Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Japan Death Toll Soars; New Fears of Japan's Radioactive Leak; Yemen Blast Kills at Least 121; Witness: Government Forces Storm Syrian City; Former President Carter in Cuba; The Price of Protecting Libyans; GOP Lines of Attack on Libya; Woman Charges Gadhafi Troops With Rape; Rebels Push Toward Gadhafi Birthplace; What To Expect from President Tonight; What Obama Critics Want to Hear

Aired March 28, 2011 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Thanks very much, Brooke.

Happening now, President Obama is just hours away from speaking to the nation and addressing concerns about the U.S. military action in Libya. This hour, his speech, the stakes and the price all of us are paying for the mission.

Libyan rebels are closing in on Moammar Gadhafi's birthplace, warning the battle ahead may be their toughest and bloodiest yet.

And scary new discoveries at Japan's crippled nuclear power plant and new traces of radiation -- tiny ones, tiny -- have been found further across the United States.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

In Libya, rebels cheer renewed momentum against Moammar Gadhafi's forces. But here in Washington, President Obama is facing lots of criticism for the U.S. mission in Libya. Two-and-a-half hours from now, he'll try to ease concerns about the operation's goals, its costs and the end game. His remarks coming a little over a week after the first coalition air strikes and at a critical time for opposition fighters on the ground.

A moment ago, Libyan rebels had taken control of a number of key cities. But Gadhafi's troops wiped out those gains in a bloody assault on the opposition and the civilians.

In recent days, though, rebels say coalition air strikes have helped them reclaim control of several strategic eastern cities. Now they're pushing west, toward Gadhafi's birthplace, Sirte.

Let's go straight to CNN's Reza Sayah.

He's in the Robert stronghold of Benghazi, with more on where this battle stands right now.

What's the latest information, Reza, that you're getting? REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, these opposition forces had an impressive three days, gaining about 200 miles of territory, capturing five towns from the Gadhafi forces. Today, they finally met some resistance, the first in about 72 hours. That resistance coming in the city of Sirte, Gadhafi's birthplace, his hometown. When you talk to opposition officials here, they anticipated a fight there and they got it. Rebel forces telling CNN that Gadhafi forces using trickery, chicanery, to push back on opposition forces. Accounts of Gadhafi forces arming civilians who are allegedly firing on opposition forces. One rebel fighter telling CNN that he and a group of other fighters saw some Gadhafi soldiers waving a white flag. That, of course, the universal signal for I give up, I surrender.

But this soldier telling us, this rebel fighter telling us, as they approached this group of soldiers, the soldiers fired on them.

These are accounts that we can't independently verify, but these are the types of the stories we've been hearing over the past several days. They are an indication, Wolf, of the type of challenges that these rebel forces face moving into a city like Sirte.

At this point tonight, opposition forces say they have retreated out of Sirte. They are planning, regrouping, strategizing for their next attempt to go into this key city -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I imagine there's a great deal of anticipation in Benghazi, where you are, where the opposition forces are really headquartered, looking ahead to President Obama's speech on Libya tonight.

What's the expectation there -- Reza?

SAYAH: Well, the Libyans are night owls. They stay up late. Obama's speech is going to be after midnight tonight, so I think a lot of people will be eager to see what he has to say.

Mr. Obama, along with French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, are very popular men here, because, of course, the French, the U.S. air strikes have led the -- this new fly -- no-fly zone. I don't think he can say anything to change that tonight for the Libyan people.

I think what they're curious about, the opposition here, is what -- the fact that NATO is taking charge of this operation will mean for the air strikes, if it's going to be a de-escalation of these air strikes. They are openly calling on these air strikes to continue. They acknowledge, many of them, that it's been these air strikes that have facilitated this impressive push forward west toward Tripoli, which is the ultimate destination for these rebel fighters -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll stay in close contact with you, Reza.

Reza Sayah in Tripoli -- excuse me, in Benghazi for us.

When President Obama does speak about the Libyan mission later tonight, he'll be speaking to a nation weary of war and quite a few critics in Congress, from both sides of the aisle. We got some news from the Pentagon a short while ago that may help -- may help him make his case that the fight in Libya will end sooner rather than later, especially now that NATO is formally taking over command.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VICE ADM. BILL GORTNEY, DIRECTOR, JOINT STAFF: I know it seems as though I'm trying to hammer home a point here, and I guess I am. It's simply this. U.S. military participation in this operation is, as we have said all along, changing to one primarily of support. Indeed, one of our submarines, the USS Providence, has now moved on to previously assigned tasking, having completed all strike missions assigned to her.

And maybe we aren't flying the bulk of combat senty -- sorties anymore, but the U.S. is now providing nearly 80 percent of all air refueling, almost 75 of aerial surveillance hours and 100 percent of all electronic warfare missions.

In other ma -- in other words, we remain committed to the mission and to the mandate we've been told to enforce.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's bring in our senior Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

She's on Capitol Hill.

But first, I want to go to our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry -- Ed, set the stage.

How detailed will the president be in his speech tonight at the National Defense University?

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, White House aides are being very tight-lipped. But they know full well that the president is facing a raft of questions to get into much more detail about the mission in the days ahead, not just from Republicans on the Hill, but the key is Democrats on the Hill, as well, who have been very critical of the president and have wanted him for days now to come out and speak.

So tonight, what you're going to hear, in part, from the president, is that he sees this as a key turning point, now that NATO has agreed to take on the full command of the mission, moving forward, taking control of enforcing the no-fly zone, for example.

And the president previewed that message just a little bit earlier today, when he did a town hall meeting with Univision.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY UNIVISION)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our involvement there is going to be limited, both in time and in scope. But you're absolutely right that we have a very large defense budget. Some of that is necessitated by the size of our country and the particular special role that we play around the globe.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Now, the key for the president tonight is not just going to be about explaining the mission in Libya, but how it fits into the broader strife we've seen, and change, in the Mideast, in North Africa.

Interesting, at a briefing today with White House officials, they were peppered with questions, such as, is there now a Libya precedent?

For example, given some of the violence in Syria, does that mean the U.S. is contemplating military action there?

White House officials say no, each case they're going to take on a case by case basis. But it gives you an idea now of the pressure on this president, not just to explain this mission in Libya, but how it fits into the U.S. broader strategic goals -- foreign policy goals in the Mideast -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Normally when a president sends young men and women off to war, there's an address from the Oval Office to the American people. In this case tonight, the president has decided to go to Fort McNair here in Washington, DC and speak before an audience at the National Defense University.

What was the thinking behind that?

HENRY: Well, absolutely. And it's symbolical -- symbolically very important.

Number one, White House officials say the president wanted to note the sacrifice of U.S. military personnel, not just in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, but also Japan, as well, where they've been taking a very important role.

But more importantly, big picture, the president, deliberately, aides say, stayed away from an Oval Office address because he thought it would elevate it too much and it would run counter to the point he's going to try to make, which is that an Oval Office address, as you mentioned, normally reserved for something like the war in Iraq well over 100,000 U.S. troops early on in that mission; the war in Afghanistan, now tens of thousands of U.S. troops still there.

He wants to make the point tonight, this is much more limited than those other conflicts. And so they thought doing it in the Oval Office would raise the stakes much too high. They want to keep them in check tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And I know you're going to be heading over there for our coverage throughout the night.

Ed, thanks very much.

Let's go to our senior Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- Dana, you've been speaking to a lot of members on the Hill, Democrats and Republicans and a few of those Independents, as well.

What do they want to hear from the president tonight?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, it's interesting. I think there's little question that a big reason the president is giving this speech tonight is because of the barrage of criticism that he has gotten from members of Congress in both parties here, specifically about the way that he has communicated about the Libya mission.

Again, from both parties, we have heard people say he has not defined the mission correctly and that he and his top aides have even been confusing in terms of what the U.S. objectives are in the Libyan mission.

So as far as his speech tonight goes, what I've heard from lawmakers, again, in both parties, is that what they really want the president to do is to explain, going forward, what the U.S. mission is going to be vis-a-vis NATO, as the -- the mission is turned over more to NATO and U.S. allies. And even more importantly, this is, I think, what I've heard emphasized from both parties, is that they want to know, what is the exit strategy?

What is the end game?

Listen to examples of that from senators -- again, Democrat and Republican.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: We want to know how long can we expect to be in this mission?

I don't think he can give us the exact time, but I think we need to have a clear understanding as to how long a commitment we're talking about and how much will be U.S. and how much will be international.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: When will the U.S. combat role in the operation end?

Will America's commitment end in days, not weeks, as the president promised?

What will be the duration of the non-combat operation and what will be the cost?

What national security interests of the United States justified the risk of American life?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: And, Wolf, you know, that there has been criticism from the president's own party for not coming to Congress first and getting approval before this military mission in Libya. And that man you just heard there, the top Republican, Mitch McConnell, he actually said that he thought that the president did the right thing. He did have the authority to go ahead with the mission so far. But he also said -- and we're hearing this from other people -- he said that if the scope and duration of the mission continues to expand, for example, if U.S. forces execute additional air strikes to support opposition forces in Libya, then the president is going to have to come to Congress and get approval -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. He sort of misquoted the president, Mitch McConnell, when said that the president said that the U.S. mission would stop within a matter of days, as opposed to weeks.

What the president said, the U.S. leadership, the command...

BASH: Right.

BLITZER: -- would stop within a matter of a few days. NATO would take charge. But he never said the U.S. would simply walk away from its NATO responsibilities. It's a nuance, but it's a significant nuance, because, clearly, this U.S. mission, whether it's under U.S. command or under NATO command, is going to continue...

BASH: Absolutely.

BLITZER: -- for the foreseeable future.

One -- one sensitive point that the Defense secretary, Robert Gates, said yesterday was that Libya was not in the, quote, "vital national security interests of the United States."

How is that playing on the Hill?

BASH: Not very well, Wolf. Look, Secretary Gates is somebody who has enormous respect, bipartisan respect here on Capitol Hill. And for people to hear him say that the U.S. is engaged in any mission at all where there is not a vital U.S. interest did not go over very well.

Now, he did say that the region, of course, is of interest. But that is, again, one of the questions that members of Congress in both parties say that they want the president to clarify tonight. if -- if the U.S. is not -- does not have a vital interest in Libya, then why is the U.S. there at all? BLITZER: And I wonder if the president will speak about another deep concern of members on the Hill -- how much is this going to cost American taxpayers?

We know it's already wound up hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars within only a week. But we'll see if the president gets into the cost of this war, as well.

Dana, thanks very much.

We're staying on top of a startling development in Libya. A woman stormed into a Tripoli hotel to tell foreign correspondents she'd been raped by government troops. We're going to tell you what's happening to her right now.

And should Americans be concerned about radiation spreading here from Japan's crippled nuclear plant?

We'll put it all in perspective.

Much more of our coverage coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The death toll is climbing more than two weeks since the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Officials now put the number of people killed at more than 10,800 and another 16,244 people are missing.

Meanwhile, new fears of a radioactive leak from the containment vessel surrounding one of the damaged nuclear reactors. Authorities believe contaminating water is seeping into tunnels, possibly even the Pacific Ocean.

Water found in one tunnel is emitting radioactivity more than 330 times the dose an average person receives per year. Tokyo Electric also says small amounts of plutonium have been detected in the soil, on plants, grounds, but stresses there's no health risk.

Meanwhile here in the United States, very, very tiny, tiny amounts of radiation have been detected in some rain water in Massachusetts. CNN's Chad Myers is monitoring all of this for us. So Chad, tell us what we know about this.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Wolf, I had to sharpen the chalk today to help you out because you're going to read about that number 79 pico-Curies per liter in the rain water of Massachusetts, wow, 79. That sounds like a big number. The problem is the pico and I probably you never haven't heard of that.

You've heard of mila and nano and all that, it's smaller than that. You have a zero, ten of them and then all of a sudden, at the end of those ten zeros, I'm not even counting, you have a 79. That's the concentration of the iodine 131 in this rainwater.

The CDC says you can drink it up to 108 if it's in your water so literally, know you never want to do this, but you could take all the rain water and still drink it and still be under what the CDC says that that's the maximum amount.

They found it in the rain water. Yes, it happened. It came across the Pacific. It's recognized as the same isotope that came out of the plant there, came across in the wind. They didn't find it in the air. It rained and so all that up and down motion and then the raindrops picked up the radiation and dropped it down in Massachusetts.

Now that's not the only state that we've seen it. In fact, all of the red states here from just colored red, from Colorado to Nevada, Washington, North Carolina, Florida, South Carolina and Massachusetts have picked up some type of radiation spike.

And I mean that in a very small turn because the water there even the rain water would be safe. Now, you have to understand that raindrop falls into millions or billions of gallons of other freshwater before it's filtered out and even sent to your tap water. So this is not anything for the U.S. to worry about.

BLITZER: All right, good point, Chad. That puts it in perspective for us. Thank you. Let's get some more detail now from nuclear expert Joseph Cirincione. He's president of the Plowshares Fund. That's a public grant foundation focused on nuclear weapons policy.

Joe, thanks very much for coming in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: So you agree. This is - whatever is showing up radiation levels whether in Massachusetts or Maryland or any place else over the United States is not significant.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, NUCLEAR EXPERT: Absolutely, and I'm delighted you're doing this because I know people are freaking out about this all over the country including in California where my two kids live, where my foundation is based. There is nothing to worry about. This is a Japanese radiation problem, not an American one.

BLITZER: All right, but there's plenty to worry about in Japan? Tell us how significant the worry should be in Japan?

CIRINCIONE: This is a very, very serious situation. It's already one of the worst two nuclear accidents we've had in history. Much worse than the Three-Mile Island accident here and we're heading into Chernobyl --

BLITZER: How close is it to Chernobyl because that's the worst nuclear disaster ever?

CIRINCIONE: We're not going to get an explosion like that most likely where the reactor is thrust into the sky and radiation does go up in the upper atmosphere and spreads over the continent.

But we have six nuclear reactors lined up side by side like nuclear dominoes and so a problem in one of the reactors affects the ability to control the other neighboring reactors and that's what we're seeing.

Radiation levels are rising. Water with radiation in it that they have been using to cool the reactors for the last week is also rising. It's now inches away from a tunnel in one of the reactors, and they fear that water is going to start gushing into the Pacific Ocean. It's like a radioactive titanic. It is just getting worse and worse.

BLITZER: So this could be another Chernobyl, is that what you're saying?

CIRINCIONE: We could have an area around this site, 20 kilometers out, 40 kilometers out. That is heavily contaminated by radioactivity if we get the kind of breeches that people fear.

If they are able to contain it, keep inside the concrete boxes that surrounds this reactor then it will just be a radioactive mess more localized.

BLIZTER: There are suggestions now that plutonium is in the soil. Tell us how significant that is if it is significant.

CIRINCIONE: Well, you never want to be around plutonium. It is one of the most toxic substances we ever created, a tiny spec if ingested inside the body will you cancer. Finding it near a nuclear reactor site is not that unusual. That's what they're detecting.

The plutonium is made in the fuel rods. It could be coming from inside the reactors. It could be coming from the spent fuel. It's not a worrying sign in and of itself, but they are finding other isotopes, cesium, iodine, which indicates to them that there is some kind of breach in the reactors that the radioactivity inside the reactor is now starting to escape into the outside environment.

BLIZTER: I supposed you saw that U.N. reported a few years ago that came out on Chernobyl, took a look with the World Health Organization, other organizations and concluded that what 30 or 40 or 50 direct deaths as a result of Chernobyl. Although they believe a lot of other people wound up with cancer, but they may not have died.

CIRINCIONE: Right, experts saw on Three-Mile Island nobody directly died and in Chernobyl, you clearly had several dozen people dying doing some of the rescue work like you see in the Japanese doing.

Some of these Japanese workers are going to die because what they are doing in those reactors today. We saw that in Chernobyl happened even more quickly. Experts still differ over how many. There are some estimates a few hundred, other tens of thousands. There's even an estimate that a million people --

BLIZTER: Who got cancer, but didn't necessarily die?

CIRINCIONE: That's right - months, months later. That's the kind of danger you have for the people in Japan from this reactor accident, but it's so far away across a very large ocean that none of the radioactivity is expected to hit the United States.

BLITZER: Joseph Cirincione, thanks so much for coming in. Good perspective.

CIRINCIONE: My pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: A lot of nervous people out there, but you helped -- better able to appreciate what's going on.

CIRINCIONE: Calm down. Stay steady.

BLITZER: All right, thanks, Joe.

It was one of the most horrifying scenes during that massive tsunami. Now the Sendai Airport has reopened. It's undergoing a major transformation. We're going to show it to you.

Plus opposition forces now making new headway in the battle against the Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, but in one town they're being forced to retreat. We'll take you there. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Political turmoil intensifying across the Middle East. Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM. The whole Middle East seems to be exploding I think it's fair to say.

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. You know, at least 121 people are dead and another 45 injured after an explosion at an ammunition factory in southern Yemen.

Most of the casualties were locals who were ransacking the building after it was taken over by militants yesterday. The blast comes amidst massive anti-government protests and a fight against a local al Qaeda group.

In Syria, one witness describes a scene as extremely tense. There are new reports that security forces are storming the streets, firing shots and turning water cannons on anti-government protesters.

The government is denying those claims. Violent clashes have erupted in the country over recent days. The U.N. says at least 37 people have died since last week.

Former President Jimmy Carter is in Cuba for a private visit focused on strengthening ties with that country. Carter was invited on a non- governmental trip by Raoul Castro and will meet with a number of high level officials. He's also expected to push for the release of a jailed American contractor arrested back in 2009.

And New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is having a little fun at the expense of the ill-fated "Spiderman" Broadway show. Yes, that's Bloomberg. He made a stage entrance dressed as Spiderman at an annual charity dinner.

And he dangled above the stage and when the wire got stuck and there he is swinging, the performance, of course, mocking the multi-million dollar production which has been plagued with injuries and technical problems. That was an event for city hall reporters where they roast the mayor every year.

BLITZER: Give him a lot of credit. He's not only the mayor of New York. He's a real, real billionaire, worth like $10 billion, $15 billion, $20 billion whatever he's worth for him to be flying around like Spiderman up there.

SYLVESTER: I don't know what his insurance company would say.

BLITZER: He's amazing, thanks very much.

One of the biggest gripes about the U.S. mission in Libya, the cost. We're taking a closer look at the bottom line, whether it's more than America can afford right. And the political battle over Libya, the president's possible rivals in 2012. They're trying to use it against him and against one another.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're counting down to President Obama's major speech on the U.S. mission in Libya scheduled to begin two hours from now. A lot of people are asking if the nation already fighting two wars can afford another major military operation.

Lisa Sylvester has been looking into this for us. So Lisa, I know one of the big considerations has been the cost of this war. How much is it going to cost American taxpayers?

SYLVESTER: Well, I can tell you, Wolf. You know in fact that there are many variables in the cost of the conflicts. Among the issue is how many missiles are fired?

How many hours the fighter jets are up patrolling the no-fly zone and even though NATO is taking over, up until this point the U.S. taxpayer has been largely footing the bill.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER (voice-over): The cost of U.S. military involvement in Libya is more than $500 million, and continues to climb. One hundred ninety-two U.S. Tomahawk missiles fired in the Libyan military campaign. Each one costs $1.4 million, for a total of more than $268 million. Nine hundred eighty-three sorties, or combat flying missions, one hour of flying those fighter jets costs $10,000.

Then there's the downed Strike Eagle Fighter. To replace it with the latest generation Joint Strike Fighter costs between $100 million to $150 million.

TODD HARRISON, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC & BUDGETARY ASSESSMENTS: The country is a bit war weary. You know, this is the third conflict that we're in right now. Also, you know, we're talking about dollars here, we're talking millions and hundreds of millions, and perhaps a billion or more. And this comes at a time when we have a $1.5 trillion deficit in our federal government. So people are becoming much more conscious of the cost of operations like this.

SYLVESTER: The White House insists the costs are under control, the money is coming from the existing Pentagon budget.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: What we have said is that we feel confident given the nature and the limitations on the mission that it can be paid for within existing budget appropriations because there are funds that exist for that purpose.

SYLVESTER: But that's drawing skepticism from critics of the Obama administration. Among them, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who says if this campaign extends six months to a year, or even two years, the White House will have to ask Congress for a war supplemental. NEWT GINGRICH (R), FMR. HOUSE SPEAKER: The word from the White House yesterday that they were going to take this out of the current Pentagon budget I think is impossible. I don't think the Pentagon can sustain a war within its current budget.

SYLVESTER: The U.S. military has done the lion's share of enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya because of the United States' unique capabilities with planes like the Stealth fighter, able to easily take down the Libyan regime's military targets.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER: Now, the White House does not envision this being a long- term commitment. White House spokesman Jay Carney has said the next phase is providing resources to the international coalition. And with others joining the fight, theoretically it will limit the amount that the Untied States should spend ultimately on this conflict -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You know what my proposal has been now for the last 10 days or so, and it's generating a lot of buzz out there. I think it's a good idea. The U.S. has frozen $30 billion in Libyan funds in the United States, mostly Gadhafi's money, Libyans' money.

Keep a running tab. How much does it cost, $500 million, $800 million? Whatever it winds up costing, you deduct that from the frozen Libyan assets in the United States. The Libyan people will be grateful because the U.S. is helping to liberate their country from Gadhafi, so, you know, that's what -- they should reimburse the U.S. taxpayers for all the costs of this war. That's my proposal.

SYLVESTER: I was going to say, and I'm sure the U.S. taxpayers, many of them out there, will be very pleased and happy with that proposal.

BLITZER: They love it. If they follow me on Twitter, as they do, or send me e-mails, they like that idea, and I think members of Congress would probably like that idea, too. You could call it the Wolf proposal.

SYLVESTER: I like that, the Wolf plan.

BLITZER: Thank you.

The cost of the Libyan mission may come back to haunt President Obama in 2012. Some of the most vocal critics of his Libya policy are Republicans who may run against him next year, including, as you just saw, Newt Gingrich. We just heard from him in Lisa's story.

Let's bring in our national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin.

Jessica, Newt Gingrich, he's getting a lot of attention for supposedly flip-flopping, saying he supported this operation before he opposed the operation. But what are you hearing?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, well, what Newt Gingrich is saying now is that he was never personally in favor of a no-fly zone, but once President Obama decided that Gadhafi must go, then he thought a no-fly zone was the only way to achieve that objective.

Here's how he cleaned it up this weekend on Fox News.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: The president, on March 3rd, changed the rules of the game. The president came out publicly and said Gadhafi must go. And so I was citing there my original position, which is, if you're not in the lake, don't jump in. Once you're in the lake, swim like crazy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: That's a good thing. Now he says anything less than removing Gadhafi would be a defeat for the U.S. -- Wolf.

BLITZER: There are other potential Republican presidential candidates. They think they have an advantage though on some specific aspects of this debate.

YELLIN: Yes, that's right. So, in Mike Huckabee's words it's "unconscionable" that American servicemen and women overseas are taking orders from "non-Americans" because they are on a NATO mission.

Here's some examples from Fox News and the American Family Association from potential Republican presidential candidates.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH PALIN (R), FMR. ALASKA GOVERNOR: Are we really going to turn over command and control to the Arab League and to the British and to the French? And when do we get to reclaim our command and our control over our troops? That's just one of the big questions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. HALEY BARBOUR (R), MISSISSIPPI: We can't let American military power be controlled by the Arab League, controlled by NATO, controlled by whatever, the EU. And that's what Obama's policies seem to be.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), FMR. ARKANSAS GOVERNOR: It is an all together different situation to ever have U.S. troops under the command of a foreign government. I do not believe there's ever a point at which U.S. troops should be getting their orders from someone who was not sworn to uphold the same Constitution.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

YELLIN: Wolf, so I looked into this, and here's the reality of how it works. When a U.S. pilot flies a strike mission, even under a NATO mission, they report to an American squadron commander. Also, the supreme allied commander of NATO is an American. So the guy ultimately in charge is a U.S. citizen.

Now, some of the commanders below are not American, but we've been through this before, in World War II, in the Balkan War, even recently in southern Afghanistan. Some commanders in the hierarchy were British. That's not new.

BLITZER: That's a good point. I'm glad you did that reality check, Jessica. If you wouldn't have, I was ready to do it myself.

Good work. Thanks very much.

YELLIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: An ugly and dangerous scene when a woman ran into a Tripoli hotel shouting to journalists she had been raped by Gadhafi's forces. What happened next and where is she now?

We're following up. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Following a story that's getting lots of attention, and it should. Libyan officials say they are investigating a woman's claim she was raped -- raped by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. They are calling it a "criminal case."

Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, was there when the woman burst into a hotel to tell her story to foreign journalists over the weekend. And during the brawl that followed, Nic has been following up on her story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Government officials had initially told us when Eman Al-Obeidy was taken away from this hotel at high speed in a car that she was mentally unstable, that she was being taken to a hospital. They later told us that she was in fact safe and well and sane, and that she was at a police investigation headquarters filing a criminal complaint against the men she alleged raped her.

Now government officials are telling us she is at home with family here in Tripoli. Many journalists have been asking if they can go and see her. There are many concerns and questions about what we're being told about her and about her well-being.

The government here has been involved in a smear campaign against her. State television, raising all sorts of questions, suggesting that she's been involved in prostitution. Indeed, the government spokesman himself had earlier been on the record as saying that she was a prostitute, and I asked him about that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MOUSSA IBRAHIM, LIBYAN GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN: Yes, Nic?

ROBERTSON: Her family have described (INAUDIBLE). You have been on the record yourself describing her --

(CROSSTALK)

IBRAHIM: Could we -- Nic, could we not discuss here -- no, no. Listen, Nic, could we please? Nic, please.

Could we just, to respect her, her daughter, her family, to respect -- this is a very conservative society. Could we not expose her in public, please?

I mean, what do you care about, Nic? Not to embarrass me as I'm standing here on the stand. What you care about, Nic -- OK, listen, if I said something, I said what I knew. OK?

I don't want to repeat anything I said. I'm not withdrawing from what I said.

I'm saying I don't want to make it even more known, even more public. This is a criminal case. This woman has a family.

We need to protect her privacy, her daughter's rights when she grows up. We need to make this criminal case as a legal case as possible without talking about people's histories, their files, their previous crimes, or their lifestyle. Especially -- we live in a very conservative society. So as a sign of respect to this woman and hopefully -- I'm quite sure, by the way, the OK from them will come.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTSON: So a lot of journalists reaching out to her family, reaching out to try and meet with Eman Al-Obeidy to see her, to hear her whole story, to see how she is at this time. Now she has been, as the government says, released from government custody. Clearly, many questions outstanding.

The government things she has a child. Her family has said she doesn't have a child. And a lot of journalists will continue to push the issue here with the government until they're able to meet with her. Of course, so many questions about her safety and well-being until that happens.

Nic Robertson, CNN, Tripoli, Libya.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Rebels are advancing in their battle against the Libyan dictator, Moammar Gadhafi. We're on the front lines with a live report. That's coming up.

And has President Obama succeeded in selling the military operation in Libya to the American public? We'll talk about it in our "Strategy Session."

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: President Obama has a huge speech on Libya tonight. Let's talk about what we can expect to hear and what we should be hearing.

Joining us now, our CNN political contributor, the Democratic strategist, James Carville. Also joining us, CNN.com contributor, the former Bush speechwriter, David Frum.

James, if you were advising this president, what's the single most important thing he needs to tell the American people tonight?

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Tell them we're not going to be there very long and convince them that we're not going to be there very long. This is either the third or the fourth war we're in, in the middle of the Middle East. The secretary of defense has said we shouldn't be in any more wars. He was not enthusiastic about this.

People -- you know he wants to do well. It looks like the initial thing is working pretty well. We hope it does. But no one wants this thing to go on very long. He's got to convince us and he's got to convince the American people that that's the case here, and that he understands that.

BLITZER: Well, define very long. What does he need to say, a week, a month, a year? What's very long?

CARVILLE: You know, well, Rumsfeld said we might be in Iraq five days, five weeks, but certainly not five months. You know, hopefully he will convince us that we're going to be out in a month or so, but people's patience for another war is rather thin right now.

BLITZER: David Frum, what's the single most important thing you think the president needs to tell the American public tonight?

DAVID FRUM, CNN.COM CONTRIBUTOR: I think James Carville just gave the president some not very good advice. I think the president has been mostly doing the right things in Libya, but he's been saying the wrong things. And when you say the wrong things, you lose the ability to do the right things.

If the president tells everybody, my main message is this isn't going to last very long, then why is it worth doing at all? If it's that unimportant, why are we there? And, by the way, you also telegraph to Gadhafi, just hold on, help is on the way.

What the president needs to communicate is why this is important, and that we have an issue here of the risk of a Somalia on the Mediterranean, that we have huge oil reserves that could fall into the wrong hands. We have NATO at stake with the British and the French and the Italians hugely committed and asking for America's support. This is not America's war, it's really France's war.

But America is there to help. It's important. It's worth doing. And here's why -- one, two, three. And then, by the way, add at the end, and it won't take that long.

CARVILLE: Right. You know, there was always a good reason to go in Iraq. There was a good reason to go in Afghanistan. There was a good reason to go in Pakistan. There was a good reason to go in Libya.

There'll be a good reason to go in Bahrain. There'll be a good reason to start a war anywhere.

And, you know, I don't know, but we're a little tuckered out here. On top of that, North Korea and Iran are still around.

And people see these things, they're assured that they are going to go well, they're assured that we're not going to be there very long. That was the same claptrap we heard in Iraq, that we were going to be -- as Rumsfeld said, we'll never be there for five months. Of course not. It was going to be a cakewalk.

FRUM: But if James Carville -- if James is right --

CARVILLE: And, you know, this is a skeptical country here.

FRUM: -- then the president should have -- what he's real saying is the president made the wrong decision. And no speech can save him, because if this is not important, if it's not worth doing -- if it's not worth winning, then it's not worth doing.

BLITZER: All right. Guys, hold your thought for a moment. I want to continue this conversation. We'll take a quick break.

More of the "Strategy Session" with David and James coming up.

Also, an airport nearly washed away in that devastating Japan tsunami. Just ahead, we'll also see what it looks like right now. You might be surprised by the transformation.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get back to our "Strategy Session" with our CNN political contributor, James Carville, and CNN.com contributor David Frum.

Let me go to you David, first.

Look at these new Pew Research Center poll numbers. "Was it the right decision for the U.S. and allies to launch the air strikes in Libya?" Forty-seven percent say it was the right decision, 36 percent wrong decision, 17 percent say they don't know. So slightly more say it was the right decision than wrong decision.

But look at this. If you dig deeper, among Republicans, 54 percent say it's the right decision. Democrats, only 49 percent say it's the right decision. And 44 percent of Independents say it was the right decision.

What do those numbers, David, say to you?

FRUM: Well, there's a little bit of good news, which is that Republicans are reachable in time of national interests, and they will rally to a president even of the opposing party. But it also tells me those are not going to war numbers. The president -- a plurality of numbers is not sufficient. The president has to have brought a lot more people along with him.

And he's been so concerned to win support at the U.N. Security Council, and to win support in the Arab world, but it's Americans who pay his salary. He has to win their support.

There is a case to make, but he has not made it. And a long time has passed. This uprising started on the 15th February. He said on March 3rd, Gadhafi must go. He seemed to have no plan to make that happen. It is now the end of March. It's a long time.

BLITZER: The criticism that a lot of Republicans and others are launching, including some Democrats, James, against the president is he seemed to be more concerned about winning the support of the United Nations Security Council, winning the support of the Arab League, the Europeans, than winning support of Congress.

CARVILLE: Right. But these were the same clowns that talked about the chocolate-producing nations of the world. These are people that told us all we had to do was go it alone, that we shouldn't do anything.

Actually, the idea of building support in the Arab League or building support with other allies, it tends to make sense to me. And I think the president has been judicious in this.

But I've just got to tell you, I think wars are like affairs. I think these things are very easy to get into. They're might tougher to get out of. And count me as somebody that likes a little dithering here. I wish there would have been some other instances where it would have probably taken him a little longer.

BLITZER: So you think the president made a mistake by doing this?

CARVILLE: I don't know if he made a mistake. I certainly think that he's acted pretty calm in all of this and he hasn't rushed into anything.

And, you know, the secretary of state and other people really were urging him it was a humanitarian crisis. I hope that it turns out to be the right decision. It looks like the early results, at least according to what I've seen in the press, seem to be pretty good. But we don't have a good history with our involvement in the Middle East.

BLITZER: James and David, guys, we'll continue this conversation.

FRUM: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thank you.

President Obama is preparing to defend the U.S. mission in Libya to Congress, the nation and, indeed, the world.

And it was a horrific scene at the Sendai airport when the quake and the tsunami hit Japan. We're going back there to see what's going on right now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's been over two weeks since a wall of water devastated Japan, including the Sendai airport near the earthquake epicenter.

CNN's Martin Savidge went back there to see how the cleanup and the recovery are going.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: If you remember some of the most amazing images that came out in the first hours after the tsunami, one of them would have to be the airport in Sendai. It's just so amazing to see that this massive airport, overrun with water and debris. Now we're going back to see how it looks today.

(voice-over): But first, we have to avoid Japan's ongoing nuclear disaster.

COL. RON TOFT, USAF SPECIAL OPS: This is the Fukushima reactor, the 25-mile restricted area. This is our airplane here.

SAVIDGE: Colonel Ron Toft was aboard the first plane to land at Sendai after the tsunami.

TOFT: I think anything that you see on TV with Hollywood, with their greatest special effects, can't put into perspective the amount of destruction that was down there on the airfield the day that we arrived.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Twenty-five.

SAVIDGE: Sweeping in for landing ourselves, we see none of that.

(on camera): You can probably see that for the most part, behind us it looks great. It really does.

(voice-over): The transition is amazing given what happened here the day of the disaster. But get away from the runway and you see the reminders, which a literal army of 240 U.S. airmen, soldiers and Marines, alongside Japanese civilians, frantically worked to clear.

By just dumb luck, there were no large passenger planes here when the wave hit, but hundreds of smaller, mostly private aircraft weren't so lucky. They look as though they fell from the sky. Even ones in the hangars weren't spared.

(on camera): This is the main entrance here at Sendai. It's like any normal American airport, only it's not so normal now.

(voice-over): Sendai is an international hub. Think Logan airport or Dulles. Japanese officials had written the place off.

(on camera): Did you think it would be able to be reopened?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To be honest, the answer is no.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): But it is open and now serves as a center for humanitarian aid distribution. And guiding those planes from the same roof on which so many sought shelter now stand American Air Force air traffic controllers who saw a tragedy and were able to help.