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Chaos in the Middle East; High Stakes Showdown

Aired February 18, 2011 - 19:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks, Candy, and good evening everyone. Tonight from Los Angeles, this day was a day that boiled with the most widespread anti-government protests we've yet seen across the Middle East and North Africa. Look at this map. In Bahrain the day began with funerals, then protest rallies and finally shooting. CNN's Arwa Damon was right there in the middle of the crowd when the gunfire started.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Willing to die for this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely. That's why I'm here. There is something wrong for dying for our country or for our rights (INAUDIBLE).



KING: You hear that gunfire there. Well reports from Bahrain say at least four people died, many more are wounded. Protesters by the tens of thousands clash with authorities in Libya's northeastern city, the coastal city of Benghazi. An eyewitness tells CNN's Ben Wedeman 70 people died there. And Libyan tanks are watching over some 50,000 people camped out at the city's main courthouse. Despite a call by calm from the top cleric in Yemen, anti-government protesters took to the streets after Friday prayers.

A hand grenade lobbed into one crowd killed at least one person and is said to have wounded 43. President Obama traveling out here on the west coast put out a statement saying he's quote, "deeply concerned" and he called on the governments of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen to show restraint and to respect what the president called their people's quote, "universal rights to peaceful assembly".

And there were peaceful assemblies today. Cairo's Tahrir Square or Liberation Square filled with a flag waving drum beating crowd celebrating one week since President Hosni Mubarak fled. Egypt's military though warned again tonight these demonstrations must stop it said so that the country's economy can get moving again.

Protesters also marched today in Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq and Iran, although the crowd in Tehran on this day was a pro-government demonstration. Let's get the very latest now on the tense situation in Bahrain, a tiny island kingdom situated in a crucial spot in the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Iran and home to a big U.S. military installation. Our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson live in Bahrain's capital -- Nic, what's the latest?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well John, the latest is the peace initiative from the crown prince. The king has handed the crown prince authority to negotiate with all parties here. He's called for a period of calm. He's appeared on a popular chat show here saying that the country is at a crossroads and that we need -- the country needs a period of pause of reflection but one of the main Shia opposition parties here have said they won't get into talks with him until the army is taken off the streets.

Behind the scenes I'm told by Bahrainian officials that that's not going to happen unless some concessions are made on the part of the protesters. So the initiative is out there but it's not going very far at the moment it appears, but it is a positive sign amidst growing tensions on the streets. We've seen today that intense conflict between the protesters and the police. We were there right when it happened.

Tear gas canisters were fired over our heads, over the heads of the crowds. People there literally running for their lives. Right now it's a stalemate. The police have pushed their (INAUDIBLE) out. The protesters have disappeared into the back alleyways and at the moment the police have firm control over that area -- John.

KING: And Nic, we heard the gunfire today, so obviously the violence continues. Some of the death continues. You were in the middle of it in Egypt, so help me if we can make a comparison. The Mubarak regime did try several days in to say please stop the demonstrations. Let's open a dialogue and in Egypt the answer was flat out no.

The protesters gave the government no credibility and they stayed in the streets. What is the sense in Bahrain? Are the protesters willing to talk or has that time passed for them?

ROBERTSON: You don't get the sense here that the protesters are at the same point that the protesters were in Egypt. They're not as enraged. They're not as organized. They're facing a different police force. In Egypt we looked to policemen on that fateful day when the policemen were beaten off the streets. They didn't look strong.

They were young boys in riot gear carrying sticks and shields and tear gas. The police here are entirely different. Not all of them are Bahraini. They are far more prepared to use force against the people here on the streets. They are much bigger. They are much tougher. They are much more manly. They are much more aggressive and ready to use action force, so there are big differences.

And the crowds here are not as big as we saw in Egypt either. So the confrontation doesn't match between the two countries, if you will. It seems to me that the government still has the firm hand here and they know it and they are exercising it. It doesn't mean to say they're going to win though, John. KING: Important context there from Nic Robertson, our senior international correspondent in the middle of it in Bahrain. Thanks, Nic. We'll keep in touch.

Now to Cairo where our senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman is keeping tabs on both today's demonstrations there in Cairo and the dangerous situation developing nearby in Libya. Ben, let's start with Libya, a very difficult place to get information. A more closed society from where you are in Egypt now, but what do we know?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we know is that basically the eastern part of the country around the city of Benghazi and the city of Bada (ph) is basically in an uprising against the government of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi. We understand that in Benghazi that there are as many as 50,000 protesters who are camping out in front of the main courthouse there. One source in Benghazi telling me that the police and the army are simply staying in their barracks, not going out with the exception of three Libyan army tanks, which are in front of that courthouse.

And in that case we're being told that the protesters are actually in a dialogue with the crews of those tanks. I spoke to one man who said he went to the Algella (ph) hospital, the main hospital in Benghazi. He said that it's full of dead and wounded, he said as many as 70 dead. However, what we're hearing is that the death toll from demonstrations in Benghazi beginning Tuesday is more like 50.

But it's very difficult to pin things down. We've got a big team here working the phones for hours today trying to get some very basic information out of Libya. It is one of the most if not the most repressive Arab regime so very hard to get information, but what we are getting, as I said, indicates that there is an uprising at least in the eastern part of the country -- John.

KING: And Ben, in Egypt the military saying the demonstrations must stop so that the economy can get back to business, if you will, even though today was a peaceful demonstration marking one week since Hosni Mubarak stepped down. Is there tension? Are the demonstrators pushing back against the military or are they having a -- shall I say, a productive dialogue?

WEDEMAN: Well, it appears that the dialogue between the military and the protest movement is at the moment cordial. But what I picked up in the square is a certain amount of impatience with the military's slow pace at implementing the political reforms. Some people telling me that they would like to see Field Marshal Tantawi, the head of the defense minister and the head of the higher military council to step down and be replaced by somebody who is not tainted by years of service with the Mubarak regime.

However, the atmosphere in Tahrir today was nothing but festive really. We -- there was like a concert going on down there for hours, in fact just until about an hour ago we were hearing constant fireworks from there. Very much the Egyptians I'd say celebrating the fact that they were able to overthrow Hosni Mubarak. We haven't really gotten to the point where tensions really start to surface between the military and the protest movement -- John.

KING: Ben Wedeman in Cairo. Ben thanks so much. And joining us from Washington for some perspective Nicholas Burns, the former U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, now a professor at Harvard, and Ken Pollack, he's the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and the author of "A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East".

Gentlemen, I want to spend several minutes -- I want to get your perspective here and then in the next -- our next block about what's happening, but I want to start right now by zeroing in, Nic Burns to you first, on Bahrain. Because of its strategic importance to the United States, when you hear people killed two days in a row in Bahrain, you hear Nic Robertson saying there, there seems to have been a lesson learned -- this regime learning a lesson from Egypt getting the police into the street quickly and using force and proving it will continue to use force. What does that tell you about the regime's stability or nervousness?

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE: It tells me they are very nervous, John, because you have a situation where this minority Sunni-led government faces a majority Shia population that's very upset. They haven't had access to power. They haven't had jobs. They haven't had many rights in Bahrain and now they seize -- they think they have an opportunity based on what happened in Tunis and in Cairo.

And I think that the administration, our administration here in the United States was absolutely correct in supporting the right of those people to demonstrate peacefully and in criticizing the clearly excessive use of force by that government of Bahrain over the last two days. The key question is, is that government going to learn from the mistakes of Hosni Mubarak? Will they open up a line of communication that's meaningful to these reformers? We haven't seen that yet. In fact, we have seen the iron fist. I think that might be a major strategic mistake by this government.

KING: Well Ken Pollack, I want to bring you in, but first I want you to listen because the Bahraini government has been getting tough words from the Obama administration. I want you to listen here to Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al Zayani. He's the new special enjoy talking about how his king in Bahrain values the relationship with the United States and hopes, hopes this can be resolved.


ABDUL LATIF BIN RASHID AL ZAYANI, BAHRAINI SPECIAL ENVOY TO U.S.: This relationship we really value and the king is really committed to democracy. Democracy is a trip that we have started. We have heard this along the way. I think it's about time that we go over this hurdle and go for a better future.


KING: Well two points there, Ken, and I want you to comment. Number one, when they say democracy is a trip we have started, all of the regimes have been saying that for the past decade or so and they take two steps forward, one step back, one step forward, two steps back. I don't think there are many people in Bahrain, and certainly those protesters who think they have a growing and a more open democracy than they did two or three years ago.

That's one point I want you to weigh in on. But number two, this is a regime where the administration publicly of course is condemning violence and saying people should have the right to demonstrate. But let's be honest. The Obama administration, no U.S. government wants the current regime to fall and the Shiite majority to take over, do they?

KEN POLLACK, SABAN CENTER, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Right. I think these are two very important points. First, with regard to the promise that the king has made, there's no question that about 10 years ago everyone was very hopeful that the king was truly committed to democracy. He did take some important steps then creating a parliament making some very important promises.

Unfortunately the Bahraini people have seen nothing since then. And we ought to keep in mind that this rioting has been going on pretty regularly ever since then because the Bahraini people feel so disappointed in that. And you're also right. It's an important point to understand that a lot of what's going on in the region in Libya, in Bahrain, in Yemen is that some of these deeper underlying conflicts in Bahrain is between Shia and Sunni. In Libya it's between Saranika (ph) and Joust (ph) and the Libyan regime.

In Yemen it's north and south. It's tribal. It's al Qaeda versus the government. These deeper and longer seeded conflicts are now getting wrapped in to this general animosity between the populations and the regimes, which has been triggered by Tunisia and Egypt. So you've got a lot of different things going on and just to bring it back to your last question about the United States, you're absolutely right.

The U.S. has a lot of interest with Bahrain. And we should also remember that behind the government of Bahrain is the government of Saudi Arabia. It is the Saudis who are saying to the Bahrainis crack down, crack down now. We do not want to see the Shia in power. And the most important thing out there is this tough U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.

On the one hand, we don't want to see a crackdown in Bahrain. On the other hand, we don't want to get crosswise with our most important allies in the Persian Gulf, the Saudis.

KING: Excellent point there. Ken and Nic are going to stay with us. As we go to break, take a look at that map again if we can put that up and show. Here's the question we deal with one week after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. As we see these other demonstrations across the region, will they be as successful as Egypt? Will they topple a regime and if not, what will they matter? How will they matter? We'll be right back.


KING: We're back with diplomat Nic Burns, academic Ken Pollack. Let's -- gentlemen I want to focus now on where are we one week after the fall of Hosni Mubarak and if you look at that map and you see the flashing circles, protests in Libya, in Yemen, in Iran, in Bahrain, elsewhere in the region. Nic, to you first, do you see the likelihood on this day of another regime falling or just the politics changing because of the protests? Is regime change likely in any of these other places?

BURNS: I think that's very hard to say. Obviously the government is most at risk right now is the government of Bahrain because they have been facing these massive protests and they've used very tough force to respond to them. You also have to look at Egypt because the Egyptian reformers are beginning to become very frustrated one week out that there isn't really a meaningful dialogue under way between reformers and the Egyptian government and then as Ken talked about, you have these tribal based differences in Yemen.

You have this outbreak of violence and a very tough government pushback in Benghazi and Libya. We're seeing an unprecedented wave of reform in the Middle East and it's very important to us. I would say, John, that most of us would say that the Middle East right now is the most vital region in the world for the United States. It certainly has the most dangers that we face. And we've got to react to this in a very sophisticated way because it's so highly complex.

So I do think the right place for America is to continue to support the right of these people to reform, but we want to see stability. Because we have so many interests tied up with stability and stability might mean evolutionary (ph) reform, a process launching in Egypt to organize elections, to organize a constitutional government, in Bahrain to open up a dialogue and if these Arab leaders refuse to do that, and if all they do in these countries is to put down these protests with violence, I think we're likely to see further unrest, therefore complicating further the American position.

KING: I guess, Ken Pollack, the question is it too late? Even if all of these regimes suddenly said you know you're right. We've been wrong for 10, 20 or 200 years in some cases and we're going to actually reach out and have a dialogue with our people, is it too late? Have they lost the credibility with the people who in many of these places are risking their lives and in some cases losing their lives to make their political views known?

POLLACK: Well John, Nic is absolutely right. We're in a revolutionary situation. Revolutionary situations are inherently unpredictable. And an action that can be smart in other set of circumstances can prove to be completely foolish in the midst of a revolution. That said you know the history of revolutions is that people don't like to revolt. People will hang their hat on any degree of hope.

If they believe that their government understands their problems and is willing to try to change things to address their grievances people will avoid revolting. They will sit tight. They will see what happens and that can go on for decades and decades. And I think Nic is absolutely right that gradual change is the right alternative to what we're seeing because we've got to remember that while we may look at Egypt and say god this is wonderful. The Egyptian people have achieved what they -- exactly what they wanted.

First, it's not over in Egypt, as Nic is pointing out. It's not clear the Egyptians are going to get real democracy. The military is starting to push back. There are always spoilers out there who try to take things over and Egypt right now is going about as well as a revolution could. Some of these other places if they do devolve into revolution, boy things could be a lot worse there than they are in Egypt. So the best path is actually this path of evolutionary reform, address the popular concerns, show them that the governments want to do what the people want and head off these unpredictable revolutions which open up violence and the risk of spoilers.

KING: And when you look at the map, it's pretty obvious if you've studied the region as both of you have for so long that one size does not fit all here. That each of these regimes is different. Each of the protests is different. Some of it is political. Some of it is religious. Some is a combination of all of those things. Some of course a lot of it is economic.

In Yemen you know you have al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, so you worry about the regime there, even despite the issues the administration has with the regime, but I want you to focus for a moment on Iran. Our Fareed Zakaria had a conversation with George Soros for his program this week and listen to this exchange right here.


FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN'S FAREED ZAKARIA GPS: When you look around at the other regimes, there seem to be protests and discontent everywhere. The one that is most interesting is Iran.

GEORGE SOROS, CHAIRMAN, SOROS FOUNDATION: Of course and I'm convinced that the -- that the regime will not survive. I don't think that they will be able to succeed, because this is something that people behave very differently than in normal times. They actually are willing to sacrifice their lives for a common cause. I would like to bet that the Iranian regime will not be there in a year's time.


KING: That's a bold bet, Nic Burns, and it is a hope many people have voiced since the Iranian revolution back in 1979. Is there anything in the facts to suggest that the regime in Iran is at risk of toppling?

BURNS: There isn't. I wish I could agree with George Soros. All of us want to see that brutal regime topple in Tehran, but I don't see it happening. I see a government frankly that's strengthening its military power, trying to push out and ultimately become the dominant military power in the Middle East and they have brutal security forces willing to take on protesters in the streets, willing to kill people for their right to protest.

So unfortunately I wish I could agree, but I don't and I think that Iran is obviously watching these events today very closely. They want to see the Shia rebel in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia. They want to see the Shia rebel in the streets of Bahrain. They see a strategic opportunity to strengthen the Iranian position. Hezbollah has just strengthened its own position -- an ally of Iran -- in Lebanon itself and Hamas is obviously strengthening vis-a-vis Fatah in the Palestinian territories. I think, John, what really is at stake for the United States and for Israel and the moderate Palestinians is that unfortunately Iran might emerge, strengthen from this wave of protests in the Middle East in the Arab world and that's not in our interest.

KING: Do you agree with that, Ken? We talked about does Iran strengthened by the Iraq war. Are we now seeing is Iran strengthened by this uncertainty in the neighborhood?

POLLACK: I think in the short-term the answer is yes. I think that Nic is absolutely right. In particular I think that the Iranians are looking at Egypt and saying you know we've seen the collapse of America's most important ally in the Arab world, Hosni Mubarak, who is also let's remember the greatest foe of Iran in the Arab world. And what's more I think that they are hopeful that Egypt will devolve into greater chaos.

It won't be able to emerge as a new strong power. That's all to their benefit. But I think that over the longer term there is the possibility of very different outcome with regard to Egypt. If Egypt does see a stable transition to democracy, to a prosperous pluralist society, to a free market economy, that's going to be a major problem for Iran because what the Iranians have been telling people is you've got to do it their way or else you're never going to get what you want and if Egypt does it our way, that will be a huge victory for what the United States wants to see happen in the Middle East.

KING: Ken Pollack, Nic Burns, gentlemen, appreciate your smart insights on this evening. Have a great weekend. Thank you very much.



KING: Thank you. And when we come back, protest here at home of a very different sort, the state of Wisconsin still in gridlock. The governor says he needs to take dramatic steps to balance the budget. Public employees unions say he's going way too far.


KING: Capital cities across the Middle East aren't the only places full of angry protesters today. Check out these scenes this afternoon in of all places Madison, Wisconsin.




KING: Those are teachers, public employees, the target of their anger, Wisconsin's new Republican Governor Scott Walker. About an hour ago the governor defended his plan to close a $137 million state budget gap by imposing new limits and restrictions on collective bargaining by public employees unions.


GOV. SCOTT WALKER (R), WISCONSIN: And we're not going to let for one minute these voices overshadow and overpower the voices of the taxpayers across this state who elect us to do the job and that meant balancing this budget and that's exactly what we're doing.


KING: If it isn't there already, this is a fight that could soon be coming to your state or your neighboring state because money is so short and state employees generally enjoy good pay and benefits.

Bryan Kennedy is president of the American Federation of Teachers of Wisconsin, his union in the middle of this battle with the governor. Mr. Kennedy, good to see you this evening. The governor has said he has to do this. And the governor has said the public employees unions must come to the table. I want to get specifically what are you willing to give? Are you willing to pay more for health care, willing to contribute more for your pensions, for example? Let's start there.

BRYAN KENNEDY, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS OF WISCONSIN: Well, first of all, thank you for having me on this evening. And to answer the governor, the governor needs to balance the budget. He does not need to strip us of our bargaining rights. We have said since he was elected that we would be more than happy to come to the table and discuss the additional shortfall in the budget. We have made $100 million worth of concessions already.

We're paying more for our health care. We're paying more toward our retirement. We took three percent pay reductions, our state workers did, because we accepted 16 furlough days (INAUDIBLE) three percent reduction. You know we're willing to make additional concessions. We certainly are and we'll help him fill that $30 million budget hole.

But he cannot strip us of our bargaining rights and destroy our unions. Wisconsin has had a rich union history. It goes back over 50 years. It is part of what makes this such a great state is that we have such a strong civil service sector.

KING: And do you believe that is his ultimate goal? Do you think this is more about union busting than balancing the budget or that union busting in your view, your view is just part of his effort to balance the budget, which is on top? KENNEDY: No, it's all about union busting and it's a concerted effort. We're seeing the same thing play out in a number of other states, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, Florida. There is an effort under way and it's a concerted effort, when Governor Walker unveiled his proposal last Friday morning at 10:00 a.m. at the exact same time that he was having his press conference ads sponsored by the Club for Growth, a conservative group out of Washington, starting airing in this state. Now he said there was no -- there was no corroboration between his administration and the Club for Growth, but when they're running ads saying that the governor's budget needed to -- the budget repair bill need to be passed and that the unions need to be stripped of rights because they're too powerful, it's running at the exact same time he's going live with his press conference, it's definitely evident to us this is part of a much larger national effort.

KING: And you are on the other side of this larger national effort, though, are you not? I was trying -- I was speaking to some people and some of the national labor unions, the State Employees Labor Unions, and they're involved in this. The Obama grassroots organization, Organizing for America, has been sending out e-mails and organizing phone banks and asking people to turn out for the rallies.

So, you are in the middle of a big national debate about who gives at this time of scarce resources, are you not?

KENNEDY: Oh, we certainly are. And as I said, you know, we've given over $100 million in concessions. You know, that wasn't enough. The governor insisted the legislature reject all of our contracts. We assumed that we're going to go back to the bargaining table.

And, you know, he said he needed an additional $30 million worth of concessions. We said, you know what, we will find a way to work with you. We can find a way to make those additional concessions.

Instead, rather than return any of our calls, he has decided he wants to strip us of our unions and he wants to be -- to dictate what terms and conditions and salary are for our workers. And that's not -- that's not our values. That's not what the way -- that's not what Wisconsin was founded on.

For 50 years, our public sector workers have had the ability to collectively bargain and because of that, we have a strong civil service sector in this state that are not based on political hires. You know, we don't have tons of political appointees in government. They don't change every time we elect a new governor.

What we have is stability. We have a strong government. Good government. And it's because we have consistency in the government, we have strong standards, we hire very good, well-educated people and they provide exceptional public services.

KING: Bryan Kennedy of the American Federation of Teachers in Wisconsin, representing the labor side in what is right now a stalemate with the Republican governor of Wisconsin. Mr. Kennedy, we'll keep in touch. We appreciate your insights tonight.

KENNEDY: Thank you.

KING: Thank you, sir.

Up next, that's the fight in Wisconsin. How about in Washington? There's a big fight there over cutting spending, too -- bringing down the deficit spending and the threat of a government shutdown.


KING: Welcome back. Let's get a check on the latest news you need to know right now.

The most widespread protests and violence across we've yet seen across the Middle East and North Africa. Tonight, Bahrain's king promised a dialogue with all parties without exception.

Here at home, Wisconsin's Republican governor is upset because President Obama's political team is helping organized massive protests against planned budget cuts.


GOV. SCOTT WALKER (R), WISCONSIN: I think the president of the United States has his hands full balancing the federal budget deficit. They have big problems there. He should stick to balancing the federal budget.


KING: A long and sometimes angry day on Capitol Hill, well, it isn't over yet. So far, lawmakers in the House have eliminated funding for health care reform and all funding for Planned Parenthood. But a move by conservatives to impose deeper, across-the-board budget cuts was defeated.

So, what is the state of play in Washington? And might there be a government shutdown at the end of this?

Let's talk it over with CNN contributor Ed Rollins. He's a Republican, of course. He joins us from New York. And in Washington, Democrat Neera Tanden, and she's from the liberal center for American Progress Action Fund.

Ed, a big statement by the new House majority today, the Republicans there taking away funding for the Obama health care plan. So, that is a statement. It won't happen. The Senate won't do it and President won't allow it to happen. And they also failed, though, some of the Tea Party and freshman will be upset, they wanted billions more in cuts right out of the box, and they failed.

What are we learning about the new majority?

ED ROLLINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, I think what we're learning is that John Boehner is the leader and that basically he's going to do some things that are responsible. I think the statement the Republicans are making is: we promised certain things in the campaign and we won majority and we're going to try to make those cuts. Obviously, we're only part of the process. We don't control the whole process, and Senate, obviously, will have its say and the president will have his say.

But I think Republicans, it's been very important for them to stick to their guns and I think to a certain extent, Boehner has said, OK, we've gone so far, we can't go all the way. But let's get a good start here.

KING: On the one hand, Neera, you could argue that there is some tension within this new House Republican majority. It's fascinating to watch.

Can the speaker satisfy new members who want to cut a lot more than more veteran and I'll say more establishment Republicans like the speaker himself who think it's wise to cut right out of the box? On the one hand, you can say that's a fascinating drama. On the other hand, the entire conversation in Washington is about cutting.

I want you to listen here to George Soros. He was with Fareed Zakaria for his show this weekend. Earlier, we heard his views on Iran. Listen to him saying he believes the president of the United States has lost something big.


FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": Where do you think the U.S. economy is right now? Is the budget that President Obama submitted the right way forward? Are the Republican critiques of it correct? Where do you stand?

GEORGE SOROS, CHAIRMAN, SOROS FOUNDATION: Well, President Obama has lost control of the agenda. The agenda is now in the hands of the Republican Party. And they are going to pursue a very strong effort to cut services.


KING: Neera, has the president lost control of the agenda?

NEERA TANDEN, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS ACTION FUND: I think that's actually oversimplification in this round. The president has said for a long time that he would like to get some fiscal stability, and he put forward his budget earlier this week and he has really discipline in it. He's promoting an adult conversation around these issues. He has some new investments. But he also has savings because we do have a very large deficit.

That doesn't mean that we should be -- that should have sort of radical reshaping of things. We shouldn't do extreme things.

I think what's very interesting about the debate, and what's very interesting about the debate today and over the last week is that Republicans who came into office saying they were going to focus on jobs and the economy and economic growth have really spent most of their time re-fighting the health care fight that we've had for two years and talking about abortion.

This is not what the election was over and I think really it's testament to how they are engaged in politics as usual and that's really going to be rejected by the American people.

KING: And at the moment, we're in what I will just flat out call a game of chicken essentially. The Republicans say they won't raise the debt ceiling and give the government more money to continue on operation, not even a short-term what we call a continuing resolution, essentially a short-term check to keep the government going unless they get spending cuts.

The Democrats say, no, no, just keep the government going. We'll have spending cut debate down the road a little bit.

Neera Tanden, would your advice to Democrats be: don't give them any cuts? Be defiant? Let the government shut down? Or do Democrats need to give some here?

TANDEN: Look, I think the president has put forward a reasonable budget. I think the issue has --

KING: That's a good budget. The budget is a debate down the road, though. There's a short-term immediate debate about cutting some now. The budget debate will take months to resolve.

TANDEN: Absolutely, right.

KING: So, if the Democrats say here, "We'll meet you halfway"?

TANDEN: No. I think Senate Democrats are going to have fiscal discipline. They should have some cuts. They should not have cuts that put our economic growth in jeopardy.

The number one challenge for people in Washington is to focus on economic growth and to make sure that we have jobs.

I think Republicans have lost sight of that. They are really appeasing the Tea Party base. They are cutting education. They are cutting Pell Grants. They are cutting their nose to spite their face and that is a mistake for them because at the end of the day, they were put here to create jobs and what they're doing is helping destroy jobs.

KING: And so, Ed Rollins, if the Republicans face a choice, whether it's the Senate Democrats or the president of the United States, won't give them a package of cuts that at least satisfies enough House Republicans to keep the government going for two or three weeks or a month so then they can have bigger debate -- should they just say, OK, we'll fight you next round. We give in here or should they say, no, shut the government now?

ROLLINS: They can't give in now. If they give in now, these are commitments they made to voters. This is how they won majority. This is how we won a majority of governors across the country. We have to make significant cuts. The president and his budget has got $7 trillion in additional spending. He's got additional taxes.

And I think, at the end of the day, this environment unlike the last environment, states around the country are going to face the same kinds of consequences and voters are now aware of the fact that we're spending trillions of dollars more than we have in our process. And that's affecting the economy and that's affecting jobs across the country.

So, it's a much better debate place at this time, and I would -- I would welcome the debate.

TANDEN: Well --

KING: It is a fascinating debate for the next week or 10 days.

Neera Tanden and Ed Rollins, need to end it here for tonight. But this one is going to continue into the next week and beyond as we face the March 4th deadline of trying to raise the debt ceiling and the government will run out of money. We'll keep the conversation going. Thanks you both.

Coming up next, though, Soledad O'Brien joins us to bring you a fascinating story of a double agent. Why did a renowned Memphis civil rights photographer also serve as an FBI informant?


KING: Live from Los Angeles tonight, we'll tell you why in just a minute. You see Hollywood in the hills there, a little cloudy out there. Overcast day here. We'll tell you why in just a moment. Normally we're in Washington, but the West Coast tonight.

Some of the most powerful pictures from the civil rights era come from Ernest Withers' camera. He had intimate access to many leaders of the struggle, including Martin Luther King, Jr. And after Withers died in 2007, we learned he was passing along many of their secrets to the FBI.

CNN's special correspondent Soledad O'Brien brings us his story this weekend and joins me now.

This is fascinating. So, inside access -- what anybody would want in a dramatic moment in history and then you find essentially a double agent.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, talk about taking a secret to the grave. Ernest Withers died in 2007, as you said.

You may not know his name but you definitely know his photographs. He's the one who took pictures of Dr. King lounging in bed reading a newspaper. So, shots that you didn't really see very often. He's the one who took shots "I am a man" from the sanitation worker strike. He covered the Emmett Till trial and created a booklet and sold that booklet.

So, when this word came out in the fall that he was working for the FBI, so many people had the question: why? And it's what we wanted to explore in our documentary. Take a look.


O'BRIEN (voice-over): Through one lens, Memphis and much of the American South was a frightening place to be. But through another lens, the lens belonging to budding photojournalists Ernest Withers, it could also be exhilarating, exciting, inspiring.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think he had the impression at the time that he was taking this for preservation of history. But he had a sense of the purpose and importance of what he was doing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you look at his work, one of the things he had a feel for was the little guy, the poor guy that's working hard. He had a way of being able to photograph someone's face. It was almost like you were looking at the person's hands or something because you could see how hard their lives have been and it was in their faces.

O'BRIEN: In 1960, black sharecroppers in Fayette County, Tennessee, were being evicted from their homes for registering to vote. Tent city was an emergency camp set up on donated land for those people who suddenly found themselves with no food, no shelter and nowhere to turn.

Withers rushed there with the only aid he had: his camera.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That was a sense of mission to him. I can remember him calling all of the different editors and reporters around the country. That he was literally calling (ph) --

O'BRIEN (on camera): To pitch the story?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right. That's what he would do in enormous occasion, when he felt that it was something that really needed to be exposed. He had his own mission, a purpose.

O'BRIEN: What was that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was to expose things.


O'BRIEN: Many people have said that the movement wouldn't have been the movement if, in fact, hadn't been for the photographs.

KING: And yet, to those who still alive from the movement, do they view him as somehow as a traitor?

O'BRIEN: The family says it's not true. It didn't happen. Not possible. Experts have said there is inconvertible evidence that he was in fact informing for the FBI. Some of the activists have said that he's a Judas if he betrayed the movement. And others have said Dr. King himself would have said it's OK to make a few bucks off the FBI because there was nothing that they didn't want known. In an era of civil disobedience, the civil part was letting people know what your plans were.

KING: And it's sort of a dual life, if you will, because whatever he was telling the FBI, there's no disputing the power of the work. And it's a reminder when you see that's the black and white images and it's just breathtaking.

O'BRIEN: An amazing photographer and the family was going to go ahead with the museum based around his work.

KING: Soledad O'Brien --

O'BRIEN: Thank you.

KING: "Pictures Don't Lie" - it's a fascinating, fascinating history. It's an important moment in our history and an important story. It's great stuff.

O'BRIEN: Thank you.

KING: Thank you very much for being here.

All right. Now, we'll tell you why we're here. I'm in Los Angeles because the NBA All-Star game is here. And this is Lakers town and Clippers town.

But when we come back: a conversation with the Celtics' great, Bill Russell. And as we go to break, I think I can show you some pictures, one of the great things we like to do here is the NBA has a community service organization called NBA Cares. There you see me.

For some reason, they put us in Celtics green jerseys out here. That guy helping me and that girl right there shoveling with me -- that's my beautiful daughter, Hanna King, right there in that. Look at her. Great help for us today.

My son as well, helping build a playground for the inner city school. My son is pretty strong. That's my boy Noah. He loves to do this every year, helping out in the community, putting a playground in some schools. Some kids will be playing on that next week.

A wonderful project by the NBA.


KING: Before we go tonight, more an encounter this week that left a lasting impression. Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Russell, like me, is ending his week in Los Angeles, to attend the NBA All-Star game. He began it in Washington, D.C., where he received the Medal of Freedom from President Obama. It is the nation's highest civilian honor. And in bestowing, the president emphasized how Russell's contributions both on and off the court helped bring progress in race relations and the civil rights movement. Russell brushes off any talk of individual contribution. But a walk through history shows him to be among the black athletes whose milestones in sports coincided with some of the biggest moments in the civil rights movement.

Let's take a look. Close this one down here. You bring this one up. Here, of course, Jackie Robinson. He broke the racial barrier in baseball, second baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers. This photo was taken in 1948. It was that same year President Harry Truman signed the executive order desegregating the United States military.

This is Althea Gibson in 1957, the first black woman to win the singles championship in Wimbledon. She was also a golfer, but this championship in 1957, just two months later, the Little Rock 9 escorted into Arkansas's newly segregated schools under court order with the protection of the National Guard.

And, of course, here's Russell on the basketball court against archrivals the New York Knicks here. Bill Russell was the first African-American, the first black coach of any major league sports team. This photograph taken in 1968, just a month later, a month after this photograph was taken, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis.

In our conversation, Russell talked of meeting Dr. King, and sitting in the front row during the "I Have A Dream" speech at the march on Washington. And he talked of his own escape from the segregated South and a lifelong quiet quest to match the dignity he says he learned from watching his father and his grandfather deal with racism.


BILL RUSSELL, NBA HALL OF FAMER: I tried to take care of my community. Like when I played for the Celtics, especially after I became the captain, I considered myself sort of a big brother to my teammates. And I always acted the same way about my community, you know, that I always tried to make sure that I and my friends were always treated with respect.

And I used to always say it doesn't -- whether anyone likes me or not is irrelevant. The relevant thing to me was to be respected, and by being respected myself and being respectful. It can create an atmosphere that the folks that -- they can see the folks around me are also people who can be respected.

KING: This is the highest civilian honor a president can give, and you are the first NBA player to receive it.

RUSSELL: Well, there were so many things that I was the first to do. You know, it's, like, I just -- it's almost an accident of birth that I came when I did. And so, a lot of things had happened.

But the table had been set. And, for example, my attitude was -- I don't know if you know, I was a pallbearer at Jackie Robinson's funeral. And I had enormous respect for him. And my attitude was Jackie has gotten us from point A to point B. So, I should start from point B, not go back to point A.

And so, that's the way I conducted myself. That I wasn't a homeless waste or got an opportunity to do things. It was my inheritance from Jackie to do things. Not to sit around and say thanks for this, to have this opportunity, but to take -- seize that opportunity.


KING: An 11-time NBA champion, Bill Russell. You see us here in the Washington Monument. Behind us, we're heading up the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where he sat during the march on Washington speech by Dr. King. Bill Russell is NBA great.

This is part of a project I do with NBA TV, "True NBA" is the show. The full interview will air next month. A fascinating interview with Bill Russell and we're here for the All-Star game in Los Angeles.

We'll see you Monday.

"PARKER SPITZER" starts right now.