updated 12/22/2005 9:19:34 AM ET 2005-12-22T14:19:34

Guests: Barbara Boxer, Richard Wolffe, Jane Velez-Mitchell

ALISON STEWART, GUEST HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?  I spy—at least the administration does.  While some on the right are defending the president‘s position, most on the left are critical of Mr. Bush and what he did.  And now they are doing something about it.  Senator Barbara Boxer is asking about impeachment and she is our guest tonight. 

These boots were made for walking—the New York transit strike makes getting around the “Big Apple” a big hassle.  No buses no, no subways, for residents and tourists alike.  it Is becoming the most miserable time of the year. 

Bahrain in the membrane—Jacko is backo.  And this time it is accusations of child abduction being leveled against Michael Jackson. 

And break out the earmuffs, fire up the blindfolds, little Timmy and young Susie aren‘t going to like this one bit.  Looks like Santa got run over by a reindeer or is hanging with a really bad crowd.  All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.  I‘m Alison Stewart in for Keith Olbermann.  It‘s the first mention of impeachment since the president acknowledged authorizing the NSA to spy on certain Americans without a warrant.  Senator Barbara Boxer of California advancing the “I” word after former Nixon White House counsel John Dean said that the president in admitting he authorized the NSA spy program, Mr. Bush became the first president to admit to an impeachable offense, end quote. 

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, Senator Boxer is now calling for a, quote, “full airing of this matter by the Senate.”  My interview with her in just a moment. 

This was just the latest salvo in the surveillance situation.  Democratic representative John Lewis also called for the president to be impeached if it turns out he broke the law.  And Senator John Rockefeller says that while he was briefed on the program, he raised serious concerns about it, not least that he felt too uninformed to evaluate the program. 

As evidenced, Senator Rockefeller released to the press a letter he wrote to Vice President Dick Cheney back in July of 2003 saying why he, the senator, could not endorse the NSA surveillance. 

Quote, “I am writing to reiterate my concern regarding this sensitive intelligence issues we discussed today with the DCI, DIRNSA, Chairman Roberts and our House Intelligent Committee counterparts.  Clearly, the activities we discussed raised profound oversight issues.  As you know, I‘m neither a technician, nor an attorney.  Given the security restrictions associated with this information, and my inability to consult staff or counsel on my own, I feel unable to fully evaluate, much less endorse these activities,” end quote.

Prompting the White House to answer questions just how much Congress knew about the program, and whether the senators knew enough to perform their duties. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Congress defined oversight as the authority to conduct inquiries or investigations, to have access to records or materials, or to issue subpoenas or testimony from the executives.  Which of these powers are members of Congress granted with regard to the NSA surveillance program? 

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  Well, as you just pointed out, Congress is an independent branch of government and they‘re elected by their constituents.  We briefed and informed members of Congress about this program going back to—going back to 2001 more than a dozen times since then, we‘ve briefed member of Congress. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Investigate or issue subpoenas to ask questions. 

I‘m asking you which of the problems of oversight were they granted? 

MCCLELLAN:  Congress is an independent branch, that‘s what I just pointed out, Jessica. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Which has the right to check the functions of the executive.  And these are they...

MCCLELLAN: They have an oversight roll, that‘s right.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  OK.  So, in what...

MCCLELLAN:  That‘s why we thought it was important to brief members of Congress about this vital tool that we‘re using to save lives and to protect the American people.  And why we talked to them about how it is limited in nature and limited in scope. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  So in what way could they have acted on that oversight? 

MCCLELLAN:  You should ask member of Congress that question. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Well, we did ask a member of Congress how much it knew.  More on that in a moment.  And on the subject of whether the secret surveillance was lawful. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCLELLAN:  The president made it very clear that as long as he is president he is going to continue using every lawful tool within his power to prevent attacks from happening and save lives and protect the American people.  And that‘s exactly what we‘re doing. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Every lawful tool.  The administration is standing by its position to the program is perfectly legal. 

As I mentioned earlier, John Dean disagrees.  And now Senator Barbara Boxer has written to four presidential scholars for their opinion on this impeachment issue.  I spoke with her earlier this evening.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  And Senator Barbara Boxer, thank you so much for joining us. 

SEN. BARBARA BOXER, (D) CALIFORNIA:  Nice to be with you.

STEWART:  Now what specifically did you ask these presidential scholars to consider?  And have you heard back from any of them? 

BOXER:  I sent the presidential scholars a quote from John Dean who was the White House counsel during Watergate.  And in my belief is probably the ultimate expert on what an abuse of power by a president means.  And he said very clearly at a forum that I was with him on Sunday—he said at this forum that he said President Bush was the first president he knew to admit to an impeachable offense. 

I was taken aback.  I mean, I knew this was serious, spying on our own citizens without a warrant.  But, you know, I was amazed to hear him say that.  I asked if I could quote him.  He said absolutely.  He has since confirmed it.  And I have asked these scholars to get back to me. 

But in the meantime, there‘s lots of other things we need to do, which is to hold hearings on this.  I think it is very important.  To me, more important than the Supreme Court justice hearing.  That can wait.  Sandra Day O‘Connor is willing to sit on the bench as long as it takes.  This is a question of the rights, liberties and freedoms of the American people being abused.  And clearly so. 

STEWART:  Now, aside from raising the specter of impeachment, and getting some news coverage with this letter, what is it you really want to accomplish here?

BOXER:  Well, I did not raise the specter of impeachment.  John Dean did.  And I think anyone who is alive and with a pulse knows that when Richard Nixon‘s former White House counsel says this is an impeachable offense, you ought to get some information.  If I were not to do that, I don‘t think I deserve to be in the U.S. Senate. 

So, what I‘m hoping to do is to definitely let people know that this is very serious.  Plus, we have added to this the fact that the president in April of ‘04, two years after this program started, went out of his way to tell the American people in a speech, don‘t worry, we always get a warrant from a judge to check us. 

We also have a situation where the vice president said, he never heard a word of dissent from any member of Congress.  Today we saw a handwritten letter written by Senator Jay Rockefeller who was the Democratic ranking member on intelligence.  The actual—the vice chair of the committee saying he was very, very concerned about this program. 

And lastly, you have the president saying, we can‘t sit around and wait for a court.  There are emergencies.  Well, I read the law today.  And under the FISA law which controls this, there is a separate section that Joe Biden wrote.  He wrote the whole law that says in emergency, you can go ahead and spy on an American citizen, you just—you need 72 hours to go back and get the approval from a judge.  So there‘s many troubling things about this. 

STEWART:  Senator, let me ask you a question.  You mentioned that letter written by Mr. Rockefeller.  Nancy Pelosi said that she has also written a letter, a classified letter, when she raised concerns.  Just in terms of procedures, when all these letters are written, what happens? 

BOXER:  Well, what happens is, they were raising their objections and concerns to the administration.  But they were under absolute requirement not to talk to a soul.  The reason Jay Rockefeller actually wrote his letter by hand is he was worried that anyone would find out about it. 

So he wrote in his letter, look, I can‘t talk to my legal people.  I can‘t talk to my advisors on this.  I am just telling you as an individual senator—I‘m telling you as an individual senator, to worry about the intelligence of this country, I have problems with this program.  Because I think that Jay Rockefeller understands because of his position, how important it is to protect the American people. 

My God, I voted to go to war, get al Qaeda, break their back, get Osama bin Laden.  And I‘m very willing to do what it takes.  But we have rules and regulations in our country to make sure that there is a check and balance on every branch of government.  And what is so worrisome about this is this administration has not been truthful with the American people.  I‘ve laid that out.  And they seem to want to avoid all checks on their power.  And this is reminiscent of the Watergate days. 

STEWART:  Now senator, why wouldn‘t this fall under what the administration is saying the use of necessary force, that the constitution allows the government to listen in on telephone calls during wartime? 

BOXER:  Yes, it does.  And they have to go back and get the agreement of a FISA court.  And here‘s the thing, they just don‘t want to be bothered, because I think they think no one is wiser than they.  They don‘t want to have any check on what they do.  They are at this point unchecked. 

And this is not what our founders, you know, wanted for this country.  They wanted to have a government of, by and for the people and to protect all of us from overreaching.  If Barbara Boxer overreaches, the president has a veto.  If President Bush overreaches, there‘s a FISA court.  That‘s what is built into our constitution.  And it has been revered by all of us.  And to see it being disregarded is outrageous, especially since the excuses they‘re giving just don‘t hold up. 

STEWART:  And senator, I know we‘re running out of time.  But I do want to ask you this one last question.  In the White House press briefing today, Scott McClellan said Congress was fully briefed on this program.  Were you? 

BOXER:  Absolutely not.  We know that only a few people were told about it.  They objected.  And their objections were just thrown in the ash can.  And that‘s the truth.  I should say the trash can. 

STEWART:  Senator Barbara Boxer.  Thanks so much for spending some time with us. 

BOXER:  Thanks a lot. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  And we will follow up on Senator Boxer‘s assertions in just a moment.  But consider the appearance of illegality.  One of the reasons, according to “Newsweek‘s” Jonathan Alter that President Bush personally intervened to try and stop the NSA story from ever becoming public earlier this month. 

According to the report, back on December 6, President Bush called the publisher of the “New York Times,” Arthur Sulzberger and the executive editor Bill Keller, called them to the Oval Office and personally asked them not to run the story.  After holding it a year, “The New York Times” ran the story 10 days later. 

This was all happening as the administration relaunch ad presidential PR offensive selling the war in Iraq.  A series of speeches last week didn‘t help the president much, according to a new U.S.A. Today/CNN/Gallup poll conducted on the eve of his address to the nation from the Oval Office.  It puts his approval rating at 41 percent, down a point from the last poll conducted December 9 through the 11. 

On the war on Iraq, Only 40 percent of those polled believe the U.S.  is winning.  Fifty percent think neither side is.  And 56 percent say the president doesn‘t have a plan for victory. 

At this point, let‘s bring in “Newsweek” White House correspondent Richard Wolffe. 

And Richard, let‘s take a look at the three stories we reported on.  Barbara Boxer, writing to scholars to see if the president has done something impeachable.  Wrangling over the legality of this NSA story.  And less than stellar poll numbers. 

OK, is that a fair snapshot of what‘s going on with the president?  Or is it a press pile-up?  What do you think?

RICHARD WOLFFE, NEWSWEEK:  Well, you know, the end of this year was supposed to be, as the White House wanted it to be, a Bush come-back story.  And you know, there are some wrinkles in that comeback. 

Obviously, the polls have not picked up in the way they would have wanted to.  There was supposed to be a surge in those polls.  And this NSA  story, while it is obscure and rather technical, it certainly complicates this whole presentation of the president as being the tough commander-in-chief who will do anything.  You know, there are limits to what people expect of a president in a time of war. 

STEWART:  Well, your colleague and full disclosure, my pal, Jonathan Alter wrote in a “Newsweek” commentary that the only reason that the president did not want the NSA program to become public knowledge was because it was embarrassing and it would make trouble, not because it threatens national security.  Does this fall into any pattern in this White House for dealing with sticky situations? 

WOLFFE:  Sure, it does.  The president likes playing the national security card.  And frankly, you can see it in his press conference.  He has gotten, in some ways he has the Democrats where he wants them to be.  He can say, you‘re playing with the security of the nation and it is all about politics.

But, you know, I would agree to some extent with Jon Alter in saying this is more of a political problem than it is about national security in the end.  Because as the president pointed out himself, al Qaeda and bin Laden himself are fully aware that this government and the United States in general eavesdrops on communications.  The question is can they do it without a court warrant or not?  And frankly for al Qaeda that‘s irrelevant.  So, national security, it‘s not the problem.  It is politics and the law. 

STEWART:  All right.  When I spoke to Senator Boxer earlier, she referred to a presidential speech from April of 2004 when he said this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  Any time you hear the United States government talk about wiretap, it requires—a wiretap requires a court order.  Nothing has changed, by the way.  We‘re talking about chasing down terrorists, we‘re talking about getting a court order before we do so. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Now the White House says the president was talking specifically about the Patriot Act in that instance.  Now is that explanation going to fly? 

WOLFFE:  Well, it flies in the sense that, look, this is highly classified program and he wasn‘t about to declassify material in the middle of a presidential campaign.  But it is embarrassing.  It adds to the political problems he faces.  So, it doesn‘t fly politically.  But if he is guarding secrets, then there‘s some justification for him. 

STEWART:  And finally, Vice President Dick Cheney vigorously defended the NSA secret surveillance today, telling reporters, quote, “it is not an accident that we haven‘t been hit in four years.” 

Now from your sources, will Vice President Dick Cheney take the lead on the defense in this issue? 

WOLFFE:  Yes.  This is very much of a peaceful philosophy about expanding predetention power.  But it is a difficult political claim.  Because, of course, nobody can predict about whether or when America might get hit again.  So, it is a dangerous thing to be out there saying this is reason we have not been hit.  Because sadly—and hopefully we will never be hit.  But sadly, we don‘t know if it will happen.  Ask the people in London if they knew. 

STEWART:  “Newsweek‘s” Richard Wolffe.  Thanks so much as always. 

WOLFFE:  Thank you. 

STEWART:  Taking a bite out of the “Big Apple”—New York City‘s transit workers go on strike, leaving more than seven million commuters and tourists out in the cold.  We‘ll have the latest on the negotiations.  And it has not been pretty. 

And tis the season to steal.  A hidden camera investigation that suggests you best watch your back at the mall.  You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  As millions of people around the New York City area, visit think of transit strikes danced in the their heads.  It was 25 years ago since the last transit strike struck the “Big Apple” and that bad boy lasted 11 days.  It was bad memories from 1980 were mirrored by the harsh reality all over again this morning. 

Our number four story tonight, the so-called city that never sleeps is now officially the city that walks everywhere.  Or worse, the city full of people who have no business on roller blades or a bike.  It is dangerous out there, I can tell you firsthand. 

A major issue in the labor dispute?  Retirement benefits.  And for the estimated seven million people that couldn‘t take a subway or bus to work, they‘re probably hoping their retirement can kick in fast as in tomorrow, so they don‘t have to hoof from home in the cold temps. 

More now from NBC‘s Dawn Fratangelo—Dawn. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAWN FRATANGELO, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  New Yorkers did what they do best: many used a lot of imagination and just a few complaints.  But the striking workers say the issues involved are important to every American. 

(voice-over):  The motto of the transit workers union is, we move New York.  Today, the union brought New York to a crawl. 

UNIDENIFIED MALE:  This is terrible.  This is terrible. 

FRATANGELO:  With subway stations closed, city buses idle, and the work here‘s operate them on strike, long lines of commuters stretched across New York. 

On foot across the Brooklyn Bridge, among those walking, Mayor Michael Bloomberg with NBC‘s Lester Holt. 

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS:  What is the signal to the rest of the country about whether New York is open for business? 

BLOOMBERG:  Well, I think New York is still open for business.  And you‘re going to see the tourists.  They‘ll have a great time.  They‘ll be able to say I was in New York during the transit strike. 

FRATANGELO:  But commutes that often take just minutes by subway went on for hours by both car and foot. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We‘ve walked about an hour and a half so far?  about a mile and a half?  Two miles. 

FRATANGELO:  Vehicles had to carry at least four passengers to get into the heart of Manhattan during the morning commute. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  OK, I‘m going to give you a summons.  Got to have four people.

FRATANGELO:  So thumbing worked. 

(on camera):  People formed lines all morning at this point hoping for one of the only rides in town, and counting on the good will of strangers. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I was standing on the corner.  And they said one more person.  And I ran up, because there‘s a line. 

FRATANGELO (voice-over):  At the heart of the strike, something both the airline and automotive industry are cutting: retirement benefits.  The union turned down an offer requiring new workers to contribute more to pensions. 

ROGER TOUSSAINT, TRANSIT WORKERS UNION:  New Yorkers, this is a fight over the hard work will be rewarded with a decent retirement. 

FRATANGELO:  But not all New Yorkers are buying it, especially those left in the cold by the strike. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  They get to retire at 55.  I wish I could. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We‘re the taxpayers.  We‘re the one who ride this train.  We‘re the ones that make this system.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Make it happen, boys.

FRATANGELO:  The economic impact estimated by the mayor at $400 million a day is already trickling down to companies like Baldor Specialty Foods.  It provides produce to many high end restaurants that cater to all those holiday tourists. 

MICHAEL MUZYK, PRESIDENT, BALKOR SPECIALTY FOODS:  Major hotels in the city that are looking for their product with 100 percent occupancy.  People traveling to New York and trying to spend money in this city and keep our economy going, not going to get their product by lunchtime.

FRATANGELO:  Using the same ingenuity that got them to work. 

UNIDNETIFIED MALE:  I ain‘t been on a bike in 20 years. 

FRATANGELO:  New Yorkers slowly roll on home. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FRATANGELO:  A judge did fine the union today—the union says it will appeal.  But with no new talks scheduled, many New Yorkers expect they‘re going to be pounding the pavement again tomorrow.  Back to you. 

STEWART:  Jonsing for a Jackson fix?  You are in luck.  The king of pop is back in legal trouble.  It appears his ex-wife Debbie Rowe is accusing him of kidnapping her kids. 

And speaking of sticky situations, there‘s this guy.  French dare devil/favorite COUNTDOWN crazy scaling buildings and getting caught.  Oh yeah, it is “Oddball” and it is next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  I‘m Alison Stewart, taking the helm of the good ship COUNTDOWN as we take a brief cruise around the world in search of strange animals, weird people and goofy video.  We found all three.  Everybody is at the aloha deck.  Let‘s play “Oddball.

We begin in Paris for another amazing episode of Alain Robert, the French “Spiderman.”  He is just like the American spidy, only always surrenders to the “Green Goblin” and he is a little snooty.  Robert today scaled the 308 foot cyrstal tower on the left bank without any ropes or safety gear.  It is just one of dozens of skyscrapers he‘s taken on, including the world‘s tallest in Taipei.  Officials say he was arrested for trespassing, but the cops were nice enough to let him address the media on the way to the big house.

To China where there‘s panda news.  And we know how much everybody loves the panda news.  It is Bozzy (ph) the panda‘s birthday, everybody.  Dozens showed up to celebrate Bozzy‘s (ph) 25th, hoping the aging superstar would maybe reprieve one of her old tricks.  Bozzy (ph) used to wow TV audiences by riding a bike and lifting weights.  Today, Bozzy (ph) stayed in a hole.  It‘s the amazing I‘m too fat to move trick.  Everybody, big upps for Bozzy (ph)

Finally, Italy where there‘s no such thing as a war on Christmas.  Well, there‘s no such thing here either.  But in Italy, you want a nativity scene?  How about a 40-foot tall nativity scene made out of hundreds of tons of sand.  Dozens much artists from around the world worked together to build the sand castle which features anybody who is anybody in Bethlehem sculpted from beach sand.  The entire work is kept under a big dome to protect it from wind and rain and in case any bullies try to knock it over.  But I‘m guessing if you do that, you‘re going to h-e-double hockey sticks. 

The custody argument between Michael Jackson and ex-wife Debbie Rowe is getting ugly.  Imagine that.  That can a court order from Jacko get back from Bahrain? 

So, that war on Christmas thing?  Well, is this training?  Our own Monica Novotny goes to the front line.  Those stories ahead.  Now here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three news makers of this day. 

Number three, Australus.  That‘s the new name for kangaroo meat in Australia after a nationwide contest.  Officials took almost 3,000 suggestions for a different name that would make kangaroo meat sound more appetizing when you see it on a menu.  Not working for me either.

Number two, the scam artist in the Berkeley Hills section of San Francisco, he tried to weasel tips from residents last week by posing as the neighborhood newspaper delivery guy.  The problem is these residents know their paper boy, their paper boy is 65-year-old Eric Smith.  And he has delivered the Chronicle to these homes seven days a week, 365 days a year, for 28 years without a day off.  So those weasels are bad and stupid. 

And number one, Richard Etienne and Mark Wortsman, they‘ve been arrested in Florida after allegedly stealing horns from train locomotives and trying to hook them up to their car.  You heard me.  They were trying to pimp their rides with train horns.  The two were arrested before they ever even got to work.  They were the little thieves that couldn‘t and really shouldn‘t because they are just as dumb as the paper guy at number two. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  When he left his Neverland Ranch for the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, maybe Michael Jackson thought he was leaving his cares behind.  Not so fast, mister.  Enter Debbie Rowe, Jackson‘s former wife and mother of two of his children.  Ms. Rowe does not see Jackson‘s move as a simple relocation, but as the latest tactic in a child custody battle. 

Our number three story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, Wacko Jacko backo.  A secret hearing was held yesterday near Palm Springs, California.  According to the celebrity web site TMZ.com.  Rowe filed legal papers accusing Jackson of taking the children to Bahrain to keep her from getting custody.  The word abduction was even used in a document submitted by Rowe‘s lawyer. 

Roe‘s custody suit against the singer is being handled through a private trial.  You might remember Rowe praised Jackson during his child molestation trial, but now she wants a court order to require Jackson to return the children to the United States and surrender their passports.  Prince Michael Jackson Jr. was born in 1997.  And Paris Michael Catherine Jackson in 1998.  Jackson also has a third child, Prince Michael Jackson II. 

The judge did not rule on a motion in today‘s hearings.  We called Ramone Bain, Michael Jackson‘s spokesperson for comment, but that call was not returned.  So joining me now, special correspondent for TMZ.com, Jane Velez-Mitchell.  Jane, thanks for being with us. 

JANE VELEZ-MITCHELL, TMZ.COM:  Hi, Alison.

STEWART:  What can you tell us about this hearing? 

VELEZ-MITCHELL:  Well, it is just absolutely wild.  Just when you thought it couldn‘t get uglier, it gets a lot uglier.  A secret hearing not here in L.A. but all the way 100 miles east in the Palm Springs area.  They didn‘t want us to be there, neither side, They Were not happy when they saw us there. 

But we did learn when we were there that Debbie Rowe through her attorney has now filed these papers accusing Michael Jackson of abducting the two children, Prince Michael and Paris to Bahrain, this tiny country in the Middle East where they‘re spending the holidays.  And she said she wants them back.  She‘s concerned about their safety.  She wants him to surrender their passports so that he cannot whisk them away to the Middle East whenever he gets the whim. 

What I find fascinating about this is, it is very similar to the conspiracy charge of which he was acquitted in his criminal charge—in his criminal trial, you remember the mother of the accuser said that Michael Jackson tried to abduct them to Brazil. 

STEWART:  A quick question about these private trials.  How does that change the authority the judge has over Michael Jackson? 

VELEZ-MITCHELL:  Well, these private trials are absolutely wild.  I have to tell you, Alison.  I was shocked when I first learned about them.  I didn‘t know that the rich and the famous could have what they call private trials.  And basically, instead of going into a court where everybody knows about it, you get a private judge, a retired judge.  And you just go to a fancy office in Century City or Beverly Hills filled with antiques and you duke it out.  If both sides agree to this, it can be done.  It is very expensive. 

STEWART:  Now when Debbie Rowe stood up for Jackson during the child molestation trial, some legal analysts said it could have signaled some sort of settlement in their custody dispute.  Any clue what might have gone wrong? 

VELEZ-MITCHELL:  Well, everybody was totally shocked when Debbie Rowe took stand in Michael Jackson‘s criminal trial.  She was supposed to be a prosecution witness and she turned around and praised Jackson, said he was a wonderful father and he was great with kids. 

The prosecution was absolutely shocked.  They felt like they had the rug pulled out from under them.  And at that time there was a lot of speculation maybe there was a deal afoot that if she did this, she would get custody of the kids or more visitation, something she wanted or maybe the money she used to get from Michael Jackson every year.  But apparently, that‘s not the case because they are in a ferocious battle right now. 

STEWART:  And the word abduction, obviously, is a very, very difficult charge to prove.  Any chance the judge will see it that way? 

VELEZ-MITCHELL:  Well, I have to tell you, I did speak with sources very close to Michael Jackson today.  And they said this is absolute nonsense.  That those children are having a great time in Bahrain.  That they had a lot of friends their own age.  And that they have a tutor and a nanny and they are doing just fine, thank you. 

STEWART:  Jane Velez-Mitchell special correspondent for TMZ.com. 

Thanks for sharing your reporting. 

VELEZ-MITCHELL:  Thank you, Alison. 

STEWART:  One thing not likely to happen in this custody battle, Jackson appearing in court.  Hard to believe it was only nine months and 10 days ago that Jackson showed up to his child molestation trial in his best costume ever: his jammies.  Jackson was running late and the clocks—they were suddenly very popular.  It was a thriller.  It was a pain in the back.  The tick tock of Jackson‘s torment. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Could be one of the most significant days in the Michael Jackson child molestation trial. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Michael Jackson‘s accuser will be back on the stand today. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Thomas Mesereau, Michael Jackson‘s attorney entering that Santa Maria courthouse. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  And in any minute, we are expecting to see Michael Jackson arriving here at the courthouse. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Court expected to resume out there on the west coast.  We are hearing, however, that the defendant, Michael Jackson, has not yet appeared at that courthouse in Santa Maria. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We understand that Michael Jackson is reportedly in Cottage Hospital suffering from, we‘re being told, back problems. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Tom Mesereau, Jackson‘s attorney was on the phone. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Mesereau is outside pacing on the cell phone. 

Something is not right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Mesereau addressed the court.  The judge cut him off and said I am issuing a warrant for his arrest. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  In 35 minutes, Michael Jackson must arrive in this courthouse here in Santa Maria or he will be arrested. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Jennifer, this is really a race against the clock for Mr. Jackson. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You‘re absolutely right.  It is a race against the clock. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  On the bottom of the screen right now, you can see we have put up an arrest warrant, a clock down there counting. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The countdown clock puts it at—well, he needs to show up soon, let‘s just put it that way.  According to the countdown clock, he has one minute to arrive at this courthouse. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Clearly, he is not going to make it. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That‘s right.  I mean, he is less than 10 seconds here, Jennifer. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  And the countdown clock has expired.  Michael Jackson has not arrived at the courthouse. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There is Michael Jackson now. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You can see him walking out with the umbrella. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He seems to be wearing pajama bottoms.  I‘m not sure about that.  But he is on his feet.  He is walking. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He was wearing pajama bottoms and a t-shirt. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He was not wearing his impeccable costumes today. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  In his pajamas. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Appeared to be wearing slippers. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Mentioned, he is wearing pajama bottoms. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He said himself that he is still working on music and his dance steps.  It could have been, he could have taken a fall.  He could have, you know, had a spasm doing one of his patented spin moves as far as we know. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  The big we all want to know is, is Michael Jackson still wearing his pajamas and can the jury see that? 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  It was a good question at the time.  Memories.  And to think that wasn‘t even included in COUNTDOWN‘s favorite things.  Keith Olbermann, the year ender.  A super (INAUDIBLE) special that airs Friday, December 23 8:00 p.m. East Coast, 5:00 and 9:00 p.m. on the West Coast.  In terms of favorite things, Keith may have Oprah beat.

Speaking of a few of our favorite things, brown paper packages tied up with strings also a big hit with criminals.  Protect those presents.  The hidden camera investigation you‘ve got to see. 

And the Britney Spears sex tape suit.  The story about her getting about her and K Fed getting their romance on for the cameras.  She says it is not true.  She did a fine job selling her own image, thank you very much.  But first here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of the day. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  In the late 1990‘s, our government was following Osama bin Laden because he was using a certain type of telephone.  And then the fact that we were following Osama bin Laden, because he was using a certain type of telephone made it into the press as a result of a leak.  And guess what happened?  Saddam—Osama bin Laden changed his behavior.  He began to change how he communicated. 

DAVID LETTERMAN, LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTER:  Did you hear about this?  “Time” magazine named former president Bill Clinton and former president George W. Bush Sr. as partners of the year.  Partners of the year.  It is amazing.  These guys, Clinton and Bush, are so close that they‘re talking about making a cowboy movie. 

QUESTION:  You talked about gridlock to top all gridlock today in the city.  What do you expect about getting around New York City? 

BLOOMBERG:  Well, it will be difficult but as you can see, people are following our rules of four people minimum in a car coming into Manhattan south of 96th street.  And people are walking, which is one of the ways.  People are taking bicycles and sharing cabs. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Well mayor, we appreciate you being live on the “TODAY SHOW” this morning. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  The final COUNTDOWN is on in the quest for the perfect Christmas present.  When it‘s all said and done, it‘s predicted Americans will shell out more than $400 billion.  That type of big money can lead to big trouble. 

Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, Christmas crooks.  While you‘re busy scoping out the super sales, the thieves may be busy scoping out you and your packages.  NBC‘s David Gregory shows us how to avoid being a perfect target. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Bill Stanton is a security specialist.  His job is to identify vulnerable situations.  Today he takes us to the mall where shoppers rush to finish last-minute holiday shopping. 

Bill will show how easy it is to prey on people at the busiest time of the year.  It is as easy as reaching into an unattended bag.  How well do you pay attention? 

BILL STANTON, SECURITY SPECIALIST:  I‘m going to go into the mall and look for the person that is absent-minded, that is wandering around, that has their bag open. 

GREGORY:  Bill found just the woman.  She jumped from department to department, unaware of bill‘s presence or the hidden camera following her.  Her bags piled up and began to be too much to carry.  Watch as she turns her back, leaving hundred of dollars worth of merchandise unattended.  Bill approaches and pulls not merchandise, but a credit card case from a shopping bag. 

We confronted this woman on her way out.  By now, a real thief would be long gone. 

STANTON:  I‘m a security specialist.  And I would like to say, you dropped this.  But I got it out of your bag.  I would like you to look at the camera.  Once you got caught up in the moment, in that shopping frenzy, I saw my opportunity. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I was so embarrassed.  I was shocked.  I was embarrassed.  These are things, you know, I should know. 

GREGORY:  What made the shopper the ideal target?  She had more than four bags.  She set the bags down and left them unattended.  And she had an open purse which suggested to us that she wasn‘t overly cautious.  So before you go holiday shopping, be aware so the only people getting your gifts are the ones on your list.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  On to our nightly round up of celebrity and entertainment news, “Keeping Tabs.”  Britney Spears says the story about a sex tape, completely false.  Spears has filed a $20 million lawsuit against “Us Weekly,” claiming it published a false story that she and her husband, Kevin Federline, had made a sex tape and were worried about its release.  The suit asks for $10 many in libel damages and another $10 million for misappropriate Spears name and image to promote sales.  The article came out in the October 17 issue, and according to the lawsuit, “Us Weekly” stands by the story.  But Spears‘ court papers say, quote, “there‘s no such video.”  A whole lot of other videos, though.

And from Britney‘s tabloid flare-up to a “Survivor‘s” temper tantrum.  A cast member of the TV show “Lost” has pitched a fit.  Michelle Rodriguez was all complaints earlier this month when she was arrested for drunk driving.  She was pulled over by police near Honolulu, Hawaii.  Her blood alcohol level, twice the legal limit, according to documents obtained by KITV.  And according to those same documents, Rodriguez said, quote, “I don‘t blanking belong here.  Why don‘t you just put a gun to my head and shoot me.  You‘ve already taken my freedom.  You might as well take my life, too” end quote. 

The drama queen was not the only “Lost” star in trouble with the law.  Cynthia Watros arrested 15 minutes later on the same road and allegedly failed her sobriety test as well. 

Santa gone wild and apparently he‘s on a bit of a killing spree!  We‘ll meet a family whose disturbing Christmas display is causing just a wee bit of holiday havoc.  You might want to send the kiddies out for a snack on this one.  That‘s ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Are the kids out of the room?  Seriously, you should tell them to scoot.

All righty then.  Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN tonight,  the holiday lights and Yuletide displays of 2005 from killer Santas to whacked reindeer from New York to Florida at t-minus five days to the big Noel, some Ebenezer Scrooge-like behavior is shocking kiddies and parents alike. 

Our own Monica Novotny joins us now with a story that momentarily—first, more evidence in that so-called war on Christmas is real, reached the COUNTDOWN offices today in a form of this telling video.  A virtual army of Santas in Atlanta appear to be taking part in intensive training drills, presumably in preparation in the pivotal roll in the war.

Exercises included, but were not limited to running, grabbing things, followed by some more running, fashioning homemade weapons from hunks of fruit cake and a wrapping paper rolls and what looks like possibly a stealth exercise kind of hard to be inconspicuous in flashy red get ups that play up your belly-like bowl full of jelly.

OK, see this was actually a charity auction for the Salvation Army. 

It‘s actually a charity event.  Believe what you like.

Our official COUNTDOWN holiday correspondent Monica Novotny joins me now with a decidedly darker tale of the season.  Let‘s hear it, Monica. 

MONICA NOVOTNY, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Hey there, Alison.

Well this week, we caught up with an unusually creative family that‘s fighting a war on the commerce of Christmas.  And as you‘re about to see in tonight‘s exclusive, well, cable news exclusive interview, there‘s Santa slays. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JACK SKELINGTON, KING OF HALLOWEENTOWN:  Eureka!  This year, Christmas will be ours!

NOVOTNY:  In the movie, the “Nightmare Before Christmas,” Halloweeners kidnap Santa Claus.  And this year, fantasy is reality.  At the Krupnik-Castellanos home in New York City.  A house that screams Halloween all year around.  Now, part of a disturbing display where a blood spa spattered Santa sports and knife and a severed head.  His tree decorated with more. 

The family calls it a protest against the commercialization of the religious holiday. 

MARGARET CASTELLANOS, CREATED CONTROVERSIAL CHRISTMAS DISPLAY:  Why do

they have to use always Santa?  When you want to give, you don‘t to have use something that doesn‘t exist, you know, which is not in the Bible. 

NOVOTNY:  But not everyone gets it. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Somebody can explain that to me, I would be glad to hear it. 

NOVOTNY:  And surprise, surprise, it is attracting a lot of attention. 

CASTELLANOS:  I didn‘t think it was going to be such a big deal. 

ARIEL KRUPNIK, CREATED CONTROVERSIAL CHRISTMAS DISPLAY:  It has gotten a little crazy.  I mean, it looks a little crazy.  And it‘s going to attract like crazy attention. 

NOVOTNY (on camera):  No surprise that people are already protesting this protest.  One person came through and stole the original doll head and another man came through the gate and actually knocked down the bloody Santa. 

What are people saying? 

CASTELLANOS:  They love it.  They really love it.  They agree with us. 

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  Well, not every one. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I don‘t think kids walking by need to see a bloody Santa Claus holding a head even if it is commercialized Christmas.  It is still about the kids. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m used to Santa with toys, not with the knife all bloody. 

NOVOTNY:  It is a small but not so subtle trend.  In Miami, a life-sized Santa gets similar treatment.  The resident calls it artistic expression, neighbors call it a nightmare. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It might be the Grinch.  It might be affiliated with the Grinch. 

NOVOTNY:  In Orlando, Rudolph‘s insides are spilling outside.  The teen responsible calls it good fun. 

FRANKIE RUSCIO, CREATED CONTROVERSIAL DISPLAY:  If you look around at Halloween, there‘s a lot more gross things.  And it is just a deer. 

NOVOTNY:  And whether the reason is satire or sacrilege, creepy Christmas scenes are here to stay. 

(on camera):  Do you think you‘ll do it again next year? 

KRUPNIK:  Maybe, you know, there‘s always a possibility.  Or maybe the same thing.  Just like with a different like Santa or something.  He might not be a killer.  And next year it might be something else or whatever. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY:  Whatever.  The family has decided to auction off their killer Santa.  The highest bidder gets the creepy Mr. Kringle.  But the money will go to the charity of his or her choice. 

STEWART:  I‘m afraid of the answer to the question.  But what is next for the family, Monica? 

NOVOTNY:  Well, first, they‘ll be taking down the Santa.  They say probably by the 25th, they‘ll take it down.  Because they are concerned they‘re offending people.  And they‘re next protest is going to be protesting the killing of baby seals. 

STEWART:  You‘ll be back out there shortly.  Monica Novotny, thanks a lot.  And happy holidays and merry Christmas to you.

NOVOTNY:  Thanks.

STEWART:  And before I leave, we should mention we are monitoring an ongoing situation in the skies over Boston at this moment.  Affiliate WHGH reporting that Midwest express flight 210 to Milwaukee, it‘s Boeing 717-200 is circling Logan Airport, burning fuel in preparation to make an emergency landing.  Reportedly, sparks were seen from the rear of the aircraft just after takeoff and the pilot declared an emergency.  We‘ll, of course, bring you developments as they happen right here on MSNBC. 

I‘m Alison Stewart in for Keith Olbermann.  Our MSNBC coverage continues now with “RITA COSBY LIVE & DIRECT.”

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2005 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2005 Voxant, Inc. ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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