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JOHN KING, USA

Libyan Violence; Human Catastrophe; Military Options

Aired March 2, 2011 - 19:00   ET

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


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks Wolf and good evening everyone. The Libya political crisis turned more bloody today as the regime launched airstrikes and other attacks aimed at rebel forces in eastern Libya. Those rebels anyway for now appear to have repelled the attack and kept the oil town (INAUDIBLE), but Moammar Gadhafi remains defiant in his latest vow to fight to the death until the last man in his words came with a blunt warning to the United States and NATO.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MOAMMAR GADHAFI, LIBYAN LEADER (through translator): Libya will not be entered by America or the Atlantic pact until thick (ph) in blood. They know they will be entering hell and in a bath of blood.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The new bloodshed brought fresh calls for the United States to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. The Pentagon is resisting and on Capitol Hill today this clear explanation why from the Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: There's a lot of frankly loose talk about some of these military options and let's just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins within attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That's the way you do a no-fly zone.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's take a closer look at the map. We're going to talk more and more about those options and the risks of using U.S. military force in Libya in a moment and we'll take a very close look at those air defense systems Secretary Gates just said there would have to be targeted before there could be any no-fly zone.

But first we want to give you the latest on what right now on the ground if you look at this map amounts to a civil war playing out in Libya, a tense and brutal civil war. Look at these images. The green area controlled by opposition forces, opponents of Moammar Gadhafi. The red areas controlled by the Gadhafi regime.

If you had any doubt Gadhafi would not use force against his own people look at these dramatic images today, the dust clouds coming up from the desert because the bombs were falling down from above. You see all this play out -- these deadly bombings. Where did that play out? Right here.

CNN's Ben Wedeman is in eastern Libya in the town of Brega, and Ben, America's top military officer told the United States Congress today they have heard the reports but that they cannot confirm at the Pentagon that Moammar Gadhafi is using his Air Force to bomb his own civilians. You got a close -- a up -- too close look at just that today, did you not?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we did. We were on the road to Brega with a group of anti-Gadhafi forces who were preparing a counterattack to the town of Brega, which was the site of an all-day battle between opposition forces and the Libyan Army. We watched as a Libyan jet flew over Brega, dropped a bomb just on the edge of town then came back, flew right over our heads and dropped a bomb just about 100 feet from where we were standing.

And then later in the afternoon after Brega had been retaken by the anti-Gadhafi forces we were with another group of people including fighters and residents of the town who were celebrating the expulsion of the Libyan Army from Brega when yet again a Libyan Air Force jet flew very low over us, dropped a bomb just at the edge of the crowd. We do believe there were casualties.

We sort of rushed out of the area when this happened, but we did see men coming in the other direction carrying stretchers, so we saw with our own eyes several instances of Libyan planes bombing Libyan territories so I think there's no longer much doubt about what's going on here -- John.

KING: And explain the significance of where you are. Brega is a strategic oil town. You talk about this back and forth fighting throughout the day. Who is in control of it now and, Ben, help our viewers understand as they've watched reported in Tunisia, reporting in Egypt, those are political protests that have brought about change. This is an outright civil war now.

WEDEMAN: Yes, this has clearly become a military conflict beyond the politics of it. Now, Brega is extremely important because it has one of the biggest refineries in Libya. It's a refinery from which a lot of crude oil is exported to Europe and also natural gas, natural gas, a very important export particularly to Italy, so whoever controls that town in a sense or rather the refinery there can, for instance, cut off the flow of natural gas to the eastern part of Libya to Benghazi. That gas, natural gas is what powers the electricity as part of the country, so it's a strategic place which obviously Moammar Gadhafi would like to get control of, but that would give him huge leverage over parts of the country over which he now has no control whatsoever -- John.

KING: Ben Wedeman and his courageous crew doing great work -- Ben stay safe my friend.

You heard Ben use the word leverage there, the United States and its allies also trying to get some diplomatic and military leverage over Gadhafi. Here are some important developments today. Look at these pictures right here. This is the "USS Kearsarge". It's an amphibious assault ship. Where is it? It is moving its way through the Suez Canal, moving its way through the Suez Canal, making its way from the Red Sea into the Mediterranean so that it can come around and be part of the noose essentially the United States and its allies want to place militarily around Libya. That's the "Kearsarge" there. Also moving into the Med today the "USS Ponce", an amphibious transport dock. Again there are other ships in the Med as well. There's a carrier group down here that could make its way through. All of that designed to send a message to Moammar Gadhafi in the capital of Tripoli, but once again today Gadhafi more than defiant.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GADHAFI (through translator): If the west threatening us and doesn't want our friendship and challenge us, we will accept challenge. It's not -- it's not the first time we enter into confrontations with the west.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Colonel Gadhafi delivered those remarks in the capital of Tripoli. That's where we find our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson. And Nic, we just heard from Ben Wedeman about the fight in Brega back and forth between Gadhafi forces and anti- government forces, the anti-government forces holding the command and control at this moment there. What is the situation in the capital? Is there any doubt that Gadhafi is in charge there?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think every day right now we're just seeing that Gadhafi seems to solidify his control here and far from sort of being on the back foot as he was perhaps a week or so ago, this two and a half-hour speech today. That's him being reinvigorated, him selling his message to the country, him telling his supporters that the rebels in the east are trying to bring in international intervention. That's going to cost the country its oil. That it will cost them their jobs. He said that, you know, he's given threats to the United States that if they do come in, then there will be thousands of deaths, so I think we're seeing him reinvigorated, a long, strong speech and now this military action -- John.

KING: And so where does that leave the rebels who Nic have said they did not want foreign military assistance? They do not want international boots on the ground in Libya. If they believe Colonel Gadhafi is strengthening his hold in the capital, might that position change?

ROBERTSON: It's very hard to say where it does leave the opposition right now. But it does seem to be that Gadhafi feels stronger than he has done. I mean some of the warnings that he's given today to the rebels really rallying calls for the population. He said that anyone that brings aid into the country is -- will be committing treason so he's sort of undermining all the avenues whereby the opposition can try and build some support and get themselves to the capital -- John. KING: And what is the climate for foreign correspondents like you, Nic? In that rambling speech Gadhafi also said Libya doesn't like foreign correspondents and he criticized the work of the correspondents in the capital. Do you feel at all threatened or was that just part of his try to rally the base bluster?

ROBERTSON: He appeals to the base and the population. And that's where the risk is to the foreign correspondents here. When you're out on the streets, when you get in a pro-Gadhafi rally if you're not careful people's passions ratchet up and they listen to things like these messages so when we're out with government officials they run interference on that.

If you're out on the streets by yourself without a government official and you run into a crowd of pro-Gadhafi supporters you could expect to get roughed up a little. There was an explosion near this hotel this morning. A fuel tanker turned on its side, bust into flames. Journalists ran out of the hotel with their cameras and the first ones on the scene the first thing that happened you get pro- Gadhafi supporters out there and they're jumping on the cameramen and women, trying to wrestle their cameras away from them so this is always in the background here -- John.

KING: Nic Robertson part of our great team on the ground in Libya -- Nic, please stay safe.

By all accounts Tunisians have been gracious hosts to the thousands upon thousands of refugees streaming over their border with Libya, but there's only so much they can do. Tent cities popping up, fears growing that a humanitarian crisis could be just around the corner. Our Ivan Watson is near that border and joins us now live. Ivan, is it a crisis? Is it a catastrophe? Do they have the supplies they need, whether it be food and water or medicine?

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's definitely a crisis. And we're in the stage of this conflict right now where it's still almost overwhelmingly foreigners who are fleeing Libya but that really is quite a large number of people considering that you have more than a million estimated migrant workers from different countries around the world that are in Libya. We've seen probably 85,000 people according to the United Nations fleeing across the border to Tunisia.

Today we watched as an Egyptian naval vessel took just 1,500 -- no, 1,200 rather, Egyptian refugees out. That was described to me by some U.N. officials as just a drop in the bucket. The French government says that it's going to start sending planes and another naval vessel to move up to 5,000 Egyptians a week back to Egypt. We've seen a tent city spring up practically overnight pretty close to the border with a bunch of -- thousands of tents supplied by the U.N. High Commission of Refugees.

But they do stress that this is not enough. You're still getting about 15,000 people coming across the border every day and you only have enough air and sea lift capacity to move two to 3,000 people out and that is pushing the Tunisians, many of whom are dipping into their own pockets to help feed these hoards of strangers coming across the borders into the small towns and villages of this coastal area -- John.

KING: Ivan Watson helping us track the humanitarian crisis -- again Ivan is here in Tunisia just across the border from Libya. We'll keep in touch with Ivan -- 15,000 people a day. That's quite dramatic.

And let's get some perspective now. Joining us from Boston is CNN senior political analyst David Gergen who has advised four U.S. presidents and, David, here you have a serious crisis for the administration and what I would call a bit of obvious tension in the sense that you have leading members of Congress, you have some U.S. allies and NATO saying it is time to impose a no-fly zone, but listen to Secretary Gates today before the United States Congress essentially trying to say everybody needs to understand what you're talking about.

This is not just flying planes to say don't fly. Secretary Gates saying before you can impose the no-fly zone you have to do something quite dramatic. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GATES: A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That's the way you do a no-fly zone and then you can -- and then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: David, when you listen to that, number one, this is a defense secretary who wants to protect any American pilots or any allied pilots that could be used in this mission but, number two, he's trying to send a message, ladies and gentlemen, there are troops in Iraq, there are troops in Afghanistan. This would be an attack on a sovereign nation in a neighborhood where America is not very well liked.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Secretary Gates, as you know, John, commands enormous respect not only in Washington but around the world for his tenure as defense secretary, and I do think he speaks with great authority. I have great respect for him as I know you do. And he has been warning for a long time that we simply cannot afford financially for a president to get into another conflict especially one of this kind and he also -- he doesn't want his troops stretched too thin and I think he's very worried about where it leads elsewhere.

But at the same time there seems to be some indication from Secretary Clinton. She may be more inclined to use force and certainly there is growing pressure from various circles to do just that, to put that no-fly zone into effect. It would require U.N. agreement. It would require getting some sort of coalition and the Arab countries don't seem interested in doing it. I think Secretary Gates is particularly opposed to the U.S. going in alone because we -- the United States would be seen in the Arab world as bombing another Arab city which, you know, has all sorts of repercussions. But I have to tell you I think pressure is building to do something and the president himself is coming under increasing pressure because no one is quite sure where he stands.

KING: And David, his credibility is at risk now because they have said Gadhafi must go. They have now moved significant military resources into the neighborhood including the amphibious assault ship coming through the Suez Canal today and so you have been inside the Oval Office at times of crisis. Take us inside what the conversation would be with the president who obviously does not want to commit U.S. military force but who might be getting pressure to do just that at a time when you know the person on the other end, Ronald Reagan used military force years ago and it did -- the message did get through to Mr. Gadhafi, but in recent days he sounds erratic, incoherent, some say delusional. How does that influence the president's decision?

GERGEN: Well, I think Gadhafi's craziness doesn't so much influence it, although it does raise certain dangers of him torching the oil fields as we've discussed before. But what we don't know, John, is what the tensions are within the argument, because there may be a division within the administration. Clearly Secretary Gates leans against -- strongly leans against using military force. But it's not so clear especially starting with Secretary Clinton but there may be others who are very hard lined about this and also may see this as an opportunity, but, you know, there is -- these are crimes against humanity that Gadhafi is committing.

And it may well be that the opposition forces are going to call for air action, air support by the U.S. especially if -- you know Ben Wedeman, these dramatic moments that he went through today, nearly lost his life there. There are other people being killed. I just -- I just -- my expectation is as the week goes on if this standoff continues and Gadhafi continues to use air power, the president is going to come under more and more pressure to do something decisive.

We're all looking now to see what he's going to say tomorrow when he comes out and takes question. He has a foreign leader coming in tomorrow and he'll be facing some questions from the press. And I think people are looking for answers. So far the president -- the president risks right now looking too passive on this and on the deficits and there's a question of weakness that is beginning to re- enter the conversation. He'd overcome that in the last few months. He looked much stronger as president but right now this passivity I think is beginning to take a toll on him.

KING: Excellent insights as always from David Gergen -- David, we'll check back tomorrow after we hear from the president. Thank you. And when we come back --

GERGEN: OK, John.

KING: -- among the leading members of Congress putting pressure on the White House, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, he believes -- he believes it is time for a no-fly zone. We'll check in with him in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: So what should the United States do now and should it use its military force to impose a no-fly zone over Libya? Let's get the view of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Armed Services Committee, also an officer in the Air Force Reserve.

And Senator Graham, as we speak I'm showing our viewers closer on the map some of what would be involved in the use of American military forces. Where you see these planes here on the map that is where Libya has air bases. This is a significant base here just outside of Tripoli. Jane's Defense Weekly says it is this air base, the Nafa Air Base that has been used in recent days to use those fighter jets to launch attacks against Libyan civilians. Senator Graham, if you were president of the United States, what would you do tonight?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well it's no easy decision but I would go with a no-fly zone internationally sanctioned and the Arab League's objection kind of falls on deaf ears because a lot of people in the Arab League that make up regimes that have been the problem not the solution, so when Secretary Gates says go slow and be cautious I listen, but I can't imagine our country at this point in time with this revolution spreading through the Mideast, allowing Gadhafi to use his air assets against his people.

That would be untenable from an American perspective and I think hopefully an international perspective. So it's tough, tough decision for the president but I think history would judge him well if we denied the ability of Moammar Gadhafi to use air power to kill his own people.

(CROSSTALK)

GRAHAM: That would serve us well in the future.

KING: Let's look at the military threat first if there is one in your view and then we'll talk about diplomacy. But I want to look --

GRAHAM: OK.

KING: I want to look here and I'm showing our viewers, these are the two kind of fighter aircraft that we are told Gadhafi's regime has used against his own people, a Mirage F1 aircraft -- that's a French made jet -- and a Soviet or Russian-made fighter jet down here. We've seen that and what Secretary Gates was talking about Senator, he said before he would be willing to put the U.S. pilots at risk flying over Libya, he would want to take out the anti-aircraft system.

Do we have pictures here of two anti-aircraft systems? Both Russian made here, this they call the favorite system the S-300PMU2 (ph). You see those tubes going up and they essentially shoot up anti-aircraft and here a more traditional surface-to-air missile, again this also Russian made. You would agree with the secretary, do you not Senator Graham, that before you would put any U.S. or NATO pilots at risk you would have to launch an offensive strike against these Libyan anti-aircraft positions.

GRAHAM: Well I'm a military lawyer, not a military commander and I would put a lot of faith into what Bob Gates and our military says, General Mattis, but here's the risk we face. If we do not stop this mad man who is delusional from killing his own people with modern aircraft that we could neutralize, I think it is not in our long-term national security interest, so whatever risk we run of neutralizing their air capability, I think is smaller than the risk of sitting on the sidelines and watching this dictator thug kill his own people.

KING: And what do you think of the risk of this? We do know that he was -- he had agreed with the Bush administration and others to destroy all of his chemical weapons and his WMD. At the Rabta Chemical Weapons Facility he still has some supplies of mustard gas that are due to be destroyed later this year, but Gadhafi still has them. "A", do you think he would ever use them against his own people and "B", can you take those out safely or do you have to be on the ground to contain them, meaning can you get them from above or do you have to physically go in and get them?

GRAHAM: Well I'll leave that up to people who would know how to neutralize that threat better than I. You have to assume the worst, but the worst-case scenario for me is for the international community to sit on the sidelines and allow this man to use air power against his own people and prolong this. You're into a standoff now where he has control of Tripoli to some extent and the idea that American air power internationally sanctioned, if I'm a Libyan pilot, it would really be a test of how much I like Gadhafi, because trust me, there is no Libyan air asset that can stand up to our Air Force or our Navy.

There is no anti-aircraft system in Libya that we can't neutralize. We spend a lot of money to defend our nation and we've got a lot of capability. So Libya pilots should be more worried than anybody and I hope the president will announce sooner rather than later that the Libyan Air Force and air assets will be destroyed if they're used against the Libyan people. There is a risk to do that, but the greater risk is to sit on the sidelines and not do things that you can do that would be seen in the future as a good thing to have done.

KING: Well do you believe the president is being too timid?

GRAHAM: I think the president has got a tough decision. It's easy for me to criticize. He's being briefed about the complexities of this operation, but he has really got to understand where this is going. It is going to the point that the standoff is going to result -- the longer this lasts, the more powerful in a way Gadhafi gets because he gets crazier and more desperate.

The sooner you can end this the better and if you took air capability away from this regime that would weaken the regime tremendously and hopefully people inside the Army and the Air Force would begin to turn on him because their country's future is hopeless in the hands of this fanatic and to let the Libyan Air Force know that you're not going to be able to fly and kill your own people is a step in the right direction. It makes Gadhafi weaker, the Libyan people stronger, and they won't forget our help.

KING: And what would it do in the neighborhood if the United States used military force in a North African country, an Arab country? What would the diplomatic fallout be? How would the Iranians try to take advantage of, for example? Would -- we know the Saudis and the Bahrainis would likely be nervous.

GRAHAM: Well the one thing I can tell you is that the Iranians when they criticize us coming to the aid of protesters probably won't go down bad with the protesters. The Iranians are killing their own citizens. People in the Mideast do have some awareness of the world and the conditions in which they live. They wouldn't be in the streets if they didn't know the difference between Moammar Gadhafi and freedom and justice.

So any time you're standing up for people and supporting them against a thug and a dictator, I think overall you're going to do well and when Iran complains about America to the Libyan people, the Libyan people understand the difference between the ayatollahs and Iran and people coming to their aid by humanitarian assistance and providing air cover, so Iran's not going to exploit this problem. Quite frankly, this is their worst nightmare that Libya would be successful in overthrowing Moammar Gadhafi. That's what they're worried about.

KING: Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, sir, I appreciate your insights tonight. We'll keep in touch.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

KING: And ahead for us tonight, the longer the Libya crisis drags on the more of a threat it is to the fragile U.S. economic recovery. We'll connect the dots.

Also, the prominent conservative former Senator Rick Santorum began this work day as a FOX News contributor, contractually barred from talking to us at CNN. He'll end it, as you can see, right here live next. Welcome.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: We are the first stop tonight for a likely contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination who until today was not allowed to sit down with any TV network not named FOX. But FOX News suspended its contributor contracts with the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum today because both are openly exploring presidential campaigns. Senator Santorum is with us now live.

RICK SANTORUM (R), FORMER SEN., PENNSYLVANIA: Thank you, John.

KING: Welcome to the land of freedom and, we like to think, objectivity.

SANTORUM: It's nice to be here. Thank you.

KING: So, FOX essentially said since you and Newt are exploring this and moving around and scheduling yourself with forums and the like that you can't be on the payroll as contributors, which is wise by FOX News. But they also said they will terminate that deal as of May 1st. It's suspended for now. On May 1st, they will terminate it unless you have given their word that you are not running.

So, does that speed up your decision process?

SANTORUM: No. I mean, it doesn't really affect my decision process at all. I sort of look at it as -- I've very been up front about -- you know, that I'm looking at this and exploring it. And it's not going to -- it's not going to have any impact on what I'm hearing in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina, you know, how our fundraisers are going. All the things that when you test the waters you have to test to see how you're doing really are quite separate than media appearances on FOX.

KING: I asked Governor Huckabee about this last week. He's on a book tour. So, I was allowed to talk to him.

(CROSSTALK)

SANTORUM: -- caveat, John.

KING: Do you guys ever interact? I was joking with him. Do you have debates in the green room? Because you have Huckabee, Gingrich, Santorum, Palin, maybe John Bolton.

SANTORUM: Right.

KING: Do you interact at all. Do you have fun exchanges about who might be out there?

SANTORUM: You know, I don't -- I don't see Mike very often. But, yes, I see Newt quite a bit. I've seen -- I see John Bolton all the time.

And, no, I mean, it's actually -- you know, it's -- as you know, I mean, you cover campaigns. There's a sense when you're involved in an effort even though there's a rivalry, there's also a camaraderie that comes with it.

And I think everyone has the same objective, which is we want to have a new president in 2013. And I think at this point, that's really the focus.

KING: I want to get some substance of Rick Santorum but a FOX executive told "The L.A. Times" today, well, they didn't do the same thing to Governor Palin or to Governor Huckabee because any see no evidence at the moment that they are actively taking steps to explore. Do you think they're going to run?

SANTORUM: I don't know. I mean, I don't know what, why FOX differentiated whether there's been conversations. They didn't talk to me and ask me whether I'm running or not. It wasn't something that we had a conversation about. I don't know whether other people have had conversations.

And so, all I can say is I think they made their call and I respect it. KING: What would Rick Santorum's place in a Republican field be? Help me understand it. One prospective rival would be the governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, who is a social conservative.

SANTORUM: Yes.

KING: But has said, you know what, with the deficit problem we have, with the polarized politics we have, it's time to have a truce on issues like abortion and gay rights. Just set them aside for a few years, focus on fiscal areas. That sells with Rick Santorum?

SANTORUM: No, it doesn't. I mean, to me, I look at almost every issue that we deal with in this country has a moral component to it. And so, to divorce a moral component to the debt burden we're leaving the next generation, the tax structure to how we spend our money in Washington, and how we -- you know, how we value human life -- I mean, all of those things, to me interrelate. They're not -- they're not separate issues.

I mean, I'm a big fan of Ronald Reagan, but think the concept of the three-legged stool of the Republican Party I think is a little amiss. I mean, the fabric of the stool is America is a moral enterprise. I mean, we are a people who believe in certain things and want to see a society in a certain way. We have common shared values. And those values are morally based.

So, I think to say we're going to need to set that aside just -- I think fundamentally misunderstands what America is about.

KING: A college student a week or so questioned the morality of Newt Gingrich, raising the fact that he has been married three time, divorced twice. Is that an issue in Iowa? Is than an issue for Rick Santorum?

SANTORUM: It's not an issue for Rick Santorum. It's a -- you know, every candidate out there or potential candidate out there is going to have issues. I mean, you know, they don't -- they don't make them perfect anymore. And so, I'm going to just go out and talk about, you know, what I have done in my career, what I stand for, what I'm about, and let the other folks do the same. And I think that's the best way we're going to get the best possible person to face off in 2012.

KING: We'll have a lot of time to talk now because you can talk to us. And so, I want to essentially use this as a threshold, set a baseline for Rick Santorum.

SANTORUM: Yes.

KING: And then we'll keep in touch as you make your decision. But explain to somebody watching there right now that says, I think I might remember this guy. He was in the Senate but he's been off the radar a little bit.

Why, when you look at -- there's Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, maybe Sarah Palin, maybe Newt Gingrich -- forget all them for a minute. Rick Santorum is the most qualified to be president. Why?

SANTORUM: Well, as far as qualifications are concerned, I served 16 years in Congress, four in the House and 12 in the United States Senate.

KING: But is there an overriding message of Rick Santorum beyond the resume that makes you the superior candidate?

SANTORUM: Well, you asked qualifications, so I answered qualifications. But as far as overwhelming -- yes, I've been a consistent conservative on all the issues that I think people care about when it wasn't cool to be that.

You know, I was out there fighting the reform battles that a lot of the Tea Party people are fighting right now. I was leading the charge on Social Security reform when it wasn't cool to do it back in 1995 and '97.

I went on with Bill Clinton to Kansas City, Missouri, and lead the charge with Bill Clinton trying to -- this was before, unfortunately, the Monica Lewinsky situation, where they were trying to do some serious things about entitlement.

And I was out there as a freshman Republican in the state that had the highest per capital population of seniors, Pennsylvania, leading the charge on Medicare and Social Security reform. I survived an election after that. I didn't survive a second one, but -- because I went out in 2004 and did the same thing when Bill -- excuse me when George W. Bush said we're going to reform Social Security.

Jim DeMint and I went out there, did debates on the floor of the United States Senate, talked about how we had to do Social Security reform.

So, I've been out there trying to control government spending and at the same time, have been a very, very strong pro-growth guy. I mean, I've worked on tax reform and other types of litigation reform, regulatory reform, reforming government to create a better atmosphere for businesses in this country.

So, on the issues that are sort of the front burner issues, I think I have a pretty good solid record and the interesting thing is I think where I maybe differentiate myself is I have a record on other issues that people care about too -- national security. I served eight years on the Armed Services Committee. I was author of two major pieces of foreign policy legislation, both of which in the Middle East, Iran, Freedom Support Act, and the Syrian Accountability Act.

And, you know, really led the charge on trying to articulate at a time when I think the prior president and this president have shied away from identifying the enemy and talk about who the enemy is and why we need to know who the jihadists are and why they're at war with us, I've been touring the country -- not just Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but other states, talking about the importance of the ideological war, the war that -- of ideas which I think is important for America to know about if we're going to continue to sustain this long war.

KING: I want you to listen. You've been very tough on the current president of the United States. I want you to listen to this from your speech to CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. Just a short time ago, you're talking about how this is -- American exceptionalism is a term that comes up often from critics of the president. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: If everyone is exceptional, nobody is exceptional. The president of the United States -- let's just be very clear -- he doesn't believe America is exceptional.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: He bristled with this when you bring it up, and he says it's frankly horse manure.

SANTORUM: Well, I just go to his quote. When he was asked the question, "Do you believe in American exceptionalism," the president said, yes, as much as the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greece believe in Greek exceptionalism. If everybody is exceptional, nobody is exceptional.

KING: His response to that would be that he delivered that quote at a time Wall Street, the United States' financial markets had essentially collapsed the world economy and put the world at risk, and he was trying to be diplomatic early in his presidency. That is how he explains that one time he said that. Do you buy that?

SANTORUM: I don't. I mean, look, America, at points in times in our history, has always had problems -- but doesn't make the foundational principles of America anything but exceptional. And so, when you -- when your belief in American exceptionalism depends on how we're doing today, then you don't understand what America is all about and you don't believe it's at its core America is exceptional.

KING: Senator Santorum, we'll keep in touch in the days and weeks ahead.

SANTORUM: Thank you, John.

KING: I'm glad you can come in and say hello to us. Thank you for being here.

SANTORUM: Thank you.

KING: Still to come here, the Libya crisis and your price at the pump. More and more worries now, rising energy costs might stall the recovery.

And next, a look at the day's biggest headlines including in new charges against the Army private believed to be the big source of WikiLeaks and big Supreme Court ruling that leads families disappointed. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

This just in to CNN: A Democratic source informed of the decision tells CNN Democratic Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii will not run for another term.

News from Libya today, CNN's Ben Wedeman witnessed Libyan planes dropping bombs on civilians.

Here in Washington, Army prosecutors filed 22 more charges against Private Bradley Manning. He allegedly downloaded secret U.S. documents and gave them to WikiLeaks.

Former President George W. Bush on Capitol Hill today for the unveiling of a portrait honoring the former Senator Republican leader Bill Frist.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: I can assure you, Bill, that we are delighted to be here to watch you hang.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: And in a free speech ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court says members of Westboro Church have the right to stage anti-gay protests at military funerals.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the eight-to-one majority, quote, "Westboro believes that America is morally flawed. Americans might feel the same about Westboro. Westboro's funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contributions to public discourse may be negligible. But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property in a peaceful manner in full compliance with the guidance of local officials."

Let's get some insight now from our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

And, Jeff, first, a bit more of the decision from the majority today written by Chief Justice John Roberts. He wrote, quote, "Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow. And as it did here, inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that by punishing the speaker."

You're the legal expert. But my base translation of that is the Supreme Court is saying you can be a jerk in America as long as you're not disrupting, you know, public civility and public safety.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: I think that's about sums it up. You know, John, this is a painful case. It's a disturbing case, but it's also kind of an easy case because, you know, what you have here are people expressing political opinions in a way that did not disrupt anybody else. And that is at the core of what the courts have said the First Amendment is all about.

KING: Because of the controversy about Westboro Baptist Church, this case received a lot of attention. Does the decision do anything to expand, retract, change First Amendment law at all, or was it just, as you say, a pretty easy one?

TOOBIN: You know what? I don't think it changes it at all. You know, I always feel bad for the Baptists when I hear about this case because the Westboro Baptist Church is not Baptist and it's not a church. It's one crazy family, the Snyder family. The protest here was the old man Snyder, two of his kids and four of his grandchildren. That was the Westboro Baptist Church.

They are really awful people. They do terrible things. They are mean. They are cruel. But First Amendment says you can be that way.

KING: It does. And, as you know, this case -- a lot of political debate about this case, not just a legal debate about this case. And after the decision came out, Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, perhaps a future presidential president, tweeted this, Jeff -- and she said. "Common sense and decency absent as wacko church allowed hate messages spewed at soldiers' funerals but we can't invoke God's name in the public square."

The government can't invoke God's name in the public square. But is there anything stopping you or me or Governor Palin or any individual in American from invoking God in the public square?

TOOBIN: No. I mean, that is just as protected by the First Amendment as this speech by the Snyders here. You know, I think people sometimes think that these issues are more complicated than they are.

The only restriction on religious expression is religious expression by governments. Individuals can express all sorts of views. They can talk about God. They can talk about politics and it's generally the outsiders, the Nazis, the KKK, the anarchists, the communists, whose cases wind up before the Supreme Court, not the Democrats and Republicans, because they don't need the First Amendment. No one is trying to censure them.

KING: Thank God for that. Jeff Toobin, thanks.

TOOBIN: OK, John.

KING: Is "Newt, Incorporated" getting in the way of the former speaker's presidential campaign? Coming up, we'll take a look at Gingrich's collection of money raising organizations.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: This time last night, loyalists of the former Speaker Newt Gingrich said that on Thursday, tomorrow, he would be announcing the formation of a presidential exploratory committee. But tonight, they tell us not so fast. Now, why?

We do know FOX News suspended his consultant deal with them today because he's so close to exploring. Loyalists to the Speaker Gingrich say there's one reason he's not ready to go is because he has a complicated web -- I'll call it "Newt, Inc." -- of organizations he's affiliated with.

The Gingrich's group, his consulting group he founded back in 1999. Gingrich productions, he makes films and movies, including some documentaries, that's that group. The Americano is Latino outreach. Newt.org has been a political organization. The Center for Health Transformation, that's a policy organization, as you guess, health care.

You see American Solutions, that's more policy. Renewing American Leadership. A number of groups, some fundraising, some tax- exempt organizations that his loyalists say he needs to work out the letterhead, if you will, command and control, so that if he runs for president and starts raising money, there are no legal issues with any of these groups.

Well, let's add CNN contributors James Carville and Erick Erickson for a conversation about all things 2012.

And, James, you've been through this before. When Governor Clinton did it, he didn't have the web of activity groups that Newt has. But they're essentially trying to make clear that when he runs, that these other organizations, some of them will probably shut down. Others will be left in other hands. It's not easy to do.

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, and I think part of it is, too -- as I saw Newt, the speaker out there, too, probably making a fair amount of money right now, and like Governor Huckabee, doesn't want to jump in to soon to dry up that income. I don't say that's critically. I'd say it as on observation.

FOX is kind of -- FOX ices you if you're going to run for president. CNN iced Paul and I just because we were supporting sometimes of presidents. It just--

(LAUGHTER)

KING: So, don't --

CARVILLE: It shows you the difference between the two networks.

KING: Well, don't endorse Newt then.

You know, Erick --

CARVILLE: No, I don't. I endorsed Palin. So, Rick Davis, please don't ice me for that.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: That's OK. Erick, you know, we're waiting for Speaker Gingrich. We assume he's going to run and he's just taking care of some of his business there. You heard Senator Santorum who was with us a few moments ago. He was told, they suspended -- his contributor deal with FOX suspended today because he's close to exploring.

That decision essentially telling Newt and Senator Santorum, you know, you have to go right now, it begs the question what about Governor Huckabee, what about Governor Palin? Have they told the boss at FOX maybe something that leads them to think we don't need to tell them to go?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, you know, there had been reports that Sarah Palin had been making inroads and outreach to Iowa and other places, but I can tell you just from my dealings at "Red State" and elsewhere, that I have not seen the level of engagement for a presidential exploratory run with either Sarah Palin or John Bolton or several of the others, Mike Huckabee included, that I have seen from both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, which leads me to believe either Gingrich and Santorum were just laying groundwork a lot earlier. Santorum probably because of name ID or the others aren't running.

KING: That's -- we still have to play out the rest of the FOX factor, if you will. I talked to somebody close to a lot of big Republican fundraisers. I asked them on a scale of one to 10 how much activity has Governor Palin made, and he said zero. So, we'll watch that one plays out.

James Carville, a former governor of your state, Buddy Roemer, who was Democrat turned Republican, is going to announce his Republican presidential exploratory committee tomorrow. Is that a serious candidacy?

CARVILLE: Well, I know Governor Roemer, a friend of mine. (INAUDIBLE) if he had any chance to get a nomination (INAUDIBLE). Let's just say the day before he's going to announce, he's got -- he's got his work cut out for him. Obviously, he's got a lot of work to do if he's going to get up and be part of the -- sort of front running team. But you got to give the guy a chance.

KING: There seems to be, Erick, and this is your party, some early dissatisfaction and that's not uncommon, I don't want to beat up on any of these prospective candidates. It happens every four years. But listen to something Senator Santorum told us a bit earlier about his view of the field.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: Every candidate out there or potential candidate out there is going to have issues. I mean, you know, they don't make them perfect anymore. And so, I'm going to just go out and talk about, you know, what I have done in my career, what I stand for, what I'm about, and let the other folks do the same. And I think that's the best way we're going to get the best possible person to face off in 2012.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: "A," what did you think of seeing him here for the first time? But "B," what's the incoming to "Red State" and in your emails and phone conversations with activists across the country about what they see in this group so far?

ERICKSON: Well, no one is mentioning Buddy Roemer. I'm still hang up on that one. I remember campaigning for him in ninth grade and he lost to Edwin Edwards by the way in that reelection.

You know, people are excited. There's a lot of buzz for Sarah pa Palin. There's a lot of buzz from Mike Huckabee. But these are their traditional supporters that they've always had. Most of the conservatives that I talk to around the country are still -- they're still almost on the "Can we get Mike Pence back in?" They're not very excited.

Chris Christie raised some buzz. Scott Buzzer does. But these are flash in the fan levels of excitement. Nothing is sustaining so far.

KING: So, what do you do, James, if Governor Palin doesn't run? Who's your candidate?

CARVILLE: Well, I don't know. But if everybody is pining for Mike Pence to get back in, I don't know. I'm a little --

ERICKSON: It does.

CARVILLE: I'm a little disappointed. I was -- I was anxious for this production to get started. I wanted all of them to run and get out there. I'm ready for it to go.

You know, but it's happening -- a lot of people are backing off. Now, whatever the reason one doesn't know, but maybe it is that President Obama is not quite as vulnerable as he looked like in early November of 2010. I don't know, but usually the way the political marketplace works is the way the economic marketplace works. If people are not buying the stock, they generally have some reservation about it.

KING: The Carville --

(CROSSTALK)

ERICKSON: I think they want everyone else to walk in front of the Romney machine guns first.

KING: There you go. It's the Carville theory on supply and demand.

CARVILLE: If we only get Pence in there, we'll be fine.

KING: James and Erick, we'll talk to you again soon. Thanks.

When we come back, Libya and your price at the pump. Stay right there.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Crude closed over $100 a barrel. Gas at the pump now $340 and going up. What that does causes a drop in consumer confidence. That drop in the confidence could affect long term economic recovery. More on that tomorrow.

"IN THE ARENA" right now.