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Suicide Bomb Plot; Syria's Crackdown Continues; Ex-Romney Supporter Backs Santorum; Suicide Bomb Suspect in Court; A City Laid to Waste; Cries for Help Unanswered; Contraception Controversy; $4 a Gallon and Rising; Massive Tornado on the Sun

Aired February 17, 2012 - 16:00   ET


CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: A man puts on a suicide vest planning to die while attacking the U.S. Capitol, but the vest was rendered inoperable by the FBI -- new details are emerging this hour of a thwarted suicide bomb plot.

Also, a city being reduced to rubble as the world watches. CNN's Arwa Damon is inside the besieged town of Homs.

Plus, $4 a gallon for gas, it is once again becoming the new normal, with $5 a gallon on the horizon. What's behind that sharp price hike?

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Candy Crowley, and you are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

An alleged plot for a suicide bomb attack on the U.S. Capitol busted today in an undercover operation. Officials say a Moroccan man is under arrest after accepting a vest he believed was filled with explosives.

CNN's Brian Todd is at the courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.

Brian, what's the very latest there?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Candy, we're told the suspect has arrived at this federal district court in Alexandria, Virginia, for a court appearance this afternoon.

We're also told that authorities are searching at least two locations in the Northern Virginia area, including possibly his home. Here's what we know about the suspect. He is identified at 29-year-old Amine Khalifi, a Moroccan national living in Alexandria, Virginia. We are told by a law enforcement official he's living in the U.S. illegally.

This official said that -- regarding this alleged plot, that Mr. Khalifi had various targets, had finally settled on the Capitol, but that he had previously considered a military installation, synagogues, and possibly a restaurant where military and government people were known to frequent, but he, according to this law enforcement official had settled on the Capitol as a target. They said he came to law enforcement attention because of his extremist views he had espoused and that in December, according to a law enforcement official, he had started "moving down the path toward conducting an attack." He was arrested today when he apparently met up with undercover agents who were posing as people who were going to give him a suicide vest and a gun, but the suicide vest and the gun were rendered inoperable. He was arrested -- we're told at a parking garage near the Capitol. We were at a garage near the Capitol where there was a lot of FBI activity this morning, and I talked to one of the parking garage attendants about how this all went down, what he saw.


TODD: Did they tell you why they wanted you to leave?

SAMUEL LUL, PARKING GARAGE EMPLOYEE: No, they didn't tell me why. Just go leave to the outside just 20 minutes or for an hour (INAUDIBLE) from the garage.


TODD: I also spoke to Philip Mudd, he's a former FBI and CIA counterterrorism official, about the kind of case that can be made against suspects like this, and about how a sting operation like this, what that kind of an operation would entail at some of the critical moments.


PHILIP MUDD, FORMER FBI OFFICIAL: As you go into a criminal proceeding, you want to be able to say he wasn't just thinking about it, he was ready to move. The fact he's wearing a suicide vest would suggest to anyone, including someone on a jury, this guy was going to act on what he believed.


TODD: Now, a law enforcement official tells us that Mr. Khalifi has been under close watch for the past couple of months, but the public was not in danger. We're also told that members of Congress have been briefed on this entire operation, on the law enforcement operation, and that they were never in danger as well.

Again, the suspect, Amine Khalifi, 29-year-old Moroccan national, has arrived at this courthouse, expected for a court appearance this afternoon -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Brian Todd, in Alexandria, Virginia, at that courthouse staying on the story for us. Thanks, Brian.

We want to get more on this sting with former FBI Assistant Director and CNN contributor Tom Fuentes and CNN national security contributor Fran Townsend. She serves on the CIA and is also serving on the Homeland Security Advisory Board.

Fran, first to you. What are you hearing as you called around today about this story?

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, sources are telling us that, one, this is an investigation that's been going on almost a year, that originally law enforcement sources came in contact with this man as part of a criminal investigation, not a terrorism investigation, but sort of an ordinary criminal investigation.

As they had this contact with him, they realized his aspirations were quite different. The other thing was, when you push law enforcement sources about will there be a valid entrapment defense, they tell me no, in fact that this guy had himself gone out and procured, bought component pieces of the IED that were going to go into the vest.

They feel very confident that they understood this guy's intentions, that they were his intentions, and that he had independently taken steps to further this plot.

CROWLEY: Fran, from what you're hearing, is there any way to know now whether this is what they call a digital terrorist, that is someone who learns everything he knows over the Internet, or someone who may have been trained elsewhere? Is there any way to know that at this point?

TOWNSEND: Really hard to say. What I do know is from the course that this was part of a criminal investigation, and so he was probably part -- it sounded to me like he was part of a group, a network of guys who are involved in some sort of criminal activity, didn't sound very serious, so it's hard to say yet.

We don't really have enough facts to know whether or not he was radicalized over the Internet, but we really did hear earlier today he had gone and prayed at a mosque before meeting the agents at the time of his arrest.

CROWLEY: Fran, let me turn to Tom Fuentes.

Tom, we're told, a source tells us that this suspect was moving down the path towards conducting an attack. It seems there's always a fine line there between enticing someone into something and allowing them to go thus far and no farther. Where is that line?

TOM FUENTES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Right. In a case like this, it would start like many cases of the FBI, that an individual is expressing hatred of the United States or a desire to conduct a terrorist attack.

And when they start the investigation, they're not sure if he is just saying things that he's not really going to carry out. Is he series, does he have the knowledge or expertise or prior training overseas? In this case, they start looking at him, and then, as recently as December, they start to realize he's serious, he's trying to find people who can help him and actually assemble the explosives into a suicide vest, get him a weapon, and then make this trip up to Capitol Hill, where he would have the greatest impact obviously and get the most media coverage to commit the act there.

In the case of the FBI, what they're looking at is to make sure that he wants to do this. They're not talking him into it. They are not causing him to go across the line to create a case. They want him to establish that this is what he wants to do, and he's seeking help.

CROWLEY: So it would be important, it seems to me, what Fran was telling us, that she had that he had begun to purchase some things on his own, so that's obviously key to not having this be something where you entice someone into doing something.

FUENTES: Right. It's a huge key. Of course, over the course of the months from December until today, you want to see that he is trying to push this, he is trying to get the additional equipment he needs, the assistance he needs. He's laying out what his attack plans are.

Meantime, the FBI is trying to determine, is he alone? Does he have co-conspirators? Is he part of a network? And they wouldn't want to take the case down until they have identified all other subjects that might be involved or have similar intentions.

CROWLEY: Fran, first to you, and I want to ask Tom the same question. That is what caught my attention here -- let's set aside the underwear bomber who clearly was willing to blow himself up to bring a plane down, coming in I believe from London -- I can't remember now exactly where he was coming in, but nonetheless he was willing to kill himself.

But part of I think what gave a measure of safety to Americans is that suicide bombers seem like someone that would do that in some other country. We have not seen that here before. There's a huge distinction, isn't there, between someone willing to leave a car bomb and someone that just says I will go?

TOWNSEND: Candy, that's right, and I think you state it correctly. Americans have taken this sense of confidence, but let's remember the first World Trade Center bombing, they did plant the car and then he left.

But remember, on 9/11, all those hijackers were prepared to die and did. And so I think we have this false sense that sort of a suicide bomber, an individual is unlikely to happen here. But I'm not sure that that is based on the facts that law enforcement and intelligence officials have seen.

It's unusual, and it's certainly unsettling, but I think we can't just assume -- when you have 19 hijackers all willing to kill themselves on 9/11, we shouldn't assume that we're immune from it here.


And I just want to tell our viewers we're currently looking at some tape we have brought back. This is the FBI taking some things from a house. You know, we can speculate it's his house, we don't know, but it's in Arlington, Virginia, certainly near where they're looking to see this guy appear in court. Those are the pictures you're seeing.

Tom, is there a false safety -- not safety, but reasonable safety when you think, well, we haven't seen a suicide bomber in the U.S.?

(CROSSTALK) CROWLEY: Although, let's face it, suicide by plane is still suicide.


The suicide bombers that are overseas have a network. They have individuals that make the bombs, assemble the vests, motivate the victim that's going to blow himself up. You know, they have this whole group, if you will, that helps that person down the path to actually committing the suicide and killing other people in the process.

To do that in the United States, what the FBI and the police and all of the other agencies are hoping for is that that person, in trying to get assistance to either create that support group, is that's where the authorities will come in contact. That's why the tremendous effort at community outreach in the communities where individuals like this would be looking for helpers, co-conspirators, if you will.

That's why they want to do that, so that when a person begins to seek assistance, someone in the community reports it to the police or to the FBI and says, hey, this individual is talking about doing something bad. And then that's when they begin the investigation and again very cautiously and deliberately in the process to find out, is that person serious? Will he in fact do it if he gets the appropriate guidance and assistance from others to assemble the explosives commit the act?

CROWLEY: You know, Fran, I know you were during the Bush administration and so your knowledge is probably not as good now in terms of what's happening on the ground this second, but are there a number -- it seems to me that a lot of these cases that we have seen recently have been about plots where the FBI is there undercover.

Are there a number of these things that are ongoing? Can you put any quantitative -- any number on how broad-based this is? Or is it kind of a matter of luck? You pick a guy on some kind of low-level crime and lo and behold here's what you have got?

TOWNSEND: It's interesting. There's been a real effort at the FBI in post-9/11 going back to my time in government to build the capability to intercept, to detect, intercept and interdict before these threats before they materialize, before the guy has the materials or is assembling the bomb.

And I think frankly the fact that we see now more of these undercover sting operations is good news. It means we have a more aggressive, more capable FBI able to take -- to develop their own leads, not wait until they come to them. And when they find these opportunities, they understand how legally and constitutionally to be able to pursue them to identify the real threats, as opposed to the wannabes, the guys who are aspirational, but have no real intention of making it a credible threat.

CROWLEY: Fran Townsend, Tom Fuentes, thank you both so much for your expertise. We will get more on the suicide bomb plot targeting the U.S. Capitol in our next hour. Congressman Peter King will join us. He's chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

And coming up this hour, a Syrian city laid to waste by 14 straight days of shelling. CNN's Arwa Damon manages to get inside to see the devastation firsthand.

Plus, a defection by a high-profile Mitt Romney supporter who's now backing Rick Santorum.


CROWLEY: Presidential candidate Rick Santorum has plucked an endorsement out of Mitt Romney's hands. (AUDIO GAP) controversy of his own.

CNN's senior correspondent Joe Johns has all the latest news from the campaign trail in Michigan -- Joe.


JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Candy, the earth did not shake when Ohio attorney general and former United States senator, Mike DeWine, switched his support from Mitt Romney to Rick Santorum. But it was at least another little drip of news about (AUDIO GAP) race.

MIKE DEWINE, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: I am endorsing Rick Santorum for president of the United States.

JOHNS (voice-over): Santorum had actually begun his day in Michigan, singing his familiar tune to both church members and the choir at his Faith and Freedom rally. The social issues that have propelled him in this race were front and center. He got a chance to remind the voters of his faith.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That we are children of a loving God.

JOHNS: And of his positions on birth control, especially his criticism of the Obama administration and its recent positions (AUDIO GAP) Catholic hospitals and universities to pay for health insurance that covers birth control.

SANTORUM: It's not about contraception. It's about your constitutional rights.

JOHNS: Though it wasn't all smooth sailing, mostly due to this man, Santorum's big money donor Foster Friess, who's given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the pro-Santorum super PAC, Red, White and Blue Fund. Friess, who is said to be a jokester, created an uproar (AUDIO GAP) to the controversy over contraception.

FOSTER FRIESS, SANTORUM SUPPORTER: Back in my days, they used Bayer Aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees.

JOHNS: Santorum was forced to distance himself.

SANTORUM: This is someone who is a supporter of mine. And I'm not responsible for every comment that a supporter of mine makes. Lots of folks who -- they say it was a bad joke, it was a stupid joke. It's not reflective of me or my record on this issue.

JOHNS: But then Santorum tried to rewrite history by comparing the situation to Barack Obama's trouble in the last election, with the supporter of his, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Santorum suggested Obama got a break from the media even though Wright's comments came close to crashing the campaign.

SANTORUM: In fact with President Obama, what you did was you went out and defended him against someone who has sat up in a church for 20 years and defended him, oh, he can't possibly believe what he listened to for 20 years. It's a double standard. This is what you're pulling off and I'm going to call you on it.

JOHNS (on camera): Foster Friess later apologized for his comment, but the news in the short term at least is not all that bad for the candidate, Rick Santorum. Polls show conservative voters consider it a plus at least in the primaries, though it could come back to haunt Santorum if he gets the nomination -- Candy.


CROWLEY: Our Joe Johns.

There is another new poll confirming Rick Santorum's frontrunner status in Michigan. The ARG Group survey of likely Republican primary voters shows 34 percent backing Santorum compared to 32 percent for Romney. That is a statistical tie.

Let's bring in CNN's chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

Gloria, it looks like Romney could use some reinforcement.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, and he's going to get it and is going to spend an awful lot of money. And we've learned today that his super PAC, that's separate from the campaign, the super PAC Restore Our Future, is going to put in $6 million in eight states that are coming up, $900,000 alone in the state of Michigan, primary in 10 days. And that would mean that he's roughly outspending, all told, all in, outspending Santorum by about three to one.

And these super PAC ads don't have smiley faces on them. Let's give you an example of one that's currently running in Michigan.


NARRATOR: In a single session, Santorum co-sponsored 51 bills to increase spending and zero to cut pending. Santorum even voted to raise his own pay and joined Hillary Clinton to let convicted felons vote.

Rick Santorum: big spender, Washington insider. (END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Two things strike me.


CROWLEY: Two things strike me about this. First, could there be backlash? Oh, look at all these negative ads. And second, could there be backlash against the big spending gap between the two.

BORGER: Oh, yes, absolutely.

First of all, backlash because Rick Santorum has done a very good ad that shows Romney swatting him with mud. And it plays into the David/Goliath kind of narrative.

And, you know, also, if you look at these ads, people are sick of negative ads. But Santorum is fighting back, I mean, saying that he voted to give convicted felons the right to vote. You know, he makes the case that on the merits, he voted for them once they're out of jail, have done all their due penance. And, by the way, Mitt Romney's state of Massachusetts, you know, did the same thing.

So, you know, there's going to be a lot of back-and-forth on that, but people are kind of sick of it.

CROWLEY: Right, right.

BORGER: Yes, absolutely.

CROWLEY: It just comes in like, and goes over their heads because they don't want to listen to it.

BORGER: Yes, they cancel each other out.

CROWLEY: Meanwhile, a name we have not heard for a while --

BORGER: You will.

CROWLEY: Newt Gingrich, someone trying to get him back in the game?

BORGER: Yes, there is. And Kevin Bond, our senior producer here, broke the news that Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas mogul, is probably going to pour about 10 million more bucks into the super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich, probably within the next month. And as you know, that will give Newt Gingrich the money and wherewithal to fight on through Super Tuesday.

So, if Romney doesn't do well in Michigan, maybe Newt Gingrich can rise once again.

CROWLEY: And money helps.

BORGER: Oh, yes.

CROWLEY: It can't -- it's not everything, but if you have a backer that's willing to pile money --

BORGER: And what's the incentive for you to get out of the race? None. None.

CROWLEY: None. Exactly.

Gloria Borger, thanks so much. Have a good weekend.

BORGER: You too.

CROWLEY: We continue to follow the breaking news. Officials say they arrested a man who was plotting to bomb the U.S. Capitol. He's supposed to appear in court sooner. Of course, we'll bring you that as soon as it happens.

And the contraception controversy -- is the GOP out of line when it comes to decisions about women's health?


CROWLEY: Mary Snow is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Mary, there's a five-mile-long oily mess on the Mississippi.


The cleanup is underway after two barges collided his morning, carving out a 10 by five foot gash that leaked oil into the Mississippi. Floating oil barriers were set up to contain it. The problem is the Coast Guard isn't sure how much exactly spilled into the water. Authorities rushed to shut down water intakes that supply two cities drinking water, just in case.

More than a half million bottles of infant Tylenol are being pulled off shelves because of the syringe designed to give the oral painkiller. McNeil, owned by recall-plagued Johnson & Johnson, received complaints that the dosing system for the grape-flavored Tylenol is difficult to use or doesn't work properly.

And in Georgia, 15 high school students and their bus driver went to the hospital this morning after their bus ran off the road and flipped on its side. A county school representative says the bus driver blacked out and lost control. None of the reported injuries is life- threatening -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Thanks so much, Mary Snow. Appreciate it.

A dangerous assignment to a city under siege.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There's only certain roads that we can take because of sniper positions, and some parts, drivers really have to gun it to get across to avoid being targeted.


CROWLEY: CNN's Arwa Damon is inside Homs, a scene of devastation after two weeks of shelling.

And victims of the government crackdown say they are dying of hunger and fear. Why getting help to them is so difficult.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CROWLEY: We are, of course, following the story of a Moroccan man arrested by the FBI. The FBI alleges that the man wanted to be a suicide bomber and blowup the U.S. Capitol. They, in fact, arrested him with a disarmed bomb just before he got onto Capitol grounds. So, there was no harm to anyone. But indeed a fascinating case.

We want to go to our Brian Todd. He is in Virginia at the courthouse, where we expected an appearance by the suspect -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Candy, he has just made an appearance, the suspect now identified as Amine El Khalifi, 29-year-old Moroccan, living in the U.S. illegally. He has just appeared in court here in Alexandria, Virginia. He came in wearing a green t-shirt, all in civilian clothes.

He had tattoos on his arms, short hair and a small beard. The t-shirt said ready in season, wearing a green t-shirt. He was not in shackles. He was made aware of the charges against him.

We just have a complaint here, a court document saying that he was arrested for, quote, "knowingly and unlawfully attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against property that is owned and used by the United States or by any department or agency of the United States."

But maybe even more telling is a quote here on the new released from U.S. Attorney Neil McBride. It says here the complaint filed today alleges that Amine El Khalifi sought to blow himself up in the U.S. Capitol building.

El Khalifi allegedly believed he was working with al Qaeda and devised the plot that targets and the methods on his own. That is according to the Neil McBride, U.S. Attorney in Virginia here. Mr. Khalifi has just appeared in court.

We're also told that FBI agencies and other law enforcement authorities are searching a property not too far from here in Arlington, Virginia, at least one property. Not sure if that's his home or not, but they are searching a property in Arlington, Virginia in connection with this case.

And again, to recap some of the information that we've been bringing you throughout the afternoon, he was arrested today, as he was attempting to get a suicide vest that he thought was operable. It was not. He was arrested by undercover law enforcement agents who had been tracking him for a couple months. They had given him in inoperable vest and a gun that was also inoperable. He was arrested today at a parking garage near Capitol Hill -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: Brian Todd, as always on the case for us. I'm sure we'll be getting back to you. I just want to make it clear. He thought he was working with al Qaeda? But in fact he was working with FBI undercover informants. Is that correct?

TODD: That is correct. He thought he was working with al Qaeda operatives who were going to help him in this plot, when in fact he was working with undercover FBI agents. They had been tracking him for a couple months. This law enforcement official who we've been speaking to earlier today told us that the public was never in danger.

And again, this official said that he had thought of various other targets to possibly hit, including a military installation, synagogues, possibly a restaurant known to be frequented by government and military personnel.

But this law enforcement official said he had finally settled on the Capitol and that in December he, quote, "started moving down the path toward conducting an attack." So they thought that something might be eminent and they've decided move on and today, that's when he was picked up.

CROWLEY: Our Brian Todd in Alexander, Virginia at the courthouse. We, of course, will have much more of this story as we go along. Stay tuned, of course, for the top of the hour where we have other interviews and details about this breaking news.

Now more than 50 new deaths are being reported in Syria today, as the brutal government crackdown continues despite a U.N. resolution passed yesterday calling for an end to the violence.

More than a dozen of the deaths occurred in the city of Homs, which has now suffered 14 straight days of shelling by government forces.

CNN's Arwa Damon managed to get inside the besieged city. What she saw is very disturbing.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's very different to actually get around. There are only certain roads that we can take because of sniper positions.

And some parts drivers really have to gun it to get across to avoid being targeted. The streets are mostly deserted. The majority of residents are staying indoors or have already fled. Just the constant sound of gunfire, nonstop.

They used to bury the dead in the old graveyard over there, but once government forces came in, they stopped being ability to do that. And this again, is another position where we can't actually move out into the road because once again you're exposed to sniper positions that are just around the corner on the other side of those buildings.

We come across some members of the Free Syrian Army who take us around. This is another spot that apparently you can also see taking a position from. If you look up here through this hole in the wall, just to the right, up against the wall of the building, you can see one of the tank positions they have set up.

This room that we're taking the video from, just take a look at it, there's a baby's crib right next to the bag, a Winnie the Pooh back hanging off the side.

In a lot of these homes it looks like the families just fled in a panic. Shoes have been left behind. Obviously, there were children who were living here. One can only imagine what took place, because this building also was hit in one of the strikes.

Personal belongings are all still inside. We're going through this hole in the wall right now, because it's safer. These types of holes were dug into various walls inside the neighborhoods, we're being told, by the Free Syrian Army.

This is how they were getting families out. There was so much firing from the front end, they weren't able to evacuate. They were forced to come out like this to get to relative safety. When residents are finally able to come back home, this is what they're going to return to. Arwa Damon, CNN, Homs, Syria.


CROWLEY: The crackdown has spawned a growing humanitarian crisis and desperate cries for help that so far are going unanswered. CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr takes a closer look at the options.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For Syrians now being used as human shields, suffering from the violence, short of water, food and medicine, help is not on the way, at least not anytime soon. Private relief organizations are already hearing horror stories from Syrians on the run.

MICHAEL GABAUDAN, REFUGEES INTERNATIONAL: That it's very difficult to cross the border because it's continuously shelled and it's mined in parts. The people we have talked to have rather terrible stories to recount. One lady just told us that her son disappeared two weeks ago.

STARR: With no international agreement about what to do, and no sign the regime will stop its attacks, talk of sending aid into Syria remains stalled in every direction you look on the map.

AHMET DAVUTOGLU, TURKISH FOREIGN MINISTER: We are talking about diplomatic and humanitarian steps to be taken, but for other scenarios, we hope that those things will not be need, but we need to think about contingencies as well. STARR: Humanitarian relief from Turkey may be the most politically likely, but only if the conflict dies down enough to get aid in.

GENERAL WESLEY CLARK (RETIRED), FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER, EUROPE: It's a tough piece of ground and it's not a major line of communication. There are no major roads or railway networks there. It's a -- it's a relatively isolated area.

STARR: Wesley Clark, a former NATO commander, warns a political settlement comes first. Without it, tens of thousands of Syrians could try to get out to Turkey, and with massive amounts of aid trying to get in, it all becomes a target for Syrian forces.

CLARK: It's easier to talk about this than it is for Turkey to do it.

STARR: Other geographic avenues for aid trucked in and refugees getting out are all difficult. Already some Syrians are crossing into Northern Lebanon and into Jordan.

Iraq is another option, but pressure from Iran, which supports Assad's regime could hinder all of this. Clark suggests another option, bringing aid into Syrian ports closer to the people who need it, but without an agreement from Syria, it could all be disastrous.

CLARK: We're not going to have that level of cooperation from the Syrian military.


STARR: And that is the problem, Candy. As long as the violence continues, there's going to be very little action on any type of humanitarian relief corridor, safe haven, any type of help for the people trapped inside Syria -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, awful to watch, really frustrating to not be able to get any kind of help in there. Thank you so much.

We are getting more information about the man federal officials say was plotting to bomb the U.S. Capitol. Sources tell CNN that an FBI search this afternoon in Arlington, Virginia, is related to the terror investigation.

The official tells CNN, the suspect Amine El Khalifi entered the United States legally in June of 1999 under a B2 visa, that is tourism visa, but it expired later the same year. So he has been in the U.S. illegally since 1999.

Some politics, the boiling controversy about contraception. The political debate that some are calling a war on women's health. The high price of gas, why it now causes more groans than gasps.


CROWLEY: President Obama's mandate that religious institutions have to provide contraceptive health care coverage to employees lit a fire under a lot of people, including Republicans.

But some of their responses now have Democrats on the attack, with Democratic Senator Patty Murray accusing Republicans of, quote, "waging a war on women's health."

Joining me for today's "Strategy Session," Democratic strategist and CNN contributor, Paul Begala and Republican strategist, Mary Matalin.

Murray is specifically angry about the all-male panel at the House Oversight Committee hearing on this whole issue. And I want to start out by saying this is a church/state issue, but I now believe this is a great base issue for both sides.

Because Republicans can accuse the president of trying to interfere in religion against the constitution, and Democrats can accuse Republicans of trying to hinder the women's movement. Paul, I dare you to tell me I'm not right.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, you're right. They can both accuse the other, but here's the big difference. The president has compromised. The Republicans have not. President said OK, HHS, his Health and Human Services secretary issued an order with the president's approval.

That a lot of people, including myself, thought went too far in forcing Catholic schools, hospitals, other institutions to pay for contraception against their religious precepts.

He changed. He backed off of that. Now the -- so now no religious institution has to pay for something that is against its religion and I admire that, but women will still have access for free to contraception.

What the Republicans want is to end federal support for birth control for women. Mitt Romney's position in the campaign is to defund Title X. Title X is created by Republicans, by the way, is the support that poor women get for birth control.

Republicans want to end birth control for poor women and ultimately for all women.

CROWLEY: OK, Mary, I don't think I even have to ask you a question. Go.

MARY MATALIN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: You know, we have absolutely in this country no -- affordability issue with contraception. You can get the pill. You can get the morning-after pill. You can get an abortion. You can get a late-term abortion and you can get that on demand anytime you want and it will be subsidized.

So no one is banning birth control. There was no compromise. There was no accommodation. The bishops have come out strongly against this so-called accommodation. What this is, is -- and it's not a women's health care issue, either.

It's a government coercion issue. Now this government under Obamacare can dictate what is health care, who gets it and who pays. That's what the issue is, and yes, that is an animating issue for Republicans.

Obama has made a risky strategic calculation to pit the pro-abortion feminist against Catholics. Well, Catholics are 30 percent of the electorate and they're in swing states, very risky political calculation.

CROWLEY: So let me bring in just another element into this, Paul. That's Foster Friess. He is a big-money backer of Rick Santorum. He gives money to the campaign. He doesn't speak for it. He said yesterday kind of early on to MSNBC the following.


FOSTER FRIESS, SANTORUM SUPPORTER: Back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn't that costly.


CROWLEY: Now Foster Friess apologized. He said, well, after listening to the segment, I can understand how I confused people with the way I worded the joke and they're taking offenses understandable. To all those who took my joke as modern day approach, I deeply apologize and seek your forgiveness. So case closed, Paul?

BEGALA: As far as Foster Friess, yes, but Rick Santorum, he probably wouldn't want women to have the aspirin. Rick Santorum stated position is that birth control is bad for women.

States should have the right to outlaw the way they used to be able to until the Supreme Court in Griswold versus Connecticut said no. He wants to repeal the constitutional right of married couples to use birth control.

And Mitt Romney is barely better. He wants to end all federal funding for poor miscontraception. Title X, which George Bush Sr. helped to write into law, Mary, who served.

CROWLEY: Go, Mary because I've had -- go ahead.

MATALIN: Utter fabrication. What Rick Santorum stated and Paul knows this, it was an epicenter of Catholicism. He was talking about his Catholic faith. He specifically said he would not ban birth control. That is a complete fabrication.

BEGALA: That's not true. He's against Griswold versus Connecticut. He says Griswold was wrong. States should have the law right to outlaw contraception. That's Mr. Santorum's position.

MATALIN: Griswold was wrong and Roe was wrong. We thought those were -- have continued to believe that those were badly ruled. Those were bad decisions, but that's not the same as saying anyone is supporting banning birth control. This is just liberals trying to get their pro- abortion feminists all gassed up. It's not going to work. CROWLEY: Paul, you come back. Mary, you come back. I've got to run, but thanks very much. I appreciate it.

Now $4 a gallon gasoline is back for millions of Americans. Is $5 a gallon far off? Details on what's behind the latest spike in prices.

Plus a tornado as big as the earth on the sun. You really are going to want to see these incredible images from NASA.


CROWLEY: CNN is getting in some new details about this terror plot against the U.S. Capitol. The FBI and other antiterrorism officials arrested this man. No one was ever in any way threatened.

Nonetheless, the man has been hauled into court. He is under arrest. Police are searching various places, and I say we're getting in new details of what this investigation in fact involved.

And some of the things the suspect is alleged to have said to authorities. We will bring you those at the top of the hour.

Now if you have filled up lately, you know gas prices are up again. A combination of factors may keep them that way for the foreseeable future. CNN's Mary Snow is here to explain why.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, there, Candy. Well, you know, there are a couple of physical factors involved combined with a lot of worries about what may happen, but it's unusual to see gasoline prices this high so early in the year when demand is not high yet.


SNOW (voice-over): The $3.48 a gallon may be considered a bargain as it's just a few penny shy of the national average. Across the country, prices have gone up about 15 cents in the last month and almost 40 cents from a year ago.

Drivers at this Jersey City gas station say it's forcing them to scale back on other things just to fill their tank.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's terrible for the working man, getting harder and harder to be able to drive around. I commute back and forth to work

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's insane, and I'm using regular gas. The thing is I'd like to use the super, but it's so expensive now. It's like I can't afford it anymore.

SNOW: In Hawaii, prices have topped $4 a gallon. California and New York are almost at the $4 mark. The rest of the country isn't far behind. A big culprit -- oil prices, which have gone past $100 a barrel as the world eyes events in Iran.

(on camera): If Iran attempted to shutdown the Strait of Hormuz, there's no telling how high oil and gas prices could spike. More than a fifth of the world's oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz.

That amounts to about 15.5 million barrels of oil a day and just the possibility that there might be a disruption has kept oil prices high. Oil producers pass the cost onto refineries who pass it onto gas station owners, who in turn pass it along to drivers.

But while oil prices are climbing, analysts say gasoline prices are rising faster because of refinery shutdowns crippling supply. And we're still months away from peak driving season when demand rises. Worrying drivers like Judy O'Tara.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Once it hits $5, which don't look too far away now, either take buses, walk, or just don't go nowhere too often to save the gas.


SNOW: Now, while that driver is bracing for $5 a gallon, some of the analysts we spoke with don't see that in the cards right now. There is one forecast for a national average of $4.05 a gallon before receding.

But in many states, it will be higher than that. But, as one analyst put it, predicting gasoline prices can be similar to witchcraft -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Anybody that's watched their local gas stations put up the things and bring them down knows that to be true. Thanks so much, Mary Snow. Appreciate it.

SNOW: Sure.

CROWLEY: Coming up in our next hour, the Moroccan man accused of plotting a suicide bomb attack on the U.S. Capitol appears in court. And we're getting new details of the investigation. Plus, amazing images of a massive tornado on the sun.


CROWLEY: Imagine a tornado as big as the earth, with winds up to 300,000 miles an hour, you actually don't have to imagine. CNN meteorologist, Chad Myers has details and some incredible images of this solar storm. Chad, show me.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: You know, Candy, we've known about these for a long time, but we've never had pictures like this. This is a 30-hour condensed animation of real images from the sun.

That right there, a vortex, almost like a dust devil, but that is the size of the earth. That one fast right there, that's how big the earth would be and the winds, 300,000 miles per hour in a big circle.

Now, you know, first time we've been able to see this because now it's on the edge. Notice how we see it because it's here on the edge of the sun's surface. There may be one here. There may be one here. There may be one here, but we can't see them because we lack the contrast between the dark and light.

But it's the gas and the plasma shooting out of this as fast as it can comes, and as it comes out, it spins just like a tornado. These are the great images from the first really solar dynamic observatory, 900,000 miles in space.

It's a satellite telescope out there, $865 million project. It's going to determine the sun's magnetic field. How much energy is being released and is the sun getting hotter or colder?

Right now, we know it's getting more excited with more sun spots and maybe more (inaudible) even some of those northern lights coming up the next year or two -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Chad Myers, gorgeous pictures. Thank you.