Monday, December 6, 2004

'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for Dec. 6

Guest: Dana Milbank, Derrick Pitts


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

The Zawahiri early warning system. A week after the terrorist played his tape, a U.S. consulate in Saudi Arabia is hit. At least five Saudi staffers, at least three attackers are dead.

The 9/11 intelligence reform bill is (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Compromises over realtime wartime intelligence today, and both Houses may vote as soon as tomorrow.

Inside baseball. If the game won't clean up its steroid act, John McCain says Congress will. But can it really override a union contract, especially one it already held hearings on?

And evidence suggests bacteria could live or could have lived on Mars. So what happens when we start sending spaceships to Mars? What if the bacteria comes back with them? What if it's smart bacteria? What if it's evil bacteria? What if Mars attacks?

All that and more now on Countdown.


OLBERMANN: Good evening. The logical fallacy is that knee-jerk part of life in which event A occurs and then event B follows, and the natural, and usually wrong, assumption is to conclude that event A caused event B.

Our fifth story on the Countdown tonight, it's not always wrong. For the ninth time in six years, a statement from the al Qaeda second in command, Ayman al Zawahiri, was followed by in short order a terrorist attack, this time against Americans in Saudi Arabia.

Five militants stormed the United States consulate in Jeddah, firing machine guns and grenades at the gate to get inside. Some consulate members say they were taken hostage, used as human shields, while Saudi security agents exchanged gunfire with the terrorists.

It was over in half an hour, with three of the five attackers killed, the other two taken into custody. One guard, four embassy workers killed. No Americans were hurt. The State Department is characterizing the attack as an al Qaeda failure, with spokesman Adam Ereli telling reporters, quote, "chalk one up for us against the terrorists."

But chalk one down when it comes to finding Zawahiri and the rest of the al Qaeda leadership. Just hours after meeting with President Bush, the Pakistan leader Pervez Musharraf told "The Washington Post" that the hunt for al Qaeda is foundering. That's in part because soldiers have trouble distinguishing which factions along the Afghan border actually belong to al Qaeda.

And as for Osama bin Laden himself, Musharraf says they have no idea where he might be hiding. Quote, "He is alive, but more than that, where he is, no, it will be just a guess, and it won't have much basis." When the paper asked whether bin Laden's trail has truly gone cold, Musharraf added, "yes, if you mean we don't know. From that point of view, we don't know where he is."

As we often do on looking for perspective on al Qaeda's activities, we turn to counterterrorism analyst, former National Security Council counterterrorism coordinator Roger Cressey. Good evening, Roger.


OLBERMANN: Five dead at the U.S. consulate in Jeddah. No car bomb. Five attackers. Two of them captured alive. Is the State Department assessment of this correct? Is it an al Qaeda failure? Can we even be certain that it was al Qaeda, given the results?

CRESSEY: Well, if the standard is American casualties, then it was an al Qaeda failure, and a success for U.S. and Saudi forces. It's probably al Qaeda, because these guys cased the embassy for some time. They saw how the guard system and the gate system worked. So it wasn't just a group of local jihadis getting pissed off at the mosque, and decided to take things into their own hands. I think there was more to it than that.

OLBERMANN: Back to the logical fallacy element. Any chance that this attack today was not cued by the tape last week, that there was not some sort of go signal?

CRESSEY: Oh, there's a high probability of it. I mean, Jeddah is one of these places where there's such strong anti-Americanism that, you know, you're going to have these type of attacks on a semi-regular basis. So you know, the Zawahiri tape could be key to this, or could be key to something completely different.

I mean, he talked about Egypt, he talked about Iraq, he talked about Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, all of which are potential targets, based on what he said in this tape.

OLBERMANN: So it may be a logical fallacy after all.

The other subject, Roger, President Musharraf's comments on bin Laden and more generally about the state of play against al Qaeda. Something rings off key to me on this. I can't tell if it's a disconnect between his viewpoint and the Bush administration, or if it's that there's been no progress. Forgive me for asking you, but what is bothering me about this?

CRESSEY: Well, I think everyone around the White House kind of gritted their teeth when they heard him say that. They did a collective d'oh!

You know, you don't want Musharraf to say this publicly.

There's a disconnect. Look, if Pakistan had its way, there would be a much stronger American presence on the border. They would continually be pushing to try and determine where exactly not just bin Laden is, but the other members of the jihadist group surrounding him are hiding out.

I mean, the Paks have done a half-decent job in the past few months in finding and sweeping through some of the big areas, but the bottom line is, Keith, they do not own this territory. The local tribesmen do, and it is very easy for bin Laden and his immediate associates to hide.

OLBERMANN: Roger, do we spend more time talking about going after bin Laden than actually pursuing him?

CRESSEY: Well, there's a pretty hard and fast rule, that we cannot do cross-border operations inside Pakistan. That is a real constraint on our part. So we kind of think we know where he is, but look, he could be in Waziristan, he could be in some of the major metropolitan areas. He could be in Kashmir for all we know.

There's a real constraint in our ability to operate inside Pakistan, and that's been a real problem.

OLBERMANN: Counterterrorism analyst Roger Cressey. As always, sir, great, thanks for your time tonight.

CRESSEY: Good to see you, Keith.

OLBERMANN: In response to the attack in Jeddah, President Bush again underscored what he sees as the connection between the global war on terror and Iraq. Meeting with that country's interim president at the White House, the president reaffirmed his commitment to a January 30th election date, and then connected his dots.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The attacks in Saudi Arabia remind us that the terrorists are still on the move. They are interested in affecting the will of free countries. They want us to leave Saudi Arabia. They want us to leave Iraq. They want us to grow timid and weary in the face of their willingness to kill randomly and kill innocent people. And that's why these elections in Iraq are very important.


OLBERMANN: While Iraqi Interim President Yawar headed to our nation's capital for that meeting, Sunni Muslim groups held their own gathering in the Iraqi capital. Representatives of about 40 political movements there also warned that a January election could plant the first seed for a civil war in that country. This after a weekend of violence that killed at least 80.

Insurgents are increasingly targeting Iraqis who work with the coalition. In Mosul, 18 Kurdish fighters were killed by a suicide bomb. The following day, a bus full of Iraqi contractors working with the U.S. was ambushed. Seventeen more killed there, another 20 wounded.

In Ramadi, mortar rounds aimed at a U.S. military base missed their target, landing instead in a residential area, killing a woman and a child.

In Fallujah, meanwhile, aid works with the Red Crescent, the equivalent of the Red Cross, pulled out because of the continuing insecurity in that city.

Also looking to leave not just one city but the entire country, eight U.S. soldiers. Today they filed a federal lawsuit to get them out of the Army and back home. All were scheduled to be mustered out, but thanks to the Army's new stop-loss policy, they cannot leave their posts in Iraq and Kuwait until relieved. The Army measure, which was first used during Desert Storm, was enacted last spring as a way to promote continuity on the battlefield, but the eight defendants argue it is unconstitutional, because it violates their right to due process.

Seven of the plaintiffs are named only as John Does in the suit, for fear of recrimination from the Army. David Quall is the only one named. Currently home on leave, but if the court does not act shortly, he will be returning to Iraq next week.

Pat Tillman, of course, was in harm's way voluntarily. He was the Army Ranger who had quit the Arizona Cardinals football team and who died from friendly fire in Afghanistan in April.

That much we knew, even then. But as our correspondent Jim Miklaszewski reports from the Pentagon now, it turns out there was much more to tell, and that there are now questions as to why it wasn't told.


JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As they go on patrol in Afghanistan, Pat Tillman's platoon of Special Forces Army Rangers got bogged down with a broken down humvee. A senior commander back at home base ordered the platoon to split up, one group to return the humvee.

Now separated, that group was ambushed by enemy fighters. Rangers from the other group, led by Tillman, rushed to their aid. But in the failing light of twilight, it was apparently impossible to tell friend from foe.

STEVE COLL, WASHINGTON POST: Neither group knew where the other was, and they sort of smashed into each other in the heat of battle.

MIKLASZEWSKI: Tillman's group came under fire, not from the enemy but from his fellow Rangers. With no radio contact between the two groups, Tillman shouts of "friendly, cease fire," were drowned out by heavy machine gun fire.

When the shooting stopped, Tillman stood up, but was immediately cut down by another burst of friendly fire.

But the Army kept the details of his death a secret, and it wasn't until five weeks after Tillman was buried at hero's ceremony that even his family learned how he died.

Now some members of Tillman's unit have already been handed disciplinary action, but the Army recently reopened the investigation, to determine if anyone higher up the chain of command should be held accountable.

Jim Miklaszewski, NBC News, the Pentagon.


OLBERMANN: And you may recall that on Friday here, we reported that the National Football League had threatened to fine a Pittsburgh Steelers player if he again tried to honor Pat Tillman's memory during a game.

Well, key quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was warned he faced a penalty of $5,000 if he again wrote either Tillman's uniform number, 40, or the acronym "PFJ," meaning "play for Jesus," on his football shoes.

As Pittsburgh beat Jacksonville 17 to 16 last night, Roethlisberger's shoes were without either "PFJ" or 40. The NFL won't let Roethlisberger pay tribute to Tillman, but as we also pointed out here on Friday, they'd be still happy to sell you a replica Tillman jersey for just $64.95.

From the passers to passage, the deadlock over the 9/11 reform bill may be at an end. The mounting pressures in D.C. to get the bill passed, now.

And baseball and steroids, capitol threatening to straighten things out if pro baseball can't clean up its own drug filled house. You are watching Countdown on MSNBC.


OLBERMANN: Pro baseball and politics colliding. Does congress really have the power to step in and do something in the wake of a steroid scandal. Stand by.


OLBERMANN: It is not the best timing in the world. The Tops company, the leading manufacturer of baseball cards since 1952, today revealing its biggest deal ever with a player for two years and for money in the low seven figures, it has just gotten the exclusive right to make picture cards of Barry Bonds . Could have been worse, somebody could have just signed him to deal to endorse their vitamins.

Our fourth story on the Countdown, the steroid fallout, day five, with a senator threatening legislation. It not necessarily personally directed at Bonds himself, but it might as well be. Senator John McCain of Arizona, noting that baseball's fame antitrust exemption gives Congress the right to regulate the sport. And if the owners and players do not fix the steroid and human growth hormone scandal themselves, Congress should do it for them.

That he will introduce legislation next month if need be. All this in the wake of the revelation last week of grand jury testimony last year. Under oath, Barry Bonds admitted getting and ingesting liquids and creams he thought were supplements from his personal weight trainer.

Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees admitted getting and ingesting liquids and creams that he knew were steroids and hormones from Bonds' personal weight trainer.

With timing almost as troubled as the baseball card deal, the player's union, just happened to be having annual meetings scheduled today in Phoenix. The union hastily announcing it had intended to talk about steroids even before the grand jury testimony had been leaked. McCain said, the union better do a lot more than talk.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA:... past time. And any perversion or distortion or corruption of the process is something that most Americans and baseball fans find very offensive. And a lot Of Americans as I am are deeply concerned not only about the professional baseball players, but the fact is that, there's a growing belief on the part of high school athletes that the only way they can make it in the big leagues to take and ingest these performance-enhancing drugs which is incredibly damaging. That's the really the problem.


OLBERMANN: But for all of the senator's rhetoric, how much can Congress really do?

To try to answer that I'm joined by "Newsweek's" chief political correspondent and MSNBC analyst Howard Fineman.

Good evening, Howard.


OLBERMANN: I know you're ticked off about this subject in particular, but what are the legalities here. If Senator McCain gets a bill passed demanding testing for steroids in baseball, every player every week and the owners and players already have a collective bargaining agreement in a place, in a process that's already been held up by the courts, and a process that was already reviewed by Congress last year. Can anybody really make a new law sort of preempting all that?

FINEMAN: Well, it's kind of hard to do. And federal labor law does give employers and employees a lot of leeway in the kind of deals they make. But they are supposed to go toward things like hours and working conditions and so forth. And McCain is going to make the argument, I talked to his top staffers this afternoon, I mean, he is serious about this. Trying to get inside that agreement and say you've got to do more, because the federal government does regulate interstate commerce, baseball is interstate commerce. And also labor law agreements aren't supposed to protect trafficking in or failure to discover trafficking in substances that are only supposed to be obtained by a doctor's prescription. These are class three drugs that are supposed to be prescribed by doctors, not given away by people in basement labs.

OLBERMANN: Howard, Senator McCain said, he'd be happy if baseball

simply applied the standards it has - the fairly stringent standards for

minor league players to the major league players. Of course, that is

exactly what the players association would not want. The players

association might be the strongest union of any kind in this country. If

he does legislature this does he not, in essence, put the government on the

side of the owners, against the players

FINEMAN: Well, he'll argue. And again, talking to his people, I know that he will argue, that - what he's after here is to help baseball as a whole. Don't forget, Keith, that the owners haven't exactly, until quite recently, until the heat was put on by stories like the Barry Bonds story, they haven't been pounding the table and demanding to - that they're going to lock out the players unless they agree to something like this. Nobody in baseball wants to stop the merry go round of entertainment and 60 home run years, 70 home run years that put the fans in the seats. And McCain is saying it may require something from outside of baseball to do it. And they say to me, the staffers say, look, we would prefer the players and the owners to do this voluntarily. But we don't think any more that they're going to be able to do it.

OLBERMANN: Owners using home runs for profit, who would ever expect that to happen in baseball?

But since the 1950's, the flipside of this, one of the favorite

pastimes in the Senate has been to hold hearings about baseball, and other

sports too, but primarily baseball. Casey Stingle testifying in his mumbo

jumbo in the '50s and Mickey Mantle sitting down behind the microphone and

saying, I agree with Casey. But there has not been really one piece of

legislation from Congress in all the time expressing the oversight right

that McCain claims. Is there likely to be one this time

FINEMAN: I think it could happen. I think what - what the owners and players have to watch out for here is, is this thing gets loose on the floor of the House or Senate. If that happens, there will be an overwhelming vote in favor of some kind of new regulation and they'll send it to the federal courts and hope that the judge sitting on the bench is a baseball purist, who's offended by a lot of what's going on here. And McCain's real intent here has to do with heroism in high school. He believes in the idea of sports figures being heroes. And believes in the idea that sports, especially at the scholastic level should be clean. Those are powerful arguments, that if they get loose on the floor of the Congress could actually go somewhere. And don't forget one other thing, there is a guy in the White House now, a president who was a baseball executive. And we also have here in Washington the new situation where baseball is going to be back this town for the first time in 30 years and it's going to have a lot more visibility in a stadium just down East Capitol Street from the United States Capitol.

OLBERMANN: A president who once traded Sammy Sosa before anybody...

FINEMAN: Yes, he did that.

OLBERMANN:... questioned where his strength was coming from.


OLBERMANN: Howard Fineman, of "Newsweek" and MSNBC. As always, sir, great thanks.

FINEMAN: Sure, Keith.

OLBERMANN: And we have one brief update tonight connected to sports, and it's good news, out of Grand Junction, Colorado. NBC Sports and Olympic Chairman Dick Ebersol and his 21-year-old son Charlie were today released from St. Mary's Hospital there, eight days after their plane crash.

From sports and sports figures, to the wide world of "Oddball" sports. When you think Olympics, you do think rats, don't you? You might if you live in Nebraska. Oh, don't give Dick Ebersol any ideas.

And Ohio's vote. Today's certification was supposed to be an ending. Instead it just the start of a recounting process. More complicated and much more mainstream that ever expected. Stand by.


OLBERMANN: We're back and we pause the Countdown now to step away from the day's important news to waste a few minutes with a couple of completely meaningless stories with no news value whatsoever. I mean, waste a few more minutes. Let's play "Oddball."

We begin in Lincoln, Nebraska, for the 30th annual extreme rat challenge. It used to be known as the rat Olympics, but there was some ugliness with the U.S. Olympic Committee. Obviously, that compromised Rat Olympics didn't work either.

Nearly hundreds of people turned out to watch the annual competition at Nebraska Wesleyan University. The rats are from the psychology lab there, so after the games it's back to sensory deprivation chambers and shock treatments, just like for the real Olympians.

In addition to the 100-meter hurdles, the rope events are crowd favorites, as is the long jump. But the event was marred afterwards, when two-thirds of the rats tested positive for human growth hormone.

Elsewhere in the animal kingdom, Canadian biologists showing off one of those discoveries that makes a man stop and think about his place on the planet. Also makes a man stop and hold his nose to avoid the hideous stench.

This cute and cuddly giant squid washed up on the shores of Newfoundland this week. It is 10 feet long, not including the tentacles. It weighs a couple of hundred pounds, and it is as dead as Elvis Presley.

Who was a huge calimari fan, by coincidence.

Scientists have never observed a living giant squid, but they theorize that while alive, they smell a lot better and they are probably less willing to pose for group pictures.

Finally, to New York City where the historic Algonquin Hotel is offering a very special cocktail this holiday season, $10,000 martini. The kind Dorothy Parker used to drink there. Oh, no, that was $10,000 worth of martinis.

The high price tag is due to the loose diamond at the bottom of the glass, which the customer selects 72 hours in advance. Staff then makes sure the drink is delivered to the right table in the restaurant, also keeping a medic on standby in case the Heimlich maneuver becomes necessary.

So far they have sold exactly none of these drinks, but if it takes off, they are also considering an $8,000 sub sandwich, with a 32-karat ruby stuffed inside a meatball.

The 9/11 reform bill, a compromise has been reached. We heard that before from Capitol Hill. Is this really the reality this time?

And Mars attacks. Could life as we know it here all come to an end because of minuscule Martian molecules? Film at 11.

Those stories ahead. Now here are Countdown's "Top 3 Newsmakers" of this day.

No. 3, Wittaykorn Arlinpas. A convict from Bangkok, Thailand. Officials had charged him with robbery of 100 homes while he was a prisoner. They say that he bribed guards to let him in and out of the prison to rob the homes. He even rented a motorcycle from the guards to get from job to job. He has been moved to a new Thai prison with more expensive guards.

No. 2, Paulo Diogo, midfielder of the Swiss soccer team, Cervette (ph). Doctors were forced to amputate his middle finger yesterday after he injured it celebrating a goal. Diogo climbed up a fence to high-five fans in the crowd, got the finger stuck in the metal grating. To add insult to injury, he was also issued a yellow card by the referee for excessive celebration. At least he can't flip anybody off anymore.

No. 1, judge John R. Sloop of Seminole County, Florida. Courthouse personnel on Friday mistakenly directed 11 people to the wrong traffic courtroom just 100 feet down the hall from Judge Sloop's. When they did not show up in his court, the judge ordered all 11 people arrested for failure to appear. They spent eight hours in jail before it was all straightened out. Terrible, of course, but probably not as terrible as spending your entire life sounding almost like the title of a Beach Boys song.

Sloop John R.!


OLBERMANN: It apparently boiled down to spy satellites. The all Republican fratricidal war over intelligence reform and the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission came to an apparent end this afternoon, when compromise was reached about not adding an extra level bureaucracy to the handling of real-time spy satellite data by commanders in the field.

Our third story on the Countdown, faced with making a deal on the bill now or forgetting about it until next year, lawmakers apparently made the deal. The House could now vote as early as tomorrow to reorganize the country's 15 intelligence agencies under the direction of one Cabinet-level intelligence director. House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter objecting to the original language of the 9/11 bill, expressing concerns that the reorganization would interfere with military chain of command.

Compromise reached late this afternoon. And Hunter said, pending review of the rest of the legislation, "We are prepared to support the bill as amended by this new language."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who had previously promised 9/11 families, that the bill would come to a vote before the election, would not do so because of the objections from Hunter and the Judiciary chair, James Sensenbrenner.

So did enough of slow-moving gears of Congress grind today? Or is this just another false alarm?

Dana Milbank is national political reporter for "The Washington Post."

She's been good enough to join us again tonight.

Dana, good evening.


Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Is this settled-settled or is this just kind of politically fluid settled?

MILBANK: Well, we always are in danger of making these kinds of predictions, but a vote could go against it in the Senate. Sensenbrenner could pull out some surprise tomorrow, but it looks like it is going to happen.

And it shows that despite the best efforts of the president and the Congress, occasionally, the government actually gets something done.

OLBERMANN: The compromise that got that done as it now stands, what is the headline? What made it that was doubtful? What didn't make it that was supposed to be definite?

MILBANK: Well, what is interesting is what they actually acted upon was weakening the legislation, and that was protecting the turf of the Pentagon. That is really what it came down to in the corresponding committees in the Congress. When it came to actually strengthening the proposals, that's what Congressman Sensenbrenner was talking about doing in terms of immigration reform.

Well, forget about that. So it is sort of predictable that, as it would go along, it would get weakened. And now there's - it is reasonable to raise questions about, as with all reforms, does this actually help the situation or have we merely passed some window dressing?

OLBERMANN: Will the 9/11 families who pushed so hard for this legislation be mollified by it or will they think it has been watered down to too great a degree?

MILBANK: Well, based on some of the extraordinary things they were saying in advance, charging some of these members of Congress with killing their sons and daughters, suggesting that they are trying to let terrorists into the borders, it is hard to see how people like that would be mollified, but certainly this is what the families wanted. This is what the 9/11 Commission wanted. It looks like it is going to happen now.

OLBERMANN: You mentioned turf. As a last question, was this a special case because of the complexity of the bill, in other words, the political machinations, or did we just see something of a template for how Republicans in Congress intend to work among themselves during the second term, i.e., we will do it when we are good and ready?

MILBANK: No, I think that's just the point.

And the White House learned this as well, that it is no more of this as it was during the first term, where the president would say the word and Congress would leap, or the Republican leadership would leap to do his bidding. They don't feel that they owe him anything particularly now. We are going to see a lot them bringing out their pet proposals.

And they are not going to back down as quickly as they had during the first term. And that is going to make for quite a bit of excitement here.

OLBERMANN: Who needs Democrats when you have two different sets of Republicans?

Dana Milbank, national political reporter for "The Washington Post," as ever, sir, great thanks.

MILBANK: Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN: The next negotiation in Congress might have to be about the man who is supposed to take over as homeland secretary in the new intelligence order. "Newsweek" magazine reporting ethically question business dealings on the part of secretary-designate Bernard Kerik.

It cites a case in which, as police commissioner of New York, he ordered four security doors from a firm that he later would serve as an adviser, another case in which he spent $3,000 in police funds to create busts in his own likeness, and a third in which he got $5.8 million in stock options to flip as director of a company which made Tasers, Tasers sold to the NYPD during his tenure there, "Newsweek" underscoring that none of this would be considered illegal.

Long before the confirmation hearings on Kerik, Congress will be opening the votes of the Electoral College, one month from today, in fact, thus a flurry of activity from Ohio, including another odd comment from John Kerry's lead attorney on the ground there, in which he kept his campaign's toe in the water by injecting a qualifier and stating that Mr. Bush's election is - quote - "all but certain."

First off, per schedule, the state's secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, certified the vote, which turned out to be not a 135,000 margin for the president, but rather one of 119,000, and was to be immediately challenged on two fronts.

Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb today scheduling a news conference for tomorrow afternoon in which the recount request from he and the libertarian presidential candidate, Michael Badnarik, will be formalized.

And still delayed, a long, long, long shot bid spearheaded by the man on your right, the attorney Cliff Arnebeck, to have an Ohio Supreme Court justice contest the actual election, holding off making the first count official until voting irregularities are reviewed by a court. Mr. Arnebeck tells us it may be Wednesday before his case is filed, but the protests are not just from the fringes anymore.

Citing the long lines, the shortages of ballots, voting machine meltdowns, spoiled ballots, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe today announcing his party would spend whatever it takes to conduct what it calls a comprehensive investigative study of the vote in Ohio, one that will be completed some time next year.

But just as McAuliffe insisted that the study was not intended to contest the results of the 2004 election, a slightly different message was coming from what remains of the Kerry-Edwards campaign in Ohio. Kerry's lead electoral attorney there, Daniel Hoffheimer, said the study would echo the campaign's insistence that every vote be counted and that everybody in the campaign was very pleased.

Hoffheimer said - quoting here - "Neither the pending Ohio recount, nor this investigation is designed to challenge the popular vote in Ohio." Then, seemingly, just to tantalize a little bit further, he added, "While the election of the Bush-Cheney ticket by the Electoral College is all but certain" - and what happens when the losing party in the election wants to investigate the election, but it has no standing to conduct hearings in, say, the House of Representatives?

It conducts a forum, a friendly little informal gathering of members of the House Judiciary Committee in the Rayburn Office Building day after tomorrow, that the plan of John Conyers and as many as a dozen of the other 15 Democrats on Judiciary, who say they want to "discuss any issues and concerns regarding the numerous voting irregularities that have been reported in Ohio during the 204 election" - unquote.

Congress has invited a special guest, Warren Mitofsky, the head of one of the companies that conducted exit polling for the TV networks. Conyers has written to Mitofsky, asking him to release any of the so-called raw data from November 2, the materials constituting the exit polls that fired such controversy, particularly on the Internet. And he would ask him also to show up at Wednesday's little gathering.

Conyers' office says it has not received a reply yet from Mr. Mitofsky. Last week, Conyers and 11 other members of the Judiciary Committee wrote to Ohio State of Secretary Blackwell asking 34 specific questions about last month's vote there, starting with the still unexplained lockdown of access during vote counting in Warren County, outside of Cincinnati.

Packed roads, frustrated drivers, extreme commutes getting more and more common, as the trek to work each day gets longer and longer for millions. And deja vu all over again at Neverland, police returning to Michael Jackson's ranch, but tonight new details about what they wanted while they were there.

Now here are Countdown's top three sound bites of this day.


ELMO, "SESAME STREET": Elmo will get to take a nap in Lincoln's Bedroom. That would be so cool and comfy. And maybe, just maybe, Elmo can land a Cabinet position. Do they have a secretary of the alphabet.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Whose idea was it, Mickey (ph), to sell Colin's (ph) grandfather's ghost?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He asked his mom could she sell his stuff? She goes, could we sell grandpa's ghost on eBay? So she come about thinking maybe we can sell his cane. And if we sell the cane, grandpa will go with it because he uses it to walk.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. Unbelievable.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go back where you belong.



OLBERMANN: If the long drive to work doesn't get you, Mars might, extreme commutes for some workers on this planet and bacteria for everybody else. Interstate and intergalactic headlines ahead on your full-service Countdown news hour.


OLBERMANN: Breaking news from Chicago tonight of a high-rise office building, the LaSalle National Bank, 45 stories tall, just to the west of Grant Park, reporting flames starting at about 6:30 p.m. Central time tonight. At least one witness who fled the building telling our local Chicago NBC station, WMAQ, that she heard instructions to evacuate broadcast over the building public address system and that the announcement indicated that the fire had broken out on 29th floor.

Police could not confirm other witness reports of people still trapped inside waving for help, although the video appears to indicates that you saw some just there. But Chicago's 911 call center says it has received calls from 20 - or, rather, from 30 to 40 people in need from people on the 26th, 27th, 30th and 34th floors of this building, again, a 45-story high-rise building in downtown Chicago, also calls from the roof tonight.

Fire trucks and ambulances confirmed sent to the three-alarm fire. The address, 135 South LaSalle Street, downtown Chicago, a location that would put it just east of the intersection of the Eisenhower and Kennedy expressways. We will be following this story, needless to say, throughout the evening here on MSNBC.

Meantime, why the Hewlett Packard company commissioned the study is anybody's guess. Perhaps they were trying to prove that the stress levels on the world's fighter pilots were so great that every air force had to buy their computer technology just to reduce it. If so, the scheme failed perfectly.

Our No. 2 story on the Countdown, it turns out being a fighter pilot or a policeman going into a riot is less stressful than being a commuter, especially with the advent of super-commuters, people who spend nearly as much time getting to work as they do at work. It turns out we have one here. I shouldn't be exactly shocked about this. I hired him. I just didn't know he's a super-computer.

Countdown's Monica Novotny joins me now for the story of the marathon man who turns out to represent countless marathon men and women.

Monica, good evening.


Researchers say that even short journeys can induce extremely high levels. And thus, they say, commuting really is bad for your health. But try telling that to the fastest growing group of commuters, those who travel 90 minutes or more between work and home each day.

Now, here at Countdown, we just had to ask, who does that? Well, we got our answer.


DENIS HORGAN, Countdown SENIOR PRODUCER: I'm one of 3.4 million people that have been talked into some crazy decision to drive across three states to get to work every day.

NOVOTNY (voice-over): The new road warriors, commuters who take it the extreme, crossing a battlefield of state lines, time zones and toll booths for an hour and a half or more just to get to work.

Countdown's own senior producer, Denis Horgan, covers 90 miles each day.

HORGAN: I don't get the road rage. I'm way too cool for that.

NOVOTNY: Though the average commuter in the U.S. travels about 26 minutes each way, 20 million need 45 minutes or more and almost 3.5 million Americans commute at least 90 minutes each way.

MANTILL WILLIAMS, AAA SPOKESMAN: They get to work at a high-paying job, but they also get to get a piece of that American dream, an affordable house.

NOVOTNY: Off-peak work shifts help, as does a lot of patience. Witness Horgan's Countdown's commute. Starting point Kent, Connecticut, population 2,300. From here, it's south to New York state, then on to MSNBC headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey.

(on camera): So we are about two hours away, 90 miles or so?

HORGAN: Yes, depending on traffic.

NOVOTNY (voice-over): The strategy for sanity where the rubber meets the road, a car that gets good gas mileage. Horgan does diesel.

HORGAN: I get 50 miles a gallon.

NOVOTNY: To pass the time, books on tape, C.D.s maps, satellite radio.

HORGAN: There is no radio out here.

NOVOTNY: And the checklist.

HORGAN: Phone, wallet. I.D. card, sunglasses, car keys.

NOVOTNY: There are stops along the way, a quick coffee pick-up, a pit stop.

HORGAN: No man's commute should have to include a stop for the bathroom.

NOVOTNY: A little quiet time.

HORGAN: Then call Detective Finelli (ph) at homicide.

NOVOTNY: Then the work day starts with a daily conference call.

HORGAN: Hi there. It is Denis.

OLBERMANN: We are pretty desperate for news today, aren't we?

NOVOTNY: Another pit stop.

(on camera): Are we there yet?

HORGAN: No, we are not will yet. We are not there yet. Stop asking.


NOVOTNY (voice-over): Then time to fill the tank.

(on camera): So, why do you get gas in New Jersey?

HORGAN: Full serve, baby.

NOVOTNY (voice-over): But though the super-commute can be done, should it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is going to be taking time away from your family, time away from your sleep. It is going to add stress on to you.

NOVOTNY: Finally, after almost two hours on the road.

HORGAN: This is where I feel like, I'm finally here. And then I walk in. I realize I have to work.

NOVOTNY: Until it is time to get back in the car.

(on camera): What makes it worth it?

HORGAN: I don't know. I will let you know when I find out.



NOVOTNY: If you are considering adding a super-commute to your life, consider this. Spending just 90 minutes traveling each way to work adds up to about 30.5 days of commuting per year.

For Mr. Horgan, Denis, as we call him, he says he averages about 1:40 minutes between work and home. That is about 34 full days per hear. If you hear screaming in the background, that is probably him - Keith.

OLBERMANN: So you asked him what makes it worth it and he didn't say working with us?


NOVOTNY: Not at all.

OLBERMANN: Countdown's Monica Novotny, great thanks.

And there's a job open for a senior producer.


OLBERMANN: Speaking of commuting and looking around, what were they poking around for at Michael Jackson's place on Friday? That is the lead story in our nightly roundup of entertainment and celebrity news, "Keeping Tabs."

The answer is DNA. It's your entertainment dollars in action, day 385 of the Michael Jackson investigations. It looked like day one, when the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office first executed a search at Neverland. The Associated Press quotes unnamed sources who say that, when the deputies arrived on Friday with another search warrant, Jackson's lawyer told him to leave and take his kids with him.

The same source says the investigators measured various rooms in the place and then checked to gauge sight lines from one room to another. Then they came back on Saturday and, for the first time, requested a DNA sample from Jackson, who then provided it voluntarily.

And for those of you keeping track, we have a new Miss World. Miss Peru won the event at Sanya beach resort in China over the weekend, beating out the Dominican Republic, second. And Miss USA was third. It's probably Miss Dominican Republic. The voting this year not done by judges, but rather by viewers at home via the Internet. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

Telephone and text messages were also accepted. And as Miss World champion, Miss Peru gets a $100,000 prize, that fancy gold crown and complete authority to wage preemptive action against any country she chooses.

The next big war of course could be interplanetary, if Mars attacks with very, very, very tiny soldiers. And then we can say (INAUDIBLE)


OLBERMANN: Just when man began to speculate about the prospect of life on Mars is unclear. But when he began to speculate about the prospect of unneighborly life on Mars, that is easy, 1897. That's when H.G. Wells' short novel "The War of the Worlds" was originally serialized in "Cosmopolitan" magazine.

Wells' posited Martians headed here to colonize the planet, who got wiped out by ordinary Earth germs. In fact, he may have turned out to have gotten it backwards.

Our No. 1 story on the Countdown, that might not be flu. That might not be a cold. You may have caught a Martian. Data from the rover Opportunity suggesting that life could, did or even does exist on Mars, probably bacteria. And scientists are concerned that, when eventually we send a spaceship to Mars and make it come back here, whether it is manned or unmanned, it might return with hitchhikers, deadly microorganisms, very tiny little green somethings.

Hmm. They are warning Earth - not the Martians, but the scientists -

· to start taking some precautions before the zeal to analyze life on the red planet ends up killing life on our own.

So, I don't want to be an alarmist, but interstellar germs? You and I can't even get a flu shot.

Joining me to assess just how seriously we be taking this is the chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Derrick Pitts.

Mr. Pitts, good evening, sir.


OLBERMANN: Well, most of this concern seems to come from one scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey, Jeffrey Kargel, who wrote this up. Has he got reason to worry? Have we got reason to worry?

PITTS: We should never discount the possibility that there could be some microbe that could come back to Earth as a hitchhiker.

I just don't want us to imagine how long the line is going to be for the flu shot for that with six billion people here on the Earth. But the likelihood of whether this could really happen, so far, there have been no discovery made that indicate that there are any kind of microbes on the surface of Mars. And, again, that doesn't mean we would discount it. It just means that we should prepare as best we can in that eventuality.

OLBERMANN: So how would you in fact keep Martian microbes, if any, on Mars, instead on NASA spaceships or, worse yet, on returning astronauts from Mars?

PITTS: First, I would revoke their visas.

OLBERMANN: OK. That hasn't worked yet.


PITTS: It hasn't worked yet.

Well, after that, the things that you do to make sure that there are no Martian microbes hitchhiking back is, you create environments for the spacecraft when they return where they can get into some sort of sterile environment and they can be handled with the proper care that is necessary for that to happen. We have done it before. When astronauts came back from the moon, we put them in quarantine for several days to make sure that no hitchhikers were going to cause any problems here.

And we can do the same sort of thing again. Again, it is going to be quite a difficult task to make sure that we can completely seal off the environments that are necessary, but it is something we can do.

OLBERMANN: What about the H.G. Wells' scenario? Why do we assume that Martian bacteria could even survive here for any length of time? The atmosphere just in Los Angeles is toxic enough to neutralize most intelligent life. I'm sure we would have a halfway decent chance against Martian microbes, wouldn't we?

PITTS: Well, back at that time, it was thought that life had to be the way we see it here on Earth.

In fact, as it turns out, there is an incredible kind of life called extremophiles that live in the most extreme kinds of environments possible. And those environments actually cover what the environment is like on Mars. So that doesn't preclude the possibility that there could be some microorganisms that could make the trip from there to Earth.

Look at this way. We actually have Martian rocks here on this planet and moon rocks on this planet that have been blasted off by impact from those bodies and have come to Earth traveling through space. So, they have already made the trip. Let's say they actually get here. And many of them are found in Antarctica, where they can just be picked off the ice.

Well, suppose they could possibly live in the environment here. Wouldn't it sort of turn out that the Earth environment, even in Antarctica, would be better than what was on Mars? But so far, none of those meteorites found from either the moon or Mars show any form of life at all. So, whereas it could still be possible, we have to find the microbes and find out what their lifestyle is like, what they need to eat and survive before we can make those claims.

OLBERMANN: So far, if they are here, they are friendly.

Derrick Pitts, the chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute, many thanks. And keep watching the skis - skies.

PITTS: My pleasure, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Thank you, sir.

Before we wrap the program up, let's give you breaking news again, the update from Chicago, where South LaSalle Street in downtown Chicago is filled at this hour with trucks, fire trucks and police, a four-alarm fire.

One lawyer now telling the Associated Press that a stairway in this office building, the LaSalle National Bank building, was blocked by smoke. He was rescued by a firefighter who took him to a freight elevator. A four-alarm fire, downtown Chicago, near Grant Park. Further details as they become available here on MSNBC.

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

Good night and good luck.