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Obama: Suspicious Packages Underscore U.S. Need to Remain Vigilant

October 29, 2010 at 5:41 PM EDT
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President Obama confirmed Friday that packages containing explosives were shipped from Yemen to synagogues in Chicago as part of a "credible threat" to the U.S. Judy Woodruff talks to Greg Miller of The Washington Post for the latest.
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JIM LEHRER: A scare involving possible package bombs spread across three continents today. Suspect devices were discovered overseas, bound for Jewish religious sites in Chicago. NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: It began overnight in East Midlands, England. British authorities found a printer ink cartridge on board a UPS Cargo plane apparently altered to become a bomb. Another explosive device was intercepted in Dubai.

The discoveries triggered a scramble of searches of other cargo planes arriving in the U.S. today, including at airports in Philadelphia and Newark, New Jersey. Police in New York also searched a UPS truck, but found nothing dangerous.

Police commissioner Ray Kelly said he was acting on specific threat information.

RAYMOND KELLY, police commissioner, New York City: There is a concern about packages emanating in Yemen on certain UPS and FedEx aircraft at various airports in the United States. We had two — at least one package, I should say, that was identified as being possibly involved with this threat. That package has been scanned by our bomb squad and has been cleared.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League confirmed law enforcement sources warned Jewish institutions to watch out for packages mailed from Britain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.

The Department of Homeland Security announced stepped-up screening and security at airports as a precaution. Officials said that same caution late this afternoon caused a passenger flight from the United Arab Emirates to be escorted by U.S. fighter jets into New York’s JFK Airport. It was believed to be carrying cargo from Yemen. President Obama was informed of the potential threat last night. He spoke late this afternoon in the White House Briefing Room.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I want to briefly update the American people on a credible terrorist threat against our country, and the actions that we’re taking with our friends and our partners to respond to it.

Last night and earlier today, our intelligence and law enforcement professionals, working with our friends and allies, identified two suspicious packages bound for the United States — specifically, two places of Jewish worship in Chicago. Those packages had been located in Dubai and East Midlands Airport in the United Kingdom. An initial examination of those packages has determined that they do apparently contain explosive material.

I was alerted to this threat last night by my top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan. I directed the Department of Homeland Security and all our law enforcement and intelligence agencies to take whatever steps are necessary to protect our citizens from this type of attack. Those measures led to additional

screening of some planes in Newark and Philadelphia.

The Department of Homeland Security is also taking steps to enhance the safety of air travel, including additional cargo screening. We will continue to pursue additional protective measures for as long as it takes to ensure the safety and security of our citizens.

I have also directed that we spare no effort in investigating the origins of these suspicious packages and their connection to any additional terrorist plotting. Although we are still pursuing all the facts, we do know that the packages originated in Yemen. We also know that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a terrorist group based in Yemen, continues to plan attacks against our homeland, our citizens, and our friends and allies.

John Brennan, who you will be hearing from, spoke with President Saleh of Yemen today about the seriousness of this threat, and President Saleh pledged the full cooperation of the Yemeni government in this investigation.

Going forward, we will continue to strengthen our cooperation with the Yemeni government to disrupt plotting by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and to destroy this al-Qaida affiliate. We’ll also continue our efforts to strengthen a more stable, secure and prosperous Yemen so that terrorist groups do not have the time and space they need to plan attacks from within its borders.

The events of the past 24 hours underscores the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism. As usual, our intelligence, law enforcement and Homeland Security professionals have served with extraordinary skill and resolve and with the commitment that their enormous responsibilities demand. We’re also coordinating closely and effectively with our friends and our allies, who are essential to this fight.

As we obtain more information we will keep the public fully informed. But at this stage, the American people should know that the counterterrorism professionals are taking this threat very seriously and are taking all necessary and prudent steps to ensure our security. And the American people should be confident that we will not waver in our resolve to defeat al-Qaida and its affiliates and to root out violent extremism in all its forms. Thank you very much.

JIM LEHRER: The president was followed by Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan. In a briefing, he was asked about reports that as many as 15 possible bombs were mailed.

JOHN BRENNAN, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser: What we are doing is making sure that we take a close look at other packages that might also have some type of materials in them of concern.

Both of these packages that we’ve identified to date originated in Yemen. And so, I think it is very prudent for us to make sure that other packages that might be coming in similar routes or from Yemen as well are looked at carefully. And that’s what we’re doing right now.

But there are only two packages right now that have materials of concern.

I think, over the years, al-Qaida has demonstrated that is focused intently on the aviation sector. A lot of its plots are focused on trying to carry out attacks against aircraft, using aircraft, also, as potential missiles as we well know.

So, the aviation industry has taken those steps over the years, especially because al-Qaida — and, then, when I’m talking about al-Qaida, I’m not just talking about al-Qaida in the FATA area in Afghanistan, I’m talking about the franchises, including in Yemen, which have demonstrated very clearly that not only are they intending to do certain things against this homeland, but as we saw last Christmas Day with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, that they will, in fact, take steps to carry out those intentions.

The American people should be very pleased that we were able to get insight into the fact that there were suspicious packages out there that we had to find. And I’m not going to go into those operational details. I think that’s the reason why we have a security system in place that has these redundancies and the ability to detect things from inception, all the way to the possible execution of an operation. So, we were on to this, but I’m not going to go into details about how we knew.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is an organization of several hundred individuals that are dispersed throughout the country. They are murderers and they are determined to carry out attacks against innocent lives, whether they be Yemeni, Americans, Westerners, or others.

We are working very closely with the Yemeni government, and we’ve been able to make some significant progress against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula inside of Yemen, working with those partners. We’ll continue to do this. If anything, this just demonstrates to us and I think to the Yemenis as well that we need to redouble our efforts so that we are able to destroy al-Qaida. And we will.

The al-Qaida organization has tried to adapt to all of the obstacles and hurdles we put in front of it. And that’s why we have to remain very agile, we have to make sure that we stay one step ahead of them.

But clearly, they are looking to identify vulnerabilities in our system and take advantage of those vulnerabilities. But, fortunately, because of, again, the good work of the people here, as well as the very important partnership that we have with our allies overseas, we’ve been able to stay ahead of them.

QUESTION: Is it fair to call AQAP the primary terrorist threat to the United States?

JOHN BRENNAN: I think my concern is outside of the Afghan-Pakistan area, where the al-Qaida core and senior leadership reside, I would say that the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is the most active operational franchise right now of al-Qaida, and that this is one that deserves a lot of our attention.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to help us fill in what is known about this latest threat, we’re joined by Greg Miller of The Washington Post.

Greg Miller, thanks for talking with us. First of all, it sounds as if the administration is taking this very seriously.

GREG MILLER, national security correspondent, The Washington Post: Yes, very seriously. This is a very serious attack, and it looks like it’s being traced back to, as John Brennan indicated, a very, very serious adversary.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has emerged over the past year or two as one of the most worrisome affiliates of al-Qaida, one of the most lethal affiliates of al-Qaida that counterterrorism and intelligence officials here confront.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, how much more is known than what John Brennan and the president said about how the U.S. found out about this?

GREG MILLER: We’re still learning bit and pieces about it. It’s still a little murky.

But I was told a short while ago that the scramble to search for these packages was triggered by a very specific tip from a very close U.S. ally, which I think is presumably Saudi Arabia. It was very specific information on the nature of the plot and its origin. So, it was advice to be on the lookout for packages coming from Yemen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what does that say about the security apparatus that the U.S. is relying on?

GREG MILLER: I think we’re going to learn more about that in the coming days, because what we don’t know is what might have happened had this tip not come forward. If this tip hadn’t surfaced, would these packages have been identified before they reached their destination?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, it’s also come out in the last few minutes — I have been reading the wires, and the Associated Press is reporting that I guess some officials are saying the substance, the explosive substance, may be what they call PETN. It’s the same substance that the Christmas bomber back in 2001 used.

GREG MILLER: Well, that’s right. And this is a — this is one of the worrisome aspects here about al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. They have a sophistication in bomb-making capability. They have been able over the past year to get liquid-based bombs very close to two targets, including a Saudi prince. In that case, the bomb actually blew up. It was hidden in the body of the attacker. But the prince survived.

And then, of course, on Christmas Day last year, when the Nigerian accused in that plot smuggled a bomb that was hidden in his underwear and was able to get on board — so, this is a group that has demonstrated an ability to devise bombs they can get past security.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so, you know, to pick up on that, then — then they — there is a measure of sophistication they’re seeing behind this?

GREG MILLER: There is sophistication behind it. And — and this is a group that has a high level of determination, and also a flexibility.

I mean, one of the things that worries officials about this group is that al-Qaida, the headquarters in Pakistan, the sort of fran — the early — the first franchise, was always focused on the big attack and the spectacular, which meant there was a degree of difficulty to its plots that made them potentially easier to detect, although, clearly, not always, whereas al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has been far more ready and willing to use smaller-scale plots and very sort of put-together plots in a very short amount of time, and to probe and almost to be experimental in testing the nation’s defenses.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean? What do you mean by testing? What — in what way?

GREG MILLER: Just probing. And, you know, AQAP has two high-level figures that actually are U.S. citizens who spent a good deal of time in this country and know it well.

And one of the questions about the plot that was revealed today was the extent to which this was, you know, meant to sort of assess the U.S. cargo screening systems, because we still don’t know much about these devices and how and whether they were actually to be detonated. So, it’s possible that these were devices sent on their way in part to see if they could arrive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just finally, do they suspect there are other packages out there?

GREG MILLER: Well, that’s unclear. As you heard the — the president’s counterterrorism adviser say that they’re — they’re searching for those, but there’s no indication that there are any others.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we’re going to leave it there for now. But, of course, we will continue to watch this story. Greg Miller of The Washington Post, thank you.

GREG MILLER: Thank you.