updated 3/22/2006 11:37:19 AM ET 2006-03-22T16:37:19

Guests: Chitra Ragavan, Kate Martin, Craig Crawford, Janet Reitman

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

Warrant-free eavesdropping.  Why not warrant-free searches of your home?  The report that, along with NSA wiretapping, the administration wanted FBI physical searches without any judge approving or even knowing.  The Fourth Amendment be damned.

The third anniversary be damned.  The president commemorates three years of war in Iraq by today denying one of his primary reasons for going to war in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I don’t think we ever said—at least I know I didn’t say there was a direct connection between September the 11th and, and, and, and Saddam Hussein.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  So that line in the State of The Union three years ago—

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  Before September the 11th, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained.

Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  September 11th to Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda.  So that direct connection once removed was what?  A dream?

The Scooter Libby case, turning into a nightmare for the administration.  His lawyers may defend him by attacking prewar intelligence, and a catfight among the White House, the CIA, and State over who screwed it up, in court.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “SOUTH PARK”)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Dad, Tom Cruise won’t come out of the closet.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  But the cat is out of the bag in the war between Scientology and “South Park.”  First, Chef quits.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Children—

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Then the Cruise episode rerun gets both (ph).  Now the producers answer, “So, Scientology, you may have won this battle.  But the million-year war for Earth has just begun.”

And apparently one of them told the other to kiss my cobra.  Respect my authority.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

The term “black-bag job” originates with the actual satchels used by intelligence operatives in which were carried the tools they needed for breaking and entering the homes and businesses of private citizens believed to be a danger to the state, everything included except a warrant.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, black-bag jobs and the Bush administration.  In the past, previous jobs have been run against the likes of Martin Luther King, and Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, and the Democratic Party.

In the present, we don’t know who the targets were, or if there actually have been targets.  But we know tonight that the White House has been in favor of black-bag jobs, everything except the warrant.  We already know the White House believes that electronic eavesdropping on terror suspects without court approval is OK, the magazine “U.S. News and World Report” now revealing that the administration has argued on behalf of breaking and entering into the homes and businesses of terrorism suspects.

Do not stop at FISA, do not collect even a secret court order, the administration’s stance buried in a white paper submitted to Congress in January by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, making the case that the same authority that gives President Bush the right to order NSA eavesdropping also gives him the right to order physical searches as well.

FBI director Robert Mueller among those said to be alarmed by the proposal, fighting behind the scenes to protect his agents from what he believes could be legal jeopardy.

The report, carrying the byline of “U.S. News and World Report” chief legal affairs correspondent Chitra Ragavan, kind enough to join us now.

Thanks for your time tonight.

CHITRA RAGAVAN, CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT, “U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT”:  Thanks for having me, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, has the government actually been conducting warrantless physical searches, or has it merely been arguing that it has the right to, should it want to at some time in the future?

RAGAVAN:  The administration certainly is making the argument that it’s legal, but it won’t say whether the president has exerted, asserted this authority in any way.  The Justice Department says that the FBI has not conducted such searches, but the Justice Department won’t say that the president has not asserted his authority to do so.

OLBERMANN:  Do we know what the administration believes the current status of these kinds of searches would be right now?  Could the president, to make it kind of hyperbolic here, be authorizing somebody to go into my house or your house while we’re talking here?

RAGAVAN:  Well, legally, the attorney general has said in his white paper that the president has this authority, that other presidents have asserted this authority in the past, and there have been certain cases, like the Trung (ph) case and the Aldrich Ames spy case, in which the president in very specific instances has authorized (INAUDIBLE) his attorney general to conduct these searches.

But the Justice Department will not say whether this administration, in fact, has asserted that authority.

OLBERMANN:  This little adjustment to the reading of the Fourth Amendment came to your attention how?  It was—was it because of that white paper, or are there other sources involved in this?

RAGAVAN:  Well, we had heard from our sources that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there were lots of proposals on how to prevent the next attack.  And as you know, soon after that, President Bush authorized the NSA electronics eavesdropping.

Well, in the course of those discussions, we heard that White House lawyers and Justice Department lawyers had raised the possibility of conducting domestic warrantless physical searches for the sake of gathering foreign intelligence, in spy cases or in terrorism cases, specifically to prevent another attack.

We don’t know how those conversations were resolved.  We know that FBI director Robert Mueller had expressed some concerns about conducting such searches and had pushed back hard against it.

So I googled “warrantless physical searches,” and lo and behold, the first document that came up was the Justice’s Department own white paper submitted to Congress on January 19.  And that’s how I realized that the administration had, in fact, recently in writing, had made the case that presidents have such an inherent authority.

OLBERMANN:  Well, we can examine in the days to come and the months to come, as I’m sure somebody will be doing, just what sort of paper trail there might be on actual physical evidence of those searches.

But where is this going next in terms of response to what you and—have broken in the magazine?  Was there—has there been political reaction?  Has there been any kind of response from any authorities outside of the administration?

RAGAVAN:  None so far.

OLBERMANN:  None so far, did that—

RAGAVAN:  That we know of.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, did that surprise you?  Because when this came out, and obviously the magazine publicized the fact that it would be coming out online over the weekend, and in the magazine today, it raised a few eyebrows around newsrooms across the country.  But (INAUDIBLE) were you surprised that it did not seem to explode, as they say?

RAGAVAN:  Well, you never know what’s going on behind the scenes.  And these things take a little bit of time.

OLBERMANN:  We will find how much time this one takes.

Chitra Ragavan of “U.S. News and World Report.”  Her article on warrantless physical searches, or the possibility thereof, of the terror suspects can be seen in the magazine’s current issue.

Great thanks for your time tonight.

RAGAVAN:  My pleasure.

OLBERMANN:  There is a more subjective question here too, whether such searches would be, at the risk of oversimplifying, a good idea or a bad idea, not to mention the potential effect on civil liberties in this country.

For more on those questions, we’re joined now by Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies.

Thank you for your time tonight.

KATE MARTIN, CENTER FOR NATIONAL SECURITY STUDIES:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  OK, here’s the real simple question.  Where do you fall on this good idea-bad idea spectrum?

MARTIN:  Well, I think it’s pretty clear that warrantless searches of Americans’ houses are unconstitutional.  And in addition, they’re a bad idea, because the president doesn’t need to do it without a warrant.  He has the authority to conduct physical searches in absolute secrecy, but with a warrant from the secret foreign intelligence surveillance court.

OLBERMANN:  Had you heard about this before the “U.S. News and World Report” piece came out over the weekend?

MARTIN:  I hadn’t heard about the searches actually being conducted. 

But it has been clear ever since the president claimed the authority to-- 

Well, what happened is the Justice Department wrote a legal memo saying that torture would be legal if the president authorized it, even though the Congress had outlawed it.  And that was why Senator Feingold asked the question a year ago about whether or not the president claimed the authority to violate the warrant laws.

And the—claiming the authority to conduct warrantless wiretaps is the same authority that the president would claim to conduct warrantless searches of Americans’ homes.

OLBERMANN:  The outrage factor, or the lack thereof, if there are polls that already show a majority of Americans would be willing to sacrifice some civil liberties, at least where warrantless wiretaps were concerned, is it likely, unlikely, that the same majority is going to feel the same way about warrantless physical searches as well, and the idea that, Well, heck, I’m not a terrorist, so I have nothing to worry about?

MARTIN:  Well, I think the polls are more mixed than that.  If you ask the question generally about sacrificing civil liberties in order to be safe, a majority may approve that.  But the latest polls show a lot of unease and disapproval of warrantless wiretapping, and I assume of warrantless physical searches.

You know, the key thing to remember is that there’s no national security reason to dispense with a judicial warrant.  It’s still done in secret.  And you have to wonder why the president felt there was some need to bypass the secret judicial warrants.  You know, my assumption is that he’s doing something the court wouldn’t allow.

OLBERMANN:  When the wiretap story became public, some people responded by wondering, Well, what’s next?  I’m confident some of those suggested, Well, I know what’s next, how about searches without warrants?  And I’m just as confident that many of those people were considered alarmists when they theorized about that.

Now those theories have been proved not alarmist but perhaps prescient.  So after warrant-free wiretapping, warrant-free searches, what’s next on the list?  What next should we be looking to find out if they’ve tried to pull off here?

MARTIN:  Well, I hope there isn’t much else.  I mean, the thing that they’ve already done, of course, is to seize Americans secretly, have them held without incommunicado, without a lawyer, without access to court, by the military.  But that’s been disapproved by the courts, to the extent that they’ve looked at it.

And it hasn’t been finally settled, but we don’t know, and we hope that the government’s not snatching Americans off the street using the same kind of legal justification that it’s using to wiretap or to break into people’s homes.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, this would seem to be the archetypical description of that phrase, “the slippery slope.”

Kate Martin, the director of the Center for National Security Studies, thanks for your time tonight.

MARTIN:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  On the third anniversary of a decreasingly popular war, did the president let a cat out of a bag in Cleveland today?  He says he never said, he never said there was a direct connection between September 11 and Saddam Hussein.  Must have been some other president.

And the prewar intel on trial.  How the latest new Scooter Libby legal strategy could air the administration’s dirty laundry about WMD, E-T-C.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  If Scooter Libby’s defense team has a political interest during his trial, it would be the pan-sport strategy known as running out the clock.  If the Bush administration has a political interest during his trial, it would be not to—not let the whole thing turn into public testimony about botched prewar intelligence.

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, news today that the Libby team may be planning to let the whole thing turn into public testimony about botched prewar intelligence.

Defense court filings requesting documents about joint meetings, meetings among top State Department, CIA, and White House officials, regarding, quote, “the finger-pointing that went on within the executive branch about who was to blame for the failure of prewar intelligence in Iraq.”

Specifically, the documents relate to what former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage would contribute at trial, and how all this would lead any jury to believe that Mr. Libby could reasonably have misremembered or misstated conversations regarding the very, quote, “peripheral role,” unquote, Valerie Plame played in the intelligence failure debate.

This is the beat of MSNBC’s David Shuster right now.  He joins us again from Washington.

David, good evening.

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Am I reading this right?  It was such a 24-hour blame-a-thon in the White House that it stayed in the intelligence agencies that Mr. Libby or anybody else couldn’t be expected to remember trivia like Valerie Plame and how her name got into the public discourse?

SHUSTER:  Well, Scooter Libby may not remember, at least he may claim that he doesn’t remember, but the problem that he has is that prosecutors have seven different witnesses who are going to testify that they remember Scooter Libby telling them about Valerie Plame.

And some of those witnesses include Ari Fleischer, Karl Rove, Vice President Cheney, and the White House counsel, people who were just as busy at the time with other matters as Scooter Libby but who seem to remember the Valerie Plame episode pretty clearly.  So it’s not entirely certain that this sort of defense is going to hold up very well.

OLBERMANN:  And David, why would Armitage be key to this particular element?

SHUSTER:  Well, the reason Armitage is significant is, a lot of people are pointing at Armitage as being a Bob Novak source, being a Bob Woodward source.

And what this could conceivably do is, if the defense is allowed to introduce this at trial, and Armitage was somebody who talked to some reporters, they might be able to suggest, Look, this was in the media mix.  Perhaps Tim Russert, Matt Cooper, Judy Miller, perhaps they got this information about Valerie Plame not necessarily from Scooter Libby, but were mistaken and actually got it from Richard Armitage.

I mean, it’s something of a long shot.  And based on the testimony we’re expecting from Tim Russert and Matt Cooper, I don’t see that opportunity available for the defense to even suggest that.  But it’s worth them trying to pursue.

OLBERMANN:  And in pursuing these documents and introducing these documents and introducing this kind of testimony, would this not necessarily bring into focus, make the focus of the trial this entire culture of the Three Stooges hitting each other with planks and hammers because one of them messed up the job painting Mrs.  Weezelbottom’s house?  Is that not exactly what the White House does not want to see in court?

SHUSTER:  Well, absolutely.  And it’s very sort of ugly thing underneath the rock when you start getting into what was going on in July of 2003 with the different agencies pointing at the other.  Remember, this was the time when the White House had to retract this relevant part of the president’s State of the Union.  And there was the CIA being egged on by Karl Rove at the White House, Here’s the retraction you have to make.  There was Steven Hadley, helping to pressure the CIA to take responsibility, Steven Hadley also taking some responsibility.

So you have the blame game going on at the time, with all these officials at the State Department and CIA and the White House.  But at the same time, as they’re blaming each other for this getting into the State of the Union, they’re trying to correct the perception that perhaps Joe Wilson ought to be taken at face value.

They’re trying to undermine Joe Wilson.  And it was sort of an ugly side to this that they were trying to destroy him.  And of course the question being, did they go too far by leaking the information about his CIA wife?

OLBERMANN:  The focus, I guess, in all this, David, is, if this were, if what Libby’s defense team wants now to come to pass, would this essentially not make the trial about what the prewar intelligence was, who got it wrong, and who knew how wrong it was, and when they knew it?

SHUSTER:  Yes, absolutely.  And that’s not going to be something that I imagine people at the White House are going to be very pleased with, because, again, the central issue is, if Scooter Libby is going to suggest, Look, we were concerned about why there (INAUDIBLE) weren’t weapons of mass destruction, we were trying to figure out why something got in the State of the Union, and you see this bureaucratic infighting, and you see Scooter Libby trying to essentially blame somebody else, trying to blame the State Department, blame the CIA, all of the dirty laundry about the bureaucratic infighting is all going to come out again.

It’s going to come out, perhaps, with Scooter Libby trying to say, Look at all these other people who had messed this up, look at all these other people who had gotten this wrong.  I didn’t think it was such a big deal.  I was simply trying to help my boss, the vice president, by putting some context out there about Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame.  I didn’t think this was a big deal.

But again, what it does is, it exposes the idea that the

administration got some key information wrong, and in the process of trying

to correct the public record to correct perceptions about Joe Wilson, they

did a very sloppy job, because they somehow got information leaked about

somebody who’d worked at the CIA

OLBERMANN:  Sounds like this calls for a black-bag job.

MSNBC’s David Shuster, always a pleasure.  Thanks, David.

SHUSTER:  Thanks, chief.

OLBERMANN:  For the White House, of course, it could be worse.  They could be taking on Tom Cruise, Scientology versus “South Park,” war of the worlds, the sequel, only this one, people might go to see.

And, well, kiss my cobra.  This man meant to do that.

That’s next.

This is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It’s hard to believe that this is the anniversary of this much funny.  Eighty-four years ago today, Ray Goulding was born.  He and his partner, Bob Elliott, were an unmatchable radio comedy team for 44 years, until Ray’s death in 1990.

On the same day, Carl Reiner was born, himself the legendary partner of Mel Brooks, and on his own, an indelible force in American humor.

Since Ray Goulding was and is one of my heroes, and Carl Reiner was and is one of my heroes, to say nothing of being a viewer of this newscast, we dedicate it to them in an entirely inappropriate manner.  Poisonous snakes!

Let’s play Oddball.

Or was it an illusion?  Look, poisonous snakes.  We’re in Ginting Highland, Malaysia, where Mr. Shahini Abdul Hamid is kissing the cobra, if you know what I mean.  And I know you do, because he’s actually kissing the cobra, fifty-one times in three minutes, breaking the world record set by some other guy who can no longer move part of his face.

Mr. Hamid says he originally planned to kiss the snake just 15 times in 10 minutes to break the previous record.  But I guess the mood just kind of took over.  As for the cobra, the most action he’d had (INAUDIBLE) gotten in months.

In an unrelated story that has absolutely nothing to do with kissing cobras, a West Virginia man has been arrested for exposing himself in a public library.  That’s him there in the dress.  Belair, Ohio, police say that 72-year-old Samuel McGinton seemed to be dressed as a librarian when he committed the indecent act there.  He’s being held at the Belmont County Jail, where he awaits induction proceedings into the Mug Shot Hall of Fame, to say nothing of a possible trip to a place where he can practice the Dewey Decimal System, the Big House.

Finally, to Valencia, Spain, for the closing ceremonies of the weeklong Las Falas Festival of Fire.  The last day is always the best day, because that’s when they burn everything.  Heh heh heh.  Fire.  Fire.

For a week, the city has been adorned with huge effigies of nationally and internationally known figures, all to honor St. Joseph, the patron saint of children’s aspirin, Hartford, Connecticut, among other things.

Nearly a million people showed up to watch, and then they vote to save one statue for a year in the museum.  As for the rest, well, apparently St.  Joe is a total pyromaniac.

Well, this is an unintended segue, the president commemorating three years of war by denying he ever tried to link Saddam and 9/11.  The vice president has for lunch today—well, you just won’t believe the irony of this.

And Tom Cruise says, No, respect my authority.  Did he and Scientology stop a “South Park” rerun, or was it just a coincidence?

Those stories ahead.

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

Number three, Frank Hainsworth of Gold Coast, Australia.  That’s his mug shot, taken after he wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, joking that he wanted to rob the local bank before he died, quote, “because they have always robbed me.”  They called the cops for the letter.  He was arrested.  He’s 81.

Number two, Mat Suter of Portland, (INAUDIBLE).  A nineteen-year-old high school senior survived a tornado that pulled him out of his grandma’s mobile home and deposited him in an open field 1,307 feet away.  It is believed to be a record for distance traveled during a tornado, although it may not be officially recognized, since it was wind aided.

And number one, the unnamed poster to Craig’s List from Coral Gables, Florida.  “Upscale executive,” he writes, “seeks beautiful female 18 to 24 to live in his luxury condo in Coral Gables for a dollar a month, in exchange for some light duties, help take care of dog, cook occasionally, sex two times a week, serious inquiries only, please e-mail a picture for consideration.”

You do realize, sir, that you’re not suggesting that a woman pay you for sex.  You’re suggesting that you’re worth about 12 cents per time.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  As if to celebrate the anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, the U.S. military misled us again, transforming an overgrown photo op into Operation Swarmer.  It sent every media outlet spinning into breaking news mode, dubbing the so-called operation the largest air assault since “shock and awe.”  In short, we all fell for it.

Our third story in the COUNTDOWN, just when you thought the administration might have gone for subtlety instead of audacity, the president himself came back today and in the questions and answers that followed a speech in Cleveland, he insisted he never linked Iraq and Saddam Hussein to 9/11.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You said there were three main reasons for going to war in Iraq.  Weapons of mass destruction, the claim that Iraq was sponsoring terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and that Iraq had purchased nuclear materials from Niger.  All three of those turned out to be false.

GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT:  First, just if I might correct a misperception.  I don’t think we ever said, at least I know I didn’t say that there was a direct connection between September 11 and Saddam Hussein.  We did say that he was the state sponsor of terror.  I was very careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Then that must have been a different George W. Bush who gave the State of the Union address on January 28, 2003.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda.  Secretly and without fingerprints he can provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists or help them develop their own.  Before September 11, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda in the same sentence separated by seven words, September 11 and Saddam Hussein two sentences later separated by six words.

In a moment, Craig Crawford joins me to discuss the fundamental remaining question, who does the president think he is f-ing kidding?  The third anniversary commemorations continued with the Vice President Dick Cheney also making an appearance during a fundraising luncheon for a GOP congressional candidate.

The luncheon was held at the Spread Eagle Tavern and Inn.  And their must have been a political satirist in the kitchen.  The ninth item on the menu, oven roasted with an apple and mushroom stuffing, served with garlic mash potatoes on asparagus, fresh, farm-raised quail.  Mr. Whittington?

More comedic ammunition as if it were needed that the administration seems to be out of ordinance after three full years making a case for an ever decreasingly acceptable war, underscored by the Iraq numbers out of the latest “Newsweek” poll.  Only 29 percent of respondents approved of the president’s handling of the situation.  Sixty five percent disapproving and only a clear minority 44 percent, approving now of the way he’s handling terrorism and homeland security.

Time now as promised to call in our own Craig Crawford, columnist for “Congressional Quarterly,” author of “Attack the Messenger, How Politicians Turn You Against the Media.”  Craig, good evening.

CRAIG CRAWFORD, “CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY”:  Now, don’t forget the vice president never actually shot the quail.

OLBERMANN:  He just ate it.  Let me start with that question and answer in Cleveland today.  I know I didn’t say there was a direct connection between September 11th and Saddam Hussein and later that he had been very careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America.  Let me repeat that rhetorical question of a few moments ago.  Who does he think he is f-ing kidding?

This is true as long as we are playing Simon says not living in the real world, right?

CRAWFORD:  This is presidential prevarication at its best.  Actually when I heard the president say that what flashed through my head was Bill Clinton saying, “depends on what the definition of is is.”

One thing about that period when the president was making those claims associating al Qaeda and Saddam, I didn’t hear any complaints from the administration when polls at the time showed that people were buying the argument that there was a connection.  I didn’t hear them complaining about that.  So somebody gave them the idea, because the polls showed they believed it.

OLBERMANN:  And the vice president obviously has repeatedly and fairly recently made an even stronger connection there.  Do you think we were afforded some sort of psychological insight today by accident that quote “I was careful not to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America.”

Does that lead you to the assumption that four years ago people around him were saying, make it sound as close as possible but whatever you do, be very careful not to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America?

CRAWFORD:  I want to give the president credit for finally doing some town hall and taking questions from the audience that aren’t scripted, aren’t choreographed.

OLBERMANN:  Agreed.

CRAWFORD:  But this is the downside of doing that, because he starts Lone Rangering.  He’s off script.  And I think maybe the way he worded it there is not the way his speech writers would have put it.  “I was being careful not to say.”  I it makes it obvious he was being careful about what he did say.

OLBERMANN:  He did say and continues to say everything is going, if not great, then well, and reason to hope and the images being presented from Iraq are of chaos in general.  One poll says 70 percent of Americans believe it is already civil war.  And in terms of support of how he is handling Iraq, 29 percent, down to 29 percent.  That is not the base or the core left, but that’s the bone.  Have we reached the Katrina-like tipping point here?

CRAWFORD:  I think we have, Keith.  And the problem the president has got, he can’t show that we are winning the war.  You win war and maintain support for war by winning battles.  And not even knowing where the battlefield is or who the enemy is half the time, it’s very difficult to do that.  And I do think it’s important to note in these polls that we have seen recently in the last few weeks, even months as support has waned for the war, I think a lot of those people who are moving in that direction who weren’t before are Americans who are becoming disillusioned that we are losing the war, not that they have become pacifists or they were against it in the beginning or anything like that.

I think the fact that he is not winning the war—Abraham Lincoln burned down Atlanta to win reelection and get support for the Civil War and he would have been at 30 percent approval before that happened.

OLBERMANN:  Indeed.  Your point in your blog today, 1600, chronic fatigue syndrome.  In the age of cable news and Internet, have we come up with a new argument with the whole idea, let’s limit the president to one six-year term because now no president, no staff and no electorate can stand each other for eight full years?

CRAWFORD:  I think in a world where even the microwave oven takes too long for us an eight year presidency might be just too much.  Jimmy Carter proposed this when he left office and he said his reason for this is have one six-year term and with no re-election would give a president plenty of time to get an agenda through without spending so much time getting re-elected.

Right now they spend four years getting re-elected and then when they get a second four years it seems like things fall apart for them.

OLBERMANN:  Craig Crawford of MSNBC and “Congressional Quarterly.”  As always, sir, great thanks.

CRAWFORD:  Good to be here.

OLBERMANN:  Do not adjust your sets, do not adjust your calendars, this is what the first day of spring looked like through much of the country.  This was not even the worst of the weather out there today.  And Donald Trump celebrating the new expansion based on a past merger, a baby boy.  Let’s hope he’s got Melania’s hair.  If he doesn’t, he can always buy it for him.

That’s ahead but first here are COUNTDOWN’s top three sound bites of this day.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Bruce Strait has been resting in the Hancock County Jail six months now.  Here he is.  Bruce passed away six years ago.  His remains wound up in the sheriff’s hands after his daughter moved out and left him home alone.  Turns out it is not the first time he has not spent the night here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He has had a colorful past.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  In the end, it was a cousin who came forward to spring Bruce from jail one last time.

CONAN O’BRIEN, TALK SHOW HOST:  A group of “Star Trek” fans have started a Web site called Trek Passions.  True story.  Trek Passions.  The fans say the dating Web site is going great and any month they hope a girl will join.

QUESTION:  Do you believe this, that the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism are signs of the apocalypse and if not, why not?

BUSH:  Umm—the answer is—I haven’t really thought of it that way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Today is the equinox.  You remember from science class, sun is directly over the equator, making day and night almost equal, the start of the spring in the north and fall to the south, a tranquil day as you see on the map here.

Our number two story, Mother Nature did not get the memo about tranquil.  Today’s whether so extreme it looked like scenes right after the “Day After Tomorrow.”

In Australia, the worst cyclone to hit there in 30 years.  Cyclone Larry even more powerful than Hurricane Katrina, hitting the northeast coast, packing 180 mile an hour winds.  Thousands of Australians feared homeless, but so far no reports of deaths or serious injury.  Forecasters tonight say another cyclone is headed for the same area.

Back here, the first day of spring looked anything but that way across much of the Midwest.  As many as a dozen states facing some sort of winter storm watch or warning.  And further south, the system triggered floods.  More now from our correspondent Jay Gray.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAY GRAY, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Spring is providing no break for many in Texas.  Torrential rains washed away areas in and around Dallas.  One driver died when she was swept away trying to escape the rising waters.  The flooding was so intense, homes were ripped apart and hundreds in the area were forced to move to higher ground.

DONNA JOLLY, FLOODING VICTIM:  We don’t hardly have no money, no food. 

So it’s just day by day.

GRAY:  To the south, near San Antonio, a tornado splintered homes and businesses.  Roofs and walls were peeled away, revealing twisted metal.

CECILIA LARA, TORNADO VICTIM:  And the roof is gone and all the stuff in there is broken and he went into shock.

GRAY:  Storms signaled the start of spring all across the Midwest.  Snow covered parts of Kansas and Nebraska while in Colorado plows had to be called in.  Near white-out conditions closed Highway 70 just outside of Denver.

In fact, after what has been a relatively mild winter, temperatures are much colder than normal across the country now.  It was in the 30s in New York today.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It’s too cold to think of spring.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Freezing.  Freezing cold.  Too cold for me.

GRAY:  But not cold enough to stop a symbolic funeral in the city.  This jazz band drummed out the death of winter, hoping they could help spring to march in with much wilder weather.  Jay Gray, NBC News, Dallas.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Speaking of howling natural phenomena spewing death and destruction, there is Donald Trump.  That is the segue into our nightly roundup of celebrity and entertainment news, “Keeping Tabs.”  He has reproduced again.  He and the third Mrs., Melania, announcing the birth of a baby boy whom they immodestly named Baron William Trump.

He says she was in labor eight hours and he was just outside the room when the newest apprentice entered the world.  He might have been lining up the fourth Mrs. For all we know.  “I continue to stay young, right?” says Mr. Trump.  “I produce children, I stay young.”

Uh-huh.  Trump is 59.  At six years his elder, Paul Tagliabue is retiring from his very public job meaning that this summer, pro football will get just its fifth commissioner since the position was created in 1941.  Tagliabue succeeded the late Pete Rozelle in October, 1989.  During his tenure the league expanded from 28 to 32 teams. It has not had a single game canceled due to labor strife despite a sometimes arduous adjustment to widespread free agency.

Tagliabue widely credited with postponing the NFL schedule the weekend after 9/11, though left out of that praise is the fact that he had been told in a phone conference with airline officials that none of them believed that any of his teams, fans or TV partners would be able to travel to the games if he went ahead with plans to play.

Secretary of State Rice has said several times that the commissioner of NFL was her, quote, “dream job.”  Paul Tagliabue will retire from it on July 31st.

So why did the folks at “South Park” retire the controversial episode about Tom Cruise?  Suggestions that it is not a death match against Scientology except for the “South Park” statement, “So, Scientology, you may have won this battle.  But the million year war for Earth has just begun.”

That’s next but first time for COUNTDOWN’s list of today’s three nominees for “Worst Person in the World.”

The bronze tonight, Dianne Markat of Island Lake, Illinois, pulled over for drunk driving with her three year old boy in the car, bad, but fairly ordinary until the police added that also drunk in the car, Ms.  Markat’s four month old Chihuahua.  Drunk.

Tonight’s runner up, Edward Cuabos of Savannah, celebrated St.  Patrick’s Day by urinating into the gas tank of a car, again, bad but fairly ordinary, until the place added that the car he urinated into was a Savannah police car, a marked car, a black and white.

But tonight’s winners, the two men who before the president’s trip to the Mississippi coast last week, stopped by the home of Jerry Akins in the beach front town of Gauchet.They took pictures, they asked questions, they explained they were from Fox News in Houston doing a scouting mission for a story on reconstruction.

After the president stopped by Mr. Akins home, the two men came back, according to Mr. Akins, and said sorry, they were not with Fox News, they were actually part of the governmental entourage.  Fox News reporters, who were actually federal agents.  You know, you are just making this too easy for me.

Anyway, if you are worried about the journalistic ethics involved here, don’t.  The people at Fox News pretend to be journalists every day.  Two unidentified federal agents posing as Fox News reporters, today’s worst persons in the world.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  There are eight levels of operating thetans.  At the highest level, that would be level eight, followers of scientology have the truth revealed to them and what that truth is, L. Ron Hubbard’s science fiction novels are actually real or you should go get some walking in or vanilla is the ice cream flavor that works best in a root beer float, nobody is exactly sure which one is the truth.

But Tom Cruise is a level 7 and that means he may not be able to bend spoons with his mind, but he may be able to make a cartoon magically disappear from your TV.  Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, Cruise, Scientology and “South Park.”  In a moment, “Rolling Stone” editor who got a rare inside look at the religion along with the requisite bullying that followed.

First our correspondent covering this other “War of the Worlds,” Jennifer London.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JENNIFER LONDON, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  In his movies, Tom Cruise is used to battling crime lords and alien invaders.  But his latest fight finds him facing off with four foul-mouthed cartoon kids from “South Park.”

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  So you’re not the prophet.  You made me look stupid.  I am going to sue you too.

LONDON:  Did the controversial Cruise use his Hollywood muscle to muzzle the show?  In a sudden schedule change, Comedy Central decided not repeat an episode ridiculing Scientology and Cruise’s sexuality.

STAN, CARTOON CHARACTER:  Dad!  Tom Cruise won’t come out of the closet.

LONDON:  Cruise allegedly wanted the episode pulled or he wouldn’t promote his new Paramount movie, “Mission Impossible 3.”  The same corporation, Viacom, owns Paramount and Comedy Central.  A spokesman for Cruise denies that any threats were made, saying that promotion for the new film has been going on for months.

(on camera):  In another twist, Isaac Hayes, who played the character Chef abruptly left the show, say it goes too far mocking religion, including the Church of Scientology where he and Cruise are members.

KEN BAKER, “US WEEKLY”:  A lot of people think that the fact that this episode is killed is more than just a coincidence.  But I don’t think there is evidence that Tom Cruise had anything to do with this.

LONDON:  “South Park’s” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are not so sure, releasing this somewhat wacky quote.

(voice-over):  “So, Scientology, you may have one this battle, but the million year war for Earth has just begun.”

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Don’t you understand, L. Ron, it’s me, Tom Cruise.

LONDON:  If he or anyone else was on a mission to silence the show, the Internet has made that impossible.  Parts of the episode are available on Comedy Central’s Web site.  Jennifer London, NBC News, Los Angeles.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  All of this falling hard upon the departure from the show of Isaac Hayes, the voice of Chef who happily participated as “South Park” lampooned every religion and then when they got around to Scientology he quit in protest.

Janet Reitman is a contributing editor for “Rolling Stone”  Here article “Inside Scientology” appeared in the magazine’s March 9th issue.  She joins us now.  Thank you for your time tonight.

JANET REITMAN, “ROLLING STONE”:  You’re welcome.

OLBERMANN:  Let me start with Mr. Cruise.

The episode bashes him, bashes Scientology, he is on a promotional tour for a movie owned by the company that owns Comedy Central and suddenly the rerun of the episode gets cancelled and there are people who want us to believe this is a coincidence.  What is your opinion?

REITMAN:  It’s kind of anyone’s guess what’s going on here.  I don’t think anybody really knows for sure.  But I would say the Church of Scientology is very, very much into damage control and this would sort of indicate an example of that.

OLBERMANN:  When you were writing your piece, is this correct, Tom Cruise actually call and then his sister who was his publicist actually visited the offices?

REITMAN:  Yes.

OLBERMANN:  They pulled out of a cover?  Tell me the whole story.

REITMAN:  Yes, it is.  I was just a couple weeks into reporting this piece when the church got wind of the fact that I was doing it.  They had known I was going to be working on this piece for quite a while and Tom Cruise did call our offices and talk to the editor of the magazine.

And that was followed several weeks later by a visit to our office in New York by his sister who is at the time his publicist and a high-ranking Scientologist and also a very senior official at the church who spent several hours having a meeting with my top editors and inquiring about my journalistic credibility and about what exactly we were doing and who or sources were and who we were speaking to.  They were quote upset that I had taken it upon myself to speak to people who may have left the church.

And that kind of thing, they like to control everything that goes on when it comes to the reporting of any story about them, I think.  And so they were taken aback that I talked to people who had left the church, who were critical of the church.

OLBERMANN:  But they seemed to move swiftly with you, but about the Isaac Hayes, incident, let me play a clip from Mr. Hayes on the “Opie and Anthony Radio Show.”  It was just after the original episode about Scientology aired last year.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

ISAAC HAYES, CHEF IN “SOUTH PARK”:  One thing about Matt and Trey, they lampoon everybody.  If you take that (expletive deleted) serious, then I will sell you the Brooklyn Bridge for $2.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  So he didn’t take it seriously when he acted or when it ran as of December of last year, but when there was a rerun, boom, he quits and Scientology gets mad.  Does this religion work that slowly?  Is there Tivo backed up and do they get outraged after it gets delivered by NetFlix?  What’s the drag time?

REITMAN:  I really couldn’t tell you.  I have a feeling, and I’m just speaking my own opinion here.  But I really think the church may not have understood the cultural relevance that a show like “South Park” has and the kind of staying power it has on the Internet.  That might have taken them aback a little bit and probably been what took such a long time for them to react to this.

But they’re people who—I honestly can’t tell you.  I don’t know why Isaac Hayes said what he said.  One of the things I do know is that many members of the church, active members including some celebrities wrote to “Rolling Stone” after my piece came out and some of the letters will be published in our upcoming issue which will be on the stands at the end of this week.

And many of those letters had an eerie similarity to them, actually.

OLBERMANN:  What a surprise that is.

REITMAN:  So whether or not this was Isaac Hayes making a decision, whether it was the church encouraging Isaac Hayes to make this decision, I couldn’t tell you.  I know that I received quite a lot of emails that sounded quite similar.

OLBERMANN:  We will draw our own conclusions about that, but lastly and quickly here, the statement of the producers of “South Park,” “So, Scientology, you won this battle, but the million year war for Earth has just begun.”  I am just guessing this is not going to get a lot of laughs at Scientology HQ.

REITMAN:  No.  They don’t take that stuff with much of a grain of salt at all.  I think they take everything quite seriously.  So who knows?

OLBERMANN:  In your reporting you never saw anything about Scientology and the jumping up and down on couches, right?  That’s not connected.  That was something else?  That has something to do with Cruise and not Scientology?

REITMAN:  That’s what they say.  One of the other things, enthusiasm ranks very high in the Scientology tone scale.  They saw this as a positive.  Put it that way.

OLBERMANN:  Somebody had to.  Janet Reitman of “Rolling Stone.”  Great thanks for your time.

REITMAN:  No problem.  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  That’s COUNTDOWN for this, the 1,054th day since the declaration of “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq.  I am Keith Olbermann.  Keep your knees loose.  Good night and good luck.

Copy: 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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