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Obama Reports To American People About Security Mistakes; Yemeni Threat Apparent

Aired January 9, 2010 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, THE SITUATION ROOM: President Obama declares the buck stops with me, and spells out ways the U.S. could better track and stop terrorists. This hour, his new response to the failed Christmas bombing, and what it means for your security.

Also, the real-life saga of a spy, a double agent turned suicide bomber, or was he a triple agent? We're learning new details, how he earned the trust of CIA officers and then turned on them with deadly results.

And two veteran Democrats call it quits and now their party's clout in the Senate may be in jeopardy. James Carville on the surprising turns on election 2010.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer. For ultimately the buck stops with me; as president I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation, and our people, and when the system fails, it is my responsibility.


BLITZER: President Obama taking responsibility this week for America's closest brush with airline terror in years. He suggested no one will be fired at least for now, and he ordered a series of reforms including tougher rules for putting people on the no fly list, and more widespread distribution of intelligence reports.

The president also renewing his declaration of war on Al Qaeda and its growing presence in Yemen, CNN International Security Correspondent Paula Newton is in Yemen for us. We'll go to her in a moment; also here in Washington, our Homeland Security Correspondent Jeanne Meserve and former homeland security inspector General Clark Kent Ervin. Thanks to all of you for coming in.

Clark, let me start with you. The president says, at least for now, he's not interested in firing people. But you believe people should be fired.

CLARK KENT ERVIN, DIR., HOMELAND SECURITY PROGRAM, ASPEN INST.: I do, Wolf. It is terrific the president took responsibility and, of course, ultimately he's responsible. That's the politically smart thing to do, too. But the president himself can't be fired, certainly. And further, the president himself doesn't run the government. The bureaucracy does. Unless heads roll in the bureaucracy, we'll be talking about this in years to come.

BLITZER: Who would you fire?

ERVIN: It seems there were multiple mistakes in multiple agencies, as the president has said. Therefore, it seems there should be multiple resignations in the NCTC.

BLITZER: The National Counterterrorism Center.

ERVIN: That's right. In the Central Intelligence Agency --

BLITZER: And that's headed by Michael Leiter.

ERVIN: It is. I know Michael Leiter. He's a consummate intelligence professional I'm not suggesting Mike is responsible for this. People in the bureaucracy, who did not share this information widely, who didn't connect the dots, ought to answer for it, it seems to me.

BLITZER: Because John Brennan is the president's homeland security and counter terrorism advisor, Janet Napolitano is the Homeland Security secretary. As far as we know, no one has offered a resignation.

ERVIN: That's right. The president did say, though, yesterday, of course, there are going to be accountability mechanisms within agencies. I'm not quite sure what he means by that. Perhaps he means inspector general investigations. But if we don't have, ultimately, resignations or firings, it seems to me we'll talk about this again.

BLITZER: You had a chance to sit down with Janet Napolitano this week, Jeanne. You got a sense of where she approaches all of this and we saw her later in the week at that briefing at the White House. How is she dealing with all the pressure on her right now, because she is sort in of in the bull's eye. A lot of Republicans are saying, you know what, she didn't step up to the plate.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: She didn't talk a lot about it except to say, you know, I've admitted I didn't perform well those first appearances on Sunday morning after the attempted attack when I went out and said the system's work; could have been more clear.

I think the fact you saw her go out yesterday that the White House sent her in front of the podium is another indication that they have confidence in her, and that she has their backing. I will say when you talk to people within the department, they say some of the criticism leveled at her is frankly unfair. They say we didn't own the intelligence piece of this. We don't own the visa process. We didn't do the screening in Amsterdam. That was the Dutch authorities. For people to weigh down so heavily on her, and view this as a Homeland Security failing, they bridle at that. BLITZER: What people are attacking her for is that comment she made that the system worked. And she later explained she meant the system, after the failed plot came to light worked, but a lot of people either misinterpreted, or deliberately interpreted her statement as being stupid.

MESERVE: That's right. And she said I could have been more clear. The department insists if you look at the entirety of her statements, even on Sunday, it should have been clear what she was talking about was what happened after the attack.

BLITZER: Let me bring Paula Newton in. She's in Yemen now working this story. John Brennan, the president's adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, he said this, at that briefing at the White House. I'll play the clip, listen to this, Paula.


JOHN BRENNAN, WHITE HOUSE SR. ADVISOR, COUNTER-TERRORISM: We had a strategic sense of sort of where they were going, but we didn't know they had progressed to the point of actually launching individuals here. And we have taken that lesson and so now we're all on top of it.


BLITZER: He was referring to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, this group that had ties apparently with this Nigerian who wanted to blow up this plane. Should this have been a huge surprise that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, specifically in Yemen, where you are, not only had aspirational goals to try to come over here to the United States and kill Americans, but actually had the operational capability of doing so?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN INT'L. SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: There is no way it should have come as a surprise at all. We have been tracking this in Yemen for about a year and a half now. And in the last few months we had seen more government officials come to Sanna, come to Yemen, and try to determine what the situation is.

It was such a game changer when he said that. And he added, which I was kind of stunned, that they had information that now Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is linked to core Al Qaeda. What does that tell you, Wolf? That tells you they had direct contact, they believe they have evidence, direct contact to the Al Qaeda cells we're now trying to track down in Pakistan.

Everything here in Yemen on the ground has changed. I can tell you it is not going to go off the radar again, not for a very long time. An officials on the ground here described the engagement here in Yemen as episodic. And that's from three administrations. What is so interesting now is when we start to uncover all the layers. There are so many connections to Yemen. They're really even too long to list. Every time we try to get to the story a little bit more, you get more and more operatives coming through Yemen, coming here to learn, to teach, to hear different preachers. And also we're now wondering, in these vast tribal areas, what kind of operational help are they getting? And this is what the administration has to start to sink their teeth into.

And, you know, I have to say, just as you were talking about Janet Napolitano, I met with her privately, with some security officials in Britain earlier in the year. But you know what her preoccupation was at the time was H1N1. Now I'm not saying that's not an important issue, of course it is. But at the same time, I'm reading intelligence reports that say Al Qaeda is imploding. And, you know, I asked her a little bit about that. But I wonder how much are they really being distracted by other things. President Obama said we were at war yesterday. Some people around here, in Yemen, want the administration to start acting like that on the ground.

BLITZER: Those are good points you make. And I think it is fair to say, let me bring Clark and Jeanne back into this conversation as well.

This whole Yemen connection, yes there is a Yemen connection to this Nigerian, but there was also a Yemen connection in the names -- in the person of this American-born Yemeni Cleric Awlaki, who had a connection to Nidal Hassan, the major that went on the shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas; and a third connection this other African-American convert to Islam in Little Rock, who went on a shooting rampage at a recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas, who had been to Yemen, and changed his name while he was there apparently. Should this have come as a huge surprise to the administration, to the intelligence community, that there was this Yemen connection?

ERVIN: I completely agree with Paula. I was shocked when Brennan said that. It is -- it has to be a shock to the American people that this is the first time apparently intelligence community has at least thought of the possibility that Al Qaeda might, in Yemen, might be focused on the homeland.

General Jones, the president's national security adviser, said there would be shocking details in the report. Perhaps this is one of the things he had in mind when he said that.

BLITZER: Jeanne, you wanted to weigh in too.

MESERVE: Yes, on a couple of things. One, OK, so now they put a lot of focus on Yemen. What does that doe to the intelligence resources elsewhere in the world? There are other places where we are seeing Al Qaeda becoming an issue, Somalia, Algeria, and other places in Asia? And how thin is this going to spread the resources? Is it a whackable situation where, OK, now we focus attention on Yemen, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, yet you still have problems elsewhere around the world?

BLITZER: Do you think, Paula, you're in Yemen now. The government in Yemen is aggressively looking for this American-born cleric, Awlaki, who has apparently inspired some extremists through the including Major Nidal Hassan?

NEWTON: Well, I'll tell you something. We're starting to delve into the family ties of Awlaki. He is a very connected person. He has family, players, who are actually in the government here. The tribe that is basically harboring him, in southern Yemen, is saying, look, anyone touches one hair on his head and all hell is going to break loose here in Yemen. What they're talking about is more of a civil war between the tribes, against the government.

As long as Awlaki has that shelter, from his tribe, it would be very difficult for Yemeni or American officials to do anything to try to capture him, to try to question him, or do anything with him. I can tell you when you talk to Yemeni authorities, they are saying, hey, why didn't the Americans tell us about this? He's an American. They had the intelligence about what could have been going on with him, they never pointed this out to us. For that reason, I think Awlaki, as long as he stays in the south, he's pretty safe.

BLITZER: We've got to leave it there. Paula Newton in Yemen, we'll be touching base with you. Clark Kent Ervin, as usual, thanks very much. Jeanne Meserve, doing excellent reporting for us as she always does. Thanks very much.

A double agent's body of lies, a veteran journalist and author shares his insight into the suicide bombing of a CIA base in Afghanistan, the betrayal may run deeper than we know.

And Iran thumbing its nose, once again, at the West. A new show of defiance over its nuclear program. Can the U.S. and Israel agree on a response? I'll ask Israel's ambassador to the United States.


BLITZER: Recruited by Jordanian intelligence, and then shared with the CIA, a double agent betrays both agents, he is blowing himself up on a CIA base in Afghanistan, killing seven CIA operatives, and a Jordanian intelligence officer related to King Abdullah. It is a plot with multiple layers and plenty of intrigue. And it some ways it even echoes a recent spy novel, turned into a hit movie. "Washington Post" columnist David Ignatius is the author of that novel, "Body Of Lies."


BLITZER (On camera): David, thanks for coming in.


BLITZER: Give us your initial assessment of what happened at that base in Afghanistan.

IGNATIUS: You have to say this was a masterful operation.

BLITZER: This double agent?

IGNATIUS: This double agent, who probably really was a triple agent. This is a man that the Jordanian intelligence service, very competent, very close ally of the U.S. had worked with for the past several years, had believed was ready to penetrate Al Qaeda at a very high level, sent him there into the Afghanistan/Pakistan area. And he comes back to meet his handlers and, you know, he appears to have been turned once again. So that a person they thought is reliable is operating against them.

He isn't searched. It's fairly typical I think for agents to say to their handlers, don't you trust me? They want to be accepted as part of the family. He gets in without being searched.

To me, a troubling aspect of this is in spy novels that I write, but in real life spy work it typical to go outside of an embassy, or a military base, and meet your contacts at a safe house, as they are often called. Some neutral location where you can reduce the number of people, the visibility, and the risk.


BLITZER: So, the trade craft is poor here?

IGNATIUS: I believe that you can, I would argue that the trade craft was poor.

For some years in both Iraq and Afghanistan, to reduce the risk and vulnerability for a CIA officer, it has been increasingly typical that they don't leave these military bases or the green zone in Baghdad. The agents come in to them. A lot of people have argued that's a bad idea, it is insecure. I think in light of this, there will be some changes in trade craft. Really the CIA needs trade craft specialized for this environment. This is not the Cold War. It is not Moscow. It is different.

BLITZER: He seemed so potentially useful, a medical doctor, from Jordan, and the U.S. CIA has very good relations with Jordanian intelligence, as you well know. And he seemed to be giving information about the number two guy in Al Qaeda, Ayman Al Zawahiri. Was it too enticing, in effect?

IGNATIUS: I think it is a case of a very clever adversary. We have to realize how smart Al Qaeda is. They were holding a bauble in front of us that was just so enticing. This is precisely what would make us jump. Here is somebody who claims to have information about the location of Ayman Al Zawahiri, the key target we have been going after with bin Laden and it was irresistible. As a result, eight people are dead.

And, again, if you want something that badly, you make yourself vulnerable. And I think we have to be careful about that. The whole country would love to see bin Laden and Zawahiri brought to justice, but not at the price of making our own people vulnerable.

BLITZER: It dawned on me, I'm sure on you, that Ayman Al Zawahiri is a medical doctor also, just like this double or triple agent. And the fact that an educated person like that could become a suicide bomber what does that say to you?

IGNATIUS: It says the same thing to me as the Abdulmutallab case, many of these cases involve very educated people, people who really are at the elite of their societies, who for whatever reason have become disaffected, deeply disaffected. Zarka (ph), the place in Jordan, that this man is said to be from, has been a special center for people like this, people who prospered as the Jordanian economy prospered, but have felt left out, and are easy targets for recruiters.

This is something we really have to think about because prosperous educated Muslims are all around us here in America, in Britain. They're people who are our friends, neighbors, fellow citizens. Somehow they have to help identify people. As Abdulmutallab's father did. By saying, I'm worried about my son, I'm worried about my friend, I'm worried about my neighbor, because that is the only way, really that people will have a handle on it.

BLITZER: Let's not forget that Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, was from Zarka (ph), in Jordan, himself. So there is a history there.

David Ignatius, of "The Washington Post", thanks very much for coming in.

IGNATIUS: Thanks, Wolf.


BLITZER: The world sweats as Iran defies, what might the Obama administration do as Tehran insists on keeping its controversial nuclear program? What might Israel do? I'll speak with the Israeli ambassador to the United States.

And it is home to men with firearms and fiery anti-American rhetoric. Will Yemen be the next battleground for the U.S.? I'll speak with two lawmakers involved in intelligence issues, Republican Pete Hoekstra and Democrat Jane Harman.


BLITZER: One item piled high on president's agenda, right now, what to do about Iran. Tehran remains defiant about its nuclear program, thumbing its nose at the world's demands by missing a deadline over its nuclear program. So how should the world respond? I spoke about that and more with the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Michael Oren.


BLITZER: Mr. Ambassador, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: I notice "The New York Times," Sunday, this line so of jumped out at me, I want you to clarify.

"A senior Israeli diplomat in Washington said in back channel conversations, quote - 'Obama has convinced us that it's worth trying the sanctions, at least for a few months'." Is that true, that you are going to go along with President Obama and see if these sanctions can make a difference.

First of all, while we are very cautious and concerned about the question of time, Wolf, as time passes those 4,000 centrifuges in Iran continue to spin out enriched uranium. But we are not putting a time- table on this. We are trusting in the president's handling of this issue and his commitment to reassess Iran's willingness to suspend that uranium enrichment. So far they have rejected all compromises. And then having concluded that the Iranians are not going to cease, suspending -cease enriching uranium, to proceed with leveling sanctions on Iran, to induce that outcome.

BLITZER: I guess the question is, is the government of Israel and the Obama administration on the same page as far as Iran is concerned?

OREN: We agree with a great number of things with the Obama administration. We agree.

BLITZER: What don't you agree on?

OREN: I want to talk about what we agree on, first. What we agree on, that the goal is the end and complete cessation of uranium enrichment on Iranian soil. We agreed that if the Iranians do not accept a compromise package, that then the United States will join with the international community with like-minded states, in developing, devising and imposing these crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy. We are very much on the same page on all of those issues..

BLITZER: Where aren't you on the same page?

OREN: I don't think there are any major differences between us on this. I think we're now re-examining how we will proceed to imposing these sanctions, and we are closely communicating with and cooperating with the Obama administration.

BLITZER: Because in recent years, there have been differences as far as the intelligence assessment of the U.S. government and the Israeli government, as to how close Iran is to actually possessing a nuclear bomb.

OREN: I think we're very closely communicating and cooperating on all of the issues.

BLITZER: Are your intelligence -

OREN: And our assessments are very, very similar.

BLITZER: Is your intelligence the same as the U.S. assessment?

OREN: Our assessments are very similar.

BLITZER: There is another story in "The New York Times" today, you probably saw it on the front page, about these secret tunnels. Take a look behind you, you see that picture. There, Ahmadinejad wearing the hard hat, in the front there. He visited a tunnel, this is not necessarily a tunnel where they're having some nuclear facilities, but it would be deep underground. Does Israel have the capability to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities in these deep underground tunnels?

OREN: Wolf, we're nowhere near that point now. We're focused now on sanctions. Not on destroying tunnels. We're focused on getting these sanctions up and running, and to assessing their impact.

BLITZER: You really believe these sanctions can change the government of Iran?

OREN: We believe that the sanctions can be effective. We are interested in seeing the degree to which the other important factors, and actors in the international community, will cooperate. I think there is a growing awareness on the part of all international actors, the Russians, the Chinese , that Iran poses a threat, not just to Israel and the Middle East, but poses a threat to world peace. There are greater indications that the Russians are willing to come aboard. The working assumption is if the Russians come aboard, the Chinese will not want to remain ashore, and we're hopeful that the sanctions can prove effective.

BLITZER: We're also seeing demonstrations in Tehran, elsewhere in Iran, a lot of people out on the street protesting the regime of President Ahmadinejad. Do you believe that there can be a revolution of sorts inside of Iran, regime change, if you will, by the people on the streets?

OREN: I don't get into prophecy about the future of Iran, Wolf. What is clear now is in the aftermath of the upheaval that began last June it not the same Iran. This is not a monolithic unchallenged leadership. There are great schisms within Iranian leadership and between the leadership and the people.

What we do believe, for example, is that sanctions will not galvanize the regime. And its people will actually widen the gaps between them. To put it graphically if you have a cab driver in Tehran who runs out of gas because of sanctions, if before in June he would have gotten out of his cab and blamed Israel, the West, for running out of gas. Today that same cab driver in Tehran gets out of his gasless cab and blames his own government for bringing these sanctions down on him.

BLITZER: So I guess the other part of that question is if there is a revolution, Mousavi and his supporters were to take over, would that make a difference as far as Iran's nuclear program, as far as Iran and Israel is concerned?

OREN: I'm sure Iran under a different government would have a different relationship with Israel. For many years, Iran had a close relationship with Israel. For certainly at least the first two decades of Israel's existence, Iran was Israel's major oil supplier.

BLITZER: Let's talk about airline security. As you know since Christmas Day, there has been a huge amount of concern here as far as security at U.S. airports for good reason. Israel is well known for having very tight security at Ben Gurion Airport, El Al among the most secure airlines in the world. What is single-most important piece of advice you would give the U.S. as far as airline security is concerned.

OREN: I don't think Israel is in the position of giving advice to people. I think we learn from one another. We're closely investigating the circumstances surrounding the attempted destruction of this plane bound for Detroit on Christmas. But there is -- Israel does present a different model for airport and airline security. Israel is less concerned for what people are wearing or the way they're dressed. And what they're carrying.

Rather we're more concerned with the way they behave. And it is not -- it has been widely misrepresented that we racially profile. We don't. I've been -- I go through that airport every other week and very often it happens that someone, an Arab Israeli in flowing robes, or a woman in a complete hijab goes through as easily as I do. But I should know I as the ambassador of Israel to the United States, I get stopped every single time, and I get checked by people, many of them young enough to be my own kid who are asking me questions and they are looking for inconsistency in my answers. They are looking not at what I'm wearing. They are not looking at my ethnicity. They're looking at how I behave and how I react to certain type of questions. That's a different model and certainly we're willing to share that model with the United States -- and other countries in the world - facing this common problem of airborne terror.


BLITZER: The Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren.

With links to the airline bombing plot, is Yemen the next front in the war against terror? I'll ask two members of Congress who are deeply involved in intelligence, Republican Pete Hoekstra and Democrat Jane Harman.

And should Democrats be nervous about 2010? I'll speak with Democratic strategist James Carville and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.


BLITZER: Is the United States looking at a new front in the war against terrorism? After the failed airliner bombing plot, there are new concerns about al Qaeda finding a new haven and a base of operations in Yemen.

Joining us now from Los Angeles, Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman of the Homeland Security Committee. And joining us from Grand Rapids in Michigan, Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra of the Intelligence Committee. He's just back from Yemen. Thanks to both of you for coming in.

Now, what's the most important thing, Congressman Hoekstra, you learned in Yemen?

REP. PETE HOEKSTRA (R), MICHIGAN: Well, I think the most important thing is exactly what the - the president has identified. Yemen is a new front in this threat from al Qaeda. The al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula is a real threat.

And I think the other thing that we learned is that the detainees that were released from Gitmo are kind of the core group of the al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, and they, along with Awlaki, the American born radical Imam, have kind of made as a priority for al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula attacking the United States of America.

BLITZER: Is it time, Congresswoman Harman, for the US to send troops into Yemen as the US has done in Afghanistan, for example?

CONG. JANE HARMAN (D), CALIFORNIA: No. I don't think so. But we have ratcheted up our cooperative arrangement with a very weak Yemeni government. I tried to go to Yemen also in November, but because my itinerary changed at the last minute, they did not welcome the visit of - of me and some - several other members of Congress. I'm glad that Peter got to see it.

We - Peter and I have traveled to all the garden spots, like the tribal areas of Pakistan and Syria and I think he was on the North Korea trip and Libya over the years. It is impressive to see what our intelligence community, and particularly the CIA, does abroad. Now, I want to send my condolences again to the families of the seven CIA agents who were blown up by a suicide bomber in east Afghanistan.

BLITZER: All right.

HARMAN: But let me say about Yemen, I agree that - and as I put it, Yemen is the new Fatah. It is the new - another new dangerous ungoverned area for al Qaeda and other terror groups.

That does not mean all our attention has to be focused there, because al Qaeda is a global threat. It's - it's a different threat from 9/11. It's not a top-down organization anymore. We've decapitated a lot of its top leadership, but it is equally dangerous and it is trying to recruit Americans as well.


HARMAN: So, yes, our attention has to be paid to al Qaeda and to Yemen.

BLITZER: Fatah, being that area in Pakistan, the federally administered territory where al Qaeda - the Taliban have established a significant base.

Congressman Hoekstra, have you've been briefed by the Obama administration about what's going on since that failed airliner attack on Christmas Day?

HOEKSTRA: We've had a couple of briefings since that time. I had one in Washington, DC and then obviously, of course, when I was in Yemen. I will tell you, Wolf, that I don't believe that the administration has been as open with Congress in briefing us either on what happened in Detroit. But, more importantly, they haven't been as open with us as what I'd like on Fort Hood. We really have not had any briefings on Fort Hood since that tragic occurrence almost two months ago, and that also had yet - ties to Yemen. It has ties to Awlaki, and I think that we need to be able to get the full picture.

I think as you listen to the dialogue between Jane and I, I think the - the hopeful thing for America is people can see that even though on individuals we may - individual policies, we may have differences of agreement, but on foreign policy we find ways to work together and to get things done and to do it in a nonpartisan way, because in fighting al Qaeda in this new threat in Yemen, we need to do this together, Republicans and Democrats, and working with the White House.

BLITZER: Jane Harman, we just got a picture in of the president meeting with his counterterrorism adviser. There you see John Brennan, 25 years in the CIA, a career professional. Do you agree with Congressman Hoekstra that the administration is not briefing you adequately?

HARMAN: No, I don't. In fact, I'm surprised to hear Peter say that. I've been in classified briefings since Fort Hood by the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center and other groups, and I remember a bipartisan attendance at those briefings. I'm not sure whether Peter was there.

I haven't been in Washington since the Christmas bomb plot, so I haven't had the classified briefing, but I sure have had conversations with key administration officials by phone and I don't think - I know I'm not the only person, and I know it's not Democrats only who've been briefed. I'm aware, for example, that Senator Susan Collins has had briefings since that. So, I - I don't think so.

I also want to commend the president for ratcheting up actions against al Qaeda on his watch in the last year, and I think that we have foiled a lot of important plots. Obviously, this one we didn't foil. It's a - it's kudos to the passengers on that plane for stopping the plot, but an engaged citizenry is always going to be part of our arsenal, and I'm glad they were aware of what was happening.

But - but for example, the - the Zazi plot in Colorado and New York was foiled. The Headley plot in Illinois was foiled. And I just read that - or just heard on your broadcast, Wolf, that the five folks from - from Virginia who were perhaps planning to carry out attacks in Pakistan on Pakistan, as part of a Taliban plot, have been arrested there, and I'm sure we're cooperating there.

So we've had successes. Peter knows this.

BLITZER: All right.

HARMAN: And I want to commend our intelligence community for trying to get it right.

BLITZER: You know, Congressman, we don't have a lot of time, but I got to ask you this question, because you know you're being slammed by a lot of Democrats, even some others, for using this issue, the Obama administration's record in fighting terrorism for fund-raising. You - you want to get the Republican nomination to be the next governor of Michigan.

Looking back on that letter you sent out seeking funds, was that a mistake, you think, so quickly after this incident?

HOEKSTRA: Well, it's kind of interesting, Wolf. You're right. They're slamming me. They don't like where I've taken them on on policy.

But, if you go to the president's own campaign website today, you'll see that on one side it's the president talking about national security, right next to it it says donate now. What's good for goose - for the goose is good for the gander. If they think that I did something...

HARMAN: Wolf...

HOEKSTRA: ... wrong, then the president is doing the same thing, you know?

I think it's - let's talk about the policy here. There are major policy differences that I think we can work through together in a bipartisan way. They need - we need to focus on the policy. We can do it and the American people expect us to work through this.

HARMAN: Wolf, can I comment on that?



Well, Peter, let me just say to you, this is your friend Jane talking to you.


HARMAN: We have worked on a bipartisan basis for years. I didn't know anything about this letter until I heard about it on a news broadcast that we were both on yesterday. I have it in front of me, though. You've talked about the brazen and naive pledge to close Guantanamo Bay.

I just want to tell you, as someone you've worked with, that I think if we really want to do counterterrorism right, we have to eliminate one of al Qaeda's top recruiting tools, and that's Guantanamo bay. I think we need to close it, as the president has promised, and I think we carefully need to evaluate where all the detainees go. I'm against sending them back to Yemen right now, although the 60 percent there...

HOEKSTRA: As we talked about before, Gitmo is one of those policy areas where you and I disagree. I don't believe that bringing these people to the United States is going to lessen the recruiting tool by changing the zip code from Guantanamo, Cuba, to either Michigan or to Illinois. And if you go to the al Qaeda websites, if you go to Awlaki's website, he doesn't talk about Gitmo, he talks about other things that he's using to recruit radical Jihadists.

HARMAN: Well, Gitmo has been used worldwide, as you know, as a recruiting tool for those who would harm us, and it doesn't have a zip code. It's outside the reach of US law and we never had a careful, legal framework around how to detain and interrogate people. Now, I hope we will get one. And I'm not talking about everyone coming to the US, but I'm only - I'm saying that anyone who goes to Yemen has to be detained and kept in custody which the six people sent by the - this administration have been.

So I - I think it is appropriate to consider moving all the activities at Gitmo under the rule of law. I think that that projects our values and I think that definitely...

BLITZER: But, Congresswoman, you don't want...

HARMAN: ... will win the argument against the terrorists.

BLITZER: ... you don't want to send some of those detainees who are Yemenis back to Yemen, do you?

HARMAN: Not now. I've read that John Brennan wants to reserve the right to do it at some point. I agree with that.

But I just want to note that the six Yemeni detainees sent during the Obama administration are in custody, in Yemen, under a careful agreement that we have struck, and they are not on the loose and they are not organizing terror attacks.

BLITZER: We're out of time. We're out of time.

But, Congressman Hoekstra, you think it was a blunder by the Bush administration to send some of those Yemeni detainees to either Saudi Arabia or to Yemen because some of them have now become leaders of al Qaeda in Yemen?

HOEKSTRA: I think it's an ill advised strategy for the Bush administration to have sent them back to Saudi and Yemen. I think sending the - the six back a couple of weeks ago was also a mistake.

Jane said it in the beginning. This is a weak central government. They have no authority to detain these people in the long run. Some of these may have been related to some of the leadership in al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula. My expectation is they will find their way to the battlefield.

The president should release the studies, the detailed studies that have been completed by the military on the recidivism rate as to how many of these people we have released under the Bush administration and the Obama administration have found their way back on the battlefield. I think that we would all find those numbers to be of great concern. BLITZER: And there are 198 detainees remaining at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center. More than 90 of them are from Yemen. Twenty-one Yemenis have been released from Guantanamo, 14 of them during the Bush administration and 7 during the Obama administration.

In all, the Bush administration transferred 532 Gitmo detainees, 42 of them have been moved out during the Obama administration.

Two Senate Democrats announced this week they were calling it quits, and now their party is more afraid than ever about losing a hard-won advantage over Republicans. I'll ask James Carville if he's rethinking his prediction that Democrats could hold power for another 40 years.


BLITZER: Democratic heavyweight Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut announced this week he's retiring. He's not the first. Should other Democrats be feeling a little bit nervous right now?

Weighing in on that, CNN political contributor and democratic strategist, James Carville.


BLITZER: When you heard that Chris Dodd was announcing his retirement, what did you think, James?

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR AND DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I - I mean, he'd really - well, he wanted to run. He knew he was in a tough race. You know, he'd been - Senator Dodd had been in the Senate forever. I was surprised, but not shocked.

BLITZER: Is this - is this good for the Democrats or bad for the Democrats in terms of holding on to a Democratic seat in Connecticut?

CARVILLE: Well, to be honest with you, I think most Connecticut Democrats would say that Attorney General Blumenthal was running ahead of where Senator Dodd would have been running, So in - in terms of keeping that seat, it's hard to see how this is, quote, "bad for the Democrats," unquote.

BLITZER: So, Richard Blumenthal, he's a very popular attorney general in Connecticut.


BLITZER: You just assume he's going to be the Democratic nominee and will coast to a - a win?

CARVILLE: Well now, assume - I - I think if he - if he runs, which appears to be likely, it's not much chance that he'll be challenged. If he - supposedly, from everything I read and I'm told by, I'm pretty connected to some Connecticut Democrats...

BLITZER: He - he won't be challenged on the Democratic side, but he will be challenged by Republicans.

CARVILLE: Right. But - right. But he - he would be the strongest Democrat that we could run, according to - to my friends in Connecticut, from what they tell me. But, look, they - I cannot say he wouldn't get challenged by a Democrat. No.

BLITZER: I guess it's a - it's a tough question. Do you think that Democrats in Connecticut and elsewhere were encouraging Senator Dodd to step down?

CARVILLE: I don't - I don't - I don't know that and - and I kind of doubt it. Senator Dodd is a very popular person. People - he's very well liked. That's something people need to understand. And I think that he - it was in angst. I think he was considering - he probably talked to any number of people about whether he should run or not.

But I think this is a decision that - that he arrived at on his own, and I - I didn't - I have not spoken to him about it. I certainly do like him. I don't know of anybody - I've never heard of anybody who, like, really dislikes Senator Dodd. But everybody knew he was in a really, really tough race. And he - and he probably, you know, thought - thought the better of going through with it.

BLITZER: What about Byron Dorgan, the Democratic Senator from North Dakota? He announces he's retiring, which presumably sets the stage for a popular Republican governor stepping in.

CARVILLE: I was shocked by that. I was much more shocked by that, by Senator Dorgan's decision than I was by - by Senator Dodd's decision. I was not - like I said, I was kind of surprised by Senator Dodd's decision. I was kind of shocked - shocked by Senator Dorgan's. And, again, I -I know him, not well, but know - I know - I know Senator Dorgan casually. But I think most people were shocked by that.

BLITZER: Your recent book and the - and the headline was 40 more years, how the Democrats will rule the next generation. Were you being a little bit too optimistic?

CARVILLE: Well, I didn't say the next election now, did I?

No, I don't - I don't think so, and in the book I said, look, we're not going to win every election. We're certainly not going to win three congressional elections in a row. We had a big win in '06. We had a big win in '08. It's obvious to anyone that there was going to be some pullback. But it depends on how many seats we lose.

I actually think that if we run this right, we can cut our losses to - to fairly reasonably. I mean, the economy is starting to get better. The Republicans have been - known (ph) everything. And - and by the way, the Republican Party is held in no higher esteem today than it was a year ago, and that's a fact, and their long-term problems are - are with them, just as it was when I wrote that book.

So am - am I bearish? In the short-term, in the next election, sure. I think we're going to lose some seats. I don't think we - it's necessarily going to be a wipeout. But I - I agree with everything I said in the book and I'm - I'm very bullish on the long-term prospects.


BLITZER: So our Democrats really on shaky ground as the 2010 election approaches. Can Republicans seize the opportunity to make gains in Congress?

I'll speak about that and more with the Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele.


BLITZER: Republicans certainly believe they should be in power, but does the party think it will return to power?

Right now, the party chairman, Michael Steele, is taking some heat for casting doubts on the Republican chances of winning the midterm election in the House of Representatives. Steele is promoting his new book "Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda."


BLITZER: Let's talk politics for a few moments and also talk about your new book. You said in an interview last night you didn't think the Republicans could retake the House of Representatives this year. Explain why.

MICHAEL STEELE, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Well - and, you know, if you go in and listen to the rest of - of what I said, and, look, you know, I - I'm not a pundit here. I don't - I don't try to make those types of forecasts, and - and certainly, I know some of my friends in Washington on the Hill were a little bit put out by what I said.

I'm - what I'm saying is that the question was can - will you take back the House? I don't know, Wolf, as I said to - to Sean (ph). We're still putting those building blocks in place. We have races now that are just beginning to take shape. We announced today, you saw Senator Dorgan decide to step down to retire. All of a sudden now, that race takes on a new dynamic for us with respect to the Senate.

There will be other retirements. We had at Christmas time, a Democratic congressman switched parties and become Republican.

So, from - as the National chairman, I look at this and I'm not going to speak definitively of what we will do or wouldn't do. What I can tell you is what we're going to be about the business of doing, and that is putting in place good candidates to run and - and winning as if we will take the House in the fall.

BLITZER: Because the National Republican Congressional Committee which is in charge of getting Republicans elected to Congress, they came out with a statement today, Ken Spain, the spokesman, "The NRCC's goal has always been to recapture the majority in 2010. Independent political analysts and even liberal columnists have stated that Republicans have a very real shot at taking back the majority in 2010. Make no mistake about it, we are playing to win."

That's been interpreted as a slap at you.

STEELE: It's not. It's not. I agree with the statement, and it wasn't a slap at me. And, you know - there we go. We're trying to create this diversion and distraction, try to create, oh, there's tension on the Republican side.

I'm saying, as the National chairman, I'm not going to sit in January and predict we will take the House. What - I agree with the NRSC (ph), the NRCC and others around the country who are - are looking at these races that we're going to be in play. We're going to fight very hard to win these seats, and we're going to be competitive all the way to the end.

No one is right now declaratively stating that we will win the House back in - in - this November, and if they are saying that, I'd like to see the crystal ball they're looking through because there's still a lot of politics to unfold here, a lot of races to be settled on both sides of the political tracks, and what I want to be is deliberate and determined to put the money out there, to make every effort to win, in agreement with the NRCC's statement today.

BLITZER: Here's a line that jumped out from your new book "Right Now," on page 14. "As chairman of the Republican National Committee, let me say it as clearly and succinctly as I can, we screwed up."

All right, explain to our viewers here in the United States and around the world how you, the Republicans, screwed up.

STEELE: Well, you know, when you look at the - the history, you - of, you know, the Democrats at control of both Houses of Congress for 40 years. We get it in '94 and lose it in 12, and the question you to have to ask yourself is what happened? What occurred that people in '94 would entrust us to the contract on America with leadership and then take that leadership away from us 12 years later and then, of course, be in the - in the, you know, the mess that we've seen ourselves in - in other races across the country.

And the reality of it is when you step away from principles, when you step away from those values that you outlined very clearly in 1994, and begin to spend money, increase the - the role and influence of government - you know, the TARP bill was a real problem for a lot of conservatives on both sides, not just among Republicans, but those who identify as independents and even some Democrats in - in the last year. Those types of principle - moves away from principle are - are problematic.

And so now we have a chance, I think, with - with the kind of road map that as a national chairman we tried to lay out and - and saw affected in New Jersey and Virginia this past fall, in special elections that we've won throughout the - the past year, to put a new footprint in place and move the party and the country in a direction away from, you know, this - this sense of government entitlement and government (INAUDIBLE) government intrusion into decisions that families and businesses are making every day. BLITZER: You got a huge challenge ahead of you. Michael Steele is the chairman of the Republican Party. His book is entitled "Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda."

Michael Steele, thanks very much for coming in.

STEELE: Thank you, Wolf. All right, buddy.

BLITZER: Good luck with the book.

STEELE: Thank you.


BLITZER: A look at winter wonderlands around the world. Hot Shots coming up next.


BLITZER: Here's a look at some of this week's Hot Shots from our friends over at the "Associated Press."

In Indianapolis, a woman walked along a snowy trail. In Northeast China, visitors admired two ice palaces at a winter festival. In England, a fishing boat sat stranded on a snow covered beach. And in India, check it out. A girl performed with a rabbit outside a Buddhist temple.

Hot Shots - pictures worth a thousand words.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. Join us weekdays in THE SITUATION ROOM from 4:00 to 7:00 PM Eastern, and every Saturday at 6:00 PM Eastern, right here on CNN, and at this time every weekend on CNN International.

The news continues next on CNN.