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Libyan Front Line Shifts; Defections; CIA Operatives in Libya

Aired March 31, 2011 - 19:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks Wolf and good evening everyone. Tonight high stakes intrigue in Tripoli as a second member of Moammar Gadhafi's inner circle bolts the country and rumors fly of more defections, even an effort perhaps by one of the dictator's sons to explore an exit strategy.

On the battlefield, the opposition is trying to regroup after two days in retreat. Check out this rocket attack -- it's near the eastern Libyan city of Brega earlier today.




KING: An opposition commander politely complained to CNN today that a lack of coalition airstrikes contributed to major setbacks for anti-Gadhafi forces in recent days. That commander saying he would like those airstrikes to continue. We are told -- we are told tonight that it was because of weather complications, not any strategy disagreements, and that those punishing airstrikes are to be resuming.

Here in Washington, the Obama administration over and over today made clear it wants Gadhafi to yield power, but, no, it does not want to take the lead and apply military pressure directly or indirectly. Here's the Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Capitol Hill.


REP. COLLEEN HANABUSA (D-HI), ARMED SERVICES CMTE.: So is there any attempt or do you know if there's any time in the future that there are going to be boots on the ground in Libya?

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Not as long as I'm in this job.


KING: Secretary Gates equally emphatic when asked if the United States would take the lead in arming or training the opposition fighters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GATES: Frankly, there are many countries that can do that. That's not a unique capability for the United States and as far as I'm concerned, somebody else should do that.


KING: More on the strategy in a moment, including CIA covert operations in Libya and an exclusive conversation with the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry. He'll give his take on what should be done now and whether the Obama administration should be doing more to help the opposition.

But let's begin first, as we should, with major developments on the battlefield today. As we look here, the state of Libya, this is quite dramatic when you look at it, when we talk about the opposition setbacks. Here's the state of play on Monday. Green meaning cities in control of the opposition, especially here in the east -- look at that.

Over here in the west as well, and the opposition was at least in play in Misrata. That is on Monday. That is now. The regime making more gains in the west and dramatic gains here in the east -- look at some of this fighting in the east today near Brega.




KING: You see the opposition forces fighting there? Let's check in live now with Ben Wedeman who is out watching the action today and is with us now live from Ajdabiya. Ben, as you watch this play out, you see those rocket strikes there, but from your time out there watching it firsthand, the opposition has been in dramatic retreat the past few days. Any sense they have regrouped and now have a coherent strategy?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, they don't have a strategy. And that's what's painfully obvious out at the front lines. They continue to do the same thing. Push forward on the main road and quickly become exposed to the artillery and the mortar fire of the forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi.

Those forces, on the other hand, are showing a real flexibility. Before the no-fly zone came into effect, they were highly dependent on heavy armored tanks, armored personnel carriers. Now they seem to be shifting to sort of guerilla tactics. They're driving around in civilian cars, attacking the rebel forces. They're operating in very small groups and units out in the desert.

Much more difficult for coalition aircraft to even spot them, because it's very difficult at this point to tell who's a rebel and who's loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. So the Libyan army seems to be really moving very quickly, changing its tactics. The rebels don't seem to be able to do that -- John. KING: And Ben, we're showing our viewers a map; this is the dramatic gains by Gadhafi's forces in recent days. I was told by several sources today that the coalition airstrikes would resume, though. That it was sand storms, it was cloud cover. You say it's hard to discern who's who on the ground -- any evidence at all from your reporting out there today of an accelerated or more aggressive airstrikes by the coalition today?

WEDEMAN: No. In fact, today we didn't see any evidence of any airstrikes. Yesterday, there was a fairly intense sand storm. So it's understandable that it would be very difficult to launch those airstrikes. Today, relatively clear. I mean, I got burnt by the sun by being out for many hours. It was a very clear day, but no, no evidence whatsoever that there's any intention to have any airstrikes.

You do hear airplanes overhead, but maybe it's because it's because of these changing Libyan army tactics that it's much more difficult to find the targets which until a few days ago, were very clear. In fact, right outside of Ajdabiya, there's the wreckage of many tanks, armored personnel carriers, tank carriers. But the tactics have changed, and it's now probably harder to find a target to hit -- John.

KING: And Ben, one last question. In that sense, as they've been forced into retreat, what is your sense? You talk about the chaos, not a clear strategy. Do you get any sense of confidence that they think they'll be able to regroup and start heading back to the west, where they were just a week ago, several days ago, or is the goal going to be to just consolidate here and try to hold it?

WEDEMAN: Well, today we did see some signs of consolidation. They have sort of moved away from the main highway, putting up some positions in the desert, but by and large, I think what they're waiting for, the rebels at least, is some sort of dramatic development on the other side. They're hoping, possibly, against hope, that the NATO airstrikes will be able to completely destroy or cripple the Libyan army.

But as we've seen, that's a lot easier said than done. So I think they're just hoping for something to happen to allow them to move forward. Because what is obvious is that they cannot head-on confront the Libyan army. They need some sort of outside factor to change the game, so to speak -- John.

KING: Ben Wedeman, remarkable firsthand reporting from the front lines in Libya's civil war. Ben thanks. Stay safe my friend.

Now Moammar Gadhafi not only making gains here in the east. He remains firmly in control here in the west in Tripoli from a military standpoint. But his inner circle is shrinking. In the past 24 hours, the current and former foreign ministers of Libya has left the country. Let's show you who they are.

They're right here. Moussa Koussa, he's the current foreign minister and Ali Abdul Salam al Treki (ph). Both have been key lieutenants for years and could offer critical intelligence on the regime and its survival strategy. So now also tonight, a British newspaper reporting Gadhafi's son, Seif, perhaps sent an envoy to London maybe to explore an exit strategy.

A good place to begin with our Nic Robertson in Tripoli is with this question. Any indication these defections are taking a toll on Colonel Gadhafi?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It must have an impact some way. We don't really have a way of reading it. Moussa Koussa was a man that Gadhafi trusted to negotiate over the Lockerbie issue, he trusted to negotiate over his WMD issue. This was a man who would sort of vet foreign leaders, dignitaries before they would get to meet Gadhafi.

So he -- it has to have an impact. We know that the tightest circle around Gadhafi is his family, is his sons, is his daughter, but how much of an impact is this having on them, we can't read it. But it must, it must have some impact -- John.

KING: What about the second circle, in which Mr. Koussa would be a top influential member? I assume other key deputies might be looking at this and reading, should I be thinking about plotting my exit strategy as well?

ROBERTSON: And particularly people perhaps in the intelligence circles like Moussa Koussa with his history, leading one of the intelligence agencies here. They will have perhaps information that's tradable in the west. That is, if they give themselves up, they have something to offer that will perhaps buy them freedom, buy them immunity from war crimes, trials, all these sorts of issues that will be on people's minds here when they think about should they turn themselves in.

So there will be other people there. Interesting, we haven't, for example, seen the deputy foreign minister now for over, well now 48 hours. He hasn't even shown his face since the foreign minister disappeared. I have another source at the Foreign Ministry is not answering his phone right now. Another figure here, also not answering his phone at the moment.

In fact, they seem turned off and not in use. So I think there's some interesting things happening there. We just don't really see them at the moment -- John.

KING: And so as the civil war plays out in any circumstances, and now when you have some cracks like this, how the regime communicates with the public is pretty important in trying to maintain the support of its loyalists, especially in Tripoli, the capital. What is the sense -- how is the regime trying to put the best face on this, perhaps to use propaganda to talk about this?

ROBERTSON: Propaganda, propaganda and through state television here. This is the way that they're doing it. On the television this evening, for example, we see people, perhaps several hundred (INAUDIBLE) Gadhafi's palace compound. So they're putting out that image on television. We're seeing the sort of patriotic military training, exercises, images, where you see, you know, you see members of the military doing sort of training, exercises, wrestling, firing, heavy weapons, firing off, all that sort of thing that's designed to show the regime is strong, but it's not cracking, that it's not going away. And also, when you're out on the streets, as well, if you're an average citizen and you drive around, you'll see plenty of security people around.

So that will reinforce your impression that the leadership here is in control. Because the last thing they want is for the rebels, the opposition to rise up in Tripoli, because that would begin to sound the death knell for this leadership here. That's perhaps their weakest point, to see a rising here. There's no sign of it at the moment, but that would be one of their bigger fears -- John.

KING: Nic Robertson tonight for us in Tripoli -- Nic thanks. And we know from eyewitness accounts, some amateur videos posted on the Internet that Misrata right here to the east of Tripoli has been the scene of some bloody fighting in recent days. Here's another way we look at it.

Look at these satellite images here. Here's a before image here of a compound here, you see some vehicles out in the lot. That's the before, here's an after. This is after a coalition airstrike. You see the devastation down there.

That's one way we've been able to get a look at Misrata. But it's been very difficult to see it firsthand, until now. Here's a dramatic look, exclusive footage our Fred Pleitgen and his crew shot when they entered Misrata and saw this civil war up close.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A celebration, a destroyed armored vehicle, a step too far for pro-Gadhafi forces nearby. And the scene turns ugly.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fire, fire, fire!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As you see, that all is destroyed by Gadhafi's forces. Building, gas stations, schools, (INAUDIBLE) police stations, even fire station, they destroyed it.


KING: In a bit, we'll have a little bit more from CNN's Fred Pleitgen. You just saw him there. Right now he's on a boat off --


KING: -- in just a moment and we at CNN, we are blessed and incredibly proud to have an amazing team of reporters in Libya and across the region. Our friend Joe Klein from "TIME" magazine also traveling in the Middle East this week, and after stops in Israel and the Palestinian territories, tonight he's in Cairo. And I began a conversation with Joe a bit earlier by asking him whether his contacts in the region believes Gadhafi can survive.


JOE KLEIN, POLITICAL COLUMNIST, TIME MAGAZINE: Well, there are two opinions that I've gotten. First I'll tell you a story -- when I was in Israel, I had a lunch with a high-ranking intelligence person and we kind of took a tour of the area, you know, what's going on in this country, that country, the other country. He never mentioned Libya.

You know, to the people who are in control of these countries, like the Israelis, Libya is a sideshow. On the other hand, though, when you talk to young people, as I did in the West Bank, when you talk to taxi drivers, when you talk to the bulk of the population in these Arab countries, they're very happy that we've gone in to try to get Gadhafi out of there.

KING: And is there a sense of a clear U.S. strategy on the bigger picture, whether it's Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain at all, or is it a case of responding to every one of these fires differently?

KLEIN: Well, there's, you know nobody has a sense of a clear U.S. strategy, and I would venture to say that the major players in the region don't have a sense of their own strategy yet. You know, when I talked to the leaders in Israel, they're still trying to sort out what's happening here. You know, they've divided the various resolutions going on between those where the army shoots, and in that case, they usually manage to put down the demonstrators and those where the army doesn't shoot, as in Egypt where the demonstrators win.

KING: Do those sources of yours draw from that lesson then that if you -- if you are Gadhafi or if you are Assad and you are under siege and you want to stay in power that you have to do so with violence?

KLEIN: Yes, although it's difficult to say what's happening in Libya. When you look at the events today, it seems as if both sides are losing. I mean the rebels are losing on the battlefield, and Gadhafi seems to be losing, you know, a lot of his top government.

So who knows what's happening there. One thing you can say is that it's going to be a lot more complicated for us, for the United States, to deal with this militarily than the president's been saying.

KING: I don't think we have a final answer to this question. We may not have a final answer for many years to come. But at this point in time, Joe, from your conversations, and it's an overly simplistic question, but let me try it anyway, with all this change happening in the region, at this moment, is America winning or losing?

KLEIN: American ideas, the ideas and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, those are winning with young people. And if you believe that the young people are the future, then we're winning. American policy at this point seems too confused to be winning. So American ideas are winning, American policy may be losing. Now, is that confusing or what?

KING: Well, I think we are living in confusing times and interesting times. Joe Klein from Cairo tonight -- thanks, Joe.

KLEIN: My pleasure, John.


KING: Ahead, an exclusive Libya strategy assessment from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, John Kerry. And next, the CIA's covert operations in Libya, what's allowed and what's not?


KING: Covert operations, defections by top regime officials. Tonight's headlines out of Libya have all the trappings of a spy novel, except this drama is real and is very consequential. So how important are these new defections? And now that President Obama has signed a directive allowing covert CIA activities in Libya, what's allowed and what's over the line?

With us now, CNN national security contributor Fran Townsend; she's a member of the CIA External Advisory Committee and Fran visited high-ranking Libyan officials last year at the invitation of the government. Also with us tonight is Tim Weiner. He's the author of "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA".

Tim, I want to start with you. The president signs this finding or this directive. We know there are covert operatives now on the ground in Libya. There were some in place to begin with. The CIA has had activities there for some time, but if that has been supplemented, what's the basic parameters? What are they allowed to do?

TIM WEINER, AUTHOR, "LEGACY OF ASHES: THE HISTORY OF THE CIA": A finding is a presidential order that tells the CIA go out and try and change the course of history. Now, you're talking about probably a couple dozen guys, these are sneakers on the ground, not boots on the ground. And their mission is to try and help the rebels by giving them information. Where are Gadhafi's forces? Who's in charge? And also to find out who is in charge of the rebels, what's going on with them.

KING: And so, Fran, a president signs one of these, you have experience being in the White House Situation Room. In terms of back and forth communication, if they want to go beyond, say, their initial mission. If they see something and they want to take some actions, how does that work in terms of getting authority? What's in and what's out?

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well John, the presidential finding, what it does is gives broad policy direction and sets objectives for the intelligence community and then it's really up to the intelligence community to advise the president and the White House, senior policymakers, on what activities they believe they need to engage in order to effect those objectives. The finding itself tends to be pretty broad.

And what you get then is there's a memorandum of notification that goes to Congress that explains what activities the president has authorized specifically, pursuant to that finding. But they can come back. As things on the ground change, they can come back to the president and ask to do -- undertake additional activities in support of the mission.

KING: And Tim, so the U.N. Resolution authorizing the military strikes doesn't say anything about regime change. Can the CIA operatives on the ground through mischievous ways, covert ways, try to encourage Gadhafi oppositions, defections from the inner circle? Is that within their reach?

WEINER: That is something that's going to happen very subtly in Tripoli and between governments. I mean the British government was obviously talking with the Libyan foreign minister before he defected. Now I think the primary mission here for the CIA is to try and help the rebel forces by giving them information from American military and intelligence networks, as to where Gadhafi's forces are.

Driving up the highway, squeezing off a few rounds, driving back is not going to change a regime. Now, the defection of the foreign minister that's what regime change starts to look like.

KING: I want to get to that in one sec. But first, I want you to listen to Secretary Gates here. He's on Capitol Hill today making emphatically clear -- and Tim you made the point in a great way. We have sneakers on the ground, CIA covert operatives, no boots on the ground, no troops. And we are told at least at the moment that means no Special Forces troops as well. Secretary Gates also asked essentially his assessment of the opposition. Listen to this.


GATES: I think that what the opposition needs as much as anything right now is some training, some command and control, and some organization. It's a pretty -- it's pretty much a pickup ballgame at this point.


KING: A pickup ballgame does not give you much confidence, Fran, that they would have much success against Gadhafi's military. It might not be anywhere near the best in the world, but it's a lot more organized and some of its units are well trained.

When you talk -- the secretary then went on and publicly said he thinks other countries should take the lead in doing the training and if there's any decision to arm the rebels. But is that a public face? Could these CIA guys be actively involved in coaching and military training?

TOWNSEND: Well we're going to -- back to the point Tim made -- I mean what you're looking for them to do is really assess the opposition, their capability. What are their requirements? What do they need? And that's the sort of what -- you know what Secretary Gates' observation about what they need is exactly the kind of thing you would look to the CIA, who's got operatives on the ground to report back, what do they need.

And the president's been clear; we're not going to take the lead in this mission. And so you then enable the secretary of state to go to our allies and NATO and around the world and say you need to step up and you need to provide the following assistance. Those who aren't providing air support, you can provide arms.

Those who aren't in the NATO mission, you can provide weapons or you can provide training. That's part of the quarterbacking, if you will, the orchestration of an allied action that the secretary of state will have to do.

KING: And let's try to put into context as best we can these two major defections we know about. There are rumors there could be more. But Moussa Koussa is the current foreign minister, and Ali Abdul al Treki (ph) is the former foreign minister. You look at these two gentlemen -- we have CIA operatives on the ground and they're doing their work.

But here's potentially two incredible sources of inside information, current-day information on the regime strategy. Tim, what's your sense of the debriefing process here?

WEINER: Well, the British are taking the foreign minister into you know a gilded palace and treating him very well and asking him what he knows and how Gadhafi's mind works. Gadhafi has been for more than 42 years a rather unstable dictator. And he is capable of madness.

President Reagan once called him the mad clown of the Middle East. They want a really serious, sober-sided assessment of what Gadhafi will do to stay in power.

KING: Fran, you know these guys, what's your sense of the value of the information and the signal? If this is not the tightest inner circle, which is family members, but this is essentially the second circle around Gadhafi, how important is it?

TOWNSEND: It's critically important. And by the way, the CIA and the American intelligence community, as well as diplomats in the U.S. government have had a long history of a relationship with Moussa Koussa. He did negotiate the Pan Am 103 Resolution.

He then later negotiated only recently the release of al Megrahi (ph). He was involved in the planning and execution of the Labelle (ph) disco bombing and the Pan Am 103 bombing itself. I mean this is a guy we know very well. And so -- and has -- we have maintained contact with. He's one of only two really close people to Gadhafi outside of his family.

The other in addition to Moussa Koussa, who was the former -- he was formerly the intelligence chief. The current intelligence chief is a guy named Abdullah Sinousi (ph). And he also is critical in this. And so it will be interesting to see what does Moussa Koussa's defection, what influence does that have on the other remaining insider, if you will.

KING: Important to watch in the hours ahead. Tim Weiner, Fran Townsend, appreciate your insight tonight. We'll keep on track of this one as best we can. Covert activity is hard to track sometimes.

First in the air, then in the milk, radiation from Japan's nuclear crisis is right here in the United States. We're told not to worry. We'll ask the governor of Washington State how she's sure there's no cause for alarm.

And next, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry joins us exclusively to give his take on the big Libya defections and whether the Obama White House needs to do more to help the opposition.


KING: There's been plenty of debate and discussion about Libya on Capitol Hill today. Among those answering questions, the defense secretary, Robert gates. Not quite mission accomplished, but listen to this.


GATES: We have accomplished the military goal in -- and now we need to sustain it in terms of the no-fly zone and in trying to protect the civilian population. You could have a situation in which you achieve the military goal, but do not achieve the political goal.


KING: And that last point there is imperative. Let's discuss the way forward now with Senator John Kerry. He's the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, you heard Secretary Gates there saying the military goal has been accomplished; the political goal could take quite some time. He can't give an answer there. Nobody can. One way to try to speed that up would be to do more to help the opposition. Do you think it's time for the United States and its allies to get weapons and training to the opposition?

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Well I think it's appropriate to provide some assistance to them, but I think it's not a unilateral decision by the United States. I think that we have a number of partners in this effort. I was just meeting the other day with French authorities and with British authorities. I think both of them are leaning quite far in that direction. But it ought to come as a unified decision, hopefully, before we have to get into any kind of unilateral decision.

KING: And you've invited the opposition leaders to come here to Washington, D.C. The French have recognized the opposition as a legitimate government of Libya. Is it time for the Obama administration to do that?

KERRY: Well I think it's a little premature for us at this point, but indeed, I have asked a number of those leaders to come here. I think the administration was anxious also to have -- people really learn a little more about them, have a sense of who they are. I've met with Mahmoud Jabril (ph), who is their foreign minister. I saw him in Cairo a week ago when I was there and I was very impressed by him. I thought he was articulate, clear about their objectives, clear about their goals for Libya in the long-term. And I think that Americans need to hear from them.

I also think it's impressive -- you know, it's not a small fact that the former foreign minister you know, Moussa Koussa, has now defected. I think that's an indication of the degree to which there is pressure. And I think that pressure can be increased, even though Secretary Gates says the sort of immediate task of trying to protect civilian population has in a large measure been achieved. I'm not sure it's completely over, but I think there's a lot more we can do now to put pressure on Gadhafi.

KING: Well, let's start with the military perspective and then we'll move to that defection we just talked about. From a military perspective, there seems to be some debate within the allies here about whether their job is simply to protect civilians, or we've heard complaints from the opposition in the last 24 hours or so that as the opposition has been in full retreat, Senator, and you've seen it. They're moving back towards the east now, pushed out of Ras Lanuf, pushed out of Brega. They're saying, where are the air strikes? We haven't had as many, especially against the air strikes on the front line.

Should there be more?

KERRY: There are more and they're taking place right now in the course of today. I think that, regrettably, yesterday, there were weather issues, there was a sand storm issue, very, very low cloud ceiling and ground fog at the same time. But it was not a conscious pullback in any way.

KING: And when you get to this -- you mentioned Moussa Koussa, also another foreign minister. Mr. Al-Triki has also defected. What is your sense? Is this going to be one or two, or do you think there's actually widespread -- maybe not in the most inner circle, the Gadhafi, but the next inner level, which would include Moussa Koussa and others. Are they beginning to think, got to get out of here?

KERRY: If they're smart, they'll think that. And I think more and more of them are taking a hard look at this. They understand our commitment, the NATO commitment, the global community's commitment. There's been a united message out of London just a couple of days ago that Gadhafi has to go.

There are indications, through various sources, of dissension, growing within his camp, even including within his family. And I think if they're smart, they'll begin to try to figure out, you know, some way out of there that doesn't end the way that it might under the worst circumstances.

KING: And if they get that smart, they might also be smart enough to say, can I get a deal here? There are many who believe Mr. Koussa, for example, had a role in the Lockerbie bombing. The International Criminal Court has said in terms of when the troops were moving east towards Benghazi, that Mr. Koussa was key in what they believed to be human rights abuses against the Libyan people.

Should anyone leaving Gadhafi's inner circle get a deal, get immunity, or should they come out and have to face the facts?

KERRY: Well, there was no deal with respect to Mr. Moussa Koussa. There is no deal at this point in time. But I do think it's important to leave the door open on a case-by-case basis on individuals, and see where we wind up.

I think if lives can be saved as a whole in Libya, if we can begin to move to a point of stability and reduce the overall burden and cost to the rest of the world and begin to move forward -- you know, it depends on exactly what the agreement might be, but I would certainly leave the door open for a diplomatic solution here.

KING: You've heard Secretary Gates, you've heard the president of the United States, say, absolutely, under no circumstances, American boots on the ground in Libya. We now do know there are some CIA boots or shoes on the ground.

Does no boots on the ground include Special Forces as well?

KERRY: Well, no boots on the ground was very a clear statement with respect to any kind of military personnel. And that means any kind of military personnel. And I support that position. I think it's the right position.

I wouldn't comment on a news report with respect to any kind of covert activities.

KING: There are some who say the president of the United State is being very smart here. We have budget problems here in the United States. We're already involved in two wars in that part of the world, and he's saying the United States will step back and be in a support role, use our unique capabilities to help. There are others who see it that way and say the United States is yielding leadership at a key moment in world history. What's your view?

KERRY: I couldn't disagree with that latter view more. I don't see any way in which the president of the United States has ceded leadership on this. He's been up-front. He's been very clear.

I think the president helped to shape this in precisely the appropriate way, which is to have broad American power to bear, up- front, in order to help have the minimal risk to pilots and to our armed forces, to put the no-fly zone into place, to show American power and capacity. But then, why wouldn't we want the allies with whom we worked so hard to develop this thing called NATO and to keep it alive, why wouldn't we want it to show its ability to be able to lead?

And I think this represents a new set of possibilities for multilateralism, for engagement.

I think we ought to be very pleased with the fact that we stood up for American values, we stood up for American interests, but we've done it in a way that doesn't open up another war for the United States with troops on the ground in a way that allows for dangerous mission creep and other kinds of downsides for the United States.

Let me just say one other quick thing. I am frankly disappointed in a degree to which it appears that both presidential politics and partisan politics don't stop at the water's edge in today's world. We saw that with Bosnia with President Clinton, and the very people who historically supported this very kind of intervention, whether it was in Somalia, or whether it was Haiti, or whether it was in Panama, or in Granada, you know, or in Ira, which was one of the most ill-advised things we've ever done are the first now to be saying somehow this is wrong application of the president's power, with the exception of some stand-up folks like, you know, Senator McCain and Senator Graham and some others.

I think it's very disappointing to see. I don't it's statesman- like. I don't think it's leadership.

KING: Chairman Kerry, appreciate your time today.

KERRY: Thank you.

KING: Next, today's big headlines, including Tea Party anger and a proposed deal on spending cuts. And then, stunning new images of Japan's troubled nuclear complex and Washington state's governor joins us to discuss evidence that radiation is in the air and the milk in her state.


KING: Welcome back.

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

As House and Senate negotiators huddle behind closed doors trying to reach a final deal on spending cuts, Tea Party activists and their congressional allies rallied outside the Capitol building today demanding even deeper cuts.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's time to pick a fight.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: The fight is just beginning. Keep their feet to the fire. Call them, e-mail them.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: Harry Reid thinks you're the problem. I think those cowboy poetry festivals are the problem.



KING: Mitt Romney -- Mitt Romney is quietly storing up money for his expected 2012 presidential bid. So far this year, his various political action committees have raised nearly $2 million.

Remember all those political ads railing against the bank bailout and predictions it might bankrupt the country? Well, today the Treasury Department announced the funds not only have been paid back, the program is turning a huge profit -- $6 billion so far. Eventually, the Treasury Department said perhaps $20 billion.

The missing cobra at the New York's Bronx zoo turned up today, still inside the reptile house. It's fine and now that it's recaptured, everyone else can feel safe. They are, too.

NATO has taken sole command of the coalition airstrikes in Libya. A rebel spokesman tells CNN those air strikes in Libya are needed and needed now.

Tonight, we have an exclusive look inside one of the Libyan cities on the front lines of the fighting. CNN's Frederik Pleitgen and his crew managed to get inside Misrata.

Take a look at what they saw.


KING: And Fred Pleitgen joins us now. He's on a boat just off the Libyan coast.

Fred, I want to get to the boat in a moment, but take us into Misrata. We just saw some of your piece there and you see some of the incredible damage in the streets. You had rare access essentially to the front lines in this fight.

What is the sense among the opposition fighters? Are they beginning to lose their spirit as the regime makes these gains?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I don't think they're losing their spirit yet. I mean, what they were telling us is that they believe that, in the end, they will prevail. It's very difficult to tell whether or not they were just saying that because we were around. But they clearly, they still have a certain amount of morale and they still are holding a lot of territory in Misrata.

It was interesting to see that you would have some opposition fighters at certain checkpoints really very lightly armed, some with makeshift guns that they'd manufactured by themselves. Just a couple of streets on, you have the Gadhafi forces with things like tanks and RPGs. And still the opposition is able to maintain large parts of that territory. They get shelled a lot and you have a lot of indirect fire coming in. But they feel at this point in time, they're able to control that territory and some say they believe that they're going to win this battle altogether, John.

KING: You also had a glimpse at something, we haven't been able to see much of in this war, because of the difficulty gaining access, and that is the human toll. And you see these pictures of the horrible injuries to children, as well as adults. You were at the hospital in Misrata, where you know it has faced shell and fire several times.

But describe that scene for us and what you saw.

PLEITGEN: Well, it's an awful scene. And, you know, one of the worst things about it is that very few medical supplies actually get in there. So, the very few hospitals that are still functioning are absolutely overwhelmed and simply don't have the tools that they need to save a lot of people. A lot of people die of injuries that otherwise they wouldn't die of in a normal situation.

One of the things the doctors have told me is they said, for instance, when someone gets shot in the leg, normally, they'd be able to treat that patient. But now, they have to keep patients rolling through, because there's so many coming in that in some cases, they'll have to amputate a leg. They'll have to amputate a leg of a child that got hit in the leg by a bullet, things like that.

And it's very difficult for the medical staff, all of them told us at this point in time, they're literally staying in the hospital 24/7, sleeping in the hospital when they can. Otherwise, they just do operations pretty much all the time. You have patients that are being treated in the corridors of the hospital. You have patients who are being treated in the parking lot of the hospital. As we see, we also have patients that are being treated in the emergency room, which is in a tent.

So that, as you said, is a very, very difficult, harsh situation, and really one where they say they need a lot of medical supplies. At this point in time, they're getting way too few of, John.

KING: Fascinating reporting from Fred Pleitgen -- Fred, stay safe.

Ahead, trace amounts of radiation reported from California to Washington state. Experts are downplaying the risks to your health. But what happens when this radiation enters the food supply? We'll talk to the governor of Washington to get her take. That's next.


KING: Some new developments in Japan's nuclear emergency. Let's begin by showing you some dramatic new images of the Fukushima Daiichi complex.

Check this out. These are satellite images and they are more clearer than the ones we have seen before. You see the four reactors here and you see the heavy damage. These are four of the six reactors at this site. Look at the devastation. And come in close here, you can see even more.

I want to move right up here to this reactor right here. Look in here. Why is this important? Not only do you see the devastation, this is where the spent fuel is kept. This is the tank which the spent fuel rods are kept in. You see it exposed outside here now. That tells you there's been significant damage here.

I want to bring up another view of the scene -- this is a view from the side. And you can see right here -- look at this, look how clear these photos are. These are the four reactors, that's four there, three, two, and one.

Look at the steam coming out. Look at the steam coming out. We know they've been pouring water on these nuclear materials, trying to keep them cool, but one result is you have what everyone suspects to be radioactive steam releasing into the air.

Now, in Japan today, authorities say beef from that same province as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant now has over the limit amounts of radiation. And we also know -- let me move this out of the way -- we also know that some of this radiation has made its way across the Pacific into the United States. These are states here where the radiation has been detected.

Now, experts here emphasize no health risk, they say, no health risks from consuming milk with extremely low levels of radiation, like those found in the milk already out in California and in Washington state.

Now, Washington state, also one of the people -- I'll show you the two places where they found the milk here. Turn that off for a second because I want to show you this, Washington state also one of the places with a reactor -- a nuclear reactor in the country, this reactor, one of them, very similar to the design at the Fukushima Daiichi complex.

So, we thought a good day to touch base with Governor Christine Gregoire.


KING: Are you confident in both the quality and the quantity of information you're getting? I ask you in the context of it seems every day in Japan, we're getting a bit of a different story and sometimes more alarming data.

GOV. CHRISTINE GREGOIRE (D), WASHINGTON: Well, what we're trying to do is be sure that we're doing sampling and monitoring of air and, in this instance, milk, to make sure that we're relying on our own data here in Washington state, and that we're able to assure the public about the safety risks that are not posed by anything that we have found thus far.

KING: You say thus far. That's where we want to drill in here.

Are you -- do you have a good sense, from your own experts and federal experts perhaps helping the state, in that from what you've seen so far, and there's nothing today -- whether it's in the milk, in the air -- there's nothing today that should be alarming to anybody? However, do you have a secure guarantee that it won't get there?

GREGOIRE: You know, I'm very confident today. What was found yesterday reported in milk and a part of our state is really miniscule. It's 5,000 times less than anything that would cause a concern for health. Our air monitoring really is not showing anything that is of concern to us.

So, while there are no guarantees, I am very confident with as many miles away as we are from Japan, that there is no cause for anybody to be concerned about their health and their safety in Washington state. We're trying to address anything that's brought up so that our public knows we're going to tell them the truth, we're going to be very transparent, we're going to assure them what we know and what we don't know.

And what we do know is there is absolutely no reason to be concerned about your health.

KING: I could go to a supermarket in Washington, D.C., and pick up an apple and other produce from Washington state. What is the sense of your challenge looking at the entire agriculture economy and other issues in your state?

GREGOIRE: Again, we have no reason for you to be concerned. Just to put in perspective the amount that was found in milk by this particular sample -- if I was to travel from Washington state to D.C., that would be a much greater amount than what was found in milk. So, I mean, every day we're exposed. If we ate a banana, that's 4,000 times more than a pint of milk that was found yesterday in this sample.

So, there is absolutely no reason for people to be concerned. But we want to be open and transparent -- sample and monitor more than what we've done so people can feel good and feel confident that they're getting all the information, and there's absolutely no reason for them to be concerned.

When I heard about this with regard to milk, my first thought was mothers and what would they think about milk for their children. And that's why we immediately got the information out and put it in context for people so that they knew there was no reason to be concerned whether you're drinking milk in Washington state or an apple in D.C. that's from Washington state.

KING: And as you deal with this unwelcome concern from across the Pacific, you're also one of the governors in our states here in the United States looking at a nuclear plant in your state. It's 27 years old, the Hanford plant. The design is somewhat similar to the plant that the -- the Fukushima complex in Japan, and you do have some seismic questions and issues in the state of Washington. You've got a fair amount of spent fuel stored at that site.

What's your biggest worry? GREGOIRE: You know, I've done more research on this than I've ever done since the tragedy in Japan, and I find that when the siting took place for our nuclear facility, they did so n an area where they are very aware of the seismic threats. They are to a level that's well beyond any threat, well positioned back so that a tsunami is not of any concern to them. So, they did right when they sited that particular facility.

KING: But we still have in this country a large question about what do we do about the long-term storage of this waste. You're not at all concerned about that? You have some wet, spent fuel there. You also have outside. It's less protected, less dangerous, but it's still dangerous -- some dry, spent fuel.

Do you believe your utility there and the country at large is in the right place on that or needs to have a more urgent conversation about what to do?

GREGOIRE: No. I think we need to have that conversation. We're also the home to the Hanford facility, which as you'll recall, provided the materials for weapons, nuclear weapons during World War II. And now, we're trying to clean up tanks that are leaking into our groundwater.

So, we're very concerned. We're extracting what we can. We're building a vitrification plant to classify that. Where were we going to put it when we're done?

I'm very disappointed that we've taken off-line the one deep geologic repository that would have been a place to take it.

So, I think our country does have to have this debate. I think time is of the essence. We have got to find a clean, safe, secure way that we're going to be able to store because of the lifetime of these materials so that the public can feel secure. We need to have that debate, and I believe we need to have that debate now.

KING: Governor, thanks for your time tonight.

GREGOIRE: You bet. Thank you.


KING: When we come back, back to the battlefield in Libya. The opposition is in retreat and says it needs more help from coalition air strikes.


KING: To recap today's breaking news from Libya, NATO has taken over sole command of the coalition air strikes. And a rebel spokesman told CNN today airstrikes are desperately needed, immediately, that spokesman says.

Let's show why. Here was the state of play Monday on the battlefield. Green cities controlled by the opposition, red by the regime. Monday, the opposition was doing quite well in the east, trying to make its way west.

However, look at the state of play now, what has happened in the past 48 hours or so. Major regime gains all along here, in Bin Jawad, Ras Lanuf. Al Brega today is taken back by the regime.

Our Ben Wedeman was right out here and he says he saw no evidence of any coalition airstrikes as the opposition was trying to fight today. Yet, earlier in this hour, Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the foreign relations committee, told us he has received word those airstrikes are back in business.


KING: There are more, and they're taking place right now in the course of today. I think that, regrettably, yesterday, there were weather issues, there was sandstorm issue, very, very low clouds ceiling and ground fog at the same time. But it was not a conscious pullback in any way.


KING: Most of the fighting on this day over here in the east, we'll show you just about where. This is where Ben was. Again, he said he did not see any airstrikes. Senator Kerry says, no, they are back in business.

We'll touch base with our reporters tomorrow night. We hope you'll be right here for that. That's all for us, though, for now.

"IN THE ARENA" starts right now.