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JOHN KING, USA

Mubarak Hospitalized; NATO Family Feud; War on Terror; Nuclear Disaster

Aired April 12, 2011 - 19:00   ET

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


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks Wolf and good evening everyone. Tonight President Obama steps into the deficit debate and gets thumped by conservatives who oppose tax hikes and by liberals who see an assault on Social Security. Who says the middle is boring?

Also, the family feud within the NATO alliance over strategy Libya spills into public view as France and Britain call for more robust airstrikes to support the Gadhafi opposition.

First though palace intrigue in Egypt. Former President Hosni Mubarak is rushed to the hospital. An Egyptian state television is reporting he had a heart attack during questioning by corruption investigators. One problem, the prosecutor's office tells CNN the former president was not questioned today.

CNN's Ivan Watson is live in Cairo for us tonight with more on this medical and perhaps political mystery. Ivan, what is the latest on the former president's condition? And what are we to make of this curious timing?

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, let me just bring you up to date, John on the latest. We're just getting a statement from the Egyptian military, which is basically running the country right now. One sentence announcement that legal questioning of Hosni Mubarak and his family has started today.

Now, we know that Mubarak was hospitalized in the afternoon local time in Sharm el-Sheikh, in that Red Sea resort where he has lived basically since he was forced out of power after 18 days of street protests on February 11th living on his estate there. The military rulers here have come under a lot of fire for that because there is immense desire among ordinary Egyptians to see the man who governed this country for nearly 30 years face a criminal court for allegations of corruption and for the deaths of hundreds of activists during those 18 days of protests in January and February.

Also, a lot of people demanding that Mubarak's two sons, especially Gamal Mubarak, who is believed to own -- to be incredibly wealthy, for him to also to face charges. Mubarak on Sunday broke his silence. He released a simple audio statement. He appeared to be reading from a text and denied owning any offshore accounts, owning any kind of properties overseas.

And despite that, the prosecutor general has demanded both Mubarak and his sons come in for questioning. And now with the state from the military, it appears that questioning has begun despite some contradictory reports that Mubarak may have suffered a mild heart attack. And that is why he was hospitalized today. It's important to note that many of Mubarak's men, the president's men have been brought in for questioning and then been arrested for periods of up to 15 days in the past weeks including his former prime minister -- John.

KING: And Ivan, probably no surprise. He ruled for 40 years in the sense -- what is the sense of the fascination and the captivation, if you will, with not only his health, but whether or not he will be brought to justice or whether, as many have speculated, since he had to step down whether he will be somehow spirited out of the country to safe haven elsewhere?

WATSON: Well, that's one of the fears here. And nearly every couple of days you hear a rumor that will be reported in the local media that Mubarak has left the country, either for hospitalization in Europe or been spirited away to Saudi Arabia. And the military rulers have to deny those claims. So his fate and his future is something that does captivate the popular consciousness here.

Many people saying that this revolution here cannot be complete until the people that they feel oppressed them for so many years are brought to some form of justice and part of the reason that the military, the ruling military comes under so much fire from the public here, there was a huge protest of possibly 100,000 people in Cairo's famous Tahrir Square last Friday.

As many people are accusing the military of reaching some kind of deal with Mubarak that would protect him from prosecution. And that has put the military under popular pressure and perhaps helped push forward this really historic investigation into the man that many here used to call somewhat derisively the pharaoh of Egypt.

KING: Ivan Watson for us live in Cairo -- important breaking news. The Egyptian military now saying the questioning of Hosni Mubarak, the former president and his family began today. Ivan will stay on top of that. Ivan, thank you.

And in neighboring Libya today, rebel forces again complained about a lack of NATO air support as they tried to move against troops loyal to the Gadhafi regime and their complaint remarkably echoed by two key voices within the NATO alliance, France and the United Kingdom.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM HAGUE, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: Well, we must maintain and intensify our efforts in NATO. That is why the United Kingdom has in the last week supplied additional aircraft capable of striking ground targets, threatening the civilian population of Libya. Of course, it will be welcome if other countries also do the same.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: NATO rejected the suggestion it's not doing enough. And the Obama administration notably declined to embrace or echo the criticism from France and Britain. One of the examples often cited by critics of the NATO tactics is Misrata, a western Libyan city that has been re-seized (ph) of late by pro-Gadhafi forces.

Let's check in with CNN's Frederick Pleitgen with us live tonight from Tripoli. And Fred, those opposition forces in Misrata, they're alleging dirty tactics by the Gadhafi forces. What do they mean? And what evidence do they have?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, they certainly are, John. And what they mean by that is that they say that first of all the Gadhafi military is obviously using heavy weapons like artillery within the city center. I've seen that for myself. And also they're saying that dirty tactics basically means that they'll sell a certain area and then they'll wait for people to come out of their houses after the shelling and sort of inspect the damage that's going on there.

Children, as well, they say and then when those people are out, they'll start shelling those areas again. It is, of course, very difficult to verify any of those so-called dirty tactics. And the Libyan government today in a press conference somewhat reacted to that. They didn't speak specifically towards these dirty tactics, but they did say that they're quote "taking care to try and prevent civilian casualties."

Of course the picture that we got on the ground when we were there a week and a half ago was somewhat different. But we did see, as I said, a lot of heavy tanks, artillery, and mortar fire going on in the city center in urban areas. So certainly the rebels say that is going on and there are many in that city who are telling us they fear that there could be a large ground offensive by the Gadhafi forces coming to take that city -- John.

KING: And Fred, as it plays out militarily on the ground, a warning from the former foreign minister who has since defected, Moussa Koussa, who says he sees the potential of his country to splinter and be another Somalia, essentially splintered into fractions, ungovernable, perhaps a haven for terrorism. You've been reporting extensively across the country. Do you see that on the ground with a military stalemate at play? Is that a real possibility?

PLEITGEN: Well, I mean, one of the things that we have to keep in mind, and of course, this is a very tribal society and therefore would be very difficult to govern if there were no sort of central government in place. However, also, this place is far from being like Somalia would be. And it's still in vast parts of the country does appear to be quite a stable place.

Nevertheless, it's no secret that the civil war is taking a heavy toll. Not just on the rebels' side of things, but on both sides. No one is profiting from this in any way, shape, or form. Now Moussa Koussa also said this of course as he's about to head to Qatar where tomorrow there's going to be a conference by the Libya contact group to try and determine what's going to happen in Libya especially after Gadhafi, if in fact he should he be ousted from power. Moussa Koussa there looking to try and play a role in Libya after Gadhafi, we'll wait and see whether or not that plays out. The rebels certainly seem to be very skeptical of that. But it is a very stern warning and a warning that comes from someone who of course knows this country better than almost anyone else except maybe Moammar Gadhafi himself -- John.

KING: Fred Pleitgen tonight live for us in Tripoli. Thank you, Fred.

Let's get some perspective now on the day's big developments in the region with Nicholas Burns, the former under secretary of state, also a former NATO ambassador. And Nic, I want to start there. This is just remarkable. The foreign ministers of Britain and France, two key members of NATO alliance, publicly saying this isn't working. We're not being aggressive enough. We must do more. How unprecedented?

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE: Oh, I think this is uncharted territory for NATO. A very surprising development, and John, it indicates to me a couple of things. First of all great frustration over the pace of this war we entered -- NATO entered this war on behalf of the rebel alliance. The rebel alliance is incapable right now of achieving a military victory over Gadhafi.

I think it also indicates two other things. First of all, the United States is the heart and soul of this alliance, by far the most powerful military. The United States effectively withdrew from this operation, the first time in NATO history that the United States has not led a military operation and you're seeing the effects. Britain and France are capable, but there's not a lot of strong military capacity behind them.

And I think third, John, the alliance is not united. When Turkey and Germany, two of the largest and most powerful militaries in the alliance essentially say we're not going to be involved in any way, shape, or form, that further weakens this NATO effort. So complaints from the rebels about NATO's performance, but also now complaints from the foreign ministers obviously orchestrated of Britain and France, it does indicate this alliance is in some trouble and needs to get its act together.

KING: And can it get its act together with the United States on the sidelines? Or does President Obama need to step up here, and whether he's for the way it is now, just do the no-fly zone, don't be more aggressive, or (ph) besides with the British and the French to make clear himself what he thinks?

BURNS: Well, I've always worried that when we pulled back from leading the operation after doing such a brilliant job in the first 10 days, you'll remember, instituting the no-flight zone, conducting those very effective offensive air operations against Gadhafi's armored forces outside of Benghazi and the other cities in the east and the central part of the country, I worry that when the United States pulled back, when we said that we don't have time for this that the Europeans should take the lead that we'd reached this moment where the Europeans did not have the capacity militarily, but also the will politically to lead.

And what we need to have happen right now, if the U.S. is going to continue to sit on the sidelines effective Britain and France will have to lead this alliance and perhaps today was an attempt to shame the other allies into a better performance and to quicker decision- making so that NATO can act effectively to support these rebel troops and to protect civilians in places like Misrata that are under siege right now from Gadhafi's forces.

KING: And this split, the family feud and the NATO alliance comes as we prepare. And I want your thoughts on whether you think there will be anything productive out of this diplomatic meeting in Doha. Moussa Koussa, the former Libyan foreign minister is going there. The Brits say he says he wants to role in keeping his country from turning into a Somalia as he calls it. Do you expect any progress here in terms of a diplomatic solution?

BURNS: Well, it's not surprising that they're trying to find a diplomatic solution because there's a real stalemate on the ground. Neither side is strong enough to win this war. And so stalemate worries people. Stalemate equals in my view Gadhafi wins. Gadhafi stays in power. And so could diplomacy be used in effect to lead the way for Gadhafi's departure from power, perhaps even his departure from Libya itself.

That I think is highly problematic. Gadhafi doesn't have a lot of places he can go. When he does go overseas, if he ever does go overseas, he'll surely be indicted by the international criminal court. He may fight to preserve his family, his family's wealth and his position of power in Libya. He may fight -- have to fight to preserve his government. That is not going to allow him, in my judgment, to enter into any kind of serious diplomatic play here.

And so it's not bad that they're having this meeting in Doha. It might lead the way to some creative solution, at least to pave the way for some kind of ultimate result. But I wouldn't bet on it. I think we're much more likely to see change come, unfortunately, and tragically for the Libyan people on the battlefield.

KING: And as we watch that play out, I want to circle back to where we began the program. And that is I'm not sure if it's a medical mystery or a political mystery involving the former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. He goes into the hospital; Egyptian state television says he had a heart attack after being questioned about corruption allegations. And yet the prosecutor tells CNN, there was no such questioning. What do we make of this?

BURNS: It's very curious, John. I've seen the same -- we both read the same news reports. Something happened, but maybe not in the way that it was reported out of Egypt. Obviously the fate of President Mubarak now becomes a huge issue in Egyptian politics. He's living in the country. He did not go abroad. He's living in Sharm-el Sheikh down in southern Sinai.

Will he come under indictment? Will he be prosecuted by the military authorities or a new civilian-led government after September for what they perceive to be his shortcomings and perhaps even crimes in office? That's a key question. And you and I have seen before that when countries come through revolution, trying to deal with the older regime what do you do with the deposed politicians becomes a consuming passion in politics.

And it oftentimes distracts these politicians and political parties from the election and from building the kind of grassroots civil society that they have to do. So it's an important issue for the Egyptians, but it's a big distraction that might take them off course in trying to construct a functioning democracy.

KING: Nic Burns, as always, appreciate your insights. We'll see you soon.

And still ahead here tonight, Japan finally acknowledges its nuclear crisis is at least as severe as Chernobyl. And up next, Pakistan tells the CIA to call most of its people home. Is this low point in U.S./Pakistan relations a victory for al Qaeda?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: A major setback tonight in U.S. efforts to track al Qaeda and other radical Islamists. Pakistan is telling the Obama administration to significantly dial back U.S. intelligence operations. The demand comes at a low point for U.S./Pakistan relations including tensions over the arrest of a CIA security officer who killed two Pakistanis back in January.

Now Pakistan demands the United States make deep cuts in the number of CIA and Special Forces personnel operating in Pakistan and it's also calling for an end to those strikes by U.S. unmanned aircraft drones against militants in northwest Pakistan. So does this fight make you less safe?

Let's ask CNN national security contributor Fran Townsend. She's a member of both the Department of Homeland Security and the CIA External Advisory Boards and in Washington CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen.

Fran, to you first -- my first question is, is this real? Pakistan says dial back. Pakistan says end the drone attacks. Is it saying that because it means it and they will be reduced? Or is it saying that for domestic, political consumption because it knows how unpopular the United States is there right now?

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, John, it's certainly saying it for domestic political consumption. The question we can't answer tonight is how real is it. Look, the Pakistan Intelligence Service has been uncomfortable with the presence of CIA and Special Forces in the tribal areas. That is true.

But will they actually make them draw down? Look, Pakistan relies on the intelligence that we share with them just as we do on their intelligence. And so they need us there. You know, the number of drone strikes has been reduced. But to the extent if this were real, if they really made us draw down our entire CIA presence there, we would certainly be less safe.

KING: And Peter, help people understand how important Pakistan is to the counterterrorism efforts and the track of al Qaeda and other groups.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, certainly you know Pakistani -- the Pakistani military is being quite cooperative on the issue of the drone strikes in the sense that it couldn't happen without their permission and it couldn't happen to some degree without their intelligence. That said, just I recently talked to a Pakistani military official.

I think they're very serious about this, but "A" demand for a much reduced number of drone strikes, and "B", for a demand for a much lower number of CIA operatives in Pakistan, particularly ones that are operating in a covert capacity without their say-so. They feel very strongly about this right now.

KING: Let's take a look because I want to point out these drone strikes have been important. Look at the increase in the drone strikes over the years. There were only nine total in the years 2004 through 2007, then it dramatically pumps up. You see it right there.

In 2010, look 118, 21 so far in 2011, and now check the map out. Here's a look at where the most recent strikes hit, mostly along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. And Fran and Peter, you both know so well why that region is so important.

Fran, obviously there was the dispute, the CIA security officer shot and killed two people, he was arrested, then he was released. Is it all about that? Or was that just the last straw, if you will?

TOWNSEND: No, I strongly believe that was just the last straw. Let's remember prior to that there had been a drone strike where civilians were killed. Then because they were angry, Pakistan revealed the name of the CIA's chief of station in Pakistan. That's a huge breach of an intelligence relationship. It was clearly done on purpose and it was clearly done to send a message about Pakistan's displeasure with the CIA.

And so when the Raymond Davis case, the contractor case happens, it really is the last straw. When Pakistan throws up its hands and really takes an incredibly long time, understanding who Raymond Davis was, for him to be released.

KING: And Peter Bergen, a simple question people at home are probably asking. If there are fewer drone strikes, if the CIA is told to pull most of your people from the country, if there are fewer or no Special Forces operations, are the American people less safe?

BERGEN: Well yes, obviously, it doesn't help. It helps al Qaeda. But that said, you know, the drone strikes you mentioned, there were 118 last year. Readily few of them are actually killing leaders of al Qaeda by a count that we keep at the New America Foundation -- maybe a dozen militant leaders were killed last year -- so just as the drone strikes have been really amped up, they're actually killing fewer members, leaders of al Qaeda.

So I think the Pakistani government is going to make the argument, let's reduce the number of drone strikes. Let's make sure that you know we're really getting the high-value targets, which is something that is in both countries' interest and that's part of the discussion that will go forward now, John.

KING: And so, Fran, if you're the Obama White House and you're trying to repair the relationship while still maybe dealing with your anger over the revealing the CIA station chief, for example, what's the next step?

TOWNSEND: Well, what they'll -- we've been through low points in our relationship with intelligence sharing and drone operations with Pakistan. Going back to the time of the Bush administration when I was in the White House and routinely when you hit one of these rough spots, what you try to do is negotiate a path forward. That is, how are we going to target? What is the procedure for approval of targets?

Whose intelligence are we going to rely on? How much of that are we going to share? And there's a whole series of things that the U.S. government and the Pakistani government can agree to as you move forward with drone strikes. But stopping them will be dangerous. I mean I rarely take issue with Peter, but I will tell you in my time, drone strikes were used and frequently to target the head of al Qaeda external operations.

That's the individual who is responsible for planning operations outside of the tribal areas. And that's incredibly important. Even if you're not getting the number one and number two, you want the ability to target those people.

KING: And Peter, lastly, if there are fewer drone strikes, fewer U.S. operations in Pakistan, we've talked about maybe the impact on the American people, what about the impact across the border in Afghanistan?

BERGEN: Most of the drone strikes are targeted North Waziristan, which is a tribal agency where much of the violence in Afghanistan is, you know, planned. So yes, clearly if you take the pressure off, it's not good for Afghanistan. It's not good for Pakistan. It's not good for the United States or its allies in the West.

But clearly there is a real problem here between the two countries. As Fran says, it's going to have to be worked out. There's going to have to be better formalities, procedures between the two countries before it can up rule (ph) Pakistan is a sovereign state. And we've seen in the last several weeks that the drone strikes have essentially stopped because of their objections.

KING: A lot of trust, trust missing in the relationship right now a very important relationship. Fran Townsend and Peter Bergen thanks for your help tonight. We'll stay on top of this one.

And today, Japan finally, finally acknowledged its nuclear crisis is at least as severe as Chernobyl. We'll go to Tokyo live. We'll also ask a nuclear safety expert what that means for Japan and the rest of the world.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: What has seemed sadly obvious to us over the past several weeks is official tonight. Japan now ranks its nuclear emergency as a seven. On a scale of seven that puts it at least on par with the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Why raise the assessment now? New government estimates significantly increase projections about how much radioactivity has escaped from the Fukushima Daichi complex and the government is finally, finally acknowledging the impact will extend for many years.

CNN's Kyung Lah joins us now from Tokyo. Finally is the word I'm going to keep repeating, Kyung, because there has been so much criticism of what people believe to be either a lack of transparency or a lack of cooperation between the utility and the Japanese government. It had to be a huge impact on the people of Japan to hear this from their government?

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And it's actually not news to anyone because everyone had already assumed that this was going to be something close to the level of Chernobyl. So the government making this official move simply confirms what everyone else is feeling. As far as what the timing of this is, why it took so long to use your words, why finally?

Well, Japan's government says they simply took a month to get reliable monitoring data. But if you listen to Greenpeace, an environmental group here, what Greenpeace is saying it's not that you know the data has changed or they suddenly were enlightened, Greenpeace, which is an anti-nuclear agency, says that what they believe is that they are finally, the Japanese government, is finally bowing to outside international pressure. And Japan is stopping this process of putting nuclear interests ahead of public interests -- John.

KING: And Kyung, what about those closest, closest to the plant? Now that they understand not only is it a seven out of seven and what that means, do they understand this is not a six-month or even a six- year endeavor. This is going to be with them perhaps for a generation or more?

LAH: We actually did reach out to some of the people who live just in the shadow of the nuclear facility and what they told us is five, seven, they actually don't care about these numbers at all. They knew this was a disaster as soon as they heard that hydrogen explosion. They knew that they were perhaps never going home.

And, remember, they have lost their homes, all of their possessions, which now are completely contaminated. They've lost their entire economic infrastructure. They are completely disgusted. And that lack of transparency that you were referring to, they absolutely feel it, not just from Japan's government, but also from TEPCO (INAUDIBLE) utility company. KING: Kyung Lah live for us in Tokyo -- thank you so much, Kyung. We'll keep in touch on this story. It's very important and let's continue the conversation now with Arnie Gundersen. He's a nuclear safety advocate who consults with Vermont's state government about the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

If you've been with us in recent weeks you are familiar with Arnie Gundersen. Mr. Gundersen, you said very early on and you received some criticism for this at the beginning that they were dramatically understating, dramatically understating the problems there. I assume you are -- happy is the wrong word -- but satisfied they have finally acknowledged it. Why did it take so long?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN, NUCLEAR SAFETY ADVOCATE: Yes. I wish I was wrong. I think the Japanese government and TEPCO, Tokyo Electric, they've got a lot of nuclear plants. So, there was a lot of reasons to hope for the best. But it was clear, at least in about four or five days out, that this was a much bigger accident than they were portraying.

And they had really terrible data. And it took them almost a month to get control of the data, to make sure that it was accurate. It's hard to make good decisions when you're dealing with crappy data.

KING: Well, it's a little numbing that it took them so long to get the data because their country is so reliant on nuclear energy. You would think that they would have a system to help get that data ASAP.

Let's explain to people what this system is. The International Atomic Energy Agency came up with the a seven-step scale for ranking nuclear accidents. Until today, the Japan crisis was a level five. That's an accident with, quote, "wide consequences." That's the same as the 1979 Three Mile Island accident here in the United States. Now, it's been raised, as we told you, to a level seven. That's a major accident.

Arnie, major accident, on par with Chernobyl. The question tonight is: is it much worse than Chernobyl? Is this the worst nuclear disaster in history?

GUNDERSEN: I think right now, it's on par with Chernobyl. But, you know, it's not over. None of the units are stable right now. And they've got essentially seven different problems to solve. The worst case before this ever happened was probably about a three on that scale. What scientists thought was reasonable.

So, to get to a five and then a seven is, you know, thousands of times more significant than scientists ever imagined.

KING: And as you talked earlier on about you didn't think the evacuation zone initially ordered was big enough, let's show people how this played out. At first, the Japanese government ordered evacuations within that 12-mile radius. You see that quite up there, at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, 12 to 18 miles out, those people were told, just stay indoors; the evacuations for people with what the government called greater health risks was 19-mile.

Yesterday, Japan's government said there will be mandatory evacuations in several towns outside that 19-mile radius. But people have up to a month to leave.

Arnie, you've long argued not big enough. Is this the right step now? Or is it still not enough?

GUNDERSEN: It's not enough. They should be out at 40 kilometers or 50 kilometers, which is somewhere between 25 and 30 miles. And they really should be asking the pregnant women and the children to leave right now, because they're the ones with the fastest growing cells and they're more likely to get injured from the radiation.

KING: You know, giving it the seven categorization, I guess, is about time. The bigger question is, how do we deal with this? When you look at some of these satellite images here -- one, two, three, and four, you see, these are just four of the six reactors at the complex. These are four have had the biggest problems.

What's your sense, Arnie? Walk through them in terms of where they are now this far out. Again, have they reached the point where they have them stabilized? Or are they still dealing with the crisis?

GUNDERSEN: Well, reactor one's got the hottest internal temperatures. It's still at 400 degrees internal to the reactor. They've flooded the building, which is good unless they get an earthquake, because it's awfully heavy. And if there's an aftershock, they could really damage the building on reactor one.

Reactor two is the worst. That's the one with the hole in the bottom of the reactor and the crack in the containment. And basically, what they're pouring in the top is still running out the bottom and being collected now. It's not going into the ocean. But eventually, they'll run out of room again and probably have to dump it in the ocean.

Reactor three is interesting because it's -- it looks like a pile of rubble. But the reactor temperatures are actually the best.

On the other hand, the fuel pool, which is that little tiny hole in the top -- to me, looks like it's been partially destroyed in the explosion.

And the last one is that reactor four -- the fuel pool there is at least half dry. And I think my other big concern other than reactor two is the chance of a fuel pool fire in reactor four.

KING: And so, I've asked you this question in the past, I'm going to try it again. What would you do differently if you were in charge of this mess?

GUNDERSEN: I -- they should have asked for help sooner. You know, I've said they've been dealt a crappy hand and they're playing it almost as good as they could. But clearly pushing the population out that 25 or 30 miles out is something they should have done. And I do think that the international community was more willing to come in than the Japanese were willing to accept them. But it -- there's no win here. It's just minimizing the losses.

KING: Arnie Gundersen -- as always, appreciate your insights. And you were among those early on who predicted we would get to this day. Finally, an acknowledgment that it is as bad as it gets on the scale. We hope now they can bring stability to that site. Mr. Gundersen, thanks for your time tonight.

And it's been a little more than a month since that initial earthquake rocked Japan. The full scope of the tragedy we're still learning about it. Yet, at the same time, rebuilding is beginning. Today we have new satellite images taken last week by Digital Globe showing the Sendai airport before and after the earthquake and tsunami

Here's what the aftermath looked like on March 12th -- notice the runway, covered with debris, water everywhere. You can even see some buildings floating around inside the airport terminal. Well, now, look at the satellite image taken on April 6th, less than a month after the devastation strikes the region. And this image, all the water's gone from around the airport. Runways appear to be repaired and repainted. Much of the debris is gone and the roofs are repaired.

Powerful images of a monumental cleanup effort beginning even though after aftershocks continue -- continue, sadly -- to rattle the region almost daily.

Just ahead for us, this afternoon, a possible 2012 Republican presidential candidate told CNN's Piers Morgan, quote, "I'm running." Who? We'll show you, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back.

Some breaking news tonight on the 2012 presidential race. Be sure to watch CNN's "PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT," that will be at 9:00 Eastern. He interviewed the former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. He's the guest tonight -- and listen here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TIM PAWLENTY (R), FORMER MINNESOTA GOVERNOR: I'm running for president. I'm not putting my head in the ring rhetorically or ultimately for vice president. So, I'm focused on running for president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Those words are important. "I'm running for president."

You can see more of that interview, again, "PIERS MORGAN," at 9:00 Eastern.

Now, remember, you just heard the governor, former Governor Pawlenty, say, "I'm running for president." But a senior aide now tells CNN Pawlenty's comments to Piers were not an official announcement, not an official declaration of his candidacy. Alex Conant, the spokesman, is saying the formal announcement will come later this spring.

Our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger, is with us. She's live now from Washington.

In his language there, Gloria, though -- look, it is no secret. Some of these exploratory campaigns are silly. But there are legal reasons and fundraising reasons and technical reasons why you're not supposed to say, "I'm running for president." But there he did.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, me thinks the candidate got a little in front of himself, don't you, John? He didn't mean to say that he is, but, of course, we all know that he is. But as you pointed out, you have to start filing FEC reports and your fundraising apparatus has to change when you move into an official candidacy.

So, to a lot of people, it would seem to be a distinction without a difference. But there is a difference. On the other hand, I think, you know, Tim Pawlenty's to be congratulated for at least saying, "I'm running," which is not something we've heard from a lot of Republicans, is it?

KING: No, we have Newt Gingrich.

BORGER: Right.

KING: We have Mitt Romney exploring. I think Michele Bachmann is about to file --

BORGER: I know.

KING: -- unless she backs out. A lot of others are running around.

Now, again, his team is going to argue, that was not the announcement. But this matters to the lawyers. It matters to the lawyers and it matters to people writing checks.

BORGER: Exactly.

KING: And so, now what? He can't take it back, right? So he's a candidate or --

BORGER: No. He can't take it back. But, again, his lawyers are going to argue that he hasn't made an official announcement, and it has to do with fundraising. It's always about the fundraising. But Pawlenty has been very clear that he is running. And I think he's to be congratulated for that.

You know, the American public kind of doesn't like people who say, "Well, I might," "I'm not sure it's the right time for me to get in," "I'm going to see who else gets in." Tim Pawlenty, at least, has been out there saying, you know what? I think I want to be president, I'm opening an exploratory committee. And tonight, he took it a step further.

KING: And if you are Tim Pawlenty, it's very, very important, because you're going to Iowa, you're going to New Hampshire, you're going to other states trying to sign up activists and they're looking at the polls.

BORGER: Yes.

KING: And in the national polls -- in the national polls, he's fallen down into single digits. So, they need to know he's serious because they're looking around and they're getting people calling them, saying, you know, maybe he won't run, maybe he'll blink, he's in.

BORGER: Yes. He's in. And, you know, maybe with all of the talk about Donald Trump, for example, this is a little bit of a way for Tim Pawlenty to breakthrough to a certain degree because we've been paying so much attention to the Donald. So, he's the least known of the candidates, one might argue. So, he wants to get his recognition up there.

KING: Yes.

BORGER: We'll help him, won't we?

KING: Well, I hope he doesn't decide to get his recognition up there by questioning what country the president was born.

BORGER: That's true. There are ways.

KING: Hopefully, Governor Pawlenty will do it on the issues.

BORGER: Exactly.

KING: Gloria Borger is going to stay with us.

When we come back, next, President Obama -- we just mentioned him -- he takes a walk into dangerous political territory -- tomorrow, deficit reduction.

Stay with us.

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KING: President Obama tomorrow adds his voice to Washington's contentious debate about slashing deficit spending and beginning to chip away at the nation's staggering long-term debt. To hear the president's critics, well, they say he's late to this debate, yet many of his supporters worry the president will be, in their view, be playing into Republican hands even if he takes issue with many of the GOP's proposals. The stakes are enormous for the country's bottom line and for its politics heading into the 2012 presidential cycle.

Ed Henry, Dana Bash, Gloria Borger all with us to sort through details and the partisan fault lines.

Let's go to the White House first.

Ed, so the president will step into this debate. On the one hand, he's trying to be the responsible guy in the middle. But he's a Democrat and -- let me say -- he's looking over his left shoulder and not a pretty sight.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, MoveOn.org is already saying their 5 million members are behind them in saying in a letter today, Mr. President, don't cave anymore. They think he's been giving in too much to Speaker Boehner, including last week on some of these spending cuts.

And so, they're going to have to thread the political needle. You know, it's talked about in politics a lot, sort of a balancing act. Because today, Jay Carney used some version, of vision that the president will add a vision more than a dozen times today, rather than saying he's going to do a plan, he's going to do a blue print -- because they frankly are trying to navigate some tricky political waters. You have people, as you noted last week saying the president's been out of this, he's been AWOL. He's not being specific enough.

Then, all of a sudden, the White House announced Sunday he's going to give this big speech. Saxby Chambliss, one of the key Republicans on this deficit issue basically said, boy, this was a curve ball. We didn't know the president was going to give a speech.

So, basically, whichever way they go is fraught with political danger.

KING: And, Dana, as the president steps in to debate and not only the Republicans debating the House Republican budget, but there are a group of senators who are trying to come up with a plan. Do they welcome the president in saying, great, he's on our side, he's helping us? Or they say, whoa, whoa, stay away?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: In a word, no. They don't welcome this.

Ed just mentioned Saxby Chambliss, he's probably one of the lead Republicans in this group of six. They have been toiling away for months, four months, John, meeting several times a week. In fact, I was just one of their meetings this afternoon.

They don't say anything coming out, but I can tell you and talking to sources who are familiar with their conversations, they are very worried about what the president is going to say. There are reports that he is going to actually call out this bipartisan group, talk about their efforts.

That is the last thing both the Democrats in this group and also the Republicans who are really hoping they can come up with something bipartisan and lure other Republicans onboard. The last thing that they need is the Democratic president to say, oh, I bless this group. From their part, it would be a horrible thing.

KING: And, Gloria, you know, it wasn't terribly pretty, but they did strike the deal to avoid shutting down the government.

BORGER: Right.

KING: It's a bipartisan deal. The negotiations were ugly and everybody's already a little critical of the product, but at least you had proof that this Republican speaker, this Democratic president, the Democratic leader in the Senate, could actually do some business and do the country some good, we think. We can debate the particulars for a few days.

But in this case, the Republicans are already out there because they know part of the president's deficit math is going back to the old Bush tax cut debate. He gave up --

BORGER: Right.

KING: -- and signed the bipartisan deal at the beginning of the year, the lame duck congressional session. But now, he's going to say again that, look, to get there, ultimately, the government needs more revenue. You have to raise taxes on the rich.

Here's Speaker Boehner tonight. "Tax increases are unacceptable and are a nonstarter. We don't have deficits because Americans are taxed too little. We have deficits because Washington spends too much."

So, this will not be bipartisan, at least, at the beginning.

BORGER: No, it won't. That's what we call in Washington a prebuttal, right? I'm giving the response to the president's remarks before he gives his remarks -- because it's no secret that the president is going to -- is going to lay out something broad and it's probably going to include tax increases on the wealthy, that we ought to look at defense spending, and we ought to look at ways of reining in the costs of Medicare and Medicaid without cutting Medicare, which is what they're saying Republicans are going to do in the plan that's been announced by the House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan.

KING: And so, go ahead --

BASH: I was just going to add to that. You know, what's so interesting is when you talk about the big picture about deficit reduction, Paul Ryan's plan definitely had some things the Democrats didn't like with regard to entitlements, but the biggest thing that they didn't like was the fact that he kept taxes low and doesn't raise them to help get rid of the deficit. And now you have Republicans saying the last thing we want in the world that we'll sign on to is a tax increase.

There's so many divides on this whole idea of reducing the deficit. But tax cuts is probably one of the biggest right now.

KING: And you do have some Republicans, Saxby Chambliss for one, Tom Coburn from Oklahoma, another who come to mind, who say, I don't want tax increases, I don't like tax increases. But if that's what I have to pay, if I have to take some modest tax increases as long as I get other things, I get spending cuts, I get changes to Medicare, maybe changes to Social Security.

So, the question, Ed Henry, is -- does the president have any realistic -- do any of us have any realistic belief that they will cut a big deal now? Or are we likely to have a big debate and carry this one into the 2012 presidential cycle?

HENRY: It sounds more like a big debate that carries on. Now, obviously, there are some pending problems here. There's the, you know, debt ceiling and lifting that by May 16th. And as part of lifting that, Speaker Boehner obviously saying, look, you've got to put some sort of deficit reduction on the table. So, something some event like that may force the president's hand, may force both parties frankly to do something.

But I think it's much more likely to wind up being a 2012 issue. And here's one reason why: the day after the big speech on Wednesday, where's the president going? He's going to Chicago to officially sort of launch the fundraising for 2012. And so, even if they say here it's not about politics, within 24 hours, he's out on the campaign trail.

BORGER: But here's something that came out of those negotiations, John, that you were talking about in the government -- to avoid the government shutdown. I was talking to a senior White House adviser said to me, asked him what he learned about John Boehner. And he said, "What I learned about the House speaker is he knows how to negotiate, that he played it close to the vest, that he didn't talk to his caucus about all the details until he had to, and that we liked negotiating with him. He was a good, tough negotiator."

So, ironically, the administration that has promised sort of openness is going to cut its deals in private because that's the way they work the best.

KING: And one of the reasons people are cynical about this is that the president just a few weeks ago submitted a budget to the Congress that if had wanted to put his proposals to do this on paper, that was the place to do it. So, then a few weeks later, he comes in and says, oh, wait that minute, now, let's essentially amend my own budget with the proposal.

You know, Dana, we know that's why the Republicans are going to say he doesn't mean it, or he's late to the game. What do the Democrats on Capitol Hill think? Ed talked about the interest groups, Move On and the like saying, well, Mr. President, don't you dare? What about his Democrats on the Hill?

BASH: There's similar trepidation. There's no question about it. But they also realize that at least many Democrats I talked to, they need to get in the game. And the Republicans in the House have this big splash with Paul Ryan's budget, which obviously they don't like. They still have not done -- the Democrats obviously run the Senate. They have not seen the Democrats answer here.

So, they do feel like they want the president to get into the game, but they are concerned, as you said, at the beginning of the segment, the president's looking over his left shoulder. There's a good reason for that. A lot of people here are concerned that he's, to be blunt, selling them out.

KING: And it's hard for an incumbent president, Ed, especially an incumbent president has to do business with the other party, to do the two things you just talked about. Number one, he has to seem responsible, he has to try to negotiate with them. He has no choice. On the other hand, he is starting to gear up a campaign where he knows his base, especially if unemployment's still around 8 percent, he's got to get every single one of them out to vote.

HENRY: He's got to get the base excited. You're absolutely right. And the base is pretty upset with him right now, dating back to what you mentioned before, which is the December tax deal, extending the Bush tax cuts. They're mad about that. They're mad about last week's budget deal and they're very apprehensive about what he's going to lay out here.

I was talking to a senior Democrat who advises the White House, outside the White House today, who was saying, look, you know, every time this president sits down with Speaker Boehner to Gloria's point about negotiating skills, the president seems to give up another $5 billion, $10 billion, $20 billion. It's like the spending cuts keep going up, if you think where the president and congressional Democrats started a couple months ago, they were talking about no spending cuts on the table. It keeps going up.

But this president has a much different reality than congressional Democrats.

BORGER: Right.

HENRY: He's going for the election where him going to the middle and having liberal Democrats mad at him is not a bad thing.

KING: Not necessarily. All right. It's fascinating politics and it happens to be -- happens to be -- incredibly important policy, as well.

Ed Henry, Dana Bash, Gloria Borger -- thank you.

And ahead, as we close tonight, have you filled up the tank lately? Nationwide, gas prices are quickly climbing above $4 a gallon, climbing right before, guess what? Summer travel season heats up. Any relief headed your way? That's next.

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KING: This is a chart that does not make you happy. You're looking at the past three months of rising gas prices in the United States. The average price today for a gallon of unleaded gas $3.79. Of course, those prices are driven by crude oil prices, which have been trading at near record highs for the past two weeks.

Today, it costs about $106 a barrel -- $106 a barrel. For a little perspective, three years ago this week, "Consumer Reports" had gas at $3.39 a gallon on its way to an all-time high of $4.11 a gallon, that July.

Remember tomorrow, the president lays out his views on deficit reduction and the debt reduction. We'll have comprehensive coverage of the speech, the policy, and the politics.

That's all for us tonight. We hope to se you tomorrow night.

"IN THE ARENA" starts right now.