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Pre-Raid Intelligence on Bin Laden?; Bin Laden Death Photo Controversy

Aired May 12, 2011 - 18:00   ET



Happening now: what the CIA knew about bin Laden before the raid and how the agency knew it. We are learning now details this hour about the surveillance, plus how bin Laden communicated with his followers. Stand by.

Also, growing threats to avenge the terror leader's death. Now there's even fear President Obama's Kenyan grandmother could be targeted -- new information coming in.

And the controversial death photos, how gruesome are they really? Should they be shown to the American public? I will talk to one U.S. senator who has seen them.

Breaking news, political headlines and Jeanne Moos all straight ahead. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We have been learning new details daily about the raid that took out Osama bin Laden, but now we are getting new information about U.S. surveillance of his compound and what the CIA was able to learn in the weeks and months before the final deadly showdown.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr has been working her sources for us.

What's the very latest on this part of the story, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it may not be a surprise to you that the CIA kept an eye on that compound, but how they did it reads like a spy novel.

U.S. government officials are now telling us in fact the U.S. intelligence community had continuous surveillance -- surveillance of the compound in the weeks and months leading up to the raid. How did they do it? Well, of course they had satellites overhead. That's the best way to keep an eye on things.

But they also had drones, unmanned drones. They were very careful not to use them too frequently, because those can be spotted. They also had electronic surveillance, trying to intercept phone calls of couriers who were leaving the compound.

Interestingly, what they found is those couriers moved at a significant distance away from the compound before they turned their cell phones on in an effort not to be tracked. But the CIA, again, also intelligence community, had eyeballs on the compound, people watching it, watching to see who was coming and going, that perhaps being the best way.

And they were able to develop a full picture, they believe, of what was going on there, as full as they can, all of this leading them to believe there was a good chance Osama bin Laden was inside when the Navy SEALs attacked -- Wolf.

BLITZER: How did bin Laden, based on all of your reporting now, Barbara, how did he communicate with some of his aides? How did he communicate with the outside world, his supporters?

STARR: Well, you know, we talked about yesterday the fact that bin Laden was able to get communications out to his operatives in the field.

How did he do it and avoid all that surveillance that we have just talked about? What we now know is he used a very common device that we are all familiar with, a thumb drive, something like this small device, putting messages on here, some handwritten messages being communicated, but this was the main technique, these thumb drives, given to couriers, who would then move to the next village, pass them to a cutout. What's a cutout?

A cutout is the next guy who is cut out of the loop. He doesn't really know why he is getting this thumb drive. He doesn't know who it is coming from. He knows where he has to deliver it, but he doesn't know that it comes from Osama bin Laden, a series of cutouts used all the way along, classic espionage technique, classic high- security to avoid detection.

These are the kinds of things bin Laden used, his messages, again, everything from big-picture guidance to urging his followers and his operatives to one more time try to attack the United States -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr doing some excellent reporting for us, thank you.

Jihadists are rallying around the death of bin Laden and vowing revenge on the United States.

CNN's Brian Todd is here in THE SITUATION ROOM working this part of the story for us.

What do we know about these latest threats out there on the Internet?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we know that overall threats in the wake of bin Laden's death have spiked in these last few days.

We know that right up until he was killed, bin Laden himself was actively working ideas for attacks, fixated on hitting America. But in the wake of his death, analysts are scrambling to answer one key question: Could the revenge factor be more dangerous than anything bin Laden was planning?


TODD (voice-over): Analysts who monitor jihadists Web sites tell CNN militants have flooded the cybersphere with glowing eulogies of Osama bin Laden, and:

(on camera): What about threats?

BEN VENZKE, FOUNDER & CEO, INTELCENTER: So, there has been this wave of eulogies talking about bin Laden's death, but factored into that are threat statements calling for retaliation and rallying cries.

TODD (voice-over): Ben Venzke's group IntelCenter is a contractor for the U.S. government on counterterrorism. Venzke and other experts say the general spike in Internet threats since bin Laden's death comes from familiar groups.

VENZKE: This is a statement from al Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb. It is the regional arm of al Qaeda in North Africa. And, effectively, it is saying that the loss of bin Laden, while felt by the group, is going to reinvigorate them.

TODD: Then there's Al-Shabab. It is waging a vicious war against Somalia's government and is one of al Qaeda's most media-savvy branches.

The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist Web sites, gave us an audio recording from a man they identify as Omar Hammami, also known as Abu Mansoor the American because he is from Alabama. Hammami, a top leader in Al-Shabab, made these comments right after bin Laden's death.

OMAR HAMMAMI, AL-SHABAB LEADER: Today, we remind Obama and the rest of his cronies that they have entered the long war, the war of hearts and mind, the war of blood, sweat and tears.

TODD: As a result of the general threats from Al-Shabab, authorities in nearby Kenya have beefed up security for President Obama's step-grandmother, who lives there.

(on camera): But it is not just the larger groups making threats. The SITE Intelligence Group sent us these entries from users of a forum called Shumukh al-Islam. They call for the murders of President Obama and former President Bush and for the use of weapons of mass destruction.

One jihadist down here says, "We want to manufacture soman, ricin, mustard gas and V.X. nerve gas."

(voice-over): Raising the specter of whether threats could trigger attacks, even isolated ones like the Times Square bomber.

(on camera): What are the chances these threats might translate into a larger plot or even a smaller one? VENZKE: What in reality is likely to happen is that plots that were already under way long before bin Laden died will be rebranded. So, if the attack is executed next week, they will say it is because of bin Laden's death.


TODD: Venzke says terrorist agents being planned right now in retaliation for bin Laden's death, we likely won't learn about for at least a few months -- Wolf.

BLITZER: There's always a sort of pattern to these threats after a major event...

TODD: Right.

BLITZER: ... in this particular case, the death of bin Laden.

TODD: That's right.

They usually come in waves, according to Ben Venzke. The first wave is what we are seeing now, this wave of written statements on blogs and Web sites, because that's the fastest way to get it out there.

Then he says we're going to the audio and videotape statements from the leaders of these al Qaeda branches. They're going to speak in depth about what they felt about bin Laden. But they will also make some very serious threats. Look for those in the weeks ahead.

BLITZER: We will, together with you, Brian. Thanks very much.

We want to dig a little bit deeper right now on all of this, on what's going on.

Joining us, our CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen. His new book is entitled "The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda." You much read it.

Peter is joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Will these various affiliate groups, related groups to al Qaeda be strengthened or weakened now as a result of bin Laden's death?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, they have lost their strategic leader. Al Qaeda hasn't proffered a number two as yet.

We could have Ayman al-Zawahiri. He won't be as effective. He doesn't command the love that bin Laden did of the wider jihadi movement, isn't accorded the respect that he had. That isn't to say, of course, that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula isn't planning to put a bomb made out of plastic explosives on an American plane as we speak.

Clearly, the bombmaker who tried to bring down Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit is still out there. So, in terms of the operations they are able to mount, it may not make an enormous difference. But I think, going forward, they don't really have somebody to look to kind of give them strategic guidance.

BLITZER: You saw Barbara Starr's report that he was communicating with his supporters with this sophisticated thumb drive, really. Are you surprised at how operationally he -- involved he apparently was in recent years?

BERGEN: Not entirely. I mean, I had been writing about bin Laden for a long time and pointed out that he was in strategic control of the network and laying out broad strategic guidelines.

If you joined -- when you joined al Qaeda, you swore an oath of allegiance to bin Laden himself personally. He was -- you know, if the Shura Council of al Qaeda had one view and bin Laden had the other, he could override 98 percent of the people on the Shura Council. So, he was -- he ran this group as a dictator, both on the run and while he wasn't.

BLITZER: And, finally, this whole notion of bin Laden being obsessed with killing Americans, there has been some suggestion that caused a split with some of his other supporters who said, you know what, kill Americans, but also you have got to kill a lot of other folks as well?

BERGEN: Well, there was a debate in al Qaeda even before 9/11 about whether 9/11 might be a strategic problem for the organization, a lot of people saying to bin Laden either it might be against Islam, which of course it was, or it might be counterproductive, really enraging the United States and getting this 800-pound gorilla to chase after al Qaeda, which of course is exactly what happened.

So, that remained controversial. We know that from documents that were picked up on the battlefield even after 9/11, that people were critiquing bin Laden for essentially overreaching.

BLITZER: Peter, thanks for coming in.

BERGEN: Thanks.

BLITZER: A detailed description of the controversial pictures showing the dead body of Osama bin Laden. Senator James Inhofe has seen them now. He went over to the CIA. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He will tell us what he thinks about the pictures, what should be done with them now.

Also, as the Mississippi River is rising, funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is dropping. What could mean for future disasters?

Plus, possible GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, he's under fire from conservatives for the health care reform he enacted in Massachusetts. Now he's confronting the issue head-on.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is opening more floodgates in an effort to keep the rising Mississippi River from inundating New Orleans. But the flood is just the latest challenge facing the Corps.

CNN's Casey Wian takes us in-depth. He's live in the flood zone right now.

And, Casey, we don't hear much about the Army Corps of Engineers, except, except at times like these.

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf.

This railroad station behind me was built in 1907. That was 20 years before the last time that floodwaters came this high to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Now, since then, the Army Corps of Engineers has built an extensive system of levees to try to minimize that damage. But that's not all they do.


WIAN (voice-over): For years, this is how the Army Corps of Engineers researched the impacts of flooding in the Mississippi River Delta, models built to scale to see what would happen, for example, if a barge tried to pass through floodgates.

Now it is using high-tech tools, such as this computer simulator, providing a realistic riverboat pilot's view.

JEFFERY HOLLAND, U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: By far the biggest change has been that we have gone from the types of models that you see here to a combination of computer models and physical models of this type.

WIAN: The Corps' Research and Development Center in Mississippi studies everything from wartime infrastructure needs for the military to ways to prevent migrating juvenile salmon from being killed by hydroelectric power plant turbines. It's a massive mission that the Corps says may become tougher.

President Obama's 2012 budget proposes cutting the Corps budget 18 percent compared to 2010.

GARY LOEW, U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: We are doing fewer new projects. We are using a larger proportion of our money to operate and maintain the infrastructure that we are responsible for, just like these levees that are holding back the Mississippi River.

WIAN: The Corps says it will probably need to ask Congress for more money to pay for the work it is doing now along the Mississippi. It is used to doing that. In fact, critics say its projects are often too politicized, too dependent on earmarks, spending requests by individual lawmakers.

LOEW: When the Congress adds projects, for the most part, they are good and valid projects. There is a very small percentage that probably are best not in our budget.

WIAN (on camera): Now Congress has eliminated earmarks. And South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint has introduced a bill he says is intended to depoliticize the Corps' budgeting process and eliminate a backlog of more than 1,000 unfinished projects. Neither DeMint nor the Corps would discuss the proposal.

(voice-over): Even with pressure from some lawmakers, shrinking budgets and a daunting challenge from Mother Nature, the Corps is preparing for what comes after this year's historic flood.

HOLLAND: There is going to be an extraordinary concern about the main purpose that the Corps of Engineers has, which is the saving of human life. What we will be looking to do is to understand ever more effectively how water moves in the main channel, in the main Mississippi River, how long will it be until people are able to get back into their homes and to be able to reclaim their lives.


WIAN: Reclaiming those lives is going to take some time. These floodwaters here in Vicksburg haven't even peaked yet and they are expected to be around for about another month, Wolf.

BLITZER: That is a really, really depressing shot of the water around that building where you are. Casey, thanks very much. We will check back with you.

And we wish all the folks there only, only the best. Good luck.

Facebook gets busted trying to spread negative news stories about Google. We are going to give you the details.

And I will talk to a top Republican senator who just has been shown photos of bin Laden's body. He went over to the CIA, saw them. He's going to describe what he saw.

Stand by. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: A debate is raging over whether to release the death photos of Osama bin Laden. One lawmaker who is seeing them now says, without a doubt, they should be made public. Senator James Inhofe, he is here in THE SITUATION ROOM to explain why.

And an alleged New York City terror plot is busted -- details of the weapons, the potential targets, including one famous landmark in New York City.

And Mitt Romney tries to explain why his health care reform plan in Massachusetts isn't like President Obama's. Can he deflect some stinging criticism, though, from fellow conservatives?


BLITZER: They are as gruesome as they are controversial, more than a dozen photos taken by the U.S. forces showing the dead body of Osama bin Laden. More than two weeks after his killing, the controversy over releasing them, though, is still raging on.


BLITZER: And joining us now from Capitol Hill, Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R), OKLAHOMA: Nice to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: You went to the CIA and you saw the pictures of a dead bin Laden. Describe what you saw.

INHOFE: Well, there are 15 pictures, Wolf. And 12 of those were taken in the compound probably in the first minute after the kill, my guess is, judging from the time they had -- the limited time they had.

Those pictures showed very graphically that the kill bullet went in the left eye and came out the right ear, or it appeared more that it went in the ear and came out the right -- the right eye.

Now, that -- when I say graphic, there were parts of the inner part of the head, the brain, that was actually protruding from the socket. And so that was pretty -- pretty bad.

Now, they also had three older pictures of him, so that the viewer, myself in this case, could look and see and compare what they looked like in terms of, you know -- of when he was alive, and there's no question at all that was him.

However, he was all covered up with stuff. It was hard to see. The revealing thing, Wolf, was, after that, the last three pictures were actually on the USS Vinson. And they were preparing him for burial. So, he was cleaned up. His face was cleaned up. He was partially dressed at that time.

And I would -- and then the last one was the burial. I would say this. The big discussion about whether to disclose this to the public, I have always said, yes, I think the public should see the pictures.

If that happened, I would suggest maybe using those when he was cleaned up, for two reasons. One, they are not quite as gruesome. And, two, you can see him better, so that the doubting person out there will have no doubt in his mind that's Osama bin Laden.

BLITZER: And, so, when you saw the picture of him in the compound, with the blood and the really gory picture, could you make out -- if somebody would have said, look at this picture, could you clearly discern that this is bin Laden?

INHOFE: Oh, absolutely. Yes, you could. You have to look at half of his face. The other half was -- would be difficult.

And the reason you could is because they had some older pictures of him with little lines drawn down there as to the millimeters between the various features. And so it was put together pretty well.

And I might add this. They just sent me in a room by myself with nobody else to go through the pictures. I think that's probably good, because we can draw our own conclusions as to what we were viewing.

BLITZER: Did they show you any video?


BLITZER: Is there a video that they are showing members of Congress, the House or the Senate, as far as you know?

INHOFE: No, I have not heard -- I have not even heard of any video.

BLITZER: What was -- because I had seen a report that they also have some video that they are going to share with selected members of the Intelligence Committee. Whether they have or they haven't yet -- done that yet, I don't know. But I was wondering if they told you about that.

INHOFE: No. I question that.

I mean, if I'm the first one and, so far, as of this moment, still the -- well, I guess, today, some of the rest of them have seen it. But if I was the first one, I'm sure they would have told me there is video, if there is video. So, I would question that there is.

BLITZER: We did...


INHOFE: And I don't think you really would accomplish much by a video either.

BLITZER: To show the video of what was happening in the room, the compound when all this was going on, if in fact they have that video. I'm not sure what the video that they have shows. But I was just curious if they showed you some video.

I know you had to drive over to the CIA, to Langley, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. Walk us through the process. Did you have to leave your cell phones outside the room? What -- what happened there?

INHOFE Well, I went -- I had one staff person with me, military guy. We parked the car outside. As I went in they said leave your -- leave your -- BlackBerries and all that, which I did. Had someone come down. Went up to the -- can't remember what floor it was. And a very nice gentleman who works for Panetta said, "Here's the room." It's like a board room. And I went in and sat down. He left. And I just looked through the pictures as long as I wanted to.

In fact, I went back and relooked at a couple of times at some things so I would make some notes and remember what it was.

So I think by now, you have quite a few members. Frankly, I know I've been criticized and others -- other members when they see this. But you know -- with all this talk about the -- pictures should be released. My -- my conversation with Panetta was, while you're deciding to do that, why not let us do it so at least I can tell my people in Oklahoma that the guy is dead? And that's exactly what happened.

BLITZER: Here's the president's explanation the other day on why he feels the pictures should not be released to the public. I'll play the clip from "60 Minutes."


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think -- Americans and people around the world are glad that he's gone. But -- but we don't need to spike the football. And -- I think that -- given the graphic nature of these photos, it would -- create some national security risk.


INHOFE: I don't agree.

BLITZER: Tell us why you don't agree with the president.

INHOFE: Well, I don't agree with that. First of all, we're talking about terrorists out there, Wolf. Everyone who is watching us now, they want to kill all Americans. Now they tried some 32 times. They had well-thought-out schemes. We were able to stop that. And -- as a result of that, our intelligence did a very good job.

But if they even -- even today or in the absence of the -- of the -- putting down Osama bin Laden, they still want to kill us. So I just think -- I think it kind of sends a message out that -- we're kind of ashamed of what we did. I just don't agree with that out.

BLITZER: Bin Laden's family members, some of his sons say they want to see the pictures. Should the U.S. government let the family members of bin Laden see the pictures?

INHOFE: I wouldn't recommend it. I don't -- you know, it's -- to me that's -- we're spending a lot of time here talking about what to do with a bunch of pictures. We still are in the middle of a war, and we still have al Qaeda out there. And we've got -- you know, we ought to be concentrating our efforts on getting the terrorists right now. I don't really care one way or another about that.

BLITZER: Senator...

INHOFE: I would say this, though.

BLITZER: Go ahead.

INHOFE: I believe that -- you know, there's kind of this self- appointed appointment to keep -- Gitmo open all these years, the three years that President Obama has been trying to close it.

Well, I think it is -- demonstrated clearly now, some of the initial steps came from there and, of course, the CIA interrogation methods that he was criticizing. If it hadn't been for that, Osama bin Laden would be alive today.

I really think we need to expand now and start letting -- putting new detainees into -- into Gitmo. There's no place else they can put them, Wolf. They have to put them in these countries where they catch him. Then they turn them loose. It's a revolving door. So I think we need to use that great resource than we have called Gitmo.

BLITZER: And that debate will continue. You know, the White House denies that the enhanced interrogation techniques led to bin Laden's death, but I know that you and many others that disagree with him on that point, as well.

INHOFE: That's correct.

BLITZER: All right. Senator, thanks very much.

INHOFE: Thank you.


BLITZER: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, by the way, is also speaking out about the photo controversy. Listen to what he told troops at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, just a little while ago about the risks of releasing the bin Laden death photos.


ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Risks not only of the pictures themselves inflaming people who -- who were bin Laden's adherents, and -- and radical extremists, but we are also worried about the potential for manipulation of those photos.


BLITZER: Secretary Gates went on to lament how many details about the raid have been disclosed to the public. And he said, and I'm quoting now, "We all agreed that we would not release any operational details from the effort to take out bin Laden. That all fell apart on Monday, the next day. "

Secretary Gates went on to talk about the concerns of the Navy SEALS who carried out the raid, and he said -- let me quote once again -- "We are very concerned about the security of our families. When I met with the team last Thursday, they expressed a concern about that. I can't get into the details in this forum, but we are looking at what measures can be taken to pump up the security." Obviously, those Navy SEALs and their families are concerned. Secret documents released by WikiLeaks detail American intelligence on terror plots, including plans for an attack on a major American landmark. New information coming in. We'll share it with you.

And critics call it Romney Care. Now Mitt Romney is defending the health-care reform law he signed in Massachusetts.


MITT ROMNEY, FORMER GOVERNOR OF MASSACHUSETTS: Our plan was a state solution to a state problem. And his is a power grab by the federal government to put in place a one-size-fits-all plan across the nation.



BLITZER: Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney is defending health-care reform he signed into law in 2006 as governor of Massachusetts. Romney has been hounded by conservatives over the law, which they've dubbed Romney care.

In a speech today Romney refused to apologize for the bill, which he says is very different from the national health-care law backed by President Obama. Our national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is following the story for us.

Jessica, the Republican candidate -- I think it's fair to say, we can call him a Republican candidate. He's created this exploratory committee. He's trying to quiet the criticism not from Democrats but from fellow Republicans.

YELLIN: That's right, Wolf. And his own campaign aides tell me they did not expect this event today to quiet his critics, to silence them. But the point of it is it's early in the process and they believe he needed to address his health care vulnerability head-on. And clearly he did it, Wolf, in a way only a business consultant could.


YELLIN: In the first policy speech of his presidential campaign, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney opted for a Power Point presentation.

ROMNEY: To limit the powers of the federal government.

YELLIN: The goal, reframe the discussion about health-care reform, which many Republicans consider Romney's greatest liability. As Massachusetts governor, he championed the health-care plan that critics call a template for the health-care law President Obama signed last year over Republican objections. The governor says there's a crucial difference. ROMNEY: Some things that were done at the time I didn't like I vetoed. I got overwritten. But overall, am I proud of the fact that we -- we did our best for our people, and we got people insured? Absolutely.

YELLIN: Some conservatives are unforgiving. A blistering "Wall Street Journal" editorial sneered that Romney still doesn't seem to understand how government works. Called this a fatal flaw for a candidate and dubbed him Obama's running mate. Ouch.

So how similar are the two health-care plans? Both plans include a requirement to buy insurance called an individual mandate. Both create health care exchanges, marketplace to buy insurance. And both offer subsidies that Make insurance more affordable for low-income Americans.

Some differences? The national health-care law adds certain health-care-related taxes on some high-income earners. Massachusetts does not. Only the national plan includes efforts to include premium insurance increases and only the national plan aches steps to rein in increasing costs of health care. These days Governor Romney is unapologetic.

ROMNEY: A lot of pundits around the nation are saying that I should just stand up and say this whole thing was a mistake, that that was just a bone-headed idea and I should just admit it. It was a mistake and walk away from it. And I presume that a lot of folks would conclude if I did that that would be good important me politically.

But there's only one problem with that. It wouldn't be honest. I, in fact, did what I believed was right for the people of my state.


YELLIN: Wolf, a major piece of his presentation, as well, was describing what he would do as president. He says he would repeal and replace the current health-care law passed last year, and he says he would push to replace it with a law that gives more flexibility to states -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica Yellin reporting for us from Michigan. That's where Mitt Romney's dad was once governor of Michigan, as some of us remember. Jessica, thanks very much.

Let's get some more now on this story. I'm joined by senior political analyst Gloria Borger. Gloria, can he sort of put the genie back in the bottle on this subject?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think -- I think it's really hard to do. And, you know, we watched him today say, "OK, it wasn't a mistake." Lots of Republicans think he should have said, "You know, it was a mistake."

But then -- he would have been accused of flip-flopping, as he was accused during the last campaign of flip-flopping on an issue like gay marriage.

Mitt Romney's big issue here, Wolf, is authenticity. That was the problem in the last campaign. He's got to prove to people that he stands for something. And he believes in something. So I think they made a decision in the campaign that they have to confront this head- on and they have to do it now. And there's no putting the genie back in the bottle.

The Tea Party people are not going to like him for this. Social conservatives don't like him anyway. So he might as well say, "OK, it wasn't perfect. But it's what I did, and I stand by it."

BLITZER: Well, he changed his mind on several issues when he was running for governor of Massachusetts.

BORGER: That's right.

BLITZER: For example, a very liberal state. He took one position when he was run fog the Republican nomination for president he takes a different --

BORGER: But you know, if he had done that again, Wolf, it would be part of the brief against him. That he's just doing everything for political reasons, that he's an inauthentic candidate, that you can't trust him. You can't believe what he says.

You know, if Newt Gingrich's problem is discipline, Mitt Romney's problem is authenticity. So I think they -- they felt that they really couldn't walk it back.

BLITZER: The "Wall Street Journal" blasted him on their editorial page.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Heard from Jessica. The president of the United States, a lot of Democrats, are giving him this feint praise: "Oh, we love your health care -- love what did you in Massachusetts. We followed your example."

YELLIN: I know. And that "Wall Street Journal" editorial you've been talking about, that Jessica talked about, the line that really struck me in -- it was so nasty to Mitt Romney was -- Mr. Romney's highest principle seems to be faith in his own expertise. Which is to say OK, he says he's a businessman. He knows best. But you know what? That's not really principle. And -- that's -- you know, that's tough to get.

BLITZER: The Republican strategists, you've been speaking to them...

YELLIN: Yes, yes.

BLITZER: ... think he can overcome; he can muscle his way in.

BORGER: It's interesting. Always in politics compared to what? As you know. And -- right now if you look at our CNN polls about his favorable and unfavorable ratings, he's 40 percent favorable, 30 percent unfavorable. Thirty percent don't know. That's pretty good in the Republican field. He can raise money.

And you know, Republicans tend to nominate the guy who's next in line. And they're a very hierarchical party. And so some would say, you know, it's Mitt Romney's turn. He ran last time, was beaten by John McCain. But he may, in the end, be the candidate with the most experience that can bring the party together. At least that's what the Romney votes are.

BLITZER: It's tradition among Republicans, but it's a whole new world out there right now.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens. That's why we love covering politics.

BORGER: It is.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Two men arrested on terror-related charges in New York City. They're accused of working a bomb -- a plot, I should say, working a plot to bomb synagogues in New York. Also the Empire State Building. What's going on?

Plus, new details about other failed terror plots are now coming to light. We've got new information.


BLITZER: Two men are under arrest now in New York city. Suspected of plotting an attack on a Manhattan synagogue. Police say the suspects had at least three guns, hand grenade, but not yet selected which synagogue to target. They also allegedly were eyeing at least one other famous New York City landmark.


RAY KELLY, NEW YORK CITY POLICE COMMISSIONER: In addition to discussing the bombing of synagogues, quote, "one after another," unquote, Ferhani also expressed interest in bombing the Empire State Building.

Seven months ago, New York City undercover officers encountered Ferhani, who expressed interest in killing Jews. He also said, quote, "We will blow up a synagogue in Manhattan and take out the entire building."


BLITZER: Meanwhile, we're learning some chilling new details about other alleged terror plots that never came to fruition. Our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence is joining us now with details. What are you finding out?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, these WikiLeaks cables are based on the accounts of detainees. So should we accept everything they say as true? Probably not.

But at a bare minimum it shows that in the years Osama bin Laden was on the run, plots against the U.S. never stopped.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): Secret documents released by WikiLeaks show good help was hard to find, even for al Qaeda. Nine-eleven mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed told the shoe bomber to shave his beard and detonate his bomb in the airplane bathroom. Richard Reid didn't shave, drawing attention, and tried to light the bomb in his seat. The mission failed, and Mohammed called Reid irresponsible.

Anything about this look threatening? Women and kids' clothes? But they were a key to a plot in 2003. Saih Fullah Faracha (ph) owned a textile business and told Khalid Shaikh Mohammed mix explosives and chemical agents in with legitimate children's clothes because American Port Authorities won't open those shipping containers. Homeland security officials say the revelation led to beefed up port security.

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: I'm glad the American people are going to -- are starting to learn more about just how many of these we were facing and had to deal with.

LAWRENCE: Like Bashir Lapp (ph), who planned to marry four women and have 48 kids just to build his own jihad army.

TOWNSEND: As ridiculous as some of these sound, you realize you've got to step back and you need technical experts to explain to you, is this possible?

LAWRENCE: Al Qaeda planned to use special blowtorches to cut the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge and might have succeeded if they got into the security room where those cables are anchored.

KELLY: If you got into that room, you'd be able to, in my judgment, cut those cables and not be seen by the public, not be seen by traffic passing on the bridge. So, yes, it would have been feasible to do it and still potentially feasible.

LAWRENCE: But they abandoned the plan, because the weather was too hot, meaning too much security.

(on camera) In the middle of 2002 the intel community got a tip that there could be a plot against the bridge from the Godzilla movie, which they interpreted to mean the Brooklyn Bridge.

KELLY: That's when we devoted police resources to the bridge.

LAWRENCE: The NYPD put scuba divers and patrol boats in the East River and posted police cars on the bridge itself. KELLY: It's a lot of observation and alarms on the bridge. There's a lot of cameras that are focused on the bridge. Our police officers are still there. But the theory of cutting the cables, I think, is still a valid one.

LAWRENCE: Al Qaeda's inspiration for these attacks could come from a simple conversation. Documents show how talk of what jet fuel did to the Twin Towers sparked another plot to blow up gas stations. They were actively recruiting two or three African-American Muslim converts who would break into the huge fuel tanks underneath the pumps and plant an explosive inside.

TOWNSEND: In those debriefings, we were hearing from our allies that that had become a goal, an objective of al Qaeda, to recruit non- Arab males to make sure that they could get past any sort of screening -- protocols we may have.


LAWRENCE: But in its zeal to sort of crack down and find these plots, the U.S. government also went too far and hauled a lot of innocent people off to Guantanamo Bay. These documents also show members like a 70-year-old grandfather from Afghanistan, Wolf. He was senile He was also diagnosed with dementia, and when they looked into his file they found absolutely no reason at all why he had been taken to Guantanamo.

BLITZER: Yes. It's pretty chilling stuff. You wonder what they're going to try to do now as sort of revenge to bin Laden. I know people are worried about that.

LAWRENCE: And also, what's going to come out of this just treasure trove that the SEALs were able to haul out of that compound, as well.

BLITZER: They've got a lot of studying to do. Good reporting, Chris. Thank you.

Senator John McCain says he was told by the CIA director that enhanced interrogation techniques did not lead to Osama bin Laden. Talks to John King. That's coming up at the top of the hour on "JOHN KING USA."

And Jeanne Moos has a story about a teen who's been banned from his high school prom because of the way he got his date.


BLITZER: Here's a look at our "Hot Shots."

In Florida, the astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, arrives at Kennedy Space Center ahead of Monday's scheduled launch.

In southern Spain, a fireman inspects a house destroyed by yesterday's deadly earthquake. In China, a child wears a scarf for protection during a sandstorm that's sweeping across northern parts of the country.

And in Munich, Germany, a 6-day-old elephant takes his first walk outside with his mother at the zoo.

"Hot Shots," pictures coming in from around the world.

A Connecticut boy came up with a very original way to ask a female classmate to their high-school prom. It landed him a date and much more. CNN's Jeanne Moos explains.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Chances of going to the prom, still not promising for this Connecticut teen, though he's gotten sympathetic groans on talk shows.

JIMMY KIMMEL, HOST, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE": And banned from the prom. Now, he didn't damage the school.

MOOS: And rave reviews from fellow students for the stunt he pulled.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's one of the better things that happened at Shelton High, actually.

MOOS: What happened was James Tate and two friends taped cardboard letters on Shelton High in the middle of the night, saying, "Sonali Rodrigues, will you go to the prom with me? Hmu."

(on camera) "HMU," by the way, means "hit me up," get back to me. And she did, saying yes.

(voice-over) Now she's making the talk show rounds with her would-be date.

KIMMEL: Come on into the picture. Sonali, is she under the table? What's going on? Where is she? Sonali...

JAMES TATE, HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: I did it to make her feel special and I feel like I accomplished that.

MOOS: But his other accomplishment was getting a one-day suspension and banned from attending the prom, which prompted thousands to go to the "Let James Tate go to the Prom" Facebook page, plastered with posts like this from a third grader: "I think it is ridiculous. That's just plain mean."

There are "Team Tate" t-shirts.

The mayor of Shelton suggested school officials reconsider.

(on camera) One state representative even prepared legislation, an actual amendment to an education bill that would allow James Tate to perform community service rather than miss the prom. And have you been flooded with calls and stuff?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my God. It's been unending.

MOOS (voice-over): The pair hit "The Today Show."

SONALI RODRIGUES, HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: I thought it was really sweet. I never, ever thought he would get in trouble.

MOOS: Other girls were envious.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What he did was really cute, and I'd love if someone did that for me, too.

MOOS: And just when everyone thought the pressure would cause school officials to cave, out came Shelton High's headmaster to reiterate the rule that any student suspended after April 1...

BETH SMITH, SHELTON HIGH SCHOOL HEADMASTER: ... for any reason would not be allowed to attend the prom.

MOOS: To which a fellow student said...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a memory you can't get back. It's ridiculous.

MOOS: But they will have memories of their first prom dance being on national TV.

KIMMEL: Hey, show us how you two would have been danced if you had been able to attend the prom. Oh, this will be sweet.

Well, no wonder.

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


BLITZER: Very cute stuff. Let them go to the prom. I say let them go.

That does it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.