updated 3/24/2008 11:01:38 AM ET 2008-03-24T15:01:38

Guests: Hillary Mann Leverett

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

The endorsement dam busts wide open.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON, (D) FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  My great affection and admiration for Senator Clinton and President Clinton will never waver.  It is time, however, for Democrats to stop fighting amongst ourselves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Governor Bill Richardson, Bill Clinton‘s Energy secretary, Bill Clinton‘s ambassador to the U.N., endorses Senator Barack Obama.  Governor Richardson joins us live.

The Clinton campaign dismisses it.  Mark Penn, quote, “I don‘t think it is a significant endorsement in this environment.

The Bill Clinton quote at Charlotte speaking about the November election.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FMR. UNITED STATES PRESIDENT:  And I think it‘d be a great thing if we have an election in a way you have two people who love this country and were devoted to the interest of the country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  What does that mean?

What did the passport breach mean?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  It is deeply disturbing of what‘s happened.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Breaches: Clinton, McCain, and Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE:  I told him that I was sorry and I told him that I, myself, would be very disturbed if I learn that somebody had looked into my passport.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And what is in her file or yours or mine?  A State Department insider explains.

And: Obama and racism.  It‘s so bad today on FOX News that one of the FOX News anchors walked out.

All that and more: Now on COUNTDOWN.

(on camera):  Good evening, this is Friday, March 21st, 228 days until the 2008 presidential election.

Forget the 3:00 a.m. phone call.  The biggest early morning development of this Democratic campaign season might will turn out to have been the 3 a.m. bulletin.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN: The office in Santa Fe sending out the urgent (ph) that three seconds after 3:00 a.m. this morning, the “Associated Press” has learned that New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is endorsing Senator Barack Obama for president.

Within 11 hours, veteran reporters Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen wondering if the media might be a little bit more urgent about the Democratic race writing on Politico.com, quote, “Hillary Rodham Clinton has virtually no chance of winning the nomination.”

Governor Bill Richardson joins us in a moment.

Briefly the details: The governor who has sought to become the nation‘s first Hispanic president, joining Senator Obama this morning on the campaign trail in Portland, Oregon calling him a once in a lifetime leader and citing his speech on race this week as a factor in his own decision.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARDSON:  Senator Obama could have given a safer speech.  He is, after all, well ahead in the delegates count for our party‘s nomination.  He could have waited for the controversy over the deplorable remarks of Reverend Wright to subside as it surely would have.  Instead, Senator Obama showed us, once again, what kind of leader he is.

(APPLAUSE)

RICHARDSON:  As a Hispanic-American, I was particularly touched by his words.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Governor Richardson having been courted aggressively by both candidates since he dropped out of the race in January and several times reported on the verge of an endorsement, ultimately, backing Obama despite his own ties to the Clintons.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARDSON:  My great affection and admiration for Senator Clinton

and President Clinton will never waver.  It is time, however, for Democrats

to stop fighting amongst ourselves -

(APPLAUSE)

RICHARDSON:  And prepare for the tough fight we will have against John McCain in the fall.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico is kind enough to join us now from Santa Fe.  Good evening, governor.

RICHARDSON:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Thank you for your time.  Why now, why did you wait?

RICHARDSON:  Well, I waited because I was just legitimately very torn.  You mentioned my ties to the Clintons, my loyalty to President Clinton, my support and respect for Senator Clinton.

But I‘d just realized that if I was going to make a difference at a time when we need party unity, at time when the campaign was really getting nasty and personal, at a time when Senator Obama responded, I believe, in such a courageous way to a problem in his campaign, those remarks by his own pastor, I felt that I needed to step in and say that I am backing Senator Obama because I think this man has got something very good about him, something very special.

I can‘t put my precise point on it except to say that, you know, Keith, I was in that auditorium in Portland and I look at the faces of all those people and all I saw was hope and enthusiasm but mainly hope and I think that just reinforced my decision.

OLBERMANN:  Governor, Mark Penn of the Clinton campaign responded today by disparaging the impact, or any impact your endorsement will have.

Let me quote him and I‘ll get your reaction.  “The time that he could have been effective has long since passed.  I don‘t think it is a significant endorsement in this environment.”

How do you react to that statement from Mr. Penn?

RICHARDSON:  Well, I regret it.  You know, it‘s typical of many of the people in that campaign.  What he basically was saying, the stereotype was that I could have endorsed before Texas because I‘m Hispanic and that‘s when I would have made a difference.

Now that Texas was over, my endorsement doesn‘t make a difference.  That‘s his view.  That‘s maybe the campaign view.  I still have enormous respect for Senator Clinton.  I think she‘s fought a great race, President Clinton too.  But I think you have to get in the arena.

I have felt that the time has come for us to stop this bickering like Mark Penn, making statements like that and basically come together as a party and talk positive about this country at the issues instead of all of these sniping that seems to take place almost every day.

OLBERMANN:  All right.  Let me ask you one last process question and let‘s get more to substantive stuff.  At any point, were you close to announcing an endorsement of Senator Clinton?

RICHARDSON:  Yes, I was.  You know, I almost did.  You know, the president came to see me in Santa Fe, we watched the Super Bowl together.  I was about to do it.  He‘s very persuasive and I have enormously strong ties to them, they were good to me and I was good to them.

But then, I waited and I said, I‘m going to just—there‘s something that says to me, I must wait.  And then Texas happened, then the negativity took place.  And then, Obama gave his speech.

Although I had kind of decided, almost a week ago to make the endorsement, and now, I feel that it was the right time.  You‘ve got to step up in the arena.  I think it helped Senator Obama, even though I personally haven‘t felt that these endorsements of one politician to another helped much.

But he‘s kind of had a bad week.  And this is certainly boosted his staff, I saw it (ph), his supporters.  So, maybe my endorsement has a little bit of significance.  But obviously, Mark Penn doesn‘t think so.  But we‘ll see.

OLBERMANN:  One thing that strikes me from your statement today in Portland with Senator Obama, you‘ve mentioned it several times here, you‘d almost taken on a role of a referee here in asking the Democratic campaigns to keep it clean.  You‘ve said that today in the speech, you‘ve talked about the in-fighting now.  No more fighting until the general election matchup against the Republicans.  I‘ve expressed my sadness here previously that that has not been the case in this campaign.

Obviously, you‘ve expressed your sadness about it today.  You‘ve also selected who you think should be the Democratic nominee.  The way this has gone, to end the fighting, do you think Senator Clinton should concede now or in the immediate future?

RICHARDSON:  Well, I‘m not in any position to tell her what to do about her campaign but I have seen your eloquence on this issue.  I share the view that since Texas, since the last big D-Day which was Ohio and Texas, the campaign‘s gotten very nasty.  Almost daily personal attacks, integrity attacks, the 3:00 a.m. phone call, you know, on both sides.  And we don‘t need that.

We‘ve got John McCain running around the world boosting his policy credentials, raising funds, building support, and we‘re bickering.  And we‘re a Democratic Party that has been on the resurgence and the American people are on our side on the issues.  But when it appears that we‘re downgrading each other, attacking each other, not talking positive, cat-fighting, nastiness, then, I think, the time has come for individuals, like myself that have been in the arena that maybe have run for president, to say, all right, the time has come to stop this.

The time has come to come together as a party.  The time has come to get a nominee before the convention.  The time has come—also, I‘d just think these superdelegates shouldn‘t be the arbiters and the deciders of this race, 800 of them, a lot of them are, you know, good people, but they‘re fat cats, they‘re governors like me or senators, they‘re congressman.

You know, why should we decide?  Let the voters in proportion to the vote in various states make that decision.

OLBERMANN:  Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico.  Great thanks for your time tonight.  Congratulations on wrestling the beast of this decision to the ground finally, and all the best to you, sir.

RICHARDSON:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  As we mentioned, at the end of his speech today, Governor Richardson having called on the Democrats to stop fighting amongst themselves, to prepare for the tough fight we will have against John McCain in the fall.

The veteran Washington reporters: Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen of Politico.com openly wondering why that hasn‘t happened already, specifically why the media is still treating this as viable two-candidate race for the Democratic nomination, quoting them:

“One big fact has largely been lost in the recent coverage of the Democratic presidential race.  Hillary Rodham Clinton has virtually no chance of winning.  Her own campaign acknowledges there is no way that she will not finish ahead in pledged delegates.  That means the only way she wins is if Democratic superdelegates are ready to risk a backlash of historic proportions from the party‘s most reliable constituency.

Unless Clinton is able to win, at least win the primary popular vote - which also would take nothing less than an electoral miracle and use that achievement to pressure superdelegates, she has only one scenario for victory.  An African-American opponent and his backers would be told that even though he won the contest with voters, the prize is going to someone else.  People think that scenario is even remotely likely are living on another planet,” end quote.

President Clinton pushing the possibility of a McCain versus Clinton general election today by mulling over what that matchup might look like before an invitation only audience in about veterans in Charlotte, North Carolina.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

B. CLINTON:  And I think it‘d be a great thing if we have an election in a way you have two people who love this country and were devoted to the interest of the country, and people could actually ask themselves who‘s right in these issues instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics.  So, that‘s my argument for her.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Should anyone to interpret President Clinton‘s comments as an effort to draw the attention to the issue of relative patriotism at the end of the long week of controversy surrounding comments made by Senator Obama‘s former minister.

By late this afternoon, Mr. Clinton‘s spokesman was try to shelve

the toothpaste back into the tube, quote, “President Clinton was talking

about the need to talk about issues rather than falsely questioning any

candidate‘s patriotism.”  Adding that, “He was lamenting that these kind of

distractions always seems to intrude on political campaigns,”

At this point, let‘s turn to our own Richard Wolffe, senior White House correspondent for “Newsweek” magazine.  Richard, good evening.

RICHARD WOLFFE, NEWSWEEK:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  What did former President Clinton mean and if he was not suggesting there was some question about Senator Obama‘s patriotism, why did he, himself conclude that portion of his remarks by saying, that is my argument for her, not that is my argument for sticking to the issues and not that as my plea for all sides to stop letting this other stuff intrude.

WOLFFE:  Well, it can be hard to get inside President Clinton‘s head but let‘s me challengeable (ph) for a moment and say that this was a sin of admission.  You‘ve got to look at what the strategy is with these comments.  And it‘s a strategy we‘ve heard before from President Clinton which is to actually, in the first instance, took up the credentials and in this case, the patriotism of John McCain.

Now, that‘s a very risky strategy, regardless of what it says about Senator Obama because of a start, if you‘re going to face John McCain in the fall that takes all those questions of his experience off the table.  Secondly, really head-to-head, national security and patriotism, John McCain and Hillary Clinton, if it comes to military service and military experience, that is not a comparison that looks good for Hillary Clinton.

And then, you have the third of that level which is: Why is there repeated pattern of President Clinton sort of missing out the reference to Senator Obama when there are more candidates in the race?  He‘s to rattle off everyone in the race and say, you know, you all great and never mention Senator Obama.  So, there is a pattern here.

OLBERMANN:  What is this other story, the Politico piece reported by Allen and Vandehei?  What is the path to the nomination, if not the one that they described which essentially amounts to a post primary coupe.  Is there a way for Senator Clinton to still win the nomination and still abide by what Governor Richardson was requesting that the fighting stop?

WOLFFE:  Yes, well, look.  I think Governor Richardson was right.  But both sides here have got increasingly ugly.  The gloves are off for both campaigns.

And there isn‘t any other path to winning the nomination for either side except for the superdelegates.  The problem here is of course, the superdelegates for Hillary Clinton have to overturn those delegates apportioned by the voters, the pledged delegates.

And that‘s an incredibly difficult principle not just because of the passion and the loyalty of African-Americans for Barack Obama but because of that core bedrock principle after the 2000 election that the Democratic will of the people is what matters most.  That‘s what‘s hardest to overcome.

OLBERMANN:  Back to Governor Richardson‘s endorsement and what you‘ve heard him just saying in this interview that in fact, he was on the verge of endorsing Hillary Clinton right after the Super Bowl beginning of February after spending that day with President Clinton.  Does the endorsement, to any degree grease the skids for other superdelegates, other named Democrats to endorse or are we not expecting a stampede at this point?

WOLFFE:  I don‘t think it‘s going to be a stampede but there‘s question, this is a huge and timely boost for the Obama campaign.  Because remember, the main argument for the Clinton folks right now is that superdelegates need to wait and see before they commit because Senator Obama is going to implode in some way.

Look at the Jeremiah Wright story.  That‘s the argument, the only argument they can really make here.  When you have a superdelegate of Governor Richardson‘s stature, his experience as governor of a battleground state, that‘s a big victory for the Obama folks and big signal to other superdelegates, you know what, it‘s OK.  You can go ahead right now.

OLBERMANN:  By the way, about the right thing, a CBS News poll came out this evening.  Seven in 10 said he did a good job talking about race relations, seven in 10 said he did a good job explaining his relationship with Reverend Wright; those are people who read that speech.

Seven in 10 voters nationwide who follow the issue said it will make no difference in their vote and the rest, the other 30 percent are evenly split between, I‘m more likely to vote for him or I‘m less likely to vote for him.

So, it appears to have been to some degree, the hemorrhaging had been stopped there.  Lastly, though, in the context of that, to the point raised again by Vandehei and Allen in the Politico piece, that the media is not adequately reporting this mathematical impossibility, virtually, no chances, the way they‘d phrased it, of Hillary Clinton winning.

If this was reversed, if the roles between Senators Clinton and Obama were reversed, is it likely the other candidate, the one currently in that secondary position would still be around?

WOLFFE:  No, it‘s not, not at all.  And they were right to point this out.  But just to come back to those numbers for a minute, if you listened to cable news all week, you‘d think that this is the worst nightmare in the world, the week that has ended incredibly well, considering all that‘s happened for Barack Obama.  And those numbers really show that voters are tuning into a different message than we‘re hearing on TV.  So, let‘s see how it plays out.

OLBERMANN:  Richard Wolffe of “Newsweek” and MSNBC.  As always, great thanks.  Have a great weekend.

WOLFFE:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  One of the other things that President Clinton referred to has intruded on all three candidates, the State Department passport files of Senators Obama, Clinton and McCain all violated by people at the State Department.

And: If it‘s bad enough for Chris Wallace to scold his own network and one of the hosts to walk off the show, the race-baiting (ph) at FOX must be out of control.

You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  So, when it was just Barack Obama‘s State Department passport file being rummaged through, that was a scandal but if it‘s his and Hillary Clinton‘s and John McCain‘s, that somehow better?  The security disaster at the State Department and the political fallout and race-baiting so bad that “fixed news,” one newscaster scolds the host.  One of the hosts walks off the set.

Worst Persons is ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The comforting reassurance that it was not just the State Department passport file of one presidential candidate breached by some subcontractor the way a teenager might go to his dad‘s “Playboys” but all three candidates.

In our fourth story tonight: The investigations have begun internally, by state‘s acting inspector general, and externally, by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  Senator Obama characterizing the security breach as deeply disturbing, acknowledging today that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to offer her apologies.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I think we need to get to the bottom of this, again, not because I have any particular concerns, I‘m assuming that whatever information anybody obtained is already information that is available in other ways but because we have to set, I think, some clear principles for people having confidence that when they give information to their government, that is not going to be misused.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack is saying that breaches of Senator McCain‘s and Senator Clinton‘s passport files were not discovered until today.  Thus, contradicting any assertions about how well the State Department system flags such breaches.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN MCCORMACK, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN:  People should know that our vigilance applies not just to the VIPs, notable personalities, the same kind of vigilance applies every other passport application that we handle.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And if that fails to reassure, there is still the worst case, the State Department‘s undersecretary, Patrick Kennedy maintaining that these mistakes were caught, but unable to characterize motive.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You‘re sure it was an innocent mistake?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You‘re sure it was an innocent mistake, Mr.

Secretary?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The offenses and the actions taken as NBC News can now report thus far, July 2000, approximately eight months ago, a State Department trainee possibly in “a show us you can use this machine” exercise, looks into the passport file of Senator Clinton.  The individual was admonished, not fired.  It‘s not clear supervisors were notified.

January 9th of this year, State Department contractor from a Virginia company called Stanley, Incorporated accesses the passport records of Senator Obama.  That employee is fired but the supervisor doesn‘t report it up the chain of command.

February 21st of this year, a different contractor also from Stanley, Inc., breaches Obama‘s passport record.  This employee also fired.  Again, is not reported up the chain of command.

Less than one month later, March 14th, just a week ago today, another State Department employee from a contractor called the Analysis Corporation accesses the passport files of both Senator Obama and Senator McCain.  The person has been disciplined but further action is still pending.

Secretary Rice has briefed President Bush, she says and offered apologies to the other two senators.  Both Clinton and McCain have also called for full investigations.

We call in our own Howard Fineman, senior Washington correspondent and political columnist for “Newsweek” magazine.  Howard, good evening.

HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK MAGAZINE:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Well, last night, we sad hear, we‘re hearing from Secretary Rice if the system worked, that was before the Clinton breach and the McCain breach were reported.  It sounds like they need a whole new system.  How far politicians are going to be willing to go create that new system?

FINEMAN:  Well, I think they‘re going to look at it carefully, the inspector general at the State Department as you said, the House Foreign Affairs Committees as you said, the Justice Department and, I think, whatever the new administration is going to be.  They put in the system after Bill Clinton‘s files were monkeyed (p) around went back in ‘92.

And if this is an example of the system working, I‘m shuddered (ph) to think what the system not working looks like.  I mean, the phrase, inappropriate curiosity has now entered the lexicon and that‘s not very reassuring in and of itself.

I think in some ways, it‘s a bigger story than we‘d even thought because it‘s obvious that this system is riddled with problems and people all over Washington, contractors that we don‘t know anything about, can have easy access to anybody‘s passport files with sensitive information in it.  That‘s a concern for everyone.

OLBERMANN:  What has been the fallout with the various campaigns?  Where is this going politically, internally relative to the presidential campaign?

FINEMAN:  Well, I think that last night, at least, the Obama campaign was probably relieved to have something else to talk about besides Jeremiah Wright and race.  And it provided a nice interlude before the big announcement of Bill Richardson today.  I think they‘d already felt undersieged and, I think, they were genuinely concerned, and rightfully so and I must, when I contacted the Clinton campaign people last night, they were actually concerned on Obama‘s behalf.

I know that may sound difficult to believe but when I talked to one of the top people there, they said if this is true, it‘s outrageous.  Little did we know that Hillary Clinton‘s own file was also looked at, although, I got to say there‘s people around Barack Obama who thinks it‘s perhaps a little too convenient that today, we find that Hillary was breached and McCain was breached as well.  This was an Obama story until a few hours ago.

By the way, Condi Rice didn‘t talk to us or anybody last night.  It wasn‘t until this morning that Condi Rice called first Obama and then, the other senators.

OLBERMANN:  Two points, one on invasion of privacy, Newt Gingrich had a meltdown about this when it was just Obama.  To be fair, there are people who totally desperate political opinions have to see this for what it was, when it was just him or when it was three of them.

But, pursuant to that second point that it was all three of them, the air seemed to be sucked out of this thing when it became no longer just Obama anymore.  Oh, now, it could not be deliberate, now it could not be at all political, why couldn‘t it be?

FINEMAN:  Well, we don‘t know that.  We don‘t know who the people were, who are the contractors for the two companies that were involved.  We don‘t know who they talked to, whether somebody put them up to it.  You know, you don‘t have to be paranoid or cynical to have the appropriate, I suppose, the inappropriate curiosity about all of that.

And, I think, those questions must be asked.  You saw the doors closing on the elevator there when the undersecretary for management was asked whether he was sure there was nothing political or untoward about this.  The doors closed.  We don‘t know.

OLBERMANN:  The lastly, the principal area of interest of the campaign, besides the who and the why, obviously, but is it that 71-day drag between the first incident and the day it was leaked by a Bush administration source to the “Washington Times”?

FINEMAN:  Yes, well, first of all, it‘s interesting that it was leaked by an administration person, we don‘t know why.  But yes, that 71-day period and three efforts to look at Obama‘s file, the notion that that didn‘t percolate up anywhere from the low level office in which people were being fired is another reason to be skeptical.  It‘s really hard to believe that nobody else knew that that was going on.

OLBERMANN:  Our own Howard Fineman of “Newsweek” magazine and MSNBC, we‘re very fortunate.  Thank you, Howard.  Have a good weekend.

FINEMAN:  Thank you, you too, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Exactly, what could be in one of those files?  Why a little on Barack Obama or John McCain or Hillary Clinton might go a long way.  The insight of a State Department insider.

And: In sports, the Duke Blue Devils begin the NCAA basketball. 

This may be the wrong tape.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  A lot of broadcasting entered the world on the 20th and 21st of March.  Today is Rosie O‘Donnell‘s birthday, also Howard Cosell.  And yesterday was the birthday of Carl Reiner of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and “The 2,000-Year-Old Man,” and the wonderfully underrated movie “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.” Born in the Bronx in 1922, on the very same day in Lowell, Massachusetts, Ray Goulding, the late half of the perfect pitch team of Bob and Ray, was born. 

It was Ray who answered when, in 1974, I asked him why, since they had had the courage to satirize Senator Joe McCarthy 20 years earlier, they weren‘t doing anything on the air about Watergate.  Well, he deadpanned, how could we make it funnier? 

Let‘s play “Oddball.” 

OLBERMANN:  And they continue to celebrate on this, the second day of spring in Jaipur, India.  The residents conduct a festival in which they paint themselves red, green and yellow, then dance day and night for an entire week to ward off winter.  The whole village joins in the party, even those who patently do not need any extra insulation against winter‘s cold. 

Time for our annual visit to Texistepeque, El Salvador, where men in devil costumes are whipping the sin out of naughty town folk and unsuspecting touristas.  Each year, people from all other the country come to repent for their sins by having a stranger whip them in the streets.  And I do not want to know that guy did.  The demon rampage continues until a man dressed as Jesus rings a bell, immobilizing the bad guy and giving an angel its wings, which is nice. 

A passport file is not the same as a lonely passport.  What on earth is actually in the computer entries‘ “snoop dat” inside the State Department? 

And who are you picking?  Not for president, who are they picking in the tournament.  And is expressing a preference more risky than it might look? 

But first, the latest headlines, breaking in the administration‘s 50 scandals.  Mm, “Bushed!” Number three, Politics-Is-Always-First-gate.  Mr.  Bush‘s secretary of education, Margaret Spellings went to Minnesota to announce new flexibility the No Child Left Behind rules in 10 different states.  Minnesota however is not one of those 10 states.  Why announce it in Minnesota?  Well, Minnesota Republican Senator Norm Coleman was at the announcement and he‘s involved in a see-saw race for reelection against Al Franken. 

Number two.  Halliburton-gate, poisoning the troops in Iraq with bad water, skirting hundreds of millions in federal taxes.  Now, another terrible, infuriating story about stun off Halliburton subsidiary KBR, electrocuted U.S. soldiers in Iraq.  Reports of at least a dozen of them.  Bad KBR wiring in KBR-built, KBR-run bases.  In one case, a green beret stepped into a shower, there were ungrounded electrical wires around it.  He died instantly. 

And Plamegate.  A three-judge D.C. Court of Appeals panel has disbarred I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.  Banned him from practicing law through at least 2012.  This for the “moral turpitude” implicit in his conviction for having obstructed the investigation into the administration‘s outing of CIA op Valerie Plame as political retribution against her husband. 

The bad news for Mr. Libby, unlike the time he stepped in to improperly pardon him, before the appeals process had been exhausted, the president cannot just reinstate Libby‘s right to practice law.  The good news for Mr. Libby, the order includes nothing prohibiting Libby from going back to his earlier career, writing novels about 10-year-old girls being raped by bears. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Senator John McCain running on the claim that he understands national security issues better than do the Democrats, issued a statement today on the State Department‘s passport breaches, referring to them, in our third story tonight, only as a matter of privacy, apparently not believing that six years after 9/11 no one should be able to access sensitive information, including Social Security numbers about three powerful U.S. senators on four separate days, let alone non-government employees of two private companies, let alone inside the State Department, itself, let alone without top State Department officials allegedly not finding out until after—months after the first episode and finding it all out from a newspaper. 

McCain today saying, if anyone‘s privacy was breached, then they deserve a full apology—or an apology and a full investigation.  No mention of security implications.  No call, as has Senator Obama has called, for congressional inclusion in the investigation. 

We turn now to Hillary Mann Leverett, not only a former Foreign Service officer herself, but also former staffer at the National Security Council. 

Great thanks for your time tonight. 

HILLARY MANN LEVERETT, FMR. FOREIGN SERVICE OFFICER:  Thank you for having me. 

OLBERMANN:  In what way could this have happened, do you think, that should not spark concerns about security? 

LEVERETT:  I don‘t think there‘s any way this could have happened that would not spark concerns about security.  This at minimum is a management failure.  And I think it even says more about the administration and the running of government agencies.  We‘ve seen this kind of—a lack of an ability to anticipate a major event. 

Here we have a presidential campaign, a contentious one with people‘s files that have been gone through before in prior campaigns.  They didn‘t anticipate it.  Similar, in some circumstances how they didn‘t anticipate what would happen with Hurricane Katrina or the war on Iraq.  They just don‘t do well at anticipating or management.

OLBERMANN:  The files include, Social Security numbers, mother‘s maiden name, two very familiar terms, anybody who has ever been online and bought anything or registered anywhere under any circumstances, the stuff that is—that identity theft is made of.  Are these not the kinds of data that the federal government is supposed to keep secret, especially about powerful officials because they are basically keys to unlock other information, the sort of stuff that spies, blackmailers enjoy? 

LEVERETT:  Certainly, and I think for high-level prominent Americans, as well as for everyday Americans, your Social Security number and mother‘s maiden name are critical components to information that could be used to blackmail you financially and politically. 

But even more so, these files contain—particularly for people who lived overseas, and in this scenario Obama is more vulnerable than either Hillary Clinton or John McCain.  For someone who lived overseas, your file could include a lot of different data about where you went to school, what happened when you were at school, if there was a custody dispute involving your parents. 

Anything that would be normally documented here in the United States or might be part of a police record here in the United States, if you‘re living overseas, as Obama did, it would be documented in your passport file at the U.S. embassy.  If you went to various countries, if you traveled there, if you tried to renounce your U.S. citizenship, that would be in the file. 

OLBERMANN:  The structure of how this story got out, top State Department officials apparently learned it from The Washington Times.  When they were called for comment, The Washington Times learned about it from some unnamed official or officials in the Bush administration, what questions does that process raise that somehow members of the administration got this information before even middle level management at State did? 

LEVERETT:  Well, from my experience inside the Bush administration, this is actually unfortunately far too typical.  What happens in the Bush administration, if you see something that‘s not going right, if you have a question about something, whether it is about high policy or management issues, you don‘t really have a choice. 

Your voice is not listened to.  It is not respected inside the administration.  You have very little choice other than to go to the press.  So I‘m not surprised here that officials in the State Department probably thought their voice wasn‘t being heard up the food chain at the State Department and therefore went to a newspaper, and maybe one of the only newspapers where they knew the reporter. 

Unfortunately, we have seen this time and time again within the Bush administration.  It‘s not a surprise. 

OLBERMANN:  All right.  Then what are we to make of the fact that this had also happened in the first Bush‘s State Department and it was directed then at a Democratic presidential candidate named Clinton? 

LEVERETT:  You know, we were promised that after that was done to President Clinton, when they went through his files to see whether he renounced his citizenship to avoid the draft, a serious political charge at the time, we were assured that security controls would be put in at the State Department. 

But I think like so many things in this administration, those type of critical security and management controls were never taken seriously. 

OLBERMANN:  Hillary Mann Leverett, the former National Security Council director for Iran and the Persian Gulf, thanks for joining us.  Have a good weekend.

LEVERETT:  Thank you as well. 

OLBERMANN:  You don‘t need to break into his State Department files to know at least one presidential candidate will spend his weekend with one eye on the college basketball tournament.  But are you picking political trouble when you pick the outcomes of sporting events? 

And the only time you can ask this question without being called a sexist pig:  Hey, Angelina Jolie, how are the twins?  Next on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Sometimes, when we focus too much on who will lead our country, we lose sight of the important things, like celebrity babies.  So in our number two story tonight, the triumphant return of our celebrity and tabloid news minute “Keeping Tabs.” 

We begin with the update on reproductive activity with Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony.  Lopez telling People magazine their newborn twins were not the product of IVF, but old-fashioned S-E-X.  Thanks for sticking me with that mental picture. 

Halle Berry, meanwhile, has revealed the name of the girl she had on

Sunday.  She‘s Nahla Ariela Aubry, reportedly Nahla after the lioness in

“Lion King,” Ariela after the star of “Little Mermaid,” and Aubrey, a

reference to the least famous character in this tale, the father. 

Finally, In Touch Weekly reports that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are expecting to have twins.  Boy, these wild Hollywood—oh, twin babies. 

Senators McCain and Obama are in complete agreement about the NCAA Basketball Tournament.  Politicians and sports, is it riskier than it looks considering Senator Obama once predicted against one of the best-liked teams in his home state? 

That‘s ahead, but first, COUNTDOWN‘s “Worst Persons in the World.”  The bronze tonight to Steve Doocy and Gretchen Carlson of “Fixed” News, actually they were just doing their jobs, trying to stir up racism against Barack Obama.  But it got some bad today that their co-host walked off the set in protest and they were chastised by a senior news figure at FOX on the air. 

I give these two guys as much grief as I give anybody, but when Chris Wallace can say to them: “Two hours of Obama bashing on this “typical white person” remark is somewhat excessive and frankly I think you‘re somewhat distorting what Obama had to say,” and when Brian Kilmeade can get up and leave as the distortion continues, these guys work at FOX.  I know from personal experience, there dissent is disloyalty.  They are putting their livelihoods at risk over principle.  And I salute them both.  Best I can do from here is give them some sort of reality show immunity—free pass or something for like six months.

The runner up, Kiran Chetry of CNN, interviewing Minnesota senatorial candidate Al Franken.  She mistakenly told him he had “said some things about Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, saying they should be executed for treason.” Franken corrected her, explained he had been on David Letterman‘s show and quoted the first President Bush who had said that outing the CIA agent was treason and that he guessed that might mean Rove and Libby might be executed for treason, which Franken said he was against. 

She insisted he had said it, maybe in a joking or satirical way.  Franken denied it again, then said to Chetry, what you said was that I advocating the execution of Karl Rove.  Whereupon Chetry denied she had said what she had just said.  I didn‘t you advocated.  You can take the announcer out of FOX News, but you can‘t take the FOX News out of the announcer.  You might want to go back and report the health news again in Erie, PA.

And the winner, speaking of, Rupert Murdoch, owner of “fixednews.com.” Right now available for your reading pleasure there, a lovely string of comments, about 1.200 I number, about Barack Obama and the New Black Panthers. 

Quote: “You blacks would be naked and eating bugs if it weren‘t for white people,” unquote, from THayne843 (ph) at 5:57 Wednesday.  From Mike in Reno (ph) at 10:31 that night: “If these stupid negroes want to have their own country, let them, I say.  Just‘ll (ph) prove that they can‘t run anything because they are corrupt and uncivil people.” 

These are still on the FOX News Web site, right now.  This is on a moderated Web site which warns people posting that their comments may not appear immediately because they have to be approved, approved by FOX News. 

So we can expect another Bill O‘Reilly tirade against a hate-filled Web site, you know, comparisons to what the Nazis did, or the Ku Klux Klan, an O‘Reilly tirade about hate-mongers being authorized to post at foxnews.com.  Maybe send your little Stuttering John producer to ambush whoever runs it, you know, him, Rupert Murdoch, today‘s “Worst Person in the World.”

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  A rather unexpected caller this week to my old friends Al Morganti and Angelo Cataldi on the morning show at all sports radio station WIP in Philadelphia, Barack from Chicago.  On the day the NCAA basketball tournament began—and we know it ended at 6:58 Eastern time yesterday when Stanford defeated Cornell 77-53 in the championship game, yes, that‘s it. 

Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN, senators Obama and McCain actually released their tournament picks, their brackets to reporters.  Is there risk here?  In his first appearance on this program, in October 2006, Obama finished by asking me my prediction on the World Series, which was to begin the next day.  He joined me in getting it wrong, taking the Detroit Tigers over the St. Louis Cardinals.  The point of that, of course, is that he was willing to pick against St. Louis, even though the southern part of the state he represents in the Senate is filled with St. Louis Cardinals fans.

Sports first, political implications of sports second.  Senator Obama‘s enthusiasm for the basketball tournament impressing the locals at a sports bar in Charleston, West Virginia.  Obama was the last person reportedly to submit his bracket to his own staff‘s office pool, $10 entry fee.  Quoting the senator: “I have got to do a little bracketology before I make a final decision. 

Obama‘s Final Four picks do include two which hail from key upcoming primary states, Pittsburgh and UNC, with Carolina winning it all after defeating Kansas.  And then UCLA in the championship. 

Senator McCain, free of any pressure to court further primary votes, picks Arizona, but only for the first round.  Then had them losing to Duke.  And McCain‘s Final Four lines up with Obama‘s in the East, Carolina, and Midwest, Kansas, and with the ultimate champion, UNC.  But one of McCain‘s Final Four picks, Connecticut, already lost in the first round today.  After nearly two days of first round games, Senator McCain has made eight wrong picks, Senator Obama, so far the expert, six mistakes. 

Senator Clinton evidently not engaging in bracketology, but her campaign has employed NCAA lingo, announcing a “final four days” of voter registration in Pennsylvania as part of its March Madness push, which is why they call it madness.  Let‘s bring in Washington Post associate editor, MSNBC political analyst Eugene Robinson. 

Gene, good evening. 

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Good evening, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Having background in both of these areas, I always wonder if combining sports and politics might not be a little bit more difficult than it looks.  Rudy Giuliani used to get all that mileage out of going to Yankee games.  Then it turned out he watched the Yankees more in the two months after 9/11 than he‘d gone to Ground Zero.  Are Obama and McCain at any risk here that you can perceive? 

ROBINSON:  Well, they are at the risk of embarrassing themselves.  I mean, eight wrong and six wrong, you know, in just a few days. 

OLBERMANN:  That‘s a lot is going on. 

ROBINSON:  That‘s not great.  And I don‘t know, Senator McCain‘s judgment, I mean, the Sunni-Shia mix up was one thing.  But picking UConn to go to the Final Four?  You know, this year they didn‘t look that strong to me.  You know, what do I know?  I went to Michigan, so I definitely don‘t have a dog in this fight, but we haven‘t had a team since the Fab Five. 

But no, it is dangerous in that you probably can‘t help yourself a whole lot.  And you can hurt yourself a little bit by looking like a bonehead. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  McCain does have Sunni in the Mideast, though, he has picked them in the Mideast... 

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON:  In the Mehdi bracket I guess—no, that‘s the Shiite. 

OLBERMANN:  The Final Four that Obama picked had two teams from primary states.  And he is campaigning in West Virginia in that sports bar.  We saw that yesterday.  But when was asked why he did not pick West Virginia for the Final Four, he said, now that would be playing politics. 

But given that politically incorrect forecast on the ‘06 World Series, do we have to give him the benefit of the doubt here that bracketology has not been poisoned?  His sports fandom has not been poisoned by something as tiny as presidential aspirations.

ROBINSON:  I think we have to give them mostly the benefit of the doubt.  I mean, sure, I think either one of them would pick team in crucial primary states that go maybe a little further than they actually think they‘d go.  But I think it takes a certain courage to say no, it‘s not going to be West Virginia.  And UNC and UCLA, let‘s face it, are pretty safe picks to go through.  I mean, it‘s conventional wisdom.  But they‘re strong teams. 

OLBERMANN:  And what about differentiating yourself when you make these predictions?  I mean, Obama comes out, picks out North Carolina to win the tournament.  It went all over the political Web sites and the sports ones.  Then McCain releases his brackets, and he picks North Carolina.  I mean, would he have been wiser to go with Duke or Kansas or Cornell or somebody? 

ROBINSON:  You know, I think—well, not with Cornell.  But I think he would have been wiser to go with say Kansas, which looks like a really tough team.  And, I don‘t think—you know, UNC isn‘t such a towering favorite.  It‘s not like the old UCLA or anything under John Wooden.  It‘s not that they are obviously going to run away with the whole thing. 

So I think he could have safely picked either Duke or Kansas or even Georgetown to go all the way and look respectable at the end. 

OLBERMANN:  And at the end of this now, Senator Clinton having made no picks.  Now she can say, only I have the experience necessary to answer your call at 3:00 a.m. and give you guaranteed lead pipe sure thing winners? 

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON:  Well, she might have—it might have been the right decision for her to make.  I mean, let‘s—you know, if she‘s not a hoops fan, she doesn‘t do this every year, bracketology is not for amateurs.  So she was probably right to just let it pass. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  I gave up on it in 1979.  Our own Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post, thanks for joining us.  Have a good weekend. 

ROBINSON:  You too, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  That‘s COUNTDOWN for this, the 1,787th 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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