Return to Transcripts main page
THE SITUATION ROOM
Misrata Carnage on Camera; Highest Level Libyan Defector; Anwar al-Awlaki Calls Out CNN's Peter Bergen; Rep. Dennis Kucinich Challenges Obama on Libya Policy
Aired March 31, 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, Brooke, very much.
Happening now, images of war and destruction in Libya that the world hasn't been able to see until now. CNN finds a way to get into the city of Misrata. It's been ravaged -- terrorized by Moammar Gadhafi's troops. Stand by.
An Al Qaeda leader is cheering on revolts in the Arab world and challenging the views of our own national security analyst, Peter Bergen, directly. I'll ask Peter about the impact of the uprisings and why Al Qaeda is singling Peter Bergen out.
And General Electric is fueling tax season outrage. The company isn't paying anything -- not a penny -- to Uncle Sam for 2010 -- zero, nada, nothing. And if that doesn't tick you off, wait until you hear what G.E.'s boss is saying today.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
A new warning that a massacre may be in the works in the Libyan city of Misrata. We have late word that the Libyan rebels are facing fierce new attacks by Moammar Gadhafi's troops and fighting back with any weapons they can find. It's been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for reporters to enter the center of Misrata five weeks into Libya's civil war. But CNN's Fred Pleitgen and his crew managed to get in on a humanitarian aid ship. He's now on the boat heading away from Misrata. We'll talk to him shortly.
First, his exclusive report on the battle for Libya's third largest city. This warning -- this is war up close. Viewers may find some of the following images rather disturbing.
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Weeks of urban combat have taken their toll in Misrata -- badly damaged buildings, streets littered with wreckage. Libya's third largest city, the final opposition stronghold in the west, is under siege by pro-Gadhafi forces.
(on camera): All right, so we're extremely close to the front line right now. We're with a couple of the fighters from the opposition forces. And this is in downtown Misrata. There's a lot of destruction everywhere. Most of the buildings here have some sort of damage to them -- pockmarks. There's a lot of destroyed cars in the streets, as well. And we can also see that the people that we're with -- the fighters that we're with are very, very tense at this moment.
(voice-over): A celebration on a destroyed armored vehicle a step too far for pro-Gadhafi forces nearby. And the scene turns ugly.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fire, fire, fire.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As you see, that all is destroyed from Gadhafi's forces -- buildings, gas stations, schools, restaurants, the police station, even fire station, they have destroyed it.
PLEITGEN: Most residents have fled downtown Misrata, as pro- Gadhafi forces have positioned snipers on tall buildings, used tanks and artillery in the city center. The anti-Gadhafi fighters, badly outgunned, fight back with the few weapons they have.
They provided us with this video saying it shows a man disabling a battle tank with a rocket propelled grenade.
Those civilians still left in Misrata are suffering. Twelve- year-old Mohammed (ph) and his 15-year-old brother were wounded when mortars hit their parents' home. Mohammed lost several fingers on his left hand and his whole right hand.
Their father swears revenge. "Gadhafi should be killed," he says, "he's not a human and he should be killed." But for now, the medical staff at one of the few functioning hospitals are struggling to keep many of the wounded alive. They lack even the basics -- anesthetics, operating tools and space. Some patients must stay in the parking lot. The emergency room is in a tent in front of the building.
DR. ALI ABDALLAH, SURGEON: We don't (INAUDIBLE). All the doctors and medical staff are in here now.
PLEITGEN: And they won't leave any time soon, as opposition fighters struggle to hold on to this besieged town and forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi continue to pound what not long ago was one of Libya's most prosperous places.
BLITZER: And Fred Pleitgen is joining us now.
I see you're on a boat still, off the coast of Misrata in the Mediterranean.
What are you doing there?
PLEITGEN: Well, Wolf, this is also how we got into Misrata. This is a fish trawler, a very old fish trawler. And what they do is they use this to -- to get aid, mostly medical and food aid, into the town of Misrata. It's a very, very dangerous thing to do because, in the past, the pro-Gadhafi forces have actually tried to launch small boat attacks on the port of Misrata, which is still in the control of the opposition. So it was this boat that we got into Misrata with. They then unloaded their aid. We went into town, took a look there and now we're using that boat to get back out -- Wolf.
BLITZER: When you were on -- in the town of Misrata, we saw what happened. The fighting started. There was shelling. You were able to size up these opposition forces to Gadhafi.
Did you get a sense they were up to the job of beating his -- his military?
PLEITGEN: I think they would have a difficult time beating his military, especially with the weapons they have right now. It's not only the fact that they have rifles and maybe some rocket-propelled grenades, where Gadhafi has tanks and artillery, they actually make a lot of the weapons that they use themselves. I saw a lot of guys with machetes, some with sort of makeshift rifles.
So it will be very difficult for them to beat Gadhafi.
However, having said that, as we can see, they've held on to their territory. It really is only a very small enclave right in Gadhafi territory. And they've held on to that for weeks. And they're preventing Gadhafi tanks from coming into their neighborhoods by putting sort of carpets on the streets and setting those on fire. So they tell us they believe, in spite of what's been going on, that they have the staying power to win this. At this stage, it seems quite difficult to see how they would do that. However, they are still very much hanging in there -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Would -- would air strikes, NATO-led air strikes, make any significant difference?
Did you see any evidence that there were air strikes coming in that area?
PLEITGEN: A very -- well, yes. Yes. There were a couple air strikes when we were on the ground. There weren't many. There were a few. And they do make a very, very big difference. That's what the opposition fighters tell us.
They say one of the reasons why the Gadhafi forces haven't been able to take a lot of strategic locations in Misrata, especially the port area, which is the lifeline, because ships like this one can still come in there and bring some aid -- the reason why the Gadhafi forces won't advance on those is because they'd be out in the open and they would get hit by coalition aircraft.
Again, I said, they had a small boat attack on the port. Afterward, a coalition aircraft came and took out those boats. So the air strikes make a big difference.
But what the opposition fighters tell us is that they feel that the coalition could take even more risks than it already is, hitting some of Gadarvi's -- Gadhafi's assets in downtown. Because he tries to hide his tanks in things like schools, under trees in residential areas. They say they feel the coalition should take more of those tanks out in spite of the danger of some civilian casualties -- Wolf.
BLITZER: The bottom line, Fred, is it more weapons, ammunition, that these opposition fighters need, or is it basic training?
PLEITGEN: Well, they need a little bit of everything. I would say from the level of training, it isn't very high. They are very courageous. They will move forward. They don't seem to have any fear. Weapons are definitely a big thing and is something that they would certainly need. They would need boatloads of things like rifles, rocket-propelled grenades. It doesn't even have to be very high powered weapons, but certainly at least a little more than they have right now. They have a lot of trouble getting ammunition. They have a lot of trouble getting weapons in case they lose them if in -- in some cases they lose battles against Gadhafi forces and lose their weapons.
So, yes, that -- that's a big issue. And they say if they had a little more, they'd be able to make advances in the town of Misrata, because they feel that the population, by and large, of Misrata, is very much in the camp of the opposition. So they've already won them over. So with a few more weapons, they say they could make a big difference -- Wolf.
BLITZER: A few more weapons. But you say that Gadhafi's forces have tanks, artillery. They're well-armed. They have sophisticated equipment. It's hard, just with a few more weapons, to defeat an army like that.
PLEITGEN: Yes, but a lot of it, of course, in this sort of urban warfare, urban combat kind of environment -- and I saw this up close -- depends, also, on whether or not the population that actually lives there supports the force that's in there. And, of course, you have people laying booby traps against the Gadhafi forces, you have people attacking the tanks, people laying booby traps for the tanks, as I said, using carpets to set roads on fire, putting oil on carpets, setting roads on fire. And then the tanks go over them and the tanks catch fire and then people attack these tanks with metal bars and the like.
When the population is against an invading force, it would become very difficult for the Gadhafi forces to hold that area.
Would the opposition be able to take it if they a few more weapons?
It is very much up in the air. That's what they say they would be able to do if they had a little more support. And they say the big thing, obviously, is a few more air strikes -- Wolf.
BLITZER: When I saw your report in Misrata, Fred, I was scared for you. I was frightened for you.
How scared were you?
PLEITGEN: Well, I mean, there was certainly some situations where -- where it seemed like quite a dicey situation. There was that one where we went downtown with the -- with the opposition fighters. And all of a sudden we saw that they seemed to be quite scared in that situation. And that's where, obviously, we had to get out of the there, because there were bullets whizzing by.
So, yes, I mean it is -- it's a very uncertain situation. You don't really know where the front line is. You don't know who controls a lot of these streets. You don't know whether or not all of a sudden a tank might push forward. And that, of course, is something that -- that can be quite disconcerting to people. And you can see. I mean, we were a bit worried. But the people who live there, a lot of them, are in absolute fear -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, they certainly are.
Frederik Pleitgen doing an excellent job.
Be careful over there.
We'll stay in close touch.
U.S. officials say the defection of Libya's foreign minister shows coalition pressure on Moammar Gadhafi is having an effect. Moussa Koussa fled to London yesterday. He announced he was resigning his post. He's the highest ranks official to break with the Gadhafi regime.
Experts say Koussa, who once serve as Libya's intelligence chief, has secrets to tell, including information about the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. The British prime minister says there's no deal of any kind to give Moussa Koussa immunity.
Joining us now from Tripoli, Nic Robertson -- Nic, you're getting some reaction from the Libyan government on the defection of the foreign minister, Moussa Koussa.
What are they saying?
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we haven't had any reaction from Gadhafi, from the top leadership here. But the government is trying to put a positive spin on this. They're saying that they allowed Moussa Koussa to leave the country because he was sick, because he needed to get his health seen to, he was an old man, they said, and they said he had a heart condition, then another condition and another condition.
But it's very clear by the fact that it took them almost 24 hours to respond to his defection that they didn't know this was coming, that just the day before, the deputy foreign minister had said that he was going to be back the next day, that the foreign minister would be back the next day.
That wasn't true. The government's trying to put the best face on it they can. But it rings hollow.
Moussa Koussa tricked this government, tricked the leadership and has left the country and left them hanging -- Wolf.
BLITZER: How significant, Nic, is this defection?
Will it really wind up hurting Gadhafi?
ROBERTSON: It's significant because this was a man trusted by Gadhafi, his head of intelligence here through the mid-'90s, all the way through to until 2009, but also in the '80s. And he was a man who was behind a lot of Libya's terrorist actions, a wanted criminal in Europe at the time.
And so this is a man who was trusted by Gadhafi to deal with WMD, to deal with the Lockerbie issue, a man who would sort of vet, if you will, visiting heads of state before they got to meet with Gada -- before they got to meet with Gadhafi.
So this is -- this is a man here who Gadhafi had in his inner circle, whom he trusted, whom he listened to. And now he is gone -- a moderating voice, if you will, that is no longer moderating Gadhafi's actions. So then nobody, therefore, to hold him back from the excesses -- the excesses like shelling his own citizens, killing and maiming his own citizens.
So this is -- this is going to have an impact beyond just no one to run the foreign ministry. It's going to have an impact on the way Gadhafi deals with his countrymen and the country -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We were showing our viewers some pictures of that recent interview you had with Moussa Koussa. I take it, at the time, he was a total apologist for -- for Gadhafi?
ROBERTSON: You know, he was giving us a really robust defense of the regime just a month ago, when we arrived here. Yet two weeks later, at a press conference, he was reading with his head down in his notes. He was very unconvincing. He didn't even -- he didn't seem passionate. He didn't seem to mean what he was saying.
And at that moment, I -- I really felt this was a man who no longer had his heart in this regime. We had no clues that he was going to defect and leave. But the regime must also have noticed this, as well. And the people working underneath him must have noticed this, as well.
Despite all of that, he managed to trick them. And that's going -- that's leaving them with a lot of explaining to do. And no doubt, there were people looking -- looking at him, knowing that he was at the center of the regime, trusted. And now he has decided to -- he's going to go on the right side of history here. And there will be people wondering if they should be doing the same thing -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Nic Robertson reporting for us
One of the most dangerous figures in al Qaeda is taking on CNN's national analyst, Peter Bergen. I'll talk to Peter about their war of words. House Democrat, Dennis Kucinich, is accusing -- accusing President Obama of reckless and arrogant behavior. I'll ask the former presidential candidate, a Democrat, about his heated remarks about U.S. policy in Libya.
And General Electric's chief isn't making any -- isn't making any apologies today for the fact that his company isn't paying a dime of income tax on its 2010 return, even though it's made billions and billions of dollars in profits.
BLITZER: A life-and-death question hanging over the revolts we've been seeing spreading across North Africa and the Middle East: Will the pro-democracy movement help or hurt al Qaeda?
An influential al Qaeda leader is now jumping into the debate. That would be Anwar al-Awlaki, he's the Yemeni-American-born clerk who has been called the bin Laden of the Internet and labeled an extraordinarily dangerous person by U.S. authorities.
Al-Awlaki is directly challenging the views of our CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen. Peter is joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
In this magazine they have online called "Inspire" magazine, this is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Awlaki writes this about you, he says, " --For a so-called 'terrorism expert' such as Peter Bergen, it is interesting to see how he doesn't get it right this time. For him to think that because a Taliban-style regime is not going to take over following the revolutions is a too short-term way of viewing or unfolding events."
How do you feel about him directly going after your views? You've been suggesting now for some time that this is not be a bonanza for al Qaeda.
PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Right. I mean, I think that that analysis has clearly got under these guys' skins because they have -- al-Awlaki has devoted a significant essay to taking on the people saying that the revolutions of the Middle East are not good for al Qaeda, have very little to do with them. And he's taking me to task personally and also Fareed Zakaria and others.
So, you know, this is something that they really want to challenge. I don't think he produced any evidence countervailing. He does say elsewhere that, you know, in fact, they're related by the events in the Middle East, the mujahedeen are rising up in country after country, but the actual evidence for that is pretty limited.
BLITZER: Yes. And then you responded in a column you wrote on CNN.com. Among other things, you said this, "I'm not a betting man, but if I were, I'd place very long odds on al Qaeda or allied groups having a significant role in any of these countries' futures. Mr. Awlaki, would you like to place your bet?"
So you're getting right back at him and challenging him to a bet.
BERGEN: Well, let's see if he responds. I think that gambling is vice that Islam doesn't encourage, so let's see if he take me up.
BLITZER: So he probably won't, but he might respond to you.
BERGEN: He might. He might. I mean, certainly, this is the fifth iteration of this English language magazine, "Inspire." It's a pretty sickly produced, a lot of graphics, a lot of photographs, typically around 70 pages. They're trying to put their message out in English. Unfortunately, it's having quite some effect we've seen in terrorism case in terrorism case in the United States and the United Kingdom and elsewhere. But al-Awlaki's surfaces name surfaces, his sermons, his writings are being influential on the English-speaking jihadi community.
BLITZER: How did you feel when one of the world's most wanted terrorists, Anwar al-Awlaki, mentions your name?
BERGEN: I don't feel anything. Sort of weird form of recognition.
BLITZER: You don't feel a little nervous, a little scared?
BERGEN: No, no.
BLITZER: Nothing like that?
BERGEN: No. No, I don't think al-Awlaki -- he's got bigger fish to fry.
BLITZER: You know, the argument, though, that he makes, some say, you know what? They're very patient, these al Qaeda guys, they don't look at this in terms of a year or five years. They look at in terms of decades and they think in the end time is on their side. You've heard that argument.
BERGEN: Right, sure. Al-Zawahiri, the number two in al Qaeda, pointed out it took two centuries to get the Crusaders out of the Middle East during the Crusades. So yes, they are thinking long term.
That said, you know, if they just wait and wait, you know, events are passing them by. The people on the barricades in Cairo and in Libya and elsewhere just are not -- al Qaeda's ideas are not part of what they are demanding.
BLITZER: Let's see if Vegas is going to take the odds on that bet you have with Anwar al-Awlaki. Thanks very much, Peter.
BERGEN: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Growing outrage on Capitol Hill over the U.S. mission in Libya.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), OHIO: This is clear and arrogant violation of our constitution.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Just ahead, I'll speak with the Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and I'll ask him what he thinks the position is doing wrong. Does he think the president should potentially be impeached because of what he's authorized in Libya?
Also, radiation levels near that crippled nuclear power plant in Japan now soaring to an all-time high. Stand by for details.
BLITZER: Radiation levels in the ocean waters near Japan's quake-battered nuclear power plant, they are soaring to an all-time high.
Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that, some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.
What do you got?
LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it is a very frightening situation.
The country's Nuclear Safety Agency says the amount of radioactive material in samples are more than 4,000 times above the regulatory limit. Authorities have not been able to determine where the contaminated water is coming from.
Meanwhile, high levels of radioactive cesium have been found in the beef near the plant and new reports suggest that it could prevent the recovery of some people killed in the earthquake and tsunami.
Here in the United States, experts are echoing the Environmental Protection Agency's assessment that there is no health risk from drinking milk with low levels of radiation. Milk samples taken from Washington state and California showed minuscule amounts of radioactive material. The EPA is boosting its monitoring of radiation in milk, drinking water and precipitation.
And NASA says the Space Shuttle Endeavour sustained minor damage during a powerful storm. The storm, packing high winds, lightning and hail, hit yesterday. More bad weather is preventing further inspection of the spacecraft. Endeavour is set to launch on its final mission, and that date is April 19th, Wolf.
BLITZER: We'll be watching it and wish the best.
Thanks very much, Lisa.
Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio, says U.S. military action may -- repeat -- may be an impeachable offense for President Obama. I'll ask the Ohio Democrat to explain exactly what he thinks the president is doing wrong. He's standing by live.
BLITZER: President Obama's getting flack from members of both parties on Capitol Hill, even after his new attempt to explain U.S. military intervention in Libya. One of the his harshest critics is a fellow Democrat, Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. He had blistering comments about the president's policy on the House floor today. Congressman Kucinich is joining us now in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.
KUCINICH: Thanks, Wolf. It's good to be with you.
BLITZER: Why are you so angry at the president?
KUCINICH: I'm not angry at the president. I have appealed to the president to respect the Constitution where Article I, Section 8 says you have to involve the Congress in any decision to make war. And the White House just refuses to do that.
BLITZER: But he says that he did involve the Congress. He sent a letter notifying Congress, he gave the speech the other day, he had a briefing for members of Congress, they called into the White House Situation Room. They say they have repeatedly spoken to the House and Senate leadership.
KUCINICH: Well, that's not what the Constitution calls for. It doesn't say, well, if you meet with 10 members, it's all OK. There are 435 member of the House, 100 member of the Senate. Article I, Section 8 makes it abundantly clear that the Congress has to approve the United States going to war. And so he didn't comply with that. And frankly, that is a pretty serious violation of the Constitution.
BLITZER: But -- but, he -- he's not even saying that this is a war. He's saying this is a United Nations Security Council approved military action. The Arab League supported it. The European allies supported it. And, it's not necessarily a unilateral U.S. act of war.
KUCINICH: OK. Check this out. Over a hundred Tomahawk missiles, bombers dropping ...
BLITZER: Two hundred.
KUCINICH: ...OK. Thank you for correcting me. Over two hundred Tomahawk missiles. Bombers dropping 2,000-pound bombs. We're now chasing the rebels, in effect, chasing Gadhafi's army, providing the rebels with air cover. If this is not a war, then we better redefine what a war is. Of course it's a war. There are people's lives are being put at risk.
BLITZER: But, he is the commander in chief, though, right?
KUCINICH: You know what, yes. But that doesn't go into effect until the Congress authorizes a war. And he's not only -- you know -- the administration is not only not abiding by the Constitution, they're not even abiding by the War Powers Act, and they've exceeded the U.N. mandate, which had no-fly zone (inaudible) -- well, you can go after Gadhafi's army, because, eventually, you're going to go into civilian areas where people support Gadhafi. Then what do you do?
BLITZER: But, you know, since World War II, on many occasions, the U.S. has acted militarily against other countries without a formal declaration of war being approved by Congress and the Supreme Court has said that's OK.
KUCINICH: Well, you know what, the Supreme Court, actually, has left this contest open between Congress and the administration. But, there's a difference here. When the stakes are as high as they are in the region, when you have conflict moving around the world and that -- and particularly in that region, unless Congress is consulted, the dangers of the United States going into a wider war are quite serious and, so, the President should go back and read George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers, and see why our early founders believed that Congress ought -- has to make the first decision.
BLITZER: All right. You know he was a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, so he's got a history. Let me get to the issue of impeachment, because you raised...
KUCINICH: I'm glad you mentioned that.
BLITZER: .. -- you've raised the issue of impeachment. Do you still believe, potentially, the President could be impeached as a result of what he has authorized the U.S. military to do in Libya?
KUCINICH: There is no question that the president exceeded his constitutional authority. That's not even disputable.
BLITZER: So, is impeachment on your agenda?
KUCINICH: No, of course not. I mean, a country can't be put through that. But, you know what, it needs to be understood that he -- that the president does not have the power to unilaterally take this country into war. I want to read this to you. "The president does not have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." Barack Obama, December 20th, 2007. Constitutional expert. This is my unimpeachable authority.
BLITZER: So, what were you suggesting the other day when you -- you suggested that impeachment, potentially, could be on the table.
KUCINICH: Oh, I didn't put it that way.
BLITZER: What did you -- how did you put it?
KUCINICH: What I said -- I put it this way, I said that he has exceeded his constitutional authority and I asked the question as to whether or not that could be an impeachable offense. He's our president. We don't want him to be in trouble. He has put himself in a position where he's made the office vulnerable because he has exceeded the authority which the Constitution, War Powers Act did not matter, U.N. mandate provides.
BLITZER: We're taking a few hits with our signal up on Capitol Hill. Hopefully, it will get fixed. You know, some of the most progressive or liberal members of his own administration, whether the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, or the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, Samantha Power at the NSC, they say this is a humanitarian mission, really, to save lives. If the President wouldn't have authorized this action, tens of thousands of innocent Libyans would have been killed in Benghazi. I assume you appreciate that concern.
KUCINICH: We all want to make sure that innocent lives are never lost. We've got to be quite discerning about intervening because when you intervene in what is proving to be a civil war, then you (inaudible) one side against the other side and you end up with more casualties, which is what...
BLITZER: But, don't you feel -- don't you feel that a lot of innocent people were saved as a result of what the President authorized?
KUCINICH: Well, you know what? The U.N. Commission on Inquiry that went (inaudible) -- arrived in Libya to try to find out whether these accounts of mass casualties were true, they -- they had to leave because of the bombing. So, we don't know. So, it's about instinct. I want -- we want our President to have a humanitarian instinct. But, we also want to make sure he follows the law and there is nothing inconsistent with going to Congress and getting approval based on (inaudible) for humanitarian intervention. But he didn't do that.
BLITZER: We've got to apologize to our viewers because we've been getting these hits with the signal. Congressman, thanks very much. Just one quick yes or no. Are you going to challenge him for the Democratic Presidential nomination?
BLITZER: Ok. You gave me a good yes or no answer. Dennis Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio. Thanks very much for coming in. Stand by for another top Democrat's take on what's going on in Libya right now, the overall mission, the way the President's handling it. I'll speak with the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman, Dianne Feinstein. I'll ask her what might happen if the U.S. helps to arm Libyan rebels and a Libyan commander tells CNN in detail about the weapons his forces desperately need.
BLITZER: A U.S. Intelligence source says CIA operatives have been working with rebel leaders on the ground in Libya to try to reverse gains by Moammar Gadhafi's forces. This, as NATO now has taken sole command of all coalition air strikes. Top U.S. military officials say it is a fluent situation on the battlefield. They got a tough grilling, though, today, by members of Congress. Let's go to Capitol Hill. Our Senior Congressional Correspondent was there watching all of this unfold. How did it go, Dana? DANA BASH, SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT, CAPITOL HILL, CNN: Well, there were four hearings today and, for the first time, Congress finally got a chance to question the President's war council, at least some of them, and ask in the words of one Republican whether we're "headed for a stalemate."
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: In hearings across the Capitol, frustration and doubts about the Libya mission boiled over.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This -- this is just the most muddled definition of an operation, probably in U.S. military history.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am very worried about this whole idea of mission (inaudible).
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a heck of a situation when we go into a conflict and we don't know who we're -- who we're supporting.
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Agitated lawmakers tried and failed to get answers from the Defense Secretary and Joint Chiefs Chairman on how long the mission will last and when Gadhafi will go.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The bottom line is, no one can predict for you how long it will take for that to happen.
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: But, military leaders bent over backwards bent over backwards to describe a limited Libya operation, the U.S. pulling back to a supporting role. That caused John McCain deep concern.
JOHN MCCAIN, SENATOR, ARIZONA (R): But, for the United States to be withdrawing our unique offensive capabilities at this time sends the exact wrong signal.
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: A major point of bipartisan contention, lack of approval or consultation with Congress.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Truthfully, we -- we have been left out in the cold on this one.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It would have been better for the White House to have began discussions with key Republican and Democratic leaders as we built up to this decision.
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, insisted the President gave Congress ample notification but this Republican tried to make clear the U.S. is engaged in war, without Congress's permission.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If, tomorrow, a foreign nation intentionally, for whatever reason, launched a Tomahawk missile or it's equivalent to New York City, would that be considered an act of war against the United States of America. Probably so. If it's an act of war to launch a Tomahawk missile at New York City, would it not also be an act of war to launch that by us on another nation, presumably? FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Tough questions about the Libyan rebels revealed troubling answers. Regarding arming the rebels, they seem to be getting their butts whipped. We know a few of their leaders but there is just a whole lot more we don't know.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What the opposition needs as much as anything right now is -- is some training, some command and control and some organization. It's -- it's -- it's pretty much a pickup ballgame at this point.
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: This irate Democrat warned some Libyan rebels have actually attached U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do I explain to American servicemen from my district that there's -- that those with blood on their hands, American blood on their hands, are fighting in Libya...
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: The Deputy Secretary of State responded by simply saying that it is the policy of the U.S. to defend the Libyan people. And, Wolf, as for the Defense Secretary, he reveals for the first time he is personally opposed to arming the rebels in Libya, even though that is the policy the administration is actively discussing and gave out no ground troops. He said, "Not as long as I'm in this job."
BLITZER: Yes. He was adamant on that. Tough, tough questioning. The longer this goes on, the questioning will intensify, I am sure about that. Alright, thanks Dana, thanks very much.
Rebel forces in Libya on the defensive as Gadhafi loyalists close in. Do they need more help from the coalition? Short answer: Absolutely. Just ahead, an opposition leader speaking exclusively with CNN. You'll hear what he has to say. Plus, an American arrested in Syria. Why some are calling him a scapegoat.
BLITZER: The political debate is intensifying here in Washington over the U.S. military role in the Libya operation. Thus, bring in our Senior Political Analyst, Gloria Borger. She is taking a closer look at this story. It seems like the American public is conflicted on this issue.
GLORIA BORGER, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST, CNN: Yes. It -- it's -- it's interesting that of course -- because they don't want another all in war like Iraq and Afghanistan but they're clearly conflicted because they're not sure what the end game is here, Wolf, what the goals are. A pew poll taken before the President's speech, so the President may get a bump after, showed that only 47% of Americans supported the mission in Libya but what's so interesting, Wolf, is that independent voters are the most skeptical about Libya. 57% to 35% say there is no clear goal and I think that's really where the political play is here. Because they have a sense of improvisation about this mission, sort of seat of the pants, and they don't like it and they're -- and they're worried that we don't know where it's headed. BLITZER: How does all of this play out in the -- in the -- in the Presidential campaign for next year?
BORGER: Well, it's kind of interesting. Americans are conflicted because we know we don't want to drive the car here but we're not sure we trust anybody else to drive the car for us and, so, it plays into the whole leadership issue with Republican candidates and Haley Barbour, who I guarantee you is going to run for the presidency on the Republican side, gave a radio interview in Mississippi the other day. Let's take a listen to what he said about leadership.
GOV. HALEY BARBOUR, MISSISSIPPI, (R): In fact, the Obama administration's position has been to say, you know, we're just one of the boys. So, we're -- we're not going to -- we're not going to try to be the leader. And, we see that when you don't have strong leadership from the strongest country in the world then everybody else scatters out and breaks up.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BORGER: So, it's interesting, Wolf. You don't have to say whether you're for military intervention, against military intervention, you just have to sort of criticize Obama as a leader. Newt Gingrich, as you know, has famously said he was for an intervention, a no fly zone, and then he said he was against a no fly zone because he didn't like the way that Obama was conducting it. So, this gives them an opportunity to take on the President on that big issue of who can lead.
BLITZER: Gloria, thanks very much. Clearly, what the President needs more than anything, politically, right now is a quick victory. They've got to get rid of Gadhafi.
BORGER: If Gadhafi goes he's a hero, right?
BLITZER: Then, this is a political winner. If it drags on and on and on, not so much.
BLITZER: Here at home, an outrageous story:
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody watching this story is paying taxes, including the secretary out at the front desk of my office and she is paying more than General Electric. They paid nothing.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Actually, GE made $5 billion in profits last year. The company wound up paying the federal government in taxes not a penny. We'll tell you why, what's going on, and we'll also have the latest intelligence on Libya's opposition. We're talking to one of the best informed lawmakers in Congress. The Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. That's coming up as well.
BLITZER: Corporate giant General Electric is embroiled in a growing political firestorm, being forced to explain to an outraged American public how a multi-billion dollar company winds up not paying a penny in any federal income tax. Lisa Sylvester is here with the details. A lot of people, their blood is boiling when they hear this story.
LISA SYLVESTER, ANCHOR/CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Yes. You know, Wolf, this year tax day is April 18th. It's right around the corner, millions of Americans out there now gathering up their receipts and their W-2 forms to file their taxes. But, General Electric and it's vast army of accountants has a federal tax bill that may be a little surprising.
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: The company that touts "We bring good things to light" has been very good about shielding its profits from U.S. tax collectors. GE had profits of $14.2 billion in 2010, $5 billion of that made in the United States. But, the company's expected U.S. tax bill a grand total of 0$. That's right, zero dollars is what GE owes to the IRS. GE is also claiming a $3.2 billion tax benefit.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody watching this program is paying taxes, including the secretary out at the front desk of my office and she's paying more than General Electric. They paid nothing.
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: CEO Jeff Immelt defended his company before the Economic Club in Washington, arguing the company has done nothing wrong.
JEFF IMMELT, GENERAL ELECTRIC, CEO: Like any American, we do like to keep our tax rate low but we do it in a compliant way and there are no exceptions.
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Ok. How does a Fortune 500 company making billions end up not owing a penny in taxes? Chuck it up to creative accounting, where the companies profits are declared offshore and the fact the company's financial arm, GE Capital, lost billions and is still reeling from the financial crisis. Is it legal? Yes, says Scott Hodge with The Tax Foundation.
SCOTT HODGE, THE TAX FOUNDATION: They may be using everything within their means to minimize their tax burden but there is an IRS auditor always looking over their shoulder to make sure that they do that correctly.
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Other companies like Bank of America and even CNN's parent company, Time-Warner, have used losses to offset their tax burden. But, Immelt, in particular, has come under fire because he was tapped to be the White House Job Czar and is advising the White House on corporate tax reform.
The White House is defending the Presidential choice and says Immelt's voice is only one opinion.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He wants to hear diversity of opinion. In the end, the decisions that are made about which policy to pursue on corporate tax reform will be the President's decision.
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Now, GE says it has paid significant federal income taxes for prior years and GE's CEO says the company expects its tax rate to go up for 2011 as GE Capital recovers. Wolf?
BLITZER: A lot of members of Congress, including some Republicans who don't want to increase taxes at all, they want to re-- they want to take a look at the laws right now to make sure that a company that makes $5 billion in profits doesn't pay 36% in federal income tax or 20% or 10%. They want to make sure they pay something to the federal government and -- and -- the thing is some real conservatives say no new taxes, you can't raise taxes, well, they can rewrite the laws to make sure that a company like GE or other companies don't get away with it.
SYLVESTER: And, you know, even GE will say that's part of the problem is it's the system, the tax system that we have right now. It is so complex, it is so complicated and they say yes, it has to be reformed.
BLITZER: Spend millions and millions of dollars to hire lawyers and lobbyists and ...
SYLVESTER: And accountants.
BLITZER: ... yes, and accountants to get -- to get what they want and then, as a result, they pay zero, zero in income tax. Thanks very much.
We're going back to Libya in a moment. Our (inaudible) say he had an exclusive one-on-one interview with a top rebel military leader. Stand by for that.
BLITZER: A desperate mother pleading with Syria to spare her son. CNN's Ivan Watson reports.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: At least let someone talk to him. Let someone see him. I don't know. I want to see my son. I have no idea where he is.
IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: An anguished mother's message to the President of Syria.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: .. (inaudible). WATSON: The last time Mahara Redwan (ph) saw her son, Mohammed, was when he suddenly appeared on Syrian state television last Saturday. In what appears to be a televised interrogation, the 32- year-old Egyptian-American confesses he exchanged e-mails with a Colombian journalist who asked him to take pictures in Syria and said he'd pay around $17 per photo. The report on state TV calls Redwan (ph) a foreigner paid to destabilize Syria.
UNIDENTIFEID FEMALE: The Syrian government did not charge him with anything yet, officially. They left -- you know what, they left to the media.
WATSON: Born in Houston, Mohammed Redwan is a graduate of Texas A&M University. Last January he left his job at an oil company in Syria to join protests in Cairo against Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak. Redwan gave an interview about the uprising.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They actually went into certain neighborhoods.
WATSON: Syrian television accused Redwan (ph) of trying to export Egypt's revolution to Syria. As far as we know, he has not been charged.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He is not a spy. He -- he is not anybody except a young man who is full of hopes and he is full of idealism.
WATSON: Mahara (ph) is mobilizing supporters for her son's release here in Cairo. Family members, friends, and supporters of Mohammed Redwan have gathered here in front of the Syrian Embassy in Cairo to try to raise awareness and put pressure on the Syrian government for his release. This is his cousin, Nora. What exactly -- are you getting any response at all from the Syrian government about your cousin, Mohammed?
NORA SHALABY, COUSIN: No, not at all. His father has been there since Sunday and he's met with officials from both the Egyptian and American embassies, but I don't think he's been able to reach any of the Syrian authorities, or if he has, they haven't given him any information at all.
WATSON: The small crowd stands quietly, armed only with flowers and signs. And this mother's silent appeal to a distant president speaks so much louder than words.
Ivan Watson, CNN, Cairo.