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JOHN KING, USA

Emergency Rule in Syria; Libyans Flee; Helping the Rebels; Landing Problems?; Debt Crisis

Aired April 19, 2011 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


CANDY CROWLEY, GUEST HOST: Thanks Jessica. I'm Candy Crowley. John King has the night off. We start with breaking news. A plane carrying First Lady Michelle Obama had to pass up a landing attempt after coming too close to a 200-ton military cargo jet at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington. The incident happened Monday, but the news didn't come out until late this afternoon, and new details keep coming in.

Federal officials familiar with the incident say it's believed to be the result of an air traffic controller's mistake. We will go to the White House in a little bit for the very latest.

But this also is a day of important developments in the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. We begin in Syria, where a half century old state of emergency may be on the verge of ending but not before reports of a fresh massacre. These dramatic images were taken overnight in Syria's third largest city, Homs. A witness tells CNN the demonstrations -- demonstrators had government permission for this huge rally, but around 2:00 a.m., Syrian security forces moved in with tear gas and live ammunition. Listen.

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CROWLEY: The witness tells CNN the attackers included Syria's ruthless and much feared brigade four, which is controlled by President Bashar al Assad's brother. At least four people reportedly died in the chaos.

Then today, abruptly, Syria's government seemed to reverse course and signaled it may end a state of emergency that's been in effect since 1963. CNN's Hala Gorani is watching the developments from Cairo.

Joining me now out of Cairo our Hala Gorani -- Hala, I want to talk to you about Syria, a very tough place to get into these days but I know you know so much about what's going on there now. What we're listening -- what we're hearing now is that there's draft decree that would end the emergency rule that's been in place for four decades. How serious do you think that offer is?

HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well I think the offer is serious and I think the president realizes he has to make genuine promises because he wants these protests to end. But on the one hand he's making political promises and on the other, according to eyewitnesses we're speaking to video coming out -- amateur video coming out of the country, security forces are still using lethal force against protesters.

So it's very much at best a mixed message. And I think four weeks into this protest movement, many of the demonstrators just don't believe the promises that are coming out of the regime because day after day they are seeing protesters killed and they are seeing protesters that are being targeted with live ammunition at, for instance, funerals, according to some of the witnesses we've spoken to. So the big question right now is, is there a promise this president can make that will quiet the situation? It's very much an open question in Syria today -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Well and is there anything other than Assad leaving that would satisfy the demonstrators?

GORANI: Yes. That's very hard to say at this stage. But so long as there is violence in the streets of key cities in Syria such as Homs, some of the most dramatic overnight pictures came from the third largest city, Homs. I think so long as protesters see this on their satellite news channels, it's going to be very difficult for them, now that they have been emboldened, now that they feel the fear barrier has been broken, to believe words and promises and promises of reform coming from the presidency.

So to speak, it seems as though the train may have left the station when it comes to Syria. You know is there anything that can be said beyond stopping some of the lethal force that's been used against protesters that will calm the situation. Many of the demonstrators we've spoken to, those we are able to reach inside of Syria, are saying no.

CROWLEY: Is there any sense that this is getting close to a tipping point? I know in Egypt when we watched, you really did get a sense that there was a point after which Mubarak simply could not stay. Is there any of that recognition, do you think, when it comes to Syria?

GORANI: I think we're much further away from that point in Syria than we were a few weeks into the protests in Egypt. Nobody predicted the fall of the Mubarak regime in 18 days. It's a very different context, politically, socially and ethnically in Syria. The ruling regime is a religious minority. They have a whole lot to lose, as do the military commanders that are appointed directly by the president if the regime falls. If the regime falls, they take a whole lot of people with them. In Egypt, it's very different. The military felt like they could side with the protesters. They felt after a while that they could not support Hosni Mubarak anymore and they let him go. In Syria, that is not likely to happen. A fall of a regime there would create a much more chaotic situation.

CROWLEY: CNN's Hala Gorani, thank you so much.

Now to Libya and a fresh humanitarian crisis -- United Nations officials say 6,000 people who fled the fighting in western Libya have arrived in Tunisia in the past two days. Many are from the city of Misrata where rebels say pro-Gadhafi forces have been shelling civilian neighborhoods this week. The Libyan opposition is making no secret of its disappointment with NATO, even though the alliance reports hitting new targets, air defense raiders near Misrata and ammunition bunkers in the Tripoli area.

CNN's Frederik Pleitgen is in Tripoli. Fred, NATO is saying that it's making progress in and around Tripoli, hitting these Gadhafi military defense areas. Is it making a difference on Gadhafi? Is there any sign that it has moved him one way or the other?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly doesn't give that impression at this point in time. The Gadhafi government and its spokespeople that we see here in Tripoli are still saying that they're well in command of the situation that they still feel very secure in their power positions.

And now NATO says that it hit some very key sort of command installations of the Gadhafi forces south of Tripoli, one of them being the command center, the headquarters of the 32nd Brigade, Candy, and that is the infamous Hamas brigade which of course is commanded by one of Gadhafi's own sons. It's the best trained, the best equipped and the most loyal to Gadhafi.

What NATO was saying is that this brigade was using that headquarters to target civilians both in Misrata as well as on the eastern front and the other things that NATO was targeting as well apparently was communications infrastructure around the town of Sirte that apparently Gadhafi's forces were using to communicate with their troops on the front line as well, so NATO is trying to take those out. But you're absolutely right; the rebels are still saying that it's too little that's coming from NATO, especially in the region around Misrata -- Candy.

CROWLEY: But Fred, tell us about Misrata. Are these justified complaints against NATO? What is going on there?

PLEITGEN: It's very difficult for NATO and obviously it's also very difficult for the rebels on the ground. When I was there and this theme continues and spokespeople continue to tell us this until right now, they would like NATO to take greater risks, especially in regards to civilian casualties. They want them to hit Gadhafi's tanks, Gadhafi's infrastructure inside Misrata and take into account that there might be civilian casualties. That's what they tell us flat out. Of course NATO has a very different take on it. This is a very dense, urban area that you're talking about. You're talking about Gadhafi's forces hiding his tanks in those urban areas, under trees, inside school yards and the like. He's also using civilian vehicles so it's very, very difficult for NATO to actually pick out these targets. And the last thing they want, of course, is to have any civilian casualties or to hit the wrong target.

One of the things that I remember is that Gadhafi's forces for instance were staying in a hospital that wasn't used at that point. And the rebels kept telling NATO hit the hospital but NATO was saying under no circumstances would they hit a hospital, so it's a very difficult situation for both sides. Rebels telling us today that one person was in a hospital saw at least 20 dead bodies there and of course they're telling us that the shelling in Misrata is continuing as well inside the city center and also in the port area, which of course as we keep saying is very vital to try and get supplies, both medical as well as food, into that besieged city -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Our Fred Pleitgen in Tripoli. Thanks.

A few hours ago the Libyan opposition officially pleaded for western troops not to fight, but to quote, "protect our civilians from the killing machine of a criminal madman and his mercenaries" -- end quote. Tonight it looks like help may be on the way. Britain today announced it is expanding its presence in Libya with military advisers and the European Union says it's prepared to send troops for humanitarian assistance.

A little bit ago I spoke with CNN's senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman who's in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. I began by asking him if this is what rebels need most.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: In Misrata, Candy, the rebels are calling for foreign troops on the ground. If the EU does send in some sort of military force to Misrata to protect the humanitarian effort that is a very tall order given the level of violence in that city. In the eastern part of the country, definitely some sort of proper military advice would be useful.

The British are talking about sending in, quote unquote, "experienced military officers" to advise the rebels. And certainly they need advice. I mean they are certainly not lacking in terms of enthusiasm and determination, but by and large they're just young guys with no military experience who could use with some basic pointers from some sort of military officers.

I was up at the front today and for the first time in a month and a half, we saw them actually bringing in bulldozers to build berms, basic protection in this situation. So there's plenty of work for advisers to do, should they come here -- Candy.

CROWLEY: One of the reasons that the U.S. has so far kind of stayed on the fence about the issue of arming rebels is they've said well we need -- first need to find out who they are. Obviously in the west there's a question about al Qaeda influence or any kind of terrorist influence. Do you have a firmer hold on who these rebels are? Are they students and professors, as we've been led to believe? Is there any concern at this point about who the Brits would be training at this point?

WEDEMAN: Well, you know, there are different military groups out on the front. You have sort of what is the emerging Libyan army, the army of eastern Libya, which is composed of former members of the Libyan army. They have tried to keep apart from the revolutionaries, as they're called, who are young men by and large, but not all of them. Some of them are my age, for instance, who have come to the front, gotten weapons looted from armaments, and really just rushed forward and rushed back.

I think the focus would be on these ex-military people from the Libyan army who do have a certain amount of training; they just need a little more help. I'd be surprised if British military advisers join these other groups, the so-called revolutionaries, which is composed of students, composed of unemployed people, composed of all sorts of elements of Libyan society who aren't very well organized, and often when the fighting begins, when shelling starts, just run into a panic and cause more harm than good by the chaos that ensues, so I think the focus will be on the army people, the trained military people rather than these young men and not so young men who have flocked to the front with no training whatsoever -- Candy.

CROWLEY: In Benghazi for us tonight, Ben Wedeman, thank you.

Let's discuss today's developments in Syria and Libya with former Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns. He is also former U.S. ambassador to NATO. And Nic, that's where I want to begin, because there have been complaints from the rebels about NATO's performance, particularly in Misrata. And I can't figure out whether NATO is underperforming or the rebels are over expecting.

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, it may be a little bit of both, Candy, but certainly the NATO alliance is divided. You saw at the beginning in the initial military intervention in Benghazi, when they relieved the siege in Benghazi and pushed Gadhafi's forces back, a great deal of will and power expressed by NATO. That was NATO led by the United States.

When President Obama decided that obviously the United States was otherwise engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan and was not going to take the lead role in Libya that put the responsibility on the shoulders of our European allies. Britain and France have performed very well. They want to fulfill this mission, but they have got very little support from most of the other NATO allies in Europe, particularly from Germany and Turkey, two of the strongest allies with the largest militaries who are sitting this out because they're opposed to the entire mission.

So the divisions within NATO I think have sewn the seeds for the current predicament that it's in. It cannot, unfortunately, project enough power to be -- to push Gadhafi back and to intimidate Gadhafi, and you have this effective military stalemate. CROWLEY: And so can I extrapolate from that that the only way to make it not a stalemate would be for the U.S. to come back in charge?

BURNS: I think there will be pressure on the United States to come back into a leading role, at least to play that role, because we have capacities in our military in this country that the rest of the allies simply do not have.

CROWLEY: And how much help would the -- the EU now saying well we could send in 1,000 troops or so to kind of protect the humanitarian mission. You have the Brits saying we'll go in and help train the rebels. Is that -- that's not enough, clearly.

BURNS: Well, I think Britain's announcement today that it planned to send in a limited number of military trainers was highly significant because there has to be a way to help the rebels organize themselves, to help with their communications, their logistics, to provide arms to them and some of the European countries and indeed Qatar, an Arab country, will be doing that, but they certainly need more organization on the ground.

The rebels seem to have a lot of enthusiasm. They certainly have a will to fight but they don't have the capacity to fight on a scale that's going to be necessary to win this civil war. And that's the problem, Candy. As long as this civil war goes on, Gadhafi wins. As long as he stays in power, he's going to be further bolstered. You haven't seen the type of defections from Gadhafi that we saw two weeks ago with his former Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa.

That's one indication in Tripoli, the capital, that there may be renewed confidence that Gadhafi might -- that Gadhafi -- excuse me -- might be able to weather the storm here and survive as a political leader, and that's a big predicament for the United States and for Europe. This NATO intervention was an intervention on one side of the civil war on behalf of the rebels. If Gadhafi stays, there's going to be pressure for NATO to change its tactics and take a more aggressive stance towards making sure that Gadhafi leaves at some point in the future.

CROWLEY: And in fact, the whole U.S. mission was based on, well, we're not there to get him out. We're there to put pressure on him so that forces around him would force him out, and that's not happening.

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CROWLEY: The troops are still fighting.

BURNS: Right.

CROWLEY: And his inner circle is still pretty much intact.

BURNS: That's right, Candy, it's not happening for two reasons. One is he does retain the loyalty of many people in his own government and indeed perhaps a minority of Libyans, but a healthy minority. And you've seen the rebels being unable to launch an effective military campaign as they try to march towards the center and western part of the country to retake town after town, they have failed to do that.

And so that's a significant problem that the Libyans themselves have had. And the American/European side, the NATO side, if you will, the rhetoric of the United States, France and Britain has been Gadhafi should go but we're not willing to take the steps to put that into operation because we are limited by the U.N. Security Council mandate that essentially says NATO is there to protect civilians. This is a mission without a clear end point and a clear end state, which makes it a difficult one for the U.S. and its allies.

CROWLEY: Let me move you quickly to Syria, simply to ask you, we have the Syrian president saying, well now, you know here's a draft resolution and maybe we'll lift the state of emergency. How seriously do you take that?

BURNS: I don't take it very seriously as a measure of intent, because the Syrian government says one thing and does another. It says it wants to relieve the state of emergency in place since 1963 and yet it attacks peaceful demonstrators in Homs today where people died.

But it is a sign of desperation. If the outside government in Syria believes that these protests might pick up steam and present a strategic threat to the survival of the regime this is the kind of thing that you see -- you saw Hosni Mubarak do. You saw Bin Ali do in Tunisia and both of them fell from power. This is a desperate situation for the Syrian government.

Desperate in the sense it's willing to overturn four decades of policy and it's likely not have -- not to have much impact on the demonstrators themselves. It seems they'll be further fueled by these deaths today and I would expect to see more people in the streets of Damascus and the other Syrian cities tomorrow and in the coming days.

CROWLEY: Former Under Secretary of State and U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nic Burns. Thank you so much for your expertise tonight.

BURNS: Thank you, Candy.

CROWLEY: Here in Washington, Congress is out of town and President Obama has the bully pulpit all to himself. And as you're about to see, he's using it.

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BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: (INAUDIBLE)

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CROWLEY: More now on this hour's breaking story. We're learning new details about why First Lady Michelle Obama's jet had to skip a landing attempt at Andrews Air Force Base yesterday. We want to go to our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry. Ed, give us some of the details you know. ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well Candy, what I'm picking up from senior officials is that the first lady's plane, it was a C-40, got within three miles of a C-17 military cargo plane as it was about to land at Andrews Air Force Base. Why is that significant? These planes are supposed to be about five miles apart, so it may seem pretty far that they were three miles, but it was close enough that it could have been a difficult, scary situation for sure.

And then as Mrs. Obama's plane was about to actually land at Andrews, senior officials also say that this cargo plane was there on the runway, it was still going and so essentially there was a fear that Mrs. Obama's plane could get caught up in what's known as the jet wash, the force of air coming out of the C-17. So that's why we're told the FAA, which actually oversees Andrews Air Force Base, actually told Mrs. Obama's plane to kind of circle around, do a go-around for a while. Once that other plane was cleared, then she finally landed.

Nobody was hurt. And in fact I spoke to a senior official who said there was a White House aide on Mrs. Obama's plane who said she was not even aware that there was any sort of a situation. It was sort of that routine. But I think obviously given the context of all of these FAA problems we've seen lately with air traffic controllers falling asleep at the switch literally this was certainly a scare for the first lady. But in the end, officials are stressing her life was never in danger, Candy, and that's the key point.

CROWLEY: Let me turn you to her husband, the president, who was out and about today at a community college in northern Virginia. He was there with students who were quite enthusiastic about raising taxes on the wealthy. And he reminded them that 10 years ago we had a surplus.

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OBAMA: And then we cut taxes for everybody, including millionaires and billionaires. We fought two wars and we created a new and expensive prescription drug program, and we didn't pay for any of it. And as the saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

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CROWLEY: So, Ed, you were there listening to the speech. What did he suggest students or young people might have to do to help pay for the non-free lunch?

HENRY: Well that's a good question, because they're billing this as sort of the shared responsibility, shared prosperity tour. He's going on to Nevada and California in the next couple of days as well, take this on the road, but basically he told the students that he's going to protect their Pell grants. They're going to have money for student loans.

As you said, they're going to tax the rich. He also said he's going to protect senior citizens and not dismantle Medicare, as Republicans will he charged. He also basically said that he's going to protect infrastructure money, other education money, and so while the first part of his argument that you just played there is completely valid, that look when Bill Clinton handed things over to George W. Bush, the fact of the matter is we were in a surplus.

Republicans in the White House did not pay for those wars, did not pay for the prescription drug benefit. But what's the prescription now? The president is still a little bit light on the details about really where the sacrifice is. Instead he's saying I want to protect education. I want to protect infrastructure. If you protect all those things, you're still not going to balance the budget. So that's going to be the key as we watch this road show play out. Where is the sacrifice, where are the details -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Ed Henry thanks so much.

HENRY: Thank you.

CROWLEY: Joining us now from New York, Chrystia Freeland. She is global editor-at-large for Reuters. We want to talk a little bit more about the debt because one of the things that the debt has done is it has caused Standard & Poor's, who people look to see who's a reliable person to lend money to and what countries are on shaky ground, sort of looked and said, listen, we don't think that the forecast for the U.S. economy and bringing down that debt is stable, which it had previously been labeled.

It has now gone to negative. So Chrystia, what is the net effect of that? Do you really think there is a chance that Standard & Poor's would lower the U.S. credit rating?

CHRYSTIA FREELAND, FORMER U.S. MANAGING EDITOR, FINANCIAL TIMES: So actually lowering the credit rating would be a pretty big step that isn't what happened yesterday. They just downgraded their outlook, so U.S. debt is still rated AAA and that's actually really important for the entire financial and investing system because U.S. bonds are sort of the gold standard against which all kinds of other debt is measured.

So if there were to actually be a downgrade, and I have to emphasize that didn't happen, you would see a real ripple effect, quite unpredictable actually through the financial system. What Standard & Poor said really is echoing, Candy, what you and Ed were talking about earlier, expressing some doubts about the ability not so much of U.S. -- of the U.S. economy, but the ability of U.S. politicians to come together and reach some kind of a deal on the debt and the deficit. And judging by what I've just heard from you and Ed, I think that's a pretty reasonable set of doubts to have, don't you think?

CROWLEY: Well I wanted to ask you because I have this theory because when we poll people and say well what do you think we should -- the debt is terrible. Everybody thinks the debt is terrible and they know you shouldn't spend more money than you have and they think 14 trillion or so sounds like a lot of debt to be in. And yet, when you say, what are you willing to give up, this sort of shared sacrifice, a little bit comes down to, well, let's tax the wealthy and also not give so much foreign aid, which is this minuscule part of the budget.

And my theory is that no one has truly explained here's what's going to happen if we do not get this debt under control. So I'm going to let you tell me, like if I am sitting out there tonight why does it matter what the U.S. debt is, because as long as I can remember, it has been in the trillions.

FREELAND: OK, so you want me to paint the nightmare scenario for you?

CROWLEY: Exactly.

FREELAND: OK, so here is the nightmare scenario. Let's say that the U.S. government does not get its debt and deficit under control. Ultimately right now America is reliant on not so much the kindness of strangers, but certainly the credit of strangers. America, much more than other big industrialized countries, needs creditors like China to lend money to America just so that the U.S. government can keep on operating.

At a certain point, if it looks like America continues to be in the red, foreign lenders are going to say, you know what, we do not trust the U.S. government. We don't think that this is a good credit risk. When that happens, America will have to pay a much higher rate of interest to borrow money, and suddenly in addition to, you know, right now spending more than you're taking in, you're going to have to pay higher interest rates. It's like if the interest rate on your mortgage went up you would really feel it.

And I think that is what Americans should be really worried about, because right now the world is giving America a giant break. You know compare what's happening in the United States to countries we read about a lot in the headlines like Greece and Ireland. You know, the credit markets really metaphorically have a gun against the heads of Greece and Ireland and they are saying we're just not going to lend you money because we don't trust you. America is so big and so rich it can get away with a lot. But the moment is going to come when the rest of the world says, sorry, we don't want to play ball anymore.

CROWLEY: Chrystia Freeland thanks so much for painting us the dark picture.

FREELAND: You asked me to, Candy.

CROWLEY: I did indeed --

FREELAND: I don't want to stress (ph) people.

CROWLEY: All right. Thanks so much, Chrystia.

At the White House today President Obama hosted the annual Easter Prayer Breakfast.

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OBAMA: Something about the resurrection of our savior Jesus Christ that puts everything else in perspective.

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CROWLEY: This morning, President Obama invited 130 religious leaders to the White House for a Holy Week prayer breakfast. Easter is this coming Sunday, prompting the president to open up a little bit about his Christian faith.

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BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I wanted to host this breakfast for a simple reason, because as busy as we are, as many tasks that pile up, during this season, we are reminded that there's something about the resurrection, something about the resurrection of our savior, Jesus Christ, that puts everything else in perspective.

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CROWLEY: Joining us to talk about faith and politics: CNN contributor Erick Erickson, the editor in chief of the conservative blog RedState.com, along with Democratic pollster and CNN political contributor, Cornell Belcher.

Thanks, both.

Let me start with you, Cornell, you know, usually when the president talks religion, we immediately go to: does he need to do this because so many people still think he's Muslim? My question to you is: is there any convincing that part of the population that he is Christian?

CORNELL BELCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No. The truth of the matter is, there's no convincing. And this is interesting because I remember early back, because I worked for the Obama campaign, you go back to early primary season, there was a nasty e-mail going around even back when we first got in the primaries, about him being a Muslim. I remember we sort of jokingly -- sort of joked it off. But it sticks around.

There is something about him that makes people wanting to sort of believe that he doesn't believe the way they believe and see the world the way they see it, and sort of makes them want to reject him. Those people -- there's a definite correlation. Those people who don't want to believe he's a Christian and those people who don't want to believe he's born in this country, they are not ever, ever going to support Barack Obama.

CROWLEY: And, Erick, those are not ever going to be Barack Obama votes. So I guess my question to you, actually, is a little broader than the president and rumors about him being a Muslim. And that is: how much does it still matter that a president show his faith?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think it does still matter. And I think it's reflected in the Gallup poll. There was a Gallup poll just a few months ago where even a large number of African- American voters questioned his religious background. And I'm with Cornell, I don't -- I think he's born here. He says he's a Christian, that's good enough for me.

But at the same time, it resonates with voters. We had -- going back to Jimmy Carter, going back before Jimmy Carter, presidents have always in some way connected with faith. It's always been a story line. And I think when Barack Obama speaks, the clip we just showed, if you played more of it, I think there would be a lot of people who would say he seemed a little off his game in that speech and that he should be speaking more about it -- because it seems like it's never been a conversation he's comfortable talking about.

A lot of people, frankly, aren't comfortable talking about their faith. I wish he would do more of it. I think that it would absolve those issues.

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: Sure, because I wanted to ask you if you think he should do more of it.

BELCHER: No, I don't think he can do more because I think the evidence is overwhelming. And he's someone who's written a lot about --

CROWLEY: Just in general speaking to what Erick is talking about, which is that people do like to know that part about a president's life.

BELCHER: Because -- I mean, we are an awfully -- for better or worse -- we're an awfully religious country. And a lot of middle America makes sense of their lives through the prism of their religious faiths. And so, it is a central part of our politics in a way that our European -- western European counterparts don't even understand.

But it has to do with the attribute of trust -- this idea that if you believe the way I believe or you see the world I see, then I can trust you, because you know what? Most Americans aren't paying attention to details of our deficit reduction or our health care plan. But if they believe that there's someone I can trust, someone I can share their values, they're apt to support that person.

CROWLEY: When we're talking about values, I want to show you a new CNN poll today which asks the question: should marriages between gay or lesbian couples be recognized as valid. For the first time in a CNN poll, a majority of people support same-sex marriage. Fifty-one percent yes, 47 percent no. Still very divided, but nonetheless that's over the 50 percent mark.

Does that -- in fact, we've had Mitch Daniels, a possible Republican presidential candidate, saying he thought that Republicans ought to get off the social issues. Is this now, do you think, a losing issue, because it's not just Republicans who have said that they are opposed to gay marriage, the president has said he is opposed to gay marriage.

BELCHER: This is a remarkable number to me. I mean, because if you look how quickly -- and I talked about this before -- like how quickly over time this number is being sort of changed and sort of public perception about gay marriage is changing so quickly, it's remarkable. We're watching a revolution right in front of us.

Does it -- you know, however, you go back four years ago or five years ago, there was a real wedge and the GOP used sort of gay marriage as a real wedge. I think this lessens the ability for them to use this as a wedge, but also because of economic times are so tough right now, Americans are less concerned about those social issues than they are about their pocketbook issues.

CROWLEY: Erick, would you agree with that analysis?

ERICKSON: To a degree, yes. Although the majority of voters are probably still going to be senior citizens. And if you break down polling these days to senior citizens, a majority of them are still opposed to this. And it's still an effective issue for the Republicans to turn out the socially conservative base. There are a lot of people in this county who do still get energized by social issues and you can't ignore those people.

CROWLEY: But let me ask you, even as it energizes a certain portion of the Republican base, do you think that it turns off a portion of independents that might otherwise see in economic policy or foreign policy something in the Republican Party they're attracted to?

ERICKSON: Yes, I think it can, particularly among upper income and highly educated voters. I think issues like this do tend to turn them off. However, most of them for voting for Democrats anyway.

With independent voters, though, the Republicans have to be careful how they deal with these issues, but at the same time you do still have -- when you break it down further to registered voters, likely voters, senior citizens -- you still have a majority of people going to the polls who are against gay marriage.

CROWLEY: Erick, I'm going to go to you and then give Cornell a final -- I need a quick answer to this. And that is the polling for the president has gone down a bit. There's also been some criticism, particularly from progressives saying he's on the wrong issue here with the debt. He still needs to be on jobs and he's out there selling his debt plan.

Do you think the president is on the right issue?

ERICKSON: I don't know that the president can be on the right issue. Frankly, I'm not sure that it's completely his fault. When you look at what's happened around the world, interest rates are going up in Europe, it's going to hit us soon. And when it does, it's going to hurt him even more. Inflation is on the rise as reflected in the "Washington Post" poll.

CROWLEY: Jobs? BELCHER: The jobs. I think you have to address the debt issue, however the jobs issue -- I tell you this: talk to me a month out from the next election and which party or which candidate they think is going to do the better job on the economy, and I'll tell you which candidate is going to win the race.

CROWLEY: It's a deal, I'll be here, you'll be here.

Cornell Belcher, Erick Erickson -- thank you both so much.

ERICKSON: Thank you.

CROWLEY: Ahead, just as the Midwest digs out from the deadly storms that hit over the weekend, forecasts show another round of heavy winds, large hail and tornadoes might be heading their way this evening. We'll have the latest, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

We are keeping our eyes on a dangerous new storm system. Right now, tornado warnings are in effect in Illinois and Oklahoma. Earlier, damaging storms moved through Missouri and golf ball-size hail fell across the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

Late this afternoon, Pentagon officials announced they are moving PFC Bradley Manning to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, adding we shouldn't see the move as a slap at the Quantico Marine Base where reports about Manning's treatment generated international criticism. Manning is suspected of giving thousands of secret U.S. documents to WikiLeaks.

Still to come, one year after the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, support for offshore oil drilling has rebounded. But the face of the U.S. government's cleanup efforts says a similar oil spill disaster could happen again. Hear why, when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the start of the Gulf oil spill.

For better or worse, my next guest became the face of the administration's response. Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen was the national incident commander and called the Gulf oil spill response, quote, "The most political event I've been involved in."

Thank you so much for joining us, Admiral. Presumably times are calmer now that you're retired.

But let me ask you sort of a look-ahead question. Could the Gulf oil spill of last year happen again?

ADM. THAD ALLEN (RET.), U.S. COAST GUARD: Well, Candy, I don't think there's any such thing as risk-free drilling for fossil fuels. The question is: what's an acceptable level of risk and safety? We've made some substantial improvements over the last year, but I think that's going to have to be a continuing discussion, because we're going to rely on hydrocarbons for the next couple of decades.

Again, no risk-free drilling but how safe and how much do we want to reduce the risk.

CROWLEY: We know now that 11 permits have been issued by the federal government for deepwater drilling. Is it safe enough now as far as you're concerned?

ALLEN: Well, there have been a couple of major improvements. First of all, there are two different companies providing oil containment and capping systems. So, if we have another loss of oil control it can be attended to much more quickly than it was last year. The Department of Interior and United States Coast Guard are jointly reviewing response plans. I think that ultimately needs to be embedded in legislation and probably new rules.

So, I think there has been a major step forward in reducing the amount of risk and improving safety. But I think this needs to be a continual process.

CROWLEY: Do you think that there is more that is not in the works that should be done to kind of prevent or at least have faster cleanup and more capability within the region if something like this should happen again?

ALLEN: Candy, the major discussion that's going on right now involves something called the safety case, where in addition to the prescriptive regulations that we have right now, the oil companies would be required to produce a risk analysis that had to do with the specific attributes of the well, the pressure, the location, the depth of water and temperature and so forth, and then produce a risk mitigation plan.

This is a process that's used in the U.K. and in Norway. And I think some hybrid system of mandatory inspections and a safety case type of approach is probably where we're going to need to be, but that will probably ultimately take legislation and new rule-making.

But in the meantime, I think we need to constructively move towards that system.

CROWLEY: You called, as we noted, the aftermath, the most political event you've ever been involved in, not even a close second, you said. What made it so political?

ALLEN: Well, I think there were a lot of things, Candy. But one of the -- one of the real issues, and we have to understand this going forward, there's not a good understanding of the response doctrines in the standard operating procedures. I think any political leaders are going to feel the need to fill that vacuum and act on behalf of their constituents.

And what you want to do is make a rebuttable presumption there is a way to do this and move forward so they don't have to free form it or make decisions that are outside the doctrine, if you want to put it that way. And also, I think there was a lot of misunderstanding about the legal premise under which the federal government was managing this response, especially with some of the local leaders in Louisiana.

CROWLEY: So, what's your -- what I think you're saying is that local leaders, senators, governors, et cetera, all felt that they were filling a gap that was left, that they felt that the federal government wasn't in there, and therefore, it became highly political? Is that what you're saying?

ALLEN: Well, I think there's always going to be the need to act by political leaders. The question is: does the system offer them assurances that the right things are being done? In this case, the oil spill doctrine that we were responding under, the national contingency plan, differed greatly from a standard response under the Stafford Act, which is how we would handle a national disaster, when the state and federal authorities have the legal preeminence, if you will.

And I think -- and I don't know who's accountable for it, but I think in the future, we need to make sure that everybody in the chain of command, from the federal government on down the local leaders needs to understand the oil spill response doctrine, the laws on which it's based and how it's going to be coordinated. I think the cognitive dissonance, if you will, that arose when we went in and tried to carry out our federal authorities was not well understood and I think that's the challenge going forward.

CROWLEY: When you look back on this, what didn't you do that you think you should have or vice versa that you think can be applied to the future?

ALLEN: Well, I think undertaking bringing all the Vessels of Opportunity under contract and trying to coordinate what they were doing when we had never done that --

CROWLEY: And by Vessels of Opportunity I mean --

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: I just want to explain for our viewers, Vessels of Opportunity, those were just boats that were around that got employed to help both with rescue and cleanup?

ALLEN: Right. BP was trying to employ the fishermen that were out of work and other watermen. And that was very well intended.

But without prior training, certification, and a way to do communications, command and control, surveillance systems -- where we can put them where we need them -- I think all of that should be part of doctrine moving ahead. Trying to do that actually during a spill when we had never done it before on that order of magnitude presented a significant number of challenges.

I think another issue was taking control of the airspace, which helped eliminate some of those problems as far as coordination of surveillance. And if I had to do it over again, I would have taken the airspace on the first day.

CROWLEY: I want to read you something we found that you said in August of 2010. "I will say once again to the people of the Gulf that we are committed to finishing this cleanup, holding BP accountable. We will continue to do that."

We know today that all fishing areas have been reopened, including the area today, the last area, which was the area right around where the rig was. Is the cleanup finished? What is left to do? And has BP been held responsible?

ALLEN: Well, this will be a work in progress. And depending on where you're at in the Gulf, there is little to do or nothing to do and then there's a lot to do.

If you go to the marshes in Pass a Loutre in Bay Jimmy and Barataria Bay, there still is persistent oil there that's going to have to be attended to. The real question there is: how much mechanical means can we use to remove that oil before we're going to have to let Mother Nature take its course without doing further harm to the marshes.

In other areas, there's little to no oil. So, it depends on where we're at. But we have to keep at it. And there are probably 1,500 people that are involved in response operations in the Gulf right now.

But beyond that, we really have to look at the natural resources, the damage assessment to take a look at the long-term impact that the spill has caused to the Gulf.

And again, BP is responsible to pay -- to make those damages whole again and that is a process that will continue for several years.

CROWLEY: Has BP made it right, as they have vowed to do?

ALLEN: Well, the job's not done. The cleanup has to be done. The claims have to be paid.

The natural damage assessment has been completed. The environment has to be made whole. And there'll be an accountable piece paid on the civil penalties and the legal process that's going on right now.

So, I would say this is going to be going on for several years. BP needs to be held accountable. I think they understand that. We have to the see this process through, as we promised the people of the Gulf.

CROWLEY: And, finally, one last question, that fishing area right around the rig where today they opened it up -- would you feel completely safe eating any fish that came out of that territory? ALLEN: Candy, I've told folks for the past five or six months, and even beyond, the seafood coming out of the Gulf is some of the most tested, safest seafood in the world. There are more eyes and microscopes on that seafood than any place in the entire country. And seafood coming out of the Gulf is safe to eat. I eat it myself, and I would urge others to do the same.

CROWLEY: Thad Allen, former national incident commander for the spill, now a senior fellow at RAND Corporation -- thank you so much.

Ahead, we will update you on the severe weather that could hit the Midwest and southern regions of the country.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: An update for you on the dangerous storms moving across the Midwest and Plain States. A tornado warning has just gone up in Arkansas, in addition to the tornado warnings we told you about earlier in Illinois and Oklahoma. Damaging storms moved through Missouri earlier, areas around St. Louis are under a flash flood warning right now.

The storms stretch all the way to Texas. Golf ball-sized hail fell across the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Unfortunately, the storm system is not expected to have much effect on 20 wildfires burning in Texas. Most of them are west of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. At least 1.5 million acres have burned.

A little bit ago, authorities ordered a complete evacuation for the small town of Palo Pinto.

We stay with CNN throughout the evening for storm updates.

That's it for us tonight.

"IN THE ARENA" starts right now.