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THE SITUATION ROOM

President Obama Taps New Top General; Online Hackers Having a Good Year; Hawkeye State Hooey?; 'Saddest Acre in America'; Palin Upstages GOP Rivals; We Were Told "Rape the Women"

Aired May 30, 2011 - 17:00   ET

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


CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, Sarah Palin upstages fellow Republicans who are running or exploring a presidential bid. We're following Palin's bus tour and what she's saying and not saying about her White House ambitions.

Plus, a new attempt to nudge Moammar Gadhafi into a cease-fire with rebels. This hour, the Libyan leader and his military are dealing with new defections and disturbing new accounts of soldiers raping teenage girls.

And hackers tapping into something important -- new targets -- and get dangerously close to U.S. military secrets. We'll look at the rash of online attacks, the threat to Internet security and to homeland security.

Wolf Blitzer is off.

I'm Candy Crowley.

And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

On this Memorial Day, Sarah Palin is doing some of the things she does best -- create suspense and drum up suspension. The former Alaska governor, vice presidential nominee and reality TV star is not saying whether she'll add presidential candidate to her resume, but her bus tour of historic sites is stealing thunder from actual Republican contenders on the trail today.

Candidate Jim Acosta is in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where Palin arrived just moments ago -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Candy, Sarah Palin was asked today by a reporter whether or not she was running for president. And she answered that she is contemplating a run for the White House. But more importantly, another question could be asked, and that, is does all of this look like she's running for president?

The answer just might be you betcha.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Sarah Palin says this is no campaign bus and that her self- described one nation tour this week is all about paying tribute to American history. But while touring the National Archives in Washington, the 2008 vice presidential candidate told reporters she's thinking about making some history of her own.

SARAH PALIN (R), FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: I think Americans are ready for a true change -- a change to get our country back on the right track.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does that mean you're interested in running?

Are you going to run?

PALIN: You know what's so funny, you all keep saying that.

ACOSTA: Contemplating into the Capitol on the back of a Harley Davidson, the former Alaska governor revved up a publicity blitz that is pure Palin, with a wild crush of cameras following her every move, from the National Mall to Mount Vernon. Sunday night Palin went incognito, a she put it, to tour the monuments, posting these picks on her political action committee Web site, where, by the way, her supporters can make a donation.

If Palin runs, her former running mate thinks she could win it all.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Of course, she can. She can. Now, whether she will or not, whether she'll even run or not, I don't know.

ACOSTA: But Palin still carries a bus load of political baggage. A recent CNN poll found nearly 60 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Palin.

LESLIE SANCHEZ, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Governor Palin has significant challenges if she's going to be the Republican nominee for president. Not only is she a highly polarizing figure, but she's also taking all the oxygen out and not building good rapport with the other Republican candidates. She's going to have a lot of work to do.

ACOSTA: Yet the politician turned reality TV star knows how to generate buzz. Two of her potential rivals, Michelle Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty, were also campaigning on this Memorial Day, but only got a fraction of the coverage. That's the Palin factor, capable of attracting a big crowd hours before her arrival in the hot Gettysburg sun.

JOHN HOWER, PALIN WATCHER: Well, she's a celebrity and we think she's going to run for president.

ACOSTA (on camera): You think this means that she's running?

HOWER: Yes, I think she's getting a -- yes. Well, she's (INAUDIBLE) -- this is a fairly big induction of the big bucks. No, you know...

(END VIDEO TAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, Palin's staff is keeping all of her movements very close to the vest, only releasing those details to the reporters at the very last second. But we do know from talking to multiple sources that she is headed to New Hampshire later this week and then off to Iowa, perhaps as early as next month.

But when we contacted the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, Candy, a spokesman for that chairman told us that they haven't gotten any word that she's heading to Iowa next month.

So we're not the only ones in the dark at this point -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Jim, you know, there's a lot being talked about and written about, the kind of confusion that is following this bus tour, you can't find out where she's going and you think she's going one place and she goes some place else.

Is this confusion or is this deliberate confusion?

Is it part of the mystique?

ACOSTA: You know, I'm going to have to go with the latter at this point. I mean we haven't seen any signs at this point that there is chaos inside the Palin camp, at this point. What we're seeing is sort of, you know, releasing details to reporters about her movements at the very last second. And -- and we all know that for the last couple of years, she has seen her relationship with the press as being fairly adversarial.

So she's got a -- she -- she has nothing at stake, when it comes to her and her political future, in terms of whether or not she releases details to reporters in a timely fashion. That's completely up to her.

I will tell you, though, standing at this spot at Gettysburg, we're just outside the Pennsylvania memorial at Gettysburg, there have been folks out here for five or six hours. There were close to 200 Palin supporters and fans who were out here waiting for her to show up. And I would say if she doesn't show up, that's probably not going to go over too well.

But, you know, I think -- I think it's perhaps confusion by design at this point -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Jim Acosta on the campaign trail with the Palins or vacationing with the Palins, one or the other.

Thanks very much.

We appreciate it.

CNN's New Hampshire presidential debate is just two weeks away. Join us Monday night, June 13th, as the Republican hopefuls square on the issues off only on CNN. As the Republican field takes shape, President Obama appears to be solidifying his support. Fifty-four percent of Americans say they approve of the way he's doing his job in our new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll. The president has been inching up above the 50 percent mark since the beginning of May. Most of his strength appears to be based on his track record with national security issues and international affairs.

We'll talk about that and where the president is lacking in our Strategy Session.

Now to Libya and significant new defections from Moammar Gadhafi's regime. The Italian foreign minister says eight Libyan generals crossed the border into Tunisia and now are in Italy. A senior Italian official tells CNN that more than 100 Libyan soldiers defected with the generals. This, as Gadhafi met with South Africa's president today.

Jacob Zuma is pushing for a cease-fire between Libyan forces and rebel fighters. But he has not urged Gadhafi to set -- step down.

Zuma is representing the African Union, which has criticized Western military intervention in Libya. Zuma toured damage from air strikes today. NATO now says it has conducted more than 3,300 strikes in Libya since March.

We want to bring in CNN's national security contributor, Fran Townsend, who has been doing some reporting on these Libyan defections -- Fran, you know, as a -- as a member of the CIA external advisory committee, last May, you visited high-ranking Libyan officials at the invitation of the Libyan government.

So, you know, just all kinds of things come to mind.

First of all, the defections.

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Yes.

CROWLEY: Important?

TOWNSEND: Very important and -- and very timely. Look, we've seen multiple nights of bombing right around Gadhafi and his compound. The generals are clearly feeling the heat. There has been an effort to sort of encourage defections. Remember, Moussa Koussa defected. He was their foreign minister and before that, he was their head of the intelligence.

And so the NATO alliance countries have been working on encouraging defections. To get eight generals, who then brought out more than 100 of their soldiers across the Tunisian border and defected to the Italians is a tremendous blow to morale and it's a -- it's a huge cache of intelligence that NATO will be able to gather from them -- Gadhafi's movements, Gadhafi's morale, who's around him, who should they target next?

And this is -- it's a tremendous coup for NATO. CROWLEY: How many more generals are there?

I mean can you give us some sense of how much of the force is 100 soldiers?

How many generals is eight generals?

TOWNSEND: It's really hard to describe, Candy. I have to tell you, I mean, look, he's got family around him. He's got a son who is a very senior military official. He's got Saif, who we've heard from before. He's -- he's relying -- his inner circle, though, is getting tighter and tighter, smaller and smaller, as those around him in the military worry for their own -- fear for their own lives. And it's not clear one -- it's not clear to them that he can survive. And what is clear to them is NATO seems very resolved to continuing the bombing campaign.

CROWLEY: Well, and we have seen increased strikes. I mean every night, I think...

TOWNSEND: Right.

CROWLEY: -- we get a message from our folks in Libya going, you know, explosions heard across Tripoli, etc. Etc.

So this actually is a success, then, if you -- if you're looking at these defections here, which U.S. officials have said all along, we want to crack that inner circle. So one would assume that these bombings continue.

TOWNSEND: That's right. I think the bombings continue, look for additional defections. The momentum now is very definitely on the side of NATO and very definitely not on the side of Gadhafi.

And so I think what you're beginning to see is the crumbling, maybe not the end, but the beginning of the potential end for Gadhafi.

CROWLEY: But does he -- he just doesn't strike me as the type -- he does -- I mean I just have the, you know, that he's going to be the last guy at the barricades.

TOWNSEND: Candy, I'm with you. Having met him, he struck me in the same way. I do think he is going to be the last guy. But there's a bunch of things that could happen. NATO -- a NATO strike could actually hit him and kill him. His inner circle could turn on him. Those remaining could turn on him and assassinate him. There's a bunch of things. They -- they could defect to the rebels or provide the rebels with information to be effective against him.

And so there are a whole host of bad options for Gadhafi. And they seem today, after these defections, more likely.

CROWLEY: Thank you so much.

Fran Townsend, our national security contributor, thank you.

TOWNSEND: Thank you.

CROWLEY: We are learning more about allegations that many Libyan women have been raped by Gadhafi's loyal troops.

Here is our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In this makeshift rebel jail, this Gadhafi army deserter tells us what he saw before he fled his post. "I saw cell phone video of several soldiers raping two school girls, 15 and 17 years old, over six days in Tripoli," he says. "As I was told, they were acting on military orders."

He tells me he ran away from the army when he realized officers were giving soldiers sexual stimulants and uppers to keep them awake.

"I found Viagra and uppers," he says. "Before a raid, they would hand them out to keep us awake for 72 hours. We were told, when you go into a house, it's all yours. You can take what you want -- rape the women." Impossible for us to verify his claims. However, they were echoed by more prisoners at a different jail.

(on camera): There are 16 of them here. They say they all surrendered on the 24th of April, a month ago. I've been in to talk to them already. Those that don't want to appear on camera have moved to one side. So the prisoners we're going to meet are ones that have agreed to talk to us.

(voice-over): When I get back to their basement cell, half are willing to talk. None have met the other prisoner at the other jail. """"Rape by soldiers was common," this prisoner tells me. "We all knew it was going on."

They all have similar accounts. All talk about cell phone videos -- mobile phone video of rape. "There were lots of them," he says.

In an odd twist of fate, the rebel in charge of the prisoners, a former pilot, knows some of his captives, vouches for them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is a flight engineer. This one, he is a flight engineer, too. And they will tear him back to his family, because I know his father. I know his mother. I know his brothers.

ROBERTSON: He agrees and tells me he was an aircraft engineer, given only a few hours weapons training and sent direct to the front line. They all say that their commanders lied to them.

"They told us we'd be fighting Al Qaeda and Algerians," he says.

Another adds, "But when we saw they were Libyans like us, we surrendered."

(on camera): Well, the rebel commanders tell us that keeping the prisoners here is a huge drain on their resources, that they have to feed them, get them water, get them everything that they need. It takes up men to guard them. And what they would really like to happen is for the international community to care of these prisoners for them, take them off their hands, in fact.

(voice-over): Perhaps then, the allegations of rape these men are making can begin to be investigated, as the International Criminal Court wants to do.

Nic Robertson, CNN, Zintan, Libya.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

CROWLEY: Another Arab leader refusing to get out of the way is turning his troops and bulldozers against anti-government protesters. We'll have an updet -- an update about Yemen.

And the president says his choice to be the new Joint Chiefs chairman is combat tested. But there's one war zone where he's relatively inexperienced.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Sandy knows that we need to be prepared for the full range of challenges in transitioning...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: President Obama is urging the Senate to confirm his new nominee for chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff as swiftly as possible. It's a big and somewhat unusual promotion for General Martin Dempsey, who served as Army chief of staff for only about a month.

The president stressed that Dempsey will have his work cut out for him, filling the job held by Admiral Mike Mullen whose term as Joint Chiefs chairman ends in September.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: General Dempsey, Admiral Winnefeld, we have much to do -- from bringing our troops home from Iraq to beginning to reduce our forces in Afghanistan this summer, and in transitioning to Afghan lead; from defeating al Qaeda to protecting the Libyan people. All this even as we make difficult budget decisions while keeping our military the hardest fighting force in the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Let's bring our White House correspondent Dan Lothian.

Dan, everyone pretty much expected that the president would pick the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs, James Cartwright. Instead, he picked General Dempsey. Why?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Well, first of all, you know, this is a completion of the president's overhaul of his national security team. But in particular why he picked him is because this is someone who has a lot of military experience, almost 40 years in uniform, really has military in its blood, well-liked within the military and doesn't appear to carry any political baggage.

The road to this day began when he graduated in 1974 from the military -- U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He led units in Iraq and was also part of the effort to train and equip the Iraqi security forces. He served as acting commander of the central command.

And was noted there a few seconds ago, he was most recently the Army chief of staff. And President Obama joking that perhaps he will go down as having the shortest tenure in Army history in that position. But joking aside, there are some big challenges here as the war in Iraq is winding down and as there are questions about the strategy, the U.S. strategy going forward in Afghanistan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Having served as acting commander of Central Command, he understands that in Iraq and Afghanistan, security gains and political progress must go hand in hand. And just as he challenged the Army to embrace new doctrine and tactics, I expect him to push all of our forces to continue adapting and innovating, to be ready for the missions of today and tomorrow.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LOTHIAN: With Admiral Mullen's term not expiring until September, why did the president make the announcement today? Well, he said that he wanted to get all of the pieces in place so that the transition would be seamless -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Dan, was there something wrong with the choice of Cartwright? I mean, was this a choice against the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs, or was this simply that he wanted to pick someone else?

LOTHIAN: Well, listen, Cartwright, no doubt, for quite some time, was the leading candidate for that position, someone who had the support of the president, but he did run into criticism from senior folks over at the Pentagon because they thought that he was going behind their backs to offer advice to the president -- in particular, when he had the opposing position of smaller troop levels inside Afghanistan.

One source telling CNN that many people that he was not a team player. And so, this source saying that the president before going overseas on that trip to Europe, he sat down with him for 30 minutes and told him at that time that he would not be getting the job.

CROWLEY: Dan Lothian, thanks so much. There is politics everywhere, it would appear.

LOTHIAN: That's right.

CROWLEY: Thanks.

No presidential candidate is willing to skip Iowa, including Tim Pawlenty. But history tells us that the Midwestern state hasn't earned its reputation as a kingmaker.

And "South Park" has outraged a lot of people but not many of them have declared jihad on the creator. That's ahead.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now, including one Mideast nation inching closer to civil war.

Lisa, what do you have?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Candy.

Well, the U.S. embassy is calling on Yemen's president to follow through on his pledge to step down. But President Ali Abdullah Saleh appears to be in no hurry. Government forces use bulldozers to tear down a protesters' camp in one city. Witnesses say 20 people were killed in clashes there yesterday. And today, troops used water canons to scatter the remaining demonstrators.

Lawyers for accused war criminal Ratko Mladic are trying to block his extradition to an International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague. They say the former Bosnian Serb general isn't healthy enough to face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Doctors who have already told the Serbian court that extradition would pose no threat to his health.

And the New York native charged with threatening the creators of "South Park" has been arrested in Morocco. Younus Mohammad is awaiting the extradition to the United States, according to the Web site that he founded. Mohammad is a convert to Islam who's born Jesse Curtis Morton. In the "South Park" case, he urged Muslims to attack the creators of the cartoon. He was enraged by an episode from last year that depicted the Prophet Mohammed in a bear suit.

And a robot explorer at the Great Pyramid of Giza as found mysterious markings that date from 4,500 years ago. The camera was able to fit through a small hole at the end of a narrow tunnel in the pyramid. Archaeologists hope that the images will shed light on why the tunnel and chamber were built. They speculate that hieroglyphics could identify the workers who built the pyramid (ph).

So, pretty cool stuff there, Candy.

CROWLEY: Forty-five hundred years ago.

SYLVESTER: Forty-five hundred years. CROWLEY: Amazing. Thanks, Lisa.

2011 is proving to be a frighteningly successful year for hackers. We'll look at a big defense contractor and other major targets hit recently and how much damage was done.

We will also take you to one spot in Arlington National Cemetery where this Memorial Day is especially somber.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Online hackers are having a very good year and that is very bad for all of us who depend on the Internet and expect or hope that our information will be secure.

One technology expert warns that so far in 2011, the list of online targets is growing. And some big corporate names have been added to that list in recent days.

CNN's Lisa Sylvester is back with us.

I'm not sure we actually should expect that that information will stay secure after all of the things that happened.

SYLVESTER: Yes, there have certainly been a number of incidents that we've seen recently, Candy. And then in the last week, we've seen a couple of major cyber attacks. One against PBS where it appears a group not happy with the PBS story on WikiLeaks attacked the network, hacking their site, posting a pony story and publishing personal email addresses. The other attack was an attempted breach of defense contractor Lockheed Martin.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER (voice-over): Lockheed Martin describes the attack as significant and tenacious. Hackers tried to access information from the defense contractor's information systems network. Lockheed says it detected the intrusion almost immediately and was able to thwart the attack.

Larry Clinton is with the Internet Security Alliance, a multi-sector trade association specializing in cybersecurity. He says these are no amateurs.

LARRY CLINTON, INTERNET SECURITY ALLIANCE: -- which are generally well-funded, very sophisticated. These are not kids in basements. They are highly organized. Often, they are affiliated with state actors.

SYLVESTER: The Lockheed intrusion is only the latest of a string of attacks by hackers. Sony Corporation had a significant security breach last month that affected millions of PlayStation users, and hackers this weekend managed to compromise the PBS Web site hosting a phony story claiming rapper Tupac Shakur was still alive.

Cybersecurity experts say sometimes the goal is simply to disrupt a commercial or government entity. Other times, it's to get information.

SAMI SAYDJARI, CYBERDEFENSE AGENCY: They're interested in everything. They're interested in defense secrets. They're interested in industrial secrets to give them a competitive advantage. So, any kind of secret that we might have of value, adversaries or potential adversaries are interested in getting that information from the United States.

SYLVESTER: Security analysts point to China and Russia as the leading countries engaging in cyberattacks against the United States.

Hemu Nigam says the Obama White House has done more than previous administrations, but it's still not enough.

HEMU NIGAM, FOUNDER, SSP BLUE: What makes it really dangerous is if you get into a system that has secrets, that's no different than breaking into the front door, the side door. The only difference is, you can be sitting inside a country that is 2,000 miles away without ever stepping outside that room and entering the boundaries of the United States.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER: Now, the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement on the security breach at Lockheed Martin, saying, "DHS is aware of a cyber incident impacting Lockheed Martin Company, and, together with the Department of Defense, has been in contact with the company to offer assistance in determining the extent of the incident, performing analysis of available data in order to provide recommendations to mitigate further risk."

So this is a huge concern. A lot of people, a lot of experts have pointed out that the United States is still quite vulnerable in this area -- Candy.

CROWLEY: That's enough to make you want to go back to the phones and a memo written on a piece of paper.

(LAUGHTER)

SYLVESTER: The old-fashion way, huh?

CROWLEY: Thanks, Lisa.

Hackers are not the only ones who want to see what you've been up to on the Web. Increasingly, law enforcement agencies are looking for clues on the Internet to help them solve crimes.

As CNN's Silicon Valley Correspondent Dan Simon tells us, the law is not very clear on what they can and cannot do.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Facebook allows users at any time to adjust privacy settings. You can make your photos and personal information available only to friends instead of everyone. But that doesn't guarantee it will always be private. Law enforcement are now turning to Facebook and other Internet services to help solve crimes.

This man, 25-year-old Anthony Wilson of Detroit, was recently indicted on bank robbery charges, partly because the FBI compared his Facebook photos with bank surveillance video. He's been released on bond and pleaded not guilty.

E.J. HILBERT, FMR. FBI CYBER CRIME SPECIALIST: It is definitely the wave of the future. People -- we forget, the Internet is only about 10 years old.

SIMON: E.J. Hilbert is a former cyber crime specialist for the FBI. He says while social media is just one tool for law enforcement, its importance is growing.

HILBERT: The use of social media or online searches is absolutely crucial. It is free information. It's there. Absolutely, people should be utilizing this.

SIMON: But with that comes concerns about law enforcement overstepping boundaries. Facebook says it is cautious about turning over users' information.

In a statement provided to CNN, a spokesperson tells us, "We never turn over content records in response to U.S. legal process unless that process is a search warrant reviewed by a judge. We are required to regularly push back against overbroad requests."

Civil liberties groups say Facebook has adopted the correct position by insisting on a search warrant, but worry that other less scrupulous Internet services won't have the same requirements.

JIM DEMSEY, CENTER FOR DEMOCRACY AND TECHNOLOGY: I think what we need to have written clearly into the law is the requirement that when the government wants sensitive information, e-mails, cell phone tracking information, photos that you've only shared with friends, they need to go to a judge, make their case, and get that warrant.

SIMON (on camera): So, civil liberty groups concerned about the potential for abuse here. But the bottom line is, if users are concerned about law enforcement somehow getting a hold of their information on Facebook, then they probably shouldn't be any information online to begin with.

Dan Simon, CNN, San Francisco.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: A high-profile member of Congress says he's the victim of hacking. That's how Democrat Anthony Weiner is explaining a lewd photo posted on his Twitter account. CNN has exclusive new reaction from him.

And Republican presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty arrives in Iowa, but how much do the Iowa caucuses actually matter? We'll talk about the lead-off contest to the White House campaign and whether it's relevant.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Iowa is famous for its cornfields and its caucuses, famous as the first in the nation in the nominating process for presidential candidates. It's also a very good educational system.

Conventional wisdom says politicians need to have a good showing here. But for Republicans, Iowa is anything but must win.

In today's "Strategy Session," we look at whether Iowa is all that important anyhow.

Mo Elleithee is a Democratic strategist and a former Clinton campaign spokesman. And Rich Galen is a Republican strategist and a former press secretary for Newt Gingrich.

Gentlemen, thank you both for joining us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, Candy. Nice to be with you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good to be here.

CROWLEY: Happy Memorial Day.

I want to read you something from "The Washington Post," which has this to say about Iowa: "The uncomfortable fact for Iowa Republicans is that their cherished caucuses have rarely been much of a launching pad. Since the party held its first one to pick a president in 1976, there have only been two instances in which a winner who has not been an incumbent has gone on to take the GOP nomination."

So, is Iowa irrelevant?

RICH GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think maybe this year it may well be. I've been getting panicky phone calls from reporters in Iowa since last fall, and I think the people that are suffering the most are the storefront owners on Grand Avenue because they were all empty in Des Moines.

CROWLEY: Yes.

GALEN: But I think that this year, just because of the way the thing is playing out, that Iowa may not be so important. We'll be a lot smarter in August when we see who participates in the Ames straw poll, the big GOP fundraising event every four years. A couple have said they're not going.

CROWLEY: Let me be counterintuitive here. And that is that, sure, just because Iowa doesn't pick a winner doesn't mean it isn't influential. I think there are two different things.

Certainly, the Democrats can make a case that Iowa turned the race upside-down the last time around when Hillary Clinton -- remember, you know, formidable frontrunner -- placed third. It changed the race. So -- but for Republicans it has been different, but hasn't it also -- it tends to winnow down the field, does it not?

MO ELLEITHEE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes. Well, I think that the candidates who are least likely to go and get the nomination tend to drop out soon after Iowa if they have a poor showing there. But I think where it actually could be the most influential is in how it alters the Republican debate.

You know, if all these candidates are catering to an admittedly conservative activist base that participates in the Iowa caucus on the Republican side, you're going to see their message run to the right. And how that impacts the candidates moving forward is going to be critical.

I think a big part of the key here is what Mitt Romney does. If he goes to play in Iowa, and does not do well, that could impact the field down the road. But if he doesn't play there, then I think Rich is probably right. What it will do is best set up the alternative to Romney, and that could also be important depending on how well they do in New Hampshire.

CROWLEY: So it can matter without choosing a winner?

GALEN: Oh, yes. I think, in fact, last time it did. It elevated Governor Huckabee, who nobody thought really much of until then, and that carried all the way through to South Carolina and, in fact, into Florida. And so it does alter kind of the gravitational pull of the way these people have to deal with each other.

CROWLEY: Let me take you to the other side of the equation, the Democratic side of the equation.

We have a new poll out today. The president's overall approval rating is 54 percent, which is pretty darn good, especially in a country that feels pretty awful about the economy.

I want to run some other sort of internal numbers by you. How the president is handling the economy, approve, 41 percent. Disapprove, 58 percent.

How is the president handling the budget deficit? Approve, 34 percent. Disapprove, 64 percent.

How is he handling gas prices? Approve, 25 percent. Disapprove, 73 percent.

Here is my question to you, Rich, as a Republican. This guy is going to be tough to beat. We have a rotten economy, and he still has a 54 percent overall approval rating, based largely on what his numbers are for handling terrorism and international policy.

GALEN: Yes. Well, my former backdoor neighbor who now lives in Louisiana made famous, "It's the economy, stupid." And I think it depends on what the economy is doing.

If people feel that the economy is beginning to move upward, then I think the president will be re-elected. If they don't, then he's going to have a real tough time.

Also in that poll, the right direction, wrong track was 39-60. Thirty-nine percent think the country is going in the right direction --

CROWLEY: Except, Rich --

GALEN: But wait. But in the run-up to the election last November, when everybody was paying attention, it was down to 25-75. So we are taking these polls in a vacuum. People haven't done the things that you do during an election season.

ELLEITHEE: Well, I think people -- I think those numbers are in part a reflection of people's frustrations with the pace of the economic recovery, and they're not necessarily feeling it in their own pocketbooks or around their kitchen tables yet. But remember, elections don't occur in a vacuum. And when people look at a choice between the eventual Republican nominee and the president, I think it just reinforces his over overall approval ratings.

People look at the president and they give him a lot of credit for at least trying. And they look at the proposals that the Republican candidates are putting forward, and they don't like those.

CROWLEY: Well, sure. And my point here is not that he's going to have a big problem. My point is now something like six in 10 people think the economy is terrible, and he has a 54 percent approval rating. That's big.

GALEN: Yes. It was taken still in the afterglow of the --

CROWLEY: Osama bin Laden.

GALEN: -- Osama bin Laden deal, just while he was still overseas and had a pretty good trip. He didn't get everything he wanted, but he looked good, he represented America very well.

So, the fact that that is based on his foreign policy, where he's not noted to be particularly strong, means that the danger for him -- who knows how it's going to work out, but the danger is this is a very thin -- kind of positive for him. If something, God forbid, goes wrong in foreign policy, and there's no backup in the economy, then I think he's in big trouble.

ELLEITHEE: But remember this -- the president has been leading all the potential Republican candidates in the polls long before he got Osama bin Laden. I think, again, elections are about choices. And when people see him up against the Republican candidates, they may not be happy with gas prices right now and the way that the administration is handling it so far, but when they look at the Republicans giving subsidies to the big oil companies, they sure don't like that.

CROWLEY: Got a long time between now and then. So --

GALEN: That's exactly right.

CROWLEY: -- Mo Elleithee, Rich Galen, thank you so much.

ELLEITHEE: Thank you, Candy.

CROWLEY: CNN's New Hampshire presidential debate though is just a few weeks away. Join us on Monday night, June 13th, as the Republican hopefuls square off on the issues, only on CNN.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has largely stayed in the shadows while his country has been hammered by NATO. Today he emerged for talks with one of the last nations willing to meet with him.

And today President Obama honored the sacrifice of troops who died for their country by making a comparison that any parent can understand.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: President Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery today, and he declared that Americans owe a debt to our fallen heroes that we can never fully repay.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To those of you who mourn the loss of a loved one today, my heart goes out to you. I love my daughters more than anything in the world, and I cannot imagine losing them. I can't imagine losing a sister, a brother, or a parent at war.

The grief so many of you carry in your hearts is a grief I cannot fully know. This day is about you and the fallen heroes that you loved.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Also at the ceremony at Arlington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is departing from his post this year.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: For the rest of my life, I will keep these brave patriots and their loved ones in my heart and in my prayers, as I know does their commander-in-chief, who has so steadfastly supported those bearing the brunt of the fight.

I have been honored to work with President Obama for the past two-and- a-half years, and to see the deep seriousness and thoughtfulness with which he weighs the security of the nation and the safety of the men and women who serve. Throughout, he has never shrunk from the tough decisions, the heavy burdens, and the true responsibilities of command.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, was also on hand for Memorial Day tributes and mourning at Arlington.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Candy, a lot of the families here were just like any other family in America. They thought of Memorial Day as picnics and barbecues, things like that.

But it was the death of a loved one in Iraq or Afghanistan that changed Memorial Day for them. And that's why they come out here.

We spoke with a young mother, Nicki Bunting. She lost her husband in Afghanistan. He had come home for some R&R, spent some time at home.

He deployed back to Afghanistan. And four days back into Afghanistan, his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb and he was killed.

Four days after she found out that her husband was dead, Nicki found out she was pregnant. So, for her, coming here on Memorial Day means teaching her young son about the father he never knew.

NICKI BUNTING, HUSBAND KILLED IN AFGHANISTAN: We don't even have any pictures of them together. So this is where we get to know daddy, and I can tell him stories here. And this is where he knows daddy is.

So it's tough. And he says "da-da" when he sees his grave. And that's tough. But this is the best I can do now, so this is what we do.

LAWRENCE: Section 60 has been called the "saddest acre in America" because some of these deaths are the most fresh. The wound is still very raw for these families, like the mother we spoke with whose son was shot down in a helicopter over Iraq.

BETTY CHURCH, SON KILLED IN IRAQ: He's a young man and you think, oh, that's him, you know? I live in the country now and I see a helicopter going over, and I think that could have been him flying.

LAWRENCE: Every grave here is a different story. And every story is very personal.

We've seen people leave something like a cap of a beer bottle on a grave which means something to that family. We saw people celebrating with toasts of champagne, and others very, very somber, crying at the grave.

It's a very, very personal, personal experience. But because these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are so recent, there is no national memorial like World War II or veterans. So because this cemetery is so close to the nation's capital, especially on a day like Memorial Day, this has become sort of the memorial for these families to the ones who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan -- Candy.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: Thanks so much to our Chris Lawrence at Arlington for us today. It is a nightmare scenario. You are hurt and you head for the hospital, and then you're turned away because it's missing the one thing a hospital should always have. That's coming up.

And the South has always had its share of dangerous creatures. The difference now is they're looking for new turf and the weather is helping.

We'll explain.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Here's a look at this hour's "Hot Shots."

In Yemen, anti-government protesters call for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In Paris, tennis superstar Rafael Nadal slams a powerful serve during a fourth round match at the French Open.

In Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, vacationers play a game in the Red Sea. Tourism in Egypt, however, has yet to return to pre-uprising levels.

And in Indianapolis, Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon kisses the ground as his son Sebastian looks on.

"Hot Shots," pictures worth a thousand words.

The number of missing from the tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, is dropping. Twenty-nine people are still unaccounted for more than a week after the twister struck. The death toll stands at 142.

The tornado killed more people than any other in the U.S. since record keeping began in 1950. Visiting Joplin yesterday, President Obama vowed that the U.S. would stand with the community until it was rebuilt.

The severe weather of the past few months has had some odd consequences. In the South, rising water is letting alligators stray far from home.

As CNN's Jeanne Meserve reports, gator hunters are seeing a boom in business.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A prehistoric predator has become a modern nuisance. Rising water along the Mississippi is letting alligators roam far from the bayous.

DON HYNUM, ALLIGATOR HUNTER: I suppose (ph) that's a 10-foot or better gator that came up in here and ate two of the neighborhood dogs already that we know of. At least two.

MESERVE (on camera): Did you find him?

HYNUM: Been looking for him twice. And he's out in here somewhere.

MESERVE (voice-over): Don Hynum is an alligator hunter licensed by the state of Mississippi to capture problem gators. Business is brisk thanks to the flood.

HYNUM: You just throw this weighted hook out and you snag him. Just snag him anywhere.

MESERVE: A heavy-duty hook and fishing pole, a harpoon, and a snare are the tools of his trade. A rubber band made out of an inner tube secures the deadly jaws.

HYNUM: Their muscles are really weak opening their mouth. You can hold it closed with your hand. They have, like, 2,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, (INAUDIBLE) 10-foot gator.

MESERVE: Hynum's boat shows the scars when a gator bit into it during a hunt. It almost sank. Most of the alligators Hynum catches are relocated, but the biggest ones are killed.

(on camera): How much is this worth?

HYNUM: The hide this year, around $150, $200.

MESERVE (voice-over): Hynum's only compensation for this work is the hides and the meat.

HYNUM: It's a pretty meat, zero cholesterol.

MESERVE (on camera): And it tastes like chicken, right?

HYNUM: Well, it tastes more like pork.

MESERVE (voice-over): Hynum has something else in another freezer, an alligator head which he will boil and bleach into something like this. Remarkably, he's never been badly bitten, though the Band-Aid on his finger hides a wound from a recent encounter.

HYNUM: If we get bit, or cut, or whatever, we pour a scrape (ph) of bleach in it because the bacteria is so bad on them.

MESERVE: Hynum does not find every nuisance gator, but he is looking.

HYNUM: I don't dislike alligators. I actually like dealing with alligators. And it's just some of them wind up in places they don't need to be.

MESERVE: Hynum loves hunting about as much as the gators do.

Jeanne Meserve, CNN, Port Gibson, Mississippi.

(END VIDEOTAPE)