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THE SITUATION ROOM
President Obama: "Credible Terrorist Threat"; Are More Devices Still Out There?; Chicago Synagogues Remain on Alert
Aired October 29, 2010 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.
I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We're following the breaking news -- President Obama, just moments ago, calling it, quote, "a credible terrorist threat against the United States." He says two suspicious devices shipped from Yemen and bound for the United States apparently do, in fact, contain explosives. Those packages, discovered overseas, were addressed to Jewish places of worship in Chicago. Cargo planes and trucks in several U.S. cities are being inspected and aviation security is being ramped up right now. The president warning that Al Qaeda and Yemen is planning attacks against the United States right now.
Let's go to our White House correspondent, Ed Henry.
He's monitoring the latest coming out of the White House -- and, Ed, we just had this briefing from the president's senior adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, John Brennan.
ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And John Brennan just gave us some new information going through what they know and what they don't know. He hinted, for the first time, that the U.S. had intelligence that tipped them off to the fact that there were packages, potentially, with explosives on these planes. He said, quote, "Whenever you pull a string, there's a reason you pull that string. And we had a reason to pull it." He wouldn't go into further detail, clearly hinting there was intelligence, that this was just not a random check and that's why they went after it.
Asked whether it was a dry run for a future terror attack or not -- and, specifically, interestingly, John Brennan said, usually with a dry run, there would not be explosives in these packages. In this case, as the president himself noted, there was -- there were explosives in the packages, leading U.S. officials to think maybe it was not a dry run, maybe it was an actual terror attempt.
But John Brennan was careful to note they're still very early in the investigation. A lot of information we do not know yet. But the president himself came to the Briefing Room to explain what we do know to the American people.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Last night and earlier today, our intelligence and law enforcement professionals, working with our friends and allies, identified two suspicious packages bound for the United States; specifically, two places of Jewish worship in Chicago. Those packages have been located in Dubai and East Midlands Airport in the United Kingdom.
An initial examination of those packages has determined that they do, apparently, contain explosive material.
I was alerted to this threat last night by my top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan. I directed the Department of Homeland Security and all our law enforcement and intelligence agencies to take whatever steps are necessary to protect our citizens from this type of attack.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HENRY: And the president was also very direct in saying, as well, the president noted that the U.S. will spare no expense, as he put it, in figuring out -- investigating who is the source of this terror threat. The president noted, as you just heard, that the packages started in Yemen. And he went on to say that we know that Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula has been operating out of Yemen. They believe that they were tied, for example, to the underwear bombing there on Christmas Day of last year -- the attempted terror attack over the -- over Detroit.
The bottom line, though, is that the president said one thing we do know is that the packages were headed for Jewish organizations in Chicago.
Interesting to note the president himself is headed, tomorrow, to both Chicago and Philadelphia, which was another part of this threat today. But White House Spokesman said Robert Gibbs -- Gibbs said no plans to cancel those travels. The president is still planning to go to Charlottesville, Virginia tonight; Philadelphia; Connecticut; as well as Illinois tomorrow -- Wolf.
BLITZER: It's interesting, Ed, that the president was first briefed about this threat last night around 10:30 p.m. Eastern time. And that's when his homeland security and counterterrorism team really went into action.
HENRY: They did. John Brennan, as you noted, the president's principal counterterrorism official here inside the White House, convened a conference call at 1:00 a.m. Eastern time. A short time after that briefing of the president, to coordinate the CIA, the National Counterterrorist Center, etc. Get all of these various bureaucracies in place. That seems to be some of the good news here, at least in the early stages of this investigation, that U.S. counter- terror officials appear to have pounced on this in a way that, at least for now, snuffed out whatever threat was out there. However, John Brennan did get one question in this briefing about reports that there may be 15 more packages out there somewhere in the system that the U.S. is now searching for.
John Brennan would not confirm or deny that. So we have to stress, this is still very, very early in this investigation. There could be more threats out there -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Ed Henry, stand by.
All this playing out after authorities intercepted those two packages, one in the United Kingdom and one in the United Arab Emirates, in Dubai, specifically.
Let's bring in our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve.
She's working this story.
What else do we know -- Jeanne?
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we know they found these two devices and they are looking very hard to determine if they -- there are any more.
Also, as Ed mentioned, they're trying very hard to figure out exactly what those devices are -- what were they intended to do.
Here's a little bit of what the president's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN BRENNAN, COUNTERTERRORISM ADVISER: I'm concerned that since there were explosive materials in it, a -- a traditional dry run is something that you would not necessarily use with explosive materials. That said, I don't know yet what exactly the intent was at this point. There are a lot of different scenarios that some people have speculated about. But -- and what we're trying to do is to wrestle this to the ground by doing the good forensic analysis, as well as taking a look, from an intelligence standpoint, and trying to piece together what we might know -- have known in the past and so that it will give us a sense of how this was going be used.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MESERVE: Of course, we have seen pictures of the device that was found in the United Kingdom. It appears to be a toner cartridge that has been tampered with in some way. There you're looking at another piece of it -- something that was attached to the toner cartridge. And so this is the nuts and bolts of what they're looking at, trying to determine what it is and trying to determine if there are more.
John Brennan didn't want to answer this question on camera, but we have heard it from intelligence sources, that they do believe there are other packages that are en route from Yemen that they want to take a look at. They do not have any intelligence, we're told, that they pose a threat. But because of where they originate, they want to take a closer look. And that is why today you saw planes -- cargo planes pulled aside in both Philadelphia and Newark. You saw some trucks -- cargo trucks looked at in New York City. They were trying to track down some of these packages.
And I'm told by sources they did find some of them and determined that those they found did not pose any threat. However, we've been warned that we may see additional activity that looks like this, perhaps additional planes like that one that came from the UAE that they wanted to take aside at JFK this afternoon after they escorted it in with fighter jets. They thought one of those packages was on board there. They wanted to take a closer look.
We may see some more of that as the days progress, as they try and determine what exactly the dimensions of what they're dealing with are -- Wolf, back to you.
BLITZER: Jeanne, is it your understanding that those two packages that were intercepted in the U.K. and in Dubai were addressed specifically to synagogues in Chicago?
In other words, somebody went to FedEx or UPS in -- in Yemen and said I want to ship these two -- these two boxes to these synagogues, these Jewish houses of worship in Chicago?
MESERVE: I don't know what was said at the point of shipping, but we did hear from the White House that, yes, they were addressed to synagogues in Chicago. And that helped them find them. What we are led to understand is that the intelligence that the United States got from an ally related to packages that were headed from Yemen to synagogues in Chicago, that is how they were able to track them down. This wasn't through some luck of screening. This is because they had intelligence on what to look for.
And, as you know, all these shipping companies do extensive tracking of all the packages going through their system. And that undoubtedly made it a little more easy to find this, what could have been otherwise a needle in a haystack -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jeanne, thanks very much.
Don't go too far away, either.
We're going to be checking back with you, Jeanne and Ed, all of our reporters. They're working their sources. We're getting more information.
And as Jeanne noted, a sign of how seriously authorities are taking this cargo security scare, the fact that U.S. fighter jets escorted the flight from Dubai to New York's JFK that had a package from Yemen on board. It landed safely just a little while ago.
Let's bring in our national security contributor, Fran Townsend, and our terrorist analyst, Paul Cruickshank, with the Center on Law and Security at NYU's School of Law. The explosive material -- and -- and -- and I'll start with you, Fran -- there's explosive material and explosive material. There are different kinds of explosive material. As far as I know, we don't know yet what kind of explosives -- were these plastic explosives, were they highly dangerous explosives or not so much.
Do you know?
FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: No. We don't know and we don't -- and we also don't know the quantity. In fact, John Brennan, in the White House Briefing Room, was asked that very specific question and he declined to answer it, partly because they will do extensive testing, but partly because there's a signature to how these bombs are put together and what materials are used. And that's the crucial part of the investigation to do, as the president directed him, that is, trace this -- this bomb back to its origination.
BLITZER: Because the -- what could these -- these -- these packages have done to these two synagogues in Chicago?
Let's say they weren't detected, that there wasn't a tip from an ally that these suspicious packages were on board these flights. Presumably, they -- they reach the synagogue in Chicago.
PAUL CRUICKSHANK, TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, they -- they could have the potential to cause a lot of harm. We don't know how viable they were at this point. But if they had caused harm there in Chicago in the synagogues, this would have been very popular amongst Al Qaeda's core base, who are deeply anti-Semitic. So targeting these synagogues may have been very deliberate -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Because there could have been a timing device that would have gone off once they knew that the packages had arrived?
Is that the fear?
CRUICKSHANK: More likely that when you open the device, that it would go off. But -- but there wasn't much discussion about how this thing was going to be triggered, or, if, indeed, it was even viable.
BLITZER: When they say an ally tipped off the United States, I -- I don't know who that ally is. I assume it's Yemen. The government of Yemen has been working closely with the United States on these issues, isn't that right?
TOWNSEND: Well, Yemen has been an -- an inconsistent ally, let us say. And they don't have a tremendous capability against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. There was an attack against a British convoy there in Yemen. And so I wouldn't presume that it was coming from the Yemenis. Clearly, it's got to be a regional ally who's got good insight into Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the intelligence had to be pretty clear and pretty specific for them to find these packages. BLITZER: You heard the president in his statement be rather effusive in his praise for President Saleh of Yemen and the cooperation that the U.S. is getting from Yemen. You heard that.
CRUICKSHANK: They feel that they're getting better cooperation right now. But what we did see a couple of weeks ago was the French warned by the Saudis of a potential threat from al Qaeda in Yemen to their security. It would be interesting to find out if it's the same source of information here, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, guys, stand by, because we're not going to go anywhere. We're -- we're all over this story. We're watching this from all angles. We're monitoring all the international developments. And we're going be going to Chicago, as well, where the suspicious packages were destined -- were supposed to arrive. We'll get reaction from Capitol Hill. We'll be speaking with members of the Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees. They've been briefed on what's going on.
This is a serious development, when the president of the United States says a credible terrorist threat has been thwarted, but maybe there are other packages still in the works and the two packages that were discovered, the president says, apparently contained explosive material.
Our coverage will continue right after this.
BLITZER: We're continuing the -- to cover breaking news -- a dramatic development today. The president of the United States confirming just a little while ago that there has been a credible terrorist threat aimed at the United States. Two packages -- two packages found in -- one in Britain, one in Dubai -- apparently, the president says, contain explosive material. There may be other packages, as well.
Let's bring in Richard Quest, who covers aviation for us in London -- Richard, this whole -- this situation involving cargo planes is one that is obviously very, very dangerous. We know the commercial aircraft is closely watched. I think we've lost Richard Quest for a moment, but Fran Townsend and Paul Cruickshank are here with me.
And let me begin Fran in -- Fran, go ahead and tell me about the threat from cargo planes.
TOWNSEND: Well, and cargo in general has been a real concern of Congress and of security officials. You know, I think people would be surprised to know there's cargo, also, in the belly of passenger planes. And only -- up until February of 2009, only 50 percent of that had to be screened. As of September of this year, it's now 100 percent. But we should also mention, there's a difference between screening and inspection. Screening can be done in many ways -- physical. It can be targeted intelligence. But that's not inspection, where you're physically touching and looking at each package. And so it represents a vulnerability, whether it's on a purely cargo plane, such as the ones that were targeted here, or whether it's cargo in the belly of a passenger plane.
BLITZER: And Richard Quest, we -- we have connected with him in London -- Richard, a lot of people have feared that these cargo planes were sort of vulnerable. You've done a lot of work reporting on this. Go ahead and weigh in what has been done and what needs to be done to make them completely secure.
RICHARD QUEST, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I don't think it's possible, in many ways, to make them completely secure. It's taken an enormous amount of time just to get the agreement on the 100 percent cargo that you've just been talking about.
And I was just reading only a second or two ago that the TSA, in a statement only earlier this year, the TSA admits that for inbound cargo on passenger planes, it's simply not possible to get that 100 percent limit any time soon.
Put this into perspective, Wolf. Every day, UPS transports between three-and-a-half and four million packages around the world. Federal Express does the same. We're talking about millions of packages on thousands of planes -- or at least hundreds of planes on most days.
Now to have a screening, it all basically relies on the information on the package -- the so-called known customer, the point upon which the package is handed over to the company, UPS, FedEx or whatever. And, Wolf, what they'll be looking at extremely closely is that point in Yemen, because it seems that that point in Yemen was the weak point in the whole process.
BLITZER: Because, presumably, they're going, Richard, to the point in Yemen where these two boxes were delivered to UPS and to FedEx --
BLITZER: -- and they're trying to find out who delivered these boxes to this -- to this point of origin in Yemen.
QUEST: Look, anybody who's tried to send something internationally by FedEx or UPS, legitimately, besides just a piece of paper or a document, if you try and send anything physical, you end up having to fill in an airway bill number, a document saying how much it's worth, all sorts of things.
But even from London to New York, it's a -- it's quite an ordeal these days. It's not that easy.
But if you take somewhere like Yemen, as Paul was saying at the moment -- a moment ago, a country that is infinitely less secure at the point of delivery, then you start to have problems.
What will be interesting is, as we get more information, firstly, how many of these packages came via UPS or couriers?
Why did some come on UPS planes and why some go via Dubai on the Emirates flight?
So there are going to be lots of different bits of information that we will learn in the days to come about the mechanisms by these packages, which -- which went from Yemen, via East Midlands or wherever, to the United States.
BLITZER: I want -- I want you to stand by, Richard, and -- because we're going be coming back to you, as well.
We're only getting started. The information is only beginning to trickle in. We're only getting a small piece of it, but we're learning more by the minute of what has happened. We're watching the situation very closely -- closely.
When we come back, we'll go to Chicago. Our own Brooke Baldwin is now on the scene. There were two synagogues in Chicago apparently targeted by this group in Yemen.
BLITZER: You're looking at a live picture of a UPS cargo plane. It's sitting on the -- on the tarmac in Philadelphia, at Philadelphia International Airport. They're going through, methodically, all the cargo inside just out of an abundance of caution. This, according to Department of Homeland Security officials. They want to make sure there's nothing suspicious.
Earlier, as you know by now, they did -- did find two suspicious -- two suspicious packages, one in Dubai, one in England. Both contained, according to the president, explosive material that was removed -- explosive material boxes heading for Chicago.
Our own Brooke Baldwin is now in Chicago.
She's outside one of the largest synagogues in Chicago -- Brooke, we know that, according to the president, two Jewish houses of worship were the targets of this attack that was in the works, apparently thwarted right now.
What are Jewish authorities and others in Chicago -- and law enforcement authorities -- telling you?
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We are hearing from the -- from the FBI, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, Wolf. And both of them reiterating, not just to synagogues, but to all religious institutions, you know, be on high alert, particularly if you see any kind of suspicious package that may be coming from, you know, overseas. That was what we got from the FBI, specifically -- specifically, the Middle East.
But I want to let you know -- and one of the biggest questions we have is which two synagogues here in Chicago were targeted. We don't know that yet. I've been sitting outside of the city's biggest synagogue. I'm sitting in front of Temple Shalom. And just on background here, Wolf, two observations. One, all this talk about, you know, this cargo plane and UPS, I just saw this big brown UPS truck pull up right in front of Temple Shalom. The driver got out and it appeared to me, you know, no panic, business as usual. The guy walks into the synagogue and delivered the packages.
You know, all the while, everyone is being very much still on high alert, given what we've been reporting all day long.
Number two, while that was happening, a number of families were actually coming out of the synagogue. And I was able to talk to one man holding his two young boys. And I asked him, you know, does this news, especially the confirmation now -- we know these two packages contained explosive materials -- does the news frighten you?
And he said, yes, absolutely. He's very concerned. He was looking at his little -- little boys. And I followed up, Wolf, simply asking, you know, if this news would affect his worship here.
Keep in mind, Shabot services begin at 6:15 tonight, as we're coming up on the Sabbath.
And he looked at me and he took a deep breath and he says, you know, he hopes the news will not affect him. He doesn't want to allow this to affect his daily life, his religious life.
We're sitting here, Wolf, and -- and we'll -- we'll, hopefully, get to talk to some of the people heading into the services, again, 6:15 local time.
The bottom line is, all these people are on high alert. Services are continuing as planned.
BLITZER: We're going to stay in close touch with you, Brooke.
Thank you very much.
I want to go back to London right now.
Our own Nic Robertson is joining us.
You've got -- you're getting some new information from sources where you are -- Nic, what you learning?
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, one of the interesting things we learned from British intelligence sources here a little while ago is that they say that the person responsible for putting those packages -- or sending those packages onto those aircraft was the same person that -- a person that was known to -- known as being connected with terrorism working -- or sort of being in terrorist circles, if you will.
Which, when we listen to what Mr. Brennan was saying in -- in his question and answer session, when he was asked, is there a suspect at this time, he said, no, there wasn't a suspect. So we're seeing here a little discontinuity, perhaps not surprising given the flood of information here, a little discontinuity between what we're hearing from British intelligence sources and -- and officials.
Likely, these kinks will be worked -- will be worked out. But the British at least thinking that a person has been identified who put these packages -- who sent these packages. And that person was known to be connected with terrorists -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Nic, stand by.
I want to get back to you, as well.
We're getting more information coming in from our reporters. We have a worldwide reach, as you know, here on CNN.
Our continuing coverage will resume after this.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're following the breaking news. Two suspicious packages were intercepted; one in Dubai, one in the United Kingdom. Both contained, according to President Obama, explosive materials. Both destined to go to synagogues in Chicago. We're getting a statement now from UPS saying this. "Because security is the utmost concern, UPS is immediately suspending service out of Yemen until further notice. UPS is cooperating with authorities who are monitoring reports of potentially suspicious packages onboard cargo flights. Authorities are investigating two aircraft in Philadelphia and one in Newark." That statement from UPS earlier. FedEx said it was similarly suspending shipment of packages out of Yemen as a result of what has gone on.
Our Dana Bash is here. She's watching this story, our senior Congressional correspondent. I know I members of Congress, members of the intelligence committees, members of the homeland security committees are being briefed by U.S. officials about what's going on.
DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. I just got off the phone with Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine. She is the ranking Republican of the Homeland Security Department and she said that she just got briefed by officials at homeland security.
She said this is a very, very serious attempt in her estimation to use commercial cargo transportation to ignite explosives in the United States. She said that she has learned that there is a ground halt on all cargo packages, all packages in general originating from Yemen. And TSA inspectors have gone from Germany to Yemen to work there. She says she believes based on what she was told that this is clearly another attempt by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that has a foothold in Yemen which I know you all have been talking about.
She said that she asked specifically whether this is part of a bigger plot. The intelligence officials that she talked to that briefed her said they simply don't know the answer to that. They're working very hard to test the explosives to figure out exactly what kind and what kind of damage they would have done here in the United States.
BLITZER: That doesn't necessarily take all that long. The fact that the president of the United States was going to be in Chicago, is planning on being in Chicago in these final days before the midterm elections on Tuesday, does Susan Collins and other sources think there could be any connection at all to this?
BASH: She said she does not think so. Susan Collins said she has no information to suggest this has nothing to do with President Obama. It is, instead, specifically what you all have been talking about. We've been reporting that the destinations were the synagogues in Chicago, Jewish centers. That is the significance of where these were going.
One other interesting thing that she said, she said that this is not something based on hard intelligence. She said that based on everything she's been learning and studying and being briefed on in the last weeks and months, she believes this is definitely the influence of Awlaki, the American born cleric. She said that there's no question in her mind this has his fingerprints all over it. It's something that was aimed at holds in what's going on in the United States and something that an American would know.
She also said as the ranking Republican, she's very worried about the holes in the system. That's the first thing she's going to do when she gets back is deal with screening more intensely cargo. If they didn't have this credible really good source, it is entirely possible that it could have gotten through the cracks and unfortunately this could have gotten here and really done some damage.
BLITZER: Fortunately it's been thwarted we hope completely but there still could be some other packages out there that they're looking for.
Dana, stand by.
Peter Bergen is our terrorism expert here at CNN. He's joining us.
Peter, the al Qaeda and the Arabian peninsula means al Qaeda in Yemen right now. Tell us a little bit about the organization. One of the principal figures, the American born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well as John Boehner said in the statement he made at the white house briefing, you know, this is the most active operational arm of al Qaeda right now that he's concerned with other than al Qaeda central.
If you look back over the last year and a half, Wolf, al Qaeda and the Arabian Peninsula is being linked to two successful attacks in the United States and two failed ones. The successful attacks were the attack on a recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas where a Muslim convert who had converted to an African-American shot and killed a soldier at a military recruiting station.
Then we have Major Nidal Hassan who killed 13 mostly soldiers in Ft. Hood, Texas who was in contact with al-Awlaki, as you mentioned, the American cleric. You also have flight 253, the attempt to blow up the Northwest flight over Detroit. Now you have this.
And so, even al Qaeda central hasn't had quite this record. So the focus on Yemen is pretty intense, a group of several people. One of the leaders of the group, by the way, is a Guantanamo releasee which is sort of an interesting wrinkle. Somebody who went to Saudi Arabia was supposedly rehabilitated and then took up arms when he got to Yemen. You have a group that not only has an American cleric in it but also somebody who went through the American prison system, kind of understands the United States a little bit. And this attack speaks for itself.
I think, Wolf, the most important here is that multiple American counterterrorism officials have told me that the bomb maker involved in both the 253 attempt over Detroit and also an attempt to kill the leading counterterrorism official in Saudi Arabia, this bomb maker is very skilled. He made two bombs out of plastic explosives and they're concerned this guy is still out there.
My hunch is that whoever built this bomb may well be the same bomb maker, this quite skilled bomb maker who's capable of putting explosives on planes that aren't detected by metal detectors. There are still many questions about this device, the devices we just found in Britain and in Dubai.
However, this bomb maker in al Qaeda and the Arabian Peninsula is a cause of concern to counterintelligence officials. There's no name of who this individual is. He's out there and he's still trying to put bombs on planes the assessment of multiple counterterrorism officials I've spoken to.
BLITZER: Since they found the two devices that did -- that had not detonated, they presumably will do a complete forensic examination. It won't be difficult to see whether fingerprints, literal fingerprints or other trademark capabilities link these two bombs to the other bombs you're discussing.
BERGEN: Yes. The first thing I would be looking for is the bomb made of PETM. PETM is a highly unusual plastic explosive that's been a signature of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It was used in the Richard Reid shoe bomb incident. Very unusual explosive to be used in a terrorist attack. There are only three attempts that I'm aware of where this explosive is used. It would be an immediate indicator linking back to the bomb maker involved in the previous two plots that I mentioned, Wolf. BLITZER: Peter Bergen is going to stay with us as well. Peter, thanks very much.
We'll take another quick break. We're watching the breaking news right now. Congressman Peter King of New York is the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee. We'll speak with him. He's just been briefed by top U.S. officials. Peter King is standing by.
BLITZER: We're following the breaking news here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Two suspicious packages were found; one in Dubai, one in the East Midland's Airport in the United Kingdom. Both, according to President Obama, contained explosive material.
They - you are looking at pictures now of these two devices. And they were supposed to go to two Jewish houses of worship in Chicago. We're following the breaking news.
Joining us now is New York Congressman Peter King. He's the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as well.
I know you've been briefed, Congressman. How worried should the American public be right now about what has just happened?
REP. PETER KING (R-NY), RANKING MEMBER, HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE: Actually, the American people can be reassured Wolf because this time the system worked. We received credible intelligence. We and our allies were able act on it. We were able to stop the attack or the plot against us as far as we know. So I would say up until now it's worked. We can be reassured by that.
On the other hand, the reality is it shows that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula because I assume that's who's behind this coming out of Yemen is out. They are intent on getting us, if you will. They are 24/7. In many ways, they have supplanted - I think Awlaki has supplanted Bin Laden as the major terror actor in the Middle East right now.
The American people - it's a wakeup call that we should never let our guard down. But the reassuring part is that the system did work.
BLITZER: When you say that, do we know for sure that there were two packages that were supposed to explode? Or could there be other packages still undetected out there?
KING: That's why I say, thus far the system has worked. Talking to TSA and also what the FBI is doing today. They have taken every possible action as far as all planes, all cargo planes coming from Yemen, as far as inspections, as far as cooperation with our allies, as far as working with Dubai and obviously the Brits.
So far up to now, everything is worked according to the textbook. It's not over. We don't know whether this is the attack itself or whether it's a precursor to another one, whether or not it's a diversionary move. But so far, all we know, it has worked.
BLITZER: Our terrorism experts Fran Townsend is here. Paul Cruickshank is here.
Fran, I know you have a question for the congressman.
TOWNSEND: Congressman, look, it worked to the extent that we got some very clear intelligence about these two packages from an ally. But absent that, I don't think you can say the system work, absent the intelligence telling us to look for the packages, or else they would have gotten on.
Are you satisfied with the cargo screening procedures now and will Congress hold hearings about this?
KING: No, Fran I'm not. I agree with you. I'm saying the system worked because you and I both know we rely on layers of security.
The first layer, the intelligence worked and that allowed us to move. If we had not gotten the Intel, this plot would have worked. No, I think we have to go much more toward 100 percent screening on cargo planes. We're supposed to be working toward it.
I think a lot more can be done. It should be done. We have a lot of resistance as you know from overseas countries, even just on passenger flights this week. You know, British Airlines were saying that we pushed too hard for security on passenger flights, never mind on cargo planes.
No, I think we can use this as an opportunity to push for more and more extensive on cargo screening, getting as close to 100 percent as possible. And this again drives home the importance of that.
So, you're right. Agree. I still say the system worked. It would not have worked had we not gotten the credible intelligence and we were able to act on it. But this did expose a weakness in our armor.
BLITZER: All right. Go ahead Paul. Paul's got a question as well.
CRUICKSHANK: Congressman, as you know, al Qaeda and the Arabian Peninsula issue have released an online newsletter in recent months urging Americans here to launch attacks.
What are your concerns about that in light of the plot we're hearing about?
KING: I'm concerned about al Qaeda and the Arabian Peninsula. I think in many ways they're better poised to strike than al Qaeda itself. It's always a question of degree. But if you realize that Abdulmutallab, the Christmas bomber, Major Hassan, the architect of the Ft. Hood massacre; both of those directed by al-Awlaki. There have been other terror cases in recent months where those arrested were inspired or even perhaps directed by him. Americans listen to him. American jihadists living in this country are constantly on his web site, constantly listening and being motivated by him and that's apart from those who are actual al Qaeda members. I'm talking about self-starters who take what they call inspiration from Anwar al-Awlaki. He's an extremely dangerous person. And whatever can be done to get him has to be done but I'm very concerned about what he says.
BLITZER: And he seems to be recruiting a network of Americans who are sympathetic to al Qaeda and the Arabian Peninsula. Congressman, thank you for joining us. We'll stay in close touch with you.
We'll take another quick break. When we come back, we're going to Dubai. Our reporters and producers are on the scene. One of those suspicious packages with explosive material was found in this cargo plane in Dubai.
BLITZER: All right. You're looking at these photographs. These are the devices cartridge toner that had been manipulated with what the president of the United States says apparently containing explosive material. The U.S. saying one of the devices was found in the United Kingdom. Another was found in a cargo plane in Dubai.
Our CNN correspondent Rima Maktabi is in Dubai. She's joining us now with what UAE, United Arab Emirates, officials are saying.
What are they saying about this very worrisome development?
RIMA MAKTABI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, authorities here are saying no shipment from Yemen to the USA from Dubai on Emirates Airlines. This has been issued like half an hour ago or 20 minutes ago by the official news agency, the UAE official news agency. They're saying that the general civil aviation authority confirmed in a statement to the news agency that the Emirates Airline flight from Dubai to the United States of America did not carry any shipment from Yemen.
Earlier, like around 12:30 after midnight here, that was the first statement by any official authority here in the UAE. They confirmed that there was or there was a suspicious shipment originating from Yemen and heading for the United States was discovered at the cargo aircraft. And they said this suspicious shipment was sent to the laboratory to establish its type.
But then, one hour later, the news came out that this shipment was not on the emirates airlines flight to the U.S. so this leaves us with many questions. Is this shipment suspicious? The shipments -- does it stay here? And the UAE. And was it sent to the laboratory? How long will it the news was out 9:00 p.m. local time, and now it is 2:00 a.m., and no authority, official authority is speaking to any news agency here. The only statement that has been issued was by the Emiratis News Agency, and the news channel based here in Dubai quoted a Yemeni airways saying there is no flight from Yemen and that this flight must have come from a destination on the way to the U.S. -- Wolf. BLITZER: Well, it seems to be a contradiction of what is going on and which we will try to clarify that. Thank you so much. Keep checking with your sources there.
Fran, you are here, very quickly, and it seems to be a different story coming out of the United Arab Emirates than is coming out of Washington.
TOWNSEND: Well, I actually just think there's a little bit of a misunderstanding. I'm not sure that I think it is inconsistent. The president, John Brennan, it's clear that there was the package at the FedEx facility. That's the one that had the explosive materiel in it in addition to the one in Midlands and there were these other packages that they're looking for, not by targeted intelligence, but just to be preventive and I think what we are hearing now is that there is maybe a belief that there was on the Emirates flight, but the Emirates officials are saying there was not a suspicious package on that flight. So we will have to watch that.
BLITZER: I want to continue our investigation of what is going on. Paul, stand by for a moment. Much more of the breaking news right after this.
BLITZER: We are following the breaking news. Two suspicious boxes apparently containing a toner cartridge that had been -- there you see it right there. It had been wired. The president of the United States saying it also contained explosive materiel. We are working this story to see what is going on. They were addressed to two Jewish houses of worship in Chicago.
Fran Townsend and Paul Cruickshank is here, too. Toner cartridges, why toner cartridges which are so readily available obviously at any computer store, printing store in the United States, why use that?
CRUICKSHANK: Well, it could have been a way to put it into something which looks unsuspicious and somebody would open on the other end, presumably in Chicago and in the synagogues and get a nasty fright. So that may well have been the reason or a way to get it through.
The officials doing the security checks may not have noticed something that, so it is an ingenious way to get it through, and al Qaeda in Yemen are constantly trying to find new ways to launch attacks against the United States. Several Americans have joined their ranks and they understand American vulnerabilities.
BLITZER: It won't be difficult to determine if these two devices were made by the same bomb makers including the failed Christmas day bombing over Detroit? TOWNSEND: That is exactly right, Wolf. It is easiest to figure out if these were to be made by the same person, you have to have the presumption that they were, and then to link them back to see if they were related the prior bombings that Peter Bergen had mentioned.
BLITZER: And we are talking about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Is the leader of that organization this American born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki or are there other higher ups there?
TOWNSEND: There are other operational leaders, some of whom were in custody and then later released, fled Saudi Arabia and went to Yemen. But Anwar al-Awlaki, because as Paul said, he understands American vulnerabilities and speaks colloquial English, and he can appeal to the disaffected people inside the United States, he is an incredibly valuable resource, and another American-born al Qaeda member is also there.
BLITZER: And again, very active on the internet and including this online magazine that al Qaeda and the Arabian peninsula now has. For our viewers who missed it. Here is President Obama speaking to the American public just a little while ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA Good afternoon, everybody.
I want to briefly update the American people on a credible terrorist threat against our country and the actions that we're taking with our friends and our partners to respond to it.
Last night and earlier today, our intelligence and law enforcement professionals working with our friends and allies identified two suspicious packages bound for the United States; specifically, two places of Jewish worship in Chicago.
Those packages have been located in Dubai and East Midlands Airport in the United Kingdom. An initial examination of those packages has determined that they do apparently contain explosive material.
I was alerted to this threat last night by my top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan. I directed the Department of Homeland Security and all of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies to take whatever steps are necessary to protect our citizens from this type of attack.
Those measures led to additional screening of some planes in Newark and Philadelphia. The Department of Homeland Security is also taking steps to enhance the safety of air travel, including additional cargo screening. We will continue to pursue additional protective measures as long as it takes to ensure the safety and security of our citizens.
I've also directed that we spare no effort in investigating the origins of the suspicious packages and their connection to any additional terrorist plotting. Although we are still pursuing all of the facts, we do know that the packages originated in Yemen. We also know that al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, a terrorist group based in Yemen, continues to plan attacks against our homeland, our citizens, and our friends and allies.
Now John Brennan, who you will be hearing from, spoke with President Saleh of Yemen today about the seriousness of this threat and President Saleh pledged the full cooperation of the Yemeni government in this investigation.
Going forward, we will continue to strengthen our cooperation with the Yemeni government to disrupt the plotting by al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula and to destroy this al Qaeda affiliate. We'll also continue our efforts to strengthen a more stable, secure and prosperous Yemen so that terrorist groups do not have the time and space they need to plan attacks from within its borders.
The events of the past 24 hours underscores the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism. As usual, our intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland security professionals have served with extraordinary skill and resolve and with the commitment that their enormous responsibilities demand.
We're also coordinating closely and effectively with our friends and our allies who are essential to this fight.
As we obtain more information, we'll keep the public fully informed. But at this stage, the American people should know that the counterterrorism professionals are taking this threat seriously and are taking all necessary and prudent steps to ensure our security. And the American people should be confident that we will not waver in our resolve to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates and to root out violent extremism in all its forms.
Thank you very much.
(END VIDEO CLIP)