'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for August 10
Guests: Marlo Oaks
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST: Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?
The hysteria stops here. The British send international air travel into disarray as they arrest two dozen suspects in a purported plot to blow up as many as 10 U.S.-bound international flights, allegedly using liquid explosives smuggled on board in containers.
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale.
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OLBERMANN: But intelligence sources say the supposed plotters only began looking at flight schedules last week.
The source is the British, the same people who missed both subway bombings in London last year, then shot a purported terrorist wearing a suicide-bomb vest and running from police, only it turned out he was a 27-year-old electrician wearing an ordinary shirt and walking.
Here at home, all liquids banned from carry-on bags.
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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just bought this.
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OLBERMANN: Massive delays at American airports till further notice, even though there are no indications of any purported plots against domestic flights.
What about the delay in American politics?
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GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This nation is at war with Islamic fascists.
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OLBERMANN: The president interrupting his vacation, not to reassure the nation nor go back to the capital, but merely to hit a fundraiser in Wisconsin. His press secretary said Mr. Bush knew of the British investigation as early as Sunday. Did his vice president know? His party national committee chair? Does that explain the unbridled rhetoric about the Democrats and the Connecticut Senate primary vote?
Complete coverage of the alleged plot. Keith Miller at Scotland Yard in London, Pete Williams at Homeland Security, Roger Cressey on the terrorism nuts and bolts, Tom Costello with the chaos at the airports, and Jonathan Alter on the specter of an administration that has seemingly played politics with past terror alerts, and how much of this we can all believe.
And the other news tonight, the surgery on the conjoined twins in depth, on how they separated Kendra and Maliyah.
And the baseball coach who walked a star slugger to put the fate of the whole season on the next batter, who was recovering from brain cancer with a shunt in his head. And, by the way, he was 9 years old.
All that and more, now on Countdown.
Good evening from New York.
At first glance, it appears that British intelligence has thwarted the biggest terror attack since 9/11, discovering a plan, arresting its plotters, aimed at simultaneously blowing up nine different planes headed to the United States from Britain by using the components of liquid explosives smuggled in carry-on luggage by suicide bombers.
But in our fifth story on the Countdown, how much of the plot was actually operational, how much of it feasible, how much of the reaction political?
Tonight, a rational, but not cynical, look at an extraordinary day. The kind of mixed information we're struggling to balance, intelligence officials say the suspects were planning a test run in the next few days, but also that they had only started to look at plane timetables last week. And while police are testing chemicals at one of the suspects' homes in England, it is unclear whether the suspects actually had explosives yet.
But news of the arrests caused mass chaos, one way or the other, in airports on both sides of the Atlantic, all flights from Britain to the United States on red alert, hundreds of them canceled, passengers in England not allowed any hand luggage, only allowed to put necessities, but no liquids, into clear plastic bags to carry on board.
On our shores, commuters also told to ditch all liquids, except medicine and baby formula, even though there is no evidence of any reverse plot to put explosives on U.S. planes heading towards the U.K., nor anything domestic at all.
In Britain, a total of 24 suspects now under arrest, described as home-grown. Officials say most are also of Pakistani descent. One of the suspects apparently worked at Heathrow Airport. And intelligence officials say the alleged mastermind of the plot is still on the loose in Pakistan.
The president today used the arrests as an opportunity to reiterate, to rephrase, his belief that such terrorists are motivated by a hatred of American freedom.
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BUSH: This nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation.
This country is safer than it was prior to 9/11. We've taken a lot of measures to protect the American people. But obviously, we're still not completely safe, because there are people that still plot, and people who want to harm us for what we believe in.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: In a moment, we will run a smell test on the alleged plot and the feasibility of the methodology with counterterrorism expert Roger Cressey.
First, the scenes at the headquarters in two nations.
The British had a terrible 2005 in terms of terror, missed four subway bombers, missed four would-be subway bombers, shot an innocent man to death in the process.
As Keith Miller reports from London, though, they think they got it right today.
KEITH MILLER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: Keith, police officials here at Scotland Yard say they are almost certain that they've picked up almost all of the major players in this case, something that they're describing as an attempted terrorist attack on transatlantic airlines.
(voice-over): It is the most serious incident in British civil aviation since the Second World War. Heathrow, one of the world's busiest airports, temporarily shut down, 100,000 passengers stranded, because of a security alert.
A lengthy investigation uncovered a terror plot to target nine planes bound for the United States, three groups of three planes each, attacked in successive waves.
PAUL STEPHENSON: We cannot stress too highly the severity that this plot represented. Put simpler, this was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale.
MILLER (voice-over): Overnight, police arrested 24 suspects in London, its suburbs, and Birmingham, uncovering chemicals.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Police cars showed up about midnight, vans, and four officers put the door in.
MILLER: The men in custody are identified by police as British residents aged between 17 and 35. All are reportedly Muslim, some of Pakistani descent.
PETER CLARKE, COUNTERTERRORISM POLICE CHIEF: We have been looking at meetings, movements, travel, spending, and the aspirations of a large group of people.
MILLER: The Pakistani government said it helped Britain in the investigation and has arrested several suspects. But British authorities say the alleged mastermind of the plot is still at large in Pakistan.
The plan of the attack, according to security officials, was to smuggle liquid explosives and detonators aboard the planes, and then assemble them into small bombs. British Airways, United, American Airlines, and Continental were all potential targets, according to police.
Overnight, the threat level in the U.K. was raised to its highest level, critical, when British intelligence considered the threat imminent. Hundreds of flights were canceled, and many European flights were diverted.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We will get there. We're being British and stoic.
We'll get there.
MILLER: But air travel may never be the same.
(on camera): All of the men are being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It allows police to continue their investigation for up to a month before the suspects have to be charged, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Keith Miller at New Scotland Yard in London, great thanks.
From the unraveling of the supposed plot there to the ramifications here, our justice correspondent, Pete Williams, in Washington, D.C., with what the U.S. claims it knew and when.
PETE WILLIAMS, MSNBC JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Keith, good evening from the Department of Homeland Security.
Authorities tonight here in Washington say they believe that the terror plotters in London were just a few days away from a test flight. They even had their tickets for it to see if they could get their chemicals through security and onto a plane.
And if the answer was yes, they were prepared to actually stage their attacks.
(voice-over): U.S. officials say this was a carefully thought-out and well-financed operation, with all the earmarks of al Qaeda. The apparent plan, two-man teams would bring chemicals through security that are harmless on their own, then assemble them on board, forming powerful explosives for suicide attacks.
ALAN CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: The terrorists planed to carry the components of the bombs, including liquid explosive ingredients and detonating devices, disguised as beverages, electronic devices, or other common objects.
WILLIAMS: Among the components, common household liquids easily available at drug and hardware stores, which could be carried in drink containers. While an intelligence bulletin says the explosives were to be peroxide based, NBC News is not disclosing the specific chemicals or possible detonators.
Investigators say the plotters had not decided on specific flights to attack, but within the past few days, were clicking around the Internet, looking at nonstop flights from the U.K. to the U.S. that left around the same time.
CHERTOFF: They had focused on a number of airlines involved, which have specific routes between Britain and the United States, and which are U.S.-flag carriers.
WILLIAMS: U.S. officials say British investigators had the terror cell under close surveillance for several months, keeping the U.S. informed, then adding more specifics just within the past several days, when the plotters focused on planes headed here.
For the past several days, the FBI has feverishly looked for any potential ties to people in the U.S., but has so far found none.
ROBERT MUELLER, DIRECTOR, FBI: We literally, in the last couple of weeks, have had hundreds of FBI agents around the country tracking down every lead. And we have not found, to date, any plotters here in the United States...
WILLIAMS: Aviation experts say airport screening devices have a hard time picking up the chemicals that the plotters planned to use, something officials verified with an early-morning test at Washington's National Airport.
(on camera): Tonight, U.S. authorities say they believe the London terror plotters have all been either identified or arrested. But they're leaving the terror threat level up for a couple of reasons. First, they can't be certain that everyone involved in this terror cell has actually been located. And secondly, they want to guard against potential copycat attacks, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Pete Williams in Washington for us, great thanks.
For more on the mechanics of the alleged plot, I'm joined by MSNBC's terrorism analyst Roger Cressey, former director of the National Security Council staff.
Thanks again for your time, Roger.
ROGER CRESSEY, FORMER DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Good to see you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Analyze the mechanics of this. Liquid explosives made from common household items, then mixed, detonated mid-flight. There are lot of questions about this. Would the liquid explosives remain stable until they were supposed to be used? How long? How many people would it take to detonate them? Obviously, these are parts of one big question. Was it technically feasible?
CRESSEY: The answer is yes, precedent setting from the 1990s, Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the World Trade Center attack in 1993, conducted attacks on airlines in the Pacific using nitroglycerin with a detonator. That worked. The type of solutions they were going to combine, probably things like TATP, which is an explosive - a peroxide-based explosive that terrorist groups have been using for some time. And you combine it with a blasting cap, which would be relatively easy to put on board. Yes, technologically, it's definitely feasible.
OLBERMANN: Easier or more complicated than a shoe bomb? And easier or more complicated than a shoe bomber was to stop?
CRESSEY: More complicated than a shoe bomber, because there are more moving pieces. You have to bring all the pieces on individually and assemble it on the plane, which would have been somewhat challenging, but not impossible.
Easier to stop, in the sense that you've got more moving pieces, so there's more opportunities for something to go wrong. So, you know, higher-end risk for the terrorists, but higher-end benefit, given the type of explosions they could have conducted.
OLBERMANN: You mentioned Ramzi Yousef, the guy behind the World Trade Center first bombing in 1993. Congressman DiFazio of Oregon pointed this out that he tried this, as you mentioned again, in the thing that wound up blowing up a Japanese man about 10 years ago. I can't bring a soda bottle or a water bottle into a baseball stadium. How come I have not been banned from bringing liquids on planes for the last 10 years?
CRESSEY: Well, I think this question's going to get a lot of attention in the coming days, because the security structure we have in place at the airports is not designed to deal with this type of threat.
The scanning equipment is looking for other things. The TSA administrator
I'm sorry, the TSA officials are trained for other type of things to look at.
So there is a gap in our security regarding these type of potential materials, and we need to have a real close look at how we can fix it.
OLBERMANN: The mechanics of unraveling what kind of plot this was, whatever kind of plot it was, suspects don't have an established link to al Qaeda that we know of, but the British knew about this, not for days or weeks, but for months, that they were following these guys. They made a conscious decision, Roll this up right now. Does that suggest to you, from your experience, that there were informants inside the plot?
CRESSEY: I think it's either going to be informants inside the plot, some form of electronic surveillance, or maybe surveillance through the Internet. But the fact that they were able to identify them early on in their process and follow them makes me believe there was a human element here.
The good news, Keith, is that these guys were close to the execution phase. Whether or not they would have been successful, we wouldn't know, and hopefully, thankfully, we wouldn't find out. But they were close enough, and they were serious enough, that it seemed like the right time to disrupt them.
OLBERMANN: There's a report just coming in from "TIME" magazine that although the Brits have been looking at this for months, that after MI-5 had tracked these guys all this time, that it was the U.S. that picked up chatter and contact, essentially suggested to Great Britain that it was time to move. Now, does that tell you anything about the process by which this was rolled up?
CRESSEY: Well, I think the real issue here is going to be the role of Pakistan and al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, because as much as this was a home-grown threat, British-born Pakistanis, there was a Pakistan element to it, and that means probably al Qaeda.
So one theory, then, would be, based on the "TIME" magazine report, electronic intercepts, things like that, and a potential go-signal that was given from Pakistan to the plotters to begin their process. If that's the case, then we have a stronger al Qaeda connection than we had at the beginning of the day.
OLBERMANN: Lastly, credibility. I don't mean to suggest in the slightest that this was made up out of thin air, but we have seen time and time again, we have talked about this, instances of earth-shaking terrorist plots being announced, genuine fear being built in this country and other countries, and it turns out later the plotters were nowhere near as ready nor as sophisticated as originally advertised.
I'm thinking of the morons in Florida who couldn't tell the difference between an al Qaeda agent and an FBI plant. The - their informants, they seem to (INAUDIBLE) looked less like spies and more like enablers, even entrappers.
Your best guess on this. Are you unequivocally sure that this was different than your standard thing that we've heard about for the last nearly five years?
CRESSEY: I haven't seen the intelligence reports, so I'm never unequivocally sure anymore. But based on what we learned today, I think this was the real deal. These weren't a bunch of clowns sitting around the mosque trying to decide (INAUDIBLE) undertake jihad on their own. The scope and the magnitude of what they were trying to do has all the hallmarks of an al Qaeda-inspired or maybe an al Qaeda-directed operation.
And lastly, Keith, the British, frankly, are a little more - are better than us when it comes to the credibility question. So I'll trust them.
OLBERMANN: Counterterrorism expert Roger Cressey. As always, Roger, great thanks for your time tonight.
CRESSEY: Thanks, Keith.
OLBERMANN: We do not know what's true and what's not, we do not know how serious this purported threat was or is. But this we do know, air travel in this country today was one collective long, long nervous wait in line.
And for four years and 11 months, national security has been the favorite political club of the current administration. So would it be a surprise that even before this latest news broke, we were getting the spin on it from Washington?
You are watching Countdown on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: It may be days, weeks, even longer before the full details of the alleged airline terror plot are sketched out for us, including just how imminent and realistic the threat was or is.
The impact on flying, domestic and international, no delay in nailing that.
Our fourth story on the Countdown tonight, no problems in the skies today, but on the ground, chaos. New airport screening rules are now in effect in the U.S., the Transportation Security Administration prohibiting passengers from carrying liquids or gels on board, with limited exceptions. More on that presently from our correspondent, Tom Costello.
But it stands in contrast to rules in Britain. There, everything must now be checked, except for necessities like money and travel documents, which are placed into clear plastic bags. If detonation of a homemade device is the concern, it's unclear why electronics have also not been banned on U.S. flights.
To Tom Costello now. He is at Reagan National Airport in Washington.
Tom, good evening.
TOM COSTELLO, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: Keith, good evening to you.
And, in fact, this is the notice that, if you are flying today, you very may well have gotten. It says, "Effective immediately, passengers may not have liquids or gels, including beverages, shampoos, suntan lotion, creams, toothpaste, and hair gel." You can't put toothpaste in your carry-on any more.
Well, as you can imagine, this new directive, affecting every airport nationwide, caused massive security backups today, and in some cases, those backups exceeded two hours.
COSTELLO (voice-over): From east to west, it's been a day of long lines and confusion, as the nation yet again adjusted to a new travel reality.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Leave the liquids at home. Drink them. Declutter your bag.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No liquids or gels of any sort.
COSTELLO: At Washington's Reagan National Airport, the security backups began early, with the morning rush, while at Dulles, water, soda, deodorant, Visine, contact solution, anything liquid tossed out in masse.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's no way to get through security in time today. (INAUDIBLE), I think we are going to come back about three hours early.
COSTELLO: In Atlanta, the TSA checkpoint looked like the makeup counter at Nordstrom's. In Baltimore, the security backup stretched out the terminal doors and down the sidewalk. In Boston, the state police were in the airport, as the governor ordered National Guard backup.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is very, very annoying.
COSTELLO: While in Miami, automatic weapons and dogs, with the airport's own SWAT team ready to counter any potential attack.
MAJ. RUBEN GALINDO, MIAMI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT POLICE COMMANDER: We
expect it's going to happen any single day. We deploy our people with a specific function every day to try to prevent any type of attacks here at Miami.
COSTELLO: In Chicago, highway signs warned departing passengers what to leave behind.
My NBC colleagues watched the day play out elsewhere in the country.
JENNIFER LONDON, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: I'm Jennifer London at Los Angeles International Airport, where, as part of the increased security measures, a stronger police presence, including bomb-sniffing dogs like Koby. And, yes, the lines here are massive, and a lot of the passengers know they may miss their plane. But they tell me they're OK with the increased security measures, because they'd rather be safe than sorry.
RON ALLEN, MSNBC CDT: I'm Ron Allen at New York's Kennedy Airport, where late this afternoon, passengers began arriving from London, tired, relieved, but many agreeing it was probably the safest flight they've ever been on in their lives.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The security by the British authorities was unbelievable.
ALLEN (voice-over): As the day progressed, the delays seemed to ease.
JAMES MAY, AIR TRANSPORT ASSOCIATION: Once our customers got the hang of it, once TSA's people got the hang of it, it began to smooth itself out.
ALLEN: That's what happened in Denver, 90-minute security delays in the morning, but by midday, back to the new normal.
COSTELLO: The new normal.
Let's talk just a moment more about what these restrictions entail. They do allow you to bring, they say, baby formula, breast milk, or juice if a baby or a small child is traveling. And, by the way, you can have medication with you, as long as your name matches the name on your boarding pass, and also on the medication.
But as for those liquids you can bring, the baby formula, the juice, you have to test it in front of a TSA employee before they allow you into the screening process.
Keith, back to you.
OLBERMANN: Tom, as you pointed out, no liquid, no toothpaste. Why, unlike the British, no ban on electronics?
COSTELLO: Yes, you can still bring your iPod, you could still bring your laptop. And theoretically, one of the theories in terms of how they would have detonated a device, involved electronics.
At some point, this becomes a very serious conversation about, where does it end? If you can't bring toothpaste, if you can't bring your Visine or your contact lenses, if you can't listen to an iPod, at some point, there is going to be a very big discussion in this country about how much we are truly giving up.
OLBERMANN: Selfish question. I'm flying in the morning. I know I'm not supposed to be alone out there. What are all of us expecting for delays at security? Any estimate, based on what we saw today? Should I leave now and let you finish this newscast?
COSTELLO: I would suggest - yes, that is exactly what I was going to suggest. I would say at least two hours. Based on what I saw this morning, I frankly would give myself three hours. I think it's going to take a while to kind of work this whole thing out. At the moment, I would say two to three hours. Hopefully by Monday, it eases up a bit.
OLBERMANN: Tom Costello at Reagan National Airport in Washington for us. Great thanks for staying with us.
OLBERMANN: The TSA says it was sent scrambling to enact the new rules banning the liquids overnight, even though a federal investigation proved months ago just how easy it would be to smuggle such explosives past the screeners.
And could it just be coincidence that the president finds about this plot, then his vice president and the Republican chairman start slamming Democrats for being soft on terror, then the public is informed about the plot? Could it really be just coincidence?
That ahead on Countdown.
OLBERMANN: Today, after British officials revealed the latest alleged plot, after they had arrested two dozen suspects, the U.S. government banned passengers from bringing any liquids, not counting medicine and baby formula, aboard domestic flights.
If today's events make you wonder whether we might again be accused of being too focused on yesterday's threats rather than anticipating tomorrow's, you would not be alone.
Five months ago, our senior investigative correspondent, Lisa Myers, wanted to find out how the government was dealing with the then-anticipated threat of explosive components smuggled on board. And, more than a decade ago, Ramzi Yousef concocted a plot of mixing his own liquid explosives in mid-flight and blowing up or crippling a series of airliners over an ocean.
None of this is new, as a second look at Lisa's report from March of this year suggests.
LISA MYERS, MSNBC CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):
Imagine this, inside a passenger plane. Government sources tell NBC NEWS that federal investigators recently were able to carry materials needed to make a similar homemade bomb through security screening at 21 airports. In all 21 airports tested, no machine, no swab, no screener anywhere stopped the bomb materials from getting through. Even when investigators deliberately triggered extra screening of bags, no one stopped these materials.
We briefed Governor Tom Kean, chair of the 9/11 commission, on the results.
TOM KEAN, CHAIR, 9/11 COMMISSION: I'm appalled and dismayed, and, yes, to a degree, it does surprise me, because I thought the Department of Homeland Security was making some progress on this, and evidently they're not.
MYERS: Investigators for the Government Accountability Office conducted the tests between October and January at the request of Congress. The goal, determine how vulnerable U.S. airlines are to a suicide bomber using cheap, readily available materials.
Investigators found recipes for homemade bombs from easily available public sources and bought chemicals and other materials over the counter.
(On camera): For security reasons, NBC will not reveal any of the ingredients or the airports tested. The report itself is classified. But Lee Hamilton, the vice chair of the 9/11 commission, says the fact that so many airports failed this test is a hugely important story, which the American traveler is entitled to know.
(Voice-over): NBC NEWS asked a bomb technician to gather the same materials and assemble an explosive device to determine its power. The materials for this bomb fit in the palm of one hand. We showed the results to Leo West, a former FBI bomb expert.
LEO WEST, FORMER FBI BOMB EXPERT: Well, potentially, an explosion of that type could lead to the destruction of the aircraft.
MYERS: The Transportation Security Administration would not comment on the tests but tells NBC NEWS that "detecting explosive materials and IEDs is TSA's top priority."
The agency also says screeners are now receiving added training to help identify these materials. Not soon enough for Tom Kean.
KEAN: They need to do it yesterday, because we haven't got time.
MYERS: Given hardened cockpit doors and other improvements, experts say explosives now are the gravest threat posed by terrorists in the sky.
Lisa Myers, NBC NEWS, Washington.
OLBERMANN: That was in March on this broadcast, no outcry from the administration then. Heavy politicizing now, now that there is an apparently obvious threat from liquid explosives. We'll truth-squad the politics of the terror threat.
Also tonight the latest on the Herrin twins, now separated and in stable condition. The extraordinary story of the surgery, ahead on Countdown.
OLBERMANN: If you have any trouble following your government's position on terror and your safety, let's clear it all up right now. In our third story on the Countdown.
A year ago on July 4 the president made it very clear that we are safe here at home thanks to his war in Iraq.
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GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're taking the fight to the terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them here at home.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: However, if you think that means that we don't have to face them here at home, as the president said today.
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BUSH: It is a mistake to believe there is no threat to the United States of America.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Now, where would anybody have gotten such an idea? And as the time line of the revelation of the purported liquid explosives airline plot becomes clearer, the political facts are underscored. You can say, without fear of contradiction that there is a political component to all this. The president had the details from London no later than Sunday, so when Republican Committee Chair Ken Mehlman and Vice President Dick Cheney eviscerated Connecticut Democrats for choosing Ned Lamont over Senator Joe Lieberman and brought al Qaeda into the equation they, at minimum, knew a terror act would be breaking shortly. Did the press secretary know it when he threw the president's own father under the wheels of the bus of history, last night?
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TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: The real question for the American people to ask themselves is: Do you take the war on terror seriously? With all the developments going on around the world, and if so, how do you fight it to win? There seem to be two approaches, and in the Connecticut race one of the approaches is ignore the difficulties and walk away. Now, when the United States walked away, in the opinion of the - of Osama bin Laden in 1991, bin Laden drew from that the conclusion that Americans were weak and wouldn't stay the course and that led to September 11.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Not surprisingly, today Mr. Snow was asked off camera, "Did you all know that this was going to break today, yesterday, when there was this massive response to the Connecticut primary, discussion of terrorism, al Qaeda?" A yes or no question. Mr. Snow's answer was neither, "I don't want to get into operational details. This was not - however, it was not explicit - let me put it this way, I don't want to encourage that line of thought. I don't think it's fully accurate, but I also don't want - I know it's frustrating, but we really don't want to get too much into who knew what, where, when."
About a minute later, responding to a nonpolitical question, Mr. Snow let slip that Mr. Bush approved the red-alert status yesterday.
Joining us now to help us measure the political element here that we mentioned, Jonathan Alter, NBC political analyst, also of "Newsweek," also the author of "The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope."
Jonathan, good evening.
JONATHAN ALTER, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Good evening, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Let us start with the strange statement from the president of making the mistake of thinking there's no threat against us. Who is he saying made that mistake? And at what point did they make it?
ALTER: Well, it's innuendo, you know, he's trying to implying that people who disagree with this policy on Iraq are somehow soft on terrorism. That's their game. That's the only card, politically, that they have to play. They play it extremely well. It did extremely well for them in both the 2002 and 2004 elections and they're going to play it again hard this year.
OLBERMANN: There have been a lot of terror threats, warning, events that have come in the wake of bad political news for the administration, we've chronicled them here, they might be coincidence, they might not, there is a thing as a logical fallacy. But this is the first time I've ever heard of an anti-conspiracy-conspiracy theory that the revelation of this purported plot could not be politically timed because the administration would have really benefited had this plot been revealed Monday or Tuesday before the voters went to the polls for the primary in Connecticut. I gather you don't buy the anti-conspiracy-conspiracy theory.
ALTER: Not quite, for a couple of reasons. First of all, if you're
thinking conspiratorially, which I am not in this case, it actually makes
more sense for them to have Lieberman lose the primary because now they can
use, you know, Ned Lamont as their poster boy of the McGovern Liberal
And already in the last 24 hours they've been out saying that any other Democrat in a close race who endorses Ned Lamont as the Democratic nominee for the Senate is thereby, you know, soft on terrorism and some kind of extremist liberal, so it made more sense for them to have Lieberman lose. That was in their interest.
However, having said that, I don't believe that that was at play here. I think the British were controlling the timing of these arrests, and it's really important not to get into this sort of crouch where you say everything that involves terrorism is political. You can hold two seemingly contradictory ideas in your head at once, Keith, but one is that, you know, they use this kind of news as sort of a Hamburger Helper for their red meat that they want to throw out politically. In that sense, they're exploiting it politically. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they're timing this politically.
OLBERMANN: But, Roger Cressey put this neatly earlier and he's far less prone to calling a foul on this than am I. This administration has set the bar so low when it comes to trumpeting its terror arrests, he said, so we have a bit of a credibility gap here. This is the greatest threat since 9/11, the discovery of the recon photos of the financial buildings in New York and D.C. that was the greatest threat since 9/11, the rock-hard evidence of flights from Europe that were to be crashed into Vegas at Christmas time 2003, that was the greatest threat since 9/11. Is there a point at which most people start doubting the idea that no government would ever dream of scaring its own people unnecessarily?
ALTER: Well, you know, you mentioned my FDR book. I mean, I sometimes think the motto that these folks have is the only thing we have to "use" is fear itself. It works well for them. And yes, they do exploit it. You didn't even mention all the cases - you had John Ashcroft in Moscow at one point, I believe in 2002, you know, trumping something up from thousands of miles away.
OLBERMANN: The arrest of Padilla, yes.
ALTER: Yeah, so you've got a whole series of events, but you know, in the same way that even paranoids have real enemies, even people who are exploiting things politically are still confronting a serious terrorism threat, and if Democrats don't want to be thrown into the briar patch on this issue again, they will be very careful to make sure that they don't, in the interest of scoring political points, forget that there are people out there who want to kill us and we've got to keep that in mind.
OLBERMANN: So, let's also point one last finger here towards the media, ourselves, buying into the whole thing whole-hog, terror in the skies on the graphics on TV, but the Web sites and the newspapers have not been far behind. What about the role of the media in authenticating that for which we have only the word of two governments and no other evidence of our own?
ALTER: Well, I think at a certain level, the media always has to give the government, in this kind of case, the benefit of the doubt at first, then go back and ask a lot of hard questions, which you've started quite appropriately to do here tonight, but to assume from the get go that the government is lying about security matters I think would be an excessively cynical posture, so that the key thing for the media is to perform that accountability function, so for instance, I don't know how many people, you know, know this, but air cargo - in other words, the cargo that's beneath everybody when they're on a plane is not checked in the united - less than 10 percent of it is checked, so we have these other huge security gaps, and it's the media's jobs to ask all the tough questions on all these issues.
OLBERMANN: Skeptical, not cynical.
OLBERMANN: We'll try. Jonathan Alter of "Newsweek" and NBC NEWS, great thanks for your time, sir.
ALTER: Thanks, Keith.
OLBERMANN: The combat to some degree terror alert fatigue, to the miracle in Utah. The latest on the condition of the formerly conjoined Herrin twins. And taking America's pastime way too seriously. An adult coach taking advantage of a 9-year-old who's been battling cancer to win the championship game in a baseball season. We'll talk to the boy's father. All ahead on Countdown.
OLBERMANN: More than two days after the operation to separate conjoined twins in Utah, the very latest on the condition of those Herrin girls. And also in Utah, should a rival baseball coach have put the burden of an entire season on a 9-year-old recovering from brain cancer. That's next, this is Countdown.
OLBERMANN: There are two other compelling news developments tonight. Our No. 2 story on the Countdown, the once conjoined twins Kendra and Maliyah, their condition still critical, but also stable. The official word there from Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City where the twins are recovering after their operation that lasted from Monday to Tuesday. As for what each new detail means to the twins' parents, Erin and Jake Herrin, our correspondent with Ed Yates with our affiliate, KSL, in Salt Lake City.
ED YATES, KSL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Erin and Jake said it's an emotional experience seeing the separated twins for the first time even though sedated, they talked to the girls, told them how brave they are. Erin can't wait to pick them up and hold them again.
ERIN HERRIN, TWINS' MOTHER: You can't pick them up, it's not safe yet and I'm sure they're in a lot of pain. And so the first time we get to hold them will be so amazing, I cannot wait to hold them.
YATES: Jake says miracles just keep unfolding with these kids, like having enough skin to cover the separation opening on one of the twins. Even the plastic surgeon who did the final closure was worried.
JAKE HERRIN, TWINS' FATHER: He didn't think that they would close tender (ph) skin. He didn't think they'd have enough skin. And he's an expert about this. And when they closed that skin, that was a miracle, and he felt that.
YATES: Dr. Rebecca Myers says once the kids are awake, still several days away, and once all organs are functioning again, the next big step?
DR. REBECCA MYERS, PRIMARY CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL: Yeah, the next big step is weaning them off the ventilators and getting them breathing on their own so that we can start getting them up out of bed.
OLBERMANN: Ed Yates of our affiliate in Salt Lake City, same area, same subject - kids. An entirely different tone, though. Can you imagine an adult, a man who coaches baseball for nine and 10-year-olds trying to make a little boy, a survivor of brain cancer, the goat of the league championship game? It happened. The boy's father joins us next as Countdown continues.
OLBERMANN: What do we stand for? In the wake of today's purported terrorist plot, it becomes more than just a question of philosophy of ethics, more than just something you'd stitch onto a piece of cloth and hand on your walls. Sometimes what we stand for can be decided on the sidelines of a baseball game being played by nine and 10-year-olds as in our No. 1 story in the Countdown, tonight.
It has become the story of a 9-year-old named Romney Oaks who was the next hitter waiting at the championship baseball game of the Mueller Mustang League in Bountiful, Utah. It was the last inning of the season's last game, the championship and Romney's team, the Red Sox, trailed the, who else, Yankees by a run with two outs, a runner on third and his team's best hitter, Jordan Blake, at the plate. And scheduled to bat after him? Romney Oaks, probably the worst Red Sox worst hitter, although he will dispute that and bless him for doing so. He would point out he hit earlier this season.
Thing is Romney is a survivor of brain cancer, a guy who's already seen more of life than the rest of us ever will, probably. Who's needed human growth hormone to have the stamina to play, who has a shunt in his head.
The coach of the Yankees, and remember these are the nine and 10-year-old Yankees of Bountiful, Utah, not the New York Yankees, decided to intentionally walk the Red Sox's top hitter to instead send young Romney Oaks to the plate with the season on the line, with the tying run on third and the winning run on first in the final inning of the championship game. Romney struck out. His Red Sox lost and the Yankees won. It was, apparently, the first intentional walk all season in the Pony League of Bountiful, Utah, and the coach who ordered it, Bob Farle insisted he had no idea that Romney Oak his cancer, even thought Romney's mother says Mr. Farle coached Romney in basketball two years ago. She told Mr. Farle all about it.
Romney's father, Marlo Oaks, joins us now.
Thank you for your time tonight, Mr. Oaks.
MARLO OAKS, FATHER OF ROMNEY OAKS: Thank you.
OLBERMANN: How was your boy that night, how is he now?
OAKS: He was pretty upset that night. You know, he felt a lot of pressure. I walked over to the dugout, wasn't sure how he had responded. He had tears coming down eyes and he said dad, "All the pressure was on me. All the pressure was there. I could feel it." And anyway, we talked about it that night and we talked about how even the best players in NBA and other leagues missed the last shot and lose it for their team, as you will, or if you will and with that explanation he's been fine. And he's doing great.
OLBERMANN: As I understand, his ultimate reaction to all this, he figures the best thing to work - for him to do his to work on his hitting. Do I have that right?
OAKS: That's right. Yeah. I think that speaks volumes of him and his character.
OLBERMANN: Sure does, and of you, obviously, too. Nobody can hear this story, or has heard it within the sports world, certainly without reacting from a baseball point of view, you could see the Yankees' coach as having done exactly the right thing. Have you been able to see it at all that way or has your son?
OAKS: I can see it that way for older leagues. In this case it's a younger league. This is Romney's first experience with baseball and it's new to this league, as you mentioned. Nobody has been walked in the league before and so, you know, the kids weren't expecting it, coaches weren't expecting it, parents weren't expecting it. It was a situation that presented itself and the message is if there's a situation and we want to win, take advantage of it. Even though it's not necessarily in what people would expect.
OLBERMANN: Do you worry about the specific lesson that kids in the winning team would have gotten about victory at all cost? I mean, I understand that the winning pitcher had problems dealing with the aftermath of all this.
OAKS: Yeah, I mean, I think it's very insightful to see how the children reacted. The pitcher, Romney, his reaction. He was very happy to hear that the other pitcher wanted to pitch to him slow slowly and didn't want to walk the player ahead of him. He felt like that was the right thing to do and obviously the pitcher felt that something was wrong with the situation. I think we can learn a lot from that and as adults, you know, we might decide that, hey, the kids really don't understand, but in reality, they may not be able to say what they're feeling, but their reaction says a multitude of things and we really should look at that pretty seriously, because it's sending a message to not only the kids who are on the field there, but other kids perhaps watching the game. If the coach can do that to Romney, what is he going to do to me? So, there's a lot of lessons here.
OLBERMANN: Obviously any child who's been through what your son has wants to be the normal kid, play ball and go to school. Some people might look at this, obviously, some people have looked at it this way and said, hey, this is the sort of stuff that happens to normal kids. Do you buy any of that?
OAKS: In a league that is meant to be competitive, absolutely. But this is little league, this is the first exposure for these kids. These leagues as I view them are there to help the kids learn about the game and to learn about sportsmanship and friendship and it's not about wining and losing at all cost. And so there's a place for that, high school, college, et cetera, in the lowest levels of baseball? I just - there's just no place for that.
OLBERMANN: I just wish what they'd done was walk the Jordan Blake and then also walked your son to load the bases, show a little humanity and a little baseball strategy, teach them both at the same time. In any event, Marlo Oaks, give Romney our best wishes, our thanks to you for your time tonight, sir.
OAKS: Thank you very much.
OLBERMANN: That is Countdown, for this, the 1,197th day since the declaration of "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq. I'm Keith Olbermann, goodnight, and good luck.
Our MSNBC coverage of the purported attempt to blow up British flights to the U.S. continues now with "Scarborough Country."
Joe, good evening.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END