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Situation in Iraq; Glimmer of Hope for the Economy; Obama to Allow Offshore Drilling?

Aired April 12, 2009 - 20:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: I'm John King and this is our STATE OF THE UNION report for Sunday, April 12th.

President Obama visits U.S. troops in Baghdad and he tells them it's time for Iraqis to take control of their country. But will attacks in big cities like Mosul force a delay in the troop withdrawal deadline?

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, joins us in an exclusive interview.

Mr. Obama says he's seeing glimmers of hope in the troubled economy. We'll have some serious talk about jobs.

And on a lighter note, news on the Obama family's new dog. With Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican strategist Kevin Madden.

And many environmentalists oppose offshore drilling for oil. But will the Obama administration support it as part of a broader energy plan. Interior secretary Ken Salazar gets the last word from an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

That's all ahead in this hour of STATE OF THE UNION.

An aerial view there of the Pentagon just across the Potomac River across Washington, D.C., the home of the United States military. And during his visit to Iraq last Tuesday, President Obama acknowledged there's still much to be done to stabilize the country but he emphasized he intends to keep his commitment to withdrawal U.S. all troops by 2011.

A big test looms soon. American forces are scheduled to withdrawal from Iraq cities by June 30th this year. That's just 11 weeks from now. And just as American troops are preparing to leave, violence is on the rise in the northern Iraqi cities of Mosul and Baqubah.

Here to talk about the president's visit and the challenges in keeping with the withdrawal schedule, is the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno. He joins us from Camp Victory in Baghdad.

Sir, Happy Easter to you, and thank you for joining us. Let me start with the big challenge you face. In just 11 weeks you're supposed to have your troops out of Mosul, out of Baqubah, out of major cities and you have had an uptick in violence in recent days.

Will you meet the deadline or will you have to keep the troops there? GEN. RAY ODIERNO, COMMANDER, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE-IRAQ: Well, first, John, if I could, I'd like to wish Happy Easter to everyone back in the United States, especially to all of the family and friends of our service members who continue to serve over here. It's a real dedication to their great work that has helped our soldiers over here.

John, what I would tell you is, overall, violence remains at 2003 lows. However, as you have seen over the last week or so, there are still some elements here that are able still to conduct some very serious attacks. So we will continue to conduct assessments along with the government of Iraq as we move towards the June 30th deadline.

If we believe that we'll need troops to maintain presence in some of the cities, we'll recommend that, but, ultimately, it'll be the decision of Prime Minister Maliki.

KING: And when the president was there, sir, just the other day, did you discuss this with him and did you, in fact, maybe ask him to pressure the Iraqi government? You know the political pressures, not only on our president here in the United States, but on Prime Minister Maliki.

Did you ask the president to say, look, if we need more time you need to nudge them to give it to us?

ODIERNO: Well, again, we did have good discussions. We went through all of the major issues facing Iraq now with the president. What we discussed is there are some diplomatic actions that have to be taken.

Listen. Prime Minister Maliki understands the tensions in Mosul. He understands there's an assessment that has to be made. I'm confident that we'll make a joint assessment then he will make a decision. We will tell him what we believe is the right thing to do but ultimately it'll be up to him to make that decision.

KING: I want to remind our viewers as we have this conversation about the timelines and deadlines you face. June 30th of this year all U.S. combat troops is supposed to be out of Baghdad and the other major Iraqi cities.

It is August 31, 2010 all U.S. combat troops are supposed to be out of Iraq, leaving about 50,000 behind and then by December 31st, 2011 all U.S. troops out of Iraq.

Sir, in your conversations with President Obama, how comfortable do you feel that if you go to him at any point, whether it's one of these interim deadlines or the bigger deadline in 2011, you say sir, I need more time or sir, I need more troops, that you will get what you need?

ODIERNO: Well, again, he understands, as he has stated, that there is still much work to be done here in Iraq. I believe he has given me the flexibility over the next 18 months in order to adjust the size of the force that I need in order to accomplish the mission.

What we're trying to do is set the conditions for Iraq to take over and be able to secure themselves. And so we'll continue to do that. And I have the flexibility to do that. The president has given that to me.

John, if I can make one correction. On August 31st, it is that we will have a change in mission here in Iraq and we will no longer conduct combat operations. It's not necessarily that all combat troops will be out of Iraq by that date.

KING: Thank you for the correction, sir. And it's well noted, because let me follow on that point. Are you concerned at all? The mission went off track at the beginning, way back six years ago when there weren't enough troops to do everything that needed to be done.

Are you concerned, sir, when you get to that point, when you're looking at 50,000 troops or so that you will have too few troops to do what you need to do or are you confident that if you need more, you'll get them?

ODIERNO: Well, what's changed, John, is that the Iraqi security forces have matured significantly. They now have 250,000 in army. They have over 400,000 police. They are continuing to improve in their competency. So that is helping significantly. So it is not the same as it was in 2004 or 2005 or 2006.

So part of the judgment will be how much can they do. They are proving every day that they are becoming more competent, so the decision will be made is how much of U.S. forces are needed in order to continue to support them to keep the stability that we're starting to see here in Iraq.

KING: And sir, I've walked over to our map so can I show our viewers what has happened over the timeline of the past six years back in May 2003, a little over 142,000 troops and if you follow the timeline over, you see in October 2007, because of your surge strategy, 170,000 troops on the ground, and we're down now somewhere in the area of 140,000 troops on the ground.

In terms of the pace of operations, the last time I was there and out with troops in the field was a little more than a year ago. And I did a convoy run up from Camp Anaconda up to Baqubah. That was a pretty dicey time. About every other convoy was experiencing an IED attack.

In terms of the reports you get back from the daily operations of the troops, is it as bad as it was then or have things improved significantly?

ODIERNO: Yes. They've improved significantly. And I think you would be surprised if you were here again. Obviously, we still have some very serious incidents, based on one this week. But, again, it's much safer.

In March, our combat fatalities were the lowest they've been since the beginning of the war. The number of incidents in March was the lowest month of incidents since really right back to June of 2003 before the insurgency started.

So there's been a clear improvement of security here. The issue is can we maintain that? Can the Iraqis maintain it? And that's what we're working through now is we want them to be able to maintain this stability as we pull out. And that's what we're assessing and constantly doing.

I believe we're on track to do that. We have a schedule to reduce our forces. I have flexibility to change that within the next 18 months, and we'll continue to look at that very closely as we move forward.

KING: And you mentioned that March was a relatively good month. I want to again play a timeline here so that our viewers can see it here. This is U.S. troops killed in Iraq and you see the numbers from 2003 moving forward. 2007 at the height of the surge was the highest year and 51 so far, I hesitate to say only 51 so far, in 2009.

You mentioned that March was a good month, sir. That was nine Americans killed in March. But already we've hit the number nine 12 days into the month of April because of a few tragic events in recent days. Why? Are you seeing this -- is this just random events or are you seeing some coordination of increase in violence?

ODIERNO: Yes. What I see is there are some cells out there who are still capable of conducting suicide attacks. And, unfortunately, had a tragic attack in Mosul this past week of a suicide bomber who killed five of our soldiers. Tragic, tragic event.

They have that capacity still. It's much less than it has ever been. They are very small cells throughout Iraq. We continue to be aggressive at going after them with the Iraqi security forces.

But this is not a significant increase in overall lack of security. There just are still some suicide bombers and those who profess suicide attacks that are still very dangerous.

KING: And help those military families and other Americans watching on this Easter Sunday morning assess where you are now. We talked at the beginning about the potential that you might have to ask for a little bit more time in Mosul, in Baqubah, in other cities.

Is this in part because you're saving the worst, the hardest challenges for last, if you will? That al Qaeda in Iraq and other groups that oppose your being there have concentrated in certain areas and these are the last fronts?

ODIERNO: Well, what we've done is we've driven them there, John, through our operations over the last two years. We've continued to eliminate areas where they are no longer welcome by the Iraqi people. They are rejected. They are no longer able to conduct operations so they've moved to certain areas.

One is in the desert near Syria between Syria and the city of Mosul, and then inside of Mosul. So we now are working very hard with the Iraqi security forces to finish off this last group of individuals who are still able to conduct some serious attacks.

The same in Baqubah. Although Baquba actually has been extremely safe, areas east of there towards the Iranian border still have some remnants of al Qaeda and other extremists that are still able to do some operations. So we're in the process of routing them out with the Iraqi security forces.

KING: And you just mentioned there, sir, areas near the Syrian border, and areas near the Iranian border which begs the question for the past six years we've had these conversations about Syria letting people back and forth across the border, in fact, maybe even supporting some of them.

Iran letting people back and forth, letting weapons across the border, and in fact training some of the people who are trying to kill the men and women who serve under you, sir.

What is the status of Iran and Syria? Are they still as problematic as they were before or have we seen any improvement?

ODIERNO: Well, first, we've been able to significantly limit the ability of them to traffic foreign fighters in through Syria. We have done that through major operations. We made it extremely difficult. The Iraqis have helped significantly in closing their borders and making it more difficult for foreign fighters and suicide attackers to come across.

They are still -- excuse me -- they are still able to come across in very small numbers. There's still some of a facilitation network that still is in Syria.

In terms of Iran -- Iran, although I would -- the support is a bit less than it was, there's still reports that training, funding, and the providing of weapons still goes on. Although it's at a smaller level, it's still very sophisticated and is still trying to impact the stability situation here in Iraq.

KING: More of our conversation with General Ray Odierno in just a moment.

And later, also, is President Obama the most polarizing president of recent times? We'll debate that question and more with two of our top political strategists.

Our STATE OF THE UNION report will be right back.


KING: We're back with the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno.

And, General, I want to ask you a bit about what I find fascinating is; that is, your relationship with the new commander in chief, someone who was so vigorously opposed to the war effort you now lead.

And I want to show our viewers a bit of a timeline, here.

It was back in October 2002 when then-Illinois state senator, Barack Obama, not even in the United States Senate yet, declared he was against the war in Iraq. And then, in January of 2007, Senator Barack Obama, a United States senator, at this point, and candidate for the presidency of the United States, spoke out strongly against the surge policy that General Odierno pushed for.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The responsible course of action for the United States, for Iraq, and for our troops is to oppose this reckless escalation and to pursue a new policy.


KING: But since winning the election and becoming commander in chief, a decidedly different tone from President Obama, when it comes to the war in Iraq, including his visit to Baghdad just this past Tuesday.


OBAMA: Every mission that's been assigned, from getting rid of Saddam to reducing violence to stabilizing the country, to facilitating elections, you have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country. That is an extraordinary achievement, and, for that, you have the thanks of the American people.


KING: General Odierno, you are the father of the surge strategy. You pushed for it when even many of your commanders wanted to get troops out of Iraq.

How is it -- how hard is it to develop a rapport with a president of the United States who thought your strategy was a reckless escalation?

ODIERNO: Well, first off, he's our commander in chief. And as the commander in chief, we take direction from him. He has -- in all of the meetings I've had with him, he is very attentive; he's very -- he listens. He is incredibly intelligent. He talks through the issues, and -- and we discuss it. He makes a decision and then we execute those decisions.

So that's all you can expect out of your commander in chief. And he's -- I've been very pleased with the interaction that I've been able to have with him.

KING: Has he ever said, General, you know, Ray, you were right; I was wrong about the surge?

ODIERNO: I don't think we talked about that ever.


KING: Let me -- let me ask you -- let me move back to a more serious question, and the idea that, in the previous administration and in your service prior to this administration, you were very clear that you thought these decisions should not be based on political timelines; they should be based on conditions on the ground.

I understand you're executing the orders of the commander in chief. I just want to get a sense of, are you concerned at all that the bad guys, the enemy, knows the timeline, too, and they are simply going into hiding, hoarding their resources, gathering their weapons and waiting for you to leave?

ODIERNO: There is always that potential. But, again, let me remind everyone what changed was in December when the United States and the government of Iraq signed an agreement, a bilateral agreement that put the timeline in place, that said we would withdraw all our forces by 31 December, 2011.

In my mind, that was historic. It allowed Iraq to prove that it has its own sovereignty. It allows them now to move forward and take control, which was always -- it's always been our goal, is that they can control the stability in their country.

So I think I feel comfortable with that timeline. I did back in December. I do now. We continue to work with the government of Iraq so they can meet that timeline, so that they are able to maintain stability once we leave. I still believe we're on track with that, as we talk about this today.

KING: You say you're comfortable with that timeline, sir. I want you to expound on that, a little bit. Because, back in -- I'm holding up a copy of Tom Ricks' book, "The Gamble." It's a fascinating book from the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Washington Post" journalist about the war effort in Iraq.

And you told him, in that book -- this is -- he's quoting you in that book. "When asked what sort of U.S. military presence he expected in Iraq around 2014 or 2015, well after Obama's first term, Odierno said, 'I would like to see a force probably around 30,000 or so, 35,000, with many troops training Iraqi forces and others conducting combat operations against al Qaeda in Iraq and its allies.'"

Now, certainly, this was before the agreement with the Iraqi government was negotiated -- and I want to make that clear -- when you made those remarks.

But you have to implement this strategy because it is a signed agreement between the government of Iraq and the United States of America. But do you personally think it would be best that, for the foreseeable future, to leave 30,000 or so behind?

ODIERNO: Well, again, what I would tell you is it really has always been about Iraqi -- Iraqis securing their own country. So the issue becomes, do we think they will be able to do that?

As they continue to improve in the operations they've been able to conduct, I believe that they will be able to do that by the end of 2011.

And so the most important thing for us is to help them now to reduce the risk that will be left with them once we depart at the end of 2011. We will continue to train and advise. We'll continue to assist; we'll continue to conduct combat operations, where we believe it's necessary. And I do believe, now, that it is probably the right time frame. KING: And on a scale of 1 to 10, sir, how confident are you, 10 being fully confident, that you will meet that deadline, that all U.S. troops will be gone at the end of 2011?

ODIERNO: As you ask me today, I believe it's a 10 that we will be gone by 2011.

KING: That's a -- that's a bold statement. I want to ask you, a little bit, about your current work. Because a lot of what you're doing requires the Iraqi security forces to get up to speed, and that, of course, is part of your mission.

But the other part of the equation is the Iraqi political environment. And in that environment, you are finding yourself, I'm told, in some meetings that you would prefer that the lead person be the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and you don't have a U.S. ambassador at the moment. The nomination of Chris Hill is held up at the moment in the United States Senate.

Does that hurt the U.S. effort in Iraq, not having an ambassador on the ground?

ODIERNO: Well, I mean I believe it's important to have an ambassador here. It's important to have an ambassador in all of our key countries. And Iraq is a very important country in our national strategy. So, of course, it would be much better to have our ambassador here.

We have a process that we have to go through to get our ambassadors confirmed. We're going through that process. Hopefully we'll have an ambassador out here very soon. It would certainly help to have an ambassador here as quickly as possible.

KING: You work now in an administration that doesn't like the term war on terror. The Bush administration used that term quite frequently. Does that matter to you? The men and women who are risking their lives every day, are they fighting the war on terror in General Odierno's view or something else?

ODIERNO: Well, what they are doing is fighting for the security of United States. So it doesn't matter what you call it. We're here to ensure that we better secure the -- all of the people of our country and that by doing that, by defeating terrorists in Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else, we're here to accomplish what we believe is important to maintain security for our country.

KING: I want to ask you, sir, as a general and as a parent of someone who was hurt in Iraq, your son suffered a devastating injury, but, thank God, was not hurt any further than that in Iraq. We have a new policy where they have now opened Dover that allowed media coverage of the returning bodies, the caskets of those who suffer the ultimate sacrifice overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Do you support that policy? Do you think it helps the American people better understand the price those young men and women are paying, or do you think it's too much? ODIERNO: I think the most important piece of that was that you give the families the choice. What we care about is the families have their choice. We want to respect the families. So it always comes down to that. So I'm very pleased that the families gets to choose whether that coverage happens or not and I think that's the right thing.

KING: General, one other thing I wanted to mentioned, I'm sorry before I do let you go. You know, I'm an old fashioned kind of guy and I would thought I had a friend in Ray Odierno on the show. But I understand you have launched the Facebook site now so that you can better communicate with folks back here in the United States. And we're showing it on our monitors.

Before we let you go, I just want you to know that my resistance to Facebook has now crumbled, thanks to Ray Odierno.

Explain why you think this is important.

ODIERNO: Well, I want to -- I think it's important that people can reach out and ask questions and maybe educate them a little bit more on what's going on here in Iraq and get to know us a little bit better. This is new for me. This is new ground so we'll see how it goes but I'm actually pretty excited about it.

KING: Well, we'll see how many people are watching today by how many friends you get in the next few hours. Again, General, Happy Easter to you and the men and women serving in Iraq and take care, sir.

ODIERNO: Thanks, John. I appreciate it very much.

KING: All right, General. Take care.

And huge factors in getting the U.S. troops out of Iraq on schedule are the abilities of Iraq's military and police forces to step up major security challenges and the willingness of Iraq's political leaders to set aside sectarian and other rivalries.

Up next, we discuss those challenges with Iraq's national security adviser.



OBAMA: It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis. They -- they need to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty.


KING: President Obama there addressing U.S. troops in Iraq during a quick visit to the country this past Tuesday. We just heard from General Odierno. Now let's get the Iraqi view of where things stand.

In our Baghdad bureau, Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al- Rubaie.

Sir, let me start with the basic premise. President Obama said it's time for Iraq to take over. Are you ready?

MOWAFFAK AL-RUBAIE, IRAQI NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, before I answer your question, let me, through your program, say Happy Easter to all Christians all over the world.

And, number two, I would like to express my gratitude and the big thank you from the Iraqi people and the government of Iraq to the United States of America for things they have done in this country, bringing down the dictatorship and sustaining the security of this country and building, helping us in building our Iraqi security forces and to reach to this least now to a considerable reduction in violence.

And this security, again, we believe it's sustainable and we are -- we, the government of Iraq and the security forces in Iraq are much more suited now for this fight. And we believe that we can -- now we are leading and we are planning and cutting out most of the combat operations in the country and the United States forces are moving or transitioning to a more support role, more training, more providing more logistical support, rather than engaging in a huge military or kinetic combat operations.

KING: And so, sir, with that progress or despite that progress maybe, you just heard General Odierno. If he comes to you in three or four weeks or six or eight weeks and says, Mr. National Security Adviser, Mr. Prime Minister, I know I have this June 30th deadline to get out of the cities but in Mosul, in Baqubah, there are still some problems, I need a little bit more time, I may actually have to send more U.S. troops in the short term.

KING: Would he get the permission of the Iraqi government to do that if he believes it's necessary?

AL-RUBAIE: See, we're continuing monitoring the situation jointly with the Multi-National Forces and we're consulting the Multi- National Forces on a military and we are on daily coordination and cooperation and assessing the situation on daily basis. So I don't think we should answer this hypothetical question now.

KING: OK. I understand that point. And I bring it up because in the past, sir, you say you're ready or you will be ready by the deadlines. In the past you have been optimistic and that optimism has turned out not to be so well-founded. I want to bring up something you told "The Washington Post" back in June 2006. That's almost three years ago.

You said, "We envision the U.S. troop presence by year's end to be under 100,000 with most of the remaining troops to return home by the end of 2007."

It is now, of course, 2009 and there are 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Why should we believe your optimism now, to put it bluntly, when you were on the record some time ago saying you thought this day would come a lot sooner? AL-RUBAIE: Well, we are all much more intelligent with hindsight and I believe we have now very, very competent and very well trained and equipped, the Iraqi security forces.

The Iraqi security forces are leading and doing most of the combat operation now. What we are requiring. Only the high-end, very specialized counterterrorism operation and some logistical support, some air fire support, some navy support, that is what we are requiring.

And we are building these as we go along and in the next year or so, we will be in a position to take all -- to take over all of our country. All the security, all over the country.

KING: Mr. al-Rubaie, let me ask you this question. The White House says when President Obama was there and he had the meetings with your political leaders, he delivered a stern message that the differences between the Kurds and the Shia need to be resolved, the other sectarian issues. Essentially a push and nudge for the politics of Iraq to become more peaceful and more stable to build confidence going forward.

What was the strongest or the most different message you found from President Obama in these meetings?

AL-RUBAIE: See, what we have, we have agreed, the three communities -- the three major communities have agreed on a one-term reference and that is the Constitution. And millions of Iraqis have ratified this Constitution. We formed a national unity government according to that Constitution.

The Sunni, the Kurds, the Shia are all in that national unity government. And we are -- if we have any differences, if we have any dispute, we should go back to the Constitution and defer to the one document we have agreed on and that's the Constitution.

KING: Let me...

AL-RUBAIE: There's nothing else, other than the Constitution.

KING: Mowaffak al-Rubaie is the national security adviser of Iraq. Sir, we thank you for your time and your insights this morning.

AL-RUBAIE: Thank you for having me.

KING: And up next we turn to the problems back home in this country, including the economy. With so much country still struggling was it the right time for President Obama to say we're starting to see glimmers of hope?

And on a lighter note we have some news on the Obama family's new dog. We'll talk about it all with Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican strategist Kevin Madden.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Don Lemon. We'll get back to STATE OF THE UNION with John King in just a moment. But first we want to check the headlines. Get you caught up on some big news stories today.

There he is. Captain Richard Phillips, safe and sound and smiling on board the USS Boxer. He is a free man thanks to Navy seals who took out three of his pirate captors earlier today off the coast of Somalia.

Military officials said the on scene commander of the USS Bainbridge determined Phillip's life was in imminent danger. A pirate was pointing an AK-47 at Phillips' back. Three sniper shots later it was over.

A lot of relief and a lot of pride today. Our Susan Candiotti talked with the head of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy that trained Captain Richard Phillips.


REAR ADM. RICHARD GURNON, USMS: Well, we can't be more proud of Richard Phillips and Shane Murphy, the captain, and the -- the first mate who became captain. His first job. We can't be more proud of them. They have evidenced the true skills that they learned here that they learn in all maritime colleges across the United States.

This is a great day for mariners around the world.


LEMON: Captain Richard Phillips was held captive by pirates about five days. Each day generating its own headlines. Here's how it played out from beginning to end.


LEMON (voice-over): Early Wednesday, the 508-foot Maersk Alabama was steaming south about 300 miles off the coast of Somalia when it was boarded by four armed Somali pirates. A scuffle broke out and the pirates escaped in the ship's 28-foot enclosed lifeboat with Captain Richard Phillips as a hostage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just want to clarify something right now. We never lost control of the ship.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They never had.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We never took it back, they never had this ship.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We never fought to stay in the back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They had Phillips but they didn't have the ship.

LEMON: The USS Bainbridge arrived on the scene the next day. Phillips jumped off the lifeboat in a bid to escape but was quickly recaptured. The Alabama was given a security detail and sent on to Kenya.

SUSAN CRONAN, SISTER OF CREW MEMBER: I feel horrible about him that he is stuck out there. I think that my brother and the crew when they were told to leave and had head to Kenya I can only imagine that they felt horrible leaving the captain behind.

LEMON: On Good Friday the guided missile frigate, the USS Halliburton also arrived on the scene. On Saturday the Navy sent a small group of sailors in a boat to try to make contact with the pirates. But as the sailors approached the lifeboat they were fired on by the pirates and retreated. The Alabama docked that night in Mombassa, Kenya. The FBI declared the ship a crime scene and quarantined the crew.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This man is a hero, a national hero right here. Everybody on the ship owes their life to this man right here.

LEMON: Late Easter Sunday, the Navy launched a rescue operation that resulted in Phillips being freed. Three of the pirates were killed. And one of the pirates was taken into custody.


LEMON: And CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is in Manama, Bahrain, headquarters for the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. She has more details on this dramatic rescue.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Captain Phillips was rescued after Navy snipers killed the three pirates that had been holding him for days. The snipers shot and killed the pirates from their positions on board the USS Bainbridge, the warship that had been shadowing the lifeboat in which Captain Phillips had been held.

U.S. officials say that several U.S. Special Operations Forces were involved in the rescue attempt, President Obama had given the U.S. military standing authority to take decisive action against the pirates if Captain Phillips' life was in danger.

And the on-scene commander decided it was after the U.S. military saw Captain Phillips being held with an AK-47 rifle at his back.

Barbara Starr, CNN, Bahrain.

LEMON: All right, Barbara, thank you.

Big time celebrations in the Kenyan port city of Mombassa as Captain Phillips' crew men found out about his rescue.

Our Stan Grant spoke to him and they couldn't say this enough. The pirates never, never, they say, had control of their ship.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just want to clarify something right now. We never lost control of this ship. We never took it back from them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They never had it. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They never had this ship.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We never fought to take it back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They never had the ship.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They never had control. Never. Ever.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Never had control.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am the chief engineer. And I guarantee you they never had control. I took it from the bridge just as they walked on to the bridge with guns and stuck guns in his face. In the captain's face. I -- the captain said the bridge has been compromised. I took control down in the engine room. They never had.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of the bravest men I have ever met. Right here. Right here. This man is a hero. A national hero right here. Everybody on the ship owes their life to this man right here.


LEMON: That was captured by our Stan Grant, who is there with them. That hero he's talking about is the Maersk Alabama's chief engineer who says he took immediate control of the ship from down in the engine room.

Recapping our breaking news on the abducted U.S. cargo ship, Captain Richard Phillips. He was rescued by the U.S. Navy on this Easter Sunday and will soon be coming home after a five-day hostage ordeal with pirates off the coast of Somalia.

U.S. Navy officials say the Maersk Alabama captain is uninjured and in relatively good shape after being freed from the grip of well-armed pirates by U.S. Navy seals. They felt the captain was in, quote, "imminent danger."

Three of the pirates are dead. A fourth is now in custody.

Captain Phillips presently on board the USS Boxer, one of three U.S. Navy warships dispatched to the area after the captain's cargo ship was hijacked Wednesday.

President Barack Obama is congratulating the Navy for the successful rescue mission. Captain Phillips as well and his crew.

I'm Don Lemon. I'll see you back here at 10:00 p.m. Eastern. 10:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN. I want to get you back now to STATE OF THE UNION with John King.


KING: Picture of the White House there on a beautiful Sunday, Easter Sunday, here in Washington. After weeks of warnings that things could get worse before they got better, President Obama is suddenly speaking in a considerably more hopeful tone.

For insight into the president's change in message we turn to two seasoned political veterans. Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican strategist Kevin Madden.

Welcome. Happy Easter to both of you. Previous times on the program, we've talked about the president saying it's going to get worse before it gets better. This past week, he's out there urging Americans to refinance, saying, get in the re-fi business, you can save the family a few bucks in the budget; and also sounding more optimistic.

Let's listen to the president.


OBAMA: What you're starting to see is glimmers of hope across the economy. Now, we have always been very cautious about prognosticating, and that's not going to change just because it's Easter.


KING: Smart to be more upbeat?

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I believe he's responding to some of the good news, consumer confidence up just a little bit; the housing market. People have gone back in, refinancing, buying up some of the foreclosed properties. Clearly, the credit markets are thawing.

So the president is just expressing what, I'm sure, his advisers have told him, look, is there a bright sign out there. But, look, John, until we can, you know, get jobs back into the communities, until we can provide people with health care, I still believe that we're still in the thick of this recession.

KING: Is it risky, if maybe a lagging indicator, but if unemployment is still on the way up, to have this president saying I see "glimmers of hope," and then next month, the unemployment rate edges up towards 9 percent, maybe even goes higher than that?

Does he risk as seeing, as President Bush was, as out of touch?

KEVIN MADDEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: No, that is the great peril, here, that he does risks seeming to be talking in very flowery terms when people are still struggling.

There's still a great deal of anxiety out there amongst the American public. And we are going to see a lot more job losses before things gets better.

You know, I grew up in the city, and it was always very easy to see the green sprouting from bricks and bricks of concrete. And I think that is what is happening here, is that President Obama is trying to point to these signs of life in a very -- you know, in a very barren economy, right now, in an effort to encourage the markets. The markets right now don't need somebody who is a, you know, chief executive who is out there talking down the economy. So this is much more geared towards encouraging many of those in the private sector to keep moving in the right direction as the economy starts to...


BRAZILE: ... to rebuild trust in the system. I mean, most Americans are not trust -- we don't trust the banks. We don't trust the system.

KING: I want to bring you to -- both of your thoughts on an essay written by Michael Gerson. He worked for the former President Bush, a thoughtful guy, outside of working in the Bush White House. And he says this about Barack Obama, quite interesting.

He says, "Who has been the most polarizing new president of recent times, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush? No, that honor belongs to Barack Obama. Obama has been a unifier, of sorts. He has unified Democrats and united Republicans against each other."

BRAZILE: You know, Mr. Gerson made two mistakes. One, he didn't point out that this is part of a long-term trend, and that's something that the Pew poll talked about. This trend goes back for 30 years.

And the second thing is that the Republican Party itself really has shrunken over the last four years. And in 2004, 33 percent of the American people identified with the Republican Party; today it's 27 percent.

So there has been a 6 percent drop. And so this is part of a long- term trend and has nothing to do with President Obama.

KING: Nothing to do with President Obama? But the numbers don't lie. Among Democrats, Obama has 88 percent approval rating; among Republicans, a 27 percent approval rating.

MADDEN: You know, a lot of Republicans seized on this poll, this week, as evidence that -- you know, of reasons to criticize President Obama.

And I think it has less to do with polarization and more to do with failed expectations. President Obama ran, during this last campaign, as somebody who was going to change the tone and tenor of Washington, who was going to challenge the status quo.

And I think, with both his policies and his rhetoric, he's done neither, and that's why we've seen -- the biggest problem for President Obama here is the fact that independents have dropped about 13 points since the inauguration. And he had sizable levels of Republican support, close to 40 percent at the inauguration, and that has now eroded to a record low.

And I think that is a troubling sign, I think, for President Obama, if he is going to try to forge an agenda around unity and bipartisanship for his...


KING: I want to put you both on the spot.


KING: Time-out, time-out. We've got about 20 seconds left. I want to put you both on the spot on the day's biggest breaking news, "The First Puppy Makes a Big Splash."


Bo will be coming to the White House. Sasha and Malia have named their new dog "Bo" who will be there on Tuesday.

BRAZILE: That should clearly improve his ratings among independents and Republicans.


I mean, what's not to like about this dog? He's cute. He's adorable, but I hope he's potty-trained.

KING: You hope he's potty-trained.

BRAZILE: Oh yes.

KING: Is this silly season or does it matter how a president and his new young family go about their business?

MADDEN: You know, I think one of the things that's happened with this president is that Washington, D.C. has become not only the financial and political capital of the world but the cultural capital of the world.

What they eat, what they wear, the kind of pets that they have -- that has really, I think, influenced a lot of Americans. Americans are watching Washington in a new way they haven't about before.

I mean, I know that this is going to create problems in the Madden household because when, the debate comes up about getting a dog, now it's...


... well, if, you know, if Sasha and Malia can have one, how come Riley (ph) and Colin (ph) can't?


KING: I had a little conversation with Hannah (ph) King yesterday, and let me just say, I share your pain.


Kevin Madden, Donna Brazile, thanks so much for coming in today. During the last campaign, it was Republicans who were clamoring for more oil drilling offshore. But is it something the Democratic Obama administration is now willing to consider?

We'll go out in an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico with interior secretary Ken Salazar to get the answer.

STATE OF THE UNION will be right back.


KING: You hear a lot of talk these days about the green economy. You might remember just a few weeks back we went to a factory just outside of Philadelphia where they're making those giant wind turbines.

The goal, to help reduce the dependence of the United States on foreign oil. But foreign oil will be with us for some time. One way to reduce that dependence is to find more domestic sources.

And look at the map here. This is off shore oil. They believe there are 10.5 billion barrels offshore in the Pacific, 41 billion in the Western Gulf of Mexico, 3.8 billion here. So we went off shore with the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to talk about this and other energy and environment debates and from an oil rig right here in the Gulf of Mexico, Secretary Salazar gets "The Last Word."


KING: How much of a part of the future is this?

KEN SALAZAR, INTERIOR SECRETARY: It's a very huge part of the future. The outer shelf has 1.57 billion acres, that's a massive plate.

KING: A lot of your friends, people who support your political coalition who don't like this. They think it's dangerous for the environment, they think it's risky the environment.

SALAZAR: We need a comprehensive energy plan. We need to do a lot more with efficiency and we need to do a lot with alternative fuels and renewable energies. We move forward with the vast technologies, but in the meantime, we need to make sure that we're also developing our oil and gas resources so we break our dependence on foreign oil.

KING: But we will be reliant on oil for how long?

SALAZAR: You know, for the foreseeable future, there is no way that we are going to replace the oil and gas that we're using today, John, in a matter of four, five, 10 years. So we'll continue to depend on oil and gas as we transition over to higher efficiency and to alternative fuel.

KING: And based on this, if you were to have a conversation with the governor of California or the governor of Florida, whose citizens are very wary of this, they don't want it off their shores, what would you tell them? SALAZAR: I think what I would tell them is to make sure that they are making informed decisions. You know I think there might be something to be said about the placement of where these rigs actually go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're safer here but there are (INAUDIBLE).

SALAZAR: So it's actually the further you are from sharp.

Today we're standing some 75 miles away from the shoreline and it has a different impact on the coast than if we were actually in the marshes or right next to the coastline. So, I think some of it has to do with where the resources are located. Some of it has to do with the technology that has been developed.

I think the technology has come a long ways. There was a time, I think, when there was a lot of pollution that actually occurred from these rigs. I think now they'll tell you that there is very little pollution that actually occurs.

Have you had any spills since you've been here?

KING: It sounds like you're saying they should at least open their minds to thinking about this more.

SALAZAR: President Obama has said that the outer continental shelf should be on the table, as part of a comprehensive energy package. So, how exactly that will happen is something that we will be deciding over the next several months. And at the end of the day, we are going to have production.

We are pro-production, but we also are going to transform our energy economy from an oil-based, carbon- based economy over to a new energy economy of renewables and the vast technologies.

KING: And as this debate has started in the new administration, your critics and Republicans in Congress, but not all Republicans and some people outside the Congress say what you want to do in terms of greenhouse gases, cap and trade, is essentially a carbon tax on hard- working America.

SALAZAR: You know, they are wrong. I think it's a false choice that is being set up by those who are in opposition to us addressing the issue of carbon emissions.

Here's where the point of transaction occurs, right here.

KING: Could that mean, though, to deal with it that American households, American families might have to pay more?

SALAZAR: I think what it will mean is that we're going to have to change what we're doing now. So I think there may be changes in the lifestyles of Americans. As we look at the country in 10 years of now, it will probably be different in terms of how our homes are constructed, the kinds of vehicles that we drive and other kind of efficiencies that we use. KING: If you turn on a television, the different parties, the different interest in this debate often fight it out with television ads, just like politicians do. Big ads running now say that there are no such things as clean coal. Shows a family choking in their house. Is there clean coal?

SALAZAR: There can be clean coal technologies and there is clean coal technologies. But part of what has happened is there has been a failure to move forward in the investment to find out how we can sequester the carbon.

You know, coal is to the United States what oil is to Saudi Arabia. The problem is, when you burn it, you have such high emissions of CO2. We could capture CO2 and we could sequester it in geologic formations, but that technology is something that has to be developed.

And one of the things that President Obama and the stimulus package has invested a significant amount of money in, to see how we can burn coal in a clean way.

KING: And what do you say to those who look at the new administration, even some who support the goals of the new administration, say the president is trying to do too much. And when you're trying to do too much too fast, everything gets a little scatter shot.

SALAZAR: I know Barack Obama well, and what I know about him is that he is effective in what he is doing. And when you have the kind of crises that we face today as a nation, it requires somebody to do a lot.

So what President Obama is doing now he's tackling a whole host of issues, frankly because we were in a crisis time. This is a transformational time. November was a transformational election and the issues that we're dealing with from the economy to health care to energy are issues that cannot wait.

We can't wait to get moving on these issues for three or four years. And so that's why he's working so hard every day to try to deliver on the promise of change that he made to America.


KING: We'll be here again next Sunday and every Sunday at 9:00 a.m. Eastern for the first and last word in Sunday talk. Until then, I'm John King in Washington. Take care.