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THE SITUATION ROOM
President Obama to Address the Nation; Libyan Rebels Advance; Radiation Reaches U.S. East Coast
Aired March 28, 2011 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And guiding those planes from the same roof on which so many sought shelter now stand American Air Force air traffic controllers who saw a tragedy and were able to help.
MASTER SGT. MICHAEL CHARVAT, U.S. AIR FORCE: You feel kind of sad, but you know you're here for a job and hopefully you can bring some relief to the Japanese people.
SAVIDGE: Once an iconic image of a disaster, Sendai Airport has now been transformed into an early sign of hope.
Martin Savidge, CNN, Sendai, Japan.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now: Libyan rebels advance into the heartland of Moammar Gadhafi loyalists. But fierce fighting erupts not far from the Libyan leader's hometown. We will take you to the front lines.
President Obama gets ready to speak to the nation about Libya an hour-and-a-half from now. He will address the concerns, the criticisms about the latest U.S. military mission.
And new concerns in this country about Japan's nuclear crisis, as radiation reaches all the way across to the United States. Is there any real kind of health risk?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Fighting raging in Libya as rebels take advantage of allied airstrikes to push forward against forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. In just 90 minutes, President Obama will speak to the nation, indeed, to the world, addressing widespread concerns about America's latest military involvement. CNN, of course, will bring you the speech live.
The allied airstrikes have enabled the rebels to move into an area which is the traditional stronghold of Moammar Gadhafi. But they're meeting strong resistance.
CNN's Arwa Damon reports from the front line of that fight.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The battlefield here has suddenly and drastically changed, as opposition fighters enter into Gadhafi loyalist territory. We're around 20 kilometers away from an area called (AUDIO GAP) the fighters were forced to retreat out of there, shot at by residents, one of the fighters telling us that when they entered the area, they began searching homes and found a number of weapons they say Gadhafi gave to family members (AUDIO GAP) to the men in this area.
They say they asked residents to join the opposition and then decided to withdraw from this area. But as they were withdrawing, they say they came under a hail, a volley of gunfire that only intensified as they were forced to withdraw, the fighters telling us that they plan on regrouping and reentering this area, hoping that the civilians, the families there heed their warning and evacuate.
Up until this point, the opposition had encountered fairly little resistance, fairly little opposition from Gadhafi's military. But it most certainly appears as if the street-to-street battle has only just begun.
Arwa Damon, CNN, in Eastern Libya.
BLITZER: And we're just getting this in from the Reuters news agency. Western coalition forces bombed the Libyan town of Surman. That's about 75 -- 70 kilometers, 45 miles or so west of the capital, Tripoli, this according to the state media, the Libyan state media, which supports Gadhafi. They also say that civilian and military targets have been hit. Libyan state television said a leather factory was struck by what they called colonial and crusader aggressors.
So, the Libya rebels have been especially hard-pressed in the western city of Misrata, which has taken a pounding by Gadhafi's forces.
Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, got a firsthand look at that battleground look earlier in the day.
Nic is joining us now from Tripoli with more.
What did you see, Nic? How did it go?
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this has taken weeks of asking to get access to Misrata.
The rebels, the opposition say they have been under tank bombardment and sniper fire in the town there for several weeks now. What we found on the outskirts of the city, heavy damage at traffic intersections manned by very edgy and nervous, even shell-shocked, Gadhafi soldiers.
As we went closer into the center of the city, we passed a lot more damage at the roadside, mile after mile of damage that looked as if it had been destroyed in fighting, in close hand-to-hand-type fighting or shelling from a distance. Very hard to tell, though we could see thanks hiding under trees at the side of the road, heavy artillery, Howitzers out in the open fields.
And Gadhafi's government had organized a small pro-Gadhafi demonstration, which was as far as they would let us go. They wouldn't let us go into the last two or three miles into the center of the city, which is where the rebels say they control -- the government forces were telling us they control the whole city, but they wouldn't let us see it, or very hard to know exactly what's taking place in the fighting there, but very clear at the same time there has been some very intense fighting and bombardment going on there, Wolf.
BLITZER: And, Nic, on another story that has caused an emotional outburst not only here in the United States, but around the world, this woman who burst in over weekend into the hotel where you and the foreign journalists are staying and accused Libyan Gadhafi forces of raping her, she supposedly has been released from custody.
What's the latest information you have on her fate?
ROBERTSON: Well, that's right, Wolf. When she came into the hotel here, government officials tried to shut her up, bundle her out.
She was threatened by a knife by one of the hotel staff here. She was bundled out of the hotel by government officials. Last night, the government spokesman said she had been released into -- back into Tripoli. But there's no evidence of that so far as we can see. And nobody we know has been able to be in touch with her yet.
What is very interesting -- and I'm just learning on Twitter at the moment -- it's yet to be confirmed -- but it appears her family in an effort to maintain her honor is going to marry her, with her agreement, we're told, in absentia, so that she can maintain her honor and dignity, which is obviously very important in this culture at this time, that she will be marrying inside her tribe, which means one very, very clear thing right now, if this proves to be true, is that her tribe, the al-Obaidi tribe, is standing behind her, her family, and against this government, Wolf.
BLITZER: Do we know who she's going to be married to?
ROBERTSON: Wolf, from what I understand -- and, again, we have yet to run all these details down. This is information we're only just getting in. But it does appear to be somebody else within her tribe, which again shows that her tribe, which is so important in this culture and this country, which is a very tribal culture and country, that somebody in her tribe is marrying, that shows the tribe is supporting her, very important and more than symbolic, very important for her safety and security, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, I know you will stay on top of this story.
And, quickly, Nic, what about the anticipation in Tripoli, where Gadhafi remains in power? His forces there remain strong, at least in the capital. What's the anticipation going into President Obama's big speech tonight on Libya? ROBERTSON: You know, I think a lot of people are going to be looking if there is any change, any change in the position there. They're going to want to see, is there some new diplomatic offering here; is there some indication that the coalition strikes will be backing off?
There's a great degree of concern in the city about the shortages they're beginning to experience. Shortages that we see here are fuel, long lines at the fuel pumps. Every town and village that we drove through today in the two- to three-hour drive to Misrata, every one had a huge, long line at the gas pump.
So, people are going to be listening to what President Obama is saying and they're going to want to see is there any change in the international position, can they see light at the end of the tunnel, is everything going to be OK, because for everyone on the street -- and most people we see are not flag-waving pro-Gadhafi supporters -- they're worried about their families.
They want to know that this country isn't going to descend further into war -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, we will stay in very close touch.
Nic will be with us throughout the night for our coverage of the president's speech.
Nic, thank you very much.
Airstrikes are making a big difference on the ground in Libya. Let's take a closer look at the U.S. and coalition military role for that.
We're joined by retired U.S. Army Major James "Spider" Marks.
Spider, thanks very much for coming in.
BRIGADIER GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Thank you.
BLITZER: This e-mail from General Carter Ham, the head of the U.S. military's Africa Command, who until NATO takes full control is still in charge of the U.S. military aspect of this, he sent this e- mail out. "The New York Times" got it.
"The regime still vastly overmatches opposition forces militarily. The regime possesses the capability to roll them back very quickly. Coalition airpower is the major reason that has not happened."
Now, if I read that and I interpret that, it says to me coalition airpower is going to have to remain over Libya for a relatively long time.
MARKS: Absolutely. And it should be no surprise. We have seen any advances that the rebels have made over the course of the last week has been as a result of close air support, the air-to-ground efforts that have been made by the coalition, soon to be NATO, and the no-fly zone in place, and then the air-to-ground attack missions that are primary taking place as a result of the U.S., the French and the U.K.
So we shouldn't be surprised that we have chosen sides as we have discussed before on the side of the rebels. And if they continue to advance, and if they close in with Gadhafi's forces, we're going to continue to provide that assistance so that they can continue to advance.
BLITZER: The vice admiral in charge of the Joint Staff, the director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon had a briefing today. And he suggested that the opposition were not very well-organized, not very robust, which further suggested that the coalition, including the United States, is going to be deeply involved in all of this.
MARKS: And again we shouldn't be surprised, absolutely.
When you look at the rebels -- and we have enough reporting on what they look like -- it's a band of incredible patriots, but we don't know what makes them up. And we can say with a certain degree -- with a large degree of certainty that there isn't a lot of professional military folks that are in those ranks leading these efforts in the areas where it makes sense.
Clearly, you can have some very senior guys that have defected from Gadhafi's military and are now assisting the rebels. But what you really need is that noncommissioned officer corps that permeates and provides the ethos and the foundation of professionalism. And it's simply not there.
BLITZER: From a military point of view -- And you spent 30 years-plus in the United States military -- what do the men and women of the United States military want to hear from their commander in chief tonight when he speaks at the National Defense University at Fort McNair here in Washington?
MARKS: The folks that are in uniform are going to follow the orders of those that are appointed above them, the officers and certainly the commander in chief.
So it's not the soldier, it's not the military individual's position to question the commander in chief and those orders that are provided. They have been given a clear mission. Provide air support as it's defined and as it's been shaped right now to execute this no- fly zone, continue to assist in these air-to-ground attack missions against Gadhafi's forces.
That's their mission right now. But from our perspective, there's a gap between what's taking place on the ground and what we think and what has been articulated as the end state, which is Gadhafi has to be gone. And I think there's a bit of hope that this air campaign is going to get Gadhafi out. There aren't indicators that he's going to follow in that path. We certainly saw the experience with Milosevic, 78 days of an air campaign before that was over. And then Saddam Hussein, in excess of a decade, with a no-fly and a no-drive zone in Iraq, and he survived.
So I don't know how we can connect the dots that this air campaign alone is going to force Gadhafi out, even though are other methods. There are diplomatic methods and there's economic sanctions. I don't know that Gadhafi really cares.
BLITZER: As General Joulwan, the former NATO supreme allied commander, has always said to me, clarity of mission is the most important thing that the military wants to hear from their commander in chief. Tell us what you want to do.
MARKS: We will get it done.
BLITZER: And we will do it. But just be clear. And when they hear one thing from the United Nations, protect civilians, whatever, create this no-fly zone, but they hear the president of the United States say Gadhafi must go, that clarity of mission isn't necessarily all that clear.
MARKS: That's true. But, you know, it's messy to us on the outside of it.
Inside this alliance, in this coalition, it's pretty clear what they have to do based on the rules that are established right now.
BLITZER: Spider Marks, thanks very much.
MARKS: Thank you, sir.
BLITZER: A little over a week into the mission in Libya, the Pentagon says the U.S. is already drawing down its presence. But how much? Is it significant? Stand by, new information.
And new information also coming in about the radiation from that Japanese nuclear plant reaching the U.S. East Coast, including right outside the nation's capital. Is it significant? Stand by.
BLITZER: Now frightening new twists in Japan's nuclear crisis. Officials have spotted plutonium in soil from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant. And we're hearing a damaged reactor is leaking highly contaminated radioactive water, possibly into the ocean.
Let's go to Tokyo. CNN's Paula Hancocks is joining us with more.
What's the latest, Paula?
PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's really reactor two that everybody's looking at, at this point.
As you say, it does appear as though there could be damage to the containment vessel. Now, this is really the protector of the reactor core. We have heard from the Japan's chief cabinet secretary that it is damaged and that it may be leaking. They don't know for sure at this point.
But we have seen contaminated water feeding into the turbine room and then into cables and tunnels underground. And certainly that was not what was expected. At this point, they don't know exactly where the leak is, and they don't know if this contaminated water is actually leaking out into the Pacific Ocean. We have certainly seen higher levels of radioactivity there. So that's what they're trying to look into.
But of course the radiation levels are so high in these areas, that workers cannot access these areas. It's just too dangerous. They're figuring out how to drain that water before they can get inside and see what the real damage is.
Now, there was plutonium found in soil samples. It is a reactor, a nuclear byproduct, but many experts are saying this is actually the least of the worries, because it's pretty natural to find these levels of plutonium in this area. And also it could have been a byproduct of previous nuclear tests from different countries, so the fallout from the tests in the air.
Now, the evacuation zone still in place, about 12 miles. We understand there are some people though that are insisting on staying, despite all this news coming out, some elderly people, some people who are too sick. And apparently some people are going back, because it's a farming area. And they want to look after their animals. The government, of course, is trying to urge people to leave the area -- Wolf.
BLITZER: The crisis in Japan certainly continues. Paula, we will stay in touch with you.
All of this ramping up fears of radioactive material reaching the United States from Japan, and it appears that's already happening, at least in very, very tiny amounts.
CNN's Brian Todd is working this part of the story for us.
What do we know on this front, Brian?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, at this juncture, in this country, all eyes have been on something called RadNet. That's the network of radiation detectors across the U.S. that looks for any traces from Japan's nuclear release.
And it now appears some small amounts have been found.
TODD (voice-over): Tiny amounts of radioactivity from Fukushima have now traveled at least halfway across the world as far as America's East Coast. Particles believed to have come from Japan have been detected in the air or in rainwater in at least a dozen states. Is it a health risk? Government officials say the levels are far lower than the amount that would pose any concern, sometimes thousands of times less.
We caught up with the health director in Maryland, where radiation from Fukushima was detected in the air and rainwater.
(on camera): What does it mean overall that this has traveled all the way from Japan to now the East Coast of the U.S.?
DR. JOSHUA SHARFSTEIN, MARYLAND SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, it shows that an environmental event in one part of the world can have -- can be seen, sort of echoes of it, in other parts of the world. And, you know, when Chernobyl happened, a similar thing was seen. Radioactive material gets into the atmosphere and can travel around in the weather patterns.
It gets diluted as it goes along and by the time it gets to a place like Maryland, it's so small, it's not a public health concern.
TODD (voice-over): So far, no radioactive material has been found in drinking water or milk supplies in the U.S. The federal government is monitoring radiation as well.
(on camera): We're on a rooftop in Washington where the EPA has given us access to a RadNet fixed-air monitor. There are 124 of these across the U.S. It's a high-volume monitor. It measures three times the amount of air in one hour that we breathe in, in one day. The air is sucked in under here and deposited on a filter right here, but measured with a gamma monitor and a beta monitor.
Those measurements are transferred to a computer inside here, where officials can come and look at it in real time. That real-time data is transferred to a U.S. government lab in Alabama through this satellite dish right here, a cell phone transmission right there and also a fixed-phone transmission. But officials do come up here and change the filter every couple of days also to get more sensitive and accurate redundant information.
(voice-over): Officials and experts had predicted that some radiation from Japan would cross the Pacific. They say the amount of exposure in the air in the U.S. is less than you would get on an airline flight or from a chest X-ray. But one expert understands why the public might be anxious.
MICHAEL FRIEDLANDER, FORMER NUCLEAR PLANT OPERATOR: These microscopic amounts of radiation in the U.S. is indeed microscopic. But at the end of the day, we're dealing with really fears of people for that known or that unseen. And it's very difficult -- it's a very difficult topic to convince some people of.
TODD: Michael Friedlander says he sees the findings not as a health risk, but as a testament to the ability of officials in the U.S. and elsewhere to detect infinitesimal amount of radiation in the air -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Brian, you have also learned that at the time of the tsunami in Japan, not all of the radiation equipment in the United States was really working? What do we know about this?
TODD: Well, that's right. EPA officials have admitted that several RadNet monitors in the U.S. were down in those days after the releases from Fukushima, but they say that there are enough monitors all around that if one is down that a nearby detector can pick up anything serious in the general area of that monitor that was down. So they say no gaps in the system.
BALDWIN: Brian Todd, thanks very much.
We're going back to Libya in just a couple minutes. One word you probably won't hear President Obama say tonight that some people say he should say, stand by for that.
And a pricey bachelor party for Britain's Prince William.
Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Changes in Libya. The Pentagon says American presence is dropping, but by how much. Is it really significant?
And we're going back live to Libya for a look at the next hurdle for the rebel forces.
BLITZER: We're awaiting President Obama's major speech to the nation tonight about America's military involvement in Libya.
One hour from now, he will address the growing concerns about the U.S. role. Our live coverage starts at the top of the hour. Stand by for that.
Meanwhile, the fighting in Libya rages on. The rebels today took advantage of allied airstrikes to push into Gadhafi loyalist territory, before meeting some stiff resistance. The regime, meanwhile, claims to have taken the key city of Misrata.
The U.S. military is already scaling down its involvement in the Libya operation.
Our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, is joining us now with more on the U.S. role.
I guess it's relative when we say scaling down. What's the latest, Chris?
CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, at least one Navy sub has already moved out of the area. And we're also told that another major ship that the U.S. had is no longer doing day-to- day operations, no longer involved in the day-to-day operations.
So, in some ways, you can already see where the U.S. role is starting to reduce.
Also, when you look at it over the weekend, British air strikes took out about 22 thanks on the ground. And they're continuing to hit areas like Misrata. Take a look at some of these pictures. Sort of an aerial view of what it looks like after an air strike by some of the coalition authorities.
What we're hearing now is that the opposition forces have now pushed west to within about 80 miles of Sirte. We're hearing from the Pentagon officials that the regime forces are preparing to dig in there. They're setting up checkpoints, placing tanks in the cities.
And an intelligence official is telling us that he doesn't think that the opposition forces, these rebels, have the skills and the ability to push much more further west than they have up till now.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
VICE ADMIRAL BILL GORTNEY, U.S. NAVY: Clearly, the opposition is not well organized, and it is not a very robust organization. I mean, that's obvious. So any gain that they make is -- is tenuous based on that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAWRENCE: So while the U.S. is drawing down in one area, they're also bringing in new capabilities. Over the weekend, they started to bring in these A-10s, AC-130s. These are gunships that are specifically designed to provide close air support to hit tanks, armored vehicles on the ground, and to support troops that would be on the ground.
You know, in this case, there are no American troops or coalition troops on the ground. But these air ships would obviously have a great deal of benefit to the rebel forces who are on the ground.
There's also been some very precise targeting. They admitted that they launched six Tomahawk missiles specifically at the headquarters of Gadhafi's 32nd Brigade. This is an elite unit extremely loyal to Muammar Gadhafi. In fact, commanded by one of his sons -- Wolf.
BLITZER: So when they remove a submarine or a ship from the Mediterranean -- they've got a lot of other stuff -- is it because they've already used up their Tomahawk Cruise missiles and they've got to go resupply them? Or is it because they don't need them anymore? A lot of those Tomahawk Cruise missiles are launched from ships and submarines.
LAWRENCE: That's right, Wolf. As they use Tomahawks, they've been -- it's an ongoing process where you go back, you resupply, you come back. But if you really look at it over the timeline over the past week or so, Wolf, you know, very few Tomahawks are being fired today compared to say a week ago.
So some of those assets are no longer needed, but what you are seeing is this really direct targeting on the ground. Not only going after, say, thanks or troops, but also hitting his ammo supply stores, very specific targeting. And so that's why they've brought in this new armament over the weekend.
BLITZER: Chris Lawrence over at the Pentagon. Thanks very much. The U.S. military mission continues.
The fortunes of Muammar Gadhafi and the Libyan rebels seem to change by the day, even by the hour. But one thing is clear: the opposition fighters say they couldn't do what they're doing without -- without the U.S. and coalition air strikes. CNN's Tom Foreman shows us town by town what's happening.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this has been a real push/pull from the beginning. We watched the opposition surge out of Benghazi early on in this conflict and take city after city as they progressed toward Tripoli.
You may remember back in late February, it looked for a little while there like Muammar Gadhafi was on the verge of being pushed out. All of his forces collapsed.
But then he started pushing back. And one by one, his forces came in and started taking back the area that the opposition had held, pushing right up on to Benghazi, their stronghold. And it looked like then they might collapse.
That's when the international community came in, and look what's happened since then. So far there have been more than 1,600 missions flown against Gadhafi's troops -- almost 1,000 of those by the United States; the coalition, a little over 600 of those -- pounding Gadhafi's air forces and his defense forces in terms of air raids. And once again, the tide has turned.
Now look what's happened. The opposition forces have come back in, once again taking cities, now knocking on the door of Sirte, where he was born. But here's where they met their first real opposition. Here they're running into real fighting. And once again, they're saying, "We need this air support. Bring in the coalition forces. Fight back, push Gadhafi's troops."
And Gadhafi, his loyalists, and the Russians, for example, are saying, "Hold on. That goes beyond the mission. If you bomb more at this point, you're no longer just supporting this side and keeping them from being slaughtered. You're actually helping them in an offensive maneuver against Tripoli."
The question is how that balance will work out -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Tom Foreman. Thank you.
You won't see President Obama in the Oval Office tonight. Instead, he'll be a few miles away. But why? Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is already there. We'll check in with him at the National Defense University.
Plus, fearing retaliation by Muammar Gadhafi. Should we be worried?
BLITZER: We're now less than an hour away from President Obama's address to the nation about the Libya operation. The president will speak from the National Defense University here in Washington, D.C., at Ft. McNair. Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is already there for us.
Set the scene for us. Give us a little bit of the flavor of what's going on.
ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a lot of people expect that, you know, address about military action tends to be in the Oval Office. White House officials are saying publicly the reason why they did not choose that venue is that this is a venue where the president can thank military personnel. These are sort of mid-level, mid-career service officers, all the military branches. They're going to be here. And they're already -- some of them have filed in behind me. A chance for the president to thank them for their service. Not just Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, but the help U.S. military is providing in Japan, as well. That's what they'll say in public.
In private, administration officials acknowledge the president didn't want an Oval Office address, because he did not want to raise the stakes any more or raise the level of this and compare it to Iraq, Afghanistan, because his point tonight is that this is a much more limited engagement than either one of those conflicts.
And look at a couple poll numbers. This came out from the Pew Research Center to give you an idea of the stark challenge this president has tonight. Asked about whether or not there's a clear goal in Libya for the U.S., only 39 percent say yes; 50 percent say no.
Asked about U.S. involvement, how long will it last, for some time, 60 percent say for some time. Only 33 percent say it will be pretty quick.
What's significant about that, it's just the opposite of what the president is trying to send in terms of a message tonight. He wants to say, when you talk to White House officials, that this is sort of a pivot point. Now that NATO has taken over the command of dealing with the situation in Libya, that this is a pivot point for the U.S. But not a lot of Americans from a new poll are buying it yet, Wolf.
BLITZER: He was pretty upbeat in his Saturday morning radio Internet address on the war in Libya. He didn't say "mission accomplished," but he came pretty close, which was surprising to me, given the history of that the phrase, "mission accomplished," back in 2003.
What are officials at the White House saying? What kind of tone is he going to give the American public tonight? "Things are going great, U.S. the military is doing a fabulous job. We're almost at the end of this mission"? Or is he going to be more cautious?
HENRY: Well, I think he's clearly going to be more cautious. When White House officials were asked that we asked that direct question, whether this would be sort of a mission accomplished moment, it's clearly not going to be, because they know that that's fraught with political peril.
I think that he wants to sort of walk that fine line, answer some of the questions that his critics, not just on the Republican but on the Democratic side have had about the scope of this mission, some of the details.
But secondly, if you think about it, this is the first major speech he's really had since January when he was in Tucson after that shooting tragedy. He rose to the occasion. Even his Republican critics said he did a pretty good job. But that was a time when the country was unified. It was coming together. Instead, right now you have people in his own party divided, let alone the Republicans and their view of this conflict right now, Wolf.
BLITZER: We'll stay in very close touch with you.
Ed is already at Ft. McNair at the National Defense University there. Thanks very much.
Forty-nine minutes to go before the president's speech. He set the scene. But what about the actual address itself? The one word you probably won't hear the president say tonight.
Plus, big changes on the front lines. We're taking a closer look at the rebels' military moves in Libya.
BLITZER: Many Americans in and out of government are deeply concerned about the Libya mission, questioning its goals, costs, and length. We're waiting for President Obama to address the nation about those concerns, his speech coming up in about 45 minutes.
In the meantime, let's discuss with our national security contributor, Fran Townsend, and our CNN senior political analyst, David Gergen. They're both former presidential advisers.
Fran, you were homeland security advisor to President Bush. How worried should Americans be that, if Gadhafi stays in power, he will retaliate by launching terror attacks against U.S. targets?
FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Wolf, I'm a great believer in we ought to take terrorists at their word when they threaten us, especially if they've successfully attacked us in the past.
Let's remember: Gadhafi was responsible for the La Belle disco bombing in Germany against our military forces there. He was also responsible for Pan Am 103, the killing of hundreds over Lockerbie. This is a man who knows how to retaliate and has demonstrated that ability before.
And this time he has made perfectly clear after the no-fly zone began and the taking out of his anti-aircraft defenses, that he would retaliate against the west.
And so I think we have to be -- I understand from sources the intelligence community is very much attuned to this, and people are concerned that he will look for an opportunity, maybe not immediately while he's worried about his own survival, but over the long-term, he will look for an opportunity to attack the west.
BLITZER: Which raises the question, David: will the president tonight in his carefully crafted speech say, once again as he said before, "Gadhafi must go. There must be regime change in Libya. Gadhafi can no longer be the ruler of Libya"?
DAVID GERGEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, I think it's very important for him tonight to define what success is.
In the past, he said the U.S. policy is to get rid of Gadhafi. So presumably, he will say that tonight.
I think it's also going to be interesting whether -- whether he embraces this as commander in chief. He's been a reluctant warrior. He didn't want to go into this. He's not happy being there, and he wants out. And for that reason, he's not using the word "war." They've used this phrase. They've called it a kinetic military action, whatever that means.
And very importantly, I think symbolically, not giving the speech from the White House, from the Oval Office, as Ed Henry just reported, I think sends a very clear signal that the president wants to diminish this in the minds of the American people. He doesn't want to consider it a war, and he is really reluctant to be there.
BLITZER: Yes. And he will declare that NATO is taking over command of this operation.
But let's not forget, Fran, who's in charge of NATO. The supreme allied commander of NATO is an American.
TOWNSEND: That's right. Admiral Jim Stavritas, who was an aide to Donald Rumsfeld, who was also the commander of Southern Command. A very experienced but very cerebral warrior, very much in the mold of David Petraeus.
You know, and Admiral Stavritas, we can be certain, has worked very hard behind the scenes to try and pull this NATO coalition together in taking over this mission. But again, I mean, let's be clear. We can't run a conflict like this -- whatever you call it, war or kinetic military action -- by committee. And especially where -- if we have U.S. -- a threat against the U.S. or our western allies.
BLITZER: It's already cost U.S. taxpayers in the first week alone hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe $500 million so far, David. Should the president tonight specifically tell the American people who's going to pay for this military operation in Libya?
GERGEN: Wolf, he should -- yes, he should. You should lay down as many specifics as he can.
And the Chris Lawrence report, I think, really raises another very important question. That is, are we -- if there is a stalemate, what are we going to do? Are we going to arm the rebels? Are we going to recognize the rebels? Are we going to bomb Gadhafi?
We defended this as a humanitarian mission. But now that the rebels are pushing forward and they may have hit a wall, and it turns into a stalemate, what is our position going to be? That clearly could require more U.S. action and could require more NATO action.
I know, Frank -- I think we're all hanging, waiting for this now, trying to get -- can we have some answers to a lot of these questions, Mr. President? And what about the entire region? Are you going to talk about that, as well?
BLITZER: Fran, go ahead.
TOWNSEND: I think -- I think David's right. I think he's got to talk about the entire region. And what is the Obama administration's policy towards engagement in this Arab uprising? After all, Wolf, if he doesn't address that, it looks like we're tough on Egypt and we push Mubarak out, but we're less tough on Bahrain. We're silent on Yemen and Syria. We have a military engagement in Libya.
He needs to put this in a framework, in a context for the American people, to persuade them that he's doing the right thing and to support our military and his policy. And I think that's very important tonight.
BLITZER: Fran Townsend, David Gergen, guys, thanks very much. We'll, of course, have live coverage of the president's speech 41 minutes from now.
Unrest is spreading to other parts of the Middle East even as we speak. In Syria, protesters are continuing to demonstrate. How is the Syrian government responding? Stand by.
BLITZER: Looking at live pictures over at Ft. McNair here in Washington, D.C., The National Defense University. That's where President Obama is getting ready to address the nation on the war in Libya. That's coming up in about 35, 38 minutes or so from now. We'll, of course, have live coverage leading up to the president's speech right at the top of the hour on "JOHN KING USA."
Syria seems to be taking a dual approach to rising anti- government protests. Crackdown but also offering some concessions. Here is CNN's Ralitsa Vassileva.
RALITSA VASSILEVA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The protestors in Deraa are keeping up the pressure on President Bashar Al-Assad, and the government is responding with a mix of aggression and appeasement.
Even though the city is teaming with security forces, demonstrators were able to converge briefly Monday, reportedly chanting, "We want dignity and freedom. No to emergency walls."
Security forces fired over the crowd, but there were no reports of injuries.
And the demonstrators may soon see one of their demands met. Syrian officials say the decades-old emergency law is being lifted, and President Assad will announce important decisions within the next couple of days. Dozens have been killed in ten days of anti- government protests in Deraa, and the unrest has spread to some other town.
Deraa's residents held a solidarity protest over the weekend with the latest flash point, the port city of Latakia.
The U.N. says at least 37 people have died in Deraa and Latakia in the last week. The government blames unidentified gunmen for the deaths. These images show deserted streets in Latakia Sunday, littered with rubble and burnt-out vehicles. Witnesses say armed men in black shirts attacked homes at random Sunday night, terrorizing civilians. Syria remains tense as it awaits word from its president.
Ralitsa Vassileva, CNN, Atlanta.
BLITZER: Unrest, meanwhile, is spreading across the Middle East. At least 121 people are dead in southern Yemen after an explosion in an ammunition factory. Security forces say most of the casualties were locals ransacking the factory a day after it was seized by militants. Yemen's president has been struggling to hang onto power after months of protest.
Jordan's King Abdullah is calling for national unity following bloody clashes between protestors and government loyalists. The king says the political reform process is under way, adding -- and I'm quoting him now -- "We have nothing to fear."
Complete coverage of the president's address to the nation only a few minutes away on "JOHN KING USA" right at the top of the hour. Plus, when we come back, one of the deadliest animals in the world on the loose in New York City.
BLITZER: A look at some "Hot Shots." In India, an election official shows people how to cast votes before next month's election.
In Nepal, people light lamps for Japanese earthquake and tsunami victims.
In Italy, a mother and child arrived after fleeing violence in Libya.
And in China, children celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.
"Hot Shots," pictures from around the world.
A deadly cobra is on the loose at New York's Bronx Zoo. Jeanne Moos is on the trail.
JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Send for the snake charmers. There's an escapee from the Bronx Zoo: a cobra, a young cobra, only 20 inches, thin as a pencil. The zoo's reptile house has been closed since the poisonous snake was discovered missing from its enclosure over the weekend.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's closed, buddy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's closed?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we've got public walking through here. Wonderful.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think I'm going home. It's my little precious guy here. Hey, who do we talk to about getting our money back?
MOOS: Zoo goers walked past the reptile house that felt more like a haunted house.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were worried that we were going to get bit or something.
MOOS (on camera): Were you really worried?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, not really.
MOOS (voice-over): A cobra's bite can kill a person in 15 minutes. Still, this isn't exactly snakes on a plane. Zoo officials are confident the cobra is still inside the reptile house, but right now they say, "It's the snake's game. Our best strategy is patience."
(on camera) At this very moment we're told the reptile team is inside looking for the snake.
(voice-over) But they say the reptile house is an "extremely complex environment with pumps, motors, et cetera." When the snake gets hungry and thirsty, it will come out of hiding, but this, they say, may take days or even weeks.
Outside, a news chopper hovered. "The New York Post" dubbed the snake "Cobra-dini" after the escape artist Houdini. There hasn't been this much excitement over a snake since a busty model was bitten by one earlier this month and the video went viral.
So did the story that the snake had died from biting into toxic breast implants. Experts said, no way, that snakes aren't vampires. They don't suck when they bite.
As for tracking down the missing Bronx Zoo cobra...
JACK HANNA, ANIMAL EXPERT: If one gets loose, they can put talcum powder, some kind of powder on the floor.
MOOS (on camera): We're putting down a powder perimeter barrier so we can track the snake to see if it leaves the grounds of the zoo.
(voice-over) That will be about as effective as trying to charm the snake out.
(SOUND OF FLUTE PLAYING)
MOOS: Of course, the easiest place to find a snake was in the gift shop.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's show my mom and scare her.
MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.
BLITZER: A quick reminder: President Obama's speech only 30 minutes away. We'll bring it to you live right here on CNN.
For now, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.