updated 5/24/2006 12:43:24 PM ET 2006-05-24T16:43:24

Guests: Richard Wolffe, Mark Zaid, Joe Levy

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

Plamegate has two new witnesses, one, the former head of CIA counterterror, will testify he told Scooter Libby who Valerie Plame was on June 11, 2003.  Tim, Tim who?

The bad news about the good news.  While critics still scream about unbalanced coverage from Iraq, the U.S. government-run Voice of America has had no correspondent in Baghdad for six months.  The last one asked out, and no one has volunteered to replace her.

Hurricane season forecasts.  Never mind hurricanes.  What about the gator forecast?  What is with the spate of attacks on humans in Florida?

Speaking of attacks, Dixie Chicks and Bill-O.  Kurt Cobain may have been all apologies, but Natalie Maines is no apologies, giving or receiving.  How she smacked down O‘Reilly in public.

And “American Idol,” screw “American Idol.”  This is a singing contest, the Eurovision song contests.  These are the hosts.  You know, physically, you can‘t do this with Paula Abdul.  And these are the winners.

That‘s a costume, right?

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

Internet reporting is not yet an accepted form of journalism, nor is it yet an oxymoron.  So the following two developments could be unconnected.  More than a week ago, a Web-based writer reported of the imminent indictment of Karl Rove in Plamegate.  Obviously that has not happened.

But more than two months ago, the same writer reported that Scooter Libby had discussed Valerie Plame in June 2003 with two CIA officials, including the man the agency would fire as its chief counterterrorism officer.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, today‘s “New York Daily News” reported that Scooter Libby had discussed Valerie Plame in June 2003 with two CIA officials, including the man the agency would fire as its chief counterterrorism officer.

“The Daily News” also reports those two men will be testifying against Libby.  Bob Grenier is the former top counterterrorism official mentioned in both reports.  Curiously, he was removed from that post at the CIA on February 6 of this year, described by an agency source to “The Washington Post” as a, quote, “good officer, but not the one for the job, and not quite as aggressive as he might have been.”

Grenier had been lionized for leading covert operations against the Taliban before the U.S. move into Afghanistan five years ago.  Court filings in the Plame case allege that Scooter Libby asked Grenier on June 11, 2003, why Ambassador Joe Wilson had been sent to check out the tale of yellowcake uranium in Niger, and that Grenier told him he believed it had been the doing of Wilson‘s wife, and that Wilson‘s wife was a CIA agent.  That testimony would put knowledge of Valerie Plame‘s CIA job in Libby‘s hands a month before it leaked out through Robert Novak‘s column.

And the second part of the court filings suggest Libby did something with that info.  On June 14, 2003, the documents say, Libby complained about the Wilson trip to CIA briefer Craig Schmall (ph).  The “Daily News” reports Schmall and Grenier are to testify against Libby.

Time now to call in “Newsweek”‘s senior White House correspondent, Richard Wolffe.

Thanks again for your time, Richard.

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

My pleasure, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  This reporting on the Libby case, it‘s like one nail a week.  Richard Armitage‘s name was brought in as this cooperating witness, now the two CIA men are named.  If they testify that they discussed Valerie Plame with Libby on June 11 and June 14, 2003, when Libby has testified otherwise to that grand jury, Libby‘s in trouble, isn‘t he?

WOLFFE:  Yes, he‘s in deep trouble here.  And a lot of this stuff was in the indictment.  We, of course, didn‘t know the name of the CIA officials.  But these are obviously very credible people.  It‘s administration officials.  And I guess we shouldn‘t be surprised that journalists are obsessed with journalists.  I mean, I, you know, suppose we like what we see in the mirror.

But there‘s been so much focus on the big-name reporters in this case that I think it‘s something of a smokescreen.  It‘s certainly something that Libby‘s lawyers have thrown up.  Really, the most compelling evidence is that Libby heard this material, the Valerie Plame information, from high-ranking members of the administration, and then he went to the grand jury and spun them a different tale.  That‘s the essence of the indictment.

OLBERMANN:  About this former counterterrorism chief, Mr. Grenier, do we draw anything other than raised eyebrows that his name first surfaced in this, although, as you said, we did not know for certain it was his name, in March, which would have been about a month after the CIA  fired him as the head of counterterror?  Is it cause and effect there in either direction, or is it just a coincidence of timing?

WOLFFE:  Well, there‘s no question that the clearout at the CIA was in part sparked by the administration‘s feelings that the CIA had dissented as an institution too vocally, worked too closely with journalists in the runup to the war in Iraq, and specifically dissented on the case for the war with regards to weapons of mass destruction and the link with terrorists, with al Qaeda.

Now, I don‘t know about Grenier‘s position and the circumstances of his own departure, but as an institution, there was a lot of ill will.  And Porter Goss‘s job, before he got pushed out, was to clean up the agency and to make sure it was still in line, or more in line, with the president‘s thinking.

OLBERMANN:  And speaking of Mr. Goss and his successor in the CIA, the General Michael Hayden has moved now one step closer to becoming Goss‘s successor, the Senate Intelligence Committee recommending the confirmation in a committee vote 12 to three.  Should we be surprised that as many Democrats voted in favor of the nomination as did?

WOLFFE:  I don‘t think so.  You know, Democrats never said they were opposed to eavesdropping.  What they were opposed to was the way the eavesdropping was being conducted, the lack of oversight and the lack of explicit legal authority for it.

And one smart thing, very one smart thing the administration has been doing is to open up the briefing thing to more members of Congress.  That has blunted a lot of the criticism.  And, you know, bringing people inside on this obviously builds support for it.

I, I, they‘ve also been clever about hinting that they‘re prepared to look at the law again, maybe change the law to, again, give this explicit authority.  This is good politics, and Hayden is obviously a very good briefer.  He‘s done a lot to change the dynamic of this himself.

OLBERMANN:  One last thing here about Mr. Rove.  This time, though, it‘s about last week‘s big headline.  He‘s returning to the Hill Wednesday to discuss immigration with Republican members of the House.  His visit on this last week did not go all that well.  Compromise legislation‘s supposed to be in trouble in the House.  It‘s not 10 days since the president‘s speech.  Is immigration reform already in danger of going on that pile of stuff the administration never got done?

WOLFFE:  Yes.  This is not what George Tenet would call a slam-dunk.  This is a very fraught piece of legislation for the Republican Party.  You know, Karl likes wedge issues where he can go out and say, We can beat up the Democrats on this.  But a number of Republicans are looking at this, saying, We can break with the president and give ourselves political advantage in November.

That‘s Karl‘s problem.  They‘re all strategists, they‘re all master tacticians now.

OLBERMANN:  Something about too many cooks and the broth comes to mind.

“Newsweek”‘s Richard Wolffe, stand by, if you would.  We have another story coming up we‘d like your perspective on.

WOLFFE:  Will do.

OLBERMANN:  More fallout over that other CIA leak, the one the White House wishes never happened, the NSA domestic spy scandal, a new report explaining how the National Security Agency may have been able to obtain phone records and other personal data of millions of Americans while still giving the telephone companies themselves what a previous administration used to call plausible deniability.

The solution, buying all that information from a third party, your tax dollars in action, “Business Week” magazine reporting that the Bush administration is spending tens of millions of dollars every year to buy commercial databases, patronizing a small group of companies that specialize in tracking the finances, phone numbers, biographical information of millions of us.

And it may all be perfectly legal, the Privacy Act restricting what the government does with such information only when it was the entity collecting it.

For more on this latest development in an already complicated story, I‘m joined now by Mark Zaid, an attorney who specializes in national security cases and has, in fact, represented more than a dozen intelligence officers in clearance cases.

Thank you for your time, sir.

MARK ZAID, ATTORNEY:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Is this, in fact, how two of the big phone companies might have been able to get away with responding to that “USA” story, “USA Today” story about them supplying this information to the government by denying the stories, demanding retractions?  And is it really, is it just semantics, or is there substance here?

ZAID:  Well, it may very well be.  I don‘t think a lot of people realize how much outsourcing even the major companies do to smaller companies that handle a lot of their business.  And the government does the same.  And the government, in fact, for example, the Defense Department has been buying data in a lot of the data mining endeavors that it‘s been doing.

And most of the time, as long as it doesn‘t know where the information is coming from, it feels a lot of the legal restrictions or limitations are lifted.  And entities and subcontractors, defense contractors are going around and purchasing that data and then filtering it to the government.

There‘s also the issue that there are statutes and executive orders, most likely, that allow federal agencies to deny, essentially lie to the public, and to courts, that, in fact, certain classified data exists.  And it may very well be that they‘ve extended that type of ability to some of the private contractors.

OLBERMANN:  This claim, what‘s your viewpoint on the Privacy Act and the contention of the administration that this is as legal as it claims it is?

ZAID:  Well, the Privacy Act is one of the most convoluted and confusing statutes.  Thirty years old, written in the days when a lot of these problems came up in post-Watergate, with spying and snooping and IRS Involvement, et cetera.

The problem is that the thing is chock full of amendments and exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions.  And it‘s almost impossible to figure out at times what it prevents.  And a lot of the exceptions deal with national security and law enforcement, and obviously that‘s exactly where this story falls.

OLBERMANN:  For the sake of argument in this case here, let‘s say that the collection of this data was, is, perfectly legal.  If that‘s the case, why not go to the secret intelligence court for permission?  Then why not go to FISA?  And if it‘s all true, why, as it was reported, why would the government have directly approached one of the other major phone carriers, Qwest?

ZAID:  Well, I think that‘s the $64,000 question.  To me, the concerns that are abounding from this story are not as much the very specifics of the NSA programs, but it‘s where this administration is incrementally taking itself.  It feels that over the last 30 years, the presidential office has lost power.  And it‘s trying to regrab that back.

I think, in many ways, the NSA issue in circumventing the FISA court has nothing to do with whether or not the NSA can do this.  If it gone to FISA, no doubt it would have been given permission.  But the administration wants it to be known, to both the judiciary and the legislature, that it has the authority to grant this type of access.

The question‘s going to be, this administration thinks it‘s as invulnerable as Superman, and what type of Kryptonite, essentially, if you want to make a little light of it, is going to come up that‘s actually going to bring down some of the illegalities, if that‘s what it is, that have been transpiring?

I‘m always reminded, and this is what concerns me, the story or the poem that came out of the Holocaust, where the individual said, you know, They came for the trade unionists, I didn‘t say anything because I‘m not a trade unionist.  Then they came for the gypsies, I didn‘t say anything, I‘m not a gypsy.  They came for me, and there was no one left to say anything.

And that‘s the type of slippery slope that this type of action, like the NSA spying scandal, is bringing about that the public really needs to look at.

OLBERMANN:  First it was the international calls, then the domestic calls, and then it‘ll be conversations.

Mark Zaid, an attorney who knows national security law backwards and forwards, great thanks for your time, sir.

ZAID:  Any time, Keith, thank you.

OLBERMANN:  And lastly, from politics, his three decades of public service may be overshadowed by perhaps the greatest campaign putdown of the 20th century.  Former senator Lloyd Bentsen has died at the age of 85.  He spent 22 years in the Senate from Texas, six more in the House, two as the first Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration.

But it was one moment as running mate to Michael Dukakis during the vice-presidential debate with Dan Quayle in 1988, which will echo through political history.  The then-young Senator Quayle had just compared himself again to a once-young Senator, John F. Kennedy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 1988)

SEN. LLOYD BENTSEN (D), TEXAS:  Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy.  Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine.  Senator, you‘re no Jack Kennedy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Also here, Zacarias Moussaoui says he was the 20th hijacker.  Prosecutors concurred.  Now Osama bin Laden disagrees.

And this will sound like those garbage journalism shark attack stories, but this one‘s different, because it‘s on our human turf.  Why have alligators suddenly turned on people in Florida?

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Never let the facts, as journalists are half-warned, half-mocked, get in the way of a good story.

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, two great sagas interfered with by inconvenient truths.

In a moment, the idea that the American media is ignoring positive stories in Iraq, colliding headfirst with the reality that the government-sponsored media can‘t even get anybody to go to Iraq.

But first, a second opinion on the confession of Zacarias Moussaoui, an opinion expressed by Osama bin Laden.  It is on an audiotape newly posted on a Web site often used by al Qaeda.  Bin laden said he personally assigned tasks to the 19 hijackers, and that Moussaoui had, quote, “no connection whatsoever to the events of September 11.”

Counterterror officials tell NBC News it is reasonable to assume that the bin Laden tape was made soon after March 27.  That‘s when Moussaoui claimed during his trial that he knew of the 9/11 operation.  American intelligence agencies still reviewing the tape believe it is bin Laden.  He also says of U.S.-held prisoners at Guantanamo that they‘re not only unconnected to 9/11, that many of them aren‘t even connected to al Qaeda.

Analysts also point out there‘s something conspicuous by its absence on the tape.  Bin Laden makes no threats, just taunts.

Meantime, we noted here 24 hours ago that this seems to be an administration that is outwardly unsusceptible to irony or charges of hypocrisy.  But even that Teflon coating is facing a heavy-duty fried-egg stain.  While the Bush press office and responsive reporters and talk show hosts desperately continue to accuse the, quote, “mainstream media” of ignoring the, quote, “good news from Iraq,” “The Washington Post” has revealed that for the last six months, the Voice of America, the U.S.  government-run news organization, has not had a correspondent in Baghdad because it‘s just too dangerous.

Alicia Ryu tells “The Post” she was rotated out of the assignment there in December at her own request, and that there has been no successor because, quote, “They didn‘t have any volunteers to replace me.”  Ms. Ryu said she “couldn‘t live with the idea that someone else could have died who was working with me,” this after she came under fire in an ambush and her security guard was killed there.

She was then transferred back to Nairobi.  The Voice of America notes it still has about 50 Iraqi employees in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, working for two U.S. government-run Arabic-language stations, and that it hopes to find a new Baghdad correspondent someday.

Let me again call upon “Newsweek”‘s Richard Wolffe.

If there weren‘t lives lost and other lives at stake here, it would be almost comical, wouldn‘t it?  I mean, an American government complaining about the paucity of positive reporting from Iraq, when it can‘t find anybody to report at all for the government-run news organization?

WOLFFE:  Well, it is deeply embarrassing, and, as you say, of course, it‘s also a deeply serious situation.  The VOA has a couple of additional problems to other reporters who are risking their lives for this story, and that is, obviously, first of all, their association with the government, with the administration, and, secondly, that its budget is tiny, and security operations suck up a vast amount of the budgets of most media organizations out in Iraq.

So protecting people who are even more vulnerable than already endangered reporters is a big task.  And obviously the VOA is struggling to live up to that.

OLBERMANN:  You can‘t lay staffing issues of the VOA at the feet of George Bush or anyone necessarily in the White House.  But this administration is so hands-on, so micromanaging, in this particular area, so intent on controlling the message from and about Iraq.  Do you think that a hugely embarrassing story waiting to break like this one possibly could have been unknown to key people in this administration?

WOLFFE:  Absolutely.  I mean, they have trouble controlling the message coming out of the Pentagon.  I mean, you know, they cannot, for instance, when it comes to the good-news story, there are people in the White House who are frustrated that military spokespeople don‘t return the phone calls of reporters in Iraq.  So it doesn‘t surprise me that they‘re not aware of VOA‘s problems.  It‘s no way to run a revolution, never mind rebuild a country.

OLBERMANN:  There was a specific irony in this story, too, that the Voice of America reporter in Baghdad had felt unsafe, and asked out because of the response she‘d gotten when she had reporting on the possible torture of Sunni prisoners by Shi‘a militia, just at the same time the administration began to emphasize this growing harmony of the political factions in Iraq, correct?

WOLFFE:  That‘s correct.  You know, the president said today in a press conference, I was there at the White House, the—you cannot measure progress by the number of suiciders, as he called them.  And this is a problem, because people are tuning in.  They‘re seeing the violence.  And it doesn‘t gel with the political story they‘re hearing from the administration.

That‘s a perception problem that the administration has never got over.  You can talk about political progress, but if people are dying, then it doesn‘t feel like progress.

OLBERMANN:  So lastly, Richard, rate this as a symbol, as a microcosm of Iraq and truth verses spin there and here?

WOLFFE:  I would say that the administration, the administration spin just has never matched the situation on the ground in Iraq.  And the VOA is just another example of that.  But the biggest one is the number of people who are dying.

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  Richard Wolffe, White House correspondent, senior White House correspondent of “Newsweek,” doing double duty for us this hour.

Great thanks, Richard.

WOLFFE:  Any time.

OLBERMANN:  The endless ripples in the pool of life caused by Iraq felt in another area of the news industry.  ABC News has changed lead newscasters at least in part because of what happened to one of their reporters in Iraq.

A month after Bob Woodruff was appointed co-anchor with Elizabeth Vargas of “World News Tonight,” Woodruff was severely injured by a roadside bombing in Iraq on January 29.  He is still recuperating at home from head injuries and broken bones.

Charles Gibson will now become sole anchor of that newscast as of next Monday.  There may be other components in what is the fifth announced change on the three network newscasts in just the last 18 months.  They include a drop in ABC‘s ratings, outgoing anchor Vargas‘s impending maternity leave, and a continuing in-house debate over the efficacy of the choice of the Vargas-Woodruff team over Gibson in the first place.

But there is no doubt the latest change would not have happened, not now, certainly, if Woodruff had not been injured reporting from Iraq.

To a media spotlight of a much different nature, Bill O‘Reilly --  No.  This is—this is—I‘ll just wait through the commercials, and we‘ll tell what you this is.

And three years ago, to have heard their critics, you‘d have thought that that‘s what these performers looked like inside.  Now, Dixie Chicks exact a comeuppance, including a nasty one against Bill O‘Reilly.

That‘s ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We sort through a lot of birthdays and anniversaries here, and few are surprises.  But here comes news that Charles Kimbrough, the impeccable actor who played newscaster Jim Dial on “Murphy Brown,” has a May 23 birthday.  He‘s 70.  In his honor, let me quote him from the program, “I can‘t hear you.  My flesh is being consumed by acid.”

Let‘s play Oddball.

We begin in Athens, Greece, for the international singing competition that makes “American Idol” look like karaoke night in Nutley, New Jersey.  It‘s the annual Eurovision song context, in its 50th year, where the hosts fly in on wires and entire countries rally around their representatives.  Wheee.

Past winners here include Abba, Celine Dion, hanging from a wire. 

This year, it‘s these guys.

Yes, Hard Rock Halleluiah, they‘re called, Lordi.  They‘re from Finland, and that guy singing has got more talent in one rotting corpse finger than that Taylor what‘s-his-face in his entire body.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It‘s a victory for rock music.  Not only for Finland, not only for Lordi, but it was a victory for rock music, and also, it is a victory for open-mindedness.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Yes, you never trust a zombie who wants to open your mind. 

Brains!  By the way, nice hat.

In other international competition news, there is the World Cup.  It begins in two weeks, but some very lucky Japanese fans are getting a little preview.  It‘s fish playing soccer.  Look at them play.  They‘re using a special ball there made out of shrimp, as opposed to the World Cup, where the balls are made out of ham.

Other than that, it was about as exciting as a real soccer game.  Nil-nil, your final, 1,100 spectators injured in the riot that ensued.

The clock is ticking on the 2006 hurricane season in this country. 

Just how bad will it be?  And are we ready for it?

And hurricanes might be weeks off, but in Florida, the clear and present danger is the alligator.  Why are they suddenly on the attack against humans?

Details ahead.

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

Number three, Vincent Marconi, domestic violence prosecutor of Strafford County, New Hampshire, now the ex-domestic violence prosecutor of Strafford County, New Hampshire, after he was arrested for domestic violence.  Hit his girlfriend.

Number two, Vidmantas Sungaila of Lithuania.  He‘s a truck driver pulled over for driving while drunk.  His blood alcohol content was not only 18 times the legal limit, it was also twice the biological limit before you die from it.  The good news, during his arrest, he was able to light the policeman‘s safety flares merely by breathing on them. 

No. 1, the winner of an action in Qatar.  To raise money for charity there, the cell phone carrier Qtel auctioned off an easy to remember phone number, 666-6666.  They got $2,800,000 for it.  The state-run news agency says the identity of the highest bidder is not divulged.  And boy, that is just sloppy reporting right there, for crying out loud.  You got the guy‘s phone number!

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OLBERMANN:  Hundreds of thousands of evacuated families are still living in temporary housing.  The Army Corps of Engineers is still fixing the levees of New Orleans.  FEMA is still organizing crisis response plan.  And in our third story of the COUNTDOWN hurricane season starts, once again, on June 1.  And before then we have to worry about angry alligators in Florida.  Gators on the attack in a moment, first Kerry Sanders looking at just how bad the weather may be. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KERRY SANDERS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  After 24 hurricanes and 11 making landfall in the United States in the past two years.  Today‘s prediction for this year‘s Atlantic hurricane season is unsettling, 13 to 16 named storms, eight to 10 becoming hurricanes, four to six becoming major hurricanes, with winds of 111 miles per hour or higher. 

MAX MAYFIELD, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER DIRECTOR:  It‘s not all about the numbers.  It just takes that one hurricane over your house to make for a bad year. 

SANDERS (on camera):  Why so much activity again?  Scientists say ocean temperatures are one to two degrees warmer than usual, and 4,000 miles that way, in Africa, different wind patterns blowing east are not what‘s needed. 

JASON DUNION, NATIONAL OCEANIC & ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION:  What we are starting to learn is that a lot of the features Saharan air layer can actually suppress hurricanes it‘s—you can kind of think of it as Mother Nature‘s hurricane suppressant. 

On the Gulf Coast, where Hurricane Katrina caused for man $125 billion damage, survivors, like the Gill family, who still live in a FEMA trailer, say they know statistically there‘s as good a chance a hurricane will hit them this year as last. 

JOHN GILL, BAY ST.  LOUIS MISSISSIPPI RESIDENT:  If you are not ready for a hurricane now, you never will be.

SANDERS:  In Florida, there‘s already a rush on to prepare.  No storms on the horizon, just tax-free shopping on supplies, encouraging residents to get ready for the next big one. 

Kerry Sanders, NBC News, Miami Beach. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Florida not the only state already preparing for this year‘s storm season.  Louisiana also gearing up for the worst by holding a two day evacuation drill for a fictional hurricane called Alicia.  Officials will practice new tagging techniques to try keep track of potential New Orleans evacuees, and will hold a mock evacuation of the state‘s largest trailer park.  You thought last year‘s evacuation was a mock one, didn‘t you? 

As for the federal response, the government told reporters Tuesday it now has stronger communications systems and enough food, water, and ice for a million people at least a week.  Though the acting chief of FEMA acknowledges the agency is still not quite ready for the upcoming storm season. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID PAULISON, ACTING DIR.  FEMA:  We are in a very aggressive hiring mode.  We want to go into hurricane season with at least 95 percent of our staff full.  Right now, we are right over at 85 percent and still working very hard to reach that goal. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The acting chief knowing a thing or two about how hard it is to hire people at his agency, considering the White House already asked at least seven qualified candidates to take on the directorship for another top FEMA job and all refused leaving Mr. Paulison, the man who dreamt up the duct tape non-sense three years ago, holding the bag. 

One potential bid of good news this storm season for pet owners.  The House of Representatives passing a bill that calls on states to include pet evacuations in their emergency plans and if they don‘t they lose their federal funding.  Licensed and muzzled animals would be permitted on public transit a similar measure on the senate. 

And 22 animal evacuees, rescued in New Orleans last year, now back in Louisiana just in time for hurricane season ‘06.  The 19 African black footed penguins and two sea otters were flown home to the newly renovated Audubon Aquarian of the Americas, curtsey FedEx.  Upon their arrival at Louis Armstrong in New Orleans they got purple carpet treatment complete with a brass band and of course they dressed up appropriately in tuxes.  The animals had been living in the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Oakland since Katrina forced their evacuation last September. 

Hurricanes, not the only threat along the Gulf Coast for animals this year.  Florida has extended its alligator hunting season until August 15 after a rash of recent attacks on people.  Our correspondent, Michele Kosinski on why those unusually rare events have suddenly become frequent. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  They are like living dinosaurs, virtually unchanged for millions of years and now more often sharing the same space with people. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Whoa! Oh man.

KOSINSKI:  This alligator, more than 11 feet long, caught in a canal running through an urban business park in Derow (ph).  This one, near a park in Sunrise, actually killed a woman earlier this month.  Another woman died in an attack along a canal near Tampa and a woman snorkeling was bitten death in a swimming hole in Ocala National Park.  In one week, three women killed by alligators around Florida.  This is the State Gator Hotline. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Alligator hotline this is Annette. 

KOSINSKI:  Keeping trappers busier than ever. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There is an alligator in here right now.  There‘s an alligator across the street. 

KOSINSKI:  And moving through neighborhoods. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He was just swimming around right here and then he stayed underneath the little bridge area there. 

KOSINSKI:  Wildlife experts insist deadly alligator attacks are still rare in Florida, only 17 since 1948 until last week.  So, what‘s going on? 

(on camera):  The numbers of both gators and people are growing.  We build into their habitat so suddenly their front yard is our backyard. 

(voice-over):  And the alligators are looking for water.  There‘s a drought in the Everglades.  The water level is low, gator holes are packed sending others out in search of more food.  They find it in backyard canals.  Worse, it‘s mating season, making the gators more aggressive, especially the males.  But getting rid of the urban gator may not be the answer.  Alligators are a protected species in Florida.

CRISTINA UGARTE, RESEARCH BIOLOGIST:  And they‘re part of this wetland system that we live in.  You know, it‘s like removing all the wolves or all the bears from Yellowstone or killing all the sharks you see in the ocean.  I mean, it‘s like you can‘t make your world perfectly safe for everybody, you know. 

KOSINSKI (on camera):  The experts say people are the ones who need to change behaviors.  Stop feeding alligators; avoid them so they will remain as fearful of us as we are of them. 

Michelle Kosinski, NBC News, the Everglades. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  From tracking alligators to rehabilitating race horses, another good sign in the recovery of Barbaro.  No good news about stories my producers are forcing me to cover.  Who will get to name the biological child of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie?  Here is a hint, it‘s not Jennifer Anniston.  Details ahead, but first here are COUNTDOWN‘s “Top 3 Sound Bites” of this day. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRUCE WILLIS, ACTOR:  Very funny film.  A big funny cast. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Oh!

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIS:  And that, my friend, is the end of the interview. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It‘s that galloping goat that‘s got the goat of Susan Maddox.  For two years Gracey May has peacefully lived here—peacefully until recently. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Somebody called and turned us in and now it‘s turning into a big deal. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The deal is a city law that says no barnyard animals can live within a thousand feet of a home. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Look at her.  She is harmless.  Isn‘t she sweet? 

A woman and her goat like a boy and his dog. 

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  So let me continue my answer.  (INAUDIBLE) By the way, that‘s a nice apple, it‘s a nice apple and congratulations on the book.

(LAUGHTER)

Come here.  Whoever thought Ellen Thomas would kiss up to me?  An apple for the teacher. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The band Dixie Chicks meets the whatever, Bill O‘Reilly.  And the latest on Barbaro as his owners thank well-wishers.  That‘s next, this is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  What could be an astonishing recovery for a racehorse more famous more not finishing the Preakness than winning the Kentucky Derby, has taken another step forward.  Actually in this case, it took an ear scratch forward? 

Our No. 2 story in the COUNTDOWN, two days after five hours worth of surgery to reconstruct his shattered right behind leg, Barbaro was seen in his stall using his left hind leg to scratch a itchy ear.  Not bad considering the horse‘s primary task now is merely to stand comfortably in his stall at the Widener Hospital for Large Animals in Pennsylvania.  His doctor, Dean Richardson, said, quote, “He‘s actually better today than he was even yesterday and he was pretty good yesterday.” 

Barbaro‘s vital signs are normal, but he still is at a 50/50 chance of survival in part because the opportunity of infection is so large.  It may be weeks even months before Barbaro could exercise.  Well wishers have sent signs, roses, and so many apples that they are being shared with other horses in the ICU. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GRETCHEN JACKSON, BARBARO‘S OWNER:  One of the things that one is supposed to do and one becomes a horse owner or a race horse owner is to not fall in love with the animal, because it‘s so painful.  It‘s so painful when something like this happens to you. 

ROY JACKSON, BARBARO‘S OWNER:  And all of us thought that he probably, even though he ran so well in the Kentucky Derby, we probably didn‘t see his greatest race.  But that‘s water over the dam.  We‘re just glad that we jumped the hurdle here, so far.  We ask for your prayers and thoughts.  And we hope that someday all of you here will be able to see little Barbaros. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  That provides an easy segue to the celebrity and entertainment stories of “Keeping Tabs.”  And as the world awaits the offspring of Hollywood thoroughbreds, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, now comes reports that a couple has asked a Namibian governor to name the child.  “In Touch” magazine reporting Brangelina have become close with Governor Samuel Nuuyoma during their stay in Namibia and an official confirms the story saying it is a great honor for the governor and the country.  The magazine says local custom calls for Nuuyoma to visit Jolie when he she goes into labor and officially names the baby.  Word is he‘s leaning towards Nuuyoma  Jr. 

It‘s been a rough week or two for actress Michelle Rodriguez.  First her character was killed off from ABC‘s “Lost,” now she is headed back to the big house.  Sixty days in jail for violating terms of her probation by getting herself arrested for drunk driving last December in Honolulu.  She served five days at the time and violated a three-year long probation stemming from a 2004 no-contest plea to hit and run charges.  The 27-year-old will spend two months a California prison, then 30 days performing community service which will consist of explaining the plot of “Lost” to the elderly. 

Also hear the dream story.  Dixie Chicks meet Bill O‘Reilly.  That‘s next.  First time for COUNTDOWN‘s list of nominee for “Worst Person in the World.”

The bronze goes to our pals at FOX News.  The latest bug up their anchor chair is the Al Gore global warming movie, their captioned question, “Al Gore‘s global warming movie could it destroy our economy?”  Seriously?  Did they turn the oxygen off in your newsroom over there? 

The runner up, wow, it‘s Matt Drudge again, a full year never on it, he now makes two lists in a row.  His Web site linking as a news headline with the teaser “Bonds.  I won‘t stop until I hit 868.”  The story it links to says Barry Bonds not only wants to beat Hank Aaron‘s North American homerun record of 755, but also Sadaharu Oh‘s world homerun record of 868 compiled in Japan.  The site to which Drudge contributed this link, WTF-TV.  WTF, now what could that possibly stand for? 

But the winner, Pat Robertson.  He is now selling fitness shakes, energy drinks on his Web site.  Christian fitness shakes.  Wait, he says they have given him such strength he can leg press 2,000 pounds.  The average leg press machine has a maximum of 400 pounds.  The professional ones go to about 1,000 pounds.  Pat claims he leg presses 2,000.  To paraphrase the old Steven Wright punch line, “well, not all at once.”  Pat Robertson today‘s “Worst Person in the World.”

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The apology she made to try to save her and her bandmates career, she‘s basically taking it back.  The apology she just received from one of her nastiest critics, she‘s refused to accept it.  Our No. 1 story in the COUNTDOWN, not only is Natalie Maines of the group, Dixie Chicks, living up to the description in “Time” magazine that she was one of those people born middle finger first.  But that apology that she wouldn‘t accept was from Bill O‘Reilly.  How could the story get any better? 

The land‘s new album, “Taking the Long Way” is just out, officially.  One reviewer called it, possibly the best adult pop CD of the year.  And the first single from it, pretty much symbolizes all the bans has been through since 2003, it‘s called, “Not Ready to Make Nice.”  It was in London on March 10 of that year, just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq that Ms.  Maines told an audience, “just so you know we are ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”  Wasn‘t long before she and the group were denounced by the right and a lot of the middle.  On March 14, Maines apologized for disrespecting the office.  She tells “Time” magazine, “I don‘t feel that way anymore.  I don‘t feel he‘s owed any respect whatsoever.” 

As to Mr. O‘Reilly, Maines told the “New York Times” that after repeatedly after trashing her and the group, they were all at a magazine party last were Dixie Chicks performed “Not Ready to Make Nice.”  Maines claims Bill O rushed up to her and said “Just want to say that was great.  I really like that new song.”  She says he continued, “We really respect what you did and we really respect that you stand up for yourself and blah, blah, blah, we just wish you would say it over here.”  Natalie, he didn‘t say anything about a loofah or falafel, did he? 

Let‘s look a little more deeply at the politics and the music with Joe Levy, the executive editor of “Rolling Stone” magazine.  Thanks for your time tonight, sir.

JOE LEVY, “ROLLING STONE” MAGAZINE:  Thank you for having me.

OLBERMANN:  Are they still suffering professionally for what they said three years ago even though there are a lot more people who agree with her now than did at that moment? 

LEVY:  They are still suffering professionally?  We will see.  The record came out today, and let‘s give it some time.  It might debut at No.

1.             It‘s sure to debut somewhere at the top of the charts.  But it‘s a myth that they suffered professionally that much, three years ago, they made a statement, their records were pulled from radio, there were very theatrical burnings of their CDs, since CDs don‘t burn, people broke them instead.  But then they mounted a U.S. tour and it was sold out. 

OLBERMANN:  That‘s right.  They only sold the six million copies of the CD which is a terrible thing to have happen.  One criticism, maybe this is part of the urban legend, too.  My one criticism of Natalie Maines and Dixie Chicks, that was a tough time for antiwar sentiment, especially in the minds of the audience that they relied on to such a great degree and I don‘t think people are required to throw themselves and their careers onto a fire for holding an unpopular political position, but did it take her three years, actually, to repudiate that apology, and if so, you know, why did it take years? 

LEVY:  Well, let‘s see.  Could it have been the death threats?  I‘m going with the death threats.  That was a bad time for them.  They said something that was inflammatorily, I don‘t think they backed down necessarily from their sentiment that the war was not something they believed in, but they made a calculated apology that the Office of the Presidency should be treated with more respect.  Just the same, their career was in mortal danger and worse yet, all of these women and their families and their children were getting threats from nuts-o‘s.  So, why didn‘t they stand up then and say, gee, you know what?  I don‘t think this guy deserves any respect.  Because it would have gotten them even more threats.  But, two years ago they were one of several groups headlining the Vote for Change Tour.  The message of that tour was, well it was in the title, it was very clear:  Vote of Change—vote for John Kerry, don‘t vote for Bush.  So, this isn‘t the first time they‘ve stood up and declared themselves opposed to the Bush presidency. 

OLBERMANN:  The O‘Reilly anecdote is not only cherished here, obviously, it‘s priceless and it‘s probably enough for an entire separate segment.  But are there others critic of their critics who have tried to weasel out of what they said about the band in 2003, the way O‘Reilly tried to weasel out of what he said about the band in 2003? 

LEVY:  Well, I‘m not aware of any more blatant weaseling than that.  That‘s to take the cake.  I haven‘t seen anyone publicly make apologies and of course they are critics at country radio, they are still pretty vociferously opposed to the Dixie Chicks.  Their new single, said “Not Ready to Make Nice,” and the title says it all, well it‘s not getting played at country radio, so I don‘t think those critic are backing down.  As for O‘Reilly, that‘s a classic bully‘s move.  When you‘re in the room face-to-face with the person you bullied, you fold up. 

OLBERMANN:  And she stuck it to them good.  We mentioned the country and music air play.  In the ‘60s certainly, even to some degree in the ‘70s, there was nothing that could get a musical act to the top faster if it was John Lennon, if it was Country Joe and the Fish, than songs of protest.  Dixie Chicks always seemed to feel more than a little constrained by the country label.  Do we know—have they thought of abandoning it altogether and trying to reestablish the genre of dissent music? 

LEVY:  Right.  I think they‘ve abandoned country music altogether.  It‘s not just musically, I mean, in the “Time” magazine article, they make a statement, it‘s inflammatory to a country fan, that they don‘t want to be constrained by people who have country CDs in their five disk changer because those are—that‘s just a small mined way of making music. 

In the country music world, which is a small world, you don‘t talk like that about your fans.  So, I think they‘re ready to move on.  I don‘t think they‘re going to move on to protest music.  There a couple of song that directly address what they‘ve been through and I guess those qualify as protest songs, but there‘s a lot more mom rock on this record than there is protest rock.  A lot more songs about kids and family than there about war and politics. 

OLBERMANN:  No doubt mom rock, a genre that if it is not already on your local radio, it soon will be. 

Joe Levy, executive editor of “Rolling Stone,” great thanks for joining us.  Great thanks for your time.

LEVY:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  That is COUNTDOWN for this, the 1118th day since the declaration of “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq.   I‘m Keith Olbermann.   Keep your knees loose, goodnight and good luck.    

Our MSNBC coverage continues now with the view from “Scarborough Country.”  Joe, good evening.

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

END   

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