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THE SITUATION ROOM
Arming Libya's Rebels; Marine Chopper Crashes,1 Killed; $5 Million For Info. In Agent's Killing; Gadhafi's Son Left U.S. to Fight; Assad Family Center of Power, Controversy; U.S. Nuclear Pools Strong Enough?; Obama Rolls Out New Energy Plan
Aired March 30, 2011 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, the breaking news we're following. Outgunned by Moammar Gadhafi's forces, Libya's rebels are in full retreat and they make an urgent appeal to the allies for heavy weapons as they try to hold the line.
This as Reuters is reporting President Obama has signed a secret order authorizing covert U.S. support for the rebels. New information coming in.
When the fighting started, Gadhafi's youngest son rushed home to take command of a notorious Libyan army unit. There are new details on what he was doing right here in the United States.
And dashed hopes in Syria as protests rage. President Bashar al-Assad goes public but does not give in to demands for significant reform. Does that set the stage for even more bloodshed in Syria?
Breaking news, political headlines, and Jeanne Moos all straight ahead. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.
BLITZER: President Obama has said he's not ruling out, he's not ruling in any arming of the Libyan rebels.
We're just getting a statement in from the White House on these reports. Reports earlier, Reuters is saying that there was a secret order signed by the president and order authorizing the assistance, covert U.S. government support for rebel forces in Libya.
And only moments ago, "The New York Times" reporting that the CIA is now in Libya, aiding rebel forces who are fighting Moammar Gadhafi.
The White House press secretary has just issued a statement saying this, and I'll read it precisely. "As is common practice for this and all administrations, I am not going to comment on intelligence matters. I will reiterate what the president said yesterday. No decision has been made about providing arms to the opposition or to any group in Libya. We're not ruling it out or ruling it in. We're assessing and reviewing options for all types of assistance that we could provide to the Libyan people and have consulted directly with the opposition and our international partners about these matters."
Jay Carney, the White House Press Secretary only moments, only moments ago releasing that statement. We're watching all of this very, very closely. There's more information coming in as well in addition to the statement from Jay Carney.
We're getting some information from our chief national correspondent, John King, a U.S. intelligence source confirming to CNN that there is a presence of CIA operations officers in Libya right now designed to help the U.S. military in political understanding of what's going on. This source telling John that he would not confirm that Obama signed a specific intelligence finding on this matter, but yes, we are gathering this Intel firsthand, and we are in contact with some opposition entities, the source saying.
So, once again, the breaking news, just to reiterate, it is now clear that the United States is directly assisting the Libyan rebels in their battle against Moammar Gadhafi's forces. The extent of that assistance remains unclear, but the U.S. clearly, if we didn't know already, clearly taking sides in the civil war. This will irritate some NATO allies because the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 as well as the mandate that the NATO allies together with the Arab league have is that the U.S., the coalition forces do not directly get involved.
They assist in protecting civilians. They enforce a no-fly zone. An arms embargo, if you will, from air and from sea, but they don't directly get involved. Clearly, there are some U.S. intelligence officers and others, presumably, from Britain, France who are directly engaged with the Libyan opposition right now in trying to get rid of Gadhafi.
There's other breaking news we're following here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Libya's foreign minister, one of the top figures in Gadhafi's government, has now flown to London and told British officials he has resigned. That comes as Libya's rebels are in full retreat. They're calling it a tactical withdrawal, but the grim reality is that Gadhafi's forces have retaken several cities over the past 48 hours, driving the rebels back all the way towards Al Brega. The rebels say they'll prepare a defense line further east in Ajdabiya.
Meanwhile, they're pleading with the U.S. and its allies for more help, specifically weapons. We just heard the White House Press Secretary Jay Carney say reiterate what the president said yesterday. No decision has been made by the U.S. on arming the rebels. It is not neither being ruled in nor being ruled out. Let's go to CNN's Ben Wedeman. He's embedded with the rebel forces in East Libya. What do you make, Ben, of all these dramatic developments?
BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, it is quite a lot of news. You take into account the resignation of Moussa Koussa, the foreign minister, plus this suggestion that the U.S. is going to be helping directly the rebels on the ground. Certainly, it will, to some extent, raise the morale of those rebels who've really taken a beating over the last 48 hours. We watched them as they've been regrouping on the outskirts of Ajdabiya, but they seem to be plagued by the same problems as we've seen for many weeks now, disorganization, a lack of command and control. They don't really seem to have much training with the weaponry they have, which really raises the question even if the United States does provide more advanced weaponry to the Libyan rebels.
In fact, one of their spokesmen today in Benghazi saying that they want things like tanks, but what they really need is training, because they do have some tanks. They do have some aircraft and some heavy weaponry. They just don't know how to use it. So, more than anything, training is what they need.
They need to learn basic battlefield tactics, because as it is, the Libyan army is really running circles around them despite the fact that there's a no-fly zone, despite the fact that the NATO aircraft have taken out a lot of armor of the Libyan army in this part of the country -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Ben, the rebels have been getting arms in recent weeks, we believe, from the Saudis, from some other Arab countries. I don't know if the U.S. authorized that or not, but they have been receiving weapons and spare parts and ammunition, isn't that right?
WEDEMAN: Yes, there has been some influx of weaponry from abroad, but it looks really more like mostly like ammunition and more of the same of what they already have. I've seen multiple rocket launchers, not much heavy artillery. Some tanks are here, but my suspicion is that it's mostly more ammunition, because they've been wasting an awful lot of it just shooting in the air. So, it doesn't -- whatever it has arrived, clearly has not made a strategic difference on the battlefields of Eastern Libya.
BLITZER: I know there's concern, Ben, that since NATO took over command of the air strikes from the United States and today being the first full day that NATO is in charge, it looks, at least to me, it looks like the pounding, the aerial pounding of Gadhafi's troops, his ground forces, his positions have eased. That NATO is not being as intensive in the aerial strikes as the U.S. was when it was leading this operation.
What have you seen today? What are you hearing in Eastern Libya from your rebel sources and others about the degree of NATO air strikes on this day?
WEDEMAN: Well, there are still. There were several air strikes by NATO aircraft in the eastern part of the country, but there's a basic -- there's a problem in the sense there's a lack of targets. Initially, in fact, you can see it just up the road from here, more than a dozen tanks and other armor have been destroyed by the NATO aircraft, but the Libyan army seems to be changing tactics.
It's no longer moving in large armored columns which are an easy target for those NATO aircraft. They seem to be small --working in smaller, more mobile units, focusing on ambushes of rebel forces, which, in a sense, is just as effective because, for instance, there was one ambush today of the rebel forces by not a large group of Libyan soldiers, and they retreated on mass as a result of this ambush, which really wasn't staged by a large force at all -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. Gadhafi's forces going from Misrata to Ras Lanuf, Al Brega, moving towards Ajdabiya, maybe towards Benghazi, itself. We're watching this very closely. Ben Wedeman is on the scene for us. Be careful over there.
Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, right now. If the U.S. were to start arming the rebels directly or incorrectly, Chris, how might this be done?
CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as long as we're talking about ifs, then if Egypt were to allow it, you could put it a sure then literally just drag it across the border, but in any case, officials tell me it's going to require airplanes and ships. The amount of firepower that the rebels need is probably just simply too much to take by helicopter alone.
LAWRENCE (voice-over): Experts say Libya's seaports could be used to deliver arm to rebels. Communication equipment it would have been more important 10 to 15 years ago, but today, all that's required is keeping the cell networks up and running.
FRANK ANDERSON, PRES., MIDDLE EAST POLICY COUNCIL: They need rifles. They need machine guns. They need any tank weapons.
LAWRENCE: Frank Anderson served 26 years in the CIA. He run the Afghan task force and helped arm mushahadeen fighters there. So, he knows what he's talking about when he says --
ANDERSON: You can train someone to use a soldier fire any tank weapon in a matter of hours.
LAWRENCE: Now, battle tactics, that's different. Anderson says training small unit leaders could take weeks.
ANDERSON: But my experience is that Darwin works very quickly in war.
LAWRENCE: In other words, rebels who survive a battle learn how to stay alive and can teach that to new recruits.
ANDERSON: And that's an army that will grow in skill very, very quickly.
LAWRENCE: But is arming rebels even legal? The U.S. still has diplomatic relationships with Libya's government, a government it's effectively trying to overthrow. And there's an arms embargo that applies to the entire country, but U.S. and British officials interpret the U.N. resolution to allow all necessary measures to protect civilians. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This would not necessary rule out the provision of assistance to those protecting civilians in certain circumstances.
LAWRENCE: But Anderson offers this warning from his own experience of America's army, Afghanistan's mushahadeen.
ANDERSON: They turned out to be corrupt and rapacious. And I mean rapacious in the sense that they were literally guilty of raping citizens. And they brought on the Taliban.
LAWRENCE (voice-over): Now, Anderson tells me that in ten years of arming Afghans, there were hardly any American boots on the ground. So, he says, there wouldn't necessarily need to be a big CIA or coalition presence in Libya, but he says if it wants the rebels to succeed in a series of battles, not just spotty or here and there, he says the coalition has to fully commit to giving them enough firepower to beat back larger numbers of Libyan troops -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon, thanks very much.
For the last hour or so, top Obama officials have been briefing senators in secret on the situation in Libya. We'll be talking with one of those senators who just emerged from that briefing. We'll ask him what he learned.
And why did a scuffle in Syria only moments after President Bashar al- Assad addressed his country. And speaking of Assad, the story behind the man at the center of the latest Middle East uprising. Much more on Bashar al-Assad when we come back.
BLITZER: Striking development in the Libya crisis today. Reuters reporting President Obama has secretly authorized covert U.S. aid to the rebels fighting Gadhafi. Britain now saying Libya's foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, has shown up in London announcing he's resigned. And Libya's rebels have been in full retreat over the past 48 hours. They are being pressed very, very hard right now by Gadhafi's forces.
Lots of discuss with Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina. He's a key member of the Armed Services Committee, he's just emerged from a briefing, a closed-door briefing that top Obama administration officials had on what's going on.
Let's go through some of these points, Senator. A lot to digest.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Yes.
BLITZER: First, this Reuters report that the U.S. is now secretly aiding rebels. What can you tell us about this?
GRAHAM: Well, if it's true, it's a secret from me, but the idea of aiding the rebels pleases me. Providing arms is something I'm not so sure about, because what you do on the front end can affect you on the back end, but anything to help the rebels, I think we've cast our light (ph) with them and it's imperative they win today against Gadhafi. So anything we can do, I would support.
BLITZER: Well, on the issue of arming the rebels, are you concerned because there could be some al Qaeda elements there? Is that your concern?
GRAHAM: You know, to be honest with you, I'm sure there are probably some people under the banner of opposition that are -- that may have some al Qaeda sympathies, but I have zero concern about this turning into an al Qaeda-driven state; and the Libyan people are not going to replace Gadhafi to be run by al Qaeda.
But the one thing about arms, you really don't know exactly how tribal situation works yet. I'm glad we didn't arm everybody in Iraq. And my concern is that, in Iraq, we had a failed policy. We didn't have enough troops the ground, the security environment deteriorated, and we went a couple years where we almost lost Iraq.
My question about Libya, is it possible to bring about regime change if you're not going to use military force as part of the tool box. And when the president took off a couple nights ago the use of military force to bring about regime change, I think that was a big mistake.
BLITZER: He said other options were on the table right now, political sanctions, economic sanctions. He didn't say covert action, but as someone whose watched this over the years, that was my immediate suspicion, that there are covert operations upside way to remove Moammar Gadhafi.
I don't know if you want to talk about that, but I assume you would be happy if they were.
GRAHAM: I would be happy. And I really don't know if they are, and if I did, I wouldn't tell you.
But, you know, at the end of the day I'm very happy with any strategy that brings about an early end to this conflict. My concern now is a stalemate, that the opposition forces don't have enough momentum. And without air power, you see what happens to them. They're unorganized. They're very motivated, but at the end of the day, they're fighting tanks and artillery with Toyota trucks and that's probably not a fair fight.
BLITZER: Well, when you say the U.S. should use military force to remove Gadhafi, expel -- flesh that out. Explain what that means.
GRAHAM: Yes, sir, I'd be glad to.
Not ground invasion. I think if you introduce western troops, American forces on the ground, you would undercut the opposition and really it would backfire. But an aerial campaign focused on helping the opposition with close air support and a campaign in Tripoli. The way this thing ends most like -- most likely is that his inner circle cracks. Take off his radio and TV propaganda system, take it out. Go after his inner circle. If you're an inner circle adviser to Gadhafi, you should have a hard time sleeping at night.
So I would like to take the campaign to Tripoli and really go after the head of the snake and cut the head of the snake off.
And my concern is that when American air power is not going to be used past Thursday of Friday, that really does limit NATO because they don't have AC-130 gunships and they don't have A-10s.
BLITZER: Well U.S. air power can still be used under the command of NATO, isn't that right?
GRAHAM: I don't know. That's a good question that my good friend Wolf Blitzer ought to ask somebody, because if the A-10s and the AC- 130 gunships and American-flown missions are not part of the NATO force configuration, then I think we have degraded NATO and that's an open question. I'd like to know that answer to that myself.
BLITZER: Well, because I agree that it already looks like with NATO taking command of this operation, the aerial pounding of Gadhafi's forces has weakened dramatically over the past 24, 48 hours because there are countries like Turkey and Germany that don't want NATO to engage as robustly as Senator Lindsey Graham would like.
GRAHAM: Well, I think part of it has been the weather.
But here's the question to ask going forward, who is commanding close air support. Who is the commander that sets the missions up each day, and can American forces fly under the NATO banner, or has President Obama taken that off the table?
When you transfer to NATO control, I'm OK with that. But I would not be OK with idea that the AC-130 gunships, the A-10s and American aircraft are grounded.
BLITZER: Well, that would be huge news, Senator. If you're suggesting that some of the U.S. weaponry are now off the table like these -- these combat aircraft you're talking about or Tomahawk cruise missiles or F-16s --
BLITZER: -- that is huge because it would dramatically weaken the entire NATO operation.
GRAHAM: Well, my advice to the CNN crew who has done a heck of a job covering Libya, I would ask that question. I don't know the answer.
When NATO takes over and the president said we would basically turn over our military operations and we'd be in a support role, does that mean that our A-10s can't fly under NATO command? Does that mean our AC-130 gunships, which have pounded the enemy, are now grounded?
If that's the case, I think we've seriously undermined the capability of NATO.
BLITZER: Did you get answers to all your questions during this briefing that you just emerged from behind closed doors?
GRAHAM: It was a good briefing. I never got to ask a question, it was over.
You know, Secretary Clinton and Bob Gates are really national treasures in my view. You know, very good people. I like President Obama.
But you know, we have a strategy that is eerily similar to Iraq in the sense that we didn't have the right strategy to bring about the right answer. And the right answer is to replace Gadhafi. And if American military power can't be used airily, then I think we have really degraded NATO at a time -- I don't see how you politically replace him if you don't have the military component to make him leave.
His inner circle is not worried about sanctions, they're not worried about, you know, bank accounts being frozen; they're probably sitting on a ton of cash. What they would be worried about is having their compounds bombed by the most capable air force in the world, the United States Air Force.
BLITZER: Is the president authorized, if he wants to sign an intelligence finding -- finding to kill or arrest Gadhafi, is the president authorized under U.S. law to do that?
GRAHAM: That's a very good question. Here's my construct of being a military lawyer. Here's the advice I would give my commander.
I would argue that Gadhafi is an unlawful combatant, not the legitimate leader of Libya. He doesn't have the status of being a nation-state leader and that he would be fair game under my construct. That a radio and TV network helping his unlawful enemy combatant cadre should be taken out to protect the Libyan people from a propaganda machine that puts them at risk.
That's the way I would look at Gadhafi, as an unlawful enemy combatant.
I would recognize somebody in the opposition. One thing that America needs is to know more about the opposition. And on some networks, all you see is a guy jumping up, down, yelling " Allahu Akbar " with a baseball cap.
I know there are some very sophisticated people leading this opposition. My advice to the administration is to introduce America to the leaders of the opposition so we would be reassured who we're dealing with here.
BLITZER: Senator Graham, thanks very much for joining us.
GRAHAM: Thank you.
BLITZER: Sounds to me like you would want to put Gadhafi on the same list as bin Laden, but that's a subject for another day. We'll talk about that down the road.
Senator, thank you.
GRAHAM: Thank you.
BLITZER: Moammar Gadhafi's youngest son, the commander of a notorious Libya brigade -- get this -- he was an intern of a company right here in the United States not that long ago. We have details coming up.
And a marine helicopter makes an emergency landing in the ocean off HAWAII. Stand-by. We have details.
BLITZER: We'll get back to the breaking news in Libya just a few moments, but there's been a tragic helicopter accident. Kate Bolduan is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM -- Kate.
KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. This is in Hawaii. A U.S. marine was killed and three others were injured during an emergency helicopter landing in Hawaii. Military officials say the marine's chopper landed in shallow water last night, but it's still unclear what caused the pilot to make the emergency landing. Two of the three injured marines are in critical condition at this point.
And the U.S. government is offering $5 million for information in the deadly attack on a U.S. immigration agent in Mexico. Special agent, Jaime Zapata, and colleague, Victor Avila, were ambushed last month. Police say a group of gunmen opened fire on their car killing Zapata and wounding Avila. Several suspects have been arrested. Authorities say the gunman mistook the agents for members of a rival drug cartel.
And also, newly released documents shed light on the man convicted of assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr. Little was known about James Earl Ray's state of mind before he pled guilty in 1969, but several years ago, (INAUDIBLE) officials discovered papers related to raise legal case in an archive. The material includes police photographs of Ray, letters he wrote to his family members and his will. Apparently, they will be posted online. It will be very interesting to take a look at that.
BLITZER: Historians will want to take a closer look at that. Thanks, Kate. Thanks very much.
Syria's president is confronted by a woman who breaks through the crowd, approaches his car. You're going to find out what happen next.
And Moammar Gadhafi's son's shocking resume. He's a leader of a brutal Libyan brigade, a former intern at a company right here in the United States.
BLITZER: Let's get back to our top story, the war in Libya. One of Muammar Gadhafi's sons rushed home from the United States just when the fighting began, going from corporate intern in the United States to a leader of an infamous Libyan army unit. Brian Todd has been digging into details.
This is a pretty amazing story, Brian. Tell our viewers what you've learned.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it involves Khamis Gadhafi, Muammar Gadhafi's youngest son, who does lead, as Wolf mentioned, this notorious brigade in Libya.
You know, before this fighting broke out, the U.S. and Libya had been reaching out to each other to improve relations. That's part of what involved an internship that Muammar Gadhafi's son, which now at the very least looks a bit awkward.
TODD (voice-over): He's the man in the black beret, greeting supporters in Libya, disproving rumors that he was killed in an allied air strike. Khamis Gadhafi, youngest son of Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi, commands the notorious 32nd Brigade, known for its brutality.
VICE ADMIRAL WILLIAM GORTNEY, U.S. NAVY: This is one of Gadhafi's most loyal units and are also one of the most active in terms of attacking innocent people.
TODD: And here's another title Khamis Gadhafi's held: intern in the U.S. For a month he interned with an American engineering and construction firm called AECOM. The L.A.-based company had deep business dealings in Libya until the uprising began.
(on camera) As an intern, Khamis Gadhafi wasn't exactly getting people's coffee or running to the printer every ten minutes. He was jetting all over the U.S., meeting with high-tech companies, universities, but also with defense contractors like Northrop Grumman. And he paid a visit to the port of Houston. And he went to these places just weeks, in some cases, days before leading deadly attacks on the Libyan opposition.
When the fighting broke out in mid-February, Khamis Gadhafi cut short his internship and flew back to Libya to oversee the 32nd Brigade.
Contacted by CNN, the port of Houston issued a statement saying he toured several port authority facilities and received briefings on trade relations and acknowledged it was part of the port's prospective future deals with Libya. Northrop Grumman won't comment on his meetings there. But Khamis Gadhafi also visited the Air Force academy, which told us he saw nothing classified. He went to the National War College. A spokesman there says tactics were not discussed.
Defense contractor Lockheed Martin won't confirm or deny media reports that he went there. Khamis went to the New York Stock Exchange and got what the exchange calls a basic tour the very day he scrambled back to Libya.
James Carafano is a national security expert with the Heritage Foundation.
(on camera) Regardless of the hostilities that would break out later, is it all right for a U.S.-based company to give an internship to someone like a Khamis Gadhafi?
JAMES CARAFANO, NATIONAL SECURITY EXPERT, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Well, it's a qualified OK, because it's a process of engagement. If it's towards moving that country out of being a closed society and actually reforming, you know, giving them access can move in that direction. But it's qualified. I mean, there are a couple of things that are just common sense. I mean, you don't want to compromise national security. You don't want to give away information, and you don't want to give somebody something for nothing.
TODD: Carafano says most of the places Khamis Gadhafi visited are savvy enough to likely not have given him any sensitive information. Contacted by CNN, AECOM did not want to put someone on camera with us. They issued a statement saying, "This internship was part of the company's efforts to improve the quality of life in Libya," but they never paid him, that they never knew about his military connection, and that when they found out about Khamis Gadhafi's role in the civil war, quote, "we were shocked and outraged" -- Wolf.
BLITZER: What is the State Department's role in all of this?
TODD: That's a bit of contention there between AECOM and the State Department. AECOM says the State Department knew of and approved of all Khamis Gadhafi's visits and meetings in the U.S. State Department officials say they did know of the visit. They met him at the airport, but that was the extent of it. They were not in a position to approve any meetings.
But a War College official told us a State Department official was with Khamis Gadhafi when he went there. Now, a State Department official countered by saying, "We were asked to go to that meeting. We just did it as a matter of courtesy. We did not participate."
There's clearly some gray area here where the State Department's involved.
BLITZER: Yes. We know the Libyan government before the civil war erupted was spreading a lot of money around here in Washington, elsewhere around the country, buying access, if you will. We've done some reports on this. I think we should do more. Some people got rich here in the United States, thanks to Muammar Gadhafi and his regime.
TODD: They certainly did.
BLITZER: And I think we should do more digging on this, Brian.
TODD: Sure thing.
BLITZER: I know you will.
TODD: All right.
BLITZER: Thank you.
Dashed hopes in Syria as protests drove, President Assad goes public but does not give in to serious demands for reform. We're taking a closer look at how Syria's leader came to power and the lifestyle he shares with his glamorous wife.
Much more news happening right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Lots of breaking news in Libya, but also in Syria. Faced with widespread protests, raging on despite a bloody crackdown, the Syrian president went public today, but he stood his ground. He offered no sign he'll make any serious reforms.
In a widely-anticipated speech, President Bashar al-Assad acknowledged government shortcomings but made no mention of lifting a state of emergency that's been in business since 1963. He blamed an international conspiracy for the unrest that has gripped Syria and has led to dozens of deaths.
There were massive protests before and after the speech, and witnesses report fresh casualties today.
The government has organized its own rallies. And after Assad's speech, a woman rushed up to his car, waving her hand. She was restrained as a crowd of officers surged forward around that car.
Let's get a closer look right now at the man who was at the center of this controversy in Syria and whose family has been at the center of power in that country for more than four decades. We asked CNN's Mary Snow to take a closer look. -- Mary.
MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Bashar al-Assad was an ophthalmologist. And he was only in line to become president because his older brother was killed in an accident in 1994.
The 45-year-old Assad studied in London and because of his background, he took power with the hope of reform.
SNOW (voice-over): Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is facing his biggest test since taking office 11 years ago when his father died. One big question now, as he faces growing street protests: will he revert to the sort of tactics his father used to retain power?
In 1982, thousands were killed during an uprising in the city of Hamat (ph). An author who has spent time with Bashar al-Assad says there are similarities and differences.
(on camera) Is he his father's son, do you think?
DAVID LESCH, AUTHOR, "THE NEW LION OF DAMASCUS": He's much more gregarious, much more open. He's very pensive and thoughtful like his father.
But, you know, he spent time in the west. He likes the technological toys of the west. He's an avid photographer, a computer nerd. He married a beautiful cosmopolitan British-raised Syrian woman, who is his very actively -- very active civically and first lady right now.
SNOW (voice-over): First lady Asma Assad was dubbed a rose in the desert in "Vogue" magazine just last month. The timing of the flattering piece, which virtually ignored human rights abuses in Syria, drew criticism as unrest spread in the Middle East.
Bashar al-Assad promised reform when taking over but hasn't delivered substantial changes beyond some economic change. And David Lesch says there's no escaping he's the son of Hafez al-Assad.
LESCH: He's a child of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a child of the superpower Cold War. He's used Lebanon within Syria's sphere of interest. He's the keeper of the flame of Alawite interests who have had a choke hold on power in his country for decades.
SNOW: The Alawites are a minority in Syria, and their power is resented by many Sunni Muslims.
As for those in Bashar al-Assad's inner circle, Lesch says he wasn't allowed to interview people like younger brother Mohair al-Assad, a military figure. Opposition forces say he's responsible for the harsh response against dissidents in the city of Tiraq (ph).
And then there is Assad's cousin, Rami Makwel (ph), the most powerful businessman in Syria. A former U.S. ambassador to Syria says Syria's ruling family has been compared to "The Godfather."
TED KATTOUF, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SYRIA: Bashar is a fellow who was supposed to make the family proud and become a medical doctor and go a whole different direction than the rest of the family.
And here he is now, president of Syria and in charge of keeping -- protecting his family, protecting his associates, protecting his clan. And in his eyes, protecting the country, whether others view it that way or not.
SNOW: And, Wolf, as far as how Bashar al-Assad operates, the author who spent time with him says they like to listen to many sides of an argument. And what may happen is that he'll offer half carrots and some sticks without addressing the core problems of what's going on -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We're going to learn a lot more about Bashar al-Assad in the coming days and weeks. I suspect this crisis in Syria is only just beginning. Mary, thanks very much.
There are 63,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel right here in the United States. Is it being properly stored? The government says yes. Some nuclear experts disagree.
And President Obama's new energy plan. What did he announce today? Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Breaking news in Japan's nuclear crisis. International watchdogs are reporting high radiation levels outside the evacuation zone around the Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Also, a disturbing new discovery near that crippled nuclear plant in Japan. Officials found radiation levels in sea water there 3,000 times over the regulatory limit.
It's unclear in the radiation is from a leak at the plant or if it's the result of some airborne radiation.
In the U.S. today the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission faced some pointed questions on Capitol Hill about American nuclear plants. Our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve, has been working the story for us.
Lots of folks are deeply concerned, Jeanne.
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They are, and the questions today were about spent fuel. When spent fuel is removed from a nuclear power plant, it is very hot and still radioactive. The question on Capitol Hill today: is there a plan to deal with it long term? The answer: no.
MESERVE (voice-over): The extraordinary danger at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has come in part from low water levels in damaged pools containing spent fuel rods. Congress was given starkly contrasting views of whether similar pools at U.S. plants are similarly vulnerable.
GREGORY JACZKO, CHAIRMAN, NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION: It's very thick reinforced concrete structures. Generally about four to five feet thick walls with very thick floors. So they provide, we think, a very robust protection.
DAVID LOCHBAUM, UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS: The pools are often housed in buildings with sheet-metal siding, like that in a Sears storage shed. I have nothing against the quality of Sears storage sheds, but they are not suitable for nuclear waste storage.
MESERVE: Because spent fuel is still very hot and radioactive when it comes out of a reactor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it must go into a cooling pool for five years. But there is no rule on when it has to come out and be stored in less vulnerable casks like this. SEN. DIANNE WEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: In California, for instance, fuel removed from reactors in 1984 is still cooling in wet spent-fuel pools.
MESERVE: The nuclear industry says the federal government must come up with a national strategy so operators know whether to put used fuel in permanent on-site casks or ones that can be transported to a central repository.
WILLIAM LEVIS, PSE&G POWER: We want to limit the number of times we have to handle used fuel. And so we want to be able to take it out of the pool once, put it in the cask, and have it be able to go where it can go.
MESERVE: The Obama administration put a stake through the heart of a planned national nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Experts say it's part of a long pattern of kicking the difficult issue of nuclear waste down the road.
ERNEST MONIZ, MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: For the history of our nuclear power program, I would say the storage, storage of spent fuel has been an afterthought.
MESERVE: A blue ribbon commission is exploring long-term solutions for disposing of radioactive waste. The report is due this summer. Meanwhile, spent fuel keeps piling up. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, at some nuclear facilities there is almost ten times more nuclear material in spent-fuel pools than in reactors -- Wolf.
BLITZER: That's good reason for people to be concerned, Jeanne. Thanks very much.
President Obama unveils his new energy plan today, and it includes some dramatic cuts to oil imports. Details coming up.
BLITZER: President Obama rolled out a new energy plan today, addressing the future of nuclear power and America's dependence on foreign oil. CNN's Dan Lothian is joining us now from the White House.
Dan, what exactly is the president now proposing?
DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, the president wants to cut the import of foreign oil by a third by the year 2025. Also wants to push for increased use of natural gas in buses and trucks. And despite what is going on in Japan, he's still committed to nuclear energy as part of the overall policy. But critics are skeptical of the president's promises.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) LOTHIAN (voice-over): As rising gas prices put more strain on the wallets of Americans, President Obama pushed his energy policy, looking to reduce foreign oil dependence and expand alternative sources.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There are no quick fixes. Anybody who tells you otherwise isn't telling you the truth. And we will keep on being a victim to shifts in the oil market until we finally get serious about a long-term policy for a secure, affordable energy future.
LOTHIAN: But Americans have heard this message before from Democrats and Republicans.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Comprehensive plan for reducing America's dependence on foreign oil.
GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: America is in the lead when it comes to energy independence.
LOTHIAN: Remember President Jimmy Carter during the gas crunch of the '70s?
JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our excessive dependence on OPEC has already taken a tremendous toll on our economy and our people.
LOTHIAN: But a sweeping solution has been elusive, because the politics of any energy policy is complicated and controversial.
The ink was barely dry on the president's speech, and Republicans were already labeling it, quote, "fake solutions."
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: The president is telling people what he thinks they want to hear.
LOTHIAN: Senator Mitch McConnell blamed the Obama administration for stifling the energy sector by canceling drilling leases, increasing permit fees, and declaring a moratorium on drilling off the Gulf Coast. And the U.S. petroleum industry said it was ready to produce more oil and more jobs if the government would only give more green lights.
JACK GERARD, PRESIDENT/CEO, AMERICAN PETROLEUM INSTITUTE: We've gotten a lot of lip service, but the actions are inconsistent with what's being said. So we hope today is really a course correction.
LOTHIAN: President Obama acknowledged the skepticism but touted progress on new leases and investments in new energy sources. And his energy team said advanced technology and government spending will help the president's new policy succeed.
HEATHER ZICHAL, W.H. ADVISER ON ENERGY & CLIMATE CHANGE: First and foremost the recovery act we had an historic investment in clean energy development and research.
LOTHIAN: Now Republicans and other critics have jumped on comments the president recently made in Latin America, talking about how the U.S. wants to help Brazil develop its offshore oil reserves and become, quote, "one of its best customers," while Secretary Chu said that, even so, the president is very committed to domestic production.
BLITZER: Dan Lothian, thanks very much at the White House.
Twin talk. Jeanne Moos with a "Most Unusual" look at what these little twins are saying.
BLITZER: Twin baby brothers -- yes, twin baby brothers -- holding an animated conversation with each other in their own baby language. Here's a question: what were they actually saying? There are lots of theories out there. Let's go to CNN's Jeanne Moos.
JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If you haven't heard the talking twin babies by now, you haven't been listening.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Da, da, da, da, da. Da, da, da, da, da, da.
MOOS: Their mom put the video on her blog. It ended up on YouTube. And now these two boys have raised baby talk to an art.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Da, da, da, da. Da, da, da, da, da, da.
MOOS: But now talk has turned to what they're saying.
PROFESSOR HARRIET KLEIN, NYU DEPARTMENT OF COMMUNICATION SCIENCES & DISORDERS: They're not really saying anything. They're just babbling.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Da, da, da.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ah, da, da, da.
KLEIN: They're imitating each other, so one is perpetuating the babbling in the other.
MOOS: Dr. Harriet Klein is an expert in speech development, but those who aren't have been supplying their own subtitles.
(on camera) Most people seem to think the kids were talking about socks.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Da, da, da.
GRAPHIC: What sock are you talking about?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ah, da, da, da.
GRAPHIC: Are you blind?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Da, da, da.
MOOS (voice-over): Or maybe they were talking about current events, a certain snake escape.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Da, da, da!
GRAPHIC: You hear about this cobra?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Da, da, da.
GRAPHIC: The one that escaped the Bronx Zoo?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ah, da, da.
GRAPHIC: This beast is, like, 20 inches long.
MOOS: Other beasts seemed disturbed by the babbling.
MOOS (on camera): There have been cases of twins who really did seem to develop their own private lingo.
(voice-over) There was a documentary made about twins in California who spoke their own language until the age of 8 or so.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Beeka boka.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ba da.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Boka da.
MOOS: The two didn't have much adult interaction and picked up a combo of English spoken by their dad and German spoken by their grandmother.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Eins, drei, doi doi.
MOOS: The parents of the YouTube twins have shied away from too much publicity.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Da, da, da, da, da.
GRAPHIC: Do you see what I go through every day?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Da, da, da.
GRAPHIC: Nobody is watching us.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Da, da, da, da.
GRAPHIC: There are over 100 thousand people watching us talking.
MOOS: Actually, it's more like millions if you count TV and Web views.
ELLEN DEGENERES, HOST, TALK SHOW: I think they were talking about Libya. I think.
MOOS: Someone else had the same idea in this mash-up with Dutch subtitles.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Da, da, da, da. Da, da, da, da, da.
MUAMMAR GADHAFI, LEADER OF LIBYA: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
MOOS: These two don't just imitate each other's babbling. They do simultaneous head stands, and we can only imagine what they'd do if they found that escaped cobra.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Da, da, da, da, da. Ah, da, da, da.
GRAPHIC: It could be slithering in the house. Like so. Hungry for baby toes.
MOOS: As one person posted, "Nominee for best foreign language film."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Da, da, da.
GRAPHIC: Enough now. You are starting to be obnoxious.
MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.
BLITZER: I think they were talking to each other in their own language.
Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.