White House Takes Action On Foiled Bomb Plot

President Obama, who came under fire last December for waiting several days before discussing the attempted Christmas Day airliner bombing in Detroit, moved swiftly to address news of explosives discovered on U.S.-bound cargo planes Friday. Host Scott Simon discusses the White House reaction to the plot with NPR White House Correspondent Ari Shapiro.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Two packages from Yemen addressed to synagogues in Chicago - the focus of a multinational investigation into what President Obama yesterday called a credible terrorist threat against our country. The packages were intercepted in Britain and Dubai. An initial investigation, the president said, has determined that they contained explosive material.

President BARACK OBAMA: 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.

SIMON: Mr. Obama spoke yesterday at the White House. NPR's Ari Shapiro is covering this story and joins us. Ari, thanks for being with us.

ARI SHAPIRO: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: And the latest on the investigation, please.

SHAPIRO: Well, investigators are tracing links in Yemen, in Europe, and here in the United States. Possibly the most pressing question is whether there are other packages in addition to the two that were already discovered. They also want to know whether there are agents who are connected to this plot, who could be in the U.S., in Europe, in Yemen, who they can identify.

Yesterday, investigators searched airplanes; they searched trucks. They were unable to find any other packages containing explosives. And investigators also want to know about the target of these explosives. As you mentioned, the packages were addressed to synagogues in Chicago, but it's not clear whether the packages were intended to blow up upon reaching those synagogues; whether they were intended to detonate on the airplanes. And so that's something that investigators are looking into.

And then there's the group that is believed to be connected to this attempt -al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. It's a group that White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan described as the most active al-Qaida franchise outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are the group believed to be connected to the Christmas Day bombing last year, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up an airliner that was headed for Detroit.

And early signs suggest that the explosives in these two packages that were found yesterday is the same explosive - PETN - that was used in that Christmas Day attempt.

SIMON: Ari, the president said that he was alerted to the threat on Thursday night. What can you tell us about how this developed?

SHAPIRO: Well, apparently, the initial tip came from officials in Saudi Arabia. And when the president was told about it, at around 10:35 on Thursday night, the packages had not yet been found. Eventually, one was uncovered on a UPS plane in England; another was found on a FedEx plane in Dubai. And apparently, the explosives were hidden in an altered printer cartridge. And one of them had a cell phone connected to it that apparently, could've been used as a detonator.

SIMON: We're just three days away from midterm elections. Any political implications?

SHAPIRO: Well, yeah. You know, this is what's known in election season as an October surprise. But it's not clear how much of an impact this will have on the election. Obviously, the issue that remains foremost in people's minds is the economy. Typically, terrorism tends to be an issue in which Americans in polls favor Republicans over Democrats.

At the same time, when there's a crisis like this, Americans tend to rally around the leader, President Obama. And so, you know, it's unclear if terrorism does become an issue in the next day or two because of this - whether that will help or hurt the Democrats.

President Obama was criticized last Christmas for taking a few days before he came out and spoke about the airline bombing attempt. He didn't make that mistake this week. Almost as soon as the packages were intercepted yesterday afternoon, he was in the White House briefing room, speaking directly to the American people.

SIMON: What does the president have planned today?

SHAPIRO: Well, this weekend is the last big campaign push before Tuesday's elections. He is going to be in four states in two days. I'll be along, covering these appearances in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Illinois and Ohio. Some of these are states - such as Pennsylvania - where a governor, Senate and House race could all flip from Democratically held seats to Republican-held seats if things don't go the Democrats' way on Tuesday night.

Connecticut seems to be a little safer for the Democrats, but the White House isn't taking any chances. And then, Scott, in your hometown of Chicago, there is a Senate race that is very near and dear to the president's heart because the Republican and Democrat are fighting for the Senate seat that was once held by Senator Barack Obama.

SIMON: NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. Thanks so much for being with us.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

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