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Deadly Twisters; Violence in Syria

Aired April 18, 2011 - 18:00   ET



Happening now: Tornado survivors are picking up the pieces after the biggest and deadliest onslaught of twisters in years. Parts of the nation are reeling from natural disasters from storms to wildfires, and there is no end in sight.

Plus, anti-government protesters in Syria report deadly new attacks by security forces. This hour, new evidence that the U.S. State Department may be secretly funding opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.

And "Three Cups of Tea" and a heap of controversy. The author of the best-selling book is accused of peddling a pack of lies. We will look at those allegations and the impact on his campaign to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

First, this hour, stock prices plunge and America's economic fear index rises, all because of the nation's massive debt. The Dow Jones industrial average took a nosedive at the opening bell, plunging 230 points in the first hour of trading. It bounced back somewhat over the course of the day, closing down 140 points just a couple of hours ago.

Well, here is the reason investors were so spooked. Standard & Poor's now says its outlook for America's long-term credit rating is negative instead of stable. Now, this comes as the White House fights with Republicans in Congress over the budget, the deficit and proposals to raise the federal debt limit so the U.S. can pay its lenders.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We cannot play chicken with our economy. We cannot play chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States government. We meet our obligations. We are the United States. And we will do that. That will happen.


MALVEAUX: Right now President Obama is preparing to hit the road to promote his deficit reduction plan. Now he will take part in town hall events Virginia, California, and Nevada this week.

Now to the barrage of tornadoes that left parts of the Southeast in ruins. The National Weather Service has confirmed now that 97 of the 249 twisters reported in the region between Thursday and Saturday, at least 45 people were killed, about half of them in North Carolina. A dozen states were hammered by tornadoes, the worst outbreak now since 2008.

As the Midwest braced for a new line of severe weather, the Southeast has begun to dig out and begin to clean up as well.

Our CNN's David Mattingly is in North Carolina now.


DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: These are the sights and sounds of a rural county trying to put the pieces back together after one of the most severe storms they have ever seen. We are seeing neighbors helping neighbors. We're seeing chain saws cutting up trees.

We're seeing people picking up debris. And there is a lot of it to be handled here. Take a look at this house right over. This house was caught directly in the path of this tornado. You see the side is splattered with mud, the roof completely ripped off and that's not the only thing. Around here on the side, the windows have been blown out. The siding peeled off and broken. And around the front you see even more damage. Trees ripped out of the ground.

People saying they have never, ever seen a tornado like this in this part of the country. Now, something we rarely get to see is what a house looks like inside after a tornado has hit and this is what we have got right here, this house in the direct path. You see it was knocked off of its foundation, pushed back more than a foot away from where it used to be standing.

Walking into the living room here, everything has been ruined. Every bit of furniture soaked by rain, covered with debris, the windows blown out, water damage all over the place. Fortunately the people who live here were not at home at the time. The husband tells me that his wife became ill. He took her to the emergency room and that is where they were when the storm hit. Otherwise, they would have been sitting on this couch watching TV and with a much more terrible story to tell today if they had stayed here.

I talked to officials who say there is no way they could have prepared for this and looking at what residents did, they say there was very little in some cases that many residents could have done to protect themselves.

DAVID WELDON, NORTH CAROLINA EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT COORDINATOR: I think any storm of this magnitude is hard to prepare for, whether it's a hurricane or a tornado.

MATTINGLY: Through this county residents really found themselves at a disadvantage when it came to protecting themselves from this storm. Because they're so close to sea level, very few people here have any basements or storm cellars, so they had to hide in their houses and seek shelter there when the storm came there.

But as you can see, when they were in the direct path there was very little safety to be found -- Suzanne.


MALVEAUX: Thank you, David.

A different kind of natural disaster in Texas, where dozens of large wildfires are raging now out of control. Officials say they have never seen anything like this, a perfect storm of dry weather that could continue for days.

Our CNN's Ed Lavandera is in Texas.

And, Ed, what are we seeing? What are we watching here?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, we're near the town of Graham, which is west of Fort Worth. And we're on the northern edge of one of the biggest wildfires raging in the state right now. To the south of where I am, 50,000 acres have burned in the last four days, destroying homes like this and forcing hundreds of people to evacuate.


LAVANDERA (voice-over): Dustin Tidwell's mission is to keep the wildfires from smothering the small town of Graham, Texas. He's battling the flames just five miles from the end of town.

DUSTIN TIDWELL, FIREFIGHTER: It's very dangerous. It has flashed over a couple times on us. Any second it could light right back up.

LAVANDERA (on camera): What makes a lot of these wildfires so difficult to battle is simply the terrain. Look at all these rocks and the treacherous landscape here. And also these hot spots. Little spots like this can flame up into flames six to eight feet high in a matter of seconds.

And that is what just happened here a little while ago.


TIDWELL: Yes. It shot back up. And that's when we went out there and knocked it down.

LAVANDERA: And even though a lot of this is already burned, it can keep on burning, right?

TIDWELL: Right, right. There is plenty of stuff here that can still, you know, start.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Hundreds of people have been forced to evacuate from this fire near Graham. It scorched more than 50,000 acres and killed one firefighter. This is just one of several dozen major wildfires raging across the state from the Texas Panhandle down to the state capital of Austin. The state forest service has called in C-130 Air Force planes to drop fire suppressant on these fast- moving wildfires.

The fires are fueled by low humidity, hot temperatures and high winds that often make it impossible to contain the flames.

BRYAN WALLS, YOUNG COUNTY SHERIFF: We talked to the National Weather Service, but the winds are just going so many directions, we have seen this fire shift four or five times in different directions over the course of when it started.

LAVANDERA: For now, most of the 10,000 people who live in the town of Graham are safe, but a few, like Lonnie Criswell, were not so lucky. She and her husband had 10 minutes to escape after flames jumped a nearby road and swarmed their home.

LONNIE CRISWELL, SURVIVOR: Yes, we watched it burn.

LAVANDERA: They drove away to higher ground and could only stand and watch their home go up in flames.

CRISWELL: I just thank God every day that we're alive. And this can be rebuilt, but we can't be replaced.


LAVANDERA: And, Suzanne, this is the Criswells' home behind me. But you know what? Every once in a while, you find just really some incredible things that happen in these wildfires. That fire that burned down their home here came from over the top of that tree line.

And that little structure, that metal structure that you see right over there, that's a chicken and rooster coop. The fire jumped over the coop and believe it or not, the roosters are in there. You might be able to hear them crowing there in the background, but they were not killed in this fire -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Well, but I guess some good news for that family. I'm so glad they got out safely. Thank you.

Well, demands for a democracy in Syria in the streets and on TV, now questions about whether the U.S. is helping fund an anti- government network.

Also, his best-selling books are now being slammed. The controversy is passing a cloud over his humanitarian work.

Plus, President Obama's income tax returns. Well, how much he made, how much he gave away, and more, we will have those details.


MALVEAUX: Jack Cafferty is looking ahead to the 2012 election. He is here with "The Cafferty File."

Hey, Jack, what are you watching?


President Obama hitting the road this week. He will speak at some town hall meetings in Virginia, California, and Nevada. His goal -- well, he's got a couple -- one, push his deficit reduction plan. Two, try to reconnect with the voters.

Last week, when the president laid out his plan to cut $4 trillion from the deficit over the next 12 years, it was mostly greeted with a yawn and criticized as being more of a reelection plan than a fiscal discipline plan.

While the country struggles with a debt crisis the likes of which we have never seen before, President Obama has got some problems of his own. A new Gallup Poll shows just 41 percent of Americans approve of the job President Obama is doing. That ties his all-time low rating. He bottomed out at 41 percent three other times, twice in August 2010 and once in October last fall.

While the approval rate remains high among Democrats, 77 percent, just 35 percent of independents think that Obama is doing a good job.

And perhaps even more troubling is a previous Gallup Poll that shows President Obama's support has slipped dramatically among blacks and Hispanics as well.

He is the incumbent and therefore presumably he will be the Democratic candidate for 2012. Or will he?

A lot of Americans are fed up with the president's unwillingness to admit the mess this country is in, confront it head on. And it's not just about debt. It's about his ineffectiveness when Congress couldn't agree over spending cuts and a lack of leadership on the Libyan conflict.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to step in, take care of that. It's about the overall promise of change that Obama made to American voters in 2008, one that many say he has not delivered on, three wars instead of two. Guantanamo's still open.

Transparency? Not. And deficits and a national debt the likes of which we've never seen before.

A second term for President Obama is far from a sure thing, at least at this point.

Here's the question: Should Democrats seek someone to run against President Obama next year?

Go to Post a comment on my blog.

I long for the days of Hillary and Obama. It was like Ali- Frazier. (LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: It was great.

MALVEAUX: It was great. It was great, covering that.

CAFFERTY: Wasn't it?

MALVEAUX: That certainly was. Those were the days, I tell you.

CAFFERTY: Good stuff.

MALVEAUX: We will see if that can ever happen again.

CAFFERTY: All right.

MALVEAUX: See you, Jack. Thanks.

He lost in job as commander of the war in Afghanistan after a controversial "Rolling Stone" issue, but a Pentagon investigation says that General Stanley McChrystal did nothing wrong.

I want to bring in our CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr to tell us what we know about the investigation.

What have they learned?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, what this is all about is the DOD, the Defense Department's inspector general, which is the top investigatory arm for these sorts of things, finally today issued its report on the McChrystal affair, almost a year later.

The Defense Department said not that he didn't do anything wrong exactly, but instead what they found perhaps is, first, in their words, evidence was insufficient to substantiate a violation of DOD standards and that all the events that they investigated occurred as reported.

What we're talking about of course is that really infamous, notorious "Rolling Stone" article last year in which author Michael Hastings detailed a number of disparaging remarks allegedly made by General McChrystal and some of his aides at an evening in Paris where alcohol was consumed, over a series of events that Hastings said he observed.

What the DOD I.G.s found is that they couldn't substantiate a lot of this, that some of the aides said, hey, we don't remember or we don't remember it happening that way or we didn't exactly hear what was said.

What is perhaps really interest here, Suzanne, is neither General McChrystal or Michael Hastings agreed to be interviewed by the Defense Department for this report. So the final report says they looked at it, did the best they could, couldn't find enough evidence to substantiate any violations -- Suzanne. MALVEAUX: All right. And McChrystal's part of an effort at the White house to call attention for military families as well, I understand.

STARR: Absolutely. General McChrystal a year later is coming back into the public arena. He is part of that program for Michelle Obama calling attention to military families. He is teaching at Yale. He is writing a book. He has a consultancy firm, like so many retired generals. So he is well on his way to his post-retirement life.

MALVEAUX: It looks like he is making a comeback.

OK. Barbara Starr, thank you very much.

STARR: Sure.

MALVEAUX: Question: Is the State Department helping to fund a controversial TV network beaming into Syria? We're following the money trail.

Plus, a year after the start of the Gulf oil disaster, how much has BP's compensation fund paid out? We have got those numbers.



MALVEAUX: The author of the best-selling book "Three Cups of Tea" is now accused of peddling a pack of lies. Will it undermine his mission to educate girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan? We're going to talk about that controversy, as well as the fallout.


MALVEAUX: The book "Three Cups of Tea" made author Greg Mortenson famous as an author and as a humanitarian. Well, now he is accused of being a liar.

That is casting an ugly cloud over his work to promote peace and build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It may also lead to a defamation lawsuit as well.

Our CNN's Nick Paton Walsh interviewed Mortenson's accuser. And he joins us from Pakistan.

Fill us in on this story.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, we would be speaking to one of the men at the heart of these new claims against Greg Mortenson.

He is Mansur Khan Mahsud, a researcher at an institute here in Islamabad. Now, he says he is identified in one of Mortenson's books as being the alleged kidnapper who held the author for eight days back in 1996 in South Waziristan. Now, he refutes that any kidnapping happened at all. He said that episode is a lie within the book made up by the author to improve his chance of sales.

Now, Mr. Mortenson has said that he stands by the episode of kidnapping in the book, but Mr. Mansur went on to say, look, this guy was a guest of honor in our village. We took him as a guest of honor to our football tournament. He was free to leave whenever he wanted.

And he is really expressing to us his fury at what he sees as the abuse of his family's hospitality.


WALSH: If you saw Greg Mortenson now, what would you say to him?

MANSUR KHAN MAHSUD, FATA RESEARCH CENTER: I would just say, why you have defamed me, my family and my tribe? We treated you well. We housed you in our homes. So, why the hell you have made all these lies about us?

I intend to sue him, because he has defamed me, my family, my tribe.


WALSH: Now, we have heard from Mr. Mortenson today, who does, as we say, insist that he was kidnapped, his money was taken off him, his passport taken off him, he was not allowed to leave the village. So, he is still standing by his story, despite Mr. Mahsud's claims -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Two very different stories. Can you give us a sense of Mr. Mahsud's standing in the community, what kind of person this is? He says he's not a member of the Taliban. What does he do? What is his role?

WALSH: He works at an institute here. I went to his office today. It's called the FATA Research Center. He writes papers, in fact, one paper for the New America Foundation, actually a number of papers for them.

He is basically an academic looking into the area of FATA, the tribal areas around here deeply troubled, where is a significant amount of conflict. He is member of a Mahsud family, who are one of the larger tribes in the Waziristan area. So he utterly refutes the concept of being a member of the Taliban or being a kidnapper at all says, as I say, this is all part of the sales pitch, so to speak.

MALVEAUX: And what are the folks that you have spoken to on the ground there in Pakistan, what do they think of this controversy?

WALSH: I have to say within ordinary Pakistanis, "Three Cups of Tea" and whether it's true or not isn't a huge deal.

And I think what it more does in terms of what it does in American public opinion. This has really become a four million bestseller, many copies sold. It's required reading amongst American soldiers and even aid workers here, heartwarming stories of the benefits of American policy here, building schools, et cetera.

And I think really these suggestions of inaccuracies in Mr. Mortenson's books come at a time when many Americans could do without their credibility here being questioned further -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you very much, Nick Paton Walsh. Appreciate your reporting. Very good point that you made there, obviously, the question about U.S. credibility there in Pakistan.

Viking Press, the publisher the "Three Cups of Tea," says it will review the questions raised about material in the book. Author Greg Mortenson is standing by his work, but he acknowledges he may have taken some literary license.

In an exclusive interview with "Outside" magazine, he says: "What happens then is, when you recreate the scenes, you have my recollections, the different memories of those involved. You have his writing and sometimes things come out different. In order to be convenient, there were some omissions. If we included everything I did from 1993 to 2003, it would take three books to write."

So, I want to talk a little bit more about Mortenson's book, his claims, and the controversy surrounding it.

We're joined by CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen.

And, Peter, you have been following this clearly. Do you think that this book, "Three Cups of Tea," should still be required reading for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in light of some of the controversy and perhaps statements that are just blatantly false?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, I think it should be taken off the nonfiction list and put into the fiction list. And if soldiers going to Afghanistan want to read fiction or if their commanders think that fiction is an appropriate thing for them to read, then fine.

But claim that this book is based on a series of factual events doesn't make sense to me anymore. Mansur Khan, who was interviewed in Pakistan by Nick Paton Walsh, is somebody I have worked with. And he's actually done academic papers for the foundation that I work at. He's a well-known academic in the region.

The idea that he is a member of the Taliban who kidnapped Greg Mortenson is just absurd. And the idea that Mortenson was kidnapped by the Taliban fails a lot of commonsense tests, Suzanne.

First of all, he says the Taliban kidnapped him in 1996 in Waziristan. Well, the Taliban did not really have a hold in Waziristan in 1996. He says he was photographed with them. Well, the Taliban banned photography at the time that he claims he was photographed with them.

The photographs that we now have of him with his supposed Taliban kidnappers show him carrying a gun. It is pretty unusual for a kidnap victim to be photographed with his kidnappers also carrying a weapon while they are unarmed. The whole thing doesn't make any sense.

And so when one big lie in a book like this is shown to be false -- shown to be a lie, then you start looking at the other episodes. And we know from "60 Minutes" that his claim that he was rescued by Pakistani villagers and as he came down K-2, it doesn't hold up. And I think that the more we look at it the less it will hold up.

MALVEAUX: So Peter, in light of that, perhaps there are many things that are inaccurate in his book or in his books. Do you think that these schools that he started in Pakistan and Afghanistan to promote the education of young girls, do you think they have made a difference? He says this is why he wrote these books in the first place.

BERGEN: Well, I can't really speak to that. I mean, there are millions of girls who need schooling in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the fact that he's built a few schools is great. But I think what we can speak to is I think it's unusual for the charity that he has created to be spending $1.7 million promoting his book. That's usually the job of a publisher.

I work -- I've published three books myself. It's very unusual, as far as I can tell, for a charity, which after all, survives on the personal donations of many people inspired by Mortenson's now somewhat dubious tales to be spending money on promoting a book by somebody who, after all, is a millionaire from the proceeds of the book. Why doesn't he promote his own book with his own money, or at least let his publisher do this, do that? It seems, to me, there's a bigger story here, Suzanne, not just the falsifications of stuff in his book, but also the way this charity has been organized, which seems to be partly, you know, to his personal benefit. And...

MALVEAUX: Ultimately, Peter, who do you think -- who do you think this hurts? I mean, the Afghan girls who are part of these schools who are being schooled? Do you think that the charity shuts down? I mean, what do we see as the long-term impact here now that he has potentially been discredited?

BERGEN: Well, my guess, and this is simply a guess, is that if I was a board director of the charity, I would seek to get rid of this guy. Because, you know, they have done some good work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is more than just one man's story. It's -- it's about a lot of other people who have been involved in building these schools. And so I would, if I was the board of directors of this charity, I would be looking for a way to kind of gracefully ease him out the door.

But the big problem, I think, Suzanne, is also for Penguin-Viking Books, which is reviewing this, because, you know, in some cases, when it turns out that a memoir is full of, you know, nonsense, the publisher may have to pull it off the market, or at least -- at least make some sort of disclaimer. And so Viking-Penguin also has to do some soul-searching...


BERGEN: ... about the material in this book.

MALVEAUX: Peter, this book has been out for quite some time. Why do you think no one caught this before?

BERGEN: I think because, you know, people have the expectation. I mean, you go into Barnes and Noble, you buy a book that's in the non-fiction section, you have an expectation that it's actually true, you know? And in this case it turned out to be not the case. And unfortunately, there are thousands of authors who do write nonfiction books who do stick to the truth. And Mortenson is being caught in a series of fabrications.

MALVEAUX: All right. Peter Bergen, thank you so much. We appreciate your perspective on this.

A pro-democracy TV channel from London into Syria now. We're investigating its ties to the United States.

Plus, President Obama's tax return, it is now public. We're going to find out what's behind the substantial change in his income.

And funerals and protests in Syria where opposition groups say that government required help.


MALVEAUX: Funerals and protests in Syria where opposition groups say government security forces have killed as many as 24 people over the past two days. Calls for democracy are not just happening in the streets. They're also coming into Syrian homes on a television network with ties to the United States.

Our CNN's Brian Todd has more on this.

Brian, what do we know about this network?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, there are indications that this network may be getting support from the U.S. government even as both the network and the State Department refrained from openly calling for regime change in Syria.


TODD (voice-over): It's got a total of six shows, one of them called "Towards Change."

This is Barada TV, a pro-democracy network transmitting to viewers inside Syria. Based in London, it's now starting a two-hour live primetime program to show its audience as much of the protest movement as possible. It's a bold electronic stroke in a country where Bashar al-Assad's regime has the media in a stranglehold.

Is Barada TV anti-Assad? We spoke to its chief editor.

MALIK AL-ABDEH, CHIEF EDITOR, BARADA TV: Well, it's pro- democracy. And to achieve democracy, if you have to get rid of Assad family, then so be it.

TODD: Where Barada TV gets its money is a sensitive subject in London, Damascus and Washington.

(on camera) Are you getting any of your funding directly or indirectly from the U.S. government?

AL-ABDEH: Well, part of our funding comes from a California- based non-governmental organization which promotes Democratic awareness around the world. But we also have multiple sources of funding, some of which comes from the Syrian expatriate community.

TODD (voice-over): That California-based non-governmental group that gives money to Barada TV gets grant money from the State Department. And according to diplomatic cables posted on WikiLeaks, reported by "The Washington Post," the California group passes money to a band of Syrian exiles called the Movement for Justice and Development.

Malik al-Abdeh, Barada TV's editor, is on the board of that exile group, and his brother runs it, but al-Abdeh says there's no connection between his TV network and the Syrian exiles who get that grant money indirectly from the State Department.

A State Department spokesman would only say this.

MARK TONER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We are working with -- with a variety of institutions and organizations to support their efforts. Freedom of press, freedom of expression is an important element of these kinds of programs.

TODD: I asked a Syrian dissonant who has appeared on Barada TV about the sensitivity of working with that network or its affiliate.

(on camera) How closely does the Syrian government monitor these channels? Would they target someone or the family of someone who calls in?

RADWAN ZIADEH, SYRIAN HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST: Yes, exactly every minute, every minute. They are watching every minute what's on the Orient (ph) TV, on Barada TV. And they arrest many prominent human rights activists after they make calls to the Orient (ph) TV.


TODD: Now, one source who works with Barada TV tells CNN the network gets technical support from the U.S. like bandwidth. The network's editor, Malik al-Abdeh, denies that. We've gotten no comment on any of this from Syrian officials here in Washington -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: The editor is also taking some other public steps to at least publicly distance his network from the U.S. government?

TODD: He is. He says that whatever money or support Barada TV gets is not tied at all to its editorial content. He says the network has maintained its independence, and he says that it has aired interviews critical of U.S. policy. So again, trying to distance himself from anything, any possible connection to the State Department or the U.S.

MALVEAUX: Fascinating story. Thank you, Brian.

On this tax deadline day, we've gotten a copy of the Obamas' tax forms. It looks as though 2010 was not a great year for the first family.

And did the president's speech on the federal budget put Vice President Biden to sleep? Find out what the vice president's wife is saying about that.


MALVEAUX: We don't know if Vice President Joe Biden lost any sleep over this embarrassing moment, caught on tape, but you may remember that the vice president seemed to doze off during President Obama's speech about the federal budget last week.

Well, his wife is not disputing the belief that her husband took a poorly-timed power nap. Dr. Jill Biden was asked about the incident during an appearance with first lady Michelle Obama on "The View."


JOY BEHAR, CO-HOST, ABC'S "THE VIEW": Have you been giving him decaf lately or something? What's going on? He sort of took a nap during the president's speech.

JILL BIDEN, JOE BIDEN'S WIFE: He does that to me all the time.

BEHAR: He's gotten so much flak for it, but you know, he's probably tired.


MALVEAUX: Probably tired.

Today is the deadline for all Americans to file their taxes, including the president and the vice president. We're now getting a first look at their tax returns. Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, has some of the details that are coming out. How did the president do, Ed?

ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Pretty good. More than $1.7 million for the first family in terms of...

MALVEAUX: Not so bad.

HENRY: ... adjusted gross income. Better than your average American family, no doubt. They also paid their fair share of taxes, we should note: over $453,000. And they also gave a lot of money to charity, about $245,000 to 36 different charities. That's more than 14 percent of their adjusted gross income, probably more than a lot of Americans, including myself, Suzanne. Fourteen percent is a lot.

MALVEAUX: I'm not -- I'm not going to admit what I give.

How about the Bidens? How'd they do?

HENRY: The Bidens make less but also give less to charity. Adjusted gross income last year, about $379,000. They paid $86,000 in federal taxes but gave just over one percent, about 1.5 percent of their adjusted gross income to charity. A spokeswoman -- this is just about $5,000.

A spokeswoman basically said, "Look, it's not just about what they give in their checkbook. They also donate their time. That's the kind of thing that's not listed on a tax return." For example, the vice president and his wife usually host a reception for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure at the residence. And they also participate in that race. They've done that before.

So they do things like that that go beyond the checkbook. But certainly, compared to the first family, they're giving a lot less to charity.

MALVEAUX: And what about -- going back to the president, how did he -- how did he make all of the money?

HENRY: Well, you know, it's because -- not really because he's president, because he only makes $400,000 a year because of that. I say only. That's obviously a lot more than most Americans make. But he makes about $400,000 as president and then, as an author, he rakes in a lot of money. Even when he's not writing books, he's still raking in royalties.

And in fact, so that $1.7 million, that's actually paltry compared to last -- the previous year, 2009 tax year. The first family raked in about $5.5 million. So, you know, $1.7 million sounds pretty good; $5.5 million sounds even better.

MALVEAUX: Not close to what we're making.

HENRY: No, unfortunately.

MALVEAUX: We're still working on that. All right. Thanks, Ed. Appreciate it.

2012 presidential race is gaining some steam, and Donald Trump has been lobbing a lot of political fire balls at President Obama. The real-estate mogul and possible White House contender has a new line of attack. Our Mary Snow is looking into that -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, Donald Trump has been doing pretty well in the polls among Republican contenders, and he's gaining a lot of attention. Part of it has been embracing conspiracy theories, which he did again this weekend.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) SNOW (voice-over): It's well known by now that Donald Trump has been pushing claims that President Obama wasn't born in the U.S. Even though that myth has been debunked, it's been following the president since the 2008 election.

What may be less well known is Trump's other attack on Obama, concerning his first book, "Dreams from My Father."

DONALD TRUMP, REAL-ESTATE MOGUL: There's been long controversy about Obama's first book.

SNOW: Trump told a Tea Party rally in Florida this weekend that Bill Ayres, the 1960s radical who served with Barack Obama on the boards of two non-profits in Chicago, wrote the president's first book. CNN contributor John Avlon calls it a recycled conspiracy theory.

JOHN AVLON, AUTHOR, "WINGNUTS": This has been kind of bubbling up on the fringes of conspiracy Web sites for a long time and has been thoroughly discredited. I think the problem is that irony doesn't always read through in e-mail transcripts.

SNOW: And maybe not videos either. Ayres has mocked the book claim, joking about it in this video from March when he spoke at Mt. Clair University.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You wrote that?

AYRES: yes. If you can help me prove it, I'll split the royalties with you.

SNOW: Some conservative Web sites have taken his words seriously. We were unable to reach Ayres, but when he was earlier asked about claims he wrote Obama's book, he told "The Daily Beast" in 2009, "You've all lost your minds. Best of luck in the Twilight Zone."

Two years later, why has this claim survived? John Avlon says polarization of American politics plays a big role.

AVLON: This is what happens when the fringe starts to blur with the base. You end up empowering fundamentally irresponsible demographics, people who are just feeding into the stuff. And a candidate who's interested primarily in publicity, not responsibly pursuing the presidency, can see that as a political opportunity. And that's what we're seeing right now, and it should scare the hell out of responsible Republicans out there to see this happening in their party.


SNOW: And Suzanne, the Internet, of course, plays a big part. Conspiracy theories spread very rapidly. And John Avlon says he's also found that, in the past, demagogues have done well in economic downturns, playing the "us against them" card -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Not surprising. Talked to Trump just last week. He loves those conspiracy theories. All right. Thank you, Mary.

Should Democrats seek someone to run against President Obama next year? Jack Cafferty is next with your e-mail.

Plus dozens of new deaths reported in a besieged Libyan city. The latest on the fighting at the top of the hour on "JOHN KING USA."


MALVEAUX: Here's a look at today's "Hot Shots."

In Misrata, Libya, dozens of foreign workers pile onto a truck in an attempt to flee the city.

In Alabama just days before the anniversary of the BP oil spill, men fish as an oil rig is seen in the background.

In Tehran, Iranian soldiers march in camouflage during an Army Day parade.

And in London, women in costume protest plans to cancel a national holiday when many festivals are usually held.

"Hot Shots," pictures from around the world.

Time now to check back in with Jack Cafferty.

Hey, Jack.


The question this hour: "Should Democrats seek somebody to run against President Obama next year?"

Bradley in Oregon: "Yes, Obama's turned out to be a very weak Democrat who always gives in to the Republicans without putting up much of a fight. If you look at what he does rather than what he says, he looks a lot more like a moderate Republican than a Democrat."

Mike in Colorado: "I don't think Obama can win a second term, so yes. But there's no way to run another Democrat against him without splitting the party. That would hand the presidency to the Republicans. So no. They should focus on Congress and just concede the White House."

Marion in Newfoundland, Canada: "Of course not. You guys don't know when you've something good going. Look -- look at what we're stuck with here in Canada. If you don't want President Obama, please send him to us."

Michael in New Mexico: "Yes, we elected the wrong Obama. We should nominate Michelle Obama in 2012."

I'd vote for her.

Joannie writes, "I thought I would never say this, but Hillary, where are you? I'm a Republican who will do whatever it takes to fix my country."

Dave in Florida: "It would be risky, but I'm tired of his smoke- and-mirrors solutions, such as the health-care reform without a public option, bail outs, et cetera. And I'm still waiting for him to fulfill his campaign promises."

Michael in Virginia writes, "No, Democrats who want someone more liberal should become greens. Democrats who want someone more centrist should join the Independence Party. 'Primarying' Obama simply hands the White House to the Republicans."

Dee writes, "I think Obama is an empty suit. The Democrats better come up with a strong, honest, hardworking, non-arrogant leader or my vote is lost. To even think of raising taxes or the debt ceiling without a long-term plan is not working for the people. Mr. Obama needs to stop trying to shift the wealth and look at the waste."

And Chuck in Maryland writes, "If the Republicans put up Donald Trump, then I think the Democrats would have no choice but to run Charlie Sheen."

You want to read more on this, go to my blog:

MALVEAUX: All right.

CAFFERTY: That would be a choice, Trump and Charlie Sheen.

MALVEAUX: He'd have a good sense of humor, I think.

CAFFERTY: Well, yes, and a drug habit.

MALVEAUX: Yes. All right. Thanks, Jack. Good to see you.

Former CIA director and retired general weighs in on U.S. policy in Libya, and whether it's having an effect on Muammar Gadhafi. Stand by for General Michael Hayden on "JOHN KING USA."

And the upcoming royal wedding as we wish we could see it. Well, some of us, at least. If you haven't seen this video, you've got to see it. Get ready.


MALVEAUX: A change for a popular online dating site. Brian Todd is monitoring that and some of the other top stories coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Hey, Brian. What are you working on?

TODD: Suzanne, says it will begin cross-referencing its members against the national sex offender registry after being hit with a lawsuit from a woman claiming she was raped by a convicted offender she met on the dating Web site. The company says improved technology will help with accuracy. A lawyer for the suspect in the case tells ABC News the sexual encounter was consensual.

Democrats may have a Senate candidate in Texas. Party sources confirmed to CNN that retired lieutenant general Ricardo Sanchez is expected to run for the seat soon to be vacated by Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Sanchez served as the top U.S. military commander in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. That was during the infamous Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. He retired from the Army in 2006.

Subway is slashing the amount of sodium in its sandwiches. The restaurant chain announced today a 15 percent reduction across the board, with its so-called Fresh Fit sandwich line getting even steeper cuts. It says the changes will result in 450 fewer tons of sodium in the American diet.

And royal wedding fever is just heating up, with just 11 days to go. And T-mobile is trying to cash in on the excitement with a commercial that's now a viral video.

It features a cast of royal look-alikes dancing down the aisle to East 17's "House of Love." The real Prince William and Kate Middleton are set to marry April 29. That is a week from Friday.

I know, Suzanne, you've got royal wedding fever like the rest of us. Those are some pretty convincing look-alikes, I would have to say.

MALVEAUX: That was great. That's better than the "Soul Train" line. You know, you've got to love that. I think it was great. It was great. I mean, they look so much like the -- you know, the real folks there. Something tells me that's not actually how it's going to go down. But you know?

TODD: No, but they should play that at the reception. Why not?

MALVEAUX: Absolutely.

All right. Brian, thanks again. That does it for me. I'm Suzanne Malveaux, in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.