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JOHN KING, USA

The Libya Crisis; Rescue of a Fighter Pilot

Aired March 22, 2011 - 19:00   ET

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


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks Wolf. Happy birthday my friend and good evening everyone. Tonight a lot of breaking news in the Libya crisis. CNN has just wrapped up an interview with President Obama in El Salvador, pressing him about cracks in the Libya military coalition and the political debate about the war here at home. You will hear that interview first right here in just a few moments.

Also a fourth day of punishing attacks along Libyan's Mediterranean coastline, a flurry of cruise missiles and air strikes inflicting what the Pentagon calls significant blows to Libya's military. And yet Moammar Gadhafi not only remains in power tonight, he continues to attack in cities like Misurata in direct defiance of the United Nations.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(CROSSTALK)

(SOUNDS)

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KING: Despite those attacks, the president labels the mission a success so far.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because of the extraordinary capabilities and valor of our men and women in uniform, we have already saved lives.

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KING: But does the coalition need to do more or just accept that Gadhafi isn't going anywhere?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MOAMMAR GADHAFI, LIBYAN LEADER (through translator): We will be victorious in this fight. We will not give up. They will not terrorize us. We are making fun of their rockets. The Libyans are laughing at these rockets.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Plus, the risks of a war come front and center. USF-15 crashes in northern Libya, its pilot and munitions officer forced to eject and float down into the middle of a civil war. They are safe tonight. And we'll explain the daring rescue operation with the help of someone who knows just how they work, former Air Force Captain Scott O'Grady, who was shot down over Bosnia 16 years ago.

Let's begin with a close look at the battlefield in both the military and political questions raised by Colonel Gadhafi's refusal to meet the demands of President Obama and the United Nations coalition. Most of the last four days have played out along the northern coast.

On Saturday the attacks began, cruise missiles and air strikes right again in these key northern cities. Sunday, the attacks intensified. You see especially more air strikes and the beginning of the attacks on Gadhafi's ground forces. Again on Monday, more cruise missiles and the attacks on the ground forces not only in the east near Benghazi but over near Misurata as well.

And then Tuesday, in the last 24 hours, a few more cruise missiles and an intense -- much more intense effort targeting ground forces here. So four days in we know there have been strikes, sometimes relentlessly from Tripoli all the way across to Benghazi. We do know if we trust the Pentagon accounts, and there's no reason not to, there has been significant damage to Gadhafi's military capabilities.

The question now is how about his political will? Let's start with Nic Robertson in Tripoli. Nic, on the one hand the coalition says it is delivering punishing blows to Gadhafi's military and yet it says in the next breath that he continues on the offensive in places like Misurata. Is there any indication that the regime is feeling enough heat to stop?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There isn't any indication of that at the moment and one of the challenges for the coalition in Misurata is that this is -- it's a city. It's a built-up urban environment. Gadhafi's forces as best we understand are sort of as they were in Zawiya, not far from Tripoli in amongst the buildings there and it is difficult for the coalition to tell where one side where the government side finishes and the opposition side begins because often we've seen in the past the tanks of the government roll straight through the neighborhoods where the opposition live. So it's very tough to intervene and sort of stop the fighting (INAUDIBLE) -- John.

KING: And you were taken out today by the government to be shown a facility where there was clearly some damage inflicted by coalition strikes. So the Gadhafi regime wants you to see the damage. Why are they taking you out there? But again no signs of saying, hey, we're suffering a blow here. We're going to back down.

ROBERTSON: Yes. It's kind of strange. I mean, whenever they take you somewhere, you always ask why are we going here and when we got inside the building, this warehouse building, we could see that four mobile what appear to be surface-to-air mobile rocket launchers had been destroyed. One of the craters was just a couple of feet behind these four rocket launchers that were underneath a tin roof.

So they must be asking themselves how did the coalition know to strike right there, precisely right behind the rocket launchers and just a hundred yards away, several naval vessels. The Gadhafi government has to know that the coalition could just as easily take out his Navy sitting there as sitting ducks as they could take out these weapons systems inside the warehouse. So there's a psychological message but the Gadhafi government doesn't seem to be bending to that as best we see at the moment. It's a very opaque society here. Very few people are going to speak out right now publicly against Gadhafi. But even reading the body language of senior officials, not seeing that -- not seeing them cracking yet -- John.

KING: Nic Robertson for us in Tripoli tonight -- Nic, thanks. And you heard Nic saying taken out to that depot where they had the rocket launchers. Rocket launchers, surface-to-air missiles, those have been a top priority of the coalition in recent days. We've shown you this diagram before. The longer-range circle. Gadhafi has surface-to-air missiles -- they're Russian made.

They have about 150-mile range. Those are the biggest threat to coalition pilots. Then you also have some smaller, most of them by Tripoli but some over here by Benghazi along the coast as well, smaller anti-aircraft and surface-to-air missiles batteries that have been we are told the key targets of the cruise missile and the other air strikes in recent days and again some of the ground forces.

But with most of the attention focused on the anti-aircraft missiles, it raises -- it begs the question the opposition does not have airplanes. They may seize one or two from the Libyan Air Force, but as the coalition does all this, what is the impact on the opposition? The headquarters of the opposition is in Benghazi.

A short time ago I talked to our Arwa Damon right there. Arwa, let's start with the opposition strategy here. Four days in, punishing strikes against Gadhafi, but the regime sounds defiant. Does the opposition believe he is any weaker and he is any more willing to give in?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we just got back from an interview with (INAUDIBLE). He is (INAUDIBLE) Gadhafi's former minister of interior. The two were very close. He, in fact, was part of the initial revolt that Gadhafi led that brought him into power. And he does believe Gadhafi when he says that he plans on holding on until the very end until the very last drop of Libyan blood has been spilled.

Eunis (ph) does believe that Gadhafi has militarily been weakened especially because of those air strikes but does not believe that he is going to be willing to relinquish his power one bit. Very much realizing that this is probably and tragically going to be a fight until the bloody end -- John. KING: When you say a fight until the bloody end, the opposition especially the Army chief must be disappointed when they hear Secretary Gates and others saying well we think strategically the coalition is close to its military objective so the military operations will be scaled back some. That must disappoint the opposition.

DAMON: Disappoint to a certain degree, although we have to remember what it was that they were asking for, and that is the no-fly zone, that is the targeted air strikes, not exactly what they have gotten. Now they're telling us that they have been asking a number of different countries for equipment, for weapons, because they say that is what they really need to be able to move this forward.

They do realize that they do in a certain degree have the advantage in the sense that they basically have the world's most powerful Air Force essentially at their disposal. But this is turning into a ground battle. We're seeing Gadhafi's troops entrenched in some of these cities and towns, and the opposition is going to have to take the fight straight to them.

The problem is that they're up against Gadhafi's arsenal of tanks and howitzers, artillery rounds so, they have to figure out a way to be able to defeat that, and they say to do that they do need a bit more help. They say they've requested these weapons, equipment from a number of countries but have yet to hear back on that point -- John.

KING: And Arwa, your busy day included a trip out to the site of that F-15 crash. Tell us about your visit out there and the things you learned talking to some of the first people on the scene there.

DAMON: Yes, John. The area where the f-15 went down, farm lands, it's around an hour's drive east of Benghazi, and residents were telling us that they heard an aircraft overhead. They realized it was foreign. Eventually they realized it was in trouble and when it crashed they told us that residents in this entire area fanned out looking for the servicemen who were onboard, really wanting to help them.

They did manage to find one of them. We believe it was the weapons officer, a colonel, telling us how he was calling out into the darkness -- this happening at around midnight, saying that you're in safe hands, this is friendly territory. We just want to help you. Eventually the servicemen came out -- the colonel saying that he grabbed him, hugged him, kissed him on both cheeks and then eventually we are told he was sent to a hospital, taken care of there, allowed to rest in a hotel.

And now we do know that he is back in U.S. custody. People very much wanting to express their gratitude to the international community, realizing that these servicemen from all of the nations who are involved in the coalition are taking a great risk to keep the people of Libya safe -- John.

KING: Arwa Damon reporting tonight from Benghazi -- Arwa, thanks. You heard Arwa there talking about how the opposition wants more help. As I told you at the top of the show, CNN is interviewing the president in El Salvador, President Obama. That interview just wrapped up. We are told the president said his administration is trying to find ways to help the opposition.

We'll bring you that interview, turn that tape as soon as it feeds in to us. In the middle of all this, the president is also trying to settle a bit of a family feud among the coalition partners. I want to close down this map and bring up here -- these are all the air bases all across Europe, down into Italy, close nearby that the United States, the U.K., Denmark, Canada, France have all used in recent days to fly missions into Libya to enforce the no-fly zone and launch those strikes.

Well there's a big, big debate now about how this alliance should move going forward. The president spoke today to the British prime minister and the French president. Aides say some progress was made on figuring out just how the operation should be managed going forward. The United States and Britain, they want NATO to take command, but France objects to that and says key Arab nations also want a different command structure.

Plus there are differences over how long to press the attacks and whether to be more aggressive in targeting Gadhafi's forces. Defense Secretary Robert Gates though shrugging off these disagreements.

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ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: This command and control business is complicated, and we haven't done something like this kind of on the fly before. And so it's not surprising to me that it would take a few days to get it all sorted out.

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KING: Normal growing pains or a damaging divide? Former under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns is back with us tonight as is CNN senior analyst David Gergen. David, I know it's not exactly the way Bob Gates meant it but if I were a parent of a member of the United States military involved in this operation and I was hearing oh we're doing this on the fly, I might be a little concerned.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Those words do jump out at you -- don't they, John -- on the fly? This has had a very improvisational quality to it over the last 10 days or so. As we reverse gears, we were -- first we weren't going in, now we're going in. But I must say the U.S. military has done a superb job in these early days and Secretary Gates I know takes great pride in that.

We've accomplished much of what we set out to do now, and that was to suppress Gadhafi's air defenses and also to deal with -- to get him to stop his movements into the second largest city. But there's much work ahead, but the toughest part of this and what the U.S. has set out to do is largely accomplished now. KING: Nic, David says what the U.S. has set out to do is largely accomplished now, but it needs to hand off this mission. The United States will still be a part of the mission. I kind of wish you were in your old job as the NATO ambassador because you'd be in the middle of this mess right now. The president had to call the prime minister of the United Kingdom today, the president of France today. He's trying to work out some arrangement. The French don't want NATO to take charge of it and at the end of those conversations there seemed to be a general agreement that NATO would have a lead role but they would finesse it somehow. Why is this such a mess?

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, I agree with David, you know, the U.S. military has really performed remarkably well over the last couple of days. They've turned the tide of this civil war against Gadhafi, but the drama today was not on the war, it wasn't on whether Gadhafi will go or stay, it was who's going to command the operational details of this mission. Will it be NATO, which really is capable of doing it, or will it be an individual European country?

The U.S. has commanded the operation over the last four or five days. It wants to hand it off. That was President Obama's promise yesterday. And yet no one in Europe seems to want to take it. The French have an objection to NATO leading. The French say that NATO is anathema in the Middle East. The Italians, on the other hand, and they're very important, John, because they're just across the Mediterranean from Libya.

They have all the NATO air bases in southern Italy. The Italians want NATO, on the other hand, to take charge. So we seem to be immersed in this operational detail of who's going to command when the bigger problem is what's the strategy going forward for the United Nations coalition. How is Gadhafi going to be maneuvered to the point where he leaves power or is driven from power? That's the more important question. But the community -- international community tends to be focused on this operational detail.

KING: Operational details do matter when young men and women's lives are at risk. We'll pick up on that point and end the goal of the mission when we come back. David and Nic are going to stay with us.

Ahead, a dramatic rescue of an American F-15 crew after a crash in eastern Libya. An American pilot rescued in Bosnia 15 years ago by crews from the very same Navy ship takes us inside this kind of daring operation.

And next the president is pressed to define the end game in Libya and explain why, after America spends tens of millions on the military assault, it could still end with Gadhafi in power.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: In most wars, the goal is to defeat an enemy. But not this war. After four days of attacks, Moammar Gadhafi appears firmly in control of most of Libya. Yet the president and his Defense Secretary Robert Gates say the military goals of the United States and its coalition partners are within reach.

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GATES: It just seems logical that once we have the air defense system sufficiently suppressed that the level of military activity would decline.

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KING: Should it decline, or now that the United States and its allies have taken sides, should they do more to help the anti-Gadhafi opposition? We're back with David Gergen and Nic Burns. David, some would make the moral argument that once you have picked sides, before the break, Nic said we've tilted the battlefield somewhat in favor of the opposition, but Gadhafi still has superior ground power. Is the goal -- is the operation now to just watch and see who wins?

GERGEN: Well, of course is the question we don't know the answer to. General Ham said yesterday, the U.S. general theater commander said we are not there to help the rebels. We are there simply for defensive purposes to prevent Gadhafi from killing civilians. He ruled that out. Hillary Clinton seemed to rule it in a couple of days before that.

So nobody quite knows here, John, where this is going. But I -- two things I think are relevant to this conversation. One is there is word within the last hour that the British and the French are now floating a proposal to mend this rift among NATO and non-NATO countries about command, wants to see how it all comes out. Nic can address that more fully. But the other thing is it's clear that America's ultimate goal is to get rid of Gadhafi and it is also clear that if we don't get rid of Gadhafi it's going to be a major failure of American policy.

KING: And yet if that is America's ultimate goal, Nic Burns, listen to the president here, who in his public statements seems to be emphasizing more and more his goal is to get out cleanly and quickly. Listen.

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BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I said at the outset that this was going to be a matter of days and not weeks. And there's nothing based on how we've been able to execute over the last several days that changes that assessment.

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KING: If you're Moammar Gadhafi, can't you read that that the president of the United States does not want to stay in this fight for domestic political reasons and therefore all I have to do is last a few more days and then I'm OK?

BURNS: I think the president legitimately, John, is also worried about the fact that we're still engaged in two major land wars in the greater Middle East, in Afghanistan and Iraq. We've got to continue to block Iran. We've got the real crises in Yemen and Bahrain, where our vital interests are engaged. And so the president has got a lot on his plate and Libya is not in the front line of American national security interests so I think he's made the calculation correctly that if Britain and France and Italy are saying that Libya is vital to them, they ought to bear the burden of this military operation.

It will be their warships and their planes executing the no- flight and no-drive zones. The complication is this -- if the United States now withdraws from the command of this coalition operation, if our firepower withdraws, I don't know if the Europeans can muster the unity, the command and control, the intimidating fire power that the U.S. military represents in order to move Gadhafi from where he is, to intimidate him and perhaps to encourage the Libyan people to rise up against him.

When I saw the president speak both today and yesterday, I kind of got the sense that that's what he was hoping. That now having enacted the no-fly zone -- erected it -- excuse me -- that we would see the Libyan people perhaps become emboldened and take to the streets again and give new energy to the rebel force, but if it's the Europeans surrounding Libya, I just don't know if that's going to be an intimidating force for Gadhafi to really fear.

KING: And so --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Go ahead.

GERGEN: Yes, wouldn't -- Nic, wouldn't we keep our Navy assets in place there? Won't we stay on station but not be flying the planes and not be sending in missiles? I wouldn't assume a handoff would mean we would disappear over the horizon.

BURNS: Well, I would hope so. I think the United States ought to remain in the lead, at least in the command and control part of this, and let the Europeans shoulder some of the other aspects of the burden. It does get, David and John, to another question that we've talked about over the last couple of days.

There still is confusion about the strategy. The no-flight zone is not a strategy. It's a tactic. It's part of the picture that you got to paint in order to remove Gadhafi. There doesn't seem to be a definite strategy as to whether we want to drive him from power, help the rebel army get him out of power, or whether we're going to stand by as some kind of neutral referee having built this no-flight zone and then just see who wins. That is not a winning formula in my judgment.

KING: And we know -- and to your point, the president of the United States believes that Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, more important at the moment to U.S. national security interests than Libya. And he is hoping our friends in Europe and elsewhere can deal with the Libya situation. He also, I think, hopes from a domestic political standpoint not to involve the United States in a costly and bloody war. However, what happens to those interests in the region, a very difficult region for the United States over the course of the last decade if in six months Gadhafi is still in power? Can he then stand up and say I defeated the United States?

BURNS: Well, I think it is a problem because you know there's this great drama under way for two months now in the Arab world. Nearly every country in ferment and transformation, this is the only place where the United States has now intervened militarily. And if we don't win, if Gadhafi doesn't leave, then I think it's going to be a difficult blow for us and it may very well have an impact on some of the other authoritarian leaders and embolden them in other parts of the Middle East.

GERGEN: John, it will be a terrible setback. And we also know that Gadhafi will retaliate. He will look for ways. We've seen this in the past, when he's taken down airplanes, commercial aircraft when he's been hit. You know he's like a snake that gets cornered and he's going to strike. He will also serve as safe harbor for new terrorism and new terrorists to spread out around the world. It's imperative that he go. How we get there is I think the hard question that Nic keeps on coming back to, but from an American policy standpoint, six months from now, if he's still in power, this will have been a failed policy.

KING: Something we will keep an eye on in the days and weeks ahead with your help. David Gergen and Nic Burns thanks for coming in tonight.

And ahead for us, Dr. Sanjay Gupta separates fact from fear in the food safety debate that's now part of Japan's nuclear crisis.

And next, Scott O'Grady was shot down over Bosnia 16 years ago and after hiding in Iraqi woods for six days Marines from the USS Kearsarge swooped in to rescue him. Today that same ship rescued Americans whose fighter jet crashed in Libya. So what's it like to eject from a fighter jet and to pray for a swift rescue? Scott O'Grady live next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: While most of us were sleeping last night, the risks of war came front and center. U.S. F-15 took off from here, NATO air base in Avian (ph), Italy. It was on a mission as a part of the no- fly zone to the eastern part of Libya. Somewhere here near Benghazi the pilot reported the plane was malfunctioning and he had to eject along with his munitions officer.

The plane crashed right about here. Again, the crew had to eject. What's that like to have to eject out of a flying fighter jet? Let's talk to someone who knows how that feels. In 1995, Scott O'Grady's U.S. jet fighter was hit by a Serbian missile while he was on a mission over Bosnia. He ejected safely but into Serb-held territory, then spent six nights hiding out before his radio signal finally guided U.S. rescuers to him. Scott O'Grady joins us now tonight. And sir, I just want to start with the simple thought, when you first heard that news, plane down, crew ejects, what goes through your mind?

SCOTT O'GRADY, FORMER U.S. AIR FORCE FIGHTER PILOT: Well, the greatest news I was able to hear was that both crew members were recovered safely, and actually were recovered by the United States Marines and returned to the "USS Kearsarge," and that had a lot of sentimental meaning to me because when I was down for six days behind enemy lines it was the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit from the "USS Kearsarge" that rescued me.

KING: I have a photo of the deck of the Kearsarge here and when I heard it was the Kearsarge today, and I was looking back at your story and seeing the parallel I want to get to what it's like to be waiting, but since you brought that point up, what did you feel when you were on that helicopter and suddenly you see the water and you see the deck of a U.S. Navy ship right there and you know then you are safe?

O'GRADY: Well, coming out of hostile territory, when we were egressing, we had man pads (ph) and triple A and small arms fire (ph) that were shot at us. Three to four helicopters took damage to ground fire. And when we were over feet-wet (ph) over the ocean we knew we weren't going to be fired upon again, at that point you would have thought you would have seen a celebration, but there wasn't. The only thing you would have seen on board the helicopter at that moment would have been some content smiles knowing that 61 had gone in and 62 came home and nobody got hurt and that was the best feeling.

KING: That is the best feeling. And President Clinton at the time called you an American hero, sir. That remains true today. I'm showing our viewers on the wall here a picture of the golden loop. It might be a little different in an F-15 than it is in an F-16, but I want to describe when you know you have no choice but to reach down and pull this, knowing what's going to happen next. You're in a jet, you're flying at incredibly high speeds. When you pull this, you eject. What's that feel like?

O'GRADY: Each pilot is trained from the beginning of pilot training not to delay an ejection scenario if he needs to. And when you pull that handle, the canopy immediately fires rocket motors, departs canopy, then the ejection seat fires over 20 Gs to your spinal column and is boosted out of the cockpit area. When I came out, I actually ejected out at 27,000 feet at about 500 miles per hour. And I immediately got a wind blast and then subsequently if you're at a low altitude you'll have an automatic sensor that will deploy the parachute. In my scenario, I was up at such a high altitude that I immediately deployed the chute on my own.

KING: And then when you hit ground, sir, in your case you knew you were going to land in dicey territory. In this case, I'm sure they weren't quite sure where they were going to come down, and thank God they came down in a friendly area, on the ground in Libya.

When you hit the ground, you essentially have a tiny backpack and that is your make or break in terms of saving your life and trying to get a signal out to those you know who will come looking for you. Describe that, what you have with you when you hit the ground. O'GRADY: Anytime you come out of a fighter aircraft over enemy territory, you're not 100 percent certain who's going to be your greeting party. I thank God that the survival training that we received in the United States military gives you the techniques and the training to be able to go through any scenario and to be able to come home.

Now, one of the most important things that they teach us at survival school is you must have the will to survive. And for me, it was relying upon my faith in God, the love of family, and my patriotism -- the love I have for my country. And I know that these men that came down over Libya were just as happy to see those Marines to get them home as I was when I was down over Bosnia.

KING: For a younger American who might not remember your story and might not remember what it was like for the Bosnian Serbs in those days -- you hit the ground, you're in enemy territory. They are looking for you instantly and you're running to get away. Describe what it was like.

I'm rereading your story today and remembering some of the details -- lying face down in the mud and fields with cows around you, hiding in caves and the woods, anywhere you can go. Take us back a little bit into what had to be an incredibly harrowing experience.

O'GRADY: I was actually on the ground in Bosnia, 80 miles into enemy territory for six days, evading -- hiding in three different locations, evading over the course of two different nights. I had paramilitaries that were walking by me sometimes very nearby within the first few days, helicopters searching for me overhead. I was hypothermic. I was cold, shivering the entire time.

I didn't sleep during the daytime but maybe 20 minutes. And at nighttime, that was my time to be active. The primary thing to do, though, as these pilots did, you have to make contact with friendly forces, identify yourself as a friendly, and be able to give positive location so that they can come in and rescue you.

And it just took me a little bit longer because of the mountainous terrain and the line of sight of my radio blocking the signal. But when I was finally able to make contact with rescue forces, I was out of harm's way within 5 1/2 hours, which is a very quick response time and I again thank the Marines for that.

KING: It is remarkable and we thank them as well because they are heroes today. I want to close by asking you -- there are two families out there who spent several dreadful hours today who now know -- now know that their sons, their spouses, their brothers are safe. What was it like for you -- first you established radio contact, but then you were able to look out from the woods, see that Marine helicopter hovering and you mad -- it's all describe in the stories of you running for the helicopter.

What is it like when you finally see there, right there, I just need to run and get on that chopper? O'GRADY: Well, it was confirmation in knowing that the United States of America was not going to leave me behind. And when I saw that United States Cobra helicopter coming over the horizon half around the world in hostile territory to save my life, I've never been more proud to be an American than that moment.

And to the family members of the crews that were rescued, I just -- my hats off to them for their patriotism and for their family members for serving, and I just want to tell everyone how proud I am of everyone who has served in uniform protecting our freedom and our way of life, because this is a dangerous world. And we have to realize that freedom is not for free and it must be guard and protected at all the time.

KING: Captain O'Grady, we salute you for coming in tonight and sharing your recollections and your story with us. You are, as the president said back then, still today an American hero. We appreciate your time and your insight, sir.

O'GRADY: Thank you for having me.

KING: Thank you.

When we come back, it's already after dawn Wednesday in Japan where people were shaken awake by a series of strong aftershocks. We'll have the dramatic pictures, next.

And then we'll talk to our Dr. Sanjay Gupta about the fear of radiation contaminating Japan's food supply. And could it -- could that contamination reach the United States?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back.

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

Several aftershocks hit Japan about an hour ago just after dawn Wednesday morning. Japan's NHK network reports no tsunami was generated, but the strongest shocks was off Fukushima prefecture, the site of that crippled nuclear plant. The plant's owner says the technicians restored power to the number three reactor's control room today. They now hope to turn on the air conditioning so workers can reenter that room.

A new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows 53 percent of Americans think a dangerous amount of radiation from Japan will reach the United States. Now, the experts all tell us that's highly unlikely. But we thought it was a good subject of conversation for our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Sanjay, let's just start with a little radiation contamination 101. How does radiation get into the food supply? DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what happens is radiation -- these particles actually bind to dust. That's where radioactive dust, that term, comes from.

That's a pretty heavy substance now. That's going to fall to the ground. Certain weather conditions obviously will affect that, wind and rain.

And then it gets onto the ground and, for example, can start to contaminate, you know, various vegetables that are growing above the ground. That's the basic thing.

It can also get into crops that other animals eat. For example, cows may eat grass that's been contaminated, that could have radioactive iodine in it, for example, and that can get into the milk. So, it can get into the food. It can get into the milk that way.

Water is sort of the same thing. It falls down, gets into the water, some of the ground water supplies.

Now, not all crops are going to be affected equally. So, spinach, for example -- a lot of discussion about that. Big leafs on the spinach, they can trap some of that radioactive dust. It grows above ground.

Carrots, for example, grows primarily below ground, so it's not as likely to be contaminated.

Or, for example, corn, which has a protective husk that's peeled away, also less risky because of that.

But that's basically the sort of idea how it works.

We have seen various, you know, levels increase -- no surprise, I think, as a result of what's happened here.

You can take a look at various foods, the milk, the tap water, as we mentioned. In the various prefectures, tap water up to three times the limit; raw milk for the reasons I just mentioned, 17 times the limit, and spinach again, a lot of discussion about this, 27 times the limit. That's sort of a general idea of how it works.

But again, we're talking even at those limits, John -- very, very small levels overall and unlikely to have an impact on human health.

KING: You say unlikely to have an impact on human health. This program airs about dinnertime in the East, people getting ready to prepare dinner. As you make your way to the Midwest and the West, a lot of Americans are asking: is there any chance -- any chance -- contaminated food is going to reach my kitchen?

GUPTA: Well, like your job and my job both, we never say never, John -- but I think the short answer is no. It's very unlikely.

A few reasons: first of all, even before this all happened, much of the food, not all of it, admittedly, but much of the food is screened already for radioactivity -- food that's imported certainly from overseas. Now, we learn from the FDA that all of the imports from Japan are going to be screened for radiation. All of it. The FDA is stepping that up a notch.

In case you're curious, about 4 percent of imports come from Japan. So, a relatively small amount. But, again, I think the important point here is the levels.

The spinach, for example -- a lot of discussion on this today. John, if you were to eat spinach every day, spinach can be good for you. Some -- people should eat it every day. But even if you were to eat this radioactive spinach every day, the amount of radiation that you would get over a year of doing this would about equivalent to one CT scan. Certainly not negligible but enough to cause an impact on human health, probably not.

KING: Well, I eat a lot of spinach. So, we'll keep an eye on that one.

Well, let me ask you this and I'm laughing at that -- laughing as I say that. But this is -- this is not a laughing matter. There's been a trust deficit, a credibility problem for the Japanese government and the utility involved. People not really trusting the information they're getting.

As you watch this, what would you have to see to get you to say "I want to come back on the program, John, because now I am a little concerned maybe this has reached levels or there are suspicions that it has reached levels that the people should be worried"?

GUPTA: The biggest -- and there has been a trust issue. There's been a transparency issue. I was right there and saw the numbers fluctuate wildly in terms of what was reported. You know, they were literally getting these numbers 1,000 fold off.

So, for example, if they came back and we heard of the numbers that we have been hearing from official sources -- obviously, things we could not measure ourselves because we're not right next to the plant. But if we hear those numbers are, in fact, off, the radiation is much higher -- that's obviously a concern.

If there's any evidence that human health has been affected, because oftentimes that is the first sign that someone gets sick and you go back and you say, what was the cause of the sickness? Could it have been radiation? You sort of put the pieces of the puzzle together backwards. That would be a sign.

As they measure some of these specific crops, including milk, which was a big problem in the northern Ukraine and southern Belarus after Chernobyl, and the radiation levels continued to go up, that would be a concern.

And also, keep in mind that none of this addresses another important point, which is, you know, you talk about that entire area that you've been showing on maps. That area is going to be treated as contaminated, John, even with these low levels. That area is going to be contaminated. It's going to take a long time to clean up.

And even though we talk about the half-life, for example, of radioactive particles being just a few day, if this stuff gets into the ground, and it most likely will, then you're talking about, you know, decades before those radioactive particles really start to, you know, lose their activity.

So, those are some of the major concerns I think going forward, and that's based on previous history, John. It's not like we have a huge amount of data to analyze, but you look at Chernobyl primarily and you also look at Three Mile Island to some extent and you start to ask some pretty important questions.

KING: And we'll keep checking those numbers in the days and weeks ahead. Dr. Gupta, thanks.

GUPTA: Thank you, John.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Just ahead, back to the Libya crisis. President Obama tells CNN he's looking for ways to help the opposition now. And Secretary of State Clinton tells ABC News there's some evidence -- some evidence, she's not sure she trusts it -- perhaps Moammar Gadhafi is having friends look around the world for an out.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Sometimes, the gremlins of technology keep us from doing exactly as we would like. By that, I mean CNN had an interview a short time ago with the president of the United States in El Salvador. We are trying to get that tape fed in, we're having some technological difficulties.

We do know in that interview, we are told the president said the administration is looking for ways -- looking for ways -- to try to provide more help to the Libyan opposition. As soon as we can get that tape or the full transcript, we'll bring that in more context.

But let's continue this conversation because a lot of questions now about what is the end0game in Libya, what is the U.S. exit strategy, who will manage this coalition?

Our senior political analyst Gloria Borger is with me.

And I want to start, Gloria, with something -- ABC News had an interview with Secretary of State Clinton tonight. She said something that's kind of tantalizing, and then you're not sure if you can believe it because even she's not sure she can believe it.

She says the United States has some reports that friends of the regime are essentially calling around for their friends in the world saying what should we do here, is there a way out? Is there someplace maybe for Gadhafi to go? Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: A lot of it is just the way he behaves. It's somewhat unpredictable. But some of it we think is exploring, you know, what are my options, where could I go, what could I do? And we would encourage that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The delicious part -- the delicious part is the end. And we would encourage that.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: We would encourage. That's sort of the understatement of the year and also the notion that he is somewhat unpredictable, i.e., crazy.

KING: This is the secretary of state, so she's being diplomatic.

BORGER: Right. She is being diplomatic. But, of course, we would encourage that. We would be very happy for Gadhafi to leave because, you know, this entire mission really is -- from the United States' point of view, cannot be judged a success unless Gadhafi's gone. I mean, if we say we're part of the humanitarian mission but we in the United States want Gadhafi to go, we're going to be judged on that. And if he's the murderous thug who's killing his own people, how can the humanitarian mission be a success if he still remains in Libya?

KING: And yet that could be the difficult box the president finds himself in for weeks if not months -- and some people think even years -- in the sense that Gadhafi right now has listened to all the public statements from the president of the United States, that the United States' involvement here will be days, not weeks.

And he also would have heard the president at his news conference today say, look, we entered this here, yes, I want him to go, but that's not the goal of military intervention -- and the president seems to think that is almost -- almost -- my words, not his -- mission accomplished.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLI)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think fairly shortly, we are going to be able to say that we've achieved the objective of a no-fly zone. We will also be able to say that we have averted immediate tragedy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So averted immediate tragedy. He means they stopped an onslaught in Benghazi in the president's opinion.

BORGER: Right.

KING: And will have a no-fly zone in place.

But if Gadhafi still has a superior ground operation, he might stay a long time. BORGER: Sure. And I think that goes to the question of whether we could help arm the rebels, for example, or aid the rebels in some way because we want to get rid of Gadhafi. If you think of the United States as sort of blowing the hinges off the door, that's what we did. And now, we want to see the rest of the house tumble down.

And so, we're going to -- you know, we're going to have to say whether that, in fact, is going -- is going to happen. But I think, you know, the president in a way -- and you read political language better than I do, John -- the president put himself in a really tough spot here because he was honest. He said, we want Gadhafi to go.

But it's ambiguous when you have to get together an entire mission, right? A United Nations Security Council, you want to get the Arab League on board. That mission has to be more ambiguous.

KING: Stand by with me because as we mentioned at the top, we're having trouble getting our tape get in. But our interview with the president was conducted by CNN Espanol's Juan Carlos Lopez.

He joins us live now from San Salvador.

And help us through the fact the president -- you asked him about trying to help the Libyan opposition, or he brought that point up. How specific was the president? Because that's one of the big questions.

JUAN CARLOS LOPEZ, CNN EN ESPANOL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that was the second question. I asked him if he could or would support the rebels militarily. And he said they were looking into ways of doing it.

The first question had to do with the fact that Gadhafi, that the resolution 1973 only gives authority to impose this no-fly zone and protect civilians, but it says nothing about the rebels. And he said that it could be a scenario where Gadhafi is there for a long time. And he said they're exploring ways in which they could support these rebels. He says that's all in the works, but it wasn't specific on to when it could happen or how that would happen. But he did say it was a possibility.

KING: And you've said, of course, the president, Juan Carlos, several times -- he understands the criticism. He has a domestic political debate he's returning to. He's cutting his domestic trip short by a couple of hours to come back to that. He knows around the world, people are saying the United States is going step back and be in a secondary role. What does that mean?

What was your sense of, as he tries to be less specific, and I'm sure that's intentional, the president's part -- that's part of the strategy, all presidents are like that especially in a military conflict. What was the body language?

LOPEZ: Well, he seemed comfortable. He didn't seem tense. A question I asked had to do with him being a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and I asked if it wasn't a contradiction that you had the Nobel Peace Prize winner authorizing the use of force on the eighth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war which he had opposed. And he said that, yes, it was a contradiction -- the contradiction that he had highlighted when he received it saying that he was a president that was fighting two wars, and now, obviously a third front.

But the president is saying that people wouldn't stand by a president that didn't do anything in a country where civilians were being slaughtered. So, that was a line, as you say, the president already ready -- getting ready to go back home and to answer to all these questions.

KING: Juan Carlos, stand by a second.

Gloria, this is an important point that we dwell on here because it's the first offensive action the president has started. He inherited Iraq, inherited Afghanistan. His credibility will be judged by how this turns out.

BORGER: Absolutely. And that's why the future of Gadhafi is so important. This notion of arming the rebels -- for example, just who are the rebels? Are they a unified bunch? Are there bad rebels and good rebels?

You know, these are all questions that Congress is going to want answered. When you're part of an international coalition, there's got to be ambiguity to get it together. Congress isn't geared that way. Congress wants to know timetables, they're going to spend money, they want answers, they want specifics -- and that's maybe difficult for this president right now.

KING: Juan Carlos, was it an issue for the president on this trip? Obviously, the trip was planned well before this happened. But back during the Iraq war, I would travel with George W. Bush in my days covering the White House, and, boy, there would be protests in the streets in some countries. Some of the leaders were a little sketchy about being around the president of the United States -- those who opposed the Iraq war.

Brazil in particular here abstained. It wasn't outright opposition, but they abstained.

How was the president received?

LOPEZ: Well, it was a very good reception. There's a big difference between President Obama and the way President Bush was perceived. There were protests in Rio, but they were relatively small for such a large city. There were protests also in Santiago, but also they were marginal.

And in this case in Brazil, I guess as you can -- the fact is that he gave the authorization from Brazil, that government didn't have enough time. But we did see a different type of on-stage presentation where there were no questions in the press conference with President Rousseff where he made the announcement later on and have nothing to do with the Brazil event. And it wasn't something that dominated -- the Brazilians were trying for that not to dominate the story. But that was the story.

In Chile, they took questions, both presidents talked about it. There was a different mood. But we didn't see the wide-scale protests we saw before, and we didn't see the type of reception American presidents used to get.

We used to arrive in the country and the people would be waving flags and standing to see the motorcades go by. We didn't see that in Chile or Brazil. There was a little bit more of it here in El Salvador. But Obama is pretty popular president in Latin America.

KING: Juan Carlos Lopez for us in San Salvador. Appreciate that. And we'll get your interview on the air as soon as it comes in.

Gloria Borger, thanks for hanging out with us tonight and your insight as well.

And when we come back, we'll take a closer look before we go tonight at the military operations, four days in, in Libya. What has been hit? What is the state of the battlefield?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Four days in to the coalition attacks, the president of the United States says the no-fly zone is about to be in place.

Let's play this out, four days -- Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday of strikes against Gadhafi forces. The president says conditions in place now, he believes, to keep Gadhafi's forces in place.

This does not come cheap and does not come without international help. Here's all the air jets involved from France, from Spain, from the United States, Denmark, Canada, Great Britain involved as well, at least 162 Tomahawk missiles, the cost of this will come into play. They cost $1.4 million apiece.

That debate will continue here in the United States. We'll pick it up tomorrow.

"IN THE ARENA" starts right now.