'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for Jan. 4
Guest: Robert Marquand, Cyril Wecht, Kellar Autumn, Mary Murphy
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice-over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?
Without warning: Thailand confirms its scientists did not issue a tsunami alert for fear of hurting tourism. The government fires the official responsible.
Relief efforts now held up by heavy rains and flooding. And a vital airport in Indonesia closed after a plane collides with an animal.
And as rescue turns into recovery, what are the realistic chances of ever knowing the fate of all the victims when the calamity is the size of 65 Johnstown floods?
Also tonight, the insurgency in Iraq. Sophisticated enough that it could record one attack in Mosul from three different camera angles.
And troubling images of a different kind. Here, the paparazzi say, is Johnny.
All that and more now on Countdown.
OLBERMANN: Good evening.
The scope of the tsunami disaster in the Indian Ocean continues to grow faster than our capability to understand it. The latest guideposts would be comical in another context.
Aid efforts in the devastated Aceh province were delayed for hours overnight after a relief plane struck a water buffalo in the middle of the only open air strip at Banda Aceh.
Our fifth story in the Countdown, the 10th day of the cataclysm with the confirmed death toll now having reached 145,129. And the number of missing Americans now placed at 4,000. In a moment, reports from Banda Aceh and Sri Lanka.
First the headlines.
Children who survived the tsunami are now falling victim to disease - rather, rather than disease and hunger, but instead to criminals.
Twelve-year-old Christian Walker of Sweden may be the latest victim. He was last seen at a hospital in Khao Lak with a German man. He has since disappeared. Authorities believe he may have been abducted by child traffickers.
It appears he is not alone. There was an attempted kidnapping in India, and there are unconfirmed reports of traffickers taking orphans from Banda Aceh. Indonesian authorities have now put restrictions on children leaving the - the country and posted special guards in refugee camps.
Elsewhere along that country's coastline, officials say some areas have been so devastated that reconstruction is not an option. Entire communities may have to be relocated.
But a surprise from two islands thought wiped out by the catastrophe. The BBC reporting that a group of stone age tribesmen living on the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago not only survived the disaster but also indicated they definitely do not want help from outsiders. One of the tribesmen even warning off an aid helicopter by shooting at it with his bow and arrow.
And confirmation of an awful story we told you about first a week ago tonight. Thailand could have issued a tsunami warning at least one hour before the wave hit its coast. But its leading scientists decided not to out of fear that a false alarm would damage that nation's vital tourist industry.
That was all verified today when Thailand's government fired the head of its meteorological department. That department, which supervises Thailand's seismology department, was holding a conference at the very hour the earthquake struck of Sumatra, precipitating the disaster.
It had issued a tsunami warning to resort areas in Phuket in similar circumstances five years ago, and had been harshly criticized by tourism officials when no damage followed.
So this time it chose to remain silent.
Today's Thailand - Thailand's Prime Minister Shinawatra announced that the meteorological department's director general, Suparek Tansriratanawong, had been removed. He will be assigned to help develop a new tsunami warning system covering Thailand and neighboring countries.
At least 5,426 people are confirmed dead in Thailand, perhaps half of them foreigners. Eighty five hundred more are missing.
Of the fired official, the prime minister said if he warned of the tsunami, the death toll would definitely have been minimized.
There was no warning in Indonesia. More than 94,000 have died there. At least that many more are missing. Officials believe those numbers may still be wildly conservative.
Brian Williams has anchoring "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS" from Banda Aceh, Indonesia. I spoke with him about an hour ago as sunrise reached that region.
OLBERMANN: Brian, good morning. Thanks for your time.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, ANCHOR, "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS": Keith, good to be with you.
OLBERMANN: You got into that city itself. The videotape that we've seen already made it look like kind of a horror movie version of one gigantic junkyard. What did it feel like?
WILLIAMS: Well, Keith, in many ways, this feels like the day after the tsunami and not nine days after the tsunami.
When you come to the central bridge, park and look over, as one of our traveling party said, "Really, guys, don't look to your left," which to most humans is a signal to look to your left despite yourself. And they're taking bodies out of the river.
It is still really so early in this. There is debris. There is muck from the water. And there are bodies hidden. There are bodies hidden in doorways. Exhaust vents in the side of buildings. Innocuous little parts of buildings that you'd never notice when they are unfilled during a stroll through a city anywhere in the world, are crammed with all of the detritus that this rushing water brought with it.
And it was all the debris that killed the people here, so many thousands of people. Any time you have a thousand bodies clogging the water traffic under a 30, 35 foot bridge downtown, you know, all the cliches from this area are really so true. That any description from one of us, try as we might for an American audience, it really - it really defies description.
OLBERMANN: Now, the region has gotten more aftershocks to the - from the Sumatra earthquake. Did that impact the residents of Aceh province, or are they already about as traumatized as human beings can get?
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, they are - they're spooked. And throughout this region, there have been false alarms of tsunami warnings.
Just tonight, before daybreak arrived, Keith, we were in the private home hat we are using as our residence. I was on the second floor. Not the best construction, and we got a lot of back and forth swaying. And then we got another one later on.
So again, not enough. And if you spent any time in California, this is not scary stuff, really. Not enough to cause any damage. But it's the last thing these people need.
OLBERMANN: It is, if there has just been a destructive earthquake and subsequent tsunami. That's for sure.
Now, on the other subject here, we heard about this yesterday from Sri Lanka. And from what you've reported, it is now true there in Indonesia, as well. It doesn't seem like much of a story at first until you begin to think about this, at which point it becomes chilling, to say the least.
But the fish markets are empty in Banda Aceh. Explain that, would you?
WILLIAMS: Keith, normally, of course, fish is how they make their livelihood. It's the No. 1 food source. It's the No. 1 industry.
And the fishing shacks that double as houses and fisheries are all down near the water. They've all been wiped out. So it's - it's those people who have lost the most.
Because of the belief that the fish share that water with the dead from this community. One in three people died. People are suddenly going to the butcher shops, the meat markets that are reopening inland from the water line.
Normally, beef in this area is considered a relatively high priced luxury. It's incredible that they are switching their foodstuffs.
You know, culturally, anthropologists will tell you, the reason the people here in this part of the world look the way they do, their body type is the way it is, generally universally thin. It is because of the mostly fish and rice diet.
But this is so interesting. Again, because of that spooky belief that the waters are co-mingled now with fish and the dead.
OLBERMANN: Last question, logistics. Is relief getting to the city or is it all still hit and miss at this point?
WILLIAMS: Slowly, Keith, we see these Black Hawks with the identifiable markings from the Abe Lincoln, the carrier a few miles offshore. We see the C-130's. They start to pick up in frequency.
The Pentagon says soon we'll see the C-17's, the new modern era cargo planes that are so efficient, short take off and landing, big cargo area. They can really do these hops with the frequency of milk runs.
But it's taken a long time. We're nine days into this. This is known as one of the ends. And at times, it's been one of the bottlenecks of the aid chain, or pipeline, if you wish. So really, some people have eaten little or nothing for nine days. The aid cannot get here fast enough.
OLBERMANN: Brian Williams, the anchor of "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS" in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Great thanks and stay safe, my friend.
WILLIAMS: Keith, thank you.
OLBERMANN: The picture in Sri Lanka, meantime, might be summarized by the numbers. The government there is reporting 30,196 dead. But a much lower number, 16,665 missing.
Joining us tonight from Colombo, Sri Lanka, is Robert Marquand of the "Christian Science Monitor."
Thank you, sir, for your time tonight.
ROBERT MARQUAND, "CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR": Thank you. I'm actually in down in Galle in the southern part of the island.
OLBERMANN: What in that city are things like on the ground right now?
MARQUAND: Well, it's blasted out here. Galle got hit very hard. It's an old Dutch colony. It has an old fortress, which was spared, thankfully. But it's also been a tourist and fishing Mecca.
And most - much of the hotel industry is gone now. The center of the city is wiped. It's a very - a very difficult situation all around.
However, electricity is now back in the middle of the city. The bridges (ph) that got wiped out in the middle of the town are - one of them yesterday was being put back in by a team of Japanese - Japanese who are already here in the island, during a super highway. They've been working, as well.
You get a little bit of - you're getting a little bit of life springing back into this central southern city. However, the situation further down on the southeast where it was - where the waves hit much harder because they got more direct - direct effects from the - from the earthquake itself. They're quite blasted out. They look like - they look like an area that's been carpet-bombed.
OLBERMANN: As if Sri Lanka did not have enough problems, the northern part of the island is controlled by the Tamil Tiger rebel group. The U.S. classifies that operation as a terrorist organization.
The reports we're getting here about the cooperation between the government and the rebels have been mixed. Obviously, you're in the south. They're in the north. But what are you hearing, at least, of the cooperation between the - between the government and the rebels?
MARQUAND: Well, there's been a ceasefire for the last two years. Now, that will - that's a fragile ceasefire. And there have been some problems with it. But it's been - the problems between the Tamils and Sihnalese ethnic government has not been as serious as they were, let's say, five years ago, certainly.
There have been reports of some cooperation. Tamil peoples handing back over Sihnalese bodies and Sihnalese handing over Tamil bodies. That seems significant to people.
You've got some cases - and the Sihnalese government has been probably been putting more aid, has been sending more aid up north directly than other parts of the island.
So you've got a little bit of - a little bit of glimmer of hope. You've got the president here, Kumaratunga, suggesting that the opportunity of this holocaust be used to help the different ethnic groups and to somehow bring countries back together again so people can work together.
Now a lot of people are very cynical about that. And there are instances in which, many instances, you can also hear about in which the two sides are not getting along on this kind of - on the kind of cooperation that one might have hoped for.
OLBERMANN: Lastly, sir, you had a piece in the "Christian Science Monitor" on what might be analogous to the World Trade Center in the weeks after the attacks of 9/11. One of the train stations in Sri Lanka where over 1,000 people died. Tell me a little of your experiences there.
MARQUAND: Well, yes, I've been there a couple times. It's a - it's a train station on the western coast. But it got hit extremely hard by the kind of rip tides that came through at that point.
The train was parked at the station right when the - right when the tsunami hit. People instead of getting off the train for the first wave thought they would get on the train. So there was more people off the platform. It was a crowded holiday time.
It was a full moon (ph) day. There was no fishing going along.
People were going for the holiday season.
And so the train got swept away. And just a very ugly situation, where almost everyone on the train has perished. People were still moving some bodies - there was the military, the Air Force and the Navy are there, and the Army, as well. They were removing bodies yesterday, one or two left.
But it's a very sobering place for many Sri Lankans to visit right on the main highway down to the south.
OLBERMANN: Robert Marquand of "The Christian Science Monitor" in Galle, Sri Lanka. Great thanks for joining us.
MARQUAND: Thank you.
OLBERMANN: Now, to the international relief effort. Slowly in starting, perhaps. But now in one place, piling up so quickly that one organization has actually asked donors to stop donating.
And while the question of the political edge to U.S. commitments expanded from $15 to $350 million have been seemingly successfully extinguished, courtesy of the Bush administration, it flared up anew today, also courtesy of the Bush administration.
In Indonesia today, Secretary of State Colin Powell showcased the role of U.S. aid around the world, not just in response to the tsunami. Powell said American aid in general, quote, "dries up those pools of dissatisfaction that give rise to terrorist activities." A forgivable but not exactly an apt praise.
He also acknowledged that the current tragedy does offer the United States a public relations opportunity.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: I think it does give the Muslim world and the rest of the world an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action, where we care about the dignity of every individual and the worth of every individual and our need to respond to the needs of every individual, of whatever faith.
America is not an anti-Islam, anti-Muslim nation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: And an extraordinary request from one aid agency tonight:
stop sending money. The French and German divisions of Doctors Without Borders say they have already collected enough cash to sustain their efforts in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, and they do not need any more.
The announcement sparked incredulous outrage from other relief organizations, but the director general of Doctors Without Borders points out that his agency honors the specific requests of each donor, and therefore using tsunami relief money for other projects would violate his group's principles.
Also, tonight for all too many people, there will be no rescue and now it appears there will not even be the closure of recovery. How big is that problem, identification and recovery, going to be?
Elsewhere, the insurgency in Iraq. New attack, new videos, and today the assassination of the governor of Baghdad.
This is Countdown on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: The search for bodies becoming the search for closure now after the tsunami. We'll talk with renowned pathologist Cyril Wecht about the effort to put names to as many of the victims as possible.
OLBERMANN: It was an American cataclysm so seared into the public consciousness that 75 years later, it was as widely remembered as D-Day or the Hindenburg disaster or perhaps even the bombing of Pearl Harbor: the Johnstown flood.
Our fourth story on the Countdown, the 70-foot high wall of water that devastated the western Pennsylvania city in the late spring in 1889 has great, unfortunate and heart-wrenching relevance to what is yet to come in the tsunami disaster still afflicting the Indians - the nations in the Indian Ocean.
The location and identification of the missing. Twenty-two hundred people died when a poorly maintained dam in the mountains above Johnstown gave way. Nearly 800 of the bodies recovered were never identified. Hundreds of others believed killed in the disaster were never heard from again, nor were their bodies found.
And based on the death toll, the Indian Ocean tsunami represents the equivalent of about 65 Johnstown floods.
Authorities in the afflicted nations are warning it may take more than a year to identify just the bodies that have been found. And there are still only vague ideas about how many more won't be found.
We're joined now by Dr. Cyril Wecht, the nationally known forensic pathologist, coroner of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, not 70 miles from the site of the infamous Johnstown flood.
Dr. Wecht, thanks for your time tonight.
DR. CYRIL WECHT, FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST: Yes. Good evening to you.
OLBERMANN: We have more than a century of the scientific growth since Johnstown, especially in terms of using DNA for identification. But is that ratio likely to still hold in this case, that for every three bodies that are identified, at least one will not be?
OLBERMANN: I think that, regrettably, the ratio of unidentified bodies will be greater, despite the advent of DNA.
Keep in mind, when you talk about DNA, or fingerprinting, you've got to have things to compare it to. It's extremely unlikely, in many of these villages and coastal towns, that for any reason whatsoever, anybody's DNA would have been recorded or that materials would be accessible, especially in light of the tsunami, that can be retrieved for comparison purposes.
So you don't have a DNA database. You don't have the fingerprint database. Then you've got many people, I'm sure, who have very little ways of identification by way of cards, et cetera, driver's licenses and so on.
My wife was originally from Norway, got her Norwegian paper today. And they talk about 50 some Norwegian children. And thousands of Norwegian and Swedish adults who are still unidentified.
Keep in mind, too, with the Johnstown flood, you had a relatively limited geographic area for bodies to be found in. With regard to the Indian Ocean, needless to say, it covers a much wider expanse of water.
You also have, and I don't want to get too grotesque here, but you know, in dealing with the ocean, you've got, you know, carnivores out there.
And then you also have heat that plays a tremendous factor because the bodies will begin to undergo decomposition. And again, I don't want to get too graphic, but keep in mind that as bodies decompose in that kind of heat, then it is impossible to recognize features. And they don't have refrigerated units.
So I think it is going to be a very small ratio of identification for all of these reasons. This is a great tragedy. Many bodies will simply never be found. And of the bodies that are going to be found, for the reasons that I've given, I doubt that it will be possible to make definitive, absolute identification.
OLBERMANN: You mentioned the records. Just one note here before I ask you another question. The records - there will be a report in the "Wall Street Journal" tomorrow from Sri Lanka about, in addition to all the fatalities and all the damage, most of the governmental records were wiped out.
So there's nothing even to check. If you find some identification on someone, there's nothing to check it against.
OLBERMANN: But a last question to you regarding this entire picture.
You mentioned the resources like refrigeration and even space are such at a premium in the area now. And it can't be the foremost thing to be worried about, identifying the dead. They're burying them as fast as they can.
Should we be preparing ourselves psychologically for the probability that, for a large number - numbers of families from the west, from the United States, who had people in the region, they just will never know what happened?
WECHT: I think so. Because remember, that while it is painful for the families to hear this, the people there have to be concerned, both the indigenous population, as well as those who have come to help, with epidemiological problems. You've got various kinds of serious diseases that can assume gigantic proportions with these dead bodies. So they have to be dealt with.
OLBERMANN: Dr. Cyril Wecht, pathologist, coroner of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, as always, sir, our great thanks for your time.
WECHT: Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Also tonight, in Iraq insurgents gunning down the governor of Baghdad along with six bodyguards. And the U.S. reiterates the elections there will go as scheduled on the 30th.
Here at home, there is no stopping the Super Bowl. No stopping the insanity in one eatery in Pennsylvania. "Oddball" is next. What's that on that bun?
OLBERMANN: We're back, and once again we pause our Countdown of the day's real news for the lighter fare of weird stories and strange video that always follows these three words: Let's play "Oddball."
We begin in Attleboro, Mass., where little Kelsey Gavel was the first baby born there in the year 2005. As winners of the first baby contest, Michael and Terri received a variety of prizes from the hospital and other companies, just as they received them last year when their daughter, Rory Ann, was the first baby in 2004. The two children were born just three hours short of exactly one year apart.
Apparently, April Fool's day is a big event in the Gavel household.
Do the math.
No word on the family's plans for this year. But they can't go scamming the first baby contest of cash and prizes forever. It's just not fair to anyone, especially Mrs. Gavel.
To Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where one restaurant is offering a very special cheeseburger this year. That's right: it's groundhog meat. Oh, wait. I read that wrong: ground hog meat. It's an old Bob and Ray joke.
Along with hot sausage, beef, cheese, mushrooms, onions, weighing one ounce for every win by the Pittsburgh Steelers football team this year. That would be 15 ounces right now. A couple years ago, the Steeler burger would have been an appetizer the size of a pickle. The restaurant has seen a brisk business from fans who want to eat that burger and then find out if they can still live to see the Steelers' playoff run with all that cholesterol in their system.
From Punxsutawney to Miami, where this little fellow popped out, saw his shadow and was immediately captured and tied up in duct tape. A 12-foot-long, 400-pound alligator living in a creek next to Cedars Medical Center. But he is relocating, and not voluntarily, wildlife officials saying a gator that big shouldn't be living next to a hospital. So they took him to a wildlife park or a zoo.
Trapper Todd Horwick (ph) caught the beast and told local media that the gator - quote - "likely grew fat on carcasses of animals tossed into the creek as religious sacrifices." OK, and it is the gator that has been the problem?
Also tonight, in Iraq, the governor of Baghdad gunned down in broad daylight. More videos of brazen roadside bombs.
And Johnny Carson making headlines. When you get reclusive, a new photograph gets people talking. And there is a new photograph. Those stories ahead.
Now, though, here are Countdown's top three sound bites of this day.
No. 3, Ryne Sandberg, Chicago Cubs' second baseman, hey, elected to baseball's Hall of Fame today, alongside Wade Boggs. Sorry, Sandberg does not deserve it. Go look up the statistics of the second baseman named Joe Gordon you the don't believe me. Gordon's were better. And he hasn't been voted into the Hall in the 50 years since he retired.
No. 2, Timothy Brown of New Haven, Connecticut. Cops say he locked his keys in his car, then called the fire department, claiming the auto was ablaze. He was, of course, arrested for falsely reporting a fire. Why didn't he just call the police, who said they would have been happy to help him get his keys out? Possibly because, they say, he was wanted on a robbery charge.
And, No. 1, Abu Hamza al-Masri, the radical race-baiting Muslim cleric jailed in London. He did not show for a hearing today because, his attorney says, he is having trouble walking. He's having trouble walking, his attorney says, because his toenails are too long. Yes, torture can take many forms.
OLBERMANN: There is the picture, an insurgency in Iraq now consisting by the estimate of that country's national intelligence chief of more than 200,000 active members and sympathizers. Then there are the pictures, an insurgency in Iraq now capable of attempting a suicide bombing near a U.S. base and videotaping it from three different angles.
Our third story on the Countdown, an insurgency in Iraq today capable of murdering the governor of Baghdad. In a moment, the thoughts of retired General Barry McCaffrey.
First, the assassination of Ali al-Haidari, shot and killed today on his way to work, despite the six bodyguards that were with him at the time. The terrorist group of the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claiming responsibility for the murder.
Five Americans died in Iraq today, a roadside bomb claiming the lives of three soldiers in Baghdad, another American soldier killed by another roadside bomb 50 miles north of the capital city, and a U.S. Marine killed in action today in the Anbar Province of the country near Fallujah, all three attacks making this the deadliest day for the U.S. military in Iraq since last month's bombing inside a mess tent in Mosul that killed 14 soldiers and three American contractors. An Arabic newspaper today reporting that the suicide bomber in that attack was a Saudi medical student.
Our video of such attacks almost always confined to the aftermath. But we're now getting our first look at powerful explosions as they happen because the insurgents have taken it upon themselves to videotape themselves in action. This tape just released today reportedly of a suicide bomber carrying out his business yesterday in Baghdad in which three British security guards and an American were killed.
A masked man seen preparing that minibus with explosive shells. Then the video showing the vehicle exploding as the American convoy drives past it. And over the weekend, insurgents linked to al-Zarqawi released this video. It apparently shows the planning and execution of a car bomb attack in Mosul last Wednesday, the insurgents showing disturbing sophistication. They used three different camera angles to chronicle the attack.
All of which of brings us to MSNBC military analyst, retired U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey.
General McCaffrey, good evening.
RET. GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, NBC MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, hi, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Apart from the fact of the thing, what does the process by which, 26 days before an election, a group can go and assassinate the governor of Baghdad, tell us about the nature and scope of the insurgency, as opposed to what we think the nature and scope of the insurgency is?
MCCAFFREY: Well, getting intelligence on this insurgency is very, very challenging; 20 percent of the population is Sunni. In my judgment, most of that population is actively supporting an armed rebellion by maybe 80,000 or more armed fighters.
The rest of the country is on edge. The Kurds are OK. The Shia could go wrong if the elections don't proceed ahead. But we've just got a very tough year ahead of us. We've got to persevere. We've got to get a government with enhanced legitimacy.
OLBERMANN: The last estimate from the U.S. about the size of the insurgency, the numbers of people, and it came - in October, it was 20,000, up from an original assessment of 5,000. Now this director of the Iraqi intelligence service, General Mohammed Shahwani, has told the Agence France Press News Service that he thinks it is 200,000 with about 40,000 full-time fighters and the rest supporters, fellow travelers, etcetera.
Is his estimate way off-base? Is the U.S. military's estimate way off-base? What's going on here?
MCCAFFREY: Well, I think it probably low.
My own number that I'm carrying in my head is 80,000 armed fighters and probably three to five million people actively support them. I think most of the population of the Sunni area wants to regain control of Iraq through armed conflict, not through the ballot box. They're not going to add legitimacy to a process that will take them out of control of this giant country that they've enslaved for 40 years.
OLBERMANN: The Iraqi intelligence man, General Shahwani, says that, bluntly, he thinks the resistance in Iraq is actually bigger than the U.S. military in Iraq. If we do not have more troops to send or if the country would not stomach sending more troops or both, what are we to do now? You mentioned a tough year ahead. Is it bearing through it or is there still something to do in the interval time?
MCCAFFREY: Well, actually, I don't think it is hopeless; 150,000 troops you have got on the ground simply cannot be defeated at a company level. They can control the capital, control the roads.
The challenge is, how does Lieutenant General Dave Petraeus, this brilliant general officer, help the Iraqis create a security force? It is going to take a couple of years. We are going to have to muscle our way through it. We have got some difficult days ahead.
OLBERMANN: MSNBC military analyst General Barry McCaffrey, as always, sir, our pleasure. Many thanks.
MCCAFFREY: Good to be with you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Briefly on domestic politics, while rumors continue to fly that a senator may join as many as a dozen representatives in formerly challenging Ohio's electoral votes when they are opened before Congress on Thursday, that senator will not be John Kerry.
He arrived in Amman, Jordan, yesterday to begin a 13-day fact-finding trip through the Middle East. Meantime, back in the Midwest, for the first time, Republicans have filed court paperwork regarding that vote in Ohio. The Bush-Cheney reelection campaign asking Ohio's chief justice to dismiss the bid by 37 voters there to overturn the balloting, writing that the case resembles - quote - "a poorly drafted script for a late-night conspiracy theory movie" - unquote.
Meantime, the Washington governor's race may not be over. After the Democrat, Christine Gregoire, was declared the winner on the third count by exactly 129 votes, Republican campaigners said they found nearly 8,500 more ballots than voters registered in five of the state's counties. King County officials say they are over there by about 3,500, a not unheard-of discrepancy, but a particularly large one.
On Capitol Hill, the 109th Congress opened today not with a bang, but with a whimper, Republican lawmakers giving up on their effort to protect Tom DeLay, giving their Democratic counterparts very little to yell about. The GOP reversing course on a rules change that would have allowed DeLay to keep his job as majority leader, even if he were to be indicted by the Texas grand jury investigating his fund-raising operations.
DeLay himself telling his colleagues to stick with the old rule that says if a leader is indicted, he must automatically step down. A spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert saying that the proposed relaxation of ethics rules - quote - "would have been the right thing to do, but it was becoming a distraction."
Political distraction junkies won't to have wait long for their next fix. Only two days to go until the Alberto Gonzales confirmation hearing, still promising to be a doozy. A dozen retired military officials now stepping forward to express what they say is deep concern about his appointment as attorney general.
The most prominent among them, General John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The source of his concern and that of the 11 others, the role played by Gonzales in crafting the memos that defined Bush administration policy on questioning terrorist suspects.
In on one of them dated January 25 of 2002, Gonzales argued that the
war on terror "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on the
questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions" -
The senators who will be questioning Judge Gonzales will most likely never see those memos. Democrats say the White House is refusing to supply copies of them. Senator Patrick Leahy telling Gonzales in a letter tonight that he wants the documents by tomorrow, adding that - quote - "For any document that you refuse to release, state the basis for your refusal and whether the president is asserting executive privilege" - end quote.
Also tonight, a major scientific breakthrough to tell you about. It turns out the gecko might not be just a cute insurance pitch man. He may also solve all your cleaning and wall-climbing needs.
And our old friend William Hung has been climbing the walls for celebrity do-gooding in the wake of the tsunami. Stand by.
OLBERMANN: Gecko feet could revolutionize the way you live. Yes, I said gecko feet. Also, a very rare sighting of the former king of late night, Johnny Carson.
OLBERMANN: Scientists made a sudden discovery that made adhesive tape reusable or kept Band-Aids from leaving any stick-em after you remove them or enable somebody to make gloves that kept from you dropping almost anything or maybe even created surfaces that would actually repel dirt.
Our No. 2 story on the Countdown, Scientists may have made that discovery and its name is the gecko, yes, the tiny tropical lizard and fictional star in those car insurance commercials. A study published today in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences includes some astounding conclusions about the astounding feet of the plucky four-toed little sons of guns.
Basically, geckos can climb up any vertical surface, even on ceilings. But, unlike most other creatures that can do that, their feet are not sticky. And their feet also do not get dirty. They repel grit and grime and they could revolutionize almost everything.
The study was led in part by Dr. Kellar Autumn, associate professor of biology at Lewis and Clark College.
Professor Autumn joins us now, along with a Madagascar leaf tailed gecko.
Professor Autumn, good evening to you.
KELLAR AUTUMN, LEWIS & CLARK COLLEGE: Good evening.
OLBERMANN: I'll ask the gecko a question later, but first you.
In simple terms as possible - this is science stuff. Therefore, it confuses me. But what are the possible practical applications for what you've learned here?
AUTUMN: I think we're looking at not just a revolution in adhesive technology. But it may really change the way things are put together.
OLBERMANN: In the sense that we've learned what from them?
AUTUMN: We've learned how the make adhesives and attachment devices that don't work by particular chemistry. They don't rely on chemicals. Rather, they rely on a nanostructure.
These millions of microscopic hairs on the bottom of geckos' feet, each of those hairs is incredibly sticky. It is sticky because of the nanostructure at its tip.
OLBERMANN: We've mentioned some of the possibilities here. That nanostructure actually repels dirt, actually pushes the dirt away. Is it possible that this could actually wind up as technology that might work even further? Could you make clothes that would repel dirt that are based on this? Could you make houses or carpets?
Do we have the potential here for that real-life version of the Alec Guinness picture where the guy invents the suit that never gets dirty and never wears out?
But also things like automobile tires, stickier automobile tires that don't get dirty, bandages. I think there's a lot of applications also in the medical industry, where we can finally have a medical adhesive that is compatible with the human body.
OLBERMANN: How did you wind up looking into the feet of geckos?
AUTUMN: That's right. Who knew? Who would think that there could be something so valuable in a strange creature like a gecko?
This just started out as pure curiosity-based research. We just wanted to know how they worked.
OLBERMANN: Dr. Kellar Autumn of Lewis and Clark College, great thanks and many thanks for the Madagascar leaf-tailed gecko provided to us tonight courtesy of Pet Kingdom pet shop in San Diego. They're the people you have got to get to if you got to get a gecko.
And no geckos will actually be used. They'll be using a synthesized version, a synthetic version. They won't actually be making that stuff out of gecko feet. I give the whole thing six weeks before the research finds its way into those commercials.
Speaking of entertainment news, time to switch to our nightly segment "Keeping Tabs." And on the theory that you never outgrow your need for updates about William Hung, the 1985 relief song "We Are the World" is being re-recorded to help the tsunami victims, done with Chinese lyrics, retitled "Love." William Hung is one of the celebrity singers. So is Jackie Chan. Laugh not. Last weekend, they raised $6.2 million singing it.
A less happy, more focused story about celebrities and the tsunami. Oprah Winfrey has reportedly hired a team of ex-Marines to look for the missing friends of one of her show contributors, so reports the TV series "Extra." It does not say how many former Marines she hired, but that they are already in Sri Lanka, where the designer Nate Berkus was vacationing with Fernando Bengoechea when the tsunami hit. Berkus survived. Bengoechea is still missing.
"Extra" also reports Winfrey sent a camera crew to Sri Lanka to videotape the search.
And TV after the set has been shut off, Johnny Carson making an unexpected and disturbing return from his self-imposed exile - next here on Countdown.
OLBERMANN: Ordinarily, this news hour doesn't dwell on entertainment topics, nor do we go much for speculation or even informed analysis.
But the number of occasions that one of TV's most prominent figures has been seen in public or in the media since he retired from his own show in May 1992 can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Yesterday apparently was one of those occasions, and it was a shocking one.
Our No. 1 story on the Countdown is the Johnny Carson photographs. This is Johnny Carson photographed by a paparazzi from the Zuma agency on his way to a matinee at a movie theater near his home in at Malibu, California, in appearance so unlike the Johnny Carson remembered by 30 years of viewers of "The Tonight Show" that his identity was only fully confirmed by that sweatshirt he is wearing, which bears the name The Norfolk Panthers, the team from the high school in his hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska. It is in the school colors, maroon and white.
Mr. Carson turned 79 years old six weeks ago. He had undergone an emergency quadruple bypass in 1999. Given the impact of his career on all of television and the reverence in which he's held by countless people in the industry, I confess I feel almost ghoulish doing this story, but part of our charge here is to talk about what you'll be talking about tomorrow. I have no doubt that the odds are now pretty good you'll be talking about those photos.
Joining me now is Mary Murphy, a senior writer for "TV Guide" who has written extensively on the life and the career of Johnny Carson.
Ms. Murphy, good everything. Thanks for your time.
MARY MURPHY, "TV GUIDE": Thank you. Good to be here.
OLBERMANN: First, the most pressing, maybe the easiest of questions.
We're sure that really is Johnny Carson?
MURPHY: Absolutely sure.
It's right outside of the Malibu theater. And it looks like the last photographs I've seen of him. It's a very rare sighting. You know, as far as I can tell, Carson is the most elusive television and maybe movie star except for Greta Garbo. He is certainly the most elusive TV star of our generation.
OLBERMANN: Until these images, the most recent widespread photographs or the photographs that were most widely seen of him were from about 1999. Even when he was doing "The Tonight Show," he was a private man. But has he taken extraordinary measures to protect that privacy since his retirement?
You made the comparison to Garbo. How does one go to the theater in Malibu in the middle of the afternoon and not get recognized or photographed?
MURPHY: Well, Carson really has, I guess only in Hollywood, you could call it full-service isolation. He lives in a compound behind a wall.
His tennis courts are walled in. He has a tunnel underneath where he can go back and forth. He other times lives on his enormous yacht in Marina del Rey, where, if the paparazzi comes, he can sail away. And he's moved into a very tiny circle of friends, Neil Simon, Chevy Chase, George Schlatter from "Laugh-In," Ed McMahon.
But he rarely ventures out of tight circle anymore. That doesn't mean that he's removed from the world. It just means he's removed from performing. According to his friends, they tell me he's so alert. He keeps up with the news everyday. He has cable TV on his yacht and he's just as sharp as ever.
OLBERMANN: Are there inferences being drawn from those pictures regarding his health?
MURPHY: Well, you know, there were rumors a few months ago that he was taken into the hospital for a heart procedure, which his nephew denied to me. But he does have emphysema.
And you can see that, obviously, the emphysema and the heart problems have slowed him down. He does play tennis. But I can tell from the photographs and we can see just from talking to his friends this is a very slowed-down - mind alert, body not quite as able to function.
OLBERMANN: Do we know how he's feeling, how he is, even under those circumstances? Is life valuable and enjoyable to him at this point?
MURPHY: Yes. His friends tell me he's part of this kind of elite poker club with Neil Simon and Carl Reiner and Chevy Chase. And they say that, of all the funny minds in the room, he's absolutely the funniest. And they wait for his comments. His mind has definitely not slowed down.
So we're very grateful for that, all of us who love Johnny Carson.
OLBERMANN: Amen, all of us here as well. Mary Murphy, senior writer for "TV Guide," thanks for your time and for the reassurance that you provided.
That's Countdown. Thanks for being part of it.
I'm glad to hear that about Johnny Carson.
I'm Keith Olbermann. Good night and good luck.
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