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Interview With House Majority Leader Eric Cantor; Calls for Military Action in Libya; Congress Averts Government Shutdown for Now; Mickey Rooney Goes to Washington; Gadhafi Bombs Rebel-Held Town

Aired March 2, 2011 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Brooke, thanks very much.

Happening now, CNN is there as bombs fall and fighting rages in the streets of Libya. An unflinching Moammar Gadhafi brutally battling to seize back one town from the hands of rebels.

Plus, the debate intensifying over whether the United States should intervene militarily in the crisis -- why the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is now pushing for a no fly zone over Libya.

And President Obama vows to spare no effort getting to the bottom of what he calls an outrageous attack -- an attack that left two American troops in Germany dead.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


But we begin with the latest developments in the Libyan crisis right now. The disgraced leader, Moammar Gadhafi, refusing to take any blame from the deadly bloodshed now crippling his country. In yet another rambling speech, Gadhafi insisted there's no reason for him to step down.


MOAMMAR GADHAFI, LIBYAN LEADER (through translator): I mean that when somebody sees these demonstrations, Gadhafi is wanted and the Libyan people are defending him, asking Gadhafi to -- to resign. He has not -- he hasn't got a position to resign from. He's a symbol of the Libyan people.


BLITZER: Here in Washington, the secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is cautioning lawmakers while there could be some military role for the United States in the region, the Arab League, at least for now, has rejected any so-called foreign interference.

Let's go straight to Benghazi in Libya right now.

That's where CNN's senior international correspondent, Ben Wedeman, is standing by -- Ben, you were there in the town of Al Brega today where you and your crew narrowly -- narrowly got out alive. What happened?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we were covering, basically, this big battle that was going on in Brega. In the early morning of the hours, we were told dozens of Toyota pickup trucks full of troops and heavy weaponry entered the town, essentially took over a large part of it. And, of course, that sparked a battle where forces opposed to Moammar Gadhafi converged on that area and prepared for a counterattack.

We were with one of those groups on the main road when we saw a Libyan air force jet flying over Brega, dropping one bomb near the town, then coming back, flying very low over where we were, next to these fighters. And it dropped another bomb, which just landed very near to where we were standing.

In this case, nobody was hit, but this was an obvious target for the air force looking in the area, trying to stop any counterattack.

Later in the day, after anti-Gadhafi forces were able to take over Brega, we were with another group of people -- fighters, as well as local residents -- who were celebrating the victory when, yet again, another Libyan air force jet flew very low over our heads, dropping another bomb near this crowd.

In this case, we believe there were casualties. But we were in such a rush to leave the area, we weren't able to confirm this. We did see, however, medics rushing in with stretchers.

So clearly, the Libyan air force is dropping bombs in Libyan territory and, in this case, on Libyans -- fellow Libyans -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ben, Benghazi, the second largest city in Libya right now, firmly in control by the opposition to Gadhafi.

But are the folks there where you are bracing for a full scale military offensive from Gadhafi's troops?

WEDEMAN: Certainly in Benghazi, they are making plans in the event that Gadhafi's troops move into this area.

What we saw is that really closer to the front lines, there's a frantic effort to prepare defenses. We were outside the town of Ajdabiya, which is about a 40 minute drive from Brega, where we saw hundreds of people cleaning weapons. There's been sort of a defensive perimeter put around the town, next to the main road. They were testing their anti-aircraft guns, testing anti-tank guns, as well.

Hundreds of people are flocking to the area to join the defenses. So certainly, the atmosphere, which was kind of relaxed, in this area has really -- the tensions have been ratcheted up now that we have evidence that Moammar Gadhafi is not only trying to reestablish control of the cities in the eastern part -- in the western part of the country, but he's also starting to move toward the west -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ben Wedeman, be careful over there.

We'll check back with you.

Ben is in Benghazi.

More now on that nearly two-and-a-half hour speech from Gadhafi, which included a stern warning to the United States against getting involved in the chaos.


GADHAFI (through translator): Libya will not be entered by America or the Atlantic Pact until they sink in blood. They know they will be entering hell and in a bath of blood. They will sink more than -- what will happen to them will, in Libya, will be more than what happened to them in Iraq or Afghanistan.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson.

He's in Tripoli.

He was at the speech.

He's joining us now live -- Nic, was this another simple ramble expose, if you will, by Gadhafi, a little bit more normal than what he said yesterday or was it just vintage Gadhafi?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think this was Gadhafi going on the offensive, far from throwing in the towel and giving up here. A two-and-a-half hour speech -- longer than some of his other speeches. The symbolism was all there. It was carried live on national TV.

When he walked into the room and crowds of his supporters gathered around him, chanting for him and he literally stood waving his hands in the air and taking all this adulation for about 10 minutes before he even sat down and started speaking.

And he had a number of threats, not only for the United States, as we heard there, but for the rebels. On the one hand, telling the rebels just -- there's gunfire going on in the background here in the middle of Tripoli, by the way. Not only telling the rebels that they should put down their weapons and they wouldn't face charges, that they could still sort of stop the fighting, if they wanted to, which was strange, because at the same time he was attacking and bombing them in the east of the country, as Ben Wedeman was witnessing.

But also, he was setting them up -- setting the rebels up for the rest of the Libyans to see them as trouble makers. He was saying it was the rebels that want to invite international intervention, it's the rebels that want colonialism back in -- in Libya. It's the rebels, he said, that will be giving your oil away to the United States, to the Europeans, to the Italians. So really undermining support -- any support the rebels might find in the rest of the country and building his own support. So really he was on the offensive here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: When you say, Nic, you -- you're hearing gunfire right now in Tripoli, it's getting close to midnight over there.

Is -- I thought it was relatively quiet, the streets were pretty deserted in Tripoli.

What's going on?

ROBERTSON: Wolf, It's hard to tell. This is sort of, I would say, medium to heavy machine gun fire. And we heard some about 20 minutes ago. It's going on just over my shoulder, in the distance there. It would have to be, I would say, less than a mile or so away.

I'm hearing several guns firing, not on automatic but quite a -- quite a number of shots going out -- volleys of them going off.

It's continuing right there right now. It's very hard for us to tell, where we are, what's happening.

What we do know is, is that on previous evenings, when the police and the army here want to stop anti-Gadhafi protesters getting out of their neighborhoods, they will they will use -- they will use guns. They will drive through neighborhoods and fire those guns if they think protesters are about to come out. So that may be what it is.

But from where we stand right now, Wolf, we just can't tell.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson, we're going to check back with you.

Thanks very much.

Nic is on the scene for us in Tripoli.

We'll go back there and we'll check back with Ben. Obviously, lots happening in Libya right now. These are decisive moments.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, pushing back against mounting pressure to impose a military no fly zone over Libya -- why one U.S. official says it's, quote, "an extraordinarily complex situation."

Plus, gas prices soaring right now, as the crisis in Libya intensifies.

Is it -- is it now time now for the United States to tap into its emergency oil reserve to soften the blow at the pump?

And an estimated 18,000 refugees crowded into a tent city near the Libyan border, as a full blown humanitarian crisis is unfolding.

Lots happening today right here today in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Gunfire in Tripoli, Libya right now. We're going back there.

But let's check in with Jack Cafferty right now.

He's looking ahead to the race for the White House.

It's never too early, Jack, as you and I agree, to look ahead to the race for the White House.


Yes, this is for you, Wolf.

There's no clear favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, according to a recent Gallup Poll.

Nobody has said they're running yet, either. Former House speaker, Newt Gingrich, is flirting with the idea of running. Other names that have been circulating for months -- Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, even a dark horse like U.S. ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman.

One name, though, that's getting an increasing amount of buzz over the last few months, particularly in this climate of tough budget talk and skyrocketing debts, is New Jersey governor, Chris Christie.

The first term governor is being credited as the leader of the current wave of spending cuts to state budgets that's now going on in other states, being led by other governors. And because of that, a lot of Republicans want to see Christie run for president. Christie has repeatedly said he's not going to do it.

But he said that's not because he doesn't think he can win. Au contraire. In an interview with the "National Review," the New Jersey governor said this. Quote: "I have people calling me and saying to me, let me explain to you how you could win. And I'm like, you're barking up the wrong tree. I already know I could win. That's not the issue," unquote.

You've got to love that.

Christie also said that because he's not personally ready to be president, he would only hurt the Republican Party if he were elected and the country as a whole.

Not even two years into his first term as governor of New Jersey, Christie says he's still learning every day.

He's also teaching some other people a few things while he's learning.

The question is this, New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, said, "I could win the White House."

Do you believe him?

Go to and post a comment on my blog -- Wolf. BLITZER: I don't know if he could win, but he's certainly a rising star in the GOP right now. A lot of folks are looking to him. But he's making it clear. He, at one point, Jack, said he'd rather commit suicide than run for president right now.

CAFFERTY: He's my governor. I hope he doesn't do that.

BLITZER: I hope he doesn't do that, either.


BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much.

Jack will be back.

Let's get back to our top story right now, the breaking news in Libya. We're hearing gunfire right now in Tripoli, the capital.

Let's discuss what's going on with Fareed Zakaria.

He is the host of "FAREED ZAKARIA GROUPS," which airs on Sundays. He's got a special Sunday night we'll talk about in a moment, as well -- Fareed, should the United States, as John Kerry, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee is now suggesting, impose a no fly zone over Libya?

FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": I -- I think it's dangerous for the United States to do it unilaterally. Even in Libya, you see and you hear many of the people -- many of the things we've all heard on CNN -- people saying we don't want foreign intervention, we don't want an American invasion, we don't want to become another Iraq.

The danger is that you will give -- hand Gadhafi a very powerful weapon, which is a kind of an -- anti-imperial, anti-US nationalist weapon in his arsenal, to rally supporters, to make it seem as though he's defending Libya. So I would be careful about it. I think that one strategy that might be very interesting to pursue is the Arab League has talked about imposing a no-fly zone. Amir Moussa, the head of the Arab League has said that this is under active consideration.

If the Arab League could -- could propose it or in effect put it down on paper, of course they don't have the five power to enforce it, then the United States or NATO could come in as an assisting force, but I think for the United States to do it unilaterally.

It seems to me at this stage it risks an awful lot, and as -- as Secretary Gates has pointed out, this is a very complex operation. You're talking about taking out all the air defenses. You're talking about, you know, fairly active process. It's not just sending out a signal no planes should fly and that would be the end of it.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: You heard Ben Wedeman in Benghazi saying the rebels there came under attack today from Gadhafi's troops from the ground and from the air. Lieberman, Joe Lieberman says arm those rebels right now. Should the U.S., others in Europe, the Arab world, if you will, start arming the rebels?

ZAKARIA: I think that's a more plausible scenario because, quite frankly, that can be done without -- without the traces that it came directly from the United States or without it seeming that the United States is doing it.

Let me put it this way. We're at this point half pregnant in our policy with Libya. We are now opposed to Gadhafi. We have asked for him to leave, but he still controls the army. He still controls the weaponry of that country, and he still has one or two very powerful tribes that back him and parts of his military organization, the paramilitary which has most of the guns.

So if we're going to try and do something to affect our policy, that is to say to make it succeed, we're going to have to do more than sit on our hands because if things continue as -- as they are going now, the likelihood is that Gadhafi will be able to beat back this -- this rebellion.

After all, he has most of the guns. He has the firepower. He has the air power. The balance of power is unequally tilted in his favor, and we would have to do something to regress that balance.

BLITZER: I've spoken with officials in the Obama administration, very senior officials, and they say as worrisome for the U.S. is what's happening in Libya right now, they are really worried about what's happening in Yemen right now. That a government that may be pro-U.S., if you will, could be overthrown, and there's a major al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula presence in Yemen right now. How concerned should be the U.S. be about Yemen?

ZAKARIA: Yemen is certainly much more important strategically than Libya precisely because it does seem to be the place that al Qaeda elements and radical terrorists have gathered, because the president was cooperating with -- remember, the odd thing about Libya is while it's -- while chaos would be bad, it can't be much worse than Gadhafi, you know.

He was an anti-American rogue regime that had sponsored terrorism for 30 years, whereas in the case of Yemen, for Yemen to become Somalia, it would be a major step backwards for the United States in the fight on terror. So you've got, you know, so many cards moving simultaneously.

And you also have, of course, the issues of what's going to happen in Bahrain, potentially what might happen with any protests in Iran, so I -- I think that they are right to focus on Yemen. My sense is that -- that the president understands he's got a move. The question is will he move fast enough to do something to alleviate these pressures.

BLITZER: Fareed has got a major special coming up Sunday night. We're going to talk a lot about that tomorrow. I know you're coming back, Fareed. Thanks very much.

Let me let our viewers know right now. Check out Fareed's special, "Restoring the American Dream, Getting Back to Number One." That will air this Sunday night 8:00 p.m. Eastern only here on CNN. "Restoring the American Dream."

Thousands, thousands of civilians are now fleeing Libya as the unrest continues and escalates. That's creating dangerous conditions across the border. We're going live to Tunisia right on the border.

And CNN has new information. Can Moammar Gadhafi actually hang on? We're taking an in-depth look at the Libyan leader's hold on power.


BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM right now, including a crucial vote in the Senate. What happened?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, the Senate followed the House's lead today and staved off a government shutdown, for now. Voting to fund the federal government through March 18th.

The measure signed into law by President Obama just within the last hour cleared the Senate by a 91-9 vote. It cuts $4 billion from current spending levels.

The 90-year-old actor Mickey Rooney is in Washington today. He testified before the senate Special Committee on Aging, speaking out on an issue close to his heart, elder abuse. Listen to his impassioned plea.


MICKEY ROONEY, ACTOR: For years I suffered silently. I didn't want to tell anybody. I couldn't muster the courage, and you have to have courage to -- I need help, and I knew I need it. Even when I tried to speak up, I was told to shut up and be quiet. You don't know what you're talking about.

It seemed that no one, no one wanted to believe me, but, ladies and gentlemen, I want you to know that I -- I never give up. I continue to share my story with others. I told them about the abuse I and my family have suffered, and I'm now taking -- I'm now taking steps to right all the wrongs.


SYLVESTER: Compelling testimony. Rooney filed the case last month against his stepson alleging verbal, emotional and financial abuse. Lawmakers say they hope Rooney's testimony will encourage other victims to speak out.

And the convicted assassin of Robert F. Kennedy is facing a California parole board right now. The 66-year-old Sirhan Sirhan is serving a life sentence for the 1968 killing. This is his 14th attempt at parole. It's the first time in nine years he's appeared before the board. Two psychologists say he no longer poses to a threat to society. So we will see what happens to that, Wolf.

BLITZER: Powerful statement from Mickey Rooney, I applaud him for doing it.

SYLVESTER: Yes, coming forward, certainly takes a lot of courage.

BLITZER: Yes, it certainly does. All right, 90 years old, too. Pretty good shape, it looks like. Thank you.

New calls on Capitol Hill for the United States to take military action in the Libyan crisis right now, but the Pentagon is pushing back, we're going to tell you why.

And gas prices soaring as the crisis in Libya intensifies. Is it now time for the United States to tap into its emergency oil reserve to soften the blow at the pump for everyone in the country?


BLITZER: New air attacks today by pro Gadhafi forces including the bombing of a rebel-held town in eastern Libya. It's new fuel for those who say the United States should impose a no-fly zone over Libya. A lot of heated debate happening here in Washington, including on Capitol Hill.

Let's go to the House Majority Leader right now, Eric Cantor, the Republican of Virginia. I want to talk about this. I want to talk about money, politics, but first of all, the no-fly zone. John Kerry, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, says the U.S. has to do it right now. What do you think?

REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR (R) VIRGINIA: You know, Wolf, I mean, obviously all of us are very concerned about what we see unfolding in Libya. You know, Moammar Gadhafi is someone who has demonstrated an unbelievable disregard for innocent life, something that strikes at the core of who we are as Americans.

We don't tolerate such behavior. I think it's very important for us to make -- make our position known the way the White House has, the way that Senator Kerry, Senator Clinton have in terms of making sure Mr. Gadhafi is gone.

But, you know, it's also very important for us to know what the opposition movement in Libya needs in terms of trying to restore some order so that we can see a return to some -- some type of norm so that perhaps we can grow the freedom and democracy that seems to be sprouting throughout the Middle East.

BLITZER: Are you open to arming the opposition? They came under fierce attack from Gadhafi's forces in Benghazi today. Would that be something you'd be open to? CANTOR: Well, I think that the -- really the direction needs to come from the administration as they are trying to discern what it is the opposition needs in Libya. And we are obviously open to discussing that with the administration and providing what is necessary so that we can get Mr. Gadhafi on his way.

BLITZER: So at least on this issue I take it, Mr. Leader, you have confidence in the president of the United States?

CANTOR: I do think that we're working and should work with the administration in terms of executing policies that promote U.S. security interests in the region, as well as fostering an environment where we can see the loss of innocent life stop and the spread of more freedom.

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about money and the budget, the national debt.

You passed, the president signed into law a two-week extension of this year's budget. In his signing statement he said, "Living with the threat of a shutdown though every few weeks is not responsible and it puts our economic progress in jeopardy."

He wants the vice president, the budget director, to meet with you, the congressional leadership, tomorrow and come up with a long- term plan. Are you ready to sit down with them and work it out?

CANTOR: You know, Wolf, meetings are great and talk is great, but we need to see action. The American people elected us here to cut spending so we can create an environment for jobs in America. The House has acted. We have demonstrated that we want to see spending, discretionary spending, brought down to levels of 2008.

We've seen no counteraction. We have seen no position that has been expressed by the other side at all. The president has not laid out what his vision is and, frankly, Harry Reid and the Democrats in the Senate have not for once even posited what their position is.

Again, the American people expect us to do what they are doing. It's tightening the belt, it's learning how to do more with less. That's a reality today, and we've got to do that in order to get the private sector growing.

BLITZER: Am I correct in assuming that if the vice president, the budget director, Jack Lew, they come up to the Hill tomorrow and they say they want to meet with you, you're going to say no way?

CANTOR: No. I mean, sure, we're always willing to talk.

BLITZER: Will you talk with them tomorrow?

CANTOR: Absolutely. We're always willing to talk, but what I'm telling you, Wolf, talk is fine. But let's -- why don't we go and focus on action?

The House has demonstrated where we are. The Senate has not even begun. Harry Reid has not put out there where the Democrats are.

The American people expect action. We've always said as Republicans we don't want to shut down the government. We want to cut spending. We were able to see this week go forward where we actually did cut spending in a prorated amount towards 2008 levels.

Let's see if we can get there together for the rest of the fiscal year.

BLITZER: The House of Representatives, as you correctly point out, has acted decisively. You've got about a $60 billion cut. The Senate hasn't done anything, and what you're saying is the White House hasn't done anything either. So sit down with the Senate, with the president. You need all three to work out a deal, and work out a deal.

The American people want that, right?

CANTOR: Well, again, the American people know where the House Republicans are, and frankly over 100 Democrats voted with us.

BLITZER: But you're going to have to compromise if you want to get it through the Senate and the president is going to sign it into law.

CANTOR: Well, we don't know if that is true or not because we don't know where Harry Reid is. We don't know where the president is.

BLITZER: But you'll find out when you meet with them tomorrow?

CANTOR: Well, yes. I'm asking, why is it that the Senate has not acted? Why is it that the president has not put --

BLITZER: The Senate never acts. You know that.

CANTOR: Listen --

BLITZER: The House of Representatives is decisive. The Senate, the way the Constitution and the founding fathers wanted it, they are much more of a deliberative body.

CANTOR: Well, listen, I think the American people expect Washington to act. The American people expect us to tighten the belt and to stop the wasteful spending. That's what the election was about, because people want to get back to work. And we see this as a necessary element in trying to grow this economy again and get people back to work.

BLITZER: All right. So you are all going to sit down tomorrow. Is that right?

CANTOR: I've received no formal invitation for any meeting at all. We're always willing to talk, for sure.

BLITZER: All right. We'll be watching very closely.

Eric Cantor has got a tough job.

And you're doing -- you're doing what the House of Representatives always has done, especially when you have a decisive majority as you do. You guys can act.

The Senate, a lot, lot slower. Then you've got to get the president to sign off. Not easy, as you know.

CANTOR: Well, listen, Wolf, we're talking about leading, and we believe that the American people want some real leadership. They want some honest discussion about the problems facing America and want to see actions to counter those problems.

BLITZER: Good luck.

CANTOR: That's what we believe we're doing.

BLITZER: We're all counting on you guys to save this budget and get this country moving again. Appreciate you joining us.

CANTOR: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Eric Cantor is the majority leader in the House of Representatives.

Hear how U.S. officials are trying to cut through the chaos right now to get some concrete intelligence on what's happening in Libya. We're getting new information. You'll want to hear this.

And two U.S. troops are gunned down in Germany. We're going to find out who the police have in custody right now.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Let's get back to our top story, the crisis in Libya right now.

Opposition supporters have seized control of Libya's third largest city of Misurata, but senior Gadhafi officials insist to CNN the western part of this vital part of the city is under their control. That's what they say. Their efforts there are going forward.

We're joined now on the phone by Saadoun. We only want to identify him by his first name. He's joining us from Misurata on more.

What do you see, Saadoun? What's the latest from where you are?

SAADOUN, MISURATA, LIBYA: Well, as far as Misurata is concerned, the city has been under the control of the people since the 21st of February.

BLITZER: When you say the people, you mean those opposed to Gadhafi?

SAADOUN: Exactly. Those are the protesters, the people who took to the streets, the people who asked for change and democracy in Libya, and asked for Gadhafi to leave.

BLITZER: And so is Gadhafi though struggling now, his forces coming in trying to retake Misurata?

SAADOUN: A number of attempts were made by Gadhafi, by pro- Gadhafi militias, to take control of parts of the city, particularly the air force base in the south of Misurata. And all the attempts have failed miserably, as the army, siding with the people of Misurata, have managed, together, with the people of Misurata, to face these continuous attempts to take control of the air base and bring them to a failure.

The situation today is quite calm in Misurata. But I do like to report that the uprising in Misurata, about 34 people reported killed by the militia forces, pro-Gadhafi militia forces, and 500-plus were reported injured, 20 of whom are still under critical condition.

BLITZER: Is there something you would like to say to the U.S. government, to President Obama and his administration? Is there anything you want the U.S. to do to help you?

SAADOUN: Well, definitely, the Libyan people today have made a statement that they are in it for the long run. We will not back up. We will just continue until we make sure that the Gadhafi regime, altogether, has fallen. But what we would like to also see from the international community, and the United States in particular, being the leading force in gathering momentum towards the toppling of the Gadhafi regime, we would like to see a number of things established and executed in order for us to make sure that this takes place with the minimum amount of sacrifice.

A no-fly zone over Tripoli would be enormously helpful to the people and the struggle of the revolutionaries in minimizing the ability that the Gadhafi regime operates to mobile -- to transfer resources and mercenaries from the south of the country up to the north, to try to suppress the uprising. Also, the supply of (INAUDIBLE) to the free areas of the country, like the eastern parts, Benghazi, Tobruk, Al-Brega. The (INAUDIBLE) that will help the army that sided with the people, and the people of the uprising to launch a counterattack on the Gadhafi militias and the pro-Gadhafi militias, and possibly a march towards Tripoli.

BLITZER: All right. Saadoun, we're going to keep in constant touch with you. We'll stay in close touch.

You want a no-fly zone. You want arms for your forces to fight Gadhafi. We'll see what happens on that front.

We have a lot more going on, on Libya. We're going back to Libya live. Much more of our breaking news coverage right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Growing questions right now by U.S. intelligence about Libya.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, has more.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Days into the fighting in Libya, U.S. military officials say they still have little solid intelligence from the ground, even as they try to advise President Obama on what to do. The U.S. appears to be behind on a key point -- have Libyan warplanes attack civilians.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

ADM. MIKE MULLEN, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: We've also seen, have not been able to confirm, that any of the Libyan aircraft have fired on their own people. There have been reports of that, but we have been unable through this morning to confirm that that's actually happened.

STARR: But CNN's Ben Wedeman, reporting from eastern Libya on an aerial bombing attack he witnessed.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I can tell you exactly what the target was. It was us. It was us and the people all around us, which was, I would say, about 250 individuals, most of them volunteer fighters.

STARR: U.S. military officials say the Libyan rebels have tanks, anti-aircraft guns, and a variety of arms. Hundreds of forces, including top generals, have defected and are now fighting Gadhafi. But beyond that, there are few facts.

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: In terms of the potential capabilities of the opposition, we're in the same realm of speculation pretty much as everybody else.

STARR: A U.S. government official confirms that the CIA is maintaining a presence on the ground and urgently trying to gather the latest intelligence. The key now is to identify key rebel leaders and calculate if they can overthrow Gadhafi.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, FMR. DEPUTY DIRECTOR, CIA: We may know some of those people, but to get a comprehensive picture at this point would be very difficult.

STARR: It's the kind of ambiguity that would have to be cleared up before any U.S. military support for the rebels could be contemplated.

GATES: I think it remains to be seen how effectively military leaders who have defected from Gadhafi's forces can organize the opposition in the country.

(END VIDEOTAPE) STARR: Now, it all may come down to which side, Gadhafi or the rebel forces, have better command and control over their troops, better ability to control what they do, to take, seize and hold territory in Libya -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon.

Thanks for that report.

The New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, says he could win the White House. Jack Cafferty has your e-mail.

And the Supreme Court decides whether a controversial church can stage anti-gay protests at military funerals.


BLITZER: We're going back to Tripoli, the Libyan capital, in a few moments. There's gunfire right now that Nic Robertson has been hearing. Stand by. We're getting new information on what's going on in Libya.

But I want to get to our "Strategy Session" right now.

Joining us, the Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, Donna Brazile, and the Republican strategist, Tony Blankley, who also worked as a press secretary for the former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, when he was the House Speaker. He's now with Edelman PR.

Do you think it's all a done deal, Newt Gingrich is going to run for the Republican presidential nomination?

TONY BLANKLEY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Look, I don't know the day-to-day details.

BLITZER: Not the day to day, but will he run?

BLANKLEY: I think he's going to run. I think he's probably going to declare sooner rather than later.

BLITZER: This is something he's wanted his whole life, to be president of the United States.

BLANKLEY: Well, he's thought about it, as many prominent Washingtonians have.

BLITZER: You worked with him in the Congress for, what, seven years?

BLANKLEY: No, '90 to '97.

BLITZER: Did he wake up every single day thinking that he's a future president?

BLANKLEY: No, but he gave it a brief thought in those years. And I'm sure obviously he's giving it more than a brief thought since then.

BLITZER: Do you think he can overcome some of the problems that he brings? Because he's got some baggage.

BLANKLEY: Yes. Look, I've thought a lot about this.

I think about 70 percent of the baggage, the problems, are urban myths, and 30 percent have some validity. I think a long campaign for him, where he'll be grilled on all of that will separate out the chaff from the wheat, and then the public is going to have to take a judgment.

I think his great strength is his insight in policy. Not just his ideas, but the depth of knowledge he has on military procurement, on health care, on so many issues, that they'll judge, OK, this is what we know about him and this is what we know -- it's a tough campaign.

BLITZER: There's no -- I've known Newt Gingrich. I've covered him for a long time. He is extremely intelligent. He knows a lot about these issues.

You may not agree with him, but you have to admire the ideas that he has, the breadth that he brings to the table. He could be a very formidable opponent to the president of the United States.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I think he would make an excellent candidate in this crowded Republican field for the simple reason that he is a known quantity.

Eighty-four percent of the American people are familiar with Newt Gingrich. That's not always a good thing, because his favorability rating is not so high. Twenty-four percent of the people disapprove of the way he conducted himself, and, of course, 27 percent approve of him.

So I think he has a lot of work to do. This is not the 1990s, when he last ran for public office.

As you know, he stepped down in 1998. But rut right now, he is strategically placed in the top five of the Republican field. So I think he's in a good position to mount a strong campaign.

But you remember this time back in 2007. It was Mayor Rudy Giuliani who was leading the Republican field, and we saw what happened to him. So I think the fact that he's number four, that should give him a head start in trying to take on the other three.

BLITZER: He's not exactly a new face though of the Tea Party movement, of the Republican Party. He's an old face, if you will.

BLANKLEY: Absolutely. I mean, Reagan was an old face. Eisenhower was an old face. Carter was an old face.

BLITZER: (INAUDIBLE) was an old face.

BLANKLEY: Yes. Well, he lost. Carter was a new face. The current incumbent is a new face.

The public will decide whether, given all the terrible problems we face, they want an inexperienced person or an experienced one. I think someone who is experienced has a pretty good claim to make.

And I'll just make one point about Newt. Everyone says he's brilliant, and he is. It's also what he's done with that intelligence over his lifetime.

I mean, I was with him, you know, 80 hours a week for seven years. He would just bore down and learn the details of policy.

He spent 100 hours working on Medicare issues with the subcommittee just in March of 1995. I looked it up. So, you know, everyone who runs for president is bright. You know, but Newt has really did something with intelligence related to policy.

BLITZER: Who would be a more formidable challenger to the president next year? Would it be Newt Gingrich or Chris Christie?

BRAZILE: You know, I don't think we should worry about who will be --

BLITZER: Who do you think would be tougher, would be a more formidable opponent, not in a primary, but in a general election?

BRAZILE: You know, Wolf, I haven't given a lot of thought because I'm not a Republican. But I'm looking at all of their attributes, their strengths, their weaknesses.

I happen to know Newt Gingrich. Like Tony, I had an opportunity to work with him on Capitol Hill because he helped here in the District of Columbia, worked with Eleanor Holmes Norton very closely. So I know him a little bit.

But look, Newt Gingrich right now is only polling 13 percent with Tea Party Republicans. You will need the choir in order to reach the congregation. And he's polling about eight percent with Independent- leaning voters. So he has his work cut out for him.

BLITZER: I mean, I suspect Chris Christie could be a more formidable opponent.

BLANKLEY: I think Chris Christie is a very formidable candidate, if he runs, both in the primary and in the general. I suspect that at the end of the primary, it's going to be Romney versus somebody else. I think Romney probably has the ability to sustain through. I don't know who the "else" will be.

BLITZER: And the health care thing he passed in Massachusetts?

BLANKLEY: Well, it's a problem.

BLITZER: In a Republican primary, that could be a kiss of death.

BLANKLEY: No, no. It's a problem. But he's got the resources and the organization to do the long march.

BLITZER: He had those same resources, the organization last time. It didn't gain him the nomination.

BLANKLEY: Well, no. And I'm not saying he's going to win it. I'm saying I think he's likely to be at least the second to the last candidate standing.

BRAZILE: But we know the Republican primary, and it's a very conservative primary. A lot of religious people involved. Mike Huckabee should not be pushed aside.


BLITZER: He won Iowa last time, but then it didn't happen for him.

BRAZILE: He flamed out.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, guys, thanks very much.

BLANKLEY: Thank you.

BLITZER: A massive bomb blast in Libya. And it's caught on camera. We're going there.

And a U.S. citizen held in jail after 9/11 but never charged. Can the former attorney general, John Ashcroft, be sued for this?

Stand by.


BLITZER: Jack's back with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said, "I could win the White House." Do you believe him?

Jamie in Missouri writes, "The polls say he can. I think people are ready for a little blunt honesty, but I'm not sure that he's ready for the job. Obama was inexperienced, promised change and government reform that hasn't happened. Maybe Christie is the guy that can actually bring the change that everybody wanted."

"At least he would make the campaign a lot more interesting. The current Republican field is pretty boring."

Jack in Washington writes, "Yes, the guy has elevated the art of the anti-candidate to genius level. By running a negative ad campaign against himself for 2012, questioning his own readiness for the presidency, Governor Christie takes the punch out of future opponents and slots himself like a NASA landing craft into a win for the nomination and the White House in 2016. Supersize the Oval Office."

Paul writes, "He makes me think he might already have a lot of financial support lined up if he decides to run. But frankly, I have yet to see a decent, moderate Republican contender step up seriously to challenge for the presidency. The only Republicans getting a lot of attention are the loony ones, and they don't have the widespread appeal needed to win. I have a feeling we haven't seen the real Republican candidate yet."

Mark in New Jersey, "Governor Christie has done a great job of beginning to clean up the obvious mess that is New Jersey politics. He's only been there for two years. He's hardly qualified to run the country. It's so obvious, that even he thinks so. But as an electorate, we are colossally stupid. Witness the support for the half-term governor Sarah Palin."

Adam in Indiana writes, "I'd say no. I don't think Washington could handle a man who is not corrupt. He is one straightforward, honest gentleman. He hasn't yet been bought out by the lobbyists."

And Harry in Maine writes, "He has pluses and he has minuses. His pluses are that all his positions would fit on a bumper sticker. The minuses are a picture of him wouldn't fit on the side of a bus."

That's cold.

If you want to read more on this, you can go to my blog

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.