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Libyan Conflict; Gadhafi Must Go?; Presidential Promise; Helping the Rebels?

Aired March 29, 2011 - 19:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks Wolf and good evening everyone. The balance of power in Libya's civil war took a dramatic shift today and one that favors the dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Opposition forces that had been seizing key territory and marching west hit a sudden wall and then were forced to retreat under heavy fire from regime forces and loyalists.

The scenes and accounts from the battlefield suggest talk by top Obama administrations including the president tonight of Gadhafi being pressured to yield power is just that, talk or wishful thinking, at least at the moment. Still, the United States and key allies are making clear tonight their end game in Libya must include an end to Gadhafi's rule.


HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: All of us have to continue the pressure on and deepen the isolation of the Gadhafi regime. This includes a unified front of political and diplomatic pressure that makes clear to Gadhafi he must go.


KING: The Libya conflict was also a major focus on Capitol Hill today. NATO's top military officer told Congress most of the leaders of the opposition are trustworthy, but maybe not all.


ADMIRAL JAMES STAVRIDIS, NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER, EUROPE: We have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential al Qaeda, Hezbollah, we've seen different things. But at this point, I don't have details sufficient to say that there's a significant al Qaeda presence or any other terrorist presence in and among these folks.


KING: Here's something else from Admiral Stavridis worth noting -- the cost of this war, the cost of this war.


STAVRIDIS: As it runs over months will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.


KING: At least $550 million so far. Let's did deeper beginning with a closer look at the day's dramatic shift on the battlefield. Let's go over and map it out. If you look here across, of course these are all the key cities across northern Libya. This is where we were pre-conflict, pre the military coalition launching its strikes.

Gadhafi here, the green is the opposition. Here's where we were just yesterday. Just yesterday, after those coalition strikes, the opposition headquartered over here in the east had been making its way west toward Tripoli. They had taken back al Brega, taken back Ras Lanuf, taken back Bin Jawad, were heading here for Sirte -- this is Gadhafi's birth place, hoping to keep making their way through Tripoli.

But just in the past 24 hours on the battlefield -- again, look at this -- the green is held by the opposition -- this is now. Look at the dramatic shift. Misrata now in dispute, Gadhafi forces taking back ground here -- Ras Lanuf in dispute and the regime moving this way. Much of the heavy fighting today over here in the east -- the opposition stronghold, and right out here in the front lines, that's where CNN's Arwa Damon spent the day.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's not just retreat; it also to a certain degree is defeat. We caught up with the opposition fighters just outside of Bin Jawad. They were coming under heavy artillery fire, we could hear the explosions, and then we saw them streaming down the road. They said that the fighting had begun at around 8:00 in the morning, but seven hours later, they were no longer able to hold their ground in the face not just of Gadhafi's military, but also, they said, people in buildings inside the town of Bin Jawad itself, Gadhafi loyalists, snipers, military men, street-to- street combat and they had to pull back.

And they ended up in Ras Lanuf, that critical oil town where on the western outskirts of it, again we saw this barrage of artillery, rocket, mortar fire. We saw the opposition firing back as well with artillery, with multiple barrel rocket launchers. They were trying to bring in reinforcements, determined not to lose that town as well. But this is a very, very difficult blow for them and the realization that even though they were able to charge ahead fairly easily up until the last 48 hours, now the dynamics of this battlefield have completely changed -- John.

KING: And Arwa, one of the reasons they were confident they could start to head back to the west was that coalition airstrikes had taken out some of Gadhafi's ground forces. Any evidence at all as the battle played out today and as the opposition had to retreat that the coalition was in any way trying to help them and willing to help them by taking on the Gadhafi forces, or are they on their own?

DAMON: We did not hear any reports of airstrikes taking place today. The other big factor to consider is not just the airstrikes, but the fact that as the opposition were pushing westward, bearing in mind that yesterday they did reach a small town that's around 60 miles to the east of Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, they're entering these pro-Gadhafi loyalist tribal lands. And so up until that point they were moving through areas where the civilian population supported the opposition or, in fact, was the opposition itself.

Now they're entering areas where they don't necessarily have the popular support of civilians, and they're telling us that Gadhafi is arming his loyalists, he's telling them to fight, and it does seem as if that is, in fact, taking place. They're telling us there are more and more street battles happening. This would be inside population centers where airstrikes would not be able to reach Gadhafi's military. And, of course, it adds the extra dimension if we have one set of civilians on the one hand and a set of civilians on the other fighting it out, what is the coalition going to do in that case with a mandate to protect the civilian population as a whole. And that is why these developments are so significant, because it does completely change the way things are potentially going to be playing out here -- John.

KING: And it -- will it change them in your view, and based on your conversations this way, will the opposition decide perhaps it is outmanned, perhaps it is outgunned and decide instead of trying to march west to just consolidate and protect and defend what it has in the east?

DAMON: John, every conversation I've had with the opposition leadership is that they will not settle for that. They do not want to see Libya split. They want to go all the way to Tripoli. They want to remove Gadhafi from power, because they'll tell you this is not just about eastern Libya. It's about all of the other areas that are also trying to rise up against Gadhafi. They're not going to, by everything that they've been saying, back down from that. But there is the realization that's sinking in that this is not going to be an easy charge forward.

KING: A significant day on the battlefield. Arwa Damon right there -- Arwa, thanks. Let's underscore again that very important reporting from Arwa Damon on the front lines for the opposition. This was yesterday. Remember green towns are held by the opposition, red towns by the regime. This is just yesterday. The opposition was on the march, heading this way, making progress, heading to the west.

This is today. You see the regime gains here, coming this way. The opposition retreating as Arwa Damon told you. Very significant change in strategy, and the fighting not limited to here in the east. The regime is making progress, taking back opposition strongholds over here, also making some progress, heavy fighting in the east -- in the west -- excuse me -- in Misrata, some bombs in Tripoli today. That's where we find CNN's Nic Robertson.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Three explosions. For the first time, those explosions coming during daylight hours here, within a minute of each other, the third explosion, the heaviest one. And just before that, we heard what sounded like coalition aircraft flying overhead. Again lower than we've heard them, louder than we've heard them fly over before.

Seems to be an indication the coalition confident about the lack of air defenses here, despite the fact we have seen in the past few days anti-aircraft weapons hidden on the roadsides, under camouflaged, surface-to-air missiles hidden under trees, but it seems that Gadhafi's forces at the moment not prepared to use them around the capital. It seems they'd rather take those military strikes.

But in Misrata the government forces that we saw surrounding the city yesterday, the tanks, the artillery and all the soldiers seem to be going on another offensive in the city according to opposition members who have contacted us. They say that Gadhafi's forces are even going door to door telling civilians that they need to leave their homes and get out of the way. And certainly the evidence that we saw on the ground supports the fact there's been heavy fighting, that there's been the use of heavy artillery tanks, artillery shells.

We saw one unexploded artillery shell on the side of the road. So that perhaps gives an indication of what has picked up today in our absence after we left yesterday -- John.

KING: And Nic, take us to the scene in Misrata from what you saw in the sense that if Libyan tanks, if Libyan artillery is being used in that town, one would think the coalition would try to target it. Is it in locations where if they targeted it, they would run the risk of civilian casualties?

ROBERTSON: The military heavy equipment hidden under tanks, hidden under trees. We did see one piece of heavy artillery, a Howitzer gun just sitting in the middle of a field. But for the most part, the military equipment that we saw was sort of being hidden in storefronts, under trees and out of sight of coalition aircraft overhead. But it would appear to us that there was very little civilian activity around the troops that we saw there -- John.

KING: And let's turn to the political situation. At this big summit meeting in London, Secretary of State Clinton, British officials, others saying, perhaps Gadhafi will feel so isolated. Perhaps he'll get the hint and leave. Perhaps somebody around him will tell him he has to go -- wishful thinking, Nic? Any indications at all from anyone you've spoken to close to the regime that Gadhafi is thinking of trying to find an exit strategy?

ROBERTSON: That's one thing that people say they can count on him -- he's not going to succumb to this immediate pressure. So it does seem that if the coalition wants this path to be successful to oust Gadhafi, it's going to take more coalition military might -- excuse me -- to bring that pressure to bear, because it seems that he's not -- he's just not going to back down in the face of the opposition as it stands right now, even though senior people around him think over time he's going to have to go.

There's going to have to be somebody in that inner circle, his family that's going to have to go to him and say, you've got to step down, you've got to go. And another reason they say he probably won't do it anyway is because he won't trust the international community not to pursue him, even if he gets sanctuary somewhere else, not to pursue him and then put him in court somewhere -- John. KING: Excellent points and reporting as always from Nic Robertson -- Nic is in Tripoli. Nic thank you. And this day of retreat by the anti-Gadhafi forces comes on the heels of President Obama's nationally televised promise that the U.S. military role in Libya would be of limited time and limited scope. Is that a promise the president can keep if his end game requires Gadhafi to go?

Our senior analyst David Gergen is with us. He has of course advised four U.S. presidents. And David, you know the timing here is horrible for the administration. You can't score this based on one day, but the president of the United States addresses the American people last night and addresses the world. He says the American involvement will be of limited time, of limited scope, and then the day after, the day after, the opposition forces, with whom he has thrown his lot, get routed on the battle field. What's the choice the president faces?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Very difficult choice, John. With the rebels in retreat now and Gadhafi forces on the offensive, and we just heard a reporting that the rebels are not going to be satisfied just holding on to the east. They want to go all the way to Tripoli. What I think is becoming apparent is they can't get to Tripoli unless NATO and the United States included go -- you know, do this militarily.

And last night in the president's speech, he specifically said, broadening the mission, the military mission to regime change would be a mistake. It would splinter the coalition. It would likely mean American troops would have to go in on the ground. It would mean a loss of civilian life. So the president has, in effect, ruled that out last night. John, the question becomes tonight, is the United States going to reverse itself on that or what are we going to live with?

And that's -- you know we're back into this cloudy, murky sense, we don't know what -- you know, we don't know quite what the U.S. mission is. Can you remember a war in which we've watched day to day the tactics in which we've sat on the sidelines and sort of like kibitzed about what should we do next because we're not sure what the rules are?

KING: Well part of that is of course the media access to it as it plays up, but you make an important point --


KING: -- because the president said last night regime change is not part of the military mission. And the United Nations Resolution -- I have it right here -- I read it a couple of times yesterday and I read it again today -- does not of course call for regime change. So the president had to be careful. But Secretary Clinton, the British foreign minister, the British prime minister today all said Gadhafi must go in the end game, so there's a disconnect there. And David, I want you to listen to this. This is the president of the United States. He gave interviews to the broadcast network anchors tonight. On a day the opposition is being routed on the battlefield, the president sounds reasonably optimistic. Listen.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think what we're seeing is that the circle around Gadhafi understands that the noose is tightening, that their days are probably numbered, and they're going to have to think through what their next steps are.


KING: Think through what their next steps are. Now, he has access to intelligence, the president of the United States does, David. We need to be careful about this. He sees things we don't see. And again you can't score this based on one day. But if you look at the map I was just showing and you had the green arrow, the opposition heading west yesterday, and now you have the regime taking back those key cities in the east and we're showing you the map right now, there's a disconnect from what we're hearing from the president publicly and at least what we are seeing publicly on the battlefield.

GERGEN: That's absolutely right, John. And what we're seeing on the battlefield is a seesaw in which Gadhafi retains a lot of power. As we get closer to Tripoli, he has a lot more power. And the rebels are not very well organized, so one has to come back to John -- I think you made the pertinent point -- there must be some intelligence that they have.

Hillary Clinton has been hinting at this for days, that there are those in Gadhafi's inner circle who really would like to see him go or would like to get out. One of his sons, his most westernized son has been -- particularly been pinpointed; he would like to find a way to get out of this. So maybe they have intelligence that goes the other way. Otherwise, it's -- you can't -- you can't -- I don't know how you can explain the president's confidence in light of what's going on in the field.

KING: And so is there any doubt -- the president last night would not put a timeframe on this. He said it would be of limited scope. He was not very specific. And many in Congress were saying, Mr. President, we need more. I assume the president was playing it safe. He doesn't know how long it's going to take, and so he wasn't going to put something out there.

If you have the government of the United States and many of its allies saying Gadhafi must go. If the battlefield turns in the wrong direction in favor of the regime in the coming days, is there any doubt in your mind the president or do you think -- let me ask you this way -- will the president have to reconsider taking a backseat, essentially, and more of a support role in the NATO military operation and put the United States more out front?

GERGEN: Well, he so clearly does not want to take a front seat. He's the reluctant warrior. What I think you could see happening is the U.S. saying, friends -- or the U.K. -- if you want to go in and arm the rebels, if you want to go in as part of the NATO mission, we're not going to be part of that, but we read the U.N. Resolution as permitting that.

And you know the president himself has said in one of those interviews tonight that he hasn't taken off the table the idea of the U.S. providing arms to the rebels. But, John, you're right to keep your eye on what's going on the ground and continue to do that because it was startling to see what's happened in the last 48 hours. It's very clear.

I think it has become increasingly clear the rebels can't win, can't knock Gadhafi out without the firm military support all the way on an offensive going to Tripoli. And knocking the regime out, something the president last night said would be a mistake.

KING: We will keep our eye on the ground and we're blessed to have great reporters there. We're also blessed to have David Gergen for these excellent insights. David, we'll see you tomorrow night as well I hope. And still ahead here --


KING: -- we're going to map out this fighting city by city -- city by city as it appears Gadhafi not only digging in, but on the offensive. And next, is it a mixed message or right message for the United States and others to insist on Gadhafi leaving when the United Nations Resolution authorizing the military action makes no mention, zero mention, of regime change.


KING: Leading representatives of the Libyan opposition took part in urgent diplomatic talks in London today. France now recognizes the opposition as the legitimate government of Libya, but the United States says it isn't ready to take that step just yet. Today after her meeting with the opposition leaders, Secretary of State Clinton said the administration first needs to know more about the opposition's goals and its plans.


H. CLINTON: We don't know as much as we would like to know and as much as we expect we will know. We are picking up information. A lot of contact is going on.


KING: CNN's Paula Newton was at the London summit and is with us now live. And Paula, the first question is we heard all this optimistic talk and all these promises from the leasers today and the diplomats today. Did anything happen at this London summit that will change what's happening on the ground in Libya?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well the important thing was that they were able to speak with one voice, sort of. And you've gone through a little bit of that. What's happened is they have appointed an envoy who will go and try and speak to the opposition, it's a Jordanian. But concretely, I'd have to say, no. And you know John I've gone from NATO bases -- more than a week now -- NATO bases in Italy to NATO headquarters in Brussels and now to this conference. And I'm starting to begin to understand that the military problem is that when we started way back when last Saturday, when you had leaders around the table saying to themselves OK, we've made this equipment. We're going for airstrikes.

I know from a leader who sat at that table that the feeling was, look, he can't last long. Well, guess what? He's already lasted too long in terms of the patience of this coalition. The problem here, John, is when we talk about what will actually dislodge Gadhafi, no one seems to know and what is terrifying them right now and you really do feel the anxiety, is the civilians on the ground and that they've been lucky so far, that they have been able to avoid that kind of, you know, real harm to civilians. Not that there hasn't been a lot of suffering, but they know it could be worse.

KING: And you cover the international security beat and you've spent a lot of time studying people like Gadhafi. We hear these rumblings of a possible exile deal, maybe he'll leave, maybe somebody around him will convince him to go. You hear that at the summit. Is there anything to believe that it's true or just wishful thinking?

NEWTON: I -- you know, I spent a long time talking to people behind the scenes, on camera. I spoke to the Italian foreign minister and the Turkish foreign minister. Look John, the Italians have been pressing this most of all, but I said to Franco Fitzpatini (ph) the Italian foreign minister, you're not offering immunity. You don't have a concrete country that he actually even wants to go to.

I asked him categorically, have you had any contact in the last week with Gadhafi or those close to him? No. If you were Gadhafi, would you take a deal from the international coalition telling you, that yes, you'll get safe passage to somewhere? It isn't likely. At the same time though, you feel a sense that they are going to try it and they're going to do what they can.

And a big key to this could be Turkey. They seem to be very open. They continue to say they're the only side right now -- reminder -- that they're a NATO member -- the only country right now that has contact with both sides.

KING: Paula Newton for us covering the important summit in London -- Paula, thank you. And should the United States and the allies perhaps be doing more to help the opposition? Joining me Phillip (ph) Crowley, a veteran of the Clinton administration National Security Council, most recently, the top spokesman at the State Department and CNN national security contributor Fran Townsend, homeland security adviser in the George W. Bush White House. Thank you for being here.

I want you to listen to something the president just told -- he gave interviews tonight -- this is to "NBC News". The president saying he's not ruling out doing more. It's especially important, when you look at what happened on the battlefield today, the administration faces a tough question. Do we actively, proactively arm the opposition? Here's the president.


OBAMA: I'm not ruling it out, but I'm also not ruling it in. We're still making an assessment, partly about what Gadhafi's forces are going to be doing. Keep in mind we've been at this now for nine days. And the degree to which we've degraded Gadhafi's forces in those nine days has been significant.


KING: It may be significant, the degrading of his forces, but he still has significantly more power, the regime does, than the opposition, again if you look at what happened in the last 24 hours. P.J. to you first -- does the United States have a moral obligation? We've essentially taken sides. We're trying to say the military's not involved in the civil war. The military trying to protect civilians, but the United States has taken sides, has it not?

P.J. CROWLEY, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: The United States is committed to see Gadhafi leave and a different kind of regime emerge in Libya. The military component is one of a number of tools that can be used to help dislodge him. So the economic aspect is important. The diplomatic aspect is important. As the president said -- or as the secretary said, we need to know more about this opposition and then you can evaluate over time whether arms is the right answer.

KING: Help me understand how this plays out. If you're in the classified meetings with the president or the situation with the secretary of state, essentially you have on the table -- and again, we don't have access to the intelligence, so we don't know if they know -- when they say there's a noose around Gadhafi that maybe he's exploring getting out.

Maybe they have intelligence about that. But if you looked at the battlefield today, the opposition got its butt kicked. (INAUDIBLE) it was kicked back the other way in a sense, so you can see (INAUDIBLE) arm the opposition, should we use airstrikes, not in a protect civilians way, but in a help the opposition way, or do you hope sanctions over months, maybe longer, get Gadhafi to go?

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: I sure hope it's not your last option, John, because we have a track record. We know that Libya and we know Gadhafi in particular has survived decades of sanctions and diplomatic efforts before he surrendered his weapons program. And so I -- we have no reason to believe that's going to work now.

The question really is will the president permit a more expansive use of military power? It's a problem because of course Gadhafi is a direct threat to the west and to the United States. He has said that he will retaliate for the no-fly zone. He has successfully pulled off attacks in Pan Am 103 and the Libel (ph) bombing. And so we know he's given to asymmetric threats and asymmetric attacks and he said he's going to do it and so I think the United States is under some pressure to understand that we're at risk here.

KING: So they had this London summit today. Secretary Clinton says Gadhafi must go. Here's the British foreign minister, pretty much the same argument.


WILLIAM HAGUE, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: There is no future for Libya with Gadhafi in charge of Libya or trying to hang on to power there. That is clear to all of these nations and organizations, and we've made that emphatically clear today.


KING: This is the part that's hard for me to understand and God bless them. They say he must go. They've made that emphatically clear. This is the U.N. Resolution under which they are operating the military action in Libya and regime change not in here -- not in here.

CROWLEY: Well in fact the military aspect here is very clear to protect civilians and in the process of doing that protect the opposition and protect the viability of an alternative --

KING: But if pro-Gadhafi civilians -- when you move on that map into the red areas, you're moving into areas where Gadhafi might have more popular support, his tribal areas. When you move into those, if pro-Gadhafi civilians are shooting at the opposition and the opposition shoots back, can I read this to say the coalition's job is to protect those pro-Gadhafi civilians?

CROWLEY: But in my judgment the purpose of the military aspect is to erode the strength of Gadhafi, you know both directly through attacking his forces, but also attacking the morale of his forces by removing some money from his accounts, you're moving some of that lubrication that allows him to stay in power. We've done this before. Kosovo back in 1999 was a perfect case where you applied military pressure, but it was ultimately, you know, political --


KING: I was covering the White House in those days. It was pretty clear who the good guys and the bad guys were. If you read -- and it's pretty clear if you listen to the political leadership who the good guys and the bad guys are in their view on the ground in Libya. But if you read this, Fran, if you read this, it says, protect civilians. A civil war by its very nature is some people support the leadership, some people don't, and they are fighting each other and they are civilians. Who does the coalition protect?

TOWNSEND: This is a real problem for the administration, especially because we understand what the president's view of the mission is. It's a humanitarian one to protect civilians. That's what it is. And this is going to represent a huge problem, I think, for NATO and for U.S. forces if the tide turns and they're shooting -- and we have to wind up protecting pro-Gadhafi -- KING: Forgive the use of the term, but does the coalition have to almost ignore this, ignore parts of this and go a little bit rogue and say, we're going to support the opposition. When they start going that way, if Gadhafi is fighting back, we're going to blow him up.

CROWLEY: Well certainly the -- you know while the mission is to protect civilians, the opposition is gaining from the steady attacks on Gadhafi's forces, so there is a synergy here, even though it's not explicitly laid out in this resolution.

TOWNSEND: Wasn't a synergy today. The rebels were losing today and so --

KING: This is one day. You can't score it on one day --


KING: -- but the timing after the president's speech right before this NATO handover, it makes you look at it and think what's going to happen here.

TOWNSEND: That's right.


TOWNSEND: This is a real --

CROWLEY: But there's a steady erosion of the ability of Gadhafi not only to rule the entire country, but to be able to conduct these operations. I do believe that there's some turmoil within the inner circle of Gadhafi. These guys are survivors, but that means that there is -- there will be a tipping point at some point. What the president said -- acknowledged last night is this is going to take some time.

KING: Take some time. Fran Townsend and P.J. Crowley we'll have you back as that time plays out. Appreciate your insights tonight -- more disturbing word of radiation tonight and contamination around Japan's Fukushima Nuclear Complex and a new warning about disaster readiness here at home and next a city-by-city look at the opposition military setbacks on the Libya battlefield.


KING: Welcome back.

A bit earlier in the program, we played you the president of the United States telling NBC News that he might -- might -- consider arming the rebels in Libya. The president said he hasn't ruled it in, hasn't ruled it out.

Here's the president speaking to CBS News tonight explaining why he's so cautious.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: The people that we've met with have fully vetted. So, we have a clear sense of who they are. And so far, they're saying the right things and most of them are professionals, lawyers, doctors, people who appear to be credible.

That doesn't mean that all the people who -- among all the people who oppose Gadhafi, there might not be elements that are unfriendly to the United States and our interests. And that's why I think it's important for us not to jump in with both feet, but to carefully consider what are the goals of the opposition.


KING: Let's discuss the president's caution with retired U.S. Army general, Major General James "Spider" Marks.

General, you hear the president say there, let's be careful dealing with the opposition. Let's not jump in with two feet until we know better who they are. Aren't we already in with two feet?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, U.S. ARMY (RET.): We are. We are, in essence, supplying arms to the rebels in the means of air support, which has been very, very effective. And, in fact, all of the success of the rebels can be laid directly on the coalition.

KING: The success of the rebels can be laid on the coalition. But if you come over here with me, I just want to show that -- that had been success that the coalition was celebrating and that the opposition was celebrating. This was them, they're the green.

They were moving this way, just yesterday. Just yesterday, they had their strongholds in Benghazi. They had taken back Ras Lanuf, Bin Jawad. Heading this way trying to take Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, hoping to keep going west towards Tripoli.

But this is what happened -- this is what happened in the last 24 hours. The regime coming this way. It's one day. It's one day. You can't score a battle in one day.

But if you're the president of the United States and you are cautious about the opposition, you have provided them air cover. Do you need to provide them more aggressive air cover? Do you need to coordinate with them to get them going back this way?

MARKS: Sure you do, absolutely. If, in fact, the United States has chosen sides and many would argue, they have, and it's very clear that they have -- we're going to have to, and the coalition, will have to be very much a part of what this ground force looks like in the form of liaison, air ground liaison teams. I would argue they're probably in Special Forces already there.

And another thing to consider is that if we have these challenges here, this would be very simple, not easy, but it would be simple to isolate that and then move toward Tripoli. I don't know why they would even get hung up in these areas.

KING: You mean come south around it?

MARKS: Sure, absolutely.

KING: There is a -- major highway routes up here, but they could dip around.

MARKS: Sure, they could. You isolate those -- Gadhafi's forces in those cities and if they come out to challenge the rebels, now they're open targets for the coalition.

KING: A lot of questions right now because of the transfer to the NATO in the front seat as opposed to the United States in the front seat and what will be different.

I want you to listen to Senator John McCain on Capitol Hill during a hearing today talked about his change -- talked about what he understands to be -- this is Senator McCain's understanding of a changing in the weapons configuration available over here. Let's listen.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: That certainly means continuing to use air power to degrade Gadhafi's military forces in the field, and I'm encouraged by the fact that we are now bringing in AC-130 and A-10 attack aircraft to provide more close-in support.


KING: Explain the significance for somebody at home who might not know what an AC-130 would do or what an A-10, a Warthog could do, again, if you're talking about trying to change. I'm going to close this down just to show people.

Again, this was going this way, the opposition of the good guys, they were going this way, and then, just in the last 24 hours, Gadhafi changes at this way. What could an 130 or an A-10 do in the battlefield?

MARKS: An A-10 is essentially a flying tank. It has very precise munitions, can go after very point targets. Larger considerations for collateral damage have now been eliminated, because it can be very precise. The AC-130 is a C-130 with some incredible firepower -- again, can go after some mobile and very precise targets.

And when it's in built-up areas like this, you will always have collateral damage considerations. Targeting of civilians will always be a consideration. With these two weapon systems, you at least can modify that and meter that down a little bit.

KING: As someone who knows how the political organizations work, as well as how military strategy works -- do you think there will be a significant change in aggressiveness of targeting, the political decisions that go into -- well, the opposition's going to go this way, we know Gadhafi has a bunch of tanks and a bunch of artillery here, take it out first. That's not what the United Nations resolution says. The resolution says you'll protect civilians if Gadhafi is going this way and he's going to attack al Brega or attack Benghazi.

Would a NATO-led command make that decision to say, now, we're going to be the opposition air force?

MARKS: We're moving in that direction. In fact, I'd say we're already committed to that because as the opposition continues to move in this direction, let's assume they overcome this and they move in that direction, they have closed with Gadhafi's forces. If rebels or civilians or if civilians are involved in those fights, then the charter still remains to achieve some degree of separation and protect the civilians.

So, it really is -- it's a perverse arrangement that we have here that we've got to better understand. Gadhafi clearly will risk his people. Will the rebels do the same? Do we know enough about them to understand what their intent is beyond trying to knock Gadhafi out?

KING: General, appreciate your insights. Come back with us. We'll spend some time on this.

When we come back, the day's other big headlines, including the president of Syria plans to address his people after days of dramatic protests there.

And the latest, and it's not good news, on Japan's nuclear crisis.


KING: Welcome back.

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

President Obama sounded a confident note this evening during interviews about the Libyan crisis, telling ABC he thinks Moammar Gadhafi's inner circle understands, quote, "the noose is tightening," and that their days, quote, "are probably numbered."

NASA's Messenger spacecraft today unpacked its cameras and send home its first pictures since orbiting the planet Mercury this month.

Back here on Earth, "Bloomberg News" raised some eyebrows today by reporting actor George Clooney's name is on a list of potential witnesses for the Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi's upcoming trial for alleged abuse of power and underage prostitution.

Syria's government resigned today. The state news agency says President Bashar al-Assad will give an important speech tomorrow to reassure the Syrian people. He's expected to propose reforms.

The question is: will they be enough to satisfy the pro-democracy and anti-government demonstrators who have demonstrated over the past several days in several Syrian cities?

That's one of the questions I posed a bit earlier to CNN's Hala Gorani.


HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The question is, John, will there be a Syrian exception? Will there be a case where there have been uprisings in the streets of the country in Daraa, in Latakia, and other major urban centers and will the president survive by offering an olive branch of sorts, by offering compromise, by offering reforms? The question is: will these protesters, who haven't really gone out in the streets over the last few days, be satisfied with some of the promises, consider them genuine?

The other question is: what forum will this president use to address his compatriots, his Syrian countrymen and women? Will he use the parliament? This is tradition. Or will we address them sort of Obama-style, directly into the lens of the camera?

That will be the big question. It will be symbolic very important if he uses another forum, another stage for his address to the Syrian people, John.

KING: Are the people on the street -- can they be convinced that this president can and will deliver reforms? Or has he lost that faith, that credibility with his people?

GORANI: Over these last several years, he has lost that credibility. When he came into power 11 years ago, he was this young, 35-year-old, even though he had inherited power, he hadn't been elected to this office, he appeared as though he was going to usher in a few chapter for the country. Now, these promises have been broken or they have been ignored.

And that's what brought people out on to the streets. They were, of course, buoyed by the examples of Tunisia and Egypt.

KING: And it also has a history -- let's be clear -- of being very brutal when it wants to be. Within in its own country, it's been accused of meddling off in Lebanon. There has to be a risk for those taking to the streets.

GORANI: Absolutely. And there was a protest that ended in deaths for dozens of protest according to human rights groups. In Daraa, in Latakia, army troops are now deployed now in those cities. It's part of the reason eyewitnesses are telling us that demonstrators are too scared and too intimidated to go out on the street.

So, yes, of course, this police state has been repressing the demonstrators, blaming the unrest on outsiders, and this is something that is of big concern for demonstrators. Will they be intimidated into staying home or will broken promises sort of enthusiastically have them go out on the streets in the way they have in the last -- since March 18th? Again, an open question, John.

In the Middle East, we've stopped making predictions. So, we're going to have to wait for the next several days to provide the answers. KING: We will wait and we will keep an eye on Syria and other neighborhood hot spots. Hala Gorani, thanks.


KING: Ahead, the ominous battle being fought in Japan to save the crippled nuclear plant. Are attempts to cool the reactors causing radioactive water to leak back into the ocean? We'll have the latest, next.


KING: Workers at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant still haven't found the source of a leak thought responsible for the highly radioactive water turning up in the building and maintenance tunnels, and (INAUDIBLE) can't explain why plutonium is among the contaminants they're detecting. Four hundred or so plant workers are there around the clock, getting by on two meals a day, sleeping on leaded mats to protect them from radiation.

CNN's Paula Hancocks is monitoring the situation for us from Tokyo.

And, Paula, what do the power company, Tokyo Power, and the government say they plan to do about this radioactive water and plutonium now discovered in the soil?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, the plutonium, which may sound bizarre, is actually the lesser of two evils. That's something that they can put to one side at this point, because the radiation levels are not that high. But, obviously, the problem is this contaminated water.

What the government and TEPCO say they have to do is drain this water. But it's easier said than be done. They have to figure out a place to put it, a container, which is going to be completely sealed and cannot leak. The containers they have, like that at this point are almost full.

Now, we understand the Japanese government has asked the French government for help. There's five engineers that will be here. One of them specializes in treating highly contaminated water. So, the hope is he'll be able to give some idea of what to do next -- John.

KING: And help us understand, Paula, from your reporting, these workers are up against unimaginable challenges. And an e-mail from one of the workers that CNN has obtained reads this way: "Crying is useless. If we're in hell now, all we can do is crawl up towards heaven."

What can you tell us about their working conditions? That just sounds horrific.

HANCOCKS: Well, this particular worker also says that they had lost both of their parents and they couldn't leave the plant to actually go and look for them. So, incredibly traumatic. But they're also saying is that, first, they have to deal with the nuclear crisis, then they can deal with being disaster victims.

Now, we know that they sleep on the floor in one of the buildings, which is about 500 meters away from the reactors themselves. Many of them sleep on the floor in a conference room. If there's no room in the conference room, they sleep in stairwells or in the corridors, even outside the toilets, just to try and have somewhere to sleep. They have crackers for breakfast. They have rice or canned goods for dinner.

And what we're hearing from TEPCO and the government is they're apologizing that they've realized they're treating them properly and they're going to try and get more supplies in. But it's staggering -- almost three weeks after this disaster, the people who are risking their lives to avert this nuclear breakfast, living in conditions like this -- John.

KING: God bless them. They're heroes already and they're trying to do more heroic work. Paula Hancocks from Tokyo -- thank you so much.

Let's talk this over now. I'm joined in Vermont by Arnie Gundersen. He's a nuclear safety advocate and consultant with Vermont state government about the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

And here with me is Dr. Irwin Redlener. He's the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

Mr. Gunderson, I want to go to you first and I want to over to the map here. We have the Fukushima Daiichi plant here. You just heard Paula talking about this report about the water getting into some of these tunnels. And you're familiar with how this works.

What is the issue in your view, and what is the problem, and how do you solve it if you have radioactive water in the tunnels and the ocean here?

ARNIE GUNDERSON, NUCLEAR SAFETY ADVOCATE: Well, the building on the far left is the containment building. And it's not containing. That's really the problem. It was always planned that whatever got in there wouldn't get out.

So, somehow there's a process of getting water out of there into those tunnels, and the tunnels are highly radioactive, 100 REM an hour. And what that means is that if you stood next to that thing for four hours, you'd receive a lethal dose. So, these are very radioactive tunnels.

Now, the ocean also has an awful lot of radioactivity in it. The only way it's getting there is from those tunnels. No one's found a direction connection, but the tunnels are not earthquake proof. So, it's possible they were damaged early on.

KING: Up in here.

Doctor, I want to talk more about preparedness here in the United States.


KING: But based on your experience, what would your recommendation be to the Japanese government? What should they do in terms of evacuation areas in the right place and to the Japanese people, with given -- given that every day, we seem to get something else, now, it's the water, those plutonium in the soil?

REDLENER: Well, this is extraordinarily anxiety-producing, John, of course, and you can imagine what it must feel like it get these messages constantly changed. This is slightly reminiscent of what happened right after the BP oil spill, and there's a lot of confusion about who was in charge, who was even giving the messages. Partly, it's the actual energy company, partly it's the government. And it's just confusing.

That is added on to the general anxiety of a country that's been really beaten by some terrible natural disasters. The specific advice right now: people really need to be away from that plant and they need to be away at a safe distance. It's at least 20 miles. It could be 50 miles. But that gives us a lot of food for thought as we develop our own emergency plan.

KING: Come on over and join at the map as we do this. This is the Fukushima plant here. I want to bring up this U.S. map.

And the first thing I want to show is these flashing states, this is where the EPA -- there are several other states have reported perhaps radiation from the Fukushima plant being detected particles. These are the ones that the EPA has confirmed.


KING: Any risk at all -- any risk at all to anybody in the United States? Should they be worried this?

REDLENER: No. People in public health do not feel there's a high enough risk anywhere in the United States at this moment. And I think we can take this to the bank at the moment. But it's a very a fluid situation. It's not out of the question that a more serious even could still happen in Fukushima that would end up being more problematic in a very much larger region than just Japan.

KING: Do you share that perspective, Mr. Gunderson, based your knowledge of the radioactive materials at Fukushima and the very minute, very minute -- we want to be careful -- levels detected in the United States? Is this just OK, we'll keep an eye this, but don't worry?

GUNDERSEN: Well, I bought the pills but I don't plan to use them yet. If you're going to see iodine at all, it's going to be in cow's milk because the grass concentrates it and then the cow concentrates it about 700 times. So, I hope that public health officials don't worry too much about the rain, but check the dairy because if you're going to pick it up, that's the first education of a problem.

REDLENER: John, it's important that people understand, though, and I agree with what he just said. But the potassium iodine pills do nothing but deal with thyroid cancer in terms of radioactive iodine. All the other things that come out of these plants, is really not affected by the potassium iodine.

KING: There are states in the United States that use nuclear power.


KING: And here are the nuclear facilities, 100 plus of them across the United States.

KING: Right.

REDLENER: One of the reasons you're in Washington today is you're trying to figure out, all right, what lessons do we need to learn from what's happening to Japan to make sure that we are better prepped. We've talked about the pills. Obviously, there should be a supply of those. You don't want people rushing out to take them if they're in no danger.

What else? What lessons have you learned early that you think need to be applied urgently?

REDLENER: Right. You know, the day before this happened, March, the day before the whole disaster happened, we thought Japan was the most prepared country on the planet. Now, we've seen an unfolding of things that are worrisome and very applicable to what we need to learn here. Even things like people evacuating to places where the shelters are not fully equipped to handle them, special population needs not handled, very confusing messages and messengers. And these are the things that we're really on the verge of real disasters ourselves because we don't have enough systems in place that can take care of making sure that people -- that search and rescue happens, that the right messages are going out, and that the general public is being protected enough.

We are definitely worried and we're worried because some of these things and the lessons we're learning out of the unfolding events in Japan -- everything, from the beginning through the nuclear problem.

KING: Dr. Redlener, appreciate your time. We'll keep in touch as all this plays out.

Mr. Gunderson, thanks, as well.

I wish we have more time with that but we'll stay on top of this story.

When we come back, we're going to show some dramatic satellite images of some of the battle damage from those coalition airstrikes in Libya. You don't want to miss them.


KING: I want to close tonight with some dramatic satellite images of the battle damage done by the coalition airstrikes in Libya.

These top images are from Misrata. Look at here. If you're looking closely, you can see an air strip, some helicopters will be here on the tarmac, planes lined up right here. You see them lined up right here along the edge. Well, this one right here, bang. That's a product of a coalition airstrike right there. The others intact but a message sent from the skies to that air strip right there.

Here's another image here. I want to pop up this one, as well. This is fascinating. We can't confirm this, but we have seen is the opposition often gathering in white vehicles in one place. You see the city center of Misrata. Here are the streets basically deserted but a crowd gathered right there -- as you watch that one play out.

One more image of the battle damage we want to show you here. This is interesting here. You see a park here, strike was here and a strike here. What we don't know -- was it a tank or vehicle targeted here and here, or was this an effort, if you imagine this, to just take out the highway so that nobody could get from point A to point B?

We'll continue to watch these images in the days ahead, try to break down what we can see from the skies, what's happening on the battlefield.

We'll see you back here tomorrow night.

"IN THE ARENA" starts right now.