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Battle for Control of Libya

Aired April 4, 2011 - 19:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks Wolf and good evening everyone. Breaking news out of Libya tonight, and to be honest, we're not quite sure just how important it is. But here's what we do know. At least two of Moammar Gadhafi's sons are floating a proposal under which one Colonel Gadhafi would eventually yield power and of the sons, Saif al- Islam Gadhafi, would take over as Libya's leader and if you believe this offer, implement major political reforms.

Yet on state television in Libya today, no indication all the elder Gadhafi is planning to go. Look at these pictures right here, State TV says this is a car carrying Gadhafi swarmed by protesters. We'll go to our Nic Robertson in just a moment, he has some new details on this political operative, but I want to begin with our Reza Sayah.

He's in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi and Reza we are learning tonight that they are floating a political proposal out of Tripoli under which at least two of the sons are saying Colonel Gadhafi would leave power eventually. Saif Gadhafi would take power and implement reforms. From the opposition standpoint, I assume this is a nonstarter.

REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, John, they have flat out rejected it. Over the past 24, 48 hours, the talk that perhaps the regime is open to a political solution has been spreading here in the opposition capital of Benghazi, but the rebels came out with an emphatic statement today saying any political solution that involves the transfer of power from Colonel Gadhafi to any members of his inner circle is not acceptable. Those members of his inner circle of course includes his son, namely Saif Gadhafi. The opposition coming out with this emphatic message to put an end to whatever campaign they believe the regime is on. I believe we have sound from a rebel spokesperson who spelled it out for us earlier.

KING: Reza, we'll get to that sound in just a minute.


SAYAH: -- don't have that sound --

KING: But I want to ask -- Reza, let me ask you to stand by. Reza, you stand by one second because I believe we now have Nic Robertson in Tripoli as well. Reza, stay with us. If I can bring in Nic in Tripoli -- Nic, the question here is, this a first and final offer? We know it's unacceptable not only to the opposition, but to the world community because Colonel Gadhafi would stay in power for some time. His son would succeed him. The question is it a first and final offer or is this the beginning perhaps of a sign that the regime wants to negotiate?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's not clear if this is sort of a first and final or if there's more to come. I think what we are seeing though is we are seeing a recognition from Moammar Gadhafi that his place in leading the country is over and that he needs to move aside. From the sources we're talking to, I do get a sense that he is thinking about his legacy here in the country and how that is going to be remembered. It seems to be an indication that he really is psychologically preparing to move aside.

The way the regime sees this, and I found talking to this source very interesting, that the regime clearly views that Gadhafi (INAUDIBLE) not go under the point of a gun. They believe they still control the majority of the majority and have the support of the majority of the people in the country and that they can continue to fight on and that the rebels can't militarily defeat them.

So anything that concurrently is defensible. But what I learned is that Gadhafi really at the moment is trying to sell, not just this idea of passing on to his son, to the international community and to the (INAUDIBLE). He's really trying to sell it to the tribes in the country (INAUDIBLE) because there is push back even from --


KING: As you can see some difficulty with Nic Robertson's shot right there. We'll get back to Nic as the program unfolds, but you could hear Nic explaining the breaking news and apologies for the technical difficulty. Again, we'll reestablish that connection.

The Gadhafi sons have put on the table a proposal under which Colonel Gadhafi would eventually yield power. One of the sons, Saif Gadhafi, would take over. Let's back in Reza Sayah. He is in the opposition stronghold in Benghazi and again, Reza, the question is here the opposition has had a tough week on the battlefield, perhaps a bit of progress today, but a tough last 72, 100 hours on the battlefield. Would this perhaps begin a negotiation, a back and forth or if they are forced to deal with one of Gadhafi's sons, is it a never mind?

SAYAH: I just don't think so at this point, John. And in the progress that the rebel forces made today, it was paltry, it was meager. And this rejection on the part of the opposition with this political solution makes things murkier because there's only two ways things can go here, for this conflict to be resolved. One is obviously a political diplomatic solution, one is a military victory, and it doesn't look like we're close to either of those options.

On the battlefield, neither side seems to have a clear advantage, the rebel forces still outgunned, out-manned. They still don't have a single tank that functions. As far as the regime forces go, they certainly potentially could launch an offensive, but they obviously have to worry about those NATO airstrikes and then with this political solution, neither side seems to be ready to make any kind of concession so a whole lot of questions remain with this conflict and where it's going and how it's going to end -- John.

KING: And let's try again with Nic Robertson in Tripoli. I believe we've reestablished that connection. And so Nic, the question is, you were explaining we can't quite be certain where this goes. From your conversations with ranking officials today, where do they see it going? Do they have a timetable? Are they trying for example to get the coalition to stop airstrikes while there's a diplomatic and political conversation?

ROBERTSON: It's not clear that they are, but one would naturally assume that they're doing anything to sort of get out from underneath the coalition (INAUDIBLE) because that's the strongest, sort of military onslaught that they're facing. There haven't been any here in Tripoli recently and I think the regime is sort of, you can feel it sort of breathing a sigh of relief from that, if you will, that some of this sort of immediate pressure has been taken off of them here in Tripoli.

But again, this passing of power to the son, it's clear to me, or seems pretty clear that the regime still hasn't built support amongst all the tribes here and the concern that Gadhafi seems to worry about is that if he steps away from power, then the country turns into chaos. Again this sounds like an (INAUDIBLE) to anyone who's not sort of hearing the regime's view, seeing what they're seeing, but this is a position, so he's not going to go at the point of a gun.

This regime change, while they're demanding regime change up front if you will. That's what they're looking for. So while the regime here sort of thinks about this in terms of we'll hand over, but not when the country is about to fall apart. This is sort of kind of grandstanding (INAUDIBLE) by Gadhafi. Gadhafi wanted to be remembered positively in history as strange as that sounds to everyone outside of here.

That's their view, and they seem to be locked into this view right now. So I don't see them getting out from under this view until there's a lot more pressure put on them, frankly, because they see this through their own prism and until they're convinced that this prism isn't working, it doesn't seem that they're going to buckle for anything less than what they're asking for right now -- John.

KING: Important reporting from Nic Robertson in Tripoli. We'll keep in touch with Nic throughout the hour, but I want to continue the conversation about the importance of this and the potential importance of this with retired General Wesley Clark. He's the former NATO supreme allied commander and also former presidential adviser and CNN contributor David Gergen.

David, I want to go to you first because if you're the president of the United States, the Libyan regime can make this argument, we can laugh at the offer, we can say it's unacceptable, we can say it leaves a Gadhafi in power, and it doesn't even get Colonel Gadhafi out of power immediately, so it's unacceptable. However they can also say to the international community, we are putting a diplomatic proposal on the table. Maybe you don't take it as is, but why don't we have a conversation? Why don't you stop those airstrikes?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well John, it -- I think the very fact that Gadhafi appears ready to step down, it's doubtful his sons would put forward this proposal unless they had some agreement for the father, because he's such a strong figure in their lives that he would be willing to go along with this. From a Washington point of view, that's obviously progress. It doesn't solve the problem, but it begins to give you something.

I think the thing to watch, also is what the response is from the Arab world in particular, but perhaps from other nations that are part of this coalition. If there is a serious offer on the table for some sort of cease fire and change, will some of the Arab nations say, well, let's call off the airstrikes? Let's get -- let's not keep up all this military pounding and let's see if we can work this out. I'm not sure if that will happen, but it'd sure be something you'd want to watch in Washington.

KING: An excellent point by David Gergen and General Clark, you know you're the military commander of NATO -- the supreme allied commander, but you know from your time in the job, you're also a politician. You've got to keep a coalition together, and if one member of NATO objects, that can throw the whole thing off the rails. To David's point, this is not from what we know of it is a serious, acceptable proposal by any means.

But it is a diplomatic proposal. You do have the Qatari Air Force in part of the no-fly zone. You do have a lot of members of NATO who have been skittish about this, the Turks saying we'll only do humanitarian aid. Is this something even if it is a bluff, even if it is a propaganda tool, it could throw the coalition off the tracks?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Well you would expect that Gadhafi would have a three pronged strategy. Number one he'd be trying to take apart the opposition. He would do it by military force, by bribes, by threats against their families, by his intelligence services abroad, by any means he could do. Number two, he would be trying to strengthen his own forces by bringing in more mercenaries and supplies through the south.

And number three, he'd be buying time through diplomacy. Now we have to have an equally subtle and effective multi-pronged strategy. And I think the end is inevitable. He's not going to succeed in destroying the opposition I don't think. I don't think he's going to be able to break through the increasing isolation and so he's going to be pinned in this diplomatic process.

KING: And so if you're the general and you're the commanding general of NATO and you say, you know what, this is a bluff, but the first proposal is not acceptable, let's see if we can get a better second proposal. Do you tonight say stronger airstrikes? Hit them harder? Nudge them further? Or is that politically unacceptable even though the military nudge might help you in the end?

CLARK: Well I mean this is really a political decision, not a military decision. If I were the NATO commander I'd be saying keep the military pressure on because this is a sign that it's having an impact. So tighten it up. Shorten the amount of time he can gain for delay by putting increased pressure on his forces. If he thinks he can hold out for months, maybe more pressure lets him understand he's not going to make it for months. And so you accelerate this and you have fewer innocent lives lost.

KING: And yet, David, to the point you were making earlier, if you accelerate this right now, if you can get the support to accelerate this right now, you may fray your coalition and then not only the president of the United States, but his other allies in this, the major allies in this might have a bit of a problem on their hands?

GERGEN: Well, Wes Clark is right. I think that we ought to keep military pressure on it. We don't let it up. I'm not sure how more you'd increase it or not. I think you might have some real trouble with that. But it's also true that this might be a time to really be to investigate OK, if Gadhafi is going to step down, how long before he steps down, how long will his son Saif stay in power, how many seats in the coalition government would the other side have? It's a lot -- depends on whether you can trust Saif in part here.

You know he's made a lot of inroads (ph) in the west, but he's spoken to a lot of people in the west over the last two or three years, trying to convince people that he was a modernizer, he was (INAUDIBLE) western, wanted to change the face of Libya. I was one of those -- he spent three hours with me. And -- but when he became the butcher along side his father, you had to believe, wait a minute. What was that all about, about wanting to westernize it?

The guy seems to be like his father. So I think some of the elements here and anything like this are I think Wes is right. Gadhafi is going to go. The question is who's going to succeed and could you live with a brief transition in the hands of the son and how many guarantees do you have on that?

KING: We'll take a quick break on that point. If you're just joining us tonight, breaking news, a political offer, a diplomatic offer from one of Moammar Gadhafi's sons, the idea being if you believe this, if you trust them, that Colonel Gadhafi ultimately would leave power. Is it serious? What should happen next on the ground and why is the opposition saying flat out unacceptable? We'll be right back.


KING: Welcome back. If you're just joining us, breaking news out of Libya tonight -- a diplomatic proposal put on the table by Colonel Gadhafi's sons -- two of the sons anyway -- saying Colonel Gadhafi eventually would leave power. One of the sons, Saif al Gadhafi would then take charge in Libya and if you believe this, again, Saif Gadhafi promising to implement political reforms. The opposition says it is unacceptable; they do not want a Gadhafi, any Gadhafi running Libya at this moment. But is it perhaps the beginning of a diplomatic break deal?

Let's continue our conversation with former presidential adviser David Gergen -- he's in Massachusetts -- with me here in Washington, General Wesley Clark, a former NATO supreme allied commander and our national security analyst Peter Bergen. Peter, you're just joining the conversation. Let me let you weigh in here. So again it is a diplomatic initiative that on the surface is unacceptable. The question is do you then engage in negotiations or do you say, no, it's a horrible proposal. Maybe we'll talk if you come back with a better proposal?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, it's quite like you know academic literature on what -- how negotiations start working and one of the pre conditions is a mutual recognition of a stalemate. And so if this is the beginning of that recognition, that is the beginning of a real negotiation. Another precondition would be an accepted third party negotiator. Right now I don't see that in any of this discussion, but could the U.N. be part of that? You know, could some -- you know the Arab League -- you know there are various other potentially third party negotiators that would be part of this. But yes, this is not to be discounted because this is a first step you know for Gadhafi to offer anything is pretty unusual.

KING: And so David Gergen, if you're in this very unpredictable situation now, does the president of the United States who in recent days has said I'm stepping back. Let the French and the Brits take the leadership role. Does he need to jump back into the front seat and say if we've got a moment of crisis here and a moment of unpredictability, I'm driving?

GERGEN: I'm not sure he has to be way out front publicly. In fact I would advise against that, but I do think his team will want to be very, very active behind the scenes to see just how serious this is. Because there's no question you know that we seem to have a stalemate, a military stalemate on our hands. That's not something the administration wants to live with very long and if there is a way toward a diplomatic settlement that would be you know and fundamental, it would not be everything you want, but it'd be most of what you want. I would think there would be some growing interest in that not only in Washington, but in other capitals.

KING: David, can a -- but can a president of the United States who 37 days ago said Gadhafi has to go, can he accept a settlement in which well Gadhafi can stay, maybe three or four or six months and we'll trust that he'll leave then and we believe he'll leave then or does he have to go at the beginning?

GERGEN: I think he has to go much, much sooner. I think -- maybe they can make it graceful, but it's got to be quick. You know because you don't want the west to be in a situation where they stop the bombing, and as Wes Clark says, he then -- he fortifies himself in various ways and then breaks his pledge. That I would think would be totally unacceptable.

KING: Well General Clark, if you could, take a walk with me over here because I want to show the state of play as this happens. Again, we have a political initiative from the Gadhafi family. We don't know whether we can trust it or not. But here's what the state of Libya looked like last week. Where you see the striped flags here, this is the opposition.

Green is the regime. So the opposition was doing pretty well. They were moving west last week. But here's the state of play now. As you can see the regime has taken back here. So militarily, militarily the last 72 hours, 100 hours have gone in Gadhafi's favor, yet we do sense some cracks in the regime. When you see at this from a militant standpoint and then factor in a political initiative, whether it's serious or not we'll debate in the next few days without a doubt, why does this matter?

CLARK: Well I think it does matter, because I think the Gadhafi family must understand the end is inevitable in this. That the coalition is powerful enough, got enough people in it, got enough support, they're not going to get stronger over time. They're going to get weaker. And however this seesaw battle goes in the next couple of days on the coast of Libya, the impact of training arms that are coming in, political organization, greater familiarity it's going to tilt the balance on the ground in favor of the opposition. So from Gadhafi's perspective, I think time is not on his side and perhaps they understand this, but if they don't then I hope that we'll do everything we can to encourage them to that effect.

KING: You say time is not on their side. This -- on this evening, these two instruments of war are being taken off the table. The United States was supposed to stop this last week. The A-10, the tank killer it can take Gadhafi's tanks on the ground, you know how punishing this can be. It's a horrible machine if you're on the receiving end of it.

It is a very powerful war weapon, the A-10 taken off the table. The AC-130, again the Gatling guns -- you see them on the side here -- this can be an incredibly painful experience if you're the ground forces that this is above you and you come into contact with. The U.S. as of tonight taking its planes out of the no-fly enforcement zone -- again given this initiative you say you would pressure him militarily --

CLARK: Sure.

KING: -- to get a new political, a better political offer. Would you keep those in the mix for a couple of days?

CLARK: Well they don't have -- they can go in and out of the mix. I think it's important that the United States not be in the lead on this. Let others. Other forces have got capabilities too; let them show what they've got in there. Let them keep the pressure. It's important for Gadhafi to understand it's not just the United States. This is not America versus Libya; this is the world around Libya saying it's time for democracy. Give people a chance in your country. And I think that it's appropriate to pull back a little bit at this point militarily.

KING: Pull back a little bit at this point -- we'll continue the conversation up here. Peter Bergen, you know the neighborhood pretty well. The United States will say this is unacceptable as is. Most of the coalition will say this is unacceptable as is. The opposition has said it is flatly unacceptable, yet public opinion in the Arab world, could just the fact that there is a proposal on the table, under which Gadhafi would ultimately go, could it sway things in the region, crack the Arab League support, for example?

BERGEN: Yes, Gadhafi has so few friends, I doubt it. The one thing about this offer, you know, besides Gadhafi does have a track record of negotiating with opposition elements. For instance he led the -- essentially the cease fire agreement with the Libyan Islamic fighting group, a militant Islamist group. And he was the guy who basically not only led the negotiations, he actually initiated them. So he does have -- it's not just that he's -- you know the westernized things that we know about. But he does have the reputation in Libya of being slightly more reasonable than his other brothers, for instance.

KING: General Clark, David Gergen thank you. Peter is going to stay with us for a little bit. We'll continue to track this breaking news throughout the evening and if you've been following the Libya conflict closely, you most likely have heard the story of Eman al- Obeidy. She's the Libyan woman who burst into the Tripoli hotel where foreign correspondents are housed and alleged she had been brutally raped by forces loyal to Colonel Gadhafi. She was then taken from the hotel by regime officials. Tonight she spoke to CNN's Anderson Cooper. We want to share her story with you, but I first want to warn you, warn you, some of what you're about to hear is beyond disturbing, certainly not appropriate for children. Again this is Eman al-Obeidy in a conversation earlier with Anderson Cooper.


EMAN AL-OBEIDY, ALLEGED RAPE VICTIM (through translator): They had my hands tied behind me and they had my legs tied and they would hit me while I was tied and bite me on my body and they would pour alcohol in my eyes so that I would not be able to see and they would sodomize me with their rifles. They would not let us go to the bathroom. We were not allowed to eat or drink. This was because I resisted them and tried to stop them from raping me. They were all armed men. They had rifles and guns. One man would leave, and then another would enter. He would finish and then another man would come in. They would untie my hands and they would rape me. And one of the men when my hands were still tied, before he raped me, he sodomized me with his rifle.


KING: More of that conversation tonight on "AC 360," 10 p.m. Eastern -- next here, a major White House about-face on terrorism prosecutions.


KING: The Obama administration announced today that the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four of his alleged accomplices, will be tried in military commissions. That's a dramatic about-face for an administration that wanted to hold those trials in federal court in New York City. And the retreat also undermines another major presidential promise. Those military commissions are held at the Guantanamo Bay terrorist detention center which Mr. Obama had promised, promised to close within a year of taking office.


BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, JANUARY 22, 2009: The process whereby Guantanamo will be closed no later than one year from now.

APRIL 15, 2009: I've been very clear that Guantanamo is to be closed.

JUNE 4, 2009: I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.


KING: So what are the legal and political ramifications and could this decision as President Obama himself has suggested help al Qaeda recruit new terrorists? Still with us CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen and joining us from New York our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin -- Jeff, to you first -- the key question here is does this change of venue and change of procedure, open court, federal court to these military commissions, does it change the legal dynamics of the case against them? Are they more likely -- do they have more rights, fewer rights in these commissions?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: They have fewer rights. It's not a big difference, but there is no doubt that a civilian trial with an independent judge and a civilian jury is more protective of individual rights than a military commission with a military judge and a military jury. This will look a lot like a regular trial; many of the procedures are the same, defense attorneys, right to cross-examine witnesses. But in each aspect that they are different, they are different in a way that favors the government.

KING: And so how about on this question. Let's stay with the legal. Listen to the attorney general here, because we know in the past, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has said I'm guilty, I'm guilty. He does not dispute being involved, so if he says that in a military commission, here's the question that was put to the attorney general.


ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I think the death penalty can certainly be sought. It's an open question about whether or not somebody can plead guilty in a military commission and still receive the death penalty. That I think is still an open question.


KING: Is it a way out of the death penalty?

TOOBIN: I don't think so. Given the way the death penalty has evolved, they will probably be, I think a lot of people are familiar with the guilt phase and the penalty phase, even if he pleads guilty in the guilt phase, I assume they will go forward with a penalty phase about whether he receives the death penalty. There have been so few military commissions that some of the procedures are simply unknown. They're going have to improvise to a certain extent. But you know in the real world there is no way they are going to simply let Khalid Sheikh Mohammed plead guilty and walk out of the possibility of the death penalty. I just don't see that happening --

KING: Stay with us. I want to do more on the legal, but I want to get to this political question because Peter Bergen, we've talked in recent weeks, Egypt, all the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. You think it has put al Qaeda already back on its heels -- maybe even more back on its heels politically. One of the presidents most powerful reasons for closing Gitmo, one of General Petraeus' reasons for closing Guantanamo is that they make the case that it's a recruiting tool, that al Qaeda uses it as a recruiting and say, look at what the Americans are doing to us.

Fair or unfairly, is this potentially an opening?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I think this is not just something that al Qaeda uses as a recruiting tool. I mean, this if you poll them the question of Guantanamo around the world, particularly in the Muslim world, seven out of 10 Muslims in, you know, very major polling, you know, disapprove of the handling of Guantanamo. So, it's not just about al Qaeda. It's also about our standing generally.

Will this affect it more largely in terms of, you know, I don't see this as being -- Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is not someone who's a huge hero in the Muslim world. So, I don't see this as substantially changing that narrative. I mean, what it does -- it just shows the continuity between the second Bush term and Obama, of which there are many -- Guantanamo being the main exhibit.

KING: And, Jeff Toobin, the ACLU called this, quote, "a devastating blow" to the rule of law. Now, we know the ACLU and other liberal organizations want Gitmo closed. They would prefer this to be civilian trials in a federal court.

But is it a devastating blow to the rule of law or is that more of a political reaction than a legal reaction?

TOOBIN: You know, I think that's really in the eye of the beholder. But it is a very substantial reverse by the Obama administration. I mean, in the world where presidents and presidential candidates don't make many very specific promises, this was a very specific promise by the then-Senator Barack Obama to close Guantanamo. And that promise is out the window.

Now, whether the fault lies with his own administration for mishandling the process or it lies with cowardly politicians who grandstand about the risks of civilian trials that really were not much risk, you know, we'll never know. But the fact is that promise is out the window, and it is a big change. Go ahead.

KING: I was going to ask this question, first to Jeff and then to Peter. So, we're almost 10 years since 9/11. We're almost 10 years since 9/11. And none of these, I'll call them alleged terrorists to be polite, have been brought to trial.

Does this finally, Jeff, at least maybe get some closure? Or will be now in years of wrangling about how to conduct the military commissions?

TOOBIN: Well, it's at least the beginning of the end of the legal process, I think. It is an outrage. It is a disgrace.

Ten years of holding people without trial is something that is really contrary to the American system of justice. Now, whether a military tribunal is an adequate substitute for a civilian trial, I guess we're now going to watch that unfold. But certainly, the status quo completely unacceptable of holding these people year after year without any kind of trial. At least there's going to be some kind of trial.

KING: And it's, I know if disgrace is the right word. But it is tough for the families of the victims to not have had any closure, any procedures, any due diligence in justice for those who were killed to have the perpetrators, alleged perpetrators brought to trial.

Peter, does it play out in the world? Is that part of the argument? They have been holding these guys for years. The United States is not a fair and just society. Or does that matter?

BERGEN: Of course, it does. I mean, the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is coming up, everybody knows that. You know, I think as Jeff as indicated -- I mean, I think one of the tragedies here is federal terrorism trials in New York City have like 100 percent conviction rate. Military tribunals are very untested. We've had four.

In fact, ironically, I'd prefer to be tried in a military tribunal than in New York because, so far, some of the sentences that would be hand down in the military tribunals are being rather weak to compare to civilian system.

KING: So, if -- I don't want to speak to sentence. But if you were one of them, you would prefer to be in a military court?

BERGEN: Well, it depends if they want (INAUDIBLE) or sort of maybe awash (ph). But ironically, military trials have tended to favor the defendants more in terms of the sentencing.

KING: But you don't expect that in this case, do you, Mr. Toobin?

TOOBIN: No, I think when it comes to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a guy who has boasted about his role in 9/11, that only ends with the executioner.

KING: Jeff Toobin, Peter Bergen -- gentlemen, thanks both for you help tonight.

Ahead, you're counting, right, 582 days until the presidential election of 2012. And tonight, we have our first official candidate. Take a look. Make a guess.

And up next, more on the breaking news out of Libya tonight. Is Gadhafi handing over control to hiss son Saif. And is that -- would that be enough for the opposition?


KING: Welcome back.

If you're just joining us, there's important breaking news out of Libya. Two of Moammar Gadhafi's sons are proposing to help ease their father out of power with Saif Gadhafi taking control of the government.

CNN's Nic Robertson's sources say these developments indicate Gadhafi realizes his days are numbered, but that he will not step down at the point of gun. Sources say Gadhafi still believes he has the support of most of his people and that the opposition cannot defeat him. He also say that by transferring power to his son, Gadhafi believes Libya will not disintegrate into chaos. But the opposition rebels already say no deal. They want the whole Gadhafi family to go.

Workers at the crippled Japanese nuclear plant have started dumping tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. Officials called the move unavoidable.

President Obama meets with congressional leaders tomorrow about this year's budget crunch. The federal government faces a partial shutdown Friday if a short-term agreement is not reached.

And Southwest Airlines cancelled 70 flights today as it continues to inspect its fleet of Boeing 737-300s for fatigue. The hole of one of those Southwest jets ruptured in mid-air Friday, forcing an emergency landing. But today, the FAA ordered additional testing of certain older 737s which are still being used by a number of U.S. carriers.

Let's take a closer look at that incident involving -- Southwest Airlines, excuse me. Southwest Airlines flight was leaving here from Phoenix, it's destination was Sacramento, California. But it made an emergency landing here in Yuma, Arizona after it had that rupture.

Let's take a look at the Boeing 737-300. It's older version of the Boeing 737. This plane is in common use all around the world. Not just here in the United States, 109 feet long, as you can see, 36 feet six inches long.

Here's where the damage came right here, about a five-foot by one-foot opening, right on the top of the airplane. Let's take a closer look with the photo of it there. This is the issue here, you can see the rip here, you see the rip on the top. This is why these new inspections are underway to see if there's some problem with the skin in the older aircraft, whether there's a problem of more ruptures in the skin. That is what the FAA has ordered, but watch this one as it plays out with Southwest canceling more flights today, more inspections are underway. We'll stay on top of this story.

Now, when we come back, what would you do if you had a billion, that's billion with B, billion dollars? Perhaps run for president? We'll get some financial advise, after the break.


KING: Imagine having $1 billion. OK, that's enough. Who can imagine having $1 billion besides maybe Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Barack Obama?

You'd probably heard by now. The president made it official today. He's running for reelection.

Here's the snippet of the video sent to the president's grassroots email list.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are so many things that are still on the table that need to be addressed. And we want them to be addressed by President Obama.


KING: So, why start so soon? Especially when there's no major primary challenge on the horizon and not even an official Republican candidate yet? Three words: money, money and money.

Listen to top Obama political advisor David Axelrod here telling us over lunch recently, the fundraising goal could top $1 billion.


DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: So, it takes time to build organization. It takes time to raise the kind of money to compete with the kind of money we're going to see on the other side.

KING: What is the ballpark you're talking about? You see people throwing out figures like $1 billion, more than $1 billion.

AXELROD: I'm not going to put a number on it. Obviously, that would be more than what was spent last time. I don't know if in this economy, that's going to be the case. But it would be a lot of money, more than anybody would like to see spent.


KING: A billion dollars. A billion dollars? What could you do with a billion dollars? Let's take a closer look. Maybe the president doesn't want to use it. Well, the average annual salary in America, if you took 26,000 people making the average annual salary in America -- 26,000 people, that would give you $1 billion dollars. So, it's a lot of money. That's one way to look at it.

Or let's say the president raised $1 billion and then have second thoughts. Well, he could help all these states close their budget gaps, $1.3 billion in Michigan. President could write them a check. They'd only need $ 0.3 billion. Or Alabama, billion dollars, balanced budget.

States out of the crisis, at least for this year. That's one way, we're joking.

Now, here's another way to look at it. Here's a dollar. Here's one, not $1 billion. There's one. About six inches, right? Six inches, take these, one billion of them, take one billion of them. Stretch them out end to end. Guess what happens? They circle the globe four times.

Let's raise the curtain on 2012 with CNN contributors Cornell Belcher, a Democrat with close ties to camp Obama. And Erick Erickson, a conservative activists who pukes the Republican establishment almost as often as he criticizes the Democrat president.

Gentlemen, start with this question, why?

And, Cornell, to you first, and since the president's the first one in, the Democrat, why does he need $1 billion? Why might there be a record $3 billion spent on this presidential cycle?

CORNELL BELCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think what you're going to see the Democrats do over the next year and a half or so is build one of the most innovative, and far reaching grassroots organization this country has ever seen. I mean, the president said in his announcement, it's about you all, it's about we. And I think that's a continuation of the theme that he started two years ago in his presidential election.

Look, we're going to build this community by community. We're going to listen to people all across the country, community by community, and we're not going to take anything for granted. Look, we're going to be playing in all of these states in all of these communities.

KING: OK. And I'm all for grassroots activism on all sides of politics. The more people can you get involved the better. But, Eric, when I hear $1 billion on the president's side, $3 billion total, I think, build a bunker. We're going to have some nasty negative TV ads.

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Probably so. And, you know, just to Cornell's point, it's clear the president's already not winning in the South, since he said you all, instead not y'all. But, you know, across the board, we're going to have to see grassroots, the Republicans really fell behind in 2008. They diminished what President Bush started in 2000 and carried over to 2004. The McCain campaign didn't invest in it the way he should have. Not that that would have made a difference, but the Republicans, definitely, the Republicans and Democrats have the structure -- the Democrats more so than the Democrats. I suspect that the $1 billion is more hype than reality. I don't think either side is going to get. But it will be a huge number.

KING: Well, the president's day. He is the first candidate to officially announce for re-election. So, each of you take a shot and be as polite as you can, Mr. Erickson, here. Write the bumper sticker. Back in 2008, it was hope and change. It was on different, a different kind of politics.

What can it be? He's the incumbent president now in tough economic times. What's the slogan for 2012?

ERICKSON: You know, given the way David Axelrod's been talking the last 24 hours, maybe morning in America part two. Maybe the Republicans will spell it with URNIN.

KING: Morning in America, Cornell, was Ronald Reagan's. Bill Clinton ran on building a bridge to the 21st century. Really, in these tough times, seriously, how does the president try to make the case that, yes, times are tough, but you're better off?

BELCHER: But we're continuing to build. I mean, part of it is, look, when we took this office, the economy was in a nose dive. We've pulled the economy up out of a nose dive. And we have gotten now, what, 12 straight months of job growth. We have history to build on.

You know what? Right now, because of the president's actions, you know, insurance companies can't discriminate and kick people off. You have more people sort of having insurance now that, you know, that barely have insurance than ever before. It is -- we're moving in the right direction and sort of continue to build on what we started. Change is here, we got to continue to build on it.

KING: Now, today is curtain raising day. The president, as I noted, is the first one in. We're still waiting for an official announcement from a Republican candidate. We know a half dozen or so who are testing the waters, but sometimes, it doesn't matter. When you're the incumbent, sometimes it almost doesn't matter who you're running against.

So, here's two numbers I'm going to keep an eye on in the 582 days, count 'em, 582 days between now and election day. That is the president's approval rating and the unemployment rate.

And if you look at President Obama, he's at 51 percent approval rate right now. Majority approve, that's OK. Forty-seven percent disapprove. It's a pretty polarizing right there.

George W. Bush was at 71 percent at this point back in his re- election. It's a distorted number, the Iraq war, popular at the time, had just begun when the president announced his re-election campaign.

Bill Clinton was at 44 percent. George H.W. Bush was at 84 percent. Again, distorted because of the First Gulf War.

But here's a telling number, 8.8 percent unemployment right now, George H.W. Bush was at 7.1 percent. That's what I see, Cornell Belcher, is the comparison most worth watching. George H.W. Bush argued things are getting better, look at the statistics, things are getting better. We're coming out. Pretty much the same argument President Obama is going to have to make in this campaign.

BELCHER: Now, I mean, the connection thing is important. People are going to have to feel it. I mean, and we can't stop talking about sort of where we've come from and sort of where we are right now.

The president's job approval number is important because, quite frankly, John, if you look at the unemployment statistics and you look at the number of people who are still very anxious about the economy, that he has a majority job approval is kind of important and kind of historic. You go back and look at where Bill Clinton was at 44. I mean, we are a long way from there.

And truth of the matter is, incumbents in this country with 47 percent, 48 percent job approval tend not to lose unless something extraordinary happens.

KING: Erick Erickson, when you look at those numbers, Cornell does make a good point. 51 percent, it's not fantastic, but it's pretty good.

ERICKSON: It is. I would say there's an additional indicator there for unemployment that needs to be looked at. And that is wage growth compared to inflation. And if you actually correspond unemployment to wage growth, what you find over the past probably 30, 40 years is that when wage growth is going down and unemployment is high, presidents tend to always lose the reelection.

And right now, I think we're on the third straight month of wage decline compared to inflation. And that number needs to turn around for the president.

We can say what we want about unemployment. Unemployment is probably going to be higher. The White House's own estimate has 8.6 percent for unemployment. I think the president and I both hope that's not the case.

But if the prevailing wage for people, they feel like they're getting less money per dollar in 2012, the president is going to have a really hard time with reelection.

KING: Erick and Cornell, good to see you, gentlemen, again. We're going to do a lot of this now that we have the official curtain raising day in campaign 2012.

Up next, back to the breaking news out of Libya tonight, including heavy fight on the frontlines. And opposition forces say they have Brega surrounded. Are two weeks airstrikes finally taking effect?


KING: Latest now, and some breaking news out of Libya tonight. Two of Moammar Gadhafi's sons are proposing to help ease their father out of power, with Saif Gadhafi taking control of the government under their proposal. Unacceptable to the opposition so far. We'll watch how this one plays out.

Meanwhile, let's take a closer look, another busy day on the battlefield. Worth remember, just last week, this is the opposition. That's their flag. The opposition was making gains, moving west. That's last week.

This is now, the regime has made significant gains right here. And as you can see, there was some fighting today. Brega was the big point today. You see this fighting here, if you watch this play out carefully -- right there, opposition troops coming under heavy fire near Brega. Among those right out there on the battlefield with us was our Ben Wedeman. He was right there as this played out, trying to get a sense if opposition is regrouping and can start moving west.


KING: Ben, Let's start with the play on the battlefield. You were just on the outskirts of al Brega today watching some pretty heavy fighting. Take us to the scene.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what happened was we arrived just outside Brega with the opposition forces when suddenly we heard these huge thumps as artillery rounds came -- were coming in. This actually happened three separate times in about the space of half an hour. We and hundreds of opposition fighters pulled way back to get out of range of that artillery.

But in the afternoon, what we saw is that, rather than artillery coming from the Gadhafi forces, it was the opposition that was firing fairly intense rocket barrage in the direction of Brega. Now, I spoke to a commander of the opposition forces who said they had taken over New Brega, which is a residential area next to the town of Brega and they expected to move into the town within the next 24 hours.

I think we're beginning to see the effects of two weeks of airstrikes in the no-fly zone. It's now very difficult for the Gadhafi loyal forces to be resupplied. It does appear that they may be running low on food and ammunition. And despite the weaknesses of the rebel forces, they do seem to be making some advances after some fairly dramatic retreats -- John.

KING: And Brega obviously would be a strategic town for the opposition to retake. It's been a bit of a football going back and forth. But you mentioned the cumulative impact of the no-fly zone and some of the strike, yet we continue to hear complaints from opposition figures that say in the past 24 hours, they don't think they're getting as much help as they would like. Is that fair? WEDEMAN: Actually, it's more like the last 72 hours, there have been relatively few NATO air strikes in this area. We heard the planes overhead.

Earlier, NATO is saying that they weren't able to carry out any airstrikes because of bad weather. But today was clear and sunny, barely a cloud in the sky. But nonetheless, at least while we were there, there were no airstrikes to speak of. That may be because the Gadhafi forces are in the town itself, in the refinery itself.

So, there may be some hesitation by NATO to drop any bombs in the refinery, and the town itself because of the possibility of civilian casualties -- John.

KING: Ben Wedeman for us tonight in Ajdabiya -- Ben, thanks.


KING: And this is the state of play. Some would call it stalemate. Ben Wedeman was just talking about it.

But, again, opposition in charge of these towns in the east, dispute in Brega. Regime mostly in charge the opposition tried to take Brega, watch that one tomorrow. Disputed territory in Misrata as well.

Another key question going forward we want to watch is: The United States, as of 6:00 tonight, was taking its flights, taking its planes out of the battle. Will that continue? Or will there will be another extension?

One U.S. weapon, A-10. They call this a tank killer. It can fly low and has very powerful weapons. It has been used against Gadhafi tanks and ground forces. Again, it's supposed to come off the battlefield as of this evening.

Also the AC-130 here, another U.S. flying gunship. You can see and if you look here on the side, the Gatling guns that come out of the side, incredibly powerful. They can fly in low to attack ground forces on the ground.

Again, the United States saying it was taking its planes off the battlefield tonight. We have not received word of another extension.

That is something we will follow tomorrow as we continue to track this new diplomatic initiative by the regime, the state of play in the battlefield. Hope to see you then.

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