Wednesday, January 12, 2005

'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for Jan. 12

Guest: Tom Squitieri, Derrick Pitts, James Lee Witt, Carol Bellamy

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST: Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? The La Conchita disaster. The missing family of the father who had gone out to get them ice cream is recovered. His wife and three daughters have perished. And tonight, accusations that the town's safety may have been jeopardized by business. A commercial orchard, pumping water into the ground atop the mudslide area.

It's a final. No WMD in Iraq. And the search is over. Just beginning, a public relations campaign to sell Social Security reform. Similar to the one used to sell No Child Left Behind. Oh-oh!

I hope you like broccoli. A new food pyramid. Five to 13 servings of fruit and vegetable per day?

And liftoff. Have you heard about this? The spacecraft we set up to smash a hole in a comet? It is just for research. Yes! Research, yes. That's it. All that and more now on Countdown.

Good evening. Since May 31, 1889, when more than 2,200 residents of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, were killed by a torrent of 20 million tons of water, that event has been known as the Johnstown Flood implying purely natural unpreventable causes. In fact, the flood was a dam break caused by negligent maintenance of what was little more than a wall of compressed dirt and rock that held back an artificial lake high in the hills above that city. A lake that served billionaire Andrew Carnegie and the other member of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club. The Johnstown Flood was the result of pure greed.

Our fifth story on the Countdown, as bodies continue to be recovered today from the La Conchita mudslide, accusations will reveal that the disaster owed at least in part to the placement of a commercial orchard complete with irrigation, at the top of the very hill that came crashing down on 15 houses Monday afternoon. John F. Maguire, an attorney for residents who had sued over a previous mudslide in La Conchita in 1995 quoted by the "Los Angeles Times" as saying you cannot have an orchard on top of an ancient landslide on top of a town. Our experts basically predicted what would happen.

Attorneys for the La Conchita Ranch Company say mudslides predated the opening of the citrus and avocado ranch in 1975. More on liability and why people were even living in that area in a moment.

First the grim scenes of recovery continuing today. Four more bodies carried out of the wreckage. They've been identified as Michelle Wallet (ph) and her three daughters. Hannah, age 10, Raven age 6, Paloma, age 2. Mrs. Wallet's husband Jimmy had stepped out of the house just before the event to get ice cream for the kids. And then the hill moved. Their recovery bringing the total number of those known dead to 10. The number missing is now down. In a community meeting in nearby Ventura this morning, residents were stunned to see two of their neighbors presumed lost in the slide, walk in. They are both fine. They say there's a third one who was also safe. However, it is believed seven people remain unaccounted for.

Two days after the earth moved, the governor of California arrived in La Conchita today. After taking first an aerial and then a ground tour Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declaring a state of emergency in the village. He then made what might prove to be a controversial promise. To help residents get back in their homes, despite the danger of future mudslides there.


GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (D), CALIFORNIA: The people that live in this community are very strong. That's what I noticed right away. The first thing they said, we'll be back. We're not going to leave this community no matter what anyone says. They may say that you have to move out of here because this is a dangerous area. But we will be back. I'm going to help them. So they can come back here. And we do everything we can to make it as safe area. Because I totally understand, there's no one that wants to be chased out of their neighborhood and out of their town and out of their village. I totally understand that. We just have to figure out a way of how to protect them also at the same time. And they can stay here.


OLBERMANN: A few moments ago, authorities in the area have now announced that the number of known missing still in the mudslide is down to three. That village of La Conchita so small, it is missing from many maps. Actually exists because of a mudslide. A disaster inundated the old tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad, killing four people and the strip of land was created as a buffer between what were seen as eroding cliffs and the coast itself. That was in 1909.

So what were people doing living there? Can any government force them not to? Especially when the state's governor is insisting he will help them stay. For some answers, I'm joined by James Lee Witt, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency now chairman and CEO of a company bearing his name. Mr. Witt, thank you for your time tonight.

If you have a scenario like this one, where a decade ago, the estimated cost of neutralizing the mudslide risk at this one hill was $30 to $50 million, can government simply say to people, you cannot live here, it is too dangerous?

JAMES LEE WITT, FMR DIRECTOR, FEMA: You know, Keith, over the years, I was the director of FEMA, it is important that we mitigate and prevent people from living in high risk areas, where there's a 100-year flood area or risk areas that you know will potentially cause death or damages. After the 1995 mudslide, we worked with the state of California and the USGS in mapping all the historical known landslide using GIS, geographic information systems. And also, did the mapping for any potential future slides that the scientists thought. So California has those maps. And we did those in 1995. It is important that we look and where we build, it is absolutely critical.

OLBERMANN: But the results appear to have been signs posted in the town warning about the danger of mudslides. And the motion detectors, and some retaining walls which really didn't do much other than catch debris as it came down. But there were also houses on the Pacific Ocean in southern California that were being sold for as little as $4,000 each. Did the authorities there do enough to warn residents of the prospect of disaster?

WITT: Well, you know, that's why I joined the International Code Council as their CEO because building codes and enforcing those codes are absolutely critical. And California has some of the toughest building codes in the country. It is really important for each local community to make sure that they enforce those codes and make sure that they have the regulations in place to keep people out of harm's way.

OLBERMANN: As to the arguments of the residents who sued over the 1995 mudslide that you referred to, and investigated, the argument that you cannot have a commercial orchard with fullscale irrigation atop a mudslide area. It sounds like sophisticated earth knowledge. Are those arguments valid? Did somebody actually put commercial interests ahead of safety here?

WITT: Well, you know, I don't know about the orchard. The amount of rains that California has had and knowing the history of landslides in California, it is something that should be watched during these conditions. Very closely. And make sure that people understand that something could happen that they live in high risk areas. And the wildfires in California itself has exasperated the potential for mudslides and floods in California. So anything that can add to that risk is a factor in this.

OLBERMANN: It's always that sequence. Fires and then slides because there's nothing to hold the ground in place. James Lee Witt who from 1993 through 2001 headed FEMA. Thanks for your time tonight.

WITT: Thank you.

OLBERMANN: The same storms that pummelled La Conchita and the rest of southern California for two weeks have moved on but continued the barrage elsewhere. The flooding around Las Vegas, Nevada, is so bad that it eroded the earth between the train tracks and a Union Pacific train derailed. Fortunately it was one that was empty and parked at the time.

In Indiana, the White River overflowed, flooding nearby homes and fields there. A familiar scene.

Thick fog causing a 20-car pile-up on the highway, the Indiana toll road. One person was killed in that crash. And in - near Cleveland, Ohio, this is still Indiana. Near Cleveland, Ohio, at least four counties under a flood watch after heavy rains swamped businesses and closed at least one highway there.

The news of the more longstanding of the recent cataclysms is a mix of

relief and new concern. The number of Americans still possibly missing

from the Indian Ocean tsunami is slowly but surely decreasing. The State

Department today dropping the number of remaining inquiries about missing

U.S. nationals to 466. The number of Americans missing and presumed dead

increased by one to 18. That same number of victims confirmed dead killed

by the tsunami.

But the word that the international death toll has grown again to 158,638 comes with an unexpected turn away from the suspension of local politics and prejudice that had prevailed in the immediate aftermath.

In Indonesia, the government today issuing ultimatums about foreigners in Aceh province. First it wants all foreign troops out of country by the end of march. The U.S. marine corps which has been instrumental in delivering vital aid to some of the more remote areas of that province has already agreed to minimize the footprint of American troops in the regions by basing its operations at sea.

Second, the Indonesian government said all aid workers must declare their travel plans or face expulsion from the country. Those wanting to move outside the two main cities of Banda Aceh and Malabo must now be accompanied by the Indonesian military. The Indonesian government saying the measures are necessary to protect foreign aid workers from Aceh's separatist rebels. Yesterday those very rebels guaranteed the safety of those workers.

Joining me now to discuss how the new restrictions will affect aid workers in Aceh is, Carol Bellamy, the executive director of UNICEF, who returned from that area last week. Ms. Bellamy, thanks for your time tonight.


OLBERMANN: Lets start with these restrictions. Would they hinder you organizations and the efforts of other organizations in the region?

BELLAMY: Well, right now they are not. I mean, we always knew that this was an area in conflict. We've always had to deal with more difficult access, more restriction. I was checking with our office today, to date, they have not precluded us from getting aid through. We're watching them carefully. I mean, we are concerned. But to date, the aid is getting through.

OLBERMANN: Having just been in Aceh, is there - did you perceive a threat to the safety of foreign workers from rebels or terrorist or anybody else? Or is that - is that literally not been a factor in the first 2 ½ weeks?

BELLAMY: It hasn't been a factor so far, but it is an area in conflict. I mean, the presence of military was quite obviously. Military with the weapons, I should say. From a U.N. perspective, the security phase, and this is something that determines how much protection we need to have is quite high in that area. So we worry about it, but we have put in many precautions. Right now however we're getting the aid the through, the trucks are getting through, the air is getting through, people are getting through, we're watching it carefully.

OLBERMANN: Is the political maneuvering this soon after a disaster part and parcel of aid work?

Do you encounter this everywhere around the world, whenever something happens?

BELLAMY: We don't encounter it everywhere, but it certainly is not unknown to us. I mean, politics plays a role. As a humanitarian organization, we try and stay out of the politics. But the fact is, today, all around the world, you're more likely to find aid workers in these emergencies, conflicts, wars from to Sudan to Liberia to Colombia to Sri Lanka. So, we've dealt with these in the past. I think we're reasonably sophisticated in dealing with them. And at the same time, we try and not let them preclude us from making sure that people receive the aid they need.

OLBERMANN: Of course, obviously, you don't need me to tell you this, everyone of these situations is unique. This military escort, could that intimidate people who are still in such a state of shock, especially if they happen to have been supporters of the separatists in Aceh?

BELLAMY: It could. I always worry about military escorts. My preference always is not to have a military escort. My preference is to have some kind of security available, but not a military escort. So, we're going to have to see what happens here.

OLBERMANN: UNICEF's executive director and the former city council president of New York, Carol Bellamy. Great thanks for you time tonight.

BELLAMY: Thanks.

OLBERMANN: Also tonight, have some more strawberries, seconds, fifths, 13ths. Do not forget your daily half-hour of exercise, the government just upped the steepness of the good old pyramid.

And the president trying to trim some weight, too with a P.R. campaign to change Social Security. In the wake of the Armstrong Williams case, is this a good time to launch any P.R. campaign?

You are watching Countdown on MSNBC.


OLBERMANN: There's a secret about weight loss, eat less and move more. Gee, thanks Uncle Sam. Your tax dollars in action.

And the flap over the tsunami telethon is over, mean, oh, the clock is back, so is the controversy.


OLBERMANN: Hey, you! I mean you! What are you doing watching television, you should be on an exercise bicycle while you eat as many as 13 servings of fruit and vegetables, and you have to do it he have day for the rest of your life.

Our number four story on the Countdown, the government building the pyramids all over again, the food and exercise pyramids. And unless you are already a professional body builder, you're going to be shocked by the new minimum daily requirements. And oh, by the way, they were unveiled by that picture of radiant fitness, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

Our correspondent is Tom Costello.


TOM COSTELLO, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A poster family for healthy eating could well be the Pitts (ph) family in Florida. On the menu, salmon, rice, broccoli and fruit. None of the saturated fats, butters and starches that that Cindy Pitts (ph) knew as a kid.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were more aware that you should have more fruits and vegetables, vs., you know, just meat and potatoes like I grew up with.

COSTELLO: But a lot of the country isn't eating right, with nearly two third overweight or obese.

TOMMY THOMPSON, SECY. OF HEALTH & HUMAN SERVICES: You lower your calorie intake. You lower your fats, your carbs. You eat more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and you exercise.

COSTELLO: Now for the first time, the government is suggesting limits on how much we eat. Men no more than 2,600 calories a day, women, 2,000. The government's new dietary guidelines used the old food pyramid but are much more specific. Cut down on your saturated fat. No more than 10 percent of your total calories. Eat your fruit and vegetables, at least four and a half cups a day. The old guideline refer to servings, which many people found confusing. Eat lots of whole grains like wheat bread, three one ounce servings a day. Also a new limit on salt. No more than one level tea spoon a day. And exercise 30 minutes a day.

KATHERINE TALLMADGE, NUTRITION EXPERT: Bottom line is, if the Americans followed these guidelines, they'd be healthier, they'd be slimmer and they'd be trimmer.

COSTELLO (on camera): But will anyone listen? Americans spend some $50 billion each year trying to lose weight, and yet the nation's collective waistline continues to expand. It's not easy changing bad habits.

ANNOUNCER: VENEMAN, SECY. OF AGRICULTURE: I think people have gotten the message that people need to take personal responsibility for what they do.

COSTELLO (voice-over): And if you're postponing the healthy diet in hope of a magic pill...

THOMPSON: It's not going to happen.

COSTELLO: Which leaves hard work and healthy choices.

Tom Costello, NBC News, Washington.


OLBERMANN: From the Food Pyramid to the criminal food chain, The Daily dance between the good guys and the bad guys returning to "Odd Ball." And from highway chases to interstellar ones, NASA is going after a comet to blow a big hole in it. It is just research - so they say.


OLBERMANN: We're back with the segment that proves that tragedy or no tragedy, Southern California's drivers will not cease nor desist from their appointed car chase rounds. Let's play "Oddball."

It's our first chase of the new year. So, the "Oddball" scoreboard shows a clean slate. The guys who tried to escape the cops, attempt to avenge last season's 57-0 blowout. But you'll have get up pretty early in the morning to pull one over on the California Highway Patrol. And this guy apparently never went to bed last night.

The driver of this stationwagon was wanted for a minor vehicle code violation. Now he's looking at felony evasion. The chase, reaching speeds of up to 90 miles per hour before the driver bumped another car and lost control across the 42 lane Foothill Freeway.

So it's a rude awakening for this predawn desperado. Maybe he'll be processed in time to see the sunrise in the bighouse.

If you find it's hard to get going in the morning without a big cup of coffee? You wish you find yourself wishing the java was actually ice cold and full of bubbles? More over, is this script gimmick of asking 1,000 questions getting really annoying? Rumor has it, coca-cola has introduced a new flavor, coffee flavored coke. A Wall Street analyst says the drink is in development and will be called Blak. B-L-A-K, Blak. Now, would anybody really market a drink whose name sounds like blech? Well, these are the people 20 years ago invented New Coke.

Finally, Valentine's Day just around the corner, so it's time for that olfactory (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to fire up the machine that makes the conversation heart. This year, the Necko Corporation is adding new sayings to the old favors like "Kiss Me" and "Be Mine." The new ones will be "Fit For Love," "Be My Hero," "Cheer Me On," "Love My Team."

Some of the rejected new messages were, "I Am No Longer Contagious," "You Will Die Alone" and "You've Just Eaten 27 Empty Calories."

All right. I made those up.

The president is looking for a good catch phrase to sell his social security overhaul. This as we learn that his prewar sell on Iraqi W.M.D. is officially a bust. The search for those weapons is over.

And the Michael Jackson case, the defense is hoping to score a big victory today. The judge let everybody know who is really the boss. Those stories ahead.

Now here are Countdown's top three news maker of this day.

No. 3: Prince Harry of England, apologizing for having showed up at a friend's birthday party wearing a Nazi uniform. No doubt, he was just thinking of his great grand uncle, the Duke of Windsor. That is a history joke.

No. 2: the 2 teenage who stole the Piper Cub airplane - Hypercub in English - that belonged to one of their father's in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Great, albeit misguided imagination, what followed was not imaginative. What did they do with it? They buzzed their high school and threw a bucket of eggs on the roof. They're under arrest.

And No. 1: An unidentified man in Switzerland. So, this guy walks out of this bar, see, and he is so drunk, he decides to take a nap in the middle of the road where he eventually gets hit by a car and he gets dragged 120 feet. But he was not seriously hurt, because he was protected by the dog suit he was wearing. Police say he had worn the dog suit when his night had begun at the stag party. That part of the story, I do not want to hear.


OLBERMANN: "I believe," the commander in chief has told the newspaper "The Washington Times," "the president has got to set big agenda items and solve big problems."

Our third story on the Countdown, he presumably did not mean big problems caused by those big agenda items that he sets. He may be in for a fight on Social Security. He may be in for a fight over how the administration seems poised to try to sell changes to that program in ways reminiscent of how it tried to sell No Child Left Behind.

Speaking of schools, the president went to JEB Stuart High in Falls Church, Virginia, to try to extend the No Child territory, insisting that same kind of mandatory math and reading tests now administered to kids in the third through eighth grades be extended to the 11th grade, the president also managing to slip in a few references to Social Security, telling that high-school-age audience that their nest eggs may all be gone by the time they retire.

It does not earn high marks for subtly, but it does mark the official start of another presidential P.R. extravaganza, one that's being compared to the P.R. extravaganza to get No Child Left Behind approved in the first place. Mr. Bush hoping to put pressure on Congress to change Social Security by allowing Americans to invest at least part of their payroll taxes in the stock market. It will not be an easy sell and the president will not be flacking alone.

Joining his crusade, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, who will be pitching in with ad campaigns, two groups that support limited government, the Club For Growth and the Free Enterprise Fund hoping to raise $15 million each. And the conservative Progress For America Voter Fund s has already set aside $9 million in help.

Buying real estate at the nexus of Bush administration policy and the P.R. campaign, conservative commentator Armstrong William. His new address making him easy to find and an even easier target. Taking aim today, fellow flacks looking to put as much distance between them and him as possible. The Public Relations Society of America making it clear that it has ethical guidelines that and by being paid by the Bush administration to promote its legislation, Williams was not following those guidelines.

"As public relations professionals, we are disheartened by this type of tactic," their statement says today. "It does not describe the true practice of public relations. The Public Relations Society of America strongly objects to any paid endorsement that is not fully disclosed as such and is presented as objective news coverage."

In trouble with the P.R. Society and a newspaper syndicator and a conservative TV station group and a syndicated public affairs telecast, not a good week to be Armstrong Williams.

But, in light of that fact, is it a good week for the president of the United States to begin any kind of P.R. campaign?

I'm joined again by "Newsweek" chief political correspondent and NBC analyst Howard Fineman.

Good evening, Howard.


OLBERMANN: You're working up a piece for the magazine on what the Hill is going to look like and how important Social Security reform is going to be this year.


OLBERMANN: So, let me ask you, does the president really want a headline right now like the one in "USA Today" this morning that read, Bush launches P.R. campaign to change Social Security?

FINEMAN: Probably not, except he would like one word changed there. Bush launches campaign to save Social Security is the P.R. Line that he is pursuing, telling those kids over in Virginia that they won't have any Social Security left unless he gets to make the change he wants.

It is going to be a big sell. George Bush operates with the big sell. That's the way he's done it from the beginning. It's kind of a corporate public relations approach to things. He did it as governor of Texas. He's done it as president. And that's the way he's operates, with a lot of money and a lot of salesmanship. But he's going to have a hard time on Capitol Hill, based on my conversations with Republicans, as well as Democrats.

OLBERMANN: I want get to that in a moment, but I'm still on this P.R. thing. Is there no concern that, rightly or wrongly, at this moment, that the president's efforts might be damaged because those in the marketplace of ideas who advocator his policies may be perceived at the moment as potential graduates of the Armstrong Williams school of used car salesmen?

FINEMAN: Well, I think it should be a concern.

The Democrats are having some difficulty making a bigger issue out of it, which they would like to do. They don't control the investigative powers on the Hill. A group of Democrats has asked for an investigation. To me, the real issue isn't Armstrong Williams himself. It's the public relations firm that was hired by the Department of Education and the Department of Education itself, which cooked up this idea of paying Armstrong Williams. That's who the P.R. Society is angry at. And that's where the questions need to be asked.

What were they thinking over there putting somebody like that on the payroll. If they've got strong case to make, they should make it directly and without having to pay somebody to do it. But I don't think that is going to get much traction on the Hill, again, because the Democrats don't have any power on committees to investigate things.

OLBERMANN: Back to Social Security itself. This is very much a damn-the-torpedoes kind of administration and unapologetic for it, which is fine, but are there not still lots of Republicans in Congress who are not like that, whether it's about Social Security or immigration reform or any of the other big agenda items that Mr. Bush is talking about? Is his toughest opposition going to come from within his own party in the next four years?

FINEMAN: Yes, I think it could be, because they have fairly narrow majorities in the House and especially in the Senate. And it is going to be up to George Bush to make the case with Republicans on immigration, which has divided the party, and on Social Security.

I've been talking to members up there who are quite worried about it.

They're not convinced yet that the politics is on the Republican side. George Bush is. Karl Rove is. They think that younger Americans, if you look at the polls, don't think they're going to get any Social Security when they retire anyway. They like the idea of investment accounts. But it is not a done deal in the Republican Party yet by any means.

OLBERMANN: Howard Fineman of "Newsweek" and MSNBC, as always, my friend, great thanks for your time.

FINEMAN: You're welcome, Keith.

OLBERMANN: A regional note before we get back to the national events.

Despite still standing legal challenges from her opponent, Democrat Christine Gregoire was today sworn in as the new governor of the state of Washington. She won a second recount, the third count of that election, by just 129 votes after Republican Dino Rossi had won on election night, it seemed, by 261 votes out of nearly three million.

Washington's Republican secretary of state certified Gregoire's election, saying the vote count featured many mistakes, but he had found no evidence of fraud. "The Wall Street Journal" nonetheless entitled an editorial on the inauguration today - quote - "Stolen Election?"

And in it, they use the word fraud three different times. Sounds a little tin foil hat to me, as opposed to the governor's remarks, which sounded a little: I can't wait to get off this topic.


GOV. CHRISTINE GREGOIRE (D), WASHINGTON: Clearly, the election recount ordeal of the last two months has challenged us. And among our challenges this session is election reform. We want every vote to count and to be counted right the first time.


OLBERMANN: Meantime, this just in. The search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has just ended. Actually, it ended last month, according to officials of the Iraq Survey Group interviewed by "The Washington Post."

Charles Duelfer, who led that group, says he is polishing up his interim report from last September, in which he echoed the findings of his predecessor, Dr. David Kay, that there was no WMD in Iraq, not in the last decade, anyway. Of his revisions for his final report, Charles Duelfer says there's no particular news in them, just some odds and ends.

Unnamed intelligence officials say the administration was reluctant to shut down the wild goose chase that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and produced no wild geese, but rather a goose egg. And one of them told the newspaper - quote - "We talked to so many people that someone would have said something."

The White House said something.


SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Remember, September 11 changed the equation about how we confront the threats that we face. And the president recognizes what his most important responsibility is. And that is to do everything in his power to protect the American people. And nothing has changed in terms of his views when it comes to Iraq.


OLBERMANN: Here would be a good moment to refer you and the administration back to our report last night about the gathering threat in North Korea, where President Kim Jong Il has issued this threatening new public policy: Let us trim our hair in accordance with the socialist lifestyle.

Back to the WMD. I'm joined by Tom Squitieri, Pentagon reporter for "USA Today."

Tom, good evening.

TOM SQUITIERI, "USA TODAY": Hi, Keith. Happy new year.

OLBERMANN: And to you.

Given that WMD was the Holy Grail of the administration policy in Iraq, how was the president convinced to finally shut down the search? It's 30 years later and people are still looking for Jimmy Hoffa.

SQUITIERI: Yes. And that would be more interesting to find I think on some occasions.

You know, the clip you showed from the White House press spokesman said it all. He didn't answer the question. They shut it down quietly a month ago. Do you think for one moment, Keith, that had they found one weapon of mass destruction, they would have waited a month to tell us? The answer is no, because the reason they went into Iraq, the weapons of mass destruction, hasn't happened.

Now, depending on your count, it was either $600 million spent on this search or $200 billion for the war effort to find weapons of mass destruction. And nothing has turned up.

OLBERMANN: The money figure is also classified? We're not going to find out how much that cost us?

SQUITIERI: Well, that may change. Representative Ellen Tauscher of California, who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has asked the chairman of that committee, Duncan Hunter, also of California, to have a hearing just on that topic. How much money was spent looking for these weapons of mass destruction, which, of course, the Democrats contend, some of them at least, was the primary reason that Bush and his administration used to launch the war in Iraq.

OLBERMANN: There was - speaking of the Democrats, it was kind of a run-of-the-mill response from the minority leader, Ms. Pelosi, in the House about how the president - let me read it - "needs to explain to the American people why he was so wrong for so long about the reasons for war."

That seemed pretty tepid. Are the Democrats intending to try to make more hay out of this?

SQUITIERI: It did seem tepid, indeed, Keith.

And I think they are trying to. As I said, Representative Tauscher wants a hearing in the Armed Services Committee, which actually is not a bad committee on Capitol Hill to have this hearing. There are Republicans and Democrats on that committee who would like to see how this money was spent.

It has been going on for a long time, this question of weapons of mass destruction. We all know Condi Rice said things about mushroom clouds in our cities if we don't take action in Iraq and all that. The reason for going to war has changed over the months, but the money spent has not. And now with the issue of counterinsurgency every day killing U.S. troops, that money has to be diverted to that purpose. That in large part is why they stopped the search.

There was nothing to be found and they need to spend the money elsewhere.

OLBERMANN: And it's always American money.

"USA Today"'s Tom Squitieri, as always, sir, thanks...


SQUITIERI: Your money, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Yes, my money and yours and the viewers.

Thank you, Tom.

Also tonight, will the Michael Jackson jury hear about allegations of abuse that go well beyond the charges from his current accuser? What about no cameras in the court? No problem. We have a plan to get around that.

And the plan for the tsunami telethon just got more complicated. How do we fit in the big giant head?

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


NORMAN MINETA, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: To deter any future irresponsible behavior, we will find out who is shining these lasers into cockpits and we will catch them.


CONAN O'BRIEN, HOST: According to the tabloids, this is true. The reason that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston broke up is that one of them wanted to have kids, which, ironically, is the same reason the Jackson Five broke up.



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Stuart (ph), by the way - you're not going to believe this - graduated from SMU in Dallas the same year that Laura graduated from SMU in Dallas.


BUSH: I asked him if they ever went to the bar together, but...


BUSH: Both of them said, no, they were in the library.


BUSH: Probably distinguishes their college career from mine.




OLBERMANN: Coming up, Michael Jackson courtroom puppet theater.

Speaking of puppets, Bill O'Reilly news tonight, too.

Stand by.


OLBERMANN: The Countdown continue now with what I fear is going to be an all-too-regular segment.


OLBERMANN: Stories my producers force me to do.


OLBERMANN: Yes, it's our No. 2 item and, yes, it's your entertainment dollars in action, day 422 of the Michael Jackson investigations.

Attorneys for both sides meeting today to argue whether evidence of

prior sexual misconduct or accusations of such by Jackson can be admitted

at trial, defense seeking to exclude any such evidence, calling it - quote

· "inherently incredible" and pointing out the obvious, that Jackson has never before been before tried for a sexual offense.

Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville delaying any ruling on the motion until he hears the bulk of the prosecution case. But in a separate ruling, seen as a victory for the media, the judge said he was unlikely to conduct further evidentiary hearings in private, giving both sides the opportunity to further argue this issue a week from Friday. The defendant will himself next be in court on January 31 for jury selection.

They prosecutor and a coalition of news organizations want to keep the courtroom open during these proceedings and the trial itself. That's not enough, however, for the folks at the entertainment television Network E!. They're going to do same-day recreations, reenacting testimony using actors.

Now, where in the world are going to they find a Michael Jackson impersonator? This is the same network that aired similar reenactments during the civil trial of O.J. Simpson in 1996. That was the trial in which there was not live television. And it was also not a not guilty verdict. The Jacko-mania incredible simulations will be co-produced by the English network B Sky B, which will be televise them daily in Britain.

Never being ones afraid to preemptively steal another network's idea, Countdown is going to beat E! and B Sky B to the punch. We will start our Michael Jackson trial reenactments now, long before the trial actually starts. To quote the president of the E! Network, Ted Harbert, "I'm a person who believes strongly that what we need to bring to TV is taste."

One warning about the Michael Jackson trial puppet theater. What you will hear today is not actual trial testimony. It's only an artist's conception.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why did you call him Blowhole and Doo-Doo Head?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why did I call him Blowhole? Well, I called him Blowhole, because, you know, he looks a little, you know, like a whale. I love whales. We should protect the whales, especially that one from Carvel, Fudgy the whale.

And why did I call his brother Doo-Doo Head? Well, you know, these things happen. There was an accident with Bubbles. Woo-hoo-hoo.


OLBERMANN: Again, that was only a simulated reenactment. The actor playing the real Michael Jackson has never said any of that in court, although I think the real Michael Jackson has testified to something to the effect of, woo-hoo-hoo.

From the ridiculous to the equally ridiculous, it is our nightly roundup of entertainment and celebrity news, "Keeping Tabs."

And if you've been stressed out over the tsunami, relax. Mr. O'Reilly will condescended to join the relief effort. You will remember that he was called out by the actor George Clooney, whom O'Reilly had criticized after the 9/11 telethon and preemptively before "Tsunami Aid: A Concert of Hope," which airs Saturday night on NBC and on this network, along with all the other NBC cable outfits.

The self-appointed judge of American morals had warned Clooney - quote - "'The Factor' will be watching to see if the money gets to the tsunami victims. If it does not, there will be trouble."

Clooney had responded that O'Reilly should - quote - "put your considerable money where your considerable mouth is and appear on the telethon."

O'Reilly initially hemmed and hawed, claiming he had to approve the format of the telethon first. Then, he was informed all the money raised would be going to the Red Cross. And having successfully transformed the tsunami into a story about himself, he concluded - quoting again - "I like that, so I'm going to go over and do it."

Wait a minute. The big giant head is going to be on NBC property?

Lock up the spoons. Somebody? Huh?

A reminder, the telethon airs live at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Saturday on NBC, also CNBC, Bravo, Trio, Telemundo, PAX, and Sci-Fi. Names like Clint Eastwood, Ben Affleck, Meg Ryan, Halle Berry added today to the list of guest presenters. Elton John, Annie Lennox, Nelly added to the list of performers. And we're hoping to have Mr. O'Reilly do his famous loofah act.

and then there's this. The famous "New York Times" crossword puzzle is prepared weeks in advance, so the timing is presumably accidental. But in light of the release Monday of the Thornburgh-Boccardi investigation into the Killian memo story, you can forgive some people at CBS for spitting their coffee this morning; 39 down, three letters. The clue? The so-called tiffany network. Ouch, babe.

Late news from baseball's steroids scandal. The Associated Press reporting tonight that the players and owners have agreed on a new tougher testing program for performance-enhancing drug like steroids. And they will announce it officially tomorrow. The program reportedly includes some form of punishment for first-time offenders.

One of my former employers sued today by Don King for $2.5 billion. Do you want to try to guess which one of my former employers? Yes, it's ESPN, which aired a segment last May in which, claims boxing promoter King, he was described as being - quote - "a snake oil salesman, a shameless huckster and worse" - unquote - who - quote - "killed not once, but twice" - unquote.

King's defamation suit, $2.5 billion. Also claims ESPN said he had threatened break the legs of former heavyweight champ Larry Holmes, had ripped off Muhammad Ali and Meldrick Taylor by at least $1 million each, and threatened to have Taylor killed. Oh, and the network also reported he had bad hair.

"Deep Impact" the movie dealt with a massive planet-destroying comet hurtling toward us, as covered by NBC. Deep Impact the NASA project deals with blowing up a comet all in the name of science, covered by MSNBC. Coincidence. Details next.


OLBERMANN: So, today NASA spent $330 million to shoot off a rocket that will intercept passing comet on the Fourth of July and blow a hole in it the size of the Colosseum in Rome. The rocket just so happens to be called Deep Impact. If that rings a bell, it's probably because that was the name of the 1998 film that starred Tea Leoni and MSNBC, in which NASA shoots off a rocket that will intercept a comet and blow a hole in it to keep it from blowing a hole in the Earth.

But in our No. 1 story on the Countdown, not to worry. Those are just incredible coincidence. This is just research.

Deep Impact got off the ground today without a hitch at Cape Canaveral, beginning its six-month, 268-million-mile trip which scientists will end with the part of it called an impactor colliding directly into the Comet Tempel 1 at a relative speed of 23,000 miles an hour, while the rest of the ship just keeps a safe distance and takes pictures.

Thee reason they say they're going after this comet is that it's so wonderfully smooth, thus easy to hit and easy to study. They swear even the name is just a coincidence. The project was in the works even before production started on the movie "Deep Impact." Just a coincidence. No danger. None.

Just to make sure, we're joined now by Derrick Pitts, the chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia.

Derrick, thanks for coming back on the show.


OLBERMANN: OK, so Tempel 1 isn't actually headed for us and the research stuff isn't just a cover story for which they could not come up with a good name?

PITTS: It sounds like a great one, doesn't it? It sounds like a perfect vehicle for Bruce Willis to come back and reprise his role as the commander of the spacecraft for the "Armageddon" movie.

But this is really a science mission. And we think we'll learn quite a bit about comets and about the early system of the solar system.

OLBERMANN: So how about this as a less panicky conspiracy theory? Could it not be not just a research opportunity to study comets, as you say, but also practice, to see if we can hunt one down in case some day we really are threatened?

PITTS: It's not entirely ridiculous that we have to consider the possibility that there is something out there that could strike the Earth in the future. And we really don't have a very good sense of how we would keep that from happening. Can we deflect it from its paths towards Earth? Can we blow it up into little bits?

All these kinds of theories have been thought out, Keith, including one that stated the possibility that perhaps we could dust it with white sugar in an effort to get it to sort of change its orbital orientation and move off course just because of differential heating.

So, this is really a good opportunity for us to try to figure out if any of these possibilities might work in the case that something like this could happen in the future.

OLBERMANN: And we don't even know what the surface is like, right? We don't know if when you tap on one of these comets it just - it falls apart into a million pieces or if the ship will simply bounce off of it, right?

PITTS: There are a couple of theories about what the structure of comets are like. As you well know, it's considered to be a frozen snowball. And this frozen snowball could be a solid mass or it could be just a conglomeration, or an accretion, of frozen gases, dust and rock from the early portion of the solar system that holds itself together by its own gravitational traction.

So, we'll find out when this impactor actually hits it at 23,000 miles an hour with the implosive - explosive force of four tons of TNT. We'll find out what the comet is really structured like.

OLBERMANN: And even if we don't really learn anything from it, we still have the possibility that, at 80 million miles away, the impact, there's a small chance that we'll be able to see it get blowed up in the sky on the night of July 4?

PITTS: Actually, the interesting thing about this is that the dust that comes from this explosion could create a cloud large enough to reflect enough light from the sun that we actually might be able to see it without a telescope on July 4. And so won't that be great NASA fireworks?

OLBERMANN: So, they don't really need to study it. They just want to see if they can blow part of it up and make a pretty picture in the sky.

PITTS: Hey, look, it's going to happen on July 4. Wouldn't you go for this great opportunity to create a Roman candle in the sky?

OLBERMANN: Absolutely. But you know what it means. It means both you and I are going to have to be working on July 4. That's what I know it means right now.

PITTS: I'm at a picnic. Don't call me.


OLBERMANN: Derrick Pitts with the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, as always, sir, great thanks. We always appreciate your insight. And keep watching the skis.

PITTS: My pleasure. Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN: That's Countdown. Thank you for being part of it. I'm Keith Olbermann.

It's just research. There's no danger whatsoever.

Good night and good luck.