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STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING

Interview With John Brennan; Interview With Governor Kean; Interview With Senators DeMint, McCaskill

Aired January 3, 2010 - 09:00   ET

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


GLORIA BORGER, GUEST HOST: I'm Gloria Borger. John King is off today and this is "State of the Union."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BORGER: Growing questions in the wake of the Christmas day terror plot.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potentially catastrophic breach of security.

BORGER: How did we miss the signs? And how will the administration make sure it doesn't happen again? We'll put the questions to President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan.

Then, exclusive reaction and perspective from the man who wrote the book on preventing another terror attack, the former chairman of the 9/11 Commission, Thomas Kean.

And two leading senators weigh in on how the U.S. should try this case. Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

Then, our "American Dispatch" from Salt Lake City, Utah, where the mayor's attempt to liberalize liquor laws is getting some local pushback.

This is the State of the Union report for Sunday, January 3rd, 2010.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BORGER: We begin today with the latest on the failed Christmas day bomb plot. Joining us now is the man who is reporting directly to President Obama about what went wrong and how to fix it. John Brennan, welcome to "State of the Union."

Before we get to that Christmas day bomb plot, there's breaking news this morning that we need to talk about. And that is just hours ago, the U.S. embassy in Yemen closed in response to threats from Al Qaida. We know you've been briefed by General Petraeus and others, and General Petraeus was of course just in Yemen. Is there an imminent threat to all Americans there?

BRENNAN: I spoke with our ambassador in Yemen, Ambassador, Ambassador Seche, both this morning as well as last night, and there are indications that Al Qaida is planning to carry out an attack against target inside of San'a, possibly our embassy, and what we do is to take every measure possible to ensure the safety of our diplomats and citizens abroad. So the decision was made to close the embassy. We're working very closely with the Yemeni government on taking the proper security precautions.

BORGER: Is this type of imminent threat there evidence of a ramped-up threat by Al Qaida generally to move to American soil as we saw on Christmas day?

BRENNAN: I think what we've seen over the past several years in Yemen is increasing strengthening of Al Qaida forces in Yemen. There are several hundred Al Qaida members there, and from the very first day of this administration, we focused on Yemen.

I traveled out to Yemen twice. I've met with President Salih. I spoke with President Salih this week. We've very concerned about Al Qaida's continued growth there, but they're not just focusing on Yemen, as was evidenced by Abdulmutallab's effort to try to bring down that plane. They are, in fact, looking to the West. So that's why we have to get to this problem in Yemen now.

BORGER: But is this ramped up? Should we be more concerned today than we were three weeks ago?

BRENNAN: I think what it is is showing that there's a culmination of the effort here of Al Qaida to carry out these attacks. We stop a lot of these attacks and a lot of these plans long before they get to the execution phase. But what is clear is that Al Qaida, whether it's Al Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula or others, they're determined to continue pressing and continuing their attempts.

BORGER: So the answer to that is yes?

BRENNAN: I think we'll see continued attempts. Al Qaida is determined to carry out attacks and be successful. We keep thwarting their attacks, but they keep pressing. BORGER: Well, you know, the director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, sent a memo to employees, and in it he said -- and I'm quoting here -- that "Al Qaida is diminished." Yet yesterday, Michael Leiter, who runs the Counterterrorism Center, sent out a statement that said "Al Qaida continues to refine their methods." So which is it? Is it diminished or is it more sophisticated?

BRENNAN: It is both. We have made quite a bit of progress this year in degrading the capabilities of Al Qaida organization. We've taken the battle to them. We have eliminated a number of their senior leaders and operatives. But that doesn't mean that they still don't have the capability to carry out attacks, and that's what they're doing. They're trying to look for ways and vulnerabilities in our system to get their operatives either here in the United States or in other places to carry out these attacks. BORGER: Should we raise the threat level here? Are you thinking about it?

BRENNAN: We have a system in place now that allows us to strengthen the security measures. That's what happened right after the attempted attack on December 25th. We didn't have to raise the threat level to red or another different color that is out there. What we did was we immediately strengthened security precautions on plane and other places. So we feel confident that we are well poised right now.

BORGER: Right, but you feel comfortable, but then let's get back to the Christmas day plot, because of course something went very wrong there. You are going to bottom-line this for the president. You have received reports from every agency responsible for counter-terrorism. As you bottom-line this, how severe was the failure?

BRENNAN: I think what -- clearly the system didn't work. We had a problem in terms of why Abdulmutallab got on that plane. There is no smoking gun piece of intelligence out there that said he was a terrorist, he was going to carry out this attack against this aircraft. We had bits and pieces of information. Now let me just take a moment...

BORGER: Wait, there was no smoking gun? The father went to the embassy in Nigeria -- he's a well respected banker -- and said I've gotten these terrible text messages from my son.

BRENNAN: Right, he said...

BORGER: Isn't that -- that's not a needle in a haystack.

BRENNAN: That was certainly an alert that came to our attention. He said he was consorting with extremists in Yemen. He didn't know what he was doing. He was concerned about him, and he wanted our help. That was one set of data. We had, though, other data within the intelligence system, bits and pieces of information that didn't give us the clarity we needed to be able to map it and attach it to Abdulmutallab. What we need to do as an intelligence community, as a government, is be able to bring those disparate bits and pieces of information together so we prevent Mr. Abdulmutallab from getting on a plane.

BORGER: Well, for our viewers, I want to put up a timeline here and you can take a look at it over your shoulder. We see that Mr. Abdulmutallab was on the radar about last May when the United Kingdom revoked his visa to travel to Britain. By the summer, into the fall, the National Security Agency, the CIA, the National Counterterrorism Center and Homeland Security all had pieces of this puzzle. As you said, nobody put the information together. He bought a ticket for cash. He boarded an airplane in Amsterdam without a checked bag, and he had explosives in his underwear. What got in the way?

BRENNAN: Well, first of all, when the British turned down Mr. Abdulmutallab for a visa, it was because of immigration concerns...

BORGER: Right.

BRENNAN: ... because he put on his form a school that he wasn't -- didn't exist. So that was not related to terrorism at all.

We did have the information throughout the course of the summer and fall about Al Qaida in Arabian Peninsula's plans to carry out attacks. We had snippets of information, we had information about Umar Farouk, but we didn't have any type of information that really allowed us to identify Mr. Abdulmutallab. The system did fail. It did not do...

(CROSSTALK)

BRENNAN: A lot of people buy their tickets in Africa with cash. That is the way, in fact, things are done, because there's so much fraud there. So that wasn't a necessary bell. People in the Amsterdam airport didn't even know that he had bought the ticket for cash. He did bring on carry-on luggage. So there were a lot of things that were out there. We're now doing the diagnosis. We're going back and figuring out exactly how we could have stopped this early on.

BORGER: Are you saying there isn't a way you could have stopped it, though?

BRENNAN: What I'm saying is that there was information that was in the system that should have allowed us to stop it, yes, and that's what the president has -- is determined to make sure that we find that out.

BORGER: What was the information that was -- I mean, where? Where...

BRENNAN: As you mentioned, it was the puzzle pieces. There were a number of pieces that were out there, but for whatever reason, they weren't brought together. We as a government need to make sure that we're able to bring those pieces together. Every day, there are millions of pieces of the puzzle that come together on many, many people.

BORGER: But it sounds, with all due respect, it sounds an awful lot like 9/11.

BRENNAN: No, that's not...

BORGER: Pre-9/11. And my question to you is, who is going to be held accountable?

BRENNAN: Well, first of all, it's not like 9/11. There was no indication that any of these agencies or departments were intentionally holding back information. And I can point to numerous successes...

BORGER: No turf battles?

BRENNAN: No turf battles. There were lapses, human errors, the system didn't work the way it should have, but no...

BORGER: Sloppiness?

BRENNAN: ... agency was trying to -- I think there were human errors and lapses. And so what I'm going to do is to make sure that I tell the president exactly what I think went wrong. But there wasn't an effort to try to conceal information.

I can point to many different examples this year that the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and intelligence community combined to stop attacks. Najibullah Zazi...

BORGER: Can you give us an example that we don't know about?

BRENNAN: Well, there's a lot of classified information that is out there, and a lot of information that is -- relates to people who have been overseas that have tried to come here to the United States, but because we're working very closely with our partners overseas, they've been able to stop people before they have been able to get on a plane.

BORGER: Can you tell us about one?

BRENNAN: Najibullah Zazi, David Headley, other individuals that were captured. The five guys that left -- from Northern Virginia. When their parents brought it to the attention of the FBI, that's exactly the way the system should work. We went out there, we contacted the Pakistani authorities. They're currently in prison. And what we're doing is trying to ensure that the system works as well in all these cases as in future events that come up.

BORGER: Let's switch now to the larger terror threat, which we were talking about at the beginning of the show. CNN is reporting that there's a radical American cleric born in Yemen, I'm sure very well-known to you, Anwar al-Awlaki, that had contact with both the shooter at Fort Hood and the Christmas day bomber. If there's a link, do you now consider the Fort Hood shooting a terrorist attack? BRENNAN: I think what we are clear about is that Mr. Awlaki was in touch with Hasan, with Major Hasan, and there are indications that he had contact, direct contact with Abdulmutallab.

Mr. Awlaki is a problem. He's clearly a part of Al Qaida in Arabian Peninsula. He's not just a cleric. He is in fact trying to instigate terrorism.

BRENNAN: What we need to do now is to make sure that we can identify other individuals or other activities of Mr. al-Awlaki so we can stop it before it comes through.

BORGER: Is he alive?

BRENNAN: Awlaki? We are continuing to sort of press the -- and maintain pressure inside of Yemen. There are a number al Qaeda operatives in Yemen who are no longer alive that were last month.

BORGER: So was Fort Hood a terrorist attack? BRENNAN: I think we're still taking a look at that. I mean, the term terrorism is defined many different ways.

BORGER: Well...

BRENNAN: In my mind, Major Hasan carried out this attack, it was inspired, I think, by some of the rantings and the rhetoric of individuals like al-Awlaki. And so they're looking at this right now.

BORGER: It is. So it was.

BRENNAN: It's certainly an act of murder. It was wanton murder. It was wanton slaughter of U.S. military officers.

BORGER: And let's talk about Guantanamo then for a moment, too, because there are reports that at least one prisoner released from Guantanamo in 2006, Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaysh, is now called the "theological guide," if you will, to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He was involved in the Christmas Day plot.

Does it make you rethink your decision to release six prisoners back into Yemen last month from Guantanamo?

BRENNAN: No, it doesn't, because that was the result of a very meticulous and rigorous process that we've had in place since the beginning of this administration. Now let me put some facts out here. The last administration released 532 detainees from Guantanamo. During this administration, we have transferred in fact 42 of these individuals overseas. I have been in constant dialogue with the Yemenis about the arrangements that are in place.

Several of those individuals were put into custody as soon as they returned to Yemen. So we are making sure that we don't do anything that is going to put American citizens, whether they be in Yemen or here in the States, at risk by our decisions about releasing -- transferring these detainees.

BORGER: So you have 90 prisoners remaining in Guantanamo that are from Yemen. Half of them were slated to be sent back home. There is word now that they're not going to be sent back home to Yemen. What are you going to do with them? Are you going to send them to Illinois?

BRENNAN: We haven't, you know, stopped the process as far as dealing with them. Many of them are going to be prosecuted, some under the Article III courts, and some under -- in military courts. Some of these individuals are going to be transferred back to Yemen at the right time and the right pace and in the right way. And under that arrangement...

BORGER: So they still will go back to Yemen. And what do you mean at the right time and place?

BRENNAN: Well, we made a decision that we would send back six because we were very pleased with the way of Yemeni government handled the one individual we sent back about eight weeks ago. And so we're making sure that the situation on the ground is taken into account. That we continue to work with the Yemeni government, and we do this in a very common-sense fashion because we want to make sure that we are able to close Guantanamo.

Guantanamo has been used as a propaganda tool by al Qaeda and others. We need to close that facility. And we're determined to do that.

BORGER: So -- so you're...

BRENNAN: The inmates that are there are going to be transferred back. Those that appropriate to go back, but also those that need to maintain -- stay in detention, we are going to do that.

BORGER: So these 40 or so that are slated -- let me just make this clear. That this 40 or so that are slated to be sent back to Yemen, they still will be sent back to Yemen?

BRENNAN: We make a decision about when they are going to be sent back and how they're going to be sent back and under what conditions. And when...

BORGER: Has this slowed it down, is what I'm asking.

BRENNAN: The attempted attack by Mr. Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day was a unique incident. We have been monitoring and watching the situation in Yemen develop over time. That one incident on the 25th of December doesn't change the situation on the ground in Yemen one bit.

We know that al Qaeda is out there. We know we have to be mindful of that. And we know that we have to take our steps with those detainees in a manner that is not going to put our citizens at risk. And we're not going to do that.

BORGER: So they will be sent back eventually?

BRENNAN: We're going to do it the right way at the right time.

BORGER: OK. OK.

BRENNAN: Absolutely.

BORGER: OK. Now, the president has said that we are at war with al Qaeda. You have said that. If we're at war, why not treat Abdulmutallab as an enemy combatant?

BRENNAN: Because over the past number of years, we have been able very successfully to charge a number of terrorists in court. Look at Richard Reid, the shoe bomber. He was tried. He was convicted. He was sentenced in court. Zacarias Moussaoui, Iyman Faris, Jose Padilla, all of these individuals were tried in civilian court.

We try to adapt the tools in the right way. We are also a country of laws. This was an individual who was arrested on U.S. soil. If we decide at some point that we're going to charge and hold somebody under the enemy combatant status, it's a tool that is available to us. We made a decision to do this.

We have great confidence in the FBI and other individuals in terms of debriefing. We have great confidence in our court system so that we can use that to our advantage. And individuals in the past have, in fact, given us very valuable information as they've gone through the plea agreement process.

BORGER: And let me just ask you one more question about Mr. Abdulmutallab. Because there is a report in Newsweek this morning that you personally received intelligence from Saudi officials that al Qaeda might try to use an explosive hidden in underwear, what Mr. Abdulmutallab did. What did you do with that information when you got it?

BRENNAN: Well, I think the report you're referring to is the attempted assassination attack against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in late August.

BORGER: Yes.

BRENNAN: In fact, within a week of that attack, I was out in Saudi Arabia. I met with Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. I went to the room where the attack took place. We worked very closely with the Saudis to get that information. We shared it completely throughout the government. PETN was the substance that was used in that attack. We were looking very carefully at that. There was no indication at the time that there was going to be an attempt against an aircraft. What we need to do is to try to stay ahead of it.

BORGER: Was the FAA put on alert about this, that people might be coming through airports with explosives in their underwear?

BRENNAN: There was nothing in that assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef that indicated aviation was a target. He was sitting in a (INAUDIBLE). The suicide bomber came in next to him. We were very concerned about the possible assassination attempts. And so we have been taking steps as we get this information...

BORGER: So the FAA didn't know? So the FAA didn't...

BRENNAN: Oh, the FAA, they get all of the information that is available to the intelligence community that relates to terrorist threats. And so we had that system working well, but clearly in the case of Mr. Abdulmutallab, the system didn't work the way it was designed to work.

BORGER: And in conclusion, I'd just like to talk about the president for one moment. Three months ago, on October 6th, he said this at the National Counterterrorism Center. Just listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: You are setting the standard. You are showing us what focused and integrated counterterrorism really looks like. And the record of your service is written in the attacks that never occur, because you thwarted them. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BORGER: Now on Tuesday, it was a very, very different President Obama who was a lot less complimentary about the intelligence services. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted upon, as it should have been, so that this extremist boards a plane with dangerous explosives that could have cost nearly 300 lives, a systemic failure has occurred. And I consider that totally unacceptable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BORGER: What is it the president know now that he didn't know three months ago?

BRENNAN: Well, first of all, the president takes his solemn responsibility to protect the well-being of the American people very seriously. I see it every day. I hear it every day. And he wants to make sure that we do everything possible in that regard.

What I think the president understands today is that the system is a very complex one, that there are ways to strengthen it. He is determined to strengthen it. We're very fortunate to have the people who are dedicated to doing this on a day in and day out basis.

When Americans were enjoying the holidays with their families and able to sort of watch football games and other things, there were very dedicated Americans at the National Counterterrorism Center, at the CIA, Department of Homeland Security, and FBI that are working around the clock to protect their fellow citizens.

But the president wants to make sure that that system that is in place is as good as it can be so that we don't ever have another instance when an individual gets on a plane anywhere in the world with a bomb trying to bring down an aircraft. And he's determined to do that and I'm going to make sure that I do everything I can to support the president's wishes in this regard.

BORGER: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Brennan, for being with us today. Thank you.

BRENNAN: Thank you, Gloria.

BORGER: And up next, the former chairman of the 9/11 Commission will tell us what lessons we have yet to learn.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BORGER: And joining me now to talk more about the foiled terror plot and the state of our homeland security is Thomas Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey and the former chairman of the 9/11 Commission. Thank you so much, Governor Kean, for being with us this morning. You heard what John Brennan had to say, when pressed, on the Christmas bomber plot. What's your general reaction to his responses?

KEAN: Well, they were a bit defensive, and I guess that's probably understandable, given all the circumstances. But, you know, this -- this guy, in some respects, looking at it in retrospect, probably did us a favor.

I mean, look, we had an administration which was not focused as it should be on terrorism. And that's understandable. They were focused on health care and on global warming and the economy. That's very understandable.

Secondly, we weren't really focused on Yemen and the terrible things that are happening there. Now we are. And that's a good thing.

And thirdly, there were holes, obviously, and the system wasn't working well. We found out it wasn't working well. The president understands it's not working well, and now we're focused on fixing it.

So, all over, thanks to -- thanks to God there wasn't any -- wasn't any serious injury, but the guy probably did us a favor, now, because now we're going to be a little more alert.

BORGER: Well, you heard what Mr. Brennan said. He said this was human failure. This was not a failure of people fighting each other on turf.

But when I asked him the question that you've been asking this week, which is about why not pay attention to Abdulmutallab's father, a wealthy Nigerian banker who walks into the embassy and is worried, he seemed to say that wasn't a direct clue.

KEAN: Well, that's -- that alone, given who that father was, his prestige in the community, his connections with the United States embassy -- that alone should have been enough. Because, think for a moment, if you're a father, or a mother, for that matter, and what it takes to go in there to a foreign embassy and actually turn in your child. I mean, this was an act of tremendous courage by this man.

BORGER: But Brennan's response was he didn't say his son was a terrorist.

KEAN: Well, that's not good enough. That's not a good enough response. Because that, to my mind, should have put everybody on alert. That should have gone right up.

And, you know, again, he said there were pieces of information. He's absolutely right, but he's wrong when he says this wasn't like 9/11. Because what we pointed out in the report, again and again, is that there were a lot of pieces of information that, if they'd been put together, then we might have deterred that plot.

This is the same thing. A lot of pieces of information -- if they had been shared -- shared by the intelligence agencies the way they should be and the way the system Congress set up is designed to compel, then this guy would never have gotten on that plane.

BORGER: You know, we -- we've been spending a lot of time this week rereading the 9/11 report. We also -- which I happen to have here, and we've also been rereading that final report card when the 9/11 Commission did an update on where we were on -- on security issues. And this was in December 2005.

Let me -- let me show this to you, a little bit. Airline passenger pre-screening: you gave them an F. Airline passenger explosive screening: you gave them a C. Government-wide information- sharing: a D.

Have the grades improved?

KEAN: I think they may have improved some. But, you know...

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: Still an F in airline passenger screening, do you think?

KEAN: No -- no, I'd give them a little higher grade now, but still not good enough. I mean, we've got to be -- we've got to reach an A in that level. I mean, we cannot allow our people to get on a plane and not feel safe. So, you know, it still is not good enough. And -- but now, thank goodness, perhaps due to this incident, we'll get to where we should be.

BORGER: But let me ask you, a little bit, about the role of the president here. Has the president led forcefully enough, do you believe, to demand the sharing of information between these intelligence agencies?

KEAN: Well, the president now is saying the right things. And I believe he'll follow through and do the right things. The problem was not now but the fact before that this administration, I think, was distracted.

And I say, that's understandable. I mean, heaven's sakes, if you're in this huge health care fight and worried about the economy and global warming and all that sort of thing, that's what they were concentrating on. And I think they weren't giving this enough attention. It's understandable, but it's not acceptable.

BORGER: So you're saying the president was not giving this enough attention?

KEAN: I don't think the whole administration was. And there are good people there. I mean, if you look at his Cabinet secretaries, the people who are involved in counterterrorism, they're good people. I mean, they're good people. But they need support; they need coordination. The president needs to supply the leadership. And no matter what else is going on, this has always got to be number one.

BORGER: Well, and let me ask you this. Some people are laying the problem right at the agency that you pushed to create, which is the National Counterterrorism Center. That was supposed to be the place that coordinated all of the information, that set aside any kind of internal battles. And that obviously didn't happen here.

So have we just added another layer of bureaucracy to the government?

KEAN: Not if it works properly. Obviously, it didn't in this case, but we created a director of national intelligence for one reason, and that is to force the sharing of information. Because these intelligence agencies -- there are 17 of them, and people don't realize that -- were acting in silos. You know, their whole business is to keep secrets. That's what they do.

(LAUGHTER)

And they were keeping secrets from other intelligence agencies.

So when you had these bits of information, as you had in 9/11 or as you had in this case, they weren't sharing them. And so they didn't, as we said, connect the dots.

Now, what the system is supposed to do now, through the director of national intelligence and the center -- it's supposed to force the sharing of information. Now, obviously, in this case, it didn't. And whether the president looks at this and says the DNI has got to be strengthened or the counterterrorism center has got to be changed a bit, whatever it is, the system -- the system there now should work. So...

(CROSSTALK)

KEAN: We should be looking at the reasons it hasn't and fixing it.

BORGER: And final question, does the president need to hold specific individuals accountable and ask for some resignations here?

KEAN: Oh, I don't think it's a question of resignations. It's a question of something happening in the system. The people I know working in this area are good people. They're working hard in their various areas. They want to do their job. The question is whether we'll give it the attention that's needed to really look and see what went wrong and fix it and fix anything else that's wrong so this can't ever, ever happen again.

BORGER: Governor Kean, thank you so much for your perspective on all of this, this morning. Thanks for being with us.

KEAN: Thank you.

BORGER: And it was a war of words this week on who is to blame for the security breakdown in the Detroit terror plot. Up next, we're going to hear from two senators with very different views on that. So stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BORGER: And welcome back to "STATE OF THE UNION." I'm Gloria Borger, filling in for John King.

And with us now, two top U.S. senators, Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina. Both are joining us from their home states.

Thanks to both of you for being with us this morning. Let me start with you, Senator DeMint. Your reaction, please, to -- to John Brennan. He seemed to say that this was a failure of human error, not turf.

DEMINT: Well, I was concerned before I -- I heard him talk -- and I think I'm a little more alarmed because he seems to have a hard time saying that this is an act of terror, that Fort Hood was an act of terror, that -- that the Christmas Day bomber was an act of terror.

And unless we're willing to recognize this as a -- a -- a global war, in many cases against the United States, I'm afraid we're going to fail to take the actions that we need to.

The most important point now, Gloria, is that this threat is real. And we need to make some very real changes from the last administration, from this administration. We need to get the politics out of it and focus on security.

But I was concerned that he would not give you direct answers, particularly about whether these were acts of terror or not.

BORGER: Senator McCaskill, we also spoke about the prisoners in Guantanamo. And half of those 90 prisoners are now slated to be sent home to Yemen. And John Brennan made the case that eventually at some point the administration believes that it will be able to send them back to Yemen. Is that a good idea?

MCCASKILL: Well, first of all, I think what he said was we are being -- they are being very careful about how they're releasing any of these people. The previous administration wasn't quite as careful, frankly.

This administration, the people that have been released back to Yemen are in custody. And I think the full range of tools are being used -- military courts, civilian courts -- successfully.

And make no mistake here. He did not say that the act on December -- on Christmas was not an act of terror.

BORGER: Sure.

MCCASKILL: What he said was this administration, from day one, from the inaugural address, President Obama said very clearly and very forcefully that there is a war against terror and violence that is a vast network. And we have been taking it to that network through the intelligence community, through additional resources in Somalia and Yemen. Unlike a myopic focus on Iraq, this administration is going worldwide in this war and is focused on it. And I think it is unfair and, frankly, political to take pot shots at the president as -- as we respond to this failure in our systems that we've got to get fixed.

BORGER: Well, Senator McCaskill, very quickly, how should we be treating Abdulmutallab, as an enemy combatant or...

MCCASKILL: Well, I think -- I think that as they go forward with this investigation and develop leads -- as a former prosecutor, I can tell you they will be using this individual to try to get to more terrorists. And as they work with this -- this terrorist, they will make a decision on how to move forward.

You know, the shoe bomber is sitting in a prison in Colorado right now after going through a trial in our civil system and -- and -- and receiving severe punishment, along with dozens and, frankly, hundreds of other terrorists that we have prosecuted in this country.

We're not saying there shouldn't be military trials in some instances.

BORGER: Right.

MCCASKILL: What we're saying is the military and Justice Department should have choices as to how we can get these guys and get them with force and with the force of the American law.

BORGER: Senator DeMint, you want to respond?

DEMINT: Gloria, if we -- if we had treated this Christmas Day bomber as a terrorist, he would have immediately been interrogated military-style, rather given -- rather than given the rights of an American and lawyers. We probably lost valuable information.

It does come down to a decision of whether or not this is an act of war, an agent of terror, or just a criminal act. So there's some real implications of the direction that's being taken now.

I agree with Senator McCaskill. We need to take the politics out of this. But there's no question that the president has down-played the risk of terror since he took office. He is investigating the CIA, rather than build them up.

BORGER: How has he -- Senator DeMint, how -- how has he down- played the risk of terror? DEMINT: Well, it begins with not even being willing to use the word.

BORGER: Well, aside from the semantics, aside from that.

DEMINT: Aside from the semantics, he's been completely distracted by other things, as has already been -- been mentioned, and he is not focused on building security and intelligence apparatus of our country.

The last administration, President Bush made a huge mistake by sending the Yemenis back. The core leadership of Al Qaida now is made up of those folks who were at the Gitmo prison. We can't make that mistake again.

So it's not just about this administration. It's about losing our focus on security. And I'm -- I'm afraid politics and political correctness has -- has become front and center of this debate.

BORGER: Quick response, Senator McCaskill, before we go to break? Then we'll be back, so...

MCCASKILL: You know, that's just not true. This president has focused like a laser on how to keep this country safe. His commitment his Afghanistan, even though there are those in his party that were -- that were very critical of a position he took, he took the time and the energy to determine that us ramping up in Afghanistan should have been done a long time ago. That's a -- a breeding ground for terrorists. This is a president that is taking strong action and is building up our intelligence community, not -- not diminishing it.

BORGER: OK. OK, Senator McCaskill, we're going to have to leave it right there, but we will be back after a quick break, and we'll have much more with Senators McCaskill and DeMint.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BORGER: We're back with Senators Jim DeMint and Claire McCaskill.

Senator DeMint, you have been holding up the vote on Erroll Southers, who was the man nominated to run the TSA, the Transportation Security Administration. You say you're going to vote against him because you don't have assurances he won't unionize the TSA. There are also some ethical concerns you have.

But lots of your fellow Republicans say he's perfectly qualified for the job. Is this the right time to be holding up the nomination of the head of the TSA?

DEMINT: Well, unfortunately, the president waited eight months to even nominate a head of the TSA, and then they wanted him passed without a good vetting process. They wanted -- they didn't want any debate or a roll call vote on the floor.

And as it turns out, there are some things about Mr. Southers that need to be considered. I asked him to be definitive in letting me know if it was his intent to submit airport security to collective bargaining. Now, all the members of -- the employees of TSA are free to join a union now, and the union can advocate for them, but collective bargaining would bring the security concerns of TSA under the authority of union bosses.

BORGER: But isn't that -- isn't that...

DEMINT: That's...

BORGER: ... what the Department of Homeland Security does, it's not up to him, it's up to his boss?

DEMINT: Well, it is up to him and his boss and ultimately the president. But it appeared that he has brought in to help bring everything under collective bargaining at a time when we need to focus on security.

The CIA, the FBI, the Coast Guard, the military, the Congress, none of the employees there can be under collective bargaining because of the need of constant flexibility as we're seeing now with airport security. Airport security does not need to go to union bosses at this time and get their permission to change their security protocol.

BORGER: OK.

DEMINT: So I wanted Mr. Southers to tell me that it was his intent to keep the prohibition against collective bargaining.

BORGER: Well, Senator -- Senator McCaskill, to Mr. -- to Senator DeMint's point, where was the urgency in the nomination? It took eight months. And what should we do...

MCCASKILL: Well, obviously, there are a lot of important positions that have to be selected and confirmed. This man went through a thorough vetting in two different committees. And in the Homeland Security Committee, both ranking Republican Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman, along with the other members of the committee, took a hard look at this man and saw his incredible credentials, international reputation from his work with security at one of the largest airports in the world. This is the right guy for the job.

And with all due respect, this is nuts, holding him up over whether or not somebody is going to be able to bargain for better benefits. This is -- this man is focused on the mission of this agency.

And, you know, really, we've got to -- we've got to get past this habit in the Senate that one or two members can say, "Hey, I'm going to stop everything."

This man will get confirmed, and he'll get confirmed by a wide margin. And playing games with the process, all it's doing is hurting the traveling public, because the most important front-line agency to protect Americans right now on flights is being held up over political stuff.

BORGER: Do you want to respond to that, Senator DeMint?

DEMINT: Yes, I do, Gloria, because Senator Reid could bring up Mr. Southers for confirmation any time on the floor of the Senate. I'm not holding him up; I just wanted a limited debate and a roll call vote on a very important position.

The president has demonstrated some problems with the vetting process with -- with other nominees, and I think it's important that America know what's at stake here. So he can be brought up for a vote at any time; I'm not holding him up. BORGER: So, Senator DeMint, let me just ask you this, speaking of votes, the 2010 DHS appropriations measure, which set aside over $1 billion for airport explosive detection systems, it's something you voted against in the Senate. Can you tell us quickly why?

DEMINT: Well, unfortunately, it was another bill filled with wasteful earmarks and -- and a lot of politics. The -- the primary recommendation of the 9/11 Commission -- and you just had its chairman on before -- was to make sure that all of these intelligence agencies were speaking to each other. So this bill did not even address the primary recommendation of the 9/11 concerns.

BORGER: So you support -- you support the billion dollars for the detection devices?

DEMINT: Yes, I do, but I'm not going to be blackmailed into voting for bills with -- with -- with, you know, thousands of earmarks and wasteful spending and bills that don't address the security concerns.

BORGER: OK.

DEMINT: So this bill actually allowed convicted felons to work in secure areas of our ports. This was something advocated by the unions. And so we've got to look at the whole bill, not just the title on the front page.

BORGER: OK. And -- and -- and, Senator McCaskill, very quickly, yes or no, should there be these screening devices at every airport where -- where people are traveling to this country?

MCCASKILL: Yes. We have to continue to invest in the very best technology to keep the traveling public safe. But we also have to remember that we have to invest in the front-line soldiers.

Really, the front-line soldiers in this war is our intelligence community. They're the ones that are spanning the globe. They're the ones that are finding this information that ultimately is the most important ingredient in keeping us safe. And investing in that intelligence community has to remain a priority.

BORGER: Thank you very much. Thanks -- thanks to both of you, Senator DeMint, Senator McCaskill, thanks for being with us this morning.

DEMINT: Thank you, Gloria.

MCCASKILL: Thank you. Happy New Year.

DEMINT: Happy New Year, Claire.

BORGER: You, too.

MCCASKILL: Thanks, Jim.

BORGER: And up next, we get out of Washington and head to beautiful Utah, where John King caught up with one mayor who's looking to change the status quo by changing the local liquor laws.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BORGER: Every week on "State of the Union," John King travels to a different state. And in this week's "American Dispatch," he sets his sights on Utah. Utah is known for its strong Mormon values, but as John quickly learned, there are also those who are looking to shake things up.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice-over): Sunrise makes the Great Salt Lake all the more spectacular. And the bison wandering state parklands are another reminder of the wonders and the rugged terrain that greeted the early explorers.

A Mormon temple is a more modern landmark, a symbol of faith and conservative thinking that often defines Salt Lake City's image, sometimes to the consternation of its non-Mormon mayor, Ralph Becker.

BECKER: We have an enormously diverse culture here. We live in as beautiful a natural setting as there is anywhere in the world. And part of what we need to make sure people understand who come to visit here and who look to locate their businesses here and live here is that everyone is welcome here.

KING: The mayor's attempt at an image makeover includes liberalizing city alcohol policies. Gone is the rule that allowed no more than two bars per city block. It's a change bar-owner Del Vance calls overdue, but also meaningless unless the state agrees to issue more liquor licenses.

VANCE: Like everything here, it was a day late and a six-pack short, because now the state is out of liquor licenses, so even -- even if, you know, somebody wanted to open another bar on -- on this block, they couldn't. There's no license available.

(UNKNOWN): Founder of The Shoots (ph), went to the University of Utah.

KING: The state also controls liquor sales. And to Vance, it is proof the Church of Latter-Day Saints still dominates Utah politics.

VANCE: Obviously, you know, Utah is associated with Mormons, and they don't consume alcoholic beverages. I don't understand why some people think, "Well, if I don't do something, I've got to make it more difficult and aggravating for the person who does do it." KING: For Art and Jainey (ph) Brown, the anti-alcohol crusade began with a late-night phone call 10 years ago.

BROWN: I get a call for my daughter. And she simply said, "Dad, we've been in a very serious accident." And then, John, I guess the most poignant time in my life is when I had to watch my daughter, my son-in-law pull life support off that baby whom 24 hours before, it was a loving family, and then have to say goodbye, watch the baby turn color, and then walk out of the room. KING: Matthew was 2 months old, killed by a drunk driver.

BROWN: He had been served over six hours 21 drinks, over 21 drinks. When he got a little rowdy, they threw him out, got in his car, drove around, and hit our daughter, three times the legal limit.

KING: Brown heads the state's Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter, and Utah's laws are among the toughest in the nation. He compliments Mayor Becker for dedicating resources to the fight against underage drinking, but Brown says allowing more bars downtown and in residential neighborhoods is dangerous.

BROWN: The wetter you get it for the kids where they live, the more probability that's going to be an upward pressure on their choices to drink. And if they see that you're willing to put it next door to them, that it's pleasurable, it's the thing to try, it's -- there's no downsides to it, it really ups their risk to trying this stuff.

KING: Mayor Becker disputes the link.

BECKER: I certainly understand and respect Art Brown and other -- others' points of view that having a place that serves liquor is an inducement for minors to drink. I just haven't found that to be case -- the case in my own experience, and I don't think the information in studies supports it, either.

We're providing for what people in neighborhoods want. They want to be able to walk to their neighborhood restaurant and have a drink with dinner, not everybody, but some people do. And we need to provide for everybody in our community.

KING: To the mayor, the question is quality of life in a changing city where the majority is now not Mormon; to others, a time to reflect on values they wish would not yield to shifting demographics and changing times.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BORGER: One of the goals here at "State of the Union" is to get out of Washington as often as we can. We've made it our pledge to travel to all 50 states in our first year, and you just saw John King in state 49, which leaves just one -- that's Wyoming -- for next Sunday. Check out cnn.com/stateoftheunion, where you can see what we learned when we traveled to your state. And we want to say goodbye to our international audience for this hour, but up next for our viewers here in the U.S. is Howie Kurtz and his "Reliable Sources." They're grading the media's performance in 2009.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BORGER: I'm Gloria Borger. John King is off today. And this is "State of the Union."

A pair of high-profile stories raise new debate over checkbook journalism. Where's the line when it comes to landing the interviews that everyone wants?

Plus, from Michael Jackson to Jon and Kate to balloon boy, 2009 was the year that saw the media get carried away with celebrity and reality shows. Is there any hope for a more grounded 2010?

In this hour of "State of the Union," Howard Kurtz, as always, breaks it down with his "Reliable Sources."