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The Situation Room

Security vs. Privacy; Investigating Airline Terror Attack Suspect

Aired December 29, 2009 - 16:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: the evidence against the suspect in the failed airline bombing. We have new information on this investigation and how the U.S. is going to try to get justice. We're standing by to hear from President Obama himself.

Plus, airline passengers exposed to revealing body scans, very revealing. Does national security now trump individual privacy? We're going to show you exactly how it works.

And President Obama's New Year's resolutions. He has a lot to do, not a lot of time to do it in before election 2010.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

First, this hour, the worldwide investigation into America's closest brush with airline terror in years. President Obama is about to give the nation an update on that investigation.

And, right now, I want to go to our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve.

What have we been learning today, new information about the suspect and how close he was to carrying out this attack?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, we have learned that there's a little -- there's a little bit of a hiccup in the investigation. The forensics continue on the bomb that was cleverly concealed in a pocket sewn into a pair of underwear.

The initiator assembly was a plastic syringe with a plastic film-like material and tape. An FBI bulletin said that preliminary chemical analysis revealed the presence of ethylene glycol, which is used in coolants and antifreezes. But a law enforcement source says they are having trouble establishing conclusively that that is the substance, because the syringe was pretty much destroyed when the suspect tried to light his -- his bomb on fire.

A former FBI counterterrorism expert says that may make it more difficult for investigators to determine who exactly made this bomb.


LARRY JOHNSON, FORMER U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT COUNTERTERRORISM OFFICIAL: I do think it creates a bit of a problem in trying to do the work back to figure out exactly, what are these guys up to, how are they doing it?

But, by contrast, on the land mines that are being used in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Department of Defense, and with Department of Justice, they developed a very good system of being able to bring the explosives back within 24 hours to figure out who's doing what, to identify the characteristics of the bomb maker.


MESERVE: Legal experts say even if scientists are never able to determine what was in the syringe, it should not affect the legal case against Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, because they have the rest of the bombs, Abdulmutallab's own incriminating statements, and a whole plane full of witnesses.

Some passengers on the flight have said that they saw people videotaping during the incident, but a person familiar with the investigation says that none of the videotapes that have been reviewed by law enforcement have provided anything useful to the investigation. They were either started after the fire began or the view of the person taking the film was blocked somehow by the seats and people.

MALVEAUX: And, Jeanne, we understand the president obviously is going to be giving a statement within moments to give an update to the American people what is happening with this investigation.

I understand you have information that there's a meeting that is taking place right now. Can you share a little bit of details?

MESERVE: Yes. Sources tell me that Homeland Security Secretary Janet in Napolitano is at this hour meeting with some high-profile homeland security experts at the Homeland Security headquarters, including former DHS official Stewart Baker and former White House Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend.

We don't exactly know what the agenda is, but they have just been summoned up there this afternoon.

MALVEAUX: OK. Well, we will be getting more information from you about that meeting very shortly. Thank you, Jeanne.

A dramatic new security move at the airports in Canada now. No carry- on luggage is allowed to flights into the United States, at least, that is, for the next couple of days. Now, Canada is limiting carry- ons to items as small purses, baby bags, laptops, medicine, cameras, coats, that kind of thing.

And it's a direct response to the failed terror attack on Northwest Airlines flight.

Ed Henry is joining us now. We are awaiting comments from President Obama. We know that Ed is in Hawaii with the president.

I know that he is expected to give an update very shortly, an audio update to viewers around the world about what is happening with this investigation. Do you have a sense of what he's going to say, Ed?


I mean, what's interesting about this is, it's happening so quickly. I mean, White House aides had originally suggested we might not hear from the president this quickly after hearing from him yesterday. Now, all of a sudden, just in the last hour, we're getting this heads- up that he is going to be speaking just in the next few moments.

And it's being put together, people scrambling so quickly. As you noted, we're not going to have a live video signal. We're just going to have live audio in a few moments.

And then we will get video, a videotape back to where we are here in Honolulu in about 45 minutes or an hour. To give you a sense of how quickly this is being thrown together, all the guidance we're getting so far is the president wants to give the American people an update on the reviews that the administration is currently conducting.

They have got two at least under way, one into these various watch lists, whether the protocols need to be changed, wondering how this person who was in a terrorist database was able to get onto a plane, first of all, and then secondly just as importantly how he was able to get explosives onto that plane, what kind of screening changes need to be made.

We're being told by White House aides the president will not announce some sort of a new policy. He's not going to come out with new security guidelines or anything, but just want to update on the situation.

I pressed the White House aide, is he coming out so quickly now because of all the criticism he's facing from Republicans about not coming out sooner, maybe not connecting the dots here to prevent this suspect from getting on the plane?

And I was told that would be a misread of the situation, the president is not listening to the critics, but he just wants to get out there and update the American people. So, we will wait and see exactly what he says, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. Ed, and I want to pick up on a point you made there, obviously, the complaints that the Obama administration isn't sharing crucial information about terror investigations with members of Congress.

Now, I spoke yesterday with the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Peter Hoekstra, and I asked him about the briefings that he was getting about the attempted Northwest Airlines bombing and here's how he responded.


REP. PETE HOEKSTRA (R), MICHIGAN: That's one of the most frustrating things over the last seven weeks. We have not been getting information on the attack at Fort Hood. We haven't been getting information on the D.C. five that were arrested recently in Pakistan, and we have not been getting any new information over the last 48 hours on the events and the circumstances surrounding the Christmas Day attack.

MALVEAUX: Who do you want to hear from, from the administration?

HOEKSTRA: I want to hear from the director of national intelligence. I was in Washington yesterday. I asked to get the latest intelligence, the latest briefings. I was denied access to that information.

MALVEAUX: What did they tell you?

HOEKSTRA: The DNI has to open up.

MALVEAUX: What did they tell you? You said you were denied access. What did they say to you? Who...

HOEKSTRA: They say, you know, there is an ongoing criminal investigation, they're not prepared to share information with Congress. All unacceptable answers. It is their responsibility to keep us fully and currently informed. They're not doing that.


MALVEAUX: I want to bring back in Ed.

And, Ed, we know, covering the Bush administration, that was a very similar criticism the Democrats used to basically say about President Bush. They just were not getting information in a timely matter. Now Representative Hoekstra very frustrated, along with Republicans.

Is the White House responding? They have said they have been a transparent administration. How do they deal with this?

HENRY: Well, Suzanne, we did some digging on that today. And, in fact, White House officials are insisting to us that Congressman Hoekstra was briefed on Christmas Day, the same day of this attempted terror attack.

So they're frankly confused to why he's making this an issue. I then went back to Congressman Hoekstra's office and said, were you briefed? I have a specific name. We're told by the White House that the congressman was briefed by John Brennan, who is the president's principal homeland security adviser. Congressman Hoekstra's office confirmed to me just a few moments ago, yes, he did have a conversation with John Brennan at the White House.

But they're claiming it was just a brief conversation, did not get a lot of information. And so they're saying it's not really a briefing of Republicans. It was just a conversation.

So, you're right to point to the Bush years. This is feeling a lot like that, in that now all of these accusations are going back and forth so quickly, that they can't even agree on who's being briefed. They're insisting it's just a conversation, not a briefing.

It gets kind of ridiculous after a while, the back and forth, but I can tell you as well that we're learning from White House officials that, as early as tomorrow, or at least the next few days, we're being told, they say lawmakers on Capitol Hill will get another briefing from either John Brennan or other administration officials in order to get an update on the situation.

Now, it's important to know Congressman Hoekstra's office keeps insisting that in recent days, though, even before this incident, on those various cases he discussed with you, what they get in these briefings is very limited. They want a lot more information so they can get a better sense of what's really happening behind the scenes -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right, Ed, we're going to get back to you very shortly with that radio statement from the president as soon as it becomes available.

There is also a new push for airline passengers to undergo full body scans. It's controversial. This technology might discover hidden bombs before a terrorist can actually strike, but at what cost? We're actually going to show you how all of this works, talk about the price, as well as those controversial privacy issues.

I'm going to press a top spokesman for the government Yemen about the airline bombing suspect and his alleged links to al Qaeda in Yemen.

And the international custody battle over young Sean Goldman, it may not be over after all. We thought it was, but perhaps not. There's a new threat to his reunion with his dad.


MALVEAUX: We are standing by to hear from President Obama, new comments on the Detroit investigation. We're going to bring that to you as soon as it happens.

The failed bombing of a Northwest Airlines jet, it puts the spotlight on a new front in the line on the war of terror. That is Yemen.

Now, al Qaeda claims that the attack was in retaliation for alleged American strikes in Yemen. And the government of Yemen has confirmed that the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, visited the country earlier this year.

Now, joining me now is a spokesman for Yemen's embassy in the U.S., Mohammed Albasha.

Thank you for joining us in THE SITUATION ROOM. We have a million questions for you.


MOHAMMED ALBASHA, SPOKESMAN, YEMENI EMBASSY TO THE UNITED STATES: Thank you for having me over. MALVEAUX: We want to start off first, Abdulmutallab, he was in your country some time ago earlier this year. What does the government know about his activities inside of Yemen? What was he doing? Did you have your sights on him?


He arrived to Sanaa at the first -- the second -- the latest time was in August 2009. He stayed until December 2009. He attended a language program. It's a prominent school in Yemen. It's not a suspicious school.

And, before that, he was in Yemen between 2004-2005. I don't have the specific dates yet. The investigation is evolving by the minute, as you know.

Umar was, according to the questionings the we carried on today by his classmates and the administrative officials of the school, he was a friendly person, did not ring any alarm bells on them.

MALVEAUX: He had no terrorist ties or networks to al Qaeda that the Yemeni government knew about?

ALBASHA: We were not informed by any foreign agency that he was a member of any terrorist organization or any foreign entities that would make us think that he was a suspect.

MALVEAUX: Some are suggesting that Yemen now has such a serious problem with al Qaeda, that it is the third front in the war on terror, perhaps a third war even. How does your government see it?

ALBASHA: We acknowledge that we have a serious problem with al Qaeda. And we have been addressing this problem way before it became a global issue.

Since 1992, we have been fighting this war. I call it the long war. Al Qaeda, we have been conducting strikes against them since that day. Unfortunately, especially this year, with Yemen's economic situation, we have -- oil prices have dropped. We have losses of 65 percent of oil revenue.

And, in addition to that, 75 percent of the population is under the age of 25. Furthermore, we also have a 35 percent unemployment. So, we're strapped for cash and we're fighting al Qaeda. We see that -- and we continue to ask our international community to support us.

MALVEAUX: Tell us about the U.S. role. Clearly, there were strikes against al Qaeda very recently, some members of al Qaeda that were -- were killed. Did the -- did the U.S. lead in those airstrikes and in those ground operations?

ALBASHA: The 17th of December operation and the 24th of December operation were operations that the Yemeni government is responsible for. We have the capabilities and we have the responsibility to defend our homeland.

MALVEAUX: What was the U.S. role? Were there U.S. planes or boots on the ground involved?

ALBASHA: The U.S. has been supporting Yemen since 9/11, training our forces. We have a very strong security and intelligence cooperation. But, again, the last operations and all the operations this year were carried on by Yemeni forces.

MALVEAUX: What about the U.S. role? How robust was the U.S. role? Were there airplanes and soldiers involved?

ALBASHA: Again, this was an operation carried on by the Yemeni government.

MALVEAUX: You cannot answer that question, I'm assuming?

ALBASHA: I think that was a straightforward answer.

MALVEAUX: Tell us what you know about Abdulmutallab. Did he act alone? Was he part of a terrorist cell? Do we know if there, -- as he said to FBI investigators, there are 20 more like him in Yemen? What does the government know about these people behind him, allegedly?

ALBASHA: Well, OUR estimates for al Qaeda operatives in Yemen is between 200 to 300 operatives in Yemen. We're not sure yet what's his link. I think the al Qaeda statement that came out recently saying that the -- this is an attack in retaliation for what happened the 17th and the 24th of December is unfounded for, because he -- we know that he bought the ticket a few days after that -- before that. So, there's no link for the time being.

MALVEAUX: So, you don't believe the statement that al Qaeda in Yemen is connected to Abdulmutallab's alleged attack here?

ALBASHA: They're going to benefit from it anyways, whether there was a link or not. This is the group that...

MALVEAUX: So, it's propaganda, from what you're -- what you're saying?

ALBASHA: Most likely. We have seen a lot of those statements from Afghanistan and Iraq, too. So, for the time being, what we know on the ground is, he was in Yemen. He attended that school.

One of the mosques that he was visiting in the old city of Sanaa, we have been surveilling. And we're questioning some of the people that are there to see whether he has links or not.

MALVEAUX: I want to press you on this point here, because, obviously, the U.S. government does work with the Yemen government, as well as the president, in taking on al Qaeda. That relationship has strengthened.

But, yesterday, I talked with a former homeland security adviser, Fran Townsend, under the Bush administration. She said she does not believe that your leadership in the Yemen government is really serious about going after al Qaeda. I want you to listen to what she said. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: We pushed, during the Bush administration President Saleh and his government very, very hard. There have been numerous attacks on our embassy in Sanaa. There was a huge prison break. They have been unreliable partners, frankly. They have inconsistent.


MALVEAUX: What assurances can you give us that the president of Yemen is really serious about going after al Qaeda?

ALBASHA: I think this frustrates a lot of the Yemeni people, first and foremost, because al Qaeda is targeting us, before they're targeting any -- anybody else.

Like I said, we started this war in 1992. We're losing blood on the ground. Yemen is a battlefield. Yemenis are losing blood. The embassy attack that people are talking about in 2008, we have lost eight brave soldiers that protected the exterior barrier of the embassy. The escape of 2006, the prison escape that people are talking about, out of the 23 that escaped, 20 were detained and killed, and three are still at large. And make no mistake. It's a matter of time. We are going to hunt them down.

MALVEAUX: Last question here. I just want to press you one more time here. The Senate -- there are some senators who are calling for a preemptive military strike in Yemen. They say that's the only way to go after al Qaeda.

Does the government agree, with or without your government's approval, that that is a good idea?

ALBASHA: What I hope to hear from the senators and from the Congress and U.S. officials here in Washington, that they're going to commit long term to help Yemen in development assistance to provide us with the necessary equipment, from helicopters, tactical equipment, and vehicles, to aid our efforts to combat terrorism. We're in this together to the end of the road.

MALVEAUX: Preemptive military strike would not be something the Yemen government would -- would -- would approve?

ALBASHA: Absolutely not.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

ALBASHA: Thank you so much for having me.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you.

A near disaster aboard an airliner on Christmas. There are tens of thousands of screeners on fresh alert.

And the nomination of a new administrator is still unconfirmed. Well, what's the holdup? I'm going to ask the senator who engineered the delay.

And a building comes crashing down in Turkey, with deadly consequences.


MALVEAUX: We're standing by to hear from President Obama, new comments on the Detroit investigation. We're going to bring that to you as soon as it happens, just moments away.

In the meantime, Brooke Baldwin, she is monitoring other top stories that are coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Hey, Brooke. What are you working on?


Imagine this story. This is out of Istanbul, Turkey. The ceilings just completely collapsed in a building there, has killed one man. An official says concrete blocks just collapsed at the entrance to this four-story building. You're looking at there the aftermath. One official says the man was rescued from the rubble, but later died in the hospital. This all happened in a low-income neighborhood in Istanbul on the Asian side of the city.

And, you know, the Brazilian family of a 9-year-old boy says they will fight to regain custody, a new twist here. Sean Goldman, he's the U.S. father -- rather, he's the son who was returned to his U.S. father last week after a five-year custody battle. Lawyers say they will proceed with the Brazilian grandmother's requests that Sean's wishes will be heard in court.

That request was officially denied, but Brazil's Supreme Court has not issued a final ruling. The court reconvenes in February.

And an Alaska judge is refusing to keep a bitter legal battle over Sarah Palin's grandchild confidential. Palin's daughter Bristol is seeking sole custody of her baby's son with former boyfriend, you know the name, Levi Johnston. Palin asked the judge to close the proceedings, saying the case could turn into a media circus, but the judge here denying that request just last week, siding with Johnston, Johnston's push to keep this case open, he obviously here asking for shared custody of 1-year-old Tripp.

So, Suzanne, that whole thing playing out in public.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Uh-huh.

MALVEAUX: They can see right through your clothing to everything, and I mean everything, underneath. Our CNN's Brian Todd, he is showing us the admittedly intrusive new devices that could be the next wave in airport screening.

Also ahead, he's been accused of putting the traveling public in danger with his stalling tactics. I'm going to ask Senator Jim DeMint why he put confirmation of a new TSA chief on hold and what he thinks of Democrats' plans to override him.


MALVEAUX: We are standing by to hear from President Obama, new comments on the Detroit investigation. We're going to bring that to you as soon as it happens.


And happening right now: a gap in the defense against terrorism. Despite warnings from his own father, the suspect in last week's failed attack was allowed back into this country -- how policy on visas might change that.

And security vs. privacy: How far should airport screeners go to keep us safe from potential terrorist attacks? What you might face the next time you fly.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Want to go straight to Ed Henry in Hawaii with the president, the very latest statement just going to be released just moments away.

Ed, give us a sense of what we expect to hear from the president today.

HENRY: Well, Suzanne, what White House aides are highlighting most of all is that they expect the president to give kind of an update of these two reviews that he talked about yesterday.

Here he is.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... the increased screening and security of air travel to keep our country safe in the wake of the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day.

And I announced two reviews, a review of our terrorist watch list system and a review of our air travel screening so we can find out what went wrong, fix it, and prevent future attacks. Those reviews began on Sunday and are now underway.

Earlier today, I issued the former guidelines for those reviews and directed the preliminary findings be provided to the White House by this Thursday. It's essential that we diagnose the problems quickly and deal with them immediately.

Now, the more comprehensive formal reviews and recommendations for improvement will be completed in the coming weeks. And I'm committed to working with Congress and our intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland security communities to take all necessary steps to protect the country. I wanted to speak to the American people again today, because some of this preliminary information that has surfaced in the last 24 hours raises some serious concerns. It's been widely reported that the father of the suspect in the Christmas incident warned U.S. officials in Africa about his son's extremist views.

It now appears that weeks ago this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect's name on a no-fly list.

There appears to be other deficiencies, as well. Even without this one report, there were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have and should have been pieced together.

We've achieved much since 9/11 in terms of collecting information that relates to terrorists and potential terrorist attacks, but it's becoming clear that the system that has been in place for years now is not sufficiently up to date to take full advantage of the information we collect and the knowledge we have.

Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence, and a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged. The warning signs would have triggered red flags, and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America.

Now, the professionalism of the men and women in our intelligence, counterterrorism, and law enforcement, and homeland security communities is extraordinary. They are some of the most hard-working, most dedicated Americans that I have ever met. In pursuit of our security here at home, they risk their lives day in, day out in this country and around the world. Few Americans see their work, but all Americans are safer because of their successes.

They have targeted and taken out violent extremists. They have disrupted plots and saved countless American lives. They are making real and daily progress in our mission to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and other extremist networks around the world. And for this, every American owes them a profound and lasting debt of gratitude.

Moreover, as Secretary Napolitano has said, once the suspect attempted to take down Flight 253, after his attempt, it's clear that passengers and crew, our homeland security systems, and our aviation security took all appropriate actions.

But what's also clear is this: When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted upon as it should have been so that this extremist boards a plane with dangerous explosives that could have cost nearly 300 lives, a systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable.

The reviews I have ordered will surely tell us more. But what already is apparent is that there was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potential catastrophic breach of security. We need to learn from this episode and act quickly to fix the flaws in our system, because our security is at stake and lives are at stake.

I fully understand that even when every person charged with ensuring our security does what they are trained to do, even when every system works exactly as intended, there's still no 100 percent guarantee of success. Yet this should only compel us to work even harder, to be even more innovative and relentless in our efforts.

As president, I will do everything in my power to support the men and women in intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security to make sure they have got the tools and resources they need to keep America safe, but it's also my job to ensure that our intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security systems and the people in them are working effectively and held accountable. I intend to fulfill that responsibility and insist on accountability at every level.

That's the spirit guiding our reviews into the attempted attack on Christmas Day. That's the spirit that will guide all our efforts in the days and years ahead.

Thank you very much.

MALVEAUX: Just to recap for those of you who are joining us, the president wrapping up, saying essentially that there are two reviews that are under way, one for the terrorist watch list, another for airport screening. He was mincing no words, taking full responsibility, the administration, saying that this was a systemic failure, as well as human failure, that led to, in his words, a catastrophic breach of security that, of course, would impact security, and that there were also lives at stake.

So, clearly, the administration trying to wrap its appears around this, taking responsibility for this, saying as well that there are going to be a deadline that, in two days, he says this Thursday he wants preliminary results from these two different investigations, these reviews, on what took place, what went wrong, and perhaps moving forward what could happen next.

I want to bring in our Ed Henry, who's with the president in Hawaii.

Ed, it's not surprising this president put a deadline there. They likes to use deadlines, get people motivated and things moving very quickly. We know he's got people in place, including Secretary Napolitano, meeting with others today and the days to come, to at least give preliminary findings in the next couple days, 48 hours.

HENRY: Well, that's right, Suzanne. And let's face it, Secretary Napolitano is under some fire now. Some Republicans are calling for her to resign. Her performance on Sunday had to be cleaned up on Monday, when she had suggested the system did work.

What strikes me most is that this president was so direct in saying, as you noted, there was a systemic failure that occurred. He said, "I find that totally unacceptable." And also, he said their needs to be "accountability at every level."

I think, clearly, this is the kind of statement that perhaps the president's critics were expecting days ago, not today. Clearly, we did not hear from his homeland security secretary on Sunday that there had been mistakes, that there needed to be accountability. And also, in his own statement yesterday, while the president was speaking more generally, he was not as strong as he was today, so that's significant.

The other thing I would point to is how he is trying personally to stay above the political fray. We noted a short time ago that there's been this back-and-forth with Democrats and Republicans about who is wrong here, who is being briefed. You've got Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra claiming he hasn't been briefed by this administration, wants more information.

Number one, as we noted, he in fact was briefed on Christmas Day by the president's aide, John Brennan. And number two, Democrats, including the Democratic National Committee, now going after Congressman Hoekstra because he sent out a fund-raising appeal in the last couple of days for his gubernatorial campaign on this plane incident, saying that if the policies -- he calls it the Obama/Pelosi weak-kneed policies are put in place, the country's security will be in jeopardy.

I just spoke to Congressman Hoekstra's campaign spokesman. He said, look, make no bones about it, he's trying to highlight his national security credentials and he's already raising money. They say a lot of contributions have come in.

So you can see the political game being played out right there -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Ed. We're going to come back to you.

I want to bring in Candy Crowley, of course, to talk about some of that politics.

The president did acknowledge that there were bits of information that were not shared that should have been shared, and that this was really a catastrophic -- he called catastrophic breach of security here.

What do you suppose the voters are looking for, when you say 2010, midterm elections? How are they going to see the Obama administration, do you suppose, in ranking them, evaluating his immediate steps dealing with this terrorist attempt?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think the back-and- forth about whether he should have come out within the first couple of hours, and then his not coming out until yesterday, pretty much goes away. It now becomes, what did the president do?

I totally agree with Ed, because what's happened here is the president has now come out forcefully. It is reminiscent of his early days, right after he was sworn in, when what you saw was a lot of activity on the economy.

The president, every day, was talking to someone, the cameras were there, just giving that message to the American people that he was on the job. I think the fact that we have seen him for two days in a row is the White House recognizing that this is perhaps more important, the safety of the American people, perhaps more important, Suzanne, than jobs. It wouldn't take much to rev up security moms who were so important in 2000 and 2004.

So, I think what voters judge is sort of the record. So it won't be about today or tomorrow, but, then, what did he do? How safe did he keep us?

MALVEAUX: And we noticed in covering President Bush, he clearly needed those security moms. President Bush relied on those security moms to get reelected because there was so much concern about a potential terrorist attack following 9/11.

CROWLEY: Nothing more important than your safety. I mean, it's one of the key things that the federal government is charged with, and that is keeping its citizens safe.

MALVEAUX: All right, Candy. We'll be back to you very shortly.

As the U.S. works up to beef up airline security, there's new interest in technology now that allows full body scans of passengers. We're going to run through how they work and why some people actually don't like them very much.

Plus, new information about the American captured by North Korea. A family's worst fears may be realized.


MALVEAUX: A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says that he'll try to force a vote on the nomination of Erroll Southers as new Transportation Security Administration chief when senators return from their winter recess. Now, the nomination is currently on hold right now for debate. The Senate is quickly becoming a heated battleground over the agency that is charged with protecting U.S. ports.

Now, once again, here's CNN's Homeland Security Correspondent Jeanne Meserve with the very latest.


JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Fifty thousand transportation security officers screen, inspect, question and observe at the nation's airports to keep dangerous people and items off planes.

Senator Jim DeMint believes giving them collective bargaining rights would hurt security.

SEN. JIM DEMINT (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Collective bargaining would standardize things across the country, make it much less flexible, much harder for the agency to adapt to changing threats around the world.

MESERVE: Harder for instance to react to something like the 2006 plot to blow up airplanes with liquid explosives. Within hours of learning of that, the TSA ramped up security and temporarily banned carry-on liquids.

The union, representing 12,000 TSOs, say DeMint's argument is rubbish, pointing out that employees of the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Protective Service, and others all have full union representation.

JOHN GAGE, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES: No one talked about union membership when the cops and the firefighters went up the stairs at 9/11 at the World Trade Towers. No one talks about our two officers, two union members, who took down the shooter at Fort Hood. There was nothing in their union membership that stopped them from doing their duties.

MESERVE: During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama wrote the union that giving TSOs collective bargaining rights would be a priority. Unions gave him valuable support in the election.

DEMINT: It's all about politics. It's payback to the unions.

MESERVE: DeMint pushed the issue at a hearing on Wednesday.

DEMINT: How can unionization and collective bargaining enhance security in our airports?

JANET NAPOLITANO, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Well, Senator, the answer is collective bargaining and security are not mutually exclusive concepts.

MESERVE: DeMint is holding up the confirmation of Erroll Southers to head the TSA to make his point, though Southers has been noncommittal on the union issue telling DeMint he wouldn't recommend anything that would "potentially compromise the safety and security of the flying public."

JAMES SHERK, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: I think that the nominee is -- understands the confirmation process and that he doesn't want to say anything controversial. But ultimately, once he's confirmed it's not going to be his choice. It's going to be the choice of the secretary and ultimately the choice of the president. And the president has made it clear where he stands.

MESERVE (on camera): Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid now says that if Senator DeMint hasn't changed his mind by the time the Senate comes back in mid-January, he will take steps to hold an up-or-down vote on the Southers' nomination.

Jeanne Meserve, CNN, Washington.


MALVEAUX: Well, joining me now from Greenville, South Carolina, to talk about the actions surrounding Southers' nomination is Republican Senator Jim DeMint.

Senator, thank you so much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

You heard Jeanne Meserve's report. Clearly, the majority leader, Harry Reid, is going to be fast-tracking this through as soon as senators return from their break.

What is going to be your response, if any?

DEMINT: Well, he could have done that months ago. Unfortunately, the president has been downplaying the threat of terrorism since he took office.

He waited eight months to even nominate someone for this position, and then he wanted him approved with no debate or no vote. The only thing I've asked for is limited debate and a recorded vote. Now, Senator Reid could have done that months ago, but the fact is they've been working on other things and have not seen airport security as a priority. Since the agency was formed...

MALVEAUX: Well, clearly, they were working on the Senate health care reform bill, which is obviously a big, big task ahead, as you can acknowledge. But coming back now, is there anything that you're going to do to counter this motion that he's going to filed to cut off debate?

DEMINT: Well, I think the American people should be aware that the priority of the administration is to submit our airport security to collective bargaining with the unions, even though that's been prohibited since the agency was formed. The reason it's prohibited is the same reason for the CIA, the Secret Service, the FBI, the Coast Guard, is there's a constant need to adjust and to be flexible, to use imagination to change things. We cannot ask a third-party union boss whether or not we can move a screener from one station to another. That's what collective bargaining does.

MALVEAUX: Senator, I want you to respond, however, to the American Federation of Government Employees. This represents 12,000 of the TSA's nearly 40,000 transportation officers.

They say this isn't a security issue. They say, "This is not an issue of security. There's no evidence that labor rights have any effect on transportation security officers. This is a dedicated workforce who see their jobs as important to the security of the nation."

And they point to union members who both acted after 9/11, in the Fort Hood massacre as well, that these were union members, firefighters, police officers, who essentially acted very quickly and that it doesn't really -- your argument doesn't hold water here.

DEMINT: Well, my beef is not with union members, but with union bosses and the collective bargaining process. The union boss that you were interviewing used the Customs and Border security as an example.

We do have 12 million undocumented aliens in our country, and that agency has also had to deal with all kinds of charges of changing prices for parking. They're dealing with the collective bargaining of unions all the time, and they're not as effective as they should be. But there's a reason that collective bargaining was prohibited from the airport security.

It is very different from a local police department. They're having to deal with international threats, as we saw on Christmas Day. They have to constantly be changing. And there is no reason, no good security reason, that we should submit this to collective bargaining.

All it is, is politics. The president promised the unions that he would bring these 50,000 people into a union, and it just doesn't make any sense for security.

MALVEAUX: Senator, I want to turn the corner, if I may.

There's a lot of politics that are being played out here over the president's response to this attempted terror attack. You've been very critical of the Obama administration in terms of his response, but he has come out over the last couple of days, twice now, and the president said very clearly that this was a systemic failure, that it was human failure, and it was a catastrophic breach of security.

Are you satisfied that the president, his administration is stepping up here and taking responsibility?

DEMINT: Well, that, frankly, is good news, is that the president -- while other Democrats are trying to find someone to blame for this, at least the president is saying it is the responsibility of his administration. My hope is that he'll change his focus from politics to real security.

There's no reason that we should be focusing the attention of our homeland security agency and airport security on collective bargaining with union bosses when we need to be upgrading so that we can deal with threats all over the world. Again, there is no security reason for collective bargaining right now.

MALVEAUX: Senator, we're going to have to let it go there. Thank you so much for joining us in THE SITUATION ROOM. Clearly, come back in January. We'll see how this debate plays out, whether or not there will be a debate over that very issue.

Thank you very much, Senator.

DEMINT: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: Well, his inauguration signaled a change in the face of American leadership. As his first year in office winds down, has President Obama's election bridged the racial divide?

And Iran's government takes a harder line than ever as it tries to squelch anti-government protests in the streets. Its message -- no mercy.


MALVEAUX: President Obama is blaming a mix of human and systemic failure for allowing a would-be terrorist to board a U.S. airliner and come dangerously close to blowing it up. In his stronger statement to date on the incident, Mr. Obama called the incident totally unacceptable and promised swift action to address conditions that allowed it to happen in the first place.

Well, joining me now for today's "Strategy Session" are Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons and Republican strategist Kevin Madden.

I want to play a little bit of Obama's sound that we just heard moments ago. This coming out of Hawaii.

Take a listen.


OBAMA: After his attempt, it's clear that passengers and crew, our homeland security systems and our aviation security, took all appropriate actions. But what's always clear is this -- when our government has information on a known extremist, and that information is not shared and acted upon, as it should have been so that this extremist boards a plane with dangerous explosives that could have cost nearly 300 lives, a systemic failure has occurred. And I consider that totally unacceptable.


MALVEAUX: Are you satisfied with the Obama statement that he's taking responsibility?

KEVIN MADDEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, it's a much stronger statement, I think.

You know, one of the criticisms that the president got initially was that he tried to tell the American people that he was concerned about this incident. And one of the most important aspects of being president is going beyond just telling the American public and showing them. I think with another statement, the second in two days, the president is now taking steps to show the American public that he's very concerned about this particular incident, and that the administration is taking very swift, resolute steps to deal with what they think is a problem.

MALVEAUX: Jamal, you had just said yesterday you had hoped he would speak in the first 24 hours. Are you satisfied now that he's kind of gotten out ahead of this?

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think so, but I think it's a process. This is not something where you can check the box and move on and you're done.

The American public, when it comes to national security, needs to hear from the president consistently, and the administration, and understand that everything is under control. Because once they begin to lose confidence in that, it's a tougher thing to regain. So I think right now they've got a lot of confidence, the president can really settle everybody down.

He did that today. He's going to keep doing it, I imagine. And it will be OK.

MALVEAUX: He said within two days -- he said this Thursday -- I was try to go figure out, where are we in the week here? This Thursday -- that's in two days -- he wants preliminary results on his desk from Homeland Security and other agencies involved.

Do we expect to get any kind of real information in such a short period of time, or do you think that's just another way of reassuring the public that we're on this?

MADDEN: Oh, I think that's right. I think the president has set probably what is an artificial metric, but it's one that is going to at least give people an incentive within the bureaucracy to start moving and get some answers. And also, it's probably designed by the president and his administration to send the message to the American public that this is something that is ongoing, that there's a constant search for answers, and that there's a constant effort to help put in place some more rules, some more efforts to make sure that this doesn't happen again.

SIMMONS: When I was in the Clinton administration, I remember when the president would say something on television about what you were working on. It got everybody moving. There's nothing like that lightning bolt from the Oval Office. So I do believe that there will be something that they don't know today that they will know a couple of days from now, and he'll be able to talk about that. That's just the nature of how the bureaucracy works.

MALVEAUX: I want to turn the corner, if I can, while we have just a little bit more time, on the approval rating for President Obama.

The latest CNN poll showing here, how is he handling his job? It was asked to those -- and there's a clear difference when it comes to racial lines here. Blacks say they approve of his job, 91 percent. Whites approve 42 percent.

Is it likely that President Obama, going into the next year and all of the challenges he has, particularly when it comes to African-Americans and job loss, home loss, can he hang on to such a high approval rating among the African-American community?

MADDEN: Well, I expect that he will, but I think what's interesting about the polls, if you look at it, is the trend line among those who have a personal investment in the race. The poll shows 91 percent of African-Americans support and approve of the job that the president is doing. When you look into some of the cross tabs, when you dig into those numbers, you find that the thrill is gone, that some people still feel like he's overpromised and underdelivered. That's probably the most troubling trend line for the president, is that there seems to be this kind of growing awareness that maybe his policies are not living up to the promises that he made as far as people's personal daily lives, even though he still has, among the African-American community, a great deal of personal affection with that population.

MALVEAUX: Jamal, is the patience going to run out of folks who don't have jobs next year and things are going to start to look differently? SIMMONS: On this, Kevin is half right. There has been a little bit of a trend line down in terms of what's happening day to day on the job, but overall his approval numbers are up.

I think what people realize is that Barack Obama is a human being. And frankly, he also hasn't been much of a hope monger lately.

You know, he's been talking a lot about the little intricacies of policy and not so much about kind of the big, broad, forward-looking things that he talked about in the campaign. I think those numbers will actually end up holding steady.

And remember, he only got 56 percent of whites -- he got less than -- he got 46 percent of whites on Election Day and now he's down to 42. It's not that big of a difference.

MALVEAUX: All right. We're going to have to leave it there.

Jamal, Kevin, thank you so much.

MADDEN: Good to be with you.

MALVEAUX: More on our top story. Airline passengers exposed to very revealing body scans. Does national security trump individual privacy? We're going to show you exactly how this works.

Plus, the suspect in the failed airline bomb attack may have issued a lonely cry for help online.


MALVEAUX: There's a lot of renewed interest right now in adding a new layer of security for airline passengers, and it is called full body scans.

Our Brian Todd, he's in Arlington, Virginia, at a company that makes these scanners, and he takes a look.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, according to an intelligence bulletin issued by the FBI, the suspect in the Christmas Day incident, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly carried an explosive device on to the plane that was sewn into his underwear. And according to the FBI, the main charge of that device was sewn into his underwear, "anatomically congruent with a male human organ."

So, it pretty much was concealed very, very well, and he got onto the plane. The question is, how did he get on? How did he get past screening with that?

Whatever primary screening he may have had clearly didn't detect it. Would secondary screening have detected that?

That's why we're here. We're at the offices of a company called Rapiscan Systems. They are the manufacturers of this machine behind me. It's called the Secure 1000. It's backscatter technology. It's essentially an x-ray machine that can see through clothing. Can it detect something like that explosive?

I'm going to run you through a screening of this. You'll be able to see through my clothing. I'm going to hold this package of paper around my midsection for modesty purposes here.

I do have a liquid container and a knife concealed on my person, and with the help of Rapiscan officials Steve McHugh (ph) and Dan Bailey (ph), they're going to take us through a screening. I'm going to first step into the machine here.

You can hear it screening me. Just seconds after I step out my image comes up on the screen, and here you can see it.

You can see right here what I've got concealed. That's clearly a knife right here.

What Dan is going to do, he's also going to identify that item right there. What that is, is a bottle of nail polish remover. He's identified the nail polish remover here. He's also identified the knife here on the back.

And what Dan will do is, the idea of this is he puts it on to an avatar figure. The person who is in a separate screening room from where the screening takes place identifies this material, basically pinpoints where it is on an avatar figure, sends a signal out to the person who's actually doing the screening.

That comes up on avatar figures at the actual screening location. They tell that person right there to look at these areas of the person's body for any potential weapons.

Now, the question, again, could this technology have picked up that weapon that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly had sewn into his underwear? We asked that of Peter Kant. He's a top official of Rapiscan Systems. We reached him on the phone and we asked him that very question.


PETER KANT, RAPISCAN SYSTEMS INC.: We certainly believe so. The system is designed to be able to detect the differences between human and non-human material. And therefore, we do believe that even though it might have taken a certain shape, or a certain density, that the system is certainly designed to be able to pick up materials such as explosives as the ones that were allegedly use in this action.


TODD: Peter Kant also says that Rapiscan manufactures something called millimeter wave technology. It's essentially microwave technology. It can also detect items on someone's person that could be weapons, could be explosives. He says in Rapiscan's opinion, that technology is not quite as reliable for aviation screening because aviation threats are more complex and people can hide things a little bit more easily in aviation, on their person.