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New 9/11 Attack; Details on Osama bin Laden Raid; President Obama Visits Ground Zero

Aired May 5, 2011 - 19:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks Wolf and good evening everyone tonight from ground zero in New York City. The president was here today, and in a moment, we'll take an in-depth look at the solemn ceremony held here to mark the end of Osama bin Laden.

But first, breaking news tonight that makes our presence here all the more meaningful, CNN has learned that those computer drives seized from bin Laden's compound in Pakistan five days ago contained plans to attack rail lines here in the United States in conjunction with the coming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Our homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve has the breaking news tonight -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: John, U.S. officials underline that there is no indication that any attack on rail is imminent, but the Department of Homeland Security today did issue a notice to state and local partners, talking about the fact that in February of 2010, some members of al Qaeda discussed aspirations to attack rail in the U.S. by derailing trains, by putting obstructions on railroad tracks.

The plan was to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, according to this notice that was put out by the Department of Homeland Security. A spokesman for the department emphasizes that this is based on initial reporting, which is often misleading and inaccurate and is subject to change. He and other U.S. officials are underlining that this is not an indication of an imminent attack.

As one official put it to me, this doesn't appear to be anything more than an idea on paper at this point, and when I asked whether there was any indication that Osama bin Laden or other top officials had signed off on this, I was told that there was no indication at this point that this was a blessed operation of any kind. Officials do say that this warning is the result of information that was gleaned from the materials gathered at the compound where Osama bin Laden was found. And the expectation is that we will see other notices of this kind as officials continue to exploit that material -- John, back to you.

KING: And Jeanne, on that point, obviously, very important context. No imminent threat. But four months away now from the anniversary of 9/11, and just five days into the review of these hundreds of disks, we are told, all the thumb drives, all the documents, all the hard drives, what is the sense, the level of anxiety when you're talking to your sources about the idea that they know they're going to be pouring through these records for weeks and weeks to come?

MESERVE: Well what you feel is the sense of urgency that they want to get in there fast because as somebody put it to me, some of this intelligence is perishable. For instance, if there are names of operatives in there, those people may be going to ground now. They have to try and find them before that happens. If there are indeed active plots, they want to stop those before they come to fruition.

So there is a sense of urgency that they have to at least get through that level of information. I talked to a former deputy director of the CIA today. He says they're likely triaging their approach for this. They are looking first for the plots, then for the people in the additional cells, then they will be doing initial analysis, not just over days and weeks, but possibly over months and years, trying to find even smaller puzzle pieces that may help to put together a larger picture of al Qaeda -- John.

KING: Jeanne Meserve on top of this breaking news tonight. We'll keep in touch with Jeanne and this breaking news raises this question, was Osama bin Laden merely a figurehead in these last recent years as he was on the run, or is he more involved than many people thought in planning active terror plots.

Let's get some perspective from CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank and CNN national security contributor Fran Townsend who was President Bush's homeland security adviser. Fran to you first -- you were in the Bush White House when in the past, in the past some of these al Qaeda plans were found. When you heard about this warning, sketches at least of a potential to attack U.S. rail lines on the anniversary of 9/11, what does it tell you?

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well John, as you remember, you know that New York faced this (INAUDIBLE) bullet case, which was a plot to blow up backpacks on the New York City subway in recent years and so this is an issue, which is very close to New Yorkers and puts people really on edge. So in talking to sources in the counterterrorism community, I was told that, look, they expect they're going to see lots of this.

And people need to understand, as they triage, as Jeanne rightly says, they're going to put these out to state and local law enforcement so they get -- so the people on the ground out in communities understand what we're finding. They emphasize they didn't see this as an imminent threat. And for that reason, they had considered and decided against raising the national terror threat alert system.

KING: And Paul, again, this is one thing we know they have gleaned from what we assume are thousands and thousands of pages of documents, sketches. In the past, we know schematics of financial institutions have been found on these al Qaeda treasure-troves, when they find the intelligence. What does it tell you that one of the first things they find is at least a sketch of a plan to attack U.S. rail lines?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: What I think it tells us is that Osama bin Laden was much more operationally involved in al Qaeda after 9/11 than anybody really thought. He's got this information about really a low-level plot against the United States, putting some sort of obstruction on a railway line. So for the very bigger plots, he's likely to be even more involved in those sorts of plots. So bin Laden after 9/11 I think we're finding out now was operationally involved to some significant degree with al Qaeda, John.

KING: And Fran, on that point, there's a big debate about the point Paul was just making. Was Osama bin Laden, because he was on the run, because maybe he wouldn't be active on the Internet, because he was careful about meeting with people, perhaps he was not as actively involved. But as we learn now that he may have been in that compound in Pakistan, one of his wives apparently saying five years or so, is that a clue that perhaps as Paul just notes, he may have been a lot more active than people were believing when they thought he was running around in the caves up in the remote areas?

TOWNSEND: Absolutely, John. And so it will be interesting to see how much more of this sort of operational planning -- and I don't want to put -- I don't want to make more of it than it is. People have said, it wasn't much of a plan, it was an idea, but is -- are there more of these in there? Now, what you're looking for is the reason Jeanne and myself, we both asked administration officials, did bin Laden approve it.

It's one thing if there's a two-way communication, where he's sent these sort of plans and then he's got to bless them. It's another thing if he's kind of a mail drop, right, because it's too dangerous for him to communicate out. He's just receiving these things and doesn't really have a lot of opportunity to put his imprimatur on it, to make changes, to make operational suggestions. I think it's going to take some time for us to understand from the intelligence community as they go through these documents, what role can we understand that he played? And Paul is quite right. The fact that there was even an early stage, low-level plan among these documents suggests a level of awareness on his part, certainly, greater than we expected.

KING: And so, Paul, as we try to answer the question in more detail about how active, how involved, how specific bin Laden was, and also, now that he is dead and we know that, begs the question, if these plans, sketches they might be, maybe others are detailed, if they exist, what do we know about the succession plan? Al Zawahiri was the number two. What else do we know about what happens next if they have outlines of plans to mount attacks?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, with the succession plan, according to the internal constitution of al Qaeda, Zawahiri now takes over and the Shura Council of al Qaeda will rubber stamp that and I think in the next month we'll see some sort of videotape from al Qaeda saying that Zawahiri is the new leader. Interesting Zawahiri himself will then have to appoint a deputy commander of al Qaeda, and there's a lot of debate about who that could be.

And so Zawahiri is going to make -- have to make a big decision. Is he going to appoint an Egyptian and will the Saudis and Yemenis therefore be very frustrated with him because al Qaeda becomes too much of an Egyptian organization? But if bin Laden was playing this greater operational role then probably Zawahiri was also playing some sort of operational role as well, so I think we're going to find out a lot more about that as U.S. investigators go through this treasure- trove of documents, John.

KING: And Fran, another way to find out more about it would be to have access to the people who were in that compound, who are now in Pakistani custody, including bin Laden's wife. What are we hearing about Pakistani willingness, or unwillingness, to let the United States interrogate those potential witnesses?

TOWNSEND: John, you know can I tell you from prior interactions and cases that the United States worked with Pakistan it's not unusual. The Pakistanis generally do not permit U.S. officials to have access for interrogation to people in their custody. We had that experience in prior cases. And my understanding, what you're hearing from sources is the U.S. isn't getting access to them. But I will tell you, John, that may not be, in this instance, so bad.

Most of the people in that compound who were left behind were children. There were these several women who were there, one being his wife, but it's unlikely, given bin Laden's attitudes towards women that he would have shared with her any operational detail, that they would know very much, that they would even know the names of people who might have come to the compound. They likely would have only known what they call nom de guerres, their war names, their aliases, but it's unlikely that these people could have given us very much insight.

KING: Fran Townsend, Paul Cruickshank, appreciate your insights tonight, very important breaking news, at least a sketch of a plan to potentially attack U.S. rail sites on the anniversary of 9/11. Tonight new details as well about the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound changing the story line yet again. In this latest version, instead of a near continuous firefight during the 38 minutes those U.S. SEALs were on the ground, it now appears there was only one brief gunfight, at the very, very start of the raid.

Also, CNN Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence is getting some new information, new answers tonight about the helicopter records U.S. forces left behind at the bin Laden compound. Apparently a stealth helicopter we never knew existed. Chris, let's start with the firefight. Again, their narrative is changing. In the early days, early hours after the president told the country bin Laden was dead, we were told there was a fierce firefight and that bin Laden himself may have fired shots. Now we know he was unarmed and what are we now hearing about the duration of the gunfire?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It was short, John. Bottom line, only one of the men inside that compound had a gun. He took some shots at the SEALs. They dispatched him fairly quickly, and then they proceeded to go through the house and basically kill any adult male who was in there.

KING: And Chris, to the point of the changing narrative, is there a sense of frustration at the Pentagon? Does the Pentagon think the White House got out ahead in saying this was more aggressive, more muscular? Is there a sense of frustration with the changing story line that somehow the valor and the honor of these men is being somehow undermined?

LAWRENCE: Well I think there is some frustration at the point of getting caught up in the idea of whether Osama bin Laden was armed and whether he initiated some sort of threatening action against the SEALs. I think the feeling in the Pentagon has always been, for the last 10 years, the idea was to get Osama bin Laden dead or alive. And whether that meant dropping a bomb on a compound or shooting him, they were going to do that if it came to it.

KING: And Chris, you know the military equipment as well as anybody. When we saw those pictures late last night come out of that helicopter wreckage on the grounds there, you know, most of it was blown up, but some of the tail was left. We looked at those pictures and we said, whoa, that's something a little different, isn't it?

LAWRENCE: Yes, exactly, John. I've spoken to a Blackhawk pilot who knows that helicopter inside and out as well as aviation experts and they've never seen anything like this. They say most Army Blackhawks are painted olive green. This one was painted a special infrared suppressant gray. They also say that part of its shape is more like an F-22, and when you eliminate the right angles of an aircraft, you reduce the ability of radar waves to bounce back. And finally, they say there's sort of a hub cap around its tail rotor that would reduce its sound.

Remember, this plane hit on the top wall of the compound, most of it landed inside the compound, part of it landed just outside. The SEALs blew up the part on the inside. The part that was left outside was the part they couldn't get to. And at that time, remember, they've got the body of Osama bin Laden. They've been on the ground now for about 40 minutes. They had to make the call whether it was worth to go back, set a second round of explosives, or to get out while they could and complete the mission they were sent there to do.

KING: And they made the decision to get out of there. Chris Lawrence important new details tonight, thanks very much, Chris. Even more information now about life in the bin Laden compound is coming from --


KING: -- Osama bin Laden's wife and other survivors of that U.S. raid. Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson is near the compound in Abbottabad. Nic, tonight, what are we learning about the Pakistani interrogations of those in the compound and what value does it add to the investigation?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're learning from bin Laden's wife, according to her and according to Pakistani intelligence sources that -- or the military indeed is now saying -- the Pakistani military now saying this -- that she says she lived there for five years, which means bin Laden was living there for five years as well. I think while we've imagined him perhaps moving from cave or house to house in the tribal border regions, and not being able to perhaps be actively involved in planning operations or sort of mentoring al Qaeda, here, we now find out, for five years he's been in one location.

He hasn't gone out, hasn't traveled around much, if at all. So he's had a lot of time to concentrate on al Qaeda. We've also learned now that there were 13 children in this compound, eight of them bin Laden's. So we're getting more details of this sort of very large family with a lot of children in there -- John.

KING: And, Nic, you've spent many years tracking bin Laden, covering al Qaeda and how the pieces of the organization fit together. Now that you're hearing and processing the fact that he could have been in one location for somewhere in the ballpark of five years, how does it change your perspective about his involvement and his capabilities from when, as you've been reporting for years, U.S. authorities saying, no, he's somewhere up in Waziristan or up in the remote regions, up along the border somewhere.

ROBERTSON: It gives the impression that he's had a lot of time to think and to focus on what he wants al Qaeda to do, what he wants different operatives to do, what -- how he'd like to see the organization grow and spread, what area to target next. And one thing that struck me, when we heard some of the information that was recovered from the data that was taken from his building there, the memory storage devices that were taken from there, this attempt to derail trains on the anniversary of September 11th, to attack U.S. railroad network, this reminds me of the American al Qaeda Brent Neil Venus (ph) in U.S. custody, went to an al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan in 2008.

He provided information for discussion about attacking the Long Island railroad network. Bin Laden gets these themes, places and types of things he wants to target, and it does seem as recently as February last year, when he was discussing the current plot, that he wants to target mass transit, U.S. and Europe as well -- John.

KING: Nic Robertson live for us near the bin Laden compound in Pakistan, Nic thanks so much. We'll keep in touch.

Still ahead here much more on tonight's breaking news about newly discovered al Qaeda plots, including a conversation with the country's first homeland security chief. What would he do now?

And next, President Obama visits this hallowed ground, ground zero, and we get an exclusive tour, including a look at all that's left of one of the fallen World Trade Center towers.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can see the original wall of the south tower.

KING: So you consider this ground zero?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Those towers came down and those 3,000 people died, this is their resting place.



KING: An American flag flying there, you're seeing a picture. That is the new One World Trade Center, the building under construction. They are up above 60 stories now, ultimately 105 stories, the tallest building in the United States when the new One World Trade Center is completed by the end of 2013. A remarkable sight on a beautiful day here in New York City at hallowed ground, ground zero.

And President Obama was here today to mark the death of Osama bin Laden with those who were most hurt by his cold-blooded terror. There was a solemn wreath-laying ceremony here. You see it right there, at the sight where the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11. Then a private meeting with some families who lost husbands, wives, sons and daughters that fateful day.

The mood was a bit more celebratory, just a bit when the president paid tribute to this city's police and firefighters at a firehouse that lost 15 men on 9/11. The president said finally, bringing bin Laden to justice proved an important point.


BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What happened on Sunday, because of the courage of our military and the outstanding work of our intelligence sent a message around the world, but also sent a message here back home that when we say we will never forget we mean what we say.


KING: The messages and images of national unity were reminiscent of the early days and weeks that followed the horrible terrorist attack here and at the Pentagon nearly 10 years ago. New York's Republican former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, for example, was at the president's side for much of this day. And New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was among the Republicans on hand for the ceremony here at the site of the World Trade Center.

After the president left, I was honored, deeply honored to receive an exclusive tour of this remarkable place and a few images stood out. In the 9/11 museum now under construction here, look at the survivor stairs. Hundreds -- these are the actual stairs -- hundreds escaped the north tower on 9/11, running down those steps, which will now be a key exhibit in this new museum. And check out this breathtaking look at Lady Liberty 55 stories up in what eventually will be the 105-story new One World Trade Center.

And while the official ceremony was somber, this scribbled message to Osama bin Laden on a construction elevator in the new tower spoke volumes to me. The word "dead" and a smiley face, the end of bin Laden makes the new beginning here all the more hopeful. Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is with us and he knows how carefully, how carefully the president's team choreographed this visit.

They wanted to be solemn. They wanted to be reflective, but let's be honest, they also wanted the president to have a day at the end of what they believe is a momentous week.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. I mean they were trying to be careful, that's why they kept the cameras out of the meetings with the families. A lot of this was really -- he didn't speak at the wreath laying ceremony. He was really trying to find that balance. But it was also a chance to say, not so subtly to his critics who say this president doesn't emote enough. After the oil spill, he didn't connect with the American people.

This was kind of an "I feel your pain" moment. You remember Bill Clinton after Oklahoma City and the bombing there, George W. Bush and the bull horn right here standing on the pile. They wanted to do something like that and it was not just the firemen and the cops. It was the kids. I talked to one kid, Chris Kanazoro (ph), he's from Staten Island. His father was a firefighter who died on 9/11.

He was just a few months old, now with the 10th anniversary coming up, he's a 10-year-old boy, and he had a necklace around his neck with his father's picture. He said I got to meet the president. He said I really appreciate -- appreciated that he remembered my dad. And I said what are you going to tell your kids at school, a fifth grader, and he basically said that I got to fist bump the president, so even the most small gestures, he was able to connect.

KING: A good memory (INAUDIBLE) and from New York, the president will go to Kentucky, the significance of going to Ft. Campbell.

HENRY: Absolutely. I found a button on the street when I was coming here today, "Mission Accomplished -- 5/1/11". Some people celebrating, as you said, just like those scribbled word "dead" -- scribbled words "dead", but this president is going to try and send the message to the troops at Ft. Campbell, the mission is not accomplished yet. That's obviously a loaded phrase in American politics. We still have 100,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan. This was a big victory in the war on terror, but the mission is not accomplished.

KING: Stay for a minute. I want to get some perspective from our senior political analyst David Gergen. He's a veteran of course of White House efforts to shape important moments. And David, just as you watched the president today, it's difficult. This is not an anniversary. There is not a dedication here, but the president still felt it was important.

He gave I'm told 48 hours' notice to the Port Authority, he wanted to come to ground zero and have this wreath-laying ceremony. Why is this so important and what'd you make of the day?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, John, as you know, this mission has been President Obama's finest hour, and I think he's successfully now extended that hour into several days. And is he getting political benefit from this? Of course, but I think he's on a more important mission, and that is, as he spoke on Sunday night, he does -- he is trying to bring the country together.

He is trying to sort of rally spirits and to show that when we do come together, we can accomplish great things, as we did with dispatch of Osama bin Laden. And he's doing this with a quiet dignity. He's not trying to -- I think he's avoided the temptation to gloat. He's avoided the temptation to sort of pound his chest. And this quiet dignity, I think it fits well with him. And frankly, fits well with the moment. I think Americans appreciated the quietness of today's ceremony. It was more moving this way.

KING: Let's -- I'm sorry for interrupting -- let's listen to a little bit more of when the president was speaking, about what this means. He invited the former president, George W. Bush, who of course had a signature moment, at this site. President Bush didn't want to come; he has kept a low-profile. But at his side most of the day was the man we all called America's mayor at the time, Rudy Giuliani, the Republican former mayor of this city, someone who ran for president in the last cycle, did not win the nomination. Here was the president of the United States saying, you know sure, maybe people out there -- this is my take on this. Maybe some of you out there are crediting me, but this is a victory for the nation.


OBAMA: Our commitment to making sure that justice was done is something that transcended politics, transcended party. It didn't matter which administration (INAUDIBLE). It didn't matter who was in charge, we were going to make sure that the perpetrators of that horrible act that they receive justice.


KING: There's been some criticism, David that you know the White House has changed the account of just how the raid went down. Does a day like this, a moment like this for the president, overshadow that, the discrepancies?

GERGEN: I think it does, John. It's an interesting question. You know, since the speech on Sunday night, we've been awash in questions and second-guessing about the mission and how we responded and the White House changing its story. And to some extent those questions were diminishing the glow that was coming from Sunday night. And now, today, I think, actually, it diminishes the questions. I think those questions seem somewhat less important, as we begin to remember the larger significance of what's happened here on this so- called war on terror, how we've hopefully started to turn the page and move into a new chapter in American history.

And I think the president, so far -- Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, America's mayor, as you call it, said -- told CNN today you know the president's shown perfect pitch here coming to New York. We'll have to see how the days ahead go. He's got a lot of big fights coming ahead, but I think tomorrow becomes -- is also extremely important to go thank those Navy SEALs.

KING: David Gergen for us tonight, our thanks to Ed Henry, our senior White House correspondent as well. This hour's breaking news, the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound brings to light a plot timed for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The nation's first homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, discusses that with us next.

And later, more from our exclusive tour of the new World Trade Center site and museum, including a north tower stairway that led many survivors outside and earned a special name.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These are the survivor stairs and up top we've got construction cranes and buildings and glass and trees. You come down and you start to see, really, the effects, physical effects of that day.



KING: Important perspective in tonight's breaking news. Information taken from Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan reveals a plot to derail trains here in the United States timed for the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

With us now, the nation's first homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge.

Mr. Secretary, it's good to see you.

Let's start with that, from your experience, when you know now that your former department have these notes, have these sketches, have some format of an outline of an al Qaeda plan to time to the anniversary coming up in four months to try to derail U.S. trains -- what does that tell you?

TOM RIDGE, FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: It tells me they're consistent in their operational planning. Whether or not they're even close to the capability of executing it remains to be seen. But that was a theme -- the transportation infrastructure has been a theme that we've heard about now for nine-plus years. And it should come as no surprise.

Even though it wasn't al Qaeda, they were involved in Madrid -- a terrorist group was involved in Madrid in '04. It was al Qaeda in Great Britain in '05.

So, I think the interesting notion here is that they're actually people were talking about last year doing something with trains this year. So, it's a heads up. It's a warning. I don't think it's necessarily actionable. But I think it's important they've sent this information out to those responsible for that infrastructure.

KING: And take us back in time. It's important for context. In the past, when these documents were seized and brought in and analyzed by U.S. intelligence analysts, when you'd have them, say, you know, some of them discuss a plan, some of them discuss ideas. How much of it turned out to be real and how much of it turned out to be just sort of, you know, debating what might they do?

RIDGE: Well, John, I think you've really at the epicenter of the real challenge of the intelligence community and within homeland security generally. You get repeated and recurring themes about particular kind of threats at specific targets. But you don't necessarily see or hear anything else in that chain of information that you're gathering from multiple sources that says anything about there being prepared to actually execute the plan.

So, I think today's alert was simply a reminder that it has been part of a potential planning -- it's been something that has been recurring in themes for the past nine years. Be vigilant. And if there's more additional information, and I'm quite confident that there would be more specific directions given to those involved in rail transportation to take additional action.

Since over the past couple of years, make no mistake about it, there's additional security, both seen and unseen. Apparently at the time, they just wanted to remind people that there's still a potential target, take notice, but use the information that we have, but don't make any -- don't make any changes now. There's no necessity for it.

KING: Take us inside what is happening right now in the United States government. On this scene tonight, Mr. Secretary, I covered the White House for 8 1/2 years. I know what kind of security travels with the president. You can see that it was magnified today, not only because the president was out right after the capture or the killing of Osama bin Laden, but also, of course, he's at a site here twice, not just on 9/11, but once previously also was a terrorist target.

What is happening in the immediate days after with an obvious fear of retaliatory strikes?

RIDGE: Well, first of all, I think everybody in this country should be comforted that the Secret Service will do everything they can to continue to protect the president and the vice president.

I also don't think that -- I think the word "retaliatory strike" might be somewhat misplaced. We've been under attack since 9/11. And the notion that if something would occur in the next couple of weeks or the next couple of months would be in retaliation of the death of bin Laden, I personally think might be -- that emphasis might be misplaced.

My guess would be that it would be a plan that had been executed, that had been in the planning stage long before we found bin Laden. So, while I don't particularly feel, unless there's very specific information that we ought to get wrapped around the notion of retaliation, let's be very clear: we've been under -- there have been multiple arrests over the past year, home-grown terrorists. We've seen what happened in Fort Hood, in Detroit, in New York City. So, we're constantly under attack, and I'd be careful to characterize the next attack as retaliation.

We're still in the crosshairs of these radicals.

KING: I'd like to get your perspective on how you think this all has been handled by the administration. You're not just the former homeland of security secretary. You're a former member of Congress, a former governor of very important state, a combat veteran in Vietnam. In terms of how this raid was: (a), organized, (b), implemented, and the president of the United States, the commander-in-chief, taking the risk to give the orders, what'd you make of it?

RIDGE: Well, from top to bottom, I think -- and as people have said before, this whole notion transcends politics. I guess if you want to give political credit, you'd give it to both President Bush and President Obama. But at the end of the day, the credit, as both of them has said, goes to the intelligence and the military.

And in terms of the president's presence today in New York City, I thought it was respectful, it was solemn, very solemn. It was appropriate, and indeed very, very well done.

KING: You agree with the decision not to release the photos of the corpse?

RIDGE: I do. I do. I don't know -- you know, we're going to have these conspiracy theorists around us forever. There are probably still some people that think that Neil Armstrong didn't walk on the moon, it was on some movie set. There are still some people believe that we're somehow responsible for the destruction of the Twin Towers.

I think the president is spot-on. Pretty gruesome pictures when you get firearms at that part of your anatomy, and I don't think it serves any better to show them to the broader public.

KING: Former homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, thanks for your help tonight.

RIDGE: Thanks, John.

KING: Take care, sir.

And stay with us for more of our exclusive tour of the World Trade Center site, including the breathtaking view from the newest tower breaking through the New York skyline.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What you're seeing is we're now above the buildings around us. Now, we're on the 55th floor. This building will have 50 more stories on top of us.



KING: Welcome back. We're live from Ground Zero in New York tonight.

And if you're just joining us, here's the latest news you need to know right now:

Information taken from Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan reveals a plot to derail trains here in the United States on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The plotting appears to have just been in the talking stage. Tonight, the Department of Homeland Security says it believes there is no imminent terrorist threat.

Another story breaking right now: the U.S. Air Force has grounded all of its F-22 Raptors, that over concern about the pilots' oxygen system.

Today, oil prices settled below $100 a barrel for the first time since mid-March. Prices fell more than 8 percent today alone. The bad news: the drop in oil prices as well as today's big sell-off on Wall Street was caused by fear the United States' economy is slowing down again.

When we come back, is there a bin Laden bump for President Obama? And can his talk of new national unity stay?

But his death is of little consolation to the thousands -- the thousands who lost loved ones on 9/11.

Today, we spoke with one family member on her way to meet with the president. Sally Regenhard lost her son, Christian, a firefighter on 9/11.


SALLY REGENHARD, SON KILLED ON 9/11: He was someone who should never have been massacred by hate. And I'm here for him. It's not for me to meet the president for my own edification. I'm representing my son. And the parents of the victims will never get over the pain, the grief, the sorrow.



KING: Live pictures as the sun begins to set in New York City of the World Trade Center, Ground Zero, the site of the most deadly attack on 9/11. We are four months shy of the 10-year anniversary. Those attacks were a defining moment for our country, and at times, a defining debate in our politics.

So how, now, will the death of Osama bin Laden play out -- not only in our country, but in American politics?

Let's talk to two of the very best.

Cornell Belcher is a CNN contributor and a Democratic pollster. Whit Ayres is a Republican strategist. Both are joining me from Washington. I want to start, before we get into how the president personally may or may not benefit from this with the moment.

The president himself has said, let's put partisanship aside. The death of bin Laden is a moment for the country. Rudy Giuliani, who was the Republican mayor of this town back in that day, was at the president's side most of the day when the president was here at Ground Zero. You had Mike Bloomberg, who was a Democrat, a Republican, now is an independent; Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey; Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York.

Whit, to you first. This is a Democratic president. But when you look at a picture like this, and we have for at least a week a spirit of American reflection, can it last? And what can be gained from it, if anything?

WHIT AYRES, PRES., AYRES, MCHENRY & ASSOCIATES: Oh, it's not likely to last, but it was a unifying moment. This was a great time for President Obama and his team. It was a great time for President Bush and his team, whose intelligence led to finding this hideout. It was a great time for the American military. But, fundamentally, it's a great time for America and a moment of unify for us.

KING: And Cornell, does it last?

CORNELL BELCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, you know, we saw this moment also after the Arizona incident, where we also saw a bump and, sort of, Americans, sort of, rallying around -- rallying around the flag and around their leadership. The question is, sort of, I think it's on Washington and the leadership here to, sort of, make it last before they, sort of, get back into the nasty punching and kicking that we see too often here in Washington.

I would like for -- and I think most Americans would like to see this, sort of, last. I mean, that picture just showed of Republicans and Democrats walking side by side is a beautiful photograph that most Americans would love. I wish President Bush was in that photograph as well.

KING: I don't want to over-emphasize it, but it is a important political moment for any president in the United States. This president of the United States is heading into the re-election cycle. At a time when you still have a very sluggish economy, new reminders of that today. So, something like this, when he gets a bump, the question is: does it have lasting power?

Let's look at some of the numbers. In the Gallup poll, President Obama's job approval now at 52 percent. In April, it was at 46 percent.

If you look at two additional polls: "The New York Times"/CBS poll now has the president at 57 percent. In April, it was 46. "The Washington Post"/Pew Research Center poll, 56 percent. In April, it was 47. So, relative consistency there.

Cornell Belcher, to you first. You have called for this president. You are the Democrat in the conversation. How important is that, and I guess, how lasting might it be, or not?

BELCHER: I don't think it's going to be -- the top number isn't going to be lasting, because, look, gasoline is almost $5 a pop. So, it's problematic with that.

I think when you get inside of those numbers is what's important. When you look at his numbers around fighting terrorism and you look at his numbers around being a strong and decisive leader, those numbers have gone up five, six, seven points. That's lasting. When a president is seen as a strong, decisive leader, it's tough to take that away.

As much as the problems we had with George Bush, Americans saw him at one point as a strong and a decisive leader and he rode that to re-election. It is that characteristic that is almost always most important in a president.

KING: And, Whit, what does the history show us? George W. Bush, after 9/11, had a pretty sustained bounce. That was a defining challenge for the country. I think if you go back and look at Bill Clinton after Oklahoma City, there was something. George H.W. Bush might be the greatest example in terms of a president heading into a re-election cycle. He wins the first Gulf War and his approval rating soars, but then it dropped as you get closer to the election.

What is the lesson in that?

AYRES: John, the bounce that the president got after the killing of Osama bin Laden is fairly typical for presidents. Nowhere near as high as the record of 35 points in the Gallup data for George W. Bush after 9/11 or the 18-point bounce his dad got after the start of the Persian Gulf War.

The bounce that President Obama got is pretty typical, and actually almost identical to what he got after the Arizona shooting tragedy and his Tucson speech. That lasted about two weeks. So, there's not a very long life span for some of these bounces. The typical bounce being six to seven points.

KING: Whit Ayres, the Republican, Cornell Belcher, the Democrat -- gentlemen, thank you for your insights tonight. We'll continue to keep an eye on the numbers and the spirit of national unity we have this day.

We're live at the World Trade Center, live at Ground Zero tonight. I just want to show you a little bit, still construction 24/7 here because they have a deadline. They have a deadline to get this memorial finished by the time of the 10th anniversary. We're going to show you exclusively a tour that we took of this remarkable and very special site.

Plus, a retired New York City firefighter remembers when then- President George W. Bush visited Ground Zero almost 10 years ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS) ROCCO CHIERICHELLA, RETIRED NEW YORK CITY FIREFIGHTER: I recall the president coming down and visiting the rescue workers and the construction workers, and he was wonderful and he jumped up on a crushed fire truck with the fireman Bob Beckwith and gave him a lousy bullhorn and people were starting to shout whimpers that we couldn't hear him, we can't hear him. And I just let one go, I have a pretty loud mouth.

I can hear you.



BUSH: I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people --


BUSH: And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.


CHIERICHELLA: He lifted the nation was really at a low point and I think the world is going to hear us, and I think it took a few years later to hear us again.



KING: Live pictures here -- construction into the evening here at the Ground Zero site. Why? Because they have a September 11th deadline for creating -- finishing the work on the National 9/11 Memorial Monument at this site. You can see the new One World Trade Center tower.

The president of the United States was here today for a wreath- laying ceremony. It was a very solemn ceremony.

If we can come back to the picture of me live, I can point out just a little bit, these trees are where the towers were. They're not going to rebuild there. That is where the memorial, a reflecting pool here on the south side, a reflecting pool on the other side, on the north side. That's where the president was today for the wreath- laying.

After the ceremony, we were taking an exclusive tour and we went up to a deck where the 9/11 families can come. The deck is set aside, especially for them. Many come and they bring flowers, many come on birthdays to say a few prayers. It was up there we saw and we can show you a picture. They brought the wreath from down here on the deck up to that deck where the families come and reflect, and they placed it up there along with a few bouquets of flowers that have been dropped off during the day. That's a picture I put out on Twitter early on the day. It was from that deck that we began a tour, not only of the reconstruction of the towers, the office towers here at the World Trade Center, but of what will be in the not too distant future, the 9/11 National Memorial and Museum.


BILL BARONI, PORT AUTHORITY OF N.Y. & N.J.: That is the building of the underground infrastructure. We expect about a quarter of a million people to come through this every day.

KING: Every day?

BARONI: We are building a site that is both office and commerce and retail. But, obviously, most importantly, we're also rebuilding -- we are building the memorial and museum. As you look directly ahead, that is the entrance of the museum, it's called the Museum Pavilion (ph).

This box with the air conditioning in it was the last column.

KING: It's the last column of the original.

BARONI: On site, and you can see how number of pictures, and number of police department, 37, people that we lost.

As you descend down, there's a set of stairs and there's an escalator. But between them, which people will not walk on, are the survivor stairs. They are stairs I believe out of the north tower to Vesey Street.

KING: So the people who made it out --

BARONI: Many people came down these steps. And this is the original -- this is the original wall of the South Tower.

KING: So, you consider this Ground Zero?

BARONI: I think so. Certainly. This is -- this was what -- this is the remains of what happened. Those towers came down and those 3,000 people died, this is their resting place.

This will be the National 9/11 Memorial. That will be opened for the 10th anniversary .

KING: Can you get it done by September?

BARONI: It is a mission of the Port Authority, rebuilding this site. That will be opened for the 10th anniversary. We are working here literally around the clock seven days a week. We've got about 2,800 men and women, construction workers on the site.

This is the north pool, around all four sides of the north, and then the south as well. Those are the names of the victims. And --

KING: Inscribed on here?

BARONI: They are physically under here. They are on bronze. At each of the pools, 600,000 gallons, each of them is the largest manmade pool on the planet. They are in the exact footprint of the original Twin Towers.

KING: So, this is the north tower?

BARONI: Correct.

This is One World Trade Center.

KING: Fifty.

BARONI: What you're seeing is we are above the buildings around us. We are at the 55th floor. This building will have 50 more stories on top of us.

We know what we're building here and we know for whom we're building it. And we know that in six months, tens of thousands of people a day are going to come through here, through the memorial and a year later, through the museum. And we owe it to history to get this right.


KING: All right. Thanks to Bill Baroni for that tour. There's the wreath that the president laid here today, put now up on the deck where 9/11 families come to reflect on their losses nearly ten years later.

"IN THE ARENA" is next. That's all for us tonight. As we leave you tonight, we leave with the sights and the sounds of this hallowed place, Ground Zero.