updated 3/13/2009 10:20:26 AM ET 2009-03-13T14:20:26

Guest: John Dean, Clarence Page, Lawrence O‘Donnell, Margaret Carlson, Howard Fineman

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

Assassination tango: The Bush/Cheney execution squads—Sy Hersh‘s stunning scoop.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SEYMOUR HERSH, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER:  Under President Bush‘s authority, they‘ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or to the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving.  That‘s been going on, well, in the name of all of us.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Howard Fineman on the political fallout; John Dean on a war crime startling even for that administration.

Mind like a Michael Steele trap: The RNC chairman offends everybody, again.  Asked, “Are you saying you think women have the right to choose abortion?”  He replies, “Yes, I mean, again, I think that‘s an individual choice.”  But under fire from the right, now he calls for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.

Billo leads the smear-mongers on Speaker Pelosi‘s use of military aircraft, which is actually less than Speaker Hastert‘s use of military aircraft.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL O‘REILLY, TV HOST:  And we‘re throwing money out the window and bankrupting a nation.  And this woman is whipping around the world.  I think she owes us an explanation, am I wrong?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  At this point, you still have to ask you pathetic liar!

Bests: Even conservatives are wising up, sales of Coultergeist‘s newest book—down about 67 percent.

Worsts: Newt‘s solution to teenage pregnancy—pay girls not to get pregnant.  Wait—Newt, doesn‘t that mean you‘d be paying at least some of them to have sex?  What‘s the word for that again?

All that and more—now on COUNTDOWN.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Great work.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

OLBERMANN (on camera):  Good evening from Tampa.

In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford issued an executive order that read in part, quote, “No employee of the United States government shall engage in or conspire to engage in political assassination.”

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight: As we reported on this newshour last night, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, claiming to have uncovered a covert executive assassination ring that reported directly to Vice President Dick Cheney‘s office.  A reminder—if one is needed—that in 1976, Mr. Cheney was the chief of staff to President Ford.  Meaning, by the time Cheney was back in the West Wing, it appears he had either forgotten about his own boss‘ executive order or worse, he had decided to ignore it.

Mr. Hersh is making the revelations at a forum in Minnesota two nights ago.  The topic: America‘s constitutional crisis.  Hersh saying of Mr.  Cheney and his inner circle, quote, “They ran a government within the government.”  Adding, “Eight or nine neoconservatives took over our country.”

Hersh‘s bombshell allegations about the assassination ring, the result of reporting for a book he says might be still a year or two away from being published.  Hersh is telling MinnPost.com in an email after the event, that the disclosures are, quote, “not something he wanted to dwell about in public.”

The toothpaste, however, is already out of the proverbial tube here.  When the discussion touched upon the abuses of executive power, Mr. Hersh asked how these things tend to happen and whether they continue to happen to this day.  In his reply, the reporter describing a secret commando unit officially called the “Joint Special Operations Command.”

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

HERSH:  It‘s a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently.  They do not report to anybody except in the Clinton, I mean, in the Bush/Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office.  They do not report to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or to Mr. Gates, the secretary of defense.  They report directly to him.

They are not—they have absolutely no—Congress has no oversight of it.  It‘s an executive assassination wing essentially, and it‘s been going on and on and on.

And just today in “The Times,” there was a story saying that its leader, a three-star admiral named McRaven ordered a stop to certain activities because there were so many collateral deaths.  It‘s been going into, in—under President Bush‘s authority.

They‘ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving.  That‘s been going on, well, in the name of all of us.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  A CIA spokesman today responding to Hersh‘s allegations by calling him, quote, “utter nonsense.”

Two angles on this, at minimum—John Dean in a moment.

First, we‘ll call in our own Howard Fineman, senior Washington correspondent for “Newsweek” magazine, who‘s book, “The Thirteen American Arguments” has just been released in paperback.

Howard, good evening.

HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  If Sy Hersh alleges here, the vice president, the former vice president and a covert assassination ring operated without talking to the CIA, how exactly would the CIA be in the position to call Mr. Hersh‘s reporting “utter nonsense”?

FINEMAN:  Well, moreover, Keith, if there a—if there in fact is such a thing as Seymour Hersh‘s reporting seems to indicate and the CIA was kept in the dark about it, the last thing they would want to do right now is admit it.  So, either way, they don‘t have an interest in confirming no matter what they know at this point.

In checking around in the intelligence community today, I can say this, you know, Seymour Hersh is somebody they respect.  They don‘t always trust.  But they put it this way, as one of them said to me, look, I don‘t know anything about this specifically at all, but I wouldn‘t dismiss what Sy Hersh is saying without checking carefully.  That‘s their backhanded way of saying it‘s worth looking into, for sure.

OLBERMANN:  Presumably, the second half of his allegations, which was that the CIA was involved significantly in domestic operations in the last eight years, that would be something somebody in the CIA probably could deny with some degree of credibility.  But as to the other thing .

FINEMAN:  Right.

OLBERMANN:  . just because we might not be surprised by what Mr. Hersh is alleging, I mean, people who look at Dick Cheney would say, well, yes, that sounds plausible if it isn‘t actually true—should that make this revelation any less shocking or if true any less egregious and essentially terrifying to the nature of the democracy?

FINEMAN:  Well, depressing is another word I would use and

infuriating.  If it pans out, if when Sy‘s book comes out, it‘s all there -

because it would be of a piece with the picture that‘s emerging.  “We became what we beheld,” to use a phrase from a great movie called “The Untouchables.”  And I think it‘s clear in the days right after 9/11 that, especially Vice President Cheney and he managed to convince George W. Bush, and maybe he didn‘t need a whole lot of convincing, that secrecy and really, lawlessness was the way to go in the early days.

And rather than focus on catching Osama bin Laden, to use another phrase, they didn‘t let a good crisis go to waste.  And they used the atmosphere of crisis after 9/11 for all kinds of aggregation of power—accumulating power in the executive and really within the vice president‘s office in a way that we haven‘t seen outside of declared wartime and even there, with more strictures than were the case here.

OLBERMANN:  Could this report or report of a report—since he doesn‘t have anything on this yet other than his allegation—could it possibly put some muscle, some steam behind the truth commission that Senator Leahy is calling for, but a truth commission that would allow for the necessity of prosecutions?  Because if this is true, you have to prosecute this, there‘s no way around this.

FINEMAN:  Yes.  This would be even beyond the—be beyond the powers, I think, of the commission of inquiry that Senator Patrick Leahy is talking about.  I talked with one of his aides a little earlier, their point of view is, basically, look, not that many people have signed on to Senator Leahy‘s call for a commission of inquiry, but one other shoe-dropping, one other big proven, you know, strong allegation and members of the Senate are going come running to Leahy to sign on.  This could be that thing depending on how much it pans out.

I checked with Senator Russ Feingold‘s office, he would be one of the people out there pounding on his desk on the Senate floor.  He hasn‘t done it yet.  I think people want to look and see what Sy Hersh has around this topic.  But one more really strong series of allegations like those OLS, you know, those Justice Department memos that came out the other week, another one like that, I think, you are going to see a lot of senators wanting to join Senator Leahy‘s side on this.

OLBERMANN:  And what about the Obama administration in response to this?  Because the way Sy Hersh talked about the Joint Special Operations Command and the way the “New York Times” did in referencing it the other day, they both used the present tense.  If this is still in existence, are we going to have to see some sort of cleaning out of the stables inside this administration to just say again like the Justice Department memos you just referenced.  Do these things have to be put out there right now by President Obama?

FINEMAN:  Well, I think—I think they are undergoing a complete review of all of the intelligence apparatus within the executive branch.  Some people know a lot about of what they are looking at, other people‘s don‘t—other people don‘t.  General Jones inside at the National Security Council does.  Leon Panetta, the new CIA director, doesn‘t that much.

But, yes, don‘t forget that—don‘t forget that Obama has not ruled out completely the use of some tactics like rendition.  But I guarantee you that what he‘s going to do is going to be about law and not secrecy if he can avoid it.

OLBERMANN:  Howard Fineman of MSNBC and “Newsweek”—as always, Howard, great thanks.

For more on the legal questions raised by Sy Hersh‘s reporting, let‘s turn to John Dean, White House counsel under Richard Nixon, FindLaw.com columnist, and author of both, “Worse than Watergate” and “Broken Government.”

John, good evening.

JOHN DEAN, NIXON WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  First and foremost, let‘s begin with the executive order that I quoted at the beginning from President Ford that banned U.S.  involvement in political assassinations.  If that is the case, wouldn‘t an executive assassination ring that reported directly to the vice president‘s office be, on the face of it, illegal, and might it also be on a face of it, a war crime?

DEAN:  Well, clearly, fighting terrorism is not dealing with tiddlywinks.  We want our government to deal with the most effective tools they have.  But they also have to be legal.  The executive order, really, is nothing more than direction to the executive branch and the presidency is the only one who you can even argue might have the authority to engage in assassinations.  It‘s an unresolved question.

So, it‘s potentially a war crime, it‘s potentially just outright murder, and it could clearly be in violation of the Ford executive order.

OLBERMANN:  Last summer, writing about the Joint Special Operations Command, Sy Hersh described a Bush administration mindset that posited that the president could not keep covert CIA operations free of congressional interference or oversight, but he could do that with clandestine military activities.  So, they then claimed that everything secret was military not CIA.

Is there a legal merit to that argument, and if so, what is it?

DEAN:  Well, it‘s a thin argument.  It kind of reminded me when I heard it, of Nixon‘s claim when he was paying hush money, he was really funding a humanitarian defense fund for the Watergate burglars.

(LAUGHTER)

DEAN:  I‘m not sure it works.  It‘s an argument.  It is nothing more, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Does it explain though—I mean, does that mindset explain the Bush administration‘s persistent devaluation of the CIA into not much more than a public relations firm that it would manipulate?  I mean, all the intelligence moved under the control of, if not necessarily the vice president‘s office when it wasn‘t there, would go to Donald Rumsfeld‘s office at the Pentagon.  They really kind of neutered the CIA.

DEAN:  Well, there‘s no question they did that.  This is a very interesting potential as further explanation as to why they might do that.

We got to remember, however, the CIA has maintained a clear covert operative entity inside of its operations.  So, from the intelligence standpoint, I can understand why they wanted to neuter it.  From an operational standpoint, I‘m not quite sure, because a lot of the people they hire come from this special operations unit in the military.  So, I think that, you know, it‘s an interesting argument.  I‘m not sure it‘s the full one.

OLBERMANN:  The second part of the—of the, I guess it was Hersh, essentially, a slip by Sy Hersh saying that Central Intelligence had been heavily involved in domestic spying in the Bush administration.  That‘s clearly, that has—we‘ve been through this before, right?  That has been clearly defined as utterly illegal?

DEAN:  That is, by statute, that is illegal.  There‘s no question about that.  Now, the CIA is well aware of it.  Every CIA director is pinned down on that question when he goes through a confirmation proceeding.  So, I don‘t think there‘s any question that‘s illegal and it would be quite shocking if they were engaging in the sort of things that Sy suggests.

OLBERMANN:  What does this suggest to you as the remedy?  Are we, again, at that point, where the minimum standard is a truth investigation, a truth committee or commission with the prospect, at least, of prosecutions that—in other words—not handing out immunity like it was candy?

DEAN:  Well, I think that‘s—you know, this is serious stuff, Keith, obviously.

OLBERMANN:  Yes.

DEAN:  And I think—I think that Sy is a highly reliable reporter.  He doesn‘t throw things out unless there is some basis and fact for this sort of thing.  He‘s written around this subject.  He—there‘s quite a bit actually out on the record already about Rumsfeld authorizing assassinations.

So, I think that this is something that the Congress probably should get into and I‘m not sure a truth commission would necessarily do it.  So I suspect the intelligence committees, if they haven‘t already looked, will look.

OLBERMANN:  Speaking of looking, nobody has come up with a roster of possible people to whom he was referring—the victims of this.  Have we seen anything like that?  Have you seen anything like that?

DEAN:  In some of Sy‘s writings, he said as many as 10 different countries had been targeted for Special Ops activities.  And this could, indeed, run the gamut.  So, I don‘t know that we have a target, and maybe that‘s what is the bombshell in his book.

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  Well, we‘ll have to take a look back through about seven years worth of news.

John Dean, author of “Worse Than Watergate” and “Broken Government”—as always, thanks so much for your perspective tonight, John.

DEAN:  Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  So, where does the moral flexibility implied by a Cheney death squad story come from?  No politician could spring fully grown from the ground dreaming of secret international assassination rings.  Not even Dick Cheney.

The answer might lie in another story tonight.  It turns out that two weeks ago, the embattled chairman of the Republican National Committee told an interviewer he believes a woman has a right of choice between abortion and bearing a child.  But he denied another choice.  Homosexuality, he said, is no more a choice than is being black.  And today, he had to repudiate both of those statements to insist those were not his viewpoints.

So, if Dick Cheney is the finish line, what‘s the starting point?  Michael Steele selling if not his soul then its component parts to lead a political party with which that soul so clearly disagrees?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Michael Steele tells an interviewer that women should have the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.  Upon clarification, he says he meant to say he supports a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion.

Nancy Pelosi cleared of wrongdoing and chump up charges over her authorized use of military aircraft.  But the lunatic fringe insists otherwise.

And in Worsts: Newt Gingrich with a remarkable suggestion about preventing teen pregnancy.  Unfortunately, his solution is, in part, teen prostitution.  Fasten your seat belts.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

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OLBERMANN:  RNC Chairman Michael Steele may long to return to the circular firing squad with which he has so quickly become so accustomed.  Since left to his own devices, he managed just to self-inflict even greater damage.

In our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN: This time, it‘s Steele on abortion rights.  Mr. Steele notably used the words individual and choice in talking about abortion to “GQ” magazine in an interview conducted by Lisa DePaulo two weeks ago but released late yesterday.

Steele: “The choice issue cuts two ways.  You can choose life or you can choose abortion.  You know, my mother chose life.  So, you know, I think the power of the argument of choice boils down to stating a case for one or the other.”

Question: “Are you saying you think women have the right to choose abortion?”  Steele: “Yes, I mean, again, I think that‘s an individual choice.”  “You do?”  “Yes, absolutely.”

And let the damage control begin.  Mr. Steele released a statement today which reads in part, “I tried to present why I am pro-life while recognizing that my mother had a, quote, ‘choice‘ before deciding to put me up for adoption.  I thank her every day for supporting life.  The strength of the pro-life movement lies in choosing life and sharing the wisdom of that choice with those who face difficult circumstances.”

And in the “GQ” interview, Steele did say that he thought Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided.  But then, this—question: “OK, but if you overturn Roe v. Wade, how do women have a choice you just said they should have?”  Steele: “The states should make the choice.  That‘s what the choice is. 

The individual choice rests in the states.  Let them decide.”

I know he‘s not sticking to that either.  The other part of Steele‘s mea culpa to the Republican Party today, corrects that.  “I support our platform and its call for a human life amendment.”  That, of course, is the far more draconian view of the Republican Party, a constitutional amendment that would prohibit abortion nationwide, no states‘ choice.

But when then-Lieutenant Governor Steele running for the Senate appeared on “Meet the Press,” October 29th, 2006, with Tim Russert, on the question of whether he would propose a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion.  Mr. Russert said, “So, you wouldn‘t do that?”  And Steele said, “No.”

Let‘s turn now to Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist of the “Chicago Tribune,” Clarence Page.

Clarence, good evening.

CLARENCE PAGE, CHICAGO TRIBUNE:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Of course, the recriminations have begun.  The former governor, Mike Huckabee, derided the seemingly pro-choice comments from Mr.  Steele.  Ken Blackwell who unsuccessfully ran against Steele for the RNC chair said Steele should get to work or get out of the way.

Is this about it because this man spoke his mind and then sort of reversed field entirely?  Is this it for his chairmanship?

PAGE:  I don‘t think his chairmanship is over, Keith, even though it may look like it to us as outsiders.  He‘s in a rough patch, though, a very rough patch.  His problems are—number one, he seems to have forgotten how conservative the party platform is.  That‘s how he got jumbled up over the abortion question.

You know, he was—back when he was lieutenant governor in Maryland, an overwhelmingly Democratic state, that kind of a moderate position trying to finesse choice versus life went over OK.  It placated the masses, if you will.  But there is that human life amendment clause in the platform and he seems to have slipped up on that.

But I think a bigger problem for him internally is—he hasn‘t done anything yet constructively to build the party.  By that, I mean, he‘s—now, he went in, he fired the staff.  Maybe that needed to be done, there were a lot of complaints.  But he hasn‘t rebuilt it nor has he engaged in the strategery—the strategic planning that they need right now to try to build themselves back from being the regional party they have been in the last couple of elections.

So, this next month the kind of fund-raising he does can make a difference in so far as he stays in the job or not.

OLBERMANN:  But isn‘t this a fundamental question that sort of transcends politics?  That what he‘s really guilty of here is saying—as he literally, when he was asked if pro-choicers have a place in the party, he said absolutely.  Is this just not—isn‘t it—he is pro-choice to some degree, maybe to some limited degree and he‘s being forced to deny what he believes to keep his job.

Isn‘t that the sort of tenuous situation?  The center can‘t hold on that forever, can it?

PAGE:  Well, I talked to Michael Steele.  He was my lieutenant governor as a Marylander.  He‘s pro-life.  He‘s a Catholic.  He is very forthright as far as his personal beliefs go.

He also, though, is in your choice to vote Republican.  He wants to build the party.  And he knows that that really draconian pro-life position that the platform has doesn‘t go over well with the majority of Americans.  So, he tries to finesse it.  I think that is where he got bollixed up.

But, you know, there‘s a kind of thing that he needs to—well, right now, he is in a phase where the base needs to be fed.  That‘s the way a lot of party leaders feel.  They are not worried that much about outreach right now as they are worried about getting to the base and raising money and building up the internal strength.  So, it‘s that kind of a conflict he‘s got to deal with.

OLBERMANN:  So, a guy who doesn‘t believe this stuff is out there

trying to sell this stuff to people who don‘t want to buy this stuff which

it seems to me—a problem.

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  Especially if you—I mean, if you marry it to this other part here, and marry is used unintentionally, they were in that—also in the “GQ” interview, this was another issue of choice.

He was asked, “Do you think homosexuality is a choice?”  And he said,

“Oh, no.  I don‘t think I‘ve ever really subscribed to that view that you

can turn it on and off like a water tap.  You just can‘t simply say, oh,

like, ‘Tomorrow morning, I‘m going to stop being gay.‘  It is like saying,

‘Tomorrow morning, I‘m going to stop being black.‘”

I mean, it‘s a reasonable, accurate contextual view obviously.  It seems .

(CROSSTALK)

OLBERMANN:  Is it destined to doom him within his own party at some point?

PAGE:  Well, yes.  I mean, that‘s one—you know, Tony Perkins from the Family Research Council and other social conservatives in the base talked to him and complained about this.  I mean, that was a strong position, Keith, just to equate homosexuality with race is the sort of position that the gay pride movement has been promoting for decades, and that the Republican conservatives have been fighting against.  He just kind of gave away the whole battlefield you might say.

So, that‘s the kind of thing that he has to backpedal away from or else he‘ll try to change the party from inside.  I doubt that‘s going to happen right now.

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  Or he might go to a place where there are people who seem to agree with him on these critical two points of the cultural wars of our time.  It‘s called the Democratic Party.

PAGE:  You mean .

OLBERMANN:  But, who knows.

(LAUGHTER)

PAGE:  I thought so.  I‘ve heard of them—yes.

OLBERMANN:  They tend to mention this a lot.

Clarence Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist of “The Tribune” of Chicago—great thanks, Clarence.

PAGE:  Thank you, Keith.  Stay tuned.

OLBERMANN:  The course of the colonel.  More than two decades under water, which jinx will now supposedly be broken after the Colonel Sanders statue is finally rescued from its water or something?

And speaking of things that only look human, Coultergeist‘s amazing vanishing book sales.

That‘s next—this is COUNTDOWN.

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OLBERMANN:  Bests in a moment, and Coultergeist has apparently lost better than 2/3 of her book buying audience.

But, first, on this date in 2002, the birth of a five-tiered public alert system.  Conjuring up images of “Duck and Cover” film from 1950s, the Department of Homeland Security revealed its color-coded threat advisory system.  Cue the widespread panic and duct-tape paranoia.  Then-DHS Secretary Tom Ridge changed advisory colors 10 times in the system‘s first two years.  Mostly in response to, as the “Daily Kos” joke went today, the dire threat of Democrats winning elections.

On that note, let‘s play Oddball.

We begin in Osaka, Japan, where the curse has been reversed.  First the back story, which curse.  In 1985, and the fans of the Hai Shi (ph) Tigers baseball team celebrated their Japanese World Series win right there.  Tradition dictated tossing the victors into the air, but since star slugger Randy Bass was not available, the fans grabbed the next best thing, a plastic statue of Colonel Sanders from the local KFC. 

After the requisite air toss, fans did what any fried chicken enthusiast would do, they tossed the colonel into the river.  Since that fateful night, the Hai Shi Tigers have been on a red hot losing streak.  But now 24 years later, the colonel has been located.  A group of construction workers found the Sanders torso, the legs and the right hand while dredging up the river.  Might these workers now help our woe begotten Pittsburgh Pirates? 

To Orlando, Florida, where the dolphin population at Sea World has come up with a lazy way to spend Sunday afternoon.  Tiny bubbles in the water.  These dolphins have learned the art of bubble making by expelling air through their blow hole.  They use their nose to twist, to spin and to reshape the bubble ring, sometimes biting a bigger ring to make a smaller one.  Yes, sometimes you just need to show video as an excuse to say the word blow hole on TV. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Smearing Nancy Pelosi.  The right says the speaker made unprecedented demands for military aircraft access.  The only thing unprecedented seems to be the degree to which the right keeps lying about the allegations in the face of the facts. 

Nothing a radio guy likes better than his face on a billboard, maybe not this billboard. 

These stories ahead, but first time for COUNTDOWN‘s top three best persons in the world.

Number three, best taxed persons.  A New York legislator wants to institute a new pole tax, pole.  The law would tax patrons of strip clubs 10 dollars.  When would the tax be levied?  At the door, as part of the cover charge, while you still have your wallet.  OR maybe you could make the G in G-string stand for government issued. 

Number two, best phony delusion, Scott Allan Witmer, having been accused of driving drunk in Pennsylvania, said he could not be prosecuted or charged because he was his own country.  He claimed sovereignty.  Quote, I live inside myself, not in Pennsylvania.  Mr. Witmer asked for a trial on that basis.  The judge in the case then ordered that Mr. Witmer proceed instead to a mental exam, and within 48 hours, Mr. Witmer came to his senses and pleaded guilty.  “I wanted to try it out,” he said. 

Number one, best American book reading public.  Condi Naste Portfolio

reporting on sales for Ann Coulter‘s latest tome.  Her 2006 book sold

280,000 copies.  Her offering from six years ago sold nearly 400,000

copies.   This one somewhere between 100,000 and 130,000.  And it came out

                two full months ago.  From three books ago to two books ago, she lost more

                than a third of an audience.  And from two books ago to this one, she has

                lost another half.  It is morning in America. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  In April 2007, behind the scenes at COUNTDOWN, we jumped all over a story making the rounds that President Bush had almost blown himself up when he plugged an electrical cord into a hydrogen electric hybrid car.  We put it in our run down and went about producing the segment.  But when we watched the actual videotape closely, we saw it was not Mr. Bush‘s fault at all.  We did the segment anyway.  We exonerated the president, because when a story changes course on you, you have to go with it, rather than continue to force it to go you way, no matter how you might feel about the subject. 

Which brings us to our third story tonight, the conservative group Judicial Watch had its big expose on Nancy Pelosi, in which the only thing exposed was the speaker‘s guiltlessness.  They have obtained emails from Pelosi‘s staff and Pentagon staff concerning Pelosi‘s use of military aircraft.  Judicial Watch concluding, quote, “these documents show that Speaker Pelosi treats the Air Force like her personal airline, with unreasonable requests for military travel, unconcerned about wasting taxpayer money, with last minute cancellations.”

Except the actual documents show no such thing.  ABC News reporting that Pelosi uses military transport less than once a month, wherein Republican predecessor Denny Hastert was an almost weekly frequent flyer.  Last-minute cancellations?  Yes, when she first became speaker, before the Air Force told her she had priority, so she could stop reserving flights she might not need. 

Unreasonable requests?  Maybe, except that most of those requests were for other members of Congress, because her office coordinates their military travel too.  Not a single Pelosi trip was for political purposes.  A Pentagon spokesperson yesterday said no one there found Pelosi‘s aircraft use excessive.  In fact, no less that Bush Press Secretary Tony Snow, the late Tony Snow, when the right first pushed this non-scandal, defended Pelosi‘s plane use. 

No surprise, considering it was first ordered by his boss, perhaps the most infamous gratuitous user of military aircraft for political purposes ever. 

Let‘s turn now to MSNBC political analyst Lawrence O‘Donnell, also a contributor at HuffingtonPost.com.  Lawrence, thanks for your time tonight, sir. 

LAWRENCE O‘DONNELL, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Good to be here, Keith.  

OLBERMANN:  I started this segment talking about how sometimes a story doesn‘t germinate the way you expect it to or maybe even the way you might want it to.  Does that sound like what happened here?  The far right got all worked up about Pelosi getting military flights.  Judicial Watch filed these Freedom of Information requests, and then ignored the fact that the results completely refuted the narrative they were trying to sell? 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, you know, Keith, when you go through all of that work of doing a Freedom of Information Act request, you build up a little momentum in a certain direction.  And they just couldn‘t turn themselves around when they got these e-mails that showed absolutely nothing.  But Judicial Watch really jumped the shark with this story.  Judicial Watch has become a parody of itself with this story. 

To give them one credit, they do on their website allow you to link to the evidence that they use.  When you link to that evidence, as I did today, and sat there delighting in these e-mails between the Speaker‘s Office and the military on these planes, you keep trying to find anything that they could possibly base the story on.  There is absolutely nothing there. 

You know, President Bush, I think wisely, after 9/11, when they saw on that day that the vice president had to be rushed out of his office in the White House because they believed the White House was under attack—once we started living in a world where the White House could be under attack in something other than a bad movie, it became wise to think about succession.  If you were to somehow lose the president and the vice president, the speaker of the House becomes president. 

With that in mind, President Bush said the speaker should have military aircraft for travel the same way we do, the same way the first two do, president, the vice president.  The third one there in line should have it, too.  That is where this comes from.  It‘s an invention of President Bush‘s and probably a wise one. 

OLBERMANN:  The invention of this story though, and the attempt to make Nancy Pelosi look bad for some reason, which seems most operative in that?  Is it that bass-ackwards narrative that the Republicans are the grown ups when it comes to the military, and everyone else are just kids out there?  Or is this simple, good old-fashioned sexism? 

O‘DONNELL:  It seems they are trying to create the image of diva, that she is demanding this extraordinary kind of limo or something, in an unnecessary way, and in an unnecessary situation.  Of course, this wasn‘t her idea to use military transport this way.  But it is a good idea.  She uses it wisely when you examine these records.  There‘s just nothing there. 

What is in the records, as you have said, is plenty of notations of senators, Republican senators, Democratic senators, and Congressmen requesting these planes.  Some of them, by the way, canceling at the last minute, deciding they are going to cancel the use of those things.  There is some sort of extra expense involved in that, understandably, for the military. 

But Judicial Watch tries to find something wrong in all of this and lay it entirely at Nancy Pelosi‘s feet, when you can‘t find anything wrong in these documents that anyone is doing in the Congress with these planes.  You can imagine that someone‘s abusing the privilege somewhere, but Judicial Watch didn‘t find it. 

OLBERMANN:  When you hear constant refrains about earmarks, about government waste, et cetera, they‘re all good government stuff that Republicans not only failed to reform or address or hold themselves to when they were in power, but which they abused far more willfully and far more obviously than Democrats have.  Do you think the Republican party really thinks that voters don‘t remember what they did when they had the unfettered power to express their own values? 

O‘DONNELL:  Yes.  I think they are relying on this very short attention span of both the media and the public.  They are betting on that.  They are also betting on the best way to play this game is to try to keep the public‘s eye on the pebbles of government, instead of the giant mountains of government, like the Iraq war, the Afghanistan war, Medicare, Social Security.  To see people screaming about earmarks when Social Security and Medicare are the giant expenditures in the budget is to reveal that those people are not serious about government. 

OLBERMANN:  MSNBC political analyst Lawrence O‘Donnell, also, as we mentioned, a contributor to “The Huffington Post.”  As always, sir, great thanks. 

O‘DONNELL:  Thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  The DNC unveils the winner of the new Rush Limbaugh Hometown Billboard Contest.  Seriously, that is the best you‘ve got?  The man who brought us the Contract with America now has a scheme to tackle teenage pregnancy.  It involves paying teenage girls to have sex.  Worsts ahead. 

When Rachel joins you at the top of the hour, Bernie Madoff may now be behind bars, but what is being done to make sure he or it never happens again. 

But first, because they may be gone but their deeds outlive them, the headlines lingering from the previous administration‘s 50 running scandals, still bushed.

Number three, everything is bigger in Texas-gate, even the cow pies. 

The Texas House today considering a resolution to honor the Blin (ph) College Lady Buccaneers Volleyball team, Region Six, teacher of the year Bonnie Blum of Bellville, and a former president named George W. Bush, of whom it is said, he, quote, lived each day with the safety and prosperity of his fellow citizens foremost in his mind.  In fact, the Bush presidency was the weakest period for the US economy in decades, job growth worst in 70 years, income growth worst in 40 years, not counting the other Bush. 

And living each day with our safety foremost in his mind?  When the CIA warned him on August 6th, 2001, of al Qaeda‘s intent to attack inside the U.S., President Bush told his briefer, all right, you‘ve covered your ass now.  By the way, he was in Texas when that happened.  Our congratulations to Bonnie Blum and the Lady Buccaneers. 

Number two, we fight them there so blah, blah, blah-gate.  In Mr.  Bush‘s rainbow of rationales for having invaded Iraq was this, that fighting them there meant we would not have fight them here.  At the Senate Committee hearing yesterday, U.S. law enforcement officials revealed that they have been here for years, recruiting Americans to join a radical Islamic group tied to al Qaeda in Somalia.  The number who have already left already in double digits.  One, a 27-year-old Minneapolis college student, carried out a suicide bombing in Somalia last October.  Now law enforcement officials testify the U.S. is worried that eventually they will be indoctrinated and trained to fight us here. 

Number one, spreading freedom-gate.  This of course another shade in the rationale rainbow.  Today, two examples of American freedom on the march.  The Iraqi shoe thrower will spend three years in prison.  And then there is 23-year-old Said Pervez Komkash (ph).  Afghanistan‘s Supreme Court sentenced him to 20 years in prison for a nonviolent crime.  His sentence isn‘t the crime.  The crime is the crime.  He committed blasphemy.  Komkash‘s offense?  He allegedly circulated an article on women‘s rights.  His lawyer learned of the 20-year sentence when he showed up to present a defense.  No need.  The court had already decided, 20 years for blasphemy.  Crime and punishment in a justice system you bought and paid for with American blood and treasure. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Karl Rove says the Obama White House shouldn‘t pee on the leg of Boss Limbaugh during such difficulties, economically speaking.  Sounds like Karl is admitting his guy left enormous economic difficulties and pee. 

That‘s next, but first time for COUNTDOWN‘s number two story, tonight‘s worst persons in the world. 

The bronze to Rupert Murdoch, whose “New York Post” printed the following item today, “just when you thought Keith Olbermann inflated ego couldn‘t expand further, the MSNBC blabber mouth was running around a Yanks/Reds spring training game Tuesday night autographing baseball cards featuring his own smug face.  Stats on the back identified him as a lefty slugger.  One fan at the game said he looked like such a jerk. 

The Post‘s Bill Hoffman (ph) confirms his source for this was a Post‘s sportswriter at the game.  That would probably have been Yankee‘s beat man George King, which would seem to be supported by the number of mistakes in the story.  I wasn‘t handing them out.  I gave one to a friend.  Them is also wrong.  I only had one card with me.  The rest of my traveling supply had gone to charity.  The quote about how I looked is also fabricated, since I gave the only card to a friend, in a private booth in the press box, and there were no witnesses. 

Mr. Murdoch and his people also don‘t think anybody would realize that the story they printed, which would be trivial even if had been close to being true, would be seen as revenge for my having criticized the newspaper Monday for slandering Michael wolf on the gossip page.  There is a reason that Rupert‘s vanity newspaper loses 50 to 60 million of his dollars a year.  That is because it is now a sloppily produced vanity newspaper. 

The runner up tonight, Victoria Jackson, former actress, now providing a sad coda to her brief fame on “Saturday Night Live” by appearing as a right wing curiosity on Sean Hannity‘s TV show.  She announced that Hannity, Governor Palin and Boss Limbaugh should be running this country.  Then she explained her status as a has been by saying, in that nails on a blackboard voice of hers, quote, “my motivation is gone because Obama will punish me if I‘m successful.  That‘s how you start communism.” 

Not to worry, Victoria.  You haven‘t been successful since “Garfield and Friends” went off the air in 1994. 

But our winner, Newt Gingrich.  He wants health reform in this country and he knows how to get it.  Pay for it.  Not pay for doctors or medicine or hospital, but pay people to do healthy things.  Pay poor people money not to smoke, pay teenage girls money not to get pregnant.  Wait a minute.  Paying teenage girls to not get pregnant while having sex.  There is a flaw in that logic somewhere.  What could it be?  Oh yes, legally, that would be government-sponsored child prostitution.  Newt bordello brain Gingrich, today‘s worst person in the world!

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Boss Limbaugh calls them the drive by media, the folks who replay the ludicrous antics and shameful statements that he spews, maliciously slandering Limbaugh by quoting verbatim the words of his biggest enemy, himself.  In our number one story, it is not drive by media, but media that you might drive by, about which Limbaugh can now start belly aching.  The DNC‘s Caption this Billboard contest is over.  The winner unveiled today.  It is OK, sort of, I guess. 

Last week, the Democratic National Committee began soliciting slogans

for a billboard that it would purchase in Boss Limbaugh‘s home town of West

Palm Beach, Florida, as a response to Limbaugh‘s call for the Obama

administration to fail.  Eighty thousand submissions and more.  But before

we get to the actual winner, some of a select group of also rans from a

comment section of Farc.com.  The DNC did not select “please do not feed

the ego,” “bring me Solo and the Wookie”—that‘s a Jabba the Hut

reference—and that‘s not winner.  Finally, not used was, “fat, dumb and

conservative is no way to go through life, son.” 

But your winner, from somebody named William C of Camden, New Jersey, Americans didn‘t vote for a Rush to failure.  On that note, let‘s call in Margaret Carlson, political columnist for “Bloomberg News” and the Washington editor of “The Week Magazine.”  Margaret, good evening.

MARGARET CARLSON, “BLOOMBERG NEW”:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Rush to failure is the winner?  Isn‘t it vague and frankly not nearly as funny as “Please do not feed the ego?”

CARLSON:  Not funny at all, really.  You have to stop and think about it, which is the last thing you want somebody reading a billboard to have to do.  If you are going to run a contest that would occupy the mind of a teenage boy for an hour, you need to make it—you need to get a slacker movie, wacky kind of intelligence brought to it, and go the whole way and make it really funny. 

It is not the least bit funny.  Yours, please don‘t feed the ego, is a little bit funnier. 

OLBERMANN:  But fat jokes are—the fat jokes in there, the ones about Jabba the Hut and stuff, they‘re funny.  But honestly, physical jokes should be out of bounds for both parties.  But the runner-up was Rush hour is over in America.  Isn‘t that better than Americans didn‘t vote for a Rush to failure?  It is simple and it gets the point across.  Doesn‘t it? 

CARLSON:  That is much better, especially since it is on a billboard on a highway. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes. 

CARLSON:  I do wonder though, Keith, if—you said there were 80,000 submissions for this. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes. 

CARLSON:  Aren‘t the donors to the DNC going to wonder about people sitting around opening up 80,000 submissions and reading them and sort of carefully assessing is “Please feed the ego” as good as “Rush hour is over in America?”  I don‘t think so. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, you are also assuming they read all of them.  They just said there were 80,000 submissions.  It could be, let‘s read the first ten or 20 that come in and we‘ll go to lunch, which is why they—somebody must have suggested Mt. Rush-less, which would have been funny by itself.  It doesn‘t necessarily mean anything. 

CARLSON:  That is good, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Just a corn ball thing that came to me.  It has been about two weeks since the CPAC thing and since the smack down started going back and forth.  Has the story run its course, or is it going to be kind of a permanent fixture of American politics?  Or what happens from now on? 

CARLSON:  Well, Republicans say the Democrats are the ones that are stirring this pot.  But it was CPAC that invited Rush to give the speech and treated him as if he were the leader of their party, or at least its most famous person.  By the way, if he were a committee man from Oklahoma, I bet he would be the leader of the Republican party.  He happens to be a radio talk show host. 

The idea that Democrats want it and Republicans, it is their sideshow for the moment—it is not a bad one, because, by the way, Rush is probably the best-known figure in the Republican party at the moment.  Name one person that more than five people outside the beltway would recognize or want to listen to.  Mitch McConnell?  I don‘t think so.  Eric Cantor, he is an up and coming person maybe, a teeny tiny bit.  But he doesn‘t have name recognition yet.  Rush is what there is. 

OLBERMANN:  Just to that point, when John Boehner and Mitch McConnell were satirized on “Saturday Night Live,” when they were played by—

Boehner famously by Dan Aykroyd—it was clear the studio audience did not know who either of them was supposed to be.  Your point is well taken. 

One thing I want to throw in here, a quote we did not get to, this is Rove in the “Wall Street Journal:” in the face of our enormous economic challenges, top White House aides decided to pee on Mr. Limbaugh‘s leg.  The only nice part about that, Margaret, is finally somebody is admitting that politicians do that. 

On that note, Margaret Carlson of “Bloomberg News” and “The Week,” thanks as always, Margaret.   

CARLSON:  We didn‘t know before.  Thank you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  That is COUNTDOWN for this the 2,133rd day since the previous president declared mission accomplished in Iraq.  From Tampa, 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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