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JOHN KING, USA

Libyan Rebels on Their Own; Indecisive NATO; U.S. Intel Chief Under Fire; Anti-Union Bill Passes in Wisconsin

Aired March 10, 2011 - 19:00   ET

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


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Wolf.

And good evening, everyone.

We begin with breaking news from the White House. It moments ago announced President Obama will hold a news conference tomorrow morning, and we are told he will open with a statement addressing rising gas prices here in the United States. In a bit we'll show you why that fallout from the crisis in Libya is a mounting political problem for the president of the United States.

But first a shift in balance of power in the civil war itself, tonight anti-Gadhafi forces are in retreat, losing ground and losing patience with an international community that says it wants the brutal dictator to go but again made clear today it is not ready to join the fight.

On the battlefield, the regime aggressively targeted opposition-held cities using its superior firepower, including today assaults from ships in the Mediterranean and Air Force bombing runs on key opposition-held cities. If the pictures aren't enough to reinforce the shift in the regime's favor, listen here to Colonel Gadhafi's son, Seif, sending a stern message to the opposition.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEIF GADHAFI, SON OF LIBYAN LEADER MOAMMAR GADHAFI: I want those armed groups to listen to me real well, and I want the people in the east to hear this as well. We are coming.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: And listen to this, a blunt assessment to the Congress from America's top intelligence official.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES CLAPPER, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: From a standpoint of attrition --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.

CLAPPER: -- that over time -- I mean this is kind of a stalemate back and forth, but I think over longer time that the regime will prevail.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Because of that, the opposition says it desperately needs help from the United States and NATO, but after emergency consultations today in Brussels, the NATO allies made clear no major military options are imminent.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: If there were to be a need for enforcement, there would need to be a new U.N. Security Council resolution.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Another NATO meeting is scheduled in five days, but the bottom line tonight for now, the anti-Gadhafi forces, well, they're largely on their own. Let's begin our up-close look at the balance of power tonight with our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson. He's in the capital of Tripoli.

Nic, if you look at the dramatic images from the battles, and if you listen to the defiant words of Seif Gadhafi, one gets the distinct impression the regime feels not only that it has the upper hand but that the balance has shifted its way dramatically.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They really feel that they're on a roll. They're talking about making the next big town, Brega, an important port, an oil town, and they're talking about rolling (INAUDIBLE) from where they are now, so they are feeling confident. And Gadhafi today, Seif Gadhafi, the son of the leader was sort of rally the youth. This was -- this was another arranged speech (INAUDIBLE) with a lot of young men.

They were described as workers, just sort of wave flags, pump fists in the air. Not a very sophisticated speech, not a sophisticated audience, but the message was really, really clear. We may be becoming more isolated internationally but the fight is on.

KING: And as the fight goes on, Nic, they know now that it is days, if not weeks, before NATO and the United States would take any increased military intervention, because the alliance, the NATO Alliance saying now is not the time, not just yet, anyway. That has to give the regime a great sense of relief.

ROBERTSON: This will make them feel much better. This more made them feel they have got more time to use their air assets and they can see the success (INAUDIBLE). What is happening when you look at the bigger picture here is that the country knows what is coming but the government feeling confident, and now they kind of put pressure on the east, on the rebels in the east to know that they may have to negotiate at some point. This is the mindset on this side with (INAUDIBLE) being pushed further down the road -- John.

KING: And I'm sure the regime doesn't like it, Nic, when the French says it will recognize -- France says it will recognize the opposition. The United States says it will close its Embassy and would not recognize any future ambassadors, Gadhafi said to the United States. But is there any sense that that increased diplomatic pressure, absent the military component, will change the regime's behavior?

ROBERTSON: No, there is no indication it will. This is a regime that's been under international sanctions before. They know how to play this game. They're saying that the international community is now (INAUDIBLE) in the country, but this is a regime that knows how to deal with the international community being set against it. And their vision right now is very clear. It's internal. You can do what you want outside, we're going to get on, take control of the country and deal with the opposition in the way we see fit. That's how it's running out, playing out here -- John.

KING: Nic Robertson for us tonight in Tripoli -- Nic, thanks.

And Nic again in the capital, the regime stronghold of Tripoli, the fiercest fighting was to the east in Ras Lanuf right here. That's a key oil and refinery town. Let's take a look at some of the images from today's fighting. You see the smoke plumes up here. Let's let this play out a bit here -- listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(SOUNDS)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Giant plumes there, you can hear explosions in the background. As you see some of the still photo images we're getting as well, opposition forces trying to hold this town. You see the shoulder -- the rocket-propelled grenades right there, opposition forces running away from the stronger, stronger regime, firefighting. Our Ben Wedeman was right there. He has a firsthand look at what we can only call an opposition retreat.

Ben, the regime says it has taken back the key oil city of Ras Lanuf. You were right out there today as the fighting was unfolding. Is it now back in Gadhafi's hands?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's not at all clear. We do know that government forces advanced on the city and they were bombarding the hell out of the place for several hours today, from the air, from the sea and from the land. We watched, actually, from a smaller hill as we saw these rounds coming in from the west, from the positions occupied by the government forces.

One of those rounds came very close to the hospital, other of those rounds hit near us, apparently according to witnesses (INAUDIBLE) was killed. Afterwards we saw sort of a mad dash by pickups and cars and trucks full of opposition fighters heading out of town. They said they just could not deal with the bombardment. They regrouped on the edge of town and it wasn't clear whether they were going to (INAUDIBLE) further back or try to hold that position or even (INAUDIBLE) a counter-offensive.

We did see them bringing up these multiple rocket launchers, which is the most lethal weapon they have in their arsenal. So it's not clear at this point who holds the town, but certainly, if it falls, it's a major defeat for the opposition forces, and already in the towns behind it, like Brega, there is already concern that the government forces are going to continue to push eastward.

We've heard in Brega that the local militias have informed families, civilians, that they should leave the area in the event there is this counter-offensive. Another worry is that as a result of -- for the first time, the Libya forces using sheed (ph) bombardment. There is a lot of tension in the towns along the coast that they will come under bombardment as well -- John.

KING: And Ben, obviously the opposition has its hands full in the fight, if you will, but do they get word on the ground in the middle of all this that the United States and NATO decided today not to intervene, at least in the short term? It has to be discouraging for those right in the thick of it. Are they aware of that?

WEDEMAN: As far as I know, no, they're not aware of it, but certainly we always get an earful when we're up at the front from people who say, you know, President Obama, the European palace has got to do something to intervene, because the worry is that these Libyan forces are going to continue to move eastward, and what will happen if that is the case is that the reprisals against the local populations, which welcomed with open arms, the protesters who became of course militia fighters will pay a very high price.

The worry is that there could be a blood bath in eastern Libya if for some reason somehow, the Libyan government forces take control again. So they're desperately in need of a no-fly zone, of some sort of action to stop this offensive -- John.

KING: Ben Wedeman for us tonight in eastern Libya. Ben, thank you.

And as it's now crystal clear the opposition forces won't be getting any U.S. or NATO military help at least in the short term. But an audio recording played on Libyan State Television today does suggest the United States is trying to provide some form of assistance to the anti-Gadhafi fighters. A source confirms to CNN that what you are about to hear is the voice of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and that he is talking to a key member of the opposition.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) what equipment or other support do you need?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: CNN's Arwa Damon joins us now from Benghazi and Arwa, from your reporting what are we to make of this phone call, in which it appears you hear the U.S. ambassador to Libya trying to offer some assistance to the opposition?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well John, it's very interesting, and we do have confirmation that such a phone call did take place from the spokesman for the military council. That is, of course, headed by Omar Marahidi (ph). We don't know the exact details of the conversation other than what was aired in that clip on Libyan television.

But it is interesting, and most certainly a positive development, that the U.S. does appear to be directly reaching out to members of the military council of the national council as well, and that is exactly what opposition leaders here have been looking for, that sort of open communication so that they can directly tell the United States exactly what it is that they expect from them, what sort of a support they need.

There has been up until now a lot of frustration with the fact that it appears that the White House has been, to a certain degree, dragging its feet in terms of openly supporting the opposition, and they do really want that legitimacy. They want the U.S. to recognize them. They want the international community to recognize them, and, of course, they do want a certain level of help that they can, at the end of the day, succeed in this effort -- John.

KING: And what's your sense of the specific help? They're not going to get a no-fly zone in the short term, at least. The United States says it has no interest in a direct military intervention at this point. Secretary of State Clinton will meet with some opposition leaders, so perhaps we're on the road to some kind of recognition, but on the ground in terms of nuts and bolts, the ambassador did say, do you need any equipment, at the end of that clip. What is it that the opposition thinks maybe the United States, whether it was secretly or openly could give them that would help?

DAMON: Well, John, the opposition needs all of the help that it can get, especially when it comes to the military. They would need training. They would need body armor. John, these young men are going out to the front lines standing up against Gadhafi's forces, against all of the weaponry that they have without body armor, without helmets. They have absolutely no protective gear whatsoever.

As one trainer we were talking to said, all they have to protect them at this point is their faith in God. They need weapons. They do have a fair amount at their disposal, but, of course, they need more, and in an ideal world, they would need to have some sort of air capability, which is exactly why they do want to see this no-fly zone established. At the end of the day, they need the equipment.

They need the capabilities to be able to take on the kind of a military that Gadhafi has at his disposal, which is a fairly powerful and well-equipped force. They are targeting the opposition forces in the air. They're targeting them on the ground and they're targeting them from the sea. And there is a sense that there is only so far that the opposition can take this, and there is this fear that they are reaching their limit. And if the international community does not step in at this stage, the result for the opposition could potentially be disastrous.

KING: A silver note there from Arwa Damon in Benghazi -- Arwa thanks. Let's get some perspective now from Nicholas Burns, the former U.S. under secretary of state and also a former U.S. ambassador to the NATO Alliance. And Nic Burns, if you are the Libyan opposition, you would watch the emergency meeting in Brussels today and come away with the impression that NATO is either indecisive or perhaps even worse, indifferent?

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE: Well I don't think NATO is indifferent, but it's certainly true that NATO is indecisive because NATO operates by consensus. All 28 countries have to agree, and in this case they didn't. And so if you're a member of the Libyan opposition hoping that the NATO Alliance was going to demonstrate militarily some opposition to the Gadhafi regime, you didn't get that decision today.

KING: And what we heard is what the opposition, again, would say is legalese, what you might say as a former diplomat is, the rule of law, if you will. Secretary Gates, for example, say well if there is to be a no-fly zone or some military intervention that the United Nations Security Council would have to authorize that first. You know Russia and China are hesitant if not flat out objecting to doing that. So again, if you're the Libyan opposition, you are days and weeks at a minimum -- at a minimum -- before you might get any help, right?

BURNS: I think that's right. You know there are things that the U.S. fleet and air power can do in the coming days and weeks. We're close to the shores of Libya. We can demonstrate military resolve. We could block arms imports into the Libyan government. We could jam military communications. We could be ready to extricate refugees. We could do all those things should we choose to do, but it really isn't logical for the United States to try to implement a no-flight zone on its own. We need the NATO allies for that. The NATO allies don't yet believe in this mission, at least not everybody together.

KING: And what is present today is a Gadhafi regime that is using its military superiority, its air power. There are even reports today of some firing from naval ships off Ras Lanuf back on to the shore using its army and its superior weaponry. If in the coming days the regime retakes those cities that have been in opposition hands and then in the process not only fights violently and kills many of the opposition forces, but there is already a bounty out for the head of the transitional opposition. If there are massacres, if there are retribution and retaliation, do the United States and NATO bear any responsibility for that?

BURNS: I do not believe we bear direct responsibility, no. These would be the actions of Moammar Gadhafi, who is a vile dictator. But I do think that maybe we haven't heard the end of this NATO discussion, because you have U.S. and European military forces in the region prepared to do something if asked to do something. If this situation should deteriorate in the way that John that you just posed, NATO and the United States could come back to this question.

If there were -- if there was a severe humanitarian disaster in the making, if Gadhafi turned on his own people in a way that he hasn't at least until now, although his actions have been despicable until now, then the U.S. could reconsider this decision, and 30 days from now, 60 days from now, this situation might mandate military intervention. It clearly does not today, and I think the United States has faced kind of an existential question as we've debated this no-flight zone over the last week.

It's Colin Powell's -- you remember this -- Pottery Barn rule. If you break it, you own it. And the question is do we want to own Libya? And right now I think it's wise not to inject ourselves into a civil war, but we also need to be propped to do what we have to do should this situation deteriorate, so today was not a step forward, but I think we haven't seen the end of this story.

KING: Nic Burns, as always, appreciate your insights.

BURNS: Thank you very much, John.

KING: And still ahead, a leading United States senator calls for America's top intelligence official to resign -- his crime -- apparently telling the truth.

And next, does NATO's delay make President Obama look weak or is caution the right approach when it comes to Libya and the use of military force?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Joined here by several members of Congress --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: There is no doubt the legacy of the Iraq war hangs over the debate about possible U.S. military intervention in Libya. Obama administration officials at every opportunity say the United States should not have to loan and that any military action should be endorsed by the United Nations and perhaps the Arab League as well. Defense Secretary Gates is a leading voice of administration caution.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GATES: We all agreed that NATO will only act if there is demonstrable need, a sound legal basis and strong regional support. We also agreed to continue planning for all military options.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: But administration critics framed the question differently.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Perhaps a greater concern for us all should be that it would mean America's credibility and moral standard -- standing if a tyrant were allowed to massacre Arabs and Muslims in Libya and we watched it happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: So is caution the right course or does America look weak here? David Gergen knows the pressure of the Oval Office from his work advising four U.S. presidents. Fran Townsend knows it well too from her service as President George W. Bush's Homeland security adviser. She is now a member of the CIA External Advisory Committee and she visited high-ranking Libyan officials last year at the government's invitation.

David Gergen, you come out of this NATO summit and you hear, and again, caution may be the right approach here. You hear we don't have an endorsement from the United Nations for military force. We don't have a request from the Arab League for military force, but the Libyan opposition says we're being slaughtered here, and if this dictator retakes Ras Lanuf, Benghazi and other cities in the east, they assume that he will slaughter the opposition. What's the right course?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, John, I appreciate the fact that the president has a very difficult dilemma, as does NATO. But the fact is they keep huffing and puffing and saying we -- Gadhafi cannot stay. That's what the American position has been -- the president, secretary of state have both said that repeatedly, and yet through all this huffing and puffing, nothing happens (INAUDIBLE).

And what's happening on the ground is what is becoming now urgent. Because there appears to be a decisive change on the ground with the Libyan government, the Gadhafi government, now taking control, having rebels on the run. They appear to have taken this oil refinery town. And John, we don't have 30 or 60 days now to sort of you know to wait and see what happens and then maybe intervene militarily.

There is a rising possibility this thing could be over in a matter of days because the Libyan opposition, the rebels, could be crushed. They could crumble here in a matter of days. So, you know, from my point of view, I would like to see a much more muscular response. And I must say, I didn't think I would live to see the day when a headline like this would be in "The Washington Post" as it was this morning about an American president. On Libya, Obama willing to let allies take the lead. We have been, since 1956, the guarantors of stability in the Middle East. That's been our role.

KING: And so, Fran Townsend, as David points out that headline in "The Post" today and there are people in the administration saying you know we don't want to be out front on this. We don't want it to be the third time in 10 years the United States used military force in the Arab world so we have to be careful here. Let's see what the Europeans want to do.

Gadhafi knows tonight that he has at a minimum -- at a minimum -- several weeks. Five days until the next NATO meeting, there is no scheduled United Nations session on this, so he has a blank check right now for a couple of weeks at least, right?

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well John I agree with David. Here's the problem. You can't make public statements by the president and cabinet level officials that Gadhafi has got to go and then do nothing. I mean, the problem here is, you know, there's the NATO meeting. You send a signal to Gadhafi there's not another meeting for five days and then you going to watch people get slaughtered.

Let's remember, President Clinton in reflecting on his presidency, said his greatest regret was not acting sooner in Rwanda. There -- while the national security interest, you know people have argued is not apparent here, that Libya is not of strategic national security interest. The fact of the matter is having taken a policy position that Gadhafi has got to go you now have to be willing to back that up. And if NATO is unwilling to act, I applaud President Sarkozy of France and his sort of diplomatic efforts, but the diplomacy can't keep up with the pace of events, we then have to be willing to act on our own.

KING: And so then let me take the devil's advocate approach here to both of you, David to you first, I'm going to use the map to show people here -- here's a sense, these green places here -- these are Libyan air strips, Libyan air bases where he's using air power from. Now the United States has moved some naval vessels into the Med. We also have NATO bases up here in Italy.

If you do a no-fly zone, that was what would be used -- these bases here, some of these ships and carriers out here. The French and the Brits could move them in here as well. What you hear from the military though -- David Gergen to you first, is that if you do this, let's say you impose the no-fly zone and it does no good. Gadhafi stops flying his planes, but he still has rockets.

He still has an army. He still has heavier artillery. At that point, haven't you chosen sides and don't you then have a moral commitment if the no-fly zone doesn't make the difference to do more?

GERGEN: There is no question, and that's why it's a hard call. But I don't think we should over -- or shouldn't exaggerate how difficult this is militarily. It was just striking this morning that General McChrystal was quoted so extensively in the Nic Kristof (ph) column in "The New York Times" saying, hey, guys, this is not a big deal. This is not hard for our military.

And if we can't do this with ease, why are we spending all this money on the U.S. military? So I don't think this is a hard problem militarily. What it is -- what it does require is leadership to get the NATO Alliance, to get the nations aligned. Of course, they're going to be passive and of course they're going to be divided.

But what normally happens in the past is a strong America comes in, worked with its allies and said here's what we'd like to see happen. And then it begins to happen. Once you begin to retreat from that as a great nation, and we leave a major dictator like this in place, and the message goes out to the other autocrats and other nations, if your people rebel, slaughter them and the west will not do anything, that's going to lead to a lot more brutality in other nations. It also may mean that Gadhafi is going to start saying to the terrorists, hey the west hates me. Why don't you come get trained here?

KING: Fran, do you think Gadhafi who tried to make peace with the Bush administration would take such a dramatic step? After this obviously he tried a little detente (ph) with the world community. He knows now he is a pariah again as he watches this play out. Do you agree with David that he could take such a drastic step?

TOWNSEND: Oh I think -- I think we've got to be prepared. I would say -- I'm not convinced that this is quite as easy as we may have suggested here. Remember, this is a madman. This is a madman willing to kill his own people, and so when you go in to take out any aircraft devices, you have to be prepared that for him to use his own people as human shields, whether that's against the defense system, on air strips, and you're going to confront -- you're likely to confront against this madman some very difficult and moral challenges as you begin to enforce something like a no-fly zone or bombing of his air strips.

KING: And I just want to show, as we go to break -- Fran and David are going to stay with us. I just want to show -- we're using this map here. These purple signs, these are the longer range anti- aircraft surface-to-air missiles Gadhafi has. The purple circles, they can go about 200 miles from the base of where they're fired. Then you see tighter circles there.

Those are more localized air defense systems that Gadhafi could use again, if the United States and its allies decided to have a no-fly zone. There is no doubt -- there is no doubt militarily they are no match for the United States and NATO, but there is also no doubt when you talk to military officials, they would have the capability -- their capabilities are advanced enough to shoot down some jets.

So this would not come without a financial price and potentially -- potentially -- a price in blood as well. That debate will continue. When we come back, Wisconsin's Republican governor wins a big showdown in a budget fight getting national attention. But labor and Democrats promise this is just round one.

And next, America's top intelligence officer gives his take on the biggest military threats to the United States, and it causes a huge uproar. So what did he say?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: So here's the question. Who is winning the civil war in Libya? Here's another. What country in terms of the capabilities of its military poses the greatest military threat to the United States? The Gadhafi regime sadly is the pretty obvious answer to the first question, at least at the moment. Russia or China, I would venture, is how most people would answer the second question.

So, why then is America's top intelligence official facing calls for his resignation tonight for giving what appear to be the correct answers?

David Gergen and Fran Townsend are still with me as we try to answer these uniquely Washington riddle.

All right. Let's start with at the -- Jim Clapper is his name. He is the director of national intelligence. He's caused controversy in the past and some of that is -- are messes of his own making. I think we can all conceive that.

But I want to ask you tonight, here's his answer. He's asked tonight to come to Congress to testify about threats. The Congress invited him.

It's a public forum. They know it's a public forum. They know there are cameras in the room.

And he's asked the question essentially: who is winning at the moment in Libya? Here's his answer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES CLAPPER, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: From the standpoint of attrition that over time -- I mean, this is kind of a stalemate back and forth, but I think the longer term that the regime will prevail.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, if you watched CNN the last couple weeks, especially the last 48 hours, you know from our correspondents that that's the right answer. That's the right answer. That's what's happening on the ground.

And, yet, David and Fran, Senator Lindsey Graham was so offended that the director of national intelligence would say that publicly he called for his resignation. He said, "If he felt the need so say what he did, then they should have moved into closed session. Unfortunately, this isn't the first questionable comment from the DNI director. However, it should be the final straw."

We're also told Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk joining calls for Director Clapper's resignation tonight.

David Gergen, what's the crime? He told the truth.

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: This is a departure from Lindsey Graham's normal good sense. I don't understand. It's very puzzling.

I mean, what the American people expect when there's a congressional hearing, it's serious and the head of director of the national intelligence comes up, they expect to hear the truth. The guy tells the truth and then senators say, off with your head, you know? They really want to shoot the messenger.

KING: I mean --

GERGEN: I understand why they feel it sends the wrong signal to the rebels, but that's the signal that's been coming out with all this huffing and puffing and nothing happening, anyway.

KING: And, Fran, it's no secret to the rebels, I don't think. I know he's not talking about, you know, what covert programs might we have to help them, or what secret intelligence we have about Gadhafi. He was asked a simple question, "Who is winning?" And that is the right answer.

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: That's right, John. We now know why the American people's approval ratings of Congress are so low. I mean, it's perfectly ridiculous. He's asked a straight up question, he gives a straight up answer.

And frankly, you know, it's not even clear to me based on people who are in the room that Lindsey Graham was there for the entire testimony of Jim Clapper.

And so, I really think -- you know, John McCain came out after this and said he normally agrees with Lindsey Graham but not on this one. And I think he's right.

KING: Well, let's continue because -- look, Director Clapper is controversial. He has said things in the past and some of these guys are already sort of inclined not to think he's competent for the job. But again, there was nothing, nothing, nothing inaccurate or not really public information in what he said about Libya.

Let's move on to China. Former governor, now Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia is questioning him. And he's asking him, essentially, what -- look around the world, Director Clapper. In terms of military power, in terms of military power, what people have, what other nations have at their disposal, who's the greatest threat to the United States? Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLAPPER: Are you speaking of the nation states, sir?

SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: Yes.

CLAPPER: A country?

MANCHIN: Yes, a country.

CLAPPER: Well, a country. Well, from, strictly -- well, certainly, the Russians have -- you know, still have a very formal nuclear arsenal even -- which does pose, you know, potentially a mortal threat to us. I don't think they have the intent to do that.

Certainly, China is growing in its military capabilities. It has a full array of -- whether conventional or strategic forces that they are building. So, they, too, pose potentially, from a capabilities standpoint, a threat to us, as a mortal threat.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, took great offense at that. At the White House, we're told, they were uneasy with that.

Fran Townsend, to you first. If I picked up a CIA fact book or a James defense bible, or any public, never mind the classified stuff, any public document that told me the military firepower available to them, not the intent, we're not -- and he made very clear there not the intent of the two greatest threats to the United States from a military power at their disposal standpoint, who would they be?

TOWNSEND: The top three -- we're in the top three and the other two in the top three are Russia and China. That's what he was saying.

You know, the DNI keeps talking about the mortal threat with the capability, and he asked -- he asked the question of Senator Manchin about nation states. It's certainly -- it's not that he didn't understand that Iran and North Korea are a threat, but they don't have the military nuclear weapons that Russia and China have. And so, that's all he was saying. I mean, this is -- once again, this is much ado about nothing, I think.

KING: Well, then -- so -- but why, David, then, is there so much ado? Carl Levin, I'm surprised by your answer. You mean China is a mortal threat, the Russians -- I know that we have better relations with the Russians right now, and we're trying to have better relations with the Chinese. We certainly have a complicated, shall we say, economic relationship with the Chinese, but again, he was asked a pretty simple, direct question. He asked, are you talking about a country, sir? You know, he meant a nation state -- and he gave what I think is the right answer.

GERGEN: Well, I agree with Fran, John. There are a lot of nervous Nellies on the loose right now in Washington, it appears.

I -- look, the more serious issue that people are discussing behind closed doors in Washington is the growth of the Chinese navy and their capability with their missile system to take out our carriers. And there is a growing sense that China is perhaps trying to kick us out of the Western Pacific so that they can have a blue-water navy. And that's a serious issue.

But what you find at the White House is a recognition and an understanding of all of these points. And the president, to his credit, is working hard to try to make sure that China does not become an enemy and they're making sure we do -- he's trying to hit the reset button with the Russians to head off these various potential.

What the DNI was saying, he was talking about potential threats to us. And he's trying to make -- he is forming better relationships. And on that score, I think the president deserves a lot of credit.

KING: On this day -- again, the DNI has been in trouble before. But on this day, he's getting yelled at for telling the truth in response to specific questions, that he has to clarify the senators. They are on the public setting. They invited him there. They're the ones that should know better.

Here's what the DNI spokesman, Jamie Smith, says tonight, quote, "In response to a specific question about the current military situation in Libya, Director Clapper provided a snapshot of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the regime and the opposition. And he stated in his testimony yesterday that the situation in Libya is very fluid." So, that you could even say is a little bit of an attempt to backtrack. But there is no sense that right now Libya is winning the civil war.

Here's I would do -- this is John King speaking here. If I were Director Clapper, I would take this little clip from the movies, put it -- condense it, put it in an email and send it up to those senators.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: Play it out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COLUMBIA PICTURES)

JACK NICHOLSON, ACTOR: You want answers?

TOM CRUISE, ACTOR: I think I'm entitled.

NICHOLSON: You want answers?

CRUISE: I want the truth!

NICHOLSON: Yu can't handle the truth!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

TOWNSEND: Absolutely, John.

KING: I doubt Director Clapper is going to take my advice. But --

GERGEN: Send it, John.

KING: Dave and Fran, thanks for coming in tonight.

GERGEN: Thank you.

KING: When we come back, tempers flare in Wisconsin as the governor wins a big vote in restricting the rights of public employees unions. It's a national test case. We'll head to Wisconsin live.

And ahead, weeks after being shot and critically wounded, we're learning Representative Gabrielle Giffords leaves the hospital soon for a very special event. I'll tell you more, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

First this hour is breaking news: President Obama has called a news conference for 11:15 Eastern Time tomorrow morning. He will open, we are told, with a statement about rising gasoline prices. Oil closed lower today, although still over $102 a barrel. That despite reports that police in Saudi Arabia opened fire on peaceful protesters today. "The New York Times" says it happened in a heavily Shiite region of the country and at least three protestors said to be wounded.

Today, Gabrielle Giffords' office confirmed the congresswoman will be in Florida next month for the launch of the space shuttle Endeavour piloted by her husband, Astronaut Mark Kelly. There's a news conference at the hospital tomorrow morning to the update everybody on the congresswoman's recovery from January's gunshot wounds.

When we come back, still ahead, why the president wants to make that statement about gas prices? He knows -- he knows the political ripple here in the country.

But, next, live to Wisconsin. The governor wins a key round in his battle with public employees' unions. They say this fight is far from over.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: It's an understatement to say it's been a wild day at Wisconsin's statehouse. A few hours ago, the state assembly, following the state Senate's lead, passed a controversial bill that strips public employee unions of most of their collective bargaining rights. Onlookers in the gallery chanted "Shame, shame" as the lawmakers filed out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CROWD: Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Our Ed Lavandera has been in Madison all day long. It has been chaos there all day there, and Ed joins us now live.

And, Ed, I can see the demonstrations still going on behind you. The labor unions have lost this round, but they say it's not over.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: How you doing?

Right. The pictures there kind of tell the entire story for the day where you're able to get a sense of just how inflamed the passions here have been in Madison, Wisconsin throughout the day after Senate Republicans kind of did an end around on the Democrats who had fled to Illinois by passing that collective bargaining agreement bill that would essentially strip away the collective bargaining powers of most public sector employees here in the state.

So, it went from the Senate and then it spent several hours in the assembly today where late this afternoon, it was passed out. Now, it's on the way to the governor's desk. I'm not exactly sure when that will be signed into law here. But, obviously, protestors continue to stay out here outside the Madison capitol building. And we're joined by Bryan Kennedy, who is with the American Federation of Teachers here in Wisconsin.

Bryan, I guess, just your initial thoughts on what's gone on here today.

BRYAN KENNEDY, PRES., AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS OF WISCONSIN: Well, what we've witnessed today is an absolute travesty. These Republicans and Governor Walker have taken a baseball bat to the head of democracy. They are trying to silence workers and they're doing it for one reason and one reason only, and that is because they want to deliver this state to the Republican nominee in 2012. Senator Fitzgerald said so on a FOX News interview just yesterday.

This was never about the money. It was always about silencing the workers so that they could monopolize the political agenda for the next few years.

LAVANDERA: What do you think this will do to the strength (ph)? There has been essentially a lot of talk that this essentially what's going on here is union-busting. Do you think that's really what's going to happen in reality when you see how this bill will kind of play out in real life, if you will?

KENNEDY: Well, you know, we don't have to bargain contracts to show the strength of our movement. What we're seeing -- and you can see the thousands of people that have crowded into this capitol building, you know, the crowds that are behind us -- what you're seeing right now is something that is transcending the labor movement.

This isn't about labor unions anymore. This is now about -- the faith community is involved. This is about immigrants rights groups, farmers, agriculture movement. I mean, if you look at what's happened, what this whole state has galvanized.

The workers want a voice, and we are not going to stop until we've recalled every one of these Republican senators and have restored the voice of the workers.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Ed, let me jump in one second.

LAVANDERA: Sure, sure.

KING: If I could just jump in for one second.

Mr. Kennedy, you talk about recalls here. I mean, what we're seeing is elections have consequences. And Republicans would not be able to do this if they had not had big gains this year, not only winning the governorship but winging big seats, gains in the legislature as well.

Will this play out in 2012? Or are you confident you can actually have recall elections before 2012?

KENNEDY: Oh, there are polls out already that are --that are showing us that in several of these districts an overwhelming majority of the people want to recall their senators.

And as for what the Wisconsin voters supported in November, they never once advocated their rights. They never once supported having the people -- having these folks take away our rights. That's not what we voted for. And I think their agenda I think their agenda is becoming much more evident now, John.

LAVANDERA: Bryan Kennedy, thank you very much.

KENNEDY: Sure, thank you.

LAVANDERA: Bryan Kennedy with the American Federation of Teachers here in Wisconsin.

John, back to you.

KING: Ed Lavandera, (INAUDIBLE), we'll keep in touch. Thank you.

And let's continue the conversation.

With me now is Joe Klein, the veteran political correspondent for "TIME."

You know, we've known each other a long time and I'll say this on national television. You wrote a remarkably reasonable column about this a couple of weeks.

JOE KLEIN, TIME: No. Reasonable? No.

KING: You know, I'm just joking.

But it's -- this is a -- this is not -- we talk a lot about Wisconsin because it's an amazing battle that's going on there. But this is playing out all across the country. And Democratic governors need concessions from the unions, Republican governors need them, they may be going about it with different tactics.

You wrote this on your column on February 24th: "The existing arrangements between government and its employees clearly need a profound overhaul. But the idea that Americans return to the mythic stability and prosperities of 40 years ago without a well-paid middle class, including public employees, seems a very dangerous experiment to undertake."

You call it a dangerous experiment. But is -- it is an experiment in different ways, popping up coast to coast.

KLEIN: Oh, yes. I mean, when you look around the world, you know, all the turmoil we've been seeing in the Middle East, it's because they don't have a solid, stable middle class. And the way we got one was through the gains of labor unions, from the 1930s to the 1950s. Our most stable period, from the 50s to the 70s, was because of that.

But -- but what we have here is not traditional labor versus managements. That's where you have the forces of capital against the forces of labor. Here you have the force of labor against the force of the public and against politicians who they can help elect or not elect. They have an unfair advantage, and they've taken advantages of it over the years.

And so, what you've seen happen is that while the pay isn't really what it should be for government workers, because the politicians didn't want to bust their budgets and raise taxes, they gave lots of concessions when it came to pensions, when it came to health care benefits, and when it came to work rules -- this whole seniority system that the teachers have.

KING: Right.

KLEIN: And that's what has to be overhauled.

KING: And you see live protesters here. This fight is going to go on in Wisconsin, and again, it's happening in Ohio. It's happening in Indiana. It's happening in California, in New York, New Jersey. Different in each state, but the basics are the same -- governors looking for money in state employees' pension and health care plans.

I want to shift because you are listening earlier and you spent also a lot of time reporting on Libya and the U.S. options in Libya. And you've been back and forth to the region many times over the years. You were listening earlier.

David Gergen and Fran Townsend were here. They were making a pretty passionate case that they think since the president has said Gadhafi must go, that he's taken that moral stand. So he now has to back it up and he has to help the opposition, which at the moment is being routed.

KLEIN: Well, first of all, the president shouldn't have said Gadhafi must go. But I disagree with him completely.

I think that this is a civil war where we don't know either side. David said that Gadhafi was a major dictator. He's not. He's a minor, tinhorn, egregious, awful dictator. But it's a small country. It's a sideshow.

Middle East diplomats said today what happens in Libya, stays in Libya. What happens in Egypt affects the whole region. And instead of spending our billions on more military activities in Libya, what we should be doing is organizing the region to have a development fund to provide jobs for those kids who are in the streets in Egypt, so that six months or a year from now, they're not back in the streets again supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

KING: And take the heat, so be it, then if people say, you're being weak or you're being passive when it comes to --

KLEIN: Right. I mean, you know, John McCain -- you know, if a tree falls in the forest, he wants to bomb it. I think that, you know, that we have to be reasonable here, and we have to understand that every time the United States takes military action in an Islamic country, it redounds to our detriment.

KING: Part of the remarkable debate that I think will be going on for several weeks. And you say you're going to head to the region soon?

KLEIN: We'll go there soon (ph). Yes.

KING: We stay in touch when you do. Joe Klein, thanks for coming.

And when we come back -- the biggest domestic immediate fall from the Libya crisis, that would be rising gas prices. The president, he's still on the heat. He's going to address them tomorrow. We'll show you just why, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: We told you the president has scheduled a news conference for 11:15 in the East tomorrow morning here in Washington. We're also told by our sources tonight that he will open with a statement about rising gas prices in the United States. I'm told by several sources the president's political team has told him this issue is registering in the country -- rising gas prices -- far more than the budget squabbling here in Washington, far more than the Libyan political crisis itself.

Why is it such an issue? Well, you know this -- because you've been paying it at the pump. We've been talking about this the last couple of weeks.

The Libya crisis starts right about here. And, look, up go the prices. Down a little bit today, but crude oil is closing about $102 a barrel right now. It's been over $100 a barrel for several days. That's a problem in the market.

What that's do, crude's over $100? Well, guess what? Gas at the pump goes up.

Look at that spike over the last couple of weeks -- $3.52 on average right now for a gallon of regular unleaded. You know that as you've been filling up.

Now, where you live makes a big difference in what you pay. This map shows essentially gas prices across the country -- the darker the state, the higher at the pump. California, high gas tax, you're up in the $3.94 range. The lighter states, maybe you're paying $3.20 at the pump.

But watch how this changes. This is what you're paying. But what about how much you earn? How wealthy you are.

If you look at the difference here -- again, look at Mississippi. Thirteen percent on average of income goes to gas, only 5 percent of income in the state of New York. Now, that's a big difference because, look, New York has the higher gas prices than Mississippi. But Mississippi is a poorer state.

So if you look out here in these heartland states here, you start getting into the purple, the price of gas is beginning to have a bigger impact on the family budget. The proportion of the money you have to spend on other things. That is why the president will open tomorrow saying he understands gas prices are on the rise. He'll try to explain what the administration will do about it. He'll also rebut Republican criticism by saying that the United States is producing more oil right now in the United States than it did at the end of the Bush administration. That's the politics of gas prices, always a dicey proposition.

We'll track what the president says tomorrow. We'll see you then.

"IN THE ARENA" starts right now.