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Libyan Rebels' Stunning Reversal; Gadhafi Exit Strategy?

Aired March 29, 2011 - 18:00   ET


MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Andrew Lewman leads researchers whose mission is to remain anonymous online. Using translators, he says, they have trained activists in the Middle East and North Africa.

ANDREW LEWMAN, TOR PROJECT: We have shown people how to use our software and to think more about what you're doing when you go online.

SNOW: But Evgeny Morozov, author of "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of the Internet Freedom," says the State Department's effort to combat Internet censorship in the Middle East is only being undermined by American companies providing technologies to authoritarian states.

EVGENY MOROZOV, AUTHOR, "THE NET DELUSION": I think it's a tragedy and that it has to be resolved. And I think there needs to be more pressure exerted by the State Department on American companies who engage in such activities.


SNOW: And, Wolf, to date, the State Department says it has spent $20 million so far on what it calls it's Internet freedom programming in the Middle East. It plans on spending another $30 million -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Mary Snow, thanks very much.

And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, breaking news. Despite allied airstrikes, Libyan rebels face a stunning reversal of fortunes. We will take you to the scene of a panicked retreat in the east, as Gadhafi forces pulverize a city in the west.

And you saw the shocking case of an alleged rape victim dragged away by Libyan security. Now her mother tells CNN that if she had the chance, she would slap Moammar Gadhafi.

And working on an exit plan for Gadhafi. The allies try to find a way to get Libya's leader to leave.

Breaking news, political headlines and Jeanne Moos all straight ahead. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Libya's rebel forces have suffered stunning new setbacks. Emboldened by allied airstrikes, they pushed forward from their Eastern Libya strongholds, but they have now been forced to retreat, driven back by the heavy weapons of Moammar Gadhafi's army. And in the west, witnesses report what they describe as carnage in the city of Misrata, as Gadhafi forces pound opposition holdouts.

We begin with CNN's Arwa Damon, reporting from the front lines of the fight in Eastern Libya.


ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Opposition fighters are now clustered trying to regroup in Ras Lanuf, and on the other side of this oil town, we are hearing the sounds of explosions and seeing dark plumes of smoke rising.

This is a very significant loss for the opposition. Just a short while ago, we were on the outskirts of Bin Jawad, where we heard sounds of explosions, saw smoke rising and then saw the opposition beat a hasty and panicked retreat. They say that 8:00 in the morning in Bin Jawad they began to come over, heavy artillery, tank and rocket fire. They also say that there were snipers in the city, Gadhafi loyalists, who were firing on them as well.

Unable to withstand the barrage, they were forced to retreat all the way back to the oil town of Ras Lanuf, it would seem. They say that they are continuing to struggle in terms of standing up against Gadhafi's military, both because they lack weapons, equipment, but more importantly they lack training. They lack a cohesive military strategy, the basics of command-and-control and critical discipline needed to take on this kind of a fight.

Up until now, it had been fairly easy going for the opposition fighters thanks to those airstrikes. They had been moving through territory where the population supported the opposition or was even part of the opposition itself. But in the last 24 hours, as we saw them beginning to push westward into those tribal areas loyal to Gadhafi, they have come across not only residents who are armed and firing on them, but now it would seem Gadhafi's military as well, regrouping, intent not just protecting Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte and the capital, Tripoli, but also it would seem intent on regaining all the ground that it has lost.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Ras Lanuf, Libya.


BLITZER: Rebel forces are being battered in the besieged city of Misrata. Witnesses paint a very grim picture of the situation there, with Gadhafi's forces apparently pounding away with heavy weapons.


BLITZER: Joining us once again from Tripoli, our own Nic Robertson.

Nic, there were reports of what was described as carnage in Misrata today, as a bloodbath supposedly was developing. What do we know about this? NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we also heard as well that coalition aircraft were flying overhead, that the rebels inside the city were calling for the coalition aircraft to come in their support.

We were in Misrata yesterday. Government officials who were with us wouldn't let us get into the part of the city where the rebels were. We could see evidence of Gadhafi hiding his weapons, his heavy weapons, tanks, hiding them from those coalition aircraft. We saw tanks hiding under trees, military vehicles hiding into stores, parked, literally driven into stores with the soldiers in there, and other military hardware hiding as much as it could out of sight of the coalition aircraft.

A lot of destruction as well we could see in the city. Some of it appeared to be from shell fire, tank fire. So, this supports what the opposition are telling us is happening today. We're not there. We can't independently verify it. But certainly Gadhafi's forces were arranged around that city in such a way to make an onslaught, as the opposition now describes today, to make that kind of onslaught a very real possibility. And we saw the debris that indicated things like that had been going on a plenty there over the past few weeks, Wolf.

BLITZER: A real fight going on in Misrata.

Moammar Gadhafi, what do we know about his whereabouts? Is he seen publicly at all in recent days? There have been reports he sleeps at different places every night, he's on the run, that he's got a small group of close allies surrounding him. What do we know about him?

ROBERTSON: Very little.

We know that he appeared at his palace compound a few days ago. And that's the last sighting. His son Khamis, who heads one of the military brigades here, also appeared there recently. Right when the air campaign began, we were told the whole family was together. The sons, the father, the daughters were together.

There's every indication they may still be together. We have had very few communications from them since the air campaign began. Is he sleeping in different places different nights? Every possibility he is. Will it be with trusted loyalists? He certainly has a number to choose from in this city. Is he leaving the city of Tripoli? That's not clear. And that would be a risk for him, because if he felt anyone was passing up information, as soon as he took out and got out in the open, he would be at the risk of attack.

But, again, it's an unknown question. But he must be feeling the heat, must be feeling the pressure, because the coalition, as we saw today, landing bombs on this city now, heavy bombs, during daylight hours. And they were landing, if they were within the earshot of us here, certainly within the earshot of his palace there, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson in Tripoli, thanks very much.


BLITZER: Nic certainly witnessed massive destruction on the outskirts of Misrata. That battle has raged now for weeks. The only images from deep inside the city have come from amateur photographers. CNN can't confirm the authenticity of those pictures.

Here's CNN's Tom Foreman.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we want to take a closer look at the intelligence coming out of Misrata, the third largest city in all of Libya, an important battle zone in the western part of the country near to Tripoli.

Here, look at what's happened with the strikes from the air. This is an airfield near there. We know that Gadhafi started with more than a dozen airfields, more than 300 aircraft. Here you see some strikes on some smaller aircraft along here, a lot of them untouched. You might think, well, then they didn't hit a lot here.

Important, though, to look further down the field. When you move past some of these Hind helicopters here down to this area, you see what appear to be much bigger fighter jets. And this area has been hit much, much harder. There's very much a sense, as you look at these images, which is exactly what military leaders are doing hour by hour, the latest intelligence from the field, that you can see evidence of what might be happening out there.

For example, look at this major intersection here. There appear to be signs of the road being cut in some fashion. Now, whether this is done by Gadhafi's forces to slow down the rebels or by the international coalition trying to stop his movement, it's hard to say, more likely the latter, simply because these would be critical to moving all the heavy armaments he needs to move around, whereas the smaller type of vehicles being used by the rebels, which you can see in some cases apparently massed alongside these rather small roads here, they could probably go around some of these basic failures of the roads, whereas larger armaments may have a harder time doing that.

Misrata, a very important battlefield right now, one that is being watched very closely right along the coast there to see what will happen, whether or not Gadhafi can choke off the forces there, another area, Ajdabiya, being watched closely. We want to show you a couple pictures here worth looking at, again signs of destruction from the air. We don't know what this was, but quite clearly heavy bombing going on in here. And the same in this one. You can see along a roadway here signs of heavy bombing, possibly a convoy hit here, another strike up here fairly large.

And, as I said, Wolf, the real point is, hour by hour, military leaders in the field are getting images like this, only a lot better, to keep track of the movements on the ground of Gadhafi's troops and the rebel forces and the effectiveness of their targeting as the air campaign continues -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Tom Foreman, thanks very much.

The setbacks for the rebels come just hours after President Obama spoke to the American people about the Libya mission.

And just a little while ago, the president once again spoke out, this time at the dedication of a new building at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. Listen to this.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today we see the NATO Alliance in command of the arms embargo, the no-fly zone; starting tomorrow, the mission to protect the Libyan people. We see the United Nations and many international organizations providing the assistance that's needed to people who've been harmed by Gadhafi over the last several weeks. Today in London we're seeing more than 30 nations and the Libyan opposition come together to support a transition to a future that better serves the Libyan people.

That's how the international community should work -- more nations; the United States right there at the center of it, but not alone -- everybody stepping up, bearing their responsibilities.


BLITZER: The president speaking in New York a little while ago.

It's a story that caught everyone's attention, a woman rushing into a Tripoli hotel accusing Gadhafi's men of raping her. Now her mother is speaking to CNN. Stand by for that report.

And is Moammar Gadhafi looking for a way out? The possible exit strategy, that is coming up next.

And new information on the actual cost of the operations in Libya.


BLITZER: So just how much is the Libya operation costing U.S. taxpayers? The Pentagon says the tab is running at about $550 million so far. About 60 percent of that is for munitions, bombs and missiles. The rest is tied to deployment costs. Another $40 million is likely to be spent, the Pentagon insists, over the next three weeks, as U.S. forces are reduced. After that, the Pentagon says they expect a price tag of about $40 million per month. More on this part of the story coming up.

The allies, meanwhile, are enforcing the U.N. resolution on Libya. They have left no doubt that Gadhafi cannot continue as Libya's leader. And there are efforts under way to find a way for him to leave the country.

Brian Todd is here. He's been looking into this part of the story.

What are you finding out, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, at this point, it looks like the only option that won't end violently would be for Moammar Gadhafi to leave willingly. Now, we have word tonight that leaders of the alliance from the U.S., Europe and elsewhere could be pushing very hard for that behind the scenes.


TODD (voice-over): The administration says this military action is not aimed at overthrowing Moammar Gadhafi, but it's open to ideas that would see the Libyan leader go into exile. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks about a U.N. envoy's upcoming mission to Libya to work different ideas for ending the fighting.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: And to look for a political resolution, which could include his leaving the country.

TODD: In an interview with CNN, Italy's foreign minister takes the idea further, indicating his government is leading efforts to offer Gadhafi a way into exile.

FRANCO FRATTINI, ITALIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: So far, we didn't get, not yet, a formal proposal, a formal offer. We will have to insist on finding appropriate solution, maybe if we will be finding states that are available to that, with the help of African Union, maybe.

TODD: Franco Frattini says the African Union has actually taken charge of finding a solution to Gadhafi's fate, although that group was not represented at the London talks. Our efforts to get comment from African Union officials were unsuccessful.

(on camera): That speaks to the delicate balance the Italians are walking here. Italy had a close longstanding relationship with Libya until this uprising began. An Italian official has reiterated to me that Italy has since cut off all diplomatic and political relations with Gadhafi' regime and is not involved in any direct contact with them.

(voice-over): Other dictators who fled under political pressure landed comfortable exiles. Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali found refuge in Saudi Arabia. Haiti's "Baby Doc" Duvalier lived on the French Riviera.

But in Gadhafi's case, it's more complicated. The International Criminal Court is investigating him for possible crimes against humanity. And its prosecutor says he's 100 percent certain he will bring charges against Gadhafi and his inner circle.

David Mack, a former ambassador to the UAE, served at the U.S. Embassy in Libya when Gadhafi came to power and has met with him a few times in recent years.

(on camera): Realistically, would Gadhafi take a deal?

DAVID MACK, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I am pretty certain based upon my personal reading of Gadhafi that this is the last thing in the world he wants. He has said that he would not ever leave Libya. He will fight to the last bullet, is what he said. And I take him at his word. I think martyrdom is an attractive alternative to Moammar Gadhafi.


TODD: But David Mack says Gadhafi could be prevailed upon by his family and others close to him to take a deal. Or he might at least arrange for them to get out of Libya. For their part, rebel leaders say they're never going to agree to let him go into exile.

And, Wolf, I know you have got some perspectives on the costs of this that you have been talking about, $40 million by the U.S. alone, $40 million over the next three weeks, $40 million a month. What's your perspective on that?


BLITZER: I think that's wildly, wildly optimistic. So far, the Pentagon testified today that the commander of NATO forces, the supreme allied commander, said, so far it's cost about $550, $600 million. He said 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched. They will have to be replaced at a cost of $1.5 million each. That's $300 million right there.

So I guess when they come up with this number over the next three weeks it's only going to cost American taxpayers $40 million, that will pay for the gas and some flights and some stuff. Does that mean that basically they have stopped using Tomahawk cruise missiles? Because if they're going to be continuing with the Tomahawk cruise missiles, those are expensive. They are very expensive. And it could be a whole lot more.

My perspective is, when the Pentagon throws out an estimate like this, it may be accurate, but the track record over the years, as I go back as a former Pentagon correspondent, it's usually way, way underestimated. It's going to be a lot more. I suspect if this military operation, even under NATO command, continues for weeks and months, it will be once again in the hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more.

TODD: And there's no way the U.S. would scale back its operations that much, to be just...


BLITZER: Well, and right now, it looks like the setbacks that the rebels are facing today, dramatic setbacks. If anything, they're going to have to step up the attacks on Gadhafi's forces if they want to end this thing sooner rather than later. If they scale back the attacks, it's just going to go on and on and on. You get into a war, you have got to finish it. Otherwise, it's just going to go on and on. Brian, thanks very much. Just my little assessment of what's going on.

TODD: Right.

BLITZER: Saudi Arabia, by the way, just issued a new solution for shutting down anti-government protests. We will have details of that. That is coming up.

And also a hole found in a plane's fuselage. Now U.S. Airways and the FBI have a mystery on their hands.



BLITZER: The situation in Syria is apparently getting worse, but could it quickly turn into another Libya?

One of America's top diplomats, Bill Richardson, he's here in THE SITUATION ROOM. That is coming up next. And he's also talking to us about negotiating with Gadhafi -- a look at a possible role by Bill Richardson. That's coming up as well.


BLITZER: Our top story: The Libyan rebels suffer sharp reversals on the battlefield today. In the east, they were driven back after running up against Gadhafi's forces, the tanks, the artillery very powerful.

In the west, the besieged city of Misrata being battered by the heavy weapons of Gadhafi's troops, all of this just hours after the president spoke to the nation about the war.


BLITZER: Joining us now, Bill Richardson, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations and energy secretary, also the former governor of New Mexico.

Governor, thanks very much for coming in.

Let's talk a little about the president's strategy in trying to get rid of Gadhafi. John McCain says the best way to do it is to use military force. The president last night said non-military action the best way to do it. What do you say?

BILL RICHARDSON (D), FORMER NEW MEXICO GOVERNOR: I believe the president is right.

He was very presidential last night. He talked about a limited intervention on the part of the United States, coalition effort by NATO, objective to stop the humanitarian carnage that Gadhafi is bringing. I think what we're doing is supporting the rebels, getting an international coalition. I think that's the way to go. A straight military, get-Gadhafi strategy to get him out is just very -- right now very dangerous. I think the best way is through attrition, through a steady strategy that I think eventually is going to work.

BLITZER: You remember, from 1991 to 2003, 12 years, the U.S. had no-fly zones in Northern and Southern Iraq, all sorts of sanctions, all sorts of political pressure. Saddam Hussein remained in power for 12 years. You want Gadhafi to remain in power for 12 years?

RICHARDSON: No, of course not.

And I think the endgame -- and the president said that -- the goal is to get Gadhafi out, to get a provisional government by the rebels. And I believe all the actions that we're taking are leading to that. But here's where the French, here's where the NATO forces, the Brits, Qatar, some of the Arab countries, like the United Arab Emirates, they are participating. They have to take a lead, North African countries, the Organization of African Unity.

And I think that's developing as the rebels gain military momentum, which they're doing.

BLITZER: Has anyone asked you to go to Tripoli and talk to Gadhafi and tell him, Colonel, it's over?

RICHARDSON: No, no. Just you have. But, look, I would be very pleased to try to be helpful, but this is a presidential decision.

I believe the State Department, Secretary Clinton is doing a very good job of handling this issue. But if I can be helpful -- sometimes, I have a little say with these bad guys -- I would be prepared to do something. But I'm not looking for a job. I'm now giving -- I'm getting paid now to give my boring speeches. So, I will continue doing that.

BLITZER: Yes. And, sometimes, they're not that boring.

Let's talk about Gadhafi. Should he be captured, killed, or should he be allowed to go into exile to some other country and live his life out in peace?

RICHARDSON: Well, yes, I think, obviously, if there's an option that he go into exile, maybe Mugabe of Zimbabwe will take him. Maybe he'll go to Venezuela. Maybe somebody else will offer him asylum. Yes. That is something that obviously is on the table and should be an option.

But this is a man that eventually should be tried for war crimes. This is a man that eventually should account for the killings and the massacres that he's done to his own people.

BLITZER: Should the U.S., the NATO allies, others start arming the rebels? RICHARDSON: I think eventually, Wolf, some of the NATO allies should consider options like dropping military equipment weapons, air lifting them into NATO, possibly training some of the rebel forces. I think the U.S. has done its bit with the air strikes. We've shouldered substantially more than 50 percent of them. But eventually, some other way of assisting them militarily is going to have to be considered, and NATO should be prepared to do that.

BLITZER: What about recognizing the opposition, the rebels, as the legitimate government of Libya, as France has done? The U.S. has not done that. Should the Obama administration do that?

RICHARDSON: That should be the next diplomatic step. I think you want to wait a little bit, see how they can unify, pressure them to be more of a coherent force. It may be difficult, but eventually, giving them that diplomatic recognition. Saying that we're going to recognize this group of rebels as a legitimate entity of Libya is important.

Now, you know, they're a little scattered. We've got to be sure that we don't have a lot of unfavorable elements there. There might be some. So the more time we develop to get them ready to take over their country, to be unified, to not be part of the corrupt regime of Gadhafi, the better off we will be.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Syria for a moment. Bashar al-Assad, the son. You met with his father, Hafez al-Assad. When he had disturbances in the early '80s in Hama, he slaughtered tens of thousands of fellow Syrians. Do you think this current younger Bashar al-Assad would do the same thing?

RICHARDSON: My sense from him, and I met him also, the son who is now president, is that he's more pragmatic. But some early indications of repression are not good. And this man is going to be tested. Is he going to go the way of Mubarak and repress his own people at a time when they want to see more democracy? They don't want to see the president appoint the prime ministers. They want fair elections.

If he represses those people, and I see those indications., he's going to end up like Mubarak. I think it's important that he move in a pragmatic, democratic way to give his people more democracy. Otherwise, he's going to be a goner.

BLITZER: You think that's realistic that Bashar al-Assad would move towards democracy, given the iron grip that he and the Baath Party have had on Syria?

RICHARDSON: Well, I think if he wants to survive, I see the same elements in Syria that I'm seeing all over the Middle East. Look, he's not going to move towards a total democracy right away. But his cabinet resigning obviously is not enough for the people of Syria. He's going to have to find ways, I believe, to have a more representative democracy. But I have my doubts.

He's more pragmatic, I believe, than his dad is when it comes to democracy-leaning initiatives. But he may be another one that goes down because he didn't recognize the legitimate democratic aspirations of his own people.

BLITZER: Governor Richardson, thanks very much for coming in.

RICHARDSON: Thank you.


BLITZER: Syrian state TV, by the way, has just reported that President Assad will address this country tomorrow morning. Syrian state TV saying the speech is expected at 11 a.m. local time in Damascus. That would be 5 a.m. Eastern Time.

The mother of the woman who rushed into a Tripoli hotel and accused Gadhafi's men of raping her is now speaking to CNN. We'll have a report. That's coming up.


BLITZER: As Libyan rebels suffer sharp new setbacks, the new reversals facing the opposition come only hours after President Obama addressed the nation on Libya. Republicans leaders today continued hammering the Obama administration for its handling of the crisis. Listen to this.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Some of my questions were answered by the president, I think, but others were not. The fact that the plan appears to be humanitarian commission to stop the slaughter of innocent people in Libya is certainly something I think most of the Congress would support.

But the second part of this plan is that we hope Gadhafi leaves. I just don't think that that is a strategy. And when you -- when you listen to all of what's going on and all the words, it really is nothing more than hope. So if Gadhafi doesn't leave, how long will NATO be there to enforce a no-fly zone? That's -- it's a very troubling question.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our senior political analysts, Gloria Borger and David Gergen.

In fairness to the president, Gloria, the president specifically said he doesn't just hope Gadhafi leaves. He says he has a strategy for Gadhafi to leave, using non-military means to do so: sanctions, economic pressure, political pressure from the Arab world from other countries around the world. So he does have a strategy, but is it a realistic strategy?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he also told NBC News tonight, Wolf, that there's a possibility he's not ruling out arming the rebels. Not ruling it in. Not ruling it out. Look, this is what the administration has called the tightening the noose strategy. But of course, you know, they can't point to particular things that they would do that would guarantee that Gadhafi would leave. And the president is on the record saying that Gadhafi needs to go. He can't un-ring that bell.

And there are lots of uncertainties here. I mean, what if there's a stalemate there? What if Gadhafi decides to wait it out? We saw the news today that the rebels seem to be taking a couple of steps backward. So you know, we're -- this is -- this is uncertainty and ambiguity that we're not used to in this country. We're part of a coalition now. We're not doing this unilaterally.

BLITZER: Was the president successful in his speech to the nation last night, David?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I thought he was very successful on one half the speech, and I was talking about the past and why the United States intervened, what his reasoning was. I thought he made a compelling moral argument that a lot of Republicans, including John Boehner, just agreed with, in fact.

Where I think he was much less clear, Wolf, and in the past, was pretty clear; the future he left murky. And yes, he has a strategy. But it's not clear the strategy will work.

And clearly, what -- what is happening today is Hillary Clinton is in Europe, talking with the leaders from other countries, exploring every avenue she can, short of putting U.S. troops in there, to see what can bring Gadhafi down. It looks as if we're moving toward the international community providing some kind of armed assistance to the rebels and trying to provide, or at least trying to recognize them as a legitimate government. Whether we will now take those additional steps of stepping into what increasingly looks like a civil war and coming down firmly on the side of the rebels I think is a big, big question tonight, Wolf.

BLITZER: But it looks like to me as an outside observer, Gloria, the U.S., the British, the French, the other NATO -- they've already come down on the side of the rebels for all practical purposes.


BLITZER: All of that air power is basically designed to support the rebels, stop Gadhafi's forces, send a message to Gadhafi and his sons and others surrounding him, "It's over. Give up. Get out of there before you die."

BORGER: Right. And isolate -- and isolate Gadhafi and try and find a place for him to go. But I think there's another question here, Wolf, which is that we're just not sure who these rebels are.

I think what you saw in the secretary of state today was somebody who was kind of circumspect to a degree in trying to evaluate just who these rebels are, whereas France may have embraced them. We have stopped short of that in terms of saying, "Look, we're trying to figure it out. This is a very fluid situation." So obviously, you don't want to arm people who may turn out to be not so good. Right?

So I think that the -- the United States is standing back a little until they understand exactly who these people are.

BLITZER: Well, they did receive the opposition leader in London today at this rally for Libya, whatever they called it, the summit meeting that the secretary of state attended. For all practical -- France has formally recognized...

BORGER: Right. Right.

BLITZER: ... the opposition as the legitimate government of Libya. The United States has stopped short of that. But for all practical purposes, David, they are totally aligned with the opposition right now. And they're fighting Gadhafi.

GERGEN: There's no question that we've gone down -- come down firmly on the side of helping the opposition. But what's been left unclear is how much we've helped them. We're clearly going to try to prevent them from being killed.

BORGER: Right.

GERGEN: But when we go on the offensive, it was very striking as they tried to take these villages in the last 24, 36 hours, the rebels, that we did not use our air power, because it was sort of close in fighting. And we did not use our air power. And guess what? The rebels got whipped, and they went into retreat. So I think the hard question now is, if that kind of conflict is going to continue, will we change our minds and use military power in those situations?

BLITZER: Guys, we're going to leave it right there. I suspect with NATO starting tomorrow in full command of this whole operation, the operation will be a lot less robust than if an American commander -- General Ham, for example, Carter Ham -- were strictly in charge of how aggressive the coalition should be. But that's another subject. We'll continue to watch it tomorrow. Guys, thanks very much.

Reporters witnessed in person a Libyan woman's desperation and frustration after she says Gadhafi's men raped her. Imagine how her mother felt, hearing bout it on the news. You're going to find out how she felt. She spoke with our own Reza Sayah. He's here next to tell us.


BLITZER: We're just getting in some new information on the case of that woman who burst into a Tripoli hotel this weekend to tell foreign reporters she'd been raped by Gadhafi's government troops. She was dragged away. Communication with her has since been cut off.

Now CNN's Reza Sayah tracked down the woman's family. And her mother described the awful experience to Reza.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Like much of the world, she, too, saw the disturbing pictures on television on Saturday. And it has sparked outrage for this mother. She's obviously upset; she's worried. She hasn't heard from her daughter for about three days. But most of all, she is angry.

And the comments that she is making, a few weeks ago that were unthinkable here in Libya. She was openly condemning Colonel Gadhafi, challenging him to come to her hometown in Tibruk (ph). She told us if Colonel Gadhafi was here, I would slap him in the face.

You get an idea how angry she is. The allegations, the suggestions the regime has made about her daughter being promiscuous, leading a life now that's questionable, not in keeping with Islam. Her mother rejected all those allegations. She described them as a desperate attempt to discredit her daughter.

So a lot of anger and concern from this mother. She knows that she can't do much all the way here in Tibruk, until all she can do is raise awareness, all on the international community. The last time she says she spoke to her, she believed that she was in some sort of compound belonging to the regime. That was Sunday.

Now, since then, regime officials have said that her daughter is released. She's free to do what she wants. This is a criminal case, and the government is investigating.

Her mother rejects that. She calls those lies. She says if, indeed, her daughter is here, where is she? Let's see her. Allow her to speak to the media, the international media. That obviously is not happening.


BLITZER: That's Reza Sayah reporting for us. He spoke to the woman's mother. The Libyan government, by the way, says a criminal case is under way. The men accused of raping the woman have filed counter charges for slander.

A billion-dollar lawsuit against Wal-Mart facing its first test at the highest court in the land. It's a passionate battle under way. We'll have details when we come back.


BLITZER: Can one and a half million people sue one company at the same time? That's the question before the U.S. Supreme Court, which must decide if a gender discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart can proceed. Here's CNN's Kate Bolduan.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It started with six strangers in California. Kris Kuapnoski (ph) is one of them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm a fighter, if nothing else, and so are all of the other women that are involved.

KRIS KUAPNOSKI, PLANTIFF: Kuapnoski (ph) has worked at Sam's Club, part of the Wal-Mart brand, for more than two decades. She says she's been paid less than her male counterparts and passed over for promotions for years.

KUAPNOSKI: Men who never had even a day's worth of Sam's Club's experience were coming in, and I was the one training them.

BOLDUAN: So Kuapnoski (ph) and five other women who worked at Wal-Mart are suing the company in a high-stakes gender discrimination case.

(on camera) Someone says, it's just one bad supervisor or it's a couple bad supervisors. Is it worth taking this -- taking the entire company on?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's just not one supervisor, though. It's supervisor after supervisor after supervisor.

BOLDUAN: The lawsuit began here at this Wal-Mart in Pittsburgh, California, a decade ago. Now the original six women in this case could expand to nearly every female Wal-Mart employee past and present, some 1.5 million women, making this the largest job discrimination case in U.S. history.

(voice-over) Wal-Mart is fighting back, arguing these allegations are isolated, that there's no so-called corporate culture or nationwide pattern of gender bias at their 4,300 facilities.

THEODORE BOUTROUS, ATTORNEY FOR WAL-MART: I think Wal-Mart has a very strong policy against discrimination and in favor of diversity. And it -- and it -- it works hard to instill that throughout the company.

GISEL RUIZ, WAL-MART EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT: Our company culture is about providing all associates opportunities to advance and grow.

BOLDUAN: The Supreme Court, though, isn't weighing in on whether the women's discrimination claims are valid. Rather, it's deciding the more technical, yet closely-watched question: can they file as a class, or do they have to fight Wal-Mart individually?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's just Wal-Mart's way of trying to stalemate us. They know we're right, and they just -- they don't want to admit it.


BOLDUAN: In oral arguments today, it did seem that the court was split along ideological lines, like they often are these days. Justice Ginsburg, a legal pioneer in gender equality in her own right and one of the three women on the bench, summed up kind of the sympathy the more liberal wing of the court seemed to feel for the women in this case, saying, quote, "The company gets reports month after month showing that women are disproportionately passed over for promotion, and there is a pay gap between men and women doing the same job. Isn't there some responsibility on the company to say, is gender discrimination at work, and if it is, isn't there an obligation to stop it?"

Seems they were more receptive -- she was very receptive to the argument of the plaintiffs here, Wolf.

BLITZER: What about the other side?

BOLDUAN: While very passionate, it doesn't seem that Ruth Bader Ginsburg's passionate words seemed to sway the more conservative members on the bench, which have a shaky majority on the Supreme Court, like Chief Justice John Roberts, who was skeptical that so many employees from across the country could make the same claim in one lawsuit. A real sticking point there.

And he said, "How many examples of abuse of the subjective discrimination delegation by managers, so to speak, need to be shown before you can say that flows from the policy rather than from bad actors?" He says, "I assume with however many thousands of stores, you're going to have some bad apples."

So you see how the chief justice feels, and Wolf, we'll have to wait until the end of June, probably, to get a ruling on this.

BLITZER: Very important case.

BOLDUAN: Very important.

BLITZER: Thanks for all the background. Appreciate it.

BOLDUAN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: NATO may own the skies over Libya, but the land is still up for grabs. Just ahead, the rebels' latest setback.

And zookeepers in New York are in a hurry to find a snake on the loose. We ask, what's the best way to catch a cobra?


BLITZER: What's the best way to catch a cobra? Here's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Everybody has a theory on how to catch a cobra.


MOOS: Like the Egyptian cobra still on the loose, apparently slithering around inside the Bronx Zoo's reptile house.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you zoo people will put, like 50 baby mouses in a cage where the snake can crawl into the cage, but it can't crawl out.

MOOS: Even Steve Martin tweeted, "I'm sitting in my King Tut hat by the phone, awaiting their call for help."


STEVE MARTIN, COMEDIAN: How'd you get so funky?

MOOS: But what's really funky is how the missing cobra is being pictured.

MATT LAUER, CO-HOST, NBC'S "THE TODAY SHOW": On the search for a poisonous Egyptian cobra.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The venomous cobra that escaped from the Bronx Zoo.

MOOS: Note how big these cobras are, how scary.


MOOS (on camera): In reality, the snake's only months old. She's 20 inches, thin as a pencil, and weighs less than 3 ounces. So is her bite as bad as a big snake's would be?

(voice-over) Reptile expert Terry Phillip says...

TERRY PHILLIP, REPTILE EXPERT (via phone): Bigger snakes have bigger fangs and inject venom deeper, more venom. It's always better to be bitten by a baby snake than a big one. It's because of the quantity of venom.

MOOS: The venom is just as toxic, but there's less of it.

Even the Bronx Zoo has a photo of a larger cobra on its Web site. The problem is, the smaller missing snake doesn't seem to have a mug shot, so we're all using file footage.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This venomous Egyptian cobra.

MOOS: She's even on Twitter. Snake on the town has gained a mass following with tweets like, "Dear Charlie Sheen, know what's better than tiger's blood? Cobra venom."

There's also a fake Bronx Zookeeper tweeting, "Oh, like you've never lost anything."

Bronx Zoo excuses made Letterman's top ten.


MOOS: The reptile expert says it's hard to convey how undramatic the cobra's escape is.

PHILIP: If it was loose in my house with my children, I wouldn't give it a whole lot of worry.

MOOS (on camera): You're kidding?

PHILIPS: No. I certainly would look for it, but I wouldn't go check into a hotel.

MOOS (voice-over): Check out how comedians on shows like Jimmy Kimmel's are milking the cobra.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They say it's nothing to worry about, but are you afraid of snakes anyway?



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They think they'll find it. They're not...


MOOS: Bet she could bag the missing cobra.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.