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THE SITUATION ROOM

Dick Cheney Criticizes President Obama; Iran Cracks Down

Aired December 30, 2009 - 18:00   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: what airline pilots were not told when a Northwest jet was almost blown apart. This hour, there is new criticism of the government's response and a warning that many planes and passengers could have been at risk.

Plus, he is a radical cleric dubbed the bin Laden of the Internet. Does he have a connection to the attempted terror attack on Christmas?

And new ammunition for one of the most vocal critics of the president's terror policies. Dick Cheney says Mr. Obama of pretending there is no war, and comes close to saying, I told you so.

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

It was breaking news around the world on Christmas, but some airline pilots say they didn't get enough information about the terror aboard Flight 253 and they are blaming the federal government.

Our homeland correspondent, Jeanne Meserve, she broke this angle to the story.

Jeanne, you've been working very, very hard. What do we know about this now?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, the homeland security secretary said systems worked after the attempted bombing was thwarted on Christmas Day, but some pilots say they were left in the dark. They say lives were potentially at risk and the Transportation Security Administration did not move proactively to protect all passengers and crews.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE (voice-over): A man with a bomb tries to take down an airplane. The bomb fails to ignite. And passengers and crew jump into action to prevent catastrophe, but are all other aircraft in the skies warned? No. And some pilots are furious.

MIKE KARN, ALLIED PILOTS ASSOCIATION: Outrage. The pilot force is outraged that they didn't receive this information, that most of them received it on the ground and most of them received it on the news.

MESERVE: The only pilots who were notified and told to take security precautions were those on flights inbound from Europe.

JANET NAPOLITANO, U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Within literally an hour to 90 minutes of the incident occurring, all 128 flights in the air had been notified to take some special measures in light of what had occurred on the Northwest Airlines flight.

MESERVE: One hundred and twenty-eight were notified, but at the time the Northwest flight landed, there were more than 3,500 flights in the air over the U.S. and the number grew through the afternoon.

The TSA says in a statement it made a strategic risk-based decision to notify only some pilots based on intelligence information. But the pilots say remember history -- 9/11 and other al Qaeda plots have involved multiple attacks launched almost simultaneously. And on Christmas Day, the pilots say, the TSA had no way of knowing if that pattern was being repeated and they say pilots should have been informed.

KARN: It's important that all of our airborne crews receive this information, so that they can modify their security procedures to monitor passengers, restrict movement in the cabin, monitor access to the cockpit door. But that was not done in this case.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE: There is a concrete example of why such notification can be important. On September 11, passengers on Flight 93 were able to thwart the hijackers and take the plane down in the field because they had learned in the air about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

MALVEAUX: So, Jeanne, what are we learning about what individual pilots are saying? Is it any different?

MESERVE: Well, it complements what that pilot said.

We have a communication from a pilot who was flying internationally Christmas night. He says he first learned about the attempted bombing at 7:00 p.m. that night -- that is seven hours after this event -- by looking at CNN.com on his iPhone. If that is the way the system is supposed to work, he says, he owes more to Steve Jobs and Apple than he does to the TSA.

MALVEAUX: Wow. I think Homeland Security is going to a lot of answers -- a lot of questions to answer in the coming days.

Thank you, Jeanne.

MESERVE: You bet.

MALVEAUX: New airline security moves today in response to the attempted bombing. Now all passengers on flights from Amsterdam to the United States will have to undergo full body scans. Dutch officials expect to start using the scanners similar to this one in about three weeks or so. And officials in Nigeria say they are also upgrading their airline security system to include body scanners. Northwest Flight 253 was headed to Detroit from Amsterdam, and the bombing suspect is Nigerian.

Well, here in the United States, the Transportation Security Administration today showed off two kinds of imaging devices it is testing. The scanners can detect metal or non-metal devices that are hidden under layers of clothing without any physical contact. Now, the TSA says it has about 40 imaging devices at 19 airports around the country right now. It has brought in another 150 units or so, and has funding to buy, they say, 300 more.

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

I want to bring in our David Mattingly, who is in Houston -- David.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, what we are learning is that a young Nigerian in search of knowledge about Islam came to Houston in 2008.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

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

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No.

MATTINGLY: How can you be so sure?

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

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No one knows.

(CROSSTALK)

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

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

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

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTINGLY: And many of the leaders applauding the efforts of the suspect's father, who attempted to report his radical ideas and his activities to the authorities -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: So, David, what was this school attempting to teach?

MATTINGLY: Well, this school is taking a modern approach to Islam, trying to integrate the teachings of the Koran into 21st century Western society.

So, this sounds like something that someone who has radical ideas may not find appealing. And, yet, he decided to come here to listen to what these teachers had to say.

We spoke to a couple of instructors who had contact with him. They said that he did not seem very interested. He was very quiet. He did not engage in any of the conversations. He did not ask any questions and most of the time sat in the back of the room like someone who was not there to really take everything in that was being offered.

MALVEAUX: Very interesting. Thank you, David.

There was apparently another recent airliner plot. A man tried to board a commercial jet in the Somali capital of Mogadishu -- this just happened last month -- with chemicals that authorities believe could have been used as an explosive device.

Now, an African Union official says that the suspect had a bag containing ammonium nitrate and a bottle of sulfuric acid. He is also said to have carried a liquid in a syringe, and the flight's final destination was Dubai. Well, the suspect raised suspicions when he was the last one to board the plane and then a search turned up those chemicals. One of the nation's most experienced defense attorneys is going to end up representing the suspect in the airliner bomb plot. But while the accused comes from a very wealthy family, American taxpayers are going to be picking up the tab.

And we will take you to the suspect's hometown in Nigeria, where there are early clues about the dangerous path that he would eventually take. That's the question.

Plus, chanting death to America, massive crowds turn out in support of Iran's hard-line regime, some calling for the execution of opposition leaders.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: A devastating attack on a U.S. outpost in eastern Afghanistan. Officials say that eight Americans were killed when a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest attacked a forward operating base in Khost Province.

One official says the eight dead were not from the military and there are conflicting reports as to whether the bomber walked into the dining facility or the gym at that base.

Thousands of pro-government demonstrators jammed the streets of Tehran today responding to Sunday's anti-government rallies. Tehran's chief prosecutor says seven people were killed in the weekend riots. It was the worst violence since June's disputed presidential election, where Mir Hossein Mousavi was the main opposition candidate.

Among Sunday's victims were Mousavi's nephew. He was buried quickly with security personnel watching nearby. There were no demonstrations at the burial.

Well, we have a new photo taken by a fellow passenger of the seat where the airliner bomb plot suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was located on that Detroit-bound flight just last week. Now, soon enough, he is going to be sitting in a courtroom represented by a top- notch lawyer.

Our CNN's Chris Lawrence has got more on that from Romulus, Michigan.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, when Abdulmutallab walks into court next week, standing by his side will be one of the nation's most experienced defense attorneys when it comes to terrorism.

(voice-over): Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab comes from a wealthy family, but his legal defense won't cost a dime. The suspect cut off contact with his parents, so American taxpayers will foot the bill for his court-appointed attorney.

(on camera): There can be this perception that if someone has a public defender, even if it's a federal one, they are getting a lesser-quality attorney. Is that the case with Abdulmutallab?

ALAN GERSHEL, THOMAS M. COOLEY LAW SCHOOL: No, quite the contrary. He is getting perhaps one of the most experienced attorneys in town, if not in the country, with respect to his situation. He is getting very high-quality representation at no cost to himself.

LAWRENCE (voice-over): He is getting Miriam Siefer.

GERSHEL: It is not every defense attorney who is universally respected and admired, and I would say that she is one of the few that would fall into that category.

LAWRENCE: Alan Gershel would know. He is the former head of criminal prosecutions for the U.S. attorney's office in Detroit. Siefer is chief federal defender in an office with 19 attorneys.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do you go about defending this?

MIRIAM SIEFER, ATTORNEY FOR UMAR FAROUK ABDULMUTALLAB: It is very premature, because the criminal complaints are really considered just preliminary charges.

LAWRENCE: In the first major terrorism trial after September 11, Siefer defended Karim Koubriti, who was accused of being part of a Detroit terror cell plotting to blow up military bases in Disneyland. Koubriti's conviction was overturned and he is now living in a Detroit suburb.

Siefer was also assigned to represents Terry Nichols' brother James when the Michigan native was a suspect in the Oklahoma City bombings.

(on camera): So, this office is not new to terrorism cases?

GERSHEL: They're not rookies. They're not novices when it comes to representing clients facing these types of charges.

LAWRENCE: Now, Gershel says the defense does have its challenges, not the least of which is a plane full of witnesses to the attack. But he thinks they have got some bargaining chips as well, specifically what if any information Abdulmutallab has about connections to terrorist organizations overseas -- Suzanne.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Chris.

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

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

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

(on camera): Was he a devout Muslim?

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

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

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

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

PUREFOY: Do you have Americans here in the school?

SETH: Yes, we have Americans.

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

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

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

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: Well, a survey of Muslims in Nigeria says a lot about the terror threat right now. There, 46 percent of Nigerian Muslims say that they believe suicide bombings to defend Islam could be justified. More Nigerian Muslims responded that way in a 2006 Pew poll than Muslims in any other country. About half of Nigeria's population is Muslim.

A powerful earthquake sends buildings swaying in San Diego and beyond. There are details of the quake and almost a dozen aftershocks.

Plus, an honor for "Thriller." You might be surprised at who is singling out the classic Michael Jackson music video. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Well, our top story, some members of Congress have complained that the Obama administration is not telling them enough about the terror threat. The president is doing something about that today, but is it enough to satisfy lawmakers?

Well, I'm going to ask the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee about it.

And we will talk about growing concerns about detainees being sent from Guantanamo Bay back to a front line in the war on terror.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Members of Congress are demanding answers about any security lapses connected to last week's foiled bombing. The White House offered some in a briefing for congressional aides today.

Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, he is with the president in Hawaii. He joins us with the latest on what they heard.

What is the administration telling these aides?

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, what is interesting, there were two briefings this morning in a secure room of the Capitol, to give you an idea of the classified nature of some of this information.

What I am picking up from officials, both Democratic and Republican, who were familiar with these meetings, that, basically, a lot of staffers in both parties left feeling like there are a lot of unanswered questions, specifically about sort of went wrong leading to this attempted terror attack, but also what needs to be done to fix the system in order to prevent future attacks.

I am also told by officials familiar with these briefings that Obama aides who were briefing were basically saying that there is still not -- there was basically not enough negative information prior to the attempted attack to really put this future suspect on the no- fly list.

So, again, that points up to some of these systemic failures that the president spoke about yesterday, that this is not just about human failure -- he mentioned that as well -- but also systemic failures that post-9/11 still need to be fixed, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And, Ed, I understand that some of the administration's allies at least are firing back at former Vice President Dick Cheney, the comments that he made today, Cheney criticizing the president for his handling of the recent terror event, saying that he doesn't understand; he's trying to pretend we are not at war here.

How are they firing back?

HENRY: That's right, a pretty rough statement this morning from the former vice president, basically saying President Obama has been too slow to react, not waging a smart war on terror, basically.

So, I just sat down with powerful Democrat Senator Daniel Inouye here in Hawaii, been in the Senate about 50 years. He's chairman of the Appropriations Committee. So, he holds sway over all funding for defense, homeland security. He really fired back at the vice president's comments.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DANIEL INOUYE (D), HAWAII: I hate to say this, but I think the former vice president lost all of his credibility in the way he has been conducting himself.

I would expect a person who had the potential of leading this country to be a bit more responsible. I thought the president was doing it in the proper fashion. Well, he could have spoken up five minutes after he got the news, but that would have been irresponsible, not knowing what the facts were.

Why should you instill fear and scare when such was not justified? So, I think he did the right thing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LAWRENCE: Now, the senator also defended the president's efforts in battling al Qaeda, specifically in Yemen, telling me that he has received briefings of a classified nature in recent weeks, and he said -- quote -- "I can't tell you what is happening in Yemen, but I can tell you we take the activities in Yemen very seriously and we will act accordingly."

Basically, Senator Inouye indicating what we have been picking privately from high-level sources, that there's a lot of activity going on right now in Yemen, the U.S. trying to battle al Qaeda terrorists there on the ground there -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you so much, Ed.

I want to talk with Democratic Texas Congressman Silvestre Reyes. He is the chairman of House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

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

First, have you received...

REP. SILVESTRE REYES (D-TX), HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Good to be with you.

MALVEAUX: Thank you.

Have you received briefings from the White House about what is taking place?

REYES: I have since -- really since Christmas Eve.

MALVEAUX: Are you satisfied with the amount of information and intelligence that you are getting from those in the White House?

REYES: Well, I am satisfied that we are getting the information that's becoming available. There's a lot of information that is still out there that has not been gathered. And it is normal in a situation like this.

MALVEAUX: Who has been talking to you from the White House?

REYES: Well, on Christmas Eve, I got a call from John Brennan, and, then, subsequent to that, others in the briefing, both to myself and also to members of the staff of the committee.

MALVEAUX: OK. And so you're satisfied, it was Christmas day just to clarify here. I want to bring up something here that a lot of people have been talking about, and that is obviously the lack of communication that these intelligence agencies have not been able to really connect the dots, if you will.

I had a chance to talk to one of the 9/11 commissioners, Ben- Veniste, and he had said that -- he explained that this is a difficult situation to correct. And here's -- here's how he explained why.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, 9/11 COMMISSION MEMBER: There has always been in Washington this intramural kind of feeling of possessiveness about information that is developed within an agency by its sources. So there is a tendency to stovepipe, to hoard information and not share.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Do you believe that that is the problem here?

REYES: I do not. I don't think we've got information yet necessary to even make a judgment on that. If you will let me, I want to make two points.

MALVEAUX: Sure.

REYES: First, the system that's in place right now is the system that was set up by the past administration. The other point I want to make that, I've been on this committee for nine years, and so I have had an opportunity to compare both administrations.

In terms of keeping us informed, in terms of getting us the information as quickly as possible, the Obama administration is like day versus night for the previous administration. Those are very important points that the vice president needs to take into account before he criticizes President Obama.

MALVEAUX: So you're saying the Obama administration is doing a better job of keeping you informed?

REYES: Absolutely. And as I said, I've been on this committee for nine years. The previous administration used the gang of four and gang of eight to keep information tightly held. Kept information from the committees.

In contrast from Christmas day on, we have been getting as much information as is able to come out. That is why I think we have to wait and evaluate once we have all of the facts.

MALVEAUX: And we have gotten a hold of a letter here from your colleague on the Senate side, Senator Diane Feinstein, who has sent a letter to the president today. I want to read just very briefly what she is suggesting to the president because she thinks that somehow this suspect should have appeared on a list, perhaps a no-fly list or something that would have alerted folks that he should not be on the plane.

She says that the U.S. government should watchlist and deny visas to anyone who is reasonably believed to be affiliated with, part of or acting on behalf of a terrorist organization.

Do you agree with her? Do you think there needs to be a fundamental change in the policy regarding issuing visas, revoking visas, when you have some who -- who's suspected of terrorist activity?

REYES: Well, I agree that we have to perhaps revisit the policy and make those kinds of policy calls, but at this point, based on everything that I have been told, we don't have a clear understanding of the amount of information.

For instance, there was information initially that this young man's father came forward and said he was concerned that he might become a suicide bomber. That has now been as early as yesterday discredited that he never made those kinds of claims there.

There are a lot of things like that that need to be clarified, but I certainly agree with my colleague on the Senate side that these are policy issues that are going to have to be revisited.

MALVEAUX: All right, Congressman Reyes, thank you so much for joining us in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

REYES: Thank you, too. Happy New Year.

MALVEAUX: Happy New Year.

Well, freedom after more than two years in captivity. A surprisingly happy ending for a British hostage held by Iraqi insurgents. Why they released them now? And despite a Christmas day arrest, Charlie Sheen wants to work it out with his wife. We'll have the latest legal development.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Hey, Brianna. What are you following?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, more than 20 people including policemen are dead after blasts ripped through Anbar Province in Iraq. This is the worst violence in months to hit this region that continues to be threatened by al Qaeda.

Two suicide bombers, one in a car, the other on foot are blamed for the explosions. Police set a curfew while U.S. military troops helped with evacuations and the investigation.

A British computer consultant held hostage in Baghdad for more than two years is finally free. Officials say Peter Moore was handed over today after negotiations between Iraqi authorities and captors.

Moore and four bodyguards were taken by militants disguised as policemen. The bodies of three bodyguards were returned to Britain while the fourth has not been released.

No more texting while behind the wheel for federal employees. An October order signed by President Obama himself goes into effect today which says federal employees cannot text while driving government owned vehicles or when they use government issued electronics while driving.

The measure goes so far as to encourage federal contractors to enforce their own policies. This is part of a government campaign raising awareness of distractive driving.

Charlie Sheen's wife says she wants to reconcile despite accusing him of threatening to kill her while holding a knife to her throat. Attorneys for the couple confirmed the couple wants to work it out. The actor was arrested on Christmas in Aspen and his popular sitcom "Two and a Half Men" is scheduled to return to production on Monday.

Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Brianna.

Well, last week's bombing attempt could have effects that extend beyond national security. Could this terror threat also be a political threat to Democratic control of Congress and later on to the White House?

Well, he is described as an online jihadi sensation. A closer look at the possible links an American-born cleric could have to the Christmas day bombing suspect.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Two senior U.S. officials tell CNN that Yemen and the U.S. are looking for fresh al Qaeda targets for a possible retaliation strike. The Yemeni government released this video today of an operation that happened last week, and the Yemen's foreign minister emphasizes that any air strikes would be conducted by Yemeni forces, but that technical and intelligence help would be needed.

Now this comes as officials are investigating possible links to a cleric who is called the "Bin Laden of the Internet" and the bomb suspect.

Our CNN's Brian Todd, he's joining us with what he has learned. And how closely are these two linked, the suspect and this guy who's on the Internet, who's an inspiration to many Yemenis (ph)?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No hard evidence right now, Suzanne, that the two ever corresponded directly, but lots of questions being asked right, questions about the suspects' connections to Yemen. Who did he meet with? Was he directed by someone to do what he did? And where did he get his inspiration?

Some of those questions pertain to a cleric named Anwar al Awlaki who is known to have corresponded with the alleged Ft. Hood shooter and who is a very popular Internet attraction for many (INAUDIBLE)?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): He's been called the "bin Laden of the Internet." And online jidahist sensation. American-born cleric, Anwar al Awlaki, believed by U.S. officials to have been hiding in Yemen, has clearly inspired Muslim radicals through his online postings and other communications.

But does al Awlaki have a connection with the suspect in the Christmas day bombing attempt aboard a U.S. airliner?

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

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

The group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the airline attempt. But CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen says al Awlaki may not have been part of that.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: There's no indication that al Awlaki, the cleric, is in anyway involved in operational matters for al Qaeda. But clearly he's operated as an insider to jihad in the United States by his own account. TODD: Al Awlaki had previously exchanged e-mails with U.S. Army major, Nidal Hassan, who's now charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood. And the 9/11 Commission report says he had contact with two of the 9/11 hijackers while they were in the U.S., though there's no evidence he knew of the plot.

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

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

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANWAR AL-AWLAKI, AMERICAN-BORN CLERIC: It is important to we present the proper role models for ourselves to follow.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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

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

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

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: But it's unclear whether Anwar al Awlaki is doing that at the moment or if he's even still alive. There's been speculation that he was killed in a strike on suspected jihadist hideouts in Yemen recently, but a U.S. official tells CNN the intelligence community believes he is alive and al Awlaki's own family is quoted this week as saying the same thing and they deny that he has any role with al Qaeda. Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: Are there any other major plots that he's been linked to to provide an inspiration for other jihadists?

TODD: Ben Venzke says that his name has come up regarding the investigation of the 2005 subway bombings in London, but it's important to point out that in most of these cases it's believed that these people did not necessarily correspond with him directly. That they saw his postings online. They saw his videos and got inspired by them. We do know that he did correspondent with the alleged Fort Hood shooter directly via e-mail.

MALVEAUX: OK. Brian, thank you so much.

Want to go straight to our John Roberts who is here with a preview of "CNN TONIGHT." Hey, John.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, Suzanne. How are you tonight?

Coming up at the top of the hour, calls tonight to beef up airport security after the failed Christmas terror plot. One thing being discussed is the full-body scanner at airport security. The Dutch are now using the machine for all flights coming into the United States. Even Nigeria says it will buy them and start using them.

But here in the United States, there are efforts in Congress to actually restrict the use of the full-body scan. We'll talk with the author of the legislation. He says the body scans are just intrusive and should not be used as primary screening tool.

Please join us for all that and more coming your way at the top of the hour. Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: OK, thank you, John.

Well, sharp new criticism of President Obama by former Vice President Dick Cheney. He has some stinging words about the president's reaction to the thwarted airline terror attack. We're going to talk about that and much, much more with the best political team on television.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Former Vice President Dick Cheney is slamming President Obama's response to the failed airline terror attack on Christmas day. Let's talk about that and much, much more with the best political team on television.

Our CNN senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, Republican strategist, Terry Jeffrey, the editor-in-chief of the conservative news Web site, cnsnews.com, Democratic strategist, Jamal Simmons, and Associated Press White House correspondent, Jennifer Loven.

Thanks for joining us here on THE SITUATION ROOM. We have heard back and forth today from the White House, from the former vice president. I want you guys to first take a listen to what he said. This is to Politico, slamming the president about how he's handled this attempted terror attack.

He says, "As I've watched the events of the last few days, it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend that we are not at war. He seems to think that if he has a low-key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people we won't be at war."

Who is his audience here? Who is he speaking to? TERRY JEFFREY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, I think Cheney is speaking to the American people in general. I think he's doing a good job on this. If you listen to the statement the president made on Monday, Suzanne, over and over and over and over again he referred to this terrorist as a suspect.

Earlier on this program, you had a segment about this crack public defender who's going to be his lawyer. This guy is going into a federal district court in Detroit. In reality, he's an unlawful enemy combatant. I think that the Bush administration had a much better way of dealing with people like this al Qaeda terrorist and I think that President Obama is moving in the wrong direction. And this is an example of it.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And I tell you, I think this particular argument doesn't resonate out there in Illinois. People are going, well, should we call him an enemy combatant? I realize that there are implications for it.

But in general, I think when people look at this, whether you're listening to Cheney or you're listening to President Obama, you want to know, is he being tough enough? Does he have a plan?

Now Cheney raised some of those questions, but the idea -- I think they need to get -- the critics need to get off the idea that people are going to climb on board about whether it's a law enforcement issue or whether it's a terrorist issue. I think it's a little arcane for people that are worried about getting on a dang plane.

JEFFREY: I think that's why they're worried about getting on a plane because we're not treating them like terrorists. We're treating them like common domestic criminals. I guarantee you the vast majority of the American people want terrorists treated like terrorists, not like they're domestic criminals.

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: And we agree with you on that. The issue here...

JEFFREY: President Obama doesn't agree with me on that.

SIMMONS: He does. He does.

(CROSSTALK)

SIMMONS: Hold on, Terry. Because the issue here is, the vice president said that they don't believe it's war. The president said himself in his inaugural address our nation is at war against a far reaching network of violence and hatred.

Other people have said this, al Qaeda is attacking the United States and the vice president is attacking the president. The vice president should come out and condemn the attacks first. We haven't heard that out of Vice President Cheney. So before we get to the president, he should talk about al Qaeda.

JEFFREY: This is the first time I've ever heard anybody argue that Dick Cheney was too soft on terrorists.

SIMMONS: He's playing politics with national security.

JEFFREY: No, no.

SIMMONS: We've been seeing that out of the Bush administration for four years.

JEFFREY: Does anybody...

SIMMONS: And -- we've had enough of that.

JEFFREY: Does anybody really believe that Vice President Cheney has political ambitions? This guy, when he was vice president, was known not to be someone who's going to run for president. This guy has no political ambitions. He's speaking his mind on an issue that he thinks is vitally important to the United States. He's delivering a good message to the president of the United States.

SIMMONS: But he's not even telling the truth.

JEFFREY: Sure he is.

MALVEAUX: You know I want to bring Jennifer here because obviously you and I covered president -- we covered President Bush and Cheney and we've heard a lot more from Cheney now than we had before...

JENNIFER LOVEN, ASSOCIATED PRESS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right.

MALVEAUX: ... when he was actually in office. Is anyone listening to him?

LOVEN: Well, you asked the question who is his audience. And his audience is the Republican base. No, it's true. He's not running for anything and hasn't for a very long time. But he still appeals to the Republican base, votership. And those folks listen to him when they are voting for other candidates, when the Republicans want to raise money. And these kinds of arguments, I think, they do resonate with a certain portion of voters.

CROWLEY: I mean, I think you're both right. I think he is talking to the Republican base. I think he does believe what he is saying and does want it out there for all Americans. But I think this is a very personal issue for him.

LOVEN: That's right.

CROWLEY: He took a lot of incoming on this issue. He took it from this administration when they were on the campaign trail.

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: He's now freed up and he can say what he wants. And you know what, there's another audience. The people are writing history now.

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: The Obama administration is not going to take this because we heard from the communications director, and I want to read this. In all fairness, they came out with a statement today saying from the White House, "Seven years of bellicose rhetoric failed to reduce the threat from al Qaeda and succeeded in dividing this country. It seems strangely off-key now at a time when our country is under attack for the architect of those policies to be attacking the president."

JEFFREY: Well, Suzanne, I'm a conservative, sometimes critical of President Bush and Vice President Cheney's foreign policy, about their Smithsonian view about what we ought to do in Iraq and Afghanistan stronghold, for example. But the Bush-Cheney administration does have history on their side right now on one question.

From September 11th until the end of their term, there was not another terrorist attack on the United States of America. I hope that President Obama when he leaves office can point back to a record that is as good as the record that Dick Cheney and George Bush had after 9/11.

MALVEAUX: More immediately, is this going to cost Democrats in 2010? Anybody, weigh in.

LOVEN: Well, I think what you're seeing in the rhetoric from Republicans over the last few days shows that they think that they might. And they could. It's always been an issue that Democrats are vulnerable on. The issue of national security, terrorism, after 2001. It's been an issue the Republicans have used, will use. And I think a lot of it depends on what you just raised. Whether or not there actually is another attack.

MALVEAUX: Jammal, real quick.

SIMMONS: Well, I think what's going to happen is, of course Republicans are going to (INAUDIBLE) on this. We've been seeing this since 2002. The reality though is the American public made its case known in 2008. They thought our root into Iraq and away from the terrorists to attack us, al Qaeda, is precisely the problem.

They wanted an administration, a Democratic administration that was going to go after the terrorists who actually attacked us. And the problem with the Republican argument is, they spent all those years in Iraq instead of spending those years, we might have had Afghanistan secured and we'd be in a different place right now.

MALVEAUX: Got to leave it there, guys. Thanks. Happy new year to all of you.

SIMMONS: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: I'll probably see you back here tomorrow, though. (LAUGHTER)

MALVEAUX: President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Well, who do you think is the most popular? A new poll answers that question.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Here's a look at "Hot Shots."

In London, members of a San Jose High School Marching Band warm up and practice for the upcoming New Year's Day parade. In the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a North Korean soldier takes a year-in picture of fellow soldiers. In India, the Dalai Lama celebrates the release of a new book at a temple. And in Maine, this man takes an early morning walk as the sun rises over the horizon.

"Hot Shots," pictures worth 1,000 words.

On our "Political Ticker," look who is making a cameo appearance in the race to fill the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. His brother, the former president, John Kennedy. Here is the unusual part.

The JFK footage is featured in a new TV ad for the Republican candidate Scott Brown. Brown echoes Kennedy's 1962 push for an investment tax to stimulate the economy. Brown faces Democrat Martha Coakley in the January 19th special elections in Massachusetts.

Now to a popularity contest at the White House. Well, look who gets the highest favorable ratings in our new CNN Opinion Research Corporation poll. Yes, President Obama, he is on that list, but he's third.

First Lady Michelle Obama, she ranks the highest, with 68 percent of Americans saying they have a favorable opinion of her. Sixty-four percent rate Secretary of State Clinton favorably. And you compare that to 58 percent for President Obama.

Well, recognize that smile? The kid on the right is a third grader from Hawaii, yes, named Barry Obama. This 1969 photo was sent to the president by his former classmate that's seen on the left. He recently got the photo back with a presidential autograph that he'd asked for and a personally signed "thank you" note. The photo was published in the Hawaiian newspaper "The Star Bulletin".

Well, check out this group of high-powered women. Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Tyra Banks and Carrie Underwood. What do they have in common? They're all being honored as "Fur-Free and Fabulous" by the animal rights group, PETA. This poster is now appearing in metro stations here in Washington. Mrs. Obama's press secretary recently confirmed that the fashion conscious first lady no longer wears real fur, only the fake stuff.

Well, remember for the latest political news any time, check out CNNpolitics.com.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux in THE SITUATION ROOM. Up next, "CNN TONIGHT."