updated 12/4/2008 1:16:57 PM ET 2008-12-04T18:16:57

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

Guests: Lawrence O'Donnell, Kent Jones, Diana Henriques, Michael Isikoff, Joe Cirincione

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: Merry Christmas and Kwanzaa and stuff to you, too, Keith. Thank you.

And thank you for staying with us at home for the next hour. We are live from Los Angeles tonight.

So, good old Karl Rove is working on a "Bush legacy project," like a state of the country, state of the world, and the state of the polls don't settle that matter?

(voice over): What do you call a lame duck on Groundhog Day? It's the worst memories of the Bush administration being relived all over again in the waning days of this presidency. Karen Hughes and Karl Rove summoned again to the White House. This time, for secret meetings to fix the president's image, the "Bush legacy project." Is that the hardest job ever under taken on Pennsylvania Avenue? Lawrence O'Donnell joins us on the White House whitewash.

More Bush legacy: A top prosecutor gets tenacious on the U.S. attorney scandal. Who made the call to fire them? A grand jury convened, subpoenas flying, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales reportedly contacted. Remember him?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALBERTO GONZALES, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL: Senator, I don't recall that-Senator, I can't recall. I do not recall. I don't recall.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: This on the same day the Bush prosecutor in Minnesota is ruled to have retaliated against her top staffer. Michael Isikoff is here with the latest on this part of the Bush legacy.

And, how about the bailout part of the Bush legacy?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY PAULSON, U.S. TREASURY SECRETARY: I have confidence that we are pursuing the right strategy to stabilize the financial system and support the flow of credit into our economy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: The General Accounting Office reports there's not enough oversight of the $700 billion plan. Surprise. "New York Times" reporter Diana Henriques is following the money and watching the watchdogs on this part of the Bush legacy.

The good news? And there is good news in Washington. The new guy reads intelligence briefings seven whole days a week. The WMD report is out, it's scary and Barack Obama already appears to be more on top of it than his predecessor by at least one day per week. Is it enough to prevent disaster? An advisor to the WMD report, Joe Cirincione is here to give us the straight story.

Plus, Prop Eight-inspired musical comedy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(MUSIC)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: And good news for the millions of inauguration goers who will want the late night cocktails. I'll drink to that.

THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts now.

(on camera): No matter what you did today, work, shopping, taking care of the kids, being a kid, puttering around the house, looking for a job, calling your friend from college to talk about Plaxico Burress and that gun in his pants. Flaxico (ph), Plaxico, I know. Right.

No matter what was on your agenda today, your agenda was, as far as the world knows, at least as crowded as the daily agenda today of the president of the United States of America, who had exactly zero events on his official public schedule today-zero, zip, zilch, nada.

You'd think maybe there would be something on there like participates in roundtable to discuss current financial crisis or makes statements on the new supply routes for U.S. troops in Afghanistan now that Khyber Pass is a Taliban-infested nightmare. Nope. Nada. Nothing. No events.

With a little more than 47 days left in his presidency, one way we know the President Bush is keeping busy is by him embarking on his exit interviews tour, trying to define himself before historians get the chance to define him. There was the interview he gave to ABC's Charles Gibson this week where he talked about getting a do-over in Iraq. There was also the interview he gave to that impartial examiner, his sister, Doro Bush, whom he told, quote, "I'd like to be the president who was known as somebody who liberated 50 million people and helped achiever peace; that focused on individuals rather than process; that rallied people to serve their neighbor."

Just a guess, but liberating 50 million people is so not going to be the first thing people say about you. Right now, what I think of the president and his legacy, I'm thinking about that 30-mile long debris field on the Texas coast, 2 ½ months after Hurricane Ike, three years after those supposed lessons learned when New Orleans was left to drown. I think of what might be the Great Depression Two, 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Americans running offshore prisons, the worst economic inequality since great American fiction was written about vast American inequality, Gatsby (ph).

An eight-year period in which basically everything got worse, even the stuff like torture, that we never thought we would have to worry about as Americans dawned and then got worse. So, what to do about an eight-year record that's a little tiny bit thin on proud moments? Apparently, the idea is to assemble a crisis management-like team to manage the spin. Stephen Hayes with the conservative magazine, the "Weekly Standard," revealed this week that there is a team in the White House right now, working on putting a positive spin on President Bush's legacy.

Hayes reports, quote, "There's an ongoing Bush legacy project that's been meeting in the White House-with senior advisors, Karl Rove, Karen Hughes has been involved, current senior Bush administration advisors and they are looking at how to sort of roll out the president's legacy."

A Bush legacy project. OK, if these guys are meeting inside the White House and really does include current Bush senior advisors, does that mean that we are paying them to do this? Paging Henry Waxman, can I get some oversight over here?

There's a case to be made that the verdict is already in on Bush's legacy. He is leaving office with the lowest approval ratings in modern history, and yes that includes Richard Nixon, who resigned. Is it possible the historians will look kindly on Bush 43? Well, if Bush's exit interviews are anything to go by, the Bush legacy project will try to shine up his image by, for example, pointing the blame away from the Oval Office when it comes to that whole awkward decision to invade Iraq thing.

After admitting that he was, quote, "unprepared for war," here is where President Bush laid the blame in that recent interview with Charlie Gibson on ABC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, ABC NEWS)

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH, UNITED STATES: The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said, you know, the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn't just people in my administration, and, you know, that's not a do-over. But I-you know, I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: Yes. That darn intelligence. You remember the intelligence that the White House cherry-picked and massaged and manipulated and denied in order to fit the story they wanted to tell about Iraq and weapons, truth be darned. Bush said his biggest regret is that other people gave him bad information. He was just the hapless dope.

Karl Rove, the reported architect of the Bush legacy project, has gone a step further, saying if it wasn't for that whole fault, the intelligence thing, we wouldn't even be in the mess that we're in. Just last night, Rove said, quote, "Absent, the weapons of mass destruction, I suspect the administration's course would have been to work to find more creative ways to constrain Saddam Hussein. I don't think there would have been an invasion."

OK. Bush legacy project, meet the Internets. You see, the problem with trying to rewrite history in the 21st century is that history has a way of finding its way on the Google machine. Remember what Rove just said -- absent weapons of mass destruction, there wouldn't have been a war? Well, through the magic of Internets and the Google, and the fact that interviews with presidents tend to be preserved on tape.

Here's President Bush in an interview with Brit Hume in December 2005. He says this, quote, "I made the right decision. Knowing what I know today, I would have still made that decision." Then Brit Hume says, "So, if the weapons had been out of the equation because the intelligence did not conclude that he had them, it was still the right call?" Bush's response? "Absolutely."

The spinning is happening right now, and history is being rewritten before our eyes. The man heading up the Bush legacy project says Bush would have never started the Iraq war if only he'd known. Well, Bush is on tape saying no matter what he knew and when he could have known it, he still would have started that war. They are trying to rewrite history. They are trying to do it right now. We are supposed to not let them.

As of today, history-one, Bush legacy project-zero. Let's try to keep that streak going.

Joining us now is MSNBC political analyst Lawrence O'Donnell.

Lawrence, it's nice to see you in person. Thanks for being here.

LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Good to have you in Burbank.

MADDOW: So, can the Bush legacy be massaged? These legacy projects are not unprecedented in the White House, are they?

O'DONNELL: Not all. Look-the most impressive legacy project was run by Richard Nixon after he fled the presidency. And remember the administration employs a lot of people and a lot of them have a stake in what the historical image of that administration is.

You will hear to this day, from our friend Pat Buchanan, we did not lose the Vietnam War, that Richard Nixon did not lose that war. That Jane Fonda just did some things that force the troops to take their eye off the enemy and suddenly we had to leave. They just do this hocus pocus thing about what happened. What happened is very clear. We waged a war that we lost, we surrendered, we fled Vietnam. Now, that is not the accepted notion by 90 percent of this country about what happened there.

That kind of work is going to be done on these stories coming out of the Bush administration and Karl Rove is just starting early.

MADDOW: We've also seen this happened with the Ronald Reagan presidency, the Ronald Reagan legacy project was an actual organization that had within its sights, you know, Reagan on Rushmore, Reagan on all the money, Reagan National Airport. Oh, I guess, that happened. Is there a way to predict the sort of tactics that will be used to try to massage the history, to try to improve the legacy beyond what history maybe ought to tell its story out there?

O'DONNELL: Well, blame the CIA is step number one. Blame the CIA for that slam-dunk that George Tenet said about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. You have pointed out the problem with that strategy. The president has said, not just on video but also in-depth to Bob Woodward, and he said this many times that knowing what he knows now, he still would have invaded Iraq, knowing that there were no weapons of mass destruction.

So, this is going to be an ongoing struggle over the decades. And there are many reasons why the president can't pull away from that position. One of them is very personal. And this comes out in the work of Woodward and others. He has had close encounters in military hospitals with families of soldiers who are wounded and, you know, hurt for life. He's met with the families of the dead. He cannot bring himself to say to them-we went to war for a mistake, if that mistake had not been made, your son would be alive today.

So, there's a very personal level on which he can't go there. But people around him, like Rove and others, will be pushing in that direction that CIA was wrong direction in order to help. But there's going to be this constant tension over that.

MADDOW: Right. Do you think that the Bush legacy is all about Iraq or do you think it's a competition now between Iraq and what might be the next Great Depression for his legacy?

O'DONNELL: Well, the thing-we are going to come out of whatever this economic session is, we're going to will probably during the first term of the Obama administration.

MADDOW: There's optimism there.

O'DONNELL: Recessions are like childbirth, everybody forgets the pain. And they just keep going and build a big, happy family.

MADDOW: To have (ph) more babies this time around, Lawrence.

(LAUGHTER)

O'DONNELL: So, you know, we know that's where we are headed on this. Iraq is the unchangeable history of his administration. The management of the post-invasion period, whether you call it a war or an occupation, whatever history wants to call that, is disastrous for President Bush. And that was his job. That was the primary job of his presidency and he got it very, very wrong. And so, that is really where I think that he's going to be stuck.

And I think Katrina, all though-what Katrina did was help with the general aura of incompetence that kind of overtook the administration. And that's the part that really pushed his poll numbers down to the point where you could really just say the country has made a decision he cannot do this job.

One of the things he has going for in which Nixon has going for of this (ph), his number is so low now, there is very little history can do to get it lower.

MADDOW: Right.

O'DONNELL: There's another-there's only one other direction to float and that is upward. If he can manage the, you know, the library that he's going to build. You know, they all build temples of worship to themselves. He will, too, and the scholars that will come there and do C-SPAN panel discussions about this and that, you know.

MADDOW: Right.

O'DONNELL: And the other great advantage Nixon have in this situation was Nixon had an image prior to getting into kind of criminal trouble, of being a smart guy, and a smart guy on the foreign policy in certain way. Bush doesn't really have that image to lean back on.

MADDOW: Right.

O'DONNELL: . and in the future become a kind of senior advisor of some sort to some future president.

MADDOW: Right.

O'DONNELL: So, it's going to be tough, but we've seen the miracle of the rise of Richard Nixon overtime, the rise of his image overtime. That's the one for Bush to study.

MADDOW: Lawrence O'Donnell, MSNBC political analyst, nice to see you in person. Thanks for being here.

O'DONNELL: Good to see you.

MADDOW: Are you worried about our national security? I have a little good news. We now know that President-elect Obama reads intelligence briefings about the world's scariest hotspots every day, seven days a week. No days off for keeping ones mind rested and untroubled about troubling things. Seven days a week of reading intelligence is a 16.7 percent improvement from the guy who is still president, President Bush, who only gets briefed six days out of seven.

Now, for the bad news. A new report about weapons of mass destruction is out and it is not pretty. One of the people who put that report together, Joe Cirincione, will be joining us shortly. Also, not pretty, this $700 billion banking bailout. Today, a congressional investigation says no one is watching what's going on there. Are we headed for a bailout bailout? That is coming up.

But first, just one more thing about the Bush legacy. In case anybody needed another dart to throw at the Bush legacy project commemorative Constitution-printed dart board? Another former prosecutor at Guantanamo, former Lieutenant Colonel Darrell Vandeveld has told the BBC, quote, "It took me too long to recognize that we have abandoned our American values and defiled our Constitution." Vandeveld told BBC (ph), he was so appalled by what went on with the military tribunals at Guantanamo that he consulted with his priest who advised him to resign, which he did earlier this year, becoming, at least, the fourth prosecutor to do so.

Here's to president-elect Obama following through on closing Guantanamo past and to the idea of him inviting back all the military prosecutors who have quit in disgust at what they were asked to do there, to stand next to him on the day he shuts down that kangaroo tribunal court system forever.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: While we are on the subject of the Bush legacy, let's talk bailouts. It may be the end of a legacy, but it's a doozy. There was news on the auto industry rescue today, namely that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told the "Associated Press" he doesn't believe he has found enough votes to approve the $25 billion chunk of TARP money the Big Three originally asked for. So, unless things change really, really soon, President Bush could conceivably be the president in power when the American car business disappeared.

And then, there's the banking bailout. Yes, the granddaddy of them all. To do it justice, it is time once again for THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW lame duck watch, because somebody's got to do it.

So, the $700 billion banking bailout is technically the Troubled Asset Relief Program. We here at THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW call it the troubled asset relief problem. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office says treasury has failed to adequately oversee the bailout or even decide how to determine if the program is achieving its goals. They're saying they literally don't even know how to tell if it's working. That seems like a problem.

The 66-page GAO report is the first in the series of congressionally-mandated reports. And this one claims that the rapid pace of implementation and the ever-changing nature of the TARP effort has hurt efforts to put a comprehensive system of internal control in place. Furthermore, quote, "Until such a system is fully developed and implemented, there is heightened risk that the interests of the government and taxpayers may not be adequately protected and that program objectives may not be achieved in an efficient and effective manner."

You know, it's maybe understandable to hear something like that about some line item somewhere, some single program in some single agency that maybe isn't being efficient, maybe not achieving its objectives, but when you hear that about the $700 billion program -- (INAUDIBLE), the Bush administration's Treasury Department has no idea what they are doing with it or why they are doing whatever it is they are doing with that? Wow.

Joining us now is Diana Henriques, who is a senior financial writer with the "New York Times."

Ms. Henriques, thank you so much for your time tonight.

DIANA HENRIQUES, NEW YORK TIMES: It's a pleasure, Rachel.

MADDOW: So, you interviewed Elizabeth Warren, who is the chair of the bailout oversight panel and she implied to you that there isn't an actual coherent plan here for how to rescue the financial system. If there was a coherent strategy at work, wouldn't she be the person who was supposed to know that?

HENRIQUES: Well, she's just getting started, in all fairness to the effort. This congressional oversight panel is one of the three elements that are supposed to keep an eye on the bailout. The other, as you mentioned, is the GOA. And then there's a special inspector general who's still awaiting Senate confirmation. So, it's true that the oversight machinery is lagging behind the money-spending machinery.

MADDOW: The GAO report that's just out. One of the details that jumped out at me is that they say, there are only about 50 people are working in the treasury office on the bailout and they expected to be staffed by about 200.

HENRIQUES: Right.

MADDOW: But thinking about the transition here, it seems to me like this would imply that the Treasury Department in the bailout efforts specifically is really not at all prepared for the transition to the Obama administration, that they, in 47 days or whatever it is, maybe walking into something that is really quite half-cooked.

HENRIQUES: The GOA raised serious concerns about that which perhaps hasn't gotten a lot of attention. They were concerned, as you say, about their levels of staffing. At the very senior levels, there really only five people they've been able to bring aboard. And, of course, it's kind of hard to recruit people at this time in the transition, but they were quite concerned that if the hiring doesn't get done and the right people don't get in place, that handing the ball off to the next administration might be a fumble.

MADDOW: Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson had initially said that he would hold off on spending all of the bailout money. Now, it looks like he might spend all of it. We're not exactly sure what he's doing. Part of the problem is that he hasn't telegraphed his future moves very clearly. Is there sufficient concern now with how the bailout money is being spent, that there might be a political effort to stop him essentially, to make him hold back on spending that money until the next administration and the next treasury secretary is in place?

HENRIQUES: Well, there's a high level of concern that this financial crisis is just too fluid and unpredictable for that. Lawmakers and policymakers are really between a rock and a hard place here. He says that the spending is necessary. If he says it's necessary, you'd be a pretty brave lawmaker to second guess him, given how quickly things have deteriorated in the past two to three months. So, I think, what's likely to happen is a lot more pressure on him to be clear and coherent about what he plans to do with any additional tranche he pulls down.

MADDOW: In terms of your financial expertise, Diana, and then your years of reporting in this field and explaining financial issues to a layman public, do you feel like what we have done thus far has made things not be as bad as they, otherwise, would have been? Because things still feel pretty bad.

HENRIQUES: They do feel shaky. And it's certainly been very improvisational, shall we say? No one could really lay out a war game for this in advance, the way it's happened. I think we do have to look at the fact that we have not had any additional financial liaisons' (ph) collapse on us lately. That's a good sign. I mean, that certainly would terrify the market at this point.

There are still some very important markets that are frozen, they are just not functioning. State and local governments are finding it very difficult to do short-term borrowing. Home mortgages, other kinds of consumer credit are still very tough to get. So, you don't get a sense that the bailout effort is getting solid traction in all the ways that it needs to. But, I don't think that the financial markets, at least, are braced for your crisis du jour in terms of a big financial institution failing. And that's certainly a gain.

MADDOW: Yes, although, I'm having visions of Citigroup on its last breaths flashing before my eyes, too. And I guess we were very close on that one.

HENRIQUES: We were.

MADDOW: Diana Henriques, senior financial writer for the "New York Times," thank you so much for your insight tonight. Nice to have you on the show.

HENRIQUES: Thanks, Rachel.

MADDOW: Remember those nine U.S. attorneys who were fired by the Bush Justice Department with no real explanation? A federal prosecutor was appointed to determine whether crimes were committed when those attorneys were fired? And apparently, that whole scandal is heating back up again. Michael Isikoff is going to report on that in just a moment on justice coming back to the Department of Justice.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: A new report released today called "World at Risk," warns about a possible terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction sometime somewhere in the next five years. Oh, and it's also being released in paperback for only $10.95. In case you're still looking for a gift for that special someone you want to scare the snot out of this Christmas. Chances of me being talked down about this? Very, very slim, but it's worth a try.

First, though, it's time for a couple of underreported holy mackerel stories in today's news.

Remember right after the election, we asked you to Rachel.MSNBC.com and tell us what you wanted to be at the top of the Obama administration's to do list? Well, basically, everybody said, "Fix the economy, OK?" Obviously.

But more than one person said, "Fix college football. Get a playoff system." And if you're worried about the evil, unfair Bowl Championship Series, you are in good company. Not only did President-elect Obama say, essentially, the same thing to "60 Minutes" right after the election, but Congressman Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii now says he wants the Justice Department to investigate the issue.

Really? Like the attorney general and everything? Abercrombie has released a statement arguing that the current system of determining a college football champion, the bowl championship series, it says it, quote, "very clearly constitutes a restraint of trade."

Very clearly. I mean, it seems like everybody agrees it stinks. But a restraint of trade? Here's the congressman's argument. There's no March madness in the national playoff system in football like there is in basketball. Instead, there is this bowl game system. And the teams in the bowl games are determined by computer models and by a league system that gives some leagues, mainly the big, rich ones automatic slots in the bowl championship series, the BCS.

Well, Abercrombie says that the bowl system violates the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Oh, yes. Because schools that aren't in the leagues that get the automatic slots don't have an equal shot at the games and the bucketsful of money that come with playing in one of those big games.

Using a playoff system instead would allow schools a merit-based equal shot at those big post-season bucks. Now, is this a top priority for the Obama administration? Probably not, but worth-looking into and kind of hilarious to imagine the attorney general trying to deal with it.

Finally, God is back in court. I mean someone argued that God is always in court, I get it. But God is back actually on the docket in a particular court in the great commonwealth of Kentucky.

Ten Kentucky residents and American Atheists, Incorporated are suing to overturn parts of the 2006 Kentucky State Antiterrorism Law that requires Kentucky's office of homeland security to depend on God. It's an actual requirement of the legislation.

The state's homeland security department, by law, has as its first responsibility, its initial duty, quote, "stressing the dependence on the Almighty God as being vital to the security of the commonwealth."

The department is ordered by law to publicize God's role in the state's homeland security by posting a plaque at the entrance of the state emergency operation center with an 88-word statement that begins with this quote. Ready? "The safety and security of the commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God."

Your tax dollars at work. Another clause in the law lifts the duties of the executive director of the state's homeland security department. The first responsibility of this important office holder is to publicize, quote, "the dependence on Almighty God as being vital to the security of the commonwealth."

State Senator Kathy Stein of Lexington told the "Kentucky Lexington Herald Leader," quote, "It clearly hurts the credibility of this office if it's supposed to be depending on God first and foremost."

In addition to trying to get the law overturned, this group is seeking financial damages saying that they suffer from anxiety from the belief that the safety as residents of Kentucky may be in the hands of fanatics, traitors or fools.

I don't know how well the lawsuit is going to go over, but if the plaintiffs win and as part of the settlement, they get to take custody of the 88-word plaque on the entrance to the emergency operations center that says they are counting on God to take care of everything, I want you to know that I will pay good money for that plaque. Can you imagine its effect morale at staff meetings? Don't ask me about your vacation days, man, ask God.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: It's the holiday season and change is in the air in Washington. So what do you get for the former Bush administration official who has everything, one who might have also fired a bunch of U.S. attorneys for political reasons? How about a subpoena? It would be a total surprise and nobody else is going to give him one.

Even if you are not gift seeking, there's a respected prosecutor with subpoena power investigating the suspicious and still not totally explained firing of nine top prosecutors by the Bush Justice Department two years ago.

Today, "The Washington Post" offers details on how aggressive her investigation has become. And it appears that maybe, just maybe, she could get to the bottom of one of the biggest unsolved scandals of the Bush White House.

The U.S. attorney story was the scandal that just sort of went away before it concluded, the victim of suddenly faulty White House memories and refusals to testify to tell the whole truth. It was simple, really. A bunch of U.S. attorneys were unceremoniously canned for reasons whose explanations were thin, contradictory and sometimes just downright lame even by Bush administration standards.

But there was lots of evidence that politics was the main cause for the firings. These prosecutors were not sufficiently loyal to the cause of Bush and the Republican Party. The story faded after many months of stonewalling from the White House.

But in September, a stinging Justice Department report came out and its findings led Attorney General Michael Mukasey to say this, quote, "The process by which nine U.S. attorneys were removed in 2006 was haphazard, arbitrary and unprofessional."

But were the firings a crime? And did top White House officials, including Karl Rove and Harriet Miers order those firings for political reasons? All important questions.

Well, meet U.S. attorney Norah Denehy, appointed by Michael Mukasey to investigate all of this and given power to take real action like issue subpoenas. Today, "The Washington Post" reports on the velocity and ferocity of Denehy's investigation as dogged as her admirers said of her when she was first hired.

Sources close to the case tell "The Post" that Denehy is meeting with defense lawyers using her subpoena power, and that she has convened a grand jury to determine if anyone should be charged. So is there actually now a likelihood that the stonewalling will crumble? Bush administration officials will finally get to the bottom of this scandal. So scandal politics overriding justice at the Department of Justice.

Joining us now is "Newsweek's" investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff. Mr. Isikoff, always a pleasure to have you on the show. Thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, "NEWSWEEK": Good to be with you.

MADDOW: Mike, there is this one player in this mystery who I am very interested in - Kyle Sampson. He was Alberto Gonzales' chief-of -staff. It seems like if anybody knows why these attorneys were fired and whether the White House was involved, it would be him. What do we know about what investigators might be looking for from him?

ISIKOFF: Well, Kyle Sampson - of course, he was the chief of staff to Alberto Gonzales and he has testified before Congress and he gave a lengthy testimony to Glenn Fine, the office of the inspector general. We sort of know his account and of course, on probably the most key question, which is how a number of those U.S. attorneys and one, in particular, David Iglesias, the one from New Mexico, got put on the list to be fired in November of 2006.

Kyle Sampson professes not to remember although it was his list. He put it together. He presented it to Alberto Gonzales. He says he can't remember. That's what he's told Congress under oath how he came to put Iglesias' name on it. Now, I mention Iglesias because that is the one.

If there's going to be a prosecutable crime here, it will be around the firing of David Iglesias. We know from the OIG report that New Mexico political operatives were complaining to Karl Rove and the White House about David Iglesias because he wasn't prosecuting voter fraud cases that they thought would give the Republicans an advantage in the 2004 and 2006 elections.

We know that Senator Pete Domenici, the Republican senator of New Mexico, had complained when Iglesias declined to commit to bringing an indictment just on the eve of the 2000 election against the prominent Democrat. And we know right after that, right after the complaints to Rove from New Mexico political operatives and the complaints from Domenici, that Iglesias gets put on the list.

Why was David Iglesias put on the list? It's probably the key question that Norah Denehy has to answer in this investigation. And in order to get that, she's got what Kyle Sampson has said. He's already testified he can't remember. He doesn't have three things. Karl Rove's testimony, Harriet Miers' testimony - she was the White House counsel - and an internal White House memo that was done on the reasons for the firings.

MADDOW: Well, what about the Karl Rove and Harriet Miers testimony? I mean, thus far, nobody has been able to get them to talk in this investigation.

ISIKOFF: Right.

MADDOW: Both of them have now - at least we think - left the employer of

the White House although maybe Karl Rove is back there working on some

mysterious Bush legacy project. Can they be compelled to testified. Will

she be able to get -

ISIKOFF: When he's not on FOX NEWS ...

MADDOW: Right, exactly.

ISIKOFF: ... or writing for "Newsweek," by the way, but that's - or the "Wall Street Journal."

(CROSS TALK)

MADDOW: Are they going to be able to get testimony from them?

ISIKOFF: Well, you know, very interesting. They invoked executive privilege saying that the press couldn't testify before the Congress because the press would violate confidence of the advice they gave the president on hiring and firing decisions.

But interesting document which was called to my attention today by someone involved in this, which was a letter that the Justice Department had sent to the U.S. Court of Appeals on the separate court case on this that Congress brought for Karl Rove's testimony.

And in that letter which was actually dated September 30 got no attention at the time. The Justice Department said the council to the president - that's Fred Fielding - has informed us, the Justice Department that if Ms. Denehy(ph), the special prosecutor, determines that accessed information from the White House would be helpful to assist a review, the White House will provide her with such information.

So they are essentially saying they are not going to claim privilege over key information that Norah Denehy(ph) may want. So that internal White House council memo - according to this letter Norah Denehy(ph) should get access to it. Harriet Miers and Karl Rove's testimony, according to the letter - they are not going to claim privilege over the information that she determines she needs.

MADDOW: Wow. That could be a very important turning point in this case if that's the direction it goes. Wow.

ISIKOFF: It could be. Yes. Of course, it will depend on what they say once they testify.

MADDOW: All right. Once the information is at hand, then we know why they made such a big deal about keeping that information from them. That's the way it always works. Mike Isikoff, investigative correspondent for "Newsweek" magazine, thank you for coming on tonight.

ISIKOFF: Thank you, Rachel.

MADDOW: Today, a bipartisan committee warned of a terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction somewhere in the world in the next five years. How scary is that?

Good thing we also learned today that our new president-elect is studying the daily intelligence security briefings seven days a week, which is an upgrade. The president wasn't already doing that. How scary is that? More on that later.

But first, one more thing. And one more addition to the list of President Bush's lame-ducky moves. The president offering a parting gift to the people who defend our country every day in the form of a legal kick in the teeth.

8,600 federal employees who work in law enforcement, intelligence and other agencies responsible for national security just lost their collective bargaining rights. President Bush signed the last minute executive order because nothing says, "I care about the national security" quite like telling the people tasked with that very job that they can't organize for decent pay and working conditions. Doesn't that make you feel safer?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: This was one heck of a busy day in the frequently scary world of national security. Fair warning - this gets a little scary before it gets a little reassuring. OK, today, Vice President-elect Joe Biden and homeland security nominee Janet Napolitano were briefed on a new report that projects a nuclear or biological attack will occur somewhere around the world within five years. Gulp.

Today, also a former Defense Department official said that American intelligence agencies had determined that former officers from Pakistan's army helped trained last week's Mumbai attackers. You know, our great ally, Pakistan - that's really, really bad.

Before you crawl under your bed or call your mom, know this. Today, we also learned that President-elect Barack Obama receives more daily intelligence briefings than the soon-to-be former President Bush. According to the director of National Intelligence, Obama gets them PDBs seven days a week, up an entire day from President Bush's six days a week. Bush maybe is figuring the bad guys take a day off.

And also today, "The Boston Globe" reports that Obama will add a position to his security team and appoint a White House official to prevent terrorists from obtaining weapons of mass destruction. The position is actually mandated by a law ignored by President Bush for more than a year.

So where does all the intelligence news leave us? Are we looking at big changes here and are they changes for the better? And is the world really getting scarier in this regard or are we just paying attention more now?

I need some talking down here. We're joined now Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. He was a member of the advisory committee to the Commission on the prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism that wrote today's report. Hi, Joe. It's nice to see you.

JOE CIRINCIONE, PRESIDENT, PLOUGHSHARES FUND: My pleasure, Rachel.

MADDOW: So here's your chance to talk me down. Obama is reportedly going to name this weapons-of-mass-destruction czar. It was something that Bush was supposed to do 15 months ago and he didn't do it. But tell me that the czar idea is a good idea. Tell me that a czar doesn't mean that other agencies will feel like they can stop worrying about the problem.

CIRINCIONE: No. This is a good idea. The major problem we've had is that we have these programs that are effective. In the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, the State Department. They've been under-funded and poorly coordinated. And most importantly, they haven't had the constant attention of the president.

So what you want to do is put somebody in the room next to the president, a deputy national security adviser, who could be in charge of all these programs and focus like a laser on preventing nuclear terrorism, stop the terrorists from being able to get this equipment or these materials before they can use them. That's why so many experts, including me, have recommended that the president do this as one of his first national security acts.

MADDOW: President Bush objected to the creation of this position in part, at least we're told, because he did not believe that the Senate should be able to confirm this position. It was one of his executive power objections. I wonder if you feel like the fight about whether or not we can stop terrorists getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction.

This daily fight that happens in this clandestine means and the nonproliferation efforts all over the world every day, if this sort of thing intersects with those executive power questions that have been so central to the Bush administration, and therefore, they will be different under an Obama administration that presumably won't have those same obsessions?

CIRINCIONE: Yes. All presidents tend to jealously guard their executive privileges so there might be something of an issue here. But the difference is we are going to be able to work this out. This is a president that comes in with a team that has tremendous legislative experience, legislative connections. I don't believe that this is going to be a serious problem. And everybody recommends that is this be one of the top priorities.

In fact, if you look at Barack Obama's 12-point nuclear policy, one of the most comprehensive and progressive nuclear policies any candidate has ever brought to the Oval Office, you'll see this is issue number one - accelerate and coordinate the efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism, accomplish that objective in his first four years.

MADDOW: Joe, you've been writing recently on (UNINTELLIGIBLE) this week that said that one way that Obama could find some money in the federal budget if he was looking for programs to cut, was in nuclear weapons that we do not need to maintain the same size arsenal, that we did not need a lot of the same advanced nuclear-oriented weapon systems that we've got right now.

Bob Gates, his defense secretary who's keeping on from the Bush administration, has been sort of a pro-nukes guy. Do you see policy conflict there if Obama wants to make some progress this?

CIRINCIONE: There's a lot to recommend Bob Gates and keeping him on as secretary of defense, but this is one area where he clashes directly with the president. He's in favor of expanding the nuclear weapon's production, of developing a new generation of nuclear weapons. But that's a very expensive option. It's going to cost tens of billions of dollars.

Just to maintain the nuclear arsenal that we have costs $31 billion a year. You add on to that the missile defense system that we've been developing for years, but still it doesn't work. That's another $13 billion. That's a lot of money to save there. Expert testimony and reports show that we can save about $26 billion if we drop our nuclear arsenal to about 1,000 nuclear weapons still enough to destroy the world many times over and restore some sensible (UNINTELLIGIBLE) practices to missile defense.

That $26 billion could be used, for example, to bail out the auto industry, a subject of last night's show, or pay for some of the programs that we need to prevent the number one threat to America - nuclear terrorism.

MADDOW: Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and adviser to the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, a man who I am both delighted to know watches the show every night. And also I'm sort of inclined to tell you to get back to work on the nuke thing, but in any case, thanks. It's nice to see you, Joe.

CIRINCIONE: My pleasure. You are wicked cool, Rachel, Thanks for having me on.

MADDOW: Thank you. Coming up next, I get just enough pop culture from my friend Kent Jones. A star-studded anti-Prop 8 musical. I should come out to California more often.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: Now, it's time for "Just Enough" with my friend, Kent Jones. Hi, Kent. What have you got?

KENT JONES, POP CULTURIST: Good evening, L.A. Rachel. Out where you are, lots of people in the creative community are still fuming over the passage of Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage. So a group of artists, including John C. Riley, Allison Janey and others decided to fight back with the deadliest weapon of them all - musical theater.

In this scene, Jesus explains to some Prop 8 supporters that the Bible can be misinterpreted.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR (as Jesus Christ): The Bible says a lot of interesting things. Like you can stone your wife or sell your daughter into slavery.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Well, we ignore those verses.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR (as Jesus Christ): Well, then, friend, it seems to me you pick and choose. Well, please choose love instead of hate. Besides, your nation was built on separation of church and state. See you later, sinners!

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Bye, Jesus. I love you, Jesus.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JONES: That's right. Jesus is black.

Next, chances are you've seen this ad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Now, own a piece of American history. President Barack Obama is being honored on a brilliant, un-circulated U.S. mint presidential dollar by the New England mint.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JONES: Wow, it's just so him, isn't it? Now, "Politico reports that the actual U.S. Mint has issued a warning saying these Obama coins aren't official products and that they are basically just plastic coating on real dollar coins, quote, "The United States Mint doesn't encourage, endorse or sponsor products that alter the fundamental images depicted on its coins."

So if someone tries to pay you in Obama coins, get a check. Better yet, get it in euros. That will work.

Finally, speaking of Obama, the Washington, D.C. Council has approved emergency legislation allowing the city's bars, nightclubs and restaurants to stay opened around the clock for four days around his inauguration.

MADDOW: Wow.

JONES: The Bill allows any establishment with a liquor license to serve alcohol until 5:00 a.m. and food at any hour from January 17th until the morning of January 21st. Now, who knows what the next four years may bring, but this action makes one thing clear. We're going to need alcohol late, and maybe some curly fries. Rachel?

MADDOW: Thank you, Kent. I can't believe that. It's going to be a blitz, a bar blitz for that entire time.

JONES: 24/7, wide open - wide open Obama time.

MADDOW: Like I didn't already have enough reasons to go there.

JONES: Exactly.

MADDOW: Thank you, Kent. And thank you for watching tonight. We will see you from San Francisco tomorrow night. Until then, "COUNTDOWN WITH KEITH OLBERMANN" starts right now. Good night.

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

END

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