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Obama Speaks After Counterterrorism Meeting; Doing All We Can To Keep Terrorists Out; National Security Much Better Since 911; We Cannot Give In To Fear; No Specific Terror Threats Against U.S.; Charges for Friend of California Attackers. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired December 17, 2015 - 13:00   ET


[13:00:03] BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (live): And Director Comey and attorney general Lynch updated us on the investigation into the San Bernardino attacks. I reiterated that the investigation will continue to have this full support of the federal government. And that we should leave no stone unturned in determining why and how these terrorists carried out that tragedy.

Secretary of Homeland Security Johnson updated us on the measures we're taking here at home to increase awareness, stay vigilant and enhance the safety of the traveling public, especially with so many Americans traveling during the holidays.

After the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, I know that a lot of Americans were anxious and that's understandable. It's natural. But what matters most to all of us are our friends and our families and our communities and their safety. That's true of folks inside of government as well as outside of government.

But here's what I want every American to know. Since 911, we've taken extraordinary steps to strengthen our Homeland Security. Our borders, our ports, our airports, our aviation security, including enhanced watch lists and screening. And we've gotten much better, thanks, in part, to the people in this room, of preventing large complex attacks like 911.

Moreover, and I think everybody here will agree, we have the very best intelligence, counterterrorism, Homeland Security, and law enforcement professionals in the world. Our folks are the best. Now, across our government, these dedicated professionals, including here at NCTC, are relentless, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

At the operations center here, people from across our government work literally shoulder to shoulder, pouring over the latest information, analyzing it, integrating it, connecting the dots. They're sharing information, pushing it out across the federal government, and, just as importantly, to our state and local partners.

In other words, what you see here today is one strong united team. So, our professionals have a remarkable record of success. Of course, when terrorists pull off a despicable act like what happened in San Bernardino, it tears at our hearts but it also stiffens our resolve to learn whatever lessons we can and to make any improvements that are needed.

In the meantime, what the world doesn't always see are the successes. Those terrorist plots that have been prevented. And that's how it should be. This work oftentimes demands secrecy. But as Americans, we should not forget how good these patriots are.

Over the years, they have taken countless terrorists off the battlefield. They have disrupted plots. They've thwarted attacks. They have saved American lives. And so, for everybody who is involved in our counterterrorism efforts, I want to say thank you. And the American people thank you.

Now, I want to repeat what my team just told me. At this moment, our intelligence and counterterrorism professionals do not have any specific and credible information about an attack on the homeland. That said, we have to be vigilant. As I indicated in my address to the nation last week, we are in a new face of terrorism, including lone actors and small groups of terrorists like those in San Bernardino. Because they are smaller, often self-initiating, self- motivating, they're harder to detect. And that makes it harder to prevent.

But just as the threat evolves, so do we. We're constantly adapting, constantly improving, upping our game, getting better. And, today, the mission to protect our homeland goes on on three main fronts. First, we're going after terrorists over there where they plot and plan and spew their propaganda.

As I described at the Pentagon, we're hitting ISIL harder than ever in Syria and Iraq. We are taking out their leaders. Our partners on the ground are fighting to push ISIL back and ISIL has been losing territory. Our special operations forces are hard at work. We took out the ISIL leader in Libya. We've taken out terrorists in Yemen and Somalia. So, we're sending a message. If you target Americans, you will have no safe haven. We will find you and we will defend our nation.

[13:05:03] Meanwhile, as always, we're working to protect Americans overseas, including our military bases and service members. And Secretary John Kerry updated us on security at our embassies and our diplomatic posts.

Second, we continue to do everything in our power to prevent terrorists from getting into the United States. We're doing more with countries around the world, including our European partners, to prevent the flow of foreign terrorist fighters, both two places like Syria and Iraq and back into our countries.

We're implementing additional layers of security for visitors who come here under the visa waiver program, and we're working with Congress to make further improvements. Any refugee coming to the United States, some of them victims of terrorism themselves, will continue to get the most intensive scrutiny of any arrival. They go through up to two years of vetting, including bio metric screening. And the review that I ordered into the fiance visa program under which the female terrorist in San Bernardino came here is ongoing. Third, we're stepping up our efforts to prevent attacks here at home. As I said, the NCTC is constantly sharing information with our state and local partners. Across the country, more than 100 joint terrorism task forces are the action arm of this fight. Federal state and local experts all working together to disrupt threats. At the state level, fusion cells are receiving tips and pushing information out to local law enforcement.

And just yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security updated its alert system to make sure Americans are getting the most timely and useful information. And with groups like ISIL trying to radicalize people to violence, especially online, part of our meeting today focused on how we can continue to strengthen our partnership between law enforcement, high tech leaders, communities, faith leaders and citizens.

But we've got to keep on building up trust and cooperation that helps communities inoculate themselves from the kind of propaganda that ISIL's spewing out, preventing their loved ones, especially young people, from succumbing to terrorist ideologies in the first place.

And, finally, one of our greatest weapons against terrorism is our own strength and resilience as a people. Now, that means staying vigilant. If you see something suspicious, say something to law enforcement. It also means staying united as one American family. Remembering that our greatest allies in this fight are each other. Americans of all faiths and all backgrounds. And when Americans stand together, nothing can beat us.

Most of all, we cannot give in to fear or change how we live our lives because that's what terrorists want. That's the only leverage that they have. They can't defeat us on a battlefield, but they can lead us to change in ways that would undermine what this country's all about. And that's what we have to guard against.

We have to remind ourselves that when we stray -- stay true to our values, nothing can beat us. So, anyone trying to harm Americans need to know -- they need to know that we're strong and that we're resilient, that we will not be terrorized. We've prevailed over much greater threats than this. We will prevail again.

So, I want to, once again, thank all of you at NCTC and every one of your home agencies across our entire government for your extraordinary service. I want every American to know, as you go about the holidays, as you travel and gather with family and the kids open their presents and as you ring in the new year, that you've got dedicated patriots working around the clock all across the country to protect us all. Oftentimes, they're doing so by sacrificing their own holidays and their own time with families. But they care about this deeply and they're the best in the world. And for that, we're very grateful.

Thank you, everybody. Happy holidays.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: There he is, the president surrounded by the vice president, the secretary of state, the director of national intelligence, the CIA director, the attorney general, all the top national security law enforcement intelligence officials in the Obama administration, trying to reassure the American public right now that the U.S. is ready for terror attacks.

[13:10:01] We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

I want to immediately go to our Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta. Jim, the second in a series of discussions by the president in this war on terror. Earlier in the week, he was at the Pentagon. He's going to be heading out to San Bernardino, California tomorrow. The president on the eve of Christmas and New Year's wants to reassure the American public that this administration is on top of this terror threat.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. I think the theme all week at the White House has been very, you know, quickly, we got this. You know, from the days after the San Bernardino attacks, the president had that oval office address. He went to the Pentagon. He's just now received a briefing at the National Counterterrorism Center. And so, what they're trying to say to the American people is that there are people working around the clock who are going to try to prevent any terrorist attacks from occurring inside the United States.

And, Wolf, you know, the problem with what the president is facing, at this point, is he's facing some major doubts within the public. There's a new "Washington Post"-ABC poll that just came out earlier this morning that showed only 22 percent of Americans are confident that the U.S. government can prevent a lone wolf attack on the U.S. homeland. And so, that is what the president has been up against since San Bernadino. That's why you've seen this series of events.

I think that the little nugget of news that came out of that speech from the president, and we were warned in advance that perhaps there wouldn't be a whole lot of new policy or news coming out of this speech, is that there was a discussion at the National Counterterrorism Center, there in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C., about technology. Law enforcement forming better partnerships with technology firms.

Wolf, one of the big problems that this government has right now is dealing with social media, monitoring what potential lone wolf terrorists in the United States are doing on social media. How they're messaging back and forth between the United States and terrorists overseas through encryption. Right now, the U.S. Government doesn't have a way to get around some encrypted messages. That's a discussion that's taking place inside the White House and up on Capitol Hill.

So, the president did get an update on that, in terms of what they're trying to formulate with the law enforcement community. We might have more news in the coming days on that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's a very important development. There's an increased concern, as you point out, about encrypted communications by --

ACOSTA: Right.

BLITZER: -- various terrorist groups out there. The president, once again, saying, at this moment, based on everything his top national security advisers have told him, he said there is not any specific and credible attack that the U.S. knows of that's in the works. But that doesn't mean the U.S. cannot be vigilant right now.

We have a lot more, Jim Acosta.

ACOSTA: All right.

BLITZER: Stay with us. We have a lot more to discuss on what's going on. There are other new developments. We have a panel of experts standing by. We'll be right back.



[13:15:54] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: At this moment, our intelligence and counterterrorism professionals do not have any specific and credible information about an attack on the homeland. That said, we have to be vigilant. As I indicated in my address to the nation last week, we are in a new phase of terrorism, including lone actors and small groups of terrorists, like those in San Bernardino. Because they are smaller, often self- initiating, self-motivating, there harder to detect, and that makes it harder to prevent. But just as the threat evolves, so do we.


BLITZER: The president only moments ago speaking at the National Counterterrorism Center, right outside Washington, D.C., in northern Virginia.

Let's discuss what the president said. Joining us, our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, Tom Fuentes, our CNN law enforcement analyst, the former FBI assistant director, our national security analyst, Peter Bergen, and joining us from Orlando, Florida, retired General Mark Hertling.

All of you well aware of what's going on. But, Jim Sciutto, the president very specific in his words. We just heard him say, no specific and credible attack on the U.S. homeland. But he did have the secretary of state. There are deep concerns about attacks at U.S. embassies, diplomatic outposts, U.S. military positions around the world. This is an international issue for the president.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question. I think the president's message today was one of reassurance. You've -- I've heard from the White House, I've heard from counterterror officials and others, they're concerned that the level of fear has gotten so great in the U.S. that they're worried about panic. And there is a real threat. They know it. They're working on it every day. But they also don't want people to be, you know, hiding in their closets, right, particularly as the holidays come. So you heard the president say no credible and specific threat.

But he also, right after that, gets to the specific challenge with terrorism today, which is that often with these kinds of plots, when you talk about lone wolf plots, just like San Bernardino, there may never be a specific and credible threat because there are not the points, the choke points, where you can catch it in advance. There's not the phone call from the cave in Pakistan ordering the attack. You know, there's not the transit necessarily from the war zone to here. It could be a home grown person who reads something online and plots and kills people. So, you know, that's part of the problem here.

Then the president carries on from there to say, yes, the threat is evolving, but so are we. Trust us. You've got people who are working here 24/7. I was in the NCTC (ph) ops center recently for a documentary we shot. You know, this is running 24/7. They're looking, they're watching, they're doing their best.

BLITZER: Right, that was created after 9/11 because the criticism the left hand of the U.S. government wasn't talking to the right hand of the U.S. government.


BLITZER: There wasn't enough coordination. They weren't crossing the t's, dotting the i's.

Tom Fuentes, a new ABC News/"Washington Post" poll, and I'll put it up on the screen, says only 22 percent of Americans say they're confident the government can prevent what's called a lone wolf terrorist attack. Seventy-seven percent are less confident. The president said this is now a great threat to the U.S., individuals motivated, inspired online, if you will. He said he's talking to technology companies out there to deal with this issue of encrypted communications. This is a huge problem.

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I'm surprised the number's that high, Wolf, 22 percent, because if a lone individual doesn't tell anybody, doesn't share it, doesn't have a wife and they exchange jihad pillow talk, if no one else knows it, purchases a firearm or other equipment legally, there's no chance of stopping that, if that person goes operational. Zero.

BLITZER: When you heard what the president's remarked, a balanced tone, be diligent, make sure you see what's going on, but go about and get ready for the holidays, get ready for Christmas, get ready for New Year's, we're watching, we're doing the best we can. Peter, what did you think?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, you know, polling data indicates that Americans are more concerned about terrorism today than they have been at any time since 9/11. And, you know, that has an impact on the economy. People don't travel. They're scared. And, you know, I think what President Obama said is correct. Yes, we have a lot of people on top of this, but what Tom has said is also correct, which is, a lone wolf -- by definition we're not going to stop lone wolf attacks. It's very, very hard to do because unless we have a machine that can real people's souls, which right now we don't, it's very hard to judge intent, particularly if they're not meeting with anybody, no e-mails, no phone calls, nothing, all the kinds of things that law enforcement can usually interrupt.

[13:20:22] BLITZER: The president said there was a three-pronged effort underway right now, General Hertling. The first effort is to get the terrorists where they are, whether in Syria, whether in Iraq, whether in Somalia, whether Sudan, all -- he started mentioning countries like Yemen and Libya, where the U.S. has gone after and killed terror leaders, ISIS terror leaders. That's the first phase, get them where they are. How's that phase going?

GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET), FORMER COMMANDER, U.S. ARMY EUROPE: Well, Wolf, I know you're going to react to this, but I'd say it's going as best as can be expected. Joint Special Operations Command is everywhere. I've talked to some friends in that organization recently, some very good friends, and they are all over the world searching for different terrorist organizations, not just ISIS. And there's a bevy of them out there.

But what you're talking about is an organization that has to react to different organizations, terrorist organizations, that are trying to do not only our government harm, but other governments as well. And that's why I think the concern about the embassies and people who are overseas is critically important.

But again, I think the president, you know, as he's done this deep dive this week, going to the Pentagon first. You know, Pentagon briefings always start with an intelligence summary. What's going on, and then this is how we're addressing it. Now he's taking it even one step further and gone to the National Counterterrorism Center. Tom and I are very familiar with that building. We've been there multiple times in our activity duties roles. And it is Ph.D. level work to try and do the very best you can to prevent terrorism anywhere. And I agree with Tom, I'm surprised the number's as high as it is too because just as soon as you think you've done away with any kind of attack, something is going to happen and it's going to happen in the most bizarre place. A marathon, you know, Ft. Hood, a small community in California, none of those would have been predicted before they happened.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, the second part of the president's strategy is, in his words, prevent terrorists from getting into the United States. There's enormous fear right now a tourist could come in, a refugee could come in and commit an act of terror.

SCIUTTO: Specific focus on the visa waiver program because this applies to a lot of European countries. And sadly, when you look at France, you look at the situation in the U.K., Belgium, the Paris attacks, there are a lot of Europeans who are carrying out these kinds of attacks and Europeans with those passports could come to the U.S. without a visa. So specific focus now on identifying folks with those passports who have recently traveled to the Middle East as a warning sign. That's one change.

But you also heard the president there with reference to refugees say, you know, try to tamp down that fear, saying it's already a two-year process for a refugee, even before the Paris attacks, to get into this country, in effect saying, we're on this.

BLITZER: Because that San Bernardino terror attack, the Paris terror attack, what happened to that Egyptian -- because me, that Russian airliner over Egypt, in Sinai, 224 people were killed, that has really created an enormous amount of fear right now that terrorists could slip into the United States.

FUENTES: Well, in addition -- and, yes, that's true. And in addition to what Jim talked about, the people on visa waiver, you had 10 million people enter the country last year getting an actual visa, so -- where it's not visa waiver, from all the rest of the countries of the world, or if they were coming for a specific purpose, whether it was to get a job or be a student beyond just being on vacation from visa waiver. So, you know, it's going to be impossible to do that and it's going to be impossible to monitor the tens of millions of people who apply for a visa and look at every one of their social media.

And, you know, right now we're focused on Syria, we're focused on the Middle East. But we have people that have gone to Syria to join ISIS from all over the world, from Asia. So the authorities in Indonesia, Malaysia, countries like that, they're very concerned. They could come here also.

BLITZER: Peter, you know, there are those analysts who have suggested -- I don't think you're one of them -- that all of this attention on ISIS by the president of the United States, an address to the nation Sunday night, at the Pentagon on Monday, today at the National Counterterrorism Center. Tomorrow he's going to San Bernardino. Presumably, he'll make a statement out there. Plays into the hands of ISIS recruiting because it makes them seem so more -- much more important and inspires these lone individuals to do something. You buy that?

BERGEN: I mean, you know, 9/11 was one of the hinge events of American history and so everything is filtered through that event. And, you know, Americans are very concerned about terrorism. I mean the president can't ignore it. We the media can't ignore it as a story. And, of course, you know, the more attention you give them, of course it does sort of help them. But some things deserve attention. I mean we do the thought experiment where we didn't cover the Nazis in, you know, 1938 as the media or as the government. I mean you have to pay attention to things that are actually making an impact on history.

BLITZER: We certainly do. All right, guys, stand by.

[13:25:01] Up next, the threat of terror hits an American icon, Disney. We're going to tell you what's being done to combat the threat at its theme parks on both U.S. coasts.

Plus, the battle for second place. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio ramping up their attacks on each other, while ignoring the frontrunner, at least for now, Donald Trump. Will their strategy pay off?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: CNN has just confirmed that the two terrorists who carried out the attack in San Bernardino, California, have been buried. A spokesperson for a law office confirming that Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik were buried this past Tuesday. According to Reuters, it took a week to find a graveyard willing to accept their remains.

Also, the man who purchased two of the weapons used in the San Bernardino terror attacks is likely to face charges. According to U.S. law enforcement officials, federal prosecutors are expected to file charges against Enrique Marquez. He's a friend and former neighbor of the terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook.

Our justice reporter Evan Perez is joining us. He's got more details.

Evan, what do we know about the charges Marquez is likely to face?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, we know that the charges -- we expect that the charges will be filed by federal prosecutors in Los Angeles and they will center on the purchase of the two AR-15- style rifles that Enrique Marquez bought in 2011/2012 and then turned over to Syed Farook. He has told federal investigators, the FBI, that he bought the firearms for Farook because Farook was trying to avoid additional scrutiny. At the time, Farook had already bought two -- sorry, two or three other firearms and so he wanted to avoid additional scrutiny, which would bring him into violation with federal and California law. It's illegal for you to buy a firearm for someone -- someone who's trying to avoid getting a background check. So that's -- we expect this to be the center of this -- of these charges.

[13:30:10] As you know, Wolf, he's been talking to the FBI for over a week now.