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JOHN KING, USA

Boots on the Ground; Death of Journalist; Gulf Oil Spill Aftermath

Aired April 20, 2011 - 19:00   ET

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


JESSICA YELLIN, GUEST HOST: Thank you, Candy. Breaking news tonight, a pair of top-notched war photographers including an Oscar- nominated director the latest casualties of Libya's civil war. American photographer Chris Hondros of the Getty Photo Agency died within a few hours of receiving a devastating brain injury. British- born photographer and director Tim Hetherington died earlier in the same incident in the western Libyan city of Misrata.

Exactly what happened there isn't yet clear, but we're told both men and some other photographers were hit by a rocket propelled grenade. Hetherington's last Twitter post sent yesterday, it speaks for itself. He wrote, "In besieged Libyan city of Misrata, indiscriminate shelling by Gadhafi forces, no sign of NATO".

In a little while we will speak with someone who knew Tim Hetherington and with his dedication to showing the world the toll of war. But first we'll turn to the larger news out of Libya. Today, NATO confirmed it's attacking pro-Gadhafi forces outside Misrata and it's hitting ammunition bunkers and tanks and NATO has advised civilians there to be careful and avoid regime forces.

Also today the French and Italians announced that they'll join the British in sending military advisers on the ground to help the rebels. Also, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed the U.S. is prepared to give the Libyan opposition millions of dollars for humanitarian aid.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We are moving to authorize up to $25 million in non-lethal commodities and services to support the transitional national council and our efforts to protect civilians and the civilian populated areas that are under threat of attack from their own government in Libya.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: And look at this, Libya's state-run television today showed new pictures of Moammar Gadhafi -- there he is -- you see him sitting in a tent, relaxed, defiant, watching TV. CNN's Frederik Pleitgen, he is live in Tripoli. Fred, I have to start with that video, the new video of Gadhafi. It seems basically absurd that he is in a tent watching TV with a supporter giving everything that's going on. FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, it is, Jessica, but one of the things Gadhafi's obviously trying to show is that he is still in control of the situation there. Meeting with the head of Libya's council in that tent and the interesting thing about that video is that they have Libyan television on in the background and the Libyan television screen has the date of today.

And I think that's something where he's trying to show the Libyan viewers that he is still very much alive, that he's still very much in command, and that he is still directing Libyan politics from his tent there, even as these NATO airstrikes are going on. As we've heard in the past couple of days the foreign minister here in Libya say that the government here is very much open to perhaps a transitional period if there is a cease-fire to perhaps even putting up the Libyan dictator's status up for grabs to see what the future of Libya could be like with or without him.

So certainly it seems like there was some uncertainty over the past couple of days as to what his role would be in the future. As to whether or not he was still in command. And clearly, by these images from today, he's trying to show that he still has very much his grasp on power -- Jessica.

YELLIN: Right. It's a PR effort. We've also reported, Fred, about the death of Academy Award nominated photo journalist Tim Hetherington. As you know, he died in the besieged city of Misrata. What can you tell us about the circumstances of Hetherington's death?

PLEITGEN: Yes, I got some new information on that, from some sources on the ground in Misrata. They say that this incident happened on the western fringes of the city, on a street called Tripoli Street, which is one that's seen a lot of fighting over the past couple of weeks. And what the sources are telling me is that apparently this group of four photo journalists, which included Hetherington as well as Chris Hondros who we know now was also killed in that incident, they went to an area near the front-line area with a couple of the rebel fighters.

That group was then hit by an RPG, although there are also some reports that it was a mortar shell that hit. Tim Hetherington was brought to one of the few clinics in Misrata that's still functioning. He was pronounced dead on arrival. Chris Hondros, he was pronounced dead a couple of hours later. Of course at this point in time getting any sort of medical attention in Misrata is very difficult because of the circumstances there. And it's also pretty much impossible to get any sort of wounded casualties out of Misrata because you have to do it by boat and their shortest boat trip out of Misrata, Jessica, is about 20 hours.

YELLIN: Oh my -- it's an astonishingly dangerous. You -- I know you're one of the few photo -- you're one of the few journalists -- I'm sorry -- who spent time in Misrata. All the descriptions make it sound lawless. Tell us what it's like to be on the ground there.

PLEITGEN: Well I wouldn't necessarily describe it as lawless, but it's just a very sort of uncertain way of being when you're down there. I mean essentially especially in downtown Misrata what you have is a very fluid sort of front line. You're walking along the streets. You don't really know who's in command.

We were also on a patrol with some of these rebels in the front line area and all of a sudden bullets and rocket propelled grenades just started whizzing past us because we'd simply gone a step too far. Also the whole time that you're there, when you're in the downtown area, there's constant mortar, artillery, as well as anti-aircraft fire that's going on there.

So you're always in danger of getting hit by something. So it's really a very uncertain thing. And I can tell you, in the time that I was there with our crew, the thing that we feared the most is getting hit by a stray mortar shell, by a stray rocket propelled grenade because you know if you get hit there, it's going to be very, very difficult to get you out.

There's no way to medivac (ph) you out of there. The only thing that you can hope is that you're in stable enough condition to be put on the boat to try and get you to safety so it is a very, very dangerous -- very, very dangerous circumstances that all the journalists who are working there right now have to endure -- Jessica.

YELLIN: Frederik we know you're taking sincere risks being there reporting for us. We are grateful to you -- Frederik Pleitgen from Tripoli.

And tonight we're told President Obama supports the French and the Italian's decision to join with the British in sending military advisers to help the Libyan opposition. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says it doesn't change the president's policy of no boots on the ground for U.S. troops.

CNN's Reza Sayah is in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Reza, amid concerns about the NATO effort there is simply not getting the job done, France and Italy today announcing that they're going to send military advisers to help the rebels but we know that what the rebels really want is arms. Is this move going to make a difference?

REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jessica, I think in the long run, it could make them a more effective fighting force. But in the short run, if the rebels' goal remains regime change, a military victory over Colonel Gadhafi and his regime or putting enough military pressure on him, where he says, OK, I've had enough, I don't think these moves are going to get -- make much of a difference.

I think the most significant thing the rebels got in their mini tour of Europe where they met with some of their key allies is a commitment from France where they said they're going to push for more airstrikes. That could be significant. Beyond that all they got was a commitment for these military advisers/mentors.

These are officers who are apparently going to come on the ground and tell the rebels how to improve their defensive positions, defend what they already have gained, improve some of their communication skills on the ground. So certainly it could help but not the type of help that they need. It's very interesting the Italians, French and the British went out of their way to tell the world, look, this does not amount to troops on the ground.

And I think it highlights some of the limitations when it comes to U.N. Resolution 1973 that does strictly say no troops on the ground, no regime change. It's all about protecting civilians. And here you have the British, Italian, and the French trying to tiptoe, wiggle their way through this U.N. resolution, at the same time avoiding the impression that they're violating the U.N. resolution. At the same time, Jessica, avoiding, raising the ire of other NATO member states that are not on board with getting more aggressive, so these are some of the concerns of why some think this might last a very long time.

YELLIN: A careful dance. We know that the U.S. is offering something of its own, not military, financially. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has recommended that the U.S. send up to $25 million in what she's called non-lethal commodities and services. So your sense, what does that entail, and is this what they need?

SAYAH: According to Secretary Clinton this $25 million is going to get the rebels medical supplies, protective gear, uniforms, boots, some communication gear. So certainly it could help them, but is it the help that they say they need? Is it heavy advanced weapons that they say they need to take on the Gadhafi tanks?

Is it a commitment by Washington for more airstrikes? And the answer is no. So is it going to help? Yes, they say they can get all the help they can need. But is it a decisive move where all of a sudden you're going to see a clear edge for the rebels on the battlefield? I think all indications right now are that it's not -- Jessica.

YELLIN: All right. Reza Sayah reporting for us. Once again thank you so much.

And now I want to turn back to today's death of two photo journalists, one an award winning war photographer, Tim Hetherington, killed by a rocket propelled grenade in the besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Ironically he had survived years and years of covering some of the most dangerous areas around the globe including in Afghanistan.

We're showing you video now of a movie Hetherington made. He received an Academy Award nomination in fact for "Restrepo". It's a documentary he co-directed and it follows the deployment of a U.S. platoon in Afghanistan. Now, here's a picture of a soldier resting at Restrepo bunker in Afghanistan. That was 2007's "World Press Photo of the Year". It was a distinguished award he won. And listen to this. They gave the award to him because they said in capturing the exhaustion of a single man the image reflects the exhaustion of an entire nation.

By focusing on Tim Hetherington's story tonight and those of the others injured and killed there with him, perhaps we can reflect the horror and the death of thousands across the Middle East and North Africa, threats they face every day. Those people's stories are too often ignored by the media because maybe they don't look white or western, but these gentlemen's deaths help us enter this story and focus on it in a way we can all understand.

With us now is CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen who was a close friend and colleague of Tim Hetherington's. First, Peter, I want to extend to you our condolences.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Thank you.

YELLIN: You wrote beautifully about him, and we know that he covered some of the places he's lived were Liberia, Afghanistan. He was in Darfur and then Libya. What drove him to spend time in the most dangerous places on earth?

BERGEN: I think Tim was a very empathetic person. He was interested in showing war as it is, like a lot of great war photographers. Unfortunately, to show war as it is, you have to take considerable risks which is what Tim had done repeatedly. When he was in Afghanistan, for instance, in the Korengal Valley, which is arguably the most dang place in Afghanistan, when he was shooting there, he was caught in a firefight, broke his leg, had to be medivac out, but continued to work on the film which then of course was nominated for the Oscar.

YELLIN: Sounded pretty brave also.

BERGEN: Yes, but also a very modest guy. This was not a guy -- you know there were sort of war junkies who will tell you about all the places they have gone.

YELLIN: Right.

BERGEN: Tim was not of that ilk. He didn't rejoice in war. He wasn't -- he was a very modest individual. Humble.

YELLIN: You know I mentioned this in the introduction but the death of a name -- somebody whose name and face is familiar to us sometimes helps us relate to what thousands and thousands of people we don't know are going through. One of the last -- his last communication was a tweet he sent out on Tuesday. And it said, in besieged city of -- in besieged Libyan city of Misrata, indiscriminant shelling by Gadhafi forces, no sign of NATO. Is this a wake-up call?

BERGEN: Well I guess the situation in Misrata has been a wake-up call for some period of time. It's no new fact that not only Tim Hetherington, but now we've also had the tragic news that Chris Hondros, another great photographer, died of the injuries he sustained in this attack I think certainly will draw the world's attention even more to what this you know civil war, which is going on now, without real resolution, which Gadhafi appears to be making real headway.

YELLIN: And defiant, that video of Gadhafi today just watching television against this backdrop, is all the more stark. There is this picture we've been showing which is the award winning picture that Tim Hetherington took. And again, in awarding it they said that this one man's exhaustion speaks to the exhaustion of a nation. He was a storyteller. What do you think the story of his death should be?

BERGEN: God, there isn't really a good answer to that, Jessica. It's just -- I think some things are just -- you know they're tragic and they're explicable in a general sense, but when somebody dies, I don't think you say, hey, this had some special meaning. It's just a tragedy which there's not much more that can be said about it.

YELLIN: Does it call the world's attention though to what else is happening there -- I mean this was a man who wanted --

BERGEN: Yes.

YELLIN: -- to help us understand --

BERGEN: It's not the way that he or any of his family or friends would want attention to be drawn to -- you know to this issue. This is not the way to draw attention to it.

YELLIN: There's a message he wrote you earlier in the year. He was an Academy Award nominated director for "Restrepo" and he didn't win the Oscar, but in -- if I may -- this is the e-mail he wrote you. "While we didn't -- after he was -- he didn't win the Oscar -- he wrote you "while we didn't get to take home the little gold man, going down the red carpet with those soldiers from the film was one of the highlights of my life so far and a real finale to an incredible journey. Although this particular journey may be over, the film lives on." You wrote that this e-mail pretty much sums him up. Explain.

BERGEN: It was all about -- you know they're telling the story. And you know he had great empathy for the soldiers he was documenting. And he -- you know winning the Oscar would have been great for Tim, but it wasn't the point. You know he was happy to just walk down that red carpet and to do it with the soldiers that he spent more than a year with documenting, living under some of the most dangerous conditions you can imagine.

YELLIN: We know you also take risks in your reporting out there and we honor you for what you do too --

BERGEN: Thank you, Jessica.

YELLIN: -- and our condolences. We need to take a break, but first, as you look once again at Tim Hetherington's war photographs, we want to read you a statement his family released just a short time ago, saying, "Tim was in Libya to continue his ongoing multimedia project to highlight humanitarian issues during a time of war and conflict. He will be forever missed." We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

YELLIN: A BP spokesperson has just confirmed to CNN that the company has filed suit against the manufacturer of the blowout preventer they're failed a year ago leading to the explosion that caused the Gulf oil spill. BP claims negligence help cause that oil spill in the Gulf. Eleven people died when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up. Over the course of 85 days nearly 206 million gallons of oil poured into the Gulf. Today Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal complained that too much of it is still around.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. BOBBY JINDAL (R), LOUISIANA: There are still over 300 miles, again 300 miles that have some amount of oil, 40 percent of the Louisiana coastline that had been oiled during this spill continued to be oiled today. So there is still work that needs to be done all along our coast.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: CNN's Rob Marciano joins us from the Mississippi coast where a year anniversary of that tragedy they are still struggling from the toll of the disaster. Important indicator of the health of our ecosystem is always the wildlife. So Rob, you are at the Marine Mammal Institute with two very special guests. Could you introduce your guests and tell us a little bit about that institute.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, this is a phenomenal place. It's been around well over 20 years, 30 years actually and -- or getting up on 30 years -- and what they do is they rehabilitate animals, mostly dolphins. Some turtles. These are some of the turtles that are being rehabilitated from the oil spill.

(INAUDIBLE) turtles, these are (INAUDIBLE) species --

(AUDIO GAP)

MARCIANO: -- say from the stranded (ph) population that have been finding having some problems. And you know we've seen turtles and dolphins continually wash up on shore the past couple of months. Here is Dr. Moby Solangi. He's the founder and director of this. Boy, you know, I didn't think we'd be back here because I thought we'd be all done with this but they just keep coming in, don't they?

DR. MOBY SOLANGI, INSTITUTE FOR MARINE MAMMAL STUDIES: Yes I tell you we have had an unusual mortality this year, starting in January or February we saw a huge spike that we have right now, 85 dolphins, 67 of them are baby dolphins, so that's about almost a 15 time increase in mortality and then again come March we've seen a big spike in the turtle mortalities, which is -- stands at 150 right now.

MARCIANO: I mean that's remarkable when you talk about 10 to 15 times the average. I mean, as a scientist, I know you've been performing a lot of these necropsies and those tests aren't quite back yet, the results aren't back yet, but as a scientist, you've got to say, boy, there's got to be some sort of linkage.

SOLANGI: Well it is and I think the government has declared what they call an unusual mortality event, which is kind of a disaster what they recommend to look for causes that may be related to the death of these animals.

MARCIANO: OK, well, regardless of how they got here, they're here and we've got to fix them. Let's show the folks at home just how wonderful these creatures are. Becky, if you could grab this latest one. Now these guys told -- I was here six months ago and this thing was pretty much the size of my hand. Look at the size of this loggerhead now. This is a phenomenal, phenomenal creature. You found this in oil I presume.

SOLANGI: It was in oil. It came from Alabama and it was about six inches long. It has now increased almost fivefold. And it is ready to be released. This will be released in about a week or so.

MARCIANO: Now, have we been releasing any of these animals recently?

SOLANGI: Yes, over the last year we have released almost 40 turtles.

MARCIANO: You know, with these -- more of these washing up on shore dead now, is it safe to put them into the Gulf of Mexico?

SOLANGI: Yes, one of the places we are looking at releasing them is in Florida, the areas that were not oiled. And then we're going to track them and to see what happens to them once we release them in areas other than where they were found.

MARCIANO: How about that, Jessica? Not only are they fixing them up, but they're going to track them -- I guess right here is this one of his tags that --

SOLANGI: Yes, this is one of the tags, but we're also going to put a satellite tag on him. And the satellite tag would be like a GPS unit and will give us signals 24/7 so we can tell where they are at any given time.

MARCIANO: Phenomenal stuff and what have you found with some of the turtles that you've been tracking, that you released earlier in the year?

SOLANGI: Yes, we've had an incredible amount of information. We now know that they can travel very long distances. The ones we released in November last year went all the way to the mouth of the river and come springtime they're back, so we've been able to delineate their habitat and understand their movement and migration patterns.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hey --

MARCIANO: Jessica, what do you think about this --

YELLIN: It's great --

MARCIANO: What do you think about this phenomenal animal?

YELLIN: It's great to see positive news from the Gulf and that I have to say that turtle is adorable too. I want to ask you about something on a more serious note or equally serious. I know you've talked to someone from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They're trying to collect evidence for a case against BP. You've talked to them. Do they think they have a strong case? MARCIANO: I tell you what, let's put the turtle -- get the turtle back -- he looks like he's getting a little bit antsy. I know if I were out of the water that long I would be too. You heard the question and you can comment on this if you have anything to add, Moby. They're fairly far along but as Moby can attest, good science takes time. And they're taking their time, accumulating the evidence that they need to prosecute BP. You have got the Clean Water Act. You've got the Oil Pollution Act.

You've got the Endangered Species Act, all of which will bring money to restore the Gulf. But, you know, there's two schools of thought. You do a 10 to 20 year study and you can really get a handle on the longer term population but you've got to wait that long to get any money. Or you rush it in now and you get short-term money. They're going to try to go in between but it's still going to take -- what -- a couple of years at least before this thing goes to court and we get some money, right?

SOLANGI: That's correct. It's a very complicated process and it's going to take some time. And again this area has not been studied as much as other areas so that's going to be the difficulty to see how much damage actually occurred.

MARCIANO: One thing all these guys I've been talking to say is that it seems like the more we know, the more questions we have and there's a tremendous amount of uncertainty out there, especially in the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico -- Jessica.

YELLIN: I know nothing is simple in resolving this crisis. Rob Marciano, thank you so much with Dr. Solangi and a very cute turtle.

Today, the oil spill's long-term impact on the environment remains a major concern. In a little bit we're going to hear from the federal government's top environmental official. But first, let's head to Louisiana and to CNN's special correspondent Philippe Cousteau.

As you probably know he is Jacques Cousteau's grandson. He's also an author and environmentalist in his own right. He is CEO of EarthEcho International. Philippe, thanks for being with us. Let's start first with the fact you've spent countless hours studying the effects of the oil spill. In your mind, bottom line, what's the most pressing concern right now?

PHILIPPE COUSTEAU, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jessica, from the folks that we're talking to here on the ground, the greatest concern is the uncertainty about the future. We just don't know what's going to happen. Now, there's mixed results and mixed response coming from folks in the tourism industry showing hopefully going into a strong spring. The commercial and recreational fishing industries is again a mixed bag.

The shrimping season just opened up. We're about halfway through the oyster season and they're very concerned that they're not finding the small baby young oysters that not being recruited on the larger oysters that they usually are. So it's really uncertainty about what is going to happen into the future. There are of course fish showing up with large lesions on them and depressed immune systems, not dissimilar to what happened in Alaska during the Exxon Valdez oil spill with the herring fishery there that had also depressed immune systems and collapsed three years after the initial oil spill and still hasn't recovered 20 years later.

YELLIN: Wow, so we're clearly seeing effects on the wildlife, I know Governor Jindal of Louisiana held a press conference just a little while ago saying that 300 miles of his coastline are still oiled. But you've been talking about your concerns about oil that's actually off the coast in the deep waters. Would you explain that?

COUSTEAU: Well, we are concerned about all of the oil frankly. Certainly, there are -- continue to be oil in the marshes here but we're also very concerned about the oil in the water column itself, as you pointed out, Jessica. You know the fact that the oil spill happened at 5,000 feet down, that has never happened anywhere in the world. And those are two very different echo systems.

The surface is warm. The sunlight, the currents, the light has an impact. Down deeper it's freezing cold. It's pitch black dark and there's tremendous pressure and so that oil behaves very differently down there. And we hear anecdotically (ph) from fishermen that are pulling up their trawls with gobs of oil still in them, so we know that substance is still permeating the environment with serious consequences.

YELLIN: It's so upsetting. One of the things we talked about endlessly after the spill was the dispersants, the chemical dispersants they were using to break up the oil. What do you know about the long-term effects of those dispersants? Are we seeing any effects already?

COUSTEAU: Well we're seeing a lot of potential effects from the dispersants. That's one of the challenging things about science is that it can't give us declarative statements you know in short snapshots periods of time. Oftentimes it just can't do that and so for us it's really trying to get a bigger picture.

Now the challenge for that is the investment in the science and research. So there's still a lot of question marks floating around about exactly what the impacts of the (INAUDIBLE) the dispersant is and the oil itself, but we do know that both of those products are toxic and of course the concern about the dispersant is that it did its job. That it dispersed the oil, thus made it harder to collect, made it more pervasive and dissolved into the environment, but still not really any less toxic.

YELLIN: Let's talk about some of the other places you visited. I know you were in Alabama. What does it tell you that there are still tar balls washing up on the beach in Alabama?

COUSTEAU: Well the tar balls are a very visual example that this oil spill is largely out of sight but should not be out of mind. It still has an impact. There's still oil in the environment and we were also out in marshes with oystermen and shrimpers and looking at the impacts of this oil there.

You know, many people also don't realize that 40 percent of all the wetlands in the lower 48 states exist along the coast of Louisiana and those have been declining for decades. So it was already an impacted environment. And this oil spill just added insult to injury.

YELLIN: That's making a tough situation worse for some of those folks -- Philippe, thank you for continuing to cover this story for us, CNN special correspondent Philippe Cousteau from Grand Isle, Louisiana.

And stay with us to hear how the government's top environmental official responds to these concerns along the Gulf coast. For Lisa Jackson, it's personal. She grew up in Louisiana.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

YELLIN: We're looking ahead on this first anniversary of the explosion that started the Gulf oil spill. Now, we've just heard from our reporters along the Gulf Coast that they're still a lot of uncertainty about the impact of the oil that remains in the water and along hundreds of miles of coastline.

With us now to discuss this and more, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Lisa Jackson.

Administrator Jackson, thanks for being with us.

First, you had the president's Gulf restoration task force. But more than that, you're a Louisiana native. We've heard from struggling fishermen, seeing pictures of tar balls. How do you feel, seeing all this damage still a year later?

LISA JACKSON, EPA ADMINISTRATOR: Although we know there's still some oil in the system, we also know that, by and large, this response works to keep a lot of oil offshore. So I'm hopeful. I'm also mindful and I guess respectful of the loss of life, as well as the strategy and the changed livelihoods for so many people over the course of the last year.

YELLIN: OK. And we'll get to that. I know you're also still in the process of doing cleanup. But on the show, we just had incident commander during the Gulf oil spill, Thad Allen, on yesterday, and he told CNN that since we keep drilling in the Gulf, a spill like this could actually happen again. Your reaction to that?

JACKSON: You know, I don't believe in saying never. I think it's important to look at what the administration has done to tighten restrictions to ensure that we're ready if another tragedy happens. First, there was the moratorium on new drilling while we worked with the industry, as well as internally, to get our house in order to be able to review these applications and ensure that the latest technology was being used to prevent spills.

Remember, this all happened because of a blowout preventer that did anything but. YELLIN: Right.

JACKSON: I think we're in much better shape now because the industry has come together and realized that the continuation of this drilling, this deep offshore drilling, is dependent on people's belief that they're actually taking this seriously. And I think we are in better shape.

But I just don't believe we can say it will never happen. Certainly, I'm proud of the fact this administration took time to get it right.

YELLIN: OK, never say never. We talked a lot about almost 2 million gallons of chemical dispersant that were dumped into the Gulf right after the spill to break up all that oil. What do you -- what do you know about the long term effects of these dispersants on both the water and the food supply there?

JACKSON: We've had some reassuring news about the use of dispersants. I think it's pretty much commonly accepted that using dispersants was actually a good thing. It helped to break up the oil. It helped to keep it from the shallows. We think we would have seen a lot more of the beaches and marshes with a lot more oil.

When you think about 200 million gallons of oil, even though we see oil along the shorelines, I took a helicopter ride this morning, it's actually somewhat amazing how little made it to shore. And we think the dispersants helped with that.

Now, what's happening is trying to find out the state of both the oil and the dispersants. And we've reviewed thousands of samples internally. We see private scientists looking as well. And what we're seeing is a pattern, below health levels, below levels that hurt marine life, you can see oil and you can a trace of one of the chemicals in dispersant.

That needs to be monitored, Jessica, because I don't think it's fair for any of us to speculate -- we simply need to learn.

YELLIN: And on another environmental concern, NOAA has said that a vast majority of the oil there did evaporate or was dispersed or even eaten by organisms, microorganisms. We talked to an oceanographer with the University of Georgia who told CNN that, quote, with the dead dolphin, the dead sea turtles, the dead baby sharks -- this is a quote -- "I think the impacts on the system are much more serious than anyone's willing to admit or talk about," and I find that really disturbing.

Do you share that view?

JACKSON: No, I actually don't, because I haven't seen another effort or response that includes as much science and scientific data collection as what we're seeing here. Quite frankly, there's no reason for the government not to want to find out what has damaged the ecosystem, where -- currently, the government's working very hard on a plan to work with BP to get money and funding to restore the ecosystem. So, we need to know what happened.

What I think is important is that we are getting data and we're learning. But it may be years as we see how the ecosystem handles that much oil entering it. It was a significant volume of oil. We have to -- we have to watch that.

YELLIN: Right, you can't know how to react to something that's never happened before.

I wonder if this is the plan you're talking about. There's a lot of talk that state and federal officials are close to reaching an agreement on a major damage assessment for the spill. It's my understanding that would determine a lot about the costs and the future of cleanup. What can you tell us about this agreement?

JACKSON: Sure. So, after every big environmental release, there is a plan to assess and restore the natural resources that have been damaged as a result of that. Obviously, with the spill this large, with years and years worth of study and assessment needed, that's going to be a large damage assessment. The government has said all along that what we wanted to do was accelerate our response, maybe move some actions up earlier. And there's been real aggressive work to make sure that we do that, to show a downpayment, if you will, for the natural resource, for the restoration side of this cleanup. And that work is I think coming to fruition.

YELLIN: Are we on the cusp of that agreement?

JACKSON: I think we'll soon know whether or not we have some early actions that we can all take part in along the Gulf to restore it.

YELLIN: Administrator Jackson, thank you for being with us.

JACKSON: Jessica, thanks for having me.

YELLIN: And coming up: the latest news headlines, including more FAA traffic controllers fired today after sleeping on the job.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

A pair of top-notch war photographers are the latest casualties of Libya's civil war. American photographer Chris Hondros of the Getty photo agency died within a few hours of receiving a devastating brain injury. British-born photographer and Oscar-nominated director Tim Hetherington died earlier in the same incident in the western Libyan city of Misrata. We're told both men and some other photographers were hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says the Federal Aviation Administration has fired two air traffic controllers. One worked in Knoxville; the other, Miami. Airports in both cities reported incidents of controllers falling asleep on the job. A senior administration official tells CNN the first family plans to attend next week's launch of the space shuttle Endeavour, which is commanded by Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords husband Mark Kelly.

This morning, there was a natural gas explosion and a fluid spill in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, where crews were use ago relatively new procedure called fracking. That's where water, chemicals and sand are all injected into rock to dislodge natural gas. I asked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson about this when we spoke earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JACKSON: EPA has a responder heading out there to check out the situation, to determine just how much material has spilled. If enough material has spilled, that could be a hazardous release that triggers federal response.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: And word from the Pentagon today says prosecutors will seek the death penalty for the accused mastermind of the USS Cole bombing in 2000. He faces a military tribunal at the Guantanamo Bay prison. That bombing killed 17 sailors.

And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is condemning Syria's violent crackdown on anti-government protesters.

(INAUDIBLE)

YELLIN: In Syria today, anti-government demonstrators spread to the country's second largest city. A witness tells CNN several hundred people gathered in Aleppo and were attacked by security forces wielding sticks and batons.

CNN's Hala Gorani joins us from Cairo, Egypt -- where I know, Hala, you've been monitoring this. Tell us more about the protests and also what demonstrators are demanding.

HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, beyond protests in Homs where we saw thousands of people stage a sit-in, where we saw security forces fire on demonstrators according to eye witnesses we've spoken to -- the fact that the protests have spread to a city like Aleppo is very significant, because initially demonstrations started in the south of the country in Daraa. Aleppo is in the north.

Initially, demonstrators wanted reform. Right now, we're hearing them chant that they want the regime to fall. This again significant because the president, Bashar al-Assad has promised to lift the state of emergency, this widely loathed law that prevents people from gathering in public, that allows security forces to detain people without charge. And despite that, protesters are saying they don't trust the regime anymore and they plan on protesting in large numbers again throughout the country on Friday, Jessica.

YELLIN: Hala Gorani reporting from Cairo. And tonight, President Obama went looking for Facebook friends in person at Facebook. Stay with us for the latest on the president's trip to California.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, it's a good question and I'll be honest --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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YELLIN: President Obama is in for a busy night of fund-raisers in San Francisco, California. Earlier, he was the star attraction at a Facebook town hall meeting where none other than Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg asked the president to get specific about spending cuts. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK ZUCKERBERG, FACEBOOK FOUNDER: So, my question to kind of start off is: what specifically do you think we should do and what specifically do you think we can cut in order to make this all add up?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: After describing the details of the national debt, the most specific the president got was this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: We've already reduced the Pentagon budget by about $400 billion. We think we can do about another $400 billion.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: About another $400 billion.

OK. Joining us to talk about the politics of the president's answer and a little bit more, Republican strategist and senior adviser to Republican presidential, probably, candidate Mitt Romney, Rush Schriefer; and Democratic strategist Penny Lee. And also joining us from the White House lawn, CNN's senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry.

Ed, I'm going to start with you. They say where's the beef? I mean, where are the specifics in the president's proposal?

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, you've been hearing the White House say, look, we're going to kind of get to that. For now, it's a broad framework. And they're going to have Vice President Biden start work out the details in some meetings at the Blair House in early May.

But the bottom line is there's going to be this back-and-forth with the Republicans on the Hill about who's getting specific enough.

But the president has a more immediate problem which that Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate today, put out a statement saying, look, unless you get more specific, Republican votes will not be there in the Senate in order to push through lifting the debt ceiling, that you can't just put this broad framework on the table.

So, that is a problem for this White House politically moving forward because, you know, we can talk about deficit reduction for the next few months in terms of the long term debt. But in the short term, this White House has a political problem, lifting that debt ceiling. If they don't get more specific, Republicans are warning they're not going to have the votes for that.

YELLIN: And, Penny, clearly, the White House is playing a political game here -- let the Republicans go first with the details and then we'll swoop in and find the compromise solution. But is the president actually missing an opening here?

PENNY LEE, FORMER EXEC. DIR., DEMOCRATIC GOVERNORS ASSN.: I think he has seized it well. He did it last week. He started to do what he needed to do which was get specific.

And for the first time, we heard it, people were disappointed in the state of the union, granted, but now he is being able to show he can lead on this issue. It is tough. It is very, very difficult, what they're asking to do. It's never easy to take things away from people.

And instead, you always want to -- these are some very, very tough decisions and you're seeing in polling today -- you know, the American people want to talk about deficits. But when you say about specifics, 78 percent said don't touch Medicare, don't touch Medicaid, don't touch defense. There's nothing else left.

YELLIN: They like a solution but they don't want anything gone.

LEE: Absolutely.

YELLIN: So, Russ, is this a good opening for Mitt Romney? I mean, the economy is his wheelhouse.

RUSS SCHRIEFER, SENIOR ADVISER TO MITT ROMNEY: Sure. And I think last week you saw with the White House that their buzzword was a balanced vision I think what they wanted. This week is sort of a --

YELLIN: The trademark?

SCHRIEFER: Yes, the balanced vision for the future, winning the future. And I think this week, you know, we're going to -- we're going to look at a broad outline of what kind of cuts we want. But at some point, they're going to have to negotiate with specifics.

YELLIN: So, where's Romney on this? SCHRIEFER: Well, Romney stands with -- you know, with the House Republicans in making sure that we have -- we have cuts. He hasn't endorsed their cuts 100 percent, but he has endorsed much more their point of view and we'll be coming out in the next couple weeks and months with sort of his vision and his balanced vision for the weeks.

YELLIN: Week, weeks -- more like months, huh?

SCHRIEFER: Months.

YELLIN: OK.

SCHRIEFER: It's a long campaign.

YELLIN: Right. So, talk about a long campaign -- sucking up a lot of the airwaves and print is Trump and Palin. I mean, you cannot talk about the Republican presidential field without constantly talking about them these days. We're to blame in part.

But is this hurting more moderate candidates like Romney and Pawlenty?

SCHRIEFER: Well, listen, I think there's -- I mean, I think there's two different ways of looking at this. I think that there are some people saying, gee, there's not enough Republican candidates out there. And so, people are waiting for another Republican to get in the race.

But the other way to look at it is that there are a lot of Republican candidates out there. They are talking and getting a lot of exposure. And, you know, Governor Romney's position is the more, the merrier. You know, come on in, the water's fine.

YELLIN: Ed, is that the White House's position too, the more, the merrier, on the other side?

HENRY: Oh, absolutely. The more defuse this is, the more candidates to get in, the more confusion on the Republican side -- they obviously love that.

Now, months and months ago before some of this played out, in private, they were rooting for Sarah Palin. They think she's so polarizing, that they think the president would win pretty easily in a general election.

Now, they seem to be rooting somewhat for Donald Trump saying what he's out there talking about birther issues and other things -- at least in private, they think that's great for the president. The bottom line is, on the way out to San Francisco for that Facebook town hall meeting, they're playing the movie "The Social Network" on Air Force One --

YELLIN: They were?

HENRY: They were. They act really were for the media and for staff and whatnot. Now, once they start playing episodes of "The Apprentice," which I have not able to do yet, then you know they're scared of Trump, but not yet.

YELLIN: Give us the breaking news when it happens.

HENRY: I will.

YELLIN: Penny, I know you like to talk about Trump and Palin because Democrats salivate over that.

LEE: Absolutely.

YELLIN: But, I'm going to ask you something else, which is that an independent third party organization, a Democratic group, the House majority PAC, has come out with its first ad attacking some House Republicans. It sounds like a lot of gobbledygook.

But the reason I'm bringing it up is the president was going to town, attacking these shadowy third party groups taking all this corporate money in the last election. Now, they've got four new Democratic groups doing the same thing.

LEE: It's -- you know, campaign finance is something that does need to be reformed and we saw that with the decision that came down last year with the Supreme Court. There is way too much money in politics. But, you know, that, unfortunately, and the president will say, that's the cards that we've been dealt and we want to play a fair game. And so, that's what we have to do.

And until we reform the system, this is the system that -- this is what we are stuck with. So, yes, there is some hyperbole on both sides. There's hypocrisy on both sides because -- but this is a system we're in. And if they're going to compete, they have to compete to win. And these are the kind of tactics and things that need to get done.

YELLIN: Russ?

SCHRIEFER: There's always too much money in politics when it's being spent against you.

YELLIN: OK.

SCHRIEFER: So --

(LAUGHTER)

YELLIN: That's a good line. I should steal that.

We didn't get enough time with you guys. Pleasure to have you on. Thanks so much --

SCHRIEFER: Great. Thanks.

YELLIN: -- Russ, Penny. And Ed Henry at the White House, let us know when "Apprentice" is aired on Air Force One.

HENRY: Not yet. YELLIN: Next, we're going to look inside the sealed off area around the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. We have some incredible pictures to show you just after the break.

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YELLIN: The death toll from the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan is more than 14,000, with almost as many unaccounted for. For survivors, life as normal no longer exists. That's especially true for those who lived within the evacuation zone of the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant.

CNN's Stan Grant took his camera inside the once thriving, now abandoned evacuation zone.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STAN GRANT, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm now inside one of the houses in the exclusion. Now, this is a house that had to be deserted, not just because of the nuclear threat, but also because of the tsunami.

As you can see here, there is still so mud all over the floor, the carpet is still sodden, still wet. There's a very damp smell in the air. You can see just how quickly this family abandoned the house. The clothes are still hanging here in the wardrobe.

As you can se around here, all of the personal effects, even photographs, there's a photo through there as well -- just how quickly they had to leave.

And just walking through there, it's been the same sense wherever I've been in this village, just an eerie feeling of how there was once life and then nothing.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Nothing. That's all from us tonight.

"IN THE ARENA" starts now.