Return to Transcripts main page
THE SITUATION ROOM
President Obama Holds Major National Security Meeting; Bitter Cold Threatens Lives, Crops
Aired January 5, 2010 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: President Obama is about to share what he's learned about the attempted airline bomb attack. We're standing by to bring you his remarks live. They're coming up very soon, along with analysis from the best political team and CNN's terrorism experts. Stand by for live coverage.
Also, blistering new criticism of U.S. intelligence in Afghanistan after the deadly attack on a CIA base. We're learning more about the suicide bomber's history as a double agent and the collapse in security. Stand by for that as well.
And winter weather has an icy vice grip on the eastern part of the United States -- just ahead, the forecast and the fallout, including farmers scrambling to save their crops.
I'm Wolf Blitzer in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics, and extraordinary reports from around the world. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
The White House is promising President Obama will give a candid update on what could have been a major terror attack on his watch. We're standing by for the president's remarks. He's getting ready to emerge from the White House Situation Room, go over and speak to reporters. Those remarks will be seen live and heard live here in THE SITUATION ROOM, our SITUATION ROOM.
The president and his team are trying to show they're acting aggressively right now over a week after the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner near Detroit.
Let's bring in our White House correspondent Dan Lothian.
All right, Dan, set the scene for us. I take it we're potentially only minutes away from seeing and hearing the president?
DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. We are -- you know, that -- that meeting is running a little bit behind schedule, but it's supposed to last an hour-and-a-half. And then, as you pointed out, the president will come out and make some short remarks.
At this meeting, we were able to see some of the people who were attending that meeting, Cabinet heads, also agency heads coming to the meeting. We saw CIA director, Secretary Clinton, Secretary Gates coming into that meeting, 20 in all. You know, the president is -- wants to hear from these heads about what they have found so far in their review. He ordered this review while he was on vacation, so now he wants to get an update, a report from them.
But the president will also talk about some changes that will be made with the watch list, those names, what names should be on that list or shouldn't be on the list. But we're told by the White House not to expect any grand policy shifts or reforms, according to Robert Gibbs, saying that any discussion of reforms may be forthcoming.
So, this is something that will be down the road. One thing they are talking about from the president to others in his administration is that there was systemic failure in intelligence. The intelligence was there. There were bits and pieces of information, but they never connected the dots.
The big question is why. So, that's something the president is trying to get the answer to. One other big question, though, is, once the president does get the answers, once he comes up with any particular reforms that he wants to put into place, will this administration be able to instill confidence in the American people, some of whom are very skeptical, because so much -- so much is still being asked, like was being asked after 9/11, Wolf.
BLITZER: What about heads rolling? Anyone going to be fired? Anyone going to lose his or her job?
LOTHIAN: At this point, the White House saying not now. Robert Gibbs was asked that very question today at the press briefing. And he said this will not be a case of everyone sitting around the table and finger-pointing. The president wants to hear what happened and then he wants solutions to make sure that it doesn't happen again.
BLITZER: Stand by, Dan. We are going to be getting to you after we hear from the president.
Let's assess what's going on with our CNN national security contributor Fran Townsend. She's the former homeland security adviser to President Bush. Also joining us, Tom Fuentes. He's a CNN contributor, former FBI assistant director, and our senior political analysts Gloria Borger and David Gergen.
What's the most important thing, Fran, you want to hear from the president emerging from this meeting?
FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, there are immediate and short-term actions that he can take. I expect that's what -- the sort of thing that Robert Gibbs was talking about in the Briefing Room today.
He will talk about the watch list, the way to immediately fix some of that. He will talk about the urgency that he has about the longer-term policy fixes, but you are not going to hear the policy fixes out of this meeting. I also expect that he will indicate directly for the first time to agency heads and Cabinet members his anger and disappointment at the handling of this.
BLITZER: You have a lot of good contacts, Tom, over at the FBI. Are they angry? What is the -- the feeling going into this meeting at the FBI, these professionals whose job it is to protect Americans?
TOM FUENTES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, right now, they're focused on the investigation, on successfully identifying the terrorists overseas based on the debriefings of Abdulmutallab here.
He has been talking to the FBI investigators since he was taken into custody on Christmas Day. I understand he's still talking to them even today.
BLITZER: Even though he's got lawyers who are telling him, presumably -- public defender -- don't say anything?
FUENTES: Right. One of the key factors here, Wolf, is that these individuals want people to know what they tried to do. Otherwise, there's no glory in it.
BLITZER: But can you believe a word he's saying, though? Maybe he's just...
FUENTES: Well, not necessarily. That's what has to be corroborated around the world in all the other countries, where we have to work with our partners...
BLITZER: When he says something, it could just be showing off or whatever?
TOWNSEND: That's right, Wolf, although, you know, when they talk about the potential for a plea bargain here -- and there's been much criticism of the president for putting Abdulmutallab into the criminal justice system -- it may be that his -- the information he's provided has been credible, has been passed to the Yemenis and been able to be actioned, in which case, if his -- if his plea bargain is, I will give you that information if I can go into the federal civil system, that would be a good deal...
BLITZER: Because they're saying he has provided what is called actionable intelligence.
BLITZER: Tom, explain what that means.
FUENTES: That means that it's useful information right now. It's not just a historical account of what happened many years ago, but it concerns possible plot activities right now that are in progress, who the leaders are, who the key members are in Yemen, or in Nigeria, or in London, where he lived for a couple of years.
So, it's information that you can use right now and it's very important.
BLITZER: You know, Gloria, on Sunday, you interviewed John Brennan, the president's counterterrorism adviser. And he said this to you when you asked him whether Yemeni detainees currently at Guantanamo Bay will be sent back to Yemen. There's still about 90 of them there. And this is what he said to you.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN BRENNAN, U.S. DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We haven't stopped the process as far as dealing with them. Many of them are going to be prosecuted, some until 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, in the right pace, and in the right way.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. Today, we heard a different line from the White House, the press secretary, Robert Gibbs, saying that, at least for now, they're suspending any transfer of Yemeni detainees back to Yemen.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.
I think you saw John Brennan trying to be very careful on Sunday, because I pressed him, and I said, what does at the right time and at the right play mean? And he used the word eventually. So, I think that they're -- what they're trying to say is, yes, we still want to close Guantanamo. Yes, we still want to repatriate these people. Yes, we have had some success with those six people they did repatriate, but now is not the right time.
BLITZER: You served in four White Houses under four different presidents, David Gergen. Walk us through what is -- presumably has happened over the past couple hours, what's happening right now in the White House Situation Room?
DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, I think, as much as anything, this is a meeting in which he's getting sort of reports in progress on things that people are trying to do.
There were reports earlier today that there are going to be significant security announcements coming out of this meeting. It was an Associated Press story. The White House has been trying to knock that down and sort of downplay too much hype going into this.
And, so, this is a meeting which is typically run by the national security adviser, in this case General Jones. And I think he will get reports from a variety of different people who have been working on aspects of this. And what we're going to get is the president trying to push the system to get the report finished, get the security measures in place.
He's also obviously worried about political optics. They looked like they were a little too complacent during the holiday period. They need to get back on top of this to give people a sense of security. But what I worry about in a meeting like this, what so often fails to happen in the White House, to go back to Fran's point, is that you don't get to the strategic questions.
And here, it's not just a question of how do you plug the holes so people don't get in the country. How do you conduct a war against these people, so they don't keep coming?
GERGEN: And we're into -- in that situation, we're into a game of Whac-A-Mole.
BLITZER: All right. We're waiting to hear from the president of the United States. He's still, we believe, right now in the White House Situation Room. He should be emerging. He will walk over to the Grand Foyer inside the White House. You have been looking at those live pictures. He will go up to the microphone. He will speak. You will see and hear him as soon as he emerges. Stand by for that.
Jack Cafferty is also here with "The Cafferty File." He's coming up with his question in just a moment.
And we're getting new information here in THE SITUATION ROOM about a small plane crash in suburban Chicago. The plane went down only about an hour ago.
BLITZER: The president of the United States getting ready to address the night from the White House. As soon as he emerges from the Situation Room, goes to that microphone there in the Grand Foyer, you will hear what he has to say on that failed terror attack in Detroit, outside Detroit, on Christmas Day. We will go there live. You will hear everything the president has to say.
In the meantime, let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He has today's "Cafferty File" -- Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: In light of the botched Christmas Day airline bombing, some say it's past time to start profiling passengers, especially passengers from certain countries. The U.S. is demanding more careful screening for people who are citizens of or flying from 14 countries considered security risks, places like Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the usual suspects.
The screening is to include things like full-body scans and pat- downs, searches of carry-on bags, and explosive-detection technology. From the school of common sense comes the idea that it makes sense to more thoroughly screen passengers who come from countries where they may have been exposed to radical Islamic teachings.
But improved technology alone isn't the answer. The former head of security for Israel's airline El-Al, arguably the most secure airline in the world, says we need better questioning of passengers. He suggests hiring well-educated, highly-trained agents who know what to look for. And he says profiling isn't about singling out certain ethnic groups, but, rather, about asking the right questions and spotting suspicious behavior.
Others claim that automatic profiling based on nationality doesn't work, terror suspect Richard Reid, British, Jose Padilla, Hispanic-American. But the fact is that nearly all of the large, deadly terror attacks worldwide over the last 20 or 30 years have been carried out by young male Muslims from Arab countries in the Middle East. That's a fact, Jack.
At what point does political correctness get out of the way in order to room for national security interests?
Oh, and President Obama's call for tougher screening procedures of passengers arriving in the U.S. from those countries deemed a security risk, well, they have been all but ignored in a lot of those places.
So, here's the question: When it comes to airline security, is it time to start profiling?
Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. Post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Jack, thank you. Stand by. We're going to get some of those responses. That's coming up.
President Obama is learning more about that failed attempt to blow up an airline on Christmas. And he -- we're also learning more about the suspected bomber. There are now some new disturbing details emerging about the explosives he was carrying.
Let's bring in CNN's Richard Quest. He's on the scene investigating in London.
Richard, what are you learning?
RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we now know is that the -- Abdulmutallab, the suspect bomber, arrived in Amsterdam for the transfer flight onto Detroit, and already, it's believed, had the explosives on him.
He came from Ghana to Lagos, Nigeria, from Nigeria on the connecting flight up to Amsterdam, and then on to Detroit. When he was at Amsterdam, Wolf -- and this goes to what Jack was just saying a moment or two ago -- he underwent a profile investigation, a profile conversation. We're not told exactly what that means, but I don't think you need to be a rocket scientist to guess perhaps he had a security scan, and then he stayed in the gate area.
Now, this is important, because, Wolf, you will be aware there have been rumors that there was some well-dressed man with whom he had conversations. There have been possible allegations of accomplices. The Dutch authorities tonight are saying there's no evidence so far that there was an accomplice. Abdulmutallab allegedly arrived in Amsterdam already carrying, Wolf, the explosives.
BLITZER: Richard, he had no checked bags, I take it, when he boarded that flight in Amsterdam, that Northwest flight, for Detroit.
If someone would have asked him at the airport, why are you going to Detroit, where it's obviously cold? What would he have said? Nobody apparently questioned him about his decision to go to Detroit.
QUEST: No, I suspect because -- first of all, now you're coming to the really nitty-gritty. This is what the British home secretary, the interior minister, said in the House of Commons today.
There's going to be no single answer. The British, for example, are now introducing body scanners. They will be up and running within a matter of weeks with certain new privacy restrictions to protect people, but also this psychological profiling that Jack was talking about, the sort of thing that El-Al does, the swabbing, this multifaceted approach.
But, fundamentally, what any security expert is telling me, Wolf, is that, if we rely just on body scanners, we're doomed to fail. If we rely on just metal detectors, we're doomed to fail. It has to be many different avenues that ultimately will keep travelers safe.
That's what I'm hearing tonight. And anybody who sort of starts getting tied up on one particular form or the other will tie themselves in knots.
BLITZER: Good point, Richard.
Richard Quest is in London for us, knows a great deal about this.
Fran Townsend, the former homeland security adviser to President Bush, with hindsight, it seems there were so many clues out there. I know that John Brennan, who is now the president's counterterrorism adviser, says there was no smoking gun, but there seems to be a lot of pretty smoking clues out there.
TOWNSEND: Well, that's right. That's right, Wolf.
And I suspect, sort of like George Tenet, his former boss, regretted having used the phrase slam-dunk, John is going to live to regret the no smoking gun.
As I said to Jessica Yellin on Sunday, it smells of gunpowder when you look at all of the clues, that father being prominent. It's not just a disgruntled relative. This is a prominent banker. You look at the conversation that's intercepted in August of al-Awlaki referring to a Nigerian being sent from Yemen to conduct an attack. You look at the fact that al-Awlaki was also in touch with Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter. These were lots and lots of clues, Wolf, that while it's easy in hindsight to say it's clear, these are are -- any one of the these should have caused the intelligence and law enforcement communities to go back and look to see what more was in the system.
BLITZER: Tom, I don't know -- and you're a former FBI assistant director. I don't know if you have ever flown in our out of Tel Aviv, but, if you have, on El-Al or any other airline, they always do a little interview with you.
BLITZER: What were you doing here? Where are you going? What is the purpose of the trip?
Is it time to start thinking about doing something like that?
FUENTES: Yes, that's true, Wolf. And I have been through there. It's a four-hour process. They tell you to be there minimum four hours before flight time to go through that.
But there's a couple of aspects here that we're not really getting to. And that is that the reliance on the intelligence community and the law enforcement community connecting the dots. First of all, they have to collect the dots.
CNN ran a story earlier today from Pakistan that 12-year-olds are being radicalized. They are not going to be on anybody's watch list, but they are going to get older. They are going to get more capable. They could end up trying to come here and do an attack.
And as far as the screening and the scanning, we're not being really accurate or honest about it. December of 2001, Richard Reid tries to detonate his shoes and explode an aircraft. Christmas 2009, Abdulmutallab tries to detonate his underwear. Since 2001, everybody takes their shoes off and puts it on the conveyor belt. Since Christmas 2009, I haven't seen anybody putting their underwear on the conveyor belt.
BLITZER: And the same explosive, the PETN, was used in 2001...
FUENTES: And it's the same -- it's the same explosive.
BLITZER: ... and used now.
And it raises a lot of political questions for this president. He has to come out from this meeting now. He's going to be going to the cameras, speaking to the American public, indeed, speaking to the world, and everyone will be watching.
And I think the -- the anger that we saw, albeit delayed, of this president from Hawaii, I think you will see more of it, because it's clear that he needs to get to the bottom of this. I mean, you talk about not connecting the dots. What about the fact that this young man's father, Abdulmutallab's father, was a prominent banker in Nigeria, who goes to the embassy and meets with CIA agents and says, I think my son is a problem here?
He didn't come out and use the word terrorist, OK. But, you know, these are dots that need to be connected. And, yet, he winds up on the lowest-level watch list, which includes 460,000 people.
TOWNSEND: Well, and -- and...
GERGEN: Yes, but wait a minute.
I want to go back to -- Fran, when you left the Bush administration, did you think that you had a good system in place for catching somebody like this?
TOWNSEND: Well, let's -- let's be clear. The screening system, the intelligence system is improved. We collect the dots now. We had dots. We just didn't collect them. We didn't collate them. And nobody did that.
That's what NCTC was created to do, and they clearly failed in that mission. The thing that hasn't really been done effectively is explosive screening at airports. The fascinating thing to me about this, when you talk about what is the smoking gun, Wolf, you look at, several weeks earlier, actually, several months earlier, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the head of the Saudi security service, after having almost been assassinated by a PETN bomb in the assassin's underwear detonated in a similar way, comes to Washington, meets with law enforcement intelligence, meets with the White House.
John Brennan admitted on Sunday that he had gotten the briefing when he was in Saudi Arabia. John says he saw the room. And the answer is, when asked whether or not -- well, what -- what happened with that information, the answer is, well, it was never given to me in the context of an aviation threat.
Are you kidding? That's what our security officials are supposed to do, look at new techniques of attack.
GERGEN: You're saying the system didn't fail; people failed within the system?
TOWNSEND: I think both. I mean, I think the system failed in the sense of NCTC that was set up to pull all the dots together...
TOWNSEND: ... failed to do that. And, in that sense, it is a systemic failure. I think there are also individual failures, and the president is correct.
BLITZER: All right.
BORGER: And Brennan said that it wasn't turf battles, which is what we used to see, but that, in fact, the National Counterterrorism Center did not collate everything. And...
BLITZER: Whatever failures there were -- and there obviously were plenty of failures...
BORGER: He didn't...
BLITZER: ... the job of the president and his advisers now is to make sure that they fix them and it doesn't happen again.
BLITZER: We are going to be anxious to hear what the president has to say. He's getting ready to come over to the Grand Foyer at the White House from the White House Situation Room, speak to the American public.
There, you're looking at those live pictures. Once he shows up -- we don't know if it's three minutes or five minutes or a half-an- hour from now -- but you will see it and hear it live here in our SITUATION ROOM.
Other news we're following, including a plane down -- it's a small jet crash near Chicago. We will have the latest on that.
And after that attempt to blow up a plane over Detroit, should the State Department lose one of its most important jobs that it's been doing for hundreds of years? It involves letting people into the United States.
BLITZER: Just a reminder: We're waiting for the president of the United States to come to the microphone there in the Grand Foyer over at the White House. He's wrapping up a meeting, we're told, with his national top security advisers, his homeland security advisers in the White House Situation Room. Once he goes there and speaks to all of us, you will see it and hear it live here in our THE SITUATION ROOM.
We're also following another developing story right now near Chicago. Let's check in with CNN's Betty Nguyen for an update on what we know.
What do we know, Betty?
BETTY NGUYEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, hey there, Wolf.
Right now, investigators are on the scene of a Learjet crash outside of Chicago, as you mentioned. The FAA says the cargo jet went down about a mile short of the runway at the Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling, Illinois. The flight was operated by Royal Air Cargo, and was reportedly en route to Atlanta from Pontiac, Michigan, with a stop in Chicago. We're still waiting for more information about how many people were on board and their condition. So, as soon as we get that, we will bring it to you -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, thanks, Betty. Stand by.
I want to go right back to the White House. Our correspondent Dan Lothian is over at the North Lawn of the White House.
Any sign of movement from the White House Situation Room in the West Wing over to the Grand Foyer in the White House, Dan?
LOTHIAN: Well, I can tell you that some of the officials who were at that meeting have now -- are now beginning to leave the White House there. And I have been informed that the meeting has wrapped. So, we should expect that the president will be coming to the mike here shortly to deliver his remarks and to talk about what this administration plans to do going forward to prevent another attempted attack -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And the president is -- is expected to speak for just a few minutes longer, take questions? Have they given us any guidance on what his game plan is?
LOTHIAN: We're simply told brief statements, not expecting any questions at all, although, as you know, Wolf, any time you can get reporters into a room with a president, you will try to shout out some questions.
But it's not like two questions or three questions, anything like that. We're told simply brief statements, and then the president will leave.
BLITZER: Later, we will speak with the president's national security adviser, Denis McDonough, because I'm sure there are going to be plenty of questions that will arise from what the president has to say.
All right, Dan, we're going to get back to you. Thanks very much.
David Gergen, as we await the president right now, it's a very sensitive moment. He's wrapping up his first year in the White House. He's got jobs, the economy, health care. And now, all of a sudden, this emerges, and it seems to be overshadowing, at least right now, everything else.
GERGEN: Well, the -- just a little later today, he has a meeting with Nancy Pelosi about health care and Harry Reid on the telephone. And who's talking about health care? You know, all of that has been eclipsed by this.
But I -- if I were in the White House right now, I would be worried about this getting overhyped, this whole meeting, all of us waiting, a sense of something big and dramatic. And if he comes out and simply says, we had a good meeting, and now we are going to have another meeting, which is sort of what it sounds like we may be looking at, there's going to be a sense of, wait a minute, I thought we were going get on top of it. I think we were going to fix this thing. We have had two weeks.
You know, it's amazing to me this story has dominated the news now since Christmas Day. That's a long time.
BLITZER: Because the expectation is, he's going to come out and give the American public some concrete examples of what he's going to do differently.
BORGER: You know, he may -- he may talk a little bit, as Dan Lothian said earlier, about the way we're changing watch lists. He may talk about visa issues that are -- they're going to try and fix. He's going to tell you he's on top of it. He may show some anger. We don't -- you know, we don't know.
But I think, you know, this is a president who needs to show that he's in charge on this, that they're going to get to the bottom of this, and that the National Counterterrorism Center, which was added as a result of 9/11, is not just another layer of bureaucracy, but, rather, it's something that is effective and keeps intelligence from being siloed in different departments, and actually is going to work as it was intended to work.
BLITZER: All right, guys, stand by. I want to take a quick break, because we're getting closer and closer.
They -- now some of the participants have left the White House Situation Room. They're getting ready to go back to their own agencies. We're also getting the first picture from inside the Situation Room. We are waiting for the president.
We will take a quick break. We will continue right after this.
BLITZER: All right. We're standing by to hear from the president of the United States. We're now told he's only a few minutes away as we get ready to hear what has emerged from this national security, homeland security meeting he's been engaged in for the past couple hours over at the White House Situation Room.
We just got back a picture from the White House on the meeting. Take a look at it. You see the president.
He's in charge, he's right at the center of the top of the screen right there. He's got all of the advisers around the table, second tier of advisers around those initial -- the top-level advisers.
Fran Townsend, you've been in that Situation Room as it was refurbished in recent years. Give us a little flavor of what goes on when the president of the United States has an urgent issue on the agenda.
TOWNSEND: No question, Wolf, he would have walked in, and the first thing he would have gotten was a brief from John Brennan. John Brennan, who is the assistant to the president for counterterrorism, my successor, and has been tasked with coordinating this look, would have given the president an update in front of all the agency heads and cabinet members about what he's found, what the recommendations are.
No doubt the president made his own opening statement, indicating, as Gloria has suggested, his anger and disappointment. And then he would have given an opportunity to each of those agency heads to brief him on what are they doing to make sure this doesn't happen again?
BLITZER: I'm sure the FBI director is there as well.
BLITZER: Wouldn't you think, Tom?
FUENTES: Yes, Director Mueller is at the meeting.
BLITZER: Yes, because the FBI is playing a critical role.
As far as you can tell, there used to be, before 9/11, considerable rivalry between, let's say, the CIA, the intelligence community and the FBI, but that was supposed to go away as a result of the recommendations after 9/11.
Is there still a little tension there between these two agencies?
FUENTES: No. From my perspective, it wasn't a rivalry just based on culture, but by law. It was illegal for the FBI to task the CIA.
There was, since the creation of the CIA in 1947, legal restrictions on what could be passed between the two agencies based on trying to avoid a Gestapo. You have to realize, when the CIA was created it was only two years after defeating the Nazis, and nobody wanted to have the state security apparatus that would rival Nazi Germany.
So there were restrictions, there were firewalls put up between the agencies so that that wouldn't happen. And many of those have been broken down now, since 9/11, but that was the fact of the time. It was more than just a culture.
GERGEN: There were two different cultures, and that became even more firmly entrenched.
BLITZER: You need the left hand of the government working together with the right hand of the government if you're going to save lives.
BORGER: But you don't -- you still have tensions between the director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, and Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA. It's not as if changing the bureaucratic structure of the flowchart takes away these things. I mean, they still do exist.
GERGEN: With Reagan, we used to say that sometimes in his White House, the right hand did not know what the far right hand was doing.
BLITZER: You worked with Leon Panetta when he was the White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration. He's now the CIA director. And there are these widespread reports of a little friction between him and the director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair.
How big of a deal is that based on what you know?
GERGEN: I think that there are obviously frictions there, but he is extremely well respected inside the White House within the National Security Council staff.
BLITZER: Who is?
GERGEN: Leon Panetta. I was there recently, at a Security Council meeting with someone, and he came in. And there was just a lot of warmth for him in that.
But I wanted to ask Fran something, because looking at that picture that just came out, Fran, most of the national security meetings I went to, there were only half a dozen, eight or nine people around that table. That seemed to be a very crowded table, and it suggests how hard this is to coordinate within the government.
TOWNSEND: That's exactly right, David. What you find is the Homeland Security Council -- when there was a terrorism event and you had to also include the Homeland Security participants, it become a much bigger meeting. You also couldn't see. You were looking off the table. But the person closest to the camera, the back of that head, was John Brennan.
And he's sitting opposite the president. That's the seat of the person who's orchestrating the meeting. And so that gives us a pretty good indication that Brennan has got the (INAUDIBLE) here to help the president...
GERGEN: Right. But having 12 to 15 people to coordinate...
BLITZER: And others on the second row, yes.
BORGER: Here's a quick -- does anybody ever come in and say "mea culpa"?
TOWNSEND: No, never.
GERGEN: Gloria, please.
TOWNSEND: In a Washington environment where there's accountability, somebody gets fired.
BORGER: What is the president going to hear then? OK.
BLITZER: As we await the president -- we think he's going to be coming out fairly soon -- I want to go to the State Department. Jill Dougherty is our foreign affairs correspondent.
Jill, what is this talk that we're now hearing about potentially the State Department losing one of its major responsibilities?
JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, one of the ideas -- I mean, it's been bandied about, it's not really a formal proposal. But people like Elliott Abrams -- remember him from the Bush administration -- deputy national security adviser, saying, look, we should take the visa responsibility from the State Department and give it to the Department of Homeland Security, because, after all, you need a central clearinghouse. And they are the people who look at defense and security issues and State should no longer do it.
Now, I talked with Fran, in fact, about that, but I think the State Department would say this is an idea whose time has not yet come, that we do a good job. And what we do, however, is follow the procedures in place.
And they admit that the procedures in place leave gaps. So that's what they're doing right now, trying to figure out where those gaps are, how they can function better in what they are supposed to do.
BLITZER: Let me bring Fran in.
You worked with Elliott Abrams over at the NSC, at the White House during the Bush administration. Is this a good idea, to take this visa responsibility away from the State Department and give it to the Department of Homeland Security?
TOWNSEND: You know, Wolf, it's actually the perfect follow-on to David's question. Whenever you can reduce the number of people that have to touch a particular issue before it's decided, by reducing those numbers of people, you reduce the likelihood of human error. And so what Jill and I had been talking about was, it is a good idea, but I don't think you leave the State Department out of it.
There are always foreign policy considerations, economic, all sorts of things. And so it may be that what you want to do is consolidate this capability in Homeland Security, but that doesn't mean leaving the State Department out. The State Department is going to continue to have a very strong role.
BLITZER: You've got a thought on that, Tom?
FUENTES: Yes. I think the State Department needs to keep it. First of all, the Department of Homeland Security is overwhelmed at the moment with what they do have, main responsibilities -- TSA, Immigration, Customs Enforcement, border control. To give it to them, where they don't have the expertise, they don't have the resources, they don't have the staffing overseas in every U.S. embassy around the world to deal with the consular issues and the visa issues, I think it's a bad idea.
BLITZER: On that note, we'll take another quick break. We'll await the president of the United States. He's coming over to the microphone pretty soon, just wrapping up that meeting with his top homeland security and national security advisers. Once he emerges, we'll go there live.
BLITZER: They apparently have wrapped up that meeting over at the Situation Room in the West Wing of the White House. The president is now about to go up to the microphone and address the reporters inside the grand foyer over at the White House, also the American public. Indeed, the entire world.
Folks are watching around the world to see what has emerged, what announcements will the president of the United States make right now as far as national security is concerned, tightening up security procedures over at airports, making sure that what happened on Christmas Day outside of Detroit, on a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, doesn't happen again.
Now the president of the United States getting ready to speak.
As we stand by to hear what he has to say, Fran Townsend is here; Tom Fuentes, former assistant director of the FBI; Gloria Borger and David Gergen, our senior political analysts. We're going to have full analysis afterwards. We're also going to be able to speak with the president's deputy national security adviser, Dennis McDonough, and try to fill in some of the blanks. No doubt, the president will say a lot that will sort of cry out for more questioning.
We'll hear what they have to say about all these.
Most important, David Gergen, right now we want specifics. What is the president going to announce in terms of tightening up security?
GERGEN: You know, Wolf, I think this goes even beyond specifics. It's been more than eight years since 9/11. We've been working on this problem of trying to prevent people from entering our country now for more than eight years, and a lot of Americans wonder how we spent so much money and so much time and not fixed the problem?
I think there's a frustration level that's very high. And somehow he's got to address that as well. There's an emotional and psychological element of this which is also very important.
BLITZER: I suspect, Gloria, no one is more frustrated than the president himself. BORGER: Right. And I was saying earlier I think we saw a little bit of that in Hawaii, we'll see whether we see it again today. But I think it's a frustration that everybody shares, particularly since it was, in the end, the passengers who foiled this terrorist plot. And I guess the passengers are a pretty important link here. We're different than we were nine years ago.
BLITZER: I'm getting, Tom, a lot of feedback from viewers out there, whether on Twitter or elsewhere, saying, you know what? Everyone is overreacting to this one incident, let's not overreact and make this such a huge, huge case.
Are we overreacting right now?
FUENTES: No, I don't think so, because we do have to look at what could have happened, what the outcome of this event could have been, which is hundreds of people killed.
BLITZER: Is it realistic to think that that PETN, that explosive in the man's underwear, could have blown up the plane?
FUENTES: Well, the experts say that it could have. I'm not an explosives expert, but the experts do say that under the right circumstances -- he was sitting right above the wing fuel tanks. So that is a possibility, that he could have exploded that plane, brought it down, then killed additional people on the ground, you know, wherever that crash was.
BLITZER: Is that what you're hearing as well, Fran?
TOWNSEND: That's right. And especially if you look at the pictures from the assassination attempt on the Saudi prince that used the same sort of bomb, the pictures are devastating. That room, the blood, the body parts all over. It's really quite graphic when you see the damage it can do.
BLITZER: And we're told he deliberately wanted that seat near the wing and the fuel tank because it was an area that could have been penetrated.
We see some notes that were just provided there for the president, so I think we're getting very, very close. The White House telling us the president should be emerging momentarily, maybe even within a few seconds. Of course, once he goes to that microphone, we'll hear and see exactly what he has in store and we'll get a sense of what has emerged from this meeting over the White House Situation Room.
The pressure clearly, Gloria Borger, is on this administration to show the American public they're on top of this issue.
BORGER: Well, it is. And to David's point, I think that one of the questions the American public is asking is after all...
BLITZER: Here comes the president right now, so let's go to the grand foyer. BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good afternoon, everybody.
I just concluded a meeting with members of my national security team, including those from our intelligence, homeland security and law enforcement agencies involved in the security reviews that I ordered after the failed attack on Christmas Day. I called these leaders to the White House because we face a challenge of the utmost urgency.
As we saw on Christmas, al Qaeda and its extremist allies will stop at nothing in their efforts to kill Americans. And we are determined not only to thwart those plans, but to disrupt, dismantle and defeat their networks once and for all.
Indeed, over the past year, we've taken the fight to al Qaeda and its allies wherever they plot and train, be it in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Yemen and Somalia, or in other countries around the world. Here at home, our intelligence, homeland security and law enforcement agencies have worked together with considerable success, gathering intelligence, stitching it together, and making arrests from Denver to Texas, from Illinois to New York, disrupting plots and saving American lives. And these successes have not come without a price, as we saw last week in the loss of our courageous CIA officers in Afghanistan.
But when a suspected terrorist is able to board a plane with explosives on Christmas Day, the system has failed in a potentially disastrous way, and it's my responsibility to find out why and to correct that failure so that we can prevent such attacks in the future. And that's why shortly after the attempted bombing over Detroit, I ordered two reviews.
I directed Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to review aviation screening, technology and procedures. She briefed me on her initial findings today, and I'm pleased that this review is drawing on the best science and technology, including the expertise of Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and his department.
I also directed my counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, John Brennan, to lead a thorough review into our terrorist watch-listing system so we can fix what went wrong. As we discussed today, this ongoing review continues to reveal more about the human and systemic failures that almost cost nearly 300 lives.
We will make a summary of this preliminary report public within the next few days, but let me share some of what we know so far.
As I described over the weekend, elements of our intelligence community knew that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had traveled to Yemen and joined up with extremists there. It now turns out that our intelligence community knew of other red flags; that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula sought to strike not only American targets in Yemen, but the United States itself. And we had information that this group was working with an individual who was known -- who we now know was in fact the individual involved in the Christmas attack. The bottom line is this: the U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack, but our intelligence community failed to connect those dots which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list. In other words, this was not a failure to collect intelligence, it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had. The information was there, agencies and analysts who needed it had access to it, and our professionals were trained to look for it and to bring it all together.
Now, I will accept that intelligence, by its nature, is imperfect, but it is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged. That's not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it.
Time and again we've learned that quickly piecing together information and taking swift action is critical to staying one step ahead of a nimble adversary, and so we have to do better, and we will do better, and we have to do it quickly. American lives are on the line.
So I made it clear today to my team, I want our initial reviews completed this week. I want specific recommendations for corrective actions to fix what went wrong. I want those reforms implemented immediately so that this doesn't happen again and so we can prevent future attacks. And I know that every member of my team that I met with today understands the urgency of getting this right, and I appreciate that each of them took responsibility for the shortfalls within their own agencies.
Immediately after the attack, I ordered concrete steps to protect the American people; new screening and security for all flights, domestic and international; more explosive detection teams at airports; more air marshals on flights; and deepening cooperation with international partners. In recent days, we've taken additional steps to improve security. Counterterrorism officials have reviewed and updated our terrorist watch list system, including adding more individuals to the no-fly list. And while our review has found that our watch-listing system is not broken, the failure to add Abdulmutallab to the no-fly list shows that this system needs to be strengthened.
The State Department is now requiring embassies and consulates to include current visa information in their warning on individuals with terrorist or suspected terrorist connections. As of yesterday, the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, is requiring enhanced screening for passengers flying into the United States from or flying through nations on our list of state sponsors of terrorism or other countries of interest. And in the days ahead, I will announce further steps to disrupt attacks, including better integration of information and enhanced passenger screening for air travel.
Finally, some have suggested that the events on Christmas Day should cause us to revisit the decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. So let me be clear. It was always our intent to transfer detainees to other countries only under conditions that provide assurances that our security is being protected.
With respect to Yemen in particular, there's an ongoing security situation which we have been confronting for some time, along with our Yemeni partner. Given the unsettled situation, I've spoken to the attorney general and we've agreed that we will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time.
But make no mistake, we will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al Qaeda. In fact, that was an explicit rationale for the formation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And as I've always said, we will do so -- we will close the prison in a manner that keeps the American people safe and secure.
Our reviews and the steps that we've taken and will continue to take go to the heart of the kind of intelligence and homeland security we need in the 21st century. Just as al Qaeda and its allies are constantly evolving and adapting their efforts to strike us, we have to constantly adapt and evolve to defeat them, because as we saw on Christmas, the margin for error is slim and the consequences of failure can be catastrophic.
As these violent extremists pursue new havens, we intend to target al Qaeda wherever they take root, forging new partnerships to deny them sanctuary, as we are doing currently with the government in Yemen. As our adversaries seek new recruits, we'll constantly review and rapidly update our intelligence and our institutions. As they refine our tactics, we'll enhance our defenses, including smarter screening and security at airports, and investing in the technologies that might have detected the kind of explosives used on Christmas.
In short, we need our intelligence, homeland security and law enforcement systems and the people in them to be accountable and to work as intended, collecting, sharing, integrating, analyzing and acting on intelligence as quickly and effectively as possible to save innocent lives, not just most of the time, but all of the time. That's what the American people deserve. As president, that's exactly what I will demand.
Thank you very much.
There he is. The president not answering reporters' questions, but making his frustration very, very evident.
The president at one point saying that, "The failure in the intelligence community is not acceptable." He says, "I will not tolerate it." He says more recommendations are coming forward within the next week. He will share those with the American public.
But clearly, David Gergen, this president is angry right now over what happened on Christmas Day in Detroit.
GERGEN: We rarely see Barack Obama smolder, but he was today. I don't think I've seen him quite that sort of intense and sort of angry. I did not find much new that was substantive, as we said before he came out. What was surprising to me, at least, was how much he put on the intelligence failure than on the screening and who gets on planes and who doesn't. The anger is clearly directed not at the CIA, by the way, but at the whole intelligence assessment, where they connect up the dots.
BLITZER: There's 16 agencies in the U.S. intelligence community.
He says the United States government, Gloria Borger, had sufficient information, the intelligence community failed to connect the dots.
BLITZER: We heard that after 9/11 as well.
BORGER: Right. He said intelligence was not fully analyzed or leveraged. And that is exactly what the National Counterterrorism Center was designed to do.
It's supposed to connect the dots. And so while he did say each agency took responsibility for its own shortfalls in this meeting, I think it's very clear that this is a president who believes that the system wasn't working and some folks are to blame here, because he said there were red flags, we did not follow up on these red flags.
I think "smoldering" is one word to use. For Barack Obama, this was pretty out there and angry. And I think sort of the next level could be -- we've been asking the question, will heads roll? I think at some point, may not tomorrow or the day after, but you're going to see some changes in leadership.
BLITZER: And Fran Townsend, you also heard the president say, you know what? He's still going to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, even though he's going to suspend, at least for now, any transfer of those 90 Yemeni detainees who are still at Gitmo.
Back to Yemen, he says that's an unsettled situation, but he said, "Make no mistake, we will close Gitmo." He was hoping to close it by January 22nd of this year. That's not going to happen, but he says it will happen eventually.
TOWNSEND: Right. And I don't think that's a real surprise, Wolf.
I mean, I think there was so much back and forth since John Brennan's appearance on the Sunday shows, and then Robert Gibbs today at the podium about what this meant for the long term of Guantanamo. I think the president wanted to put that issue to rest. He did very clearly.
He is going to close Guantanamo. The prior president, President Bush, wanted to close it too. I think this president is going to do it. I just think he wanted to quell concerns on both the Republican and Democratic sides about the potential for returning Yemeni detainees right now, in the middle of the chaos going on in Yemen.
I just want to echo, Wolf, something Gloria said. He was as explicit as he could be. He actually even went so far so say we collected the dots, this time we had the information. The failure, he clearly pinned it on the NCTC, whose job it is to pull it together.
BLITZER: He didn't say there was no smoking gun, as we heard on Sunday from his counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan.
TOWNSEND: No, that's right.
BLITZER: Tom, you know the government bureaucracy, you worked in the FBI for a long time, a former assistant FBI director. When the president of the United States speaks like this, how do officials react inside that -- whether the FBI or the CIA or anyplace else?
FUENTES: Well, you know, the vast majority of the people in the intelligence community and law enforcement community are just working, you know, night and day, and as hard as they can. They're as diligent as they can be.
When you have a single failure, as you may have in this case, you have to be determined if it's a policy failure from on high, or whether some individual made a bad decision along the way and didn't get it to the next step. It's kind of like a $5 million race car that breaks down because of a $1 screw coming loose.
So we have to see if that's the case here or just how systemic the failure was, and you still have to address screening. You know, the president mentioned all these countries of interest, the other places where terrorists have gathered. The FBI has broken up terror cells this past two-year period, and no mention has been made of increasing the screening in Chicago, Springfield Illinois, Dallas, Minneapolis, New York, Denver, Washington Dulles. Every one of those cities had a terrorist group there that could have done just this, gotten on a plane and done that.
So, when we're focusing on what we used to refer to as "flavor of the month," this month it's Yemen, next month it will be somewhere else. It could be the Sudan, it could be back to Afghanistan, Somalia...
BLITZER: Who knows?
FUENTES: ... Pakistan. You know, that's one aspect.
One other additional thing on the intelligence. CNN ran a story today, earlier, from Pakistan that 12-years-olds are being radicalized and trained to become future terrorists, future jihadists. Now, what list -- how long before they end up on one of these lists, whether it's the TIDE list or eventually the no-fly list?
So, there are thousands upon thousands of people around the world who may never end up on this list and try to carry out an attack. So, the list and the screening centers and all of that need to be as diligent and robust and resourced as they can be, but it still requires the screening of passengers getting on board.
BLITZER: Very quickly.
TOWNSEND: Very quickly, Wolf, the one thing he said that was not heard before is that the intelligence community had information that the attack was going to take place on the United States. That's unbelievable.
BLITZER: He said the system has failed.
GERGEN: I don't see how you can come out of a statement like this and not have somebody fired.
BORGER: I agree.
GERGEN: I don't see how you have a choice. If you say it's this potentially lethal, and these people -- somebody has failed, somebody has to take responsibility for this.
BLITZER: And I assume that will happen, even though they're saying right now no one is going to be fired, at least in the short term.
Stand by, guys. We have much more to assess what's going on, but I want to check in with Jack Cafferty right now for "The Cafferty File."
It's rare you see a president of the United States, Jack, as we just saw, so angry and clearly frustrated.
CAFFERTY: Well, and it will be interesting to see whether or not, as David Gergen just speculated, in the days to come, if somebody's head rolls as a result of this. Yes, he's angry, and he should have been angry.
The question this hour: When it comes to airline security, is it time to start profiling?
David in Brooklyn writes, "When a TSA agent sees a nervous individual looking around all the time with a bulge in his pocket, he's not doing anybody any favors by searching an 80-year-old grandmother in a wheelchair to avoid being accused of profiling I want them to profile."
"We should do it like Israel does it. Nobody messes with their airline security. Clearly, the way we've been doing it hasn't worked."
Rus in Minnesota says, "Profiling on race or religion won't get us anywhere closer to being safe. Profiling based on behavior, like if a passenger purchases a one-way ticket, pays for it with cash, has no luggage while leaving the country, then red flags ought to be raised. If we can't even put those clues together, why would any other type of profiling work?"
Harold writes from Alaska, "Any non-citizen wishing to fly to the United States should be subject to a strip and/or body cavity search. Anybody refusing can stay home. Period."
Andrew in Florida says, "As a Muslim, I say yes, profile. Do we really want to risk the security of our nation in order to appease people who may get offended? Don't just pull every Arab over that you see. Apply common sense in order to protect our people. "Furthermore, it's interesting to me how quick Muslim seems to be denouncing profiling against them, and yet I have never heard any group ever denounce acts of terror performed by Muslim extremists."
Tom in Florida says, "Probably, but terrorists are likely to be way ahead of us by choosing radicalized westerners to do their dirty work in the future. I'm 66, still remember the misguided but dangerous youth of the 1960s. They weren't Middle Eastern."
And Misty writes from Shawnee, Oklahoma, "Of course we ought to start profiling. There's an obvious pattern with these terrorists. Flying is a privilege these days, not a right. If you don't like the rules, take a bus or a boat. I don't want to be blown out of the sky."