updated 12/12/2006 11:07:59 AM ET 2006-12-12T16:07:59

Guests: Dana Milbank, Wayne Slater, Eric Schlosser, Tom O‘Neil

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

Bubble, bubble, toil, and trouble.  Inside the pages of everything from “Newsweek,” to “The L.A. Times,” to England‘s “The Guardian,” is George W. Bush really the president in the bubble?  Dana Milbank on the politics of the term, Wayne Slater on the impact of the term inside the White House, if the bubble is not soundproof.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  When I do speak to the American people, they will know that I‘ve listened to all aspects of government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  That‘s after a three-day cram course on Iraq.  This was day one.  The president went to the State Department, then met with retired generals Jack Keane, Wayne Downing, and Barry McCaffrey.

Senator Obama doing his own meeting with the folks in New Hampshire.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS:  People are very hungry for something new.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Are they hungry for something Kucinich?  Another ring, another one of Dennis‘s hats thrown therein.

And TomDeLay.com, a new portal in the blogosphere.  Why it went online at 3:23 and offline at 4:38.

First in the East, the Taco Bell E. coli scare.  Now in the Midwest, the Taco John E. coli scare.  I wonder if we have anything in common there.

And the new interactive video game that could kill you, well, at least kill your TV.  Houston, we have a problem, unless these images are Photoshopped.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Only breaking the TV (ph), but it could fly off and hit one of the kids in the head.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Yes, they said the same thing about Mary Carey.  Why she being sued tonight.

And they said the same thing about Nicole Richie, driving while impaired and reportedly driving while weighing 85 pounds.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Because I‘ll stand up for the (INAUDIBLE).

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening.

Retired four-star general and MSNBC and NBC News analyst Barry McCaffrey did not use the term, but judging by what he and his colleague, General Wayne Downing, reporting this evening, day one of the president‘s listening tour about Iraq might better have been described as open-mike night.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, Bush in the bubble, any number of publications reporting this week on the president‘s underwhelming response to the Iraq Study Group, and now the generals saying, in essence, that when they met with the president today, he essentially asked them only to give their own viewpoint, Mr. Bush‘s campaign of conspicuous consultation, taking it first this morning to the State Department, where he could at least appear to be seeking advice, even as evidence mounts that he is more convinced of his own certitude than ever, as reported in “The New York Daily News,” Mr. Bush telling a visitor to the Oval Office last week that he still believes history will vindicate him, his visitor quoting the president as having said, “I‘ll be dead when they get it right,” according to “U.S. News and World Report,” Mr. Bush telling aides he would not be responding in detail to the Baker-Hamilton conclusions because he did not want to outsource the role of commander and chief, in the pages of “The L.A. Times,” the panel apparently grateful that the commander and chief gave them an hour of his time in return for the hundreds of hours they had devoted to the question of how to fix Iraq, if only the appearance of listening really were enough to fix Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  I appreciate the advice I got from those folks in the field.  And that advice is an important part and an important component of putting together a new way forward in Iraq.

There‘s no question we got to make sure that the State Department and the Defense Department are, the efforts and their recommendations are closely coordinated, so that when I do speak to the American people, they will know that I‘ve listened to all aspects of government, and that the way forward is a way forward to achieve our objective, to succeed in Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  In a meeting last week with congressional Democrats, President Bush said to have compared himself to President Truman, who, of course, launched the Truman Doctrine in a bid to fight communism before he got bogged down in the Korean War, Mr. Bush telling Illinois Senator Dick Durbin that only later did people realize Truman was right, this afternoon, in Truman‘s hometown, in Truman‘s presidential library, in Independence, Missouri, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, in his final address in that role, warning the White House that being Trumanlike is only valid when you do not abandon democratic ideals in the fight against terror.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KOFI ANNAN, SECRETARY GENERAL OF THE UNITED NATIONS:  Human rights and the rule of law are vital to global security and prosperity.  As Truman said, and I quote again, “We must once and for all prove by our acts conclusively that right is might.”  Right is might.

That‘s why this country has historically been in the vanguard of global human rights movement.  But that leap can only be maintained if America remains true to its principles, including in the struggle against terrorism.  When it appears to abandon its own ideals and objectives, its friends abroad are naturally troubled and confused.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s call in our own Dana Milbank, national political reporter for “The Washington Post.”

Dana, good evening.

DANA MILBANK, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: 

Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  We know Mr. Bush is planning to announce a new way forward.  Based on all the other anecdotes about how the president has been reacting to the study group‘s report, and this internal group, day one, should we be expecting any substantive changes?  Is the White House still hoping instead that some sleight-of-hand and a few photo-ops will suffice?

MILBANK:  Well, the signs are not good.  In fact, he—the president seems to be actively going out to solicit the views of people who are opposed to the Iraq Study Group recommendations, and there still are a few left.

The one reason to believe that he will make substantive changes, even if not in the rhetoric, is, he simply doesn‘t have a choice.  You know, he started out with sort of an amen chorus here.  That‘s dwindled down to the point where it‘s sort of an amen solo now, with Vice President Cheney, with his sort of raspy baritone doing it.  And that‘s just not working for the country.  The longer he keeps doing things the way it‘s working, the worse the situation will get in Iraq, and people realize that.

So even to the extent he wants to keep things the way they are, reality forces him in another direction now.

OLBERMANN:  There is a new poll out of “Newsweek” that shows Americans are backing the Iraq Study Group‘s recommendations two to one, 39 percent in the survey saying they agree with the recommendations, 20 percent who do not.  But the largest—or not the largest, but the most impactful, perhaps, number in there, the 26 percent who volunteered that they had not even heard that there had been a report.

The question, I would guess, Dana, is, is that the segment of the American public the White House is counting on, maybe catering to, with this sort of highly publicized but maybe not too substantial response?

MILBANK:  Oh, he doesn‘t have to worry about them.  That 26 percent, let‘s call it the Bill O‘Reilly segment, they believe the war is over and we have won, and we have found the weapons of mass destruction.  So he can take them for granted.  But he‘s got to do a lot better for the rest of the public.

Now, let‘s realize that we have just had an election.  The president has about a year till people start panicking, until the next election.  So it‘s purely a political matter.  The president does have some room to wiggle and to wait this out and see what he‘s doing.

But as a strategic matter, virtually everybody‘s advice says he has to act soon, and the longer he delays, the worse the situation inevitably becomes.

OLBERMANN:  And the president spent an hour with the members of the ISG last week, did not ask a single question, according to the former secretary of state, Mr. Eagleburger.  We heard the witness accounts today from General McCaffrey and General Downing, that essentially, they were asked basically, What do you think?  Does the president not know what specifics to ask, or is it a deliberate attempt not to ask anything specific?

MILBANK:  I think it‘s more of the second of those choices.  I had asked Eagleburger about that.  He was surprised that the president didn‘t ask questions.  He didn‘t think that it was a matter of detachment.  I think what the president is known for is, if you‘re saying something he disagrees with, he doesn‘t get in your face and start challenging you on it.  He says, Right, thank you very much, and then he just ignores what you have just said to him.  That‘s his style.

So the lack of questions implies, as many of the other signals the

president has been giving, that he was not pleased with the recommendations

he got from the Baker-Hamilton commission

OLBERMANN:  And given the tendency of this White House to have used words backwards, to put it politely, and to invert meanings and such, how much faith should we put into the idea that because he‘s talking about a new way forward, that he‘ll actually present a new way forward?

MILBANK:  Well, again, let‘s think about this.  The rhetoric will be detached from the policy here.  And as Don Rumsfeld said in his parting leaked memo, Go minimalist, do this as sort of a—on a trial basis, so you don‘t appear to be switching strategies, only for that to become a failure.  So it is possible we‘re in a situation here where the president will do little on the rhetoric and a great deal with the actual actions.

OLBERMANN:  Dana Milbank of MSNBC and “The Washington Post.”  As always, Dana, great thanks.

MILBANK:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  The ISG co-chair, James Baker, telling a reporter last week that he would not be answering his question because it would require him to psychoanalyze or psychologically analyze the inner workings of the president‘s mind, luckily, no such hurdle standing in our way tonight, nor in the way of Wayne Slater, senior political writer for “The Dallas Morning News” and co-author of “Bush‘s Brain.”

Thank you again for your time tonight, sir.

WAYNE SLATER, SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER, “DALLAS MORNING NEWS”:  Great to be with you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  What does it tell us about the state of the president‘s mind that he can dismiss the ISG report because he does not want to outsource the role of commander and chief without seeing any irony that he‘s outsourced just about every other aspect of the war, and the administration, and the results have not exactly been good nor popular?

SLATER:  Yes, I mean, this is a guy who instinctively, historically, has been able to look at a situation and say, Where do I want it to end up, facts be damned?  And that‘s unfortunately where he is today.  He‘s a guy who‘s looking at a box of options.  All the options are bad.  And so instead of picking one and dealing with it, he keeps looking for an option that‘s good.

Psychologically, George Bush is in a position of saying, I want to get to a place in which not only will history vindicate me, which he told someone supposedly in the White House recently, as you said, but also a place where my legacy, the L-word, legacy, doesn‘t say that I am a tragic figure and this was a failed mission.

This is a president on the edge of a period in which the fundamental, most important decision of his presidency is wrong.  Not only does he not believe that, he cannot afford to believe that in his own mind.

OLBERMANN:  The “L.A. Times” article used the phrase “bubble boy,” as I observed, that‘s also in “The Guardian,” it‘s also again in “Newsweek.”  “The Times” made the observation that the keys to getting Mr. Bush to do something are, A, getting to him first, and B, you can‘t acknowledge that Iraq is a disaster in his presence.  That would seem to make any new ideas about this subject, any plan that would amend a disaster, basically impossible.  Is there, is there, is there a better hope than that, than none?  Is slim still in town?

SLATER:  I think slim is still in town, and it‘s leaving—it‘s ready to leave.  If you look at, structurally, what has happened in this White House around George Bush as governor, and certainly as president, his method has been to surround himself with a small coterie of advisers.  Now, some of these people could say things he disagreed with.

But one by one, that small circle of voices, what one legislator here in Texas once called the voices in the room, and warned me to watch what would happen over the years in the White House, would that circle of voices dwindle?

You look at the group, Karen Hughes, once his biggest adviser, gone, Karl Rove proved to be mortal after all, the vice president, a man he relied on, has relied on greatly, has now been marginalized.  Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, (INAUDIBLE), Richard Perle, key figures in the war, now gone.  Don Evans his closest friend from Midland, vanished.

He is now a person who is in a room with a small circle that‘s becoming smaller and smaller.  In a sense, there is only a voice or two there now.

OLBERMANN:  All right, and apart from that, is it possible that some of his reaction to the Iraq Study Group is the first name in that Baker-Hamilton connection, that it‘s because it‘s his father‘s secretary of state saying this, is there some—and again, we‘re delving deeply into psychoanalyzing a president of the United States while he‘s in office, but could this have felt like a trip to the woodshed by proxy?

SLATER:  You bet you it did, which is kind of an ironic thing, that you would bring in Baker, the guy who saved his hide after the 2000 race in the Florida recount, and now Gates, who was a—one of Daddy‘s boys, the idea that he would bring these in, yet at the same time, I‘m told that people inside the White House say, Be very careful about passing the idea that Daddy‘s pals are there to save him again.  It irritates the president.  It is not something he wants to hear.

And so the idea that this man, who, historically, over time, has always wanted to outdo, equal and outdo his father‘s enormous accomplishments, from pitcher at Yale, to achievement in dealing with Desert Storm, is now in a situation where, as he once told me, it‘s important to be a consequential president.  This president, now, in trying to undo—do better than the father, has proved himself potentially, in his own mind, to being a consequential president.  But the consequences may be enormously bad.

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  Make sure you make specific those wishes about consequences.  They‘re supposed to be good consequence.

Wayne Slater, co-author of “Bush‘s Brain” and “The Architect.”  As always, great thanks for your time tonight, sir.

Also tonight, Barack Obama gets a rock star‘s welcome in New Hampshire.

And a country and Western star‘s welcome on “Monday Night Football.”

Meantime, Tom DeLay gets a blogosphere backhand when he seeks welcome on the Internets.

Meantime, the taco scare expands.  First it was Taco Bell.  Now it‘s Taco John‘s in Iowa.  Have politicians been playing Russian roulette with the safety of our food supply?

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The Barack Obama thing did not start on this program, when he told us on October 20 when and how he would decide whether or not to run for president.  But it may have crystallized then.  Certainly it had crystallized by the 22nd, when he confirmed to Tim Russert that he had been contemplating a campaign.

In our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, Obama for president, maybe.  Vaulted two barriers this weekend, one in New Hampshire, and one on “Monday Night Football.”  To Manchester in a moment.

First to Washington, where the Illinois senator was involved in recording part of the highly produced, highly promoted open to the “Monday Night Football” telecast involving his native state‘s Chicago Bears, home state Chicago Bears, visiting the St. Louis Rams.  The senator did not make a game prediction, evidently, unlike the night of October 20, when he joined me in erroneously forecasting that the Detroit Tigers would defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, even though a lot of downstate Illinois residents are Cardinals fans.

No such geographic sensitivity over the weekend in New Hampshire.

Chip Reid reports now from Manchester.  For Obama, it was not a hat in the ring, but closer to a toe in the water.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHIP REID, NBC CAPITOL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  His name is Tom Vilsack, and if you‘ve never heard of him, you‘re not alone.  Just ask Comedy Central‘s Jon Stewart.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART,” COMEDY CHANNEL)

JON STEWART, HOST:  Iowa Governor Tom—uh—uh—what‘s his name? 

What is his...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Vilsack.

STEWART:  Oh, right.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REID:  Vilsack is the only Democrat to formally announce he‘s running for president, and he‘s finding the early campaign trail can be a lonely place.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Senator Barack Obama!

REID:  Unless, of course, your name is Barack Obama.  He‘s only been a senator for two years, and hasn‘t even decided whether he‘s running.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS:  America is ready for a new set of challenges.  This is our time.

REID:  But yesterday, on his first trip to New Hampshire, he was adored and mobbed, a phenomenon that insiders call Obama-mania.

(on camera):  Here in New Hampshire, home of the first of the presidential primaries, campaign activity always gets off to an early start.  But this time around, it‘s earlier than ever before.

(voice-over):  Indiana Senator Evan Bayh was also in New Hampshire this weekend, but the national media barely noticed, too busy tracking Obama‘s every move.

Analysts say even front-runner Hillary Clinton is feeling the Obama effect, accelerating the pace, though today she insisted she‘s still undecided.

But Democratic strategist Ron Klain says it‘s the second-tier candidates, like Vilsack and Bayh and John Edwards, who are really feeling the heat.

RON KLAIN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  Having two very visible front-runners, like Senator Clinton and Senator Obama, getting a lot of attention means that if you‘re one of the more upstart candidates, you need to get out there quickly.

REID:  Republicans too are off to an early start, front-runner John McCain hearing loud footsteps of at least half a dozen possible candidates.  And, in keeping with the frenetic pace, a flood of announcements from both parties is expected early in the new year.

OBAMA:  See you guys.  Happy holidays.

REID:  Chip Reid, NBC News, Manchester, New Hampshire.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  And if he does wind up running, Senator Obama will be facing former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich.  The Democratic congressman from Ohio says he is indeed running again, despite losing out early in 2004, because he feels that his own party is not trying hard enough to get out of the war in Iraq.  Formal announcement of his candidacy expected tomorrow.

Speaking of comebacks, The Hammer has surfaced again, this time on the Internet with TomDeLay.com.  The former House majority leader was hoping his first blog would provide a forum for conservatives.  Instead, it provided him with an unwelcome education.  Mr. DeLay launched his project despite the fact that he does not seem to understand that one of the points of having a blog is to, well, blog.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “HARDBALL”)

MIKE BARNICLE, GUEST HOST:  Do you get up first thing in the morning and start blogging away?  Or how, what do you do?

FORMER MAJORITY LEADER TOM DELAY:  Well, I‘m not a very good writer. 

I have the ideas, and I have somebody else put the words together.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The ghost blogger must also be the individual responsible for checking the calendar.  Mr. DeLay said on “HARDBALL” the blog started today.  Actually it was yesterday.  It‘s that pesky ghost blogger who must have also written DeLay‘s opening statement about why he started a blog, even though he‘s not blogging.

Quote, “I did not fully realize the impact or potential of the blogosphere until very recently, when Red State gave me the opportunity to post some of my observations in the wake of the recent midterm elections.  The response I received was overwhelming, and I would like to again thank the fine people at that site.  This experience brought me to the immediate realization that I needed to become more directly involved in the blogosphere,” unquote.

And the so-called blogosphere got directly involved with him, thanks to his great idea to post unscreened comments.  That experiment only lasted about 75 minutes before Mr. DeLay, or somebody, took the Web site down and deleted the 100-some comments, but not before one other sharp-eyed blogger saved them.  Most are far too blue for us to repeat.  We don‘t mean that in blue-versus-red.  But we can quote a few, and now you tell it all (ph).

Quote, “You corrupt hypocrite, crawl back to the hole you came out of.”  And, “This is a joke, right?”  And the winner for cynical wit, “Everyone already assumes bloggers are unemployed losers.  Thanks for reinforcing that stereotype.”

DeLay tries to see the light in the blogosphere.  A village in Italy is just plain trying to see light.  A mirror, a mountain, and a mission ahead.

And there‘s breaking news from geosynchronous orbit.  It is not a crisis yet, but there is the prospect of heat panel damage aboard space shuttle “Discovery.”  Here we go again.

The latest ahead on COUNTDOWN.

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OLBERMANN:  On this date in 1932, the British actress Ann Haywood (ph) was born.  Never really able to get out of the way of her own beauty, she‘s best known for her work in an adaptation of a D.H. Lawrence bisexual potboiler and a seminude death scene in something called “Sisters of Satan.”  But that‘s just for frame of reference.  Ann Haywood‘s claim to fame is, like many actresses of her era, she was not born Ann Haywood, she had a clumsy name the studios thought would never sell, you know, like Keith Olbermann, or, in her case, Violet Pretty.  She was born Violet Pretty, and they changed her name to Ann Haywood.

On that note, let‘s play Oddball.

We begin in Viganella, a small town nestled in a valley in northern Italy.  Like all small towns in valleys are not nestled.  But when I say nestled in this case, I mean it‘s stuck so far down in the crack between those two big mountains that in the winter, the sun don‘t shine.  Seriously.  That‘s why they installed a giant mirror on the hillside.  For 84 days each year, the place gets no sunlight without help, so the mirror sends a little beam into town for a while each day.  Last year, they tried a really big wristwatch.

It‘s not perfect, but it‘s a lot to ask of a local elected official, and the townsfolk seem to enjoy it.  Just look at them all standing there staring at the mirror with the sun.  You know, you probably shouldn‘t do that.

To the liberal Northwest, Seattle, Washington, where a mighty blow has been struck against the good guys in the War on Christmas.  Nine 15-foot Christmas trees being dismantled at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, SEATAC, after a local rabbi came in and asked for a big menorah to be put on display as well.  Airport officials, rather than surrendering and recognizing the Jewish holiday, opted to take down the Christmas trees.  No Hanukkah, no Christmas, no nothing.  It‘s a scorched-earth policy at SEATAC.

Generalissimo O‘Reilly remains upbeat.  Look not on this as a defeat in the War on Christmas, this was a dramatic victory in Bill-O‘s new war against Hanukkah.

This may confirm for you that the media never brings you the good news in the War in Christmas, like this really big cake in Dresden in Germany.  Really big cake, ahh, 3.3 tons of traditional Christmas raisin cake carted to market over the weekend.  And what about the big pudding race in London?  The hundreds of young recruits are in training to become full-fledged culture warriors.  All they need do is complete the obstacle course without spilling any of the pudding, and then send in a proof of purchase from Bill-O‘s new book.  Pudding war here.  And they‘ll get the secret decoder ring in four to six weeks.

Now bring us some figgy pudding, you disgusting fatbody.

Speaking of disgusting edibles, what happened to the nation‘s food supply, the current E. coli scares spreading to new states, new restaurants.  The author of “Fast Food Nation” says the government is not doing enough to keep you safe.  He will join us.

And Mariah Carey and Mary Carey, one‘s a singer, the other an adult film star who looks kind of like the singer.  One is suing the other.

Details ahead, and the latest on the shuttle.

But first, time for COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day.

Number three, the fine folks at Nepal Airlines.  They‘ve put up posters, they have, encouraging travel to their country, posters that are supposed to show Nepal‘s greatest tourist draw, the Magical Mountains, the Himalayas.  The Himalayas, except the photos turn out to actually be pictures of Machu Pichu, the mountain range in Peru, 10,000 miles away. 

Number two, Jimmy Johnson, another race car driver, injured in what would seem to be the equivalent of a boxer playing patty cake.  He broke his wrist, put himself out of a stock car for a month, when, quoting his own written statement, I was in a golf cart and the driver took a sharper turn.  I wasn‘t holding on tight enough.  Well, it turns out there was a little more to this.  Mr. Johnson was not exactly in the cart.  A team spokesperson confirming to ESPN that he was on the roof of the golf cart when it turned and he fell. 

And number one, two unnamed campers in Harword Forest, in Ratherwory (ph) Northumberland, in England.  They disappeared last Tuesday, leaving an abandoned tent.  They had been the subject of an intense man hunt, dogs, helicopters with thermal imaging cameras, the works.  They turned up over the weekend at home.  They explained they heard a scary noise and they had runaway. 

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OLBERMANN:  Our third story in the COUNTDOWN contains what is hoped to be nothing more than a disgusting and disturbing consequence.  At least 60 people in the northeast poisoned by E. Coli, apparently from Taco Bell, at least 30 in Iowa now poisoned by E Coli from Taco Johns.  Taco Bell and Taco Johns are not affiliated with one another, even the outbreaks are obviously unrelated.  Sixty four people got the bacterial infection after eating at Taco Bell restaurants in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.  The franchise then pulled green onions from all its outlets, but the F.D.A. is still investigating whether the scallions are actually responsible for the outbreak. 

So far tests on Taco Bell products have come back negative for E.  Coli, though other white onions in a farm in New York state did test positive.  As for Taco John‘s and the outbreak there, it appears to be limited to one restaurant in Cedar Falls, Iowa, leading to the Centers for Disease Control to believe that a single ill worker is responsible for having sickened 30 patrons there.  The taco incidents just the latest in a series of potentially deadly food poisonings.  This September, three died, hundreds more sickened by E. Coli in bagged Spinach nationwide.  Last month, tomatoes infected with Salmonella sickened nearly 200. 

Three years ago, 4 people died, 600 got sick after eating scallions tainted with hepatitis at a Chi Chis restaurant in Pennsylvania.  Such outbreaks, critics say. prove the urgent need to fix the food industry by, in part, strengthening food safety regulations.  Some in coming Democrats are saying just that even tonight.  One of those calling for the change outside the political sphere, Eric Schlosser, author of the book, now movie, “Fast Food Nation.”  He joins us now.  Thank you for your time tonight sir. 

ERIC SCHLOSSER, AUTHOR, “FAST FOOD NATION”:  Thanks for having me. 

OLBERMANN:  You wrote an op-ed in the “New York Times” today, blamed the politicians for weakening food industry regulations.  Summarize your argument for us, if you‘d be good enough. 

SCHLOSSER:  Yes, well, food poisoning is always going to be a problem, but there has been a real breakdown in our food safety and that is because of too much influence by these food companies, meat packing companies in the last five or six years and there has been a real weakening of our regulations. 

OLBERMANN:  The Connecticut Democrat representative Rosa Delauro (ph) says we‘ve just got to go in and have really a top to bottom look at what is going on, says the food safety system, quoting her again, appears to have broken down when you have these outbreaks almost every single week.  First off, is she right?  Secondly, what is it that can be done that could at least control this breakdown in the food safety system as quickly as possible? 

SCHLOSSER:  I agree with Congresswoman Delauro completely on this issue.  Our food safety system has broken down.  We need a tough food safety system with the power to test for dangerous pathogens, trace contaminated products back to their source and order them off the market when they are found.  Right now the federal government does not have the power to order a recall of potentially dangerous contaminated food.  That is outrageous. 

OLBERMANN:  The F.D.A. said today it still can‘t find a point of contamination in the Taco Bell thing, but it can‘t rule out the restaurant‘s contention that it was the green onions.  Does this sort of symbolize the big problem with food industry regulation, that is up to the restaurant to determine what happened and the restaurant takes appropriate action?  The government agency is, you know, in front of a laboratory somewhere, looking for answers that don‘t really address the problems of people who are at risk? 

SCHLOSSER:  Yes, we have basically deregulated and privatized our food safety system in the last five to six years.  And it is a terrible thing.  The F.D.A. in the 1970s did about 35,000 inspections a year.  Now they‘re doing about 3,400.  There have been, just in the last few year, one third of their budget for food safety has been eliminated.  So we not only need to reinsert spending in this area, but we need to consolidate the food safety responsibilities of the F.D.A. and the USDA into one tough agency that‘s not controlled by big business. 

OLBERMANN:  And you point out, Mr. Schlosser, in the piece today that the chief of staff at the Department of the Agriculture and the old head of the F.D.A. both had big ties to the food processing industry before they took their positions.  Some people would argue that makes them more qualified to hold positions in that kind of regulatory authority.  Others might say they have a bias in favor of the industry and keeping the business going.  Is there a way to weed out candidates with potential conflicts of interest like this?  Or does that need to be legislated, or what. 

SCHLOSSER:  I think there just needs to be careful attention in which the first goal is the public health.  There are some people in business who I think are terrific on this issue.  Dave Theno (ph), who is the chief food safety person at Jack in the Box, who came on after that outbreak, he‘s terrific.  He would be great as a food safety official in government.  But to have the chief lobbyist for the beef industry basically running the USDA today, I think that is absurd. 

OLBERMANN:  It kind of echoes other departments of the government at the moment.  Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation.”  Great thanks for your time tonight. 

SCHLOSSER:  Thanks for having me. 

OLBERMANN:  New concerns from NASA we are just learning about at this hour.  Mission control changing the astronauts schedule so they can check out sensors that say there may, repeat, may be damage to the leading edge of one of the shuttles wings.  We‘ll get the very latest from NBC correspondent Jay Barbree. 

And the princess and the CIA, our government denying the latest in the endless series of bombshells about the night Diana died.  That and more ahead here on COUNTDOWN. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Our second story on the COUNTDOWN, breaking developments from the space shuttle, potential damage to its left wing.  Discovery blasted off for the International Space Station over the weekend in a dramatic nighttime launch.  And now there are indications that some of the reinforced Carbon panels on the left wing might have been hit during the journey.  It was damage to the wing that caused the space shuttle Columbia to break apart, of course, during the tragic reentry in February 2003. 

Joining us now by phone with the details, our veteran space correspondent Jay Barbree.  Jay, good evening.  What is the latest and how serious is this? 

JAY BARBREE, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Well, first of all, it is a potential problem, but we want to say that with a small p, Keith.  Now what happened at about 5:00 a.m. this morning, eastern time, sensors on the extreme left wing, near the end out there, on reinforced Carbon panels number 19, 20, 21 and 22 indicated that they had two hits, indicated they had two hits.  They don‘t know if the panel shifted and gave them that indication, because they go from extreme temperatures when they are—on the day side of the planet, they have temperatures that range up to 250 degrees up there.  When they are owe on the nighttime, it goes down almost as low as 250 decrease. 

So that is a huge swing.  It could have shifted the panel.  It could have also been orbital debris that they ran into and that could have been, you know, hit the panels.  It could have been meteorites.  They don‘t know.  Right now they don‘t think it is a major problem, like they have a big hole in the wing like they had with Columbia.  But that‘s why they set up the system of inspection.  So what they‘re doing at this moment, as you and I are talking, they‘re moving the space station robotic arm out, with a camera on the end of it, to the tip of the left wing of the Discovery shuttle.  They will take pictures, bring that back, send the pictures down tonight. 

A team of expert will look at those pictures tomorrow.  Obviously if there is a huge hole out there, Keith, they will see it.  If they see nothing, they will still inspect it closely and continue where they are.  Now, if it turns out to be the worst, of course, they can stay where they are for several weeks until they have a rescue shuttle come up and get them, or they could be brought back to earth by a series of Soyez spacecraft by the Russians.  So, the fact that they are docked to the space station, they are totally safe.  But let me emphasize again, this is a potential problem with a small p.  They really don‘t expect it to be a major hit that took a big hole in the wing.  But they‘ve got to be absolutely sure.  They don‘t even want a small hole there, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Even the small hole question, Jay, has this now become a chronic or an endemic situation with the shuttles? 

BARBREE:  Yes, I mean, a small hole, when you come in through the atmosphere, you‘re coming through heat that is 3,000 degrees.  That is hotter than the surface of the son.  And it can burn a hole through the Carbon reinforced Carbon.  All it needs is just to sneak through there and it can grow.  Of course now, again, they have ways up there of going out and trying to fix it.  They worked on things, they can—they have different seals and what not, putties that they can put in and they can fly a different entry pattern that they could come in on.  But, again on the—

I want to emphasize NASA does not feel this is really a major problem at this time.  It is a small problem with a p. 

OLBERMANN:  A problem with a small p until further notice.  And we respect the word of Jay Barbree, who has covered almost all of this.  Great thanks Jay.   

BARBREE:  My pleasure Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  We‘ll keep you posted on this as developments warrant. 

On to our nightly round-up of celebrity and entertainment news and a story that apparently will never go away.  With all of us on the outside lap of the race to the tenth anniversary of her death, another bizarre claim now emerging about the final hours of Britain‘s Princess Diana, that United States intelligence was listening to her phone calls.  Findings of a British inquiry into the car crash will be released later this work.  The “Observer Newspaper” in England says that the CIA was bugging her phone calls on the night she died.  But both former and current U.S. officials have told NBC News that no U.S. intelligence agency ever spied on the princess of Wales, though one former official conceded the possibility that her voice might have been captured while others were being targeted for surveillance, whatever that means. 

Meanwhile the British inquest into Diana‘s death will begin again with public hearings in London on January 8th.  If anybody is monitoring the soundtrack from Mel Gibson‘s “Apocalypto,” good luck.  It is in an ancient Mayan language.  Nonetheless, the movie led weekend box office statistics, though with somewhat middling numbers, just under $15 million for this story about the end of Mayan civilization.  Roughly 70 million less than Mr. Gibson‘s last directorial effort, “The Passion of the Christ.”  Then again it was in an impenetrable language, kind of like Gibson‘s anti-Semitic blubber to police officers in July.  There was, apparently, another version of “Apocalypto,” which Mr. Gibson would not approve. 

From Mel Gibson to Nicole Richie joining the Hollywood D.U.I. club.  It‘s not liquor that did her in.  Thanks to the police report, there is also no hiding her alarming lack of weight.  That and a lawsuit against Mary Carey, but time first for COUNTDOWN‘s latest list of nominees for Worst Person in the World. 

The bronze tonight to Tiffany Owens from Allen Central High School, in the town of Eastern, Kentucky.  That is the name of the place.  The school displays perhaps a dozen confederate flags, battle flags, images of confederate soldiers.  Cheerleader Tiffany defends it, telling the Associated Press, quote, to us it is not about the hatred.  I have colored friends around here and they never say anything, unquote.  Can we get Tiffany any of the last 31 memos?  Go back to 1967 and just work her forward, and some textbooks for the school. 

Our runner up tonight, Jason Clopp (ph) of Portland, Oregon.  After spending much of the day driving around that city at speeds exceeding 100 miles an hour, he finally rammed an empty police cruiser and backed up and rammed it again.  Mr. Clopp‘s complaint?  That he had spent much of the day driving around the city at speeds exceeding 100 miles an hour, and no policeman had pulled him over. 

But tonight‘s winner, one of the members of the Lottery Club at the Cafe La Pueternel (ph) at Muscrat (ph), a town just southwest of Brussels, in Belgium.  Every week they had pooled their money, for years, and bought tickets for the Euro millions jackpot.  Every week they played the same numbers, 12, 22, 32, 33, 36, bonus numbers two and six.  Last Friday‘s winners with 36 million dollars in the pot, 12, 22, 32, 33, and 33, bonus numbers two and six.  The group at the cafe had won the whole 36 million, except one of its members, the unnamed woman who owns the book store across the street from the cafe, last week she bought the tickets all right, she got one of the numbers wrong.  Said the owner of the cafe, even 20 years from now, whenever I see her, my hair will stand on end.  Ms. 12, 22, 32, 33, 36, bonus two and six, today‘s Worst Person in the World. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  If Nicole Richie found herself driving the wrong way on the Ventura Freeway in Burbank early this morning, it may have been because she was under the influence of Vicodin and marijuana.  And if adult actress and California pseudo politician Mary Carey found herself defending her very existence, it may have been Mariah Carey left her no other choice.  The gauntest of celebrity character building quite diverse in our number one story on the COUNTDOWN. 

Police found Ms. Richie‘s Mercedes S.U.V. stopped and blocking the carpool lane of the Ventura Freeway at about 2:00 this morning, local time.  Her vehicle matched the description of a car that had been going the wrong way, though she was pointed in the right direction when police approached her.  She told them she had gotten lost trying to follow a friend.  She reportedly admitted to officers she had taken the prescription painkiller Vicodin and smoked some marijuana.  Ms. Richie failed a field sobriety test and was later charged with driving under the influence of drugs.  A police report recorded her height at 5 feet one inch and her weight at 85 pounds.  At that weight second hand smoke might have sent her off into Reefer Madness. 

And though the distribution of weight never really has been a problem for Mary Carey, she is now fighting for her very identify after the singer Mariah Carey has sued her.  Mariah Carey is concerned that her adoring public will become confused by a porn star with a similar sounding name.  So she‘s trying to block the adult film actress from trade marking the name Mary Carey, but Mary Carey, who‘s birth name is Mary Cook, says that Ms.  Carey‘s lawsuit is silly and she bravely asserts, quote, I‘m ready to battle Mariah over this, because I‘ve been Mary Carey for a long time.  It‘s kind of funny because I‘ve been being myself for a long time, end quote.  It does seem that if you‘ve been and been being yourself for a long time, well that should be enough, shouldn‘t it? 

Joining me now, the senior editor of “In Touch Weekly,” and columnist for the L.A. Times awards website, the Envelope, Tom O‘Neil.  Good evening Tom. 

TOM O‘NEIL, “IN TOUCH WEEKLY”:  Good evening Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  All right, Nicole Richie arrested for driving under the influence, when it sounds like she should have been arrested for driving underweight, 85 pounds? 

O‘NEIL:  Hey, at least she wasn‘t picked up for D.U.I.  Let‘s give her some credit.  She wasn‘t drinking.  This is problem for these party girls. 

OLBERMANN:  So, speaking of that, her once-again friend Paris Hilton was arrested for driving under the influence three months ago.  Are we seeing the plot line for the next season of the Simple Life or the Big House or Gray‘s Anatomy, maybe? 

O‘NEIL:  I think it‘s all three, Keith.  Here‘s the setup, Nicole Richie is confronted by her worst nightmare, a cream-filled doughnut.  She flees in horror.  She starts driving the wrong way down the high way.  She gets picked up by the cops.  She is thrown in the Big House.  She escapes using her wily charms.  But we have to send her over to Gray‘s Anatomy to figure out what is she living on, Vicodin, despite its similarity to the word vitamin has no nutrition.  Marijuana is a green leafy substance, but it is not a recognizable part of any food group. 

OLBERMANN:  She escapes by slipping between the bars. 

O‘NEIL:  Let‘s patent this, we‘ve got a great script going on here. 

OLBERMANN:  Turning to Mariah Carey, who‘s now going through legal action she threatened back in October.  This seems unusual because both women have been, you know, out there, sorry, for quite some time.  Mary Carey has been in films under that name for like four years.  She got on to the ballot for governor of California in 2003.  She got 11,000 votes.  So what‘s the premise of Mariah Carey trying to stop Mary Carey now? 

O‘NEIL:  Well, we‘re heading into a presidential election, you know, and the voters aren‘t that stupid.  If we‘re going to keep getting screwed by the government, it might as well look like—you know.  And, you know, if Mary Carey actually wins there then Mariah Carey gets upstaged.  This is all about diva stuff, Keith, you should just stay out of it. 

OLBERMANN:  But it‘s news.  Mary Carey is, in fact, correct, isn‘t she?  Does Mariah Carey have a chance of winning this lawsuit?  Is this all about this copy righting of the name?  Is that what the problem is?

O‘NEIL:  Right, but how preposterous is the whole premise here.  Who could ever really confuse Mariah Carey with being a floozy.  In a world without Mother Teresa, she is our standard of chastity and prudence.  I think this whole thing is just a great misunderstanding.  By the way, Jim Carey called recently and he said he has no problem with being compared with a porn star and he wants Mary to call him to clear up this confusion. 

OLBERMANN:  Mary‘s made more films than Jim has, and they‘ve been more popular lately.  But this last Mariah Carey album, the emancipation of me, that sort of sounds like a porn film, like one of those you would see at Showtime at about one a.m., or so I‘m told.  Should Mary Carey be suing Mariah Carey for hurting her reputation? 

O‘NEIL:  Yes.  And how is it you know what‘s on Showtime at 1:00 in the morning? 

OLBERMANN:  My research staff told me. 

O‘NEIL:  Oh, OK.  I thought you were saying the Rosary at that hour, while trying to doze off. 

OLBERMANN:  There‘s one last report we want your reaction on, news of the world in Britain saying Paul McCartney is going to make a secret settlement to Heather Mills of $234 million to end the divorce.  What‘s the secret part if we already know about the 234 million part? 

O‘NEIL:  Isn‘t that a great question?  This is why we love Fleet Street.  They‘re always spilling the beans like this.  I don‘t know.  I think really they‘ve got one fact wrong, it‘s really 234 million pounds and Paul‘s just hoping that Heather doesn‘t ask pounds of what, because there‘s a trick thing in this, and I can‘t believe he‘s really giving her all that dough in cash. 

OLBERMANN:  Tom O‘Neill, of “In Touch Weekly,” and L.A. Times website the Envelope, or Envelope, if you prefer, great thanks for your time, Tom. 

O‘NEIL:  Thanks Keith.

OLBERMANN:  That‘s COUNTDOWN for this, the 1,318th day since the declaration of mission accomplished in Iraq.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Good night and good luck. 

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

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