'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for April 16
Guests: Trey Perkins, E.J. Dionne, Chris Cillizza
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST: Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?
At least 33 dead at Virginia Tech University, a nightmare upon a nightmare. After two are shot early morning at a campus dormitory, carnage is unleashed in a classroom building two hours later, and many students and employees say the university did not warn them of the first shooting until after the mass murder had begun.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TREY PERKINS, EYEWITNESS: He shot our teacher, and then we all got on the ground real quick, and he started just shooting around at different people.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Virginia Tech student and witness Trey Perkins joins us tonight.
Amid the horror the questions (INAUDIBLE). Who could have done this? Why were so many students convinced Virginia Tech was secure just two hours after the first shooting? How, eight years after Columbine, could a campus see nearly three times as many victims killed?
Were recent bomb threats at the school connected to today's chaos? Did this one incident put gun control and public safety near the top of the political debate, even of the presidential race?
The latest from the campus at Blacksburg, Virginia. Former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt on the killer and the university's response. Chris Cillizza on the instant politics of tragedy.
Also tonight, the attorney general's testimony to the Senate. Has he remembered his lines, or should he just forget his career? Is he the new Scooter Libby?
Asked if he's talked to his friend Libby since he was convicted, the vice president says he hasn't, that there hasn't been occasion to do so. Good night and good luck, Scooter. And maybe good night and good luck, Fredo.
But first, to the living horror movie at Virginia Tech.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm really at a loss for words to explain or to understand the carnage that has visited our campus.
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OLBERMANN: The worst single-event mass shooting in American history.
Now, on Countdown.
Good evening from New York.
The "Chicago Sun-Times" Web site tonight is quoting unidentified authorities who say that they're investigating whether the gunman who killed 32 people at the campus of Virginia Tech University today was a 24-year-old Chinese national who had arrived in this country last August on a student visa, and whether three bomb threats made to that campus last week may have been attempts by that individual to test the school's security response system, though no link to terrorism is suggested.
Our fifth story on the Countdown, whoever the perpetrator was, at 7:15 this morning, a man walked into a dormitory at Virginia Tech and shot a student, and a dormitory resident adviser, who intervened. Then, for two hours, life for much of the rest of the campus went on basically uninterrupted. The school was not closed. There were no evacuations. And any lockdowns were lifted, or thought to have been lifted, almost immediately.
An e-mail warning from the university to its students on campus urged them only to stay inside and keep away from the windows. It was not sent until just before 9:30 a.m. But by that time, across campus, the gunman, presumably but not certainly the same gunman, walked into an engineering building and opened fire. And all told, at least 33 people on that campus are dead tonight, the shooter included, police say at his own hand.
Eight years to the week after Columbine, a school shooting so horrific that it makes Columbine, and all the others, pale in comparison, the school shooting that has become the worst single instance of mass shooting in this nation's history.
Tonight, the harrowing recollection of witnesses, merging with fury over the university's evident delay in grasping the true nature of the danger, and the almost instantaneous evolution of the nightmare into a political debate, both against firearms and for them.
We start with the still-hazy picture of the chaos that unfolded this morning in Blacksburg, Virginia. In the first shooting, the victim was believed to be the ex-girlfriend of the shooter. More than two hours later, across campus, a gunman, police refusing to confirm it was the same one, opening fire in a series of classrooms, again and again. At least another 30 killed there before the gunman himself was killed, apparently having taken his own life.
We're going to continue now with Kevin Corke's report from the scene of the campus at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia, about 200 miles west of Richmond, about 175 miles north of Charlotte.
Kevin joins us now live from the scene.
Kevin, good evening.
KEVIN CORKE, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Keith, a devastating day here in Blacksburg, obviously. I mean, for the people here, and I'm sure you know how much this town loves this university, they love their college football here, and it's a small, close-knit community.
And so that something like this could happen here is beyond devastating.
So many questions tonight. Why did this happen? Who could do such a thing? And how could it happen here, in a town where peace and quiet are really taken for granted?
CORKE (voice-over): Shortly after dawn, when many students were still sleeping, shots ring out inside the West Ambler-Johnston dormitory on the sprawling Virginia Tech campus. Nearly 900 students live there.
The attack comes without warning on the fourth floor, the gunman shooting multiple students, killing at least two women, a student and a resident assistant.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
LAUREN STEELE (on phone): A boyfriend and girlfriend who were in a fight, and the RA came out to help and the boyfriend shot the girl and the RA.
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CORKE: By 9:00 a.m., local news is reporting that one victim is dead, perhaps eight or nine wounded, students huddled in their rooms, scouring the Internet for any information as the police frantically hunt for the shooter on the 2,600-acre campus.
Nine-thirty a.m., two hours after the first shots, on the opposite end of campus, classes are underway in Norris Hall, an engineering building. A gunman - police won't say if it's the same man - unleashes another shooting rampage.
Eyewitness Trey Perkins was in German class when the gunman burst in.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
PERKINS (on phone): He shot our teacher, and then we all got on the ground real quick, and he started just shooting around at different people. I don't - I'm not sure how long it lasted. It felt like a really long time.
And he didn't say "Get down," he didn't say anything. He just came in and started shooting.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
CORKE: Outside Norris Hall, graduate assistant Jamal Albarghouti captured the sounds of gunfire on his cell phone camera.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
JAMAL ALBARGHOUTI (on phone): Many people were dead, were killed, and we're really sad about that.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
CORKE: By the time police broke in, the gunman was dead. He had taken his own life. He still hasn't been identified.
Noon, the horror of the second shooting spree begins to sink in, and the death toll keeps rising.
As the day wore on, it became clear that almost 60 Virginia Tech students and faculty were dead or wounded. Students were questioning why they weren't warned during the two hours between the first and second shootings.
WENDELL FLINCHUM, POLICE CHIEF, VIRGINIA TECH UNIVERSITY: We secured the building, we secured the crime scene. We had information that led us to believe that the building was secure, and that the person had left the building.
CORKE: Questions like that, obviously, over and over, Keith. How could it happen that, if there was someone who apparently shot two people and killed two people, shot maybe more than that, at 7:15 in the morning, how is it that that same person could possibly end up back here on campus and mow down another couple of dozen or more? That's the main question we're hearing tonight.
And as you saw in that news conference, a lot of passion and a great deal of anger. People are wondering, look, we want to know how this happened, what was the procedure, and what are we going to do about this moving forward, Keith?
OLBERMANN: Kevin, do you know, in this last news conference just before 8:00 Eastern time, about this, the continuing refusal on the part of campus police and city police and the president of the university to confirm that the shooter at the dormitory was the same as the shooter in the engineering building? Why are they, why are they holding back on that? Is that still in doubt?
CORKE: Vexing, to say the least. Here's what a sheriff told me outside the news conference, on background, and I'm not going to say he who he was. He's one of the employees here. He may not have been a sheriff. He's a law enforcement guy.
I said, Why does he not just come out and say it? The guy we believe did it is dead. He said, They're operating out of an overabundance of caution because, in law enforcement terms, they just want to make sure that they have everything lined up just so before they come right out and say it.
Now, that said, you did hear the chief say, Look, we don't believe there's someone else out there. OK, well, if you don't believe there's someone else out there, just say it. Say that the gunman that killed himself did it this morning, say that he did both crimes.
But they're not going to do that, I'm told, because they just want to operate out of an abundance of caution, despite the fact that that's got to be frustrating, not just for us listening to that news conference, but certainly for the families and those involved here in Blacksburg.
OLBERMANN: And yet, when you combine that with the idea that there was a person of interest involved in the - or reported after the first shooting, who they were talking to during the second shooting, it lends an extra added element to that.
(INAUDIBLE) clarify, that person of interest is not supposed to have had anything to do with either of these shootings. Is that correct?
CORKE: Exactly. That person is not supposed to have anything to do with it. You're right. Which is why you heard in the back room, in the back of the room, the same person asked the question over and over. So are we looking for someone tonight?
Look, the chief said something pretty important. They want to match up the ballistics. OK, that makes sense, they want to make sure that the casings at scene one match the casings at scene two, and then maybe there's a fingerprint here and there they can cross-reference. And then they can come out and definitively say, Yes, it was the - it was person X.
They're not going to do it, because, he said, we don't have that information yet, and yet, from everything we've understood throughout the day, Keith, it does seem like that is the one and only person involved in this. If it's not the case, certainly they should come out and say it, and they're saying right now that they're not willing to do that either.
OLBERMANN: Our correspondent Kevin Corke with some new and inside information at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia. Kevin, great thanks.
The questions tonight not about what being - what is being said tonight, but about what happened early today, and why it happened today, why these same men who've been addressing the nation in two news conferences during the day acted the way they did, and why the people working for them acted the way they did in that two-hour interval, in particular, between the first sets of shootings and the 30 murders later on in the morning at the engineering building at the campus of Virginia Tech.
I'm joined now by former FBI profiler and MSNBC analyst Clint Van Zandt.
Clint, good evening.
CLINT VAN ZANDT, MSNBC ANALYST: Hi, Keith. Good evening to you.
OLBERMANN: The first part of this, this investigation, this nightmare upon the nightmare here, is that two-hour-plus gap. University president still seemed, this afternoon, anyway, satisfied, very satisfied that his campus police responded very well to what unfolded. Could he be right? Is it really impossible to secure a 2,600-acre campus well enough in two hours to keep 31 other people from being killed?
VAN ZANDT: Well, that's what he's telling us. You know, the answer to your question you asked earlier, why doesn't the police chief come out and say, We have no reason to believe there is a second gunman? You know, we'll let you know when we get more. But at least, put the lid on that one. Don't leave that hanging out.
But, you know, the challenge comes, Keith, you've got 26,000 students, 10,000 faculty members, you've got at least 10 of the 26,000 students commute, so the question is, how are you able to put the lid on that entire campus in a one- or two-hour period? (INAUDIBLE), you know, maybe we need sirens, you know, like the old civil defense or tornado sirens. When that goes off, that tells everybody go home and lock your door, because right now, it appears they don't have one uniform method to tell every student who's not sitting there on Internet that stay in your room, there may be a shooter out there someplace.
OLBERMANN: But putting the lid on it, is that not what precipitated the tragic second aspect of this? I mean, the campus police chief says they thought the event at the dorm was self-contained, concluded, it was domestic, that the shooter had left the campus, that maybe the shooter had left the state. How do you reach such a horribly wrong conclusion so quickly in a time when, you know, high schools have been locked down after car accidents across the street? Why such as laissez-faire attitude, do you know?
VAN ZANDT: Yes, I, you know, I understand their abundance of caution right now. But to me, that abundance of caution should say, Unless we have the shooter in handcuffs, and obviously they had one person in handcuffs who was the wrong guy, unless we have the shooters in handcuffs, we have to assume we may have a barricade, a hostage situation, a man with a gun, in this case, two guns, on our campus someplace.
Now, you're looking for a needle in a haystack carrying two guns. But it appears the campus was allowed to continue with that gunman running amok. And as you pointed out, Keith, two of the shooting that we know of were at the dormitory. The rest of the massacre took place two hours later, when this guy was able to get into a classroom building as the president or the police chief said, used chains to secure the doors of at least two buildings - two doors on that building, either to keep his potential victims in, and/or to keep the police out.
Keith, this is someone who made a decision he was going to commit a mass murder and die. And unfortunately, a lot of people on campus just witnessed it.
OLBERMANN: What could have happened? Did he know that there would have been a period of time to elapse? We have this report from "The Chicago Sun-Times" Web site, very poorly sourced, we can't validate it, but it suggests that he had made these, this, the campus received a series of bomb threats last week, that he made those bomb threats with people, the person they think did this, may have made these bomb threats to test the security system. Was he, had he timed this thing, had he scheduled it, thinking that he had some sort of window, or the longer he waited to go into one of the classrooms, the better the chance he would have of doing what he wanted to do?
VAN ZANDT: If, in fact, he was responsible for those bomb threats, and if, let's say, hypothetically, the bomb threat said, A bomb will go off at this building at 9:00 a.m., and he then could have had the ability to see how long it took first responders to come to that situation.
But, you know, Keith, there are bomb threats all over the country all the time. This is a far more serious incident. But it could have been a way that the shooter used to measure the level of response. But again, he had to walk across campus. That could have taken him, I don't know, 10, 15, 25 minutes, if he walked in a straight line from one building to another.
That's what the authorities have to answer their investigation. In that two-hour time period, that they had not put the word out that there was an armed killer on campus, in that two-hour time period that apparently they weren't looking for that gunman on campus. Where was he for those two hours? If it took him 20 minutes to get across campus, where was he for the rest of that time period? What was he doing? And should not only the students, faculty, and staff, but the police department known about that?
OLBERMANN: Clint van Zandt, former FBI profiler, analyst for MSNBC.
As always, Clint, great thanks for your time tonight.
VAN ZANDT: Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: We'll continue our coverage.
Authorities suspect perhaps a 24-year-old Chinese national here on a student visa, at least that the unconfirmed report sourced out of the "Chicago Sun-Times" Web site.
We'll hear from the witness who watched his professor shot before his eyes in his classroom.
And this mass murder thrusting issue of gun control front and center. Before the bodies were even officially counted, political groups were spinning the meaning of their deaths.
You're watching Countdown on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: A lone gunman kills 32 people and then himself. Filling in the details of that nightmare may turn to the shooter's motivation, his intent, what was on his mind. But ultimately, what does that matter, when you happen - have it happen to you in your classroom, on what was ordinary - an otherwise ordinary Monday morning at your university?
Our fourth story on the Countdown, witnessing and comprehending the incomprehensible. As we told you earlier, the shooter has been described as an Asian male in his 20s, tonight, the Web site of "The Chicago Sun-Times" reporting authorities think he may have been a 24-year-old Chinese man who arrived in this country through San Francisco in August of last year on a student visa, and tested the campus security response system last week by phoning in, perhaps, a series of bomb threats.
The bomb threats were no joke. They were responded to at Virginia Tech last week.
The first victim of the shooter, whoever he was, reportedly the man's ex-girlfriend and then the resident student adviser in her dormitory. But the mass murder of 30 other individuals did not occur until more than two hours later, two hours that, in retrospect, seemed squandered by authorities.
In another classroom, the shooter lined his victims against a wall, reportedly, and shot them execution-style before shooting himself. According to the ATF source previously mentioned, the shooter was also wearing a bulletproof vest.
Trey Perkins saw firsthand the carnage the gunman created. He was in class when the shooter stormed in. Earlier, he described what happened to MSNBC's Chris Jansing.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PERKINS (on phone): I was in my German class this morning. I remember looking at my phone. It was about 9:40. And we started to hear some loud pops, but I - none of us really thought that it could've been gunshots, because it wasn't really loud like that.
Then a guy comes into the room. He shot our teacher. And then we all got on the ground real quick, and he started just shooting around at different people. I don't - I'm not sure how long it lasted. It felt like a really long time. But it was probably only about a minute or so.
And then he finally left the room. And myself and two other students, one of whom is Derek O'Dell, who had called in earlier, and we went up to the door and, like, put our feet against it to hold it shut, in case he started to come back again, and he started to try to open the door again, and then started to shoot through the door, probably four or five, maybe six shots. Fortunately, none of those shots hit anyone.
And he finally stopped trying to get into the room, and, I guess, continued on to other rooms, because we kept hearing shots. And after that, I just went around and tried to help people that were shot, just with, like, taking off my sweatshirt and just trying to stop any bleeding that I could, and just doing anything that I could to help people.
CHRIS JANSING, NBC CORRESPONDENT: What was the scene like in your room after he was gone?
PERKINS: It was - I mean, it's so hard to describe. Just people shot, just blood pretty much everywhere, just completely unreal. It's just so hard to describe.
JANSING: Trey, did he say anything throughout this time?
PERKINS: Not a word. He didn't say a single word the whole time, not, not...
JANSING: Now, there was never any indication of why he was doing this?
PERKINS: Not at all. He just - he didn't say, "Get down," he didn't say anything. He just came in and started shooting.
JANSING: Did you get a good look at his face? Can you at least describe how he looked? Was he calm or - what did he look like?
PERKINS: He looked, I guess you could say, serious, I mean, just - he didn't look frightened at all, he didn't look angry, he just looked, I mean, just like a straight face.
JANSING: And when this all started, Trey, what went through your mind? And what did you try to do?
PERKINS: Well, I got on the ground, and I was just thinking, like, you know, there's no way I'm going to survive this. And I - all I could really think about was my mom, and just what would - what she would go through if something were to happen to me. And then I eventually started thinking, like, Is there anything I can do? But, like, the (INAUDIBLE) - the angle he was at, I mean, there was no way I could get up and try to do anything, because I was blocked in by a couple desks that were overturned.
JANSING: So people were throwing desks over and just trying to protect themselves?
PERKINS: Yes, just trying to, you know, get as much in between themselves and the shooter as they could.
JANSING: Well, Trey, have you had a chance to talk to your parents since then?
PERKINS: Yes, I have contacted them. And they're on their way here right now to come see me.
JANSING: All right. Trey, thank God you're OK, and we're all so sorry for what has happened there. And good luck to you. Do you know what you're going to do?
PERKINS: No, not really, just - I guess I'm going to try to get in touch with some people that were also in the classroom that are OK, and just, I guess, just talk to them, and just try to get past this, I guess. And just - I just feel so terribly for the people, families and the people that killed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Trey Perkins, a sophomore at Virginia Tech, earlier today here on MSNBC.
Already, the events of the day in Blacksburg have become part of the political conversation in this country. The deeply divisive issue of gun control, pro and con, how the Virginia Tech shooting will affect presidential politics. It already has, and it's already affected American politics practically and immediately. Alberto Gonzales now will not go before the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow.
Details ahead here on Countdown.
OLBERMANN: Countdown continues with the breaking news on the mass shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech University. At least 32 people killed there today before the suspect gunman turns his weapon on himself.
Tonight, do we finally have a clue as to who he was?
More than a dozen other victims still being treated. More questions than answers about how the university handled a shooting spree in which shooter evidently paused for two hours.
Columbine was supposed to spark change in our gun-control laws, yet Virginia Tech has already been cited as a reason for toughening those laws, and as a reason for relaxing those laws. Will it become a rallying cry in the presidential campaign?
And the man who is president addressing military families at the White House, warning Democrats yet again to drop timetables to get out of Iraq.
And Virginia Tech changes the dynamic of the Alberto Gonzales scandals today. That is next. This is Countdown.
OLBERMANN: Late information about the Virginia Tech shooting tonight. A reliable, longtime ATF source - that's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Department - after talking to colleagues on the scene in Blacksburg, are reporting the following to NBC News: the shooter was not a student, but had access to the dorm building. They are pretty sure they have identified him, but are waiting for confirmation. They even think, according to this ATF source, they might know where he lives. And once they confirm, they will be asking for a search warrant.
The sources confirms there guns used - we knew that there were two of them recovered - were a 22 and a 9 millimeter handgun. Serial numbers on both guns used by the shooter had been obliterated, often done by illegal gun dealers. It's noted here, some gun owners, hoping the gun will be untraceable. The guns and casings are apparently being driven - this is more of a technical point than an investigatory one - from the campus at Virginia Tech to the ATF lab in Maryland.
It was too windy to get a flight out of the campus. But once those casings and guns get to the lab in Maryland, the ATF experts will likely, according to the source inside that bureau, be able to lift finger prints from both, and then confirm each of the casings actually came from the two guns recovered. It could firmly rule out another shooter or gun. And combine this with the report from the "Chicago Sun-Times" website, quoting unidentified authorities as saying that they are investigating whether that gunman who killed 32 people and himself at Virginia Tech today was a 24-year-old Chinese national, who had arrived in this country last August through San Francisco on a student visa and may have made three bomb threats to the university, to Virginia Tech, last week to check out the school's security response system.
Those are the developments to this hour. Of course, after every mass shooting, after every school shooting, comes the inevitable debate about gun control. The politics of today's tragedy the third story on Countdown. First recapping what we know at this hour about today's Virginia Tech shooting. The statistics are grim and bare, more than 50 wounded, 33 dead, including the gunman, who took his own life, whose identity remains unidentified.
Virginia Tech students wondering why reports of a double shooting in a dorm at 7:15 a.m. took more than two hours to reach them in an email alert, and while the bloodshed continued, even more time before they were warned to stay indoors because of a gunman on campus. Even before an official death toll was released by the university, a pro-gun group in Virginia issued a news release, saying the nightmare could have been prevented had the state legislature only passed the bill it was backing, permitting students to concealed weapons on campus.
At least one of the weapons used by the shooter is believed, as we said, to be in nine millimeter semi-automatic pistol, which would like this one, with a clip designed to hold more than 10 shots. Clips like those were banned under the Assault Weapons Law of 1994, but Congress and President Bush allowed that law to expire more than two years ago.
On Capital Hill, senators held a moment of silence. Virginia's John Warner calling the shootings incomprehensible and senseless. And the president made a brief statement, saying the nation was shocked and saddened.
Joining us now to talk about the politics of this, which are already evident, Chris Cillizza, who's blog The Fix follows politics for WashingtonPost.com. Chris, good evening.
CHRIS CILLIZZA, WASHINGTONPOST.COM: Good evening, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Literally, before Virginia Tech was even close to giving any kind of official number of dead, that pro gun group was out with that press release. And anti-gun groups did the same. And presidential candidates did the same. Is this going to wind up being a part of the presidential race?
CILLIZZA: I think, number one, it is too early. Number two, I don't think so. I think most of the candidates were pretty restrained. Most of them said, you know, we grieve, today is not a day for politics. Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York City, right before I came on, I got an e-mail from his campaign, saying he is suspending all campaign activities tomorrow.
As you pointed out, Alberto Gonzales' testimony is going to be delayed. I think tomorrow, and maybe for several days in the future, we are going to see sort of a cessation of politics. That happens when we have these big national tragedies. Politics go away, or at least subsumes for a short time.
OLBERMANN: And, in fact, Giuliani had a speech scheduled to be given tomorrow at Pat Robertson's Regent University in Virginia Beach, which has been postponed indefinitely, according to their campaign. Apart from that, obviously, it will, unfortunately, as with all good things, come to an end. There will no longer be a pause in this. Is this going to be an issue in particular for any of the candidates on either side, Democratic or Republican side? Is it going to be, after Mitt Romney's thing with hunting, is it going to be his issue to deal with? Or is it going to be somebody else's?
CILLIZZA: Well, I look at the historical analogy, and the one that jumped to my mind when I saw this this morning was Columbine. And, you know, right after Columbine, there was a lot of talk that we were going to see gun control emerge again as a major issue. And it did for a brief period of time. But the ultimate legislative outcome from all of that fury about it was not all that much.
And so I am skeptical. I still think that, and it seems hard to imagine right now, but the war in Iraq, energy, health care; I still think those are the things that the candidates within the primaries and in the general election are going to disagree more broadly about. I'm skeptical that gun control, even with this tragedy today, I'm skeptical that gun control is going to jump up into that pallet of issues.
OLBERMANN: And last question pertains to that obviously, Chris. Congress and the president let the ban on the assault weapons expire. What had happened to gun-control as an issue, either pro or against?
CILLIZZA: Well, you know, when this happened this morning, my political mind started thinking, could I think of a dozen, maybe six races in the last four or six years where gun-control was a major issue, any race, House, Senate or the presidential. And I could not really think of any. It has disappeared. Democrats stopped talking about it in many ways.
It moved from a partisan fear, with Democrats wanting more gun control, Republicans wanting less restrictions, into an issue that was not really debated. And I am not sure it's going to reemerge. You didn't see Democrats coming out and saying we should make this more stringent.
OLBERMANN: Chris Cillizza, who blogs on the Fix at WashingtonPost.com, thanks Chris.
CILLIZZA: Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Ahead in this news hour, seldom on an American campus has the term "unfolding tragedy" been more literally accurate than on this awful day at Virginia Tech. And more political ramifications news tonight. The shooting delays the Alberto Gonzales appearance on Capitol Hill. That and more ahead on Countdown.
OLBERMANN: It is the worst shooting incident in American history. And its impact has been such that it could postpone events shaping American history, including, among them, Congress's showdown with America's top law man, the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales. In our number two story tonight, the Senate Judiciary Committee today postponed tomorrow's hearings. Mr. Gonzales will give his testimony Thursday instead.
Today, however, Attorney General Gonzales succeeded in doing what even his boss had failed to do, becoming a uniter and not a divider. Some of the most powerful, influential conservatives in the country, hardcore right wing Bush allies, uniting with liberals in calling for Gonzales to go. That conservative letter signed by the like of Richard Viguerie and ex-Congressman Bob Barr, is a devastating indictment.
It reads, in part, "Mr. Gonzales has presided over an unprecedented crippling of the constitution's time honored checks and balances. He has brought the rule of law into disrepute and debased honesty as the coin of the realm," et cetera.
This as Senate Republicans said Gonzales has an uphill battle in Thursday's hearing. Responding to the early release of Mr. Gonzales' prepared testimony, which include guaranteed Congress baits, such as "to my knowledge, I did not make decisions about who should or should not be asked to resign." Vice-President Cheney, however, saying yesterday the whole U.S. attorneys mess belongs squarely on Gonzales's plate, even though the firings were first suggested by the White House.
Mr. Cheney reminded us what happens to administration fall guys. When he was asked about his good friend and former closest aide, now facing one to three years in prison as a result of his service to Mr. Cheney.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you talked to Scooter Libby since the trial.
DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have not.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have not. Why not?
CHENEY: Well, there hasn't been occasion to do so.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But as your friend, wouldn't you even call and express your regrets? I am surprised to hear you say that.
CHENEY: I have not had occasion to do that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Condolences on your conviction for lying to help sell the Iraq war, apparently not considered a formal occasion these days, not with the president himself today marshalling support for that war by invoking 9/11 yet again to claim that anyone left standing in Iraq will come here next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: If we do not defeat the terrorists extremists in Iraq, they won't leave us alone. They will follow us to the United States of America. That is what makes this battle and the war on terror so incredibly important. One of the lessons of September the 11th is what happens over seas matters to the security of the United States of America. And we must not forget that lesson.
The consequences of failure in Iraq would be death and destruction in the Middle East, and here in America.
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OLBERMANN: Not explained, why they don't come here now. Why they would not come here later no matter who wins in Iraq. Most importantly, if defeat in Iraq somehow guarantees terrorism here, will winning somehow guarantee our safety? The president facing Democratic questions on Wednesday when he meets with legislators to discuss their impasse over whether Mr. Bush can get war funding without having to take war accountability.
Let's turn to "Washington Post" columnist E.J. Dionne, also a fellow at the Brookings Institution. Always a pleasure to talk to you, E.J.
E.J. DIONNE, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Great to be with you Keith.
OLBERMANN: Pushing the testimony back from tomorrow to Thursday? Is it political grand standing? Or is this an honorable and important measure to ensure that the nation is actually paying attention both to the events in Virginia and also to this hearing on Thursday?
DIONNE: How about both? I think any public relations person worth a tenth of his or her salary would say people aren't going to be watching this in the same way before they saw this horrible thing happened at Virginia Tech. On the other hand, I think it is a decent thing to do. It's just not the right time to do this. So I think it's both.
OLBERMANN: Senator Schumer told reporters over the weekend that another one of the Gonzales aides - this time it's Michael Battle - gave the Judiciary Committee even more information that contradicts his old boss. Couple that with this conservative letter today, is it seemingly inevitable now that Mr. Gonzales will have to fall on his proverbial sword?
DIONNE: Well, you know, you referred to an uphill climb. I think it is a cliff. And I think eventually he will fall. I think one leading indicator a little while ago was Newt Gingrich, who, I think, is a shrewd reader of where Republican opinion is going to be, and he said Gonzales has to go.
But I think he may have some time, because the Democrats have made clear that they are not going to stop if Gonzales goes. They have all kinds of questions about who used an RNC e-mail account, Republican National Committee email account, so these messages might not be found. They have questions about what seemed to be politically inspired prosecutions. So I think, as one of your producers suggest when we talked, he is going to be a kind of the blame-sponge.
Let Gonzales absorb as much blame as possible. But I do not see how he survives in the long run.
OLBERMANN: Let's turn to this meeting Wednesday now about Iraq funding. What is actually the point of that?
DIONNE: The point of that is, I think most of the country says, well, you've got these two diametrically opposed opinions. We elected the Congress. We elected the president. Can't they talk to each other? What you've got are two immovable objects, with the Congress more likely to move, because the president only needs one vote, his own. They need to hold together a complicated coalition.
I think the president may win this first round when it's over, but it's going to be a kind of pyrrhic victory, because I think the pressure has started growing in the Republican party. I do not think Republicans want to carry the water of this war all the way through to the 2008 elections, except for Mr. McCain. And so he may win this one, but we are going to be back to the same fight in about three months.
OLBERMANN: And lastly, this may not be a big politics, but Vice President Cheney not having an occasion to call a friend after he's convicted of going to jail for covering Dick's backside, don't White House's traditionally take better care of their fall guys?
DIONNE: Maybe he sent him a Hallmark card, or something. Do they make them for this sort of thing. I am no Cheney defender. I cannot believe he does not feel a sense of loyalty to this guy who took such enormous risks for him. He cited legal problems. Cheney was all over the case that Patrick Fitzgerald brought. Maybe he's worried about that.
Or maybe he just does not want anybody asking him what did you tell him? What advice did you give him? Even though, knowing Dick Cheney, he would not tell us anyway.
OLBERMANN: E.J. Dionne of the "Washington Post" and the Brookings Institution. As I said, always a pleasure, sir. Great thanks for your time.
DIONNE: Great to be with you.
OLBERMANN: We will continue now with the top story of this day, the worst mass shooting in this country's history. The chaos on the campus on Virginia Tech; our first version of history, the late breaking news out of the "Chicago Sun Times" about the possible identity of the shooter, and an ATF source saying he was not, indeed, a student at that university. That's next on Countdown.
OLBERMANN: Recapping the breaking news this hour in the mass murders at Virginia Tech university; 32 victims dead, plus the gunman. The university still not confirming that the same individual first shot two students at a dorm at about 7:15 this morning and then 30 more two hours later in a classroom building, students and others. But a source at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms confirming to MSNBC News that the shooter, just one shooter was not a student.
Authorities believe they have identified him, but are awaiting confirmation. They may already have an address, are waiting ready to ask for a search warrant. But the guns were a 9-millimeter hand gun and a 22, with the serial numbers obliterated. Those guns and shell casings are being driven to the ATF forensic facility in Maryland, and could produce finger prints shortly.
Meantime, the websites of the "Chicago Sun Times," quoting an unnamed source, saying authorities are investigating whether the shooter was a 24-year-old Chinese national, here since last August on a student visa. The newspaper also saying authorities see no link to terrorism, but are attempting to make a link between a series of bomb scares at the university last week and the possibility that the shooter today made those threats to test Virginia Tech's response times to an emergency.
The undisputed facts are 32 dead, plus the shooter. And the almost slow motion unfolding of the horror today, from something that in retrospect seems almost rational, the murder of two students in the morning. We were at first told one student this morning at the Virginia Tech dorm, and then, as in nightmares, or nightmarish movies, the truth changed and changed again, and changed again after that, and with each change it all became more numbingly, more exponentially horrible.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: At one point there was a shooting incident - that is the detail we are getting - at West Ambler Johnston Hall.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Amy, it's Nicky. We just got one more piece of information. According to the Associated Press a state government official with knowledge of the incident says one person was killed, another injured.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We want to invite into this conversation Alannah Haffet (ph). She is junior. She is on campus right now, locked in a classroom. Obviously you are scared right now. Can you tell us what you know, and what is going on where you are?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, all I know right now is that there have been a couple of shootings and a lot of the buildings have been evacuated.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was in my office, away from the window, on the floor, and I could hear the shooting.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were in has class, and a couple of students had their laptops, and they got emails that there had been shootings.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I could hear the police screaming. It was awful.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The first student that was shot was killed, and then the second person that was shot was a professor by Norris Hall.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And there are eight other casualties.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is an NBC News SPECIAL REPORT.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: The figures coming out of Virginia Tech are indeed astounding.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a ballpark figure on fatalities. It's at least 20 fatalities.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got my cell phone, starting taking some video, and I started hearing some gunshots.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A man just ran in. He shot our professor, and we all just got on the ground real quick, and he just continued to shoot.
DEREK O'DELL, VIRGINIA TECH STUDENT: I was shot in my upper arm, and it went through my arm and then exited.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you see the shooter face to face?
O'DELL: He was about in his 20s I would say. He was Asian. He had on a maroon hat and a black leather jacket.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And you said that you were one of several people in your room who were shot? Who else, unfortunately, was shot?
O'DELL: A lot of my classmates and possibly my professor.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We went over the to door and the three of us were just trying to keep it shut. He eventually tried to come back in. He was pushing on the door, trying to get back in, but we were holding it shot with our feet and our hands. And he shot through the door four or five times. Fortunately, none of us were hit when he was shooting through the door.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We now know 32 people, including the shooter, have died. The death toll now up to 32.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The authorities are having a difficult time identifying the shooter, because it's believed that in the way that he committed suicide, he disfigured his face.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a demonic new piece of information, that he apparently - or at least they're investigating the possibility that the gunman chained the doors of the class room building, after entering, to make it impossible for people to get out.
REP. NANCY PELOSI, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Can we all please rise to observe the moment of silence.
BUSH: Laura and I, and many across our nation are praying for the victims and their families and all the members of the university community who have been devastated by this terrible tragedy.
SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), VIRGINIA: In time, be it days or weeks, Americans will learn more about the circumstances of today in Blacksburg, Virginia. For now however, and forever after, our hearts and prayers are with the victims.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What is your reaction to this toll, 33 people?
ANNIE KIZER, VA TECH SOPHOMORE: I'm in disbelief.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's scary. Nothing like this has ever happened.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When it happened I honestly almost teared up.
JASON MCCRICKARD, VA TECH STUDENT: It's unreal, because you expect this to be a safe place, and it is. I have never seen it this empty and this dead before.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think we are both still in shock. It's really a surreal moment to happen to both of us. And for us to both be here, I'm amazed that we were saved.
OLBERMANN: A horrific day, to say the least, for the students and faculty at Virginia Tech, and a new sad milestone for this country. Tomorrow at 2:00 p.m. the Virginia Tech community will gather for a convocation service to begin the long healing process.
That is Countdown for this the 1,464th day since the declaration of mission accomplished in Iraq. From New York, I'm Keith Olbermann, good night and good luck.
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