updated 7/21/2006 11:19:42 AM ET 2006-07-21T15:19:42

Guests: Hisham Melhem, Howard Fineman, T.J. Quinn

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

Day nine, the Israelis evidently did not take out the head of Hezbollah in a bombing run last night.  He speaks, says he will not release the kidnapped Israeli soldiers, but would trade them for prisoners.

The Israelis do claim to have hit Hezbollah hard, destroying half, they say, of the group‘s military capacity, and destroying much of Lebanon.

U.N. Secretary General Annan calls for an immediate cease-fire.  U.S.

Secretary of State Rice may take an immediate trip to the Middle East, and

by immediate, we mean next week.

And here, is there reason to worry Hezbollah might try reprisals?  Are American targets, overseas or domestic, at risk?

And the first American evacuees from Lebanon return to this country, while we send in the Marines to help escort the remainder out.

Is anybody happy with the administration‘s stance towards the hostilities?  A conservative think tank now blasts Mr. Bush‘s foreign policy.  The prime minister of Iraq denounces Israel.  And the civilian casualty count in Iraq now crosses an ominous mark, 100 dead per day.

Full coverage of this day at war with Richard Engel in Beirut, Mark Potter in Haifa, Kerry Sanders among the refugees in Lebanon, and Pete Williams in Washington.

Also, Barry Bonds not indicted, not today.  And the personal trainer who went to jail rather than testify against him is released from jail, and then subpoenaed to testify against him to a new grand jury.

And Tiger, the two-faced cat is missing, believed catnapped.

Also, anybody seen my electric blanket?

And you, fish, stop smiling at me, and stop wearing human dentures.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

Not only did Hezbollah‘s leader survive a 23-ton bomb blast at his supposed underground headquarters, if he was ever anywhere nearby at the time of the blast, but Israel is now dropping ever-stronger hints about the possibility of full-fledged ground invasion of Lebanon.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, day nine of the conflict in the Middle East.  In an interview with Al Jazeera today, Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah, not only showed that he is still alive, but laid to rest any immediate possibility of cease-fire, saying there is, quote, “no way in the world” that his organization will release the two Israeli soldiers it kidnapped last week, unless a third party negotiates for a prisoner exchange with Israel.

On the front lines, a small group of elite Israeli soldiers once again entered Lebanon to fight with Hezbollah guerrillas over the border, Arab television reporting that four Israeli troops lost their lives in the assault, Israeli warplanes again bombing targets in southern Lebanon and Beirut, and Israel warning all residents to immediately leave the border area of southern Lebanon, a possible prelude to ground action.

Since fighting began last Wednesday, at least 311 people in Lebanon and 29 more in Israel have lost their lives.  A thousand more Americans escaped from the war zone today, rescued by the U.S. military from a beach just north of Beirut, shipped over in safety to Cyprus.

On the diplomatic front, the rift over what to do about the Middle East growing larger still, the United States backing Israel in its mission to degrade Hezbollah, France and Russia both calling for a cease-fire.  And, at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, the secretary general called Israel‘s actions excessive and disproportionate, and made it very clear what he considers the top priority for dealing with the situation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KOFI ANNAN, UNITED NATIONS SECRETARY GENERAL:  What is most urgently needed is an immediate cessation of hostilities.  I repeat, hostilities must stop.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Israel‘s ambassador laid hopes of that to rest immediately after Kofi Annan‘s speech, reiterating that Israel has no timeline, and there will no cease-fire, not yet.

Our correspondent Mark Potter is in Haifa, Israel, joins us once again.

Good evening, Mark.  What‘s the reaction there to Mr. Annan‘s remarks? 

Is Israel feeling any pressure to comply with them?

MARK POTTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I don‘t think so.  And good evening to you, Keith.  He‘s not the president of the United States.  If the president of the United States spoke, he certainly would get attention.

But it is instructive, as you said just a moment ago, that the U.N.  ambassador from Israel spoke right after the secretary general spoke, criticizing him for not concentrating on terrorism, for not concentrating on Iran and Syria, as the supporters of Hezbollah.

They don‘t seem to be too concerned about what he‘s saying, or pressured by what he‘s—the points that he‘s making, and they are saying that they are going to continue on in their campaign to eradicate, as best they can with the time they have, Hezbollah.

OLBERMANN:  That campaign, there has certainly been a lot of talk in the last few hours internationally about the prospects, about the details, even, of a possible ground invasion seeking Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Are people in Haifa, for instance, behind that approach?

POTTER:  Well, the polls show that all the people of Israel, a great majority of the people of Israel, are behind the government and its approach.  There is a lot of talk here about going into Lebanon.  In fact, it‘s already happening on a small scale, small incursions in and out on a search-and-destroy capacity.

The talk that we‘re hearing most of is not about a full-scale invasion, as you might think of, where you go in, you take over a country, and you hold it.  Israel has no appetite to go back into Lebanon and stay there for a while.  But there is talk of increasing incursions, more of these small-scale efforts to get in.  And they have met with resistance.  We‘re hearing—the government here is confirming two more Israeli soldiers were killed today, in addition to the two killed yesterday.

And it appears that they‘re going to have to go in more and more, and that seems to be the level that they‘re talking about, not a full-blown invasion, as we typically think of one.

OLBERMANN:  Incursion, not invasion, as you suggest.  The reappearance of Sheikh Nasrallah on Al Jazeera television, was anybody in Haifa, anyone that you were in contact with, surprised that he was alive after such dedication and effort was made towards bombing him out of existence yesterday?

POTTER:  Yes, I think some people were, and certainly on this side of the conflict, disappointed.  There had been a lot of speculation about what had happened to him after they rained down 23 tons of bombs on that bunker in Beirut, and there was hope on this side, frankly, absolute hope that he had been killed or badly injured, and that those working with him had met a similar fate.

Then he appeared on television.  That was not—that did not go over very well.  And on top of that, he was not only alive, he was defiant, and saying that he would require third-party negotiations for the release of the two soldiers.  And so here we go again, and he‘s back.

OLBERMANN:  Mark Potter in Haifa, Israel, for us tonight.  Again, Mark, great thanks.

POTTER:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  Meantime, there are American Marines in Lebanon, but they are not showing the flag nor intervening in the conflict.  They‘re not hearkening back to the awful bombings at the Beirut barracks in 1983.  They‘re trying to both speed up and control the evacuation of Americans who want out from Beirut.

That and more on the Hezbollah leader, neither bloodied nor unbowed, reported by our Beirut bureau chief, Richard Engel.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICHARD ENGEL, MSNBC BEIRUT BUREAU CHIEF:  About 2,000 Americans were evacuated today, half of them escorted by U.S. Marines.

(voice-over):  In a picture-perfect military moment, U.S. Marines help evacuate American women and children.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We‘re happy to be here and help our fellow Americans.

ENGEL:  Today, Marines shuttled about 1,000 Americans on landing craft to the U.S. “Nashville.”

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It was awful.  We‘re just glad that we‘re getting out of here safely.

ENGEL:  Back on the shore, an uglier scene of those left behind, climbing fences, pushed back.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We‘re scared.  We just want to leave.  Thank God we‘re not in the south.

ENGEL:  That‘s where most of the Israeli bombings and air strikes continue today.  In this coastal city of Tyre, hospitals are filling up.  “Two Israeli rockets hit the building next to my home,” she said.  “People are still buried in the rubble.”

Rubble is all that‘s left of Hezbollah‘s south Beirut headquarters.  Today, the group took reporters to the obliterated area, but it didn‘t take them here, a mosque Israel says it attacked with 23 tons of explosives last night.  Israel says it was a Hezbollah command bunker, a claim the group does not deny.

(on camera):  Hezbollah says its leaders weren‘t here, and that it has been preparing for attacks like this one, training a new set of commanders and moving them to secure locations.

(voice-over):  Tonight, Hezbollah‘s leaders say that Hassan Nasrallah appeared on Al Jazeera.  He promised new surprises, and said two Israeli soldiers would not be released, except in a swap for Lebanese prisoners.

(on camera):  Nasrallah also disputed Israel‘s claim that it has destroyed about half of his rocket arsenal, and promised more attacks.

Richard Engel, NBC News, Beirut.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  The first Americans evacuated from Lebanon to Cyprus are now back on U.S. soil, nine days after hostilities broke out, 138 Americans landing at BWI Airport outside Baltimore early this morning, two more chartered flights expected to arrive in the next couple of days, those Americans who are finally home tonight sharing harrowing tales of chaos in the war zone and in the frantic rush to escape.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

STEVE MCINERNEY, EVACUATED FROM LEBANON:  The bombing began during the night.  The first night that it began, I was trying to sleep,  and enormous bombs started falling and shaking the room, and windows in the room I was staying in.  At times, that you would—there would be a smell of smoke in the city.

TAREK DIKA, EVACUATED FROM LEBANON:  For the past four days before coming here, they were bombing all around us.  My family was terrified.  I had to leave early in the morning, 6:30, and hope to God that I would not get killed on the way to Beirut.

MARTHA KHAWAT, EVACUATED FROM LEBANON:  I was evacuated by a cargo ship with no food, no water, no place to sit, nothing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  But at least American citizens can get out of the war zone, albeit slowly.  Lebanese refugees from the south don‘t have any way to leave.

As our correspondent Kerry Sanders reports, thousands of them are trying to get as far north as they can, and ending up in makeshift shelters, trying to keep out of the line of fire.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KERRY SANDERS, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Kaifoun (ph) is usually a town of 3,000.  Tonight, it‘s overwhelmed by 40,000 refugees.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Is traffic jam here.

SANDERS (on camera):  You‘ve never seen this before?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  No, no, no.

SANDERS (voice-over):  Resident Omar el-Sayeed (ph) says, as the south is shelled, families evacuate north.  They wind up here, sleeping on the floors in government buildings and schools, cooking in hallways.

OMAR EL-SAYEED:  We feel very nervous.  We feel very furious.  We are not used to house crowds of people, thousands of people.

SANDERS:  For these now-homeless kids, a game of ball is their only diversion.  Twelve-year-old Batul al-Itz (ph) says she alternates between playing with her friends and crying with them.

BATUL AL-ITZ:  I think I will die.

SANDERS (on camera):  You think you will die?  Why?

AL-ITZ:  Because I hear the crash.

SANDERS:  You hear the bombs?

AL-ITZ:  Yes.

SANDERS:  Do you still think you will die?

AL-ITZ:  Yes.

SANDERS (voice-over):  Her fear is backed up by the numbers.  More than 240 civilian deaths, including one missile attack that killed 15 children on a bus.  It‘s been highly publicized in the Arab media.

(on camera):  And in this war, where so many children have already been killed, villagers here say they have a very real fear that by us simply showing up with a television camera and taking pictures, somehow they‘ll be the next target.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I am sorry—

SANDERS (voice-over):  It‘s why local Hezbollah members cut us off, fearful of more Israeli air strikes.

Kerry Sanders, NBC News, Kaifoun, Lebanon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Hezbollah still providing support for local residents of Lebanon, highlighting the conundrum in the region.  Will Israel‘s rockets aimed at taking out Hezbollah only expand support for the group, even possibly undermine our goals in the region?

Meantime, this was expected to be indictment day for Barry Bonds.  Instead, it is back to the future.  The chief witness who went to jail rather than testify against him is out of jail, called to testify again, and says again he won‘t, meaning he would go back to jail.  The latest live from San Francisco.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  In delaying its own diplomatic action on the Middle East crisis, the Bush administration has suggested that an immediate cease-fire and a lasting cessation of hostilities are somehow incompatible.

In our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, with Secretary of State Rice meeting with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan this evening, Mr. Annan says hostilities should cease now, not later, has taken aim at both sides.  In his speech to the U.N. Security Council today, Mr. Annan said that both Hezbollah‘s deliberate targeting of Israeli population centers and Israel‘s disproportionate use of force must stop.

The secretary general also took a swipe at Israel‘s underlying strategy, while the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, repeated a now-familiar administration line.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

ANNAN:  Whatever damage Israel‘s operation may be doing to Hezbollah‘s military capabilities, they are doing little or nothing to decrease popular support for Hezbollah in Lebanon or the region, but are doing a great deal to weaken the government of Lebanon.

JOHN BOLTON, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS:  What we seek is a long-term cessation of hostilities that‘s part of a comprehensive change in the region, and part of a real foundation for peace.  But still, no one has explained how you conduct a cease-fire with a group of terrorists.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

OLBERMANN:  Yet how to achieve a cease-fire will be the topic of a special crisis meeting Secretary Rice is trying to organize, NBC News learning this evening that Secretary Rice hopes to hold a summit with European and Arab leaders at a neutral location next week, potentially in Cyprus.  It‘s possible that the Lebanese prime minister could even attend.

One thing, perhaps, that all parties can agree on, the diplomatic pitfalls that await.  Among them, asking Syria and President Bashar al-Assad to exert influence over Hezbollah to end their side of the hostilities.  It was the recent open-mike suggestion from President Bush to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But employing Syria‘s help could help restore its influence in Lebanon, a country just barely holding on to its own independent democratic government.

Another paradox, one suggested by Secretary General Annan, among others, that Israeli bombardment of southern Lebanon has widened popular support of Hezbollah in the region, terrorist or not, even making it the only organization still capable of delivering services to the hardest-hit areas.

Joining us now, the Washington correspondent for the Lebanese daily newspaper “Annahar,” Hisham Melhem.

Thank you for your time, sir.

HISHAM MELHEM, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, “ANNAHAR”:  Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  So much of this keeps coming back to the presence of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Israel‘s attempt to degrade the military capabilities of the organization, and the suggestion that those attacks are, in fact, increasing Hezbollah‘s popular support there.  What is your analysis on both of those points?

MELHEM:  In the past, Keith, every time there was a confrontation between the Israelis and Hezbollah, Hezbollah grew in stature in Lebanon and beyond.  In fact, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, is strutting on the Arab stage as a 10-feet-tall man, because Hezbollah, as the—a nonstate actor, managed to create a dent in Israel‘s strategic deterrence.

Hezbollah was very popular in Lebanon when Hezbollah fighters were fighting Israeli occupation forces on Lebanese soil before the year 2000.  After the Israeli withdrawal, things became more problematic, and now Hezbollah has strong support from the Shiite community, but there are many Lebanese communities and many Lebanese leaders who are very appalled and angry at Hezbollah‘s reckless decision that dragged the country into the abyss.

So I think when the guns fall silent, there will be tough questions asked by Lebanese leaders, Lebanese people, of Hassan Nasrallah, as to what gives you the right to drag Lebanon into hell?  But within the Shiite community, probably Hezbollah will remain the spokesperson for the Shiite community.

OLBERMANN:  Obviously, and unfortunately, we have no indication that Israel is anywhere near seeking a cease-fire.  But would that be possible to attain that, and to get Hezbollah on board, without also putting Syria into the equation?

MELHEM:  That‘s the question that‘s being asked in various capitals in the Middle East and in Europe.  In fact, we‘ve seen arrangements like that taking place in the past in the 1990s.  The most famous one is 1996, in which the Americans, the French, the Lebanese government, Israel, and Syria reached an agreement to spare the civilian populations from attacks.

I cannot see the Bush administration engaging Syria.  I don‘t see the Bush administration “rewarding,” quote, unquote, Syria.  That‘s what they say.  And they don‘t trust the Syrian regime.  Syria is ruled by inexperienced, immature political leader, who is seen in Washington, with a degree of credibility, credence, that it‘s being manipulated by the more powerful Iranian regime.

In fact, it is the Syrian leader that is in awe of the leader of Hezbollah, not the other way around.

So—but the question remains, how can the United States influence the behavior of actors in the region, being state or nonstate actors, when they don‘t talk to the Hezbollah or Hamas or Iran, and they have a degraded diplomatic presence in Damascus?  That is really the question.  I think the Americans are really hoping, to put it bluntly, for the Israelis to do, quote-unquote, the “dirty job,” and degrade Hezbollah‘s military capabilities so that they can go to the Arab states and seek some sort of a truce.

The other thing is, maybe the Iranians, if they see that their tremendous military investment in Hezbollah, especially the advanced missiles that they gave Hezbollah, if they are being degraded, because Iran gave those missiles to Hezbollah, so that they can be used in a confrontation in which Iranian national security interests are at stake, i.e., an American attack on Iran, or an Israeli attack on Iran, but not in a war like this.

OLBERMANN:  The—right now, it does not seem to be evident that the Bush administration is overwhelmingly interested in influencing anybody in the region.  What—how is that position being perceived in the entire region?  And what risk does that put the Bush administration at in terms of having influence on what happens next?

MELHEM:  Keith, the prevailing view in the Arab world and (INAUDIBLE) probably in parts of Europe and other parts of the world is that the United States gave Israel a green light—or if you want to put it differently, diplomatic cover—to undermine Hezbollah‘s military capabilities.  Everybody in Lebanon—a lot of people in Lebanon, in the region, would say the United States is trying to do two seemingly contradictory things.

On the one hand, say that we support the Lebanese government, which was elected in a democratic elections, and at the same time, we give carte blanche to the Israelis to undermine Hezbollah‘s military capabilities, while they should have known in advance that the Israelis are undermining, or were likely to undermine the very structure of the Lebanese state that the Israelis and the Americans and the Europeans say they will need in the south to control the borders.

OLBERMANN:  The Washington correspondent of the Lebanese daily, “Annahar,” Hisham Melhem.

Great thanks for your insight tonight, sir.

MELHEM:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  Some in Hezbollah are threatening to attack the United States for its apparent support of Israel.  Are these empty words, or a real danger?  We‘ll have a reality check from Pete Williams.

And the news that is going ignored amid the war coverage—well, news might be a little broadly defined here.  Let‘s call this what it is, a python that enjoys an electric blanket as a snack.  We‘ll leave it at that.

That and more, ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  One additional question raised by the American position on the Middle Eastern conflict, whether the United States could itself become a target of Hezbollah, either overseas, or even here at home.  It may or may not surprise you to hear that there are Hezbollah cells operating within this country.  What is not so clear, the kind of actions those cells are prepared to take, and when, and what they‘re capable of.

With the details, our correspondent Pete Williams.

Pete?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PETE WILLIAMS, MSNBC PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT:  Keith, the question of whether Hezbollah would attack here is something very much on the minds of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security.  But for now, terrorism experts in the government, and the outside experts as well, agree on this, that that is not something Hezbollah would be inclined to do.

But at the same time, they caution that is a calculus that could change.

(voice-over):  There‘s no question that Hezbollah has cells operating in the U.S., one of them broken up in North Carolina a few years ago.  Its members, investigators said, were active and well connected to Hezbollah‘s leaders.  Members of what federal agents say was another cell operating in Detroit were charged in late March.

But both times, they were accused not of plotting attacks, but of raising money to support Hezbollah in the Middle East.  And while terrorism experts say members here have military training, they have refrained from attacking, in part because Hezbollah has such close ties to Iran, and Iran could be held responsible.

EVAN KOHLMANN, TERRORISM EXPERT:  For Hezbollah to strike at the United States, the immediate implication would be that the attack is coming from Iran, that the attack is being either masterminded or, at a minimum, green-lighted by forces in Iran, which would make Iran a direct target for retaliation.

WILLIAMS:  But some say that could change, if Hezbollah feels it‘s about to be wiped out.

ROGER CRESSEY, MSNBC TERRORISM ANALYST:  It could strike at U.S.  targets, both in the Middle East and also inside the United States, for the reason of bringing the United States into the conflict, in order to exert pressure against Israel.

WILLIAMS:  For now, the FBI says it‘s keeping a close eye on suspected Hezbollah cells here.

ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR:  To the extent that we have identified individuals associated with Hezbollah, that we are taking additional precautions to assure that we do not face any threat from these individuals.

WILLIAMS:  And in a joint bulletin with the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI also warns local police that individuals residing here who sympathize with Lebanon or Hezbollah could act on their grievances too.

(on camera):  The FBI says it knows of no credible threat, and no intelligence indicating that any kind of Hezbollah attack here is in the planning stages, despite all the blustery warnings from overseas, Keith.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Pete Williams in the Washington newsroom.  Great thanks.

President Bush taking major hits this week on the domestic and foreign policy fronts, not just liberals who are upset.  Is there evidence of a revolt from his conservative backers on foreign policy?

And no revolt, at least not yet, against Barry Bonds by his former trainer.  Bonds is not indicted.  The trainer is released from prison after refusing to testify about Bonds.  And he is immediately summoned again to testify about Bonds.

Details ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Even for a glass half-full type like President Bush, it would be hard to find the bright spots just now.  The hits these days coming at him domestically and internationally, what is, in our third story on the COUNTDOWN, a full range of right jabs and left hooks. 

We begin on the right, the far right.  Frustration if not outright anger building among American conservatives over Mr. Bush‘s handling of foreign affairs.  Specifically that he is either not doing enough in places like Israel, or in the case of Iraq that he has already done, he has, to put it kindly, botched.  A vice president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute quoted by the “Washington Post” saying she and every conservative she knows are, “Beside themselves with fury at the administration.” 

You know things are bad when the administration‘s global crisis of choice is Darfur, the one eclipsing all others in terms of sheer carnage.  At the White House, Mr. Bush calling on Sudan‘s vice president to approve a peacekeeping force in that troubled region. 

In another sign of desperation perhaps, Mr. Bush finally addressing the NAACP annual convention, having snubbed the civil rights organization in each of his first five years in office, having said in 2004 that his relationship with the group‘s leaders was, “basically nonexistent.”  The crowd, polite if nowhere near as enthusiastic as the true believers Mr.  Bush usually hears from.  Two protesters interrupting the president near the end of his remarks, shouting barely audible questions about Dick Cheney and the situation in the Middle East.  NAACP chairman Julian Bond approaching the podium in a show of support, President Bush waving him off. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W.  BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Don‘t worry about it.  Don‘t worry about it. 

JULIAN BOND, NAACP CHAIRMAN:  I know you can handle it. 

BUSH:  I‘m almost done. 

BOND:  I know you can handle it. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  As you heard, Mr. Bond replied to the president there, “I know you can handle it,” apparently not a widespread opinion these days.  Case in point, Iraq.  In the nine days since Beirut started burning, attacks in Iraq have also soared.  The U.S. military today reporting a 40 percent increase in violence there, an average 34 attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces in Baghdad alone over the past five days.  Violence also spiking in Tikrit, seen here, that of course, Saddam Hussein‘s hometown. 

The big picture, worse than many had even imagined.  A new human rights report from the U.N. Estimated that the total number of Iraqi civilians killed since the invasion in March, 2003, has now reached 50,000, nearly 6,000 in May and June of this year alone.  An average 100 Iraqis now losing their lives every single day.  Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill now advising GOP candidates that they should distance themselves from the president on the topic of Iraq. 

Let‘s call in our own Howard Fineman, also, of course, chief political correspondent for “Newsweek” magazine. 

Good evening, Howard. 

HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK”:  Hi, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  We did not even mention stem cell and the veto there in our introduction, here.  That was a move counter to the beliefs, if the polls are correct, of up to 72 percent of the American public.  Is there anyone firmly in the president‘s corner these days?  I mean, even his wife and mom must have been horrified when he was talking with his mouth full at the G-8 earlier this week. 

FINEMAN:  Well, they probably didn‘t like it when he gave the prime minister of Germany a back rub either.  I think in the Republican Party, you know, it‘s down to the pro-lifers really, and he served their interest by vetoing the stem cell bill, but as you point out, at the cost of a lot of the middle of the road republicans, as well as democrats. 

I talked to a strategist who‘s very close to Karl Rove and George Bush, knows them well, has worked with them.  He told me he thought that the republicans could lose both the House and the Senate.  That might be lowballing on purpose, but it reflects the mood of gloom in and around the White House.  The problem is that they have neither carrots nor sticks.  They don‘t have the carrot because George Bush is very unpopular.  He seems unable to handle events at this point, desperately low approval ratings.  And there‘s no stick either because what is Karl Rove going to threaten to do?  Not allow the president to go into your state or district?  A lot of republicans don‘t want him there. 

OLBERMANN:  Obviously, there have been far worse stretches in American history, even just the histories of American presidents.  It seems Abraham Lincoln had 100 of them each worse than what the Bush administration is going through now.  But give us a little perspective.  Have we ever seen an administration facing so many different kinds of crises all at the same time? 

FINEMAN:  I think the fact that they seem to be happening all over the world makes it unique or certainly unusual in modern times, and the fact that public confidence in the president right now is so desperately low.  I mean, Harry Truman‘s ratings were very low during the time when he was taking on the emerging Cold War and he had a big crisis in Greece and Turkey to deal with, with the old Soviet Union, but there was one focused thing.  Here you‘ve got a president with an approval rating hovering around the low 30s or below in some states and numerous things all over the world, and the fact that many of the American people, probably a majority, blame his decision to go into Iraq for having stirred up a lot of the problems he‘s dealing with now.  That was the biggest decision that any president has made in a long time, and most of the American people have concluded that it was a mistake. 

OLBERMANN:  Politically—and speaking purely politically, obviously, nobody is thinking this is going to work to somebody‘s advantage to have a Middle East crisis ongoing.  But could it be that it turns out, ultimately, to be a useful diversion for the White House?  No attention paid this week to the blocking of the—the revelation that the president blocked the investigation by the Department of Justice into the NSA spying?  Certainly there was very little backlash against the stem cell veto, at least the coverage of it, thus far.  There some cover that has been provided to the president inadvertently here? 

FINEMAN:  Well, maybe very inadvertently.  That‘s a little like saying Barry Bonds would like to take attention away from the steroid and tax charges by robbing a bank.  You know, I don‘t think so.  I don‘t think so.  I think they would rather not have this crisis to deal with now.  They‘d be yearning for the days when they could talk about stem cell politics rather than have to deal with this, because every minute of every day underscores what seems to be the president‘s powerlessness.  And the one thing that the American people dislike more than a president who makes bad decisions is a president who can‘t influence world events, because we‘ve gotten use to presidents who do just that. 

You mentioned Abraham Lincoln.  He began that tradition of strong presidencies.  That‘s what the American people believe in, and that‘s what George Bush can‘t seem to provide right now. 

OLBERMANN:  That‘s extraordinary.  Howard Fineman, of “Newsweek” and MSNBC, as always, sir, great thanks for your time. 

FINEMAN:  Thank you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Speaking of the topic Howard just raised, he‘s in the clear for now, but perhaps not for tomorrow.  Barry Bonds escaping indictment from a grand jury, only to face the prospect of an entirely new grand jury convening next week and staying convened for a year and a half. 

And a note to international soccer authorities, suspending a player for three games for this probably would have more impact if the player was not already retired.  That‘s next, this is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  He has not been indicted and his ex-trainer is now out of jail, but tonight both Barry Bonds and trainer Greg Anderson are facing a second grand jury investigation. 

Call the police, sound the alarm.  Tiger is missing.  Not the golf legend, the cat with two-faces.  That‘s next.  This is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Maybe not today, goes the most famous line from “Casablanca,” “maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”  Our No.  2 story in the COUNTDOWN, never thought of Barry Bonds as Ingrid Bergman, did you?  The troubled baseball slugger got two big surprises today, indicted, but his personal trainer and accused steroid supplier who went to jail rather than testify to a grand jury with about him was released from jail and promptly subpoenaed to testify to a new grand jury. 

Mr. Bonds did not lose any sleep last night over what was thought to be a looming indictment today on prudery or tax evasion or both, so thought even by his own attorneys.  Not showing any anxiety in front of the cameras, getting down, or trying to, to Bobby Brown singing “My Prerogative” in the Giant‘s clubhouse. 

The prerogatives of the grand jury investigating whether Bonds lied to the grand jury were to indict Bonds today or let itself expire.  It chose the latter with a catch, as explained by a spokesperson for the U.S.  attorney in San Francisco. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LUKE MACAULAY, SPOKESPERSON U.S. ATTORNEY‘S OFFICE:  Much has been accomplished to date, and we will continue to move forward actively in this investigation, including continuing to seek the truthful testimony of witnesses whose testimony the grand jury is entitled to hear. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Now, who would you mean by that?  Greg Anderson, ex-friend, ex-personal trainer to Bonds who was being held in federal prison for contempt of court for refusing to testify at Bonds‘ grand jury No.  2.  It was a second visit to the slammer for Anderson who‘d been convicted of steroid distribution after the very same investigation in which Bonds is suspected of lying. 

Anderson was set to be released from prison today if the Bonds‘ grand jury expired.  It did, he was released.  And then Anderson‘s lawyer, Mark Geragos, said his client would be the first one subpoenaed by another, new grand jury hearing evidence against Mr. Bonds. 

“He‘s not going to speak,” says Geragos of Mr. Anderson.  “He‘s not speaking to the media, he‘s not speaking to the grand jury.  They can subpoena him everyday for the rest of the year and it doesn‘t matter, he‘s not going to talk.” 

Bonds is not sure what to say.  “I hope this is the end,” he said, in a statement posted on his website.  “I do want to make it clear there are no hard feelings for the legal process, but I do feel there is a point where everyone needs to move on.”  His lawyer, Michael Rains, who you see there, saying “Bonds is hoping this is the end of it, but he doesn‘t know it, nor do I.”

Sportswriter T.J. Quinn of the “New York Daily News” has been following this virtually since it began, several centuries ago, and now joins us outside the Giants‘ ballpark in San Francisco. 

T.J., good evening.  Thanks for your time. 

T.J. QUINN, “NEW YORK DAILY NEWS”:  Sure, Keith.  Good to be with you. 

OLBERMANN:  Are we simply back where we were two months ago?  Are we in summer reruns now?  Is the premise here that the government can now threaten Greg Anderson, you talk to this grand jury and you go to jail not just for two weeks but the full term of the grand jury, like a year and a half? 

QUINN:  Exactly, I mean, he‘s looking at a year, that‘s the standard length for a federal grand jury in a case like this.  They are right back where they were.  Everybody except Greg Anderson, he‘s looking like, as you said, at considerably more time. 

For Bonds, he and Michael Raines tried to spin it today as sort of a victory, a sign that the federal government‘s case wasn‘t that good.  But plenty people we‘ve talked to, and the U.S. attorney made it clear with his statement, say they feel that, you know, they absolutely have the same case they had before.  They intend to proceed and with the speed they moved today to serve Greg Anderson, looks like they‘re not going to sit around and wait. 

OLBERMANN:  Have you been able to piece together what had to have happened behind the scenes just in the last 24, 36 hours?  I mean, obviously, the plan could not have been—or could it—to just let the grand jury expire, let Greg Anderson out, call him again, and let this start from square one again?  Did some kind of deal or some kind of squeeze play fall through in the last couple of days? 

QUINN:  Yeah, I don‘t know.  Kevin Ryan, when he read his statement and didn‘t take any questions, did refer to, you know, events I think in the last few days or however he said it, it‘s really hard to say.  I personally have not been able to piece it together.  I don‘t know if anyone else has yet.  But it did seem, you know, an entirely plausible strategy that they thought, you know look, we need Greg Anderson probably to make a perjury case.  The grand jury is due to expire.  Why not just let it go?  Turn it over to a new grand jury and now we‘ve got far more leverage with Greg than we would have had before. 

OLBERMANN:  Of course this does not impact merely what the government does or does not do.  I does not just impact Greg Anderson.  This was supposed to be some sort of a watershed day in baseball.  A lot of reporting in the last week that the commissioner, Bud Selig was going back and forth about suspending Bonds if the grand jury handed up an indictment on almost anything.  Do we know how today‘s developments will impact all that? 

QUINN:  Same thing.  Everyone just kind of sitting and waiting, waiting to see what this means, whether or not, you know, the government will seek again to bring an indictment.  You know, really for everybody, it was kind of a blow.  I mean, Michael Raines even said he was shocked this morning and that Barry Bonds told him he was expected to be indicted today. 

Bud Selig, I—everything I heard is that they were probably leaning against some kind of action.  There really is no precedent for suspending a player who‘s only been charged with a crime, not convicted of one.  The only time they tried to do it Fergie Jenkins in 1980, and of course, that was overturned.  But everyone, including out of town writers like me who have been waiting on this, have no idea what we‘re doing next. 

OLBERMANN:  One other tweak here.  The attorney for Mr. Bonds, Mr.  Raines, who you just mentioned, addressed the Bonds famous story that he thought that the products Greg Anderson gave him were not steroids, but flax seed oil.  Raines said something different today.  He said Bonds was suspicious in light of what he had read as to whether those were steroids or not.  Did he just change Barry Bonds‘ story about this? 

QUINN:  You know, I don‘t know—it was a curious thing and kind of an aside to this whole press conference.  Mark Fainaru-Wada “Game of Shadows” fame, was the one who threw the question at him.  He was trying to get him to answer the question as to whether or not Barry believes he ever used steroids.  I mean, he admitted to taking these substances.  The government very clearly identified those substances as steroids.  So, it seems pretty clear that he took them, but Barry‘s never made a statement yes, I did ingest them at some point.  There‘s never been that kind of admission from him.  And it was hard to tell whether Raines was actually making that admission today or not.  He was a little oblique about it. 

OLBERMANN:  Lastly, we have to do a baseball analogy.  If this were a ballgame, would Barry Bonds‘ team be winning and what would the score be and how late in the game would we be at? 

QUINN:  Oh, wow, you know, I think I have to switch sports.  Not to mix metaphors, but I think I have to go with football in this one.  I don‘t know how much time is left on the clock, but there is time on the clock, and the government has the ball right now. 

OLBERMANN:  T.J. Quinn, sportswriter of the “New York Daily News,” following the Bonds saga.  As always sir, great thanks for your time. 

QUINN:  Thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  From what could be the end of a controversial slugger‘s career to the controversial end of a head-butter‘s career.  That starts our nightly roundup of celebrity and entertainment news, “Keeping Tabs.” 

And what punishment does FIFA give Zinedine Zidane for weaponizing the crown of his skull during a World Cup soccer match?  Three games off to think about it.  That seems a little light.  Consider this, Zidane has already retired.  That punishment and a $6,000 fine handed down today.  However, because Zidane had already hung up his spikes, he has agreed to complete three days of community service.  Perhaps he can demolish old buildings with his head.  For his role in the tussle, meanwhile, the Italian defender, Marco Materazzi, got a two-game suspension, a $4,000 fine, and of course, a welt on his chest that looks surprisingly like Zidane‘s cue ball noggin.

And from that to the little kitty that could head butt you and look the other way at the same time.  Like this poor guy didn‘t have enough trouble, now he‘s missing.  That‘s next.  But first time for “COUNTDOWN‘s” latest list of nominees, for the “Worst Person in the World.”

And there‘s a mine-theme.  The Bronze to an unnamed defendant in Frankfurt in Germany, who was sentenced to 33 months in jail today.  He had set fire to his apartment building because he this lost his key, could not afford a locksmith, and had no other way to get into the place. 

Of course, sir, you would not have had very much of an apartment after you set it on fire!

Our runner-up tonight, another alleged atypical arsonist, Matthew Damski, admitting to local authorities that he set fire to a couch in the dorm at the University of Central Florida because he figured that during the evacuation, he could meet some women. 

Hey, come to the fires often? 

But tonight‘s winner, Bill-O again.  This is a doozy from the radio. 

I will just read it because other than the overlying religious element, I don‘t think even he knows what he meant by this. 

“We have a very big split in the Jewish-American community.  You got a lot of Jewish liberals, a lot of Jewish far-left people who basically feel that, you know, you don‘t have a right to go after terrorists because it‘s our fault, the United States‘ fault.  And some say it‘s Israel‘s fault because we have been mean to them.  Therefore, they have a right to do whatever they want, behead people on camera, all this terrible stuff.  OK, that‘s a far-left position.” 

And here comes the anti-Semitism. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

STEWIE GRIFFIN, “FAMILY GUY” BABY:  Bill O‘Reilly, today‘s “Worst Person in the World.”

(END AUDIO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  In times of breaking new news and international strife, there are often important stories here at home that tend to get lost in the fog of war coverage.  For instance, you may not have even been aware that a fish was found this week in Texas with teeth like a human being.  Buffalo Springs Lake have never seen anything like it.  It appears to be a Pacu fish, a benign cousin to the Piranha.  The Pacu usually lives in South America and feeds mostly on corn on the cob. 

And what about the alligator with God on his side?  Really, the word “God” on its side.  It lives in Salem, Wisconsin, and it feeds mostly on Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwiches. 

Our No.  1 story this evening:  Who is covering the weird animal stories?  We are, that‘s who.  Beginning in Ketchum, Idaho, the hometown of Karl Beznoska and his 12-foot Burmese Python, Houdini.  And for his greatest trick, this week Houdini made a queen sized electric blanket disappear.  That‘s right, he ate it.  The blanket, the electrical cord, the control box, and the rabbits that was hiding underneath all of it.  Hmm, rabbits in a blanket.

These are x-rays taken by the vegetarian who performed subsequent groundbreaking surgical procedure.  A two hour operation to remove the blanket from the snake‘s belly, a complete success.  Houdini is recovering nicely, he‘ll have to hold off on the strangling until the stitches come out, but he‘s going to be up and around and swallowing fuzzy little bunnies in no time. 

And I bet if you wash that blanket it will still smell as good as new. 

And then there is the confounding story from Grove City, Ohio.  Tiger the two-faced kitten is missing.  You may remember tiger from his appearance, and what an appearance it is, last week.  We call him two-face, not because he is in anyway duplicitous, but because he has two-faces and can coo simultaneously from each of his two meow holes.  He‘s on two sides of the same milk carton.  Mike Bowersock of our NBC Columbus affiliate, WCMH introduced Tiger to an unsuspecting world. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE BOWERSOCK, WCMH CORRESPONDENT:  You are seeing double.   This kitten was born Wednesday morning at this home in Grove City.   It has two mouths that meow in unison, two noses, four eyes that have not yet opened.

CHARLES HICKMAN, CAT OWNER:  I was playing outside in the rain.   Once I came in I saw that there was a two-faced cat that my mom was picking up.   That‘s how I knew there was a two-faced cat.  

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Ask not for whom the bell tolls.  It tolls for Tiger, the two-faced cat.

After that report Tiger became famous, nosey neighbors began ling up outside the Hickman home to catch a glimpse of the cat, who can purr in stereo.  But then some time during the night, last Friday, Tiger suddenly disappeared.  A door was left unlocked and the family fears someone may have broken in catnapped the little fella—little fellas.  But the family dog, Pepe, a Chihuahua with one face, did not bark during the night, just like in the Sherlock Holmes story about Silver Blaze, the missing horse. 

So, another theory is Tiger‘s mother ate the kitten or dragged him out into the yard and left him there.  Hey, that‘s the way nature works.  In the interim, the family has contacted a pet detective, but with each passing day, the terrible reality becomes more and more likely that the fragile little two-faced kitty who captivated a nation may have finally used up all of his 18 lives. 

Stay tuned to Nancy Grace for nightly updates. 

That‘s COUNTDOWN for this the 1,176th day since the declaring of “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq.  I‘m Keith Olbermann, goodnight and good luck.

Our MSNBC coverage continues now with “Scarborough Country.”

Joe, good evening.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY”:  Keith, I‘m looking for Nancy Grace.

OLBERMANN:  Good luck.

SCARBOROUGH:  She ain‘t in this studio.

Hey thanks so much, Keith.

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

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