Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Names Added to Terror Watch Lists; Third White House Party Crasher Revealed

Aired January 4, 2010 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Hundreds more people are added to the Obama administration's terror watch list. And the president is back here in Washington. He's launching a new round of high-level talks about the failed Christmas airline attack.

Plus, it turns out the White House party crashers were not alone. The Secret Service now revealing that a third uninvited guest was at the Obamas' first state dinner.

And we take you inside a compound where the Taliban allegedly brainwashed children as young as 12 years old and turned them into cold-blooded killers. We're told they did it by giving struggling, impressionable kids a taste of heaven.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics and extraordinary reports from around the world. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It's President Obama's first day back from vacation. And among the first things on his to-do list, finding out the latest on that failed attempt to blow up a plane near Detroit on Christmas. The CIA is expected to brief the president. He's also meeting with a top national security adviser. We will have more on those meetings in just a moment.

But, first, depending on who you are and where you are from, it's just gotten a whole lot tougher to get on an airplane, maybe even impossible.

Let's bring in our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve. She has got some new details on what's going on -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, some concrete steps by the U.S. government to try to prevent another terror attack, but there are some objections.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE (voice-over): Hundreds of people with links to terrorism have been added to the lists of people who cannot fly or need additional screening, the result of a scrub of government terror databases in the aftermath of the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing.

An official familiar with the process says particular attention was given to certain countries and regions with ties to terrorism. All citizens and travelers from 14 of those countries will now get enhanced screening when they fly to the U.S. That could include full body pat-downs, carry-on bag searches, full-body scanning and explosive detection swabs.

On the list, countries officially designated as supporters of terrorism, Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria, as well as Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Yemen.

But analysts say terrorists can and have come from elsewhere. A notable example? Shoe bomber Richard Reid, a British citizen.

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: The threat is more from Britain than, let's say, Afghan citizens, who have never brought down or tried to bring down an American airliner.

MESERVE: Some experts believe single out travelers from 14 nations, most of them Muslim, could backfire on the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What that might have is the unintended effect of feeding into this al Qaeda narrative that says that Islam -- the United States is at war with Islam. And we have to be very careful, because it's that narrative that feeds the ranks and builds the ranks of al Qaeda.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE: And, this afternoon, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said the new guidelines amount to racial profiling, although the TSA says the majority of all travelers who come in to the U.S. will get enhanced screening, not just those from the 14 countries named -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Do you get the sense that this is just the latest step, that more are on the way, to try tighten up security?

MESERVE: Definitely. This is definitely an evolutionary process. They want to take some steps immediately. There will be re- evaluations. There will be new intelligence that will come in, and things will change, I'm sure.

BLITZER: I'm sure they will. All right, Jeanne, thank you.

Let's get to the White House right now, where the terror threat is the president's most urgent priority, at least right now. And he's back from vacation.

Our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian is standing by.

Dan, the president is getting some high-level briefings today, getting ready for a full-scale meeting with his top advisers tomorrow.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He is, Wolf.

First of all, the president getting an update from the CIA, which has been conducting its own internal review. The president will be finding out what they have -- what they have learned in these early stages. And, also, the president will be sitting down, I'm told, in about a half-hour with his top counterterrorism official here, adviser here at the White House, John Brennan.

Of course, as you know, Brennan has pointed out that the dots were not connected in this Christmas Day attempted bombing of an airliner, that there were lots of different pieces of information, but that there was no smoking gun.

So, the president really wants to get to the bottom of this. As you know, he has ordered that review from top to bottom. And now, tomorrow, the president will be sitting down in the Situation Room with top Homeland Security officials and other officials from his administration to find out exactly what went wrong, how they can repair it and prevent something like this from happening again.

BLITZER: Yes. Brennan yesterday, on the Sunday talk shows, was very impressive in talking about all of this.

Dan, the president had hoped to come back from Hawaii and get to some other priorities, including jobs, the economy, health care. How much does this distract him from those other issues?

LOTHIAN: Well, some might say that it is a big distraction, but a senior administration official saying that a president should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, so, pointing out that, yes, while the president has made that pledge before he left on his vacation to push for jobs, to really make that the focus, that that will continue to be the focus, that he will be able to juggle terrorism, also melding the House and Senate health care reform bills together, and still be focusing on this priority of getting Americans back to work, getting the economy turned around.

BLITZER: And we now have word that the Salahis weren't the only party crashers at that state dinner for the Indian prime minister. There was a third crasher as well.

LOTHIAN: That's right, and a surprise from the Secret Service today, putting out a statement saying that there was a third individual who did come in back in November, an uninvited guest who apparently went to a local hotel where the Indian delegation had been staying, came in along with that delegation on the buses.

Now, this was a delegation that was supposed to be handled by the State Department -- the White House not having any comment on this at all, but the Secret Service saying that at no time did -- they believe -- did this individual ever get in the receiving line or have any contact with the president or the first lady, but that an investigation continues.

BLITZER: All right, I'm sure we will have more on this they as well.

Dan Lothian is over at the White House.

Jack Cafferty is back from vacation. Stand by for "The Cafferty File." But, first, a firsthand account of the tighter security for people traveling to the United States. Our own Abbi Tatton is back from a trip to Britain. She is going to tell us what she went through at the airport. Get ready for that as well.

And I will speak with a reporter inside Yemen right now. He says al Qaeda is alive and well and describes that nation as a hornet's nest. We're going to Yemen.

And a security nightmare here at home: a deadly shoot-out at a United States federal building.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Good news here in THE SITUATION ROOM: Jack Cafferty is back from vacation. He joining us now with "The Cafferty File."

You look tan. You look happy, energized, Jack.

(LAUGHTER)

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Well, I'm energized and tan. I don't know how happy I am. But, after I read this, we can decide.

The past decade of self-delusion and self-indulgence has damaged this country severely, and we may not be able to fix it. In a sobering column for the Web site Human Events, Pat Buchanan points to some staggering statistics about how far this country has fallen.

They include these: The United States produced 32 percent of the world's gross domestic product in 2000. It's now 24 percent. That's the sharpest decline by any country in modern history, except for the late Soviet Union. The United States began the decade with a budget surplus, ended with a deficit equal to 10 percent of gross domestic product.

The economy was at full employment in the year 2000. Now we have 10 percent unemployed, another 7 percent underemployed or those who have just given up looking for work. As many as one-third of all manufacturing jobs disappeared in the last 10 years. Our national debt has doubled. China practically holds a mortgage on this country now.

Add in two wars, tax cuts under the Bush administration, astronomical deficit spending under Obama, the housing crisis, we have got a big mess on our hands in this country.

Buchanan writes, we did this all to ourselves, believing that we were -- quote -- "the greatest empire since Rome" -- unquote, and the indispensable nation, while buying into the global economy and free trade.

Meanwhile, prospects for robust, sustained economic growth in this new decade appear to be bleak, at best, top economists predicting that gross domestic product will expand less than 2 percent per year for the next 10 years running. They point to factors like a poor job market, a weak real estate sector, and ongoing trouble with the banks.

So, here's the question -- happy new year -- what's to blame for America's economic demise? Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog.

Buchanan occasionally gets all his ducks in a row and says some stuff that's worth listening to. He's a pretty bright guy.

BLITZER: Yes, he's a very bright guy. All right, thanks very much. Good to have you back.

CAFFERTY: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is back from vacation. And we're all happy about that.

Let's get back to our top story right now. Heightened airport security measures are in place for international travelers flying to the United States following the December 25 failed terror attempt.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is joining us right now.

Abbi, you have just returned from the U.K.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Right.

BLITZER: That's your -- your homeland, if you will. Tell us what it was like getting on a plane at Heathrow.

TATTON: Well, this is a route that I have been flying now for over a decade. And this was definitely, last week, the most security that I have seen in all that time. And we're used to this coming to the United States. We know that there is going to be an extra layer.

First, there is what everyone goes through, the first security. And take , when you get to the gate, you going to have a second security line. And that's been going on now for a few years. But what we now have, as of last week, is this further check, almost like a third layer, before you -- right before you get on a plane.

And every single passenger getting on that -- just that U.S. flight has every single thing searched, every pocket, every coat, makeup bag, BlackBerry, laptop, everything you've got with you. They will go through all of it. And that's just for the passengers coming to the U.S. The other flights internationally don't go through that at Heathrow.

BLITZER: And, so, that's -- it doesn't make a difference where you're from. If you're flying to the United States...

TATTON: Doesn't matter...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: ... out of Heathrow, you're going to go through all of these security checks. TATTON: Right. Exactly.

BLITZER: How long does it all take?

TATTON: Well, now you have this built-in extra hour-and-a-half if you're going to the United States. I mean, we were there three hours before, because you have to, because it's international. And, then, when you get to this gate, yes, you've got another 90 minutes. That's almost like a built-in delay, which has a real effect on your connecting flight at the other end.

BLITZER: If you're coming into New York and want to connect to L.A. or whatever.

TATTON: Exactly, which was my experience.

BLITZER: Are the airports doing anything to try it a little more smooth?

TATTON: Well, they have to go through everything you carry on the plane. So, the airlines are telling you, please don't carry everything you want on the plane. Restrict it to just one bag, just one coat, so they can just get through this a little bit quicker.

And I have to say, it was all -- it wasn't a saga. It wasn't a nightmare. It was very good-natured. Everyone kind of understands this, but that's what we have now, four-and-a-half-hours from beginning to end until you actually get on a flight.

BLITZER: You didn't witness any airport rage or anything like that?

TATTON: No, everyone was full of the Christmas spirit.

BLITZER: Good. Good for them. I'm glad you're back as well.

TATTON: Thank you.

BLITZER: Good to have you here. Thank you.

We're hearing about an alleged plot to attack the inauguration of President Obama nearly one year ago. The details are disturbing. I will speak about it with a former deputy national security adviser to President Bush. Stand by.

And a scary situation at a major airport right here in Washington. Some electrical power simply went out. That stopped flights, and security officials couldn't even screen passengers.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're learning more about President Obama's fight against terror threats from day one of his administration, a "New York Times" report offering new details about an alleged terrorist plot to attack his inauguration.

Joining us now is Juan Zarate. He's the former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism under President Bush. He's now a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan nonprofit group that develops policy initiatives for government and the private sector. He also does some additional work as an adviser in the security field.

Juan, thanks very much for coming in.

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Thank you, Wolf. Good to be here.

BLITZER: A lot of introduction.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Thanks to Peter Baker of "The New York Times," we now know that there was enormous concern almost exactly a year ago, January 20, that there was a terrorist plot aimed at the Obama inauguration. You were still on the job. What was going on?

ZARATE: Yes, this was an intense period of time, Wolf. We were worried about threats, obviously, to the president and to the inauguration.

BLITZER: The incoming president.

ZARATE: The incoming president.

And we were working very hard at looking at all the threats. Recall that we have got hundreds of threats all the time that we have got to vet as a U.S. government. But this particular threat coming out of East Africa appeared over time to be more and more credible.

And, so, it became a more dangerous threat that we had to look at carefully, and, frankly, became an important lesson as we transitioned power to the new administration to look at how to deal with the threat to the inauguration.

BLITZER: You believed at the time the information, the intelligence, was credible, although it turned out not to be credible.

ZARATE: Well, initially, we thought it was not credible, but, as we started to do more due diligence, as the FBI, the intelligence community started to dig deeper, more and more of the story and the threat appeared to be credible.

And, so, as we approached the inauguration, it was considered to be a credible threat. Ultimately and thankfully, it wasn't real, and it turned out to be, as what we call in the industry, a poison pen incident, where people were trying to defame other individuals.

But, at the time, at the point of the inauguration, we thought it was a real threat, and all hands were on deck. I was at the National Counterterrorism Center. John Brennan, the new assistant to the president for counterterrorism, was in the White House monitoring. All hands were on deck monitoring the threat.

BLITZER: And he's a professional, too, as are you.

How cooperative was the incoming and the outgoing administration in dealing with what you thought was a credible threat?

ZARATE: I thought, being on the inside, this was the best of government, Wolf. It was the best cooperation I have -- I have seen.

We clearly did not want anything to happen. We didn't want anything to happen on our watch. We didn't want anything to the president or anything to disrupt this historic inauguration.

The new team clearly wanted to take the baton and take over well. And, so, they were attentive, the highest level of attention to the issue. And you had folks like John Brennan who are longtime professionals who were part of the process. And, so, I think it was the best of government, in terms of how we transitioned.

BLITZER: Yes, Brennan spent 25 years in the CIA.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I assume the outgoing and the incoming president were both aware of -- of this potential threat.

ZARATE: Absolutely.

As the information started to come through the system, as we determined that there may be some credibility to this, not only President Bush, but also President Obama, was briefed. And, at the end of the day, you had high-level Cabinet officials from both administrations meeting to talk about this the day before the inauguration.

BLITZER: All right, now, you have had a year to assess how this new president is doing in dealing with your issue, counterterrorism. How is he doing?

ZARATE: Well, I think he's doing relatively well, in the sense that there's been a fundamental continuity, I think, of a lot of the same counterterrorism policies and practices from the second term of the Bush administration.

I think where the administration has faltered is where they're not clear on how they want to talk about the war on terror, the war on al Qaeda. And some of attempts to tack against the past I think have actually hurt the administration, because a lot of what they're currently doing, frankly, is just a continuation of what President Bush had been doing.

BLITZER: Well, some say they're even doing it more aggressively, these drone attacks, for example, against al Qaeda suspected operatives in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

ZARATE: Well, you're -- and you're starting to see that in Yemen. You saw, for example, a raid in Somalia in September, the use of special forces against Saleh Nabhan, a known al Qaeda figure in East Africa. So, there has been quite a bit of aggressive lethal activity from this administration.

BLITZER: What is the biggest concern you have right now?

ZARATE: The biggest concern is that we determine what happened in this particular instance, and that we have a sense of urgency about the threat.

I think the focus on Afghanistan has been important and good, but I think perhaps we have taken the eye off the ball of the global threat. We have a threat in Yemen, in Somalia, in North Africa, in cells in Europe. We have got to make sure that we have our eyes on the ball of the evolving terrorist threat, not just in physical safe havens, but also on the Internet.

BLITZER: But do you suspect that officials in the Obama administration have lost that; they don't have their eye on the ball right now?

ZARATE: No, I don't think so, but I think political discourse and the way we talk about things publicly actually then affects the bureaucracy.

BLITZER: Give me an example.

ZARATE: Well, I think the intense focus on Afghanistan, which is important, critical to our national security, without also talking about how that fits into the broader war on al Qaeda, al Qaeda emerging in Yemen, allies in Somalia, North Africa, elsewhere, I think actually hurts the ability of the bureaucracy to know that the president gives that a priority, that that is important to him.

No doubt, the counterterrorism professionals, many of whom -- with whom I worked, I have a great deal of respect for...

BLITZER: And they're staying in government now.

ZARATE: Are they are staying in government now -- are doing great work and have their eye on the ball.

But I think it's important that we, as an American public and as the political establishment focus, on the global nature of the problem.

BLITZER: Juan Zarate, please come back.

ZARATE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Betty Nguyen is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Betty, what's going on?

BETTY NGUYEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, Wolf.

Well, the FBI is calling a deadly shoot-out at a Las Vegas federal building a lone criminal act. A security officer was killed and a deputy U.S. marshal wounded after a man opened fired in the lobby of the courthouse. The gunman was killed outside a building there. And a bystander got this sound on his cell phone. Take a listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

(GUNSHOTS)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shooting outside a Las Vegas courthouse. Holy (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

(END AUDIO CLIP)

NGUYEN: No joke. That -- really shocking there to hear all that gunfire.

Well, Nevada Senators Harry Reid and John Ensign both have offices in the Lloyd D. George U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building, which was evacuated. And we don't know at this stage known the gunman's identity or motive. But we will continue to work the story.

Also, this, the power back on at Washington's Reagan National Airport. A one-hour outage delayed flights and security screenings. Authorities say the problem originated at an airport substation, the cause still under investigation.

Well, the number of tourists visiting New York City fell by almost 4 percent last year, but it is now the most visited U.S. destination. It attracted 45.2 million tourists, beating out Orlando as the nation's most popular city.

So many people do love New York -- Wolf.

BLITZER: People don't realize how important tourism is...

NGUYEN: Oh, yes.

BLITZER: ... for not only the economy of New York, Orlando, but for so much of the United States.

NGUYEN: Very true.

BLITZER: Brings in a lot of money.

All right. Betty, thank you.

NGUYEN: Sure.

BLITZER: A new warning today from the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, about the terrorist threat inside of Yemen. We have new information just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM about why the Obama administration closed the U.S. Embassy there.

Plus, will U.S. troops be needed in Yemen to try to wipe out al Qaeda's growing influence? I will speak about that and more with Steven Erlanger of "The New York Times." He's in Yemen right now. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: The Obama administration is under fire for deciding to try the Christmas airplane bomb suspect in federal court. We are going to tell you who's outraged and what they're saying about the controversial decision.

And the building so high, the temperature at the top is cooler than at the bottom. And you won't believe what's inside. It's the world's tallest tower, and it's officially opening today.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama is back from vacation, learning the latest on the failed attempt to blow up an airplane near Detroit on Christmas.

Let's get more now on our top story. As U.S. officials become more vigilant against would-be plane bombers, one way to combat terrorism is with the help of a nation seeing a disturbing amount of terror activity.

Our foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty, is over at the State Department with more on what's going on.

What is going on, Jill?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, that country is Yemen. And, you know, for several years, the deteriorating situation in Yemen has been a bit out of public spotlight, but certainly on the U.S. radar.

And, today, Secretary Clinton called it a threat to regional and global security. She said that al Qaeda is using Yemen as a base for terrorist attacks far beyond its borders.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DOUGHERTY (voice-over): The American Embassy in Yemen under terrorist threat remains shut. The British, French, German, and Japanese embassies follow suit.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: That is in response to ongoing threats by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, so-called AQAP, that have been ongoing. They certainly predate this holiday season. And they are aimed at American interests in Yemen.

DOUGHERTY: That terror group the same one President Obama blames for orchestrating the Christmas Day failed bombing of a U.S. airliner. A U.S. officials confirms to CNN the U.S. Embassy was acting on a specific threat that eight al Qaeda suspects were planning an attack. Three of them were killed by Yemeni forces. One was captured wearing a suicide vest. Four more suspects were still at large.

Yemen has a hotbed of terrorism going back at least to the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors. The embassy has been under sporadic attack since 2002, when a suspect threw a grenade over the embassy wall following a visit by Vice President Cheney.

Yemen's ability to combat the threat, Secretary Clinton says, is crucial.

CLINTON: We see global implications from the war in -- in Yemen and the ongoing efforts by al Qaeda in Yemen to use it as a base for terrorist attacks far beyond the region.

DOUGHERTY: Barbara Bodine, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, says it's a fragile state on the brink of becoming a failed state, but the U.S. should not turn it into a third front after Iraq and Afghanistan in the fight against al Qaeda.

BARBARA BODINE, FMR. U.S. AMBASSADOR TO YEMEN: Yemen would be a very difficult environment for U.S. forces to operate in, and so I think the president's statement that we're going to be assisting and supporting the Yemenis to do this is really a much smarter way to go about it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DOUGHERTY: So, U.S. officials say they'll decide within the next few days when to reopen that embassy. They do say that it's strong and fortified, but they also say that the threat against U.S. interests in Yemen is extremely high -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jill Dougherty over at the State Department.

Thank you.

Meanwhile, what might be the impact of the stepped-up activity against terrorists in Yemen?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us from Sanaa, in Yemen, is Steven Erlanger. He's a reporter for "The New York Times." He's on the scene.

Steve, thanks very much for joining us.

How worried should U.S. diplomats be in Yemen, where you are right now? They've shut down the U.S. Embassy and the British Embassy now for a second day in a row.

STEVEN ERLANGER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, there's reason to be worried. We have, all together, put a stick into a hornet's nest.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is in Yemen. It is alive, it is growing. It's showing more sophistication. There is a specific threat against western embassies and targets in the capital, and so everyone is a bit tense.

The American and British embassies have been shut completely. Other European embassies have been mostly shut to the public, but there is a sense of unease among westerners, yes.

BLITZER: Well, how worried are you personally? It raises the question. You're a westerner.

ERLANGER: Well, one isn't supposed to really think about that.

BLITZER: But you must think about it. You obviously must be concerned.

ERLANGER: Well, I do think about it. I mean, I've been in odd situations before. When I'm out, I'm normally traveling with a local person and, you know, as a newspaper reporter, I don't have to have a big television camera with me, so I'm a little less noticeable.

BLITZER: Is the government in Yemen on top of the situation, or is what we're seeing right now the emergence of a failing state?

ERLANGER: Well, I don't think anyone's on top of the situation, to be honest, and the government of Yemen is losing control over its own territory. That's been going on for a while.

It's preoccupied with a rebellion in the north and a lot of political secession talk in the south. And al Qaeda seems way down their agenda, because the government and President Salih, who's been running the country in one form or another for 30 years, is very much focused on staying in power. And he's 67 years old and he would like his son to succeed him.

There are other people who think that's not such a good idea. But in that vacuum of authority, with oil running out, the economy in trouble, the government unable to spend the kind of money to bribe tribal leaders that it has in the past, the government, in a way, is almost caged in the capital, and there are huge stretches of the country that it does not control.

BLITZER: So what I hear you saying, Steve, is that the U.S. right now really doesn't have a real partner in this war against al Qaeda in Yemen.

ERLANGER: Well, I think it has an opportunistic partner, a partner who has finally understood that al Qaeda is a threat to him and his family and his rule. That was something I think took some convincing, because in the past, President Salih has kind of done his deals with all the jihadis to think he could defang them.

But it's a new generation of al Qaeda, it's more serious. Yemen is now in their targets, and he seems to understand that.

So, the relationship with the United States I think is real. It's been getting better now for a year and it's going to accelerate more. The problem is the United States has to be very careful here, because the bigger its footprint is, the more it helps al Qaeda.

BLITZER: How many al Qaeda operatives do you believe are now at large in Yemen, based on everything you're gathering from Yemeni and U.S. and other sources? ERLANGER: Core people between 200 and 300, but sympathizers in the thousands.

BLITZER: In the thousands?

ERLANGER: In the thousands.

BLITZER: And basically they're inspiring apparently a lot of others around the world, including several westerners. Is that right?

ERLANGER: Well, they have revived al Qaeda closest to the thing al Qaeda cares most about, which is Saudi Arabia. Don't forget Osama bin Laden's first intention was to pull down the regime in Saudi Arabia. And I think many people sort of feel that Saudi Arabia is the target and Yemen is basically the platform, but Yemen is very close to the Horn of Africa, to Somalia, to other places that are in a lot of chaos where al Qaeda can thrive.

BLITZER: Based on everything you're hearing, Steve, Awlaki, the American-born cleric, the radical cleric who has inspired Major Nidal Hasan, apparently, at the Fort Hood, Texas, massacre several weeks, and apparently inspired the Nigerian as well, is he alive and well in Yemen right now?

ERLANGER: We believe that he is. I spoke to a journalist who is close to al Qaeda who actually spoke to him after he was supposedly killed. And the Yemeni foreign minister now says that they believe that he's still alive.

BLITZER: Steven Erlanger is a reporter for "The New York Times" in Yemen right now.

Steve, be careful over there. We'll stay in close touch with you. Thanks very much for joining us.

ERLANGER: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: We're going to take you to an outpost of radical Islam in northern Nigeria, a glimpse into the world of the suspect in that failed Christmas airline attack. That's coming up. It's the kind of place and the kind of insight only CNN can bring you.

Stand by for that.

And the CIA is taking a very hard look at itself right now, trying to figure out how a suicide bomber attacked its base in Afghanistan. We have new information on the theory that the killer may have been a double agent.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here are some other top stories we're following right now.

There are troubling new developments in that bombing at a CIA base in Afghanistan. There are reports the suicide bomber may have been a double agent.

A former senior intelligence official confirming an NBC News report the bomber who killed seven CIA employees was, in fact, a Jordanian doctor, a Jordanian intelligence officer, who was also killed in the attack. The official says the Jordanian doctor was recruited by Jordanian intelligence to support U.S. efforts against al Qaeda. Obviously an effort that went wrong.

Ski trips turn deadly in the Swiss Alps. Five people were killed, three others are missing, after two avalanches. Authorities say the first avalanche occurred south of Bern. A group of skiers and a doctor were helping in the search effort when they were buried by a second avalanche. The doctor was among the dead.

The search is now suspended because of fears of more avalanches.

With a new decade, a new census. The Census Bureau today launching its once-a-decade headcount. It's using a $300 million campaign to get the nation's more than 300 million residents to fill out their census forms.

The first forms will be mailed in March in 2010. About 67 percent of households mailed the forms back. This time around, the bureau expects challenges in finding residents because of the higher number of foreclosures.

Will Democrats experience deja vu? Could this year look like a past year that was very unfortunate for Democrats? Might the party lose control of Congress in the midterm elections?

And regarding terror activity in Yemen, the ranking Republican congressman on the House Intelligence Committee is just back from Yemen. I'll speak with Congressman Pete Hoekstra, along with the Democratic chair of the Homeland Security Panel, Jane Harman.

Is the White House briefing them? What is going on?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get to our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, the Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons of The Raven Group, and Republican strategist John Feehery.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

E.J. Dionne, the columnist in "The Washington Post," wrote this today: "Democrats will almost certainly lose House and Senate seats. But they can escape a rout if they avoid going around in circles by constantly wondering if they should tack left or right. Steadiness in governing, a bit of tactical shrewdness and a little help from the Republicans may be enough to save them from the abyss."

As you know, Jamal, a lot of Democrats are worried that 2010, for the midterm elections, could turn out to be what 1984 was, the midterm elections during the Clinton administration, when the Democrats lost control of the House and the Senate.

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: You know, Wolf, there is a reason to be concerned. There's not a reason to be panicked yet.

I think, you know, you go back, you take a look at midterm elections. Midterm elections, the party in power always seems to lose midterm elections most often. But I'm not one of these super pessimists.

I actually think if you look four months from now, you'll see President Obama with a health care bill, probably. You'll see him with a financial regulatory reform bill. He may have a couple other things done.

Democrats will have a strong case to make, but we can't be -- we can't sit in a crouch. We have got to go out and play offense and run at these Republicans. And always remember, it's not the perfect Democrat versus the perfect Republican. It's the Democrat on the ballot versus the Republican on the battle.

BLITZER: Are the Republicans getting giddy right now?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I don't think we're giddy. I feel very good about where we are. All the elements are in place that were in '94.

I think the Republican activists are really active. I think the Democratic base is down. We have senior citizens on our side. Unemployment was high, which makes people a little bit more angry. I think that the president is having some trouble with his Democrats in Congress.

So I think we're feeling very good about it. I think Jamal is right in one sense, that we have to -- if they are on offense, we have to be on offense, too. We have to continue to promote our best ideas to help the nation move forward, and that will help us in the election.

BLITZER: But you know the Republicans are also sort of at war amongst themselves right now. Erick Erickson, who's a blogger, as you probably know, redstate.com, he was here in THE SITUATION ROOM a couple weeks ago. He says his goal is to beat the Republican establishment, which he doesn't like.

He says this: "If they get back into power, who's going to be in leadership again? The same guys that led them into the minority, and they're going to think that nothing was wrong. The top priority" -- he says for Republicans, conservatives, "has to be beating the Republican establishment."

How worried should the establishment be?

FEEHERY: You know, Erick Erickson is going to be on Comedy Central later on to day, and I think it's all together appropriate...

BLITZER: What do you mean, on the Jon Stewart show?

FEEHERY: ... because the guy is a complete joker. You know what? I think that for Republicans and conservatives, if they want to change this country for the better, they will unite, they'll keep the activists together with the Republican establishment, and will take back the House and the Senate and will get this country going in the right direction. Guys like Erick Erickson get all their press from attacking Republicans, and I think it's absolutely -- you now he's overrated and overnoted.

BLITZER: Is this good for the Democrats, to have one part of the conservative movement sort of at war with another part of the conservative movement?

SIMMONS: Well, it's certainly not bad for the Democrats to have this war taking place. The real question though is going to be what happens on Election Day.

Do people listen to the divisiveness or do Republicans actually have -- for instance, Erick Erickson supports Marco Rubio down in Florida.

BLITZER: Marco Rubio is running against the governor.

SIMMONS: Marco Rubio. He's running against the governor for the Senate seat. If Rubio is able to beat a sitting governor in that race, he can have a lot of momentum. I do think that Kendrick Meek, who's running, is going to be a tough candidate...

BLITZER: He's running on the Democratic side.

SIMMONS: ... but you don't -- on the Democratic side. But you don't want a strong conservative running...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Is that possible, that Marco Rubio could defeat, in a Republican primary, the incumbent governor, Charlie Crist, who's pretty popular down in Florida?

FEEHERY: It's definitely possible. Crist, on his side, has a lot more money than Rubio. Rubio has a lot of the activists on his side.

You know, right now the polls are 43-43, the last one I saw. I think it's possible. I still think Crist has the edge.

And primaries are fine. Primaries actually help get the message out, help candidates win, get more reactive out on the outside. The fact of the matter is, though, that if Republicans are going to win, they have to come together by next November and all go for the same...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Who would be better for the Democrats in Florida to oppose the challenge? Would it be a moderate like Charlie Crist, or someone more to the right like Marco Rubio? Who would be a tougher, more formidable opponent?

SIMMONS: You know, I don't want to get into the habit of picking a candidate because it's always tough. I want a damaged Republican from a tough Republican primary to come through.

What you don't want to have happen is what happened in the Democratic primary in the presidential campaign. Remember, Barack Obama was sort of the more liberal candidate. He beat the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, and he went on to storm into Election Day. So you don't really want to have that.

And also, you know, Chris Cillizza from "The Washington Post" does a really good job at looking at congressional races. And one of the things that he wrote about today is that the Republicans have 14 retirements, Democrats have 10. Right now we're not in the same territory we were in '94, going back to your earlier...

BLITZER: And still a lot of time between now and November, although primary season is going to get intense pretty soon.

FEEHERY: Well, there's a lot of time, but right now is when the candidates decide when they're going to run. I do think that if you look at the Republican districts, much more -- the Republicans are going to win in those districts. In the Democratic districts, Republicans have a real shot.

You'll see a lot more retirements. You see one party switcher. You'll see some more party switchers.

I think that Republicans have to feel very good. It's a lot of time, but a lot of the decisions are being made right now, which will help Republicans win in November.

BLITZER: The biggest issue in November will be, A, health care; B, jobs, or C national security?

SIMMONS: Oh, it's certainly going to be jobs and national security. National security is always an issue and Democrats have been to be careful, because you can't just check the box and move on. You have got to keep hitting the note on national security and you've also got to keep bringing that unemployment number down.

FEEHERY: Barack Obama, he's going to be on the ballot. He's going to be the one who's going to decide if people are satisfied with his leadership, then Democrats will do well. If they're dissatisfied with the leadership, Republicans are going to do extraordinary well.

BLITZER: John Feehery, Jamal Simmons, we've got a lot of time to talk about this in the coming months.

Guys, thanks very much.

SIMMONS: Looking forward to it.

BLITZER: A political milestone in Houston gives the gay and lesbian community something to celebration.

Plus, Hawaiian children may go to Barack Hussein Obama Elementary school someday soon. Stand by. Ed Henry is on the scene.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: On our "Political Ticker," Houston, Texas, now has its first openly gay mayor. Fifty-three-year-old Annise Parker was sworn in publicly today. A private ceremony was held over the weekend.

Houston is now the nation's largest city to be governed by an openly gay person. Parker won a runoff last month to succeed the term- limited Bill White.

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts is currently undergoing his second hip replacement surgery. Today's surgery will replace the senator's left hip. The same procedure was done on his right hip in August. A spokesman for Kerry tells The Associated Press he decided to have the procedure now to ensure he would be back on his feet for what could be a critical vote on health care reform when the Senate returns this month.

We wish him a speedy recovery.

Remember, for all the latest political news any time, you can always check out CNNPolitics.com.

New complaints that the suspect in the failed Christmas bomb attack is being treated like a common criminal instead of like a terrorist. Would a civilian trial be a big mistake?

And we're getting a look at those five young Americans suspected of planning terror attacks. Just ahead, a Pakistani court gives them new orders.

And it's billed as the world's tallest skyscraper, a half-mile tower of controversy in a city known for economic excess.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: After President Obama's latest Hawaiian vacation, a lot of island residents still can't get enough of them. In fact, there's a push to honor the state's native son by plastering his name and likeness in as many places as possible.

Let's go to our Senior White House Correspondent Ed Henry.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ED HENRY, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, some local politicians around here in Honolulu are already starting a bandwagon to name beaches and schools after the president. Some even want to make his birthday a state holiday. But not everyone around here is hopping on that bandwagon just yet.

(voice-over): He hasn't even been commander-in-chief for a full year, but the rush is already on here in his home state to name slices of Hawaii after him, including Magic Island, a beach where the future president used to bodysurf.

MAYOR MUFI HANNEMANN, HONOLULU: Well, he went there as a youth with his family. Since he's returned, he likes to picnic there with his family. It's something that really speaks well of the fact that he's never lost touch with his roots.

HENRY: Other politicians wants to turn his August 4th birthday into a state holiday. Still, others want his first school to be renamed President Barack Obama Hussein II Elementary.

SKIP DIAZ, HAWAII RESIDENT: I am very proud of Barack being a graduate and living here, born here. And he's a multicultural guy. The United States is the same thing, a multicultural country.

I think it's a great idea. I mean, he's my main man.

HENRY: But even in a state where Obama Dashboard Dolls are selling like hotcakes, there are dissenters.

SHEENA OSHIRO, HAWAII RESIDENT: I think if something, like, ,as big as this, like, to name a beach park after you, do something really big in order for that. And we (ph) have to change the laws too, right? So that's a big thing.

HENRY (on camera): What sort of things do you think --- would you like him to do before you think you get to name a beach after him?

OSHIRO: Anything that he can do, and then maybe more. But this beach is special.

HENRY (voice-over): Others out catching rays told us the hasty push to name places after the president is reminiscent of another recent honor.

JACK JOYNER, HAWAII RESIDENT: Well, he's received a Nobel Peace Prize and he hasn't done anything for that. It's all a word, "I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that," and they acknowledged it, but he has yet to do it.

HENRY: But Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann insists state pride will win out.

HANNEMANN: It's very historical. This is the first person from Hawaii who's the president of the United States. We're proud of that, and we want to name something of significance after him.

HENRY (on camera): The mayor added that he spoke to the president's half-sister about the beach renaming. She ran it up the flagpole and got a positive response, meaning the White House is not going to veto the idea, though it still has to go through the local bureaucracy -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

Ed Henry in Honolulu for us.

Thank you.

Jack Cafferty is in New York, and he has "The Cafferty File." Honolulu, New York. Jack, you take your pick.

CAFFERTY: Ed Henry showing a little leg to the world there on the beach in Honolulu.

BLITZER: Yes he did.

CAFFERTY: Is that a good idea?

BLITZER: You know, it's Ed.

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: Who's to blame for America's economic demise?

Margaret writes, "Nobody wants to pay a good wage because it cuts into profits, so the jobs gets shipped overseas because they can make it cheaper. And the goods are then imported here, sold cheaper, at a higher profit. Everybody's happy, right?"

"What's forgotten in all of this is the consumer has to have money to buy the goods. No good-paying jobs or no jobs at all the consumer can no longer consume. We're a consumer-driven economy and our car has lost its engine."

Lew in Maine writes, "We have only ourselves to blame. We want more and more government services. We want to pay less and less taxes. We want to inherit great wealth but eliminate the estate tax. We want great good that come at a slave-labor price."

"Our parents were the greatest generation. The boomers will be forever known as the selfish generation."

Dave writes, "You can call it free trade. You can call it global economy. You can call it outsourcing. Whatever you call it, it's a loss of employment in a system that requires employment to sustain itself. The sad thing is it's only going to get worse."

Jason in Iowa says, "Human nature and human stupidity killed our economy. We're focused on our government being the source of tyranny. It's too bad that we have missed where the true source is. That's the leaders and CEOs in business. The Tree of Liberty could use the watering of the blood of our corporate tyrants."

Dwayne writes, "We're the only nation in the world that doesn't practice some kind of protectionism of its jobs.