Tuesday, March 16, 2004

'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for March 16

Guests: Steve Coll; John Q. Kelly, Eric Peoples, Ken McClain


KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice-over): Which of these stories will we be talking about tomorrow?

The day we didn't kill Osama bin Laden: Previously unseen, extraordinary, even heart rending, the tall figure in the flowing white robes nearly a year before 9/11, in the cross hairs of an unmanned U.S. spy plane. Tonight, not just these awe inspiring images, but also the haunting question: Why this video, transmitted live to CIA Headquarters, was not responded to with the order: "kill him."

The Ohio highway sniper: Police pursuing a suspect, reportedly turned into them, reportedly described to them as a schizophrenic by his own father.

The Michael Jackson case: How about Lisa Marie Presley testifying to the grand jury? How about Jackson himself? How about somebody explaining why there is a grand jury if the charges have already been filed?

Irreversible lung damage and life expectancy shortened by 25 years or more? The culprit? The butter flavoring in popcorn. He's won a $20 million settlement. He will join us tonight.

And I don't care if it rains or freezes, long as I've got my dress-up Jesus.

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.


OLBERMANN: Good evening, it would be as disturbing as if we could see film of Count Van Stelfanburg (PH) actually wrongly positioning the bomb in the briefcase that was intended to kill Hitler. It would be as heart rending as if there were photographs found of Lee Harvey Oswald, or whoever, studying the motorcade route of President Kennedy, just out of the reach of a policeman or a secret service agent. If there was actual videotape of the U.S. unmanned plane that tracked and found, but could not kill Osama bin Laden, late in the year 2000, its impact on this country, on our still open wounds from 9/11, might be immeasurable.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight: Such videotape not only exists, it has been obtained by NBC News. Here with this extraordinary report, our senior investigative correspondent, Lisa Myers.


LISA MYERS, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 1993, the World Trade Center bombing, six killed. 1998, two U.S. embassies bombed in Africa, 224 killed. All the work of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, who in 1998 declares holy war on America. Making him arguably the most wanted man in the world.

BILL CLINTON, FMR. U.S. PRESIDENT: We will use all the means at our disposal to bring those responsible to justice.

MYERS (on camera): What you're about to see is extraordinary secret video shot by the U.S. government, and obtained exclusively by NBC News. It illustrates an enormous opportunity the Clinton administration had to kill or capture bin Laden. Critics say, a missed opportunity.

(voice-over): The fall of 2000, Afghanistan, unmanned unarmed spy planes called "Predators" fly over known al Qaeda training camps. The pictures transmitted live to CIA headquarters half a world away say al Qaeda terrorists firing at targets, conducting military drills, then scattering on cue through the desert. Also that fall, the Predator captured even more extraordinary pictures: This tall figure in flowing white robes. Many intelligence analysts believed then and now, it is Osama bin Laden.

The images may seem fuzzy to amateurs, but to William Arkin, a former intelligence officer and now military analyst for NBC, they couldn't be more clear.

(on camera): Why does U.S. intelligence believe this is Osama bin Laden?

WILLIAM ARKIN, NBC MILITARY ANALYST: You see a tall man, you see him surrounded by or at least protected by a group of guards.

MYERS (voice-over): Bin Laden is 6'5", the man here clearly towers over those around him and seems to be treated with great deference. Another clue, the video is shot at Tarnac Farm, the walled compound where bin Laden is known to live. The layout of the buildings in the predator video, perfectly matches these secret U.S. Intelligence photos and diagrams of Tarnac Farm obtained by NBC.

ARKIN: It's dynamite. It's putting together all of the pieces and that doesn't happen everyday.

I guess you could say we've done it once, and this is it.

MYERS: The tape proves the Clinton administration was aggressively tracking al Qaeda a year before 9/11. But that also raises one big question: If the U.S. government had bin Laden and the camps in its sights in real-time? Why was no action taken against them?

RET. GENERAL WAYNE DOWNING, NBC ANALYST: We were not prepared to take the military action necessary.

MYERS: Retired General Wayne Downing ran counter-terror efforts for the Bush administration and is now an NBC analyst.

DOWNING: We should have had strike forces prepared to go in and react to this intelligence, certainly cruise missiles, either air sea launched, very, very accurate, could have gone in and hit those targets.

MYERS: Gary Schroen, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan says the White House required the CIA to attempt to capture bin Laden alive, rather than kill him.

GARY SCHROEN, FMR. CIA STATION CHIEF: It reduced the odds from say a 50 percent chance down to say 25 percent chance that we were going to be able to get him.

MYERS: A democratic member of the 9/11 Commission says there was a larger issue. The Clinton administration treated bin Laden as a law enforcement problem.

BOB KERREY, 9/11 COMMISSION MEMBER: The most important thing the Clinton administration could have done, would have been for the president, either himself or by going to Congress asking for a congressional declaration to declare war on al Qaeda, a military political organization that had declared war on us.

MYERS: In reality, getting bin Laden would have been extraordinarily difficult. He was a moving target deep inside Afghanistan. Most military operations would have been high-risk. What's more, President Clinton was weakened by scandal, and there was no consensus for bold action, especially with an election weeks away. We contacted the three top Clinton national security officials. None would do an on-camera interview. However they vigorously defend their record. Saying they disrupted terrorist cells and made al Qaeda a top national security priority.

JAMES STEINBERG, FMR. CLINTON ADVISER: We used military force, we used covert operations, we used all the tool available to us, because we realized what a serious threat this was.

MYERS: One Clinton cabinet official says looking back, the military should have been more involved, quote: "We did a lot, but we did not see the gathering storm that was out there."

Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington.


OLBERMANN: Lisa's report, the first in her three part series. We will run parts two and three tomorrow and Thursday.

For 10 months in 1998, from this very studio, I insisted that the unceasing coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky investigations was degrading our democracy and moreover there had to have been something else more important that we should have been talking about. For 2-1/2 years now, we have all known what that something else was.

So, now to Lisa's point about the political realities of killing bin Laden. Could a lame duck scandal weakened Clinton administration have gotten away with such an aggressive act? I'm joined now by Steve Coll, managing editor of the "Washington Post" and author of "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to the September 10, 2001."

Mr. Coll, good evening.


OLBERMANN: Let's put it on the table. Whether anyone blames Clinton-Lewinsky on Bill Clinton or the republicans for investigating it the way they did, or for the media for covering it the way they did or all of the above. Did it, in fact, set up a situation where Bill Clinton didn't have the political wherewithal to pull the trigger and have bin Laden killed late in 2000?

COLL: Well, it certainly was a constraint on his presidency from the time of the African embassy bombings in August of 1998 right through to the end. Of course by late 2000, and particularly in October, the election also figured equally.

OLBERMANN: Yeah, hindsight might be 20/20, but trying to recreate the previous realities is clearly a murky thing. What would have happened politically, even internationally if that real-time video, coming back from the predator of bin Laden, had been responded to with the Clinton administration decision to take the son-of-a-bitch out and it was weeks before the Gore-Bush election?

COLL: Well, this was October 2000, to the best of my knowledge when this video was shot, and one thing would have been certain, the press and the campaign would have been infused with a great deal of questions about whether Clinton had ordered the strike in order to attempt to manipulate Gore into the White House. Now, a lot of how that would have played out, presumably, would have depended on whether they actually killed bin Laden and whether that was confirmed. I don't know what part of October this video was shot in, but it's likely there was still a debate, perhaps two debates left. So, this could have been a pretty big event in the last weeks of the Bush-Gore campaign.

OLBERMANN: There is one assumption, deep in the heart of all this, which is probably made up largely of that continuing wish we all have that we could rewrite the history of those eventual and tragic ultimately, months and years. Let's say Clinton says, "to hell with it" and the timing works out, and the rest of this videotape that we're watching, instead of what we're seeing, it shows bin Laden as a big pile of smoldering ashes. Is there any reason to assume that that means 9/11 does not happen, and al Qaeda falls apart or is never the force it has become?

COLL: Well, al Qaeda certainly wouldn't have fallen apart and still would have been a significant force and the United States still would have found itself in a lethal confrontation, I'm sure, with al Qaeda leadership and cells around the world. A more interesting what if is, whether the particular operation that led to 9/11 would have been disrupted by bin Laden's death in October 2000. There I think the evidence is more uncertain. Some of the highjackers were already in the United States, their plans were in motion, but how mature they were in October is difficult to say with certainty, in hindsight. In addition, some of the hijackers were not yet in the United States, but the leadership group that ran that operation, we now know, included more than bin Laden. Some of his lieutenants might have survived such a strike. A lot would have depended on what followed bin Laden's presumptive death in October of 2000.

OLBERMANN: Steve Coll, "Washing Post" managing editor, author of "Ghost Wars" thanks very much for your perspective on the real-timeline and the unfortunately, not too real alternative timeline.

COLL: Glad to be with you.

OLBERMANN: Our No. 5 story continues with the day's other news based on tapes, not vintage Osama bin Laden, but real recent. John Kerry and a confusing development in the presidential race. Confusion over what appeared to be a claim by Senator Kerry that prominent international figures wanted him elected president this November and not Mr. Bush.


I've met more leaders, - you know, in fact go out and say it all publicly (UNINTELLIGIBLE) you've got to beat this guy, we need a new policy and things like that.


OLBERMANN: While the tape of that Florida event clearly indicated that the senator said "I've met more leaders," the "Boston Globe" had the only actual reporter at it. He served as the pool reporter for all media covering it, and his version of that Kerry quote originally read "I've met foreign leaders." Kerry went on to answer questions about foreign support, kicked up a firestorm about international intervention in the election. But, today the "Globe" reporter, Patrick Healey, said he had gotten the quote wrong. That listening again to the tape it was clear Kerry had said "more" leaders, not "foreign" leaders. That did not stop any of the controversy. White House spokesman, Scott McClellan told reporters that if Kerry didn't name names he was, quote, "making it up." and the president followed up today saying:


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you're going to make an accusation in the course of a presidential campaign, you ought to back it up with facts.


OLBERMANN: The Kerry campaign is now suggesting that when the senator said "more leaders," he could have meant anybody.

The last part of the No. 5 story, more tales of the tape. It is from the other side of the political fence and it's far more than just a misheard word in play. As the general accounting office will now, for a second time, investigate the Bush administration's publicizing of the recently passed Medicare prescription drug plan. The issue, these video news released videotapes prepared by the administration and produced at taxpayer expense. They look just like network supplied news reports, only they are actors, not reporters in them, they are working from a script. They are sent to television stations, smaller ones around the country and broadcast without any mention that they're not genuine news reports or that they are government issue. The "Los Angeles Times" quoting a spokesman for the Health and Human Services Department, who says, that as of last month, all or parts of the video news releases had aired 53 times on 40 different stations in 33 television markets, including Fresno and Santa Barbara, California.

So, our No. 5 tonight: The tales of the tape. Behind us now, up next, COUNTDOWN's No. 4 story: The Michael Jackson investigation - will he be appearing at a grand jury near you? What about his ex-wife? You remember her, Elvis's kid.

And the Ohio sniper saga hitting a new phase. Police now have a name and a picture of the suspect, but they have no idea where he is.

First COUNTDOWN's opening numbers, the five figure that shaped this day's news.

Six million - dollars spent this week on political ads by the Bush campaign.

Two million - dollars spent this week on ads by the Kerry campaign.

$8 million spent over the last two weeks by democratic groups supporting Senator Kerry.

Five million? Also dollars the amount for which master card sued Ralph Nader for ripping off their price list idea in his 2000 campaign ad. The judge threw the case out this week.

And $20 million. Well, that would be the amount spent on the pets.com ad campaign featuring the sock puppet which led that company quickly into bankruptcy.

Now that's priceless.


OLBERMANN: Next here, COUNTDOWN's No. 4 story. What did she see and what does she know? A grand jury could force Lisa Marie Presley Jackson Presley to tell all about her marriage to Michael Jackson.

No, don't make her do it. Please, no.


OLBERMANN: Going to write a letter, going to mail it to my local M.J. Our forth story in the COUNTDOWN: Forgiving the rewriting of Chuck Berry hit, "Roll Over Beethoven" the district attorney of Santa Barbara, California, has sent Michael Jackson's attorneys a letter offering their client a chance to testify voluntarily before a grand jury.

It's your entertainment dollars in action, day 120 of the Michael Jackson investigations. Our fourth story and a source close to the Jackson defense team, confirms to MSNBC and NBC News, the receipt of the letter. The same source also confirming the expected that no way, no how will Jackson go voluntarily before a grand jury. Though somewhat startling to those of us outside the maelstrom, the letter is considered par for the course in such cases.

In California, such contact, in which the defense claims to have evidence that clears its client and, the prosecution kind of wants to know what the evidence is. Even has its own name, a "Johnson Letter." We'll just skip the implications of that and move instead into the bizarre reappearance of Jackson's bizarre ex-wife, Lisa Marie Presley, in all of this.

Elvis's daughter will not get a Johnson Letter from D.A. Tom Sneddon, but she might wind up testify to that very grand jury to which Sneddon refers. All because of her appearance on an Australian interview show with the kind title tells you in advance don't go on it. It was called "Enough Rope" with Andrew Denton.


LISA MARIE PRESLEY, MICHAEL JACKSON'S EX WIFE: Seeing things going on that I couldn't do anything about - you know, and don't ask me what sort of things, because I'm not going to answer. It was just stuff.


OLBERMANN: Just when this gets weirder by the moment, quotient in this story seems to be drooping in the Jackson case, it perks right up. To help us assess just how weird and just how perky, I'm joined now by noted attorney John Q. Kelly who represented the family of Nicole Brown-Simpson in the O.J. Simpson civil case.

Mr. Kelly, good evening.


OLBERMANN: Well, what does this mean? Are Michael Jackson and/or Lisa Marie Presley going to wind up testifying in front of a grand jury in Santa Barbara, California?

KELLY: Michael Jackson absolutely will not testify before the grand jury. I think the district attorney's office may try to interview Lisa Marie Presley if they feel she has something relevant, they may call her before the grand jury.

OLBERMANN: If there are already charges against Jackson, I and feeling this is a layman asking a stupid question: He's been charged, he's been booked, he's danced on top of a convertible, he's already out on bail. Why is there a grand jury still working on this case?

KELLY: Well no, it's a good question, Keith. But, he was just originally arraigned on the criminal complaint, the original arrest - piece of paper that was introduced against him. But now to proceed to the trial stage they either have to have a preliminary hearing, like we've seen in, say Scott Peterson or Kobe Bryant and have probable cause found, or they can present evidence to a grand jury and have an indictment issued and he get as arraigned and tried on that charge.

OLBERMANN: As to the other subject here, as an attorney familiar with people being in the public eye in these circumstances. If Lisa Marie Presley had come to you and asked for your advice and she told you I'm planning to go on a TV show called "Enough Rope" would you have suggested maybe she should just cancel?

KELLY: I'd have pause there, and tell her to think twice about it and insist, basically, she not go on the show.

OLBERMANN: Thus things can in fact dribble out of the media into the courts.

KELLY: Well, sure. And if not - even if they don't use exactly what they said, she's now opened herself up where they're going to want to talk to her and possibly compel her to testify in front of the grand jury.

OLBERMANN: Teach her to do Australian television. John Q. Kelly helping flesh out tonight's No. 4 story on the COUNTDOWN, which the show we think has never led anybody down being called in front of a grand jury. Many thanks, sir.

KELLY: See you, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Up next, those stories that know no COUNTDOWN number, but still find a place in our hearts and in our shows, anyway: "Oddball" is just around the corner. You may not want to see that one, I've got to confess.

And later, the lure of popcorn: The delicious, buttery smell, and now concerns about dangers. A jury has just awarded $20 million in damages because popcorn butter has ruined one man's lungs, the details ahead.


OLBERMANN: We have reached that nightly moment when we pause the COUNTDOWN to bring you the news that is at once both unimportant and unforgettable. Let's play "Oddball."

Nothing revs up the crowd at those monster truck shows than when the monster truck of all monster trucks destroys a junked car, like at the Calgary Saddle Dome in Alberta, Canada, earlier in the month. One unnamed fan was especially delighted at first when the truck "Gravedigger" squashed a 1992 Buick Regal, until he realized it was his 1992 Buick Regal. He had stored it at a salvage yard while on vacation, the same salvage yard that the monster truck people pick up their junkers from to get crushed during the shows. The owner was compensated by the salvage yard, and the monster truck people gave him free tickets for the finale on Sunday. Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!

And in those parts the world where the dowry is still the essential part of the complicated equation that is marriage, it's a common enough problem. A young Afghan, a soldier, unable to come up with the 3,000 buck payment to their bride's parents turn to the other option. He went out on a date with a donkey. The unidentified man was detained by police near Gardez, Afghanistan, but has since been released after pleading poverty. Says a local policeman, "the man insisted he had no other choice but a donkey, because he could not afford to pay a dowry." The crime had been discovered when the young boy stumbled upon the couple canoodling in an abandoned house. Well, if it wasn't an abandoned house before, it sure is now.

And from the ever burgeoning file of evidence of imminent end of civilization as we know it, it's Girl Scout cookies on eBay. "New York Times" reporting that hundreds of boxes of the cookies are up for bid on the online auction. Unfortunately selling them via the Internet is expressly forbidden by the national leadership of the Girl Scouts who dreamed up the cookie sales as much to develop social skills as to raise money. "Everybody thinks about the cookies and the money," the "Times" quotes a spokeswoman as saying, "but cookies are an activity first and foremost." They also make great projectiles.

COUNTDOWN about to reach the halfway part - point. When we come back, tonight's No. 3 story: The search of the suspected Ohio sniper. The police in the middle of a manhunt, and the suspect's family pleading to find him, as well.

And later, Jesus the profit, as in, money, money, money: It's green for Gibson, but some believers are seeing red at the latest spin-off product.

These stories ahead, first here are COUNTDOWN "Top 3 Newsmakers" of this day:

No. 3: Ignacio Cabrera of the Dominican Republic who is described as having become a, quote: "tourist attraction" after having checked himself into a local hospital. He was suffering from - um, male excitement for the last six days. He claims he did not take any Viagra, nor all of it on the planet.

No. 2: Sam Sheen, the son of actor Charlie Sheen and his - or daughter of actor Charlie Sheen and his wife Denise - no, no, no. That's Sam Sheen, a girl, not MSNBC's own Sam Shane. Sorry.

And, No. 1: Jessica Simpson the apparently nitwitted singer and TV reality show star claims she's not really that dumb, she's just been making fun of herself. In which case she must have been in hysterics on Sunday on a visit to the White House. The "Washington Post" reports she was introduced to the secretary of the interior Gail Norton, and told the secretary of the interior, quote, "you've done a nice job decorating the White House."


OLBERMANN: It is as deadly serious as a news story could be, someone shooting seemingly at random at cars and trucks on a busy Midwestern interstate, as many as 24 incidents in 10 months.

But late yesterday, reportedly with the help of the suspect's father and mother, police named and began to pursue the 28-year-old man they think responsible. And with that came a touch of absurdity. Police actually warned that the alleged I-270 shooter should be considered armed.

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, unsafe at any speed, a series of events on the nation's highways, starting with the hope that Ohio's roadside nightmare might be over and the fear that its perpetrator may still be at large.

Our correspondent tracking this busy day's developments, from Columbus, Ohio, is Kevin Tibbles.

Kevin, good evening.


Well, police are saying that he is to be considered armed and dangerous, because they do believe he has purchased another gun here in the Columbus area. As you mentioned earlier, it was perhaps his family that first contacted police with concerns about their son, Charles Jr.

We also understand at this point in time that his father handed over a .9-millimeter Beretta to police. They ran ballistics on it and that gun matched at least nine of the 24 suspect shootings that took place along interstate I-270 here that essentially circles the Columbus area.

So the manhunt is now on for Charles McCoy Jr. for these 24 shootings. And, of course, one of those shootings, 62-year-old Gail Knisley of Columbus died in the passenger seat of the car in which she was riding. So police are very concerned about getting ahold of Mr. McCoy. And so is his Mr. McCoy's family. He is a man who apparently has had mental problems in the past.

Late this afternoon, early this evening, his sister appeared on the front steps of the family home and pleaded with her brother to turn himself in.


AMY WALTON, SISTER OF MCCOY: We all love you very, very much. And we are very concerned about your well-being right now. Everything is going to be OK. Mom and I need you to call us. We will arrange for you to come home. We love you. We miss you. You need to call us.


TIBBLES: Now, the McCoy family is obviously concerned because they have not heard from Charles.

He apparently left the home last Friday, said he was going to a video arcade, took $600 from an ATM machine and then disappeared. His mother actually filed a missing-persons report on Monday of this week. I think the family is very concerned to find out just what sort of state their son is in at this point in time. And, of course, as you mentioned earlier, the police are very concerned to bring closure to the highway shootings here.

OLBERMANN: Kevin Tibbles at Columbus, Ohio, many thanks for the latest.


OLBERMANN: Continuing the third story in a day of atypical hazards along the highway, presumably, we could only guess how many kids have thrown stones or debris at cars. It isn't safe. It isn't positive. But it isn't usually lethal. What kind of criminal seeks not to pester or frighten passing motorists, but to kill or maim them?

I'm joined now by retired FBI agent, former profiler and author of "Special Agent: My Life on the Front Lines as a Woman in the FBI," Candice DeLong.

Ms. DeLong, good evening.


OLBERMANN: Whoever did this, whether it is indeed this man McCoy or not, are we looking at somebody who has been trying to kill and only succeeded once or somebody who doesn't really realize that there are actually people in those cars and thinks that this is kind of a more challenging target practice?

DELONG: I don't see it so much as target practice. Of course, once the individual is apprehended and if he cares to share his motivation, that would certainly give us some insight.

But it's not that easy to hit a moving target, even a moving target as large as a car. Let's not forget, these cars are going between 65 and 80 miles an hour, and he's had 23 hits. And one, the woman that he did kill, she didn't die because of a car accident, she died because of the bullet. And so I think it is more than target practice. It may be an expression of anger, revenge on society. Hard to say right now.

OLBERMANN: Tell me about this man, both from your instincts and experience and also from what we know about him. His mother reportedly described her son as a paranoid schizophrenic. You had 10 years as a psychiatric nurse. Add that possible - we will call it a possible diagnosis. Add to what profiling might offer. What does this suggest he is like? What does it suggest the police should expect if and when they find him?

DELONG: Well, if the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenic is accurate, and he is untreated, meaning he is not receiving any medication and hasn't been on medication, the main symptoms or problems, characteristics, of paranoid schizophrenia is a delusion, a strong belief in something that has no basis in fact, and possibly also auditory hallucinations and generally in the form of voices, voices that say very unkind, very difficult, horrible things to the individual, oftentimes prompting them to do things to save their own life.

Sometimes they think the devil is talking to them or God is talking to them. And this makes them very, very dangerous people. In terms of how this is going to play out, if this man has a history of suicidal ideation or suicidal gestures in the past, then being under the stress of a manhunt or confronted by police or a SWAT team like that would certainly increase the chances that that might happen.

OLBERMANN: So this might end with him taking his own life.

Obviously, we'll have to see how it plays out.

DELONG: Right.

OLBERMANN: That might be the - I was going to say something, but I won't.

Former FBI agent and profiler Candice DeLong, again, many thanks for your insight tonight.

DELONG: You're welcome, Keith.

OLBERMANN: You would think that between bad drivers and guys shooting at all drivers, America's highways would be dangerous enough. But, incredibly, a motorist has died because, police allege, a man bought a clothes dryer, tried to drive it home.

It fell off the back of his truck. And rather than retrieve it or tell anybody about it, he simply left it there in the middle of the road.

From Atlanta, our correspondent Don Teague with this part of today's third story, road death caused by lethal debris.


DON TEAGUE, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was a bizarre accident; 43-year-old Michael Hall flipped his SUV when he swerved to avoid a clothes dryer sitting in traffic lanes on Atlanta freeway.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The car just - it turned about probably six or seven times.

TEAGUE: Hall was driving his two young sons home from a baseball game. The boys suffered minor injuries, but Hall died in the crash.

Nationwide, states spend tens of millions each year cleaning up road debris, which frequently causes accidents. A Florida woman was critically injured on Interstate 95 last month when a 35-pound metal plate crashed through the windshield of her car. And just last week, a Georgia highway worker was killed in an accident while trying to remove a mattress from the freeway. Still, Michael Hall's relatives are in shock.

SHARON BELHAMEL, SISTER-IN-LAW OF MICHAEL HALL: What hurts me the most is that he was such a devoted father and that his last moments were with them, taking them to the baseball game, doing what he loved most, you know, spending time with his kids.

TEAGUE: Investigators say the dryer was purchased at a Home Depot by Jose Luna Gonzales, seen here on the store's security camera with his son. Gonzales loaded the appliance into the back of his pickup, but on the freeway it fell out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Gonzales, what happened.

TEAGUE: He didn't report it to police. But police say he did return to the Home Depot the next day to buy another dryer. The store clerk made the connection, eventually leading police to Gonzales.

CAPT. JEFF TURNER, CLAYTON COUNTY POLICE: Mr. Gonzales is currently in the Clayton County detention center.

TEAGUE: He now faces several misdemeanor charges, including second-degree vehicular homicide. One father was buried this weekend. Another faces up to a year in jail after a shopping trip that went terribly wrong.

Don Teague, NBC News, Atlanta.


OLBERMANN: And lastly in our third story, in such traumatic accidents, the question of life or death can be a matter of seconds or inches or miles per hour. And then, sometimes, survival seems to make no sense at all.

Amanda Young was an unlikely candidate to make it through an accident of any kind. She suffers from rickets, which has so impeded her growth that, at the age of 12, she is just 4'3" and she weighs only 65 pounds. Thus, when she was catapulted through the window of her family's SUV as it crashed on a highway overpass in Tampa, she was already in trouble. The odds seemed to grow longer still because the direction of the SUV's roll was such that she was literally thrown down that embankment to the pavement 45 feet below.

Amanda Young lost her spleen. One of her legs was broken. One eye socket was fractured. But her injuries are not considered life-threatening. The two other children in the car and the one adult in each vehicle in the accident were not injured at all.

Wrapping up our third story on the COUNTDOWN, unsafe at any speed. Tonight's No. 2, up next, we'll meet a man who has been left permanently and horribly injured because of the butter on microwave popcorn. And he is not alone.

Then later, Whitney Houston. Uh-oh. What's up with her? Let's just say she's in "Keeping Tabs" and we'll let it go at that. Those stories straight ahead.

First, here our COUNTDOWN's top three sound bites of this day.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Patty Orzano is with us. Patty, I'm glad you're here. She owns her own business. Isn't that true?

PATTY ORZANO, BUSINESS OWNER: I'm a partner with my husband for over 30 years in a 7/11 franchise.

BUSH: In more ways than one.





JAY LENO, HOST: Can you recreate that pose? Is that a hard thing to reenact? Well, you have got to do this so your muscles look bigger. Put your fist under there.

BEN AFFLECK, ACTOR: When you do it, you have a kind of a John Kerry, like another guy with a giant chin from Massachusetts look.

LENO: Really? Oh, oh, oh.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're not driving down the street practicing your calls in the car, are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, yes, sometimes.



OLBERMANN: The No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN, how making, manufacturing popcorn left a man with permanent lung damage. He will share his story next.

Stand by.


OLBERMANN: No matter how much you might love coffee or bacon or buttered popcorn, you'd probably agree it still smells even better than it tastes. But just as dangers in both coffee and bacon have become common knowledge, so too perhaps may we soon see the day that the risk is recognized in popcorn.

Our second story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, a $20 million verdict for a man who helped mix the components that give microwave popcorn its buttery smell and taste. It seemed like a story worthy of the "Oddball" section last week, the EPA investigating whether the vapors from microwave popcorn could actually hurt consumers, whether a chemical called diacetyl could have been endangering lives.

But yesterday, in Joplin, Missouri, a jury awarded $20 million in a lawsuit against two manufacturers of popcorn flavoring, a suit filed by one of their former employees. He had a job that left him with lung damage so severe that, at age 32, he will now require a double lung transplant.

Eric Peoples joins us now from his home in Carthage, Missouri. And from Kansas City, Missouri, we're also joined by his lawyer, Ken McClain.

Gentlemen, welcome and thank you for your time.


OLBERMANN: Let me start with you, Mr. Peoples.

What was your job at this popcorn plant and how much risk did you think you were taking?

ERIC PEOPLES, WON $20 POPCORN LAWSUIT: My job at the popcorn plant for over a year was what we called the oil mixer.

I would take the soybean oil, add the butter flavoring and the salt, as well as the flavor flavoring and then it would be pumped via tubing into the proper vats to be put into the bags of microwave popcorn. During my employment, I had no idea that we were in any kind of risk whatsoever. Every package that I saw said everything was safe. We were working with food. I just - I couldn't fathom that anything that you would eat could possibly make you, you know ill, something to fix it.

OLBERMANN: Obviously, it has. How bad is your health, sir? What are they telling you about your future?

PEOPLES: Well, my future is, I am on a double lung transplant list. However, I have been stable for about three years at around 20 percent total lung capacity. They say for me to breathe every day would be like a normal person with normal capacity to breathe through a soda straw.

OLBERMANN: Mr. McClain, you're handling 29 other lawsuits from former employees. And, obviously, your clients are your foremost concern. But are we at all sure yet that consumers are absolutely safe, that there is no risk to somebody who has a bag of popcorn in the microwave as we're speaking here?

KEN MCCLAIN, LAWYER FOR PEOPLES: No, we're not. And that is the real troubling thing.

We know what to do for the workers. We know what respiratory protection now is needed, now that this terrible event has happened. But one of the troubling things about this case is that some of my clients worked in the quality assurance department in the laboratory. And their job was to pop popcorn.

And so a number of them are sick as well. And so really we don't know what the safe level of exposure is to diacetyl. And we're very interested in the EPA following up to be certain that the use of butter-flavored popcorn in the home is not a hazard as well.

OLBERMANN: Mr. Peoples, your lawyer just referred to the changes for the protections for the workers. Is your old plant still open? Are there guys doing your old job? Are they being protected from the things that have injured you?

PEOPLES: Yes, in fact, the plant is operating right now, still using the same butter flavoring. It is just the handling is different. The guys that do my job now are in hooded respirators. They wear almost like a space suit-looking device.

The mixing room itself is completely shut off, as well as the mezzanine, where the holding tanks are, are completely shut off from the rest of the warehouse. The ingredients are sealed. There is no contact to the air whatsoever when mixing these ingredients. And the ventilation is, I would say, above adequate.

OLBERMANN: Eric Peoples and his lawyer, Ken McClain, gentlemen, thank you.

And, Mr. Peoples, all of our best wishes here.

MCCLAIN: Thank you, Keith.

PEOPLES: Thank you.

OLBERMANN: Two more things to know about tonight's No. 2 story. The top two products that also use one of the chemicals that's give microwave popcorn its butter flavoring, diacetyl, No. 2, the perfect popcorn aperitif, beer, and, No. 1, to really round out your diet, some cigarettes, too.

Now to again pause the COUNTDOWN to shoo away the better angels of our nature and instead leave the playing field for the baser instincts, celebrity news or, as we call it, "Keeping Tabs."

Whitney Houston is in rehab. The 40-year-old singer who, a little over a year ago, proclaimed that she had gotten over past drug abuse through the power of prayer evidently has not had one in the world, not lately anyway. This will make an interesting twofer for Houston and her husband, Bobby Brown. Last month, he was sent to the hoosegow for 60 days for having violated his probation, including a charge that he had whacked his wife in the month.

Yes, that was pioneer artist Chubby Checker protesting the induction festivities in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. He's not in it, but he says that is not why he says he was complaining. Checker says his hit "The Twist" is not played often enough on the radio. "'Twist and Shout' gets more air play than 'The Twist,'" he says, "and that's not right. I don't get the air play that one in my position deserves."

Ah, music on the radio is based on a seniority system. Mr. Checker also complains that his new material isn't getting played, his "Limbo Rock Remixes" is No. 16 on Billboard's hot dance singles chart. Checker's catalogue of hits includes "The Twist," 1960, "Let's Twist Again," 1961, also "Slow Twisting," "Texas Twist," "You Should Play My Twist Song More Often on the Radio," and the political protest dance mix, "L. Patrick Gray's Twisting in the Wind." And he says he doesn't get enough airtime.

On the other hand, the star of our friend William Hung continues to rise, from "American Idol" to COUNTDOWN, back to "American Idol," back to COUNTDOWN. He's now become an Internet pop-up ad, Hung's picture adorning a trivia quiz about which song he sang during his infamous "American Idol" audition. Eat your heart out, Chubby Checker. We would show you what that ad looks like, but we here at COUNTDOWN have taken a stand against pop-up ads. They're annoying, intrusive. They break your concentration while you're trying to - never mind.

One story shy of a completed COUNTDOWN. Tonight's No. 1 story up next. Here's your hint. If this is one of the many faces of Jesus, what about the many clothes of Jesus and the many shoes and the many accessories? Oh, boy.


OLBERMANN: Back to the COUNTDOWN and tonight's No. 1 story.

Jesus Christ, this guy is getting a lot of publicity. Firstly, having already becoming the highest grossing gross film in history, the highest grossing film performed in several dead languages in history, "The Passion" has added another record to the type. Barring a sudden surge by the new Val Kilmer thriller, Mel Gibson's film will become the highest grossing R-rated film ever. More boffo box office reports, as it will pass "The Matrix" in ticket sales any day now.

That's the not-surprising news. Three weeks into the phenomena otherwise known as "The Passion," the biggest surprise might be in this poll. A survey for the Institute For Jewish and Community Research, eight in 10 Americans familiar with the film say it has made them - not made them more or less likely to blame today's Jews for Jesus' crucifixion; 9 percent said it actually made them less likely to blame them; 2 percent said more likely.

It's not all about Gibson or brotherhood, though. It's also about personal glory. James Caviezel, the actor who plays Christ in the film, got to meet the pope. Yesterday morning, this was, at the Vatican, which confirmed the visit, but released no details, nor did Caviezel, who would say only that he was moved by the meeting. It's been quite a role for the man who once played "Slov" Slovnik in the film "G.I. Jane."

During production of "The Passion," he was hit by lightning, which, in the final part of our No. 1 story, is probably about how some of the faithful feel about developments from the world of merchandise. Come to think of it, you can still be an atheist and still be offended at this. It is the new dress-up Jesus, a magnetic game showing Christ on the cross, available at an Urban Outfitters near you.

The kit is designed to look just like a book of paper dolls. Among the interchangeable outfits, a devil suit, a black skull skirt, and even a hula skirt for those trips to Waikiki, a sort of follow-up to Urban Outfitters other lines of other Jesus-related products, including wrapping paper and a "Jesus is my Homeboy" trucker cap. The company says it's just reflecting the diversity of opinion within its consumer base.

Not everyone is convinced diversity is a good thing right here.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Totally inappropriate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's probably pretty in line with Urban Outfitters' stuff. They're - I don't know - a guess a little bit irreverent.


_OLBERMANN: Even more to the point, since when does Jesus wear briefs? _

The question conveniently brings us to the No. 1 one thing you need to know about tonight's No. 1 story, not that they're pushing for historical accuracy. Nonetheless, the earlier possible date Jesus could have worn briefs would have been 1935. On January 19 of that year, Jockey introduced the first briefs to the world, unwittingly spawning the most inane campaign question in history, boxers or brief, Mr. Christ?

Let's recap the top five COUNTDOWN stories, the ones we think you'll be talking about tomorrow. No. 5, the footage of Osama bin Laden, caught on camera by an unmanned CIA drone the year before 9/11, obtained exclusively by NBC News. Now the question remains, why didn't we get him then? There will be more on this story tomorrow night on COUNTDOWN. Four, Jackson and the grand jury, a request from Michael Jackson to testify voluntarily. Sources say he will decline. His ex-wife, Lisa Marie Presley, could be next, after an interview on Australian television.

Three, the horrors of the highways. Police name Charles McCoy Jr. as the suspect in the sniper shootings around Columbus, Ohio, after his father gives authorities one of his alleged weapons. McCoy is still on the loose tonight. Two, the proof, sadly enough, in the popcorn, vapors from the butter flavoring at a microwave popcorn factory leaving ex-worker Eric Peoples with permanent damage to his lungs. Now the government is investigating the effects of the butter vapor.

And, No. 1, the profit of Jesus - profit with an f, not with a ph. "The Passion" set to become the most popular R-rated movie in history, Urban Outfitters cashing in on the trend with its very own, very controversial dress-up magnetic Jesus doll.

That's COUNTDOWN. Thanks for being part of it. I'm Keith Olbermann.

Good night and good luck.