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Libyan Rebels Retreating; Interview With California Senator Dianne Feinstein

Aired March 31, 2011 - 18:00   ET



Happening now: Libya's rebels trying desperately to hold the line against the tanks, the artillery of Moammar Gadhafi's forces, they're appealing for help. We will hear exclusively from a top rebel commander.

As the U.S. scales back its role in the skies over Libya, there's concern on Capitol Hill about the rebels' fate. The Pentagon brass gets a grilling from both sides.

And the mysterious defection of Moussa Koussa. What made Libya's foreign minister, a longtime regime insider, flee to Britain? We're digging deeper.

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

We begin with growing desperation for Libya's rebels, outgunned, outnumbered. They have been driven back to a few remaining strongholds. Moammar Gadhafi's troops have used a letup in allied airstrikes to push forward. There's deep concern today in Congress, where the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told lawmakers that Gadhafi will -- quote -- "kill as many as he must to crush the rebellion."

Let's go straight to CNN's Reza Sayah. He's in rebel-held Benghazi, the second largest city in Libya.

You have spoken, Reza, to some top rebel commanders. What is their basic message?

REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they need help.

You know, these rebel fighters love to show you the victory sign and fire shots in the air in celebration. We haven't seen that for the past couple of days, because it's been a tough couple of days for them. They have lost valuable territory. They have gone backwards about 200 miles, lost two key cities.

And I sat down with the opposition's military spokesperson. And he was very frank. He said, if we don't get help, if something doesn't change, we're going to be in deep trouble.


SAYAH: Colonel Ahmed, when you look at the past couple of days, it's been a rough stretch. Is the opposition losing this fight?

COL. AHMED OMAR BANI, OPPOSITION MILITARY SPOKESMAN (through translator): It has been very hard the past few days, because the freedom forces have been facing heavy tanks and artillery weapons with very light weapons.

SAYAH: These are the same small weapons you were using when you were gaining ground. Now you're losing ground. What changed? What was the turning point?

BANI (through translator): There is no denying the coalition forces air coverage has helped the freedom volunteers' forces.

SAYAH: What you're suggesting is the coalition support and the airstrikes are not as intense as they used to be?

BANI: They are doing their job well. I could say that they are doing their job well, I mean NATO.

SAYAH: Are they doing it as well as they did a few days ago, when you were gaining ground?

BANI: They are doing their job well. And we are doing our job as well as we can, I could say.

SAYAH: OK. My sense is that you're disappointed with what is a decrease in airstrikes over the past couple of days, but you don't want to appear critical of the coalition.

BANI (through translator): Yes, we don't deny it. We want more to bring a speedy end to this. A strike is not a strike unless it kills.

SAYAH: It's becoming more clear who the opposition fighters are. No one is questioning their courage and determination, but would you agree that this is a force that really doesn't know how to fight a real war?

BANI (through translator): The free Libyan forces is made up of two components, the free Libyan army and the free Libyan volunteers. And in the case of the volunteers, yes, they require training.

SAYAH: Troops on ground, it looks more and more that your forces could really use that. Are you open to that?

BANI (through translator): All options are open to us.


SAYAH: A lot of urgency setting in with the opposition. The colonel told me something very interesting. He said he suspects that Colonel Gadhafi's forces are anticipating lulls in airstrikes, and they are moving eastwards in those lulls. We can't verify this, but colonel Ahmed says that's how they're making some progress.

I asked him what the rebel fighters' most powerful weapons are. He said rocket-propelled grenades, some heavy artillery.

Wolf, they don't have a single tank at this point that functions.

BLITZER: Are they getting any weapons, any ammunition from outside?

SAYAH: At this point, they say they're not. There may be a covert operation that's getting them weapons. There are rumors that this is happening. But at this point, he says they're not. And the call for those weapons to get here is getting louder on the part of the opposition.

BLITZER: And they realize that now that NATO is in command of all of the airstrikes, for all practical purposes -- and the secretary of defense announced this today -- the United States is no longer engaging in direct airstrikes, no C-130s, no A-10s. All the airstrikes if they happen will be non-U.S. The U.S. is going to back them up with air refueling capabilities, surveillance or whatever.

I assume they're disappointed that the United States is walking away from those direct airstrikes.

SAYAH: Yes, I think they're deeply concerned with the fact that NATO is now in charge will change the complexion of this operation. Today, you heard the colonel. He's not going to come out and openly be critical of the coalition and the NATO operation. But he is deeply concerned that these airstrikes are going to decrease in number.

And we have seen over the past couple of weeks those airstrikes, help from coalition is key to the success of the rebel fighters. Without them, their weaknesses are clearly exposed.

BLITZER: Yes. And without the U.S. directly engaged in those airstrikes, NATO doing it, they're not going to get what they really want, these rebels.

Reza, thanks very much -- Reza Sayah in Benghazi.

NATO did take full command of the operation over Libya today. The U.S. has been reducing dramatically its role. All of this comes as the rebels take a beating, a major beating on the front lines over the past two days.

The defense secretary, Robert Gates, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, they were on Capitol Hill. And there was lots of fireworks.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence. He has got more on the military part of this story -- Chris.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, the U.S. military is in the process of backing off this mission. But Secretary Gates says that is the way it was supposed to be from the get-go, where the U.S. would do a lot initially with those Tomahawk missiles, hitting those strikes, and then sort of hand off to NATO.

He argues that with even a reduced mission costing Americans $40 million a month, and U.S. troops stretched through Iraq, Afghanistan, and Japan, that there's just only so much money and resources to go around.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): The U.S. is calling off its missiles and jets that have been bombing Moammar Gadhafi's tanks and troops.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We would not be participating in the strike missions.

LAWRENCE: U.S. senators say America has holstered its most effective weapons right when they're needed most in Libya.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: The fact is that your timing is exquisite.

LAWRENCE: Senator John McCain says Gadhafi is routing the rebels now.

MCCAIN: That's when we announced that the United States is advocating its leadership role and removing some of the most valuable assets.

SAYAH: The fight is over these A-10 and AC-130s used to attack Gadhafi's forces in and around cities. They fly low, closer to the target, and shoot machine gun fire instead of just dropping bombs.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: You have pulled them off. They're not flying, and there's no...


LAWRENCE: Bad weather in Libya grounded the gunships the last few days, and, in that gap, Gadhafi's forces regrouped. The planes will fly for just a few more days until NATO takes total control.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: And the idea that the AC-130s and the A-10s and American airpower is grounded unless the place goes to hell is just so unnerving, I can't express it adequately.

LAWRENCE: Senator Lindsey Graham argued the U.S. needs to do more, not less.

GRAHAM: Would it be unlawful for some nation, including ours, to drop a bomb on him to end this thing?

GATES: Well, President Reagan tried that.

GRAHAM: Well, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try again.

GATES: I don't think so, because I think it would probably break the coalition.

GRAHAM: Who would be mad at us if we dropped a bomb on Gadhafi? And why would they be mad?

LAWRENCE: And there's the rub. There doesn't seem to be agreement on exactly what the allies want. Does Gadhafi have to be killed, hauled before an international court, or as an incentive to stand down, given sanctuary in another country?

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: I just don't see how this ends.


LAWRENCE: Well, that is still up in the air, but the U.S. isn't cutting off all access to those special gunships. Some are going to put on standby. And if the situation gets bad enough, the NATO commander could call on them, although that request would have to come back here, back up the U.S. chain of command, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know the NATO secretary-general, Anders Rasmussen, said today that U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 does not authorize arming the rebels. The Obama administration has a different interpretation of that resolution. They don't rule it in. They don't rule it out. They say it's ambiguous. What that an issue, arming the rebels, that came up in the hearings today?

LAWRENCE: It did, Wolf. But Secretary Gates said that's a responsibility probably best left to America's allies. He said whether the rebels are armed or not, that there are allied nations that are perfectly capable of getting those arms and getting them to them if that decision is one that everybody agrees to.

BLITZER: That's a huge issue. All right, thanks very much, Chris Lawrence, for that.

The report from the front lines. CNN's Ben Wedeman spent the day with the rebels battered by Gadhafi's rockets and machine guns. Can the rebels' willpower make up for a lack of weapons and training? And a longtime Libyan insider, he suddenly quits, flies off to Britain. What's behind the mysterious defection of the foreign minister, Moussa Koussa?


BLITZER: The hard-pressed Libyan rebels say lulls in allied air activity have allowed Gadhafi's forces to advance. They're appealing for more airstrikes. But with NATO now in command, there's a new reality in the skies over Libya.


BLITZER: And joining us now from Capitol Hill, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senator Feinstein, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: Secretary Gates, the Defense secretary, confirmed today what Senator Lindsey Graham hinted to us yesterday, that now that NATO has taken charge of the air action, all of the military action over Libya, the U.S. is no longer taking an active role in strike activities in Libya.

Is that a good idea?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I believe that's the case. Yes, I think it is a good idea. I think not having our participation in this is appropriate. We used our technology to secure air superiority; that is secured. And the agreement was that when that was secured, NATO would take over. So NATO will now take over the no-fly zone and the embargo.

BLITZER: The reason I raised the question is because the opponents of Moammar Gadhafi are losing big time right now and NATO is certainly not going to do as robust a military action as the U.S. would want to do.

Do you want to see the rebels defeated?

FEINSTEIN: No, I do not want to see the rebels defeated. But the president has said no boots on the ground, and I agree with him. We've got a number of other nations that can put boots on the ground. These nations can also figure out how best militarily to hit Gadhafi.

And, you know, I could even make suggestions there. Look at his regime's protection brigade, specifically the two controlled by his sons, 36 and 9, and the --


BLITZER: What would you do? Would you go ahead and strike those brigades?

FEINSTEIN: I would go ahead and strike those brigades.

BLITZER: Would the U.S. -- should the U.S. launch airstrikes against those brigades?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I didn't say that. I said -- this is now a NATO mission, essentially.

BLITZER: But NATO's not going to do it with Turkey and Germany. NATO is going to be weak in this aspect, as you well know.

FEINSTEIN: Well, let's -- yes. I wouldn't say that. At this time, you don't know. You hypothesize, and --

BLITZER: There seems to be --

FEINSTEIN: -- I'm not going to do that.

BLITZER: -- over the past 24 to 48 hours, Senator, a really decline in airstrikes pounding of Libyan-Gadhafi positions.

FEINSTEIN: Well, the key to this, and has been form the beginning, it begins and ends with Gadhafi. I think his interior -- or his minister defecting in Great Britain I think is helpful. Hopefully, others will follow suit.

I think we'll see in the next couple of days, this is the first day NATO has really been in charge, we'll see how they do. I think there are many military missions that can be carried out.

BLITZER: Do you agree that Gadhafi must, when all is said and done, be removed as the leader of Libya?

FEINSTEIN: Absolutely.

BLITZER: So how far should the U.S. go in achieving that goal?

FEINSTEIN: I think the United States should do essentially what has to be done to move him out of office --

BLITZER: Kill him?

FEINSTEIN: -- either physically -- no, I didn't say that, and I'm not going to get into that. I think physically or finding a diplomatic solution, as Secretary Clinton has suggested, is appropriate.

But it's key to me that the end game begin to be discussed. It's hard to expect, you know, rebel forces to be able to defeat a well- organized military. However, you know, Gadhafi was worried enough that he is putting some of his troops in civilian dress, so you can't tell the difference. That indicates to me, you know, the kind of person that he is.

I think we need to deal with Gadhafi.

BLITZER: I understand what you're saying.

The CIA is obviously playing some sort of role. Your committee oversees the CIA. What is the CIA role in Libya right now?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I can't tell you that. That's clear. That's classified information and I don't talk about it.

BLITZER: Should -- is it simply -- maybe you can explain this, is it simply intelligence gathering or covert action designed to help the rebels?

FEINSTEIN: Good try. I'm not going to discuss it.

BLITZER: That -- that sensitive of a piece of information, whether -- cause it's been in all the papers today -- whether they're simply involved in intelligence gathering or are they trying to spot targets and help the rebels defeat Gadhafi's forces?

FEINSTEIN: Well, you know, everything you read in the newspapers isn't always correct either.

BLITZER: That's true. We know that.


BLITZER: And everything -- all we do on television isn't necessarily --

FEINSTEIN: Oh, yes, by all means.

BLITZER: -- correct either.

How worried are you about al Qaeda elements begin part of the opposition forces in Libya?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I will say this. I have seen some reports that cause me some worry, some concern. There's no question that this call has gone out. The question is what has actually been realized.

It's sufficient enough for me to believe in view of past history -- Afghanistan, Iraq -- that we should not arm the rebels. So I --

BLITZER: What about indirectly? Should we encourage, should the U.S. encourage Egypt or Saudi Arabia or other countries to arm the rebels?

FEINSTEIN: I don't know that we need to do that. They're free countries, they will make up their own minds.

But, you know, we did in Afghanistan; we got burned by it. We did in Iraq; we got burned by it. In other words, those weapons cropped up later being used against us, and I don't think that's something we ought to -- we ought to do.

We don't know, other than maybe a few dozen, who these people really are. We don't know if Gadhafi goes, what they would espouse. And to arm them when the call has gone out for jihad and there is a Libyan Islamic front, I would be very reserved in that judgment.

BLITZER: We're out of time, but one final question.

Is there any daylight at all between you and the Obama administration when it comes to Libya?

FEINSTEIN: I think, you know, the president has had very good advisers, Secretary Gates, Secretary Clinton, Admiral Mullen. I think they came to a joint decision. It's being carried out. Hopefully, it can be carried out successfully. I think we stay the course.

BLITZER: So I will take that as a "no daylight."

FEINSTEIN: No daylight.

BLITZER: All right, Senator, thanks very much. We'll have you back.

FEINSTEIN: Thank you.


BLITZER: Anti-government demonstrations spreading in Syria. Now the country's leader may be bowing to some of the protesters' demands. Will it be enough? And what happens tomorrow, Friday, after prayers?

And a specially trained united of American Marines heading to Japan. We're taking a closer look at their mission.

Stand by. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: A key Libyan insider, he was Libya's foreign minister, a former intelligence chief. Could his sudden defection mean a gold mine of information about the Gadhafi regime?

And who are Libya's opposition leaders? We will take a closer look at some of them, including those who have studied or lived right here in the United States.

Plus, we are going to show you how Syria's emergency law allows the regime in Damascus to impose a brutal crackdown on pro-reform protests.


BLITZER: He was a longtime Gadhafi regime insider. A little more than 24 hours ago, though, he was Libya's foreign minister-ex. Suddenly, he showed up in Britain.

We're digging deeper into the mysterious defection of Moussa Koussa.

Our foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty, is looking into Moussa Koussa for us.

So, what are you finding out about this guy, Jill?


For weeks, U.S. officials have been urging Gadhafi's inner circle to think twice, abandon the Libyan leader, or they, too, could end up paying the price for war crimes. And this defection by Moussa Koussa, they claim, shows that circle is fraying.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): Just two hours before he arrived at an airfield in London, the U.S. says it got word from British authorities that Libya's foreign minister was defecting. JAMES STEINBERG, U.S. DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE: While I think we should not overstate the significance of this, we should not also understate the fact that somebody who has such a long association with the regime has seen that there's no future there.

DOUGHERTY: The Gadhafi regime immediately downplayed Moussa Koussa's defection.

MUSSA IBRAHIM, LIBYAN GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN: Mr. Moussa Koussa asked for a sick leave because he was exhausted physically, and he had diabetes and high blood pressure.

DOUGHERTY: But U.S. officials say if Koussa will talk, he could be a treasure trove of information.

For years, the former head of Libyan intelligence was one of Moammar Gadhafi's closest advisers. And a senior U.S. official tells CNN he could provide inside information on the Libyan leader, like his whereabouts, his closest associates, control over his military, and what would drive him to leave Libya.

Sixty-two-year-old Moussa Koussa, a graduate of Michigan State University, was the main Libyan negotiator with the U.S. and Britain on Gadhafi's decision to give up his nuclear weapons. But he also was suspected of involvement in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

Koussa played a key role in negotiating the release of the Lockerbie bomber. The British government insists he is not being given immunity from prosecution.

Libyan rebels, meanwhile, want to put Koussa on trial for murder for the brutal crackdown on the opposition. Just last month Koussa was justifying it to CNN's Nic Robertson.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So you're saying that innocent people haven't been shot, unarmed innocent people have not been shot by the army or police?


ROBERTSON: Not at all?

KOUSSA (through translator): In some cases, only when the terrorist is holding his gun, of course we have to answer back.

DOUGHERTY: Up until last week Koussa was calling the State Department, officials say, trying to make his case that the rebels were on the side of al Qaeda, but he never indicated, they say, that he wanted to defect.

MARK TONER, ACTING STATE DEPARTMENT DEPUTY SPOKESMAN: We made the argument that -- that he was part of a regime that was going nowhere.

(END VIDEOTAPE) DOUGHERTY: And U.S. officials claim that this defection has psychological value as well, saying that it could perhaps make Colonel Gadhafi more paranoid, causing him to worry that, if people like Moussa Koussa step away and leave, who is next?

And this afternoon, Wolf, late this afternoon, word from CNN's Ivan Watson that, in fact, the choice -- Libya's choice for U.N. representative is defecting, too.

BLITZER: Yes, I suspect there's going to be more of that going on, as well. Thanks very much for that, Jill.

Let's bring in our CNN national security contributor Fran Townsend. She's a member of the CIA's external advisory committee. She met with some high-ranking Libyan officials at their invitation last year.

You met Moussa Koussa. What's he like?

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: You know, Wolf, he is incredibly bright, but also incredibly manipulative person, as you would expect in the head of an intelligence service. He held that job for decades.

And it is true to say he is one of two officials outside of the Gadhafi family who have been with Gadhafi and are -- remain very close to him. One is Moussa Koussa, the current foreign minister and former head of Libyan intelligence. The other, who we've not talked about, is Abdullah Sanusi. He is the current head of Libyan intelligence. We've heard nothing about him.

As those relationships fracture, this is an undeniable success for the coalition and the administration. Gadhafi relied on them for his own security, for his face to the world. And it's very significant.

BLITZER: I assume there's going to be a lot of debriefing of Moussa Koussa, but can you really believe a word he says?

TOWNSEND: Well, this is where we use the old "trust but verify," Wolf. He'll be -- he will be extensively debriefed ,not only by the British but, I expect, the American intelligence service and others. People will ask him questions that they already know the answer to. And they'll test him to see whether or not he gives truthful answers and whether or not they're fulsome, whether or not he adds -- whether he provides actual truthful details or whether he seems to be -- you know, lessen his own culpability or that of Gadhafi's.

BLITZER: The British keep saying he did not receive any sense of immunity, no immunity for showing up in London. Should he be arrested for crimes committed, A, against the Libyan people; and B, against others, including Pan Am 103?

TOWNSEND: Well, it's a good question, Wolf. The FBI has long wanted to speak to Moussa Koussa. And for that reason, he didn't travel inside the United States other than to come to the U.N. And the travel to and from the U.N., as you know, is protected.

But he would have to be -- you know, the question is the FBI had long sought to interview him as well as others like Sanusi, who I mentioned, who have been implicated by the evidence. And really, what the question is, is there sufficient evidence to indict him on the Pan Am 103 case? Not clear. A case would also have to be put together in the International Criminal Court relating -- could possibly be relating to the crimes against the opposition leaders.

BLITZER: Whatever charges he might face, he obviously believes he's better off in London than staying in Tripoli with Gadhafi, for whatever reason. All right. We'll learn a lot more about Moussa Koussa in the days and weeks to come. Thanks very much, Frank, for that.

Rebel forces battling troops loyal to Gadhafi. CNN's Ben Wedeman is standing by with a live report from the front lines.

And details emerging on just who is leading the rebellion. We'll tell you what we're learning.


BLITZER: In several towns and cities, Libya's rebels have been trying to hold the line against the tanks, the artillery of Muammar Gadhafi's forces. The outgunned rebels have some willpower but not a whole lot of other assets.

CNN's Ben Wedeman spent the day on the front lines with some of these opposition forces. He's joining us now from eastern Libya with more.

What did you see, Ben?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we have right now is essentially a stalemate on the front lines, with the Libyan forces in control of the town of Brega, where, of course, there's that important oil refinery.

And what we saw today on the front lines were all the shortcomings of the rebels on display.


WEDEMAN (voice-over): This is some of the heaviest firing power the anti-Gadhafi forces have. Multiple rocket launchers, mortars, heavy machine guns. All in action at what is, at best, a very shaky front line east of Brega, a strategic refinery town that has changed hands six times in the last six weeks.

Brega is once more under the control of Libyan government forces, and the rebels say even with a no-fly zone and NATO air and missile strikes, they're still no match for Gadhafi's men.

"This is useless," says fighter Saleh bin Gazhi (ph), giving me his antiquated Soviet-made machine gun, adding that it's only good for pigeon hunting.

(on camera) The fighters fire their weapons all day long. But by the afternoon, they start to run out of ammunition, which, of course, means they have to retreat.

(voice-over) Dramatic advances are followed by dramatic retreats. High morale doesn't really make up for lack of progress and organization.

The supply of ammunition isn't running out, at least not yet. It's replenished each day when the rebels move to the front.

But logistics and supply, so critical to any military force, are a slapdash affair. The provision of fuel, food and other supplies is more a personal than a group responsibility. All of which underscores a basic fact: the rebels don't have a strategy.

Ibrahim says he was in Libyan special forces ten years ago, and admits that even with better weaponry, the military opposition to Gadhafi is leaderless at the front.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Group by group, you know. Every group together and going but they don't have commander to take these people and make a plan for them or something that...

WEDEMAN (on camera): So is somebody thinking of a plan?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe. Maybe. Sure. Have somebody, but I don't know why he doesn't come up tonight. Why he wait. For what? I don't know.

WEDEMAN (voice-over): The rebels need to come up with a plan soon, because they won't be able to win this battle by bravado alone.


WEDEMAN: And of course, the rebels are increasingly calling for more weapons. Weapons to be provided by the United States and other western powers. It seems, Wolf, that even though the United States and its allies don't necessarily want it, the people here in eastern Libya are desperate for more western intervention -- Wolf.

BLITZER: How worried are they in Ajdabiya and even in Benghazi, which is the second largest city? The rebels control that city for now. How worried are they that the Libyan military will be able to regroup and do in the coming days or weeks what they were on the verge of doing before the coalition air strikes started, namely threatened to take over those towns.

WEDEMAN: Well, they're very worried. I mean, for instance in this town, Ajdabiya, almost all the civilians have fled. They've gone to Tibruk. They've gone to Benghazi. The worry is that they can always come back. They occupied this town for ten days.

What we're seeing increasingly is a real change of tactics. Whereas on the one hand the rebels are just doing the same thing over and over again, day after day, the Libyan forces are changing their tactics. They're driving around in civilian cars to attack the rebels. They're using real guerrilla tactics. This is beginning to undermine the morale of the rebels who thought once there was a no-fly zone. Once NATO planes started to bomb the Libyan armor and targets elsewhere in the country, it would make a difference. But in fact, on the ground it really isn't -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see in the coming days whether the NATO command has the political guts now, the stomach to go ahead and launch those air strikes the way some of those rebels obviously would like.

Ben Wedeman on the scene for us in Ajdabiya. Thanks very much, Ben, for that.

As details emerge on the people who are leading Libya's rebellion, we're learning that many have close ties to the west. But what about the rank and file within the uprising? Brian Todd is standing by live with more on that.


BLITZER: Two weeks after establishing a no-fly zone over Libya, many in the west are still asking who are the rebels? Details are now emerging on some of the opposition movement's most important figures. Brian Todd has been digging into their backgrounds. He's here.

Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the people taking prominent leadership roles with the rebels seem to have two strains in common. They're either former members of the Gadhafi regime, they've been away from Libya for a long time, or some combination of both.

U.S. officials admit it's still hard to get a complete handle of who's really leading this group, but a few people are starting to emerge.


TODD (voice-over): Make no mistake. Libya's rebels are still a reeling, disorganized force. But we're now getting a clearer picture of who they are, people like Mahmoud Jibril (ph), who's got new prominence after meeting with Hillary Clinton.



TODD: Jibril (ph) is one of the rebels' chief foreign affairs reps, along with former Libyan economics minister Ali Esoui (ph). Not long ago, Jibril (ph) was also one of Muammar Gadhafi's chief economic advisers. A 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable posted on WikiLeaks calls Jibril (ph) "a serious interloculator" who gets the U.S. perspective.

ALI AUJALI, FORMER LIBYAN AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: Mahmoud Jibril (ph) is very professional. He's graduated from American universities here. And Gadhafi is asking to come to Libya to join the reform and draft the constitution.

TODD: Former Libyan ambassador to the U.S. Ali Aujali knows most of these men. I asked him about one figure who's just now emerging from the shadows: Halifa Hafter (ph), a former Libyan army colonel who, according to several reports, is now the rebel's top military commander, after spending more than 20 years living in northern Virginia.

(on camera) Not much is known about him. What can you tell us about Mr. Hafter (ph)?

AUJALI: Well, Hafter (ph) is a very professional military man. He was in charge of the Libyan army when there was a war against the Chad in the late '80s. And he was arrested by the Chadian and then, when was arrested, he's (UNINTELLIGIBLE) from the government.

TODD (voice-over): Analysts say Hafter's (ph) experience in that disastrous border war with Chad in the '80s soured him on Gadhafi.

The most prominent opposition leader is former Libyan justice minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil (ph), who in that position often went against his vengeful boss.

(on camera) Experts say most of these rebel leaders are well educated, experienced, well connected to the west, all useful attributes right now. But they say they also have some drawbacks, which could end up fracturing this group in the future.

(voice-over) Ronald Bruce St. John has met with Saif Gadhafi and has written seven books on Libya.

RONALD BRUCE ST. JOHN, LIBYA SCHOLAR: I have real concerns that this older group that's tied to the regime or has been outside of the country for a long period of time will be able to relate to the young rebels in Libya and provide effective leadership that the rebels are willing to accept.


TODD: Ambassador Aujali counters that by saying there's plenty that unifies this group. They all want a unified Libya, and they all want Tripoli as the capital. Wolf, we do have to say that Ambassador Aujali represents the rebels in Washington, so he's got a dog in this fight.

BLITZER: He broke with Gadhafi. And he's now the ex-ambassador as far as the State Department is concerned. Brian, thanks very much.

As Libyan troops push back militarily against the rebels, the government is mounting a sort of P.R. campaign. Details coming up.

Syria's president under pressure right now as violent protests spread across the country. We're going to tell you what might be coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Syria's president is forming a panel to look into the possibility of lifting a state of emergency that's been in effect since 1963. The move comes amid widespread protests that have left dozens of people dead throughout the country.

CNN's Mary Snow is following the story for us. Everyone had thought that Bashar al-Assad yesterday would announce he's revoking this emergency law. Didn't happen. What's happening now?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, and there was such widespread disappointment after that speech. Today's announcement might be seen as a gesture to protesters, but there's little hope that government will make any big changes.


SNOW (voice-over): It may look like a small protest. Demonstrators throwing shoes at the image of Syrian president Bashar al Assad in a sign of disrespect. But in Syria, it's illegal. Protests are banned under an emergency law imposed in 1963.

As protests grow, a key demand is to lift that law. The Syrian government says the ruling Ba'ath Party will study doing that, a pledge met with skepticism by people like Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian dissident and visiting scholar in the U.S.

RADWAN ZIADEH, DIRECTOR, DAMASCUS CENTER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS: The Syria regime, it's much more clever than the Gadhafi regime. It's having very soft language to the media international community, but acting on the ground in different way.

SNOW: Human rights organizations say dozens have been killed in protests in the city of Daraa and Latakia. Beyond banning protests, Syria's emergency law allows the government to make preventative arrests with no recourse.

Professor Joshua Landis is director of the Middle East Studies program at the University of Oklahoma.

JOSHUA LANDIS, DIRECTOR, MIDDLE EAST STUDIES PROGRAM, UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA: Some people assure you that the intelligence services now, which are immune, they can arrest you, drag you off at midnight, and if they do something wrong, let's say they torture you or they beat you up, you can't -- you have no recourse against them in Syria.

SNOW: The law allows the government to monitor phone calls and e-mails, and the media is censored.

As Syria mulls lifting the emergency rules, some human rights activists are concerned they'd be replaced by a strict anti-terrorism law.

Landis says one message is clear in President Bashar al Assad's speech Wednesday. Syria is not about to become a democracy.

LANDIS: This was a sort of national security speech in which it was "you're with us or you're against us." So he's going to have to show some effort to meet his protesters, but it's not going to be anywhere near as much as they're hoping for.


SNOW: And a spokeswoman for the Syrian information ministry told CNN that the emergency law will be lifted, but said procedures must be worked out. Now, the committee looking into it is expected to finish its study by April 25 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary Snow, thanks very much.

You might think that one thing no one would want more of is drunken driving. You're wrong. Jeanne Moos will update us on a Montana politician's "Most Unusual" stance. Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Here's a look at some "Hot Shots."

In France, carved figures are on display for a mid-Lent carnival.

In New Zealand, a hot-air balloon floats over a lake as part of a festival.

In Hong Kong, an emerald and diamond tiara at auction.

And in London, a tea kettle shows Prince William and Kate Middleton ahead of their upcoming royal wedding.

"Hot Shots," pictures from around the world.

Jeanne Moos reports on a Montana politician's very unusual position on drunken driving.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If there's one thing you can drink to, it's that nobody is going to defend drunk driving, right? So it felt a little like watching a car wreck when Montana state representative Alan Hale rose to speak against all DUI laws.

ALAN HALE, MONTANA STATE REPRESENTATIVE: These DUI laws are not doing our small businesses in our state any good, at all. They're destroying them. They're destroying a way of life that has been in Montana for years and years.


MOOS: The president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving was just getting warmed up.

MOONEY: It's scary. It's alarming. It's ridiculous. HALE: These taverns and bars in these smaller communities connect people together. They're the center of the communities.

MOOS: They sure connected folks in classics like "Hang 'em High." But riding drunk was a lot less lethal than driving drunk from a bar.

HALE: There's only two ways to get there. Either you hitchhike or you drive. And I promise you that they're not going to hitchhike.

MOOS: In arguing against DUI laws, this Republican Tea-Party- friendly Montana legislature stirred up a hornet's nest.

MOONEY: His comments are just mind-boggling, that someone would still think that way.

MOOS: Laura Dean Mooney lost her husband, Mike, to a drunk driver going the wrong way.

We called Representative Hale several times for comment, but got no reply. Montana is a wide-open state, as someone named Dan posted: "To be fair, this is Montana where you could drive across half the state drunk and pass maybe two drivers the whole time."

To which someone named Dave responded, "And endanger both of them for perfectly selfish reasons. Awesome."

(on camera) Representative Hale and his wife know a lot about bars. They operate one called the Silver Saddle.

(voice-over) Despite Hale's 35-second speech against DUI laws, a tougher DUI law was passed. And after critics got done railing about his speech, they went on to attack his neckwear, comparing him to Colonel Sanders. At least they didn't hang him high by his own tie.

Jeanne Moos, CNN...

HALE: They're destroying a way of life.

MOOS: ... New York.


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

"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.