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JOHN KING, USA

Insurgents Attack Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul; Protests in Greece

Aired June 28, 2011 - 19:00   ET

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


JESSICA YELLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. I'm Jessica Yellin sitting in for John King.

We begin tonight with breaking news. A brazen and well coordinated attack by armed insurgents on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan. Attackers including suicide bombers stormed the hotel just a few hours ago.

Late word into CNN is that at least 10 people are dead. A coalition spokesperson reports that NATO helicopters fired on and killed three of the attackers who were on the roof top of that hotel.

CNN has confirmed that all the attackers there have been killed. The Taliban has claimed responsibility for today's hotel attacks sending a message to the United States military and the Afghan officials that they are still a viable force in Afghanistan.

The White House says that President Obama has been briefed on the violence. We are joined now on the phone by a journalist who is near the scene. We are not naming her for her own safety. Please tell us, what is the very latest there?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (via telephone): I'm on the scene now. It appears that the intercontinental hotel is on fire. It's quite a large fire. I just heard another explosion. It's unclear where the explosion came from or what it was.

It may indicate that the battle is not over. I continue to hear helicopters over the scene. There are ambulances across the road. It looks like things have deteriorated pretty quickly.

YELLIN: Can you describe for us the area where this attack happened?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The area is actually a quiet area. It is home to Afghans that have a long history of resisting the Taliban. It has a large square with some shops.

The Intercontinental is on a hill so it's partially -- it's sort of set back from the city. It's still inside Kabul proper, but a little bit removed from the center where the ministries and things like this are.

YELLIN: Tell us a little bit about the security of the hotel. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Normally there is heavy security at the hotel. Numerous check points. Not necessarily in your vehicle, but your person where your bag and your body are being checked. Security is very tight at the hotel normally. It's unclear how they were able to breach the security while carrying out the attack.

YELLIN: Finally, we are not naming you for your own safety. What does it feel like on the streets there right now? Give us a sense of the mood.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's extremely tense. The security forces are very nervous. They are running at cars, pointing their guns at the drivers of the cars, pulling them out of the vehicle to have them searched. It's very tense. Kabul at night is almost never safe, but right now things are extra tense.

YELLIN: All right, thank you for the report. Please stay in touch with us if news develops there further. Reporting live for us from Kabul.

This hotel was supposed to be the site of a news conference tomorrow to discuss the planned transition of security in the country from international forces to Afghan forces.

General David Petraeus, the jut going commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan has warned that the Taliban would try to stage attacks such as this.

Let's turn now to Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence. Chris, first, I understand two coalition helicopters attacked the gunmen on the roof of the hotel. What more can you tell us about this?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Jes. Basically, Major Tim James who was the spokesman for the coalition forces there in Kabul says that two of the coalition helicopters did engage with some of the enemy forces with some of those fighters who stormed the hotel directly on the roof.

Firing on them, on the roof and killing them there on the roof. He also tells us that about 20 Afghan soldiers entered that hotel from the ground floor and worked their way up to the hotel from the ground about 20 stories to start to clear the roof and make sure that things were secure there on the roof.

But again, yes, ISAF coalition forces called in for basically an air strike there in the middle of Kabul.

YELLIN: All right, let's talk about the attack itself. Chris, is it your sense this is likely a response to the news that President Obama, as we all know, has announced a drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan?

LAWRENCE: Well, I think sometimes we make those connections much like we say July 4th. Al Qaeda must be planning an attack because it's our holiday. President Obama made an announcement of a drawdown so this must be the Taliban response. It's more likely pegged to May, which is when the Taliban made their announcement of what they were calling their spring or summer offensive. That they were going to step up their attacks. This is probably the biggest attack on a hotel like this in about three years.

The Serena Hotel which is the primary hotel where a lot of foreigners gather faced a very similar attack, but this is not the first time the Taliban have done this. I was in Afghanistan about 1 1/2 years ago when the Taliban attacked the United Nations guest house.

We were just a block or two away when the Taliban literally shot the guards dead at the door, scaled the front gate and proceeded to set off grenades and kill about five United Nations workers inside that guest house.

YELLIN: All right, CNN's Chris Lawrence, thanks so much.

LAWRENCE: Yes.

YELLIN: Let's talk about the message the Taliban are sending here with CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen. Peter, first of all, Chris Lawrence said that we shouldn't read too much into this in terms of the timing and this is not a political response to President Obama's announcement that he is drawing down forces in Afghanistan. Do you agree?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, actually I think it is a message about the transfer of responsibility that President Karzai has announced of seven areas in Afghanistan that would go from U.S. NATO responsibility to Afghan security responsibility.

Kabul right now is the only place the Afghan security forces largely control. It's part of this transition in the drawdown of American troops that's supposed to take over full responsibility for Kabul. So this is the Taliban's way of saying we have a vote here.

That's the political message that's been sent. This hotel has been attacked. I've stayed there in the past. One of the reasons it hasn't been attacked in the past, Chris mentioned the Serena, which is downtown, which is really where most of the westerners are located.

Serena now is very, very heavily fortified. Intercontinental stands on a hill. It's pretty obvious - you know, if you approached it, it's very obvious if you're approaching it. I think its geographical location, which is quite far outside the main downtown of Kabul that sort of protected it, made it more less amenable to attack.

I think the Taliban probably have defaulted from doing another Serena attack, which they've done in the past to the Intercontinental because people haven't expected it quite as much there.

YELLIN: Then what does the sophistication of this attack tell us about the strength of the Taliban now? BERGEN: Well, you know, I mean, they've been able to mount these kinds of attack in Kabul on major government buildings, you know, the Ministry of Interior, police, sort of Ministry of Prisons, the Serena Hotel, other hotels. I mean, this is not uncommon.

On the other hand, you know, Kabul has been pretty relatively safe over the last several years. But then there is a spectacular attack like this, which of course, you know, makes everybody say, well, Taliban can do this.

They still operate more or less at will within the capital when they choose to. Don't forget, you know, they've tried to kill President Hamid Karzai on multiple occasions, you know, on the equivalent of their Independence Day.

YELLIN: You're saying this is status quo. This is how it's always been?

BERGEN: I don't think this is -- they've done these things before. It's a little embarrassing when we are talking about transferring control to the Afghan government. That is the point they are trying to make. That is something they have a vote in.

YELLIN: This comes at a time when the U.S. has admitted to being in talks with the Taliban. So is this a clear sign that the Taliban is not committed to peace in Afghanistan?

BERGEN: Yes, I think this is a little bit of a signal that somehow the talks are going to take a while.

YELLIN: OK. How much pressure is this going to put on NATO to get more involved?

BERGEN: Well, you know, NATO has sort of made its decision. I mean, the most important member of NATO, which is the United States has, you know, said that we are going to start drawing down.

The likelihood of NATO getting more involved I think is quite unlikely. Perhaps maybe a different way to look at it is this handover to Afghan security forces.

Let's see how they handle this Hotel Intercontinental incident. It sounds like they may be handling it well with some NATO support. But, you know, if - you know, this is in the capital.

If the Afghan security in the capital are showing to behave in a incompetent way as a result of this attack --

YELLIN: Incompetent?

BERGEN: Yes, incompetent. That would be, you know, NATO's plan we'll be looking at saying we are planning to hand over responsibility for a number of other cities over the next weeks and months. Is that necessarily wise?

So far as I can tell from the picture, the Afghan Security Services, they seem to be clearing the floors of this building and operating in a somewhat competent manner. So let's hope that's the case.

YELLIN: Right, disturbing news. Thanks so much, Peter. CNN's Peter Bergen.

This just in. The president will hold a news conference tomorrow in the east room of the White House at 11:30 tomorrow morning. CNN will carry it live.

Just ahead tonight, we will hear from Senator John McCain on the U.S. military's role in Libya and the debate over whether that activity falls under the War Powers Act.

And violence breaks out on the streets of Athens as Greece prepares to impose drastic economic austerity measures.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

YELLIN: Late this afternoon the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a joint resolution supporting limited use of U.S. military force against Libya for one year.

Earlier in the day, the administration told the committee the War Powers Act does not apply to U.S. military activity in Libya. That America's role in the mission is too limited in scope to fall under the law.

That argument did not sit well with many Republicans who maintain the War Powers Act does require President Obama to seek congressional approval within 60 days of deploying forces or end military action 30 days later. That 90-day period expired last week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENATOR RICHARD LUGAR (R), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: In this case, President Obama made a deliberate decision not to seek a congressional authorization of his action before he commenced or during the last three months. This was a fundamental failure of leadership that placed expedience above constitutional responsibility.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: We are joined now by Senator John McCain of Arizona who was one of the sponsors of the resolution expressing report for the action in Libya.

Senator, thank you for being with us. We just heard your colleague Dick Lugar say, the president placed experience above constitutional responsibility in the case of Libya. Is that fair?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I think to a certain degree it's fair, but it is what it is. It's clear that we are engaged in hostilities. I wish the president had come much earlier to Congress, not only or approval, but in consultation. But the fact is we cannot afford to have Moammar Gadhafi survive and we have to make sure that we continue this effort. I would like to have seen, obviously, more U.S. air essence, but I believe Gadhafi is crumbling.

If he stays in power, it's the end of NATO, it's a new terrorist threat that we face as well as crimes against his own people.

So the Foreign Relations Committee passed the resolution that Senator Kerry and I put forward. We hope to debate it and pass it on the floor of the Senate as soon as possible.

YELLIN: You clearly are expecting that this will advance and pass the Senate. But clearly, the larger Republican Party, the presidential candidates in your party are taking a much more isolationist view.

Their tone on the presidential campaign trail is somewhat different from the tone you're striking. Take a listen to some of what we are hearing out there. I'll ask you to react to it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JON HUNTSMAN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When you create a no fly zone and you're into that extent, that's an expense, that's a risk. If we are going to go that far, is it in our national security interest?

REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What possible vital American interest could we have to empower al Qaeda of North Africa and Libya? The president was absolutely wrong in his decision.

REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I wouldn't start a war in Libya. I'd quit bombing Yemen and I'd quit bombing Pakistan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: That was Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul. Today, Tim Pawlenty and other Republican contenders said, quote, "parts of the Republican Party now seem to be trying to outbid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments." Do you agree?

MCCAIN: Yes, I do. I think that there's been a tension with the Republican Party. One of my responses among many about our involvement in Libya is that, you know, after Rwanda we said never again.

Gadhafi's forces were at the gates of Benghazi, a city of 700,000 people and he promised that he would go house to house and kill anybody he thought opposed him. That's why, one of the reasons why we intervened.

Not to mention the blood of 90 some Americans as a result of bombing of 103. The fact that he has been involved in acts of terror and if he survived, he certainly would again so that and other reasons clearly indicate it is in the United States' national security interest.

Look, I think we could have gone in earlier. We could have gone in harder. We could have made sure that he was out of power earlier.

YELLIN: What do you attribute it to? Do you think it's pandering to political base?

MCCAIN: I think that there is an isolationist wing of our party. I understand the war-weariness of the American people are incredibly war-weary. I understand the economic issues are very important, you know, the expenditure of tax dollars.

By the way, the Transitional National Council of Libya have said they will reimburse us for our expenses incurred in assisting them. I understand that there is a segment of American, a big segment that says, look, stay out of everything.

I understand that. But as Secretary Gates said, if you want to retreat to fortress America then you're going to have to pay a very heavy price because they'll follow us home.

YELLIN: We've been talking about Libya, but I'm sure you've heard the late news today out of Afghanistan. In Kabul, there is an attack on the Intercontinental Hotel. Do you think the administration is doing the right thing by scaling back U.S. troops there in Afghanistan?

MCCAIN: I think it increases the risk dramatically. I hope that I am wrong. I hope that everything will work out all right. But I think it's important to recognize that there is no recommendation by any military commander to take this action just as there was no recommendation in 2009 to declare that there would be troops beginning to leave in 2011.

YELLIN: Turning to domestic politics. Today, Sarah Palin is taking a trip to Iowa and it generated a lot of buzz about her potential presidential ambitions.

Her daughter Bristol Palin said that her mom has definitely made a decision. She just haven't told us so I wonder what do you think it's going to be? Has she sought your advice?

MCCAIN: She has not sought my advice on this issue. I think if she runs, she will be a formidable candidate. As you know, I'm staying out of the primaries. I think it's only appropriate for me to do so. I think she would add a great deal to the competition.

YELLIN: Do you think she'll run?

MCCAIN: I don't know. I honestly don't know.

YELLIN: In your view, do you think she is just playing around with the media and the political world?

MCCAIN: Never. Would any politician ever do such a thing? Any politician you and I know ever do such a thing?

YELLIN: Yes, you're right. Tea Party Express Chairwoman Amy Kremer talking about another candidate in the field, Michele Bachmann, predicted that Michele Bachmann will be Palinized in this campaign, suggesting the media will tear her apart. Do you share that concern? Do you think that is a fair assessment of what media does to women in these races?

MCCAIN: I don't know and I probably shouldn't say, but I'm still saddened by the attacks that have been made on Sarah Palin and her family.

It's been like nothing I've ever seen. So I can understand why Michele Bachmann would think that could also happen to her. It is what it is. We are all big men and women and we should be prepared to take what comes.

YELLIN: Senator McCain, thank you so much for your time.

MCCAIN: Thanks for having me on.

YELLIN: Just ahead, weep update you on the deadly attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Taliban gunmen stormed the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul a few hours ago. The Afghan Interior Ministry said all the attackers have been killed. At this hour, the hotel is on fire.

The International Monetary Fund has chosen a new managing director. She is Christine Lagarde, Finance Minister of France. Lagarde replaces Dominique Strauss-Kahn who resigned following allegations he sexually assaulted a hotel maid.

And Pope Benedict XVI has joined the world of Twitter. Today, he sent out his first tweet announcing the launch of a new Vatican web site.

Up next, thousands of protesters in Greece angry about severe economic austerity measures clashed with riot police on the streets of Athens. Our reporter and crew got caught in the middle of the melee.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As you can see there is quite a lot of fighting going on between protesters and -- it's kicking off around that corner.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) YELLIN: Clashes outside the parliament building in Athens, Greece today between riot police and thousands of angry demonstrators. With Greece on the brink of economic collapse, they were protesting severe belt-tightening measures that will impose tax increases and spending cuts, which will lead to job losses.

Greek law makers are set to vote on the austerity package tomorrow. CNN's Diana Magnay is in Athens tonight. Diana, I know they are rough conditions out there for you. So thank you for being with us.

I want to ask you if the Greek parliament does not pass the austerity measures, then what?

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, as far as the protesters go, that will be a victory for them. As far as Europe and possibly the health of the global financial world goes, it could look very dicey.

There is this fear of contagion in peripheral countries of Europe, Portugal, Spain, and Italy. Investors could stop putting their money that they wouldn't be able to pay their debt. And of course, what the protesters don't realize is that possibility of bankruptcy here in Greece, which is basically what's on the cards because if the austerity package doesn't get voted through, the E.U. and the IMF say they couldn't give Greece the money it needs (INAUDIBLE), lots of people don't expect.

If that happens, thing could be very ugly in Greece, too. People could feel austerity like they haven't felt even to this point. So, salaries wouldn't be paid. There would be a run on the banks.

You know, the consequences of this really are staggering and probably far worse on that road, if you travel down there for the Greek people, then it does actually pass this vote on Wednesday in parliament -- Jessica.

YELLIN: There's a lot of anxiety we know there. and desperation on the streets.

Would you describe for us a little bit of what you're going through? I know the media is being targeted right now. And you and your camera crew got caught up in some violence today.

MAGNAY: We did. It's interesting, because I was here this time a year ago when the first austerity bailout was pushed through. There were similar demonstrations, similar strikes. But camera crews weren't particularly specifically targeted.

This time around we have been. Protestors have these green laser pens which they've been using pointing at all the camera crews around the square and there are many, but also on the streets. A lot of crews have been targeted by protestors. And today, we were running away from a cloud of tear gas and some man came up to, Joe, my cameraman, punched him in the face, kicked him down on the floor, tried to break his camera. Luckily, both survived intact. But it's really indicative of the fact protestors feel that the press has cast them in a negative light, or in fact, Greece in a negative light internationally over the past year, as this sort of scapegoat of Europe that couldn't pay back its debt. So, now, everyone else is suffering. And they don't like to be cast in that light, Jessica.

YELLIN: Well, I know. We were speaking earlier and you feel the sting of the tear gas there. So, please take care of yourself and thank you for reporting for us through this.

Diana Magnay, from Athens, thank you for that report.

Now for more perspective, we're joined by CNN's Richard Quest, also in Athens.

Richard, Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann says the domino effect of the Greek financial crisis could eclipse that of Lehman Brothers here in the U.S. How realistic is that?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think you've got to look at what Ackermann was saying. He wasn't saying that Greece in itself is so big or important that it would cause the effect.

What he is suggesting is if Greece goes then the question becomes who is next? Who else is weak? Where is the counterpart you risk, as they say, throughout the financial system?

Yes, we had a year to work out who has the Greek debt. We know it's French banks. We know it's German banks. We know that they've issued paper in the U.S. market.

So, we've got a pretty good idea the depth and integrity of the Greek debt.

What we don't know are the derivatives -- the credit default swaps, what would happen if Portugal went or Ireland or Spain? And that's what Ackermann is talking about.

Remember, when Lehman went, it was the shock and surprise that really caused the damage. People were literally looking over their shoulder saying who is next and who is good on their debts?

YELLIN: A different story.

You know what, on the campaign trail here in the U.S., you'll hear candidates say often Greece is in trouble now because of their debt. If the U.S. doesn't fix its debt, soon we'll follow Greece's footsteps. What lessons, if any, does the Greek crisis hold for the U.S.?

QUEST: Well, it's not just the level of debt that's important. Let's get that straight out of the way. It's also the exchange rate. It's interest rate. It's the competitiveness.

I mean, the U.S. is extremely a competitive environment. This place has been living on borrowed money and not making their own ends meet.

Now, I think what they are talking about is, eventually, the old phrase, it's time to pay the piper.

And what the U.S. is learning, of course, is you can only raise the debt ceiling long and hard enough before the markets say, what's your plan to cut borrowing? We know it is not going to happen now. We know the deficit will remain high. That's for the foreseeable. But have you got a plan?

And, of course, when you get the posturing between the Republicans and Democrats that you've got at the moment, literally playing with fire with the debt ceiling -- that's one of these stun grenades that's going off here. You haven't got that in other places.

But the warning signs are very clear. When you have high budget deficits, Jessica, there has to be a plan to reduce them. And what the U.S. at the moment doesn't have is that plan.

YELLIN: Right. Very different scenarios. But the comparison is clear, as you point out.

Is there any end in sight at this crisis at all?

QUEST: Yes, very different but the same solitary warning. You have to deal with the problems when they arise. And what's happened in the U.S. has crystallized.

Look, just over to the right, there is a Greek parliament that's at this hour is debating austerity cuts. And they know if they don't vote for those cuts, the E.U. and IMF could cut them off, the country could default, and it could be bedlam and chaos, disorderly markets.

Now, how different is that to a Republican and a Democratic negotiating with the president, Congress and the White House with a debt ceiling that's just about at the very roof of where it's going? OK, different numbers and I'm sure there'll be viewers who will say, Richard, it's a world of difference.

But in either case, the specter of default hangs large and looms big. And that, of course, is the message that really comes from places like Greece.

YELLIN: Well, stay safe, Richard, and thank you for reporting. Richard Quest for us from Athens.

Up next: Sarah Palin's not a presidential candidate but she is in Iowa tonight, stealing the limelight from the declared GOP candidates.

Also, Michele Bachmann wasting no time hammering home one of her campaign themes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think perhaps we should take some of those obesity programs coming out of Washington and apply it to Washington.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

YELLIN: Sarah Palin is in Iowa tonight to attend a movie premiere. But it's not just any movie. The film is called "The Undefeated" and it offers a positive portrait of her life and career.

CNN's Joe Johns is in Pella, Iowa, tonight.

And, Joe, give us a sense of what the scenes are like at that premiere. I bet it's a zoo.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, Sarah Palin came here to the Pella Opera House accompanied by her husband, signed a few autographs -- pretty good size crowd, sort of a movie premiere in Pella, Iowa, if you can imagine that. Came inside -- inside, organ music, very patriotic scene at first, and then they started this film.

It was not an overly enthusiastic crowd, I can tell you. It's not clear who all the people were and how they got tickets. But, for example, the woman sitting in front of me said she worked in the mayor's office or whatever and had a role in putting all of this together.

So, you know, it's what you would imagine in Iowa this time of year. A movie premiere certainly doesn't happen much and certainly doesn't happen with Sarah Palin, Jessica.

YELLIN: So, I haven't seen this movie. But we've heard a lot about it. There's been some big buildup. Did you get to see any of the movie?

JOHNS: I did. I got to see a part of it, and then I had to come out and be on TV. Quick version is --

YELLIN: Sorry.

JOHNS: -- it's not going to change any minds among the people who are haters or whatever. People who don't like Sarah Palin probably aren't going to start liking her once they see the movie. However, it seems like a pretty effective tool to lay out her narrative should she choose to run about her connection with social conservatives and her reasons for running.

One example, the Exxon Valdez, apparently, is the thing that got her into politics, Jessica.

YELLIN: All right. Well, I have a feeling we all have a chance to hear a lot more about the movie in the days and weeks to come. Thanks so much, Joe Johns -- reporting for us from Iowa.

JOHNS: You bet.

YELLIN: Sarah Palin was not the only one in Iowa today. President Obama was there, as well. And the race for the White House is on.

So, where do the candidates and non-candidates, like Sarah Palin, stand thus far?

Joining us: Chip Saltsman, former presidential campaign manager for Mike Huckabee. He is Nashville. And here in Washington, D.C., Democratic strategist Jennifer Palmieri, senior vice president with the Center for American Progress, and our own chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

Chip, let's start with you. I know that we're still more than 200 days away from the Iowa caucuses. But never too soon to start.

What kind of message do you think Sarah Palin is sending to Iowa voters by debuting her movie in their state?

CHIP SALTSMAN, FORMER HUCKABEE PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN MANAGER: Well, I think, the first message is I'm relevant, I'm in the game. I want to be part of the conversation.

You take her being in Pella, Iowa, today in a red carpet treatment, Hollywood premiere-type thing and what she did in New Hampshire with Mitt Romney's announcement. She is going to be part of this conversation. She's going to interject herself in this conversation, and the media is going to cover it because they can't help themselves.

So, the biggest thing or the message I get tonight is Sarah Palin wants to be part of the 2012 conversation and she is.

YELLIN: I don't think --

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: That's really different from running, though, right, Chip? I mean, do you think she's going to run? I mean, being part of the conversation is a different thing.

SALTSMAN: I think that's right. I don't think she will run. But if she does, she's certainly trying to do it a completely different way. I mean, you know, most people are doing door-to-door and small coffees at people's houses, and she has a red carpet premiere in Pella. So, maybe we did it wrong four years ago, but if we did, maybe shame on us.

YELLIN: Well, it's true, the media can't help themselves quietly clearly, as we're evidencing here.

BORGER: No, we can't and I'm -- nor should we, honestly. I mean, she shows up somewhere, it's news, right? Why shouldn't we cover it?

(CROSSTALK)

JENNIFER PALMIERI, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: It's very un- Iowa to show up to premiere a movie about yourself in Iowa, right? But we all know a little bit of the Iowa caucus-goers. That's not what they are looking for.

YELLIN: It's a movie made by a filmmaker her.

PALMIERI: It's about here. You come to Iowa. It's very Sarah Palin.

YELLIN: There is someone else making a non-political political trip to Iowa today and that is President Obama. He visited a manufacturing plant saying it's not about politics. But this time, going to Iowa is always about politics.

So, let me ask you, Jennifer, first of all, let's listen to what he had to say on his trip today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know you've been seeing a lot of politicians around lately. Something tells me that you may see a few more before February is over. But, Iowa, you and I, we go a long way back.

And those of you who are coming over from Illinois side, we go even longer back. So, we've got some history together. And, together, we'll make more history for years to come.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: Of course, his primary victory in Iowa is what was the spring board to his nomination. What will be his message to win in Iowa next year if he's going to -- given how the Republicans will saturate it up until then?

PALMIERI: Well, I think, you see, there's like, there's sort of by a proxy war happening right now. American Crossroads came up last week, Ads hitting Obama and the economy. Tomorrow, Priorities USA, another outside Democratic-funded group is coming up with ads on the economy.

And, you know, if the Obama re-election was a referendum on the economy, that would be a big problem. But it's going to be a choice. And I think the point that they are trying to make is that this choice is between Obama, who is saying the middle class is seeing economic growth and the Republican candidates, all of whom support the Ryan plan.

You know, people are so focused on Michele Bachmann, so conservative, and Mitt Romney is a moderate. Mitt Romney said he would sign the Ryan plan into law.

BORGER: But Obama doesn't want this election to be about him. He wants this election to be about the choice that --

(CROSSTALK)

PALMIERI: It is a referendum on -- if it's a referendum on the economy, it's a problem for him. BORGER: Both. I think both.

SALTSMAN: But the re-election of a president is about the president.

BORGER: Right.

SALTSMAN: The re-election by the president is about him. It will be about the economy. It will be about what he's done over the last four years. And if you look at four years ago, unemployment is up. Gas prices up, prosperity is down.

I mean, Obama is going to have to defend that. And he's going to have a hard time. And that's why he's in Iowa today because it is the political season.

YELLIN: Not if the Democrats can help it. They're going to try to make this campaign about the Republicans and not about the president's record.

PALMIERI: It is about a choice. Fundamentally, that is what it's about, it's about what Obama would be versus the Republicans.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: In the mid terms when he said things would have been worse had I not -- he wasn't on the ballot.

YELLIN: Gloria, let me ask you about the candidate surging right now or getting a lot of our attention.

BORGER: Today.

YELLIN: Today, I know. Next, it could be a different story.

Michele Bachmann -- she just held her first event in South Carolina. She says she plans to compete everywhere in every state. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BACHMANN: We want to win South Carolina. We want to win New Hampshire. We want to win Iowa. We want to win Hawaii.

And we think there is a certain Hawaiian resident that maybe should go back to Hawaii. Should we help him fill out his change of address form today?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PALMIERI: Was she just admitting he was born in this country? She is trying to clean up the record on that. That was intentional.

YELLIN: I think so.

PALMIERI: She is walking back. He was anti-American, now he is patriotic, he is a Hawaiian resident. She's cleaning herself up.

YELLIN: Gloria, do you think Democrats would view a Bachmann nomination as a secret gift?

BORGER: Yes. I think -- I think they would because the thing about Michele Bachmann that we've seen in these first few days on the campaign trail is that she's undisciplined. She has said a lot of things and misspoken. She has to take them back. Her record is thinner than a lot of people thought.

Republicans say the problem with Barack Obama is that he didn't have enough experience to be president of the United States, then running a candidate with not a lot of experience is probably a problem for the Republican talking points, I would think.

YELLIN: Chip, last question to you, you know, Bachmann's former chief of staff Ron Carey, who was also the former chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, wrote an op-ed in "The Des Moines Register" criticizing his former boss and complimenting one of her rivals. He said that, "Having seen the two of them up close and over a long period of time, it is clear to me that while Tim Pawlenty possesses the judgment, demeanor and readiness to serve as president, Michele Bachmann decidedly does not."

So, is Iowa a race between Bachmann and Pawlenty at this point?

SALTSMAN: Well, I think Bachmann is certainly surging in Iowa. She's doing well in the polls. And she fits Iowa really well.

Pawlenty is having a hard time getting started there. I know Ron. He's a good guy. But he's endorsed Pawlenty. He's for Pawlenty.

And I put this more in the political operative supporting a guy he supports and taking a shot at somebody else and other political opponent.

And I would take this message to the Democrats. Be careful what you wish for. We wished for a guy named Bill Clinton to be the Democratic nominee in 1992 and he cleaned our clocks. So, be careful what you wish for out there.

Michele Bachmann is smart. She's a great communicator. She talks directly to the people and she's somebody that can inspire a big base out there. Independents are likely to vote for her.

YELLIN: Be careful what you wish for.

All right. Thanks to all of you for being with us tonight. I think this --

BORGER: Not so sure about independents.

YELLIN: We'll continue this conversation for some time to come.

And you won't want to miss the end of this show, we have good news to break. So, stay tuned find out just why John King is not here tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

YELLIN: Severe flooding in the middle of the country has raised concerns about the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant in Nebraska. The plant is surrounded by as much as two feet of water from the swollen Missouri River. Officials say the flooding has not breached key buildings at the complex and they're quick to say the situation has no comparison to the flooding this spring at the devastated Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.

CNN's Brian Todd is at that plant in Nebraska now.

Brian, what is being done right now to protect this nuclear power plant?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jessica, they put up several barriers at some of the key buildings, around some of the key buildings here -- specifically, the buildings housing the reactor core and the spent fuel rods. They put up small levees. They put sand berms. They also put up aqua berms around the buildings.

But part of the problem there was one of the aqua berms was punctured a couple of days ago, that let in more floodwater. So, the system is not foolproof. They also got water pumps around the area, siphoning some of the water out.

But, again, puncture of the aqua berm kind of exposed some weaknesses in their system here and they had to scramble to contain that. Still, they say that no real leakage of any substance has gotten into those key buildings, but they're monitoring it very closely, Jessica.

YELLIN: The plant, though, has had safety issues in the not too distant past, hasn't it?

TODD: It has. Just three weeks ago, an electrical fire knocked out of the some cooling system for some of the spent fuel storage pools here, and the -- they had to go to a backup system for about 90 minutes. They say that the water didn't get to a boiling point before the backup systems kicked in. So, they were able to head off that situation.

But it's more of an ongoing thing as well. Two years ago, this facility was cited by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for not being adequately prepared for just such an emergency like this one. Officials here say they've upgraded their safeguards since then. And they say that federal officials were very pleased when they came through here Monday and saw how they were handling it.

YELLIN: All right. Brian Todd in Nebraska -- thank you, Brian.

Let's get some perspective now on the safety of nuclear power plants in the U.S. and look at some possible worst case scenarios.

We're joined by nuclear safety advocate Arnie Gundersen. Arnie, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the situation at Ft. Calhoun is under control, that this will not be a repeat of what we saw in Japan. In your view, case closed?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN, NUCLEAR SAFETY ADVOCATE: Well, sandbags and nuclear power shouldn't be put in the same sentence, but it is a lot better than Fukushima. The real reason why is, they were shut down in April and their management decided not to start them back up.

Now, nuclear atoms split, and these split pieces give off a lot of heat. But after two months, there's not anywhere near as much heat.

So, to compare it to Fukushima is wrong. It's a real problem, but it's not a Fukushima level problem at all.

YELLIN: We're looking at pictures right now -- I don't know if you can see them. But when you take a look, are you already concerned about the emergency pumps possibly flooding? I mean, they are covered in water. What happens after that?

GUNDERSEN: Well, I think the focus has been on those two big buildings. The auxiliary building and the containment. Really, it's not those buildings I'm concerned about.

There's a little building out by the water and it's called the intake structure. And in there is an emergency service water pump. That's the pump that cools the nuclear fuel. So, it's important that that building not flood any more because if the emergency service pumps get flooded, they won't be able to cool that nuclear reactor.

YELLIN: OK. Now, Ft. Calhoun as you point out, it's been shut down since April. Then there's Cooper Nuclear Plant, which is about 90 miles south of Ft. Calhoun, it's a different story.

So, why are you more concerned about Cooper?

GUNDERSEN: Well, Cooper's still running, and again, those pieces -- if Cooper were to shut down now, the heat produced would be 100 times more than the heat at Ft. Calhoun, a lot more heat to get rid of.

Now, it's also the identical reactor to Fukushima. It's a boiling water reactor, just like it.

If I were the management of Cooper, I'd really think about shutting down so that you get ahead of the problem, so that there's less of those decayed products to generate heat.

YELLIN: Do you have any immediate concern for the people who are living nearby?

GUNDERSEN: You know, short of an upstream dam failure, I think they'll ride this one out. If an upstream dam were to fail, all bets are off. So, I think the key is to keep an eye on the upstream dams.

YELLIN: Now, if you were consulting a team at Ft. Calhoun and Cooper right now, what advice would you give them?

GUNDERSEN: Well, Ft. Calhoun, you know, they got taken to the woodshed about 18 months ago and have made a lot of modification since. Now, why the NRC waited 30 years to do that is a question.

But, right now, with the modifications they've made and being shut down for two months, I don't really think they can do much more except wait and hope the water doesn't get high.

Down at Cooper, though, my advice would be to shut down now and ride it out.

YELLIN: All right. Arnie Gundersen, thank you so much. Let's hope all goes well there and continues as it has.

GUNDERSEN: Thanks for having me.

YELLIN: And before we leave tonight, we have some breaking news in the CNN family. Some good breaking news.

John King and Dana Bash welcomed a son into the world today. The family is happy and healthy and we'll have you note that the newest addition for the CNN family arrived in time to watch his dad's show. We are all so happy, we wish them all the very best. We couldn't be more excited for them.

That is all from us tonight.

"IN THE ARENA" starts right now.