does. A lot of people, I'm sure, will be watching the game tonight. All right, Ben. Thanks very much. Ben Reiter from our sister publication, "Sports Illustrated."

Still ahead, Obama once declared that the U.S. had al Qaeda on the run. Does he regret those words right now?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The White House clearly trying to keep Americans' fears in check as we learn more about the threat of a possible terror attack in the coming days, maybe even hours. And it's all raising questions about President Obama's fight to weaken al Qaeda and whether it's been as successful as he has claimed.

Our national political correspondent, Jim Acosta, is over at the White House. What's going on here, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, White House officials are rejecting the notion that the administration has taken its eye off of the ball in its fight against al Qaeda. It is a fight the White House has maintained for months it's been winning.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): The Obama administration is defending its decision to shut down almost 20 diplomatic posts near al Qaeda hot spots as a temporary measure as out of an abundance of caution, not weakness.

JIM CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We believe that this threat is significant, and we are taking it seriously.

ACOSTA: But it's a new terror tack for the president who made the call to take out Osama bin Laden and has talked up his administration's successes against al Qaeda, a key theme in his re- election campaign.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And al Qaeda is on the path to defeat, and Osama bin Laden is dead.

ACOSTA: And months into his second term.

OBAMA: For al Qaeda is a shell of its former self.

ACOSTA: In light of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the new terror alert, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham says far from it.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: After Benghazi, these al Qaeda types are really on steroids, thinking we're weaker and they're stronger.

ACOSTA (on camera): Is it fair anymore to say that al Qaeda is on the path to defeat?

CARNEY: Well, I think as most people who cover these issues understand the al Qaeda core is the Afghanistan-Pakistan base. There is no question over the past several years al Qaeda core has been greatly diminished. And we have made clear over the past several years that AQAP, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is of particular concern.

ACOSTA (voice-over): But al Qaeda core appears to be evolving. The man leading AQAP, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, is now believed to be al Qaeda's No. 2 in command.

The ultimate question, terror analysts say, is whether this new al Qaeda still has the capacity to pull off another 9/11-style attack. The closing of the embassies, some of which are already like bunkers, are reminders the terror network can still make an impact.

JASON CAMPBELL, RAND CORPORATION: To some degree, there is at least somewhat of a propaganda victory for al Qaeda. Because they're forcing us, the United States, to act in a way that we otherwise wouldn't or don't want to.

ACOSTA (on camera): The (UNINTELLIGIBLE) have been taken off?

CARNEY: I think, again, any fair assessment would conclude that. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: As for those NSA surveillance efforts that have been leaked out in the next several weeks, lawmakers on the Sunday talk shows basically pointed to this terror threat in calling those programs a success, saying that they've proven their worth.

But White House press secretary, when asked about whether or not the administration agrees with that assessment, Wolf, he said he did not want to blend these issues -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim, thank you. Jim Acosta over at the White House.

Two guests join us now with different takes on the al Qaeda threat to the United States right now. Cliff May is the president for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and our national security analyst, Peter Bergen, an author, is here, as well.

Peter, you wrote a piece a little bit over a year or so ago, saying -- and the headline was, "Time to Declare a Victory: al Qaeda is Defeated." We discussed this. Are you ready to revise or amend? Do you want to change that? What's your assessment right now based on this current threat?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Al Qaeda, the organization that attacked us on 9/11, is still defeated by any kind of objective standard. It hasn't done a successful attack in the United States since 9/11. It hasn't done an attack at all in the west since July 7, 2005, the London attacks. Most of its leadership is dead.

Now, al Qaeda in particular places in Syria is back. But they have shown no interest or ability to attack outside of the United -- outside Syria. Al Qaeda in Iraq is back. So, you know, particular regional affiliates of al Qaeda are doing better.

Does that mean that the United States is in grave danger? The answer is no.

CLIFF MAY, FOUNDATION FOR THE DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: We disagree, and here's the reason we disagree. Between 1993, when the World Trade Center was attacked the first time, and 2001, there wasn't an attack in the U.S. and there was a lot of complacency. And the result was we were...

BLITZER: The two U.S. embassies were destroyed in 1998.

MAY: But it wasn't in the U.S.

What we have seen is al Qaeda evolving, al Qaeda morphing, al Qaeda getting a structure that we might call a network with various nodes. The U.S. government right now is saying that there are at least 17 countries -- 17 -- in which they believe al Qaeda has the ability to attack our embassies or our consulates. That's a lot of countries for a defeated organization to have. Plus, they're the most important fighting force in Syria, not a small fighting force, the most important. Plus, they have been killing more people -- I think it was 700 in July alone -- in Iraq than we've seen in a very long time. Plus, they have affiliates in Nigeria, affiliates in Somalia. In Mali, they took over until the French went in.

This is an organization that is decentralized and has a network structure that may be more powerful and dangerous.

BLITZER: That's what Peter King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism, says; he makes the same point.

BERGEN: Yes, and these points aren't necessarily in contradiction with each other. The fact that it's a more decentralized, more networked organization doesn't actually make it more dangerous. I mean, it means that we've put a lot of pressure on these groups. They find it hard to organize together. If they have a safe haven, we attack them with drones. We kill a lot of their leaders. They kind of have fallen into this decentralized mode because they've been forced to.

But let's say the invasion of Normandy wasn't conducted by a decentralized network. It was conducted by the U.S. military, a highly organized organization. So the fact that al Qaeda has been sort of pushed down and has become more disorganized, less bureaucratic, and all the other things that we associated with it before 9/11 means that it is much harder for it to attack the United States.

MAY: Well, we don't know until it actually happens. This is a different kind of war than World War II. And what we need to do is adjust to that, and I think that means taking the war to the enemy, taking it to the various cells in these various countries where they exist.

But keep in mind: even core al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, he was in touch with his commander in Yemen, who is, as you reported, a very close aide de camp to Osama bin Laden. And we know of at least two other circumstances in which he has been in direct contact. In other words, Ayman al-Zawahiri is an active manager of al Qaeda.

BLITZER: Is he like bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri?

BERGEN: Well, he hasn't presided over -- he's presiding over an organization that is on life support, and he hasn't been able to conduct any attack against the United States or in fact...

MAY: The embassy.

BLITZER: But this is a propaganda victory for al Qaeda. All the alarm that has been generated, the concern that has been generated.

BERGEN: Sure. If the definition of victory is that we closed some embassies, I mean, that is not a particularly big deal. A big deal is an attack on the United States. A big deal is an attack that kills Americans, and these groups have shown almost no ability to do so.

BLITZER: I know we're approaching the anniversary of 9/11 and the first anniversary of Benghazi. So people are nervous, as I can testify, because I've been hearing it from senior U.S. officials over the past few days. But we'll see what happens. Hopefully nothing and then we can move on.

Peter, thanks very much.

Cliff, thanks to you, as well.

MAY: Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next, the man behind al Qaeda's next generation of bombs, his possible role in the latest terror threat and desperate moves to keep him safe.

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BLITZER: An unprecedented closure of American embassies and consulates now extended all week after the interception of an al Qaeda message that has the United States on a higher terror alert. Al Qaeda may be relying on one man for its next attack, a bomb maker who's as ruthless as he is ingenious.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us now. He's been looking into this individual. What are you finding out?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we've been speaking with U.S. intelligence officials today about this man, Ibrahim al-Asiri. He is the top bomb maker for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. U.S. officials tell us he's hiding out in Yemen. He's on the run. He's a high-value target for American drones. But he is as much of a threat to American interests as any member of al Qaeda.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): U.S. intelligence officials have said he could be the most dangerous terrorist America faces. Ibrahim al-Asiri, only 31 years old, master bomb maker for the group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He could be involved in the current threat screen.

A U.S. intelligence official tells CNN al-Asiri is the, quote, "golden goose" of that al Qaeda affiliate. They're guarded about his communications, determined to protect him.

CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen says that's for good reason.

BERGEN: The ability to smuggle an, essentially undetectable bomb onto a plane or some other location, I mean, that's golden for al Qaeda.

TODD: Western intelligence officials say Asiri is behind the foiled 2009 underwear bomb plot to bring down an airliner approaching Detroit on Christmas day and a 2010 plot to send bombs in printer cartridges in cargo planes bound for the U.S. Both plots were foiled at the last minute.

In 2009, al-Asiri even planted a bomb on his own brother in his underwear or a body cavity. The brother got close to Saudi Arabia's counterterror chief and set it off, killing himself but not the Saudi minister.

(on camera): What does it say that he does this with his own brother?

BRIAN CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: It says that he's absolutely ruthless. But not only is Ibrahim al-Asiri absolutely ruthless; he is, according to leading explosive experts in the west, really good at what he does. He's produced the most sophisticated devices ever seen from al Qaeda.

TODD (voice-over): Last year, U.S. officials say, al-Asiri was behind another foiled plot to send another bomb in the underwear of a terrorist on a commercial plane bound for the U.S. The head of the TSA called that a next-gen device.

JOHN PISTOLE, TSA ADMINISTRATOR: It was a new type of explosive that we had never seen in either attempts in the U.S. or around the world by terrorists, so all of our explosive detection equipment, which screens over a million checked bags every day just in the U.S. wasn't calibrated to detect that.

TODD (on camera): John Pistole said that device had what he called a double initiation system. Two syringes of chemical detonators instead of one. And he says al-Asiri encased that bomb in household caulk so the explosive vapors couldn't be detected by machines or dogs.

(voice-over): Has this young mastermind trained others?

BERGEN: I think the understanding is that he has instructed other people in his techniques. Now, he's obviously a pretty skilled bomb maker. To what extent has he replicated himself I don't think is clear.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Could al-Asiri's newest bombs evade detection by the TSA body scanners, the ones he's made since last year? Well, that's not clear. But the TSA would only tell us it has a multi-layered strategy to detect explosives, including what it calls the best imaging technology -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Pretty dangerous bomb maker, to be sure. All right, Brian, thanks very much for that.

Coming up, U.S. forces are now on the move, so how quickly could they respond if -- if al Qaeda strikes?

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BLITZER: Teams of U.S. military Special Forces now on alert overseas as the United States extends its unprecedented embassy closures amid concern about a possible terror plot. A senior administration official tells CNN the Special Forces would attack potential al Qaeda targets if the U.S. can identify those targets behind the current threats.

CNN's Tom Foreman is working this part of the story for us, along with our CNN contributor, the retired U.S. Army general, Spider Marks.

So explain, Tom, what's going on.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we all know about the presence of al Qaeda in this region. Let's light up the map to look at it here. Where it's red on here, you can see where they have their strongest presence. Where it's gold, a little bit weaker in their presence. And where are all the areas that we're really concerned about, our embassies and western interests. So you can see the overlap.

General, talk to us about the military presence that routinely guards all these areas against that al Qaeda threat.

GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Tom, there are military forces assigned in Europe that can reach into the region very quickly. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine. And the Marine alert status has increased in both Spain and Italy, and there is a naval presence right off Yemen in the Red Sea. There are Marines afloat with that naval presence, as well.

FOREMAN: So people who can get on the ground very quickly.

Yemen is a particular interest here. I want to step back and we'll flip this down so we can look at the landscape of Yemen here. And particularly we're going to go to the capital and talk about the U.S. embassy there. This is the compound that we're going to highlight. It's about two and a half, three blocks square, something like that.

General, what is the military presence inside a compound like this? What is their mission?

MARKS: Inside the embassy grounds, there will be a Marine force, a Marine guard force of 15 to 25, maybe more folks now highly trained, capable of kinetic operations to protect personnel and the facility. No authority to conduct offensive operations outside the compound.

FOREMAN: So their responsibility stops right at the wall, but there is activity outside the wall. If we look at this, you can see there's been pressure put on the roads outside here to try to control some of the traffic to and from, not to let any big trucks get nearby. How is that happening?

MARKS: Well, you're going see essentially two things. One, you're going to see blockades, barriers that take place to move forces and crowds to areas where you want them to be. You're also going to see very mobile up-armored capability, and with intelligence, those capabilities can move into very certain locations and start out to move crowds away.

FOREMAN: And is this something that is controlled by or operated by the U.S. military?

MARKS: No, not at all. These are Yemeni military forces. There's coordination between the U.S. and the Yemeni military. But this is where the United States relies on local forces to take care of our security outside the compound.

FOREMAN: And Wolf mentioned just a minute ago the idea of Special Operations forces. Is there any real role for them in all of this? And if so, what?

MARKS: The Special Ops guys are there, and I would assume that they are, from the joint Special Operations command. Very precise targeting, rescue operations, and providing kinetic, very high-skilled forces on the ground, if there is a threat to this compound that the Marines can't handle.

FOREMAN: And that would be true in many, many places out there, Wolf, not just here in Yemen, as the U.S. military stands by to bring a lot of force to bear if any of these threats to come pass.

BLITZER: And all these countries, as Spider Marks knows, the U.S. has to rely on the host country for a lot of the security and they can't always rely on the host country, so that's a serious problem.

Guys, thanks very, very much.

Tomorrow here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the former Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, will be joining us.

Thanks very much for joining us today. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.