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THE SITUATION ROOM

Death Toll May Be 1,000; No Defense For Defense Of Marriage Act; Getting Americans Out Of Libya

Aired February 23, 2011 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: And you're in the SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, as Arab regimes fall or get close to falling, Israel is watching very, very closely. I'll speak to the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, about the latest developments in Libya and beyond.

How far will Moammar Gadhafi go? I'll ask the former Republican congressman, one time House Intelligence Committee chairman, Pete Hoekstra. He's met with the Libyan leader three times.

And they stormed the hijacked yacht too late to save four Americans, but U.S. marines did capture 15 pirates and killed two others. Now, the inside story of that rage (ph).

Breaking news, political headlines, and Jeanne Moos all straight ahead. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The streets of Libya's capitol right now largely deserted, but the death toll has been rising and rising in Libya. At least, foreign minister says it may be more than 1,000 already. The strong man, Moammar Gadhafi, has called on the military to crackdown on anti- government protesters, but there are reports that one military aircraft crashed because the crew bailed out instead of obeying ordered to bomb oil fields in Libya. The U.S., meanwhile, is struggling to evacuate its citizens from Libya. Hundreds of Americans are set to leave Tripoli from Malta aboard a chartered ferry, but that trip has been delayed by bad weather. They're still stuck there.

And President Obama breaks his relative silence on Libya with a public statement.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous, and it is unacceptable. So are threats and orders to shoot peaceful protesters and further punish the people of Libya. These actions violate international norms and every standard of common decency. This violence must stop.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Beyond the capitol of Libya, opponents of the Libyan regime have gained ground. Despite ordering a crackdown of the opposition, the Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi, is facing more and more defections from within his own regime and from within the military.

CNN's Ivan Watson has been monitoring all of these dramatic events from Cairo. What's the latest, Ivan?

IVAN WATSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I want to show you some video that illustrates a little bit what people are living through in the streets of Tripoli right now. These are images of men wearing yellow construction helmets and carrying sticks and beating people in the streets of Tripoli, the Libyan capitol. It may be several days old. That sticks with an eyewitness account we've gotten again and again. People describing how the security forces and groups of armed men are beating people, preventing them from coming out into the streets of the Libyan capitol.

In addition of that, we've had many, many reports of groups of armed men shooting in the streets, opening fire on demonstrators as well. Another piece of video that I cannot show you right now, it is very graphic, shows more than a dozen bodies of men with their arms tied behind their back on the side of a highway, Wolf, some of them with their shoes off. All evidently killed execution style, and the story that is running with that which is very difficult for us to confirm is that these were soldiers who are executed because they refused orders to crackdown, to open fire on demonstrators.

And perhaps, as another sign, another piece of evidence of the lengths that some of the armed forces will go to avoid taking some of these -- following some of these orders, Wolf, a plane crashed, a fighter plane earlier outside the eastern opposition held (ph) city of Benghazi today. Fighter pilots ditching the plane and announcing that they had been ordered to open fire on demonstrators and refused, and I've spoken to a doctor on the ground in Benghazi. His colleagues have tried to reach out to this pilot and try to get him to speak to the international media.

The man, he says, is simply too afraid to talk. In the meantime, the death toll in Benghazi, this doctor tells me, has risen to 12 more dead today from wounds earlier in fighting with pro-Gadhafi forces. More than 200 people dead in that city alone over the course of the last week -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We know the death toll is rising and rising. We're going to go to Benghazi. Our own Ben Wedeman is there, but Ivan, while I have you in Cairo right now, what's the latest in Egypt now a couple weeks after Mubarak went down?

WATSON: We have to keep in mind that this unrest, these revolutions we're seeing, all across many countries in the Arab world, they're not over, even after their dictators are forced to flee in very humiliating situation here in Egypt right now, Hosni Mubarak has been disposed, but there is still a wave of stripes of protests that are being carried out by bank workers, factory workers, and what we saw today was a huge plume of smoke arise from the interior ministry, not far from that famous Tahrir Square where the revolution began here in Egypt. And there, we can closer notice that former employees of the interior ministry had held a strike there and then has set fire to buildings around the interior ministry compound. They had torched vehicles there as well. There was a lot of vandalism and arson that had taken place there. And when we approached to try to take a look at this as I was filming the army and fire brigades, they're trying to bring -- we saw (ph) order there, an army officer grabbed me physically and demanded that I immediately hand over my camera and my video.

I refused. He said -- he was pulling me aside, Wolf, and said give it to me and then I will let you go. Now, the army is now nominally in charge of Egypt right now. This shows that, perhaps, despite the historic changes here, the ideas of Democracy and human rights and freedom of expression and press may not have entirely sunk in with the new military rulers of this large, largest of Arab countries -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, that's depressing to hear that. Ivan, thank you. We'll stay in close touch. Be careful in Cairo as well.

So, what would Libyans face after four decades of rule by a single strong man? We asked Brian Todd to take a closer look at that contingency. Brian, what did you find out?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, whenever Moammar Gadhafi leaves, Libyans could be looking into a dark and uncertain future. The basic structures of this country are very unstable right now and a civil war a real possibility. We have to warn viewers some of the video in the story is graphic.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): he's vowed to stay to the bitter end, but when that end comes for Moammar Gadhafi, Libya's government could implode. The entire structure of leadership there, analysts say, is centered around the power and personality of one man.

With Gadhafi and his family possibly out of the picture in the future, what could fill that vacuum?

DAVID SCHENKER, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: The thing about Libya is that there are no institutions. This is a country without institutions. You have frauds. You have some committees on a local level, but there really is no abiding and established government institution here.

TODD: That's because Moammar Gadhafi has eviscerated those institutions. He doesn't even have a defense ministry. Experts say there's no legislature of any substance. A national people's Congress and popular committees that rule at the local level function only on his behalf. Libya hasn't had a working constitution since 1969. And unlike in Egypt, the Libyan military wouldn't be able to stabilize the country and manage a transition from Gadhafi's rule.

PROF. MARIUS DEEB, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY: There is no army of such. What he has, he has different militias and part of an army which belongs to him. Never trusted the army since attempt alliancing (ph) in 1975.

TODD: Instead, experts say, Gadhafi has got members of tribes loyal to him to join his security forces, and he's reinforced them with hired mercenaries from other African countries like Chad, Sudan, and as this video from a Libyan morgue appears to show, Nigeria. Those are the units trying to keep order on the streets now, and a CNN staff on the ground have seen, they've not been able to secure the entire nation. Despite Gadhafi's brutality, experts say, in a country where tribal loyalty comes first, his exit from the scene could be catastrophic.

With such a weak central government and weak armed forces, is there a chance that this country could break apart after Gadhafi leaves?

JAMES PHILLIPS, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: I think Libya may not survive Gadhafi. There's a real chance that the different regions could go their separate ways. Tripoli and Benghazi have always been at odds.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: James Phillips says that could mean Yugoslavia all over again. Libya split between east and west or between several regions made up of different tribes, and possibly, a brutal civil war to sort it all out. He says it could also lead to other countries in the region being destabilized at a time when some of them are going through their own political upheaval. And as we dealt with earlier on the show, Wolf, that could affect oil prices for the rest of the world. So, we're all in on this together if Libya falls apart.

BLITZER: Yes. Huge ramifications. Brian, thank you.

Let's turn to someone who's actually met with Moammar Gadhafi. Joining us now, the former Republican congressman, former intelligence committee chairman, Pete Hoekstra.

Thanks very much, Congressman, for coming in.

Over the past seven years, you met with Gadhafi what, three times in Libya, right?

PETE HOEKSTRA, FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE: That's right.

BLITZER: Is he capable of ordering what remains of his military to kill thousands of his fellow Libyans?

HOEKSTRA: Well, I think, you know, right now, trying to predict exactly what this man and this leader may do is going to be very difficult. Anybody who claims that they know, they're kidding you. Does he have the capacity? I think what we've seen over the last 48 hours, over the last 72, absolutely. I mean, he's already, by estimates, killed a thousand of his own people. Could he go beyond that? Yes. BLITZER: What about blowing up his own oil field, sabotaging the pipelines and all of that? If he's going to go down, they're going down with him. You think he's capable of doing that?

HOEKSTRA: I wouldn't put anything beyond this guy. I mean, two out of the three meetings that we met with him, he was perfectly rational. We had a good discussion with him. One of the other times that was likely (ph) left and say, wow, this was a bizarre meeting.

BLITZER: What was so bizarre about it?

HOEKSTRA: You couldn't comprehend exactly what he was saying.

BLITZER: He's speaking in Arabic?

HOEKSTRA: He would speak some in English.

BLITZER: Really?

HOEKSTRA: Yes.

BLITZER: But mostly an Arabic through a translator.

HOEKSTRA: Mostly an Arabic through a translator.

BLITZER: Was he high on drugs or anything? Because that's the impression a lot of outsiders have gotten over the years that the guy was smoking something.

HOEKSTRA: I'd say two out of three times, he was perfectly rational. You know, you could have had a decent and civil conversation with him. The third time, there was something obviously amiss, whether he's on drugs, I'm not educated to --

BLITZER: But you're a chairman of the intelligence committee were there reports suggestions that this is a guy who routinely got high or whatever, was volatile, crazy, weird?

HOEKSTRA: Well, sure. We've heard all of that. That's why, you know, having been there and sat with them -- you know, when he was talking about the threat from radical jihadist that his regime faced, he outlined it very, very clearly the threat. He outlined clearly the steps that not only his regime, but that the U.S. should take in confronting this threat. Could he, at the end of the process, if he really believes that he's going down and he's going out, could he blow up his own oil wells, I think that is a distinct possibility.

BLITZER: All right. So, here's a guy who might kill, slaughter thousands more, very peaceful demonstrators, men, women, children, young people or whatever, might blow up the oil wells. So, what does the United States do? We heard President Obama a little while ago say there are a lot of options out there. You didn't (ph) get specifics. What does the United States do, if anything, about this?

HOEKSTRA: Well, to stop these two things of him killing his own citizens and blowing up the oil wells would take a very invasive action by both the United States and our allies in Europe and throughout the Middle East. I doubt that this president or our allies are willing to do that.

BLITZER: Military action.

HOEKSTRA: Military action.

BLITZER: What about a no-fly zone and posing a no-fly zone over Libya the way we did it over Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in power?

HOEKSTRA: We could impose a no-fly zone. We could impose an embargo, economic embargo and those types of things, but it wouldn't stop the things that you're talking about.

BLITZER: Would it make sense to move a carrier battle of group in the sixth fleet in the Mediterranean toward the coast of Libya right now?

HOEKSTRA: I think at this point in time, those kind of steps wouldn't have an impact on Gadhafi. Now, it might have an impact on some of the rest of the regime that is still in place, and it might, you know, give them some confidence that if they took the steps to get Gadhafi out, that they would be protected.

BLITZER: I guess, the question is and it's a brutal, blunt question, and it's one that the president of the United States would have to answer, and you, obviously, can't answer it. I can't answer it, but at a point like this to prevent thousands of people from dying, should the president of the United States order an air strike? A pinpoint air strike to go to some tent where Gadhafi might be hiding out and kill him?

HOEKSTRA: Having been there three times I can tell you that the American intelligence community right now would not know where Gadhafi is?

BLITZER: You think he moves around that much?

HOEKSTRA: Yes. I know he moves around. Every time we met with him, it was in a very different place. The first time we went, it took us seven hours to actually get to the location where he was. They just drove us around Libya for seven hours until we actually got there. He's great, you know, personal security and those types of things. I don't think we could take him out with a pinpoint strike.

BLITZER: Even with where a pilot (INAUDIBLE) drone, one of those hell fire missiles going down.

HOEKSTRA: Drones work great if you know where they are. If someone inside his inner circle provided us with the intelligence, I would think that that is an option that the president should seriously consider if we had great intelligence saying this is where he is.

BLITZER: But his interior minister yesterday defected to the opposition. I assume he knows a lot about. He's in charge of the police. He knows a lot about where Gadhafi might be hiding out. HOEKSTRA: Yes. It's a very small group of people that Gadhafi depends on for his personal security. You need someone in that inner circle to give you the information.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very for coming in.

HOEKSTRA: Good be in here. Thank you.

BLITZER: Pete Hoekstra, formerly chairman of the Intelligence Community of the House.

Jack Cafferty is coming up next.

Then, we're going back inside Libya's revolt. Our own Ben Wedeman is in the second largest city of Libya, Benghazi. We'll check in with Ben.

Plus, Israel is closely watching all the falling dominos in the Arab world. The defense minister of Israel, Ehud Barak, he's here. He'll join us to talk about Libya, Egypt, Iran and a lot more.

And the defense of Marriage Act is the law of the land, but the Obama administration won't be defending it in court any longer.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here. He's thinking about the future of politics in the Middle East. Jack scouts the "Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: The political uprisings across the Middle East and Northern Africa have paved the way for change for millions of people who have never known life outside a dictatorship. For the rest of us watching at home, those up risings have created a lot of questions about the future of a region that is rich with oil and not exactly starved of anti-Americanism. Until Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, resigned earlier this month, one party held all of that nation's political power for decades.

Other parties were banned or restricted in power. The military's running things in Egypt now, but who will eventually be in charge there? We don't know that yet. Moammar Gadhafi has ruled Libya with an iron hand since 1969. If he goes, and it looks increasingly like he will at some point, what's next? And what if the ruling Sunni family in Bahrain flees and allows the Shiite majority to take control of that tiny nation? Some say it's only a matter of time before they embrace Iranian politics.

And of course, what does it all mean for nations like the United States? in a piece in the "Daily Beast," Leslie Gelb wrote, quote, "To be blunt, I don't know anyone who has the foggiest ideas where these revolutions from Algeria to the borders of Saudi Arabia are going or whether future leaders there will be true democrats or new dictators," unquote.

Gelb says he's hoping for but not betting on a brighter more democratic future for these countries. After all, we've got lot at stake over there, and it's not just about the oil. It's anti- terrorist operations. It's U.S. military presence, and it's how our foreign policy fits into the ever changing policies of these Arab nations in a state of flux.

So, here's the question. What's likely to fill the power of vacuums that are being created in the Middle East? Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog.

BLITZER: Great question, Jack. Thank you. Standby.

A once in a lifetime scene is now unfolding in Benghazi, Libya, the second largest city in the country. One month ago, this dusty city was under the thumb of the Libyan strong man, Moammar Gadhafi. Today, today, it's in the hands of revolutionaries. We're going there.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The defense of Marriage Act is the law of the land right now, but it won't be the law the government is defending in court. The White House says a crucial provision of the law that bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages is unconstitutional. So, government lawyers can't defend the law in court. A decision made by the president and the attorney general today.

Our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, is joining us now to discuss. Can the president, I assume he can, simply set aside a law that Congress passed? Bill Clinton signed it into law back in 1996.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, he's not setting aside the law. He's still honoring the law. For example, married same-sex couples in Massachusetts will still be denied the tax benefits that married couples all over the country get, but they are no longer defending it in court, and that's very unusual because presidents usually defend laws, even the ones they disagree with.

BLITZER: How unusual is it? Is it unprecedented?

TOOBIN: It's not quite unprecedented, but I believe this is the first time the Obama administration has done it. And what's especially striking about Attorney General Holder's letter to Speaker Boehner on this subject is that if you follow its implications, it really suggests that this administration is about to embrace the notion that gay people should have the right to get married.

BLITZER: Which they do have the right in several states already. They have that right. So, why not simply ask Congress to pass legislation basically rejecting the defense of Marriage Act instead of simply saying the justice department is no longer going to defend the constitutionality of its provisions?

TOOBIN: Well, President Obama is long on record in saying that Congress should overturn the defensive Marriage Act. But, you know, he does have the right as president to decide what laws his justice department will defend. Usually, they defend all of them. But, this one is now so far outside the legal mainstream, at least, according to the Obama administration, that the president and the attorney general find it indefensible. We'll see if the Supreme Court agrees. Probably so.

BLITZER: So, that's -- it's going to be -- the next step is up to the Supreme Court? Is that what you're saying?

TOOBIN: Well, the case is not yet in front of the Supreme Court. It's now in front of the First Circuit Court of Appeals, but certainly, the defensive Marriage Act has been challenged in so many ways. Just like same-sex marriage has been challenged in California and elsewhere, the Supreme Court is going to be able to avoid this issue for very long.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, thank you, as usual.

We're going back inside Libya, the revolt in Libya. Ben Wedeman is there. He's in Benghazi. The opposition there is starting to run things. We'll see what's going on.

And he calls it a tough neighborhood. We're talking about the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak. He's here in the SITUATION ROOM to talk about what the dramatic developments in the Middle East.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Right now, there are thousands and thousands of Americans in Libya. So many of them, if not all of them, desperate to get out. The United States is scrambling to get Americans out of harm's way. Listen to President Obama speak about that just a little while ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: First, we are doing everything we can to protect American citizens. That's my highest priority. In Libya, we've urged our people to leave the country, and the state department is assisting those in need of support.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Hundreds of Americans are aboard a chartered ferry in the port of Tripoli waiting to travel to Malta in the Mediterranean. Officials say that journey has been delayed by bad weather. They say it will take place when the weather permits. Meanwhile, diplomatic sources say it's now looking like Thursday morning for the departure. Let's see how the weather unfolds.

One by one long time Arab regimes are now falling or are on the brink. The stakes are extremely high for all those countries in the region including for Israel, which is watching very closely.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now from the Knesset in Jerusalem, Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak. Minister, all these dramatic changes we've seen over the past few weeks in your region and the Middle East, what impact is all of this having on Israel?

EHUD BARAK, ISRAELI DEFENSE MINISTER: I think it makes it clear that we have to be strong. We are living in a tough neighborhood where there's no mercy for the weak, no second opportunity for those who cannot protect themselves. The whole area is moving into a new chapter. Hopefully it will be better, but a lot of troubles are awaiting us.

We remain relying on our strengths. We have to be independent strengths ready to protect ourselves while trying to find ways to -- and openings for political process and peace.

BLITZER: Are you happy that it looks like Moammar Gadhafi, the strong man of Libya, it looks like he's going down?

BARAK: Yes. I hope he will go down. I believe the work in Tunisia and Libya is very important. And even in Egypt, I hope it will end up being more kind of smooth passing, not kind of the idealistic romanticism replaced by an Egyptian Robespierre or Lenin.

BLITZER: Egypt, the new military government that's temporarily taken charge in Egypt, they allowed these two Iranian warships to cross through the Suez Canal. How worried are you about that?

BARAK: I'm not worried. You know, your aircraft carriers are moving through the canal. Our (UNINTELLIGIBLE) boats and submarines went through the canal. They don't have -- practically, they don't have any weight to avoid the Iranian moving, as long as it's a frigate and some support vessel with some targets (ph) on it, it's a provocation. I don't like it. But I don't think that anyone of us should be worried by it.

BLITZER: Do you know what the objective of the Iranian navy is right now in moving those two warships through the canal into the Mediterranean?

BARAK: You know, they had to plan it before the eruption of the recent events in Egypt, so it's part of a wider scheme. If they were bringing rockets or weapons or explosives to the Hamas or Hezbollah, we would have probably acted against it. But they are just coming with weapons with them. But they're coming with cadets, navy cadets to visit a Syrian -- a Syrian post.

It's a way of projecting that power with self confidence and assertiveness in the region. And, you know, we are (UNINTELLIGIBLE), but I don't see a reason to be worried.

BLITZER: You and I have been talking about the Iranian nuclear program for many years. And for many years, you've been suggesting that they were only one year away from that point of no return, having the nuclear military capability.

But recently, the outgoing head of the Mossad, Israel's intelligent service, said they might be three or four years away from having that capability right now. How far away is Iran from having a nuclear capability? BARAK: I don't know. Iran reaching a nuclear weapon or even an explosive device is a major development in the wrong direction. I think that your new NIE and our estimates are quite similar.

If they -- all what they would have in mind is to break that pity and go as fast as they can toward an explodable device put in the ground somewhere, they might do it in a year or so.

But to reach a weapon, and in that case, a weapon that should be put on a relatively medium-sized, so to speak, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on this side is something which is several years down the road. So there is no real -- real contradiction between the capacity to explode some -- some nuclear device in a year if this would become the main objective. And to which a real weapon that could be put into a missile, probably another three or four years.

BLITZER: As I say, you've been saying that now for several years, that they might be a year or a year and a half, two years away. Here's the question: Was Israel engaged in cyber warfare to try to delay Iran's nuclear capability with the so-called stucksnet (ph) worm?

BARAK: I cannot answer this question, and I believe you don't really expect me to do it. But it's clear that they had certain holdups along the way and that they are moving slower than they expected. But the painful fact is that they keep moving forward. They are overcoming gradually the difficulties they faced. And they are -- they are becoming -- they are not get tired of it. That's the real chill (ph) for us.

BLITZER: So these recent hurdles that they have to overcome, these problems, was that, whether or not Israel was involved, do you believe it was the result of cyber warfare?

BARAK: It could be. I don't -- cannot answer this explicitly. But there were many kinds of problems. The fact of the matter is they continue to accumulate more and more on enriched uranium and a little bit of mid-level enriched uranium, and moving forward and that should be disturbing to all of us. Even if they didn't make the mind finally at what point to -- to either clandestinely or directly moving toward a weapon. But this will happen.

BLITZER: Hosni Mubarak. How did you personally feel when he was forced out and had to leave Cairo for Sharm El Sheikh?

BARAK: I felt that the last page of an important chapter in the story of modern Egypt had ended, and a new one just started.

I feel personally a lot of respect and sort of empathy to Mubarak. He was important leader for his country. I believe that he enjoyed the respect of many Egyptians.

Basically, it's a huge challenge to hold Egypt just above the water. It's a new million babies every nine months. New million jobs every nine months. And he did it for very long time. Quite successfully under the circumstance. Was extremely committed to peace with us. I think that he deserves respect, and his dignity probably should be kept. He's not a -- not a Kim Jong-Il.

BLITZER: Ehud Barak is the defense minister of Israel. Minister, thanks very much for joining us.

BARAK: Thank you.

BLITZER: Moammar Gadhafi certainly has lost control of the eastern city of Benghazi. It's the second largest city in Libya. For now it's in the hands of the protestors, the revolutionaries. CNN's Ben Wedeman is there. We're going there next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's take you inside Libya's revolt right now. CNN senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman reports from the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, where Moammar Gadhafi has certainly lost control.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we saw today is that not only is it out of the control of Tripoli, but there's essentially, there's an ad hoc government in place at the local courthouse. A group of local citizens has set up committees to control -- to sort of collect the garbage, protect government property, make sure there's an adequate supply of food and medicine. It's really just a functioning government.

And of course, one of their concerns is that the government in Tripoli will try to strike out at the eastern part of the country. We saw today that two war planes came from Tripoli. But apparently, their pilots ejected from those planes and ditched the planes in the sea. We're told they were on a mission to potentially hit some of the oil facilities south of Benghazi.

BLITZER: Once you made it to Benghazi, where you are now, Ben, the second largest city in Libya, what was it like? What did you see? What was the reaction there?

WEDEMAN: Well, we arrived in the sort of mid-afternoon in Benghazi. And we went to the courthouse where this government, this ad hoc government, is in place. And it was just an amazing scene, because when we showed up, and we were the first TV crew to come here.

And I can tell you, it was a bit like being in the first American Jeep arriving in Paris in 1944 after the city fell from the Nazi occupation. People were clapping and cheering and shaking our hands, throwing candy and dates in the car, thanking us for coming. It was just an incredibly emotional scene, and just the demonstration, there were tens of thousands of people outside this courthouse in Benghazi.

And you know, they clearly are seeing the arrival of western journalists in this part of the country as a sign that the west is concerned, the west cares about their plight, because of course, they are concerned that -- many of the Libyans will tell you that they're a bit disappointed in the relative silence of President Barack Obama. Of course, now we just hard that fairly strong statement from him, which I'm sure will be welcomed by the people here in Benghazi -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ben Wedeman, thanks very much. They stormed the hijacked yacht too late to save four Americans, but they captured 15 pirates and killed two others. Now they're talking about the raid on the high seas. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER; They stormed a hijacked yacht too late to save four Americans, but U.S. Marines did capture 15 pirates and killed two others. CNN's Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, has the inside story of how the Marine units saved hostages from pirates. Let's get the latest from Chris -- Chris.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. That was the most recent event. But we got on board a ship with an elite team of Marines and sailors who are now back from their anti-piracy tour. They really took us inside on what it's like to plan and execute a rescue mission like the one they did back in September.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE (voice-over): It took snipers, helicopters and fast attack boats to recapture this German ship and save the crew of the Magellan Star. The actual assault is so fast and loud, it's hard to bark a bunch of orders. So a plot is mapped out before the assault teams leave.

SGT. SCOTT OWEN, U.S. MARINE CORPS: You want to make sure that nothing is going to fall off anybody. So everything on their kit is properly secured and that everybody knows what their role is: which place they go up the ladder, which place they go down the fast rope.

LAWRENCE: The Marines explain why, when they storm the ship, it's better for them to be overly aggressive.

STAFF SGT. TOM HARTRICK, ASSAULT TEAM LEADER: Then we can tone it down. It's hard to turn on -- turn it on and, you know, when -- you know, when stuff happens, the pirates start firing at you. But it's easier to dial it down.

LAWRENCE: But that doesn't mean going in guns blazing.

CAPT. CHRISTOPHER BOLT, USS DUBUQUE: There's a legal side to this whole picture that the average person doesn't think about.

LAWRENCE: Even if the pirates violate the rules of engagement, they're still just suspects.

LT. COL. JOSEPH CLEARFIELD, U.S. MARINE CORPS: Even though deadly force may be authorized, we really want to exercise that discipline restraint. We don't want to escalate it unnecessarily.

LAWRENCE: The teams study schematics of the captured ship and get as many eyes on it as possible.

(on camera) Compared to the smaller hijacked boat, which sat close to the surface of the water, the sheer height of the Dubuque gave snipers, spotters and other officers a unique vantage point on what the pirates were doing below.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At one time we actually observed one of them laying down and pointing a weapon at the -- at the ship, the Dubuque.

GRAPHIC: Warships and attack helicopters surround the pirates. It doesn't scare them.

CLEARFIELD: Vividly in my mind, I can remember the one pilot with the yellow shirt with the AK-47, shaking it -- you know, shaking it at me. And I remember making a mental note, you know, "Hey, brother, do yourself a favor and put that thing down."

LAWRENCE: There's no real blueprint, because you're dealing with unpredictable teenage pirates, and each mission has its own problems.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The communication with the crew going down, like the minute we hook and start boarding the boat so that they keep going deeper and deeper.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE: So in this case it took four hours just for the sailors and Marines to find the crew. They had barricaded themselves so deeply in that ship.

And the pirates sounded the horn on the Magellan Star to try to disrupt how well the assault teams could talk to each other. It was incredibly loud. All these are just real-world lessons that this team learned that they were now able to pass onto the anti-piracy teams that relieved them and are now heading to those waters, Wolf.

BLITZER: Chris Lawrence reporting for us. Chris, thanks very, very much. Fascinating stuff.

Up next, Jack Cafferty, "The Cafferty File," with your e-mail, and some people are hinting at something sinister about Blake Griffin's contest-winning slam dunk. Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get right back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour is: "What's likely to fill the power vacuums that are being created in the Middle East?"

Steve in California says, "Anti-American sentiment in the Middle East is as strong as it's ever been. Plain and simple, a majority of the people there don't like us. A leader voted in by the people, for the people, in the Middle East is not something for us to look forward to."

Bradley says, "Democracy is alien to the Arab culture. They tend to end up with authoritarian regimes, generally under some kind of a dictator, or they end up with an Islamic theocracy."

Dave in British Columbia: "Millions of disenfranchised Middle Easterners Googling, tweeting and Facebooking will be underestimated at the peril of outside political influences. If these young 21st century revolutionaries had the stuff to topple dictators of decades in the matter of days or weeks, then they've got the stuff to fend off the likes of bin Laden and Ahmadinejad as they transition to democracy."

Karen in Florida says, "Unfortunately, fundamentalist Islam will grow. It sure is messy over there."

David in Florida says, "Libya is going through a crucible of fire right now, which could easily give the extremist factions a great deal more traction. If we want these countries to fall on our side, we're going to have to help them. Otherwise, we might lose them like we lost Iran, although we could get a second chance in Iran. Some might say we can't afford to help those abroad with our problems here at home. But can we afford the cost of these countries becoming like Iran? I think we can afford that even less."

And Ginger in Virginia says, "There is great diversity in the Middle East. What happens in Egypt will be totally different than what happens in other countries. Some are ripe for extreme groups to influence, and some will move steadily toward democracy. I would bet on Egypt to be a model. Whatever happens, there will be bloodshed."

You want to read more on this, you'll find it on my blog: CNN.com/CaffertyFile.

BLITZER: Will do, Jack. Thank you. See you back here tomorrow.

Coming up right at the top of the hour, "JOHN KING USA." He's got David Axelrod, the president's former senior adviser, among his guests. "JOHN KING USA" right at the top of the hour.

Blake Griffin threw down a jam for the ages over at the NBA slam- dunk contest in L.A. over the weekend. He leapt over a car and -- guess what? -- into a controversy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Take a look at some "Hot Shots."

In Tunisia right now, a woman carries her luggage past a border post between Libya and Tunisia.

In Afghanistan, a Marine plays with an Afghan child.

In Ireland, look at this: an election official and a policeman carry a ballot box at the beginning of the country's general election.

And here in Washington, the interior secretary, Ken Salazar, greets an actor portraying President Abraham Lincoln.

"Hot Shots" here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Blake Griffin might be the NBA's most exciting young player, but he's already alienated one fan. CNN's Jeanne Moos has this "Most Unusual" story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When Blake Griffin dazzled fans by leaping over a car to win the NBA slam-dunk contest, who knew the dunk would get slammed?

MICHAEL SCRIVENER, CLAIMS DUNK WAS HIS IDEA (via phone): I feel like it was my idea.

MOOS: Twenty-three-year-old Ohio resident Michael Scrivener says when he heard Griffin asking for great dunk ideas, Michael sent him this tweet 11 days before the event.

SCRIVENER: Park a car on the court. Jump over the car while the driver throws you a hoop through the sunroof.

MOOS: And that's exactly what happened. Though they could have both had the same idea, Michael kept waiting for credit, tweeting Griffin, "Where's the love on my dunk idea. Where's my props, homey?"

But the L.A. Clippers star said he dreamed up the stunt.

BLAKE GRIFFIN, NBA STAR: I had originally had the idea like a long time ago and, you know, talked to -- talked to some people about it. It wasn't like real serious about it, but you know, they got me the dimensions and everything and I felt like I could do it, and I asked for the sun roof.

MOOS: But Michael says if Griffin had the idea already...

SCRIVENER: Why reach out to your fans and, you know, ask for ideas?

MOOS: No comment so far from the L.A. Clippers.

(on camera) And where did Michael get the car jumping idea? He says it came to him in a dream.

(voice-over) A dream two years ago, but instead of Griffin leaping over a Kia, he dreamed that LeBron James jumped over a Hummer as the ball was passed through the sun roof.

Michael says he isn't looking for money.

SCRIVENER: I'm still a big Blake Griffin fan. You know, none of this was ever meant to bash him or whatnot.

MOOS: He just wants a shout out from Griffin and maybe an autograph or tickets to a game. (on camera) Now, do you dunk?

SCRIVENER: No, I cannot dunk. Unfortunately, I'm only 5'8".

MOOS: For most of us, the closest thing we get to dunking is a donut.

(voice-over) But now with this new "Dunk Like Blake Griffin" Web time waster, you, too, can be head and shoulders above the crowd, even if it's only your head on Griffin's shoulders.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Jeanne Moos, she can dunk.

I was there at the NBA all-star game. I thought it was reckless -- reckless -- for Blake Griffin to jump over that car. He could have tripped. It could have been a career ender. But fortunately, it worked out well in the end. I don't think he should do it any more, though.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.