Return to Transcripts main page

The Situation Room

British Hostage Freed in Iraq; President Obama Awaits Terror Probe Report

Aired December 30, 2009 - 16:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: We're retracing the steps of a suspected terrorist, from his hometown in Nigeria to the plane he allegedly tried to blow up. CNN correspondents around the world are uncovering new information on this case at this very moment, as well as failures in security.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney is pouncing on the president's response to this new brush with terror. He is accusing Mr. Obama of pretending that America is not at war. And he's coming very close to saying, I told you so.

And a remarkable story -- a hostage is freed after more than two years in captivity in Iraq. How did he survive when several others captured with him did not?

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

Right now, federal investigators are racing to file an initial report on the attempted Christmas terror attack. Now, they're under orders from President Obama to get an early readout on what went wrong by tomorrow.

Now, here's what's new in the terror investigation. All passengers on flights from Amsterdam to the United States are going to have to undergo full body scans. Dutch officials expect that to start in about three weeks or so.

Officials in Nigeria say they also will upgrade their airline security system to include body scanners. Northwest Flight 253 was headed from Detroit to Amsterdam, and the bombing suspect was Nigerian.

Now, in Yemen, local troops reportedly stormed an al Qaeda hideout today setting off clashes. And Yemen's security chief, he is vowing to fight the local branch of the terrorist network that has claimed responsibility for the failed airline attack.

And new word today that a man tried to board a commercial airliner in the capital of Somalia last month with chemicals that could have been used as an explosive device, along with a syringe. Now, that sounds very familiar to the Christmas incident, but this suspect has been arrested.

I now want to bring in our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve. She has been -- you have been relentless working the phones and your sources. It's been unbelievable, the developments that have happened in the last 24 to 48 hours. What is the new information that you're learning today?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, an airline pilots group says the Transportation Security Administration left most pilots in the dark Christmas Day, after the attempting bombing on that Amsterdam-to-Detroit Northwest Airlines flight.

The Allied Pilots Association, which represents 11,000 American airline pilots, says only pilots on flights inbound from Europe were notified and told to implement security measures. They say it was the wrong decision.


MIKE KARN, ALLIED PILOTS ASSOCIATION: Information of this sort of a confirmed life-threatening event should have been conveyed to all airborne flights, not just the ones arriving from the Atlantic. At that time, it had not been -- it had not been figured out that this was an isolated event.

We had no idea as to whether or not this was a single actor or part of a larger plot. So, it's important that all of our airborne crews receive this information, so that they can modify their security procedures.


MESERVE: Now, Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, has said repeatedly that systems worked after the bombing was thwarted by passengers and crew.


JANET NAPOLITANO, U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: One thing I would he like to point out is, is that the system worked. Everybody played an important role here. The passengers and crew of the flight took appropriate action. Within literally an hour to 90 minutes of the incident occurring, all 128 flights in the air had been notified to take some special measures.


MESERVE: And, today, the TSA issued this statement.

"When the incident occurred, TSA immediately set up a conference call with partner agencies, including FAA and others. Based on intelligence information at that time, a strategic risk-based decision was made to notify all 128 flights inbound from Europe, but not the others."

This pilots group disagrees with the TSA's decision. It says lives were potentially at risk and that TSA did not act protectively to protect passengers and crew. They call it, Suzanne, a large-scale communications breakdown. MALVEAUX: And imagine that Secretary Napolitano, who came out early on and said that the systems had worked, she's been under a tremendous amount of pressure to answer some questions, that she might also face some additional pressure after what has been released today, that not everybody was happy with the way it was handled after the incident occurred.

MESERVE: It's certainly going to draw more attention to her department. But the TSA and DHS are being adamant today. They think, based on the information they had at the time, that this was the best decision for them to make.

Obviously, initially, they didn't even know this was a terrorist event. That information was coming in. Their view changed over time. But there will be certainly criticism and vocal criticism from this one pilots group.

MALVEAUX: OK, Jeanne, thank you so much. Of course, we will be right back to you, I'm sure, when you get more details about this.

U.S. officials say, as far back as last August, they knew of communications between extremists in Yemen and a person called the Nigerian. They don't know if that person was indeed terror suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. But CNN has been working to try to track his moves before this failed Christmas bombing. And we now know about a Texas connection.

I want to go to CNN's David Mattingly, who is in Houston, about the connection that he had to Texas.

What do we know, David?

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, Houston boasts of having the largest Nigerian population outside of Nigeria. And now this case is hitting very close to home.


MATTINGLY (voice-over): Within weeks of acquiring a visa to travel to the United States in 2008, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attended a seminar on Islamic studies in Houston, Texas. Classes similar to this one photographed in Toronto were scheduled in early August by the Al Maghrib Institute, a school that claims to be the largest Islamic studies student body in North America.

The institute's Web site promises seminars that are fun, engaging, and information-packed. One instructor tells CNN Abdulmutallab was very quiet and expressed no radical views during the conference. He was 21 at the time and residing in London. According to the flight schedule he provided the institute, Abdulmutallab was in Houston 17 days.

(on camera): Have you ever seen this man here?



MATTINGLY: How can you be so sure?

(voice-over): The local Nigerian Muslim association says it's not aware of its members having any direct or indirect link with the suspect. worshipers at Houston's largest Nigerian mosque tell me Abdulmutallab never attended prayers here during his visit.

(on camera): What could this young man have been doing here?



MATTINGLY (voice-over): They tell me they're used to defending their reputation as Muslims after acts of terrorism. But a Nigerian suspect was completely unexpected.

RASHEED IBRAHEEM, NIGERIAN MUSLIM: I said, for God's sake, this can't be a Nigerian. I was shocked. In fact, I said perhaps somebody was just trying to bring a big shame on our country.

MATTINGLY: Numbering between 100,000 and 150,000, Houston Nigerians, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, fear a backlash of profiling. Community leaders denounce extremism and have pledged cooperation with the investigation.


MATTINGLY: And those leaders now very actively and publicly engaged in damage control -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: David, is there any indication that the suspect was doing anything other than attending classes there?

MATTINGLY: We have been asking those questions. And what we're being told is that this seminar, these series of classes, were very intense, that people would get up in the morning, they would go to these meetings, they would go to these classes, and they would take all day, and then they would go back to their rooms afterward.

There's no indication at this time that he had any free time to be spending in Houston doing any kind of meeting or networking or anything else beyond these classes.

MALVEAUX: OK, David, thank you so much.

Well, a suicide bomber completes his deadly mission targeting Americans in Afghanistan. Also this hour, there are some members of Congress who have complained that the Obama administration is not telling them enough about the terror threat. Well, the president is doing something about that today.

And we're going to have a live report on the rush to use body scanners at the Amsterdam airport. There are a lot of questions about security, privacy, as well as delays.


MALVEAUX: The White House is bringing Congress into the loop on the terror threat developments. There are now members of the administration who briefed congressional staffers today.

Our CNN senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is in Hawaii with the president to give us some more details.

Ed, what do we know about those briefings?

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, the Obama administration conducted two briefings today for congressional staff about this attempted terror attack. It happened in a secure room of the Capitol.

To give you a sense of the sense activity of these discussions, it was all about that attempted terror attack on Christmas Day. And I'm told that a lot of congressional aides left these briefings with unanswered questions about what really went wrong, this coming from two officials familiar with the briefings that I spoke to.

One of the officials said the takeaway really was that Congress has a lot of questions about what could have been done before the incident and also what will be done in the days ahead to prevent future attacks. This official added that Obama officials who did the briefing, they came from the FBI, the Office of Director of National Intelligence, the State Department, various state law enforcement agencies, they basically they also told congressional staff there was just not enough negative information prior to the incident to put this eventual suspect on the no-fly list.

Democratic and Republican officials I spoke to said that Congress is going to be asking just a lot more questions in the days ahead, especially since the president himself yesterday said there were systemic and human failures that led to this.

Meanwhile, this incident is also complicating the already complicated effort by the Obama administration to close down the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo. House Republican leaders John Boehner said that this whole incident should make the administration rethink its plans to shut it down, potentially putting terror suspects out in the open, also noting the fact that Yemenis make up a big chunk of the approximately 200 prisoners still at Guantanamo.

But I can tell you, from talking to senior administration officials today, they tell me it's still full-steam ahead in trying to close this prison down. They say that the prison has been used as a rallying cry and a recruiting tool for al Qaeda. They say they're working with the Yemeni government to make sure that the proper security measures are taken to prevent suspected terrorists from just going out into the open.

But it's very telling that these senior administration officials are still not giving us a date for when they plan to close this prison. It shows how difficult a task it really is, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Ed. We're going to be speaking with some members of Congress about that later in the show.

Now, the millimeter wave body scanners, which were not used at the Amsterdam airport when that attempted suspect passed through, will soon screen all of the passengers bound to the United States from there.

Our CNN's Richard Quest, he's joining us live from London with some of the details.

And, Richard, the Amsterdam airport, it has had the technology. The privacy concerns you and I were talking about a couple of days ago, really, they put those machines back in the closets there. What has happened since then? What has changed?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The furor is what has changed and the reality that those machines could very probably have protected against exactly this sort of attack.

Suzanne, since we spoke yesterday, I have now clarified the exact position as relates to these machines. Essentially, European countries, members of the European Union, can introduce those machines unilaterally for a trial period. That's said to be between a year to 18 months. However, for full-scale mandatory use across the European continent, across the E.U., that will require European Commission approval.

Now, the European Commission is expected to meet next week to discuss this further. And if anything, what we have seen over the last few days is to go by, the rapid approval is still -- is probably going to be reached.

There are still those security concerns, though. However, the sheer amounts of noise, the sheer amount of worry and concern, and, Suzanne, the reality that body pat-downs are not realistic on a wide scale across many countries and many flights, it means the body scanner will be arriving.

MALVEAUX: So, it looks like people are getting over some of their privacy concerns and they're saying, OK, well, we will go along with this here.

Is this going to happen beyond Amsterdam? Do we expect this to happen rather quickly in some other countries?

QUEST: Yes. I was talking to the manufacturer, the largest manufacturer of these machines, Smiths Detection, and the CEO said he had -- not that there's anything funny about what's taking place, but he had a wry smile, and he sort of said, yes.

And there's been a lot of interest. His phone has been ringing, and he expects, once governments -- this is the crucial part -- once governments have given the go-ahead for the full-scale implementation of these machines -- well, important as well, Suzanne, what he says is that you really need layers of security.

So, you need metal detectors and body scanners and swabs for explosives. You need the whole lot to create what he called a cohesive approach. And many people are saying tonight that that is what's needed across continents, this cohesive approach to security.

MALVEAUX: OK. Richard Quest, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

Well, here in the United States, currently, travelers experience various levels of security. We have all been through it. There are the metal detectors that all passengers pass through initially. And they're able to flag weapons such as knives. Now, the X-rays are used for carry-on items and shoes. They are able to detect metal, non- metal items. And neither of those methods really raised a flag on Abdulmutallab.

For passengers selected for additional screening, there are a number of procedures besides body scanners. You have got those hand wands. They're used to pinpoint metal items that are set off by the metal detector, and then the pat-down is used to feel for any objects under a passenger's clothing. This could detect a bomb, depending how thorough that pat-down is. And then carry-on items, clothing, can be wiped with those swabs. You have see them before.

When they run through the equipment, they can detect traces of explosives. And traces of PETN can be detected with this method.

Now, Bernie Madoff is back in prison, where the Ponzi schemer spent the last days, and why.

And more than two years of captivity comes to an end -- why a British hostage was released from Iraqi kidnappers.


MALVEAUX: Brianna Keilar is monitoring some of the other top stories that are coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Hey, Brianna. What are you working on?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, eight Americans have been killed after a suicide bomber struck a base in eastern Afghanistan. U.S. military officials say the dead are not members of the military. The bomber's explosive vest detonated inside Forward Operating Base Chapman. Unclear at this point whether the bomber walked into the dining facility or a gym at the facility during the attack.

A British computer consultant held hostage in Baghdad for more than two years is finally free. Officials say Peter Moore was handed over today after negotiations between Iraqi authorities and captors. Moore and four bodyguards were taken by militants disguised at policemen. The bodies of three bodyguards were returned to Britain, while the fourth has not been released.

Financial swindler Bernie Madoff has returned to his jail cell after 10 days inside the medical wing of a North Carolina prison. The Federal Bureau of Prisons says that the 71-year-old Madoff was sent to the medical center after suffering hypertension and dizziness. Madoff pleaded guilty in March to 11 counts related to a massive Ponzi scheme and was sentenced to 150 years.

It is one of the greatest music videos of all time, Michael Jackson's "Thriller," of course, and it's now a national treasure. You can't hear that without your foot tapping, I think. From 1983, this zombie- filled smash going now into the film archives at Library of Congress -- "Thriller" actually one of 25 films to be inducted.

And, Suzanne, pretty interesting. It's actually the first music video to be in the registry.

MALVEAUX: Brianna, I have got every single one of those moves down. I bet you do, too, if you admit it.


KEILAR: Oh, yes? Show -- show them to us, Suzanne.



MALVEAUX: Wait a minute. Wait a minute.


KEILAR: Very nice.

MALVEAUX: All right.

See you, Brianna. Thank you.

More on our top story. There are a couple of ways that the bombing suspect could be tried. Some Republicans are calling for a military tribunal. We're going to examine their reasons why.

And responding to the uprising, Tehran counters with rallies of its own.



Happening now: what's been learned since the September 11 attacks. Well, the latest lapse suggests that there are still problems in sharing intelligence. We're going to revisit that issue with a 9/11 Commission member.

And could dogs succeed where humans have failed? What some expects are saying about the security gap?

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM. On the trail of the suspected terrorists, Dutch officials say that they're investigating whether someone brought an explosive material to the Amsterdam airport for the suspect to pick up.

Now, we're pulling together those many different threads of this developing story. And I want to welcome joining us now senior national security analyst Peter Bergen and George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley.

Thank you for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Clearly -- let me go to you first, Peter. You have obtained some photos, very interesting photos -- these are new to our viewers here -- on a failed attack of a Saudi prince. An alleged assassin who was killed, he had the similar chemical, PETN, he also had in his underwear. It exploded. The prince survived. He did not.

What can we learn from these new pictures that we're seeing about the foiled attack on Christmas?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, the pictures that we're seeing on the screen, this is what a PETN bomb looks like when it blows up. You can see that this room -- this caused massive damage inside the room.

The prince, Nayef, who was the subject of this assassination attempt on August the 27th is very lucky to have survived. The bomber died in this attack. But the modus operandi was exactly the same as the Detroit attack, PETN, about 100 grams of explosives concealed in the underwear.

It got through metal detectors. Plastic explosives won't be detected by metal detectors. Al Qaeda and Yemen took responsibility for the failed assassination attempt against Prince Nayef. And they have also taken credit for the Detroit plot.

So, in my view, it's the same cell of people who did both attacks. The August 27 assassination attempt looks like a dry run. They learned from that that you could get through metal detectors, that this thing would work, and it may be the same bomb maker who put this together, since it's the same cell -- looks like the same cell with exactly the same methodology, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Now, we know in this -- in that case, it worked. But, in the case of Christmas, it did not. What do we know about the difference between the two? Is it an obvious difference here, the reason why that it did not succeed on Christmas and it succeeded then?

BERGEN: It's either operator error or -- the initiator in both cases was a chemical explosive, some kind of -- and I'm not an explosives expert.


BERGEN: Clearly, it didn't work exactly as planned in the Detroit case. MALVEAUX: I want to go to you, to Jonathan.

Clearly, there are some prominent Republicans who are looking at the situation about Mutallab being tried in a military tribunal situation, as opposed to the federal court system. And they want a military tribunal. They want to be able to question him, perhaps enhanced interrogations.

We heard this from the former Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge on "LARRY KING." I want you to take a listen.


TOM RIDGE, FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY CHIEF: I take a look at this individual who has been charged criminally, does that mean he's going to get his Miranda warnings?

Does that mean the only kind of information we want to get from him is if he volunteers it. He's not a citizen of this country. He's a terrorist, and I don't think he deserves the full range of protections of our criminal justice system embodied in the Constitution of the United States.


MALVEAUX: What do you think about his point that he's making? Are we missing vital -- perhaps vital intelligence from Abdulmutallab on whether or not there are additional attackers who are out there?


First of all, supposedly, he was speaking very freely for some time after his arrest. But what we know from the past, from the Bush torture program, is that it yielded very little information. Information it did yield was known to be highly suspect.

But it's not really about the information that you get from special interrogations, which is a nice way of saying torture. It is also not about what rights he deserves. What is really the question is what rights we have to give people to maintain our credibility around the world.

That is, the way the world viewed the Bush administration was that, well, George Bush often looked almost Caesar-like, sending some people to federal courts, some people to military tribunal. Some people got no trial at all.

In this case, we had Richard Reid, who was virtually identical in his act. He went to federal court. Zacarias Moussaoui went to federal court. And I think that it's a problem if we treat a legal system as sort of improvisational, that we simply go by case by case of what we feel someone should have in terms of rights.

The credibility of a legal system is its consistency. Without consistency, it lacks coherence. And I think what Mr. Ridge is saying that, when we really don't like you or we think that we might get some information out of you, then we won't give you the rights under our system.

And that creates the type of anger and, frankly, the view of hypocrisy that the United States has faced. But I think it's very unlikely. A military tribunal doesn't -- doesn't generate intelligence. It's not a way to generate any more intelligence than a federal trial is.

MALVEAUX: Peter, do you want to way in this or...

BERGEN: Well, I think in the Detroit case, he volunteered immediately that he got the device in Yemen, a rather big clue. That he was in contact with extremists in Yemen, a rather big clue.

You know, that was public information on Christmas Day, or maybe even perhaps the day after. And also, the idea that -- the other thing is, when you investigate a crime it's not simply what the suspect says. There's a whole forensic apparatus that goes with it. I mean, the kinds of chemicals that were used, those kinds of explosives, can we match it with other kinds of attacks? I mean, there's a whole rack of other things.

Even if the suspect says nothing, which is not true in this case, you know, saying that we have to put him in a military tribunal implies that there are no other ways of the United States getting information.

MALVEAUX: There's another debate, obviously, over the Gitmo detainees, whether or not they really should remain there. We know that about a half of the detainees there are Yemen -- Yemeni -- and that there is a possibility that they be sent back to Yemen.

There is a huge outcry now, not only from Republicans, but some prominent Democrats. This is from Senator Dianne Feinstein. She said this is a statement: "Guantanamo detainees should not be released to Yemen at this time. It is too unstable."

I spoke with a Yemeni spokesman yesterday to the embassy who said that things are very dire in his country right now, and there's a lot of debate in terms of where Abdulmutallab should go.

What is the best approach?

BERGEN: Well, look, the problem about Yemen is not simply that the government doesn't have much control over its own country. It doesn't have much control over its own prison system. And there have been two prison breaks by people involved in the USS Cole attack in Yemen in the past several years, and I think it's appropriate to maybe take a pause and just say, you know, is this the right time?

I mean, as a general principle, I think it's important that people be returned. But Yemen is a place which is -- that's the reason there are so many Yemenis still in jail.

You know, Saudi Arabia is a much more prosperous country with a much more -- much more ability to control returnees from Guantanamo. Yemen doesn't fit that bill. TURLEY: Well, I think part of the problem is that we're also dealing with people who have never been given a trial. And we no that many of the people in Guantanamo Bay were not terrorists. At one time, we were offering thousands of dollars for anyone that could give us someone they said was a terrorist, and many of them ended up at Guantanamo Bay.

And so we need to be cognizant of the fact that a nation like ours can't hold people without a trial and retain our credibility. So, if we don't want to give them to Yemen -- there might be good reasons not to -- then we have got to try them. If we have evidence against them, then we need to try them, but we can't leave them in this place that no rights can penetrate.

MALVEAUX: We've got to leave it there.

Jonathan, Peter, thank you so much.

TURLEY: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: We appreciate it. Happy holidays.

Some people who prayed with the airline bombing suspect describe him as isolated. CNN is on the scene in the Nigerian hometown of the alleged terrorist. Were there early clues about the dangerous path that he would eventually take?

And can bomb-sniffing dogs fill the gaps in airline security? Some people say that added technology may not be the answer.


MALVEAUX: It's a worldwide investigation, but many of the clues about the failed airline bomb attack may be found in Nigeria.

CNN's Christian Purefoy went to the hometown of the terror suspect looking for answers.


CHRISTIAN PUREFOY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is the small mosque once attended by Umar Abdulmutallab, the man who allegedly tried to let off a bomb onboard the Detroit flight on Christmas Day.

The last time Abdulmutallab came here to pray, his neighbors say, was in August this year, just before he went to Yemen. Everyone here is shocked that he is now the center of a global terrorist alert.

(on camera): Was he a devout Muslim?

(voice-over): "He would be the first to prayers and the last to leave," says the local imam. "But he didn't mingle. He liked isolation."

At the prestigious local school he attended, which does not even teach religion, this son of a wealthy Nigerian banker is remembered as well- behaved and popular with his classmates.

(on camera): So he mixed with children from all backgrounds here, Christian, Muslim...

KERCHIRI SETH, SCHOOL VICE PRESIDENT: Yes, that's right. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, other religions, because we have other nationals here in Nigeria.

PUREFOY: Do you have Americans here in the school?

SETH: Yes, we have Americans.

PUREFOY (voice-over): But outside the school there was violence on the streets.

(on camera): The city of Kaduna sits on one of the longest religious fault lines in the world, separating a Christian sub-Saharan Africa and a Muslim northern Africa.

In 2000, nearly 1,000 people were killed in Kaduna after religious riots, and in 2002, thousands were displaced after the Miss World Competition was to be held here. It was canceled after tens of mosques and churches were burned. Growing up in Kaduna, Abdulmutallab was certainly no stranger to religious violence.



MALVEAUX: The former vice president lambastes the administration. What Dick Cheney has to say about the latest terror threat and President Obama's response to it.

And while Mr. Obama is enjoying relatively favorable popularity numbers, a couple of people top him in the latest poll.


MALVEAUX: Former Vice President Dick Cheney is blasting the president for his response to the failed terror attack. He says it's proof that Mr. Obama is "trying to pretend we're not at war."

Joining me now for today's "Strategy Session" are Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, James Carville, and's Eric Erickson.

First of all, thank you so much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

I want to show you -- this is what former Vice President Dick Cheney had to say, claiming that the president is trying to pretend that we're not at war. This is a statement he released, saying, "As I've watched the events of the last few days, it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war. He seems to think that if he has a low-key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people, we won't be at war." Eric, I want to start off with you. Do you people are listening to the former vice president and what he is saying? Does he have any impact when he brings this up?

ERIC ERICKSON, REDSTATE.COM: You know, I think he does. And if you need proof of it, just consider that Barack Obama has, in three separate occasions, the latest being the West Point speech, sought to specifically address the criticisms that Dick Cheney raised.

I mean, if the president feels concerned enough to have to counter Dick Cheney's speeches, then he must be concerned. And I think the public is probably listening.

MALVEAUX: Why do you suppose you think he's concerned, James? I mean, it seems to me as if he has a different approach altogether.

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Right. I don't know that he's concerned. And one can only hope that he doesn't do what the vice president did and haul off and invade the wrong country. I mean, that's one thing we don't need to do, is start a war with the wrong people.

I think he's very cognizant of that. I think that what he's trying to do and what I want him to do is find out what the systemic breakdown was.

I fly a lot, and I'm kind of freaked out by this, too. And I want to know what broke down, why it broke down, and not the sort of ineffective, almost ridiculous attacks.

I mean, the president came out there and said it was a systemic breakdown. We're going to try to find out what went wrong. By the way, he spent months trying to figure out what to do about Afghanistan. I'm sure he's acutely aware that this country's at war.

MALVEAUX: But the president did actually respond to Cheney. We have a statement that was just released from the White House communications director. I'm going to read just a part of it here, the main focus.

He says, "To put it simply, this president is not interested in bellicose rhetoric. He is focused on action." He goes on to say that "... the former vice president makes the clearly untrue claim that the president, who is the nation's commander-in-chief, needs to realize that we are at war." And he says, "I don't think anyone realizes this very hard reality more than President Obama," who obviously has a lot of tough choices here.

Is this just more of the same kind of campaign from the Republicans, Eric, to try to paint this administration and Democrats going into the midterm elections as weak on terror, weak on security?

ERICKSON: You know, I don't think it's a campaign. I think it's the reality.

The Obama administration seems to be very good at running a political campaign and very bad at actually running policy. This is a repeated thing.

You know, the president doesn't even want to talk about the "war on terror." They're not allowed to use that phrase.

The homeland security chief, who is wholly unqualified for her job, won't even say "terrorism." She calls it manmade incidents.

MALVEAUX: Eric, what does it matter if -- you know, I speak with senior administration officials -- what it's called, per se? The language or the words here, if approach is deliberate?

ERICKSON: Well, if you're not willing to call terror "terror" and evil "evil," then what are you willing to call things? Some things are black and white.

MALVEAUX: That was the main criticism against the Bush administration.

ERICKSON: I think the criticism was that they saw things in black and white. I think they were realistic, and Barack Obama lives in the ivory tower still. He never got out of academia.

MALVEAUX: James, do you want to respond to that?

CARVILLE: Yes. I'm a little flummoxed here, but one thing that we can sure hope and pray for, and that is that they don't haul off and invade the wrong country. And I think if they keep themselves focused here, and try to -- and deal with this, find out where the breakdown was, and not worry about whether labor unions are causing this -- you know, you go on a construction site, I'm not worried about a carpenter blowing me up. But I do think that if our embassy gets notification of somebody, I want to find out where this broke down.

And I think the Republicans ought to be calling for, as are the Democrats. There was a systemic breakdown here. And why did it happen and who's at fault?

MALVEAUX: The president has asked for that, and he's asked for it in short order. Obviously, there are members of his homeland security team that are going to be getting back to him tomorrow with preliminary findings here.

There are some who believe that the setting is all wrong, that the visual is all wrong. There's an op-ed in "The Washington Post" today. It says that "... there's something unsettling about the president not wanting to interrupt his plans to deal with what appears to be the most serious threat to the nation's safety since 9/11. Returning to Washington would have sent the world a powerful message of a president willing to drop everything and roll up his sleeves -- someone who really means business."

Does it matter if he's conducting business from Hawaii, where he has all the tools, equipment he needs, or does he need to go back to the White House to convey a sense of seriousness about the issue?

(CROSSTALK) CARVILLE: Well, I don't know what -- go ahead, Eric. I apologize.

ERICKSON: No, I was just going to say, you know, Barack Obama never once criticized George Bush for being on vacation during his eight years, and I don't think anyone should do the same for Barack Obama. He is the president of the United States.

The White House goes with him. He doesn't have to be in a specific building. And frankly, I don't think it is a criticism that needs to be raised.

This man is still the president, and, I mean, he can hop aboard Air Force One if he needs to. The Democrats criticized George Bush for not flying back to Washington on 9/11 and for being on vacation at several times, but he got the job done.

MALVEAUX: Does it matter -- I mean, President Bush, he got that criticism. I spoke with someone who's friendly with the Obama administration and warned them and said, look, you know, if you don't go back to the White House when you have this initial report that comes before you, if we see reporters with palm trees in the back, it is going to be the equivalent of George W. Bush's Air Force One tipping its wing over the Katrina victims.

Do you think that is a fair assessment of the risks he takes when he receives that report tomorrow and how (AUDIO GAP)?


CARVILLE: Of course not. Of course not.

And he's from Hawaii. It wasn't like it wasn't an issue in the campaign. He is vacationing in his home state. He grew up there.

He went to high school there. He obviously -- his mother died there. He loves the place, and he has -- I agree he has a right to take a vacation.

And there are palm trees in Hawaii. There's nothing he can do about that.

And as long as he understands that there was a breakdown -- and as somebody that flies a lot and as somebody who's concerned about this, what happened in Nigeria? What happened in the embassy? What happened in Yemen? What happened in Amsterdam? How can we make this safer?

If he's getting those answers, that's fine. He can be in Hawaii, he can be in Washington.

MALVEAUX: We know that Dennis McDonough, the chief of staff to the NSC, gave a briefing yesterday in Hawaii making that point, saying that the president is being briefed at least five times a day from the Situation Room, from others. He's got his briefers there with him, so, clearly, they're very much aware of how this looks, the potential criticism, and they are obviously making the case that the president is in fact on top of all of this from his vacationing home.

Thank you very much, James, Eric. Appreciate it.

ERICKSON: Thank you.

CARVILLE: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: Well, running the country isn't a popularity contest, but it may be a good thing for the president when he sees our new CNN poll.

And he's been called the bin Laden of the Internet. We're investigating possible links between a radical cleric in Yemen and the man accused of trying to bomb Northwest Flight 253.


MALVEAUX: As officials try to construct a profile of bomb suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, they're paying close attention to connections that he made in Yemen. There, there was a prominent U.S.- born cleric's name that keeps coming up.

Our CNN's Brian Todd, he's joining us with more on the link to this individual out of Yemen.

What do we know about the connection?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there are lots of questions being asked about a possible connection. We're just starting to put that together now, Suzanne.

Questions asked right now about the suspect's connections to Yemen? Who did he meet with? Was he directed by someone to do this? And where did he get his inspiration?

Some of those questions pertain to a cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki, who is known to have corresponded with the alleged Fort Hood shooter and who was a very popular Internet attraction for jihadists.


TODD (voice-over): He's been called the bin Laden of the Internet, an online jihadi sensation. American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, believed by U.S. officials to have been hiding in Yemen, has clearly inspired Muslim radicals through his online postings and other communications. But does al-Awlaki have a connection with the suspect in the Christmas Day bombing attempt aboard a U.S. airliner?

Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, has said since the Christmas Day incident, he believes there is a connection. Hoekstra now says, after being briefed by U.S. officials, he's heard nothing to change that perception.

U.S. officials say that last August, they knew of communications between extremists in Yemen and a person called "The Nigerian." There was no name attached to that. The airline attempt suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is Nigerian.

The group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the airline attempt, but CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen says Anwar al-Awlaki may not have been part of that.

BERGEN: There's no indication that al-Awlaki, the cleric, is any way involved in operational matters for al Qaeda. But clearly, he's operated as an insider to jihad in the United States by his own account.

TODD: Al-Awlaki had previously exchanged e-mails with U.S. Army Major Nidal Hassan, who's now charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood. And the 9/11 Commission Report says he had contact with two of the 9/11 hijackers while they were in the U.S., though there's no evidence he knew of the plot.

The imam at the Virginia mosque where al-Awlaki was a leader described his appeal.

IMAM JOHARI ABDUL-MALIK, DAR AL-HIJRAH ISLAMIC CENTER: Young, handsome, Californian. Has the benefit of English without an accent, and who also is proficient in the Arabic language. In fact, he is technically an Arab.

What better mix?

TODD: Al-Awlaki is believed to have fled to Yemen in 2003 or 2004, and since then has been called a rock star among those who incite radicalism on the Internet. This is a video lecture appearing on an Islamic Web site.

ANWAR AL-AWLAKI: It is important that we represent the proper role models for ourselves to follow.

TODD: Ben Venzke is with a group called IntelCenter, a contractor which gives counterterror support to U.S. intelligence and the military.

(on camera): How has he done it? How has he been so effective on a virtual scale?

BEN VENZKE, INTELCENTER: Awlaki is doing this by putting out video material that people can access, written documents, other kinds of writings and teachings that are then influencing these people. And then, ultimately, corresponding with them directly in some cases.


TODD: But it's unclear whether Anwar al-Awlaki is doing that at the moment, or if he's even still alive. There's been speculation that he was killed in a strike on suspected jihadist hideouts in Yemen recently. But his family is quoted this week as saying he is still alive, and they deny that he has any role with al Qaeda -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Brian, are there any other major plots that this cleric is connected to in terms of providing inspiration for them? TODD: Ben Venzke says that his name has come up in the investigation of the 2005 bombings on the London subway. But Venzke says in most of these cases, these radicals are getting their inspiration from Awlaki's postings on the Internet, his videos. They're not necessarily corresponding directly with him.

We do know that in the one case of the Fort Hood shooter, the alleged shooter, Nidal Hassan, he did correspondent directly with him by e- mail.

MALVEAUX: OK. Brian Todd, thank you so much.