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John King, USA

Libyan Rebels in Retreat; Cracks in the Inner Circle; CIA in Libya?; Interview with Donald Rumsfeld; Deal on $73 Billion in Spending Cuts

Aired March 30, 2011 - 19:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks, Wolf, and good evening everyone. There are several important developments in the Libya crisis tonight on the battlefield as well as significant new political and diplomatic fallout. Here in Washington, CNN is told tonight that President Obama has authorized CIA covert intelligence operations in Libya.

One source telling me the goal is information on both the military and the political dynamics and this covert activity includes contacts and information sharing with the opposition. On the battlefield forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi carried today's armed conflict. Opposition forces who had been surging to the west are now retreating and losing key strategic cities as they do so.

The opposition -- opposition forces who have been surging west -- the opposition complains of getting less and less help from coalition airstrikes and lawmakers briefed by President Obama's War Council today says weather has reduced the strikes on pro-Gadhafi ground forces over the past two days. And in those briefings lawmakers were told as NATO steps up and the United States reduces its military role, the cost to taxpayers, meaning you going forward should be in the ballpark of about $40 million a week.

There are complaints tonight from both parties some who say the president needs congressional approval to keep the intervention going. Some who say the administration can't or won't say when this will end or how it plans to bring about its goal of regime change.


REP. GREG WALDEN (R), OREGON: I actually was pretty offended with some of the answers. I think there is an arrogance of attitude I have not seen before. And it's very disappointing. They seem to have much more interest in pleasing the Arab League and the NATO officers than consulting with the United States Congress.


KING: And while the regime has had back-to-back strong days on the battlefield there is a major crack in its support tonight. Gadhafi's foreign minister, a longtime confidante of the Libyan strong man arrived in London today and says he is defecting. Let's dig deeper beginning with the shifting balance of the civil war as we pull out the map here. Here's the map of the major towns across Libya. Here's where we were pre conflict. Red means the regime held these towns. So you see Gadhafi's strongholds and most -- the opposition mostly had its strongest points in the week in the east. But look at just Monday. Look at just Monday.

You had all these green opposition towns here, the opposition making gains trying to head this way. This is what has happened over the past 48 hour, the regime gaining steam taking back Bin Jawad, taking back Ras Lanuf, al Brega now said to be probably about to fall into the regime's hands if it hasn't already.

So let's go live now to CNN's Ben Wedeman. He's here in Ajdabiya and Ben, if you look at the course of the battlefield over the past 48 hours, you would have to score those 48 hours decidedly in Moammar Gadhafi's advantage.




KING: As you can see our audio connection with Ben Wedeman having a little problem. We'll re-establish that and make a stronger signal but as we watch the battlefield play out obviously Gadhafi forces gaining in recent days. We'll get back to Ben as soon as we can. The regime is headquartered here in Tripoli, of course, and the dictator no doubt pleased with the sweep east of his forces, but a disappointing setback for Gadhafi tonight the knowledge his long-time confidante, long-time senior aid, his foreign minister is now in London and says he is defecting.

Let's go to Nic Robertson. He's live in Tripoli for us. Nic, the regime no doubt will say no big deal, but this is in fact a huge deal, the first significant member of the inner circle to bolt.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what's really interesting, John, is we -- there isn't even a response yet from officials here. They can't even themselves confirm that the foreign minister has, in fact, left the country, stepped down as foreign minister, and arrived in Britain. They're telling us as soon as they can confirm that then they will give us a statement here.

In the meantime, officials are briefing against the foreign minister, saying he was ineffective and wasn't particularly important but that does fly in the face of his many years, his 15 years from '94 until 2009 as intelligence chief, the fact that he was the head of many of their secret negotiating teams, getting out ahead of public diplomacy, secret talks in Britain, for example, in the early 2000's to work on the Lockerbie case, a financial retribution for the downing of the Pan Am 103.

So this is a man who's got a lot of secrets on this regime and whose departure is going to cause ripples to flow through many other senior figures here. What's been interesting to see Moussa Koussa (ph), the foreign minister here change his attitude over the past month. When we arrived here just over a month ago, the first thing that happened we were told to immediately go and interview the foreign minister and he gave a very, very robust defense of the regime.

But within a couple of weeks he was changing and you could see this visible change in his demeanor. He came to a press conference here and barely read his statement, keeping his head down like this, and there was no commitment in his voice. In fact, he walked out of the press conference early and it was at that moment that we really had an indication that this man didn't seem to be committed to the regime and now we can tell he wasn't. He's left and others may follow -- John.

KING: And on that key point, Nic, let's follow up there. Others may follow. What's your sense? You know the inner circle of the regime fairly well. Obviously we assume Gadhafi's children are loyal. What about others in the inner circle? Will they look at this and say is the influence of the foreign minister -- I guess a better way to put it -- so significant that perhaps he will be the first or how long will it take us to know that?

ROBERTSON: John, I'm afraid I'm having a hard time hearing you, but I believe you asked me the significance of this and perhaps the significance is that this is a critical time for the regime. They've heard what the international community has to say. Gadhafi seems intent on fighting, upping the fight in the east in the other critical towns here with the rebels still fighting in Misrata, Zentan, for example, and he's choosing to fight on.

So the people around him who would perhaps -- who would be perhaps the people who could best tell him you are getting this wrong. You should change course and direction rather than doing that are jumping ship. At the press conference in London following the meeting there between the leaders, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton British prime minister and the Qatari prime minister, foreign minister, the Qatari prime minister, foreign minister said very noticeably and very clearly there is a deal on the table for Gadhafi but it is not going to be there for long.

It seems now perhaps there's been deals on the table or under the table for other regime leaders and figures. Perhaps Moussa Koussa (ph) is one of the first. Perhaps others are going to follow. And certainly this would be rattling the regime but the troubling thing here is this is one of the people who might have told -- who might have been brave enough to tell Gadhafi you're getting it wrong is gone. So Gadhafi is plotting his own course. There are very few people at the moment that will rein him back in -- John.

KING: Important insights from Nic Robertson in Tripoli tonight. Thank you, Nic. We've re-established our connection with Ben Wedeman. Ben is over here in Ajdabiya and Ben (INAUDIBLE) before we lost the connection that over the past 48 hours -- you just heard Nic talking about the diplomatic loss -- the political loss for Moammar Gadhafi, but on the battlefield over the past 48 hours Gadhafi is winning, things shifting his way quite decisively. WEDEMAN: Yes, quite decisively, indeed, John. We've seen the government forces retaking Ras Lanuf and it appears that they are fighting at the moment in Brega and we saw this evening the rebel forces on the outskirts of Ajdabiya trying to regroup, trying to reorganize some sort of counteroffensive, but it was the same thing that we've seen for weeks and weeks, lots of enthusiasm, shouting and calls for going to the front, but no real organization.

They don't have any communications because the cell phone system doesn't work in that area. They don't have radios. They don't have a command structure and oftentimes they don't even know how to use the weapons that they got their hands on after having looted them from armaments, so they're in a very difficult situation because at the end of the day the Libyan army is well armed, well trained. Yes, there's now a no-fly zone and NATO aircraft are striking in eastern Libya, but it doesn't seem to be enough to stop the Libyan army from running circles around the rebels -- John.

KING: And, Ben, quickly, it also begs the question -- you talk about no cell phone service, hard lines of communications. There's been all this talk of whether covert or overt getting help to the opposition. The CIA beginning intelligence gathering and the like, but you've seen no tangible evidence that they are getting significant help from a military and coordination perspective.

WEDEMAN: No, there is no evidence whatsoever on the ground at the front lines that there's any sort of foreign advisers or weaponry being provided and, you know, the impression is if they are getting advice and training or whatever, it's not very good because it's not making any impact at all on the situation on the ground -- John.

KING: Ben Wedeman live for us in Ajdabiya. Ben thanks so much. Please stay safe. Let's put this busy day in perspective. Our senior analyst David Gergen joins us from Atlanta. David, when you hear reports like that, number one, it is significant. We have now confirmed from the sources that the president has authorized the CIA to have covert activities inside Libya.

Perhaps no surprise, but it is significant that the United States would up its intelligence gathering there. However, as yet no evidence that that covert intelligence gathering is translating into more coherent military operations from the opposition if that would be one of the goals.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It's increasingly clear, John, that the rebels simply can't handle this unless they have dramatic military help from the west and from NATO and the Arab nations. And as they get pushed back, it's not just villages that are falling, but as you well know the Gadhafi forces are now moving back into the area where the oil fields are and there was a hope at one point that the rebels would control those oil fields and get revenue from them to strengthen themselves as a government.

As Gadhafi takes back territory, that becomes more problematic. There is a major AP story out tonight now that people inside the administration, Obama administration are concluding that it's going to take dramatic military intervention in order to turn this around. And it could even, you know, one possibility is an all-out U.S. assault. That I think the president definitely does not want to do.

He's promised the nation he wouldn't do that, but how do you turn this thing around on the ground? So -- and there's no -- increasingly, the pessimism is setting in on that front. So it's the other alternative. We don't yet see regime change, but as you just reported we've now seen a regime crack and the biggest bet and the best bet for the administration increasingly (INAUDIBLE) is that the regime will crack from within.

KING: And so the question there, David, is does Gadhafi see the defection of a long-term close confidant and say OK I need to read that tea leaf as go or does he see it and say forget about that. I'm winning on the battlefield, go back into a corner and lash out and then the question is what happens? And to your point about, you know, maybe the president is being advised he needs to do more than this, but now they're telling Congress, $40 million a week which is a lot of money, but in the scope of a big military intervention a lot less money than Iraq or Afghanistan. If they commit to that backseat role but then Gadhafi sits there, don't they need to come back and come to the drawing table and say never mind, we need to up this?

GERGEN: Yes, I think they're facing increasing dilemma. Unless the regime cracks from within, that's the hope, then I think we're increasingly looking at a stalemate or Gadhafi strengthening himself because the rebels are so disorganized and if we do begin to supply them with weapons, after all they're going to have to be trained and that takes time.

This is turning into a very tough situation on the ground and, you know, you have the distinct feeling here, John, without knowing for sure that the administration and the NATO nations really don't know which way this is going to go. They don't have any much -- they don't have a much better sense of this than we do and we're sitting here looking and saying how is this all going to end?

I do think the president increasingly has a dilemma and that is he sold this to the American people as a defensive action, a humanitarian action and yet it's becoming increasingly clear to succeed it's going to take more than that. Interestingly, John, tonight there is a major or senior European diplomat as quoted on background by Reuters and Washington as saying that the no-fly zone was always a smoke screen. That it was intended simply to get Arab nations on board and the intention all along has been to tip the balance in favor of the rebels, interesting story.

KING: Well interesting story to watch and some people blaming weather for the lack of air support for the opposition forces in recent days. We'll see if the clouds clear and whether that changes. David Gergen, excellent insights, a sober assessment there. We'll stay in touch with David.

Also tonight, the government starts finding slighter higher levels of radiation levels in milk here in the United States. Also President Obama says he's learning from the Bush administration failures in Iraq as he plots strategy now for Libya. We'll ask Bush Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld what he thinks of that.

And next the chairman and the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee -- just what is the CIA up to in Libya and will a cornered (ph) Gadhafi turn to his stockpile of mustard gas?


KING: Member of the president's War Council were up on Capitol Hill today giving classified briefings to key members of Congress. Some of the questions, how much will this cost? What is the exit strategy? What exactly will the U.S. involvement in the military strikes be now that NATO is taking command, but also we are told in these classified briefings came up this question. What would Moammar Gadhafi do perhaps with this?

He is known to have -- yes, he gave up his nuclear weapons. Yes, he gave up some chemical weapons, but he is known to have stockpiles of mustard gas, once had 25 tons. He is believed now to have about 10 tons. This is one of the facilities where Gadhafi has mustard gas. He is supposed to give it up in a deal with the international community within months, but he still has it now. About 80 percent of it is reportedly in liquid form, which means easy to move in small quantities.

We are told this is among the questions. What happens to the mustard gas that came up in those briefings? A bit earlier I talked to the chairman and the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Mike Rogers is the chairman and Congressman Dutch -- C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger the ranking Democrat.


KING: Chairman Rogers, let me just begin with this question. I'm not sure how much information you can give us. But we are told tonight that the president has authorized CIA activities within Libya. What can you tell us about that and the quality of the intelligence you are getting now about this operation?

REP. MIKE ROGERS (R), MICHIGAN: Well, I won't speculate on any classified finding by the president, but I think the debate, the public debate that you're seeing is where Secretary Clinton today came out and said we -- they're -- they have not armed the rebels and the president speculated the course of this week that they had not ruled out arming the rebels, and, of course, Mr. Ruppersberger and I have both decided that we think arming the rebels is a very bad idea and so there is a public debate about it.

I think the intelligence that we're getting is in real time. They're doing the best they can. It is -- it's not exactly where we want it to be but it's getting better and they've laid out a very aggressive plan to get us the best information they possibly can so policymakers like us can make a good decision as we move forward on this.

KING: Well then Congressman Ruppersberger, if you agree with the chairman that arming the rebels is a bad idea, how do you get to the president's goal? It's not the goal of the United Nations resolution but the president's goal is regime change. How do you get that without a better armed opposition?

REP. C.A. "DUTCH" RUPPERSBERGER (D), MARYLAND: The only way you're going to get to the president's (INAUDIBLE) without using force which we're not going to do is to use diplomatic ways to do it and we have been doing that. We've -- in the United States we've freeze his money. We know the world court is looking at he and the people around him. But we are not going to put boots on the ground. That's clear and now we've turned over the operation to the coalition and that's NATO.

KING: The United States is a leading member of NATO, though, Mr. Chairman. Do you have any doubt and I understand the figure of $40 million a week was used by Secretary Gates in the briefings today. Do you have any doubt if we go the sanctions route and this operation goes on for weeks and weeks and conceivably months and months that the U.S. taxpayers are in for a pretty hefty bill?

ROGERS: Well that's true and the goal here is not to go on for months and months and I think we're going to use all the things that we can do to make sure that Moammar Gadhafi doesn't survive. His foreign minister today defected in London, huge news. The fact that the rebels are starting to organize a little better, that's very, very important. The only success that they had today, they being the Gadhafi regime, was because --


ROGERS: -- weather prevented sorties or airplanes being flown to kind of keep them back. So when you look at circumstances on the ground, it's positive for a quick demise of Moammar Gadhafi. The trick here is -- and this is where the president really needs to step up -- you can't say you're for the U.N. Resolution so we won't do anything beyond that and oh, by the way, I want regime change.

We've got to work that out. I think we need to work that out. We should do this in a bipartisan way. There is a lot at stake for the United States and our national security interests to make sure that we get this right.

KING: Congressman Ruppersberger, you met with Gadhafi back in 2004 at a time he was agreeing to give up his nuclear program, to give up his WMD. As we have this conversation tonight, he still has somewhere in the ballpark of 10 tons, maybe more of mustard gas that he was supposed to destroy, get rid of in the months to come. If you're Moammar Gadhafi and you're backed into a corner now and the world has sanctions imposed against you and you're looking for resources or looking to make a friend, say in the terrorism community isn't that a great asset to have?

RUPPERSBERGER: Well the first thing, I don't think the terrorists are going to have anything to do with Moammar Gadhafi. One of the reasons that he came over to our side is because he was being targeted by al Qaeda as a leader and so I don't think that is the issue. I think there is plenty of weaponry and he has a lot of weapons, over 20,000 man-pads (ph) that he can use. So, you know, I'm concerned that this could be a long duration just because of the fact that he has billions of dollars, he can pay people to come and fight for him and he can use weaponry.

We would hope, though, that the coalition can continue to put on the air power and we think that will work. But we also -- you talk about the issue of cost. We have other hot spots in the world that we are responsible for. We are in Iraq and Afghanistan. We're helping Japan right now. We have issues that we deal with in Russia and China, so, you know, I think the United States clearly has to let the rest of the world be involved in this situation. We cannot be a sheriff for the whole world, and especially now when we have fiscal issues that are going on in Washington right now.

KING: So would you set a timeline, $40 million a week but only for what, a couple more months and then that's it if Gadhafi is still there?

RUPPERSBERGER: I think right now we're a member of the coalition but it's my understanding from my conversations with the administration is that clearly they're going to let the rest of the world, the coalition take control including whatever they need to do to provide the resources. We have other parts of the world that we have to deal with, but we are a member of the coalition and we're going to help them on our -- using our unique resources that we have that other countries don't. But I don't believe that will be spending the money or putting boots on the ground. That's clearly where the president is coming from now based on my conversations with him.

KING: Mr. Chairman, do you worry about that mustard gas and what would you do about it?

ROGERS: Clearly I do. And as a matter of fact, it may be worse than that. You have to remember, not only does he have it, he also was at least in an effort to produce Sarin (ph) gas and other biological weapons. He has other weapon systems that we're very concerned about and here is a guy who's under a lot of pressure. He is a nation state sponsor of terrorism. We know he plotted and planned the Pan Am bombing; he killed U.S. soldiers in a discotheque bombing in Germany.

KING: So how do you take it from him?

ROGERS: Well, this is where we're having discussions about how we make sure, which is why I was an early supporter of this no-fly zone. Clearly this is a national security interest and it still shocks me today that the administration won't talk about these weapons of mass destruction that I am very concerned about moving. Right now with planes in the air we have a very good chance of making sure it doesn't go anywhere and that's why that's clearly important. As the battlefield changes to better or worse I think it's going to get worse by the day for Moammar Gadhafi, that means we'll be able to secure it and secure it soon, if not we'll at least have other options on how to deal with it.

KING: You both sound optimistic about the battlefield conditions, but in the past 24 to 48 hours things on the battlefield and you can't score a war or a conflict in 48 hours, but in the last couple of days, things have gone against the opposition and in favor of the regime. Are you seeing things in the intelligence that, "A" that, that might change in the near future, "B" that these cracks close to Gadhafi extend beyond the foreign minister?

ROGERS: Well let me answer the first part, remember, the weather conditions did not allow close combat support by aircraft in the last couple of days. And so I think what it shows you is clearly how important that is as keeping Moammar Gadhafi back and on his heels, so when the weather interfered with those missions, he made a little better progress. Weather isn't going to be in his favor every single day, number one.

Number two, we're seeing a lot of pressure from a lot of his senior leadership about sticking around. I mean, Moussa Koussa (ph) was -- used to be his intelligence director, now his foreign minister. So the fact that he flew and got the heck out of town is a very clear signal that his inner circle is under a lot of pressure. That's good news.

Now, it doesn't mean he'll go away quickly. This guy has -- is quite a survivor. He's been hanging on for a very long time in some very difficult circumstances in the world, so it doesn't mean it's going to happen overnight. But it does mean that progress is being made at least from a military front. Even though we don't know who all the rebels are, there is big success moving and there is a lot of pressure on his inner circle --

KING: The last word to you, Congressman Ruppersberger --


KING: Do you worry though, as someone who has sat across the table from this guy. He is, as the chairman says, a survivor. He is, as the chairman says, someone who has sponsored terrorism before. If he gets backed into a corner and he has a choice leave or go out with what he would consider glory, do you worry about that?

RUPPERSBERGER: First thing yes, we have to worry about it and we have to worry about the fact he has weapons and he has money. But we do have information; we are focusing on where the weapons of mass destruction are located. And if he attempts to use them I think we might be in a position -- when I say we the coalition -- to deal with that issue and that's a very important point.

And I think another thing that you said too, people -- some people in our country say, well, why are we involved? Well first thing we're involved because the National Security Council said that we need to deal with two issues, to enforce the no-fly zone and to stop this barbaric individual killing his own people. And we said we would be in phase one.

But the other thing is this man is a terrorist. I happen to know a family whose daughter was killed on Lockerbie and I raised that issue with Gadhafi when I saw him on behalf of that family. And so, you know as long as he is around and he has power he can affect our national security in the United States. He has attacked us. So it is in the interest of the world, but also the United States to make sure that the coalition be able to do the job that they need to do and I think Mike raised a good point about change in his leadership -- when you look at coalition change usually when you have your inner circle starting to defect to the other side that's the beginning of the end.

KING: Chairman Rogers and ranking member Ruppersberger of the Intelligence Committee, gentlemen, thanks for your time tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks for having us, John.


KING: And still ahead for us tonight, important news for American families, traces of radiation found in the U.S. milk supply. We'll give you the latest on that.

And also, President Obama says as he runs the war in Libya, one thing he will not do is follow the playbook the Bush administration used in Iraq. What does Donald Rumsfeld think of that? He's next.


KING: When President Obama addressed the nation about Libya this week, he made it the point that international support is critical to the mission -- a lesson he drew from what he calls the mistake of a predecessor.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq's future. But regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives and nearly $1 trillion. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.


KING: With us now, a key architect of that Iraq strategy, the former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, also the author of a new memoir, "Known and Unknown."

Let's start with that point there. There are people watching this interview at home who will say, "I like Don Rumsfeld, I'll listen to him." There are others who will say, "Oh, no, I'm not listening to him. He's the Iraq guy."

As you talk about it, we're going to talk about the Libya conflict right now. How does it feel personally? Somebody who spent a lot of time in public service, it's pretty clear the president of the United States is not going to listen to anything you say.

DONALD RUMSFELD, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Oh, my goodness. I don't know where you get that.

KING: I get that from a pretty sharp condemnation of Iraq and the way it was carried out right there.

RUMSFELD: Well, you know, you mentioned the coalition. The coalition for Iraq was a larger coalition. The support from the Congress existed. It was a vastly different situation, and the world is a better place with Saddam Hussein gone, let there be no doubt about it.

You know, this Gadhafi problem in Libya right now is interesting. He watched what happened to Saddam Hussein and made a conscious decision to come to the United States and the U.K. and say, look, I've got a nuclear weapons program. It's well-advanced. I'm willing to give it up because I do not want to become another Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi people executed Saddam Hussein. And he gave up his entire nuclear program -- and imagine where we'd be if we had a nuclear arms race in that part of the world.

KING: You make that point and you write about it in the book. I read some of it.

"Gadhafi reportedly told the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi he did not want to become the next Saddam Hussein. It was not mere coincidence only a few days after Hussein was plucked in such a degraded state from his subterranean spider hole and imprisoned in Iraq, Libya's dictator acknowledged and agreed to dismantle his country's long running nuclear and chemical weapons program."

He still has an estimated 10 tons of mustard gas in his country right now. He was supposed to destroy it by the end of the year. They gave him an extension through the end of May. Unlikely, Gadhafi is going to keep that commitment to the international community right now.

What should be done about that?

RUMSFELD: My view of the situation in Libya is this: that the most important parts of the Middle East at the present time are Iran and Syria, and the fact that they are damaging what we're doing in Afghanistan and Iraq where we have U.S. military people involved. I certainly would say include Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The importance of Libya today is that we're there, we're involved. The president has made a conscious decision to be involved. What worries me about the situation is that how it's going to turn out depends on what signals we send and we're sending somewhat confused signals in this sense. There's ambiguity about whether or not Gadhafi is going to be there when in this over.

And put yourself in the shoes of Gadhafi's military or his government people or the citizens. If the rebels are saying we need help, people are going to debate whether to help. As long as we don't give clarity that Saddam -- that Gadhafi will be gone, then there's a problem because people won't defect from the government and there will be greater humanitarian disaster.

KING: Well, the president has said he has to go. The secretary of state says he has to go. The British government says he has to go. The French government says he has to go.

The problem is the United Nations resolution under which the military is operating does not say he has to go.

RUMSFELD: And the president of the United States and the coalition have not said that it is their intention that he go. And that's going to cause hesitation on the part of all kinds of people in that country. Do they help the rebels or don't they help the rebels? Do they part of the rebel effort?

And the longer it goes in that kind of ambiguity, I think the more people will be killed.

KING: So, should the president say U.N. resolution be damned, the United States is going to use its military force to effect regime change? Do you think any president of the United States can say that after the Iraq experience and the political toll it took on your former boss?

RUMSFELD: As I wrote in the book, the coalition should not determine the mission. The mission should determine the coalition. And what happened was a coalition was put together without clarity as to the mission. And had it been done differently at the outset and you said, here's the mission, and then fashioned the coalition which is what President Bush did. He had 90 nations in the global war of terror. He had dozens in the Afghan coalition, dozens in the Iraqi coalition.

KING: He had dozens at the beginning, Mr. Secretary. But, by the end, he didn't have that many. I went to Iraq a couple of times and well after the point where you had the United States in the overwhelming part of the mission, the Brits down in Basra a little bit, and, occasionally, you'd run into a small group of Georgians out in the middle of the country guarding some weapons depot.

RUMSFELD: The United States is always the center part of these missions. They are today in Libya, notwithstanding all the discussion about the coalition. The fact is -- you look at the number of strikes, the number of cruise missile, the number of these things done, and it's overwhelmingly the U.S.

KING: So, President Bush, I assume with the advice of Secretary Rumsfeld, saw the coalition in Iraq dwindling and said, OK, that's the price I will pay, the mission is important to me. Are you saying this president should make a different calculation and set a goal and not worry about if anybody is with him?

RUMSFELD: I think that it's important for the United States to decide very clearly what it is that it's worth putting U.S. military at risk for. State it and then fashion a coalition around it -- yes, that's what I do believe.

KING: And to the person sitting around the kitchen table, you know how political the Iraq debate became. Answer the person watching out there right now and saying, why in the world would I listen to Donald Rumsfeld?

RUMSFELD: Well, you really got that in your mind, don't you? I'll tell you, it's interesting. Everywhere I go, people are very friendly. They're interested and, obviously, CNN maybe isn't, but --

KING: It's not a question of CNN.

(CROSSTALK) RUMSFELD: Fact of the matter is that everywhere I go, people are enormously interested and want to discuss things. And they're serious and rationale people. And that's a healthy thing. I mean, it's not an accident I think that the book is on "The New York Times" best- seller list. Somebody is obviously buying it, don't you think?

KING: People are buying. I think they're interested in history.

RUMSFELD: I thought you said they weren't interested.

KING: I didn't say they weren't interested in history or maybe your perspective. But why should they listen to your view of how to affect something happening in the county?

Let's stay on the specifics of that. The president now faces a difficult decision. It is a difficult decision. Should he arm the opposition? And you've heard the president, they say there are some flickers in the intelligence that some of these guys could be bad guys. They could be al Qaeda or they could be Hezbollah. Overwhelmingly, they think it's not that. They think it's mostly good-willed people, good-intentioned people who want to get rid of Gadhafi.

Do you take that risk?

RUMSFELD: I don't know. I'm not inside. I'm not there.

Obviously, once the -- we've got American troops committed who -- we want them to succeed clearly. I think that there is a good deal of question as to who is involved in the rebel group. And I don't have any better visibility into it than you do.

But you do have to be careful about arming rebels.

Now, we did a good job in Afghanistan. We armed the northern alliance and some of their militias in the south, and they were very successful in driving the al Qaeda out of Afghanistan and of changing the regime from the Taliban to the Afghan government.

KING: But what about the mujahidin experience? Some would say it helped bring the Soviets down. Others would say the mujahidin then became the Taliban which became a partner of al Qaeda which begot 9/11.

RUMSFELD: Both are correct. It did bring the regime down, the Soviets down, their puppet government and it did, obviously, help arm the Taliban and cause that problem. There's no question. But that both are correct.

KING: We can go back in history to your experience -- well before the Bush administration, traveling as an envoy to the region and traveling once even to sit down with Saddam Hussein back in the day. When you look at everything that's happening in that important and volatile region right now -- what's your sense of why, whether it's Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya?

RUMSFELD: I think there's two things I would state and I can't prove either one. I can't tie a thread from this to that.

One would be the fact that the governments in that part of the world have not moved towards freer political and freer institutions. And as a result, you got a very large, young population without jobs in most of those countries. Couple that with the information age where people see television and they see Facebook and Twitter and these things, they can see the opportunities that people in other countries have and it's frustrating. And so, you get this revolt going on.

Second thing that's been written about increasingly in recent days, particularly after the foreign minister of Iraq went up and spoke in favor of the coalition effort, is the fact that you've got an Arab country nearby that has elected people. They fashioned a constitution and then had elections under their new constitution and they're functioning as an evolving democracy. And people, of course, can criticize it and say it's not perfect.

But the United States wasn't perfect. We had slaves into the 1800s. Women didn't vote in the 1900s. We had a civil war. So, it's a tough path from where they were to a repressive regime to a more democratic system.

The fact of the matter is that that's symbol of what Iraq is doing, I believe, I'm told, told people in that region that these des pots, these repressive leaders are mortals. They aren't immortal. They're not going to be there forever and we can change things.

And I think that that message probably is part of it, as well -- although as I say, I can't tie a thread directly.

KING: Let me -- you mentioned imperfect or democratic institutions and growth. Let me circle back. Donald Rumsfeld began his career in Washington by working in the Ford administration. By Gerry Ford --

RUMSFELD: No, I didn't. I came what Dwight Eisenhower was president and I was a congressman when Kennedy and Johnson were in office.

KING: I forgot Eisenhower. I meant more on the executive branch, but that's all fine, too. Dwight Eisenhower, commonsense conservative, I think people would call him, from Kansas. Gerry Ford, commonsense conservative from the Midwest.

Donald Rumsfeld, I know, is a commonsense conservative.

Look at the Republican Party today, heading into the early days and months of a presidential campaign.


KING: Tea Party festering, demanding some thing, not liking the establishment. You know the mix of people who are out there thinking about this. What would your advice to your party be heading into this cycle?

RUMSFELD: Oh, I think it's kind of an unusual opportunity that we have. We have no sitting president in our party, no sitting vice president, and no logical candidate who would run before. So, it's a fresh, clean slate.

I would recommend letting these people run around the track a while. See how they do. They're going to have to deal with tough issue, with surprises. It's going to range from economic issues to social issues to foreign policy and defense issues.

And it's a tough job running for president. They're going to have to meet new issues and tough questions. They're going to make mistakes, and then they're going to have to deal with those mistakes.

And I think -- I think it's a healthy thing to have the Tea Party myself. I think it's bringing more people active into politics. And I think that if you believe in democracy, having more people engaged and interested is a healthy thing.

KING: You got a horse. Anyone you want to write a check to.

RUMSFELD: Oh, my goodness. No. I'm going to do what everyone else is probably going to do and watch them run around the rack. See how they do. See how they handle themselves.

KING: The track can be a fun place sometimes.


KING: Mr. Secretary, thanks for coming in.

RUMSFELD: Thank you.

KING: Ahead here: more protests in Syria. The president tries to calm things down and blames an outside conspiracy. Will it be enough?

And also, we'll update you -- higher levels of radiation in milk right here in the United States and latest on Japan's nuclear emergency.


KING: Welcome back.

If you're just joining us, here's the latest news you need to know right now:

Vice President Joe Biden has been on Capitol Hill this evening meeting with Senate Democratic leaders. Sources from both parties tell us negotiators are moving closer to an agreement, closer on spending cuts, and are now drawing up a list of specifics.

At a speech at Georgetown University today, President Obama announced a plan to cut oil imports by one-third by the year 2025. As a way of getting there, the United States government will buy only alternative fuel, hybrid or electric vehicles by 2015.

This afternoon, James Brady visited the White House briefing room named in his honor. Brady, who was President Ronald Reagan's press secretary, was severely wounded 30 years ago today when a gunman tried to assassinate President Reagan. And in Syria today, President Bashar Assad dashed reformers' hopes by giving a speech blaming a conspiracy for the recent unrest that led to dozens of death in his country. President Assad is saying little about reform.

Ahead here: the latest on the troubled nuclear reactor in Japan and new reports of elevated radiation levels in milk here in the United States.

And amid the devastation, the story of schoolchildren offering hope to a town hit so hard by the tsunami.


KING: Important news tonight for American families, the federal government says it's stepping up the monitoring of U.S. food and water in light of Japan's nuclear crisis, and because of that detected traces of radiation in a milk sample from Spokane, Washington. The joint statement from the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency says these types of findings are to be expected in the coming days and that statement emphasized the traces are far below the levels to cause any public health concern, including for infants and children.

Over in Japan, the latest news is much more disturbing. The International Atomic Energy Agency reports today excessive radiation in a town beyond the Japanese evacuation zone. Other measurements saw radioactive iodine levels in the ocean water off the plant are the highest yet -- 3,000 times the regulatory limit.

CNN's Kyung Lah is following developments from Tokyo.

And, Kyung, given this IAEA report, are there any plans to expand the evacuation zone and move people further back from the Fukushima plant?

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's a natural call from Greenpeace who certainly has an anti-nuclear position. And Greenpeace says that in the town where the IAEA picked up that high level of radiation, which is 40 kilometers outside that exclusion zone, the exclusion zone is currently 20 kilometers. At this point, Greenpeace say they picked up levels at 50 times higher than what has been -- than what's allowed in a regulatory limit.

So, certainly, what Greenpeace is saying is that the government is just not doing enough to protect the population at large.

OK, so what is happening on the ground as far as picking up the different levels of radiation? In the ocean water, what you mentioned, that 3,000 times level, it is 3,355 times higher than the regulatory limit. Japan's nuclear safety agency says at this point, that does not pose any sort of significant threat to marine wildlife, but it certainly does raise an alarm here.

And part of the question is, is where is this radiation coming from? Is it airborne? Is there a leak inside the plant? At this point the plant just doesn't know. Why? Because there is radioactive water in the plant, in places where it should not be. Workers cannot step into this radioactive water to eyeball if there is a leak. And the radioactive water is in places like a tunnel -- a tunnel which houses some electrical wire. So, until they get rid of that radioactive water, they simply don't know where this leak is, if there is, indeed, a leak.

So, today, the effort will focus on getting rid of that radioactive water. But, again, that is easier said than done. The containment tanks are already full, John. They've got to drain those first.

KING: And as we watch that and we pray that there's progress made there, we're also watching more broadly the recovery effort. And you visited a small town in northern Japan that just graduated some of its youngest residents.

Let's take a look and listen at what you found.


LAH (voice-over): In nearly every way, this appears to be your average grade school graduation -- until you look closely at the children all wearing donated clothes and you listen to what they sing.

A song for their destroyed school, parents grieving lost spouses and grandparents, homes and much of their town lost when the tsunami ripped through Otsuchi. In the crowd, mother Yukari Mukushi, who's daughter is among today's 6th grade graduates, but her husband -- "He's missing," she says, "my daughter is graduating and I want him to be here."

Hakumi Sasaki's (ph) grandfather died in the tsunami. His grandmother wept for what her husband would never see.


KING: Kyung, as you watch that, all the children survived. But their village, their family, so many challenges ahead. Just take us there. What's it like?

LAH: It's really difficult to be inside that auditorium watching these kids trying to do something that's so normal, which is closing the end of the school year because they don't really have anything to look forward to. They aren't going to start the school year on time. They don't know where they're going to go to school.

In fact, they don't have houses to live in. A lot of those children are living in that same auditorium. They're sleeping on blankets. They don't have anywhere to go.

Some of those children have lost parents. Many of them have lost grandparents. It is much easier to find someone who has lost a family member than to find someone who has remained intact where everyone survived.

So, the amount of heartbreak in this just one sliver of this one place in northern Japan is just simply heartbreaking.

KING: Kyung Lah for us in Tokyo tonight -- fabulous reporting, tragic, tragic, but fascinating reporting. Thank you so much for your help understanding this tragedy and recovery effort.

When we come back, breaking news on Capitol Hill tonight: Vice President Biden leading negotiations. He reports a specific agreement with Republicans and Democrats on budget cuts as part of a deal that would keep the government from shutting down. Breaking news is just ahead.


KING: Breaking news tonight from Capitol, we told you a little bit ago, Vice President Biden up on Capitol Hill, meeting with Senate Democratic leaders. Well, the meeting is over and vice president says there's an agreement now on cutting $73 billion -- $73 billion in spending but no final details on exactly what to cut. The vice president says lawmakers now must roll up their sleeves for what he calls a thorough negotiation and he says that will begin tomorrow morning.

Important point of reference: Republicans entered these discussions wanting about $90 billion in cuts over the next 10 years. Democrats started asking for $5 billon, maybe $10 billion in cuts.

So, this number -- this number from the vice president, in the 70s, closer to the Republicans. Details are still to be worked out. They're trying to get some Republican response.

More on that tomorrow night. We'll see you then.

"IN THE ARENA" starts right now.