Wednesday, January 5, 2005

'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for Jan. 5

Guest: Erick Stakelbeck, Jim Kosek, Tom O'Neil

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

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: I've been in war and I've been through a number of hurricanes, tornadoes and other relief operations, but I have never seen anything like this.

JANSING: Stark reality on the ground in Southeast Asia sets in. And new problems grow, including fears of the trafficking of orphaned victims.

The pledge drive, the United States, Japan, Germany, Australia, each pledging more money than the last. But will all of the billions of dollars pledged globally ever get to the devastated region and the people who need it?

They are big. They are mobile. Now they have a terrorist connection. So says the Boston police department about an east Boston gang that may be smuggling al Qaeda terrorists into America.

And finally from "An Officer and a Gentleman" to spokesman for planet Earth.

RICHARD GERE, ACTOR: Hi, I'm Richard Gere and I'm speaking for the entire world.


All that and more now on Countdown.

GERE: I've got nowhere else to go.


JANSING: Good evening, I'm Chris Jansing, filling in for Keith Olbermann.

And amid the devastation in Indonesia, in Sri Lanka and across southern Asia, there is more trouble tonight. NBC's Kevin Sites has been traveling around Aceh province. He joins us live from the capital tonight. And there has just been a pretty sizable earthquake, I understand, Kevin?

KEVIN SITES, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Chris, we were just standing here preparing for this live shot when we could feel the ground begin to shake.

And behind me - I'm going to step aside and let Toby actually show you this - is a grocery store that was obviously destroyed by the tsunami itself. There's lots of debris there.

And in front of that, you see thousands of people that are waiting in line to receive cartons of water. There's relief organizations here that are actually giving out water. They do this every day. And usually it's about 3,000 to 5,000 people that get water from this location.

Well, when the earthquake started, that whole building, what remains of it, began to shake again. And some of the debris began to come down. And the people in that line just scattered. Many of them got on their motor scooters and took off.

Obviously, there's a sense of tension here following the 9.0, and even yesterday there was a 5.6 quake that happened overnight. We don't know if there was resulting damage from that.

But this was strong enough for that entire building to begin to shake. And there was certainly a fear that that facade where the words are actually printed on it could have come down and could have killed more people here.

But they are desperate enough and needy enough to want to get back in that line and wait for the water. They need this water for their families. It is a critical issue here. There are very short supplies, even though there are relief supplies coming in.

But it's just a testament to, really, how dire the situation is here, that people will stand in front of a destroyed building while an earthquake goes on to wait for the water they need for survival. So again, a very difficult situation, Chris, and I think that just goes to tell you what's happening here in Banda Aceh.

JANSING: Kevin, let me ask you about the quake that just happened, because I was able to watch a little bit of it on the monitor. And it seemed, at least for a few moments and understandably, there was the sense of panic. Am I overstating that?

SITES: No. No, absolutely. And understandably so. These people have been through, you know, one of the worst disasters in history. You know, it's hard to recall anything that has ever been this big in our lifetime.

And so they're understandably jumpy. And with a building like that in such shaky condition, it could have easy come down and killed more people.

And everyone in that line, every single person in that line has probably lost someone or knows someone that has been lost in the tsunami. There are people that are not only physically traumatized by this event but emotionally and psychologically traumatized.

So when that building started shaking, there truly was panic. A lot of people said enough and got on their motor scooters and got out of there. But the line has reformed. There are still about maybe 2,000 people in that line. It winds around all the way to the back and through this front.

And - and they are so desperate. They need to get that water and they don't want to leave, even though they have to stand in front of that building to do so. Maybe tomorrow they will change their location. This is not necessarily the safest location to be giving out water supplies.

JANSING: And we've been watching as they've been waiting to do that. Now as we well know, there have been billions of dollars donated to bring supplies. You've been traveling around Aceh province. What have you seen in terms of getting the help that's needed to the people who need it, Kevin?

SITES: Not enough. Absolutely not enough. It's easy to see the scope of this destruction. You don't have to travel very far to see it at all.

In fact, in the area that we're at right now, the downtown area, just a block away there's total destruction. And the further west that you travel, the closer to the epicenter, it becomes ground zero, literally, as if an atomic bomb had been dropped on the region. Just completely devastated.

And I don't overstate this, as far as the eye can see, as far as you can see, things just leveled. Maybe some pylons standing from a building. Maybe a tree standing, but the devastation is very great.

And there are relief supplies coming in. The airport has been fairly busy. Planes have been backed up, bringing in water, bringing in food. But they could bring in hundreds of bulldozers and backhoes, and the planes could come in nonstop, back-to-back for the next year, and I doubt they would have enough to actually provide for this area.

It will take literally, probably two years for the cleanup alone. Not the rebuilding. I'm just talking about the cleanup. There are bodies and there are buildings everywhere.

In West Aceh where I was yesterday, there are villages that basically have been untouched by the relief supplies. There's not water or food getting to those areas because they're a bit more remote. And we had to go basically trudge through the jungle, or what was left of the jungle, to actually get to these villages.

And the homes there, of course, were made of bamboo and grass and wood, and so they were certainly destroyed. And there are bodies everywhere. It's a very difficult to see and a very difficult for these people to have to live within the midst of.

We saw one group, a group of Indonesian volunteers. There were doctors and lawyers, young professionals. And they were actually recovering bodies from the swamps and from the debris. And it's not something these people do on a regular basis. They're - they're doctors and lawyers and professionals. Very dirty work, very difficult to stomach. And yet they were out there doing it, and you have to admire that.

JANSING: Kevin Sites, live in Banda Aceh tonight. Many thanks to you, Kevin, for your report. Stay safe.

A third of the tsunami victims were children, and thousands of survivors are now orphans. American families are already inundating adoption centers with offers to provide homes for them, but the U.S. government says that's just not possible until all these children have been properly identified and potentially reunited with their families.

And while most people are trying to help these small victims, criminals are deliberately targeting them. Child traffickers rampant in the region.

Officials originally feared that 12-year-old Christian Walker from Sweden had fallen victim to one of them. Doctors at a Thai hospital said he had been treated for his injuries and then left the hospital with a strange man. Now, he is still missing, but police are unsure whether he was actually abducted. And even whether he was ever at the hospital is in question now.

There have been at least two other cases of attempted child kidnapping since the disaster, children who could be sold into forced labor or even sexual slavery.

To try to protect the thousands of children, Indonesia has already put a ban on many adoptions out of Aceh province. And the U.N. is working with the government to set up child registration centers across the country.

I'm joined now by Chip Lyons, the president of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF.

Thank you very much for joining us. And can you tell us what indication UNICEF has had that child traffickers may be at work here?

CHARLES "CHIP" LYONS, PRESIDENT, U.S. FUND FOR UNICEF: One of our colleagues, actually, two days ago was almost certainly the unintended recipient of a text message that said there were 300 children available for adoption and gave the ages.

He sounded the alarm, properly so, because the issue and the phenomena of child trafficking isn't caused by this emergency. It's an established, criminal, ongoing activity in the region and in other regions. Our worry is that it's going to be severely exacerbated because of this emergency.

JANSING: How widespread is it?

LYONS: Well, different organizations that are expert in this estimate globally as many as 1.2 million children are trafficked every single year.

And so in a situation like this Aceh or other parts of the region affected by the crisis, the basic, however minimal they were, but the basic protections for children were also washed away. Parents lost, separated from family. Schools lost, teachers lost. People that knew the children, would help protect them. Authorities responsible for upholding local laws and protecting young people also distracted by the emergency or lost as a result of the emergency.

So we're talking about a situation of extreme vulnerability for already vulnerable children.

JANSING: So from the perspective of UNICEF and from what you know of other organizations who deal with this, what can be done right now to keep these kids safe? I mean, I would think at least a first step would be to make sure in these orphanages they know who's there.

LYONS: Immediately, children need to be registered. And that's already under way as we speak. Supplies being provided, digital cameras, which also has the benefit of having a photograph up to help identify kids and, wherever possible, unite them with their families, extended families, other people in the community that would take responsible care for them.

Part of what we wanted to do immediately was to work with authorities to draw attention to this.

You know, our colleagues, the governments and other organizations are trying to deal with 1,000 things at the same time. But we had to sound the alarm and say that child trafficking, as serious as it is throughout the year, is very possibly going to get much worse in this situation.

The Indonesian authorities, for example, banned children under the age of 16 from leaving the province without one of their parents, just as an immediate step to make sure that there was not trafficking, the removal of children from the area in an illegal and unauthorized way.

JANSING: We only have a short time left, but a lot of Americans and I'm sure people in other countries have watched this and have offered to adopt these children.


JANSING: Not necessarily the best way to help at this point, is it?

LYONS: Well, it's a completely understandable and compassionate response. What's very important is that authorities and organizations have the time they need to establish that there isn't extended or immediate family still.

There's still so much chaos, people separated. They've got to take the time to make sure that those children, see if it's possible to reunite them with family, other community members that would take them in.

JANSING: Chip Lyons with UNICEF, thanks so much for your time and good luck with all of your efforts in Southeast Asia.

LYONS: Thank you, Chris. Thanks for having me.

JANSING: Billions of dollars have already been pledged to the tsunami relief efforts. Will that money end up where it belongs? If history is any guide, maybe not.

And winter weather is back with a vengeance. A day of snow over a large part of the country. And it's not even close to being done.

This is Countdown on MSNBC.


JANSING: Governments, corporations, individuals, even kids, all of them donating money to provide help to tsunami victims. Coming up, how much of those funds will actually make it to the region. That's up next.


JANSING: It is the tale of two numbers. The rising death toll from the tsunami brought with it shock and disbelief. But the ever-rising pledges of financial aid inspire awe and gratitude.

Our No. 4 story on the Countdown tonight, the numbers behind this tragedy.

The U.S. State Department today raised the American death toll to 36, with 20 of the victims missing and now presumed dead. Officials are still investigating 3,500 other inquiries about Americans who were reportedly in the general region when the tsunami hit.

And the Thai government today agreeing to refrigerate the remains of all foreigners until they can be properly identified.

In Indonesia, Secretary of State Colin Powell toured the devastated Aceh province by helicopter and was moved by the extent of the damage.


COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: I've been in war, and I've been through a number of hurricane, tornadoes and other relief operations, but I have never seen anything like this.

Flying over Banda Aceh and seeing how the wave came ashore, pushing everything in its path, cars, ships, freighters overturned, all the way up to the foothills. And then starting up the foothills until finally the waves came to stop.

I cannot begin to imagine the horror they went through, the families and all of the people who heard this noise coming and then had their lives snuffed out by this wave.


JANSING: As countries pole-vaulted to the top spot in worldwide support, the U.N. humanitarian chief dubbed it competitive compassion. While the European Union commissioner fretted about a donation beauty contest where pledges may not be fully honored.

Today Germany upped its promise of support to $674 million, increasing its initially $27 million pledge by about 25 times. That made Germany the No. 1 donor to date, until Australia claimed the No. 1 spot, raising its own pledge to a whopping $810 million, up from its initial offering of $46 million.

Today's pledges make Japan and the United States the third and fourth largest donors.

And when all nations are included, along with $250 million from the World Bank, the worldwide total pushes past $3.5 billion. But will those pledges be honored in the years to come?

Financial aid from both Australia and Germany is intended to be paid out from five years, and pledges from all 44 donor nations are just that, promises to pay.

Last year's tragic earthquake in Iran drew hundred of millions in pledges, but as our correspondent Lisa Myers reports, what actually came through was an awful lot less.


LISA MYERS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: The day after Christmas a year ago, Bam, Iran, flattened by a powerful earthquake, 26,000 dead. The world rushed to help and promised huge amounts of aid, but a year later, much has not changed. Grief is fresh; rubble still lines many streets; 150,000 survivors still live in tents or small containers. For many, this is the water supply where they wash clothes and dishes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): We have serious sanitation problems. The streets are not clean. The kids go out into the streets and everything is covered in dust.

MYERS: This man in a tent says he's got no help.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I don't have a penny to my name.

MYERS (on camera): The U.N. says in the Bam disaster, as in most others, there was a sizable gap between the amounts pledged in the emotion of the moment and money that actually came in and got to people in need.

(voice-over) Why the gap?

RICK BARTON, FORMER U.N. RELIEF OFFICIAL: Governments try to announce the biggest possible number, but we don't have a public system of naming and shaming in terms of the follow up.

MYERS: No one, not even the United Nations, keeps track of all public and private pledges. The U.N. estimates $115 million worth of aid actually went to Bam, considerably less than the hundreds of millions pledged, but enough to begin rebuilding.

An urgent U.N. appeal for money for essential needs last year went partly unanswered.

KEVIN KENNEDY, UNITED NATIONS: We asked for $33 million and received a little less than $18 million. We received just a little over 50 percent of what we were looking for to meet the immediate needs.

MYERS: Relief experts also note that some pledges that were fulfilled were for items no longer needed, ended up in warehouses or may have been siphoned off by the Iranian government.

And now with the world's attention shifted to another emergency a year later, there isn't likely to be any more help on the way to Bam.

Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington.


JANSING: There are traditional ways of making donations to tsunami relief. And then there are very untraditional ways of helping out: this video one case in point. "Oddball" is next.

And while we were busy covering decision 2004, the Ukraine election and the planning for the Iraq vote, apparently, there was an election for spokesman for the world that all of us missed. The man who speaks for us all, coming up.


JANSING: I'm Chris Jansing, in for Keith Olbermann. And we've reached that point where we pause the countdown on the day's real news for a bit of the day's surreal news. Let's play "Oddball."

We begin in Essex, England, where one might find something tasteless about hundreds of people running into muddy water in the name of tsunami relief, but the Maldon Mud Race has been an annual charity event for more than 20 years.

One hundred 80 competitors dressed in tuxedos ran the two-lap course that began on the shores of the Blackwater River and ends in thick, waist-deep mud. It took about 20 minutes and raised more than $4,000, though a separate charity event might be necessary to pay for all that dry cleaning.

To Cape May, New Jersey, for another charity project, this one entirely tasteful. OK, not entirely. It's another one of those local women pose nude for a calendar stories, but with a twist. All of the models in the Red Hal Social Club calendar are grandmothers between the ages of 60 and 85.

Apparently, there's a market for everything, because more than 1,000 of the calendars have sold at $15 a piece. Some of the photos are too revealing. However, the women used modestly placed props to cover the important parts, which is either a great relief or a great disappointment, depending on the audience.

And finally, to Boston, Massachusetts, where one of only two known remaining crates from the 1773 Boston tea party has surfaced. The 230-year-old box was donated today to the Tea Party Museum, which commemorates the historic event in which rebellious colonists dumped chests of tea into the Boston Harbor to protest British taxes.

The donor purchased the crate from a Texas family whose ancestors supposedly participated in that famous protest. The price paid was not released, but the back taxes owed the British alone must have been in the millions.

Alarming concerns in the war on terror to tell you about. Authorities worried that a Boston area gang could be smuggling al Qaeda operatives into the U.S.

And could there be a big pothole on the road to the Bush inaugural? Rumors of a congressional challenge to the election results are picking up steam on the even of the certification of the Electoral College numbers.

Those stories ahead, but now, here are Countdown's top three newsmakers of the day.

No. 3, Douglas Eugene Wilson, a prisoner in a Colorado Springs jail serving a life sentence for murder. This week, a judge sentenced him to three additional years for handing out cheese sandwiches to other prisoners. Sharing food is a violation of rules, and Wilson continued to hand them out despite a warning, then a stun gunning from the guards.

No. 2, Joey Sinay of Macon, Ohio. His parents say Joey was so fascinated to find out how a toilet works, he wrote a letter to Kohler asking them to build him a see-through commode. Kohler actually responded, gave the kid a brand new regular toilet and a demonstration of how it works, but they said a clear toilet just as not doable.

Joey, believe me, it's better this way.

And No. 1, the unnamed drunken man in Sophia, Bulgaria, this week who was hospitalized with a blood alcohol level of 0.9 percent. Police administered five different blood test to confirm the number, which is twice the level that would normally kill a person.

But police say the man was conscious, was speaking to officers and is currently in stable condition, nursing a hangover. I'm guessing that should last, what, 14 months?


JANSING: Mention terrorism and the city of Boston and most would think you were talking in the past tense.

After all, more three years have elapsed since the two jets that crashed into the World Trade Center were hijacked from Boston's Logan International. Now imagine being told that al Qaeda has in this day and age joined forces with one of Beantown's most notorious street gangs.

Our third story on the Countdown, terror in the present sense. The gang is commonly known as MS-13 because of the elaborate tattoos, the number 13 that gang members have on their backs. Based in El Salvador, the gang's activities include smuggling drugs, money and people across the Mexican border. The smuggling of people is where al Qaeda comes in.

"The Boston Herald" newspaper reporting that intelligence officials in Washington are concerned MS-13 may be smuggling al Qaeda terrorists into the U.S.

Here to discuss that frightening possibility, Erick Stakelbeck, a senior writer and terrorism analyst with the Investigative Project, a group that tracks militant Islamic groups. He has written about the street gang MS-13 and its links to terror.

Erick, good evening.


JANSING: So how dangerous a gang are we talking about here and is Boston really the only city we should be concerned about?

STAKELBECK: Oh, by no means, Chris.

Boston is just one city in the United States that MS-13 has operations. They are described by many law enforcement officials as the most dangerous gang in North America. The bulk of their operations are in Los Angeles, but they also have a major operation in the Washington, D.C., metro area, Northern Virginia in particular.

Now, Monday night, there was an attack, an MS-13 attack. A man in Fairfax County, Virginia, left a movie theater with his girlfriend, was set upon by several MS-13 members and was attacked with a machete. He's in the hospital now.

But the most trouble aspect of MS-13, as you mentioned in the lead-in, is their links with al Qaeda. MS-13 controls many of the smuggling routes from Mexico into the U.S. Al Qaeda is well aware of this. And back in July, actually, Adnan al-Shukrijumah, now, he's one of the most wanted terrorists in the world. He's a leading al Qaeda operative. He is a guy that John Ashcroft has described as - quote - "a clear and present danger to the United States."

He was spotted meeting with MS-13 members in the Honduras inquiring about how to get into the U.S. through Mexico with MS-13's help.

JANSING: So, Erick, if this is happening, is this about philosophy at all, the gang's relationship with al Qaeda, or is it purely business, in other words, MS-13 has the means to smuggle people across the border and al Qaeda is willing to pay them for it?

STAKELBECK: That's exactly it, Chris.

MS-13 really has no allegiance to anyone other than themselves and the almighty dollar. And al Qaeda is willing to pay top dollar to enter the U.S. via Mexico. They know who to go through, MS-13. They are in charge of several of these smuggling routes, in particular a smuggling route just south of Brownsville, Texas, right over the Mexican border.

And MS-13 has really made a push in helping to get non-Mexican illegal aliens over the border.

JANSING: You say several of these smuggling routes. So, are we potentially talking about a lot of terrorists MS-13 may have gotten into this country?

STAKELBECK: Potentially. We don't have a number for sure, Chris, an exact number, how many they've gotten in.

On December 4, though, I'll give you a good example - there was a Bangladeshi Muslim by the name of Fakhrul Islam. Now, he was captured outside of Brownsville, Texas, with 12 other illegal aliens. One of the illegals he was captured with was a member of MS-13. Now, law enforcement officials are very concerned about this. They think that the MS-13 member was helping the Bangladeshi Muslim infiltrate the U.S.

JANSING: Terrorism analysis Erick Stakelbeck of the Investigative Project, many thanks for your insight tonight.

STAKELBECK: My pleasure, Chris.

JANSING: In Iraq, the al Qaeda-linked terror group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi continues its bloody campaign to disrupt the Iraqi elections, now little more than three weeks away.

Today brought one car bombing after another, including this one at a police academy graduation south of Baghdad, killing at least 20 people. Another suicide car bombing at a checkpoint outside the city of Baquba area killed at least a dozen more. Since the beginning of September, the number of Iraqi policemen killed is at least 1,300. That's according to figures released today by the Iraqi government.

Despite the violence, Iraq's Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said once again today elections will be held as scheduled at the end of the month.

Here in the U.S., it looks like we could be seeing a disruption to the election process tomorrow on Capitol Hill, with a significant difference, that it will be entirely nonviolent and perfectly legal. Nearly two dozen members of the House led by Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, officially warning the congressional leadership today by letter that at least some of them plan to challenge the presidential election tomorrow afternoon when Congress meets in joint session to receive the electoral tallies from each state, raising the challenge, they say, because of - quote - "the massive and unprecedented extent of irregularities in Ohio."

They are acting without the consent of the Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry, who won't even be there tomorrow because of his trip to the Middle East. Kerry sending his own letter to say he will not be taking part in a formal protest and that his legal teams have found no evidence that would change the outcome of the election.

Some of the very same members of the House planning to launch tomorrow's challenge tried and failed to initiate a similar one in 2000, the first time Bush won office, because of the voting irregularities in Florida. In a cruel twist of irony, they were forced to raise their objections with the president of the Senate, the man who lost that election, Vice President Al Gore.


REP. ALCEE HASTINGS (D), FLORIDA: I must object because of the overwhelming evidence of official misconduct, deliberate


AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The chair must remind members that, under Section 18 of Title 3, United States Code, no debate is allowed in the joint session.

HASTINGS: Thank you, Mr. President. To answer your question, Mr. President, the objection is in writing, signed by a number of members of the House of Representatives, but not by a member of the Senate.

REP. CORRINE BROWN, (D) FLORIDA: The 27,000 voters of Duval County, in which 16,000 of them are African Americans that were disenfranchised in this last election.

GORE: Is the objection signed by a member of the Senate?

BROWN: Not signed by a member of the Senate. The Senate is missing.


JANSING: That was the problem then. No senator was willing to join the members of the House in their objection, which is a required step to reach the next stage.

So, the question now, is any senator willing to join the challenge tomorrow? He may be off sick tonight, but congressional sources of Countdown's fearless leader, Keith Olbermann, tell him it appears House Democrats have secured the support of many as half-a-dozen senators.

For more guidance on all of this, we are joined now by our man on Capitol Hill, Mike Viqueira.

Good evening, Mike.


JANSING: I'm good. But, boy, I thought the election was over. Could this really happen? And, if so, any sense of who that senator or senators, plural, might be?

VIQUEIRA: Well, the senator that is most often mentioned as the brightest prospect for those would protest on the House side is Senator Barbara Boxer of California.

Now, I don't know. You spent a lot of time now just then going over the history of what happened in 2001. Barbara Boxer's name was also mentioned back then as a possibility. Of course, there was no senator that stepped forward at that time. This time, as Keith has reported, it appears that as many as a half-a-dozen will object.

Barbara Boxer is expected to take the lead among senators. This is by no means set in stone. This is what we expect at this point. It could change by the morning. Their allies on the House side, those who would protest on the House side, led by Mr. Conyers and Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, a Democrat of the Cleveland area, of course, in Ohio, who will be the House person to stand up, hope that it will be Boxer.

We don't know for sure now what is going to happen. But it looks like we could have an objection, the first since 1969 of its kind.

JANSING: Well, let's say a senator does join the challenge, then, Mike. What happens next?

VIQUEIRA: Well, it's interesting. Since 1887, there was a law to handle a situation just like this. In the 1870s, there were some elections that were really fouled up, due mostly to the confusion over Reconstruction.

And so, in 1887, they passed a law that said basically this. If a House member raises an objection and if a senator concurs in that objection, then the joint session of Congress, which starts tomorrow at 1:00, incidentally, is suspended. The Senate goes back to the Senate. The House stays in its chambers. And what ensues is a two-hour debate over the objection.

Now, we expect the objection of course to be centered on the Ohio tally. And it's important to note that Tubbs-Jones and Conyers, Jesse Jackson Jr. and other congressmen said to be objecting are not saying, are not intimating that they are going to reverse the results of this election. What they want to do in part is to highlight what they call the massive disenfranchisement, as Representative Conyers said in the letter that you just presented, of voters in Ohio.

They say that Democratic precincts in Cleveland did not have enough voting machines, that the provisional ballot allotment in Ohio was not run well by the secretary of state, their Republican, Mr. Blackwell, and that broken-down machines hindered voting all over the state. So they want to bring, shed light on some of these problems. They're calling for changes, further changes in the way Americans cast ballots.



JANSING: Let me ask you, Mike. If they don't think - and nobody realistically thinks that this is going to change the outcome of the election. It's just not going to happen. Do the Democrats worry at all that it just makes them look foolish, given the serious business facing Congress right now, including what they are going to do, what their role is going to be in the tsunami relief?

VIQUEIRA: Listen, Democratic leaders on both the House and Senate side, Senator Reid, Congresswoman Pelosi, are not enthusiastic about what is going to happen tomorrow.

They, exactly as you said, would rather focus elsewhere. They do not think this will endear them to the majority of American voters. However, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Mr. Conyers and the others that we've mentioned, are very much set in going forward with this tomorrow.

JANSING: MSNBC's Mike Viqueira, who covers Capitol Hill, lots of thanks to you, Mike. And, hey, get some rest before tomorrow. It could be a long day.

And rounding out our look at the electoral process and Iraq, news tonight about an American Marine charged with desertion who appears to be missing again. You may remember the bizarre case of Corporal Wassef Ali Hassoun, charged with desertion about a month ago after he allegedly faked his own abduction by militants in Iraq, before turning up in Lebanon.

The military declaring him a deserter once again today after he failed to return from holiday leave.

Winter weather causing major headaches tonight. And it's only going to get worse tomorrow. The latest forecast and all the trouble spots up next.

And 2004 wasn't exactly the best year for Ashlee Simpson. And she is not cashing any breaks this new year either.

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


WADE BOGGS, BASEBALL HALL OF FAME INDUCTEE: I was once told that home run hitters drive Cadillacs and singles hitters drive Volkswagens. But I don't think that takes away from the BMWs and the Porsches that I drive right now.


JAY LENO, HOST: I don't know it anybody got this week's "Newsweek." There's an interview with John Kerry. And John Kerry - this is his quote. John Kerry said, he didn't lose the election. He just didn't win it.


LENO: See, that's the kind of clear, decisive thinking we all loved about him.


LENO: That's what made him.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am sorry Laura is not with me.


BUSH: That is generally the reaction. I was hoping she and I could go look at the ketchup bottle.




JANSING: Dangerous weather stretches from the Rockies to New England. We'll have the latest forecast. And the spokesman of the world has been named. How did we miss that election?


JANSING: Freezing rain turning to heavy snow, impassable highways, canceled flights, downed power lines.

Our No. 2 story on the Countdown tonight, forecasters like to call it a wintry mix. But the rest of us call it one big mess. The winter's biggest blast so far is pounding the Midwest, just as it threatens the Northeast, where snow is falling in parts of New York and New England.

Our correspondent braving the elements, Leanne Gregg.


LEANNE GREGG, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Thousands of people digging out from the second major storm of this winter season.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Working very hard to get rid of the snow. It's very difficult getting to school.

GREGG: In Chicago, the city's entire fleet of snow-fighting equipment has been out all day to battle this storm that is causing problems across much of the country.

From Kansas City to Philadelphia, air travel has been a nightmare, with snow and ice prompting flight cancellations and delays. The Kansas governor has declared a state of emergency for more than 50 counties where as much as three inches of ice has piled up. The storm has made highway travel treacherous, with vehicles sliding off roads.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It all depends on the people out here that are driving these streets. Just take it slow and be careful.

GREGG: This truck spilled its entire load of chocolate chips all over the highway. Snow and ice also blanketed parts of Iowa, Oklahoma and Nebraska, where up to 18 inches could fall, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. Even more problems are expected before this biggest storm of the season moves on to the Northeast.

(on camera): In some areas, more than a foot of snow is expected by Thursday morning. That will mean another day off for schoolkids and a slow and sloppy rush-hour commute.

For Countdown, I'm Leanne Gregg in Chicago.


JANSING: Well, the storm has hardly drawn a curtain on the Midwest and has yet to deliver its final wallop to the Northeast.

To get a better look at the forecast over the next 24 hours, joining me is AccuWeather meteorologist Jim Kosek.

Hey there, Jim.

So, what is this storm looking like right now and what does it have in store for us?

JIM KOSEK, ACCUWEATHER METEOROLOGIST: It's a beast, quite honestly Chris. And for some places, it will be the heaviest so far this season, although, I guess, if you argue that winter just started a couple weeks ago, then we've still got a long way to go.

But I know the folks in northern Michigan, where they haven't had a lot of snow this season, are dying for this one here. And they are going to get it. A couple of ingredients coming together. You've got the fresh batch of arctic air in place north of the track of the jet stream, the bus driver of storms, if you will.

At the same time, more moist air coming up from the south. There's been record high temperatures across the deep South. They will be whisked away with this storm system. This is what it looks like in terms of our AccuWeather Doppler radar at this point in time.

Already mixed precipitation falling in the Big Apple at this hour, although the good news is, it is not accumulating on the road surface. But it most certainly is once you get back into Erie, Pennsylvania, Detroit, Chicago. We saw the mess. And the ice area is massive here, a couple inches worth over parts of Missouri on into Illinois, problematic, to say the least.

Now, this storm system will gradually change back over to rain as we go through tomorrow in around New York City. The wintry mess moves farther off to the north into northern portions of New England. The storm will actually come to a close over the Great Lakes states. Unfortunately, the damage will be done and this is the tally that we are going to contend with. Again, keep in mind, it's the red-shaded area that gets hard hit with the ice.

But Detroit, upwards of four, five inches by the time it's all said and done, eight to 12 in Chicago land. You can see our half-foot-plus line right in through here going through the heart of Michigan on into southern Ontario. New York City probably escapes with very little in this storm system. It's the suburbs that will have one to three inches worth.

But in around Boston, three, four inches and that trend will continue through a large part of New England. And if it wasn't the no rest for the weary, that's what I've got to call it out West, because yet another storm system for storm-ravaged California late this week on into the weekend, with probably another three, four or five feet of snow, if you're a ski fan in the Sierra - Chris.

JANSING: Looking at the silver lining. Jim Kosek, thanks very much.

The entertainment stories now of "Keeping Tabs."

And Ashlee Simpson can't just catch a break. Poor girl. After being ridiculed across the country for her lip sync malfunction on ""Saturday Night Live," Simpson took the stage for the halftime show at the Orange Bowl last night and she actually sang.

JANSING: OK, I use that word liberally. Is it too late to go back to lip synching? I'm begging you. The 20-year-old singer left the stage to a chorus of boos from the 72,000 fans in Miami after a less-than-stellar rendition of her song "La La."

But, as awful as it was, maybe not as bad as the performance by the University of Oklahoma. It will be later, rather than sooner, that they win a national championship.

And finally tonight, a surprising announcement from the high-profile mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom. The mayor and his wife, television personality Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, are getting a divorce. The mayor gained major media attention and spurred a national debate in 2004 when he paved the way for thousand of same-sex couples to marry in San Francisco.

In December, he was added to "TIME" magazine's list of people who matter. Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom was lead host of Court TV's coverage of the Scott Peterson's murder trial. The couple says the pressures of their respective careers became too difficult to continue as a couple.

Coming up, if the Martians ever land on Earth and say, take me to your leader, we now know where to send them. To Richard Gere - how he became spokesman for the entire world.


JANSING: It's been nearly two months since the Palestinian people lost their leader, a position Yasser Arafat held for more than a quarter century. On Sunday, they'll mark the impending anniversary by spending the day at the polls.

It's only the second election for the president of the Palestinian Authority. But many observers note it could well be the first building block of an independent state. The world is watching. And, apparently, we in the world community have a spokesperson.

Our No. 1 story on the Countdown tonight, Richard Gere, global mouthpiece. Yes, who better to rally the populace at this watershed moment in the Mideast peace process than the star of "Sommersby"? The pro-peace group One Voice hoping Gere's appearance in an 80-second public service announcement airing on Palestinian TV and Arabic satellite channels will motivate Palestinians to get out the vote.


RICHARD GERE, ACTOR: Hi, I'm Richard Gere. And I'm speaking for the entire world. We're with you during this election time. It's really important. Get out and vote.


JANSING: Now, two regional religious leaders appear in the ad with Richard Gere. And when they were later asked about the star's participation, the head of Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Church said - quote - "I've never heard of him before."

Excellent pick for vox populi.

When Hollywood hubris runs amok, Tom O'Neil, a senior editor for "In Touch Weekly."

Good evening, Tom.


JANSING: OK, I'm going through my papers. I'm looking through my computer and I missed it. Who decided Richard Gere speaks for the world?

O'NEIL: Apparently, Richard did. He never asked me. Did he ever ask you, Chris? JANSING: I did. Like I said, I checked. Can't find it. What's going on here?

O'NEIL: I think he meant everybody in the world except for Chris and Tom. He just forgot to say that part, yes.

JANSING: Oh, OK. All right. Well, we can't get celebrities to motivate people to vote in this country. Seriously, what makes him think he has that kind of cache with Palestinians?

O'NEIL: Well, that really is the embarrassing issue. Who are we as a nation to tell anybody how to vote? We have got one of the worst election voting rates in the world. It's slightly more than 50 percent.

And, already, it looks to many Arab people as if we're bossing them around over there with our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, also, what you mentioned about the Greek Orthodox chap not knowing who Richard Gere is, how savvy are they about our celebrities, No. 1, and this tradition we have of them opening their mouth about politics?

JANSING: Yes. We have to say that he's been very politically active on a number of fronts. But I don't know. You know, he's also done some wacky things over the years.


O'NEIL: And that's the problem.

He specializes in the wacky things. One of the most famous moments in Oscar history took place in 1993, when Richard Gere stopped the ceremony, put his hands to his forehead and told everyone in the world, let's all have a collective telepathic moment and send a message to the government of China to get out of Tibet. Well, he was banned from the Oscars for a few years after that.

JANSING: Of course, this does beg the question. Are there any Hollywood stars out there that might resonate in the region or maybe anyone more arrogant in Hollywood that maybe thinks they should be spokesperson for the world?

O'NEIL: I can't imagine Paris Hilton ever winning the Nobel Peace Prize. And it's already a war zone there. We don't want to send in Ozzy Osbourne.

JANSING: It doesn't hurt him, right? Even if people are laughing about it, it's the old saying in Hollywood, that, as long as you mention my name, I don't care in what context.

O'NEIL: You're right. And, in this case, of course, everyone knows he really means well, but it does look ridiculous for our stars to be intervening in these political areas, especially when they're so sensitive.

JANSING: Is he known to be thin-skinned? Is he never going to give you an interview again, Tom?


O'NEIL: I don't know.

He's pretty reclusive in general, but, on the other hand, he's pretty brave politically. So he won't shy away from interviews.

JANSING: Tom O'Neil from "In Touch Weekly," you'll let us know if you get that exclusive interview.

O'NEIL: I sure will.

JANSING: As - I'm sure, because I'm sure he's a dedicated watcher of Olbermann.

O'NEIL: Absolutely.

JANSING: All right, on behalf of the Countdown world, thank you, Tom, for your time.

That's going to do it for this Wednesday edition of Countdown. I'm Chris Jansing, in for Keith Olbermann, who we hope is feeling much better by tomorrow.

Good luck. Good night.