updated 1/3/2006 10:54:21 AM ET 2006-01-03T15:54:21

Guest: Richard Wolffe, Andrew Goldberg

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

The Bush administration's domestic spying program, investigating program, and investigating whoever let the cat out of the bag about the program, and investigating whether or not the leaker might be protected under whistleblower statutes.

The nightmare as old as the West Virginia hills.  Just 50 miles from the nation's worst-ever mining disaster nearly a century ago, 13 miners trapped more than a mile below ground after an explosion.

Meet Farris Hassan, an enterprising student who wanted to find out what was really happening in Iraq, so he went there.

Or the William Hung of 2006.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Good evening.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And just what you thought the holidays were over, time to think about one more year-end list, the mug shots of the year gone by.  What are you looking at, lady?  Nothing, nothing.  Nothing, nothing.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

I think we're all clear about this.  Some yet-unmeasured portion of the public and of the leaders of both political parties are angry about the president's extrajudicial domestic NSA spying campaign.  The president is himself angry that the public learned of the extrajudicial domestic NSA spying campaign.  Everybody is angry about this.

In our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, there apparently is a number larger than everybody.  Twenty-two months ago, the White House was so angry about an apparatchik holding up the spying program that they went to his boss for approval, even though his boss was in the intensive care unit at a Washington hospital at the time.

The reports coming thick and fast, “The New York Times” saying that then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey refused to sign off on continuing the secret program in 2004, while he was standing in for his boss, John Ashcroft.  As we mentioned, Ashcroft was in the hospital at the time with pancreatitis.

So Bush chief of staff Andy Card and then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales went to see Ashcroft in ICU.  And according to “Newsweek”'s version of the story, asked him to overrule Comey, which Ashcroft refused to do.

President Bush, spending part of the first day of 2006 visiting wounded troops, afterwards taking questions from reporters, the first, whether Mr. Bush had been aware of any resistance to the program by any top officials.  That question left unanswered.  Instead, the president once again defending the surveillance as legal and limited.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:   The NSA program is one that listens to a few numbers, called from the outside of the United States in, of known al Qaeda or affiliate people.  In other words, the enemy's calling somebody, and we want to know who they're calling and why.  And that seems to make sense to me, as the commander in chief, if my job is to protect the American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  But the president not saying why he felt it necessary to bypass the secret federal surveillance courts created by Congress to prevent abuses, nor explaining why you would need such a court if you're going to bypass it anyway.

Lawmakers of both parties now calling for hearings.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR ®, CHAIR, FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE:  The Congress, quite rightly, is trying to take a look at, now the fact we're past 9/11, we're going to have to live with the war on terror for a long while.  Now, whether it's the treatment of prisoners that we've been discussing, for example, or elements of the PATRIOT Act, likewise intercepts are going to have to be given, I think, a pretty good hearing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Congressional hearings, one line of inquiry.  The other, the investigation opened Friday by the Justice Department into who leaked the details of the eavesdropping program to the media.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  The fact that somebody leaked this program, it causes great harm to the United States.  There's an enemy out there.  They read newspapers, they listen to what you write, they listen to what you put on the air, and they react.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Time now to call in “Newsweek” White House correspondent Richard Wolffe.

Good evening, Richard.

RICHARD WOLFFE, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, “NEWSWEEK” MAGAZINE: 

Keith, good evening, and happy New Year.

OLBERMANN:  And to you.

This was revealed two weeks ago.  The president's first answer about it was, It's legal.  His second answer throughout has been, This has been continually reviewed for its legality by the Justice Department.  But now comes this extraordinary story of James Comey not rubber-stamping it, and John Ashcroft not rubber-stamping it.

How damaging is this new part of the story to the president's case?

WOLFFE:  Well, we don't know why they didn't agree, but it's pretty clear that the case is not as clearcut as the president has suggested.  All along, he said he had the legal authority to do what he's doing.  These are bad people.  You heard him talking about the enemy calling people in the United States.

You know, when you have people like Comey and Ashcroft taking a step back and refusing to sign off on the program, it raises deep questions about what the program looked like before, what it looks like now, and whether, at some stage, they had legal authority to do what they're were doing.

OLBERMANN:  How was the issue in 2004 resolved.?  Obviously the program did not stop, either with James Comey's objections, nor with John Ashcroft's pancreatitis.

WOLFFE:  Well, actually, it did seem that it had stopped.  The reason they went to see Ashcroft in the hospital was because the program was suspended.  And then sometime around the Madrid bombings, March 2004, they tried to restart it.

It's not clear what the problems were between Comey and the White House, especially, whether, as some people say, Comey had—needed to see the program revised or tweaked in some way.  Other officials in the White House have suggested to me it was more about explaining the program a little better.

OLBERMANN:  To the congressional investigation.  And maybe I'm being cynical here, but I am having a hard time convincing myself that a Republican-led Congress is really going to be investigating whether the Republican-led White House overstepped its powers on this.

Is it—is there a sense that there's a need or a desire for an actual investigation, or one in name only?

WOLFFE:  Well, you know, it's easy to be skeptical about this kind of thing, but there is a different political dynamic under way, partly because of how dreadful 2005 was for the administration, partly because this is an election year, people want to put some distance between themselves and the White House.

But there's also internal problems for the Republicans here.  You have a libertarian side that is very uncomfortable with government spying on people without court supervision.  You also have some individual politics, and it seems that Arlen Specter is put out to some degree that he wasn't really kept in the loop on this in any way.

OLBERMANN:  We assume that the vice president and the defense secretary were kept in the loop in the whole process regarding the NSA spy program?  Was this something they had wanted for a long time?  And is it possible that that desire had factored in to such a degree that they may have overreached with it?

WOLFFE:  Well, they come at it from this sort of post-Watergate generation, where they believe in an expansive definition of executive power.  I'm not sure that this really originates from them.  I think it comes much more from the president's view that this is war, he's the commander in chief.  And folks like John Kerry wanted to fight a law-enforcement type operation.  He wants to fight a war, and that means pretty much any means necessary.

OLBERMANN:  Well, the president would never be accused of going too frequently to law enforcement on this particular issue.

The “Newsweek” White House correspondent Richard Wolffe.  As always, sir, great thanks—

WOLFFE:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  ... and we'll talk to you again during the new year. 

Thank you.

WOLFFE:  Any time.

OLBERMANN:  And what about the investigation into who took the “secret” out of the secret spying?  Is that individual a villain, as the president has portrayed him, or a whistleblower defending the Constitution against encroachment?  Does the term “whistleblower” have any relevance here?

How lawmakers feel on these points naturally dividing along party lines.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL ®, MAJORITY WHIP:  Thank goodness the Justice Department is investigating to find out who has been endangering our national security, by leaking this information, so that our enemies now have a greater sense of what our techniques are in going after terrorists.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), New York:  Let's not prejudge.  Was this somebody who had an ill purpose, trying to hurt the United States?  Or might it have been someone in the department who felt that this was wrong, legally wrong, that the law was being violated?

There are differences between felons and whistleblowers, and we ought to wait till the investigation occurs to decide what happened...

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

OLBERMANN:  Here now to help us discuss the finer points of this leak and the laws that pertain to it, justice correspondent Pete Williams.

Good evening, Pete.

PETE WILLIAMS, MSNBC JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT:  How are you, Keith?

OLBERMANN:  Is there—we heard Senator Schumer use that term “whistleblower.”  Is there any legal protection here for this—for the leaker?  Does the term “whistleblower” even remotely apply?

WILLIAMS:  It might, and whistleblower protection generally is intended to prevent a government employer from taking some sort of adverse job action against a whistleblower, from demoting—sticking them into some dead-end job, cutting their salary, firing them.  That's what generally the whistleblower laws are protected—intended to protect.

But if someone broke the law here, if the leaker violated the law against disclosing classified information, it's not clear that the whistleblower act would protect them from a violation of the law.

Now, did this leak violate the law?  You know, hard to know.  They got to find the leaker first, and that's very difficult to do.  Leak investigations take a long time and are seldom successful.

Second question, was the program itself illegal?  And the only way you would get an answer on that is from a court, and the only way to know is for somebody who knew that they were wiretapped under this NSA program to go into court and challenge it.  And how would they even know that?  We're a long way from sorting this out.

OLBERMANN:  So that, in fact, was Schumer's other point there.  Does the legality of the act impact the legality of the leak?  If, in some way, at some future date, even if it's 10 years from now, there's some future court case that says, Yes, the president broke the law on this, does that conceivably change what could or could not happen to a leaker who is caught and prosecuted?

WILLIAMS:  Well, you know, certainly in the short run if there is no (INAUDIBLE) -- you know, you got two cases here.  Assuming that they find the leaker and put that person on trial, that's one case.  And then the second case would be a legal challenge to the actual NSA program.

Assuming the leak investigation went on before you had the answer to the second one, then I'm sure a defense lawyer would say, Look, this is not somebody trying to leak information to the bad guys to get money, or to hurt the United States, or to aid a foreign government.  It's not the Jonathan Pollard case, it's not the Aldrige Ames case.  They weren't doing it for money, they weren't doing it to help Israel.  This was somebody who just thought the government was doing the wrong thing here.

Yes, I'm sure you would expect a lawyer to say that to the jury.  But look at Daniel Elsberg.  He leaked the Pentagon Papers case, tried to make the point that he was leaking information about illegal actions of the Nixon administration.  He was prosecuted, and they eventually threw the charges out because of all the things that came out about the Nixon administration's attempts to discredit him.

OLBERMANN:  The timing of this, we know that “The New York Times” sat on this story for about a year, putting the leak, you know, probably late in 2004...

WILLIAMS:  Right.

OLBERMANN:  ... maybe early in 2005.  Does this whole thing now get in any way affected by the news, the report about Mssrs. Ashcroft and Comey questioning the legality of the process, the NSA spying program, as it was represented to them early in 2004?  In other words, does it create an environment in which the whole validity of what was, again, back to that point of, you know, does the legality of the act affect the legality of the leak, does it fuzz it up enough that someone could defend themselves using that incident as part of the defense?

WILLIAMS:  Well, two things about that.  Number one, the Justice Department leak investigation is going to be very narrowly focused.  Did someone in the United States government authorized to know about this violate the law against disclosing classified information?  That's a very narrow question.  I'm not saying there's an easy answer to it.

But that—no, that doesn't get fuzzed up by the concerns about Ashcroft and Comey.  And by the way, what we don't know is where they eventually came out.  One former Justice Department official told me today that at the—by the time the review was finished, the deputy attorney general, James Comey, was convinced the program was legal and constitutional.  And this official says that Comey was one of the people who ultimately prevailed upon “The New York Times” not to disclose the information.

Now, Mr. Comey himself has not been commenting to reporters for the past several days.

OLBERMANN:  Last question, what's the timeline on this?  What's the next step?  And if we're using the Valerie Plame investigation, is it likely that the, that a special investigation and prosecutor will find the leaker in the year 2010?

WILLIAMS:  That's optimistic.

OLBERMANN:  Yes.

WILLIAMS:  The timeline is this, and this will be a different thing than the Plame CIA case.  Because this program was so thoroughly classified, everyone who had access to it will have had to have signed papers, you know, getting the special access.  That's all recorded.  So the FBI agents will start with a list of who was read into this program.  That'll be an easy place for them to start.

Now, I'm not saying it'll be easy to find out who the leaker was, but there's a sort of known universe of people who were cleared to either deal with this program or the lawyers who reviewed it.  So that'll be the starting place.

Leak investigations are seldom successful.  They can take a long time.  I certainly wouldn't want to predict how it would come out.  Do you need a special prosecutor?  Maybe not, if it doesn't turn out that there's some senior official for whom the investigation would present a conflict of interest for the attorney general.

OLBERMANN:  Well, the Mark Felt case moved quickly, so at least we have that, perhaps, as our more accurate milestone.

WILLIAMS:  Sure, (INAUDIBLE).

OLBERMANN:  NBC's justice correspondent Pete Williams.  As always, sir, great thanks for staying late with us tonight.

WILLIAMS:  My pleasure.

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, it's either really brave, really stupid, or a really expensive way to get attention.  A 16-year-old Florida high schooler makes it all the way to Baghdad for Christmas vacation, apparently without his parents knowing where he went.  He's back, and he has spoken.

And the desperate rescue mission in West Virginia.  Eleven hours and more after a mine explosion, an eight-man rescue team dispatched to search for 13 miners trapped a mile or more underground.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Thirty-two long, naive, blissful springs ago, with the help of a canceled French class, an English teacher named Mr. McMullen, a lift to the train from Dad, and logistical timing that we thought was worthy of “Oceans 11,” a friend of mine and I made it all the way from a typical morning in school in Tarrytown, New York, to Shea Stadium in Queens, New York, for the first pitch of a Red Sox-Yankees game.  That was a prep school junior's great escape, circa 1974.

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, boy, were we losers.  Sixteen-year-old Farris Hassan of Miami is just back from cutting class for a week to go get material for a high school journalism class in Baghdad.

What are his parents going to do to him?  Young man, you are grounded. 

No trips outside this hemisphere for a month.

Our correspondent in Fort Lauderdale is Kerry Sanders.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KERRY SANDERS, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Maybe it's a sign of the times when a 16-year-old tells his family he's more nervous about facing the U.S. media than traveling to a war zone.

But he may have good reason after his arrival at Miami International Airport last night.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Get off, (INAUDIBLE).

SANDERS:  He certainly appeared self-assured late this afternoon.

FARRIS HASSAN:  Yes, right now, I mean, I came back, I was pretty tired, I need a rest.  And I'm preparing my statement at this time.

SANDERS:  Today, it was Farris's day off.  He says he'll talk in detail about his trip tomorrow.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  What did your parents say to you?

HASSAN:  I'm sorry, I can't answer any more questions.

(CROSSTALK)

HASSAN:  Have a nice day, (INAUDIBLE).  Thank you.

SANDERS:  The Florida teenager's secret vacation odyssey from the comfortable surroundings of Fort Lauderdale to wartorn Iraq may simply be due to a common teenage trait, naive invincibility.  He spent two days in Baghdad before winding up in U.S. military custody.

(on camera):  Farris Hassan reportedly told selected friends that he'd gone to Iraq to witness democracy in progress.  But after talking to the Associated Press there, the U.S. embassy told him he couldn't make any more statements.

(voice-over):  And now that he's back home, he says he has a more pressing priority.

HASSAN:  I have a big calculus test on relative rates of change I need to study for.  So I have a lot of things going on right now.

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS:  What else?  Perhaps writing a report, “How I Spent My Winter Vacation.”

Kerry Sanders, NBC News, Fort Lauderdale.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Anyone?  Anyone?  Hassan?  Hassan?  Anyone?

Speaking of dangerous things to do, well, if your friends jumped off a bridge to celebrate New Year's, would you jump off a bridge too?  Evidently, yes.

And remember him?  Not Goldfinger, but Goldface.  Looks like he picked the wrong week to stop sniffing Rustoleum.  We will celebrate his and other great mug shots of 2005 as COUNTDOWN continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We are back.  And with the new year come new changes to the format here at COUNTDOWN.  Most notably, I'm going to be going with  half-Windsor knot in '06 instead of the updated four-in-hand, (INAUDIBLE) preferred by school many of my out-of-date colleagues.

Oh, and more wacky video.

Let's play Oddball.

We begin in Roma, where New Year's tradition calls for half-naked morons to dive from the Cavura (ph) Bridge into the icy and polluted waters of the River Tiber.  Why do they do this?  Because they did it last year, because they did it the year before that.  It wouldn't make any sense to stop now.

You know, in Roman days, they used to throw the executed into the Tiber.  Just a little insight into your tradition.

Tradition, the same reason 700 people lined up to jump in a hole in Minnesota's Lake Minnetonka into 32-degree water.  You know, when the Minnesota Vikings football team did something stupid on Lake Minnetonka, at least they stayed on the boat.

Massachusetts, hundreds turned out to charge into Boston Harbor in 20-degree weather.  Let me tell you, it was wicked cold up there in the harbor.  But that's the tradition.  And those who participated will be able to stand before their family and friends and say, Please call an ambulance.

To western India now, where they're calling Mr. Sabjilai Ragalah (ph) the real-life male Rapunzel.  I would have come up with something a little less complicated, like Fabio.  It's Fabio.  Ragalah says he has not had a haircut in over 40 years.  We have no reason to doubt his story.  His curly locks reach 42 feet long, enough so the whole village gets to help carry and wash it.

How nice that must be for all of them.  Ragalah says he keeps his hair long just as a hobby.  His true passion are his toenails.

Finally, to the U.K., where we first introduced you to the vulture known as Golum a few weeks ago.  Raised in captivity, Golum never learned to fly.  So researchers put him in a wind tunnel, hoping he'd get the hang of it.  This week, we move into phase two of Golum's flight training, the running takeoff.  A man and his bird, running in a field.

Not an expert, but having reviewed this tape, I can say with some degree of certainty that the guy is probably not dating anyone at the moment.  As for the Golum, if you can pass basic vulture flying 101, next week they'll teach him how to pick meat off a roadkill carcass.  Then it's directly to vocational training as a TV critic.

Back to extremely serious news this evening.  Unseasonable rain the danger in California.  Residents there struggling again with mudslides and flooding in the new year.

And the 13 coal miners trapped thousands of feet underground in West Virginia, rescue workers only now trying starting to try to get to them.

Those stories ahead.

But first, here are COUNTDOWN's top three newsmakers of this day.

There is a theme tonight, so theme warning.

Number three is Thomas J. Bruno of Middletown, Delaware.  He is under arrest after a police helicopter team had to rescue him from waist-high mud in a rural marsh.  What was he doing in a rural marsh?   Well, what else?  Communing with a male prostitute.  As the song lyric goes, “It's a Treat to Beat Your Feet in the Mississippi Mud.”

Continuing the theme, number two, Elfayed, a 2-day-old infant—we don't know the last name, we're guessing he's a boy, but who knows?  He was born Saturday in the toilet of the Air Austral flight, in midair, down from Lyon in France to the Indian Ocean island of Reunion.  Everybody is fine, although the birth apparently was very premature.

Well, look at it this way.  Elfayed has been born into the mile-high club.

And to conclude the theme, number one, another air traveler, unnamed, so drunk aboard a flight from England to Spain, so abusive because they wouldn't give him more alcohol, that the Monarch Airlines captain remembered there was this superb international air strip on the tiny island of Porto Santo off the African coast.  And he landed there as an emergency landing, whereupon they threw the drunk out onto the tarmac and took off again without him.

Let's build a statue of that pilot.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It is seemingly the stuff of history or of somber remembrance, the mining disaster.  West Virginia still reels at the mention of the Monongah number six and number eight, where an explosion on a December day in 1907 killed 362 miners.  But in the last 30 years, as science and safety have improved, only six accidents had claimed 10 or more lives in this country. 

Our third story in the countdown today, it all came rushing back.  Fifty miles south of Monongah in Tallmansville, West Virginia, an explosion in the Sago mine trapped part of the first shift, 13 men more than a mile underground.  On the scene for us tonight is Tom Costello—Tom.

TOM COSTELLO, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Keith, good evening.  Nobody has heard from the miners since about 6:30 this morning.  They believe that they are about two miles into the mine and about 260 feet down.  And they now have several rescue teams attempting to move into the mine. 

But at this point, these miners are on their own using whatever oxygen and supplies they might have brought with them.  For most of the day, rescuers faced an agonizing delay as potentially dangerous gases kept them from entering the mine.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GENE KITTS:  The mine rescue teams have to proceed very cautiously to avoid triggering another explosion.  They will be working mostly by hand.

COSTELLO:  About 6:30 this morning, two crews entered separately into the mind.  That's when it happened, an explosion.  The second crew retreated immediately.  But the first crew was cut off.

(UNKNOWN):  All of his family is here.  We're all together, and we're praying for him.  And we're here for him.  We're waiting for him to come out.

COSTELLO:  With no way to communicate, rescuers have no idea of the miners' condition or their exact location.

(UNKNOWN):  If he's breathing, I'll guarantee you he's digging trying to get out.  I know he is.  I hope he is.

COSTELLO:  If they survived the blast, one miner says they should know what to do.

RICK DUNLOP:  I would try to establish communications if at all possible.  And if I couldn't, I would look for the self-contained rescuers that are provided by the company for a man in case of an accident where they will have oxygen.  They can go to a safe area.

COSTELLO:  Local officials say it will be some time before they know the exact cause of the accident.  The focus now, getting the miners out alive.

(UNKNOWN):  All options are being investigated.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO:  The Sago mine was inspected just last month and cited by federal investigators for 46 safety violations, including the accumulation of combustible materials.  But there's no indication whether that had anything to do with today's accident.  Mining just had one of its safest years with mining deaths down nationwide.  But the industry has always been dangerous.

In 2001, a series of explosions killed 13 coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama.  A year later, nine miners were rescued in Somerset, Pennsylvania, a dramatic conclusion to a three-day ordeal as they were brought to the surface.  It's an image many in West Virginia tonight are clinging to, as they wait and pray for 13 of their own.

Rescuers are now examining maps of the mine trying to get a fix on where these trapped miners might be.  And they have drilled a hole to try to not only examine the quality of the air down in the mine, but also listen for any signs of life.  But it is an agonizing wait, not only for the miners, but the families to see whether these 13 miners are coming out alive.

Keith, back to you.

OLBERMANN:  Tom Costello in Tallmansville, West Virginia.  Great. 

Thanks.

That those 13 miners can be rescued is not necessarily blind hope.  Their predicament echoes that of the nine-man crew Tom mentioned trapped in the Quecreek mine near Somerset, Pennsylvania in July 2002.  They had accidentally breached an adjoining and abandoned mine, 50 million gallons of water rushing through the breach. 

Those nine souls found refuge in an air pocket, but with rising water and a temperature of just 55 degrees around them.  Two hundred and forty feet above them, the drilling began in earnest to get them air and to get them out.  After 77 hours they were rescued.  And somehow through that long wait, they helped each other to both survive and to prepare in case they did not.  Mark Popernack was one of them.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK POPERNACK:  Well, about the first six or eight hours, we were still in survival mode, you know, trying to do something to keep us alive.  And after that, it was a matter of waiting and praying.  Now, I was a miner for 21 years.  You can't put it in perspective until it actually happens.

It seemed like a 77-hour day in total darkness.  We were freezing cold, shivering the whole time, hungry, wet, weak.  It's very difficult.  You have to keep yourself calm.  And, sure, you're scared, naturally, you know, taking care of each other, comforting them.  We talked about our families.  We talked about what was going on the surface, what they might be doing to rescue us.

Probably only myself and, you know, a few other people can actually know what they're thinking.  Possibly they're trying to dig themselves out, trying to signal on the surface by pounding on the roof.  Light's going to be a factor, because the lights they wear on their hats probably only last eight to 12 hours. 

You stick together, take care of each other, conserve your energy.  Those guys are coal miners, and, you know, they stick together.  And, you know, they'll do whatever they have to do to help each other.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  In some places above ground today, it seemed to be little better.  Where just a little rain would solve everything, there is none.  Where some sun might do the same thing, it is all clouds.  Wildfires in Texas and Oklahoma, devastating rains in California.  The story of the latter first from George Lewis tonight in Burbank.

George?

GEORGE LEWIS, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Keith, normally this flood control channel behind me is dry, but tonight it's brimming with water.  Officials warn there's a lingering danger of flash flooding and mudslides throughout the state, especially in hilly areas.

In California's wine country where hundreds of homes and businesses are flooded out, they're just beginning to assess the damage estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  This morning Jody Alford (ph) and Sara Onion (ph) spent some anxious moments trying to jumpstart their car so they could escape.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(UNKNOWN):  I'm taking this very seriously.  You know, like, I'm not going to put myself in danger or stay here longer than I should.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEWIS:  Finally success.  The engine kicked over, and the couple headed for higher ground.  In Southern California, an SUV plunged into one of the flood control channels killing the driver, a woman.  Elsewhere, winds gusted to hurricane force  in places knocking down lots of trees.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LINDY WILLINGHAM:  It either seemed like an earthquake or big thunder.  And then all of a sudden, we saw the tree land on top of the house with a major shake.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEWIS:  In Pasadena, there were plenty of raindrops on roses at the 117th annual Rose Parade.  Defying the elements, the USC marching band wore plastic ponchos and sunglasses as a smaller than usual crowd of spectators watched.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(UNKNOWN):  I'm sopping wet.

(UNKNOWN):  I'm having a great time.

(UNKNOWN):  We have to be here to show the world that we are tough people, Americans are tough, we're here, we survive anything.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEWIS:  On television, NBC's Al Roker did double duty as parade commentator and weatherman.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AL ROKER, NBC COMMENTATOR:  The rain is really coming down now.  And the wind is blowing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEWIS:  While this storm is ending, state officials warn California is in for a couple of months of wet weather, with the ground here already soaked with water.  Tonight Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a declaration of emergency for seven flooded out California counties.

Keith?

OLBERMANN:  George Lewis in Burbank, California.  Great.  Thanks. 

And the parallel, the blazes in Oklahoma and Texas fanned by high winds and high temperatures have now gone on for more than a week, no rain in sight.  A couple of small towns essentially wiped out already, Ringgold and Kokomo, Texas with a combined population of about 125.  And this is near Wichita Falls, these cities.  Dozens of homes destroyed in the region, despite non-stop efforts to contain the major grass fires which now threaten another nearby town, Nocona.  Twenty-two thousand acres and more ravaged in Eastland County, Texas.  And grass fires in Oklahoma and New Mexico over the past week bringing the three-state toll to 300,000 acres scorched and more than 400 homes destroyed.

But if you doubt the ability of anyone or anything to make it back—who truly expected this sight?  Dick Clark back in Times Square for another New Year's  Eve.  What do you know?  Suddenly it is unusual.  That man you ladies are throwing your underwear at is now Sir Tom Jones, thank you.  Those stories ahead.  Now hear Countdown (inaudible).

This is the family's 26th consecutive appearance in the Rose Parade.  Benny Martinez and his wife are renowned trick ropers and performed at wild west shows all around the country.  You put a rope in their hands, and, ladies and gentlemen, it is magic.  Look at this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO)

BUSH:  (inaudible) is full of healers and compassionate people who care deeply about our men and women in uniform.  I'm just overwhelmed by the great strength of character of not only those who have been  wounded, but of their loved ones as well.  And so, thank you all for bringing great credit to our country.   And as you can probably see, I was injured myself, not here at the hospital, but in combat with a cedar (ph).  I eventually won. 

(END VIDEO)

(UNKNOWN)  A strange play of a different kind for Carolina Panthers quarterback, Jake Delhomme.  His pants ripped after he was sacked in a game against Atlanta. 

(UNKNOWN):  He went from being the quarterback to a defensive end there in a big hurry. 

(UNKNOWN):  Maury Povich has earned our trust by tackling the problems of real Americans. 

(BEGIN VIDEO)

MAURY POVICH:  You are not...

(UNKNOWN):  And Maury gets results.

POVICH:  You are the father.

(UNKNOWN):  On January 7th, you'll be asked to make a choice, Maury's common sense approach or the radical ideas of his opponent, Connie Chung.  Her extremist opinions don't reflect our common values.

(UNKNOWN):  Weekends with Maury and Connie premiers Saturday at 10 a.m. on MSNBC.

POVICH:  I'm Maury Povich, and I approve this message.

(END VIDEO)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  A remarkable recovery for the original New Year rocker, a queenly honor for one of the kings of Vegas.  In the Countdown celebration, the best mug shots of 2005.  Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Given that he was born in the first few months of the presidency of Herbert Hoover and that is first regular national broadcasting gig was on Paul Whiteman's (ph) TV Teen Club in 1949 and given that more than a year ago he suffered a debilitating stroke, his has to be one of the early front runners for comeback of the year 2006.  Our number two story on the countdown, Dick Clark back on the New Year's Eve telecast.  As our correspondent, Pat Dawson reports, he was far from 100 percent.  And that was far from important.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DICK CLARK:  Welcome back to New Year's Rocking Eve. 

PAT DAWSON, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  For a television icon, it was clearly a struggle.  But Dick Clark was determined to go on.

CLARK:  You and I have been a part of each other's lives for so many New Year's Eves that I wouldn't have missed this for the world. 

DAWSON:  A year after sitting out his first New Year's broadcast since 1972, Clark gamely worked his way through the show he created, this time seated at a desk above Times Square.  The effects of a debilitating stroke a year ago were hard to miss.  The 76-year-old host was often hard to understand, his voice hoarse.

CLARK:  It's real good to be back with you again this year.

DAWSO: His manner, clearly more subdued than the ebullient performer many Americans have watched since he created the teen music show, American Bandstand in the '50s. 

CLARK:  Lots of great music, some great looking people...

(UNKNOWN):  On American Bandstand.

(UNKNOWN):  You know, you could tell he had a little bit of a problem there, but it's OK with us.  It's just good to have him there.

DAWSON:  This year's show was the first media appearance Clark has made since his stroke.  Even a public relations photo for the show turned out to be a doctored image with an old, pre-stroke picture edited in.  And the road back is clearly difficult.

CLARK:  It was a long, hard fight.  My speech is not perfect, but I'm getting there.

DAWSON:  A performance that may have been part rehabilitation and perhaps a comeback.  Pat Dawson, NBC News, New York. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  We have no title with which to embellish the esteemed Mr.  Clark, unless we call him the highlander or something.  They have a system in England like this, of course, which is where we begin our nightly roundup of celebrity and entertainment news keeping tabs.  And watch where you're flinging those panties, ladies.  That's a knight of the British Empire up there singing What's New, Pussycat.

Tom Jones, the Welsh foghorn, listed on the queen's New Year's honors for 2006, meaning he is now Sir Tom Jones along with Sir Mick Jagger, Sir Elton John, Sir Paul McCartney and, of course, Dame Posh Spice.  Of course, we're kidding about that.  Put that stuff anywhere. 

But getting orders of the British Empire this year, for real, the actors Imelda Staunton and Robbie Coltrane—Robbie Coltrane best known at Hagrid from the Harry Potter films.  Unless you happened to be at the 1941 National Football League championship game between the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants you had not seen this before, even if you were a serious football fan. 

This probably looked like some sort of boating accident.  It's a drop kick, the way kickers used to do it in the 1920s and '30s for points after touchdowns, field goals, a leftover from football's routes in rugby, bounce it on the ground and then kick it through the uprights.  Yesterday in what might have been the last game of his 21-year pro career, quarterback, Doug Flutie of the New England Patriots did one to make the extra point after touchdown, the first since Ray McClain (ph) of the Bears in '41. 

He said he'd always wanted to.  The game was meaningless, and the confusion factor alone was worth it.  The opposing coach, Nick Sabin (ph) of Miami, said, “I couldn't figure out what was going on.  They had a quarterback in, four tight ends and a receiver and there was no kicker.” 

At 43, Flutie is so old that he began to play his pro career playing quarterback for a foundering team in a foundering league, the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League.  The team owner was a still relatively unknown real estate guy named Donald Trump.  The New York Daily News is reporting that his hairness is considering a run for governor of New York.  The term of incumbent, George Pataki scheduled to expire 363 days from now, at which point he may seek the presidential nomination. 

State Republican boss, Joseph Bruno, told reporters that a wealthy mystery candidate is thinking about the Republican nomination to succeed Pataki.  Pataki himself reportedly tried to recruit Time Warner Chairman, Richard Parsons, to run after Parsons did such a nice job over there at CNN.

I've never seen a mug shot of Mr. Trump.  There's always time.  And there's always a great payoff.  The favorite mug shots of 2005 coming up.  But first time for Countdown's list of today's three nominees entitled worst person in the world.  Bronze winner, Sabina Nakijiva (ph), violinist from San Francisco.  She had borrowed a $175,000, 300-year-old violin from a music shop on spec.  If she liked it, she was going to pay for it and buy it.  She put it in the trunk of her car, she said.  The car was then towed.

When she got the car back, the violin was missing.  She even gave somber TV interviews to that effect.  Police have now announced that Ms.  Nakijiva (ph) has recanted her story that the violin was stolen.  You can figure out the rest.

Number two, manufacturers of the talking book, Potty Time with Elmo, as one Dallas mother found out, somebody decided to screw around with some of the recent press run.  The book's supposed to say in Elmo's voice, “Who wants to try to go potty?”  In this book, it instead says, “Who wants to die?”  Nice.

But the winner—it's kind of a theme here.  The processors and consumers of the most expensive coffee in the world, Kope Luwak from Indonesia, $175 a pound.  Why so expensive?  Because the beans are first eaten by a nocturnal jungle animal called the palm civet, then passed through the palm civet's digestive track which adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the flavor.  Why does this stuff cost $175 a pound if they've literally got it coming out of their backsides?  The processors and consumers of Kope Luwak Coffee, today's worst persons in the world.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It may not last there forever, but almost all of us transform a favorite image into wall paper for our computer screens.  Since last summer, mine has been a mug shot, mug shot of an Ohio Man with what looks like gold Rustolium around his mouse and nose.  Well, it had been until we improved the in-house computer system this morning.  My entire computer profile was erased.

In any event, our number one story on the Countdown—one last list of the best of 2005 courtesy of our friends at the smokinggun.com.  We'll cut right to the chase.  The winner for mug shot of the year is Mr.  Rustolium himself, Patrick Tibbett (ph) arrested in Bellaire (ph), Ohio, in July as he, quote, “attempted” to make a purchase at the Dollar General Store.

Gee, how could anybody tell there was a problem?  Gold Rustolium, officer?  Nonsense. I simply ate a box of chocolates wrapped in gold paper without taking the gold paper off.  Let's review as many of the top mug shots as we can with Andrew Goldberg, the managing editor of the smokinggun.com.

Andrew, good evening.  Thanks for your time.

ANDREW GOLDBERG, MANAGING EDITOR, SMOKINGGUN.COM:  No, thanks for having me.

OLBERMANN:  OK, you and I had the same taste here.  Number one.  It ain't just paint.  What happened to this dude?  Did they get him some soap or what?

GOLDBERG:  Well, it's funny that they say attempted because it seems like he did a little more than just tempt, from that mug shot.  But gold is his soup of choice.

OLBERMANN:  It's his gold.  And he clearly emptied the whole can there.  Number two on our list—midget porn is the only instruction I have on this.  And I thought the term was vertically challenged adult entertainers, was it not?

GOLDBERG:  No.  Well, what it is here is the guy made a choice about what he was going to wear apparently before he started drinking and got caught driving at the time, but decided to let people know when he headed out to the bar that his porn of choice was midget porn.

OLBERMANN:  As we always say, clean underwear and don't get anything - don't wear anything you might get arrested in.  Number three—this guy is either a big fan of Rodin's the Thinker or he's Jeff Gannon.

GOLDBERG:  He's a little bit of both actually, and Bruce Webber (ph) jumping right out of his books right onto the page.  Loved that mug shot because he seems to be contemplating something other than the fact that he just got arrested for being drunk in public.

OLBERMANN:  That's drunk he's doing this.  Maybe he's just holding his head up so it doesn't fall off.

GOLDBERG:  Usually they're willing to do that for you if you can't do it yourself.

OLBERMANN:  Right.

GOLDBERG:  You see a glove sticking in there holding the head up.

OLBERMANN:  Number four - love him or hate him, it is the political play of the year.  Tom Delay just taking the mug shot to a new level. 

GOLDBERG:  It's sort of a disappointing mug shot of the year because people wanted to see him looking more like James Brown and less like somebody posing for a yearly portrait.

OLBERMANN:  It's the best picture ever taken of him.  They ought to hire the guy for his staff.  For all I know, they have.  Number five on your list - who you calling a ho, ho, ho.  Now what did this guy do?

GOLDBERG:  This was actually in the middle of the summer.  This is a high school kid celebrating probably the end of graduation with a little champagne and a few beers hanging out at the school with his friends.

OLBERMANN:  Close, close chronically.  Number six—everybody else thought she was dead.  I called this case exactly the eyes gave it away to me from the beginning.  But I have to tell you, after six months of Jennifer Wilbanks and Jennifer Wilbanks jokes, seeing this picture today, it was the first time I looked at her and I felt real empathy for somebody who was in trouble.  Is this not less funny than it is almost poignant?

GOLDBERG:  Well, for us it's sort of the Mona Lisa of mug shots.  The eyes follow you no matter where you go.  So it is maybe—I can't argue with you.

OLBERMANN:  OK, I'm not tired of Jennifer Wilbanks jokes apparently.  All right, we'll move to number seven.  This is not the comedian from the '80s, Brother Theodore.  Right?  On the right?  Who is this woman on the right?

GOLDBERG:  Well, we felt like since there's a growing elderly population in the country they should be represented as well.  She actually is alleged to have killed her husband at the time.

OLBERMANN:  Wow.

GOLDBERG:  And it's almost the one-year anniversary—tomorrow—of the day we put that mug shot up on the site.

OLBERMANN:  Good grief.  Well, she just stared at him long enough.  Number eight - a group shot.  And I'm thinking the interesting part will be the llama.  The llama at the bottom is the person of interest in this case.

GOLDBERG:  Yes, his name is Juan Llama.  And he's basically been prowling around.  Pretty much down in Florida they were training people apparently on how to use the mug shot system, decided to photograph the llama and left him among a bunch of other bad people.  But hopefully the llama won't turn bad because of that.

OLBERMANN:  Goodness.  All right, number nine - we've got a couple guys that look like the toughest, least likely to be reformed guys from Alcatraz in 1938, so you know who the names are.  Who are these dudes?

GOLDBERG:  This is our Tyco, our friends from Tyco who are now doing time in New York State Prison, eight and-a-half to 25 years, Kozlowski and Swartz.  And Swartz got the requisite prison haircut when he walked in.

OLBERMANN:  Also known as the bird men.  All right, one more we'll have time for.  We know these two ladies, fetching smile on the left.  That's a pretty good picture.  And the thing behind this started with the phrase, give me an a.  Right?

GOLDBERG:  Yes, these are two cheerleaders who won't be making the game at Giants Stadium this coming weekend, Carolina Panther cheerleaders who down in Florida just got arrested.

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  And they were not fooling around.  One of them was throwing up.  The managing editor of the smokinggun, Andrew Goldberg, great thanks for sharing the mug shots.

GOLDBERG:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  And here's hoping for good ones in 2006.

GOLDBERG:  Thanks.

OLBERMANN:  That's Countdown.  I'm Keith Olbermann.  Keep your knees loose.  Good night, and good luck. 

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.

END   

Content and programming copyright 2006 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2006 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.

Watch Countdown with Keith Olbermann each weeknight at 8 p.m. ET

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,