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Interview With Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair; Where Is Moammar Gadhafi?

Aired May 13, 2011 - 22:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, breaking news: late word from Pakistan that our thorny ally is taking more umbrage at the killing of bin Laden than the fact that they were harboring him and possibly protecting him for years.

Pakistani lawmakers tonight passing a resolution condemning the raid and calling for a reassessment of ties with America.

Plenty of other late-breaking developments as well tonight, but first, "Keeping Them Honest," this reminder. This is where Osama bin Laden lived, in comfort for years, not in a cave, not in the mountains, not in the tribal areas, in the Pakistani equivalent of a military bedroom community just down the road from Pakistan's military academy.

Evidence shows he was either unbelievably complacent about his protection or safe in the knowledge he had plenty of protect, a network looking out for him, something Pakistan's interior minister recently flat-out denied.


REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In your investigation, have you found any evidence that bin Laden had a support network here in Pakistan?

REHMAN MALIK, PAKISTANI INTERIOR MINISTER: There is no such thing at all, not an iota of doubt...


SAYAH: So, you categorically deny that he had a support network here?

MALIK: Categorically deny it, no support network.


KING: Yet there's growing evidence that leads some experts to believe that simply isn't so, evidence that bin Laden lived as if he felt safe and protected in that compound, all of it leading many to further doubt Pakistan's frequent promises of cooperation in the war on terror.


ASIF ALI ZARDARI, PAKISTANI PRESIDENT: ... are committed to fight against terrorism.

Pakistan carries a huge burden confronting al Qaeda and Taliban together, but we are up to the challenge.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And they only have two choices, either to surrender or get killed, because there's other option for us.

ZARDARI: Let me assure you, if any evidence points to any individual or group in my part of the country, I shall take the strictest of action in the -- in light of the evidence, and in front of the world.


KING: That last line referring to the mass killings in Mumbai plotted and executed by a terror group with ties to Pakistani intelligence. A year later, Pakistan's interior minister, the same man you just saw talking to CNN's Reza Sayah, acknowledged that the attacks were partly planned on Pakistani soil.

So, there's that tonight and a grab-bag of other new developments. A new message from Osama bin Laden echoes from the grave, a tape made just days before his death, supporting the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, new details about what else was found inside the Pakistani compound, get this, pornography and lots of it. Sources call it extensive.

Also, for the first time, President George W. Bush speaking out about bin Laden's killing. And, in Pakistan, the raid is being avenged with wholesale slaughter, the Pakistani Taliban claiming responsibility for suicide bombers spilling the blood of nearly 250 people at a military training center, murdering, murdering at least 80 cadets.

A lot of ground to cover. Reza Sayah has got the breaking news out of Islamabad. CNN national security analysts Fran Townsend and Peter Bergen here as well. Peter is the author of "Oral History: "The Osama bin Laden I Know." Fran, who served as President Bush's homeland security adviser, currently a member of the Department of Homeland Security and CIA external advisory panel. She's been breaking news for us here about the questioning of the bin Laden widows.

Reza, I want to start with you.

Quite telling, this resolution condemns the United States, says the United States had no business conducting this raid, says nothing about Pakistan's failures. Where do you expect this to head in terms of relations between the country? Is this just political pushback or a serious breach?

REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think this is nothing more than Pakistani politicians giving themselves an opportunity to get behind the microphone and again talk tough against the U.S.

And it really shows that despite the crisis this government is facing, it really doesn't want to plan on changing its approach when it comes to its partnership with Washington. It's the same old finger-pointing and the accusations.

It's domestic damage control. This is a government that's obviously been embarrassed by this episode. It's under tremendous pressure, and it wants to push back and create the impression for the Pakistani public that it's taken a tough stance against the country that violated its sovereignty.

Obviously, the Obama administration didn't want this. They want to see a government that acknowledges it has a problem, that wants to go in a new direction, wants to go with a new policy when it comes to the fight against extremism.

When you look at this resolution and its pointed rhetoric targeting the U.S., it shows you that they're not planning on changing things. At the same time -- this is very important -- there's absolutely no indication, John, that this relationship is going to fall apart. These two countries know they need one another, so the most likely scenario is Islamabad and Washington are going to plod along, despite this troubled partnership.

KING: well, Fran Townsend, let's pick up on that point. You went through this sometimes with the Bush administration. President Bush thought this was a trusted partner, but there were times of friction. There's a danger in these situations. Sometimes, the leaders and the politicians are speaking for domestic political consumption, but is there a danger here that the rhetoric gets so ratcheted up that you reach a point almost of no return?


One of the most concerning points in the resolution is, it condemns the drone attacks that the United States has been conducting in the tribal areas. These -- obviously, this goes back to the time of the Bush administration. And there were often times where there would be pushback from the Pakistani government, but you worked through it. But it never became a public sort of dispute.

Now, with this resolution out of the Parliament, it puts particular pressure on the government of Pakistan to actually insist that the drone attacks stop. And the resolution threatens to take action if they don't. That's a real problem for the United States and for the Obama administration in terms of its counterterrorism acts.

We know that those drone attacks have continued even this week. And so for Pakistan to call for a unilateral stopping of them puts tremendous pressure now on -- back on the United States' counterterrorism program.

KING: And , Peter, we have spent more than a week worrying, would there be a retaliatory strike of sorts here in the United States? What we saw today is the Pakistani Taliban claiming credit for this dramatic strike, 80 killed, 250 hurt in this strike there.

What is your sense? At this time of friction, that Pakistan gets hit first in retaliation in some ways is interesting, but what do you make of this going forward?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, you know, Pakistan has had just a -- just, I mean, dozens and dozens and dozens of terrorist attacks carried out by the Pakistani Taliban.

And the Pakistani Taliban has operated with an increasingly al Qaeda-like agenda over the last couple of years, sending suicide bombers, for instance, to Spain in January of '08, sending a suicide bomber to Times Square in May -- May 1 of 2010.

And so the fact that they want to protest Osama bin Laden's death is not surprising. And they have the capacity to mount this attack pretty much anywhere in Pakistan at this point. They have killed literally hundreds of Pakistani civilians, soldiers, maybe even thousands to this point, so not really that surprising, John.

KING: You say not surprising. Is it your sense that this is a singular, one-time message or that there will be many of these?

BERGEN: I think there will be quite a lot of these. I mean, there will always be some excuse. This is just the excuse, you know, du jour.

In the past, it's been, the Pakistani government is too closely allied to the United States, this kind of thing. But, certainly, these kinds of attacks in the name of Osama bin Laden, which may have been in the pipeline for some period of time, are likely -- certainly -- certainly something that we're going to see in Pakistan and perhaps in other places.

But in Pakistan, these groups are -- you know, are virulent. And, I mean, the resolution we have seen in the Parliament today, wouldn't it have been more useful if the Parliament perhaps condemned the Pakistani Taliban, which has killed so many Pakistani civilians?

I mean, that -- Reza is absolutely right. Anti-American sentiment in Pakistan is very, very virulent. But, at the end of the day, there seems to be a certain sort of head-in-the-sand quality to all this, when you have got the Pakistani Taliban inflicting this tremendous damage on Pakistan domestically.

KING: And, Fran, a dynamic, as this all plays out, is all the new information we're getting about the investigation and how that can affect things. Last night on this program, you broke news that the U.S. was allowed access to three of bin Laden's wives who are in Pakistani custody. What more do we know about that tonight?

TOWNSEND: Well, John, when we talk about access, this was really very constrained.

So, you have the Americans in there with the Pakistani intelligence and the three women all together. The women were very hostile, didn't want to answer questions from the Americans. And so it was not a very productive session.

That's not unusual the first time through. But, you know, there's now the negotiation between the Pakistanis and the Americans, direct between the senior levels of the -- each service, about whether or not they can change those. Can they separate the women? Can the Americans have unilateral access without Pakistani intelligence?

The problem -- that would be good for the U.S. The problem in Pakistan is, this absolutely incites the radicals. The notion of these bin Laden wives being given access unilaterally to the American service really goes against the grain and really will incite more sort of accusations by extremists in Pakistan against Pakistani officials.

KING: And, Reza, at a time there's been so much focus on what -- what value perhaps of intelligence might come from the bin Laden wives, then you get what I will call an irony -- maybe there's a stronger word for it today -- this disclosure from our sources that among the material seized in the compound was a great deal of pornography, pornography.

Osama bin Laden cast himself as a religious warrior, a pious Muslim, said the problem repeatedly with the West and the United States was that it was godless and immoral.

How will that play out, the disclosure that pornography was found in bin Laden's compound? How will it play out in Pakistan and with those who support bin Laden?

SAYAH: You know what, John? My guess is, Pakistani comedians, some of them are going to take it and run with it, just like Jay Leno and David Letterman probably will. But, beyond that, I think it's going to be widely dismissed.

Remember -- and this may be hard for our U.S. audience to believe -- that a lot of people still here don't believe bin Laden is dead. Those who do believe he's dead don't believe that he died in this U.S. raid. They think he died a long time ago.

So, I think they're going to be skeptical about this story as well. But, for obvious reasons, it's going to be in the newspapers tomorrow morning. And, remember, there was other men in there as well. Bin Laden had his son, 22-year-old Khalid, and, of course, there's been plenty of sons who have kept stashes of pornography behind their father's back, John.

KING: And, Peter, you're a skeptic here as well. You have described bin Laden as a family man. What was your take on this porn story?

BERGEN: Well, I think, with everything we know about bin Laden, I think that this porn stash was -- I very much doubt it was for his personal consumption.

I mean, this was a guy who barely watched television, except news, because he thinks that sort of any kind of images, let alone pornographic images, are against Islam. So, this is not somebody who was -- this doesn't really fit with what we know about him, sort of a religious zealot from an early age.

On the other hand, you know, law enforcement officials say that it is fairly -- fairly common to find stashes of pornography amongst the effects of jihadist terrorists. So, you know, as Reza says, there were other men in the compound. Also bear in mind that there were literally terabytes of material that were recovered.

So, linking it directly to bin Laden, I think the case is not proven. Of course, I think this is somewhat embarrassing for al Qaeda central to have this as a fact that is out there.

KING: Fran, does it matter at all?

TOWNSEND: Well, look, I do think it's consistent. When we did raids against al Qaeda or Taliban targets in Afghanistan, it was not unusual to find pornography.

Let's remember, 9/11 hijackers here in the U.S. were documented to have been going to strip clubs before. And all these people who claim to be these ultra-religious types -- and I think it exposes the fraud. You know, both Reza and Peter are quite right we're not sure who in the compound, but this is all part of bin Laden's entourage.

And the notion that these people who claim sort of the religious right, I think it goes to the hypocrisy of it.

KING: Fran, Reza, Peter, thanks for being with us, breaking news tonight.

And let us know what you think at home. We're on Facebook or follow us on Twitter at @AC360. We will be tweeting tonight.

Up next: how the former President George W. Bush got the answer to his call for Osama bin Laden, dead or alive.

And his closest ally, Tony Blair, sits down with Anderson.


TONY BLAIR, FORMER BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: What bin Laden's death does is, it shows, first of all, if you go and deliberately target and kill large numbers of innocent people by terrorism, that will catch up with you in the end.


KING: Later, Moammar Gadhafi is taunting the world, but from where? A late update from Tripoli.

But, first, let's check in with Isha Sesay -- Isha.

ISHA SESAY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, we will have the latest on rising waters, as flooding rolls down the Mississippi River. This is Vicksburg. They're sandbagging downriver. And we will tell you about the major precautions they're taking in New Orleans when 360 continues. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: A reminder, we're following breaking news, new strains between the United States and Pakistan over the killing of Osama bin Laden. Pakistani lawmakers tonight voting to reassess ties with Washington.

Back home, meantime, former President Bush spoke out for the first time in public about the raid and how he learned of it. He told a Las Vegas hedge fund conference -- quote -- "I was eating souffle at Rise Restaurant with Laura and two buddies when President Obama phoned."

He goes on to say; "I excused myself and went home to take the call. Obama simply said, 'Osama Bin Laden is dead.'" He says he told the president, simply, "Good call."

His one-time close ally, Tony Blair, is also speaking about, not just about the raid, but what comes next. Britain's former prime minister spoke with Anderson earlier this week.


COOPER: Were you surprised where Osama bin Laden was ultimately found?

BLAIR: Yes. But then, in the sense, nothing about this situation surprises you very much, but, yes, of course.

COOPER: Do you believe it's possible that Pakistan, someone in Pakistan, that someone in the military, in the ISI did not know?

BLAIR: It's possible.

You know, I -- look, one thing that's important to realize about Pakistan is that there are obviously very different currents going on within their society, within their institutions. But we should never forget that 30,000 Pakistanis have lost their lives in acts of terrorism over the past years, including 5,000 members of their security services.

So, I don't know, and nobody does.

COOPER: Condoleezza Rice had referred to them during her time when she was in the White House as a full partner in the war on terror. You had praised President Musharraf as well.

Do you believe Pakistan is still a full partner?

BLAIR: Well, I believed that the people I was dealing with, who told me they were full on to tackle terrorism, were sincere in doing it and trying to do it.

The issue in Pakistan is the same issue that you get everywhere, frankly, which is this battle between reforming, modernizing, open- minded people vs. the conservative, the reactionary, the very religious elements, who have sympathy with the ideology and with the narrative of people like bin Laden.

So, you have got this clash the whole time. And, sometimes, when people say to me, well, what does Pakistan think, or what does Pakistani society believe, I say to them, you can't answer that question in the sense that one view of Pakistan or Pakistani society is prevalent, because it's not.


COOPER: It's the same as saying, what does America believe or what does Great Britain believe?

BLAIR: Yes. Yes, but -- and except even more so. And that's true, by the way, all over the Middle East and the wider issue to do, which is partly to do with politics and partly to do with the influence of Islam on politics in society.

COOPER: Is Afghanistan still, you think, the front line in the war on terror? Or has it shifted to Pakistan? Has it shifted to Yemen?


BLAIR: I think all of these.

You see, again, sometimes, people say, well, what should we be worried about most? Would it be Afghanistan? Would it be Iraq? Would it be Pakistan? Would it be Yemen? Would it be Somalia?

The answer to that question is all of those, I'm afraid. So, for me, this is one struggle. It's got many different aspects to it. One is a security aspect. But the other is the narrative, the ideology that people like bin Laden represent, because my fear is that the narrative has a far broader support than those engaged in extremism would suggest.

In other words, the numbers who want to use violence, who want to go and kill any number of innocent people, relatively small number. Those that buy into the narrative that there is this fundamental conflict, that the West is oppressing Islam, I think that stretches far deeper.

COOPER: The other day, Bob Gates, our secretary of defense, said that bin Laden's death could be a game-changer in Afghanistan. Obviously, Britain has fought very hard in Afghanistan alongside the U.S. and have faced some very tough battles.

Do you think it's a game-changer?

BLAIR: I think it could be, yes. But I still think there's a huge wider issue to do with this ideology.

I mean, what bin Laden's death does is, it shows, first of all, if you go and deliberately target and kill large numbers of innocent people by terrorism, that will catch up with you in the end. That is important. I think it's also been important as an assertion of American -- well, power is not the right way to put it, but an assertion of American determination. I think that is an important message. In the region I spend most of my time in, the Middle East, that counts, and it's important always for America to remember that.

COOPER: Because there is this reputation that America doesn't have lasting power, that we pull out, we sort of change focus.

BLAIR: Yes. Yes. So, I think it's important from that point of view.

But I think, you know -- this is a larger topic -- we have just got to be very clear about this. This is a -- at least a regional, if not a global, ideological struggle that is taking place, and that is taking place within Islam, with implications far beyond that.

COOPER: If al Qaeda, though, is not -- it remains to be seen whether al Qaeda central -- al Qaeda central, as opposed to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda central is as big a threat without bin Laden.

But, if it is not, if it is weakened significantly, to the point where they can't do operations, does that make the war in Afghanistan -- does change the war in Afghanistan? Does that mean that troops could be pulled out? Because if -- President Obama has said the goal in Afghanistan, the focus is al Qaeda, it's not necessarily nation- building, although that is right now the strategy.

BLAIR: Well, I think it allows us to evolve policy, certainly, if it so happens that the removal of bin Laden then diminishes the capacity of al Qaeda to cause chaos and instability, because their basic strategy is very, very simple.

They know that the majority of people, left to themselves, would want a democratic government that's effective and functioning and non- corrupt. What they hope, by terrorism, is to create such chaos and instability, that the institutions of such a functioning democracy can't take root and can't grow. And if that is diminished, that ability to cause that chaos is diminished, yes, I mean, it will have....

COOPER: Would it be acceptable for you if -- for -- to pull out with a war still going on between the Taliban and the central Afghan government?

BLAIR: Well, you have got to make a judgment all the way through as to what part you can play constructively in it.

But I have taken the view all the way through that our withdrawal of forces is about the job being done.


KING: Tony Blair talking with Anderson on Wednesday. Just ahead here tonight: NATO launches more airstrikes against Libya. But the real question out of Tripoli tonight, where is Moammar Gadhafi? Could he have been injured when his compound was bombed yesterday? And there are indications his supporters, well, getting nervous. We will have the latest.

Also ahead: As the surging Mississippi River heads towards Baton Rouge and New Orleans, a huge decision that may spare those cities from severe flooding, but it could mean trouble for those living in Louisiana's low-lying areas.


KING: It's early Saturday morning in Libya, and explosions were heard in Tripoli during the night as jets roared overhead. Libyan state TV blamed those explosions on what it calls -- quote -- "the crusader forces."

But there's a bigger question tonight: Where is Moammar Gadhafi? In an audio statement broadcast on Libyan state TV today, Gadhafi said he's in a place where NATO airstrikes cannot get him. His spokesman also said that Gadhafi is in Tripoli in what he called good health and high spirits.

But after NATO airstrikes hit Gadhafi's compound yesterday, Italy's foreign minister raised the possibility the Libyan leader has been wounded and may have left the capital. Late today, a Gadhafi aide called that nothing more than a false rumor.

A short time ago, I spoke to John Burns, the London bureau chief for "The New York Times," who is on assignment right now in Tripoli.


KING: So, John Burns, the Italian foreign minister suggests Gadhafi has been wounded. And then the regime rushes an audio onto state television with Gadhafi's voice saying, I'm still here.

So, he's alive, we have to assume, but what do we know, if much, about his overall health and his whereabouts?

JOHN BURNS, LONDON BUREAU CHIEF, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, the mystery really deepens, because why only audio? Why no video? Very strange.

Is he in Tripoli? Is he out of Tripoli? Can he in anywise run this government and its resistance to the rebellion if he can't even appear on -- live on television? Very odd.

KING: And the regime took reporters out on a trip. All of these trips of course are carefully choreographed. They're trying to make the point that civilians are being endangered by these strikes. But your shorting shows something different, doesn't it?

BURNS: When they took us yesterday to look at the damage in the (INAUDIBLE) compound, they claimed that the victims were civilians, that the bombs were errant, that one of them had fallen just beside a children's playground.

But you didn't have to be an expert in these matters to see that the target was really a subterranean complex that underlies pretty much the entire leadership compound, bunkers, passageways.

Whether the colonel was injured in the attacks or not, again, I'm afraid, a matter of speculation.

KING: We also have significant developments in Misrata, where the rebels claim now to have the airport, a civil defense base there. What is the significance of that?

BURNS: Well, I tell you, three times in the last 24 hours, the chief government spokesman, Mr. Ibrahim, has denied that they have taken the airport, the rebels have taken the airport. In fact, he's denied that they have -- the government has lost control of the city. At one point, he even claimed they still have the harbor.

This, we know not to be true. The fact that he denied it rather implies that the loss of the airport, the western advance of the rebels is seriously troubling to the people here in Tripoli. And so it should be.

KING: And in a situation like this, where you're in Tripoli, you have these government minders, and there -- comes with the territory -- you have no choice if you want to go out to certain areas. They're a nuisance in many ways. They can get in the way of reporting.

But, at the same time, they're also pretty valuable sources, because their mood, their spirits tend to reflect the mood of their bosses. What is your sense? Are your minders, are they a bit nervous?

BURNS: There are.

I have to be careful here, because, of course, you know, these people are at terrific risk, personal risk. But there are amongst these people, people who have served at pretty high levels of this government, one or two people who have spoken privately to us in recent days about, you know, if these people, these people took charge of a new regime, how threatening would that be? They would destroy us all. They would go after everybody that they deemed to be pro- Gadhafi. It would be a jihad. There would be blood in the streets.

But this is a rather shift in mood. And they can read a map. The Gadhafi government can read a map. They can see that these advances are threatening. So I think that there is beginning to be the sense, at least among some people here, that this conflict could be lost.

KING: John Burns in Libya tonight. John, many thanks.

BURNS: Not at all. It's a pleasure.

KING: A deadly and violent day in Syria. Government protesters clashed with state security forces, who fired tear gas to disperse the protestors. Details on what happened today in Syria coming up.

But first, we're following other stories on a very busy Friday night. Isha Sesay has a "360 Bulletin."

ISHA SESAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, a move to protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans from severe flooding. The Army Corps of Engineers has been given authority to open the giant Morganza Spillway in Louisiana in the next 24 hours. It's expected to lower the surging Mississippi River by two feet as it crests near the city. But all that water will flood low-lying areas of south central Louisiana.

Later on 360, Anderson talks to country music great Hank Williams Jr. about the benefit concert given by country music stars this week to aid victims of the recent storms, tornadoes and flooding that have devastated parts of the Midwest and south.

A magnitude 6 earthquake struck Costa Rica today, and the trembling of the earth was caught by surveillance cameras just as it was happening. It hit less than 20 miles northwest of the capital, San Jose. So far there are no reports of injuries or damage.

Police at a Bangkok airport seized a handful of baby animals from the luggage of a man attempting to fly to Dubai. Among the cubs discovered were two panthers and a black bear, also two leopards, one macaque monkey, and a marmoset. All the cubs were drugged but alive. The suspect is charged with possessing and smuggling endangered animals.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: ... Room turned 50 years today. You know, it long ago became an enormously important landmark resource. Actually, I don't know how this videotape wound up in our control room. We mean, of course, the other Situation Room.


SESAY: Well, Brian Williams of NBC was referring, of course, to the White House Situation Room. This photo of President Obama and his top staffers watching the assault on Osama bin Laden's compound may be the most iconic picture in its five decades of operation.

The Situation Room was established by President John F. Kennedy.

John, Brian Williams apologized on air to Wolf Blitzer for the supposed error. But it appears the whole thing was an inside joke. Wolf told us that Brian is an old friend. They covered the Clinton White House together and that he did it on purpose. Wolf thanked Brian Williams for plugging his "SITUATION ROOM."

KING: You know, I was at the White House with Wolf and Brian in those days, Isha, and, A, Brian is a very funny guy. B, they're good friends. And guess what? Wolf is not at all upset. Do you think?

SESAY: No, I don't think he is. But I'm sure Brian is saying, "Send me a check to show me just how grateful you are." KING: You know, if Brian ever needs another job, he is a very, very, very funny man. He could do standup.

SESAY: I'm sure he could, and he'd be welcome in many places.

KING: Isha, we'll see you in a bit.

Coming up here, in his first speech since announcing he's running for president, the former House speaker, Newt Gingrich, already sounds like candidate Gingrich. But the question is, given his private life, two divorces, infidelity, will voters be able to forgive and forget?

And later, a very well-known actor hired to replace Charlie -- Charlie Sheen on "Two and a Half Men." We'll tell you who it is and what Charlie has to say about it. No shock, right? Yes, Charlie Sheen has a response. That's coming up.


KING: "Raw Politics" tonight, and lots going on. Congressman Ron Paul today announced he's seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, will announce tomorrow whether he intends to run.

Meanwhile, two days after Newt Gingrich announced his candidacy, he says the theme of his campaign will be that the right policies lead to the right future. He told an audience in Washington today, this will be the most positive and fun campaign of his life. He gave another speech this evening in Macon, Georgia.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The challenges we face are so large that it requires leadership of an unusual kind. I don't believe that any one person in the Oval Office can make a decisive difference. I believe there are 300 million Americans who have to be recruited, educated, convinced, led to work together so that all of us putting our shoulder to the wheel can make a decisive difference.


KING: One big early question, are people ready to put him in the Oval Office despite his past. There are personal issues that may be hard for some to set aside. Joe Johns reports.


GINGRICH: I'm announcing my candidacy for president of the United States.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Newt Gingrich's private life has been messy. He's on his third marriage. He's had two divorces, and he's been unfaithful.

He got married to his first wife, Jackie, in 1962. She was his former high school geometry teacher. He proposed to a second wife, Marianne, while he was still married to Jackie, according to an interview Marianne gave to "Esquire" magazine.

And 18 years later, while married to Marianne, Gingrich has admitted publicly that he was involved in a relationship with the woman who would become his current wife, Calista. He admits the affair was even going on right around the time he, as speaker of the House, was helping impeach then President Bill Clinton for lying about cheating on his wife with Monica Lewinsky. At the time, Gingrich and others accused Clinton of trying to hide the truth.

GINGRICH: The most systematic, deliberate obstruction of justice cover-up, an effort to avoid the truth we have ever seen in American history.

JOHNS: Now the former speaker wants Clinton's old job, and Gingrich is seemingly an open book. He's confessed his cheating, endured a series of excruciating interviews about his private life, and spent long hours talking to conservatives, especially in places like Iowa, about how and why he's a different man. He's talked about it on the Christian broadcasting network.

GINGRICH: There's no question that at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far to hard and that things happened in my life that were not appropriate.

JOHNS: He never explained how passion for the country led to infidelity, but he said his remorse is real.

GINGRICH: I found that I felt compelled to seek God's forgiveness. Not God's understanding but God's forgiveness. And I do believe in a forgiving God.

JOHNS: And he does love to talk about how great this third marriage is with his current wife, Calista, who he's been married to for about a decade. He even became a Catholic for her.

But conservatives, like Richard Land of the influential Southern Baptist Convention, say the skeletons in Gingrich's closet have not been cleared out.

RICHARD LAND, SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION: There is an implacable wall of opposition among evangelical women. A large percentage of the men are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and say, "You know, OK, he's changed, you know. We believe in forgiveness and redemption."

And the women's side, "Well, we may forgive him. We believe in redemption. But we don't trust him."

JOHNS: Rich Galen, who worked for Gingrich for years, says the big challenge would come in a place like South Carolina, one of the very first primary states where committed evangelicals and other social conservatives have seen plenty of political scandal and don't like it a bit. RICH GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: If he wins or loses an important state like say South Carolina, by a very little bit, then I think you can say, well, if it hadn't been for that, he would have won.

JOHNS: Land says Gingrich needs to give a big speech early on to try to put the issue to rest.

LAND: He's got to imagine that the -- that the person he's talking to is an evangelical woman sitting across from him, and he's going to have to convince her that he's truly sorry.

JOHNS: Tough crowd, tough hill to climb for a former speaker of the House with a messy record and marriage.

Joe Johns, CNN, Washington.


KING: Joining me in Washington, Democratic strategist Maria Cordona and in Atlanta, Erick Erickson, Erick chief of

Erick, I want to start with you. The conservative base is your business. How big of an issue is this? You start in Iowa. Then you go to New Hampshire. Then you go to South Carolina. By then we generally have a pretty good sense of who's serious and who's not. Iowa, South Carolina, huge Christian conservative states. Is this a problem?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think it is a problem. I mean, just anecdotally, when I got back from my honeymoon, my wife marched into our house and threw my autographed book of Newt Gingrich's out the door and said it was her or the book. Now, she had had Jackie Gingrich as a teacher and lost her mother to breast cancer, so given the story there, I mean, she has very bitter memories towards Newt Gingrich, and I think she is very typical of a lot of evangelical women in the south.

But he also has a different angle, as well. He converted from being a Southern Baptist to a Catholic, which to most people doesn't sound like it's a big issue. But when you go to Iowa or you go to South Carolina or to Georgia and the other southern states, converting from an evangelical Southern Baptist to Catholicism also strikes people as a little odd in addition to the other baggage he has.

KING: Good call there. Good call, throwing the book out. That's an excellent call, Erick. I applaud you for that one.

Marian, when you look at this, and be as fair as you can here, Newt Gingrich is, you know, the bogeyman to a lot of Democrats. He was sparring with Bill Clinton for so often. Joe Johns mentioned there that some would call it a hypocrisy during the impeachment panel.

But when you look at Newt Gingrich, do you think it is the personal stuff that will be the big issues? Or is it simply when you're talking about a primary to beat an incumbent president, that he's last generation, not next generation?

MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: John, I actually think it's both. And you're right, you know, as a Democrat, and as somebody who has seen him try to put forth what I believe and many Americans believe are very misguided policies in the '90s, I think that that is enough to keep him from being president.

But overall, I think it is going to be the personal stuff in conjunction with how he carries himself. You know, the Bible says a humble man is penitent before God. When you look at Gingrich, humble is the last thing that you think of.

And so it's going to be very difficult for him to really try to convince voters. And to Erick's point, those evangelical voters are going to be critical in the GOP primary. They might have been able to forgive maybe one affair, maybe a second marriage, but two affairs and a third wife is something that is going to be very hard for them to swallow.

KING: As a strategist, Erick, there's a couple ways to go about this. You can, as Richard Land just said in Joe Johns's piece, give a big speech, hope that helps, or you can sort of go about it small groups at a time and try to lobby key pastors, lobby key social conservative activists, and build your base up in the small retail politics way. What would you advise Newt Gingrich to do?

ERICKSON: I think he's going to have to do both, actually. And how he deals with his first marriage is going to be the tricky one, because there are mixed stories as to what happened there. Did he actually leave his first wife during her fight with breast cancer or not?

It's a -- it's a question that a lot of people think they know the answer to. He's going to have to deal with that question, because that's probably the seediest part. But to Maria's part, she mentioned a key word there: 1990s.

When I talk to conservatives around the country, they don't actually remember all the marital issues. They remember the photo of Newt Gingrich, I think it was the front page of "The New York Post" at the time, him storming down the back steps of Air Force One and being upset about it.

And there are a lot of conservatives who put aside the marital issues. They remember him as a speaker, and they remember it was the conservatives who wanted him gone in 1998. He's going to have to deal with these issues and how people perceive what happened, not what necessarily what actually happened.

KING: Now Maria, play strategist. Again, you're a Democrat but play strategist. Mike Huckabee in most polls of Republican voters is right at the top. He's either leading or he's in a tie. He's right up there.

And yet all indications are Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, will not run again, as he did in 2008. He'll announce it on his FOX program this weekend. If you were advising Mike Huckabee, given what many perceive to be the weakness, relative weakness of the Republican field, would you tell him, "Hey, Mike, get in. You've got a good chance here"?

CORDONA: I actually think that I would, John. Because, especially in a field that we have seen thus far that has announced, one of the things that is really missing from the GOP hopefuls right now is likeability. And that is something that definitely Newt Gingrich lacks by a lot.

And frankly, Mike Huckabee, you know, from what I've seen, and I've met him several times, he does have a likeability there, and can make a personal connection. Again, you know, I absolutely do not agree on anything from a policy standpoint. But he does have likeability. He does have credibility among his own base. I think that I would advise him to really take a look at this. And this could be the chance for him.

KING: And yet, Erick, all indications are -- again, you're in touch with the base -- that it's a no, right?

ERICKSON: Yes, I'm hearing that. Now, h e could surprise everybody tomorrow. I've had several friends who say they've been in close contact with him. They think he'll do it. But by and large, I think he won't.

I agree with Maria, though. He has a likeability issue that the others don't. People really like him. He speaks in a way the others don't, and I think if he got in, he could actually raise everyone else to their A game. I just don't see it happening.

The down side for him, though, is in 2008, he largely got a pass on his record as governor of Arkansas, because everyone was caught off guard. He will have to answer a lot of questions he didn't have to answer in 2008.

I think, frankly, this year we're going to see Herman Cain became the Mike Huckabee of 2012.

KING: Next time we'll -- next time we talk we'll know whether or not Mike Huckabee is in or out. We'll recalculate from there. Maria Cardona, Erick Erickson, thanks.

Still ahead tonight, Anderson's interview with the country superstar Hank Williams Jr. Hear what he's doing to help the victims of the record flood and how you can be part of it.

Also ahead, Charlie Sheen's winning advice for the actor replacing him on "Two and a Half Men."


KING: A lot more happening tonight. Isha is back with a "360 Bulletin."

SESAY: John, four people were killed in violent clashes between protesters and security forces across Syria today. That's according to a human rights advocate who says three of the victims were shot to death.

President Obama's Mideast envoy is resigning. George Mitchell has been trying to keep Arab-Israeli peace talks on track for more than two years. His deputy envoy, David Hale, will take over.

And Ashton Kutcher is joining the cast of "Two and a Half Men," but he's warning he can't replace Charlie Sheen, who was booted from the show after a fight with producers. Now, as you might expect, Sheen has his own thoughts on the move. He released a statement, saying, quote, "Ashton Kutcher is a sweetheart and a brilliant comedic performer. Oh, wait, so am I! Enjoy the show, America. Enjoy seeing 2.0 in the demo every Monday, WB."

"WB," we should tell you is Warner Brothers, which is owned by CNN's parent company, Time Warner.

And yes, there's more. Sheen went on to say this. "Enjoy planet Chuck, Ashton," a reference to his former boss, Chuck Law. Sheen added this: "There is no air, laughter, loyalty or love there."

Clearly, he's not handling it well.

KING: Do you know why Anderson is off tonight? He's moping. He's moping. He's moping he didn't get the job. He wanted that job really badly.

SESAY: Yes. No, no, no. yes -- Charlie Sheen clearly...

KING: Yes.

SESAY: I'm just going to leave that one right there, John. That's a hand grenade.

KING: Anderson is out there winning somewhere. Isha, thanks.

SESAY: Winning.

KING: Winning. He's winning. Thanks, Isha.

This week, country music superstars gathered in Nashville for a concert to raise money for people affected by the devastating storms, flooding and tornadoes recently in the south. This Sunday, our sister network HLN, will air "Music Rebuilds: The CMT Disaster Relief Concert." It's co-hosted by HLN anchor, Robin Mead, 9 P.M. Eastern. Performers include Keith Urban, Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw and Hank Williams Jr., who spoke with Anderson about what the concert means to him.


COOPER: You've got a big connection to Alabama. I know you go there a lot. You've actually now visited since the tornadoes hit. What did you see? HANK WILLIAMS JR., COUNTRY MUSIC STAR: What I saw was actually unbelievable, Anderson. You have -- they told me when you get here, you're going to wonder how thousands weren't killed. Well, they were right. It's mind-boggling the devastation.

We're talking about 5,600 homes, so that's probably 24,000 displaced people. And just think of a clear cut in a forest out west, a total clear cut, except this is a human clear cut, of nothing left. I've never seen anything like it. It will really make you hug your kids. It really had a -- really had an impact on me.

We were run out of our home in northwest Tennessee. I mean, we had some small tornadoes and no power and flooding. When I saw the death toll start rolling in, it took me two days. I said, "I've got to do something."

COOPER: And I think, you know, for a lot of people, they pay attention when the storm is hit or in the immediate aftermath. But, you know, weeks and months later for the folks who are there, it's like the storm winds are still blowing. I mean, they're still dealing with the aftermath every single day.

WILLIAMS: Believe me, in 2021, Tuscaloosa will not be back to its previous state. It's devastation on the grandest scale, the biggest disaster in the history of the state of Alabama. People in the business, in the Weather Channel, with FEMA, it's much worse than Katrina, Anderson.

There's still 30 people unaccounted for, 330 deaths across the entire South. What a killer. And really I was so glad to try to think of some way to raise some significant money. Instead of just doing a benefit, you know, a quarter of a million dollars would maybe last a day just for the basics there that these people need.

COOPER: How is the money going to be distributed? Do you know where the money is going to go?

WILLIAMS: It's earmarked, the main part for Alabama, because they had -- they took the worst blow, believe me. You know, I lived in Coleman for a while. I visited four cities on Tuesday. Most of it will be there; it will also be in Georgia. There's some towns in Georgia that were completely obliterated, that are not -- they're gone. And that's how it will be distributed. And it's the Red Cross.

COOPER: It is one of the remarkable things after something like this, and we saw it, too, in Nashville after the flooding last year.

WILLIAMS: Yes, and you were like -- you were the only one here.

COOPER: Well, I didn't do enough, that's for sure. But I was privileged to be there.

But people banding together in just a way -- I mean, there's nothing -- there's nothing quite like that, that we've seen down -- what we saw in Nashville and what we're seeing now in Alabama. And even now with this floods -- these floods down in Memphis and floods heading through Mississippi, down to Louisiana. You know, it really does bring people together. And I applaud what you're doing.

WILLIAMS: It does. You know, we don't have to look overseas or south of our boarders or, you know, to help with the things that's happened in the last two weeks, we can help right here at home. And boy, we need it.

COOPER: Yes. Well, I appreciate what you're doing and thank you so much for talking with us today.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.



KING: Much more ahead at the top of the hour, starting with breaking news. Pakistani lawmakers, condemning the U.S. raid on bin Laden but not the fact he lived in Pakistan for years.