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Failed Airline Attack Linked to Gitmo; Iran Detains Sister of Nobel Laureate; Al Qaeda Claims Responsibility for Failed Christmas Day Attack

Aired December 28, 2009 - 18:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Al Qaeda fuels fears that an attempted terror attack was bigger than just one man with a failed bomb. This hour, we are digging deeper on airline security lapses and new threats to kill Americans.

And an ambulance arrives at the Obama family's compound in Hawaii -- the latest on the incident marring the president's vacation.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama is promising to do more to strengthen America's defenses against terrorists. He took time out from his Hawaiian vacation to try to reassure the public after the failed Christmas airline attack -- 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, U.S. marshals released this new photo of him today.

A branch of al Qaeda now is claiming responsibility for the attempted attack.

Our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve, is standing by.

But right now I want to bring in our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, with the president in Hawaii.

Ed, you have been following up on this developing story, this incident that took place at the Obama family compound. Can you tell us what's the latest?

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Suzanne. There was quite a bit of concern for a few moments here in Honolulu, because we were told that the president cut short a golf game and then suddenly his motorcade was racing a pretty high speed back to the family compound on the north side of the island of Oahu here.

Then the pool of reporters around the president noticed an ambulance leaving the compound, a lot of police activity, law enforcement. Thankfully, it turns out that there was just a minor injury at the compound. We understand that a child basically cut his chin, needed some stitches, and it was the child of somebody who was golfing with the president.

That's why the president had to leave the game so quickly, wanted to make sure that the father of this child could attend to the scene, make sure his child was OK. The president also wanted to show concern. We are told by a White House aide that the child never had to actually go to the hospital via ambulance or anything like that, though may go to the hospital later this evening just simply out of an abundance of caution.

And I think the surest sign that all is normal again at the Obama rental home is that the president has now gone back to his golf game, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right, Ed, thank you so much. It's good to hear that everybody is OK. Thank you.

Now back to the failed terror attack on Christmas Day and al Qaeda's new claim of responsibility.

I want to bring in our homeland security correspondent.

And, Jeanne, we know that there was a group of al Qaeda that took responsibility for this. Do we know if it is a credible claim? What can you tell us?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I can tell you that a U.S. counterterrorism official says that two of the leaders of this group are men who were released from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

However, U.S. officials are still very much investigating exactly how deeply that group was involved in this failed attack on Christmas Day. According to a statement today, the attack was in retaliation for alleged American strikes on Yemen, this according to this claim of responsibility 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." It also promises more attacks.

A U.S. counterterrorism officially says the statement appears to be authentic and it seems credible that AQAP had some involvement in the attempted attack. Now, the government of Yemen, where AQAP operates, says Abdulmutallab did visit that country from early August to early September of this year.

MALVEAUX: And what have we learned about the investigation into this bomb and what he was trying to do?

MESERVE: Well, a law enforcement official says at least part of the device on the northwest flight was sewn into Abdulmutallab's underwear. Forensic analysis of how it was made and who made it is still continuing.

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 and limited, one of hundreds of such reports of suspicious activity the U.S. receives every day, and it didn't meet the threshold to put him on a terror watch list. But critics say there was a failure to connect the dots, including his use of cash to purchase a ticket, that he didn't check any luggage, and the decision that the British had denied him a visa last May.

But the secretary of homeland security conceded today existing systems did fail. She has said a review is under way to see how watch list protocols and aviation screening can be improved -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right, a lot of information to digest there and obviously a lot of questions still remain.

MESERVE: Absolutely.

MALVEAUX: All right, Jeanne, thank you.

Now to President Obama's first public remarks about the failed airline terror attack. He says that his administration is not going to rest until everybody involved essentially holds them accountable.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We do not yet have all the answers about this latest attempt, but those who would slaughter innocent men, women and children must know that the United States will more -- do more than simply strengthen our defenses. 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.


MALVEAUX: I want to bring back our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, who is with the president.

It took him three days to come out on camera and to explain things. Why do you suppose the timing of it now, today?

HENRY: Well, it's interesting, because when Republicans first criticized the president on Christmas night, people like Peter King, the congressman, saying he should be out there sooner, and White House aides here in Hawaii were insisting, look, the president doesn't need to jump on everything. He can let his advisers like the homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, handle this.

But as you saw yesterday on CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION," Napolitano struggled a bit. She said the system worked, which is not exactly the message that the administration necessarily wanted out there or that Americans wanted to hear. So, that may have been a factor, getting the president out there to sort of reassure the public. White House officials say they certainly wanted the president to do that. And I think, more broadly, look, he has got a different style than former President Bush, who would have jumped on this much sooner. The president likes to take a sort of calmer approach, let it play out a little bit, and not give the terrorists all the attention they crave so much in the initial 24 hours.

They now feel that maybe this has passed just a little bit. Maybe they have got a better sense of this investigation and now is the right time for the president to come out -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And, Ed, we know that al Qaeda in Yemen took responsibility at least in part for this. Do we know if the White House believes that that is a credible claim?

HENRY: Well, they are staying away from that and not independently confirm whether or not al Qaeda was involved.

What's very interesting, though, is that the president, as you played in those remarks, did say that the U.S. will not just stay on defense, but will go on offense in places like Yemen battling terrorists. That affiliated al Qaeda group has said today that attempted terror attack was retaliation for airstrikes against al Qaeda in Yemen.

Now, the U.S. has not claimed any responsibility for those airstrikes that may have sparked all of this. But it's very interesting that the president very directly said he's going to stay on offense in Yemen, a not-so-subtle signal there -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right, Ed, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Is the president doing enough to thwart terror? Well, I will ask the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee later on.

First, Afghanistan and then Pakistan. Now Yemen has become a country of growing interest in the fight against terrorism. A branch of al Qaeda is digging its heels there and has claimed responsibility for the attempted Christmas attack on the Northwest plane.

Our CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, she is joining us.

And, Barbara, it appears that more and more Yemen is becoming the new battlefront when it comes to al Qaeda here. And I talked to former Homeland Security adviser Fran Townsend, who says that is nothing new, that this has been something that has been going on quietly for quite some time.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It has been going on, Suzanne, absolutely right. But in the last several months, the U.S. has quietly ratcheted up its game in Yemen.


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.


STARR: A senior U.S. official tells CNN that the president of Yemen now has done the turnaround in recent months and is willing to accept more U.S. help because he now knows the situation in his own country is so dire -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Barbara.

At least eight people are dead and hundreds have been rounded up in a stunning wave of unrest sweeping across Iran. The clashes are the deadliest since the violence that followed June's presidential election. And a nephew of Iran's opposition leader reportedly was among the dead.

Now relatives say that his body has disappeared from a Tehran hospital. Opposition reports say that seven prominent activists have been detained.

Amateur video images smuggled out over YouTube show the clashes right now in the streets. in at least one case, paramilitary forces shown here are cornered by angry protesters.

While on vacation in Hawaii today, President Obama spoke out about this unrest.


OBAMA: Along with all free nations, the United States stands with those who seek their universal rights. We call upon the Iranian government to abide by the international obligations that it has to respect the rights of its own people.

We call for the immediate release of all who have been unjustly detained within Iran. We will continue to bear witness to the extraordinary events that are taking place there. And I'm confident that history will be on the side of those who seek justice.


MALVEAUX: For the latest on the growing crisis in Iran, pictures, video, up-to-date reports, go to

Well, could behavioral screening at the airport have prevented last week's botched attempt to blow up an airliner? What about U.S. air marshals? Were they actually on board or should they have been?

And the suspect in the failed bombing sat in seat 19-A. I will ask a former top transportation official about the significance of that location.


MALVEAUX: More now on the attempted terror attack on a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day. And there are questions about how the suspect might have been prevented from boarding in the first place.

Our CNN's Brian Todd is looking at that.

Brian, there were four different kinds of lists. He was clearly on one of them. And a lot of people are asking just how did this guy make it aboard the plane?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, experts are telling us he never should have made it on board that plane. And they say he likely would not have if certain systems and personnel were in place. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): The homeland security secretary answers a key question about the failed Christmas Day terror attack a aboard a U.S. passenger jet. Were there U.S. air marshals on board?

JANET NAPOLITANO, U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: They are posted randomly on different flights. And as far as I know on this flight there was not one.

TODD: But another official at the Department of Homeland Security says, since that incident Friday, the number of air marshals on flights has significantly increased. Current and former air marshals tell us, if there had been a marshal present, they don't believe suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab would ever have gotten on board that plane.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Police officer. Drop the gun!

TODD: As depicted in CNN's previous reporting, marshals are trained to blend in, but to be forceful almost instantly. The marshals we spoke with says one of the most important things they do is monitor the behavior of passengers. Experts say on board this includes observing passengers as they head to the bathrooms.

Rafi Ron is a former Israeli air marshal who now has his own security consulting business.

RAFI RON, CEO, NEW AGE SECURITY SOLUTIONS: We can watch the behavior before he actually gets to the bathroom. We can see what the person carries with him when he goes into the bathroom. We can look at how much time is spent inside.

TODD: But experts say suspicious behavior has got to be detected on the ground first. One former air marshal told us he would often discretely move around waiting areas at gates, watching passengers and even eavesdropping on them.

Most, he said, could be quickly eliminated as suspects, but some, he would have to keep track of, those who travel alone, who seem nervous, focused on something other than their immediate surroundings, and those who have what he called the 1,000-yard stare. But Ron says, in Israel, they take extra measures.

(on camera): But it's not just security people who have to be trained in behavior recognition, right?

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


TODD: Rafi Ron says those are airport employees who can see passengers in those areas of the airport that he just mentioned, places like bathrooms and other corners where there are not security cameras, where there may or may not be security personnel around, but where suspicious behavior can take place nonetheless.

He makes a very strong point that this is not racial profiling that we're talking about. It is behavioral profiling, behavior that can come from just about anyone. These are facial movements you're looking for, body language, not a person's ethnicity -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right, thank you.

I wonder how helpful that would have been if they had noted him before he boarded.

We now know what kind of aircraft that the Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit was. It was an Airbus 330. And we know where the young Nigerian accused of trying to blow it up was sitting. That was in seat 19-A.

Well, joining me now is Peter Goelz. He's the former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Thank you for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


MALVEAUX: What is the significance of where he was sitting, in 19-A?

GOELZ: Well, in an aircraft like the A-330, Suzanne, there is a center wing tank, a fuel tank directly underneath. It runs from about row 12 to about row 25 or 30. It's where fuel is kept for extended- range flight.

That's not the fuel that's the challenge. It's the fumes. The tank is often empty. And in some previous terrorist event in 1989 on an Avianca flight, a small bomb went off in a Boeing aircraft. It was not large enough to destroy the aircraft, but it ignited the fumes in the tank and the plane crashed.

MALVEAUX: And we have a diagram behind, if you would. We're noticing where that seat was located. One of the questions, though, however, is with this kind of device, what did he need to actually target? Was he targeting the electrical system? If that had gone down, could he have brought down the plane? Was it a matter of getting the wing detached, having a wing fall off, or the engine blow up? What do you think it was that could have... GOELZ: Well, I think he was looking for two things. One, he was looking to ignite the fuel tank. The second thing was, he was looking to breach the fuselage.

He was sitting next to the window. He wanted to tear that fuselage open. In 1986, a terrorist bomb went off in a plane over Greece in a similar location. It didn't get into the fuel tank, but it did breach the fuselage. Four people were killed, but the plane was able to land. It would not have torn the wing off.

MALVEAUX: I want to remind our audience of this flight, Aloha Airlines accident in 1988. It was extraordinary, as you see the picture behind there, where there was a malfunction and a hole that blew up in the plane.

That plane was able to land. I think one of the airline stewardesses was blown out, but that plane was able to land with all of those passengers safely. Do you think, if this explosion had gone off successfully, would that plane have been able to land?

GOELZ: I think it depends on the size of the explosive device, how much power was packed in that device.

If it had just breached the fuselage, there is a good chance it could have landed. If it got into the center wing tank and it ignited the center wing tank, then it probably would have been a fatal accident. But this -- in any case, this was a very serious threat.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you so much, Peter Goelz, for your perspective.

GOELZ: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: A holiday tragedy in a Mississippi college town -- just ahead, a deadly fire that claimed several young lives.

An Obama family friend is transported to hospital in Hawaii. We are watching this developing story for all the latest details.



MALVEAUX: Well, we are digging deeper after word that two former Gitmo detainees may now be linked to the failed terror attack on the Northwest Airline jet.

And do Homeland Security officials have a knee-jerk reaction, adding new procedures every time there is an attempted attack? Well, I will ask the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Peter Hoekstra.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) MALVEAUX: A counterterrorism official says that two former Guantanamo Bay prisoners are among the leaders of al Qaeda's branch in the Arabian Peninsula, the same group that is now claiming responsibility for the attempted terror attack.

I want to bring in our CNN senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, to help explain some of this.

Some of these prisoners were released under the Bush administration, and they are supposed to undergo some sort of rehabilitation, I understand. Do we know what happened with these two?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Specifically with these two, we don't know the details of what happened.

Typically, prisoners who have been released back to Saudi Arabia go through a rehab program in Saudi Arabia. That rehab program basically gives them a religious re-education. It tries to sort of unpick their radicalism by saying, OK, you have been told a wrong version of Islam. This is the right version.

And it gives them sort of therapy, social counseling, as well as this sort of religious counseling. But, ultimately, the person is given back to the tribe or the family, and the tribe or the family has to make a guarantee to the government they will make sure this person doesn't transgress and run off with al Qaeda again.

The government gives inducements, sometimes jobs, sometimes cars, sometimes helps arrange marriages for these people as well. But where it falls down is, some of these people run away. And the place they run away to get out of Saudi Arabia without triggering questions at a regular border is across the border to Yemen, because there is al Qaeda across the border and it's a very, very porous border.

So, that's how they -- how they escape. And it may be that these -- these -- these men fall into that category -- specifically, not sure.

MALVEAUX: Do we know if there is anybody in the Yemen government who's following up on this and trying to find out where these people are after they've undergone rehabilitation, or if they have managed to escape and they -- is there any follow-up here from the Yemen government?

ROBERTSON: Well, the idea is, is that they stay within the sort of the confines of their tribe or their family. And the family and tribe has a responsibility and duty, and one can sort of underestimate it, and the cultures there in Yemen and in Saudi Arabia, how important those bonds and ties are, because it can lead to a very sort of collective punitive punishment for a large number of people if that person transgresses. So, that's the sort of bond that exists.

How realistically can the government their actually follow up and how much authority does they have in some of those -- in some of those areas where people are going back to? It would seem not a lot. So, their ability to follow up and control what they -- what they've put in place doesn't seem to be very strong at all.

MALVEAUX: Do we know how successful at all this rehabilitation program is? You brought up a lot of different ideas of things that they actually have them do, but do we know if they are successful?

ROBERTSON: You know, the Saudis believe they have a significant success rate. They admit that no system is perfect and it's something that continues to need to be under sort of scrutiny and changed and adjusted as time goes along. But they feel that, overall, they have had a very good success rate.

And their analysis is that unless you -- unless you try and deal with these people at an ideological level, and some of them you're never ever going to change their minds, that unless you deal with them at an ideological level, throwing them in jail is ultimately going to be counterproductive. And it's better for the country as a whole, even if some of them then transgress and get away, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Nic, thank you very much.

I want to follow up as well. Congress is also getting in the loop in the wake of this Christmas airliner attack. Joining me now is Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan. He is the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us. Clearly, we are just getting this information now. You may be also hearing it now, so let me be clear about this. A U.S. counterterrorism official says that two former Gitmo prisoners are among the leaders of al Qaeda Arabian Peninsula, as we know the group that took responsibility for the attack -- for the attempted attack. Our reporting is that these two prisoners were released under the Bush administration in 2007.

What does this say to you about Guantanamo Bay and the impact, the effectiveness of having these prisoners stay and then have them be released?

HOEKSTRA: Well, I think that is a very plausible scenario, that people released from Gitmo are now active on the battlefield again. The Defense Department continues a very aggressive and active analysis of what the recidivism rate -- how many of these people that have been released out of Gitmo actually find their way back onto the battlefield? It is an imprecise science, because you know, it is hard to identify exactly where these people have gone through or what happens to them after they have gone through this program, many times the program in Saudi Arabia.

I think that the success rate of that program -- again, it's all in the eyes of the beholder -- but from someone who's concerned about U.S. national security, I believe the recidivism rate, the number of people making it back onto the battlefield, I'm very, very concerned about.

MALVEAUX: Are you concerned at all that it was actually under the Bush administration, a Republican administration that these two individuals were able to leave and essentially are a part of this very powerful, now emerging organization of al Qaeda?

HOEKSTRA: I'm concerned about whether it happens under the Bush administration. Again, they wanted to move people out of Gitmo. I think they may have made some mistakes and released some people that they shouldn't have. I'm concerned about the Obama administration, because they have taken an even -- a more aggressive approach in terms of trying to move people from Gitmo so that they can close that facility. And we're now getting to the last 200 individuals. It's estimated that 80 to 90 of these individuals have ties to Yemen. I think sending these -- any quantity of these people back to Yemen would be a huge problem, regardless of the rehabilitation program that they go through. I think many of them would find their way back onto the battlefield. I think this administration has to rethink it. And they can learn from the mistakes that were made perhaps by the previous administration.

MALVEAUX: Let me ask you, Mr. Congressman, do you believe that, as Senators Lieberman and Specter have said or suggested, that the administration, the Obama administration should consider perhaps preemptive military strike against al Qaeda in Yemen before there is a terrorist attack on American soil?

HOEKSTRA: Well, I think as you have seen over the last few weeks, there have been a series of attacks in Yemen. You can't get into the exact details as to who they were carried out by, and those types of things, but primarily carried out by Yemeni forces...

MALVEAUX: Would you endorse the idea?

HOEKSTRA: Not sure where they got all the...

MALVEAUX: Would you endorse that idea, preemptive strike?

HOEKSTRA: If it's boots on the ground -- U.S. boots on the ground, I think it's premature to go in with U.S. boots on the ground. You need to have an agreement between the Yemeni government and the American government. Rules of engagement, all of those types of things before I want to put American soldiers on the ground and at risk.

MALVEAUX: You are clearly being briefed as being the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. What have you been told? What is -- have you been getting new information today about this alleged terror attack, whether or not he was with part of a cell, did he act alone?

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

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

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

MALVEAUX: What did they tell you?

HOEKSTRA: The DNI has to open up.

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

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

MALVEAUX: What do you think of how the TSA has handled this? Clearly, they put some new rules in place saying passengers couldn't go to the bathroom the last hour or so, have anything on their laps. They have since come out today and said, well, it's up to the flight attendant's discretion. Does this look like backpedalling, if you will? Something that doesn't have any teeth? Simply reactionary?

HOEKSTRA: Well, some of the stuff that I heard immediately in the immediate aftermath seemed kind of silly. But I think, you know, some of the other steps they are taking are probably appropriate. The real question with TSA and airline security is, I don't care what they do after there is an attack. I want them to be in a position to be forward-thinking, anticipate the kinds of issues and threats that we will face and be prepared so that we won't face a situation like we found on Christmas Day again.

MALVEAUX: Congressman Hoekstra, thank you so much for joining us in "The Situation Room."

HOEKSTRA: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: We are getting new information on that medical emergency at President Obama's vacation home in Hawaii that sent a young friend of the family to the hospital.

And just coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM: word of a high profile arrest in Iran. We are getting new details right now.


MALVEAUX: There is now word out of Iran that the sister of Nobel Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, has been taken into custody. This is an extraordinary development.

I want to go straight to Reza Sayah at our Iran desk at the CNN Center in Atlanta.

What do we understand has happened here?

REZA SAYAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, obviously, Iran's hardline leadership is in the middle of a political crisis and there's all sorts of evidence that they're engaged in a campaign of intimidation and repression by anyone they deem to be part of this opposition movement, anyone they deem to be an enemy of the government, by going after them and detaining them.

We have word tonight, within the past half hour, that they've made another arrest. This time going after the sister of world- renowned Iranian human rights activist and lawyer Shirin Ebadi. Mrs. Ebadi, of course, is the winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. We just got off the phone with her. She's obviously very concerned about her sister.

According to Mrs. Ebadi, her sister, Noshe (ph) Ebadi, was inside her apartment with her husband and two sons when around 9:00 p.m. local time in Iran on Monday night, about six hours ago, she was visited by three men and a woman bearing a letter from the prosecutor's office. According to Mrs. Ebadi, these four individuals searched her apartment and then detained her and confiscated her computer as well.

Shirin Ebadi says her sister got threatening phone calls from the Ministry of Information before with request to cut off contact her sister. She believes they are trying to intimidate her by going after her sister. But she says she's not going to back down from human rights work -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Do we -- do we know if there's anything that Ms. Ebadi can do right now to release her sister?

SAYAH: The only thing she can do is contact a lawyer. She is in touch with a lawyer in Iran. Keep in mind, Shirin Ebadi herself, a day before the disputed elections on June 12th, left the country for a three-day seminar in Spain. Then we all know what happened, the post- election turmoil. She was told by friends not to come back to Iran.

So, whatever she can do for her sister, she's going to have to do it out of the country. Again, obviously, she's very worried, and at this point, very little she can do.

MALVEAUX: OK. Reza, we will get back to you as more information comes available. Thank you, Reza.

The homeland security secretary is under fire for some of her initial remarks in the wake of the botched Christmas Day terror attack. That and more with the best political team on television.


MALVEAUX: John Roberts is now joining us with a preview of top of the hour.

Hey, John. What are you working on?

JOHN ROBERTS, HOST, "CNN TONIGHT": Hi, Suzanne. Thanks so much.

Coming up at the top of the hour, we will also be following the latest developments in the failed attack on Flight 253. Al Qaeda claims the attack was in retaliation for U.S. strikes in Yemen. We'll look at why Yemen is an increasing area of concern for the U.S. war on terror.

And airline passengers routinely face intense security procedures put in place after September the 11th. But those measures did not prevent this latest attempted terror attack. We'll look at what should be done to tighten security for travelers, and if anything can actually stop a potential terrorist act.

Join us for all that and more coming your way at the top of the hour. We'll see you then, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. Great. Thank you, John.

Well, President Obama is breaking his silence on the attempted terror attack on the U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.

I want to talk about that and much more with the best political team on television.

CNN's senior political correspondent Candy Crowley, CNN contributor David Brody, White House correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, and Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor Donna Brazile, and Karen Tumulty of our sister publication, "TIME" magazine.

Thank you so much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Candy, I want to start off with you. Clearly, since Christmas, we saw Robert Gibbs. We saw Secretary Napolitano of homeland security, coming out, trying to explain the administration's response to this -- this attempted attack. She said to you initially that the systems were not broken, that they were in place and working.

What did you make of what she was saying, considering now she's come out and amended that, saying she was just talking about after the terror?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I made of it that it was clumsily put. She also said in the same interview that while this was just one person out of thousands of people that fly and are screened. And she suggested that he'd been screened properly and said, we don't know that he wasn't screened properly. We're just -- we're looking into that.

And, you know, look, their message coming out of there, clearly -- Robert Gibbs and Janet Napolitano -- was we need to reassure the public. And that's where they were headed. So, when you said, well, what's, you know, what's happened here and she said, "Well, the system worked."

It has -- it did not work well, I can tell you, from the e-mails that came in after that interview. It didn't play well with the public. It was just the wrong wording. She said she was taken out of context. This was an entire interview. So, it was in context. But, obviously, since she came out today and said, "No, the system didn't work." We saw the president today. They clearly wanted to sort of clean it up.

MALVEAUX: This reminded me of President Bush. And he went to FEMA's director, Michael Brown, and said, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," after Katrina.

I mean, clearly, there is this -- this desire from the administration to paint a happy picture to reassure folks. But did they miscalculate here?

KAREN TUMULTY, TIME MAGAZINE: Well, I think absolutely. Understanding that I think probably every person in America, over the weekend, imagined themselves on that plane.

And so, for the secretary to get on TV and sort of essentially boast at how well they locked the barn after the horse got out was not really what people wanted to know. People wanted to know how did this happen, why did this happen, and how were they going to stop something like this from happening in the future.

DAVID BRODY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: And I will also say it's a commander-in-chief moment, too. I mean, you would agree -- I mean, you know, the last time I checked, you can get to a podium pretty quickly even in Hawaii. I mean, he could have in essence gotten out in front of this a little earlier. And on national security, the president, especially being a Democrat and they have had issues in the past with national security issues in terms of perception, I think it was probably a missed opportunity to a certain degree.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think we have to resist the temptation to politicize it, to a degree, because this is after all a very serious issue for not just the flying public but all Americans. Clearly, to try to find out and the president, I thought today, took the appropriate steps and said that they are going to investigate.

Yes, we need to understand when a person's father goes to -- go to an embassy and say, "My son is becoming radicalized, I can't find him, something's going on," this should have immediately hit some red flag within the system, but this guy was able to purchase a ticket with cash, no luggage, $3,000. He was still on -- he still had a visa to come to the United States. We need to find out more. And hopefully, in the coming days, we'll learn more as the administration continues this investigation.

MALVEAUX: Well, we heard -- we heard from the president today saying that they were going to address it. Did you want to hear more from him? Were you satisfied with what he came out with today?

CROWLEY: I think he came out with three things, the three things he wanted to do. And this is why, probably, you could argue -- and it's not just Republicans saying where's the president, Democrats have also said, well, he should have come out in that 24-hour period right after that, because nobody can do it like the commander-in-chief and nobody is a better commander-in-chief when it comes to, you know, rhetorical skills than President Obama.

And I think we saw that today. He came out and gave what information he had. He offered reassurance to flyers, saying we're doing absolutely everything we can. And, by the way, to terrorists, we're not just going to do defensive measures, we're after you.

So, he could have said all three of those things in that first 24 hours and that's what they wanted to have out there.

BRODY: And I think, though, for the administration, I mean, how this is playing in Peoria, Suzanne. I mean, folks are trying to figure out the difference between a watch list and a no-fly. I mean, they understand what a no-fly list is, but do they really want someone on a plane that's on a watch list with them? I mean, you know, where's the percentage of -- well, maybe he's not as dangerous as somebody on a no-fly list.

I think there's a lot of explaining, not for the administration necessarily but for the president to take this opportunity to really educate the American people as to what's going on here so they can feel a little safer.

BRAZILE: Yes, the system is clearly still broken. And, you know, it's clear to me that the left hand is not talking to the right hand, and somehow or another, this guy was able to get on the airplane and fly. And then in Amsterdam, they have all of these so-called detection devices that could, you know, look underneath your clothes. I've also wanted to know what that would appear on screen but, you...



BRAZILE: I just want to understand that, you know, we may one day face the possibility that this type of technology will be used to detect...


CROWLEY: Every single security expert will say, if you want to stop stuff like this, then you have to have that.

MALVEAUX: Do you think the American people will change their ideas about that? That they will allow that to happen? Because a lot of people, they feel that's a real violation of their privacies.

TUMULTY: I think, though, that most people want to know that people like this are not going to even get as far as the metal detectors. And we found out that he was denied a visa in Britain. So, I think what people would like to see is a lot more watch and a lot less of list.

MALVEAUX: And you think -- but you think that people are going to be willing to give up more of their liberties, their freedoms in light of the Bush administration? BRODY: No. No, I don't think so at all. As a matter of fact, I think -- here come the tea party protest folks, you know, once again. I think that -- I think it's going to raise this whole full body scan debate, I think, that we're going to have in this country. It's going to go right to the president.

MALVEAUX: OK. All right. We're going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us.

We'll be right back after this quick break.


MALVEAUX: I want to go straight to Nic Robertson out of London. He has more information about the al Qaeda group that is claiming responsibility for the plane attack.

Nic, what are you learning?

ROBERTSON: Well, what they're saying is that they've developed this new explosive they think that it's been tested before, they say, and this is what they gave to Abdulmutallab. This is, they say, the result of their good engineering and they say that this is part of the war that they want to wage against the United States because the United States is supporting attacks in Yemen.

It's not clear if they really are behind the design of this bomb, if they really were behind putting that young man on the flight to the United States, the flight to Detroit on Christmas Day.

But it's very clear that al Qaeda is trying to make a lot out of what is happening. The air strikes in Yemen at the moment, they're playing it like they played it in Iraq and played it in Afghanistan. They're saying it's not al Qaeda leaders that are being killed -- it's Muslim women and children. And they're trying to use this as a rallying cry.

Why, you might ask, would they want to do this? Well, build more support, and probably, boost morale for al Qaeda right now, because if you look at what's happening to al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and what's happened to it in past years in Iraq, it is -- it is not as strong as it was. There are reports in Pakistan: some al Qaeda leaders are being forced to move bases because of -- because of the ongoing offensive against the Taliban there.

So, is this just to rally al Qaeda or is there fact in it?

But they are saying that they've develop this bomb. They've tested it. And, indeed this, young man was able to get these explosives that have only been used once before in Saudi Arabia in the summer, a man coming from Yemen that time attacking the deputy interior minister.

So, perhaps, there is some truth in it. Perhaps there is some connection, but hard to prove at this time, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you so much, Nic, for the latest update.

Flooded out in Buenos Aires, it is just one of today's "Hot Shots."


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

Hey, Brooke, what are you following?

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Suzanne. Yes, Ed Henry initially reported this, but I want to give people just the latest on this story, that CNN was the first to report here in THE SITUATION ROOM, this brief stir at the Hawaiian home where President Obama and his family have been vacationing.

Here's what we know, that this child of one of Mr. Obama's golf partners cut his chin. The president quickly wanted to leave the golf course so his golf partner could tend to his child, get to this child. An ambulance was dispatched to the home. A little bit of buzz around that.

But a White House aide says the child was treated on the scene, might have to go to the hospital later as a precaution, but as Ed reported, Suzanne, the First Family is absolutely fine.

MALVEAUX: All right. That's good news. Thank you, Brooke.



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