updated 7/20/2006 3:11:58 PM ET 2006-07-20T19:11:58

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

Week two begins.  Lebanon says the death toll there has crossed 300, 1,000 wounded, half a million displaced.  Its prime minister wants compensation from Israel.

Hezbollah rockets hit Nazareth, two children dead there.  Israeli troops over the Lebanese border to clash with Hezbollah guerrillas.

And not missing the boat.  The cruise ship “Orient Queen” leaves Cyprus, 1,000 Americans aboard, evacuation fees paid by the State Department.

But if that State Department effort is finally at full speed, what about diplomacy?  What about a ceasefire?  Washington says it will not press the Israelis to stand down.  The U.N. and the European Union say there‘s no reason to wait until next week to try to stop this.

The question is raised, is Israel‘s response disproportionate?

Full coverage of day eight, with Brian Williams in Tel Aviv, Richard Engel in Beirut, Mark Potter in Haifa, Dawn Fratangelo in Cyprus, and Andrea Mitchell in Washington.

And in Washington, the veto hits over the objections of public opinion and everyone from Nancy Reagan to Orrin Hatch.  Mr. Bush calls the Stem Cell Research Initiative the taking of innocent human life.

And the initiative in New Orleans.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRAD PITT:  What if the city could actually produce more energy than it consumed?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Brad Pitt, part two, on rebuilding New Orleans, rebuilding it green.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

The Israeli air force calls it the primary subterranean asset of Hezbollah, and the breaking news on this eighth night of undeclared war in the Middle East, Israel has hit it with 23 tons of bombs dropped on a neighborhood in south Beirut, the target, the leadership of the group, possibly including Hezbollah‘s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah.

In our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, no idea if Nasrallah was there, nor if anyone was, nor if there were direct hits, Hezbollah denying any of its leaders were killed in the attack, saying the target was actually a mosque under construction.

We go to Richard Engel in Beirut in a moment.

But as if Israel‘s massive concentration on one target was not indication enough that none of this is ending any time soon, the numbers coming in from the Lebanese government, 500,000 residents displaced, the diplomatic near-silence coming from the American government, and the rockets coming from Hezbollah underscore that point.

Those rockets hit the holy city of Nazareth today, killing two young Arab-Israeli children.  All told, 29 people have died in Israel since the hostilities began, while in Lebanon, at least 61 civilians, and one Hezbollah militant, were killed by Israeli air strikes and gunfire just today.  That brings the total death toll in Lebanon up to 299.

The Lebanese prime minister says it is 300.  He reported also 1,000 more are injured, half a million displaced by the violence, the prime minister now asking Israel for compensation, calling the damage to Beirut‘s international airport and other infrastructure, quote, “unimaginable losses.”

Not that compensation is likely to be forthcoming any time soon, Israel maintaining its bombing campaign and sending ground forces into Lebanon for skirmishes with Hezbollah fighters.  The army says it has destroyed about half of the Hezbollah rocket arsenal, but cautions it would take time to destroy the rest.

At the Beirut port, the U.S. government began its first large-scale evacuation of American citizens and dependents from Lebanon, about 1,000 of them put on board a luxury cruise liner to Cyprus, 200 more on military helicopters.  But thousands more are still stuck tonight in that war zone, frustrated at the slow evacuation effort by the State Department.  The U.S.  government says it hopes to get all evacuees out within a week.

More on those evacuations and the situation in Israel in a moment.

First, the latest from Lebanon and still developing information about the Israeli bid to wipe out Hezbollah leadership in one fell swoop from our Beirut bureau chief, Richard Engel.

Richard?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICHARD ENGEL, MSNBC BEIRUT BUREAU CHIEF:  Keith, the Israeli military says it carried out a significant attack on Hezbollah‘s main command bunker here in Beirut.  Hezbollah‘s television station quickly that none of its leaders was in the bunker at the time.

Earlier, Lebanon‘s prime minister called for an immediate ceasefire, saying that Israel is destroying his country.

(voice-over):  It was the deadliest day yet.  Israeli air strikes and artillery fire killed more than 60 people.  The Lebanese government says almost all were civilians, and that 300 have been killed and 1,000 wounded so far.

Hezbollah doesn‘t have supporters in this wealthy Christian neighborhood in Beirut attacked today.  Israel apparently mistook a truck for a rocket launcher.  No one was killed.

But in Kasmiya (ph) in south Lebanon, an Israeli bomb left a crater where children were playing.

Ismail lost his son today.

They were small children.  “Do you see Hezbollah here?” he asked.  But we found Hezbollah fighters on the empty streets of south Beirut.

“I am here to collect more weapons to fight the Jews,” he told me, and wished Hezbollah would fire rockets at Tel Aviv.

But then, we heard Israeli jets, and got out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Let‘s go.

ENGEL (on camera):  We‘ve just been told by the Hezbollah guards that we should leave the area.  The only ones on the streets right now are Hezbollah militiamen on motorcycles and gunmen in the streets.

(voice-over):  A few blocks away, Hezbollah gave us a tour of one of its shelters in the basement of a supermarket.

Hassan Ahmed said Israel destroyed his home.  Hezbollah shares responsibility for making these people homeless but is now feeding them.

(on camera):  They‘re all saying that no one else in the world has come to their help, and they‘re pledging their loyalty to Hassan Nasrallah and say that the only Hezbollah has provided them with services and this shelter.

(voice-over):  Hezbollah, drawing support from the war meant to destroy it.

(on camera):  Spending time with Hezbollah, you realize how organized they are.  While we were in their neighborhood, we were constantly watched.  Their scouts were circling on motorcycles.  They communicated by radios.

They say this organization helps them in their fight with Israel.

Richard Engel, NBC News, Beirut.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  And as we told you, Hezbollah has already indicated that none of its leadership was in the bunker attacked by Israeli air defense forces earlier today.  An Israeli Web site, a news Web site, quotes an unidentified senior military source in Israel as saying that information obtained by security forces had shown that Hassan Nasrallah was indeed in the bunker.  Again, that has been fervently denied by Hezbollah.  We‘ll await further developments on that.

In Israel,  meantime, the city of Haifa under attack from the Hezbollah rockets all day.  One even hit a seaside restaurant that was deserted.

Our correspondent Mark Potter is in Haifa, and joins us tonight.

Mark, good evening.  What‘s the situation in Haifa right now?  Are there still rockets incoming?  Do you still hear air raid sirens?

MARK POTTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, good evening to you, Keith.

It‘s a little bit quiet right now.  We‘re in a lull.  It‘s 3:00 in the morning here, and so it is a bit quieter.  We do occasionally hear the booms off in the distance.  It‘s hard to tell whether that‘s from incoming rockets or outgoing Israeli artillery fire.

I can tell you that earlier in the day, there were several rocket barrages against the city.  Many of the rockets fell just short, landing in the ocean.  A few of them hit the city, but they didn‘t do much—too much damage.

One of the disconcerting things about two of the attacks that I witnessed were that the rockets came in, and there were no sirens at all.  They just came in and exploded and startled everyone without any warning.  And that can happen here, and that‘s why a lot of people aren‘t in this town, not only because of the rockets, but because of the uncertain nature of this, these rockets coming in.  They‘re unguided.  You never know when or where they‘re going to hit.  And today, we didn‘t get any warning either.

OLBERMANN:  You had more than your share of eyewitness moments with rocketry and war.  I understand you were in Nazareth today after that rocket had killed two Israeli-Arab children there.  What did you see in Nazareth?

POTTER:  Well, Keith, just as we drove into the city after nightfall, we were startled to see this group of hundreds of people at a mosque.  And when we asked what was going on, it turned out that that was the funeral for those two Israeli-Arab children who were killed by the Hezbollah rocket today.  Hundreds of people were there.  There was an overflow crowd.  Many of them were listening to the service as it was broadcast out into the yard and into the area where people were leaning on their cars.

Neighbors told us that those two children, by the way, were visiting their uncle.  They were playing on the side of a street on a hillside area in between two small apartment buildings when the rocket came in and killed them and injured some other people.

The irony of a Hezbollah rocket killing two Arab children is not lost on anyone.  Also add into that, many of the people there are blaming Israel for what happened, saying that the Israeli government did not provide shelter and a working air siren, and also they blame the Israeli government for ratcheting up the conflict with Hezbollah.

Caught in the middle, of course, those two children, and now their families.

OLBERMANN:  Give us one perspective on this you‘re your intuition and from what you‘ve have seen in the two cities today.  Any suggestion that there‘s a letup in hostilities?  That we‘re past some sort of midpoint in this?  Any gauge on where we‘re going?

POTTER:  Well, the indication is in the numbers.  Today and early this evening, actually, we were told that 140 rockets had fallen on northern Israel.  That‘s a record, that‘s the most since this conflict began last week.  We‘re seeing no sign of letup here on the ground.  We‘re hearing a lot of outgoing fire.  The rockets are still falling.  Unfortunately, at this level, no sign of letup.

OLBERMANN:  Mark Potter in Haifa for us tonight.  Great thanks, Mark.

POTTER:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  And Brian Williams, anchor of “NBC NIGHTLY NEWS,” has been inspecting northern Israel all this day and joins us tonight from Tel Aviv.

Brian, good evening.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS:  Thank you for having me, Keith.  Good evening.

OLBERMANN:  Did you get a sense from Israelis living on or near the border, are they ready for a ceasefire, or are they prepared to wait this thing out until their government has managed to do whatever it thinks it needs to do to Hezbollah?

WILLIAMS:  Keith, if I could have found an Israeli living on or near the border with Lebanon today, I would have loved to have asked them that question.  I think you‘ve seen what‘s going on in Beirut.  Those people remaining in their structures, we won‘t call them houses or apartments, really, are doing so by default.  They have no better choice.  All those who can leave northern Israel have left northern Israel.  All the people you are likely to see now are IDF, Israeli Defense Forces, the soldiers, except maybe a lone gas station attendant.

You know, (INAUDIBLE), I need not tell you all the political causes behind this.  They‘re angry at the Katyushas coming over the ridgeline.  They‘re angry because their neighbors for the past several years have been Hezbollah to the north.  So that‘s their motivation.

OLBERMANN:  You were also with Israeli artillery groups today.  Could you extrapolate from them how this conflict might progress?  Because obviously, we‘re not going to have anything in the way of an immediate ceasefire.  Is it more ground troops into Lebanon?  Or do they have an idea how many Hezbollah rockets and rocket facilities they think they need to neutralize?

WILLIAMS:  Well, a couple of points.  Number one, I heard an analyst, a former Israeli general, on local television last night say, There‘s nothing we want territorially in Lebanon.  Also, there‘s a healthy fear of the weapons they‘ve quietly—Hezbollah has been quietly coming into control of.  There are some antitank missiles the Israelis are not anxious to meet on the other side of the border.

So first of all, any ground invasion—and that‘s a very big word—would be preceded by movements we would see, armored mechanized columns.  Yes, we saw a call-up of reserves.

So that would be unlikely.  And, you know, from the soldiers‘ point of view, they are—it‘s a kind of a universal truth, they‘re doing a job.  One of them said, We‘d rather not be here.  He complained because he had been snatched from his girlfriend on the beach.  So that goes on, and they‘re doing a job.  This is not a policy pronouncement.

But judging by the ammunition and how dug in they are, they are certainly not expecting, nor, it‘s theorized, do they want an immediate diplomatic settlement anytime soon.

OLBERMANN:  You referenced what Hezbollah might have or might not have in terms of firepower.  We already reported on that rocket that hit Nazareth that killed the two children there today.  Do, in fact, does the average Hezbollah rocket have greater range than we had been led to believe previously in the coverage of this conflict?

WILLIAMS:  Well, here we are in Tel Aviv.  And we have been kind of cautiously wondering if that theory would be tested.  If the sirens here, the folks have been told if the sirens sound here, the folks have been told that means two minutes‘ notice.  Try to stay by a shelter in your daily life.  And if the sirens sound here, that means that there is a weapon with sufficient range to make it.

These Katyushas, as Americans watching the coverage now know, are unguided and so random, but still destructive and very, very scary as they litter the landscape.

So we may see and learn a lot more about the Hezbollah arsenal, in addition to what “The New York Times” has reported today, in the days to come.

OLBERMANN:  We also saw your report touring parts of Israel by air, getting the chance to see damage done by those rockets there.  How bad did it look to you?  What were you able to see?

WILLIAMS:  What a bizarre sight and feeling, Keith.  You‘re at an altitude of 1,500 feet above the deck.  And when you think of the fact that these missiles are landing and rolling and exploding and causing fires exactly 1,500 feet below you, and that some of them are made to go further, simple math would tell you, perhaps there are safer helicopter rides to go on.

It was a fascinating view of this war, of what has happened, of the damage they‘ve done.  The railroad depot, the coverage of that strike, I happened to be watching while packing for this trip.  And the notion of the jet age is just strange enough, and the places we go for a living, strange enough.  You never think that just days later, you will be doing a tight circle looking out the gunner‘s door down onto the hole made in the roof by that Katyusha rocket.

OLBERMANN:  The reality brought truly home.  And thank you for bringing so much of it to our homes as well.  NBC‘s Brian Williams in Tel Aviv tonight.  Great thanks, and safe home, my friend.

WILLIAMS:  Thank you, as always, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Also here tonight, a modern-day exodus from Lebanon. 

Today, the Americans get out in large numbers on board the “Orient Queen.” 

We‘ll go live to Cyprus for reaction to their week trapped in Beirut.

And the big political headline here, the president‘s first veto ever.  Despite pleas from his own party, Mr. Bush blocks the expansion of federal spending on stem cell research.  Did he just hand the Democrats a campaign platform?

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Americans still trapped in Lebanon tonight facing only three choices when it comes to their safety, A, staying in that country, riding out the violence, B, fleeing to Syria by road, despite the continuing threat of Israeli air strikes, and C, waiting to be evacuated by the U.S. government, an effort that was very slow to get started and still appears confused even now.

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, for the 8,000 Americans who have chosen option C, the pace of evacuations finally picking up today, as many as 1,500 American evacuees leaving Lebanon by sea or by air for Cyprus, some 900 to 1,000 of them aboard a private passenger ship, the “Orient Queen,” an American official saying that the U.S. government has the capacity to evacuate the remaining 6,000 or so by Friday.  But for many who have already spent more than a week waiting, Friday could not come soon enough.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  This is not acceptable!  This is (INAUDIBLE). 

We are human beings!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Who are you yelling at?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We (INAUDIBLE)!  Just do something!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We came here, we waited for half an hour, now to be told that our names is not on this list.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I‘ve been trying to get out for two days.  I‘ve been standing in line for three days with no (INAUDIBLE) for three hours.  I‘ve been to the embassy.  I‘ve been calling them for three hours, and no one answers.  And this is chaos.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The “Orient Queen” finally having arrived in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus earlier this evening, that‘s where we find our correspondent Dawn Fratangelo.

Dawn, good evening to you.

DAWN FRATANGELO, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Set the scene for us.  What‘s the mood there tonight for the Americans who have at least made it that far?

FRATANGELO:  Well, certainly, we‘re seeing lots of signs of relief on the faces of the Americans who came in.  Some were smiling, some flashing peace signs.  Interestingly, one 9-year-old told our crew, he talked about hearing the bombs and seeing the bombs in Lebanon, waiting to get out.  And then, like a 9-year-old can, talked about what a cool journey he had on the boat.

You can see the lights of the “Orient Queen” behind me, certainly, perhaps some of the best signs of hope in this very troubling time.

OLBERMANN:  And now, where do they go from here?  When and how are they going to try to make it back to the U.S., or if there are other destinations, where are they going to make the—how are they going to get to those destinations?

FRATANGELO:  Well, it‘s going to be a long night first for them here.  They‘re right now, they were taken by bus to a processing center.  They‘ll also meet up with about nine travel agents that the U.S. embassy here has brought in to help them make those travel arrangements.  The State Department has arranged for three charter planes that will leave tomorrow afternoon.  Those three charter planes really can accommodate the 1,044 people who were on that boat if they wish to leave.

That‘s the hope of the State Department, to get them here, process them very quickly, don‘t clog the system that‘s filled with other people, other foreign citizens, and get people where they want to go very quickly and as soon as possible.

OLBERMANN:  And Dawn, about the would-be evacuees who‘ve not yet even made it to Beirut, who are still stuck in southern Lebanon, are there plans being designed for them?  Is it catch-as-catch-can for them to get out of the country?  Where do they stand?

FRATANGELO:  Well, I talked, interestingly, to the commander, the military commander today in charge of this, Brigadier General Carl Jensen.  I asked him, one on one, about the safety of the people who are still in Lebanon.  Can the U.S. military, which is really organizing this evacuation, this transfer of thousands of people out, can they guarantee the safety?

And he said they‘re doing everything they can.  He understands the frustration of those people who want to get out, who‘ve been waiting.  But he said they‘re trying to do this as safely as possible for the people who are trying to get out and the thousands of military personnel escorting and helping this transfer.

He said also that, you know, they expect that, he said he will not rest, and this is until every single American who wants to leave Lebanon does leave Lebanon.  And he said, Even if they change their mind on Friday, Saturday, until every single person who‘s expressed a wish to leave, this operation will continue to try to get—well, to get everyone out, are his words.

So I, the feeling is, you know, certainly among those in command and those people here in these small embassies, both in Beirut and in Cyprus, and the task forces who‘ve been brought in, they say this is what their job is all about, when Americans are in trouble.

But they understand the frustration.  It‘s been—it‘s a logistical -

or has the makings of a logistical nightmare.  But so far, and this is only day one, Keith, thousands of people coming in here, and it seems somewhat organized once its gets here.  There‘s certainly not a sense of panic here.

But a, you know, just a few miles, 40 miles from Beirut, but seems like a world away.

OLBERMANN:  An operation, if it was indeed slow in starting, perhaps finishing strongly.  Dawn Fratangelo again for us tonight from Cyprus.  Great thanks, Dawn.

The push for a Mideast ceasefire meantime.  The pushing in Washington is clearly not very hard.  Why not?

And away from this conflict, Brad Pitt‘s plan for an environmentally friendly recovery in New Orleans.  Part two of Ann Curry‘s interview with a celebrity throwing his weight around again.  The same question, why not?

That and more, ahead here on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Israel‘s fight with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon has been overshadowed, or has overshadowed, another conflict in the region, Israel‘s fight in Gaza and the West Bank.  Fourteen Palestinians killed today by Israeli forces in the central Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Nablus, the latest fighting in a three-week offensive that began when Hamas militants captured an Israeli soldier in late June.

More than 100 Palestinians have been killed in the raids, the heaviest fighting coming today when Israeli tanks and armored vehicles rolled into a Gaza refugee camp and destroyed a Palestinian security compound in Nablus.

(INAUDIBLE) ahead here in our special edition of COUNTDOWN, the diplomacy dilemma.  The U.N., the European community pushing for a ceasefire sooner rather than later, but the U.S. apparently still wants to give Israel some time.  Analysis ahead from NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell.

Forget scientists, forget patients, President Bush turns his back on members of his own party, vetoing more federal funds for stem cell research.  Could there be lasting political damage from that decision?  “The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank joins us for that.

Breaking celebrity news.  There‘s been yet another Suri Cruise sighting.  But the conspiracy theories live on, since the sighting was by another celebrity Scientologist who just didn‘t happen to have a camera.

And the exclusive to trump all exclusives, Brad Pitt, talking environmentally friendly reconstruction in New Orleans with Ann Curry.  How could you even think of missing that?

All ahead, here on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  On Monday insiders suggested that what looked like diplomatic foot-dragging by the United States was actually a deliberate attempt to fly below the radar of negotiation.  Now however, it is beginning to looking like diplomatic foot-dragging.  In tonight‘s No.  3 story in the COUNTDOWN, the administration‘s seeming inaction increasingly translating into a passive stamp of approval.  As the conflicts continue to rage, a visit to the region by secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, could come this weekend.  But a State Department spokesman says a date has not yet been fixed.  A report in the “New York Times” suggests that date may keep getting pushed back.  The Americans and Israelis have reached a consensus, allowing Israel to bombard Lebanon for another week or more to continue to degrade Hezbollah‘s strength.  Secretary Rice would then go to the Middle East to seek a Hezbollah free buffer zone in Southern Lebanon.

Meanwhile, U.S. ambassador, John Bolton, has questioned whether a terrorist group is capable of cease-fires.  White House press secretary, Tony Snow echoed that. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  Because you cannot have a cease-fire that is unilateral.  The key thing with regard to Hezbollah is that it is operating with the backing of Iran and the support of Syria.  And some of our allies certainly have been making their voices known including our Arab friends and have been encouraging both of those governments to go ahead and tell Hezbollah to back down. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  But President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria attempted to turn the tables today calling himself for a cease-fire charging the international community with procrastination. 

Our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell joins us now. 

Thanks for some of your time tonight, Andrea. 

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT:  My pleasure. 

OLBERMANN:  Is it foot-dragging?  Is it procrastination?  Is it the referee being deliberately slow to break up the clench so as to give one of the fighters more time to pound the other? 

MITCHELL:  A little bit of rope-a-dope perhaps?  It certainly is a deliberate strategy; it is a slow walk because they do want to give Israel some more time to try to get this Hezbollah, the Hezbollah implements to try to hammer them, to try to diminish Hezbollah‘s weaponry.  You know, it‘s hard to say how much time.  There is certain amount of impatience with the U.S. at least asking Israel what is your end game, what is your timetable?  Let us know, you know, when think you would be ready for a cease-fire. 

Most military experts—I talked to General Barry McCaffrey today, whom you know well, and he thinks that would it take a full division of Israeli troops on the ground in Lebanon, which of course, we‘ve seen before, you know, most recently when they were there, but also in ‘82 to really clean Hezbollah out of Southern Lebanon and have an international force, not a U.N. force, but an international force, go in and create that buffer zone. 

But the U.S. knows that they don‘t have that much time.  And there is some risk here that by aliening themselves so much with Israel they not only further alienate the Arab world, but keep—they also risk toppling this very weak Lebanese government that they are trying to prop up. 

OLBERMANN:  Read the world press and read even now some of the American press you get today these questions, and they‘re still gently phrased for the most part:  Is Israel‘s response proportional?  Does that question have weight within the State Department?  Is that, sort of, the tipping point back in that silly boxing analogy, is the point in terms of proportional response when the American referee goes over and taps the Israeli fighter on the shoulder and says enough for now? 

MITCHELL:  Well, they are, at the State Department, concerned about the global response at a certain stage.  They don‘t think that Israel should stop yet because they do think Israel has to do more.  At the White House, I‘m beginning to hear some concerns about the domestic American response.  And when you see the political meter start moving on that, that‘s when you may see that referee tapping—tapping Israel on the shoulder. 

OLBERMANN:  And to what degree is the administration‘s response or the timing of its response also colored by the interpretation of all this in many quarters as this Iranian proxy war? 

MITCHELL:  Well, I thing that is actually part of the calculus, that the U.S. thinks that they are also getting at Iran through Israel.  Israel is fighting this war, if it is a war, and I don‘t know what else to call it at this stage.  Israel‘s fighting this battle, in effect, for the U.S. and also indirectly getting at Iran. 

The interesting thing is that when Rice does go to the region, and this will happen, she will talk to all the Arab leaders, but she, of course, will not talk to Iran or Syria.  And the thinking is that they need to further isolate Iran and Syria by showing solidarity with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia.  But there is discomfort also, the Egyptian foreign minister was not very happy yesterday at the State Department and made it very clear he wants an immediate cease-fire and they‘re getting a little nervous about this American strategy. 

OLBERMANN:  And the European Union and the U.N. suggesting that the cease-fire needs to be sooner rather than later, they have enough of a voice in this to influence American opinion at all? 

MITCHELL:  Not really, but they will meet for dinner with Condi Rice in New York tomorrow, Kofi Annan, Javier Solana, of the E.U., other representatives and it‘ll be very interesting to see, I can‘t imagine who the food taster will be there, but that‘s not going to be an easy evening. 

OLBERMANN:  Chief foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, in Washington, great thanks.  Goodnight.

MITCHELL:  Good to be with you. 

OLBERMANN:  Also here, a setback for stem cell research.  The president uses his veto pen for the first time, will not do it on camera, by the way.  Will it also be a setback, though, for the republicans in the polls in four months time? 

Meanwhile, who is worried about rebuilding the Gulf Coast?  Part two of Ann Curry‘s exclusive interview with Brad Pitt ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  President Bush issues his first veto.  No expansion of federal funds for stem cell research.  Could the president‘s hard stance come at a step political price?  More of our exclusive interview with Brad Pitt.  And by “our” I mean, Ann Curry‘s?  That‘s next, this is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  If the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and we only have the scientist‘s word for that, there is no straight lines in the radical right‘s attitude toward life, antiabortion, pro-death penalty, against converting stem cells that would be otherwise be thrown away that might have been used to elevate the suffering of one of their political patriot saints, Ronald Reagan. 

Our No.  2 story on the COUNTDOWN, oh, and waving the democracy banner whenever possible, while ignoring what opinion polls suggest is a sport as high 72 percent.  For that which President Bush vetoed today. 

You will not actually be seeing the veto here.  Mr. Bush, this afternoon, debuting the veto pen against a bill that would have expanded federal funding of embryonic stem cell research on unused fertility clinic embryos.  Cameras only allowed in as he surrounded him with young children, who as embryos had been donated to childless couples.  The subtle touch always does best.  What did get his signature today, two far less controversial stem cell related bills, some might call them meaningless.  One prohibiting something that no serious scientists is even proposing.  Democrats confounded by the scientific double speak, Mr. Bush appearing to be confounded by exactly which rights are endowed by the creator in the Declaration of Independence. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W.  BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  America was founded on the principle that we are all created equal and endowed by our creator with the right to life.  We can advance the cause of science while upholding this founding promise.  We can harness the promise of technology without becoming slaves to technology.  And we can assure that science serves the cause of humanity instead of the other way around. 

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK:  It‘s fortunate that the president has chosen as his first veto this bill and robbed so many people of hope.  Hope that there would be a cure for a multitude of diseases.  It‘s confounding that this is the place where the president would choose his first veto. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s call in our own Dana Milbank.  Of course, the national political reporter of the “Washington Post.”  Good evening, Dana.

DANA MILBANK, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  What‘s the benefit here for the president if stem cell research is not even really a wedge issue, if ¾ or more of the American public supporting research like this?  Nancy Reagan supports it, Senator Orrin Hatch supports it, 50 House republicans?  What‘s the upside of honking all of them off? 

MILBANK:  Well, it‘s not clear the president‘s been acting in his own best interest all week, you know, in a week when he gives a massage to the German chancellor and has some unfortunate vulgarities to share with the British prime minister.  Here there is a calculation, and that is that it‘ll be a low turnout election in the midterms in November, and once again, I think we‘ve said it 100 times on this show, it‘s about the base.  If you make your base happy, they‘ll come out and vote for you and when you‘re at that 35 percent in the polls, all you‘ve got is the base, so it wasn‘t actually that a hard a political calculation, even if it turns of 2/3 or ¾ the public. 

OLBERMANN:  Bit should the democrats, considering political calculus here, could they thank Mr. Bush for signing the veto today?  Because with that base of popular support for it, could cell research—could the stem cell issue be something on which the democrats could try to run in the fall? 

MILBANK:  You better believe it.  It‘s—same that gay marriage really was for republicans, a sleeper issue last time around that really brought their people out.  This has the potential to do that.  It‘s a wedge issue, it‘s part of the culture wars, but this is a rare one, if not the only one that actually benefits the democrats.  It‘s going to be on the ballot in Missouri where Jim Talent, a senator, voted on Bush‘s side of this issue.  He may face some trouble for that.  George Allen in Virginia, a couple of other key races, so it‘s—for democrats it‘s quite an exciting thing to actually have a cultural issue that is to their advantage. 

OLBERMANN:  Could they make mileage out of the two things that the president did signed today?  One of these bills banned aborting an impatience embryo just to get the stem cells, which is something, apparently, no scientist is talking about doing.  I mean, there might be a few murders and ghouls out there, but this—those things seem to be bordering on not merely on firing up the base, but almost on hysteria. 

MILBANK:  Well sure, I mean, the technical legislative term is “smoke screen,” but I don‘t think people were making much of a secret about that.  There is nothing offensive about approving them.  A lot of this was about trying to regain some of the advance that was lost vetoing, that‘s why the president had all these children there, the adopted embryos called “Snowflakes.”  The fact of the matter is there‘s, you know, 400,000 of these discarded embryos they‘ve managed to adopt 130 of them.  Wonderful think but it doesn‘t really solve the problem, but helps blunt the impact against the president. 

OLBERMANN:  And the president was left trying to shout them down too, which was an interesting staging issue.  But last thing here, funding stem cell research, one of the few things Congress managed to get done, few than 16 weeks until election day, is Congress doing anything other than political posturing?  Anything at all?

MILBANK:  Sixteen weeks until election day.  By my account there‘s 16 actual days in which the House of Representatives will be voting the entire rest of the year and it‘s only July.  Sure, we did the Pledge of Allegiance this week.  The House voted on the gay marriage amendment, even though the Senate had already killed it.  But, we have nothing but good posturing in the Congress of the United States. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, good posture is always very important, as you know.  And we‘re going to have that pro-sunshine bill that comes out later in the week.  Dana Milbank, of MSNBC and the “Washington Post,” of course.  As always, Dana, great thanks. 

MILBANK:  Thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  From the debate over when life actually begins to the debate over whether one celebrity baby exists.  Leading off our respite from the real news, the roundup of celebrity and entertainment stuff, “Keeping Tabs.”

We have had a Suri sighting, but with an asterisk, the sighter was a fellow scientologist.  The actress Leah Remini says she has seen the baby.  The “King of Queens” co-star told “Us Weekly” that she visited the baby several weeks ago.  Her description of the baby is “She is a new born and she‘s normal size!” And we‘re not sure if the exclamation point is—in the quote is a rip on Tom Cruise‘s height.  Add this to the description, that a Telluride, Colorado store clerk gave a Suri Cruise last week, and you have a normal, but funny looking child.  Stay tuned to “Keeping Tabs” for more late-breaking vague descriptions that in and of themselves induce uneasiness as they happen. 

And a rare sighting from the sports world where a new trend has been making a young stat geek your team general manager, but a hockey squad has instead made just made one of its players into the boss.  Garth Snow, the backup goalie of the New York Islanders has been promoted directly from the ice to general manager.  He turns 37-years-old next month.  He was a star at the University of Maine and a pretty good player over 12 seasons in the National Hockey League.  Generally assessed as a sharp guy, but with absolutely no management experience at all.  Of course, as one noted hockey analyst wrote, “Just about everyone who received the club‘s bombshell press release about Snow thought it might have been some kind of gag.”  I mean, taking what we call talent from under the bright lights of the stage, as it were, and moving him directly into the position of general manager.  Where do they get ideas like this?  I don‘t care how sharp the guy is.  What are the other players going to think?  I mean, who would.

Oh, yeah.  Sorry, Mr. Abrams, never mind. 

Meantime, what self-respecting environmental group latches on to a celebrity to sell it cause?  A smart one.  The exclusive interview with Brad Pitt on his vision for a new and environmentally improved New Orleans, ahead. 

First, time for COUNTDOWN‘s latest list of nominees for the “Worst Person in the World.”

The Bronze to—hello! He has finally converged with comedian Rush Limbaugh during another diatribe O‘Reilly meandered into the story of Limbaugh‘s detention at customs after he returned to this country with of bottle of Viagra prescribed to somebody else.  He told the gullibles, “I‘m not going over the Limbaugh thing in Palm Beach which was a total setup.” 

Right.  Somebody set him up.  Not with prescription pain killers, with Viagra.  Bill, try harder.  Even paranoia requires some imagination. 

Our runner up, the good folks at Homeland Security.  Another report out of the GAO, the Government Accountability Office, suggesting that last year alone, the department wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars on iPods, designer jackets and beer-making equipment.  They bought a brewing kit and ingredients so a Coast Guard official could make his own beer while serving a social organizer at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.  Net cost of a six pack of Coast Guard beer, 12 bucks.  Your tax dollars in action. 

But tonight‘s winner, U.S. Airways.  More of this efforts to make money any way possible, it says it plans to sell ads on the air sickness bags.  No, I‘m not kidding.  Talk about new avenues of revenue flow.  I‘ve got the first customer for the barf bags ads, the Department of Homeland Security!

U.S. Air and the sickness bags that are brought to you by an advertiser, today‘s “Worst Persons in the World.”

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Admit it, when you hear about a performer involving himself in political or societal issues, you have to fight an almost natural tendency to just roll your eyes.  Then you remember Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Sonny Bono or Bill Bradley, or good grief, Phineas T.  Barnum who became the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut.  And all things considered, what you would rather consider, Brad Pitt advocating the green reconstruction of New Orleans or Kevin Federline getting paid $20,000 to make a cameo at a party somewhere? 

Our No.  1 story in the COUNTDOWN, Pitt has the right name at least.  Not one but two men named William Pitt served as prime minister of England and the younger of them is still considered one of that nation‘s all-time greatest.  Part two now of Ann Curry‘s interview with this Pitt, the younger, putting more than just his mouth to the issues of post-Katrina recovery. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANN CURRY, “TODAY” SHOW (voice-over):  Almost a year after the flood waters of Katrina decimated this city, piles of garbage still line the streets, the rotting remains of houses haunt neighborhoods and affordable housing is hard to find.

BRAD PITT, ACTOR:  I‘m telling you, man, these people need help they‘re not being addressed like they should be.  They‘re not getting the adequate support or the support fast enough.  It‘s real.

CURRY:  To try and change the conditions still found in New Orleans, Brad Pitt joined forces with the non-profit group Global Green to sponsor an architectural competition to design a green 12-unit apartment complex. 

MATT PETERSEN, Global Green CEO:  One of the things we asked all of the designers to do is focus on energy use.

CURRY:  Brad and Global Green CEO, Matt Petersen, showed me the six finalists culled from more than 3,000 registrants from all over the world.  The first design was from Chicago. 

PETERSEN:  This one did it interesting in the use of solar power and energy efficiency growing upon a creative idea of having a solar barge.  That may or may not be feasible in the end, but it showed some creativity about how they wanted to approach the energy challenge.

CURRY:  The jury judging the entries picked designs that promised to generate as much energy as the buildings would consume. 

PITT:  Understand, this is the way of the future.  We‘ve got to address these issues.  It‘s just a matter of time and we might as well start here.  There‘s just a great opportunity to do so with this rebuilding effort.

CURRY (on camera):  What convinces you that this is the wave of the future?

PITT:  Oh, because it‘s inevitable.  The dependency on oil, the ...  look at our gas prices, look at the health rates.  We just can‘t keep consuming ourselves into extinction.  We‘ve got to regroup and adopt a new paradigm, a new way of thinking.

CURRY (voice-over):  The next finalist‘s design relies on newer green technology that uses the temperature of the earth to heat or cool the apartment. 

PETERSEN:  They also draw upon a geothermal cooling and heating system, which in this area actually would work pretty well.

CURRY:  But many of the best green ideas are old ideas and that is what we saw in the third finalist, who uses a traditional New Orleans design called a shotgun loft to help cool the house with air flow and cross ventilation.

PETERSEN:  Well there are a lot of natural shading and ventilation ideas that really stood out on this project. 

CURRY:  The fourth finalist also uses the traditional shotgun loft design, he also designed all the living areas on the second floor in case New Orleans floods again.

PITT:  It‘s from a local architect, which we were very happy that a local guy made it in.  This one really draws on New Orleans housing, but yet it‘s still evolved and it‘s using cheap recycled materials and there‘s a lot of—there‘s a big sense of play in this one.

CURRY:  All of the entries rely heavily on the use of recycled and energy efficient materials, like fluorescent lights and reclaimed wood and timber.  But what stood out for the judges on this design is the way the green roof is incorporated into the plans.

PITT:  Planting the roofs are good for one, capturing water and two, keeping the place clean and it‘s relatively easy to do. 

CURRY:  The sixth finalist, also from New Orleans, proposes windmills and river turbines to generate the electricity needed to heat and cool the apartments. 

Harnessing available energy is what Global Green wants builders everywhere to do.

PITT:  What if a city could actually produce more energy than it consumed?  What if it could actually filter the air instead of pollute the air?  And this is a new paradigm that we‘re going to have to adopt.  It‘s a long time coming, but we got to start now and start advancing these technologies.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Ann Curry‘s exclusive interview Brad Pitt, there is no part three, so you‘re safe tomorrow.  That‘s COUNTDOWN, for this the 1,775th day since declaration of “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq.  The breaking news from the Mideast during this hour:  Israel dropped 23 tons of bombs on one neighborhood in South Beirut today claiming it found a bunker in which Hezbollah leadership, including Hezbollah‘s secretary general was contained.  It—the Hezbollah claims that none of its people were there that in fact, the target that Israel bombed, hit—the Israeli‘s bombs hit, was a mosque under construction.

Our MSNBC coverage continues now with “Scarborough Country.”  

I‘m Keith Olbermann, goodnight and good luck.

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

END   

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