updated 1/27/2006 10:52:19 AM ET 2006-01-27T15:52:19

Guest: Maureen Dowd, Seth Mnookin, Dana Milbank, Derrick Pitts

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “OPRAH”)

JAMES FREY, AUTHOR, “A MILLION LITTLE PIECES”:  I have, you know, essentially admitted to...

OPRAH WINFREY, HOST:  Lying.

FREY:  ... that I have been...

WINFREY:  To lying.

FREY:  To lying.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Oprah does a slow burn as James fries.  “A Million Little Pieces,” one big confession, one even bigger apology.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WINFREY:  To everyone who has challenged me on this issue of truth, you are absolutely right.  I am deeply sorry about that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  As Frey gets book-clubbed, the live telecast preempted in Chicago by an unscheduled presidential news conference.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  There's domestic calls (INAUDIBLE)...

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  No, domestic outside

·         it—we will not listen inside this country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The president kind of got lost in that sentence.  Why? 

Perhaps he's been hypnotized.  The saga of the swinging camera.

And when and how to apologize, what it all means.  Our special guest, Maureen Dowd.

Perhaps the CIA should eavesdrop on our conversation.  The picture on this Wanted poster for one of al Qaeda 's most notorious chemical experts, that's not the guy we want.  It's a picture of somebody else.

Maybe the guy we want is on earth's big brother.  Astronomers say they've discovered a new planet, the closest thing to our planet yet.  And no, James Frey did not do any time there.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

See, this the way to do it, in this time of spinning and insisting spying in America isn't domestic spying because one of the two people on the phone call isn't in America, in this time of spinning and insisting you tested positive for steroids because a teammate gave you tainted vitamins, see, this is the way to do it.  This is the way you apologize.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, it's more than just an Oops about a book.  Oprah Winfrey apologizes for James Frey's novelized memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” James Frey confesses he lied, and while they are doing this, on television, live, they get preempted in parts of the country by an impromptu news conference from the president of the United States, who again insisted the NSA wiretaps he authorized, but no court authorized, were legal, and seemingly more importantly, were OK because they happened to deal with communications that fit the literal dictionary definition of the word “international.”

More on that news conference with our guest, Maureen Dowd, columnist of “The New York Times,” in a moment, she herself happening to also be in on this weird nexus of political and literary controversy, Ms. Dowd appearing on today's Oprah Winfrey show, suggesting that Ms. Winfrey's only correct option now is to remove her endorsement, figuratively and literally, from Frey's book.

We'll ask Maureen Dowd about the meanings of both fiction as fact and international as domestic.

First, portions of the Winfrey and Frey comments today, including why, even after the Web site The Smoking Gun produced evidence that Frey had embellished his jail time from a few hours to several months, she still defended him by phoning in to another talk show on which he was appearing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WINFREY:  I regret that phone call.  I made a mistake, and I left the impression that the truth does not matter.  And I am deeply sorry about that, because that is not what I believe.  I called in because I love the message of this book.  And at the time, and every day, I was reading e-mail after e-mail from so many people who had been inspired by it.  And I have to say that I allowed that to cloud my judgment.

And so to everyone who has challenged me on this issue of truth, you are absolutely right.

I have to say it is difficult for me to talk to you, because I really feel duped.  I feel duped.  But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.

FREY:  I made a mistake.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Subtitle, do not piss off Oprah.

There are two stories here.  First, the tabloidy one, the book still atop the “New York Times” list of best-selling paperback nonfiction, endorsed by the broadcaster still atop the country's list of television nonfiction, turns out to be plenty fiction.

Second, the bigger-picture story.  How it fits into what humorist Stephen Colbert has defined as “truthiness” in American society.

Joining me now to try to figure out both, Maureen Dowd, columnist of “The New York Times” and author of, among other works, “Are Men Necessary?” and “BushWorld.”

Thank you for your time tonight.

MAUREEN DOWD, COLUMNIST, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Is this the way to apologize for something in public, take a big club, beat up the person you trusted, and then hit yourself in the head a couple of times as well?

DOWD:  Well, it was interesting, because I was walking through the “New York Times” newsroom, and I have never seen the “Times” newsroom so riveted.  Every single reporter was watching a television set.  And it was jut amazing.  You know, it made you shiver, because it was the ultimate trip to the principal's office.

And you momentarily felt sorry for Frey until you realized he's still going to be raking in money, because people won't care, they'll still buy the book.  But it was fantastic to see Oprah stand up for truth, as opposed to truthiness.

OLBERMANN:  But there is the practical or—practical elements to this.  Oprah's endorsement is still on the book, the book is still at the top of the nonfiction list of that very newspaper that you mentioned, the one for which you write.  What about those things?

DOWD:  Well, I think that we should not put books where the author has admitted that some of it is fiction on the nonfiction list.  We should have a separate list for those books, maybe spurious nonfiction, spurless (ph) nonfiction, make a new category.

OLBERMANN:  And what about Oprah's—I mean, you referred to this in the clips that they showed of you on Oprah's show today.  But what exactly does she need to be doing besides making another high-rated television show out of it today?

DOWD:  Yes, no, well, I said she should kick his bony, lying, nonfiction butt off of her—off of the Kingdom of Oprah.  She should take that endorsement off of the book, of course.

OLBERMANN:  And what happens to the two careers here?  What happens now to Oprah Winfrey's credibility?  What happens to what's left of James Frey's credibility?

DOWD:  Well, Oprah Winfrey, who I think probably already had more credibility than the president, her credibility goes up, because unlike the president, she's willing to admit that, you know, she made a mistake, and face up to it.  And she's the man (ph).

And Frey will do fine, because I don't think anyone cares, including, you know, his publisher, whether it's truth or fiction.

OLBERMANN:  Does this, in fact, matter to us as people, as a society? 

And why would it, if it does?

DOWD:  Well, that's why, you know, Oprah said she was inspired to do this by the brilliant essay of our brilliant book critic, Michiko Kakutanu, who said this was really important, because it is about whether our society values truth or not.

And I think that, of course, that the government has been undermining truth for five years.  So, you know, publishing, journalism, government, they have all been involved in this, you know, lack of respect for truth.  So I think it was a big moment and a good moment for that.

OLBERMANN:  We're not done with the topic of the book.  Seth Mnookin of “Vanity Fair” coming up on the impact of James Frey's deceit on those trying to break addictions.

But Maureen, right now, we want to look at a live televised event today in which nothing close to an apology was even hinted at.  So if you would stand by for a second, we'll get your reaction to this.

But let me first give the headline, the president unexpectedly stepping up to the White House press room podium today in day four of the high-intensity push to tamp down the controversy over the warrantless domestic spying, or, as the White House calls it, the international spying, on phone calls and e-mails that either began or finished inside this country.

The program is legal, the president said.  It's designed to protect civil liberties, and it's not domestic—not, not, not.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Members of your administration have said that the secret eavesdropping program might have prevented the September 11 attacks.  But the people who hijacked the planes on September 11 had been in this country for years, having domestic phone calls and e-mails.  So how (INAUDIBLE) can you say that?

BUSH:  Well, Michael Hayden said that because he believes that had we had the capacity to listen to the phone calls from those from San Diego, elsewhere, we might have gotten information necessary to prevent the attack.  And that's what he was referring to.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  But they were domestic calls (INAUDIBLE)...

BUSH:  No, domestic outside—it—we will not listen inside this country.  It is a call from al Qaeda or Qaeda affiliates either from inside the country out, or outside the country in, but not domestically.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And we will analyze the president's entire news conference at length later in the hour.

But first, again, Maureen Dowd.

The president will never know that he writes part of my newscast for me every night.  But their—but right there, it sounded as if the burden of his version of what the definition of “is” is got to be too much for him today, and he was just ready to punt on that one.

DOWD:  Well, it's simply already been proven not to be true.  The “Times” did a fantastic story, where they interviewed, you know, FBI agents involved in the case.  And already there have been a lot of domestic, domestic calls and innocent Americans swept up.

And, you know, I know a reporter who the FBI showed up at his door, and went in to interview his son, and it turned out that, in connection with his work, he had called Al Jazeera headquarters in Qatar.  And he was being swept up.  And the FBI didn't even know that the name of the person they were looking for was an official of Al Jazeera.

So you're dealing with the FBI and CIA, who have bumbled so badly in everything in the last six years.  We want to give them more unlimited powers?  I don't think so.

OLBERMANN:  On several occasions in the last few years, this White House has seemingly defied this idea that a lot of societies have been held together by, that no man can hold back the tide.  They're going to stand there, they're going to try to do exactly that.

If it doesn't really work, they'll say, Well, yes, it did work, you're wrong.  And if you question them about that, they'll get you in a semantical discussion.  Is not the whole idea of that—this definition, international versus domestic, is this not by itself a red herring?  I mean, you could call it intergalactic spying, and the issue is the legality, not the name, right?

DOWD:  Don't give Cheney and Rummy ideas.  They're going to be doing intergalactic spying.

It's all a red herring.  What this is about, Dick Cheney wants to throw off all of these rules.  He wants to go to war without permission, he wants to torture without permission, he wants to snoop without permission, because he and Rummy were Ford officials at a time when presidential power shrank.  They felt emasculated.  They did not like it.  They stewed about it for 30 years.

Now they are trying to do everything they can to expand presidential power.  So they're doing exactly what they want to.

OLBERMANN:  Who has enabled this?  I mean, in a perverse way, is it almost necessary to say that Bill Clinton paved the way for George Bush to conduct a kind of fingers-in-his-ears, shout La-la-la-la-la, presidency?

DOWD:  No, they're two entirely different things, because when Bill Clinton would deceive, he would throw in a semantic clue that let you know he was deceiving.  “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” we knew what he meant by that.  You know, I did not—about Doe (ph) -- I didn't break the laws of this country.

So it was sort of poignant and endearing.  He would let you know he was lying, and then the right wing would come down so hard on him and overpunish him.

And in the case of Bush, he's just in a completely different reality.  You know, they call us the reality-based community, and they create their own reality.  And so Bush is just in a bubble.  And when you're in the bubble, you don't know you're in the bubble.

OLBERMANN:  If you would be so kind, wrap this up, tie this story of Mr. Bush's current conundrum with the Oprah Winfrey-James Frey thing.  Is there something the president could learn from Ms. Winfrey, or even from James Frey?

DOWD:  Well, Tom Skokin (ph) did a brilliant piece in “The New York Observer” where he said when Oprah was clinging to supporting Frey, she was doing it for the reason of emotional truth, that millions of people could be helped by his story of redemption.  And Bush, with Iraq, said that we—even if it turned out not to be true, the reasons we went to war, it was right, because millions of Iraqis would be liberated.

But you cannot, you know, do things that start with a lie.  And they just lead to trouble down the road.

OLBERMANN:  Well, maybe he can get a book out of it.  Maureen Dowd, author herself and “New York Times” columnist, great thanks for so much of your time.

DOWD:  Thanks a lot, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  We've only begun to scratch the surface on both of these stories.  Tough questions to the president about the NSA eavesdropping, and why Mr. Bush would be sitting on those Jack Abramoff photos, figuratively speaking, of course.  Dana Milbank joins us.

And tough questions also about the impact of the James Frey publishing scandal on those who had been trying to follow his supposed example, to break free of the scourge of addiction, when you're listening to somebody who doesn't know what he's talking about.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  First, he was a recovering drug addict.  Now he's recovering from the unnamed syndrome in which a nonfiction writer is not addicted to the facts.

In our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, the headlines may be grabbed by Oprah Winfrey's virtual on-air caning today of James Frey, but the longest-term impact is probably on those who saw in him a role model for their own recoveries from addictions to drugs or alcohol or anything else.

In a moment, the insights of author Seth Mnookin, himself a recovering heroin addict.

First, James Frey's confessional in Chicago this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “OPRAH”)

FREY:  I feel like...

WINFREY:  Yes.

FREY:  ... I came here, and I have been honest with you.  I have, you know, essentially admitted to...

WINFREY:  Lying.

FREY:  ... that I have been...

WINFREY:  To lying.

FREY:  To lying.  And I think that...

WINFREY:  Which is not an easy thing to do.

FREY:  No, it's not an easy thing to do in front of a audience full of people and a lot of others watching on TV.  I mean, if I come out of this experience with anything, it—being a better person and learning from my mistakes and making sure that I don't repeat them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And, of course, keeping the money.

As promised, I'm joined now by author and “Vanity Fair” contributing editor Seth Mnookin, himself a recovering heroin addict who recently wrote a critical essay on Mr. Frey for the online magazine “Slate.

Thanks for your time tonight.

SETH MNOOKIN, “VANITY FAIR”:  Thanks for having me.

OLBERMANN:  So that's it, no I'm donating 10 percent of my profits to real rehab programs, not even something like, I made up this self-rehab thing, whatever you do, don't try it at home?

MNOOKIN:  Yes, I think it would be too much to expect that from James Frey at this point.  One of the things I found interesting was, even today, on “Oprah,” he was still lying about experiences in his past.  According to The Smoking Gun, he actually spent no time in jail.  He spent a couple hours in a police station.

OLBERMANN:  Right.

MNOOKIN:  But he told Oprah, Yes, I only spent several hours in jail, not three months.  So he still seems like he has a ways to go.

OLBERMANN:  You pointed out in the analysis of the book that you wrote, the excellent piece that you wrote a few weeks ago, that it sent entirely the wrong messages about addiction, that, for instance, you don't need to get treatment, you can do it yourself, it's somehow easy to spot an addict just by looking at them.

MNOOKIN:  Right.

OLBERMANN:  Do you think the confessional here today will help, to some degree, dispel some of those myths that he perpetuated?

MNOOKIN:  I don't know.  I was really surprised by the number of people who read the book that seemed to have the response, after this news about the veracity of it started to come out, that it didn't matter, because the central truths still resonated with them.  And that was one of my concerns.

I think that the reason that the central truths resonate is because it's a book in which almost every character is a cliche.  So it feeds into people's preconceptions about what treatment is like, what a drug addict is like, what those type of people are like.  And I'm not sure that James Frey now coming clean and saying it didn't happen is going to change those people's minds.

OLBERMANN:  Ironically enough, though, something that happened today, and you just referred to it, might, in fact, be one of these cliches proven true by Mr. Frey's conduct.  As a recovering addict yourself, do you buy his contention that those embellishments in writing this process were in part a, as he put it, coping mechanism?

MNOOKIN:  It's really hard for me to say.  I'm not entirely sure what he would be coping from at that point.  He, from everything we know, at age 23, he was sent to one of the most respected and expensive rehab programs in the country, got out, wrote a book, and sold it.

So I'm not entirely sure, when he talks about needing to cope with his problems at that point, I'm not entirely sure what he's talking about.  But that could be true.  I certainly have no idea what he's going through personally.

When I saw him, it didn't feel to me like someone who was confronting the truth.  It felt to me like someone who was running a little bit scared, understandably.  But again, I'm not a health professional.

OLBERMANN:  Right.  About the publisher, Random House rushed out its own apology.

MNOOKIN:  Right.

OLBERMANN:  It says it's going to put stickers on current editions and notes in further ones.  But how much responsibility does the publisher have here?  I mean, Frey was offering solutions the way somebody might write a book about their experiences juggling nitroglycerin.  Should the publisher not at least have verified something of this story on the public benefit angle, at least?

MNOOKIN:  I think they should have.  I think undercovered aspect of this story is the degree to which publishers do not feel a responsibility to the truth.  I thought Nan Talese said something very telling, and there was this whole exchange where she and Oprah were talking about whether the book had been vetted by lawyers, legally vetted.

I think what Oprah was talking about was some form of fact checking.  What Nan Talese of Doubleday day was talking about was making sure that Doubleday couldn't get sued.  That's all the publishers care about.  They don't have concern for whether the book is actually accurate.

OLBERMANN:  Nan Talese vetted it herself, because she had had a root canal in 1957 without anesthesia, so she assumed the rest of it was correct, apparently.

Seth Mnookin, a contributing editor to “Vanity Fair,” has been very blunt about his own experiences as they have related here to the James Frey controversy.

Great thanks for joining us tonight.

MNOOKIN:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  Also, the struggle to get that perfect news photograph is never ending.  Up here, Mr. President, just follow it with your eyes, sir.  Up here.

And there's nothing exceptional about this image until you realize that this moose only shows up on Wednesdays, because he's figured out that's when they put out the garbage.

Dinnertime, next on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Back now, and we pause the COUNTDOWN to bring you a serious development.  I don't want to alarm anybody, but I'm afraid the sky is falling.  How do you know? you ask.  Well, because we have videotape.  OK, wise guy?

Let's play Oddball.

Let's join today's presidential news conference at the White House, already in progress.  Now, pay close attention.  Let me know if you see anything that might lead you to believe the NSA spy program is getting a little sloppy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  We want to give you some thoughts about what I'm thinking about.

First, I recognize, you know, we live in a momentous time,  And for those of you watching, we seem to have a mechanical flaw.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Or, perhaps you said the magic word.

(INAUDIBLE) somebody in the White House AV Club did not tighten a clamp that fastened a still camera positioned above the press gallery.  You will watch MSNBC.  You will watch MSNBC.  You will watch...

After a brief giggle, the president stayed the course, continuing the address, while the clamp dangled in front of our NBC cameras.  Eventually a disembodied hand, Thing from the Addams Family, perhaps, came and removed the clamp on the camera, which belonged to the Agence France Presse news organization, and the president was able to resume doing whatever it was he was doing up there.

Anchorage, Alaska, sorry, folks, park's closed.  Moose out front should have told you.  Every Wednesday, this moose shows up in the neighborhood near Hanshoe (ph) Middle School.  Why every Wednesday?  Because he has taebo on Tuesdays.  Actually, because Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti day in the north end of Boston, and Angelo Martinier (ph) --

Sorry.

Wednesday is garbage day in Anchorage.  First the moose knocks over a few garbage cans, then he digs around trying to find some spaghetti.  Locals get a kick out of watching old Marty munching on their junk, as you can see by the many camera angles they've shot here.  Local officials say it's not healthy for the animal, not safe for the peoples.

Luckily, Alaska's senator, Ted Stevens, has promised to appropriate taxpayer money for a build, building a bridge for the moose to take to himself even the bigger garbage supplies over there on Gravina Island.

Besides the camera that was left dangling, the president himself left a lot of reporters in a similar situation.  The news conference in depth with Dana Milbank.

And an embarrassment for the CIA.  One of the most-wanted terrorists, a $5 million bounty on his head, of course, that's not his head in the picture.  The CIA had a picture of the wrong guy.

All that ahead.

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

Number three, Rasamee Vistaveth, secretary general of Thailand's consumer protection board, who has warned sellers of the latest teen fashion trend that they can be sent to jail for six months.  Girls in Thailand think the coolest thing to wear is actual braces on their teeth, even if they don't need them.

Number two, Stuart Brody, psychologist at the University of Paisley in Scotland.  He says his research has found a sure cure for you if you get nervous speaking in public.  And what is that cure?  Intercourse, high volumes of intercourse for the week preceding your speech.

Number one, Seton Hall University, specifically its office specializing in admissions applications from international students.  For at least a year, maybe longer, the number printed in the brochures for the toll-free help line for international applicants was actually off a couple of digits, and it was actually the number of a phone sex line.  The good news on this is all of the applicants have been extremely relaxed during their public speaking class.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Hard to say when critics of the current presidential administration wore out the treads on the tire of the novel “1984” but frankly the White House could not have created more parallels to that book if they named George Orwell chief of staff.

Our third story on THE COUNTDOWN, in his book, propaganda was written at the Ministry of Truth, torture conducted at the Ministry of Love.  In the Bush administration emails are scanned and phone conversations audited in order, quote, “to protect civil liberties.”  That's what the president said today.  The domestic spying program front and center at today's news conference.  And yes, I called it the domestic spying program.  You get your own newscast and you can call it something else.

That story and the Jack Abramoff scandal were the key themes for the questioning why if he does not like the law requiring him to get warrants Mr. Bush doesn't simply work with the Republican-controlled Congress to change that law.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  But you know I want to make sure that people understand that if

·         if - if - if - if the attempt to write law—makes this program—is likely to expose the nature of the program, I'll resist it.  I mean - and I think the American people understand that.  Why tell the enemy what we're doing?  If the program is necessary to protect us from the enemy?  And it is.  And it's legal.  And we'll continue to brief Congress and we review it a lot.  And we review it not only at the Justice Department but with a good legal staff inside NSA.  Yeah?

QUESTION:  The FISA Law was implemented in 1978 in part because of revelations that the National Security Agency was spying domestically.  With is wrong with that law that you feel you have to circumvent and it as you just admitted expand presidential powers?

BUSH:  Well—May I - May I - May I—If I might, you said that I have to circumvent it.  There—Wait a minute.  That's a—There's something—it's like saying you are breaking the law.  I mean, I'm not.  That's what you have got to understand.  I am upholding my duty and at the same time doing so under the law about the Constitution behind me.  That's just important for to you understand.  Secondly, the FISA Law was written in 1978.

We're - we're - we're having a discussion in 2000 - and six.  It's a different world.  And FISA is still an important tool.  It's important tool.  And we still use that tool.  But also - and we—I looked.  I said, look, is it possible to conduct this program under the old law?  People said, well, it - it—it doesn't work in order to be able to do the job you expect us to do.  And so that's why I made the decision I made.  You know, circumventing is a loaded word.  And I refuse to accept it.  Because I believe what I'm doing is legally right.

QUESTION:  What do you fear or your staff fear about releasing the photograph with Jack Abramoff with you, Mr. President?  You don't fear anything, tell us why you won't release it.

BUSH:  You are asking about pictures.  I had my picture taken with him evidently.  I have had my picture taken with a lot of people.  Having my picture taken with someone doesn't mean that I'm a friend with them or know them very well.  I have had my picture taken with you.  I'm also mindful we live in a world in which those pictures will be used for political purposes and they are not relevant to the investigation.

QUESTION:  How many pictures?

BUSH:  I don't have any idea.

QUESTION:  Mr. President, you talked about Jack Abramoff in the context of pictures but it may not be about pictures, he also had some meetings with some of your staff.  You remember.  You ran on the idea of restoring honesty and integrity to the White House.  Why are you letting your critics attack and taint you with maybe a guilt by association?  Why not throw up your books and say, look here's .

BUSH:  There is a serious investigation going on by federal prosecutors.  And that's—that's their job.  And they will - if - if they believe something was done inappropriately in the White House, they'll come and look and they are welcome to do so.  There is a serious investigation that's going on.

QUESTION:  Do you want to tell the American people, look, as I promised, this White House isn't for sale and I'm not for sale?

BUSH:  Look.  I - I - I—It's hard for notice say I didn't have pictures with the guy when I did.  But I have also had pictures with thousands and thousands of people.  The man contributed to my campaign but he contributed either directly or through his clients to a lot of people in Washington and this needs to be cleared up so people have confidence in the system.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Time now to call in the man I have confidence in on all occasions, “Washington Post” national political reporter Dana Milbank.  Good evening, Dana.

DANA MILBANK, “WASHINGTON POST”:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  When you were the “White House” correspondent for the “Post,” did you ever know how dangerous sitting in that briefing room really was?  When there could have been - at any moment something could just appear in front of you and all of it saving you from possible stitches and a concussion was good luck?

MILBANK:  I was worried about all the things that might hit me but generally they are things lobbed from the podium, not coming immediately from the ceiling.  But I think you could say what happened—it was really 30 seconds into the press conference, a dangling metaphor.  The unexpected occurs.  It's very much like they have a vote in the Palestinian territories and who knew that terrorist group Hamas wins?  That was not expected.  It was that sort of day for the president.

OLBERMANN:  By the way, whoever was operating that hook failed to grab you by the scruff of the neck and pull you right out of the studio.  But on a serious level here, the president certainly did chafe at the use of that word circumvent.  The first dictionary definition of the word “circumvent” being to “get around restriction” the second being “outwit somebody.”  We'll skip the second definition for this time.  But is the first one in any real doubt?  Did he not get around the restrictions presented by the FISA law?

MILBANK:  Well, he said so himself later on in that same answer.  He said that the law didn't work in this case so he therefore went in and pursued this matter anyway.  It's sort of an interesting question.  It's never really been tested.  It's never come up before.  The president clearly had this sort of power before 1978.  It's not clear whether that law in 1978 was constitutional because it was never really challenged so everybody assumed it was the law of the land but he said wait a second I have got another idea.

OLBERMANN:  The use of 1978, as you mentioned it, as we heard him say, we all know the White House divides history into before 9/11 and after 9/11.  But the law is written in 1978 and the president treated that as if it made it irrelevant.  How does that then apply to the Constitution, which, if I am remembering correctly was written in 1787?

MILBANK:  I think the better analogy is to the tax code which was last amended in 1986 and I'm going to tell the IRS that that was 20 years ago and I don't think that should apply anymore.  But look, he is the president and can say this sort of thing because it hasn't been tested.  One of the questioners today, Jim Gerstunzeng (ph) from the “L.A. Times” said this sounds Nixonian in a way.  You are saying it's legal because I say it's legal.  Presidents can do that in the area of national security because of the commander-in-chief power unless somebody in the Congress challenges it and wins in court.

OLBERMANN:  The other main topic today, the president gave an indisputably straight answer on why he's not releasing the photographs with Jack Abramoff because as he said they would be used for pure political purposes.  The White House holding on to the photos makes sense but we do know why Mr. Abramoff hearing the president say he never a discussion with him, that he's one of the thousands upon thousands, do we know why Mr.  Abramoff has not just taken his own copies of those photos off the wall and made photo copies and just flung them out toward the press corps?

MILBANK:  Or sold them for $25 million to pay that settlement.  There is one very big reason.  It's not because he worried about offending the president or anybody in Congress, but there is a judge there and he has a plea deal and he's going to get significantly less than 30 years they could sentence him too.  But the judge has discretion in that so you don't want to do something that runs afoul of the judge and suddenly you made this plea deal and you wind up with 30 years in prison anyway.

OLBERMANN:  That would explain it.  Dana Milbank of the “Washington Post” who brings his own skyhook with him to these sessions.  Great thanks, sir, and thanks once again for playing the game.

MILBANK:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, in a blunder, you can call it at least that in the war on terror, how did the CIA manage to put the wrong picture on the wanted poster for one of the most wanted of terrorists?

Speaking of blunders, a British politician learns firsthand why it is not a good idea not to do a celebrity reality show.  He's in the red.  He's next.  This is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Some days it all starts to make sense.  For a year and a half now the U.S. government has been asking for help finding a dangerous al Qaeda operative.  Why hadn't the CIA found him?  Perhaps because they were using the photo of the wrong man had something to do with it.  Our number two story on THE COUNTDOWN, are we positive the folks in Langley know what this fellow bin Laden looks like?  Senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers has our exclusive details on the mix-up and the mea culpa.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LISA MYERS, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  A government Web site lists him as one of the most wanted terrorists, Abu Kabab al Masri, allegedly al Qaeda's top expert on chemicals and poisons.  A year and a half ago, the U.S. government asked the world to help find Abu Kabab, posting this photo and putting a $5 million bounty on his head.

ROGER CRESSEY, MSNBC TERRORISM EXPERT:  That photo would have been distributed around the world.

MYERS:  Last week Pakistani officials said he been killed in a missile attack the photo aired worldwide.  Some noticed the picture bore a striking resemblance to this man, Abu Hamsa al Masri, a militant imam now on trial in London.  NBC News then found in old television interview with the imam and compared it to the wanted poster.  Notice the similarities, the white patch of hair.  The fold of the shirt collar and the strip of white over the shoulder.

We shared our findings with the CIA.

(on camera):  A CIA spokesman now admits the government has been using a photo of the wrong man for a year and a half.  He said due to human error, the wrong photo was posted on the Web site and no one caught it.

CRESSEY:  It's embarrassing and it reflects a certain level of sloppiness and lack of attention to detail.

STEEV EMERSON, NBC NEWS TERROR ANALYST:  The CIA is supposed to check these things out.  Somebody should be looking at a second time and a third time before posting it worldwide.

MYERS (voice-over):  Last night the photo on the Web site was replaced with a silhouette.  Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington.

OLBERMANN:  Why does that term Photoshop suddenly fly through my head?  An odd segue, then, into our nightly roundup of celebrity and entertainment news, “Keeping Tabs,” to a politician with a penchant for exhibitionism.  George Galloway, controversial 51-year-old member of the British parliament and cast member on the British TV series, “Celebrity Big Brother.”  He was evicted from the “Big Brother” house by a public vote in the U.K. but not before on-air antics pretending to be a cat and wearing a skin tight body suit, all of it igniting heavy criticism.

Upon leaving the house, Galloway said, quoting, “I represent a different kind of politics.”  Ya-hah.  And he said the public voted him off the show because they wanted him back on his day job—or at least back in less embarrassing pants.  Galloway was expelled from the Labour Party in 2003 for controversial criticism of the war in Iraq but he ran as a Respect Party candidate in 2005 and won.

And to more of a class act, Nicole Kidman will take on a global role for women's rights.  The Oscar-winning actress agreeing to become a goodwill ambassador for the UN, specifically its a Development Fund for Women.  The focus, to advance women's rights around the world and to end violence against women.  The UN has a long history of enlisting support from celebrities.  Audrey Hepburn was a UNICEF ambassador in the final years of her life even after she was diagnosed with cancer.

More recently, Angelina Jolie has traveled on behalf of the UN's refugee agency.  Kidman said she was honored.  As for the bevy of reporters greeting her at the UN, she said compared the Cannes Film Festival, this is a sedate crowd.

Also tonight, the headline read, “Astronomers find Earth's big brother.”  You might have heard a little something about that, huh?  You will.  The new planet that looks surprisingly like our planet.

That's ahead but first time for COUNTDOWN's nominations for the “Worst Person in the World.”  The bronze, John Patril (ph) chairman of the Bucks County Federation of Young Republicans, he's objecting to the sign in the front window of the county Democratic headquarters which reads, “We honor our fallen heroes.”  Mr. Patril bothered by the fact that the Democrats use the sign to update the number of American fatalities in Iraq, he says, quote, “It ignores all the accomplishments we made in Iraq, such as eliminating the torture rooms, we overthrew Saddam Hussein.”  Next time you read that list, you might want to skip the “eliminating torture” part.

Our silver tonight.  To an unnamed flight attendant from Northwest Airlines arrested at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee after screeners discovered something in her carry-on bag, a hand grenade.  It was real although it was inactive.  She explained bought it at an army surplus store as a present for her son.  Well, as long as she had a good reason.

The winner Mr. Bill.  His latest triumph, a TV interview with Ms.  Georgia Pain, identified as a professional dominatrix.  Their topic, the pressing urgent problem of those dominatrices whose clients die on them, so to speak.  He explained that the risks of kinky sex made him worried for Ms. Pain, though, quote, “If it were just you discussing whatever you want to discuss, there's no problem.”  This rings a distant bell.  Bill O'Reilly about women just talking dirty with some guy and it would be—Oh, yeah!

Talking dirty.  No problem at all.  As long as you can pay that surcharge:

$10 million. 

Loofah!  Bill O'Reilly, today's “Worst Person in the World.”

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  When we and the 10,000 generations before us have looked up into the night sky, some of us claimed we were wondering how different the places we see must actually be.  But it's a good guess that what we're actually looking for is not difference, but similarity.  To find a speck of light, a place somewhere out there where others like us might live or have lived.

Our number one story, a place like OGLE-2005-BLG-390-LB.  You haven't heard of it?  Possibly because astronomers hadn't seen the planet until last August and then it was only a fleeting glimpse.  But some call it “Earth's big brother.”  It's better than calling it Planet Ogle, I suppose.

A ball of rock and ice.  So far the closest thing to another earth.  Not all that close either in distance or similarity.  Five and a half times as big as earth and 28,000 light years from her, 27,999, by the way, if you avoid the heavy traffic around Trenton.

So why is it being hailed as earthlike?  Because other planets detected outside ours solar system have been too gaseous like Jupiter or too close to suns to their own suns, too hot like Mercury.  Because discovering one of these small rocky planets could mean plenty more are waiting to be found out there.

Joining me to discuss this, the chief astronomer that the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Derrick Pitts.  Thanks again for your time tonight, sir.

DERRICK PITTS, ASTRONOMER, FRANKLIN INSTITUE:  My pleasure, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Is it really this exciting, is it really the first true evidence of something even remotely similar to Earth?

PITTS:  The cool thing about this is that this is one of the exo-solar planets that is small enough to begin to approach the size of something like earth.  So we are looking for other planets even smaller.  But this is a good step in that direction.

OLBERMANN:  Why does discovering planet, let me call it Ogle, for the sake of brevity mean that Earth might have other cousins out there?

PITTS:  Well, what it means is when we look for planets orbiting other stars, we typically find them much larger.  This one being smaller really leads us in the direction that we could find one about the size of Earth.  Now if it's in the right proximity to its parent star, that small enough planet will have the conditions that is could possibly harbor life.

OLBERMANN:  The way it was discovered?  How the astronomers found it, this also matters in terms of its relevance?

PITTS:  It does.  Because typically the other larger planets orbiting other stars are found using a method that actually measures the wobble of the star.  The smaller planets that might be associated with that star are much harder to see.  This particular way of doing it called gravitational micro-lensing uses an intervening object, something between the earth and the actual target.  The gravity of which can bend the light from that more distant object and make it possible for us to see these smaller planets.

OLBERMANN:  The really layman stupid question here.  What thought up the cool name?  Was there a contest?

PITTS:  I don't know, but I would like to get my hands around their neck whoever did because it's a mouthful for everybody.

OLBERMANN:  All right.  Can we try something else like Earth Jr.  Or .

PITTS:  Sure.  That sounds fine.

OLBERMANN:  Call it Planet Derrick.  I'm good with that.  How about you?

PITTS:  I'm fine with that.  Sounds great to me.

OLBERMANN:  What happens now seriously next.  Did we just improve the odds of finding anything even more similar to earth?

PITTS:  What we did was we did is improved our techniques for being able to find the planets of the right size.  And that's the real big key here, Keith, is this new technique.  This particular method of doing this, I should actually say that the technique is not new.  It can be done using galaxies to see more distant galaxies.

But this particular application of using it to find small planets is really what's important and we can continue to use this in the future to find these smaller planets that we hope will be more earth-like.

OLBERMANN:  That leads us to the concluding big question.  Did the odds change on the biggest of the big questions?  Is it likelier today than it was a year ago that there is human-style life out there somewhere?

PITTS:  Ordinarily I would say I'm a betting guy and I will take the bet.  But in this case the mitigating factor is that the universe is so enormous.  There so many objects out there.  We could say in some sense it has increased that, but not a tremendous amount because of the scale, the distance, and the size and the numbers.  All those things.  We still have a long way to go.

OLBERMANN:  Do we know, has the author James Frey ever been there?  I guess that wouldn't be your area of expertise.

PITTS:  I'm out of the ballpark on that.

OLBERMANN:  But it is exciting and that would be the final conclusion on this.

PITTS:  It is exciting to use this technique and as we continue, who knows.  One day we will find somebody out there that will be waving back at us.

OLBERMANN:  And they probably will have cable.  Derek Pitts, the chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute, great thanks for your time again, sir.

PITTS:  Thanks, Keith.

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.  Good evening, Rita.

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.

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