Tuesday, May 2, 2006

'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for May 2

Guests: Ken Bazinet, Michael Fletcher, David Kaplan, Craig Tomashoff

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST: Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

She wasn't just a CIA agent. She wasn't just a CIA agent specializing in WMD. She was a CIA agent specializing in WMD investigating nukes in Iran. Exactly what this country lost when Valerie Plame was outed to protect the president's backside.

Exactly how often Jack Abramoff saw that. Well, saw the president or his officials. Two hundred times in the first 10 months of the administration alone. The White House visitor logs will be made public.

Speaking of logs, 34, 32, 39. The latest poll numbers. His popularity 34, his handling of Iraq 32. Those preferring a Republican Congress 39 - hike. Speaking of declines in popularity...


TOM CRUISE, ACTOR: Show me the money.


OLBERMANN: What all this weird stuff on TV has done to Tom Cruise, and what the promotional devices for his new movie did when police mistook them for pipe bombs.

Could be worse. Tom Cruise could be playing Artie Bucco. Artie, actor John Ventimiglia, arrested, drunk driving and cocaine possession. But they don't got him so far in the dead rabbit (INAUDIBLE).

All that and more, now on Countdown.

Good evening.

The irony was already inescapable and infuriating. In the middle of a war that started over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, the administration of President George W. Bush was willing to destroy the cover of a secret American agent on the trail of actual weapons of mass destruction, in order to deflect criticism over how badly it had fouled up or puffed up its wobbly evidence about phony weapons of mass destruction.

But in our fifth story on the Countdown tonight, we now know there was a further irony still contained within the surface story of Valerie Plame Wilson.

She had been monitoring the chance that nuclear materials were moving into Iran, intelligence sources telling our correspondent David Shuster that when Mrs. Wilson's career was ruined, when the name of the undercover company for which she and other CIA officers worked was deliberately unmasked in Robert Novak's column, part of the administration's ability to track Iran's nuclear ambitions went out the window as well.

Prosecution documents in the Libby case painting a picture of a White House so obsessed with undercutting administration critic Joe Wilson that officials never really considered how going after him might damage the CIA itself, the intelligence community split these days on whether Iran is close or not to developing a nuclear weapon, the CIA refusing to say anything about possible sources in Iran.

But since the White House has declared Iran to be one of the nation's biggest threats, part of the so-called axis of evil, that means every scrap of intelligence about Iran's nuclear program is essential. Every piece of intelligence that has been compromised could be called irreplaceable.

Political analyst Lawrence O'Donnell joins us now, executive producer of "The West Wing," contributor to the HuffingtonPost.com, and an old friend of Countdown.

Good to talk to you again, sir.


OLBERMANN: Of course, this walks Vice President Cheney and Scooter Libby right back towards that edge of, if they didn't know what she was doing when all this happened, they should have, correct? I mean, Iran was just a couple of steps down from Iraq on their interest scale.

O'DONNELL: Yes. But what Valerie Plame did for a living seemed to be not an interest of theirs at all. They just saw this motivation, they just saw this frame in which to put Joe Wilson, and to put his revelations in his "New York Times" op-ed piece. And they didn't seem to stop and think about, who is she? What does she really do there? We'd better be careful about this.

It has the feel, Keith, of negligence, as opposed to maliciousness. It has the feel that the vice president and Libby and Rove did not know what she did. And one, you can also get the feeling that maybe they, these kinds of guys just thought, Well, it's a woman working at the CIA. How important can her work be?

OLBERMANN: So the early line for the conclusion here is these, the, whoever did this and whoever was involved in the (INAUDIBLE) presumed conspiracy to get this out were more errors of omission than errors of commission?

O'DONNELL: It - there's a little bit of gang-that-couldn't-shoot-straight in this, Keith. There's, there, the mistakes are so stupid, and the box that they got themselves in with the investigation is so stupid, that it's not the kind of stuff that people would be doing in the White House if they knew how close they were to the legal tripwires.

And that, by the way, is why we haven't seen Fitzgerald bring a prosecution on the actual act of revealing Valerie Plame's identity. There's a criminal version of doing that. And Fitzgerald hasn't found it. Fitzgerald's own prosecution at this point shifted over to the perjury case that he's making against Scooter Libby. And that shift took place literally years ago in this investigation.

So Fitzgerald hasn't made a criminal case against anyone for that revelation.

OLBERMANN: Yes. If he could get somebody on four counts of being dumb, there would have been indictments on this already in that regard too.

O'DONNELL: I think that's what the Libby case is, Keith, at this point.

OLBERMANN: Those who are plugged in politically have always been prepared for a revelation like this about Valerie Plame, but it's probably true that the understanding of the working parts of this case probably peters out as you move towards the less politically involved.

Does this new element, and the currency of it, Iran, does it make the picture clearer for people in general to any degree, do you think?

O'DONNELL: I don't think it's going to rise this week to that kind of visibility, especially in the world of rising gas prices and all the coverage that that's getting, and all the political panic that's surrounding that. But it's one of those flavors that enters the story that I think over time will develop its own strength as an element in the story.

And I think it's going to be one of the very strong ironies about it, and one of the very powerful elements that harms the Bush administration in their own handling of this. The president did not activate all his own investigative powers within the White House when this leak developed. In fact, the White House did nothing about it until months later, when the CIA complained about it, and brought on the special prosecutor as a result.

So the White House's own reaction to this leak was nothing when it occurred, and now, as we see the full dimensions of what was at stake here, that doing nothing becomes one of actually the most shocking versions of doing nothing that this administration's been accused of, from Katrina and all the other incidents in which it's been accused of being flat-footed and slow.

OLBERMANN: Speaking of reactions, the pure politics of this, politically speaking, the Democrats seemed to danced around Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame and kind of pointed at them, said, Oh, boy, there they are. We don't want to say the president's done more to help terrorists in rogue states than hurt them, but look, there are Joe and Valerie.

Is the Iranian component something that might gird the Democratic candidates a little bit to be a little less tepid about this, to say, Look, the Republicans were more concerned with the president's reputation than anything else, to a degree that they didn't even realize they were losing one of their great assets in the battle against nukes in Iran?

O'DONNELL: Yes. This will be framed as we enter the political season in the fall. This is where the candidates who think that that kind of framing and that kind of argument will be helpful to them will use it. The candidates who - the Democratic candidates who don't think it'll be helpful will not use it.

You know, Keith, one of the things that undermines the tension of this story actually is the public personas of Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame, posing for pictures at "Vanity Fair," and then this weekend being at the White House Correspondents' Dinner and having, you know, Colbert make a joke about them being there, there's something about that presence and that public presence that they now have, to some degree, which makes it actually feel, I think, to the general public, that not much happened here.

How serious can this revelation be if the woman involved, you know, is willing to pose for magazine pictures and go out in public and be in a nationally televised on C-Span event like the White House Correspondents' Dinner? That's one of the odd qualities of this story.

OLBERMANN: It'd be different if she had a scar.

Laurence O'Donnell, political analyst, political strategist, also of "The West Wing" and the Huffington Post, of course. As always, sir, great thanks for your time.

O'DONNELL: Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Any D.C. scandal roundup incomplete without mention of a certain former lobbyist. Conveniently, there is big news in the Jack Abramoff case, or the guaranteed promise of big news in the very near future, a federal judge ordering the Secret Service to release all records of any visit that Mr. Abramoff or his associates made to the White House, the logs for every visit, from January 1 of 2001 to the current day, the conservative watchdog group, Judicial Watch, filing suit to get those logs. after the Secret Service failed to respond to its request under the Freedom of Information Act, the Associated Press hinting the number of visits could end up ranging in the high hundreds.

I went to the White House 200 times and all I got was this one lousy photo, records obtained by the AP showing that Mr. Abramoff's lobbying team logged nearly 200 meetings with administration officials during Mr. Bush's first 10 months in office on behalf of just one of Abramoff's clients. The logs must be handed over by the 10th of May.

Time now to call in Ken Bazinet, White House correspondent for "The New York Daily News."

Ken, welcome back. Thank you for your time.


Thank you.

OLBERMANN: What do we expect to find out from these records? Are we going to learn if Mr. Abramoff met with President Bush, and if so, how long those meetings might have been? What do we get out of this?

BAZINET: Well, the logs should - will definitely show the dates and times when Jack Abramoff entered the White House, and certainly the time that he left the White House. There will be names associated to this, or attached to this. Those could be junior staffers, who, (INAUDIBLE), for instance, did the legwork, signed Mr. Abramoff in.

There is a chance that the principals with whom he met are also listed. But I think it may very well be a trail, where you have to sort of follow, Well, who does this aide work for? But, again, we could actually see some names that surprise us.

OLBERMANN: This group that is behind this motion, Judicial Watch, best known, famous or infamous, depending on your viewpoint, for its role as the hound dog in the impeachment of President Clinton in the Lewinsky mess. What's it doing in the middle of this?

BAZINET: You know, this is going to be one of the best makeovers in Washington in some time. This is now a good-government group. I mean, you know, I spoke with Tom Finton today, the president. We talked about this a little bit. And basically, what he said is, is, We're going after government corruption, and they're just not very pleased with some of the stonewalling, things that we've talked about on this show in the past, quite frankly.

So I think more than anything else, they're doing sort of a, as a, you know, as I say, they're upping their image. And it's probably the best thing they can do, since they are a nonprofit, and they have to do fundraising. I think they're probably getting beyond the Monica Lewinsky years now.

OLBERMANN: The Secret Service coming back into this, another reminder of the Clinton-Lewinsky investigations. Why does it take a federal judge for the Secret Service to respond? The presumption was that the Secret Service is nonpartisan, no matter who the current occupant of the White House is, that its only interest is the protection of the president from a physical sense, not a political sense.

BAZINET: Well, it's not as mystifying, I think, as you might imagine. The first word in their name, "secret," I think, has something to do with it. The fact of the matter is, is, the Secret Service doesn't want to do anything to show any of its patterns, how it does its job. Even in the case of the coffees during the Clinton administration, those documents ultimately, you know, came out of the White House, not out of the Secret Service.

So I think that they do everything they can to make sure that they go to the mat, and they wait until they hear, you know, the final word, in this case a federal judge saying, That's it, here's the deal. And, you know, the Secret Service, by the way, let's give them a fair shake here. They did have an - one more appeal in this, and they chose not to. They're going to cooperate. And by the 10th, these documents will come out.

So I think basically they went as far as they could, and now it's time to come clean.

OLBERMANN: Lastly here, this figure out of the Associated Press today, about Abramoff meetings or Abramoff associate meetings in the White House, 10 months, 200 visits. Should we be shocked by that number, or shocked by the fact that we're not shocked by that number?

BAZINET: You know, I've been a White House correspondent for going on 14 years, and now unusual access doesn't surprise me. But I think this is unusual excess, given the fact that, you know, this is a man who dealt with issues like gambling, Indian affairs, very important issue, to be sure. But everything that we've been dealing with during this time, 9/11, the prelude to war, the actual war, health care reform, Medicare, I think you know all these issues. It's quite amazing that, you know, a single lobbyist and his associates would have that kind of access.

So I think, yes, I think we can make shake our heads at this one.

OLBERMANN: Yes, it boils down to pretty much a meeting per business day for the first 10 months (INAUDIBLE)...

BAZINET: Absolutely. It's amazing what $100,000 in raising money will get you.

OLBERMANN: And it's good to know that there can still be outrage in Washington.

Ken Bazinet with "The New York Daily News." As always, thanks for your time, sir.

BAZINET: My pleasure. Thank you.

OLBERMANN: The White House shakeup more than two weeks old, but it does not appear to be sparking a change in Americans' opinions about the administration. Two more polls out, two more all-time lows.

And the counterterrorism effort in this country. Local law enforcement setting up its own spy networks, little or no oversight from the federal government. Are your civil liberties at risk?

You are watching Countdown on MSNBC.


OLBERMANN: The mantra of the current administration, reiterated once again by press secretary Scott McClellan in his latest briefing, quote, "The president is focused on results, not polls."

But as our fourth story on the Countdown suggests, the end result of this administration could ultimately be those bad poll numbers and little else. So to keep them from biting the president's party this fall, the Republicans are going to have to pull off a historical first. According to the "USA Today," there have been six times in the last 56 years when a president's approval rating was below 50 percent in the spring before midterm elections. In all six cases, the presidential party lost seats in the House, the last time, 1994, the Democrats actually lost the House in its entirety.

The CBS poll, a career low for Mr. Bush in this poll, 33 percent job approval, just 24 percent suggesting the country's on the right track. The latest Gallup poll, meanwhile, at its new low of 34 percent, disapproval up to 63 percent.

Joining us now, Michael Fletcher, White House reporter of "The Washington Post."

Thank you for your time, sir.


OLBERMANN: The indication or - that perhaps some people might have suggested here, that the White House changes, Card, Rove, Bolten, might have shown up in the polls yet, even in these days of constant news cycles, nobody would expect a positive blip in two weeks, right?

FLETCHER: Oh, not at all. I think those changes really have to do with dealing with Republicans in Congress. There had been a breakdown in communication between the White House and their supporters in Congress. You know, a lot of that's actually predicated on the president poll numbers. I mean, Republicans in the Congress aren't - there's no incentive to follow him, because he's not that popular.

And there had been a breakdown in communication. You saw that on the Dubai ports deal and other things. So I think those changes are really meant to sort of reassure their allies in Congress more than the public.

OLBERMANN: Those 32, 33, 34 numbers in all the polls consistently, and consistently finding new lows or new highs in low, is it low enough at this point to say now that it will impact the midterms negatively for the Republicans? Or with all the other political factors, can you only say that it might impact them?

FLETCHER: I think, I still think we're in "might" territory, but moving toward "will" territory. It's, you know, I mean, presidents go through troughs in their popularity, and - but this president has been at a low point almost month to month to month for much of his second term. And remember, it wasn't that long ago that they were talking about permanent Republican majorities. And that's totally flipped around.

I think it's remains questionable, for example, that the House will flip over to Democratic control, or that the Senate will. But I think the likelihood that they lose seats is pretty strong.

OLBERMANN: With all this, the advantage of the incumbent, especially in the House races, just seems to be growing in this country from year to year, decade to decade, congressional districts amounting to fiefdoms in some cases. And then there is this in the Gallup poll, most people, 59 percent of registered voters polled, think that their representative deserves to be reelected, but a majority, and not that much less, 53 percent, also think that most members of Congress don't deserve to be reelected. Who wins that mutually exclusive contest?

FLETCHER: That's really interesting. I think the local representative does. I think the advantages of incumbency are multiple. You know, people kind of know who you are. People don't as much associate you with the party as they do with the individual.

So I think there's a big advantage there, and particularly in midterm elections, the turnouts aren't that big, so you get kind of regulars out voting.

So I think that that's what - that's probably the Republicans' big hope right now, is that there won't be a big surge to the polls to kind of sweep them out, a tide to wash them out.

And I think also, the Democrats have to articulate a program that people relate to. That's something that really hasn't happened yet.

OLBERMANN: Are they making any actual hay at this point during this time with these numbers, or are they merely standing there as the, We're the not-Republican Party?

FLETCHER: You know, I think there's a old axiom in politics, you know, don't get in the way while the other side is busy, you know, self-destructing. And I think the Democrats have done that. But I think in the end, they're going to have to articulate a vision. I mean, what do you do in Iraq? I think the country - I think Iraq lies at the base of all of this. And - but I don't think the Democrats have articulated a much different program than Bush has in terms of getting out of this mess.

OLBERMANN: We mentioned the "will" versus the "might" number. Do you think there really is one? Is there an actual number to look at, either in terms of the polls, or the price of a gallon of gas?

FLETCHER: You mean, looking ahead? I mean, the...


FLETCHER: It's funny, I mean, I think gas is something that affects people, and that's something that people think about every time they gas up. And that's something that the president's uniquely almost in a bad position to influence, because it really has to do with world markets. And, I mean, President Bush is right about that much, from what can I tell. There's a lack of refinery capacity. There's increased (INAUDIBLE), increased competition from India and China for oil resources.

So the price of gas is, in some ways, a consequence of that, even though the huge oil company profits is something that people find hard to sort of, you know, fit into their calculus about this. That's something, though, that he can't affect in many ways.

I think Iraq is the big thing, and it's a matter of luck there. If he can stabilize that, perhaps his poll numbers will go up some, and perhaps he can salvage what's going on.

OLBERMANN: Michael Fletcher, the White House reporter of "The Washington Post." Again, great thanks for joining us.

FLETCHER: All right. My pleasure.

OLBERMANN: If all else fails, a candidate from either party can always make his campaign point this way. How could you vote against a man covered head to toe in bees?

And art imitating life, and then life imitating art. Yet two more "Soprano" actors have garnished their resumes with criminal records.

Countdown continues.


OLBERMANN: College and pro basketball star Jamal Wilkes (ph) was born on May 2, 1953. He had spent his entire life as Keith Wilkes, but changed the name in the middle of his career for religious reasons. I took it personally. I've never vented before, not until now. It's over.

Let's play Oddball.

We begin in Seoul. South Korea, where our old friend An Sang Yoo (ph) is back, and this time he's bee-crazy about Takto (ph) and Takashima Islands. Sang Yoo, (INAUDIBLE) Song Yoo, has covered himself with over 180,000 bees to protest Japan's claims over the islands in 1905 when Korea was forced into becoming a protectorate of Japan.

The bees are on the what, now? Song Yoo made a fancy protest sign, marked it with his own blood, and held up a little boat for some reason, and then jumped off the stage onto the Japanese flag, thus covering it with bees. And if that doesn't get those islands back, I don't know what will.

To Louisville, Kentucky, over the fastest two minutes in sports, the great stockyards derby bed race. And no, the competitors are not veterans. It's the biggest event of the year in Louisville, except for perhaps for that horse race on Saturday. Teams of five competing in one-on-one heats, and a short track competition, four men pushing, one working the steering wheel, just as in a Mary Carey movie.

Finally, to the skies above Keimzie (ph), Germany, where we join professional paraglider Mike Kung (ph) in the final leg of his 875-mile trip across Europe. He made this trip in 31 different legs, jumping out of a helicopter at about five miles high, gliding as far as he could, hello, as far as he could, then going up and jumping again, about eight or nine times a day, all the way from the Baltic coast to Slovenia.

Kung says it is not the most efficient mode of transportation, but it does permit him to repeatedly pretend he's his near namesake Major Kong from the movie "Dr. Strangelove."

Like most old jokes, it has a grain of truth. Just because you're paranoid does not mean they're not out to get you. New insight into just how many Americans might be being secretly watched in the name of national security.

Thanks to his year of crazy antics, there is a whole demographic that will not be watching Tom Cruise, not in his latest movie, anyway.

Those stories ahead.

But now, here are Countdown's top three newsmakers of this day.

Number three, Muhammad Noor Che Musa. He's from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and he's just gotten married. First time for him, 21st time for her. He's 33, she's 104. Well, it's the thought that counts.

Number two, (INAUDIBLE) Buddha Singh of Bubaneswar in India. He recently ran the 40 miles home to there from the holy city of Puri. Took him seven hours. Doesn't sound that fast, really, except for the fact that Buddha Singh is 5 years old. He had already previously run a half-marathon.

Number one, golfer John Daly (INAUDIBLE) his new autobiography in a span of 12 years his gambling has gotten so compulsive that he has lost between $50 and $60 million gambling. Now, obviously, the first choice for John is some serious help. But failing that, what we need to do is set it up so he bets only against former education secretary Bill Bennett. That way, at least one of them would win.


OLBERMANN: It has been fairly widely reported that before the Iraq war began the FBI began to follow and monitor what it perceived as a potentially dangerous group that included a woman who appeared to be of middle eastern decent, who was distributing leaflets. The leaflets, of course, opposed the war. The potentially dangerous group was the Thomas Merton Center, named for the late trappist monk and Vietnam War protestor. Then there were the Quakers in Florida who were watched because they had opposed the war.

And now in our third story in the Countdown a remarkable report from "U.S. News and World Report" that may confirm every uneasy twitch you've ever had. Highlight how a special new counter terror unit in DeKalb County, Georgia assigned two of its agents to tail the county executive to see if he was being followed. Not followed by terrorists but followed by somebody in the district attorney's office who was checking out reports that the county executive had misspent county funds.

A dozen examples cited in this report. Occasions in which city and county police have strayed from anything resembling counter terrorism and the creation in some locals of intelligence units called fusion centers, under the umbrella of homeland security. There are even self-fulfilling prophecies. Three years ago the Department of Homeland Security demanded that each state essentially itemize its potential terror threats. Texas identified 2,052 of them. The article is "Spies Among Us." Its author, David Kaplan, Chief Investigative Correspondent for "U.S. News and World Report." He joins us now. Thank you for your time sir.


OLBERMANN: I mentioned first off this term fusion centers. What are they, where are they?

KAPLAN: Fusion centers are intelligence centers, Keith. They're actually a good idea on paper. It's the execution that has a lot of people worried. They are being set up in part with federal tax dollars in virtually every state where we have got 31 there is another dozen on the way. But nobody knows exactly what they are supposed to do. Everyone's idea of a fusion center seems to vary state by state. Some have already been involved in questionable activity, spying on anti-war activists, handling database information in dubious ways. So, what's happened is the feds since 9/11 have hoard something like a half billion dollars into furthering state and local intelligence gathering with very few controls.

OLBERMANN: A lot of us on that subject, probably early in 2002, maybe even late in 2001 began to get the sinking feeling that at best the need for stepped up counter terrorism in this country might have been greeted in a lot of places with something along the lines of, oh good there's another level of bureaucracy we can stamp out, there is more money we can spend. Is this at heart here the government just continuing its natural process of growing or is there a more nefarious element to it than that?

KAPLAN: As you know, there have been plenty of stories about the Department of Homeland Security giving out money and it being spent on, you know bullet-proof vests for dogs and things like that. This is an order of magnitude more worrisome because we're engaged in kind of a giant experiment in intelligence gathering. And the regulations we looked at, they're more than 30 years old. They date before the computer revolution. Millions of dollars are going to expand local and state databases and link them up. Again, a good idea on paper, it's all in the execution. We found that there are over 100 different local and state intelligence units now. But, once more, we don't know what kind of regs that the cops are obeying the feds have put almost no controls on how this money is used.

OLBERMANN: Do we have any idea amid the abuses and the potential for abuse how much of the changes in policing, how much the difference in tone and scope, how much they actually have increased security or even if the idea is still here that increased security is just an assumption?

KAPLAN: We don't know. It's very hard to measure this stuff. I mean, certainly, we face a serious threat. No one wants another 9/11. And everybody wants the good guys to get the bad guys. And there is a lot of, you know, heroic and encouraging examples by some of these local cops. They're really our first line of resistance. They're the guys who caught Timothy McVeigh. They're the people who stopped Mohammed Atta and the other 9/11 hijackers for traffic stops before 9/11 but they didn't have the information.

So getting them the information, pushing intelligence and letting them do a better job really joining the 21st century in technology and intelligence, that's all good. The problem is we found nearly a dozen examples where they're not chasing Al Qaeda. They're not looking for Mohammed Atta. They're surveilling antiwar protesters. These cops in Dekalb County, Georgia were secretly surveilling vegetarian protesters in front of the Honey Baked Ham Company. This outfit received $12 million in federal homeland security grants.

OLBERMANN: Was there rationale for the honey baked ham story?

KAPLAN: Sorry, I've lost sound.

OLBERMANN: Oh. Can you hear me now? I guess we're out. David E. Kaplan of "U.S. News and World Report", it's an extraordinary story, "Spies Among Us." Our thanks for joining us.

From real spies to the Hollywood variety, how a promotion for the latest Tom Cruise movie necessitated the appearance of the bomb squad and why Cruise himself seems to be bombing with his female fans. And speaking of falling out of favor, Paris Hilton simple life, Paris Hilton single life. Details ahead. But first your Countdown's top three sound bites of this day.


"AP" reports from Blackfoot, Idaho the arrest of 17 people from Idaho, Utah and Nevada for being involved in a cock fight. Does the president have any such indecision on this brutality as Governor Richardson does?

We haven't had a conversation about cock fighting lately but there are

Just another lovely evening for baseball here at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Well the Melvin Mora fan club out there. Now what happened? Is that a beer? What is that guy doing?

I delivered the closing speech and needless to say the audience could not contain their excitement. Like right here when I criticize the press for saying the recent White House personnel changes were just rearranging deck chairs on the titanic.

This administration is not sinking, this administration is soaring.

If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg.

[cricket sounds]

Very respectful silence. The crowd practically carried me out on their shoulders although I wasn't actually ready to leave.



OLBERMANN: From bashing Brooke Shields to controlling Katie Holmes. Has marketing Tom Cruise to women become mission impossible? Where does "The Sopranos" end and real life begin? Two more cast members arrested. That's next this is Countdown.


OLBERMANN: Promotion people of all stripes will tell you the best kind of publicity stunt is "explosive." The problem becomes when it explodes but in your face. Our number two story in the Countdown, Tom Cruise and Paramount Pictures experiencing just that. Both for their new movie "Mission Impossible III" and Cruise's career. To promote the movie Paramount made a deal with the "Los Angeles Times". 4500 "Times" newspaper vending boxes around southern California were rigged with a special device. It played the "Mission Impossible" theme whenever somebody put in their coins and pulled out a paper. What could possibly go wrong? How about the fact that the automatic music playing machine was a six-inch long, two inch wide red plastic box with wires sticking out of it easily visible to newspaper purchasers, you know, like a pipe bomb.

The first time somebody called the police in the city of Santa Clarita nobody knew about the promotional scheme so the cops got the bomb squad and the "L.A. Times" newspaper box got blowed up real good. Presumably to the musical accompaniment of the theme from "Mission Impossible." Subsequent calls about the so-called singing news racks have been met by police reassurance. We do not know if Tom Cruise has called the LAPD or fire department perhaps. Perhaps to report that his career has gone up in flames, but that's the assessment of the cognoscenti, all the weird Kate Holmes stuff has apparently negatively impacted his popularity. Here is Natalie Morales.


NATALIE MORALES, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: For three decades Tom Cruise has been on a mission to pack theaters with hits like "Top Gun", "Jerry Maguire", and his last film "War of the Worlds" which took in a whopping 591 million at the box office.

JILL BERNSTEIN, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tom Cruise is a super star, he's a mega star.

You had me at hello.

MORALES: But a recent study by a research firm suggests that Cruise's popularity is sliding with his female fans.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What we're reflecting here is how the consuming public views Tom Cruise the person. And based on what people have come to know about him, there has been this very dramatic shift in their attitudes toward him.

TOM CRUISE, ACTOR: I'm saying that drugs aren't the answer.

MORALES: In the last five years while Cruise's popularity has dropped, his negative ratings have more than doubled. It's such a hot topic that it's the cover story of "Entertainment Weekly's" next issue.

BERNSTEIN: Tom Cruise started having issues with his image about a year ago when he came out against Brooke Shields who had been talking about her postpartum depression and he came out against the medication and against her in a personal way that I think a lot of women particularly recoiled at.

You know what your problem is?

I can think of a couple women if you ask me to tell you.

MORALES: Women have also reacted negatively to some aspects of TomKat, his relationship with Katie Holmes.

BERNSTEIN: A lot of women saw him as controlling in this relationship. She converted to his religion, she became pregnant. There were, you know, rumors of the silent birth which a lot of women thought was preposterous and, you know, potentially her sucking on a pacifier as she was delivering. I mean, who knows how much of this actually became true. But, you know, in terms of somebody's image it doesn't really matter.

What are you not telling me?

MORALES: Hoping to make this weekend's blockbuster more appealing to women, Paramount Pictures has launched ad campaigns playing up the movie's romantic side. If it all works for Cruise it'll be mission accomplished.


OLBERMANN: Well hard to imagine a gentler segue into our roundup of celebrity and entertainment news "Keeping Tabs". Paris Hilton has split again, this time with boyfriend Stavros Niarchos. Hilton is quitsville with the Greek shipping heir or perhaps geek shipping heir, I'm not sure Laker girls. This according to her publicist Lori Glass who diligently said, "I confirm that she split with him. They are no longer a couple. I don't know the exact day they split." Enough.

According to "People" magazine, Mr. Niarchos and Ms. Hilton were still smooching as recently as last month when she through him a surprise 21st birthday party. But there are also rumors that Hilton has taken up Matt Leinart, the USC quarterback with the hair, drafted Saturday by the Arizona Cardinals. Yet another Hilton publicist says quote, "She knows Matt, she likes Matt, they are friends, I don't want t to go any further than that." Two people to do that job.

And here's this "Breaking Tabs" news courtesy of an "In Touch Weekly" press release. "American Idol's" Ryan Seacrest and Paula Abdul have started couples counseling. They're not a couple. Can you say publicity stunt. Abdul and Seacrest have been fighting as someone would have us believe so much so that "Idol" executives, and they are "Idol", had to bring in a counselor to repair the breech. Is the phrase "Idol" executives redundant? An insider says quote, "They started bickering last year and it finally escalated into a full blown war. Producers then intervened, essentially sticking Abdul and Seacrest in a room with a counselor and that counselor is coming back because the two still have issues." Like lower ratings than Mr. Murdoch wants.

And when art seems to plagiarize from real life, Tony's bodyguard and Artie Bucco arrested for real. Those stories ahead but first time for Countdown's latest list of nominees for worst person in the world. The bronze goes to 17-year-old Jake Sullivan of Dover, New Hampshire. He got a fake ID, tried to buy beer, the name on the ID unfortunately for Jake was that of the principal at his own school.

The runner up Tim Tompkins, president of New York City's Time Square Alliance. He knows exactly what midtown Manhattan needs. It needs a permanent glass staircase to nowhere in Duffy Square at 47th Street. 16 feet high, heated in the winter, room for a thousand tourists to sit on and just look at stuff. And you're going to do what with the homeless people who want to sleep there? You haven't thought about the homeless people?

But our winner, Laura Ingraham, having already reached the dubious conclusion that the mainstream media is supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants she offered this tortured logic as support quoting "NBC, ABC and CBS, throw in CNN and MSNBC. They think these are, you know, new viewers, new listeners, new customers to the more liberal viewpoint." Um-huh. And the fact that most of these folks seem to prefer hearing and seeing the news in their native languages? How did you rationalize that part of it again? Laura Ingraham today's worst person in the world.


OLBERMANN: Anthony Junior already had a guilt plea for misdemeanor larceny. Pauley Walnuts had a rap sheet of no fewer than 28 arrests. Big Pussy was doing community service for punching his girlfriend. Matt Bevilacqua was charged with murder. The number one story on the Countdown, plot lines from "The Sopranos," no. Real-life encounters between the family, its members, and the authorities. And there are two new ones to report.

On Sunday, it was Louis Gross who plays Tony Soprano's new assistant, Perry Annunziata A.K.A. "Muscles Marinara." Tony beat him up a few weeks ago, now Mr. Gross has allegedly busted through the door of a home in Queens, taking $2,700 in property according to the "New York Post." He says it was his ex-landlord's home. Cops say it was his ex-girlfriend's home. But Mr. Gross apparently took only personal items and was charged with misdemeanor criminal mischief. But he has a prior arrest for having allegedly stolen a shirt from a Soho clothing store in February. When the store manager and a security guard confronted him, he beat them, according to police.

Then there is the actor who plays the long-suffering chef Artie Bucco. John Ventimiglia, arrested for drunk driving and cocaine possession, among other things, near his home in Park Slope in Brooklyn at about 1:00 A.M. Monday. He spent the rest of that night in jail. Police claim Mr. Ventimiglia's headlights were off and he was weaving in and out of oncoming traffic and that they found a zip-loc bag with cocaine residue in his back pocket. To which fans of the program might say no wonder business is off at Vesuvio. Let's call in the Los Angeles bureau chief for "TV Guide" Craig Tomashoff. Thanks for your time, sir.

CRAIG TOMASHOFF, TV GUIDE: It's my pleasure to be here.

OLBERMANN: This is an evil and cynical question. Does stuff like this hurt this show or does stuff like this help this show?

TOMASHOFF: Well, you know, it's got us talking about it. It's sort of perfect because who knew "The Sopranos" was actually a reality show? That's kind of what comes across. It doesn't help the show as much as, say, taking a pipe bomb looking thing and playing "The Sopranos" theme and putting it in newspaper stands, but it helps.

OLBERMANN: Is it too easy to suggest that life is imitating art here? And if it's not too easy, which one of these things is true? Does the show bring this kind of behavior out in the actors or when you want to cast thugs, you should cast real thugs?

TOMASHOFF: You know, it's a combination of both. A lot of movies and

shows for it to appear sort of tough, you'll get secondary characters who

come from tough backgrounds, so you look a little bit more realistic. But,

you know, I think the producers have to in a strange way not mind any of

this, because, again, we're going to talk about it and, you know, who

knows? Maybe next year we'll see this worked into the plot somehow.

OLBERMANN: That's an interesting point, obviously, because we might have seen that in the past. Let's spin this ahead to the most recent developments, the arrest of John Ventimiglia. Reportedly he explained to the cops that the cops had spotted him while he was looking for a parking space, he had only had four glasses of wine at a restaurant, nothing else. It sounds as if he got that explanation from the scripts they write for Artie Bucco, doesn't it?

TOMASHOFF: Actually, what I thought was funny is if they looked in his car, the script would have been there with his lines highlighted of what he was supposed to say. But you know the good news is, apparently his arm is okay having been dumped into the sauce. He's recovered from that and that was good news.

OLBERMANN: It must get confusing when you have a real-life arrest and an on-screen injury. But to this Louis Gross who was "Muscles Marinara" the new safety guy for Tony Soprano. After he was released, they quoted him as saying, "I don't know nothing I'm innocent, I'm always innocent." Again, where do they - are they writing the lines for the show for the writers or are the writers handing them what to say in the event you get arrested?

TOMASHOFF: I think actually you know then after he said that, he went off to his rocket science class over at Yale and gave up acting. But I think what it sort of seems to me when you see guys like that maybe "The Sopranos" is doing kind of a public service, you know kind of a work release program. They're taking the guys from jail, giving them a new job. I think in a way they're kind of helping out America in that sense.

OLBERMANN: And as you intimated before, can the process work the other way, I mean the season following the arrest of Robert Iler on larceny? As Tony's son, he seemed to turn from just this sort of dopey kid to this one who's been constantly on the verge of trouble ever since. Could it be art imitating life? What the writers actually steal the actors' reality?

TOMASHOFF: In the case of him especially it fit the character the way they worked it in, whether they literally lifted it from his life, I don't know. I'm sure he probably wouldn't be happy about that. Going all right, you're arrested in real life. Now you're going to get to be arrested on TV. But you know it helps the character when they do that. So it actually worked out in that case.

OLBERMANN: Can you back read? If the actors in a show that's supposedly coming towards its conclusion seem to be increasingly in trouble with the law, does that mean there's some sort of dramatic law-breaking conclusion to the series when it goes off the air?

TOMASHOFF: You know, if it does, first, I would worry about like the guy who played Big Pussy because that means he'll be dead. It's - I think actually the show is so cryptic in trying to figure out what happens, maybe that's how we're going to actually sort of figure the ending.

OLBERMANN: Right. Just come in and arrest everybody for real. Craig Tomashoff with "TV Guide," Craig thanks for your time.

TOMASHOFF: Thank you for having me.

OLBERMANN: That's Countdown for this the 1,097th day since the declaration of mission accomplished in Iraq. I'm Keith Olbermann, good night and good luck.