Roundtable Looks at Yemen Terror Threat

A roundtable discussion of CBS News correspondents, from left: David Martin, Nancy Cordes, Bob Orr, Jan Crawford, and "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer, Jan. 3, 2010.
The drone attacks which thwarted a Christmas Day bombing attempt at the U.S. and British embassies in Yemen came after significant intelligence and were condoned by the Yemeni government, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin said on "Face the Nation" Sunday.

"Usually when you close an embassy it's because there's been chatter on the Internet and on cell phones about some sort of vague attack against western interests," Martin said. "That's different from what almost happened on Christmas day in Yemen. There was a specific plot to attack the American embassy on Christmas Day.

"So when you look at that and you remember what else happened on Christmas day, namely the near-miss on the bombing of the airliner in-bound to Detroit, Yemen . . . Al Qaeda in Yemen really was planning a Christmas surprise," he added.

Moderator Bob Schieffer had assembled a correspondents' round table - a CBS News tradition he always admired - to discuss recent national security developments and other issues that will be the focus of the coming year.

Asked whether the until-recently unknown drone attack was a U.S. operation, Martin said, "The Yemenis gave the green light. It was done with their permission. This was an American strike conducted with internal intelligence and designed to preempt an attack against an American target."

Also on the program, Justice correspondent Bob Orr said the information obtained from would-be plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab since he was arrested has checked out.

"After he was arrested, he almost immediately gave up everything to the FBI. In fact, he was so cooperative, that one investigator said it was almost like he was bragging. And there was some fear that maybe he was spreading disinformation. It turns out so far that the story he has told has checked out every step of the way. He said he went to Yemen, check. He said he got explosives there, said he trained with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula there," Orr told the round table.

"He told us one thing that's very haunting," he continued, "When he was training in Yemen, he trained with a number of other people. He didn't know how many. He called them his brothers." Abdulmutallab also said they were segregated, under the apparent belief that he wasn't supposed to know too much about what others were up to.

Orr added that part of the problem for the White House is that "their most effective counterterrorism tool right now is one they can't really talk about, and that is the predator drone campaign that from time to time you hear in the news . . . The CIA will not admit that they're doing this. They just have a policy of plausible deniability.

"But the fact is, we've done some checking, under the first 11 months of the Obama administration, they've actually launched more drone strikes against terrorists than [during] the last four years of the Bush administration."

Schieffer asked chief White House correspondent Chip Reid what we can expect to see from the administration once the president returns from vacation in Hawaii. [This Tuesday, President Obama will meet with heads of various intelligence agencies in the Situation Room.]

"It's going to be very methodical. It's going to be very comprehensive, government-wide. And the president is going to sit down at that table and go around the room and find out all of the things that are wrong with the system now. They're not just going to focus on what happened here. They're going to update the entire system," Reid explained.

"It's going to be very Obama-esque - you know, very cerebral, very intensive. And I'm sure he will be criticized again for being kind of Spock-like rather than emotional - you know, very logical in his response to this - but the White House just doesn't seem to care."

Capitol Hill correspondent Nancy Cordes, who recently returned from holiday travel in Europe, attested to increased security measures being undertaken on international flights, specifically for U.S.-bound planes.

"We were screened again when we got to the gate. We had to go through security, and then all of our carry-on luggage had to be screened by hand by security personnel. And then when we got onto the airplane, they took away our blankets at the beginning of the flight. They took away our blankets at the end of the flight, ostensibly so that we couldn't hide something on our laps as this would-be bomber tried to do," she explained.

Cordes added that "all of this extra security takes time, you know, and it takes manpower to do this kind of thing. So our flight took off late. And I think you're going see a lot of half-hour delays, hour-long delays, as people wait to go through this extra screening."

Returning to "Face the Nation" was our new legal correspondent Jan Crawford, who said that the connection between the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the planned Yemeni attacks could complicate the Obama administration's plans to close the detainee camp.

"The question is, what's going to happen with these guys down at Guantanamo? There's about 198 right now down there. I think 90 or so of them are Yemenis. I think the last train to Yemen has left the station."