updated 7/13/2009 10:10:24 AM ET 2009-07-13T14:10:24

Guests: Richard Wolffe, James Risen, Jonathan Turley, Margaret Carlson, Chris Kofinis

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

Warrantless wiretapping and the desperate midnight ride to John Ashcroft‘s hospital bed, to get the then-attorney general—still hazy after they cut out his gallbladder—to personally approved secret intelligence gathering on Americans even without court orders.  The new report of the inspectors general from CIA, NSC, DNI, Pentagon, Justice:

President Bush ordered Alberto Gonzalez and Andy Card to go to Ashcroft‘s sick bed and get his signature no matter what.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLY O‘DONNELL, NBC NEWS:  Sir, did you send your then chief of staff and White House counsel to the bedside of John Ashcroft while he was ill to get him to approve that program and do you believe that kind of conduct from White House officials is appropriate?

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Kelly, there‘s a lot of speculation about what happened and what didn‘t happen.  I‘m not going to talk about it.  It‘s a very sensitive program.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The inspectors general not only nailed Bush in another lie, in another crime, but also in ordering other secret surveillance which has still not been made public.  And that when his White House got its first post-9/11 threat assessment, it padded the language and inserted his own paragraph which it later then quoted as justification for the other secret surveillance.

And the Panetta admission: Whatever he found out about a secret CIA intel program he stopped, House Intelligence Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations chair, Jan Schakowsky, says investigations are mandatory because laws may have been broken.

Ensign pulverized.  The senatorial scandal turns farcical.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DOUG HAMPTON, CINDY HAMPTON‘S HUSBAND:  Basically, at the same time he said, “I‘m in love with your wife”—“You can‘t work for me any more.”

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  How members of the Christian group the Family forced Senator John Ensign to write Cindy Hampton a letter cutting off his affair and took him to FedEx to send the letter to her overnight.  And then how the senator sneaked away from them to call her and tell her to ignore the letter and then he showed up the next day to resume the affair.

There will be Puppet Theater on this.  “Cindy, the mean men that made me write a nasty letter to you and I don‘t mean it.  And you should disregard it and I‘ll always love you.”

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Who is this?

(END AUDIO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  All that and more—now on COUNTDOWN.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Did you send the 96,000 yet?

(END AUDIO CLIP)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening from New York.

As often seems to happen in the late afternoon of summer Fridays, two lingering mysteries of Bush administration misdeeds have been definitively solved—in our fifth story on THE COUNTDOWN—one: how intelligence was manipulated in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, and, two, who it was who called John Ashcroft as attorney general as he was recovering in the intensive care unit of a Washington, D.C. hospital orchestrating the failed attempt to get him to reauthorize the government spy program?

This hint: If you answered Vice President Cheney, you did not aim high enough this time.

A new internal government report is revealing that President Bush himself tried to subvert the authority of his own attorney general, directly ordering the infamous expedition to the hospital bed of Mr.  Ashcroft to strong-arm the ailing attorney general and the deputy that was then serving as the acting attorney general into renewing the surveillance program that would lapse in a matter of days—having waited until his attorney general had just come out of surgery to do this, having waited until his attorney general‘s wife had refused to put him on the phone when the president called.

Quoting from page 24 of the report today, “On March 10, 2004, President Bush instructed him—then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez -- and chief of staff Andrew Card to go to the George Washington University Hospital to speak to Ashcroft.  Card called the hospital and spoke with an agent in Ashcroft‘s security detail.  Ashcroft‘s wife told the agent Ashcroft would not accept the call.

However at 6:45 p.m., Card and the president called the hospital and, according to the agent‘s notes, insisted on speaking with Ashcroft.  Mrs.  Ashcroft took the call and was informed that Gonzales and Card were coming to the hospital to see Ashcroft regarding a matter involving national security.”

You will recall that two years ago, that former deputy attorney general, James Comey, finished the rest of the story in gripping Senate testimony, recounting that Ashcroft still shot down the president‘s entreaty in spite of being in a weak and drugged up state.

Two days later, President Bush was asked about his role in the bedside drama by our own Kelly O‘Donnell.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Sir, did you send your then chief of staff and White House counsel to the bedside of John Ashcroft while he was ill to get him to approve that program?  And do you believe that kind of conduct from White House officials is appropriate?

BUSH:  Kelly, there‘s a lot of speculation about what happened and what didn‘t happen.  I‘m not going to talk about it.  It‘s a very sensitive program.

I will tell you however that the program is necessary.

O‘DONNELL:  Was it on your order, sir?

BUSH:  As I said, this program is a necessary program that was constantly reviewed and constantly briefed to the Congress.  It‘s an important part of protecting the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  George Bush‘s officially confirmed deception was not just by omission but also commission.  The report prepared at the request of Congress also revealing that in the days after the 9/11 attacks, the president authorized secret surveillance activities beyond controversial warrantless wiretapping, activities which have still not been made public.  They were referred to in this report as the president‘s surveillance program.

Equally unsettling, the report also stating that an unnamed White House official inserted a paragraph into the first threat assessment prepared by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks, which was then used to justify the extraordinary intelligence matters.

Time now to turn to our own political analyst, Richard Wolffe.

Richard, thanks for your time.  Good evening.

RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  President Bush directly ordering, orchestrating the infamous expedition to the hospital bed of Attorney General Ashcroft, long suspected, long reported, now official.  For what might be the first time the answer to that kind of mystery was confirmed to not be Vice President Cheney.  How significant is the official nature of this investigation?

WOLFFE:  Well, I‘ve always thought it was convenient for people to lay all the blame at Dick Cheney‘s door.  It was convenient for the Bush administration officials because they could paint President Bush as being a good cop to the bad cop of Dick Cheney.  Convenient for Bush‘s critics as well because they had someone easy to caricature and portray as being unmitigatingly evil, and then you‘ve got convenient for Dick Cheney because he can seem scarier than reality.

And in actual fact, what you have here is a real undermining not just of the Bush-Cheney dynamic but the self-image of President Bush, of someone who played by the rules and had a common sense of decency no matter what he was up to—and really this gets to the heart of that.  It undermines that self-image because this wasn‘t just the sort of midnight rush because there was a deadline.  This was a well hashed out debate where the chief law enforcement officers of this nation said the program was illegal.  He was trying to do an end run around the law and there‘s no two ways about it.  It was indecent and—as it happens—illegal.

OLBERMANN:  At that news conference, two days after the former deputy attorney general, Mr. Comey, revealed the incident, the clip we heard there, the president played coy when asked about it.  Is not a lie by omission still a lie?

WOLFFE:  Well, I‘m not sure that it is, actually.  This is the typical kind of dodge that the president would have at the time and it was obvious what he was dodging.

Really, if you listen to that answer, the answer is—well, it was necessary.  In fact, anything is necessary if I say so because these threats are so dangerous.  So, really these legal debates and quibbles you‘re having are a bit like the Geneva Convention, some old fashioned, archaic, academic theory.  And that is, itself, revealing insight into his mentality.

So, I think there‘s something worse than whether you‘re lying or being fully truthful or half truthful, and that‘s whether the president abides by the laws.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, one other word in there that was left out, “quaint.”  “Quaint” fitted to that description of both the treaties and the idea of telling the truth to the American public.

This other thing in the report: the unnamed White House official who added a paragraph into the first threat assessment after the 9/11 attacks.  Obviously, he‘s delivered this thing by the CIA, adds something in and then they take that addition, quote it as part of the CIA threat assessment, and use it to justify the extraordinary intelligence measures.

This looks like—is this the first time that that pattern was used, essentially creating the self-fulfilling prophesy and then quote it back to the people who are asking why are you doing this?

WOLFFE:  Well, we don‘t know what the paragraph really says.  But it is extraordinary that you have—what we assume is a political official—adding to the intelligence because, presumably, they think their analysis is better than what the intelligence officials say it is.

And, again, you‘ve got to get back to the sort of psychology of that period.  People were afraid, absolutely.  It was a terrifying period and people were rightly scared of and shocked at what had happened in terms of the 9/11 attacks.  But to then use that for political purposes, to then say we need to embellish what we think is a serious threat, I think, gets to the insecurity those officials had—because remember, it happened on their watch, and I think there was a sort of self-defensive rear-end covering that was going on.

OLBERMANN:  Speaking of which, what does this president do about all of this now?  Given the particulars that are out, what does Obama do about trying to maintain this program while trying to suppress the legal challenges against it?

WOLFFE:  Well, this won‘t satisfy his die-hard supporters or at least the people who are the base of the Democratic Party.  But he has already said that wiretapping was just fine as long as it‘s not warrantless, as long as there is minimal court supervision.  He has clearly said in the campaign and in office that he wants the program to continue.

So, I don‘t think he cares who started it.  He sees the value to it as long as there is this minimal supervision, and for civil liberties people, that really isn‘t enough.

OLBERMANN:  MSNBC‘s Richard Wolffe—as always, great thanks.  Have a great weekend, Richard.

WOLFFE:  Thank you.  And you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  For more on the significance of what we‘ve learned in this, let‘s turn to “The New York Times” investigative reporter, James Risen, who in 2006 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his series of reports exposing the existence of the Bush administration‘s secret domestic spying program.

Great thanks for your time, again, tonight, sir.

JAMES RISEN, NEW YORK TIMES:  Thanks for having me.

OLBERMANN:  All right.  The president confirmed in an official report from these I.G.s as the creator in the Ashcroft hospital drama.  It sounds like the headline here.  Is it or is there something in here that was more illuminating to you?

RISEN:  Well, it‘s really an interesting report because it has a lot of—it‘s chockfull of details about not only the hospital scene but about other aspects of the surveillance program.

And to me, the kind of the headline of the entire report is something a little different, and that is—buried deep in the report—it says that the interviews with intelligence community officials throughout the—by all of the inspectors general—they found that no one could point to any counterterrorism successes done—that could be caused by this program. That the program—no one could identify any major attacks or arrests that were caused specifically by this program, which contradicts what President Bush repeatedly said for the last three years of his presidency, that this was saving thousands of lives.

I think, to me, that is a fundamental issue that will change the nature of the debate about the NSA warrantless wiretapping program.

OLBERMANN:  Change it in what sense?  Is it—is it the suggestion here that Bush was back-filling to justify invasion of privacy, or is it—was it that they just got it all wrong?  Change it in what way?

RISEN:  I—what they are saying, what the I.G. is saying is that there is no solid conclusive proof that the NSA wireless—warrantless wiretapping program was responsible for any major counterterrorism successes.  The entire justification by the Bush administration for averting the FISA laws and going with the warrantless wiretapping program was that they said it had been saving lives and thwarting attacks.  That is a fundamental issue that has been at the heart of this debate ever since it became public.

OLBERMANN:  It is because of your reporting that we know about the warrantless wiretapping program to begin with.  The new report here revealing that the president also authorized secret surveillance activities beyond wiretapping and without details.  The report simply cautioned the collection activities since 9/11 were unprecedented, and retention and use of the information should be carefully monitored.

It sounds scary.  Is it, in fact, scary?

RISEN:  Well, we have reported on what some of those programs are.  What they have done very carefully here is they have talked about what the president confirmed.  What the president confirmed was our initial stories about what is now known as the “Terrorist Surveillance Program.”  Subsequent to that, we reported on data mining operations and recently, Eric Lichtblau and I reported on how the fundamental debate at the hospital scene was about data mining involving e-mails of Americans.

They have never officially acknowledged that, but that is what these things were.  They just don‘t want to say it because it still hasn‘t been officially confirmed by the White House.

OLBERMANN:  One curious, I guess, side light to this.  Mr. Ashcroft, Mr. Card among the big names who did not subject themselves to interviews for the reports, Cheney‘s aide David Addington also on the list, the former CIA director, Mr. Tenet, John Yoo who, of course, was the proprietor basically of the memo factor that justified interrogation.

Is it remarkable just how much these inspectors general were able to learn without any of these people?

RISEN:  Yes.  I mean, I found that very interesting that the former CIA director, Mr. Tenet, was able to just tell the I.G., “No, I‘m not going to talk to you.  I didn‘t know you could actually do that.  But, if you worked, if you were at that level of the government.”

I think—I think it is a fascinating document, although they don‘t come to any grand conclusions.  They have a series of details that if you put together, it becomes a very interesting mosaic.

I thought the whole issue of how they developed threat assessments within the intelligence community to justify the legal reauthorization was interesting.  That had never been known before, that they were actually having to get a threat assessment to prove that there was still a threat to the United States in order to get a legal justification—legal reauthorization.  And then—and then they had to get the White House to insert language into that.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, there‘s a lot of—a lot of backfill, almost every direction.  It‘s extraordinary and who better to give us a perspective on it than James Risen of “The New York Times.”

Again, great thanks for your time and your insight, sir.

RISEN:  Thanks.

OLBERMANN:  Then there are the legal implications of the all the nefariousness that originated far up the Bush chain of command, nothing this nefarious has originated officially this far up—domestically anyway.  We now know who tried to browbeat the attorney general and when he tried to browbeat him.  If anybody ever bothers to prosecute these malefactors, how that playing field just changed—as assessed, next, by Professor Jonathan Turley.

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OLBERMANN:  It was already one of the darkest chapters in the closest thing to medieval times in the American presidency.  But tonight, we now know it was President Bush who personally ordered it in the bid to get a barely conscious John Ashcroft to authorize intel gathering that Ashcroft thought was illegal.  How many laws did Mr. Bush break and what is there to be done about it now?

And the John Ensign saga.  New features tonight include coerced letter writing to the missus or rather to the mistress.  A virtual kidnapping to FedEx and the day after breaking it off, he was back with the mistress breaking it—never mind.

Plus, Puppet Theater.  It‘s Friday.  Glad (ph) it‘s Friday.

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OLBERMANN:  A scene as dark as anything out of the Nixon White House, President Bush calling the hospital room of his ailing, barely articulate attorney general, John Ashcroft, over the objections of Ashcroft‘s wife in order to pressure the attorney general to reauthorize what is now known as the president‘s surveillance program.

Our fourth story on THE COUNTDOWN: the legal implications with constitutional law expert Jonathan Turley joining us in a moment.

And we also know that after Mr. Ashcroft refused to reauthorize, the president and his then White House counsel Alberto Gonzales found a way around it, making it up as they went along.

From today‘s report, quoting, “On the morning of March 11, 2004, with the presidential authorization set to expire, President Bush signed a new authorization for the PSP.  In a departure from the past practice of having the attorney general certify the authorization as to form and legality, the March 11 authorization was certified by White House counsel Gonzales.”

Let‘s call in George Washington University law professor and constitutional expert, Jonathan Turley.

Jon, good evening.

JONATHAN TURLEY, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY:  Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  All right.  The president pressures his attorney general in his sick bed to certify, to reauthorize this PSP.  And when the attorney general refuses, the president gets his White House counsel to do it instead.

So, walk us through the sort of more obvious legal minefield points here in the fall of this sequence.

TURLEY:  Well, it‘s a grotesque metaphor, isn‘t it?  As you have this scene of presidential sycophants trying to get a man who‘s post-surgery to sign away civil liberties of American citizens.  If anything captures what happened in the Bush administration, it‘s that scene.

What it is important legally is that it shows to anybody in that administration that the legal basis for this program was never established, that they had to essentially change the authorization process to get the semblance of legality, so when people, like my neighbor, General Michael Hayden, and others, claimed they had clear and obvious legal authority for all of this, they knew that wasn‘t true.  They knew that they had to go to extraordinary measures.

And, in fact, very high ranking, very conservative people in the Justice Department refused to sign onto this because it was blatantly unconstitutional.

OLBERMANN:  Is there anything to be done about this legally now?

TURLEY:  Well, there is.  You see, the problem, Keith, is that the law has never been unclear.  You know, the law is perfectly clear.  There are so many crimes here that have been alleged and supported by facts in the last couple of years it‘s almost hard to step around them.

What is not clear is the intestinal fortitude of the Democratic Party to actually investigate.  They like to disclose crimes because they have obvious political benefits.  What they don‘t want to do is prosecute those crimes.  And we now see why.

Because the irony is that, in the beltway, as criminal evidence mounts, they become less inclined to prosecute because they know that if they start an investigation, it will lead them directly to the desk of George Bush.  And no Democrat wants to indict him.  And they know that if they start an investigation, it‘ll be hard to avoid an indictment.

OLBERMANN:  The other bombshell, this unnamed White House official who padded the underlying threat assessment after 9/11, the one prepared by the CIA and then quoted it back as an authorization for further intelligence gathering that skirted at best the law.  Is there more in this than the mere manipulation of that one paragraph?

TURLEY:  Well, it‘s a very serious thing.  This is a very important document.  And they‘re essentially cooking the books.  In my view they falsified the intelligence by having a political appointee outside of the CIA allegedly change that report and then rely upon that very section of the report.

Now, that‘s a problem.  The National Security Act of 1947, they have to fully inform Congress, even covert operations have to be disclosed to a small number of members.  We now know that there were surveillance programs never disclosed.  We‘ve already seen the last couple years, false statements have been shown, were given to Congress, misleading statements.  We know that evidence, for example, the torture program, was destroyed at the CIA, with the full knowledge that they were trying to do this to prevent the evidence from ever being used.

This is an incredible litany of crimes and we‘re beginning to look like the country that we despise, that have intelligence services that are above the law, that are untouchable.  Well, the CIA now has the virtual criminal code checked off in terms of obstruction and in terms of torture and unlawful surveillance and false statements to Congress.  And nobody is talking about prosecution.

OLBERMANN:  And to even bring this up to date, this is—today‘s developments have kind of buried this continuing saga about the Panetta admission, which addresses that last point about the CIA misleading the sources, the organizations that are supposed to oversight.  The program he stopped, the House Intel Subcommittee chair, Jan Schakowsky, says, you‘ve got to investigate the clear probability of laws being broken here.

If the program, itself, is not revealed, would we at least—if there is an investigation—get a concrete assessment of the degree to which the CIA has lied to the House, to the Senate, to you, me, to your neighbor, Mr.  Hayden, anybody else we can think of?

TURLEY:  Well, we should, because what we really need, Keith, is for our leaders to finally give up the ghost, stop preventing a criminal investigation, and hand this over to prosecutors.

What the Congresswoman described is a crime, and she is correct.  It is a mandatory subject for investigation.  Lying, withholding information from Congress is a crime; and what they are withholding and concealing happens, also, to have been crimes.

OLBERMANN:  Jonathan Turley of George Washington University—as always, our great thanks.  Best wishes.  Have a good weekend.

TURLEY:  Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  For years, I chronicled all the times an athlete pulled a groin and added his own, we hope.  Finally, an illustration of why I said, “We hoped.”

And if you were the half crazy governor of Texas, who would you put as head of the board of education?  Somebody who believes public education is unconstitutional, naturally?

Worst Persons is ahead.  You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Bests in a moment.  And why they should always make you pay for the tattoo in advance.

First, it was 30 years ago this morning that I went on the air for the first time as a full-time professional broadcaster—sort of—doing a 9:45 a.m. sportscast for the 1,000 radio stations served by United Press International audio.  Lord knows if any of them actually ran it.  I remember something about saying the pitchers had been selected for the baseball all-star game.  That‘s about it.

I was only supposed to be watching my boss do the shift and then about 8:30, he said, by the way, you‘re doing the 9:45.  And everything after that was just a haze.  Come to think of it, right now, everything is still just a haze.

Let‘s play Oddball.

Houston, hello!  Where Mexico and Panama played an international soccer match yesterday for the Gold Cup.  And thankfully, this Panamanian player was wearing his protective cup.

This is another hello.  That is the foot of the Mexico head coach Javier Aguirre lunging after the Panamanian player‘s groin.  I‘ve heard of a groin pull, but this is ridiculous.  Luckily, if there was any contact, it was just glancing, which did not make the Panamanian gentleman happier.  He shoved the coach and was given a red card.

For his part, Coach Aguirre was thrown out and the match ended after a proper set of balls were kicked past the goalies.  Mexico and Panama tied - what—one all.

To last night‘s “Late Show With David Letterman” and all of us who are bespectacled have been here.  Between a Bruno top ten list and an interview with Harry Potter, Paul Shaffer smacked himself in the face.  We have to slow it down.  The director quickly cut off the shot.  But you can see Paul giving himself the business as he wraps up the intro music. 

Another hello.  They didn‘t call him the world‘s most dangerous man for nothing.  I‘ve done that 11 times in my life. 

We have largely avoided the John Ensign story on this newscast.  We can ignore it no longer.  After today‘s developments, this must be embarrassing to say, Mark Sanford, to say nothing of the puppets in John Ensign puppet theater.  It, too, came from Wasilla, the revenge of Levi Johnston, as he now says there is more than meets the eye in Governor Palin‘s resignation. 

These stories ahead, but first time for COUNTDOWN‘s top three best persons in the world.  Dateline Paris, number three, best reminder that actual journalists are still necessary.  “La Tribune,” a French business newspaper launching an English language version website consisting of its French stories translated into English by computer.  Today‘s computerized headlines, “the Chinese car in ambush”; “Assets of the Continental Right in Management of the Crisis”; “Ryan Air to make Travel of the Passengers Upright.”

In consumer news, “Internet Explorer Mistrusts.” 

Dateline Wasilla, Best try, Governor Sarah Palin, sending out this thoughtful Tweet, which suggests her higher calling might be a career in the Bass Masters tournament.  “So, AK kids, take time to take your parents fishing.  You learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.  Plato.” 

That‘s nice.  That‘s not Plato.  It‘s Richard Lindgard (ph), who wrote it in a gentleman‘s etiquette guide from 1670.  By the way, he wasn‘t talking about fishing.  He was talking about gambling. 

And dateline Texas, number one, best tat, unidentified man who got his skin art, was handed the bill for 200 bucks, presented his credit card.  It was denied, and he there upon ran out of the tattoo parlor.  The motto on his tattoo?  Only God can judge me.  Well, maybe only God can judge you, but Visa, Visa can prosecute you. 

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OLBERMANN:  Incredibly, the sparking by Governor Mark Sanford may be no match ultimately for the scandal of Senator John Ensign, which has tonight expanded to include a Christian group, a coerced letter, a kind of semi-senatorial kidnapping, and John Ensign puppet theater.  Our third story in the COUNTDOWN, the end of the affair with Cindy Hampton and the firing of Doug Hampton proved to be just the beginning of the headache for Nevada‘s junior senator, to say nothing of ruining forever the familiar July phrase here, summer in the Hamptons. 

Ensign‘s former best and co-chief of staff giving new details on the senator‘s extracurriculars with his wife in a televised interview with the “Las Vegas Sun.”  Doug Hampton says the senator‘s relentless pursuit of wife Cindy drove Ensign to fire both Hamptons. 

But first, a quick recap.  Senator Ensign has an affair with Cindy Hampton, who worked on one of Ensign‘s political campaigns or committees.  Doug Hampton finds out about the affair.  And then the senator fires them both. 

Ensign admits to the affair in a news conference, resigns from his position in the Republican leadership.  Meanwhile, Ensign‘s parents write the Hampton family checks totaling 96,000 dollars, citing a pattern of generosity between the Ensign family and the Hamptons. 

Mrs. Hampton‘s generosity took a more non-monetary form. 

Enter Ensign‘s god squad, a group of men Hampton asked to confront ensign.  Ranking member Senator Tom Coburn, along with Tim Coe, David Coe, and Marty Sherman, the latter three with the Family, a secretive group associated with the C Street Christian Fellowship.  Hampton says these men encouraged Ensign to pay for the Hamptons‘ home and for their move to Colorado. 

Hampton also alleges that the four men urged the senator to write that letter to Cindy breaking things off, with two of his religious protectors then driving Ensign to Fed-Ex to get the letter into the mail immediately.  After the letter was indeed sent, Ensign gave Cindy Hampton a call, says disregard this letter that‘s coming up about that stuff about using her for her own pleasure and his pleasure.  And 24 hours later, Ensign is in Las Vegas with Cindy, in the Biblical sense. 

To top it all off, when it was time to give Cindy the old heave ho from her day job with Ensign, the senator could not do it himself.  Dough Hampton says the family asked Cindy to leave, though Ensign managed to lower the ax on Hampton himself. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DOUG HAMPTON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO SENATOR ENSIGN:  He told me basically at the same time he said I‘m in love with your wife, you can‘t work for me anymore. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

Since we don‘t have any visual imagery of any of the aforementioned activity described by Mr. Hampton, we return to the innovative news style of journalism we pioneered here, Senator John Ensign, puppet theater. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  You have to stop this affair, senator. 

You need to pay for Cindy and her family to move away. 

You owe them money. 

If you had listened to me none of this would have ever happened. 

Shut up, Coburn!

You need to write her a letter breaking it off. 

I‘ll do it this afternoon. 

You‘ll do it right now, young man. 

In fact, we‘re going to drive you to Fed-Ex and we‘re going to watch to make sure you send it to her. 

If you‘d listened to me, none of this would have ever happened. 

Shut up, Coburn!

Does it absolutely, positively, have to be there tomorrow? 

Overnight.  Ten blocks from here and that‘ll be 227 dollars. 

If you had listened to me, none of this would have ever happened. 

Shut up, Coburn!

Can we stop at a Dairy Queen or something? 

Shut up, Coburn!

Cindy, the mean men have made me write a nasty letter to you.  And I don‘t mean it.  And you should disregard it.  And I‘ll always love you. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Who is this? 

OLBERMANN:  It‘s John.  John Ensign.  Senator John Ensign. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Oh, sure.  Did you send the 96,000 yet?  

John. 

OLBERMANN:  Cindy. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  John. 

OLBERMANN:  Cindy. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  John. 

OLBERMANN:  So, you want to go hiking on the old Appalachian Trail? 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Joining me now, political columnist for “Bloomberg News” and Washington editor of “The Week,” Margaret Carlson.  Good evening, Margaret. 

MARGARET CARLSON, “BLOOMBERG NEWS”:  Good evening. 

OLBERMANN:  This stuff would embarrass—I‘m not referring to the puppets.  The whole story now would embarrass Mark Sanford.  How on Earth does Senator Ensign not resign? 

CARLSON:  I think he does resign now.  It looked like he had a pass thanks to a fellow Republican, Governor Sanford, but there are now too many aspects of this, too many things going on.  The parents giving them the 96,000 dollars; first of all, it makes him look childish, like he‘s being looked after by his parents.  They‘re going to have a tax problem, because you can‘t give away money as a gift when you‘re getting something in return, which is the silence.  And the details of the family are just too much to survive. 

OLBERMANN:  The evolution of the story, too, I imagine is kind of fatal at this point.  Has it not become as disturbing as the story itself?  It started out with a little infidelity and apparently a quick admission and apology.  And the next thing you know, we have failed interventions, and another senator involved, and a Catholic and Christian group, and the mistress and husband fired, and this sort of quasi-kidnapping, and the Fed-Exed letter, and then the going out on the date the next day anyway. 

CARLSON:  Hey, the Muppets, Sesame Street is going to want royalties from you for your puppet theater.  It looked like it was going to get away with it because it was Las Vegas.  He came back.  The Republican caucus welcomed him.  There was no talk of an ethics committee, no censure, no nothing.  But when you have him being taken hostage, and I don‘t mean to insult real hostages here, but like at gun point, to Fed-Ex—you expect a tape with Ensign holding up the newspaper so you know what date it is, and he‘s sending it overnight, and he actually did it. 

It‘s like a preposterous thing to have happen. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes. 

CARLSON:  By the way, there‘s a Republican governor right now.  I think he‘s up in 2011.  If Republicans act now to move Ensign out, they get a chance to have a Republican senator appointed, get a leg up on the next election.  And I heard from Republicans late today that that‘s what they want to do, that now they‘re ready to move him out and have a chance at retaining that seat. 

OLBERMANN:  Could this one, though, have ramifications outside of the originator here, of our friend Senator Ensign, because of Senator Coburn‘s involvement in this?  He‘s citing privilege.  He said he spoke to Ensign in his role as physician and ordained deacon.  Aren‘t there implications for this, too?  Where does your role as, say, a U.S. senator fit into this equation when you have so many different hats? 

CARLSON:  Senator Coburn is also an obstetrician, in case anything happens.  There are tax liabilities.  There is Senator Coburn, who—you know, he and President Obama have a lot to say to each other.  They actually get along.  Senator Coburn is an interesting guy. 

However, this is like too interesting.  He cannot be this interesting.  He‘s got a lot of explaining to do.  You wonder, is this what they do for each other?  Is this what, you know, collegiality has come to, where you‘re forcing your guy to write the letter?  I mean, Ensign has been infantilized, if that‘s a word, by Coburn and the family and by his parents. 

You can see him—like I remember the nuns making us write, I must sit down and be quiet a hundred times after school.  And he‘s being forced to sit down there and write, in fairly good penmanship, I might add, in his own handwriting, this letter with these people looking over him and leaving nothing to chance. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  And there is the nub of the gist here, that when the senator finds his way into the Senate, his colleagues applaud because he‘s made it there successfully on his own.  That‘s the ultimate problem here.  Margaret Carlson of “Bloomberg News” and “The Week Magazine,” as always, many thanks. 

CARLSON:  Good night, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  When Rachel joins you at the top of the hour, she will go inside C Street, Ensign‘s circle of religious associates with a reporter who infiltrated that group.  Also, the reporter somebody who infiltrated the Sarah Palin group; Levi Johnston says the whole resignation story is cover.  No, really? 

Thank you, president of Afghanistan.  Marital rape, less legal. 

Marital forced starvation, more legal.  Worst persons ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Last year, she was going to be vice president and he was going to be her son-in-law.  Now neither is either and they are at each other‘s throats again.  That‘s next, but first time for COUNTDOWN‘s number two story, tonight‘s worst persons in the world.

The bronze to the Microsoft chair Steve Ballmer.  Speaking to the North Carolina Technology Association Conference in Charlotte, he said within ten years there will be computer devices that will be as flexible as a sheet of paper, and technology that will be able to figure out what you meant to do. 

OK, Steve Ballmer isn‘t really the third worst person in the world.  I love the idea of paper thin computers.  But could you first just get the damn machine not to freeze or shut itself off every couple days, because it suddenly becomes afraid of a website or whatever the excuse is this time?  Never mind a computer that figures out what I meant to do?  How about one that just does what I asked it to do?  Thank you. 

The runners up, the Afghan parliament and President Hamid Karzai.  They have authorized a review of a law passed in March that legalized marital rape.  Now the law has been amended.  Now it says a husband‘s response to the denial of sex by his wife should not be to be rape, but instead it should be starving his wife.  This will now be legal in Afghanistan. 

Our winner, Governor Rick Perry of Texas.  He is reportedly contemplating appointing as the state board of education chair to replace the fundamentalist ousted by opponents a state representative named Cynthia Dunbar, who thinks fundamentalists are way too liberal.  Ms. Dunbar wrote last year that then Senator Obama was plotting a terrorist attack on this country.  She now claims President Obama is about to declare martial law.  She believes public education is unconstitutional.  She thinks public schools should be abolished.  She insists government should be guided by a, quote, Biblical litmus tests.  She got a law degree from Regent University, also known as Box Top U. 

Her supporters call their opponents the pagan left.  In other words, she is a walking billboard for why public schools are essential and why religion has no place in government and why we should never—or we should negotiate with Governor Perry.  We should give him a hundred acres in a corner of Texas, and let him secede as he has threatened, provided he takes this Dunbar whack job with him.  Governor Rick, let‘s make an opponent of public education chairperson of the board of education, Perry of Texas, today‘s worst person in the world. 

Nice dye job. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Whether the engagement was real or just a stunt to spare her having to run for vice president as the mother of an unwed mother, Sarah Palin continues to discover what can happen when somebody you used as a prop starts to talk.  Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN, Levi Johnston‘s version of his ex-future mother-in-law‘s resignation not lining up all that well with that of his ex-future mother-in-law. 

When Governor Palin quit her job on the third of this month, she said it was because of frivolous ethics charges.  She said it was all the public money she had to spend to fight those charges.  She said it was because she and her family were media targets. 

But Johnston, determined to extend his 15 minutes, looking to cash in on a tell-all book and a movie, told the Associated Press it was really all about the money.  “I‘ve heard of people offering books and stuff like that.  And actually there is a reality show they wanted to do.  But I think the big deal is the book.  And that‘s millions of dollars right there.  And she couldn‘t do that as governor.” 

There was this reaction from the Palin family spokeswoman, Meghan Stapleton, “it is interesting to learn Levi is working on a piece of fiction while honing his acting skills.” 

All coming as Palin unwilling to stay out of the media, attacked the media by quoting the media‘s elder statesman, Walter Cronkite, on Twitter.  “Most newspapermen by definition have to be liberal.  If they‘re not, by my definition, they can hardly be good newspapermen.” 

As Palin‘s political future seems to be fading, some Republicans facing re-election next year dubbing her the NIMBY campaigner.  Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf, “I generally don‘t need people from outside my district to do a fund raiser.” 

Nebraska Republican Lee Terry, “there is others that I would have com in and campaign, and most of them would be my colleagues in the House.” 

Joining us from Washington, Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis. 

Chris, good evening.  Good to have you back. 

CHRIS KOFINIS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  Good evening, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  There is a reason cliches are cliches.  Be nice to the people you meet on the way up because you‘re going to meet them again on the way down, a lesson learned by the governor courtesy of Levi Johnston the last few weeks? 

KOFINIS:  I think so.  Sometimes you learn the lessons the hard way.  What‘s amazing about this is when you step back, this has become probably one of the most ridiculous political soap operas at least of my life.  It doesn‘t seem to ever want to end.  There‘s another twist and permutation that kind of gives us a window into the strange lives of these people back in Alaska. 

I mean, you know, it was funny to me to read that Levi was talking about how Governor Palin may do a reality show.  I‘m starting to think the real house wives of Wasilla is coming to Bravo any time soon.  It has gotten pretty ridiculous.  But again when you‘re talking about Sarah Palin, I guess ridiculous has to be redefined. 

OLBERMANN:  Bravo, of course, is one of our sister cable networks here at the NBC cable family.  So all I can say is be careful what you say out loud on the air.  You might be right.  Maybe by Monday.  Is this one of these rare stories though where there actually is too much focus on the why, that we‘re obscuring the simple reality this happened?  I mean, if you throw out the true higher calling stuff—you know, she did not quit to become ambassador to China or HEW secretary.  Does it really matter why she quit? 

KOFINIS:  Well, you know, usually it probably wouldn‘t.  But I‘ll tell you why I think it does.  Here is a candidate—and I know this is going to give shivers to some people out there—who I think is actually seriously contemplating a run for president in 2012.  So the reasons and the excuses she gives as to why she decided to quit her job two and a half years in matter.  The contradictions matter. 

She doesn‘t seem able to tell the truth.  All of those factors matter.  It goes to what type of candidate she is.  And again, it also I think kind of reflects on the Republican party.  She has become kind of the captain of the Republican Titanic.  And you wonder what other iceberg she‘s going to steer into. 

It does matter.  I think whether potential candidates are telling you the truth and telling the American people the truth matters. 

OLBERMANN:  Somebody wrote today online, paraphrasing, she has a base that will never leave her, but will never be big enough to elect her to anything.  You heard these quotes from Republicans running next year.  That they don‘t want her around, not in my back yard.  But during the presidential campaign, she got bigger crowds on her own than McCain got on his own.  What does it say that she‘s nearing classification as campaign poison? 

KOFINIS:  I think it really kind of tells you what kind of candidate she is.  One that has a very passionate slice of the electorate, but one that if you‘re running for office—for example, if you‘re Bob McDonald in Virginia, or you‘re Chris Christy in New Jersey, I can bet you they‘re not going to have Sarah Palin come there, because she is effectively the Bubonic Plague. 

She will destroy you in terms of alienating moderates, alienating independents.  And that is the worst thing you can do when you have a very tough race, as both of those candidates do.  But it is I think, again, indicative of how a lot of Republicans really see Sarah Palin.  Yes, she may have a small slice that is passionate about her, but I think most Republicans, when you talk to them and they‘ve said it publicly, they realize what a disaster she would be if she ran for president and forced the Republican party to acknowledge her as a credible candidate. 

OLBERMANN:  And yet there‘s just that large enough percentage that she can also sink anybody who might come up through the ranks and be a real candidate. 

KOFINIS:  That‘s right. 

OLBERMANN:  Amazing.  Chris Kofinis, Democratic strategist.  Always a pleasure to chat, sir.  Thanks very much for your time. 

KOFINIS:  Thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  It‘s Friday.  I said thanks you rather than thank you.  That‘s COUNTDOWN for this the 2,262nd day since the previous president declared mission accomplished in Iraq.  I‘m Keith Olbermann, good night and good luck.

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

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