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CNN PRESENTS

CNN Presents, Death of a Diva; Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant, a Troubled Nuclear Facility at the Center of A Debate; A Story of Al Qaeda's Bomb Plot

Aired February 19, 2012 - 20:00   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tonight on CNN presents, "Death of a Diva."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whitney Houston was pronounced dead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was born to sing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But lived in a troubled life.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When I arrived in that room on that floor, you could feel that something was terribly wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What led to her death? Were there any warning signs? Whitney Houston's final hours.

Nuclear standoff. It happened in Japan. Could it happen here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was thought it was fatally flouted. Unfortunately Fukushima proved me rate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Safety concerns over an ageing nuclear facility.

Deadly cargo, would you believe this laser printer is a weapon of terror? We'll show you how Al Qaeda got these printer bombs through security and onto planes. Revealing investigations, fascinating characters, stories with impact.

This is CNN presents with your host tonight Randi Kaye and Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DOCTOR SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST: Good evening. Whitney Houston will be remembered as one of the greatest voices of her generation and many of her closest friends say the troubled star was poised to make a comeback. That was tragically cut short with her untimely death.

RANDI KAYE, CNN HOST: Whitney Houston's soaring talent was shadowed we her troubles with addiction and her marriage.

Don Lemon looks at her rise to tame fame, her fall from superstardom and the final hours in her troubled life.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DON LEMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): That legendary ballad, that blinding beauty, that breathtaking voice.

Whitney Houston, the shy Jersey girl who belted her way to superstardom, six Grammys, and a record seven consecutive number one singles. For a time she was pop's greatest love of all.

KELLY PRICE, SINGER: To hear her voice was a miracle because for anybody to be able to do with a voice what she did with her speaks to a divine order.

LEMON: Whitney Houston, the icon, unimaginably talented, but also fatally flawed.

ALEXIS CHIU, SENIOR WRITER, PEOPLE MAGAZINE: There were many different sides to Whitney. There was the performer, the professional, there was the addict, and you never knew which Whitney you were going to get.

LEMON: If Houston was blessed by the heavens, she was most certainly cursed with her own demons. A contradiction right up to her final days.

PRICE: This was not a woman who was depressed, upset, high, drunk.

GERRICK KENNEDY, MUSIC REPORTER, LAS ANGELES TIMES: It was immediate. You could smell the stench of cigarettes and liquor. And I am just like, oh, my God, she is a mess right now.

LEMON: Whitney Houston died here at the Beverly Hilton on February 11th, the voice of a generation silenced forever. A tragic ending to a life filled with promise that was almost preordained.

With a gospel legend for a mother, and a cousin named Dionne Warwick, Houston was born to sing.

CLARENCE WALDRON, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, JET MAGAZINE: When we first saw Whitney, when you first heard Whitney, you knew there was something special happening here.

LEMON: Legendary music producer Clyde Davis certainly knew. He discovered Houston and changed her life forever. He packaged and polished the 19-year-old sensation into a pure pop princess, at least on the surface.

CHIU: One source who worked with Whitney told us she definitely was not a goody two-shoes in any sense of the word.

LEMON: Houston's bad girl side may have ultimately drawn her to R&B bad boy, Bobby Brown.

CHIU: She was a girl from the streets of Newark and fell in love with a bad boy with a good voice, so, you know, her fans, yes, very shocked. Those who knew her best really weren't surprised. LEMON: Houston and Brown traded rings in 1992, a personal high matched only by a professional one that very same year. The "body guard" gross more that $400 million and launched the top selling sound track of all time.

But even as the crossover superstar commanded millions for movies like "the preacher's wife," she increasingly struggled with her fame.

Did she ever talk to you about the stress of fame?

GARY CATONA, WHITNEY HOUSTON'S VOCAL COACH: She said to me, you don't know what it is like being me. I am stressed out all the time.

LEMON: That stress was only compounded by Houston's often rocky marriage.

CHIU: They were really happy at first but pretty soon the relationship turned pretty volatile, and when she was under pressure, she tended to turn to drugs and alcohol.

LEMON: When Houston began a string of missed appearances and cancelations, many pointed their finger at Bobby Brown for his wife's mounting troubles with drugs.

JENNIFER HOLLIDAY, SINGER, ACTRESS: I hate to say that she had started before. She had met Bobby Brown.

LEMON: Houston's increasingly erratic behavior even played out before the cameras in the short-lived reality show "being Bobby Brown," but when Brown spoke to CNN in 2005, he insisted he and his famous wife were finally sober.

BOBBY BROWN, WHITNEY HOUSTON'S EX-HUSBAND: I am working on a year- and-a-half much sobriety, and my wife, she is working on her year, so we're really doing good, and I am proud of her.

LEMON: Yet her attempts at recovery only ended in relapse for Houston and the years of drug abuse had taken their toll.

CATONA: I was shocked at her condition. Her, the whole condition.

LEMON: What happened to Whitney Houston's voice?

CATONA: I think that the psychological impact of being who she was drove her into lifestyle habits that ultimately were destructive.

LEMON: By May 2011 Whitney Houston was divorced. Her attempt at a comeback a year earlier was in shambles. With all of these crushing personal setbacks, she entered into a voluntary outpatient program for drug and alcohol treatment. Friends say she just needed a break.

KIM BURRELL, FRIEND: I know that she was pacing herself because she was preparing for the movie. I don't know exactly what she went through to do that.

LEMON: That movie was "sparkle," and by the time Whitney Houston began doing press for the film, she did seem like a different woman. Access Hollywood Shaun Robinson did the last one-on-one interview with her.

SHAUN ROBINSON, ANCHOR, ACCESS HOLLYWOOD: When I look Whitney Houston in her eyes, I thought that this woman is coming back.

LEMON: But looks can be deceiving, especially when you are talking about Whitney Houston. Her final days when we return.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LEMON: With a new movie and a new sparkle of her own, a seemingly healthy Whitney Houston started the new year poised to perhaps make that long awaited comeback. But behind the scenes, some now all too familiar and alarming behavior.

CHIU: Her friends told us that even though she had successfully gone to rehab last year and had this great experience filming "sparkle," there are always temptations and, you know, unfortunately she started partying again and spending time with perhaps the wrong people and just fell right back into that sad spiral.

LEMON: Three days before the annual Grammy awards show Whitney Houston was staying here at the Beverly Hilton. It is here where over several days sources say the pop superstar was seen consuming considerable amounts of alcohol and acting erratically.

Derek Kennedy of the L.A. Times was covering a pre-Grammy president at Beverly Hilton when the singer raised eyebrows at the hotel pool.

DEREK KENNEDY, L.A. TIMES: One of the conversations I had with a Grammy staffer was that security was getting calls from guests that she was doing handstands by the pool. Oh, that's bizarre.

LEMON: And then there was this.

Kennedy says Houston smelled of cigarettes and alcohol when she burst in on her mentor Clyde Davis.

WHITNEY HOUSTON, SINGER: Come. Say hi to your godfather. Come say hi to your God dad.

KENNEDY: I am like, oh, my God, like you are a mess right now and you are embarrassing yourself. I am embarrassed for you.

LEMON: But the pop star appeared anything but disheveled or disoriented later that night.

Whitney Houston attended a pre-Grammy party at this Hollywood night club. As she walked the red carpet witnesses say she had it together and was on her best behavior.

Adam Ambrose is a publicist for "True Hollywood".

ADAM AMBROSE, PUBLICIST, TRUE HOLLYWOOD: She walked here holding hands at the back with Bobbi Kristina and they both looked radiant. When they arrived they were, you know, looking fantastic.

LEMON: Houston was even up for little impromptu entertaining. She surprised everyone when she joined her friend, R&B Grammy nominee, Kelly Price on stage.

AMBROSE: The place erupted. It was very sweet. It was really touching.

LEMON: Fun times, but too much of a good time? Not so says Kelly Price. While she says that Houston had champagne at the party, she denies reports that things got out of hand with her friend.

PRICE: This was not a woman who was depressed, upset, high, drunk. She was clearly in her right mind. She was not acting erratic.

LEMON: But Access Hollywood's Shaun Robinson says the pictures sane that Thursday night tell a whole different story.

ROBINSON: I said who is that? What the hell happened? What happened in three months that took her from this person who seemed to really have it altogether to this person who looked very disheveled and just kind of not there?

LEMON: In a sad reality, Houston hadn't been herself in years, at least not the one fans had come to love at the height of her super- stardom. Her struggles with addiction, the loss of her once incomparable voice, the pressures of fame had all but destroyed Houston's once magnificent facade.

And by Saturday, February 11th, any hope of a comeback would be over.

Hours away from attending Clyde Davis' annual pre-Grammy celebration, Whitney Houston was in other fourth floor suite here at the Beverly Hilton when a music executive staying on the floor above hers was jolted awake by a loud thud.

CHIU: A number of the entourage went in and discovered her unconscious in the bath tub partially submerged. The member of the entourage called 911 immediately.

LEMON: Within minutes paramedics arrived, making desperate attempts to revive her.

CHIU: Her brother, Gary, was in the room and his wife, Pat, obviously praying for a miracle.

LEMON: Houston's close friend, Kim Burrell, received a troubled call and raise over to the hotel.

BURRELL: You could feel that something was terribly wrong, and by then I saw the yellow police tape down the hall. So, I rushed to the room and I said what's going on here? And Pat told me she is gone. LEMON: Whitney Houston was dead on the eve of music's biggest night, one of its biggest icons was gone. She was only 48.

CHIU: Bobbi Kristina broke down in the hotel lobby and just was screaming over and over again what's wrong with her? What's wrong with her? So we can only imagine what was going through this girl's mind, but her mother was her world.

BURRELL: I wanted everything to just stop. Wait a minute. What I felt was happening I didn't want to be happening.

LEMON: A source close to the death investigation tells me prescription drugs including xanax were found in Whitney Houston's hotel room at the Beverly Hilton. The coroner's office hopes subpoenas of Houston's medical records will help them learn more. But they're waiting for toxicology reports to determine exactly how the singer died.

What actually happened to Whitney Houston is still a mystery and still under investigation. But whatever caused her death, the fact remains that a life built on triumph ended in tragedy.

But for those who knew her, the mega star known as the voice will always sing on.

WALDRON: When someone like that dies, the music takes on a new meaning. The music takes on a meaning now that Whitney is not here, and the song that makes me very emotional was that song "all at once," and the lyrics are so strong.

And it hit me you're not coming back "all at once".

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: And coming up, a troubled nuclear facility at the center of a debate that could determine the future of nuclear energy in the United States.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GUPTA: It's been almost a year since an earthquake and a tsunami Fukushima Daichi power plant brought nuclear disaster to Japan. But according to some experts a similar tragedy could happen here right here in the United States.

The 40-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear plant has the exact design as Fukushima's. And now, it is at the center of a battle that could shape the future of nuclear power in the United States.

CNN's Amber Lyon exposes the troubled history of the Yankee nuclear plant and why some people in Vermont want to shut it down.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

AMBER LYON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): March 11, 2011, an earthquake, then a tsunami devastate the east coast of Japan. UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: There may be a few inside there.

LYON: Over the next several days and weeks the damaged Fukushima Daichi nuclear power station, north of Tokyo, begins to worry the world. Fires break out in the reactors. Radiations be used (ph) into the area. It is the worst nuclear accident since Cher Noybl leaving many wondering could this happen here?

(on-camera): We're here in Vermont where there is a battle brewing that could determine the future of nuclear power for the U.S. at the center of this battle this nuclear plant, this same design as Fukushima.

(voice-over): The Vermont Yankee nuclear power station is 40 years old. It is operating license issued by the U.S. nuclear regulatory commission or NRC is set to expire next month. It is one of the 23 mark-1 design nuclear reactors in the U.S. the problems with this design are well known to industry insiders including the NRC. According to government documents dating back to 1972.

ARNIE GUNDERSEN, NUCLEAR ENGINEER: 1972 the NRC said we never should have license this had design period. But, they also said we have so many of them licensed already, that if we were to change our minds that would ruin nuclear power forever.

LYON: Arnie Gundersen is a former nuclear industry executive turned whistle blower with decades of experience in the industry. He has been appointed the chair of the state panel overseeing the Vermont Yankee reactor.

He says because of design flaws, Vermont Yankee and other plants like it across the U.S. are one major earthquake, tornado, or flood away from disaster. That is a fear bordering on reality after massive floods and tornados hit Vermont last year.

If something were to go wrong at Vermont Yankee, this would be the damage area, and given its recent history under the ownership of a company called Entergy, there is reason to be concerned.

(on-camera) Let's go over this list one by one of all these mechanical errors.

GUNDERSEN: We had six ping leaks in the plant, three piping leaks in the ground, then we had the fire and the cooling tower collapse. That's just in the last five years.

LYON: Is this normal?

GUNDERSEN: It is not normal when cooling towers collapse. It is the only time in the history of nuclear power that a cooling tower as collapsed. The key is why the fire? Why the tower collapse? In every case we have been able to trace it back to inadequate maintenance. Every one of the major failures could have been preventable.

LYON: None of these problems would lead to a meltdown but show a pattern of sloppy maintenance.

Vermont Yankee sits on the Connecticut river across from this elementary school. NRC reports show the plant has been leaking radioactive materials into the environment for years although it levels the agency says are safe for the public.

GUNDERSEN: They found six or seven different isotopes, most of which last a long time.

LYON: In 2010 a fish caught in the Connecticut river tested positive for Stram tm90 in its flesh. Stram tm90 seeks out bone causing leukemia and it doesn't leave the environment for 30 years. For Gundersen, the logical source was Vermont Yankee.

GUNDERSEN: I think if you find a fish with radioactive Stram next to a plant leaking radioactive Strontium, a high correlation of the strontium it and the fish came from the plant.

LYON: But so far testing has suggested otherwise.

(on-camera): This is Dr. Bill Irwin, and he is with the Vermont department of health. And this is where you keep the fish you caught in the Connecticut river?

DOCTOR BILL IRWIN, VERMONT DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: Yes, this is correct.

LYON: A recent study released by Dr. Irwin showed that fish almost 150 miles away in a lake had Strontium in them. He believes caused by fallout from nuclear testing.

IRWIN: The other place we found it is in the natural environment everywhere in not only that area of Vermont but all areas of Vermont and throughout the world, and again it come from fallout from nuclear weapons testing.

LYON: But more tests need to be conducted to be certain.

Despite its age and recent problems, last year the NRC granted Vermont Yankee a 20-year extension, so instead of closing in March 2012, it could now be open until March 2032.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (R), VERMONT: Where I have had problems is that the NRC has in some cases become a cheerleader for the nuclear industry.

Clearly the NRC has to be vigilant.

LYON: Vermont senator Bernie Sanders sits on the Senate committee that oversees the NRC. He is worried as an older generation of America's reactors comes up for renewal.

SANDERS: They have always extended when companies have come in and said we would like an extension. I believe over 60, in over 60 instances they granted every one, and that's a problem. That's a problem. LYON: We wanted to talk to the NRC. Over a six week period we repeatedly requested an interview at any time or day of their choice but we were told they were over booked. So, we decided to show up anyway and see if we could get answers.

A spokesman came outside soon after we arrived.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You received the agency's response via our director of public affairs.

LYON: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The answer of the agency.

LYON: Yes. So, no one is going to talk to us?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No.

LYON: I actually have the exact quote here on your site. It says that the NRC is devoted to open government, open accountable, accessible.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, all of our information is available on our Web site.

LYON: But you guys are accessible to the public, how come you can't sit down for a five minute interview to explain your side of the story?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because the subject that you want to discuss is something that is currently a matter of litigation that the agency cannot discuss.

LYON: But we don't want to just discuss the Entergy plant, sir. We want to discuss overall how the NRC is regulating nuclear power in the United States.

One reason the NRC wouldn't talk to us is that the Vermont Yankee plant is at the center of a pitched legal battle over who decides the reactor's fate, and the stakes are enormous.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This case out of the state of Vermont has potentially very real national consequences.

LYON: Coming up, will the people of Vermont have a say in their own nuclear future?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE ANNOUNCER: We now return to CNN Presents with your hosts Randi Kaye and Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

KAYE: The state of Vermont wants to close down the only nuclear power plant in the state when its original operating license expires on March 21st. The federal government says it can stay open an additional 20 years.

GUPTA: And Amber Lyon takes us inside this battle over a nuclear plant that could determine the future of ageing plants all over this country.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LYON (voice-over): The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is a test case for the fate of aging reactors all over the country.

In 2002 it was purchased from the state by a private New Orleans-based company, Entergy, which owns 11 plants across the country.

As a condition of the sale, Entergy signed an agreement with the state saying they would not operate the plant past 2012 unless a state panel agreed. Four years later Vermont amended the agreement to give the legislature a say in whether the plant could stay open. Overall, it has been a profitable deal for Entergy.

GUNDERSEN: They bought it really cheap. They bought it for $170 million. A new plant costs $20 billion. So, they bought it for 100 times less than a new plant would cost. And they can sell power at a rate that makes them on the order of half a million to a million dollars every day.

LYON: But under Entergy's management the plant was plagued with problems.

GUNDERSEN: I had a lot of ex-employees contact me, and they're appalled at the way the plant is run.

LYON: We wanted to speak with Entergy's CEO, Jay Wayne Leonard, but he declined our request.

The company's credibility in Vermont took a hit in January 2010 when radioactive water was discovered in monitoring wells. A leak coming from underground pipes beneath the plant. This after plant owners had testified under oath that such pipes didn't exist. Entergy has since claimed to have fixed the problem.

BILL SORRELL, VERMONT ATTORNEY GENERAL: Come on. You want the utmost of credibility and integrity on the part of the operators of nuclear power plants.

LYON: Vermont's attorney general, Bill Sorrell was shocked to discover the pipes existed.

SORRELL: They repeatedly denied they had that until they had a leak of tritium, a radioactive material, that was discovered in underground testing or monitoring wells and went, sorry, we made misleading statements to you.

LYON: Misleading?

SORRELL: Yes.

LYON: Do you think they were misleading or were they lies?

SORRELL: I don't know. They were not -- the statements they made were not true.

LYON: Shortly after the leak the Vermont state Senate voted overwhelmingly, we're talking 26-4 in a bipartisan vote to shut the plant down. Entergy says that vote wasn't a part of the original agreement with the state, applied for, got a renewal of the license from the NRC, and then came back and sued Vermont to keep Vermont from ever shutting the plant down despite the fact the majority of residents want this plant out.

SORRELL: Entergy tried to have its cake and eat it too, if you will. They made promises to induce the state, state legislature, the public service board, to give them permission to operate, to store more spent fuels and then when the state exercised its authority under those agreements and under the law, and it didn't go Entergy's way, then Entergy backed out of the deals.

LYON: In court papers Entergy has said that Vermont is trying to veto federal authority over nuclear power and therefore the state's actions are unconstitutional.

Opposition to the plant is not universal. In tiny Vernon, Vermont, where the plant is located, there are some who support the license extension.

We're here in the center of Vernon at the port side tavern which also happens to be the home of the tritium leak shot.

(on-camera): So can I have you raise your hands if you support the court ruling that Vermont Yankee can stay open?

DICK NESBITT, VERNON, VERMONT RESIDENT: It is a very safe place to work and be around.

CAMERON NESBITT, VERNON, VERMONT RESIDENT: If Vermont Yankee shut down not only would we go out of business, it would have a major impact on the entire state of Vermont.

LYON: Vermont Yankee's original operating license is set to expire on March 21st, and the future of this plant is uncertain. Most likely this case will go to the Supreme Court and what happens there could determine the future of ageing plants all across the country.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: And Amber Lyon joins us now. You know, I have to say that is a really troubling report. There is so many plants like this. Where does that case stand now?

LYON: Well, as of now the state of Vermont lost round one. A judge ruled the plant can stay open. Whether Vermont will appeal this is yet to be seen. But the state also looking a creative ways they can tax Entergy to keep the corporation from making a profit from the plant which would then force it to shut down. GUPTA: Yes. As we were saying people all over the world, this comes up and people want it open because it is their livelihood as well. So, it is back and forth. Amber, thanks so much.

LYON: Thank you.

KAYE: Thanks, amber.

Coming up next, deadly cargo, the race to stop a potential airborne catastrophe.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KAYE: Your plane takes off. You sit back, relax, knowing every passenger and piece of luggage has passed through security. But what you may not know is that half of the hole below you is filled with air cargo that may have undergone far less screening than your checked bags. Even more terrifying, al Qaeda knows about had loophole.

CNN's senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, reveals the inside story of the al Qaeda plot that element succeed and he will show a bomb that evades detection can be made. We have left out crucial steps so this report is not a how-to for terrorists, but it does show that much more needs to be done to keep us safe.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This could be a bomb beneath your feet the next time you fly. It is a laser printer.

In October 2010 al Qaeda made two of these printer bombs. Both disguised as cargo passed undetected through airport security.

BARACK OBAMA, P[RESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Two suspicious packages bound for the United States.

THERESA MAY, BRITISH HOME SECRETARY: The devices were probably intended to detonate mid-air and to destroy the cargo aircraft on which they were being transported.

ROBERTSON: Al Qaeda dubbed it operation hemorrhage. They found a security weakness, air cargo, aviation's Achilles heel.

MAY: Gentlemen from Massachusetts?

ROBERTSON: Congressman Ed Markey has been sounding the alarm because air cargo often travels on passenger aircraft.

REP. ED MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Forty four percent of all cargo on passenger planes in the United States comes in internationally.

That cargo does not undergo the same level of scrutiny as the cargo on planes that fly domestically.

ROBERTSON: Al Qaeda's best bomb maker targeted the weakness, a plot so sophisticated it would confuse authorities on three continents.

OBAMA: We do know that the packages originated in Yemen.

ROBERTSON: From the terrorist group, al Qaeda, and the Arabian peninsula.

(on-camera): The last two serious attempts to export terror to the United States both began here and both involved the same expert bomb maker, and both involved the same powerful and incredibly hard to detect explosive PETN.

(voice-over): Mustafa Alani knows al Qaeda's bombers well.

MUSTAFA ALANI, DIRECTOR, SECURITY, DEFENSE STUDIES GULF RESEARCH CENTER: We're talking about a new generation of very skillful builders. I'm very committed for your book.

MARKEY: If we don't put in place comprehensive safe guards internationally, we should expect on a yearly basis they will try to find some way of using a passenger plane as a way to attack us.

ROBERTSON: Master bomb maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a 29-year-old Saudi is both imaginative and ruthless.

In this al Qaeda video the man in the red is his brother Abdullah. The brothers are saying their last goodbyes because Abdullah is departing on a suicide mission. Inside his body is a bomb made by his brother.

This is the aftermath of that mission, Abdullah dead, his target a powerful Saudi prince, Muhammed Ben Naif, who has close ties to the White House, injured.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: The jet with nearly 300 people on it and passengers told us they saw a flash, flames, and smoke.

ROBERTSON: According to U.S. authorities, al-Asiri is behind every recent plot to blow up U.S. airliners. He master minded the so-called underwear bomb that failed to detonate when (inaudible) when it was ignited aboard an airplane over Detroit on Christmas day 2009.

In both attacks and the printer bombs, al-Asiri chose the explosive PETN. It has become his signature.

(on-camera): It looks just like sugar, just like salt, and it is easy to imagine how this can be stitched into clothing and hidden around the body and that's what makes PETN such a challenge for airport security officials to detect.

(voice-over): Al-Asiri managed to get the printers on two planes, bombs headed to the U.S.

SYDNEY ALFORD, EXPLOSIVE EXPERT: Here we go.

ROBERTSON: Explosive expert Sydney Alford showed me the power of a tiny amount of PETN.

ALFORD: This really is a messy powder.

ROBERTSON: Then he agreed to replicate a series power printer bombs revealing how they evaded detection time and time again. We left out critical steps.

ALFORD: And I show -- try to shake that out. I never tried this before.

ROBERTSON: Alford and his ink from the toner car tragedy.

ALFORD: I will try to replace -- replace it with the white stuff and this is PETN.

ROBERTSON: PETN. Because Asiri knew the explosive would look like ink toner when x-rayed, making his bomb hard to detect.

ALFORD: If that went off now, I would be instantly killed and bits of me will go around the room.

ROBERTSON: Al-Asiri leaves nothing to chance. No suicide bomber, but a sophisticated timer.

ALFORD: They have timers in them. The cartridge has been inserted and they click diagnostic. That is now a bomb.

ROBERTSON: Out in a field, Alford places the bomb on an aluminum sheet simulating the skin of an aircraft.

ALFORD: 3-2-1. That is where the table was standing, and you can see the blast effect. If that had been part of an airplane's fuselage, then heaven help the airplane. It would have been a terminal event, I am afraid.

ROBERTSON: Next, with the bombs already on passenger jets, intelligence services scramble to intercept them before they can explode.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GUPTA: In the wake of 9/11, Congress mandated all cargo on passenger jets be screened. But that's not always the case with air cargo and al Qaeda knows air cargo is aviation's Achilles heel, a gating weakness that exploited in a terrifying operation.

Two deadly bombs nearly made it past screeners in the U.S. air spares. Nic Robertson continues this investigation into this deadly threat of our airline safety.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: Yemen, late October 2010, al Qaeda mails two boxes. Inside each a bomb hidden in a printer. One of those packages began their journey at this career service in the capital of Yemen. Counterintelligence officials believe the master bomb maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, constructed the bombs, carefully hiding the high explosive PETN inside the packages before they began their journey to the United States.

Despite recent warnings putting U.S. and Saudi Arabian counterterrorism agencies on high alert, the bombs make it past screeners at the Sana's airport on to two passenger jets.

Mustafa Alani was briefed by the head of Saudi counterterrorism prince Muhammed Ben Naif, the same Saudi royal al Qaeda had already tried to kill. He told him what happened next.

A very lucky break. Saudi intelligence gets a tip, an informant tells them about the plot. But it's too late to stop the bombs taking off on passenger jets.

ALANI: By that time the shipment has already left the country.

ROBERTSON: All that the Saudis know is that the bombs are headed to the U.S. then more luck. Two packages were addressed to medieval crusaders, an al Qaeda blunder that leads the Saudis to the tracking numbers for the bombs. Saudi's prince Muhammed Ben Naif calls the White House, which goes into crisis response mode.

ALANI: They never questioned the credibility of the information.

ROBERTSON: British intelligence is alerted, too. But authorities still can't locate the deadly cargo.

ALANI: So, it was a very complicated to find out where the shipment is moving, where did is now.

ROBERTSON: Many hours and several flights later one package is located in Dubai. The other at east midland's airport in Britain. Police arrive and search for the explosive.

The police bomb squad finds the package, opens up the printer, but can't find the bomb, all the while the timer is counting down.

MAY: I spoke on the phones a number of times to Janet Napolitano. My opposite number.

ROBERTSON: I met with British home secretary, Theresa May, who headed the response.

MAY: In the early stages of course, the amount of information available is limited and the information has to come through, very often gradually.

ROBERTSON: After scanners and dogs failed to find any explosives, police lift the security cordon around the airport, but the Saudis assure the printer is a bomb.

ALANI: The task was to convince the other officer to look again and again. This was a major battle to convince him. ROBERTSON: Tensions are rising.

ALANI: The Saudis' intelligence officers were shouting and they were very nervous. So it was basically fighting against time.

ROBERTSON: Finally a breakthrough. Investigators in east Midland's in Dubai find the explosive inside the printer cartridges.

MAY: It was clear that was sophisticated device. It was a device we hadn't seen in this sort of form previously.

ROBERTSON: The British are about to find out they had been very lucky.

Forensic teams establish the explosive was found three and a half hours after the bomb was set to explode. It failed to go off because the bomb squad had unknowingly diffused it during their initial inspection by removing the printer cartridge, they'd broken the circuit to a hidden power supply and to a mobile phone timing device.

If they hadn't inadvertently removed the explosives, that bomb could have gone off.

MAY: The first thing I think about is the incredible bravery of our police officers.

ROBERTSON: The bomb had been timed to detonate over the eastern United States.

OBAMA: I want to briefly update the American people on a credible terrorist threat against our country.

ROBERTSON: The bombs had flown through several airports in Doha, Dubai and Colon without being detected. It was a very narrow escape.

The U.S. and international partners have taken steps to bolster air cargo security but according to some are still falling short.

MARKEY: The cargo on planes that flies in from overseas is broken into two category, high risk and low risk. Well, the low risk cargo does not receive anywhere near the level of scrutiny as the high risk cargo.

ROBERTSON: Congressman Ed Markey authored a law that requires screening of all cargo on passenger jets.

MARKEY: The administration is now saying that they are not going to meet the deadline for full implementation of screening of all cargo on international flights and now they've given an indefinite extension.

ROBERTSON: As Yemen's security plummets and al Qaeda takes increasing control, the possibility of another PETN bomb increases significantly. The man who made the printer indispensible bombs, Ibrahim Hassan al- Asiri is still on the loose here and western diplomats say he is always working on something new.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KAYE: Despite efforts to tighten security, detection experts tell us that it is still impossible to scan large pallets for explosives like PETN.

GUPTA: And as it stands now, individual packages are screened but there's no guarantee that PETN would be detected as well.

KAYE: That is it for tonight's show. I'm Randi Kaye.

GUPTA: And I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks for joining us.