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Obama Speaks on Libya; Libyans Defy Gadhafi's Crackdown; Oil Prices Spike Above $100 a Barrel; Search for Survivors Continue in New Zealand; President Obama to DOJ: Don't Defend Gay Marriage Ban; 'Strategy Session'

Aired February 23, 2011 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Brooke, thanks very much.

Happening now, burning anger at Moammar Gadhafi and his violent crackdown on anti-government protests. President Obama plans to speak out about the situation in Libya in just a matter of minutes. We'll have live coverage here. Critics have been questioning the president's silence. Stand by for that.

Oil prices spike to the highest level in over two years amid reports that Libya's production has stalled. This hour, how the unrest there could threaten the economy here in the United States.

And a new legal move by the Obama administration reignites the divisive debate over same-sex marriage. Amid revolts overseas and budget battles here at home, a lot of people are asking, why now?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

These are some of the latest images of Libyans demanding freedom and defying Moammar Gadhafi's brutal crackdown. Opposition forces have made gains outside the capital of Tripoli a day after Gadhafi vowed to fight to the death to hold onto power.

But witness tell us the streets of Tripoli are virtually empty right now, except for blood, bodies and burned cars.

The White House says President Obama will speak out in less than 15 minutes on the abhorrent -- their word -- abhorrent violence against the people of Libya.

We're told the United States is considering its options for pressures Gadhafi, including imposing more serious sanctions.

State Department has chartered a ferry to evacuate American citizens from Libya. Thousands of Americans are still stuck there. Sources say it won't leave until the morning, because of bad weather around the Mediterranean.

Many people are desperately, desperately trying to get out of Libya any way they can. Some have been able to drive to neighboring Tunisia.

That's where our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, is standing by, alongside the Tunisian border.

What's the latest from your vantage point -- Nic?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the same storm that's buffeting the harbor in Tripoli, less than 100 miles away, is buffeting the coastline here, as well. People arriving in torrents of rain coming across the border today. People were telling stories of gun battles in the streets, of the police shooting on protesters, being too fearful to leave their houses.

This is what it looked like at the border a little earlier.


ROBERTSON: That's the border post right up there. That's where people have been streaming through all day, several thousand, as many as 5,000, according to some eyewitnesses. It's slowed to a trickle now. But when people get across, there are medical tents here, aide tents to help them.

And over here, they get marshaled through this point here. You can just see, if you look over here, you can see the man handing out refreshments.

This is what happens when people get across the border. The first thing they're given here when they come across, they're given some refreshments. This gentleman here handing out biscuits.

Can we take a look, sir?

These people just having crossed the border here. This gentleman handing out biscuits. This is the welcome people are being given by the Tunisians when they cross over.

And if you come down here a little further and you can see the border where people are driving through, obviously carefully controlled soldiers, additional troops put on duty here. And over there, the main processing, the place people can get a car to get transported out of here.

And once people get through that border point, they get a chance to stop, put their bags down, figure out how they're going to move beyond here. And in here, there's a sort of a soup kitchen set up. We can just go inside and take a look.

But again, this is all being run by Tunisian volunteers. They are providing free transport away from the border, trying to fix people up with accommodations.

And here, it's pretty rough and ready, as you can see. But sandwiches being made up and handed out to people. Thousands of these French baguettes and sort of tomato chula (ph) mix being put in there. But soup being handed out for everyone who turns up. And around here, you can see a lady carrying a baby through here.

And it's where people here have been telling us their stories, their stories of what life has been like in Tripoli and how the journey out has been.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can say that I hear lots of explosions, bombs and guns and lots of (INAUDIBLE). I'm working in a hotel, so the second day, the hotel after that, to live in the hotel these days, we couldn't sleep that day. It seems like a war in this nights. But the situation from the morning until 4:00, the -- the town is quiet and you can go and buy and -- but after 4:00, after noon, you cannot go here or there. You cannot get down from your home.

ROBERTSON: How dangerous was it to leave the city and to leave your home and come here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We saw in the road lots of cars crashed and burned objects and -- and things. So I don't think that we will be able just today or the day before or the four -- last four days to come.

ROBERTSON: This is the first time it was safe?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. I think today was safe, just a couple of -- of people searching and investigating the bags (INAUDIBLE). And they are connecting the (INAUDIBLE) part of the mobiles (ph) and the memory cards.

ROBERTSON: So you can't take your phone card out with you and your memory?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, you cannot. You cannot because there is -- there is about 20 points to investigate you. And the first thing they are asking you about, where are your (INAUDIBLE) cards?


BLITZER: We're going to break into that.

Here's the president of the United States.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Secretary Clinton and I just concluded a meeting that focused on the ongoing situation in Libya. Over the last few days my national security team has been working around the clock to monitor the situation there and to coordinate with our international partners about a way forward.

First, we are doing everything we can to protect American citizens. That is my highest priority. In Libya, we've urged our people to leave the country, and the State Department is assisting those in need of support.

Meanwhile, I think all Americans should give thanks to the heroic work that's being done by our Foreign Service officers and the men and women serving in our embassies and consulates around the world. They represent the very best of our country and its values.

Throughout this period of unrest and upheaval across the region, the United States has maintained a set of core principles which guide our approach. These principles apply to the situation in Libya. As I said last week, we strongly condemn the use of violence in Libya. The American people extend our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of all who've been killed and injured. The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous, and it is unacceptable. So are threats and orders to shoot peaceful protesters and further punish the people of Libya. These actions violate international norms, and every standard of common decency. This violence must stop.

The United States also strongly supports the universal rights of the Libyan people. That includes the rights of peaceful assembly, free speech and the ability of the Libyan people to determine their own destiny.

These are human rights. They are not negotiable. They must be respected in every country. And they cannot be denied through violence or suppression.

In a volatile situation like this one, it is imperative that the nations and peoples of the world speak with one voice and that that has been our focus.

Yesterday, a unanimous U.N. Security council sent a clear message that it condemns the violence in Libya, supports accountability for the perpetrators and stands with the Libyan people.

The same message, by the way, has been delivered by the European Union, the Arab League, the African Union, the Organization of the Islamic conference and many individual nations. North and south, east and west, voices are being raised together to oppose suppression and support the rights of the Libyan people.

I've also asked my administration to prepare the full range of options that we have to respond to this crisis. This includes those actions we may take and those we will coordinate with our allies and partners or those that we'll carry out through multilateral institutions.

Like all governments, the Libyan government has a responsibility to refrain from violence, to allow humanitarian assistance to reach those in need and to respect the rights of its people. It must be held accountable for its failure to meet those responsibilities and face the cost of continued violations of human rights.

This is not simply a concern of the United States. The entire world is watching. And we will coordinate our assistance and accountability measures with the international community.

To that end, secretary Clinton and I have asked Bill Burns, our under-secretary of state for political affairs, to make several stops in Europe and the region to intensify our consultations with allies and partners about the situation in Libya.

I've also asked Secretary Clinton to travel to Geneva on Monday, where a number of foreign ministers will convene for a session of the Human Rights Council. There she'll hold consultations with her counterparts on events throughout the region and continue to ensure that we join with the international community to speak with one voice to the government and the people of Libya.

And even as we are focused on the urgent situation in Libya, let me just say that our efforts continue to address the events taking place elsewhere, including how the international community can most effectively support the peaceful transition to democracy in both Tunisia and in Egypt.

So let me be clear. The change that is taking place across the region is being driven by the people of the region. This change doesn't represent the work of the United States or any foreign power. It represents the aspirations of people who are seeking a better life.

As one Libyan said, "We just want to be able to live like human beings."

"We just want to be able to live like human beings" -- it is the most basic of aspirations that is driving this change. And throughout this time of transition the United States will continue to stand up for freedom, stand up for justice and stand up for the dignity of all people.

Thank you very much.

BLITZER: So there he is, the president of the United States, the secretary of State of the United States, the brief statement by the president, outline -- outlining the U.S. stance as far as Libya and Moammar Gadhafi is concerned. The president insisting that the suffering and violence that is going on right now at the hands of Gadhafi and his troops is outrageous. The violence, the president says, must stop. The universal rights of the Libyan people must be adhered to.

Also laying out a series of options, not going into great detail, but saying some options are available unilaterally to the United States, multilaterally through international institutions, as well as with allies and partners.

Jill Dougherty is over at the White House for us -- Jill, a lot of people were wondering why it has taken so long, over these many days, for the president finally to speak out on the situation in Libya.

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, right, Wolf, because the only thing so far had been a written statement and that was last Friday. So you're seeing the president now coming out and making this statement.

And, you know, U.S. officials are telling CNN that one of the reasons that they had this kind of muted response so far was the concern for U.S. citizens who are still in Libya. And yesterday, we were told by U.S. officials that they tried to get the charter planes, which we know, on the record, charter planes in to get some of those Americans out and they were not permitted to do that by the Libyan authorities. So that is why they moved to that ferry boat, which was able to pick people up. But as we know, has to spend the night in Tripoli because of the bad weather. So that -- there is high concern for those Americans and they are saying that was the reason we didn't hear much.

BLITZER: Gloria Borger is here, as well -- Gloria, we know those Americans, a few hundred, were supposed to leave on that ferry boat.


BLITZER: But they're still stuck there because of the bad weather. Yet the president decided to take that chance and go out and speak very passionately right now.

BORGER: He did. And he also made it very clear, as he said, and this is a quote, that, "Libya would face the cost of their continued violence, the whole world is watching."

Which means that they're preparing a range of options, whether it's multilaterally, if you will. And I think the things that the president is not talking about are the things our reporting shows, which is that targeted sanctions are a possibility, no fly zone is a possibility, freezing the assets, for example, of Moammar Gadhafi, humanitarian assistance that the president said today we do have to get through into Libya.

So these are a whole range of options. He's sending Hillary Clinton to Geneva. It's clear he's going to try and work this with our allies, to try and do something with the Arab League, for example, with -- with the E.U. so -- so this is not just the United States acting alone, although he made it clear that there are certain things we might act alone on.

BLITZER: Yes, he did say, at one point, that there's a full range of options he's preparing --

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: -- options that we might take beyond acting multilaterally.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Ben Wedeman is on the ground for us in Benghazi, Libya right now -- I take it, Ben, Benghazi is, for all practical purposes, out of Gadhafi's control right now. It's in the hands of his opponents.

But set the scene for us.

What's going on?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we saw today is that not only is this out of the control of Tripoli, but essentially there's an ad-hoc government in place at the local courthouse.


BEN WEDEMAN, SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we saw today is not only this out of the control of Tripoli, but, essentially, there's an ad hoc government in place. At the local courthouse, a group of local citizens has set up committees to control -- to sort of collect the garbage, protect government property, make sure there's an adequate supply of food and medicine. It's really just a functioning government.

And, of course, one of their concerns is that the government in Tripoli will try to strike out at the Eastern part of the country. We saw today that two more planes came from Tripoli, but apparently their pilots ejected from those planes and ditched the planes in the sea. We're told they were on a mission to potentially hit some of the oil facilities south of Benghazi -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What are you hearing about what's actually happening in Tripoli right now, the capital? We're getting some conflicting reports. Based on all your reporting, what are you hearing?

WEDEMAN: Well, it's hard to really figure out what's going on. I mean, what we were told was today was relatively quiet, but the forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi are everywhere in the city making sure there are no demonstrations, that people are not in any way expressing opposition to the government, that there were scattered demonstrations in support of Moammar Gadhafi.

Last night, in that long rambling and somewhat incoherent speech, he did call on his supporters to come out and express their loyalty for his rule and for the so-called accomplishments of the revolution -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And these reports that are coming out, I don't know how reliable they are, but maybe you've got better information, that Gadhafi, in these moments of desperation might actually order the sabotaging of his own oil fields, oil installations in Libya. I'm sure you've heard of these rumors out there, Ben, but do we know anything concrete?

WEDEMAN: In terms of anything concrete, no.

We know that in this part of the country they have reduced the production of oil because, of course, the revenues from the oil that is exported from the eastern part of the country goes to the government in Tripoli. So they have been gradually reducing the production from this area.

In fact, one of the representatives of the local government told me that the workers in those fields had been under orders to maintain normal production, but they had taken it upon themselves to defy the orders of their bosses in Tripoli and to gradually reduce production. They don't want to cut product all together of the export of the oil because apparently if they do, if they do that, there will be problems in the future with the pipelines itself.

But yes, at least on this end they are reducing the production cause they want to deprive Moammar Gadhafi and his regime of any revenues -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Once you made it to Benghazi, where you are now, Ben, the second largest city in Libya, what was it like? What did you see? What was the reaction there?

WEDEMAN: Well, we arrived in the sort of the mid-afternoon in Benghazi, and we went to the courthouse where this government, this ad hoc government is in place. And it was just an amazing scene because when we showed up we were the first TV crew to come here.

And I can tell you it was a bit like being in the first American jeep arriving in Paris in 1944 after the city fell from the Nazi occupation. People were clapping and cheering and shaking our hands, throwing candy and dates in the car, thanking us for coming. It was just an incredibly emotional scene. And just the demonstration, there were tens of thousands of people outside this courthouse in Benghazi.

And, you know, they clearly are seeing the arrival of western journalists in this part of the country as a sign that the West is concerned, that the West cares about their plight because, of course, they are concerned that -- many Libyans will tell you that they are a bit disappointed in the relative silence of President Barack Obama.

Of course, we just heard that fairly strong statement from him, which I'm sure will be welcomed by the people here in Benghazi -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we're seeing the old Libyan flag now being flown, the flag that used to fly over Libya before Gadhafi took power 40-plus years ago. Explain the symbolism there.

WEDEMAN: Well, the flag of Libya introduced by Moammar Gadhafi was just a plain green. No symbols, no emblems on it.

Before that it was this black, green and red flag with a crescent in the middle. That was the flag of the monarchy, of King Idris, the leader that Moammar Gadhafi and his so-called Free Officers overthrew in September of 1969.

And -- and these flags are just coming out of nowhere. Apparently there are some local factories that have begun to produce them.

But this flag really symbolizes the rejection of at least the people in eastern Libya of the 42 years of rule by Moammar Gadhafi. It represents a desire to restore Libya to what it was before the so- called September Revolution that brought Moammar Gadhafi to power.

You see it everywhere. There are posters going up with the flag. In fact, we saw a lot of people in Benghazi with the colors painted on their faces. So this is really at least a symbolic rejection of everything that Moammar Gadhafi represents.

BLITZER: And finally, Ben, when Gadhafi spoke yesterday, he said he's going to be a martyr. He's ready to die. He's not living Libya, he's going to fight till the bitter end and if it takes thousands of dead people, he doesn't care.

What was the reaction from the Libyans surrounding you?

WEDEMAN: It was -- one of disgust and alarm. Alarm at the tone that he took, the threatening tone. One Libyan telling me he wants a country without people. He wants just to rule this country without the mess of populace in revolt.

And I'll tell you, Wolf, the word that people use over and over again, of course, is the Arabic word Majnun, which means to be possessed by gins or genies. It's basically crazy. And this is how people describe him. That he -- they describe him as a clown. They describe him as a lunatic.

The feeling is that this is a man who has completely lost touch with reality. He's overwhelmed by megalomania to an extent. This is really why the people of at least eastern Libya would like to get rid of him. He's a man who they feel has squandered the significant oil wealth of this country, who has destroyed the health and education system to the point where this is why people are in this state of revolt, they just want to see this man leave.

One member of the local ad hoc government said exactly that. All the different tribes and the, for instance, the Islamist groups, the youth groups, they have one single desire at this moment, and that is to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi.

BLITZER: Yes, but until that happens, he's a very, very dangerous individual. He may be crazy, but he can certainly still order his troops to killing hundreds if not thousands of Libyans who are simply trying to demonstrate peacefully.

We're going to stay in close touch with Ben Wedeman. He's in Benghazi right now, the second largest city in Libya.

Ben, be careful over there. We'll check back with you shortly.

Lots more happening here in THE SITUATION ROOM involving the unrest in Libya. Is that unrest helping push up oil prices to a two- year high? What's going on? We're taking a closer look on the impact of the gas prices you're paying at the pump. How much worse will it get?


BLITZER: We're hearing lots of reports coming out of Libya right now, including our own Ben Wedeman, that the country's massive oil production is grinding, grinding potentially to a halt or at least slowing down dramatically. The unrest in the country certainly has helped push oil prices up beyond $100 a barrel, the first time that's occurred in more than two years.

Lisa Sylvester is looking to what this means for all of us. Especially, Lisa, when we want to fill up our tanks, when we want to get some heat in our homes, it's not good news. LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely, Wolf. You know, anybody who has gone to a gas station to fill up knows that the prices have really shot up. We have a graphic that we want to show you.

Take a look at this. October of last year the average price of gasoline in the United States was around $2.70. Now it is up to $3.19. That is up a 49-cent increase in just four months.

Why? Well, Libya is an OPEC country, and relatively speaking, the United States doesn't get a lot of oil from Libya, but the European countries do -- Italy, Australia, Ireland in particular -- and it is driving up the price of oil worldwide. The White House says it is keeping an eye on oil prices.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Whenever there's unrest in this part of the world, there are going to be reactions in the markets.

Beyond that, you know, the situation is fluid, and I don't want to speculate about where prices will go or any -- any other potential things in the future. But we are obviously monitoring this carefully and we're concerned about -- about it.


SYLVESTER: Several European companies have had work stoppages. People just simply not coming to work.

And there is a lot of speculation going on right now, you know, Gadhafi possibly sabotaging his oil fields. A U.S. official says, right now, there's no evidence of that at this point, but all of that uncertainty is really pushing the prices higher -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Over the last 24 hours I've heard a lot of top economists raise the fear that this increase in the price of oil could really stall if not collapse this fragile economic recovery we've seen over the past year or so.

SYLVESTER: What they are really concerned about, Wolf, is inflation. And that -- you know, when you have the price of oil going up, other things go up as well. Your transportation costs go up, your groceries go up.

And all of that is fueling speculation that this is coming on on top of global wheat prices, for instance, commodities have already been at record levels. Wheat prices have doubled in the last seven months, Wolf.

BLITZER: So what happens? Bottom line, if there's a complete shutdown of Libyan oil exports or if Gadhafi goes ahead with these reported threats that he's going to sabotage, below up these oil fields, so what happens? SYLVESTER: The International Energy Agency, this is a group of 28 member nations, they have put out a statement this week saying that they are prepared to increase oil supplies, if necessary. They have petroleum reserves. And this is on top of the -- the amount that OPEC has, it has extra capacity. And the IEA has about 1.6 barrels of oil ready to go, Wolf.

BLITZER: I wouldn't put it beyond Gadhafi to do that. He might simply decide if he's going down, he's taking that whole country down with him. I remember when Saddam Hussein blew up those oil fields of the coast of Kuwait when he was getting kicked out of Kuwait back in 1991, so this could happen.

We'll have to watch that closely. Thank you.

Let's -- we're going to get a lot more on Libya and what's coming up, but there's another huge story we're following involving the death toll from the New Zealand earthquake. It now stands at 75, but officials there are warning that the figure could rise dramatically.

Two days after the quake hit, survivors are still being pulled from the rubble. CNN's Anna Coren has details.


ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After 25 hours of tirelessly searching through the rubble, proof of life. Fire crews successfully rescuing Ann Bodkin. She had taken cover under her desk on the third story of the Pyne Gould Corporation building when the devastating earthquake struck.

But this was only one of a handful of lucky stories to come out of the heartache that has gripped the city of Christchurch, just five months after its last major earthquake.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I've been trying to text my daughter's phone since I had reception just because I thought the rescuers might hear the ring and dig down and find her.

COREN: For those hoping for some promising news about loved ones trapped in the CTV building, a cruel blow. Initially, it was thought dozens inside were still alive, until police called off the search. It's now feared to be a tomb for more than 100 people.

Malou Silerio knows that this could have been her fate.

(on camera): That is your bed.


COREN (voice-over): She was due home for lunch in her ground floor apartment of this two-story building. If she had done that, she would have been crushed to death.

SILERIO: This one, we cried and cried because we were so grateful for that. If we were inside, we can't even run because the shake was so quick, so strong.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Couldn't escape that thing.

COREN (on camera): This church is one of the thousands of buildings that felt the violence and intensity of the earthquake. In fact, it was still being reconstructed from the quake that hit the city last year.

Now, while there were no fatalities here, just blocks away is the city center. And police say the search and rescue operation that is currently under way there is very quickly turning into a recovery mission.

(voice-over): Police have cordoned off seven main sites to continue their search with the help of teams from Australia, the U.S., the U.K., Taiwan, Japan and Singapore. And for those who have lost their homes or live in parts of the city with no power and water, camping in the relief centers is the only option.

And that's where Denise Gali will be spending her 19th birthday, along with her family.

DENISE GALI, EARTHQUAKE SURVIVOR: Just anxious, like, I don't think what's going to happen and don't know where to go, what's next. You know, there could be another big one.

COREN: And as dozens of frightening aftershocks terrorize the city, that fear is not far from everyone's minds.

Anna Coren, CNN, Christchurch, New Zealand.


BLITZER: Here in Washington, a bombshell from the White House today on a controversial social issue. The president is already feeling the backlash from Capitol Hill. Details when we come back.


BLITZER: You just heard President Obama say what Moammar Gadhafi and his regime are doing to the Libyan people is outrageous. These are people who have been liberated in Benghazi.

Gadhafi opponents, they are thrilled that Gadhafi at least is not in power in Benghazi, the second largest city in Libya right now. Apparently still is in power though in the capital city of Tripoli. We're watching this city closely. We're going back there shortly. Stand by.

Meanwhile, President Obama is demanding the Justice Department to stop defending a federal law banning gay marriage.

Let's get some details for the reaction from our congressional correspondent, Brianna Keilar.

Congress is on recess this week, but some angry responses to what the president and his Justice Department announced today.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Republicans are calling this a political move. The Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee saying the Justice Department has a responsibility to defend laws that Congress passes no matter what the president's personal views are.

Not surprisingly, Democrats are pretty happy with this. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi putting out a paper statement that says, "The Obama administration's decision is a victory for civil rights, fairness, and equality for the LGBT community and all Americans."

But back to Republicans, the spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner saying that, "While Americans want Washington to focus on creating jobs and cutting spending, the president will have to explain why he thinks now is the appropriate time to stir up a controversial issue that sharply divides the nation."

So you hear Republicans there accusing the president from really moving away from dealing with the economy, but there was, Wolf, a March 11th deadline coming up in one of these court cases where the administration had to say really how they were going to proceed. I should tell you that privately, Republican sources tell me they are not really excited about dealing with a hot-button social issue as they are really trying to focus on spending cuts here in the next few weeks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What options do the Republicans have right now to deal with this?

KEILAR: Technically speaking, House Republicans have the option of really picking up -- hiring lawyers and picking up where the Justice Department left off in these court cases. It doesn't appear though that there's really a desire to do that, particularly on the part of House Republican leaders, and that's because, as I mentioned, they are trying to stay on message with the economy.

We're going to see if that continues to be the case, but for now that is the case. And right now it seems to be an issue for the courts, and there are cases pending right now in Massachusetts, as well as Connecticut and New York.

BLITZER: And we'll discuss some of the legal issues with our own Jeffrey Toobin in the next hour.

Brianna, thanks very much.

Take a look at a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll. It shows that apparently most Americans don't even care all that much about this issue. Only 15 percent think it should be on the agenda at all. So why is the president and his attorney general doing what they are doing right now? We'll assess that in our "Strategy Session" when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Let's get right to our "Strategy Session." Joining us, the Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, Donna Brazile, and the Republican strategist, also a CNN political contributor, Mary Matalin.

Mary, you just heard the president of the United States issue a very tough statement saying he's considering all sorts of options in squeezing Gadhafi right now to stop the slaughter of innocent people. It took him a few days to make this statement, but how did you react?

MARY MATALIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Good for him, and consistent with his previous statements about Egypt. We all know we need to distinguish between bad -- badly run states in Egypt and savage states like Libya, and he did that.

I did not fault him in the inconsistency initially on Egypt, it was unfolding so quickly. But once we've taken a stand, and a strong stand -- and he did -- we have to be consistent and even tougher on the consistency continuum with savage states like this. But I do take the earlier reticence as being directed by what Mrs. Clinton, Secretary Clinton, said yesterday. We had to make sure, first and foremost, that our United States citizens were out of harm's way before announcing what we did today.

BLITZER: But you know, Donna, American citizens in Libya, thousands of them, are not out of harm's way. They are still stuck there. That ferry that was going to carry about 600 people is stuck in that port in Tripoli because of bad weather. So the president decided to go ahead and take that chance and speak out, even though there are several thousand Americans potentially at risk if Gadhafi, for example, wanted to round them up and hold them hostage.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: And look, Wolf, I agree with Mary that on matters like this, we have to be consistent. But more importantly, the president of the United States, his number one priority is the safety of the American citizens. And I'm sure that has gotten a lot of their thinking, as well as the developments there unfolding.

We all know the Libyan regime and we know that Mr. Gadhafi might resort or has resorted to violence against his own people. I think the president came out with a very strong statement, but, Wolf, I don't believe this is the last time we're going to hear from the president on this matter. Because this situation is extremely volatile and dangerous for everybody involved there in North Africa.

BLITZER: You're talking about we're going to hear more from the president on the situation in Libya, Donna? Is that what you're saying?

BRAZILE: Absolutely, Wolf. I mean, as we've seen over the past few weeks with Tunisia, with Egypt, in Bahrain and other places, the situation is extremely volatile. And the president said and made it very clear today that we should speak with one voice, not just as American citizens, God forbid, but also to get our European allies, our African allies and the Arab League and others so that we condemn the violence against -- that Mr. Gadhafi is now directing people against his own people, but we also stand up for universal human rights for all people.

BLITZER: The president said, and he was very blunt on this, although he didn't get into specifics, but he was blunt and he said the United States is preparing options, Mary, right now, options the United States could take by itself, options of dealing with allies and partners, or options of going through multilateral or organizations.

Would you support unilateral U.S. military action to defend people in Libya?

MATALIN: It would be better if it were options pursued with partners, with the international community. We had to make a determination that our interests were so great, that they should evoke in us a unilateral action.

I'm not sure that's the best course, but I do not fault the president for taking the time it takes to work through these diplomatic steps and get with our partners, and try to come out of the box as George W. Bush and his father before him and President Clinton in there, too, did, is the more partners, the more likely the effective -- the positive nature of the outcome of the conflict.

BLITZER: Let me switch gears briefly, Donna. I want to get your quick reaction to what the president and the Justice Department announced today, that they are no longer going to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act which President Clinton signed into law back in 1996.

Orrin Hatch, the senator from Utah, saying in a tweet, "It's inexcusable that President Obama's personal politics are trumping his presidential duty to defend the Defense of Marriage Act."

This is the law of the land, but he says he's not going to defend it anymore. Is this acceptable, Donna?

BRAZILE: Well, first of all, Wolf, the Justice Department, having reviewed these cases that are now out there in several states, have determined that one section of that law, of the Defense of Marriage Act, perhaps is unconstitutional. And so the strict scrutiny that you normally apply to these situations will no longer apply.

So I think the Justice Department has taken the right step against discriminating against people who want to legally get married. So I support and applaud the administration. If the Congress wants to defend the indefensible and go out there and discriminate, so be it. I'm just quoting John Boehner.

BLITZER: Let me get Mary's quick reaction.

MATALIN: It's astonishing. He's defying the courts in the case of the moratorium here, in the case of health care. He's defying the legislature.

You know, these are co-equal branches of government. It's absolutely astonishing, but not surprising, given his need to distract from the bad politics he has coming on him at the government union debate and the fake budget that he put forward. It's a short-term political gain for a long term. Very bad to defy the other branches of government as he has in this case.

BRAZILE: You know, Mary, equal protection under the law is what we should all live by, and if the White House and the Justice Department has determined, as you well know in California, from the cases that are unfolding out there, if this is indefensible, if this is unconstitutional, I would hope that they would not defend something that is unconstitutional and discriminate and violates people's rights. That's what's going on here.

MATALIN: Really, Donna? You know, I'm against -- on other constitutional grounds. It should be left up to the states, and we probably are close on the substance, but this is purely political short term, and very bad policy precedent. Very bad.

BLITZER: All right, ladies. We've got to leave it there.

Mary and Donna, thanks very much.

After the fall of the Mubarak government in Egypt, is Israel worried about its security? I'll speak with the defense minister of Israel, Ehud Barak, and ask him about Israel's decision to let two Iranian warships go through the Suez Canal.

And after four decades of Moammar Gadhafi's rule, what happens if this regime actually falls? We'll talk about fears that Libya would face a destabilizing power vacuum.

Stand by.


BLITZER: Very few reporters are actually able to get into Libya right now. Our own Ben Wedeman is inside, but many other journalists across the region are working their sources inside Libya to dig up some fascinating information about what's happening there and whether Moammar Gadhafi is actually losing his grip.


BLITZER: And joining us now from Cairo, "The New York Times" columnist Nick Kristof.

I've been following your tweets on Twitter, Nick, and you've got some really good information. What's the latest you're hearing about Gadhafi right now? How close is he to actually going down?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, that is the one thing that is really hard to get a sense of, but what I have been trying to do is get a little bit of a feel for what people in the regime and especially in the military feel. And I -- you know, I can't claim to have a wide variety of contacts there, but the people I have talked to have given some things that I think are illuminating. One was saying that only about 10 percent of the military officers at this point still seem loyal to Gadhafi, and the rest aren't necessarily against him, but just don't want to go out on a limb for somebody they think may be about to fall off. And another, I heard about an air force unit that has just withdrawn from the fighting, and they are just not involved, and they have just decided to keep their head down and stay out of the fray.

And maybe most illuminating, a group of three vessels that were ordered to sail from Tripoli and attack Benghazi after it was taken by the rebels. And there was a confrontation among different officers in that naval group, and they -- well, they have not set sail. They haven't directly disobeyed orders, but they haven't set sail.

BLITZER: One of the tweets you just sent out, "Amazing. I hear by phone that Tajura, Libya, less than 10 miles from Tripoli" -- that's the capital -- "has fallen. Rebel flag flying over it."

If in fact that's happening right now, 10 miles from the capital, it looks like his days are numbered.

KRISTOF: Yes. That's true.

Now, I talked to somebody who saw that rebel flag. It's really the old Libyan flag flying over Tajura.

Now, other people have said that there is still fighting going on in Tajura. It may depend where exactly you are in Tajura. But Gadhafi does seem really concerned about that route in. And I just heard that he moved six tanks to the major intersection right on the edge of Tripoli coming in from the east, blocking the road completely.

So he's evidently concerned about what's coming in to Tripoli from that direction.

BLITZER: Nick Kristof, we're going to stay in close touch with you. We're going to follow your tweets at Twitter, @NickKristof, all one word.

Thanks so much. Good look over there.

KRISTOF: Hey, my pleasure.


BLITZER: The latest estimates on the death toll from the violence in Libya, plus dramatic reports about how far some troops are going there to not obey orders from Gadhafi.

We're updating you on the crisis. We're going back to Libya.

Plus, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee is accused of launching a witch hunt against Muslims. He says he's just doing his job, trying to keep Americans alive.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: A House committee chairman has scheduled hearings next month on what he calls the "radicalization of Muslim communities in the United States." Critics are calling it a witch hunt.

CNN's Mary Snow has been digging into the controversy. She's joining us now.

Mary, what's behind these hearings?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Congressman King says he's been examining radicalization in Muslim communities after what he calls an eye-opening event here in New York. Now, Muslim-Americans are challenging his claims, calling on him to look at all extremists.


SNOW (voice-over): Outside the office of New York Congressman Peter King, two sides square off over American-Muslims. This protester says they need vetting.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Stop protecting people who want to come out here and hurt us!

SNOW: But this group is upset about an upcoming congressional hearing they say will unfairly single out Muslims and breed Islamophobia.

DR. SHAIK UBAID, MUSLIM PEACE COALITION: Holding a witch hunt and political circles (ph) will not make this country secure.

SNOW: These demonstrators are calling on King, the Republican chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, to cancel hearings on radicalization in Muslim communities.

He isn't budging.

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: They are caught in a world of denial. They want to believe everyone loves each other, we can all hold hands, and Kumbaya. My job is to keep Americans alive.

SNOW: King says the biggest threat comes for within the U.S. and points to the foiled Times Square car bomb attempt as an example. He argues there's a need to examine extremism within Muslim communities and whether leaders cooperate with law enforcement. And he says his beliefs first took root in his own back yard at the Islamic Center of Long Island.

Habeed Ahmed is the chairman.

HABEED AHMED, CHAIRMAN, ISLAMIC CENTER OF LONG ISLAND: Let's get on the official record what problem, who is not cooperating, so that we go after those people to cooperate.

SNOW: The mosque is home to 400-plus members. At one time, King was a close friend. But things changed after statements made by two members in the weeks following 9/11. Ghazi Khankan says he publicly questioned whether al Qaeda was involved in the attacks.

GHAZI KHANKAN, FMR. MEMBER, ISLAMIC CENTER OF LONG ISLAND: And I said we should also investigate the possibility of Israel being involved. And that changed his opinion 100 percent.

KING: Not one person in the mosque rebuked or denounced any of those remarks. And that opened my eyes that there was a world there that I had not been fully aware of.

SNOW: Ahmed says the mosque did condemn the 9/11 attacks and that the two men don't speak for the community that holds regular interfaith services. But King says the whole episode caused him to examine other mosques and talk to law enforcement.

(on camera): You just said that you feel that the number of extremist is small. You've been quoted pretty extensively as saying that 80 percent of the mosques in the United States are run by extremists.

AHMED: Uh-huh. In 2004, I said that 80 percent of the mosques were controlled by extremists. That was based on testimony in the 2000 from Chikovani (ph) who is testifying at a state department hearing. Now, I don't know today it would be more than 80 percent. It could be less than 80 percent.


SNOW: Now, it's unclear how the Islamic scholar just mentioned came up with that 80 percent figure more than a decade ago. We did try to reach him, but he was traveling out of the country. Last year, though, a study at Duke and UNC found that mosque attendance is a significant factor in preventing radicalization -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Mary, thank you.