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IN THE ARENA

Gadhafi's Sons Propose Regime Change; Gitmo Change of Plans

Aired April 4, 2011 - 20:00   ET

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


ELIOT SPITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. I'm Eliot Spitzer. Welcome to the program.

Breaking news from Libya tonight. Could it be Libyan president Saif Gadhafi? A father-son swap for the top job. Sounds like "The Godfather" but it's real. It's the proposal that Gadhafi's people have brought to western governments, even though the rebels have already said no way.

Do you remember Saif? Here he is talking to Reuters last month.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAIF GADHAFI, SON OF MOAMMAR GADHAFI: If you want to support the militia, do it. But I will tell you for now, they're going to lose. We will win. And we're not afraid of the American fleet, NATO, France, European -- this is our country. We live here, we die here. We will never, ever surrender to those terrorists. Libyan nation is so united now. We are so strong.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

SPITZER: That's him, Saif, the so-called rational Gadhafi. Now he's best known as Libya's Michael Corleone, the loyal son constantly drawn back into his father's blood feuds.

This proposal likely won't fly but it is important for this reason. Moammar Gadhafi is negotiating. It's the first indication that he knows that he will may to go.

Our own Nic Robertson is being out and front on this story and he's standing by in Tripoli.

Nic, welcome. What can you tell us about this offer and what it really amounts to?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is something that the family really believes is the best offer that is out there. They still feel that they're strong, that they've got control and influence over four to five million people out of six million in the country.

They don't believe that they can be defeated militarily by the rebels, even with coalition no-fly zone enforcement backing the rebels. They feel that they have still got cards to play at the moment. And what they want to say right now is going back to a plan from years ago, Saif Gadhafi takes over power.

What they're saying is, we can negotiate, don't make it a precondition of negotiation that Gadhafi, the elder, has to go. Don't make that a precondition, but we can get it to in the negotiation. That's the message here. But something very subtle in there.

I learned this evening from a source close to the leadership, the father is still trying to sell this message to the tribes, let alone to the opposition or the international community. That he's still trying to build support among the tribes. And here in Libya, this tribal society, that's a very important thing -- Eliot.

SPITZER: You know, Nic, it sounds to me the way you're describing it as though Moammar Gadhafi thinks he's negotiating from a position of strength, not weakness, and perhaps not even stalemate. I mean usually negotiations result from a stalemate. He seems to be saying, I'm strong. What I'll offer you as some way out for you is that my son takes over.

Does it even indicate for how long the son would be there? Is this another 42 years of Saif Gadhafi? Or is this just a transitional moment and then to democracy? What -- how are they describing this?

ROBERTSON: Well, Saif himself sees this as a pretty rapid transition to political form. How long he would want to stay in power that's anyone's guess at this stage.

This family has got a vision of this country that the father helped kick out -- or the father came to power, kicked out the Italian and American colonialists as they see it. He's from a small tribe. He united all the tribes here, and he doesn't want to see this country break into pieces.

So does Saif al-Gadhafi believe that he has that strength? That he has to come to power now and hold the country together for another 40 years? In the past he's talked about more political reform than that, political pluralism that would allow real political parties. But the rhetoric we've heard from him in the past month doesn't sound like that at all.

And of course that's why the rebels are saying they can't be dealing with him. That's why the international community has lost faith in this -- in Saif al-Gadhafi and the rest of the family. But this is perhaps a very blinkered view by the regime here right now. But they still feel they've got a lot of cards to play. And this is -- this is what they've got on offer. This is their best play at this time, if you will -- Eliot.

SPITZER: Well, Nic, as you say, it's hard to understand Saif Gadhafi. I mean if you look at his statements, it's almost like somebody with multiple personality disorder. But what have you heard from the opposition? Is it outright no, no way? No Gadhafi can be part of any government that succeeds Moammar? Or is it maybe a more subtle response if this is really a transitional moment, we can accept the son for some limited period of time? ROBERTSON: For right now, it seems to be a flat-out no. And you know what goes on behind the scenes, what leverage, what else is being offered in this package, if you will, by this deputy foreign minister who's gone to Turkey now, Libyans still counting on Turkey to give them some support here. What else is in that package that may make it palatable for everyone?

We' seen the deputy foreign minister walk away from this government, go to Britain, get interrogated by British officials there. And now we're seeing the international sanctions that freeze his assets being lifted. The message here is if other people want to walk away from the leadership, they can get their financial assets unfrozen.

We know that Saif Gadhafi, his international financial assets have been frozen. Does he think there's some deal out there that could unfreeze his assets as well? What is he putting on the table?

These are details that we don't know about. So I think this -- this maybe has a little distance to run yet and maybe we'll come back to a revised version of this in the future. But I -- we're looking at a period of diplomacy here, and the window at the moment looks like it's closing because there is so much rejection going on. But perhaps there are more details to come out yet -- Eiot.

SPITZER: All right. Nic, thank you so much. Certainly an interesting and a subtle moment here in this diplomacy. And you make such an important point there. The carrot of lifting the freeze on assets which has been done to Moussa Koussa as if to say look, guys, you come over to us, you can live pretty well, otherwise you're just going to sit there in Tripoli with bombs raining down on you until the bitter end.

That's an interesting little piece of diplomacy that we're playing in order to create fissures and cracks in Gadhafi's support structure.

All right, Nic, thanks so much for leading the way on this hugely important story. We'll be checking back in with you.

Now here to help us drill down on the father-son swap, Benjamin Barber, author and long-time adviser to Saif Gadhafi when Saif was viewed as the rational person, not the crazy person he's become once again. And from Boston, CNN senior political analyst David Gergen.

Welcome to you both.

Ben, let me begin with you. You know Saif perhaps better than anybody in the West. Would he accept a transitional role? Or would he have to assume the mantle of the entirety of his father's power?

BENJAMIN BARBER, LONGTIME ADVISER TO SAIF GADHAFI: When we make predictions, Eliot, we have to look at the past record. The record of Saif Gadhafi is somebody who twice has been offered major roles in the Libyan government by his father and both times in the past turned them down at some risks to himself, saying he would take no role that wasn't the result of elections.

Now here's another opportunity. This is only a surmise but it's my surmise that he is thinking about a transitional role, not becoming his father, spending 42 years, but rather working on something he's worked on for seven years, a transition to constitutional government.

Saif Gadhafi oversaw a constitutional committee. He oversaw a human rights group at the foundation that he runs and he oversaw an e- democracy, an electronic democracy group. So he in the past has sided with the elements of reform. If he has a chance to make it happen, I believe he might try to do that.

SPITZER: OK. First, you've got to explain to us how you know him and how you then square what appears to be someone who has multiple personality disorder when we see the speeches and the rhetoric being rhetoric but still rivers of blood was the phrase he was using a few weeks ago.

How do you know him and how do you square -- or can you square these very divergent aspects of his personalities that have emerged?

BARBER: I've been involved in Libya for about five years. I was a consultant there initially to meet with his father Moammar Gadhafi but at the same time meeting with Saif Gadhafi. On my first visit also a constitutional committee that was trying to write a new constitution.

I was asked them by Monitor to work with the constitutional committee and with Saif Gadhafi on reform efforts. And for the past years, I did that. A couple of years ago, Saif asked me to be on the international advisory board of the Saif Gadhafi Foundation. And through that, I've been meeting regularly with Saif and a group of --

(CROSSTALK)

SPITZER: Can I interrupt you?

BARBER: Certainly.

SPITZER: Just want to clarify, this is the period after United States recognized that he came back into the international fold, if you will.

BARBER: This was -- and just to remind your viewers, in 2003, Saif Gadhafi came out of the cold, thanks to Bush administration overtures. Rejoined the West, made war in al Qaeda, started imprisoning al Qaeda warriors, paid reparations of $1.3 billion, and yielded their weapons of mass destruction.

SPITZER: So --

BARBER: We appointed him ambassador there. This was the period when we were looking for a genuine (INAUDIBLE). We thought, and I think Monitor thought it was an opportunity to work at internal reform. SPITZER: OK. Hold on one second, Ben. I've just got to get to David Gergen who's one of those wise voices you want to hear from on anything important.

David, does any of this make sense for the White House? Can they tolerate even a brief transition where a Gadhafi individual is at the top of the government?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: They certainly, Eliot, have to look at this seriously. Because all along the goal has been to get rid of Gadhafi himself, taking him down. And if he's now ready as he appears to be ready to go under certain conditions, you have to start considering that seriously, behind the scenes. Not out in the public, but behind the scenes.

But I also think you have to sort of ask just how predictable is Saif. I do not know him anywhere near as well as Benjamin Barber. I did have the opportunity at his request to come and spend three hours with him over lunch a couple of years ago. He made a very persuasive argument that he was trying to lead Libya out of its dictatorial past into a much more modern economy and a more modern democracy.

That was the person he appeared to be. I must say he oversaw then a lot of the democratic efforts, fledgling efforts in Libya. But he's also the man who oversaw the butchering of people on the streets. And he stood there by his father and helped to order those brutal crackdowns.

He is -- you know he is also a man I think who is -- who's now we've discovered his doctorate from the London School of Economics was a fraud. And that, you know, large chunks of it were written by outsiders.

Now given all of that, you know, how much trust can you absolutely put in him? I think, to go back to an old Reagan phrase, trust but verify in this case.

SPITZER: Well, I suppose, David, that raises the very difficult question then, we obviously have some role in determining whether or not there's a bargain to be struck here. But the opposition voices themselves, those who were waging the civil war in Libya, that somewhat at a stalemate right now. How have they reacted as best we know? Have you heard anything from your sources in the White House or elsewhere about what their response has been?

GERGEN: I have not, but I can guarantee you that the White House is also going to be very anxious to hear what the response is from the Arab world. There are a lot of Arab leaders who hate Gadhafi and would like to see him go. But there may be others who had split off.

What about Turkey? There's a reason they went to Turkey. Turkey didn't like this bombing to start with. If you found the Arab League starting to splinter over this, and try to call off the airstrikes, while negotiations continue, I think that could be very problematic for the White House. Because it would -- it might allow Gadhafi to get a lot more arms to arm himself. This could all be a ruse. So it's -- I think the White House is going to have to try very carefully and make sure they keep up the military pressure while also beginning to explore what the diplomatic -- what diplomatic roads there may be out of this current stalemate.

SPITZER: Ben, what have you heard if anything from the opposition in terms of their willingness to move in this?

BARBER: There's a couple of very important points. First of all, and I know David is a very careful journalist, but the claim that his dissertation is fraudulent has yet to be established. The LSE has established a commission to investigate that. I read the dissertation. I don't think it's fraudulent. There may be some plagiarism, that I could --

(CROSSTALK)

SPITZER: OK. OK. I think that's the least of the significant issues we're dealing with here.

BARBER: David rightly said if we can't trust the guy to be honest on his dissertation what can we trust him for.

SPITZER: Right.

BARBER: So I just say that's an open question so far. But much more importantly is the fact that the two leading members of the opposition council, Abdul Jalil, the former justice minister, and Mahmoud Jabril, who is the economics guy who is now acting as head of the whole thing, they both were people who Saif Gadhafi brought into government.

They were his people, they worked with him on the reform efforts. They are now on the other side. But they represented the kind of efforts he was making.

This man has a history. Now the question is, what happened? Why did he go back to his dad? You know -- the clan politics are very powerful. You mentioned Michael Corleone. You know his dad was almost assassinated under attack, he goes back. But in doing that, he won credibility with a clan that may allow him now to get his father out of power in a way that had he gone to London and tried to do it from there he couldn't do.

So I think this bears careful and cautious investigation. To turn it down, we have to ask what's the alternative? A protracted civil war? No.

SPITZER: David, let me come back to you. Not only on the dissertation issue which I understand it has academic performance, but also what happens if the opposition as Ben suggests actually says we can live with this. Can they box the White House in so the White House in essence gets stuck with a Gadhafi in power and after all this, the American public says wait a minute, we wanted Gadhafi gone and we got the son who may be just as crazy nonetheless.

Is that an outcome we can live with?

GERGEN: If the rebels were to agree to this, of course we would have to. You know we've all said all along it's up to the Libyan people to determine their future. If they said we're going to agree to this, I think we have to go along with it. But all indications are they've flat-out rejected it.

And just as a quick rejoin, I don't want to get into the dissertation, but I would point out that the head of this London School of Economics had to resign over this issue. And beyond that, this man, Saif may have a lot of things he has done well, but his hands are drenched with blood tonight.

SPITZER: I think -- you know, David, look, there's absolutely no question you're spot-on on that point. And we're dealing with somebody whose schizophrenia at a minimum is hard to fathom.

He may be, Ben, as you say, somebody who's spoken the language of reform at different times. On the other hand, he has been the butcher doing his father's ministering when it was called for.

So how do we -- how does -- David, from your perspective, what does the White House do? Do they appoint somebody in the State Department to push this forward to see if it's real? What is the next step?

GERGEN: Well, they keep the pressure on militarily. You can't ignore that part of it, because, you know, there are -- there were some flickering signs today that maybe Gadhafi's forces have been worn down some.

I think it's still going to remain a stalemate. But I think this is a time for quiet diplomacy. For -- there are people in Europe who know Libya better than we do. And we do have to work with them on this. I do think we want to keep the Arab League quiet during this time while we explore this. Hopefully that the -- what you don't want to see is the coalition splinter over a diplomacy.

You've got to keep everybody together and then have some group that internally representing two or three nations who begin to explore with both sides what the possibilities are for some sort of diplomatic solution.

SPITZER: All right. Finally, Ben, let me ask just you this.

BARBER: Yes.

SPITZER: You mentioned Jalil, who is the former justice minister under Moammar Gadhafi, who is now one of the leading voices in the opposition. If he starts speaking up in favor of Saif Gadhafi taking over, won't people within the opposition look at him and say, wait a minute, whose side are you really on?

BARBER: Well, that's why I think David Gergen is exactly right to say quiet diplomacy. If you say publicly to the opposition coalition, do you want the butcher's crazy son to take over for him, the answer has to be no. If you say quietly, do you want the man who has said he will undergo a quiet constitutional revision in which he will not be in power a year from now, is that doable?

I think people might say let's see. Let's see what guarantees there are. Let's see if his father goes? Where does his father go? Does he go to Sabra in the southern Sahara, away from the north? Does the son play a role that is transitional and procedural, or does he actually take the reins of power?

There are a lot of questions that can only be answered quietly. This is a time -- David is perfectly right -- for quiet diplomacy, not for noisy declarations about who's crazy and who's mad.

GERGEN: You know on this --

SPITZER: Yes, sir.

GERGEN: On this -- Ben and I are together on this.

SPITZER: All right. That's good to hear. You know it's eerily reminiscent when Hosni Mubarak said look, I'm gone, but just give me a few months to do it gracefully. And of course that didn't end so well for him.

All right, David Gergen, Ben Barber, thanks so much. Fascinating conversation and we obviously will be staying with the story.

Coming up, it's day one of President Obama's reelection campaign. And already he's breaking a campaign promise. Don't go away. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SPITZER: If there was one promise that helped define Barack Obama's candidacy, it was this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to close Guantanamo. And we're going to restore habeas corpus. Because we lead not just with the might of our military, but with the strength of our values and our ideals.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

SPITZER: The question tonight, have the promises made by the Obama administration been completely ignored because on the very day that President Obama announced his reelection campaign for 2012, he has decided to do something very different.

The question in front of us tonight, does this make it very difficult if not impossible to get a conviction of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, who was the one who's going to be tried here in New York pursuant to President Obama's instructions, states repeatedly throughout that campaign.

Here to join us help -- helping us understand this initially, we're going to go to Jeff Toobin, CNN senior legal correspondent.

Jeff, explain what this is all about. Why did the president have to backtrack?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: In November 2009, Eric Holder, the attorney general, announced that the United States government would prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal district court like any other criminal defendant in Lower Manhattan and charge him with the death penalty crime of masterminding 9/11.

New York politicians erupted in fury. Mayor Bloomberg, Chuck Schumer. They all said it is not doable here. It is too great a security risk. And the administration was forced to back down.

Now we see where they are going. They are doing just what the Bush administration said they were going to do which was try them in a military commission.

SPITZER: I hate to sound like a broken record, but now what we're seeing just as we have with Afghanistan, this is George Bush all over again, whether it's tax cuts for the rich, whatever that may be.

But let me ask you this question, as a lawyer, as a legal analyst, does this matter as much as people are saying? I don't want to talk about the politics of it right now. I want to talk about the law.

How fundamental a difference is there in truth between the case that would have been presented in federal court here in New York City and the case that will now be presented in Guantanamo before a military tribunal?

TOOBIN: In respects very different. A military judge, a military jury. In the United States we have civilian judge, civilian juries. That's a very different symbol. In terms of the actual procedures in place, it won't look that different. Defense lawyers, right to cross-examine, torture -- evidence produced by torture not admissible, but certainly symbolically a room full of military people looks very different from a jury in Lower Manhattan.

SPITZER: Look, I don't want to talk symbolism, though. And I want to talk about the law because you and I as lawyers --

TOOBIN: Yes.

SPITZER: I started reading today a lengthy document that actually compared the rules. Surprisingly few differences. And that's why I'm wondering is this is a mountain out of a mole hill as a lawyer speaking about how the case will be handled?

TOOBIN: I don't know if a mountain out of a mole hill, but it is certainly very similar. There are certain rules about hearsay evidence that are more admissible in a military tribunal. SPITZER: All right, then.

TOOBIN: I know it's not a big deal.

(CROSSTALK)

SPITZER: The public is saying --

TOOBIN: It's not that big a deal, but it is -- every change -- let's just put it this way. Every difference is more favorable to the government in a military tribunal. But there are not that many differences.

SPITZER: As a lawyer, I can tell you I think this is more about the politics and atmospherics of it than the actual legal structure. But I want another perspective on this.

Jack Rice, former CIA officer who's now a criminal defense lawyer. He joins us from Minneapolis.

And Jack, I understand you've been to Guantanamo a whole bunch of times. Not as an inmate. You've down there to investigate, to pursue these issues. You feel deeply Guantanamo should be closed and that the president is making an egregious mistake. Explain why.

JACK RICE, FORMER CIA OFFICER: Without question. I mean the problem is like I keep asking myself, what are we afraid of? I mean the bottom line is we've always said that the American justice system is the best in the world. It's enviable to the world. Everybody should be looking to us because it's the best system.

Well, if that's the case, then why don't we try these guys in New York where this happened? Let's give them this presumption of innocence, let's put them in front of the jury. And if the state, if the federal government can prove that they did it, then fine.

Let's provide the transparency so nobody has the excuse to say this was the kangaroo court. That's the fundamental problem of the military tribunal. It is the perception of it. And that's what we're afraid of.

Look, I've been in Iraq, I've been in Afghanistan, and I've talked to people on the ground all over the Middle East. And that's always the perception of Guantanamo. We want to give them something more. Let's stand up. But apparently even this president is afraid to do that.

SPITZER: Well, look, OK, Jack, first of all, you're a CIA guy. You're tough. So it's sort of counterintuitive that you're the one who's arguing for a criminal trial in the traditional structure here. So I applaud you for that. But you said something critical. You said it's about perception.

You talked about presumption of innocence. He'll have a resumption of innocence in a military tribunal, he'll have a jury. It will be a jury of people wearing uniforms not civilians clothes. So there are critical differences but you said it's primarily about the atmospherics and the perception.

And look, I'm going to defend the president on this one. He wanted to do this. Eric Holder wanted to do this. Eric Holder's frustration today was palpable of the press conference. Congress wouldn't let him do it. The Republicans wouldn't let him do it, the very people who wanted to go back to what President George W. Bush proposed, which is where we end up.

So I don't think it's fair. Jeff, tell me if I'm wrong, I don't think it's fair to blame President Obama for this one.

TOOBIN: Well, I don't know who's to blame but it's not just Republicans. I mean the what --

SPITZER: And Democrats, that's right.

TOOBIN: This -- it is impossible to have this trial in Manhattan anymore. Congress will put riders on bills. There is no support for having this trial inside the United States. Maybe that's because Eric Holder didn't lay the groundwork in advance, didn't sort of make people comfortable in advance. Maybe it's because your former colleagues in New York state government are just a bunch of cowards who wanted to grandstand rather than have a trial.

But whatever the reason is, it just wasn't possible. So they have to have a military commission because that's the only thing that's available.

SPITZER: Let's take it as a premise that elected officials took the easiest, weakest way out of this one. But we're going to talk about this more in a moment.

Jack and Jeff, hold on. We'll continue this conversation very shortly. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SPITZER: We're back with former CIA officer Jack Rice and CNN's Jeff Toobin.

Jack, let me come back to you. Look, I see this as almost a foregone conclusion, impossible that there isn't a conviction here, but you want to talk more about the differences between the military and the civilian structures in these trials. Tell us more about that.

RICE: Well, you're right, Eliot. I mean the bottom line here, and this is part of my concern, I think you just laid it out better than I could.

My biggest concern is that this is a foregone conclusion. That all of a sudden, this thing is already done. They will be convicted. I've got a real problem with that. I actually want this to be proven. I want the world to be able to see that. But let's look at some of the minutia for just a second.

And Jeffrey was correct. There are some differences procedurally and even from an evidentiary perspective. But really it's at the appellate levels, when you start getting beyond this, that it changes dramatically. And again what you start doing is you're stripping away a lot of the rights that those would expect who are facing federal crimes.

I love the idea. I love the idea that these guys would be treated like potential criminals, because I don't want them to be seen as anything different than that as they go through the process. But now, they will be seen as something completely different. And that's part of this problem that I think we're really missing.

And by the way, I agree with Jeffrey on one other issue. I don't just blame this president. Frankly, I blame a lot of the spineless, gutless members of Congress, including Democrats who have been unwilling to spend the political capital because it doesn't get them elected. I guess it works when it's popular, but not so much when it's not.

SPITZER: Jack, let me be very clear. I agreed with the president's decision to handle this, and Eric Holder's decision to handle this through our traditional federal criminal process. That would have been the best way to go. But I do think it's important that the public and the world would understand that our military tribunal system is bounded and governed by the Constitution, by due process, by an appellate review system that will protect the rights of the defendant. When I said it's a foregone conclusion, it's because the evidence is overwhelming.

RICE: Here's the problem --

SPITZER: I'm sorry?

RICE: Yes, but the problem with it, Eliot, is this, is that if you take a look at the numbers of cases that have gone through this tribunal system that's been shifting and changing as we've gone, there's very little certainty when it comes to how it's going to play out. Whereas, if you go through into the federal judicial system, this is a system that we've been using year after year, decade after decade, century after century -- and so, there's at least something that you know what to expect. And so, you're getting into something that may or may not work particularly well versus something that we know that absolutely does. And that's also part of our problem.

SPITZER: Jack, again, I agree with you. All of these are the reasons that I agreed with the president wanted to do. I even agree with your critique about why it didn't succeed. There was NIMBY-ism in the worse form, not in my backyard. Nobody wanted any Guantanamo defendants to brought back to the United States, even to the maximum security prisoners where we have the most heinous violent criminals in the world.

Put that aside for a minute. I want to come back to Jeff for some important thing about what all these means or not for the applicability of the death penalty.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: Well, there is the death penalty on the table in military commissions. And, you know, when we talk about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, it's important to remember, this is a guy who was waterboarded. So, that is going to be --

SPITZER: One hundred eighty-three times.

TOOBIN: Many, many times. But he's also publicly and proudly confessed to being the mastermind of 9/11. I don't think this is a whodunit when the idea that it's a foregone conclusion is not because this is a kangaroo court. It's because there's a lot of evidence against the guy. But it is important that 10 years after 9/11, some sort of judicial process get going, because holding these people there year after year with no trial at all has to be the worst solution of all.

SPITZER: And, Jack, I'm holding up in front of me, I don't know if you can see it, the indictment, which is this 80-page, very detailed, specific fact-laden document, going into every precise act that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed took and the other four defendants. So, that's why a foregone conclusion based upon the evidence. And we all know his lawyers, these are merely charges. They're not proven yet, but still, there's stuff to back this up.

This is, am I right? Let's talk politics for a minute. The president was put in the world of the second best or the third best or the fourth best. This isn't what he wanted to do, but you just said the critical thing -- if he didn't go this route, there wouldn't have been trials at all and that would be worse. Is that fair conclusion?

TOOBIN: That's exactly right. I mean, there is no more option for holding a civilian trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Congress simply would not allow such a process to take place. It just can't happen. It may be a good thing, it maybe a bad thing. It's just off the table.

So, the only possible trial is a military commission, and it's better than nothing.

SPITZER: And, Jack, let me se if I can persuade you at least of that fact. Do you agree that given the options that were presented that are on the table for the president, Congress for that said no money will be spent, no defendants from Guantanamo come into the territory of the United States, this is the best the president could have done?

RICE: Well, it's certainly better than nothing. I guess the sad part is, is 172 people who are still being held at Guantanamo, it's not even clear whether or not a lot of those people will see any a trial of any kind.

SPITZER: Well, all right. Jeff Toobin, Jack Rice, thank you for being here. Great conversation.

When we come back, a terrifying story of an American held in a Syrian prison. He's back home and safe. He joins us live in an exclusive interview. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SPITZER: An update now on a story we've been following closely: an American father's desperate search for his son taken captive in Damascus, Syria. Tonight, we have a happy ending. Tik Root is a 21- year-old junior at Vermont's Middlebury College. He was studying Arabic in Damascus when he was taken. For the next two weeks, the Roots worked tireless to find their son and bring him home.

This weekend, he was released and finally got there.

Tik and Tom Root join me now with more on their harrowing but ultimately successful and happy story.

First, I just have to ask, Tik, I'd tell you, it's great. The last time your dad was on TV, he was sitting there alone, disconsolate and worried beyond words. Now, you're next to him. How does it feel?

PATHIK "TIK" ROOT, AMERICAN RELEASED FROM SYRIAN JAIL: Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me on the show. And I am honestly just speechless. It was kind of surreal.

I don't really believe that I'm back here. The last time I was in front of a TV camera was in prison when they tried to put me on national TV.

SPITZER: Well, look, I want to start at the beginning. There you were in Damascus. I've read some of the harrowing descriptions of when you were arrested. Tell us about it. What happened? What did they do to you? Where did they take you?

TIK ROOT: Well, after it was taken, I was put in the Suburban and my head was put on the seat and about five minutes later, I was zooming around Damascus, who knows where. We ended up at the prison where I spent the next two weeks detained.

SPITZER: Describe the cell, what the conditions were, what they did to you. What was the sensibility? Tell us everything you can about that prison cell.

TIK ROOT: OK. So, the first week I spent in what was supposed to be the isolation cell. It was about three by seven feet. But I think they had so many protesters and other people coming in at that point that I ended up spending it with one other person, a 19-year-old Syrian man.

And I was questioned, or I guess interrogated twice on the first day that I was there, and then once a week later, and then that was the about it for leaving the -- leaving the individual cell. And then after a week, I was moved to another room which was either 10 by 12 or about 12 by 12 with 22 other men of Syrian and Iraqi descent.

SPITZER: You were telling me you were in a room of 12 feet by 12 feet with 20 people for over a week?

TIK ROOT: Yes. I spent the second week in a room ranging from 22, at most 22, and at least about 15 people. SPITZER: Did they ever tell you what you were being charged with, what they suspected, why they were taking you? What was the reason? Did they let you call anybody? Tell us about this.

TIK ROOT: No, they originally picked me up because they saw me with my BlackBerry out about 100 yards from what ended up being a protest. I wasn't really sure what it was at that point. And then key kept me because my passport has a few stamps in it from other countries. I've been to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. And then they kept me because they thought I was a CIA agent or a journalist.

I don't know if they -- I don't know which one they believe more or which one would have been worst. But they kept on telling me I was one of those two. And I honestly had no information other than that.

They told me I had broken Syrian law. I didn't really have the guts to ask them which law I broke and I don't think it matter which is law I broke. And that was literally all the information I had.

I didn't know if my dad knew. I didn't know if the U.S. government knew. I had no idea if anyone knew where I was.

SPITZER: It just makes it clear, you were a United States citizen. Did they let you call the consulate or reach out to anybody?

TIK ROOT: No. I actually found out later that's a violation of the Geneva Convention which Syria actually signed. You're supposed to be able to contact your consulate and actually have consular visits -- neither of which was either offered to me or given to me when I asked.

SPITZER: Look, I know you said you were interrogated. Were other people there in the prison being tortured? Did you hear any evidence that they were being beaten? What was the nature of the physical contact between the guards and the other prisoners?

TIK ROOT: Luckily, I was spared physical violence I think because of my American passport and also they because wanted to put me on TV at one point. But the other, about 75 percent of the other prisoners I met were beaten pretty brutally to the point where (INAUDIBLE). One person's foot was beaten until their toenail fell off. There were brutal interactions between the guards and the prisoners including electrocution and who knows what else.

SPITZER: You know, Tom, I've just got to say, you were acting, you know, as any, you know, a father who was desperate. You were reaching out to anybody you could. How did you pursue this and how did you arrange to get Tik's release?

TOM ROOT, SON RELEASED FROM SYRIAN JAIL: We started not knowing what we were doing. And we were kind of making it up. The first things are the obvious things. Contact the embassy. Contact your senators and congressmen. They give you a little bit of advice, friends give you little bit of advice.

And then we have multiple avenues that we were pursuing. Obvious ones and things we never would have thought of. And I think in the end, it was all of those different things together led by Senator Leahy and the ambassador to Syria.

TIK ROOT: The Syrian ambassador.

TOM ROOT: The Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha. They were the major players in this. Many, many other people gave us advice and made contact and helped us with search for and finally find him.

SPITZER: Look, Tom, your actions were heroic. You were persistent beyond words.

Tik, you have now seen the secret underbelly for the Syrian regime -- held for 15 days; no phone calls; prisoners around you being beaten. What is your sense now? You've been over there. Can that regime survive the current popular revolutions that are sweeping through Syria?

TIK ROOT: I was only there 10 days, but I can hazard to guess that the struggle of the Syrian people will be much harder and much more violent than what we've seen in other countries, just given the history of the regime and their strong handed nature.

I don't know if they'll be able to survive or not. I don't know enough about the regime. But I do know they have a history of using violence. And they've showed that over the past couple of weeks, as I've learned. They've showed over the past couple of weeks.

One thing that I would like to mention while I have the opportunity is the location of my prison, because not -- the U.S. government never even knew where I was being held. It's located on Baghdad street in Damascus, and it is rumored to be the counterterrorism prison. So, if you do have family or friends being held there, at least you know where it might be.

SPITZER: All right, Tom and Tik Root, congratulations. Thank you for that information. Thank you for your wonderful actions, you know, to get your son home, Tom. And, Tik, for your bravery and not making false confessions and doing the other things they wanted you to do.

All right. Guys, thank you so much.

TIK ROOT: Thank you for having us.

TOM: Thanks, Eliot.

SPITZER: Coming up: violent riots in Afghanistan, after almost 10 years there, what if anything has the United States accomplished? That's next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SPITZER: In Afghanistan, more than 20 people have been killed since Friday in violence started by the Koran burning stunt of a pastor in Florida. American officials are apologizing to the Afghanistan people for the Koran burning. But many people are asking what this means to the American mission in Afghanistan. Joining me now is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was raised Muslim but renounced the faith. And Irshad Manji, author of the "Trouble with Islam Today," and voice of the notion that here is a reform movement in Islam.

Thank you for being here.

All right. Let me just throw this out on the table. I look at what happened there beginning last Friday. President Karzai it seems to me is the one who is at fault.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bingo.

SPITZER: It was his incitement of the Afghan people that led to this horrendous destruction of human life. Am I right about that?

AYAAN HIRSHI ALI, FOUNDER, AHA FOUNDATION: You're right about that. I think he's a politician. He's a weak politician and he'll use anything as a pretext to keep the United States and NATO, his allies, and the people who have put him in power blackmailed.

IRSHAD MANJI, AUTHOR, "THE TROUBLE WITH ISLAM TODAY": Yes.

ALI: He is blackmailing --

MANJI: He's an extortionist.

SPITZER: Explain how that is and why it's to his benefit to incite these riots, taking advantage of the only power that's kept him there, the United States.

MANJI: Well, precisely because he knows the United States is slowly but surely going to be pulling out of Afghanistan as of this summer. And Karzai is interested, as he always has been, only in self-preservation. Not in the good of his people.

Therefore, he is now currying favor with the extremist elements in Afghanistan in the hope, perhaps a vain hope, they will preserve his life. Never mind how many other people get killed.

SPITZER: OK. Let me put one fact out on the table that viewers may not be aware of. The Koran burning took place several weeks ago, disappeared, nobody wrote about it, nobody paid attention. It was then President Karzai who Thursday in Afghanistan gave a speech and then the imams in Friday prayers gave the talks that led to this craziness.

ALI: This is so familiar. The cartoon crisis in Denmark, the cartoons were drawn in I think September of 2005. There was a crisis in 2006 February. Despots at the time needed it. And there was an imam who went to them and took a very (INAUDIBLE) Danish issue and made it into international crisis.

In a democracy like the United States of America, you are going to find things that you don't agree with. And what these despots, we're talking about Karzai now, he's going to find so many things that Americans do to use as a pretext --

MANJI: And I'm going just going to jump off from that point that Ayaan makes, because, you know, as we get closer to the summer of 2011, start of the pullout, it will take a while but that's the start, you can rest assured that precisely because Karzai is malicious, he is mendacious and he is corrupt, he is going to be using more and more such opportunities.

This is only the beginning, Eliot. We have not seen the last --

SPITZER: OK. But then let me ask this question. The whole notion, the whole strategy we' been hearing is that we are going to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. That somehow, after 9 1/2 years, we unlike the Roman, the Soviets, every other empire that has waded in the Afghan mire, somehow we will capture the hearts and minds and they will embrace our sensibility about pluralism, tolerance, et cetera. And then you see an event like this.

Does this tell you we have made absolutely no progress? Or am I over-interpreting this?

ALI: I think that the strategy has been too ambiguous to begin with. There's this whole notion we'll get there, we'll get rid of al Qaeda and then what? And there's a debate in the United States that's ongoing. Do we stay and start a nation building? Which is a nation building program, which is something that's going to take many years, maybe even a generation.

MANJI: Or five.

ALI: Or five generations or 100 years like McCain said once during the elections.

But then there is another strategy, which is we're going to get out as soon as possible. If that's the idea, then, no, we'll never change hearts and minds. No, we are not going to change Afghanistan. The Afghanis will change it. And there's just going to be no connection between what happens here and what happens there.

MANJI: You know, I think that the Obama administration has been very weak-kneed over all of this. They are enthralled somehow, some reason of Karzai. Maybe because they believe that there's just no better option out there, which is very sad if that's the case.

But I think at this point, Obama needs to man up -- sorry to, you know, bring back that phrase into the vernacular -- and actually openly call for Karzai to make a speech to his own people emphasizing that the U.S. government has indeed condemned this Koran burning. It was Karzai who said to the U.S. government, you denounce the Koran burning. That's exactly what Obama has done more than once. Now, it's time for the some reciprocity.

SPITZER: OK.

MANJI: Listen, I know that that's the way diplomacy works. But it has to be done. SPITZER: Look, it could be the way diplomacy works if somebody sat down with Karzai and said enough, game over and actually, as you said, showed some backbone. If somebody sat down with Karzai and said, we will not support you any longer unless you clarify to the Afghan people we have condemned this. But nonetheless, First Amendment, that is a piece of our culture. And we will not back off from that, that you must step forward.

MANJI: And it's something for which young Muslims are rising up because they want something like that, too.

SPITZER: Would Karzai do that?

ALI: I don't think Karzai is going to do that. I don't think we should negotiate with Karzai. I think Karzai should be removed from power.

MANJI: And, by the way, I didn't say negotiate. I said demand.

(CROSSTALK)

SPITZER: All right. Irshad and Ayaan, stay right there.

We'll continue this notion in a moment when we come right back after this quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SPITZER: We're back with Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji discussing America's mission or lack thereof in Afghanistan.

You said just before the break that we should not negotiate with Karzai. What should we do and what should our strategy be?

ALI: He should be removed from power and I think we should replace him with someone we can trust. I've seen individuals in Washington from Afghanistan who are reliable, who are trustworthy. I think the thing to do is investigate to see how he can be replaced and who he can be replaced with.

But wasting time and money and American blood and treasure in Afghanistan and align with a man like Karzai is practically suicidal.

SPITZER: All right. You agree? I mean, are we going to have that regime change in Libya and Afghanistan simultaneously?

MANJI: Right. It would be suicidal to pursue both simultaneously. But I really do believe, Eliot, there's some role for civilians here as well. And, you know, there are some of --

SPITZER: U.S. civilians?

MANJI: U.S. civilian. Let me explain. There are some Muslim American clerics who fancy themselves moderates and who travel the country, you know, preaching to Jews and Christians, don't feed into anti-Muslim stereotypes. Maybe they should be taking half their time and going to places like Afghanistan and preaching to Muslims there, don't behave in ways that prop up anti-Muslim stereotypes.

This is a two-way street, Eliot. There's no easy answer.

SPITZER: We have 25 seconds. At the beginning, I said you're a voice who believed that there's a reform in Islam. Where have those voices been in condemning Karzai for his speeches over the last days?

MANJI: Talk to women in Afghanistan and you will hear the condemnation. But what they're also afraid and one can understand this, is that when the U.S. begins to leave, their names are on Taliban hit lists. They will be the first to go.

ALI: I think also there should be -- look, the Pastor Jones was condemned by everyone who represents America directly or indirectly.

MANJI: Where's Michele Bachmann on this?

(CROSSTALK)

ALI: I haven't had any Muslims in the United States condemn -- people who are killed now in the name of Islam, killed.

(CROSSTALK)

SPITZER: All right. Irshad and Ayaan, we're going to have to continue this in some other day.

Thank you all for watching. Good night from New York.

"PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT" starts right now.