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Interview With Senator John McCain; More U.S. Officials Pull Out of Libya; Interview With Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren

Aired September 27, 2012 - 22:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. It's 10:00 here on the East Coast.

And we have breaking news tonight in the wake of the Libya tragedy. Late word tonight from the U.S. State Department they're pulling more staffers out of the embassy in Tripoli because of security concerns. Also tonight, and also security related, new details. They're coming in reaction to our exclusive reporting last night on how quickly officials actually suspected that the killing of four Americans in Benghazi was in fact an act of terror, and how troubled the subsequent investigation into that deadly assault is turning out to be.

Today, 16 days after the attack, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated plainly what was obvious to many, including Senator John McCain, who joins us shortly, almost from the beginning.


LEON PANETTA, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: As we determined the details of what took place there and how that attack took place, that it became clear that there were terrorists who had planned that attack.


COOPER: The best we can tell, this is the first time any administration official has uttered the word planned to describe what happened.

Asked how long it took to reach his conclusion, Secretary Panetta said "It took awhile once information from Benghazi came back." But "Keeping Them Honest," multiple sources now tell 360 that officials knew this was a terror attack almost from the get-go within 24 hours, at least intelligence officials. Yet this is what they were saying for more than a week publicly after the killing.


SUSAN RICE, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: It's important to know that there's an FBI investigation that has begun, and will take some time to be completed. That will tell us with certainty what transpired. But our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that in fact what this began as was a spontaneous, not a premeditated, response to what had transpired in Cairo.


COOPER: Now, there are many possible explanations for why the administration took so long to budge from that line. Everything from an excess of caution to the fog of war to incompetence or domestic politics.

We don't have the answer nailed down on that. What we do have, though, is a collection of inconsistencies between the administration line and our own understanding of the facts.

Now recall our exclusive reporting last night based on several sources that not one single FBI investigator has yet to even set foot at the crime scene in Benghazi. That remains true tonight. Yet when asked to comment, an American official told us that FBI investigators on the ground are not experiencing any roadblocks and are working well with Libyan officials. That same official attributed the FBI's absence from Benghazi to security concerns.

"Keeping Them Honest," though, Libya's newly elected prime minister told CNN's Arwa Damon a full week ago that investigators had been invited into Libya and that the Libyans would provided any needed protection. Whether or not the Libyan government could have delivered on that promise, we'll never know. What we do know is that no FBI agents are in Benghazi, according to our reporting. The crime scene remains unprotected and somehow the official line seems to be that everything is going fine with the Libyan government and the FBI investigation.

As we said, new details tonight. CNN's Fran -- national security analyst Fran Townsend got some of them. So did CNN contributor Bob Baer. Fran, of course, is the former White House homeland security adviser, a current member of the CIA's External Advisory Board. She recently traveled to Libya with her employer, MacAndrews & Forbes. Bob is a former CIA officer with deep experience in the Middle East and the Arab world.

Also on the phone from Tripoli, CNN's Jomana Karadsheh.

I guess I'm just a little surprised, Fran, how they can say that -- I mean, how they are painting that what's happening on the ground in Libya, especially based on what you're hearing you're your sources.


Look, look, Anderson, you know, there -- we have not -- this is not the first international terrorism investigation regrettably going back to the East Africa embassy bombings in the late '90s, the USS Cole in 2000. This is -- we understand how to do these. The FBI's got protocols about what does it look like when you have to deploy investigators and forensic folks to collect evidence overseas. So this is not the first time they've done it. They understand that in order to do that effectively, you have to have protection on the ground, you've got to have somebody who can do a perimeter. You ask in the first instance the host government to do that. If for some reason the Libyan prime minister suggested to Arwa that they thought they could provide that protection safely, but even if U.S. officials had security concerns where they didn't think that was enough, the next step is to ask the United States military, can they -- will they and can they provide protection and to get -- request permission from the host government to allow them to come in, the U.S. forces, solely to protect the perimeter of the scene and the investigators while they are there.

And best we can tell, we don't know if that's ever happened.

COOPER: So does it make sense to you, the claim that security is the concern for why FBI agents aren't on the ground?

TOWNSEND: It doesn't make sense to me because I understand that there are procedures in place to try and mitigate against those risks and concerns and ways to deal with it.

COOPER: Procedures that 16 days on you would think could be in place.

TOWNSEND: Yes. Exactly.

COOPER: Bob, you have been talking to sources at the Pentagon. You said the U.S. is really at a standoff here. How so?

ROBERT BAER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It's in a standoff, Anderson, because the FBI and the military have decided they have to go in with extra protection. And the military wanted to send in a special package which would have included counter battery because, remember, the annex was attacked by mortars. This was a military attack, well planned.

The military and the FBI don't know what they're up against in Benghazi and they have to go, you know, with a lot of force on the ground.

COOPER: So when you say counter battery...


BAER: A lot of soldiers...

COOPER: Counter battery, you mean capable of returning fire and mortar attack?

BAER: Returning fire -- returning fire and mortar, yes, exactly. Because if they -- if they've got the coordinates of that consulate and they start shooting again at the FBI and the military, they're going to have to be able to defend themselves.

The Libyans are saying we can do fine but why should we trust the Libyans at this point. On the other hand, look at it from the Libyan position. It's a weak government and having a significant military force on the ground in Benghazi would be an embarrassment and would cause them internal problems.

COOPER: And that -- is that what you're hearing is the main reason why the FBI team has not yet made it into Benghazi? BAER: Well, the FBI can't go in with sidearms and hope to defend that consulate any better than the ambassador did. They would need, you know, heavy weapons to counter another one of these attacks. We don't really know who led the attack and whether they're still active or not.

COOPER: Right.

BAER: And if you're in the FBI's position and the military's, you have to go in with full force. I mean, this is nobody's fault. It's just the fault there is no stable, strong government in Libya.

COOPER: Jomana, you're in Tripoli, you have been talking to diplomats there about the security situation there. What do you make of the fact the State Department is pulling more staff out of Tripoli, out of the country?

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN PRODUCER: Well, Anderson, the embassy in Tripoli here has really been on high alert since the attack in Benghazi. You know, they evacuated nonessential staff and travel within Tripoli has been really restricted for the remaining staff.

The concern here among the Western community in Tripoli and diplomats, I earlier spoke with a security adviser for one of the Western Diplomatic Commission and they say they're concerned about the demonstrations that are expected tomorrow in Tripoli. There are also other demonstrations also in Benghazi. But he said that a senior Libyan security official in Tripoli told his mission that they were worried about the possibility of these protests turning violent tomorrow.

But, Anderson, these are not anti-American or anti-Western protests. They are protests, a continuation of what we saw in Benghazi last Friday, people taking to the streets to put pressure on the government to disband militias and create security forces. They actually protest against extremism, but we did see these protests turn violent last Friday and there is that concern that could happen tomorrow in Tripoli.

We did see the U.S. embassy this evening posting on its Web site a warning for U.S. citizens in Tripoli and in Benghazi who remain in country to avoid the two main squares in these cities because of these demonstrations, saying that while they are expected to be peaceful protests, that they can be unpredictable and could turn violent.

COOPER: And, Bob, as I said earlier, we heard Leon Panetta, the defense secretary, using the word planned. We think that's the first time we've heard that from administration officials. You say the way in which the mortars were used in this attack would right away lead to that conclusion. BAER: Well, it's very hard to walk in mortars on a target and apparently, as I hear them, they were hit, the annex, very quickly by mortars so somebody had the exact coordinates, somebody knew how to fire mortars, direct fire, and I think that's what has the Pentagon concerned that this was a military style attack and the people who did attack it knew what they were doing. And you know and, you know, in defense of the secretary of defense, the details are coming in very slowly simply because it's been difficult to get people out of the country.

The debriefings have gone slowly and we can't put people on the ground because of the security situation. So the truth has come out very slowly, even inside our government.

COOPER: And, Fran, I mean, there are -- you know, a lot of people have been very critical of the administration. To play devil's advocate here, though, it's one thing for politicians who are not part in -- you know, we're not part of the government to say -- or not part of the administration to say well, look, we should have known this earlier. It's another thing for administration officials to come out in front of an investigation and say oh, it was a terrorist attack.

There was a level of caution that an administration official would have that a congressman would not, who is more critical.

TOWNSEND: No, that -- Anderson, that's exactly right, and remember, after the bin Laden raid, they came out initially with details that turned out not to be accurate and they were really criticized for it. And so in some ways, that is understandable. What I don't understand, though, is if you were going to be cautious, why then proffer as Ambassador Susan Rice...

COOPER: An alternative.

TOWNSEND: -- did an alternative that it was related to this protest. That doesn't make -- if you don't want to speculate, then don't speculate either way. And so I just think now they're being criticized because they guessed wrong.

COOPER: Right. And it raises, you know, lots of conspiracy theories as well that people have, right or wrong.

Fran, appreciate it. Bob Baer and Jomana as well. Stay safe.

Senator John McCain is both a long-time supporter of freedom for Libya. He supported President Obama's actions to remove Gadhafi. He's been critical of how the administration has handled the Benghazi aftermath. We spoke earlier today. Take a look.


COOPER: What do you make of the response by the administration in the early days, Ambassador Rice, and now what they're saying now, I mean, they're now saying it was a terrorist attack. The president did use the word terror early on in the Rose Garden, but we heard from Ambassador Rice, who is saying link this to the video that's been released. I mean, what do you see as going on?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I see a fundamental misunderstanding in the larger picture and then on the smaller picture. In the smaller picture they were either incredibly naive or willfully deceiving the American people. I don't -- I don't know which. But to think an attack of this nature with heavy weapons, mortars, and a very sophisticated direct fire and indirect fire, that somehow that could be the result of a spontaneous demonstration is just impossible for me to understand.


COOPER: Let me just throw in a third option, though, which supporters of the administration would say, is look they want to be cautious about how they characterize it early on and so they were, you know, taking a go-slow approach and saying -- not jumping the gun and saying it was a terrorist attack, but basically kind of wanted to see where the investigation led.

MCCAIN: A casual observer, a first year cadet at West Point will tell you that that kind of attack is not a spontaneous demonstration. Here, darling, let's go to a demonstration, bring the mortars. This is -- this is -- it's insane that they would somehow believe that could be the result of a spontaneous demonstration.

And second of all, they've got it all wrong when they blame the video. It's not the video. It is the people, the Islamists, radical Islamists, that are pushing this video throughout media in the Middle East to crank up the anti-moderate, anti-pro democracy force.

COOPER: There was reporting yesterday from Fran Townsend at CNN with sources and also a writer for the "Daily Beast" who said that intelligence sources he had talked to had said that in the intelligence community, there was within the first 24 hours were saying this was a terrorist attack, had even some people identified.

Have you heard that? Can you comment on that? And if that is the case, why does the information that the intelligence community has not something that the administration is saying publicly?

MCCAIN: I don't know. But it doesn't take intelligence information to watch an operation take place with heavy weapons, mortars, that is not then a spontaneous demonstration. This is why it's reprehensible for our ambassador to the U.N. to go on all networks and say that -- and deny that.

I mean, it flies in the face of the facts. And so I don't know what intelligence we had or what we didn't have, but I know that when you have that kind of operation, even the most casual observer knows that it is a terrorist attack.

COOPER: Has the State Department given you or the lawmakers information?

MCCAIN: As I'm sure you may have heard, we had the worst, most disgraceful hearing -- meeting with the secretary of state and General Clapper, the head of DNI, an FBI guy, and a Navy admiral. They told us nothing and then the very next day, in the "New York Times" and the "Washington Post" was the hour-by-hour operation that took place.

Their answer when we asked that in this secret room, they would say, well, the investigation is still going on. Well, obviously the investigation is still going on, but somehow, the media had -- I mean, almost exact detail, as you know. It was really an insult to the Congress, to tell you the truth.

COOPER: So what needs to come out of this? I mean, does there need to be an investigation? Are you confident in the investigation going on? Secretary Clinton has come forward and said, look, the FBI is in the early stages of the investigation but...


MCCAIN: So early that they haven't gotten to Benghazi.


COOPER: Well, that's the thing. They're not even able to go to Benghazi and the site still is not secure. What does that tell you?

MCCAIN: I think it tells me that over time the details always come out. I'm not sure what we can really be gained in immediate investigation of the kind you're talking about because the crime scene is basically so badly compromised but over time, we will -- there were intercepts, there were other information.

There's some information that convinced the president or the legislative assembly to go on our nationwide TV and say we know it's al Qaeda. Now I don't know that, but it was clearly a terrorist attack and the administration described it as not being so. They owe the American people an explanation.

COOPER: There are some Republicans who are saying, though, that this is a -- I talked to a congressman and a senator last night who said this is a failure of the Obama administration. Do you see it as that? The way, what we're seeing in the Arab Spring, what we're seeing happen in Libya?

MCCAIN: I think obviously because of the tragedy that we have to know whether measures could have been taken and there is already evidence coming -- forthcoming, including Chris' diary that there were threats and, you know, I think we need to investigate that aspect of it. But this is still a very dangerous part of the world. We still have these jihadists coming across their borders.

They -- if there's anything we can help them with, it's border security. And so all I can say is it's a great tragedy and I'm not so concerned about the fact there may have been intelligence failures as I am about not telling the American people the truth.

COOPER: Senator McCain, thank you.

MCCAIN: Thanks for having me back on. (END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: You can see the whole interview with Senator McCain shortly on We're going to put it on there.

Let us know what you think. We're on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, @AndersonCooper. I have been tweeting already tonight.

Just a short time ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hours after he made one of his boldest statements yet about military action against Iran. The White House says President Obama will have a follow-up call with Netanyahu tomorrow. The Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, joins me ahead.


COOPER: Welcome back. At the U.N. National Assembly, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu devoted much of his speech today to Iran. A perceived threat of its nuclear program. Netanyahu has obviously been pushing the United States to declare a clear red line that Iran cannot cross if it wants to avoid war.

Well, today, armed with some props, literally showed where he thinks that line should be. Take a look.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Where should a red line be drawn? A red line should be drawn right here, before -- before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment necessary to make a bomb.


COOPER: When Netanyahu pulled out that red marker he turned up the heat on a disagreement he's had with the White House. Obviously -- I think I said National Assembly. It's obviously the General Assembly at the U.N.

President Obama has said the United States will do everything it must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon but he's resisting setting a timetable for military action. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat down with Netanyahu just a short time ago tonight. The highest level of face-to-face meeting he's going to have while in New York.

A lot of Republican critics have hammered President Obama for not meeting in person with Netanyahu this week. The White House has said it was because their schedules didn't match, they were not in New York at the same time. President Obama spoke on Tuesday at the U.N. Today the White House said the two men will talk by phone tomorrow.

I spoke about all this earlier with the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.


COOPER: Has the Obama administration made clear enough for your government where the red line is?

MICHAEL OREN, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: The Obama administration has said time and again that they're determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The red line is designed to show -- help persuade the United States where, how you can achieve that goal of preventing Iran from acquiring military nuclear capabilities.

COOPER: You make a distinction, though, between acquiring or having the capability of having a nuclear weapon?

OREN: Well, the capability from our perspective would probably set up a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. It would greatly impair our ability to respond to terrorist attacks, say, from Lebanon or Gaza. If we're going to defend ourselves, we have to worry about whether Iran would break out to make a nuclear weapon, and it could do so in a small room somewhere, put this bomb together.

And this is a country half the size of Europe. There's a good chance you're not going to know where that -- where that room is. What we're saying is the one part of this nuclear program that we can see, because there's a warhead part, there's a weapon part, there's a missile part. The one part that we can see is the enrichment program. And it's -- it is observable, it is vulnerable, we can target it, and we want to show literally on that line, that -- that process of enrichment, where we can stop Iran in its tracks so it will not get a weapon.

And the major issue here is not when Iran gets a bomb or even when it decides to get a bomb. The major issue is when, what is the last point at which we can act to prevent Iran from getting a bomb.

COOPER: And what -- where is that point as far as you're concerned?

OREN: As far as we're concerned that -- if you look on the chart, they have now completed all of the low enriched uranium that they need. That's 70 percent of the way there. That took them many years. The next stage was getting to the 20 percent enrichment. And they are well along that way as well. Once they complete the 20 percent enrichment, which will give them 90 percent of the bomb, then they can sprint out to finish up to the weapons grade enrichment, which could take them at most several months and at the very least, several -- you know, a matter of weeks. They can do that.

And they can do that -- maybe between inspections they can do that when the world community is distracted by other issues, and so that is where the red line is. The red line is when they complete that 20 percent enrichment, you stop them there and you've done a major effort, to -- you've gone a long way to stop them from getting that nuclear weapon which the Obama administration says we're determined to prevent them from acquiring. COOPER: I mean, do you think the Obama administration is on the same page as you? Because President Obama just this week, he's -- well, he told the "Des Moines Register," we've been very clear about certain red lines and our national security interest and send a message to everybody in the region that when those red lines are crossed, they're going to have a problem with us.

OREN: Well, we are engaged in, again, a candid and continuous dialogue with the United States about this issue. And when the administration, when the president says he's determined to prevent Iran from acquiring or developing a nuclear weapon, we are coming to the administration saying this is how we believe this can be stopped.

The purpose of creating a red line is not to start a war. The purpose of creating a red line is to prevent a war. That's how President Kennedy prevented a war with the Soviets during the Cuban missile crisis. He drew a red line, they didn't cross it, and that ensured peace between the United States and the Soviet Union.

If we -- if the Western powers had drawn a clearer red line against Nazi expansionism in the 1930s you might have avoided World War II. Red lines are way that we gain time for diplomacy and for sanctions to work.

COOPER: Again, I was talking to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani last night who said he feels the Obama administration has not been clear enough. I mean, I know you don't want to get involved in U.S. politics but...

OREN: I don't.


COOPER: Yes. But I mean, has he been clear enough for your government?

OREN: He's been clear in stating that he's determined to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And we are engaged in a dialogue to reach an understanding with this administration how we can achieve that goal, which we both share.

COOPER: Obviously the whole issue of the relationship between the president and prime minister has become a huge political issue in the United States. Did Prime Minister Netanyahu feel snubbed by President Obama not meeting with him while he was in the United States?

OREN: We had a schedule problem. Nobody was out to snub anybody. President of the United States, busy. Prime minister's schedule was very narrow. And we couldn't make it happen during that time slot. But the prime minister is meeting with the Secretary of State Clinton. And tonight he's having another conversation with President Obama tomorrow -- on the phone.

President Obama has said that he has spent more hours face-to- face talking to Prime Minister Netanyahu, talking to him on the phone than any other foreign leader, and that's going on -- that level of conversation is going on at all different levels.

COOPER: Ambassador, thank you.

OREN: Always.


COOPER: Well, President Obama, as we said, obviously as you know, has been getting a lot of heat from his critics for not meeting face-to-face with Prime Minister Netanyahu or any other world leaders during the U. N. 's annual meeting, or at least scheduling such meetings.

The fact that he made time this week to go on the talk show "The View" only gave his critics more fuel. And I spoke earlier to CNN senior political analyst David Gergen and White House correspondent Dan Lothian.


COOPER: David, you heard the ambassador talking. I mean, obviously he's not going to wade into the U.S. politics in the midst of an election. What do you make of what he said of where Israel stands?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think the first thing was that the deadline has been pushed back to six to nine months which means there's going to be -- not going to be an attack during the elections, which from the White House point of view is a great relief. But there -- we've got a very serious issue on the table, the next president. That is the Israelis are telling the United States look, the red line is when the Iranians get the technological capability to build a bomb, we then feel we have to attack.

Previously, the United States government has been telling Israel no, the red line should be when they actually get a bomb.

COOPER: Acquire it, right.

GERGEN: When they acquire it.

COOPER: Difference between acquiring and the capabilities.

GERGEN: Exactly. You brought that out in the interview. And therefore from the Israeli point of view that's way too late. But there's a great deal of distrust on both sides of the other side and on the Israeli side, they just don't trust President Obama whether he's going to use force or not. They think he's going to keep stalling, keep talking, you know, saying we've got to negotiate more, we're not really sure they have a bomb.

COOPER: Do you think this phone call between the prime minister and the president tomorrow is enough to quiet the critics on that?

GERGEN: I think so. And I -- it should be. The issue is so much more important than whether they sit down together. I think that the fact they didn't sit down together signals the lack of harmony between them, the personal harmony between them. But they do talk a lot. They just have very different points of view. The United States really does not want to get into a conflict with Iran, and when you talk to the Israelis, they thought there was well over 50 percent chance that Israel was going to use force to attack in the next six to nine months.

COOPER: Wow. More than 50 percent.

GERGEN: More than 50 percent.

COOPER: Dan, clearly the White House is aware of the political criticism. The phone call between the two leaders, I mean, it's obviously not a coincidence. Is that -- were you surprised to even gets a heads-up about it?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You know, I really was surprised about that because it's not every day that we get a heads-up from top aides here at the White House or other U.S. officials that the president is planning to hold a phone conversation with a world leader the next day.

The way this typically works is that the president has the phone conversation, then the White House has their readout, which is a short statement, a few lines, explaining what the leaders talked about. And sometimes we don't even find out about these phone conversations. In fact, Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, likes to say that not every phone conversation that the president has with world leaders is read out.

COOPER: David, do you think, I mean, that the daylight between these two leaders, I mean, it's going to become more stark as the threat becomes closer.

GERGEN: Absolutely. Bob Gates, our outgoing defense secretary, has been in government over 30 years, told me before he left this Iranian problem is the most difficult problem he'd seen in government in over 30 years. The hardest problem to solve. There are no good solutions.

COOPER: No good solutions because the difficulty militarily of actually...

GERGEN: If you go in militarily, if you strike with the air force, A, you only set them back two or three years but secondly, there may be so much mischief that they could do that you then feel under a lot of pressure to go in and decapitate the regime. And that means you have to put boots in the ground. And there is nobody in the U.S. Army wants to do that.

The Obama administration deserves credit. They have done a lot of work with the Israelis on defense, you know, protection, on missile protection and that sort of thing. And there has been a lot of cooperation.

But on this issue of when you go after Iran, there are serious disagreements.

COOPER: Dan, is anyone inside the administration saying it was a mistake not to meet face-to-face with Netanyahu?

LOTHIAN: No. They are not calling this a mistake. After all, if they thought it was a mistake, then they could have arranged a meeting here in Washington today. The president had a campaign event but his afternoon was free. Tomorrow's schedule looks relatively light.

Now I should point out, just because we don't see anything on the president's public schedule, it doesn't mean that he isn't doing other important things behind the scenes. They point out that the president speaks to him all the time by phone, White House spokesman Jay Carney pointing out that recently they had a phone conversation that lasted more than an hour. And so their message is that the two leaders communicate all the time, even if they're not meeting face-to-face.

COOPER: Dan Lothian, appreciate it. And David Gergen, thanks.

GERGEN: Thank you.

COOPER: Well, "Raw Politics" tonight, new polling and a fight over all that polling. Some are now claiming that the polls are skewed against Mitt Romney. Republicans claiming that. Ari Fleischer believes it. He joins us. So does Obama 2012 pollster Cornell Belcher, meaning he joins us, not that he believes it. And John King so you can decide for yourself what you should believe.


COOPER: Did the young TV actor brutally kill his elderly landlady before falling to his own death? The tragic and bizarre story behind a Hollywood murder mystery when we continue.


COOPER: "Raw Politics" now. In a case of complaining about the ref when the call goes against you. Or perhaps in this instance, questioning the polls, virtually all of them, when the polls show you losing. So do the complainers have a case? Get ready for a debate on that.

But first, you guessed it, new polling from NBC News and the "Wall Street Journal" in three battleground states shows President Obama leading in New Hampshire by seven percentage points over Mitt Romney among likely voters. In Nevada, Mr. Obama has a two-point lead, which is within the margin of error. And in North Carolina, the president also leads by two points.

Now, nationwide, he leads or is tied in just about every major poll, unless you believe the complaints of a growing number of Republicans who say the polling is skewed in favor of the president. There's even a Web site called that takes all those same polls that show President Obama leading and claims to correct the bias, turning Romney deficits into commanding Romney leads. The idea behind is it simple. All polls base the outcome of -- on what pollsters believe the electorate will look like: how many Democrats versus how many Republicans they think will actually turn out. Getting that partisan makeup wrong can tilt the predictions.

The people that don't believe the polls say this time, pollsters think the 2012 electorate will look a lot like 2008, and this, they say, is wrong. Notice I said this time. Back in 2004, Democrats complained that the polls which showed George W. Bush leading were overestimating the number of Republicans who would vote. They were wrong. The polls were right.

Now in 2000, Al Gore said don't believe the polls, polls showed him losing narrowly. Polls were right.

In fact, it's hard to find an example of the polls on average -- on average, I should say -- getting it wrong unless you go back to 1948, when they predicted Thomas Dewey defeating President Harry Truman.

CNN political contributor Ari Fleischer joins us. He's an occasional unpaid communications advisor of the Romney campaign. Also, Obama 2012 pollster Cornell Belcher and a veteran of covering more campaigns then he'd probably care to admit, our own John King.

So Ari, I did not hear Republicans complaining, you know, a few months ago when Mitt Romney seemed up in these polls.

ARI FLEISCHER, UNPAID CONSULTANT OF ROMNEY CAMPAIGN: Well, Anderson, here's what I think you have to do. And I don't think it's conspiracy, but I think you have to apply a common-sense test.

Here's what we know. The last time there was a major election in 2012, we had an exit poll in the state of Wisconsin that was wrong. It showed the race was going to be neck and neck, the exit poll did, and of course Governor Walker won by seven percentage points. Exit poll put together by the same consortium of many of these different groups that are doing the polls now.

If you believe what the polls are saying right now, you've got to believe that there's something huge going on, and common sense would tell you there's a movement in America similar to the 1964 Goldwater election or the 1974 Watergate election. Because it's not just a prediction of the electorate is going to turn out to match the 2008 Obama landslide, it will exceed it.

That's what, for example, the "New York Times"/CBS/Quinnipiac poll showed in Florida, showed in Ohio that just came out yesterday. They have Democrats turning out in numbers far in excess of the Democratic advantage of 2008. Just use a common-sense test. Does it feel that way? Do the crowds at Obama events look that way? The answer's no.

COOPER: All right. Cornell, what about that? You're a pollster. Republicans, what do you say? You just heard Ari. What do you say to it? CORNELL BELCHER, 2012 OBAMA CAMPAIGN POLLSTER: Well, a couple things. One is, when a campaign starts complaining about the public polling, you know they're in an awful lot of trouble.

There's a lot of confusion here. I mean, one of the things is they're basing this on is party identification. Party identification is fluid. It changes -- it change over time, and a lot of it has to do with sort of the position of the party brand. So to say that, you know, there's too many Democrats in there sort of excuses the ideal that party identification is -- hasn't, in fact, been changing.

Unless you can look at registered voters and a lot of these -- most of these public polls, you're not looking at pulling from a voter file, you're looking actually at registered voters where you can sort of line it up with registered voters.

But even when you line it up with registered voters in polls that are voter file polls, what you see is independents are, in fact, ID'ing slightly more than -- Democrat than Republican.

So the idea that all these polls are skewed is kind of -- it's kind of conspiracy theory.

And the other part about this is, look, public polls have gotten really, really good. If you go back to the last election, even the election before that, it's hard to find a public poll from a major public polling outlet that was more than three points off of where -- of what the actual horse race was.

I do, however, understand what Republicans' frustration is. I mean, it's not like Mitt Romney's not an energizing candidate who connects with working-class voters and hasn't switched positions a lot. So I do sort of understand their pain on this.

COOPER: John, a lot of pollsters are saying, look, it's funny how these complaints never come from winning campaigns or folks who are in the lead. What do you make of it?

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Listen, Ari has a legitimate point. There's a legitimate debate about how do you weight these polls. Pollsters have to weigh the data to simulate an election after they call 500 or a 1,000 people. And you had the big Republican win in 2010. Now they're saying they're weighting it more like a presidential year, like 2008. Who is exactly right about that, that's a legitimate debate.

But Ari said something huge would have to happen for the polls to swing in each of these battleground states, many of the battleground states, as we've seen in the last week to two weeks.

I would say nothing huge is happening, but several significant things have happened. And I get this not just from the polls, which I don't trust all the time, Anderson, either, but from traveling and talking to people, including Republicans working in campaigns.

The Democrats had a better convention from a messaging standpoint. This 47 percent tape from Governor Romney is one of those rare moments in our polarized clutter politics that actually breaks through. The Obama campaign, which had some stumbles early on, is performing and executing pretty well right now, both in message discipline from the candidate and their TV advertisements, which even Republicans will tell you are better than the Romney ads right now.

So you add all that up: significant execution by the Obama campaign, an advantage, little bump out of the convention, sure, some of is dissipated but these little things have the race. And this is from Republicans I talk to in swing states, trickling toward the president.

Is it irreversible? Absolutely not. There are some people in Washington who say this is over. Forget what they say. There's a big debate next week. But Governor Romney right now as we speak -- and Ari might say he doesn't trust this poll either -- runs even with the incumbent Democrat when the voters are asked this question: who do you most trust to handle the economy? If the challenger in this economy can't get a lead on the president on that question, he won't win.

COOPER: Ari, do you agree with that, on that key question?

FLEISCHER: Well, it all comes down to the sample size and the poll. Again, if the polls oversampling Democrats, then of course, you're going to get that answer.

But here's why, Anderson, I think you have to dig a little deep. In the last six days, there have been seven polls in the state of Florida. One of them has Obama -- one of them has Romney up by one point. The rest are a very close race within the margin of error, one point, three points, four points, four points, one for five points.

A poll came out that shows the president is up nine points. Here's how they got there. They have nine percentage point more Democrat turnout than Republican. It's a fantasy. In the 2008 Obama landslide, it was advantage for the Democrats of just three points.

And Republicans won Florida in 2004. Republicans turned out by four percentage points more. You just can't have those kind of swings. The numbers aren't reliable.

COOPER: Cornell, what do you make...

FLEISCHER: I think what's really going on, I don't disagree with what John said about what's driving it, but I think you're within the margin of error in almost every one of those battleground states. It's close.

COOPER: Cornell, what about that, those Florida numbers?

BELCHER: I do understand what Republicans are trying to do. I mean, they do have to sort of make this argument against the media that the media's biased in a way favoring Democrats. Regardless of what history has shown, they have to make this bias, had to make the media bias because quite frankly, they don't want their base to deflate. They want them to energize. They don't want to think it's a lost cause.

However, for Republicans to be betting the house on the idea that Democrats aren't going to be enthusiastic and turn out -- and turn out this time around is really sort of building your house on sand.

COOPER: But will they be as enthusiastic at 2008, which according to Ari, one of these polls seemed to, you know, be based on?

BELCHER: Well, I would push back on that. If you look at the enthusiasm, one, the enthusiasm measures are overplayed because if only really, really enthusiastic voters turned out, we would have even smaller elections than we currently do.

Another part about this is sure, Republicans had a bit of an enthusiasm advantage before the convention, but everything you've seen coming out of the conventions after what a great convention the Democrats had, that enthusiasm gap has shrunk significantly.

COOPER: OK. We've got to leave it there. Cornell, John King, Ari Fleischer, thank you very much. Good discussion.

The man believed to have made the anti-Muslim video that triggered deadly protests in Cairo and elsewhere, he's under arrest tonight in Los Angeles. We'll tell you what charges he's actually facing now and why.


COOPER: A brazen robbery caught on tape. The target: a Saks Fifth Avenue store with customers inside. Why the FBI is asking for help in the case, when we continue.


ISHA SESAY, HLN ANCHOR: More from Anderson in a moment. First, a "360 News and Business Bulletin."

The producer linked to the anti-Islamic movie sparking protests across the Middle East has been arrested and is being detained without bail. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is accused of violating probation of a 2010 bank fraud conviction by uploading the controversial movie to YouTube. Under terms of his probation, authorities say Nakoula isn't allowed to access computers or the Internet without approval from his probation officer.

"Sons of Anarchy" actor Johnny Lewis fell to his death after killing his elderly landlady. That's according to the LAPD, which is awaiting toxicology test results to see if Lewis was on drugs.

Police will take soil samples from beneath the driveway of a suburban Detroit home on Friday to see if Jimmy Hoffa is buried at the site. A tipster told police a body was buried there around the time -- around the time the Teamsters union chief vanished 37 years ago. However, the tipster never claimed it was Hoffa's body.

A brazen robbery is caught on tape in Florida. The FBI is searching for several men who stormed the Saks Fifth Avenue store an hour before closing. They robbed customers plus took money and jewelry from the store.

And meet Starship, the puppy. She has an enlarged esophagus and must have all her meals in a custom-made high chair to help the food go down easier. Starship is looking for a loving home. She's up for adoption in Greenville, South Carolina.

COOPER: Very cute. That's very sad, though.

SESAY: I know.

COOPER: She has to sit up like that. Well, let's hope she finds a home. Isha, thanks.

Coming up, the phenomenon of bagel heads. Maybe you've seen this online. You've got to see it for yourself. I can't even describe it. We've got video. The "RidicuList" is next.


COOPER: All right. Time now for the "RidicuList." And I don't know what's up with "RidicuList" fare lately, but it's been a pretty wild ride.

Now, earlier this week I told you about those fraternity guys who were allegedly putting wine, well, in some place else that you don't normally drink alcohol from.

Now it's people putting bagels on their heads. And I don't mean they simply take some bagels, hold them up to their heads. Au contraire. That would be far too pedestrian. What I mean is there are people out there in this world as we speak -- I'm not kidding, who are having bagel shapes injected into their foreheads. There they are.

It's being called the latest Japanese trend in extreme body modification and the National Geographic Channel did a whole show on it.

National Geographic's "Taboo," which I kind of love, airs Sunday at 10 p.m. Now, trust me, you're going to want to start DVR'ing this show, because frankly, I've never seen anything like this, and I've seen a lot of stuff.

So here's the deal with getting the bagel head. Step one, decide yes, you really want bagel head. Precisely how one arrives at such a decision, I've got no idea. I'm sure there are many, many paths, each more personal and poignant than the last.

Step two, get saline injected into said forehead to create a giant lump, then find somebody to jam a thumb into the middle of said lump.

Look, I'm going to be honest. I'm using layman's terms here. I'm not a professional bagel head practitioner. I'm actually a few credits shy of getting my accreditation. I've -- you know, I've been busy. So here is a more finely-honed description of the bagel heading process.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three to 400 ccs of saline and two hours later, they're full up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Once it's fully swollen, you take your thumb and press down to make the indentation in the middle. That's the part that becomes the climax, the finish of the bagel head process.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Almost digging into my brain.


COOPER: What a climax that is, eh?

Now I know, I know a huge needle, two hours of your life, a stranger's thumb pressing into your saline-swollen forehead sounds like -- sounds like fun, doesn't it? Sounds like a lot to go through, actually. But come on, just take a look at the results. The bagel head, I think it speaks for itself. It's beguiling, it's unique. It's a philosophical commentary on the circle of life, perhaps. Circle of life.

The only down side is that the effects of bagel head, much like consuming wine through one's rear, are temporary. Just ask some fraternity guys. Bagel head actually only lasts about 16 to 24 hours. After that, the saline is absorbed back into the body, and the bagel sadly fades.

But I would dare to guess that the sense of personal pride, I would dare to guess that lasts a lifetime. And don't we all need that? Kind of like we need a hole in the head.

We'll be right back.


COOPER: That's it for us. Thanks for watching. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts now.