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The Situation Room

Plot to Blow up Jet Foiled; Terrorists Surgically Implanting Bombs?; Putin Sworn in Today

Aired May 07, 2012 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

CNN confirms that the United States and its allies thwarted a terrorist plot to destroy a U.S. bound airliner around the one year anniversary of Osama Bin Laden's death. That would be some six days ago. We're told the plot involved an al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, and that an explosive device was recovered.

It was a similar to past bomb attempts linked to al Qaeda, we're told, including a failed attack by the so-called underwear bomber back on Christmas Day 2009. A Yemeni official says it's government was made aware of the possible bombing attack and alerted the United States. The official says the would-be bomber had not, had not picked a specific target.

We have correspondents and analysts working on the breaking news digging deeper into the story. Let's go over to the Pentagon. Chris Lawrence is getting new information. Chris, what are you picking up?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. We've got some new information just coming in now at the top of the hour. A U.S. counterterrorism official is confirming to CNN that this was a non-metallic device, and that it was specifically designed for use by a suicide bomber on an airline.

This official says it was very similar and in the same category as the bomb that was used, the so-called underwear bomb on Christmas Day in 2009, but it was slightly different. He said what this shows intelligence agencies is that al Qaeda and the Arabian Peninsula is adapting their tactics in changing.

It really underscores White House terrorism advisor, John Brennan, said just last month when he called al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula very, very dangerous -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Chris, stand by. Nic Robertson is standing by in London as well. Nic, what are you picking up?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we can see there are certain similarities here. We're hearing that the bomb is a similar type of device as used by the underpants bomb. We know that bomb was made by a Yemeni Saudi, Ibrahim al-Asiri, who lives in Yemen, an al Qaeda operative. He also made the printer bombs that were destined to be put on an aircraft flying to the United States that were intercepted because of intelligence tip-offs, and it does appear on this case. So, there was another intelligence tip-off that led to this bomb being caught. These are conclusions that we're drawing from the small pieces of information we have at the moment.

In the case of the printer bombs a year and a half ago, it was Saudi intelligence officials that tipped-off other counterintelligence agencies around the world, the United States and Great Britain, to the fact that these bombs were out there. We don't know if it Saudis this time. We do know that they played a role last time.

On the explosive at the center of this last time was 400 grams of PETN. This is a highly explosive white powder. It can be made into a paste as it was for the underpants bomb, and then, sort of sealed around the body. So, it's hard to detect. So, at the moment, these are the details that we have. We don't know if it's the same bomb maker, but it's certainly (INAUDIBLE).

We haven't been told the type of explosives. We're told, in this case, that it's similar to the last one. If it's similar, that's probably PETN. And what we do know about the underpants bomber two years ago that his device failed to go off because the detonator he was using didn't operate correctly. These are the details that we have, so far, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're also getting a statement, Nic, from the White House, from the National Security Council, the deputy spokesperson, Caitlin Hayden, just putting out this statement, and I'll read it to our viewers.

"The president was information about the plot in April by his homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, and he has received regular updates and briefings as needed from his national security team. While the president was assured that the device did not pose a threat to the public, he directed the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement and intelligence agencies to take whatever steps necessary to guard against this type of attack."

The statement goes on to say, "the disruption of this IED, improvised explosive device, plot underscores the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism here and abroad. The president thanks all intelligence and counterterrorism professionals involved for their outstanding work and for serving with the extraordinary skill and commitment that their enormous responsibilities demand."

That statement from the National Security Council over at the White House. Peter Bergen, now that we haven official statement from the White House about this, it gives us a little bit more context, perspective about what was going on.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes. I mean, that's interesting that it was in April that the president was briefed. I -- you know, I think that, you know, we should put this in a little bit of perspective, Wolf. I think that, clearly, there wasn't -- yes. This is a plot that was very nascent.

I think, obviously, this guy, of all the people in the United States government would like to try and find it, it's surely him. He keeps trying to create these devices, I think, as Fran and Nic have indicated. You know, my money is on the Saudis having basically given the information. I mean, they have had a huge campaign against this group al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula.

The reason that it moved to Yemen is because they put some pressure on it in Saudi. They have informants. Clearly, if they could get the actual way bill number, the cartridges that were put on the plane that was sent to Chicago and essentially give that information to United States government, they have somebody really deep inside al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula who's giving them great information.

So, I would be very surprised if the information originally didn't come from the Saudis. It was handed over to us to United States in some fashion.

Let me bring Fran Townsend into this conversation, our national security contributor. Fran is a member of the CIA and Homeland Security External Advisory Committee. We got a statement, as you've seen from the White House.

John Brennan, the man you know, the counterterrorism specialist over there at the White House saying the president was initially informed about this plot that was thwarted back in April.

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Wolf, a couple of things. One, I mean, I really think now that we know that this device was recovered, putting that together with what Peter was explaining to you about this Saudi intelligence penetration of al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, I must tell you, based on my experience, you've got to believe that it was this penetration that would have permitted intelligence officials to actually get their hands on the device.

That's an intelligence coup for any service, but it requires one with a deep capability and penetration into the organization. The other thing is, you know, we're hearing initial reports that this plot went back to the 9/11 anniversary back in September. If the president was hearing about this and briefed in April, clearly, this is much more recent than the 9/11 anniversary.

This was a plot that was developing, be it in the nascent stage, but this is, you know, this is a 2012 plot, not a 2011 plot.

BLITZER: Well, I thought this may have been in coordination with the first anniversary of Bin Laden's death which was May 1st, and if the president was information in April about this plot, presumably, it could have been connected to the anniversary of Bin Laden's death, Fran.

TOWNSEND: Yes. No, that's exactly right, Wolf. You know, I'm always skeptical about these notions of tying things to anniversaries while, you know, that's not been -- well, we've always worried about that in the counterterrorism communities. We've not really found that to be the case

This one was really different. I think people did worry that they would use this, not to recognize an anniversary, but to take revenge, and that would make tremendous sense.

BLITZER: Elise Labott, our state department reporter is here, as well. What are you hearing from your sources here in Washington?

ELISE LABOTT, STATE DEPARTMENT REPORTER: Well, the information is coming in right now, but it's an initial, obviously, the U.S. is trying to, as Fran said, launch it as a success. This is -- they're calling it real --

BLITZER: It certainly is a success.

LABOTT: That's right, obviously. But at the same time, I think they want to double down and continue this cooperation not just with the Saudis, as Peter said, is really good, but with the Yemenis, you know, you have a new Yemeni president, President Saleh who just left office recently, he was one of the U.S. key allies to the war in terror.

There was a lot of concern when his deputy, President al-Hadi, took over. That cooperation with the Yemenis wouldn't be as great. Right now, al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula in Yemen is very strong. They've been making a lot of inroads, and there was a recent attack in Yemen killed about 70 soldiers.

So, they're actively fighting it, too. I think the U.S. wants to take this and move further to enhance their cooperation.

BLITZER: I assume, Peter, that the U.S. or the Yemenis or a combination thereof, they've rounded up those involved in this plot.

BERGEN: You know, I think that's not clear yet, because if, indeed, the hypothesis the Saudi penetration that's completely possible that the device was simply handed to the United States without actually -- because, clearly, there's nothing in this reporting so far that al-Asiri (INAUDIBLE) this device has been doing for two years is either dead or captured.

BLITZER: So, your sense is that it was a combination of Saudi assistance, Yemeni assistance in effect that help the United States thwart this plot?

BERGEN: Yes. I think that's right.

BLITZER: but in the steam of things, how big of a deal, Peter, and you've studied this now for, what, 15, 20 years, how big of a deal is this plot if, in fact, it is as bill?

BERGEN: Well, let's just take the record of this group, al Qaeda, in Arabian Peninsula. They failed to kill the top Saudi counterterrorism official, they almost succeeded. They failed to block (INAUDIBLE). They failed to get the cargo planes to blow up with the most recent set of bombings.

And these things seem to be kind of a disaster. So, you know, if you look it from that perspective, they're not really getting anything through with any success.

BLITZER: Let me go over to the White House. Jessica Yellin is standing by, our chief White House correspondent. We got the statement from the NSC, from the National Security Council, saying that the president was informed back in April. What else are they saying over there, Jessica?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I heard you raise with Fran Townsend earlier the possibility that this could have been timed to coincide with the anniversary of Osama Bin Laden's death. And I was informed by a counterterrorism official that that is not the case, that they're confident that this was not timed to coincide with Osama Bin Laden's death.

And further it says in this statement, and again, I was assured that they're confident that this was never a threat to the public. So, the statement actually says, "The president was assured by Brennan that the device did not pose a threat to the public, but he still asked the Department of Homeland Security to take whatever steps necessary to guard against this type of attack."

They are hailing it, counterterrorism officials, as Elise has said, as a great accomplishment and a sign that American intelligence capabilities have improved enormously since September 11th. I asked, you know, is this a sign that al Qaeda has eroded since September 11, and they (ph) said, no, it's really evidence of how far the U.S. has come since that time, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. That's what in the statement, Jessica. I know you've read, and I read it to our viewers. There does seem to be, at least, on the surface a contradiction of sorts when the statement says that while the president was assured that the device did not pose a threat to the public, he directed the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement and intelligence agencies to take whatever steps necessary to guard against this type of attacks.

So, is that just out of an abundance of caution that that direction went out?

YELLIN: That's their indication exactly to make sure there's nothing else out there and to remain vigilant, but they're confident that this was -- this IED was not a threat to the public at any time.

BLITZER: All right. Jessica, thank you. Paul Cruickshank is a CNN terrorism analyst, as well. He's joining us on the phone. I'm curious what your reaction, Paul, is to this?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST (via telephone): Well, I think this shows al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has serious intent to target American aviation. They tried this several times before, and this is a great, Wolf, which has been expanding its presence in Southern Yemen. And in just last issue of "Inspire" magazine which was released in the last few days, they said that that expansion had given them access to chemicals, access to more money, and had made them more capable of attacking the United States. So, this probably would appear as strong group this, and I thinking working hypothesis will be that Ibrahim al-Asiri, the bomb maker from the very well-versed in making explosives is, again, the mastermind of this plot, Wolf.

BLITZER: And al-Asiri, we believe, is in Yemen, Paul? Is that right?

CRUICKSHANK: The belief is he's somewhere in Yemen, sort of hiding out in the tribal areas of Yemen, that he's still at large. He's still there, and we've heard from regional security sources that he's been training up other people in the group to learn how to build these sorts of explosives.

Now, in these past plots, they've used a white powdery explosive called PETN. And this is an explosive which they can get through security scans at airports. So, it's possible that this plot, again, involved a PETN base device, Wolf.

BLITZER: Paul Cruickshank, don't go too far away. We'll stay on top of the breakings news. A plot thwarted by the United States, presumably with help from Yemen, maybe from Saudi Arabia, as well, to blow up an American bound airliner in Yemen with some sophisticated equipment.

We're getting more information. Statement coming from the Department of Homeland Security. We'll take a quick break. We'll return to the breaking news right after this.


BLITZER: We're following breaking news, dramatic news, indeed, of a plot to blow up an airliner bound for the United States, a plot thwarted by the U.S. in cooperation, we believe, with Yemeni authorities, and perhaps, Saudi authorities, as well. The president of the United States was informed of a plot by his counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, in April, last month, and the U.S. has gone forward.

Now, we're getting all sorts of statements, official statements from various departments and agencies in the U.S. government, including from the FBI, and I'll read a statement just coming in to the SITUATION ROOM from the FBI.

"As a result of close cooperation with our security and intelligence partners overseas, an improvised explosive decide, IED, designed to carry out a terrorist attack has been seized abroad. The FBI currently has possession of the IED, and it's conducting technical and forensics analysis on it."

The statement continues, "Initial exploitation indicates that the device is very similar to IED's that have been used previously by al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, that's in Yemen, in an attempted terrorist attacks, including against aircraft and for targeted assassinations. The device never presented a threat to public safety, and the U.S. government is working closely with international partners to address associated concerns with the device."

The state (ph) concludes, this is the FBI states, "we refer you to the Department of Homeland Security including the Transportation Security Administration regarding ongoing security measures to safeguard the American people and the traveling public."

That statement coming in from the FBI. Also, just coming in to the SITUATION ROOM, a statement from the Department of Homeland Security, the spokesman, Matt Chandler (ph), just releasing this statement, quote, "We have no specific credible information regarding an active terrorist plot against the United States at this time, although, we continue to monitor efforts by al Qaeda and its affiliates to carry out terrorist attacks both in the homeland and abroad."

"Since this IED demonstrates our adversaries interest in targeting the aviation sector, DHS continues at the direction of the president to employ a risk-based layered approach to ensure the security of the traveling public. These layers include threat and vulnerability analysis, pre-screening and screening of passengers, using the best available technology, random searches at airports, federal air marshal coverage and additional security measures both seen and unseen."

The DHS statement adds, "DHS will continue to work with our federal state, local, international, and private sector partners to identify potential threats and take appropriate protective measures. As always, we encourage law enforcement and security officials as well as the general public to maintain vigilance and report suspicious activity to the appropriate authorities."

All right. So, we now have three official statements from the U.S. government, statement from the White House, statement from the Department of Homeland Security, and a statement from the FBI as well. Nic Robertson has spent a long time studying these terrorist operations, including explosive devices. What do you make of all of these developments unfolding right now, Nic?

ROBERTSON: Well, I think it seems pretty clear, without using the words PETN, that white powder based highly explosive, that the FBI is indirectly or almost directly making reference to when talking about targeted assassinations. That would have been the targeted assassination of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the counterterrorism chief in Saudi Arabia, and also targeting aircraft.

That would be the underpants bomber attempted attack and also the printer bomb. So, I think we are dealing with PETN here. It takes, Wolf, you imagine that the end of this pen here, just the end of this pen, that is enough explosive you could put in there to blow a hole in this wooden table top in front of me.

So, you get an idea that it takes only a tiny amount of this explosive, which is why it's troublesome to the attack (ph). There are scanners now. They scan personal baggage going into -- going on the aircraft. We knew that they are able to detect this substance. But it is very, very difficult. Sniffer dogs aren't able to detect it.

A tiny amount that can cause devastating damage to the fuselage of an aircraft is also hard to detect as we saw with the underpants bomber. And it seems to be the fact that Ibrahim al-Asiri, this Saudi born, living in Yemen, al Qaeda bomb maker still thinks he's got the right model to continue to pursue.

What I find interesting here in this analysis that we're learning that President Obama heard about it in late April, that this plot was disrupted, we understand, sometime last week, which gives an indication that counter terrorism officials, operatives on the ground, maybe have been able to take greater advantage of chains of information and connection and personalities on the ground than they were able to with that printer bomb tip-off.

The printer bomb tip-off came when those printer bombs were already on board aircraft leaving Yemen. So, perhaps, here, this is not only a strike against catching a bomb and learning about the materials, but it's also, perhaps, a great strike against the whole network that was putting the bomb together, Wolf.

BLITZER: And you remember that video, and we showed it to our viewers many times, but that so-called underwear bomber would have been able to do, and there it is right there, potentially, if it had worked while he was trying to destroy that plane. And it doesn't take, as you point, a whole lot of that PETN to get the job done.

So, this is obviously a very, very worrisome development. Let me bring Frank Townsend back into this conversation. The White House statement said the president was informed in April of what was going on. Do you have any sense when the actual plot was thwarted, Fran?

TOWNSEND: You know, we don't really, Wolf. You know, what we're hearing is that it was in the last week, and it's -- and that was the reason that as this information began to seep out, people were asked by the White House and the intelligence community not to talk about it.

So, my sense, Wolf, from everything we're hearing is that it's been very, very recent that this thing was disrupted, and they were trying to keep a lid on it until they could complete the investigations.

BLITZER: What does it say to you, Frank, when the FBI says in its public statement that they've released that the U.S. now is in possession of this IED, and it's conducting technical or forensics analysis on it, this improvised explosive device?

TOWNSEND: Wolf, probably, our country's premier bomb forensic unit is down in Quantico, Virginia at the FBI facility. They have a very -- and they keep a lot of information about past bombs that they've analyzed. And so, the cartridge bomb, the underwear bomb, all of the forensic data that was collected when the FBI would have gone back and examined what remains of those materials, they will be able -- that's why I said they'll look for signatures.

They'll look for hallmarks of the fact. Is it PTEN? Is it the same explosive? Is it being constructed? What are the detonators? How is it -- you know, what are the technical sort of forensics of the bomb and how it would have worked? And can you trace it back to a single bomb maker like a theory in Yemen?

BLITZER: We're expecting Leon Panetta, the defense secretary, to take questions in a few minutes, and presumably, he'll be asked about this. We'll go to the Pentagon live as soon as that happens. We'll take a quick break, continuing the breaking news right after this.


BLITZER: All right. We're following the news, breaking news this hour for our viewers just tuning into the situation room. CNN has confirmed that United States and its allies managed to thwart a terrorist plot to destroy a U.S. bound airliner around the time of the one year anniversary of Osama Bin Laden's death. That's six days ago.

We're told the plot involved an al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen. It included an explosive device that was recovered, a device similar to past bomb attempts linked to al Qaeda, including the failed attack by the so-called underwear bomber back on Christmas Day 2009. The Yemeni official says it's government was made aware of the possible bombing attack and alerted the United States.

The officials says the would-be bomber had not picked a specific target. We have all of our correspondents and analysts working the story. One U.S. counterterrorism official telling CNN the device was for use by a suicide bomber on an airliner. It was so-called non- metallic device presumably could have gotten through TSA screeners.

It was different from the device that was used in December 2009, the airliner plot, the Christmas day underwear bombe plot, though, it was described as being in the same category, clearly, showing that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, meaning in Yemen is adapting its tactics, trying to improve its tactics, learning from its mistakes.

Paul Cruickshank, our terrorism analyst is working this story for us, as well. Paul, what do you make of this?

Cruickshank: Well, Wolf, I'll be looking at this device very, very (INAUDIBLE), because on Christmas day 2009 with coming (ph) into Detroit, that was a very near miss. In that attempted attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the initiation mechanism actually worked, but detonator actually worked.

The only thing that didn't work, didn't explode was the main charge, the PETN, these explosives which is already difficult to detect. So, there'll be looking at the new device, how is it different? Was it an improvement on that previous device?

Now, western explosive experts say that, perhaps, the reason the 2009 plot didn't work was that the main charge, the PETN, was actually desensitize because the underwear bomber was sort of wearing the explosives in his underwear for several weeks as he travelled through Africa, so, eventually, got on the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

So, they'll be looking for the device very, very carefully. Is this bomb maker becoming better at making devices?

BLITZER: Because as you know, Paul, the FBI put on a statement saying that the FBI, and I'm reading now, currently has possession of the IED, the improvised explosive device and is conducting technical and forensics analysis on it. But it was clearly designed, this IED to go with the suicide bomber, on an airliner, and we're told an airliner headed for the United States, but the entire plot was thwarted. It looks like a very successful counterterrorism operation in the works here, Paul, but give me your sense.

CRUICKSHANK: It does and it will be interesting to find out whether again this is Saudi Arabia and counterterrorism that thwarted (ph) this plot back in October 2010. It was Saudi Arabia that provided the key information which allowed Western authorities to intercept two explosive packages, which were heading eventually towards the United States in cargo jets. So the Saudis in 2010 played a very key role. They have an informant network in Yemen in and around al Qaeda and the Arabian Peninsula, so was this again an example of Saudi Arabia taking the lead, breaking up a plot, we'll bf find out a lot more in the hours to come, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Paul, don't go too far away. Our own Brian Todd, over these years has done extensive reporting on these suicide bombers. Brian, I know you're looking into what's going on right now, but give us some context of what you have learned over the years.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, can you hear me OK --


BLITZER: We hear you, Brian, go ahead and give us some context; you're live on TV right now, Brian.

TODD: Right.

BLITZER: I know you have done a lot of work on these suicide bombers over the years.

TODD: Right, Wolf, we've taken a look at just how they get some of these bombs basically implanted in their bodies through surgery or other means and we have talked to doctors and other terrorism experts about how they might do that. We did some background research on that. Take a look.


TODD (voice-over): U.S. security officials tell CNN of a chilling tactic terrorists might try next, targeting commercial aircraft by surgically implanting explosives or bomb components inside the bodies of attackers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We see this as a latest generation (ph) or the evolution of what terrorist groups are trying to do to circumvent our security layers and to perhaps defeat our societal norms.

TODD: Officials say there is fresh intelligence showing terrorists have a renewed interest in planting bombs in bodies, but there's no specific or imminent threat. One U.S. official says a man suspected of involvement in this effort is Ibrahim Aysiri (ph), bomb making mastermind for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Aysiri (ph) is believed to have planned the 2009 plot to kill Saudi Arabia's interior minister by placing a bomb in the rectal cavity or underwear of his own brother. Aysiri's (ph) brother was killed, but the minister escaped. I asked Rafe Rahn (ph), Israel's former top aviation security official about surgically implanted bombs.

(on camera): What does this tell you about where the terrorists are versus where security officials are right now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well it tells me that we have exhausted the capabilities of the technology available to us because there's no way we can take the next step after the body scanners, to figure out when a person carries a device inside his body.

TODD (voice-over): Rahn (ph) and other experts say those full body scanners which we once tested out, can see through clothing, can find prosthesis, breast implants, contours, but cannot detect bombs inside the body. I spoke with Dr. Jack Saba (ph), chief trauma surgeon at Washington Hospital Center about how terrorists might try to pull this off.

(on camera): Do you need a hospital to do this or can you do it in some kind of a terrorist field camp? What kind of training do you need?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well I think again the fundamental question is going to be how well do you want to do it. If you want to do it to 20 people and have 19 of them die and one success that you can send on your mission that would be easier, you could do that sloppy, but if you wanted to do it well and expect them all to remain sterile and not cause infection I think then you're largely going to be talking about a hospital or at least a clinic setting.

TODD (voice-over): Explosives, he says, could be placed in the abdomen or elsewhere.

(on camera): Dr. Saba (ph) says an explosive could be implanted in a prosthetic device, like a fake hip, a breast implant. He says a non-sophisticated implanted bomb might last three to four days inside the body before complications set in, but if it's a sophisticated surgery and implant, it could last weeks, months or even longer.

(voice-over): Experts disagree on whether a bomb inside a body would need an external detonator to ignite it or if it could be set off with a timer. It's also not clear if the body itself could blunt the impact of an explosion.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: And once again we're following the breaking news, the breaking news coming in, we're getting statements from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the White House announcing that the U.S. together with allies have thwarted an attack, a plot that could have potentially blown up an airliner bound for the United States -- much more coming up.

We're also monitoring what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is saying. He's holding a news conference right now at the Defense Department with his visitor from China. We'll see what the questions develop -- how the questions develop if he's asked about this. If he is, we'll go there live.


BLITZER: We're following breaking news coming in from the Arabian Peninsula. U.S. officials say they've thwarted a potential terrorist plot to try to blow up an airliner headed for the United States. An FBI statement says they have actually retrieved the improvised explosive device designed to carry out -- in their words -- a terrorist attack.

It has been seized. The FBI is studying this device. The White House says President Obama was informed by his counterterrorism adviser John Brennan (ph) of the plot back in April and he's been fully briefed on it as well. There's a statement coming in from the Department of Homeland Security saying that the IED demonstrates -- in the words of this Department of Homeland Security statement -- our adversaries' interest in targeting the aviation sector.

So we're watching all of this. Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence. I know you're also monitoring a news conference that the Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is having with the visiting Chinese defense minister. I assume he might be asked by an American reporter about these developments, but Chris, what else are you learning?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, we are getting some information from a counterterrorism official who says after taking a look at the device, it is clearly nonmetallic but was clearly designed for a suicide bomber to use in an aviation attack. This person who has taken a look or has knowledge of this device says it is different than the one that was used in that underwear -- attempted underwear bombing on Christmas Day in 2009.

But it's in the same category, and what it shows to him is that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has adopted their tactics. What this means for the future of aviation in terms of changes in security protocols we'll have to see as more information comes out about this device, but clearly it underscores what counterterrorism adviser John Brennan (ph) said just last month when he called AQAP very, very dangerous. He put the number of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters in Yemen at about 1,000, compared that to the estimated number of al Qaeda in Afghanistan which is only about 100. That gives you an idea of why almost everyone we speak to here in the Pentagon and intelligence sources as well say AQAP is now the most direct threat to the United States of all the al Qaeda groups --

BLITZER: Does the U.S. military, as far as you know, Chris, have any U.S. military personnel on the ground in Yemen? We know there are 90,000 American troops in Afghanistan, but what about in Yemen?

LAWRENCE: There is a limited number working with the -- with Yemen's forces doing some counterterrorism training, things like that, nowhere near, near the amount that obviously that would be in Afghanistan, so a very limited number. But there was a big development in that relationship between the U.S. and Yemen, just within the last month, Wolf, because U.S. officials tell us that both the CIA and the U.S. military have been granted the authority to use drone strikes in Yemen even if they are not able to positively identify the target, so that opens up a lot of leeway in terms of targeting drone-strike targeting when they are going after some of these suspected al Qaeda fighters.

BLITZER: Where do they launch those drones from?

LAWRENCE: Well a lot of that is very secretive, Wolf. There are many bases in northern Africa, and around the region, where those drone strikes are operated. A lot of it depends on whether you're talking about the U.S. military or the CIA.

BLITZER: Very sensitive stuff indeed. Chris thanks very much. We'll go to London. Nic Robertson is working his sources as well. We'll take a quick break and check in with Nic on the other side.


BLITZER: The U.S. government has confirmed that a terrorist plot designed to blow up an airliner headed for the United States has been thwarted. The U.S. together with allies has managed to recover the so-called improvised explosive device that was supposedly going to be used. Nic Robertson is in London working the story for us.

It looks like they're getting potentially more sophisticated, these bomb-makers of al Qaeda, the Arabian Peninsula, referring to Yemenis (ph). It seems that they're getting more sophisticated and trying to potentially thwart screeners or whatever.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they've got more space to play around with in Yemen than they've had before. Last summer I sat down with the then Vice President al Hade (ph). He's now the president of Yemen. Last summer he told me al Qaeda, because of the -- because of the sort of verging on civil war situation in Yemen al Qaeda have been able to take control of three provinces in the country, one of them Abbyad (ph) in the south of the country.

They've been able to take control of Zengebad (ph), the capital. We were down in the south not far from Zengebad (ph) and at that stage we were seeing tens of thousands of people forced out of that town by al Qaeda. So al Qaeda isn't a group there that is just hiding away in the mountains, yes some of them are, but they're also out in the open, living life larger than they are elsewhere, and they're claiming in their latest inspire (ph) magazine to have access to more chemicals. They've taken over what they describe as rudimentary (INAUDIBLE) that they've now been able to sort of upgrade.

The reality here is that al Qaeda in Yemen's problem is that they may have the space and they may have the know-how, but it's getting the bombs out of the country that's the big issue for them and that's the kind of terrorism focus on keeping the problem inside Yemen, if you will. We saw the attempted underpants bomb 2009, the printer (ph) bombs 2010. Nothing really out of them (INAUDIBLE) far as we're aware of in 2011. The country was in chaos.

Maybe it's now an indication that their situation, the country is beginning to settle down a bit again. They're taking advantage of the situation being able to build this other bomb, so they're not highly productive. They're very sophisticated, but they're a challenge, and that challenge has clearly been eroded in this case. Their challenge is to get their bombs out of the country somewhere else.

The concern is that ultimately they may put them in boats, send them across the sea, the Gulf of Ayden (ph) to Eritrea (ph), to the east coast of Africa. That is a concern and that is a focus as well. But this is perhaps the ace in our pocket that they can make the bombs; they're just having trouble getting them out of there right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: How good is the cooperation between the new Yemeni government, the post-Sala (ph) government with the United States?

ROBERTSON: Well I think the very fact that they have expanded the sort of drone strike capability, if you will, what can and cannot be targeted. The can-target list has now --

BLITZER: Hold on -- hold on Nic -- hold on a second, because Leon Panetta is now answering a question on these developments. Let's listen in.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Person in custody and what kind of a threat is this?


BLITZER: All right, it's been translated into Chinese because of the Chinese defense minister is there, but the secretary was asked about this latest development, this IED that has now been recovered by the United States in Yemen, an IED, an improvised explosive device that was supposed to be carried onto an airliner bound to the United States by a suicide bomber. As soon as the Chinese translation ends, the secretary of defense will answer the question that was posed by an American journalist.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll respond to the first question.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would like to do that.


BLITZER: All right, so the defense minister of China is now answering a question about cyber security. Let's take a quick break. On the other side we'll hear what the defense secretary has to say about the thwarted plot to try to blow up a U.S. bound airliner.


BLITZER: We're continuing to monitor Leon Panetta, the defense secretary. We're waiting for him to answer a question. We expect it to happen shortly on this thwarted plot to blow up a U.S. bound airliner. A plot thwarted in Yemen allegedly by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Those were the ones responsible for coming up supposedly with a new type of improvised explosive device that did not contain any metal.

We'll go to the Pentagon, hear from Leon Panetta in a moment, but Mary Snow is monitoring some of the other top stories including Putin, Vladimir Putin returning as Russia's president. Mary what's going on?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, Putin was sworn in today just two months after winning back the job amid allegations of widespread election fraud. He was president for eight years before stepping down due to term limits in 2008. He then became prime minister under his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev. With Russia's newly amended constitution Putin could remain in power, if reelected, until 2024, apparently the longest of any Russian leader since Joseph Stalin.

The medical examiner has completed an autopsy on the body of a stable worker found in the back of a barn at Churchill Downs (ph) just one day after the track hosted the legendary Kentucky Derby. The results won't be made public until after the investigation is complete. Police say several altercations occurred at the track this weekend, but it is unclear if they're related.

And Spirit Airlines is doing an about-face after coming under pressure for refusing to refund a plane ticket to a dying Vietnam vet. The airline's CEO has apologized to Jerry Mekins (ph). He says he will refund the $197 ticket and donate $5,000 to Wounded Warriors, the charity Mekins (ph) supports -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary thanks very much. Once again we're waiting for the defense secretary, Leon Panetta to answer a question about this thwarted plot to try to blow up a U.S. bound airliner. As soon as he does we'll go there live. We'll take another quick break.


BLITZER: We'll have much more on the thwarted bomb plot to try to destroy an airliner bound for the United States coming up at the top of the hour on "JOHN KING USA". But Britain's Prince Harry is now in Washington and our own Brian Todd is over at the British Embassy watching what's going on. Brian, update our viewers.

TODD: Well Wolf we're getting ready for Prince Harry to depart the British Embassy here for the Ritz-Carlton hotel where he is going to accept an important award later on tonight. He may be departing through those gates there. There is some security personnel at those gates right behind me. You know this is a very short visit for Prince Harry to Washington, just a few hours in duration, but it is a very important visit for him as the royal palace tries to enhance his image as one of an evolving young man.

BLITZER: Brian, we're going to interrupt because Leon Panetta is now speaking about that thwarted bomb attack.

LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: -- to attack the United States. What this incident makes clear is that this country has to continue to remain vigilant against those that would seek to attack this country and we will do everything necessary to keep America safe.


BLITZER: All right, so there you have a brief statement from Leon Panetta responding to a question. Leon Panetta, the defense secretary obviously confirming what we have now known, what we have been following for the last couple hours that there has been a thwarted plot, a plot to go ahead and try to take down a U.S. bound airliner, a plot that included an improvised explosive device.

We have been following the breaking news, much more coming up here on CNN. That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. The breaking news continues next on CNN.