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THE SITUATION ROOM

Protests Escalate in Iran; President Obama Vows to Protect Fliers

Aired December 28, 2009 - 16:00   ET

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


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Al Qaeda is claiming responsibility for the failed airline bombing on Christmas. This hour, new information on the suspect and his alleged link to the terrorist network.

President Obama says that he's doing everything in his power to keep America safe.

And we will take a hard look at airline security procedures and how a would-be terrorist can fall through the cracks.

And some call it the bloodiest showdown yet between anti-government protesters and riot police in Iran. Is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hard- line regime near the breaking point?

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

President Obama says that the failed attack on a northwest Airlines jet is a serious reminder that terrorists are out there plotting to kill Americans. The president spoke in Hawaii just a short time ago. This was his first public remarks about the attempted bombing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have ordered two important reviews, because it's absolutely critical that we learn from this incident and take the necessary measures to prevent future acts of terrorism.

The first review involves our watch list system, which our government has had in place for many years to identify known and suspected terrorists so that we can prevent their entry into the United States. Apparently the suspect in the Christmas incident was in this system, but not on a watch list, such as the so-called no-fly list. So I have ordered a thorough review, not only of how information related to the subject was handled, but of the overall watch list system and how it can be strengthened.

The second review will examine all screening policies, technologies and procedures related to air travel. We need to determine just how the suspect was able to bring dangerous explosives aboard an aircraft and what additional steps we can take to thwart future attacks.

Third, I have directed my national security team to keep up the pressure on those who would attack our country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: A new photo was released today of the suspect -- 23-year- old Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab of Nigeria is being held in Detroit for allegedly trying to blow up the plane with 300 passengers on board.

Now, a court hearing scheduled today to get DNA samples from him was actually canceled.

Now, a branch of al Qaeda is now claiming responsibility for the attempted attack as an international flight prepared to land in Detroit on Christmas.

Let's bring in our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve.

Jeanne, we are learning more about al Qaeda's claim of responsibility. Tell us what you know.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: The failed Christmas Day attack, Suzanne, was in retaliation for alleged American strikes on Yemen, according to a claim of responsibility purportedly from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

It hails as a great deed Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab's use of an advanced bomb which got through security -- quote -- "defying the legend of American and international intelligence services, proving their weakness, rubbing their noses in the sand, as if everything they spent on developing the security measures was nothing."

A law enforcement official says at least part of the device was sewn into AbdulMutallab's underwear. Forensic analysis of how it was made and who made it is continuing. Investigators are also still trying to determine if there is indeed a specific connection to a terrorist group as he and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are claiming -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Where is the suspect today, Jeanne?

MESERVE: Well, he has been moved. He has been moved out of a Michigan hospital where he was being treated for burns to the Milan federal correctional facility while the broader investigation continues.

Intelligence officials say the U.S. was unaware of AbdulMutallab before November 19, when his father warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria about his son's worrisome radicalization. U.S. officials say the information was thin, limited, one of 100 or so reports of suspicious activity the U.S. receives every day, and it did not meet the threshold to put him on a terror watch list, which might have kept him from flying or undergoing additional screening.

But the secretary of homeland security conceded today that existing systems failed and a review is under way, as you heard the president say, to see how watch list protocols and aviation screening can be improved -- Suzanne. MALVEAUX: And, clearly, that's something that a lot of people are asking questions about, those four different lists and whether or not he should have been red-flagged and put on another list. So, we will be asking that as well throughout the show.

Thank you, Jeanne.

MESERVE: You bet.

MALVEAUX: Now President Obama under intense new pressure to protect fliers and to tighten airline security. He took time out from his Hawaiian vacation to try to reassure the public.

Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, he is with the president in Hawaii.

And the president didn't directly, Ed, come out and talk about al Qaeda's claim of responsibility, did -- did he?

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No, he did not, Suzanne.

And it's important to note that top administration officials still have not independently confirmed that al Qaeda had a role in this attempted terror attack. It's unclear whether al Qaeda is trying to puff itself up here, the suspect, whether or not he's just making wild claims or not. So, that's important to note.

But here is what's most interesting about what the president had to say and how it intersects with that claim of responsibility from that branch of al Qaeda. The terror group charged in that statement that it was retaliating for recent airstrikes in Yemen that have taken out al Qaeda operatives there, the president, after saying that he's ordered a review of aviation security and is confident that the country is safe, also noted he's not just going to stay on offense. He said he will stay on offense in Yemen and elsewhere.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: We will continue to use every element of our national power to disrupt, to dismantle and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us, whether they are from Afghanistan or Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, or anywhere where they are plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland.

Finally, the American people should remain vigilant, but also be confident. Those plotting against us seek not only to undermine our security, but also the open society and the values that we cherish as Americans.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Now, we went back and checked. And on December 24, just one day before this attempted terror attack, White House spokesman Bill Burton was asked by reporters about whether or not a top al Qaeda leader had been taken out in Yemen. He refused to comment on that, but then went on to say that the president supports Yemen's government in trying to battle these terrorists on the ground.

It's not so subtle that this administration is making clear it plans to stay on the offense in Yemen. And this may be kicking up a lot of -- of back and forth in the days ahead -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And, Ed, certainly, all of us watching the developments over the weekend, there was some criticism that the president hadn't come out sooner in addressing this. How are they responding?

HENRY: Well, they insist that the Republicans are playing politics, people like Congressman Peter King, and that they were not directly responding him -- to him today, when -- when he had been claiming a couple days that the president abdicated leadership, should have stepped forward sooner.

But it is interesting that, among the things the president did today of course was reassure the public, something that Peter King and other Republicans had been demanding days ago.

The other important point to make is that White House aides just after Christmas had been telling us here in Hawaii, well, the president doesn't need to go out. He's got his staff to go out front in public. He's got his homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano.

And, yet, she went out there yesterday, and among the things she said was that the system worked. That raised a lot of eyebrows. She had to clean that up this morning on some of the morning shows. And then the president himself comes out.

So, it seems that they clearly wanted to get a more direct message to the American people about the fact that they think the country is safe. What she was referring to about the system working originally was that, after the attempted attack, the crew and the passengers jumped in and snuffed it out.

But, obviously, more importantly, a lot of Americans are asking, what happened before that? Did the system really work before that? Number one, how did this suspected terrorist get on the plane? And, number two, more importantly, how did he get explosives on that plane?

The president said they're now investigating that, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right, Ed Henry, thank you so much.

We have new information about a secret war against al Qaeda funded by the United States -- ahead, the terror threat in Yemen and its connection to the botched airline attack on Christmas.

And can security experts stop would-be terrorists just by watching them? It's a kind of airline screening that you don't hear that much about.

And later: crackdown in Iran. Anti-government protesters get angrier, and street clashes are getting bloodier.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) MALVEAUX: In an online statement released in just the past couple of hours, a branch of al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the attempted Christmas airliner attack. It says it was payback for alleged U.S. strikes in Yemen.

Our CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr joins us.

Barbara, it appears that, more and more, what we're seeing is activities out of Yemen when it comes to al Qaeda, a more serious threat against the United States. What do we know?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Suzanne. This has been a worry now for some time.

Already, the Pentagon is funneling about $65 million a year to Yemen to fight al Qaeda, but, behind the scenes, there is much more going on.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): This is the front line in the new U.S.-funded secret war against al Qaeda terrorists and training camps here in Yemen, al Qaeda now claiming the attack against Northwest Airlines Flight 253 was in direct retaliation.

CNN has confirmed U.S. involvement is deepening in Yemen, in recent weeks, several airstrikes. An al Qaeda operative eulogizes fellow fighters. A Yemeni officials tells CNN, shortly after this, the man is killed in yet another raid.

General David Petraeus sounded warnings months ago.

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: And that's where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has established its headquarters. This is a concern.

STARR: In recent months, both Petraeus and John Brennan, President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, personally warned Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh that al Qaeda was targeting his inner circle.

A senior U.S. official confirms to CNN that intelligence agencies and military special operations teams are helping Yemen, providing intelligence, training and weapons. U.S. officials say they gave Yemen intelligence on al Qaeda targets, but won't say if American warplanes or armed drones conducted the recent strikes.

Senator Joe Lieberman offered one of the few public hints.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I), CONNECTICUT: We have a growing presence there -- and we have to -- of special operations, Green Berets, intelligence. If we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war. That's the danger we face.

STARR: That's one reason the U.S. is so worried about the claims by the Northwest Airlines suspect. He says he traveled to Yemen and was given bomb-making materials there by al Qaeda.

Look at the map and you see the immediate potential for disaster. Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen are within striking distance of Saudi oil facilities. Hundreds of vulnerable cargo ships pass the coastline each year.

One reason al Qaeda has established Yemen as its safe haven? The government there is already battling tribal rebels in both the north and the south.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is a very real sense that the central government is losing control over most of the country.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: And a senior U.S. officials tells CNN that, in recent weeks, President Saleh has done a turnaround in Yemen, that he is now more willing to accept more U.S. help, because he's now come to understand the situation in his own country fighting al Qaeda has grown dire -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Barbara.

I want to bring in our CNN national security contributor, Frances Fragos Townsend, the former homeland security adviser to President Bush.

Fran, thanks for -- for joining us here.

Al Qaeda in Yemen now claiming responsibility for this attack. You have dealt with them before, going back to 2000, when you had the USS bombing of -- the USS Cole bombing.

Does the Bush administration bear any responsibility this point that we're still dealing with al Qaeda in Yemen?

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, there's no doubt, Suzanne -- I have made numerous troops myself, just as we reported that John Brennan and others in the current administration have made.

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. And while Barbara is saying that the administration is now saying that President Saleh gets the problem, he's gotten it in the past. They're just not consistent. And I think we ought to be concerned about that.

MALVEAUX: Do you think that -- Senator Lieberman had suggested a preemptive strike, if you will, in Yemen again al Qaeda. Do you think that's a good idea?

TOWNSEND: Well...

MALVEAUX: Is that what the Obama administration should do? TOWNSEND: Well, I doubt that the Obama administration will even put that on the table. I just don't think that that, a preemptive option, is consistent with what we know about President Obama's counterterrorism policy.

I will say this. I think Senator Joe Lieberman is absolutely right, that, unless we take very strong, decisive action and push the Yemeni government on the counterterrorism issue, we will continue to see a threat emanate out of Yemen to the United States.

MALVEAUX: You have dealt with the president there before. You say he's uncooperative. What do you suggest the Obama administration do?

TOWNSEND: Well, we had started during the Bush administration -- and the Obama administration has continued -- what you need to do is provide them with intelligence and capability, but then hold them accountable for action.

When I say that they're unreliable, it's the action part. We were providing them with capability before. The question is, will they grow their own capability and permit us freedom of action to help them? And that's going to be the real test over the next coming months.

MALVEAUX: I want to go back to the attempt over the Christmas holiday. Obviously, the TSA put out new guidelines shortly afterwards to the airlines, saying new rules are set up here, that you can't have pillows or blankets an hour before you land the plane or laptops. People can't go to the bathroom.

We heard from the TSA again today. They essentially said, well, it's the flight attendants' discretion now.

Does this mean anything? I mean, does it have any teeth at all, if you can flip it over like that and just say, well, maybe you don't have to do it?

TOWNSEND: Well, I thought that the new measures made good sense. I mean, after all, we understood, in the 2006 Heathrow potential bombing plot, that they were going to use the bathroom in order to assemble the device. Clearly, that's what this guy tried to do on the Northwest Airlines flight.

And, so, that it made sense they put the new restriction in place. Of course, people complain. It's inconvenient. And, so, I think it's unfair to put that on the shoulders of the flight crew who have to interact with passengers.

Really, the bottom line here, though, Suzanne, is, we typically see a plot, we disrupt it, and then we institute new measures that would have prevented that plot from actually being successful. The goal here ought to be, in terms of prevention and counterterrorism, is to get ahead of the -- get ahead of the curve, and that is, put these measures in place before they try to pull off...

(CROSSTALK) MALVEAUX: So, how do you change that, though, because, at this point, it just seems like we're being reactionary?

TOWNSEND: Right. Well, that comes down to your investment in intelligence.

You know, we increased the amount of investment in intelligence during the Bush administration after the peace dividend had really stripped away a lot of the resources the intelligence community was getting. But it's a matter of taking that intelligence that you gather and making good use of it, sharing it interagency with screeners, with the Department of Homeland Security, and making sure that you move it quickly and are able to put measures in place to thwart them.

MALVEAUX: You've got four different terror watch lists that we know of, at least. The broadest one is the one that netted him, but, essentially, it gets further and further detailed.

The federal authorities are reevaluating various terror watch lists after that failed attack. And the suspects' name, it wasn't on -- it was on the broadest list, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE. Now, that includes more than half-million people suspected of being linked to terrorist activities. It's run by the National Counterterrorism Center.

Now, the FBI, it has a more consolidated version of that list with about 400,000 people. It's called the Terror Screening Database, or TSDB. Now, your name can be on either one of those lists, and you still are not going to be required to have any addition screening at the airport. Extra screening doesn't kick in until your name pops up on this list.

The Transportation Security Administration has this selectee list of 14,000 people. There's a much smaller group yet, fewer than 4,000, who are on the TSA's no-fly list. That's designed to prevent known terrorists from getting on the plane.

So, you have got all of these lists here. If you don't net the guy who is the most dangerous, what good is all of this?

TOWNSEND: Well, that's right. And that's, I think, why you have seen the president come out today and order a review of the watch list process.

John Brennan, who's his homeland security adviser, was in government during the prior administration and helped set this system up. So, he understands very well the standards that apply to get on each of these lists.

Obviously, this doesn't work. To your point, if this guy gets on with high explosives, the system isn't working, and it will be the responsibility of John Brennan and Secretary Napolitano to make sure that the standards are right, to be adjusted to make sure you do net the guy before he tries to get on with high explosives.

MALVEAUX: What does somebody need to get on the no-fly list? TOWNSEND: Well, there's a whole criteria. But, in essence, Suzanne, you have to be known to have information -- there has to be information in the system that suggests that you are a direct threat to aviation, not that you are just an extremist or a radical, but that you are -- for some reason, they expect you are a threat to aviation security.

And, obviously, this was -- the information from his father was not specific enough to cause somebody to put him on that list. Of course, people will go back and examine that decision, because we were -- obviously didn't get it.

MALVEAUX: OK, Fran Townsend, thank you so much joining us.

TOWNSEND: You're welcome.

MALVEAUX: We appreciate your insights.

Los Alamos is back in the news. It's the birthplace of the atomic bomb. Well, we're looking into the accident at the Los Alamos National Lab.

And a volcano could be ready to blow in a big way any time now. We are going to tell you who's at risk.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Brooke Baldwin is monitoring some of the stories that are coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Hey, Brooke. What are you watching?

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Suzanne.

We're getting some new numbers out of Iran here. According to Iranian state TV, they're reporting that eight people now have died in all those street protests. Opposition reports say the bodies of one of the victims, the nephew of Iran's opposition leader, has just vanished. But because of the news media blackout in Tehran, we, CNN, have not been able to independently confirm these reports. The clashes are the most violent since the unrest back in June, June 12, following Iran's presidential election.

And, in Mississippi, officials in Starkville are investigating the cause of this massive apartment fire that killed nine people, including six children. A fire was reported right around 4:00 in the morning. And firefighters were still on the scene more than six hours later. The victims not yet identified, but the children apparently range in age all the way from four months to 6 years.

And scientists in the Philippines say a current lull in tremors right around the Mayon volcano could be a sign of an imminent massive eruption. This volcano already spewed 26 million cubic yards of lava over the past two weeks. But instruments are indicating that this mountain hasn't gotten smaller exactly, suggesting magma from deep, deep inside the earth could be replacing the lava. More than 47,000 people have been evacuated from there.

And for the first time here in seven weeks, oil prices rising above that $79-a-barrel mark in trading today. That extended cold snap much of us are experiencing nationwide has really prompted this rally in energy futures. Prices for oil, natural gas and heating oil futures have all gone up this month.

But, Suzanne, energy demand has yet to rise above the levels from last year -- back over to you.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you, Brooke.

Well, there's a lot of talk about high-tech ways to improve airline security, but could a set of trained eyes simply be the answer to picking terrorists out from the crowd?

And another close call for the president. Will his party be blamed for this failed airline attack?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: a renewed uprising in Iran -- what is behind the bloody protests in the streets of Tehran and how the challenged Islamic republic is responding to this.

And a personal perspective -- al Qaeda calls him a brother who carried out a heroic attack. We're going to talk with a former classmate who called him a friend. And we will focus on the Nigerian who tried to blow up a Christmas flight to Detroit.

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

Well, if you thought travel security was cumbersome before, be ready for even longer, slower lines and fresh restrictions. After the attempted airliner attack on Christmas Day, behavior experts are expected to be used as a new security measure.

Our CNN's Brian Todd, he went to Reagan National Airport to find out what those experts would be looking for.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, CNN has confirmed that there were no air marshals aboard that Christmas Day flight where the suspect allegedly tried to ignite an explosive device.

But we're also told by the Department of Homeland Security that there are more air marshals on more flights now since that day. Well, I talked to current and former air marshals who say that behavior recognition is going to have to be a big part of what the marshals are looking for. They have been doing that, but they want to push for more of that kind of training. And, specifically, what we're talking about, according to these current and former marshals, is recognizing -- recognizing certain behaviors of passengers that may be alone, suspicious behavior. They don't want to go into too many specifics, but people who are traveling alone, who appear nervous, who are staring off into the distance, things like that generally.

We also talked to Rafi Ron. He's a former Israeli air marshal, former head of security at Ben Gurion International Airport. He has been pushing for a certain type of training, not just for security people, but for people who work areas like this one behind me.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RAFI RON, FMR. SECURITY DIRECTOR, TEL AVIV AIRPORT: Our most important asset when it comes to detection or suspicious behavior are all the employees that we have all over the airport. The presence of security personnel and law enforcement people is extremely limited.

TODD: So you're talking ticket counter people.

RON: I'm talking ticket counter people, I'm talking about the janitors who are cleaning our restrooms. I'm talking about the people at the parking lot. I'm talking about the people on the curbside. These are the people that are so familiar with the regular activities and will immediately recognize irregularities when they take place.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: Rafi Ron says those are airport employees who can see passengers in areas of the airport that he just mentioned, places like bathrooms and other corners where there aren't security cameras around, where there may not be security personnel around, but where suspicious behavior can take place. He makes a very strong point that this is not racial profiling that we're talking about here, this is behavioral profiling. It can come from just about anyone.

It's the kind of the facial recognition, behavioral recognition, body language that you're looking for. Not the color of a person's skin, their gender or anything else -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. Brian Todd.

Thank you, Brian.

And to get onto the Northwest flight in Detroit, Abdulmutallab had to clear security in Amsterdam. And CNN's Richard Quest, he traveled to Amsterdam over the weekend for a firsthand look at the screening procedures there.

Well, he's now back in London. He joins us now.

Richard, what did you see when you were at that airport, the screening that took place in Amsterdam? Did it look tough? Did it look Easy? What did you observe? RICHARD QUEST, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: At one particular look, it looked like any screening anywhere else in any other major international airport. Despite the rumors that are around there that there may have been some laxity in all of this, Amsterdam does its U.S. screening at the gate. So, before you actually -- but this is after you've been through the main airport screening, and it depends on where you started your journey, whether you started it within Amsterdam or you're connecting. But even wherever it was, you at some point had to go through the metal detector and the X-ray machine to get to the gate, what the U.S. calls the last point before departure.

The question, of course, is now following on from the new TSA rules, the patting down and the directives, the searching of every piece of hand luggage, the further questioning for those people that might look suspicious or raise questions. And, of course, that is going to be a much more intense process, and that's going to take a great deal longer.

MALVEAUX: Did you see any use of full body scanners at the airport? Do they use those there?

QUEST: Well, Amsterdam has more full body scanners than any other single airport pretty much in the world. And, no, they're not using them.

They claim it's because of regulatory problems in using them but, frankly, the European Commission told us tonight that there's no problem. Europeans countries are free to use the full body scanners if they wish to. There's no European rules on the subject yet, but individual countries can.

However, what is stopping them using them is niceties and privacy. They don't use them yet because they're worried that the American passengers and the TSA will object on privacy grounds, and won't approve their use, and they don't use them because they basically say that passengers will object.

Suzanne, there is no delicate way to put this. Those body scanners reveal all, and until there is a consensus amongst passengers that they don't mind having their bits revealed to an anonymous security guard, then it's not going to happen.

However, they are working on new methods where a computer would look at the image and a computer would work out if there is something wrong and awry, if you like. It's privacy versus security.

MALVEAUX: You can certainly understand both sides to that argument.

OK. Richard Quest, thank you so much.

President Obama is vowing to keep flyers safe from terrorists, but the close call on Christmas could haunt him and his party. Security risks on the brink of an election year.

David Goldman says that he is getting the silent treatment after finally bringing his son back to the U.S. from Brazil. Plus, they called it a miracle, and it's one of the most memorable news stories of 2009.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

MALVEAUX: Well, the final days of a new year inevitably a time to reflect on the events that made it memorable. And 2009 is no different.

We asked CNN correspondents from around the world to share the stories of 2009 that they will remember the most.

From Havana, Cuba, to New York, here's just a couple of them.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DON RIDDELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Don Riddell in New York City, a city which in 1947 brought you "The Miracle on 34th Street" and which in 2009, just six blocks that way, brought you "The Miracle on the Hudson."

The sight of US Airways Flight 1549 drifting down the Hudson became instantly iconic in this city of dreams. I was watching on my laptop in bed, back home in London, in utter disbelief as all 155 people on board survived, thanks in large part to the skill of pilot Chesley Sullenberger. He did what nobody thought possible. He landed a plane safely on water.

In a year marred by air disasters all around the world, this was one good news story that I was delighted to report on.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHASTA DARLINGTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Shasta Darlington in Centro Habana, one of Havana's more rundown neighborhoods.

Now, living and working in Cuba, I see a lot of people who struggle to just get by. There are crumbling buildings and really basic conditions. But the story that made the biggest impression on me this year was the economic crisis in the United States.

I was really shocked to see these images of people living in tent cities. I remember one story in particular of this very middle-class guy who was living out of his car. He had lost everything -- his job, his house -- and living out of his SUV. And one of the strangest parts to me was being here in Havana and feeling like this time we were the ones living in a bubble.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: We'll be bringing you many more CNN correspondents' reflections on the best stories of 2009, all this week, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Well, a religious procession takes a violent turn in Pakistan. A suicide bomber attacks and dozens are killed.

We'll have the latest from Pakistan.

And heightened security at U.S. airports. Will body scanning cut down the danger?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: President Obama says the U.S. will do more than strengthen its defenses to fight terror. His statement, ,delivered in Hawaii just a couple of hours ago, comes three days after the botched attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane.

Now, will this thwarted terrorist attack do political damage to the president and the Democrats? That is the question.

Joining me for today's "Strategy Session" are Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons and Republican strategist Rich Galen.

Thanks for joining us here on THE SITUATION ROOM.

I want to start off first, obviously, the question, how the president handled this very delicate situation. We heard from former Vice President Cheney when he interviewed with John King saying that he thought the Obama administration was making the country less safe.

I want you to take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KING, HOST, "STATE OF THE UNION": Do you believe the president of the United States has made Americans less safe?

RICHARD CHENEY, FMR. VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Now, he was referring to closing Guantanamo Bay prison facility.

RICH GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: And that was some time ago.

MALVEAUX: Some time ago. He was also talking about making it more difficult for warrantless wiretaps.

Do you think that this president is going to face a tough road, a tough test when it comes to protecting the American people?

GALEN: It's always a tough test. Look, I've covered elected officials my whole life. And whether it's a police chief -- remember the police chief in Maryland, when those guys were shooting people out of the back of their car -- or it's a mayor it's the president of the United States, they take very, very personally their oath to protect the citizens.

But I think any president, whether it's Bush or Clinton or even Carter, or Obama, takes this very seriously. When he says they're going to do a rethink about how to deal with this situation, I take him at his word and I think they're going to take this very seriously.

MALVEAUX: So do you think the Republicans are going to use this incident against him or is it really too soon to tell?

GALEN: I hope not. It's too soon to tell, and I hope not.

I don't think this is -- I don't think we should play politics with national security like this. This isn't something -- the Obama administration didn't say we're slashing totals for aircraft safety. They've been doing the things that they've been doing, they've been incrementally employing the techniques that they've been told to do.

So it's not like they have to reverse strategy. And I don't think it's a political issue.

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think this is a president who, despite the liberal base, which is not very happy with his decision to stay in Afghanistan and, in fact, put more troops in Afghanistan, I think if you just want to talk of politics of this for a second, that movement on his part actually helps him ward off any of these questions about whether or not he takes our national security seriously. He does.

If there's some problem that occurred that the admiration had a hand in, I think they're going to have to answer for that. But other than that, they are managing the crisis.

I think the president came out today, he spoke very forcefully. He has a calming presence on the American public. Most presidents do, he does particularly. And I think he did that very appropriately and he'll be fine.

MALVEAUX: Let's talk a little bit about the timing, because, obviously, that created some criticism, generated some criticism. There seems to be, in covering President Bush, a natural inclination for leaders to step back and downplay, if you will, some sort of disaster that's occurred.

I was in Crawford with President Bush when it took a long time for him to see and realize the danger of Katrina and what was happening there. There's some people who say, oh, well, you know, the president, he's in Hawaii, he's vacationing, that it's a difficult process to go through and to finally realize, OK, I've got to get out there right away, not three days later.

Did the timing impact his effectiveness in dealing with this?

GALEN: I think it seemed to me that it was a little bit long before he finally came out in front of the cameras. I think the bigger issues was that there was no cohesive response from the administration.

I think Secretary Napolitano was way off base when she said the system worked. It clearly did not. And when Robert Gibbs sort of tried to blame it on the Bush administration earlier yesterday morning, that was wrong. So, I think if there's any complaint about this, it's that they didn't have a cohesive administration line to kind of make everybody at ease. It didn't have to be the president.

MALVEAUX: In all fairness, she clarified that remark and said she was talking about going forward and not looking back.

GALEN: Yes, after they did...

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: But did the president need to come out sooner?

SIMMONS: Well, here's what they did. They put a statement out the first day that it happened. They had Janet Napolitano and Robert Gibbs out on Sunday. They had the president come out today.

I would have preferred the president say something in the first 24 hours. I think the American public needs to hear from the president at a moment like this.

The only difference between a major disaster, a Christmas massacre and what we have today as an attempted attack is because we had an inept bomber, or he had inept equipment. We don't know what the answer is. But I would have preferred to have the president early. But I think him coming out today was not too long. It was long enough for people to notice, but not long enough that it was a mistake.

MALVEAUX: I want to turn the corner, if you will.

Already, the Democrats are starting a campaign saying the Republicans are the party of no. This worked before for them, but this is something that they feel is going to work even more so in the midterm elections.

I had a chance last week to talk to Senator Orrin Hatch, and asked him, essentially, what are you going to bring back new after you talk to your constituents, a new way, a new strategy of dealing with Democrats so you can get something done together?

Here's how he responded.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: I don't think we're on the sidelines in any way, shape or form. But I'll tell you, there has to be a desire by the Democrats to work with us. You know, they have 60 votes and they can do whatever they want, and there's an arrogance of power here that I've been talking about that, literally, they think they can do whatever they want regardless of what's right or what's wrong.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Does he have a point, Rich?

GALEN: Oh, I think that's right. I mean, the old saying, "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely" is true. And Republicans proved it as well. When they owned everything, they had the arrogance of power.

I think at some point senior elder statesmen, if there are any, in each party are going to have to get together and say enough, we are Americans, let's agree to disagree on the things we can't agree on. Let's focus on the things we can.

SIMMONS: The Republicans are in great danger here, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the Republicans are actually not going to do very well in the election...

(CROSSTALK)

GALEN: I have a lunch bet with you.

SIMMONS: I'm happy to have it with you, because here's the reality. The reality is, you can look up four months from now, and you've got health care, you've got a financial control difference. I mean, you have a variety of bills that could be passed and they could be standing on the sidelines, having stood against all the efforts this president has taken to get us out of the ditch we are in.

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

OK. Jamal, Rich, thank you so much for joining us here.

GALEN: You can come to lunch.

MALVEAUX: Either one of you can pay. That's OK with me. OK.

We're following a major story out of Iran today. An anti-government protest turns deadly in what could be a turning point in the rebellion in that country. Why this is so critical, ahead.

Plus, it was a model for dozens of bridges across the country, but now it's coming down because it's unsafe.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: On our "Political Ticker," the last laugh on 2009. The folks at the online humor site JibJab have released their year-end video, and as usual, it pokes the most fun at political figures.

Here's a clip.

(MUSIC)

MALVEAUX: The video also spoofs President Obama's Nobel's Peace Prize, Sarah Palin's exit as Alaska governor, and even the swine flu epidemic.

Well, check out some of the big winners of 2009.

A new Gallup poll shows Americans think that first lady Michelle Obama has a particularly good year, closely followed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. President Obama is a somewhat distant third. He's had an up-and-down year, after all. And about half of those surveyed rank House Speakers Nancy Pelosi as a loser of the year.

About the same percentage say Republicans in Congress are losers, too. The biggest losers of 2009, according to the Gallup poll, the now infamous White House party crashers, the Salahis.

And remember, for the latest political news any time, check out CNNPolitics.com.

We're learning more about the suspect in the failed Northwest Airline terror attack. One of his former classmates is speaking out about the young man he knew and whether he saw any hint of what happened on Christmas.

And later, watchdogs put out a new alert about safety problems at the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: It's a promise kept. John King of CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION" vowed to visit all 50 states this year to tell the stories of Americans outside the D.C. beltway. Well, last January, John went to South Carolina, where some dark days in U.S. history were overshadowed by a new beginning.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Greenwood, South Carolina, a monument to heroes, but also a reminder of the dark days of hatred and segregation.

(on camera): That's you right there.

(voice-over): Edith Childs has lived here all her 60 years, knows the divide as well as anyone.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to know one thing, Edith...

KING: And as much as she celebrates the success of her new friend, knows just as well that making history doesn't erase history.

She was 6 or 7 when a noise in the night stirred her to peek out the window.

EDITH CHILDS, COMMUNITY ACTIVIST: And there was actually people on a horse with white clothes and all. There was no question who they were. They were the Ku Klux Klan. That was the worst time, because I was so scared.

KING: On walks to school, taunting was common.

CHILDS: You could walk past cars and even children would say, you know, "Mom, those are niggers."

KING: And once in the classroom, more reminders of separate but hardly equal.

CHILDS: We got those things that were left over from the white school. Our books were always secondhand books that came to us. Many times they weren't even worth using, really, but we didn't have a choice.

KING: Edith Childs grew both precocious and defiant. At the five and dime, she waited for when no one was looking.

CHILDS: The white water fountain was nice cold water, and our water was just hot water. I would always get me some cold water. Always.

KING: Always a divide.

(on camera): And if you were black and you wanted to go to this theater, where would you be?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You would be up here in the balcony section. There was a separate colored entrance from the front of the building.

KING (voice-over): Matt Edwards (ph) runs the town museum.

Segregation is a threat in the photographs.

This, a late 1950s all-white snapshot outside a local mill.

I haven't seen one yet that has any African-American folks in it. I know these folks worked at the plants and at the mills, but they weren't in the shift photos that came out.

Nursing school was the first time Edith Childs shared a classroom with whites. She's on the county council now and says things are better.

She first met Barack Obama when he visited in 2007. In the back of the room, she began to repeat an old civil-rights chant.

CHILDS: Fired up. Ready to go. Fired up. Ready to go.

OBAMA: Fired up.

KING: Obama adopted the cheer. And even though he lost conservative South Carolina, Childs and Greenwood became part of his improbable journey, and he a part of theirs.

CHILDS: The day after the election, it was so quiet in Greenwood until it was unreal. I just could not believe it was that quiet. I mean, the kind of quiet that you're saying, 'What is going on?,' you know? But you know why the quiet is.

KING: A shocked quiet, Edith says. Because, while things are better in Greenwood, they are far from perfect. The monument to Confederate soldiers still stands. And even today, in 2009, the stars and stripes flies over two American Legion halls in Greenwood.

Locals know this one as the white post. This one for blacks.

CHILDS: There we go again, John. There are still those that are not going to change no matter what.

KING: But Edith Childs is betting more minds and hearts will change now.

She is off to Washington to watch her friend make history, knowing it won't change Greenwood's past, but maybe its future.

CHILDS: I never thought that I would be able to see this day, so I just need to be there. Don't want to be nowhere near the front. I just want to be there.

It means everything to me, because I want to be treated as a person. Not because I'm Edith Childs and I'm black, but because I'm a person.

KING: John King, CNN, Greenwood, South Carolina.

(END VIDEOTAPE)