updated 9/12/2006 11:54:35 AM ET 2006-09-12T15:54:35

Guests: Richard Wolffe, Max Cleland

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

Five years after, at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, at Shanksville.

And five years later, in our still-wounded nation, the president gets contentious with Matt Lauer, not quite Tom Cruise levels of contentiousness, but contentious.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “TODAY”)

MATT LAUER, HOST:  Are you all concerned that at some point, even if you get results, there‘s a blurring the lines of between ourselves and the people we‘re trying to protect us against?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Matt, I‘m just telling you, what this government has done is to take steps (INAUDIBLE) to protect you and your family.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The vice president suggests he might have been wrong about WMD.  But going into Iraq was still right, even if the premise was wrong.

No Osama bin Laden on 9/11, no tape, no capture, the trail, the experts say, has gone cold.

And what of the so-called war on terror?  A startling report from Iraq.  The leading political force now in Anbar Province, al Qaeda.

And how can we be truly defeating the terrorists if these 16 acres remain a hole in the ground, and if the forgotten promises of unity and bipartisanship remain a hole in our hearts?

My special comment, a president who has turned 9/11 into a campaign slogan and a photo-op, and forgotten its real meaning.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening from ground zero.

It is the first time September 11 has fallen on a weekday since 2003.  It was the first in New York to look like 2001, the same azure sky, sometimes cloudless, the same exact balance of summer and autumn.  And it was the first of five and 10 anniversaries in a country in which the fifth or the 10th somehow matter more.  Thus was this commemoration somehow closer in feel, and seemingly in time, than many of the others which preceded it, a fact so poignant and even so frightening.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, mixed in with the memories around us are the realities, a nation politically fractured as it has not been, perhaps, since the Civil War, a vice president insisting though he was wrong, he was still right, a secretary of state refusing to acknowledge the findings of a bipartisan Senate committee.  Special comment ahead tonight.

But let us first begin where we should, with the memorials.

In lower Manhattan, the loved ones of the victims reciting a three-hour litany of the lost, 2,749 names, a ritual and a setting little changed since the first anniversary of the attacks, the emptiness and the sorrow as palpable as ever.  Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld side by side at an observance near the site where American Airlines flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon, (INAUDIBLE) 184 lives, the president and first lady laying a wreath at the Shanksville, Pennsylvania, field where United flight 93 crashed, greeting the relatives of the 40 people who were killed there, Mr. Bush having begun his day by having breakfast with New York City firefighters.

He will conclude it with an address to this nation from the Oval Office, which we will bring you at the top of this hour, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Rice sitting the talk show circuit over the weekend to shore up the administration‘s advantage on national security issues, Secretary Rice, among other things, continuing to link Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq to al Qaeda, never mind last week‘s Senate Intelligence Committee report, composed by Republicans, concluding irrefutably that no such link exists, the vice president making no such direct claim in a rare television appearance with NBC‘s Tim Russert on “MEET THE PRESS, but more extraordinary was his claim that the administration would have gone to war with Iraq even if it had known that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, what might possibly be the most truthful thing Mr. Cheney has ever said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “MEET THE PRESS”)

TIMOTHY RUSSERT, HOST:  Based on what you know now, that Saddam did not have the weapons of mass destruction described, would you still have gone into Iraq?

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Yes, Tim, because what the reports also showed, while he did not have stockpiles—clearly, the intelligence that said he did was wrong—that was the intelligence all of us saw.  That was the intelligence all of us believed.  It was when George Tenet sat in the Oval Office, and the president of us asked him directly, he said, George, how good is the case against Saddam and weapons of mass destruction?  The director of the CIA said, A slam-dunk, Mr.  President, it‘s a slam-dunk.

RUSSERT:  So if the CIA said to you at that time, Saddam does not have weapons of mass destruction, his chemical and biological have been degraded, he has no nuclear program under way, you‘d still invade Iraq?

CHENEY:  Because, again, look at the Duelfer report and what it said, no stockpiles, but they also said he has the capability.

RUSSERT:  Now the president has been asked, What did Iraq have to do with the attack on the World Trade Center?  And he said, Nothing.  Do you agree with that?

CHENEY:  I do.  (INAUDIBLE)...

RUSSERT:  So it‘s case closed.

CHENEY:  We‘ve never been able to confirm any connection between Iraq and 9/11.

RUSSERT:  And the meeting with Atta did not occur.

CHENEY:  We don‘t know.  Remember, we‘ve never been able to link it, and the FBI and CIA have worked it aggressively.  I would say at this point, nobody‘s been able to confirm (INAUDIBLE)...

RUSSERT:  Then why, in the lead-up to the war, was there the constant linkage between Iraq and al Qaeda?

CHENEY:  That‘s a different issue.  There are two totally different propositions here.  People have consistently tried to confuse them.  And it‘s important, I think, that there is a third proposition as well too, and that is Iraq‘s traditional position as a strong sponsor of terror.

So you‘ve got Iraq and 9/11, no evidence that there‘s a connection.  You‘ve got Iraq and al Qaeda, testimony from the director of CIA that there was indeed a relationship.  There was Zarqawi in Baghdad, et cetera.  Then the...

RUSSERT:  Senate Intelligence Committee said that there was no relationship, and that Saddam...

CHENEY:  I haven‘t seen the report.  I haven‘t had a chance to read it.

RUSSERT:  The bottom line is, the rationale given the American people was that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and he could give those weapons of mass destruction to al Qaeda, and we could have another September 11.  And now we read that there is no evidence, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, of that relationship.  You said there‘s no involvement.  The president says there‘s no involvement.

CHENEY:  No, Tim, no involvement in what respect?

RUSSERT:  In September 11, OK?  And the CIA said, leading up to the war, that the possibility of Saddam using weapons of mass destruction was “low,” quote unquote.  It appears that there was a deliberate attempt made by the administration to link al Qaeda and Iraq in the minds of the American people, and use it as a rationale to go into Iraq.

CHENEY:  Tim, I guess I‘m—I don‘t—not sure what part you don‘t understand here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Suffice to say, there is a lot that many people do not understand, especially after that interview.  To watch it in its entirety with Mr. Cheney, you can log onto our Web site, countdown.MSNBC.com.

President Bush, of course, saying just last week that the hardest part of his job, connecting Iraq to the war on terror.  Based on his vice president‘s efforts yesterday, one can see why he‘d say that.  Even harder, perhaps, for Mr. Bush, avoiding a series of questions from Matt Lauer on the “TODAY” show on the actions his administration has taken in the name of counterterrorism, specifically, the techniques used to interrogate detainees at secret CIA prisons outside the U.S., the very same prisons whose existence Mr. Bush finally acknowledged just days ago.

We pick up the president‘s conversation with Matt Lauer at the point at which things really started getting tense.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “TODAY”)

LAUER:  Were you made personally...

BUSH:  My job is to protect this country, Matt, and I‘m going to, within the law, and it gets second-guessed all the time by people who don‘t live in the United States.  But let me remind you, September the 11 for them was a bad day.  For us, it was a change of attitude.

LAUER:  These alternative methods you talked about, in terms of extracting information from these suspected terrorists, were you made personally aware of all of the techniques that were used, for example, against the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and did you approve all of these techniques?

BUSH:  I told our people, Get information without torture, and was assured by our Justice Department that we were not torturing.

LAUER:  It‘s reported that with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he was what they call waterboarded.

BUSH:  I‘m not going to talk about techniques that we use on people.  One reason why is because we don‘t want the enemy to adjust.  The American people need to know we‘re using techniques within the law to protect them.  You said to me, you said to me, How can we be assured you‘re doing everything it takes to protect the American people?  And I‘m saying to you, We‘re listening to al Qaeda if they‘re calling this country, and some people want to get rid of that program.  We had walls that (INAUDIBLE) allow criminal investigators and intelligence forces to talk to each other.  We‘ve eliminated the laws.

Let me finish.

You know, but one of the—the best source, according to those who are on the front lines of protecting the American people, is when we pick up somebody off of a battlefield that we interrogate them within the law to get data.  And I would strongly urge people to look at that speech I gave, because I declassified classified information to show how important the information we got from whom we think is the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.

LAUER:  I don‘t want this within-the-law issue slip, though.  I mean, if, in fact, there was waterboarding used with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—and for the viewers, that‘s basically, you strap someone to a board, and you make them feel as if they‘re going to drown, you put them under water.  If that was legal and within the law, why couldn‘t you do it at Guantanamo? 

Why did you have to go a secret location around the world?

BUSH:  Matt, I‘m not going to talk about techniques, and I‘m not going to explain to the enemy what we‘re doing.  All I‘m telling you is that you asked me whether or not we‘re doing things to protect the American people, and I want the American people to know we are doing so.

LAUER:  At some point, Mr. President, if techniques, these alternate -

alternative techniques where you...

BUSH:  Matt, I‘m not going to talk about (INAUDIBLE)...

LAUER:  I‘m not going to ask to specifically say anything about them. 

But if they are used, are you at all concerned that, at some point, even if you get results, there‘s a blurring the lines of between ourselves and the people we‘re trying to protect us against?

BUSH:  Matt, I‘m just telling you, what this government has done is to take steps necessary to protect you and your family.  You asked me about your family, and you represent a lot of other people.  And the best information we can get is from people we take off the battlefield so we can act on it, so we can stop plots before they happen.

And whatever we have done is legal.  That‘s what I‘m saying, it‘s in the law.  We had lawyers look at it and say, Mr. President, this is lawful.  That‘s all I can tell you.  I‘m not going to tell you specifically what‘s done, because I don‘t want the enemy to adjust.  This is—we‘re at war.  This is people that want to come and kill your families.  And the best way to protect you is to get information.

And I‘m confident the American people understand why we‘ve done that. 

You see, we‘ve acted on information they‘ve given us to prevent attacks.  And these are real.  This isn‘t make-believe.  These are attacks that were coming to hurt the American people again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Let me call in our own Richard Wolffe, the senior White House correspondent for “Newsweek” magazine, who spent this day traveling with the president.

Richard, good evening.

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

Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  I understand you have a sneak preview of the president‘s speech tonight.  Mr. Bush had said it would not be political.  Is that a fair assessment, or is that just the way he sees it?

WOLFFE:  Well, they don‘t want to look like they‘re playing politics with things tonight, but it‘s hard for this president to avoid politics when 9/11 has become his political mission at home and overseas.  Now, he‘s going to talk tonight about the country needing to set aside its differences when it comes to the war on terror.

Well, the differences he‘s talking about are not differences over what the World Trade Center memorial should be looking like.  The differences are about the war on terror, about Iraq.  He‘s also going to talk about Iraq and the connection with Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, which, obviously, we heard the vice president talk about a lot.  That‘s become a key political battleground between him and his critics.

And he‘s going to say, We need to stay in Iraq because this is all one and the same.  Now, when you look at his speeches before tonight and his speeches after it, in this political season, just about everything the president does is political.  The White House knows it.  Again, they just don‘t want to look like they‘re playing politics.

OLBERMANN:  But five years after, it appears that a majority of Americans, Richard, are questioning the administration‘s effectiveness in the so-called war on terror.  The latest poll from NBC News, fewer than half of those surveyed, 42 percent, think that, as a country, we are more safe than we were before 9/11, 55 percent combined believing we are as safe or less safe.

The Republicans made ‘02 and ‘04 into referenda on national security.  As they do it again to this election, Richard, are they risking more than they know or anticipate?

WOLFFE:  Well, those numbers aren‘t hugely different from September ‘02.  And, of course, it was pretty successful for them in running on the war on terror and 9/11 in general.  What‘s changed, of course, is Iraq.  And when people think about war, they don‘t think about al Qaeda.  They think about Iraq.  And it‘s very hard for the administration to pull this back together again.

In fact, it was always very difficult for them to make the case about Saddam and al Qaeda for precisely the reason that the Senate committee has just explored.  But, you know, now people look at Iraq, and they see civil war.  They don‘t see al Qaeda types.  And the president trying to remake the case in the next two months is extraordinarily difficult for him.  He‘ll try again tonight, but it‘s a really uphill struggle against this barrage of news that people are getting from Iraq.

OLBERMANN:  And once this anniversary has passed, it is—is it essential, in your opinion, for the administration to keep Iraq out the headlines for the last 57 days until the election?  Is that the game plan, to keep Iraq per se out, but Iraq as a part, supposedly, of the war against terror in?

WOLFFE:  They‘re trying to suck up all the oxygen at the news.  They‘re running this like a presidential campaign, obviously without a presidential opponent.  They want to win each news cycle.  They know they can‘t keep Iraq out of the news.  There‘s nothing they can do about the violence.  But they are going to try and have this barrage of domestic stuff, the speeches, maybe a press conference later on this week, to try and dominate the news cycles here.

OLBERMANN:  How much did we see, in that “TODAY” show interview with Matt Lauer, of the strain or friction that the president himself is facing at this time, or at least feels he is facing at this time from the media?

WOLFFE:  He responds pretty aggressively to that kind of questioning.  He thinks it‘s hostile.  He thinks that—I wouldn‘t say demeaning to him, but unfair and unkind.  And he doesn‘t like having his motives questioned.  That‘s the kind of sniffiness you saw there.  He believes that he is doing everything he can to protect the country.  And this whole—the language of criticizing Democrats as being weak, that‘s what he really believes.  It‘s not just a sort of political strategy.

OLBERMANN:  Richard Wolffe of MSNBC and “Newsweek.”  As always, sir, great thanks for some of your time tonight.

WOLFFE:  Any time.

OLBERMANN:  Ahead, a special comment on the symbolism of this day at ground zero, what is, five years later,  still an empty pit, mirroring the empty promises of this administration to unite us.

And also its unmistakable (inaudible) from “Wanted, dead and alive,” to “Gone without a trace.”  At the most serious levels of intelligence worldwide, no one has a clue where that man is.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  If there was one thing the far left and the far right might have agreed upon was that by this hour, we would have heard something from Osama bin Laden.

In our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, even at the most clandestine of intelligence levels, not, in the words of “The Washington Post,” a credible lead in two years, not an inflammatory tape on Al Jazeera, not even a promo for that wretched ABC miniseries.  Is he dead, sick, benefiting between the peace deal last week between the Pakistanis and the tribal warlords who rule where he supposedly hides, or just so well ensconced that it is not worth making a new video?

The possibilities now from our senior investigative correspondent, Lisa Myers.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LISA MYERS, NBC SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  This modest building in Islamabad was, for a time, the target of a secret CIA operation to capture Osama bin Laden.  It‘s the local office of Al Jazeera TV.  Couriers dropped off two tapes from bin Laden here, offering one of the few clues to where he might be.

ROBERT GRENIER, FORMER CIA STATION CHIEF:  The only connection that bin Laden has, that we know, with the outside world, is through video and audiotapes.

MYERS:  So U.S. counterterror sources tell NBC News that the CIA mounted an elaborate covert operation to track back those tapes, through multiple handoffs by couriers, to bin Laden.  Sources say the CIA traced this 2004 bin Laden tape back to a village in Pakistan, where they captured a midlevel al Qaeda figure, but no bin Laden.

At the National Counterterrorism Center, bin Laden remains the number one target of the war on terror.

(on camera):  Every morning, top counterterror officials meet in this room to review the latest intelligence, including any new information on bin Laden.  Senior officials acknowledge that the last time they knew with certainty where bin Laden was in real-time was before 9/11.

(voice-over):  Specifically, the fall of 2000, when a CIA Predator drone beamed this footage back live from Afghanistan.  The tall man in white robes is believed to be bin Laden.

Recently, the search has centered on Pakistan‘s Chitral (ph) Valley, home to madrasas that foment radicalism.

(on camera):  Is the trail to bin Laden cold?

GRENIER:  I would have to say that it probably is.

MYERS (voice-over):  This top counterterror official says the emphasis on finding bin Laden overlooks important successes.

VICE ADM. JOHN SCOTT REDD (RET.), DIRECTOR, NATIONAL COUNTERTERRORISM

CENTER:  Our intelligence has gotten better, our operations have gotten better.  So al Qaeda is—we‘ve basically set them back on their heels.

MYERS:  He argues that despite five years of frustration, bin Laden‘s ability to mount attacks has been substantially diminished.

Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, in the country that had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden or 9/11, new reports from a top military intelligence official, we have lost control of an entire province in Iraq, and little hope remains that the U.S. will ever regain that control.

And the heroes of 9/11, the rescue workers who, five years later, are suffering the debilitating effects from all that toxic dust, when COUNTDOWN continues from here at ground zero.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  COUNTDOWN continues from ground zero.

On this anniversary, the logic seems thinner than ever.  We are attacked here by people who Saddam Hussein hated, so we go to war against Saddam Hussein.  And now, reports that we have lost an entire province in Iraq to al Qaeda politically.

Here, the rubble is gone.  The rubble made out of the health of those who scrambled through it remains.

And why, after five years, is this still an empty lot?

The president turns 9/11 into a club to use against political opponents, and on occasion, against free speech itself, and ignores this place itself.  My special comment ahead.

This is COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Our third story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, five years later, the impact of Iraq, the great distraction.  The president has told us that invading Iraq was necessary to relieve a threat to America‘s safety even though many know then and almost know for sure now that Saddam Hussein was not behind 9/11 nor in bed with al Qaeda.  But Mr. Bush‘s invasion of Iraq may someday be remembered for accomplishing precisely what he sold it to the American people as a means of preventing, establishment of a safe haven for al Qaeda. 

Today‘s “Washington Post” reporting that the Marines top intelligence officer in Iraq concluded on August 16 that the U.S. had lost control of the Anbar Province and has virtually no hope of regaining control. 

Pacifically the “Post” quotes Colonel Pete Devlin as saying:

“Reports that there are no functioning Iraqi government institutions in Anbar leaving a vacuum that has been filled by the insurgent group al Qaeda in Iraq, which has become the provinces‘ most significant political force.”

This is Anbar Province, meaning that the war has spawned not just a creation of a new al Qaeda auxiliary in Iraq, but also given it free reign in the territory comprising approximately 50,000 square miles, right next to door to Syria and Saudi Arabia. 

Former Senator Max Cleland was a member of the 9/11 Commission until what he perceived as the White House stonewalling led him to resign.  He is also, of course, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, now busily campaigning for fellow veteran Congressman John Murtha. 

Senator, great thanks for adding your voice to our discussion tonight. 

MAX CLELAND, FMR.  U.S. SENATOR:  Thank you very much, Keith.  You‘re

absolutely right.  History will look back on the invasion of Iraq, after

9/11, as one of the great elements of follow in our history.  It was

Richard Clarke, the terrorism advisor to four different presidents, three

of which were Republican, who said in his book, “Against all Enemies,” that

invading Iraq after 9/11 was like invading Mexico after Pearl Harbor.  It

didn‘t make any sense.  And five years later, Osama bin Laden and his

terrorist cadre are still on the loose.  If we don‘t have high government

officials who in Washington who know that it‘s al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden

stupid, we need some new officials in Washington. 

               

OLBERMANN:  The departing commander of the Army Transportation Corps said something remarkable that was reported by the “Daily Press” of Newport News in Virginia, that Mr. Rumsfeld threatened to fire anyone who even tried to make a post-war plan for Iraq. 

He said, quote, “Rumsfeld said we will not do that because the American public will not back us if they think we‘re going over there for a long war.” 

Is it really possible on the 11th of September, 2006 al Qaeda controls 50,000 square miles in the Middle East because the administration was so hell-bent on painting a picture in Iraq that they would not even plan for obviously problems that might ensue? 

CLELAND:  Absolutely, this is George Bush‘s Vietnam.  I‘ve seen this movie before.  What we have here is a six-year war that the president didn‘t tell us about.  Notice that he has said he‘ll leave the troops in Iraq until he leaves office.  He‘s leaving them twisting slowly, slowly in the wind.  It‘s time to redeploy the forces from Iraq and bring home our Guard and Reserve to guard our borders and focusing on killing or capturing Osama bin Laden and his terrorist cadre. 

And when somebody like Jack Murtha speaks out and says that what do they do?  Go after Osama bin Laden?   No, they go after Jack Murtha and they‘re going to trying to slime him in his hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. 

I‘m now head of VetsforMurtha.org.  Vetsformurtha.org.  Anybody interested in backing Jack Murtha on the 30th of September in downtown Johnstown, check that out and come be with us because we‘re going to fight back against the swiftvoting of Jack Murtha this year. 

OLBERMANN:  If the democrats take the House in November, Representative Murtha would take the helm of the Appropriation Committee.  You‘re the chairman of that committee that you mentioned, the VetsforMurtha.org, responding to what amounts to the swiftvoting of Mr.  Murtha.  Give me an estimate, Mr. Murtha with a Democratic majority would change the war in Iraq in what way?  What hands-on role would he have on that? 

CLELAND:  Well, first of all he would lead an effort that I think is growing in this nation and in the Congress, hopefully the new Congress, that we have had it with Iraq.  It is time for the Iraqi citizens to take charge of their own country.  It is time to withdraw our forces out of harm‘s way and eliminate the possibility of the veterans that getting killed and maimed there and adding more to that number.

Secondly, to focus our Guard and Reserve on our borders, and third, to really focus on the military necessity and the political necessity to put together our allies which we have dissed in the last five years and really focus on the center of terrorism in the world and that‘s Osama bin Laden and his terrorist cadre, and kill or capture him and kill or capture them.  That you can expect from Jack.  He‘s an old Marine sergeant, he‘s an old Marine colonel he‘s been in the Congress for more than 30 years.  You can count on him to lead that effort. 

OLBERMANN:  Answer the question that seems to have a touch of logic to it based on something that the administration would say in response to what you just said.  If we announce a timetable or suddenly pull out of Iraq, there seems a thread of logic to the statement that terrorists or opponents of this country or those who would do us harm would take some sort of succor sense, would take some sort of—sense some sort of victory to that, how do you answer that?  How would Mr. Murtha answer that?

CLELAND:  You just announced it tonight.  They‘re taking over the country anyway.  We got 130,000 troops there and what are we doing?  We‘re just getting them blown up.  We‘ve got a civil war there and over a hundred Iraqis are dying every day.  Al Qaeda, now, because the Sunni‘s have invited them to fight us and the Shiites, they are now in that province and so as you mentioned, this president and this vice president and this secretary of defense have created the very situation that they wanted to prevent because they went in based on lies. 

There are no “weapons of mass destruction” there.  There is no relationship between, and never was, between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and there is no weapons materials coming up from Africa.  All those reasons for going into Iraq and creating the Iraq war are lies. 

Now, we have to deal with that.  So it‘s time to withdraw our forces from there.  Leave Iraq to the Iraqis, it is their country.  And let‘s take care of our country first.  And then one of the best ways to do that is to go after Osama bin Laden.  It is still Osama bin Laden and his terrorist cadre stupid.  And if we‘re still stupid after five years, we can only blame ourselves. 

OLBERMANN:  The former U.S. senator from Georgia, former 9/11 Commission member, Max Cleland, great thanks for some of your time tonight, sir.

Also tonight, there were other mistakes five years ago as the rescue and recovery workers from the infamous “Pile”, know all too well tonight.  We‘ll check on the waning health of a man we have met here before.

And why, after the president tried to reshape the world, is Ground Zero itself still in the same shape as five years ago and its symbolism or a consensus and a better America also still unbuilt? 

A special comment when COUNTDOWN continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  What became of the promises to rebuild this place and to build upon the unity that followed 9/11?  My special comment to the president of the United States. 

And now the rescuers are five years past need rescue themselves.  How the “Pile” is every bit of as dangerous as we feared and the assurances that is was not every bit as false as we feared.  That‘s next, this is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The assumption was heartbreakingly incorrect, but it remains one of the most noble moments of a desperate time.  There had been to be survivors, whole fire companies, huddled groups of office workers, police sheltering victims, dozens perhaps hundreds in the rubble here, five years ago tonight and we had to get them as fast as legs and arms and lungs could work—and lungs. 

Our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN, the thousands who came here to save lives that were already lost, the once that stayed even after rescue turned too recovery and then to a long agonizing cleanup.  Five years later it proves that seven out of 10 of them may suffer respiratory problems because of their exposure here. 

The site became known as the “Pile,” but at the time OSHA reported that the air was not threatening.  The head of the Environmental Protection Agency, former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman repeatedly said the air in lower Manhattan was safe, Ms. Whitman recently stressed that the EPA had called for workers on the “Pile” to ware protective gear and that once New York officials were warned, they had the ultimate responsibility to enforce the use of respirators. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRISTIE TODD WHITMAN FMR.  NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR:  We did everything we could to protect people from that environment.  And we did it in the best way that we could which was to communicate with those people who had the responsibility for enforcing what they were telling—saying should be done. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And ultimately it makes no difference to John Graham.  We first met him three years ago, an emergency medical technician who rushed here as the buildings fell and who stayed for months.  He lost friends, he lost colleagues and he‘s lost his health.  COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny met with Mr. Graham again recently.  She joins us now from headquarters.

Monica, good evening. 

MONICA NOVOTNY, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Keith good evening.  John Graham is one of more than 40,000 men and woman who willingly put their own lives at risk in the days and months after September 11 in order to help at Ground Zero.  Now it is a heroic decision to be sure, but it is a decision that many of them will be paying for the rest of their lives. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN GRAHAM, GROUND ZERO EMERGENCY MEDICAL TECHNICIAN:  I call it prolonged agony.  It‘s not getting better. 

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  John Graham will always be sick.  At the age of 44, this former EMT and father of two struggles with chronic health problems after spending months working at Ground Zero. 

When we first met Mr. Graham three years ago he spent much of his time teaching—teaching his daughter how to ride a bike, teaching emergency response skills to members of the Carpenter‘s Union in New York, and already battling asthma, the loss of 40 percent of his lung capacities, and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

His problems began on September 11 when he raced 10 blocks from his office at the union to the World Trade Center, then called with the horrifying news. 

GRAHAM:  I need help.  I lost half of my crew when the building collapsed.  I got asbestos raining done on top of us. 

NOVOTNY:  Graham was lucky, he survived.  But fueled by the pain of watching friends next to him disappear in the confusion of the collapse, he spent eight months working at the site. 

GRAHAM:  You had to get that job done. 

NOVOTNY:  The nightmare surrounded him daily, an invisible enemy within the very air he breathed, air the government said was safe. 

(on camera):  They‘re washing out their eyes, they‘re making sure that they‘re breathing properly.  There is so much solid debris.  The concrete dust is making it so difficult.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  OSHA reported again today that the air is clearly dusty and unpleasant, but not threatening, yet an independent lab hired by a major downtown employer reported very high levels of the smallest and thus most dangerous, fibers of pulverized asbestos. 

NOVOTNY:  When early reports were that the air was clean, in those initial days, did that make you feel any better? 

GRAHAM:  No, I knew that wasn‘t the truth. 

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  Now five years later, new medical evidence seems to prove the mix of pulverized glass, concrete, asbestos, and countless chemicals was indeed toxic to thousands of workers. 

According to a study released by the Mount Sinai Medical Center, nearly 70  percent of more than 9,000 Ground Zero responders monitored have new or worsened respiratory problems.  For some the damage may be permanent.  Dr.  Jacqueline Moline.

DR.  JACQUELINE MOLINE, MT.  SINAI MEDICAL CENTER:  There‘s no question in my mind that there is a link, everyone has the same types of symptoms and it‘s really quite clear. 

NOVOTNY:  Today Graham and other 9/11 rescue workers say they need help since many of them can no longer work, they‘re desperate for health insurance and they‘re looking to Washington for answers. 

MOLINE:  It‘s unfair to them.  They served our nation.  They served selflessly and we‘re not doing very much to help them. 

NOVOTNY:  Until that help comes, this man who use to spend so much of his time teaching, now struggles with his own life lesson. 

(on camera):  Knowing what you know, the impact this has had on your health, on your family, on your kids, would you go back and do the same thing that day? 

GRAHAM:  It‘s a tough question.  I think just because of my kids, it‘s taken their life away as much as mine, so I would probably have to say I wouldn‘t go back. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY:  The federal government has now allocated about $50 million to the treatment of these works.  That money is expected to be delivered in the next several weeks, but Dr.  Moline at Mt.  Sinai, who you just saw in the piece, said the need is so great that that money could be used up within a year or two and of course these doctors say the monitoring needs to continue for 10, 20, 30 years. 

Now as for John Graham, he is currently working with other rescue workers on a website.  They‘re hoping to create a forum to those who worked at Ground Zero, a place where they can share information or just offer shoulder to lean on.  And if you‘d like to take a look you‘ll find more information on our website, that‘s at COUNTDOWN.MSNBC.com—Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny, great thanks. 

From the health problems of Ground Zero five years out to the damage to our collective spirit, my special comment on what this president has wasted, the unity and support that we and the people of the world granted him, and the awful continuing symbolism of Ground Zero without a new building, without a memorial.  COUNTDOWN returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  And lastly tonight, a special comment on why we are here.  Half a lifetime ago I worked in the now empty space behind me.  And for 40 days after the attacks, I worked here again, trying to make sense of what had happened and was yet to happen, as a reporter.  And all the time I knew that the very air I breathed contained the remains of thousands of people, including four of my own friends, two in the planes and as I discovered from the missing posters, seared still into my soul, two more in the towers.  And I knew as well that this is the pyre for hundreds of New York policemen and firemen of whom my family can claim half a dozen or more as our ancestors. 

I belabor this to emphasize for me this was and is and always shall be personal, and anyone who claims that I and others like me are soft or have forgotten the lessons of what happened here is at best a grasping, opportunistic dilettante and at worst an idiot, whether he is a commentator or a vice president or a president. 

However, of all the things of those of us who were here five years ago could have forecast, of all the nightmares that unfolded before our eyes, and the others that unfolded only in our minds, none of us could have predicted this.  Five years later this space is still empty.  Five years later there is no memorial to the dead.  Five years later there is no building rising to show with proud defiance that we would not have our America wrung from us by cowards and criminals.  Five years later this country‘s wound is still open.  Five years later this country‘s mass grave is still unmarked.  Five years later this is still just a background for a photo op.  It is beyond shameful. 

At the dedication of the Gettysburg Memorial, barely four months after the last soldier staggered from another Pennsylvania field, Mr. Lincoln said, “We cannot dedicate.  We cannot consecrate.  We cannot hallow this ground.  The brave men living and dead who struggled here have consecrated far above our poor power to add or detract.” 

Lincoln used those words to immortal words to their sacrifice.  Today they could use those words to rationalize their own reprehensible inaction.  We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground, so they won‘t. 

Instead they bicker and buck-pass.  They thwart private efforts and jostle to claim credit for initiatives that go nowhere.  They spend the money on irrelevant wars and elaborate self-congratulations and buying off columnists to write you on good a job they‘re doing, instead of doing any job at all. 

Five years later, Mr. Bush, we are still fighting the terrorists on these streets and look carefully, sir, on these 16 empty acres the terrorists are clearly still winning.  And in a crime against every victim here and every patriotic sentiment you mouthed, but did not enact, you have done nothing about it. 

And there is something worse still than this vast-gaping hole in this city and in the fabric of our nation, there is its symbolism, of the promise unfulfilled, the urgent oath reduced to lazy execution.  The only positive on 9/11 and the days and weeks that so slowly and painfully followed it was the unanimous humanity here and throughout the country.  The government, the president in particular, was given every possible measure of support.  Those who did not belong to his party, tabled that.  Those who doubted the mechanics of his election, ignored that.  Those who wondered of his qualifications, forgot that. 

History teaches you that nearly unanimous support of a government cannot be taken away from that government by its critics.  It can only be squandered by those who use it not to heal a nation‘s wounds, but to take political advantage. 

Terrorists did not steal our newly regained sense of being American first and political 50th, nor did the democrats, nor did the media, nor did the people.  The president and those around him did that. 

They promised bipartisanship and then showed that to them bipartisanship meant that their party would rule and the rest would have to follow or be branded with ever escalating hysteria as morally or intellectually confused, as appeasers.  As those who, in the vice president‘s words, yesterday, “validate the strategy of the terrorists.” 

They promised protection and then showed that to them protection meant going to war against a despot whose hand they had once shaken, a despot who we learn from our own Senate Intelligence Committee, hated al Qaeda as much as we did. 

The polite phrase for how so many of us were duped in to supporting a war on the false premise it had something to do with 9/11, is “lying by implication.”  The impolite phrase is “impeachable offense.” 

Not once, in now five years, has this president ever offered to assume responsibility for the failures that led to this empty space and to this the current and curdled version of our beloved country. 

Still, there is a snapping flame from a final candle of respect and fairness.  Even his most virulent critics have never suggested that he alone bears the full brunt of the blame for 9/11. 

Half the time, in fact, this present has been so gently treated that he is seen not even to be the man most responsible for anything in his own administration. 

Yet, what is happening this very night, the miniseries, created, influenced, possibly financed by the most radical and cold of domestic political Machiavelli continues to be televised into our homes.  The documented truths of the last 15 years are replaced by bold-faced lies, the talking points of the current regime parroted the whole sorry story blurred by spin to make the party out of office seem vacillating and impotent and the party in office seem like the only option. 

How dare you, Mr. President?  After taking cynical advantage of the unanimity and love and transmuting both into fraudulent war and needless death, after monstrously transforming it into fear and suspicion and turning that fear in to the campaign slogan of three elections.  How dare you or those around you ever spin 9/11? 

Just as the terrorists have succeeded, are still succeeding, as long as there is no memorial and no construction here at Ground Zero, so too have they succeeded and are still succeeding as long as this government uses 9/11 as a wedge to pit Americans against Americans. 

This is an odd point to site a television program, especially one from March of 1960, but as Disney‘s continuing sell-out of the truth and of this country suggests, even television program can be powerful things. 

And long ago, a series called the “Twilight Zone” broadcast a riveting episode entitled “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”  In brief, a meteor sparks rumors of an invasion by extraterrestrials disguised as humans.  The electricity goes out, a neighbor pleads for calm, suddenly his car and only his car starts.  Someone suggests he must be the alien.  Then another man‘s lights go on.  As charges and suspicion and panic overtake the street, guns are inevitably produced.  An alien is shot, but then he turns out to be just another neighbor returning from having gone from help. 

The camera pulls back to a nearby hill where two extraterrestrial are seen, finally, manipulating a small device that can jam electricity.  The veteran tells his novice that there is no need to actually attack, that you just turn off a few of the human machines and then they pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it is themselves. 

And then in perhaps his finest piece of writing, Rod Serling sums it up with words of remarkable prescience, given where we find ourselves, tonight.  “The tools of conquest,” he said, “do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout.  There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men.  For the record,” he said, “prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own for the children and the children yet unborn.” 

When those who dissent are told time and time again, as we will be if not tonight by the president, then tomorrow by his portable public chorus, that he is preserving our freedom, but that if we use that any of that freedom we are somehow un-American.  When we are scolded if we merely question, we have “forgotten the lessons of 9/11,” look in to this empty space behind me and the bipartisanship upon which this administration also did not build, and tell me this—who has left this hole in the ground? 

We have not forgotten, Mr. President.  You have. 

May this country forgive you. 

Our coverage of the president‘s address is next.  From Ground Zero, 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   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2006 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2006 Voxant, Inc. ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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