updated 4/12/2004 12:57:32 PM ET 2004-04-12T16:57:32

Guests: Ken Allard, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Harrison, Thomas Blanton, Amanda Swisten, Michael Ausiello

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEX WITT, GUEST HOST (voice-over):  Which these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? 

More violence erupts in Iraq:  A deadly convoy attack outside Baghdad.  Well, inside that city one year to the day after the toppling of that Saddam statue, a new divisive icon is torn down in paradise square. 

Hip-hop hostility:  Arabs and Israelis venting their frustrations, not in the streets, but in the clubs and on the airwaves through rap music. 

Clear Channel‘s clear decision regarding Howard Stern:  The king of all media is out millions of subjects. 

Hungover:  William takes his act on the road to the “Today” show. 

Complete COUNTDOWN coverage of a very special William Hung performance. 

And get along, little doggy:  The secrets of the skateboarding dog revealed. 

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  Good evening.  I‘m Alex Witt in for Keith Olbermann.  After a week that saw fierce renewed fighting in Iraq, much of the country thrown into chaos and 45 American troops dead.  The situation on this anniversary of the fall of Baghdad seems only to be getting worse. 

The fifth story tonight:  Struggling for order in Iraq.  One year to the day after Saddam Hussein‘s statue was toppled in Baghdad, an American convoy of was attacked to the west of that city.  One conflict among many as soldiers and Marines battled Sunni and Shiite Arab insurgents around Iraq.  Witnesses say at least nine bodies were found at the scene.  U.S.  sources say a soldier and civilian driver were killed and 12 more people wounded.  Two soldiers and several contractors were also reported missing. 

Now in Fallujah, where fighting has been underway since last weekend, Iraqi doctors there report at least 450 killed and more than 1,000 wounded, and at least three Marines were reported killed in an area that includes the city. 

A cease-fire is in force in Fallujah tonight to allow food and medical

supplies to go in and so talks could start between U.S. and Iraqi officials

·         Fallujan officials and possibly the insurgents.  Though Central Command‘s General John Abizaid said that the insurgents should expect robust military action when the cease-fire ended. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND:  We just have failed to receive the amount of cooperation that we hoped for from the Iraqis in this area and they have chosen to work, not only against us, but against the future of Iraq and they‘ve brought us to this sad state of affairs.  And so we will eliminate the resistance in this area. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  U.S. attacks were launched on Fallujah, this in response to this atrocity, the brutal murders and mutilation of four American civilian contractors last month in this city.  Now the “New York Times” reports the security firm that hired those contractors believes they may have been lured into an ambush by Iraqis in the uniform of the American-trained Civil Defense Core. 

Colonel Ken Allard is an MSNBC military analyst, a senior associate for the Center for Strategic Studies and a former special assistant to the Army chief of staff. 

Colonel, good evening. 

COL. KEN ALLARD, U.S. ARMY (RET.):  Good evening, Alex. 

WITT:  The U.S. is training tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police.  Can any of them be relied upon?  Are they pulling their weight?

ALLARD:  Alex, do you ever try to push a string?  I mean, that‘s pretty much what we‘re seeing there right now, because when you have this kind of an insurrection, uprising, unrest, whatever you want to call it, the indigenous forces that you have put in place there kind of turn and look over the backs of their shoulders to see who‘s behind them.  If that‘s not the U.S., if the U.S. is not prepared to leaded in there, then I think we‘re in for a very, very rough time. 

WITT:  So Colonel, do you think it‘s possible to weed out the unreliable Iraqis and build up some sort of solid force that will work with the Americans, and if not, then how can the U.S. go through with the sovereignty handover plan for June 30? 

ALLARD:  Well Alex, that‘s a really good question.  What we‘re seeing right now is the start of the second phase of Iraq, basically the battle of the occupation.  And it‘s exactly the right question—you know, if we don‘t have any Iraqis that are willing to stand up, as Tom Freeman pointed out in his column yesterday:  Where are the Iraqis?  If they‘re not willing to do this, if they‘re not willing to work with us, then we have reached a state in which, I‘m sorry, but we can only do so much.  The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius understands limits. 

WITT:  Colonel, we‘ve got to look at Fallujah, here. 

ALLARD:  Yep. 

WITT:  I mean, what should the U.S. do to pacify that city or is the situation there already out of control? 

ALLARD:  Alex, it‘s as close to being out of control as anything can be and what you face is a real dilemma.  You need to go in there and reassert your authority in a muscular way, John Abizaid is the right guy to do that.  But, we‘ve got to do that in a way that also does not then lead immediately to us fighting every male Iraqi of combat age in throughout the country.  I mean, I‘m very, very pleased that—you know, the Iraqis are sort of finding a political identity post-Saddam, but the one they appear to have chose season is not the one that we had in mind. 

WITT:  Colonel, we also have to talk about these hostages, a very sobering story here.

ALLARD:  Yep.

WITT:  The Japanese hostages being held right now by insurgents, they‘re under threat of being burned to death—burned to death alive.  Now other insurgents say they‘ve seized Italian and American hostages, those reports, of course, haven‘ been confirmed yet, but what can commanders do to deal with that kind of situation? 

ALLARD:  Alex, I‘ve got a tough answer for you:  Very little.  Because what you have to do is to continue on with your main mission.  The main mission for every American commander in Iraq, right now, is to reassert their authority over these cities throughout Iraq.  You cannot—as painful as this is—be diverted by the plight of these hostages.  What you have to do is take on the people responsible for taking those hostages and really hope for their safety, and unfortunately, hope is about all you can do. 

WITT:  And, your thoughts about where it may go with them?  I mean, you say “hope,” but if you were a betting man, Colonel? 

ALLARD:  Look, no better than 50-50.  I mean, I realize that‘s a weenie answer, but unfortunately it is literally at a toss of a coin. 

WITT:  All right.  Colonel Ken Allard, thanks for joining us on COUNTDOWN tonight. 

ALLARD:  Thank you. 

WITT:  Have a great holiday weekend. 

ALLARD:  You, too. 

WITT:  And as we reported at the top of this show, this was the scene in Baghdad‘s Firdos Square, that was a year ago.  American troops and Iraqi civilians celebrating as Saddam Hussein‘s statue was pulled down.  And, this was the scene there today.  U.S. troops pulling pictures of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr off the Modernist statue that replaced the portrait of Saddam.  No Iraqi civilians were there to see it.  Firdos Square was sealed off while a loudspeaker broadcast in Arabic that the area was a closed military zone and anyone seen carrying a weapon would be shot on sight. 

President Bush spent Good Friday on his Crawford, Texas, ranch, where he called Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi and the presidents of both Poland and El Salvador, this to discuss the current situation in Iraq and get their assurances that they would keep troops in-country. 

Democratic presidential hopeful, John Kerry, also talked about Iraq with talk radio host Don Imus and said, if he were president, he would reach out to the United Nations for help. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  You‘re also going to have to be prepared to do whatever‘s necessary to create the climate within which people feel they‘re prepared to go in, which means quelling this violence now, which may mean additional military support in order to do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WITT:  Now, among the troops currently supporting the American effort in Iraq, Lieutenant Joseph K.  Goodwin, he is son of former presidential adviser, Richard Goodwin, and presidential historian and NBC News analyst, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who joins us now from Boston. 

Good evening, Doris.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN:  Hello. 

WITT:  You worked in Lyndon Johnson‘s administration, you recall the last failing years of the Vietnam War, so are critics like Senator Ted Kennedy correct when they say Iraq is turning into President Bush‘s Vietnam?  Is Senator John McCain correct when he says we‘re not facing another Vietnam?  Could both be right to some degree?

GOODWIN:  I think it is true that both are right.  There surly are dissimilarities in the sense that, so far, luckily, we‘ve only lost 600 --

600 or so, men over there, compared to 58,000 troops in Vietnam.  It‘s also true that it‘s different because in Vietnam you had the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese supported by a superpower and really representing the nationalistic spirit of the country against the South Vietnamese.  But on the other hand, what Senator Kennedy is right about, when you think about the word “quagmire,” which he used, it means that the ground is shaking below you, that there is no way easily out and no way going backward.  We‘ve also got guerrilla forces over there now, which are very difficult for any occupying power, and you‘ve got a country, in our cells right now, that‘s very restive and wondering whether we should be there, which is exactly what happened in Vietnam when the support fell out from Lyndon Johnson.

WITT:  Doris, on “NBC Nightly News” tonight, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the U.S. would stay the course in Iraq.  Are you waiting for a White House official to announce that he sees light at the end of the tunnel where the war‘s concerned?

GOODWIN:  I think they‘re going to be very afraid to say that.  I mean, that was the term that Lyndon Johnson used over and over again and when there was too long a period of time when that light didn‘t appear, that‘s when the support fell out.  So, I think they‘re never going to set a time on it, but they‘re going to have to say, if we‘re going to stay there, that they do see a way that this is going to turn out to be worthwhile in the long run. 

WITT:  Doris, this war is certainly personal for you, your son has spent the last year in Iraq.  When he writes home, does he describe how the situation there has changed this past year? 

GOODWIN:  Oh, there‘s no question one can see the change in the tone of the letters.  When he first got there, there was hope and idealism.  He wrote us that he had some reconstruction project.  He‘s a platoon leader in Baghdad, but they were involved, last May, and really being involved with the community.  He had a translator, he went to dinner at Iraqis‘ homes, he had long talks with them.  And then once the civil order started breaking down, you could not trust the people you were with.  He was suddenly out instead on nightly patrols where the whole hope is that somebody will shoot at them so we can shoot back to get insurgents.  But, all along what he kept telling us was that it was really a race against time.  That we have to establish civil order, we have to bring the jobs back.  That the infrastructure there—because, so long as we were doing that, there was only a minority of people who were against us. 

But, if the majority got frustrated with the lack of order and the lack of jobs and the lack of economic security, he was fearful that they might turn against the occupiers, and sadly that‘s what I‘m afraid is there.  And I just keep thinking of all those Army guys like my son who went there feeling they were going to reconstruct this country and make it a better place and who still feel the Army is an extraordinary institution and I just hope before they have to leave they feel they‘ve done something positive rather than something that‘s made the country worse. 

WITT:  Doris, do you know if he‘ll be coming home soon or might he be affected by these extended deployments that are being announced? 

GOODWIN:  Well, he‘s in the 1st Armored Division, and we read in the paper yesterday that the 1st Armored Division was being extended.  He was supposed to be leaving just about now, because he‘s had a year of combat duty.  So we‘re waiting hourly for a call from him, hoping that he‘ll be on his way to Kuwait and back to Germany, which is the home base of the 1st Armored Division.  But, it‘s very possible that they may keeping them over there for a shorter period of time or even bring them back once they‘re out there and being brought back for another tour of duty. 

WITT:  Well, that would be a call that we‘d love to hear about. 

Doris, our thoughts are with you.  Thank you so much...

GOODWIN:  Thank you so much. 

WITT:  ...for being here tonight on COUNTDOWN.

And that concludes out fifth story tonight:  Unrest and uncertainty in Iraq. 

No. 4 on the COUNTDOWN:  Silencing Howard Stern.  The king of all media gets permanently dethroned by Clear Channel Media, but does it cleanup the airwaves or stifle freedom of speech?

Then later, we just have two words for you:  William Hung. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Defining indecency:  Does canceling Howard Stern cleanup the airwaves or sensor an artist?  Our fourth story in the COUNTDOWN is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Back with the COUNTDOWN. The never-ending feud between shock-jock Howard Stern and the Federal Communication Commission, in fact the FCC has now slapped Clear Channel Communications with one hefty fine for alleged indecency during Howard Stern‘s radio broadcast.  The fine is the second largest ever issued by the government for an indecency violation. 

Our No. 4 story, tonight:  Clear Channel has now permanently dropped Stern‘s radio show.  In a moment, we‘ll delve into this controversial issue and speak with the publisher of “Talkers” magazine, a trade publication that covers America‘s talk radio industry.  But first, here is NBC‘s Fred Francis. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FRED FRANCIS, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Howard Stern, the provocative and profane shock-jock, now slammed by the Federal Communication Commission with indecency fines totaling nearly a half a million dollars. 

HOWARD STERN, SHOCK JOCK:  Are those breast implants? 

FRANCIS:  The government leveled the huge penalty for a broadcast last year, saying Stern, who has nearly nine million listeners, violated federal standards 18 times with illegal references to sexual and bodily functions.  Stern called the fines part of a witch-hunt by the Bush administration saying in a web statement:  “It‘s pretty shocking that governmental interference into our rights and free speech takes place in the U.S.”

Infiniti broadcasting, Stern‘s main employee, continues to support him, but late yesterday, he was fired by Clear Channel Communications whose six stations must pay the fine.  Its CEO apologized to congress earlier this year:

JOHN HOGAN, CEO, CLEAR CHANNEL:  I don‘t think he has changed his tune, but we have changed ours. 

FRANCIS:  The government‘s indecency crackdown comes in the wake of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl performance.  It led to talk of a broad review of television programming, including even daytime soap operas. 

Since then, Stern mounted an angry counter-attack saying recently: 

“They don‘t tell us what indecency is.  How do you know when you‘ve crossed the line if they don‘t say where the line is?” 

But, FCC chairman, Michael Powell, told broadcasters recently, they must police themselves more effectively. 

Still, the actions against Stern are not likely to quiet the debate. 

Stern, himself, promise a cultural war and the FCC promises more fines. 

Fred Francis, NBC News, Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  And joining me now is Michael Harrison, he is the publisher of “Talkers” magazine, a trade publication devoted to the issues facing talk radio. 

Welcome to COUNTDOWN, Michael. 

MICHAEL HARRISON, PUBLISHER, “TALKERS” MAGAZINE:  Thank you, Alex. 

WITT:  With a fine close to half a million dollars, is the FCC sending a message to Howard Stern that he‘s going to have to change the way he runs his show? 

HARRISON:  There‘s no question about it or he‘ll be finished.  The FCC is just starting, this is a first step.  They‘re going to send many fines out there; they‘re going to begin their campaign to erase shock jocks, or what they consider to be indecency, from the airwaves in America. 

WITT:  Michael, this could be quite a slippery slope, here.  I mean, there isn‘t really a list of rules out there for what is indecent and what isn‘t.  Who, in fact, defines what is indecent? 

HARRISON:  Well, I think the whole thing is indecent that they‘re doing it.  It‘s more than a slippery slope, we‘re already at the bottom of the slope.  The—when the government starts to restrain artistic creativity and artistic speech, it‘s the same thing as restraining political speech.  The two are connected, there‘s no way to tell where one begins and one ends.  It‘s the year 2004, Howard Stern is a proven and acceptable artist.  More than nine million people—eight million to nine million people a week listen to him, and this has been going on for years.  We‘re not talking about something new, something that is shocking, there is nothing shocking about Howard Stern.  And the irony about niche radio, and radio is a niche format here in 2004, people listening to Howard Stern know exactly what they‘re getting.  This is not like hoisting a naked breast upon families watching a Super Bowl at a time when there should be a marching band.  This is something that is adult entertainment, it‘s been going for years.  So, it‘s—it‘s definitely an infringement on the first amendment and the problem is the people in radio can‘t say anything about it because they‘ll lose their licenses or they‘ll lose their jobs.  The power of the government is awesome. 

WITT:  And, Michael, you‘ve also said there‘s some sort of a double standard here between radio and TV.  I mean recently, some question whether or not Oprah‘s shows are indecent.  What your response to that? 

HARRISON:  There‘s little difference between what Oprah does and Howard does in terms of wards, in terms of subject matter.  Remember, indecency is innuendo... 

WITT:  Another words when...

HARRISON:  ...and innuendo is hard to define. 

WITT:  And when Oprah talks about sexual issues, she does so in a more clinical way, is that what you‘re saying, rather than a raunchy way? 

HARRISON:  Well, that‘s—that is—that‘s the idea, here.  The theory is that when Oprah does it, it‘s clinical and when Howard Stern does it, it‘s raunchy.  But the fact is, comedy has such as much value, socially, as does academia.  Why should comedy and satire suffer and clinical broadcasting be considered to be decent?

WITT:  Now, do you agree with Howard?  He‘s saying this latest incident, rather a McCarthy-type witch-hunt.  I mean, do you agree with that? 

HARRISON:  Of course, I agree with it.  It‘s a McCarthy witch-hunt, no doubt.  We‘re talking about the first amendment.  We‘re talking about bureaucrats and politicians telling the American people, in 2004, what‘s decent and indecent.  We‘re not talking about 1956 when radio and television operated in a vacuum and there were no alternatives, you had to protect children.  It‘s a different culture that‘s quite different. 

WITT:  All right. 

HARRISON:  It‘s a very serious problem. 

WITT:  It is indeed, and we thank you for talking with us this evening. 

Michael Harrison publisher of “Talkers” magazine.  Thanks for joining us tonight. 

HARRISON:  Thank you, Alex. 

WITT:  And that wraps up our fourth story, tonight:  Silencing Stern.  But up next, we abandon the COUNTDOWN to bring you the shocking, the stupid, and the downright silly stories of the day.  “Oddball is next.”

Plus, how the thrill of a parasailing adventure turned terrifying for two young teens in Florida. 

And talking about adventure tonight is the premier of “Ultimate Explorer Friday,” a brand new show from “National Geographic.”  Join host Lisa Ling for some of the most exciting adventures on television tonight at 10, only here on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  We‘re back and we pause the COUNTDOWN to span the globe in search of bizarre news to bring you night after night in this spot.  Let‘s play “Oddball.” 

Welcome to strange things that people do in other courtiers department.  It‘s the centennial Onbashira Log Festival, this in Suwa, Japan.  Every seven years, thousands gather to watch a few brave men, maybe a few trees short of a forest, ride a giant log down a big ol‘ hill.  No major injuries or deaths, this year, probably because the log never really got rolling.  The festival dates back 1,200 years, honoring the Gods of nature by chopping down a tree and riding it down a hill. 

A less dangerous activity, you would think, would be parasailing at the beach in sunny central Florida, although if it‘s a particularly windy day, you may want to make sure you‘re tethered with a strong rope.  Two 16-year-old girls from Atlanta found this out the hard way when their line snapped and they were swept away in the breeze.  As they drifted over buildings and busy traffic for half an hour, a group of nearly 100 people on the beach below managed to get hold of that lined and pull those girls down to safety. 

OK, so if parasailing seems a bit too dangerous, perhaps a paddleboat ride around the Washington, D.C.‘s tidal basin is more your speed.  Of course, the tourists paddling leisurely around this morning enjoying the monuments, thought so too, until two Blackhawk choppers and a Huey from the Army‘s 12th Aviation Battalion showed up.  It wasn‘t a major combat operation, it was another photo op.  The pilots got permission to break from a routine training mission to get their pictures taken flying in front of Jefferson Memorial.  No one told the paddleboaters that, nor the park police, who called the military to complain when those waves became too much for the pleasure craft, and the cherry blossoms blew off all the nearby trees. 

And earlier this week, residents of D.C. were a bit startled to see military in restricted airspace above the National Mall, only to find out later the National Guard was shooting a television commercial. 

Finally, an update from last night‘s “Oddball,” when Keith introduced us an incredible skateboarding bulldog, we didn‘t know who he was, where he was from.  It was one of those videos circulating the Internet that made us all laugh.  Well, today the mystery is revealed.  COUNTDOWN received an e-mail from the dog‘s father—well actually, you know, actually from the dog‘s owner‘s father, who says this is Tyson, a 2-year-old English bulldog from Huntington Beach, California.  His owner, Jim Blauvelt says, “Tyson just loves to skate,” obviously, he even has his own Web site.  Skateboardingbulldog.com.  And you know, he is from California. 

(GROWLING)

WITT:  Up next, we rejoin the COUNTDOWN with a third story, tonight: 

What did the president know and when did he know it?  The secrets that might be revealed from a private memo a full month before 9-11. 

And later, using hip-hop to fight an age-old battle in the Middle East. 

But first, here are COUNTDOWN”s “Top 3 Newsmakers” of the day. 

No. 3:  We all know a tiger is a predator, but this one is ridiculous.  Michael Chartrand, the man inside the big Tigger costume at Disney world, who was arrested last week for fondling a woman and her 13-year-old daughter while they posed for a picture with him.  Well, he‘s now being investigated for 24 other incidents.  One woman says, there‘s no way that contact was unintentional, quote, “everyone who sees my photo album says, “Tigger‘s groping you.” 

No. 2:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, a newsmaker for the second day in a row, this time for saving a distressed swimmer off the coast of Maui.  The man, swimming near Arnold, began struggling to breath and tread water.  The governor reportedly lifted him on to a boogie board and pulled him safely into shore, likely saving his life.  “Come with me if you want to live.” 

And No. 1:  Greg O‘Dell, a novelty distributor in Greenwood, Indiana.  Overnight, yesterday, thieves stole one of his company trucks and the trailer attached that contained a quarter million dollars in merchandise.  So, if you have any information, police are looking for suspects in a white van maybe trying to unload 25,000 sets of stolen Billy Bob plastic novelty teeth.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Two days ago, the letters PDB had little or no meaning with the general public, but in the wake of Condoleezza Rice‘s testimony before the 9/11 committee, those letters, which stand for presidential daily briefing, are gaining in significance. 

Our No. 3 story tonight on COUNTDOWN, under much pressure, the White House has agreed to declassify the controversial August 6 PDB titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.”  Dr. Rice says there was nothing specific in that document to indicate an attack was imminent. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER:  It did not warn of attacks inside the United States.  It was historical information based on old reporting.  There was no new threat information.  And it did not, in fact, warn of any coming attacks inside the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WITT:  However, critics say declassifying the PDB will finally allow the American public to make their own decision about whether the Bush administration did all that it could to prevent the September 11 attacks. 

Thomas Blanton is the director of the National Security Archive at the Georgetown University.  That archive won the George Polk Award for—quote -- “piercing self-serving veils of government secrecy.” 

Welcome to COUNTDOWN. 

THOMAS BLANTON, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE:  Pleasure to be here. 

WITT:  A year ago, the White House said that the PDB was so sensitive, so classified, that it doesn‘t even be released to commission members.  They have totally done a 180.  Why do you suppose the White House has chosen to declassify the August 6 PDB?

BLANTON:  Your lead-in was on point.  They said the same thing about Condi Rice testifying.  It was a matter of privilege.  It was executive privilege.  It was protecting secrets. 

No, it‘s not about any of those things.  It‘s not principle.  It‘s not privilege.  It‘s not protecting secrets.  It‘s politics.  This is an election year.  President Bush‘s strength is in the war on terrorism.  He cannot afford to look bad, like he‘s covering something up.  That‘s what this release is about and that‘s what Dr. Rice‘s testimony, finally, after months of saying, no way, it‘s principle, was all about, too. 

WITT:  OK.  So, Thomas, what do you think we can expect to see in this memo? 

BLANTON:  Well, we know a little bit of what we‘re going to see.  Mainly, we‘re going to find out what the president knew and when he knew it. 

This document says that, on August 6, the CIA told the president there was suspicious activity and preparations for hijacking.  And when the American people see the document for themselves, they can decide, is Dr.  Rice correct, this was too vague, or the headline, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack in U.S.,” was that enough of a warning that President Bush should have done something about it?  Did he do the right thing with that? 

WITT:  OK.  But do you think anywhere in that PDB, Thomas, you are going to see something along the lines of, well, that the hijacking would turn the plane into a suicidal or murderous missile? 

BLANTON:  No, not at all. 

The question is simply, though, what should the president do if the CIA tells him bin Laden is determined to attack in the U.S., not overseas somewhere, and there‘s suspicious activity about preparations for hijacking?  That‘s what the 9/11 commission read into the record yesterday.  And the American people get to make a choice.  They get to say for themselves, was this a warning or was it too vague?  Did the president do enough or did he do too little? 

That‘s the great thing about finally having this thing in the public. 

WITT:  Now, Thomas, we initially thought this PDB would be released this afternoon, but it looks like it won‘t be released over this weekend at all.

(CROSSTALK)

BLANTON:  There‘s a big fight at the White House about one paragraph in particular.  I think it‘s a big fight at the White House because the president insisted for so long and so did the CIA there was no way this thing would ever see the light of day. 

WITT:  So, is that why it‘s taking so long or is it the whole process of declassification that makes it takes so long? 

BLANTON:  This section is only one and a half pages long.  They could have released this thing at 9:00 this morning if they were really serious about it. 

My bet is that one of the intelligence agencies is putting up a huge fuss because they don‘t want to release something for political reasons.  They want to only release something if it fits their agenda.  They have got a issue to protect sources and methods.  I bet they‘re using that to argue this should not be released. 

WITT:  Well, it is going to be a very interesting page and a half, nonetheless.

(CROSSTALK)

BLANTON:  It‘s an amazing—it‘s an amazing scene, because the secrecy you can argue really made us less safe.  You ask, if this warning had been on the front pages in August of 2001, maybe we could have gotten lucky.  Maybe an airport screener would have picked up the box-cutters.  That‘s the cost of secrecy.

WITT:  But, again, to those questions, the answer is just a maybe at this point. 

BLANTON:  It‘s a what-if, exactly. 

WITT:  Again, Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, thanks so much for joining us.  Appreciate it. 

BLANTON:  Thank you very much for having me. 

WITT:  Today, in a closed session, the commission investigating the September 11 attacks met with former Vice President Al Gore.  Mr. Gore met with the bipartisan commission for three hours.  His exchange is described as candid and forthcoming.  There are no plans to release details of that meeting because of the discussion involved classified information. 

Now, next week, the 9/11 Commission is expected to hear more potentially explosive testimony from Tom Pickard.  NBC News has learned that Pickard has informed the commission that in the summer of 2001, his boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft, was somewhat dismissive of the latest information on al Qaeda.  Ashcroft strongly denies this charge.

However, Pickard also says that Ashcroft rejected a proposal by the FBI to increase counterterrorism spending before 9/11.  Both men are expected to testify before the 9/11 Commission on Tuesday. 

In Crawford, Texas, a cause for concern in the skies there.  A small plane inadvertently flew into restricted airspace around President Bush‘s ranch.  Two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled to divert the private plane and fired flares to get that pilot‘s attention.  The plane left the airspace without incident.  And Secret Service agents interviewed the wayward pilot when he landed. 

And, in New Jersey, another security scare.  Federal agents detained a plane filled with illegal immigrants at Newark Liberty International Airport.  The 88 people had flown to New Jersey from the Los Angeles area.  Tonight, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection says they‘re being held until their cases can be presented to an immigration judge.  Most of the immigrants are from Mexico.  Others are from Guatemala, Ecuador, El Salvador and Honduras. 

Now, in Israel, where the big issue isn‘t illegal immigration, but life and death, some young Arabs and Jews are confronting their conflict not with guns and stones, rather, with hip-hop. 

Correspondent Tom Aspell has more. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM ASPELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Late-night Israeli army radio and its high-tech audience, teens and 20-somethings.  Deejay Lee Ron Tili (ph) pumping out hip-hop over the holy land.  Jews and Arabs responding to lyrics of protest and change.  Rhymes in Hebrew and Arabic played over an American beat, a new fusion. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  For real hip-hop that speaks about violence and problems, welcome to Israel. 

ASPELL:  The hip-hop here has split along predictable lines.  Tamer Nafar and his rap crew are Israeli Arabs from housing projects near the Tel Aviv Airport.  Plenty to freestyle about here, street crime, discrimination, high unemployment and the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It‘s about Palestinians living here inside of Israel.  It‘s also about us feeling as Palestinians, so it‘s definitely about our brothers in the West Bank. 

ASPELL:  Frustration led them to record an infamous number called “Who‘s a Terrorist?” condemning Israel‘s tactics in the occupied territories.  It‘s a hit with Arabs all over Israel. 

Enter Kobi Shimoni, AKA Subliminal, a Jewish rapper from a leafy Tel Aviv suburb with a slick new C.D.  He‘s an innovator, who grossed $1 million from records, TV commercials and concerts.  With an unapologetic Zionist rap, he‘s catching the attention of an embattled society. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  In Israel, it‘s either you‘ve been to the army, you were in the army or you‘re about to go to the army in Israel. 

ASPELL:  Three years ago, before the violence of the intifada, Kobi and Tamer used to be friends.  Now they‘re rivals.  Tamer claims street cred, says Kobi‘s crew are privileged with no real hardship to rap about.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m not using guns, no gangster, no nothing.  They talk about gangsters, try to be gangsters, but they...

ASPELL:  Kobi says his rap is about Jewish pride; the real gangsters are Palestinian suicide bombers. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  These are murderers, murderers who would be either locked up or dead. 

ASPELL:  For the rappers and their fans, hip-hop is filling a vacuum created by an absence of political progress. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I don‘t think that hip-hop will bring peace to the Middle East.  Maybe music will help people come together and understand each other. 

ASPELL:  A noble thought rare in hip-hop and even rarer between Palestinians and Israelis these days. 

Tom Aspell, NBC News, Tel Aviv. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  And that wraps up our third story on the COUNTDOWN, tackling terror. 

We also want to let you know, the Associated Press has just issued a report saying that it‘s learned President Bush‘s August 2001 terrorism memo includes some information indicating that three months earlier al Qaeda was trying to send operatives into the another United States for an explosives attack. 

No. 2 tonight, she bangs.  The dancing love interest in William Hung‘s debut video tells all.  That‘s next.  And then later, embellishing reality, the things you don‘t know about “The Apprentice.” 

But, first, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of this day, including a touch of Hung to hold you over until No. 2. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TODAY SHOW”) 

MATT LAUER, CO-HOST:  You‘re a student at U.C. Berkeley, so you obviously had other ideas in terms of a career. 

WILLIAM HUNG, SINGER:  Yes. 

LAUER:  How long do you plan to ride this train? 

HUNG:  No, I haven‘t planned it.

LAUER:  No, but are you planning to ride it for a while, continue with

(CROSSTALK)  

HUNG:  Well, at least for now, yes, I will. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALTER AHO, DOWNHILL UNICYCLIST:  I started off-road unicycling about a year ago.  And I heard about mountain bike mania and I figured this would be a fun, crazy thing to do. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O‘BRIEN”)

CONAN O‘BRIEN, HOST:  It was a tense environment during the testimony. 

And one of the people there really let her have it. 

RICE:  Would not stop attacks by al Qaeda, nor destroy the network.

DONALD TRUMP, DEVELOPER/BUSINESSMAN:  It was a long, boring explanation and I didn‘t like it.  Somebody has to go.  Somebody has to go right now.  In this event, you wouldn‘t step up as a leader and you barely contributed as a follower.  You‘re fired. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Up next, how to go from a failed “American Idol” to performing live on “The Today Show” in just 2 ½ months.  Mr. William Hung, the saga continues our second story next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUNG (singing):  I‘m going to rock this town alive.  I‘ll let her rough me up ‘till she knocks me out.  She walks like she talks and she talks like she walks.  She bangs, she bangs.  Oh, baby.  When she moves, she moves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WITT:  Yes, I‘ve got that one down. 

Welcome back, everybody.  I‘m Alex Witt for Keith, home recuperating from Hung fever, a point which by no small coincidence neatly delivers us to our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN.  The contagion continues, afflicting not Keith or the masses, but also “The Today Show”‘s Katie Couric and our dayside team.  Oh, the humanity.

His new album, “Inspiration,” released earlier this week, may make its chart debut as high as the top 20.  Just what is it about shaking your bon-bon along with William Hung that is so infectious? 

Well, to answer that question, we turn to an expert, Amanda Swisten.  She‘s the actress who plays young William‘s girlfriend in the video for his version of “She Bangs.”  She also appears in the movie “The Girl Next Door,” which opens today. 

Amanda, thanks for joining us. 

AMANDA SWISTEN, ACTRESS:  Thanks for having me. 

WITT:  We‘re glad to have you. 

William, he‘s been on the show several times.  Each time, he‘s been extremely kind and tolerant of our request to serenade us.  So, having worked with him, did you find that fame has yet to affect him? 

SWISTEN:  Fame has not affected him at all.  He‘s so innocent and sweet and kind and such a nice guy. 

It was such a thrill—it was so wonderful to work with someone like that. 

WITT:  So he‘s very genuine, huh? 

SWISTEN:  Very genuine, very down to earth, you know, like working with the boy next door, basically. 

(LAUGHTER)

WITT:  Let‘s talk about the making of this video.  There were a lot of dancers and you played the girlfriend.  His mom was on the set.  So how did that go? 

SWISTEN:  Actually, in the segment you are showing right now. 

You know, his mom was—he‘s still her little boy.  So she was just looking out for him, I think, and wanted to make sure that everything was not going too over the top with William on the set, which was so cute. 

WITT:  Well, you know, you are kind of scantily clad there.  Any touching, any hugging, anything like that?  Was it making her nervous? 

SWISTEN:  There was no touching or hugging.  I think was one segment with another girl with the hot wax thing that freaked her out a little bit.  But once she realized everything was really on the up and up, it was OK with his mom.  She actually loved our segment. 

WITT:  Well, that‘s good.  Well, the hot wax thing, I‘m just not going to touch that right now. 

But we haven‘t talked about William‘s moves.  They are, in a word, unique.  Did the choreography embrace that?  Did you try to work with him on some new moves? 

SWISTEN:  Actually, the choreographers worked with him on all the moves.  The only part where I‘m in there dancing with him is in the end in the rain segment.  And we kind of just winged it.  It was kind of like, all right, we‘re just going to work around you, William.  And that‘s what we did.

WITT:  So how long were you on this set?  Was William up to the challenge?  Did he have the energy to carry it off?

SWISTEN:  It was so funny.  He had amazing energy. 

We started—I got there at 11:00 a.m. one day and I didn‘t get out of there until 4:00 a.m. the next morning.  And when I left, William was still there. 

WITT:  OK, and the best memory you are going to take from this, Amanda? 

SWISTEN:  The best memory I am going to take from it is that it was wonderful working with someone that had no Hollywood attitude.  He wasn‘t a diva in any sense and just such a wonderful person.  And it was so creative and kind of like just on the spur of the moment.  And we all had a great time. 

WITT:  All right, Amanda Swisten, thank you so much for joining us tonight. 

SWISTEN:  Thank you, Alex.  Appreciate it. 

WITT:  All right, from one questionable singer to another, though, we‘re going to turn the COUNTDOWN dial to the top 40 station of our newscast, stories that are of little to no artistic value, but undeniably catchy nonetheless.  So here‘s “Keeping Tabs.” 

First off, mother of the year Courtney Love facing child custody woes because of her alleged drug use.  She may not have helped her case much when she brought 11-year-old daughter, Francis Bean, to an interview with music magazine “Blender.”  Topics discussed including mommy‘s propensity to take her top off in public, as well as her need to be satisfied sexually.  In fact, we would quote directly from that interview, but there might be children watching.

From America‘s sweetheart to an American icon.  Surely, there is nothing shady about Ronald McDonald, is there?  A manager of a local McDonald‘s in Chicago thought so when the red-headed clown walked into his restaurant unexpectedly, shook hands with some customers and made his way behind the counter and seemed to eying the cash register. 

The manager thought this might be an elaborate scam to rob the place, so he kicked Ronald out of there, then called the other local McDonald‘s to warn them of the scam.  And, sure enough, an half-hour later, the clown showed up at a McDonald‘s just a few miles away and again tried to get behind the counter.  That manager there kicked him out as well and they called the police. 

Well, after a brief investigation, cops determined it really was Ronald McDonald and the untrusting restaurant managers had run a perfectly innocent clown.  Come on, guys.  Remember, it‘s the Hamburglar you have to worry about. 

Well, our top story, staging secrets from “The Apprentice.”  Just what is in those suitcases?  That‘s next. 

But first, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top two photos of this day. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Nick, Amy, you are fired.  “The Apprentice.”  What‘s not to love?  It is just so real. 

Our No. 1 story on the COUNTDOWN, maybe not.  You may be shocked to learn this, but there are some things you don‘t know about the No. 1 reality TV show, 10 of them handily outlined in the current issue of “TV Guide” by the magazine‘s senior editor, Michael Ausiello.

Michael, good evening.  Thanks for being here.

MICHAEL AUSIELLO, SENIOR EDITOR, “TV GUIDE”:  You bet.

WITT:  All right, now, first, how did you uncover these 10 tidbits, because I have got to think that NBC and Mark Burnett didn‘t exactly just hand over these secrets to you. 

AUSIELLO:  No.

In fact, Mark Burnett really didn‘t want to cooperate with this story, but, luckily, I talked to each one of the contestants as they were fired the next morning after they were on “The Today Show.”  And I sort of snuck in a few of these sneaky questions, because, just as a fan, I was curious to know, where do they go after the taxicab, what is in the suitcases.  So that‘s where I got them from.

WITT:  OK.  So we don‘t have time to go through all 10.  In fact, people who want them can go out and buy a “TV Guide” for that.

But give us a couple of them here.  What really stood out to you? 

AUSIELLO:  Well, I was really interested to find out where they went after they got into that taxicab.  I figured they didn‘t go straight home. 

WITT:  Yes. 

AUSIELLO:  And really what happened was, they were taken to another hotel in the city and sequestered for the remainder of the show‘s shoot, because they concerned that, if they got out in the public, people would figure out who was still remaining in the show.  So they stayed at that hotel and they were actually allowed to spend a month on Trump‘s dime. 

WITT:  A month? 

AUSIELLO:  Yes, well, depending on when you were kicked out. 

WITT:  the president

AUSIELLO:  For the folks that were kicked out right away, they had like a month and a half in New York City for free. 

WITT:  OK, in that loft in the Trump Tower, what is that all about, a beautiful loft there that existed or maybe no? 

AUSIELLO:  Not a real loft, not a real apartment.  I was wondering that, too.  I was wanted to see how much it would rent for.  But, actually, that is a set that they specifically built for the show, just like the boardroom. 

WITT:  OK, what about the suitcase?  They get into that elevator. 

They go.  What‘s in the suitcase? 

AUSIELLO:  Well, we are led to believe that they pack up all of their things when they head off to that boardroom, just in case they get fired. 

WITT:  It looks that way.

(CROSSTALK)

WITT:  Right. 

AUSIELLO:  There‘s maybe like one night‘s worth of clothes in there, like a change of clothes.  What happens is, the next day, if they are fired, the production people go back to the suite, pick up all their stuff, and then bring it to over to them.  So there is like maybe just a couple of changes of clothes in there. 

WITT:  OK, any other things that you may have uncovered that you were not able to include in that “TV Guide” top 10 list? 

AUSIELLO:  Yes, there is one fun thing.  The secretary, Robin Himmler, who is actually Trump‘s secretary, well, originally, they were going to go with an actress for that role?

WITT:  Really?

AUSIELLO:  They brought her in.  She was terrible.  And they decided, hey, let‘s go with the real thing, you know?  And they ended up going with Robin. 

WITT:  Well, reality TV, of course.

But, before this show came out, a lot of people were saying, we are getting a little bit sick of this genre of television, so why do you think this show is such a hit? 

AUSIELLO:  I think we like to see sort of young, sort of highfalutin MBA, Ph.D. people sort of get knocked down a few pegs.  And I think that what is this show does.  It takes people who are really privileged and ahead of the game and really makes them sort of go back to the basics, go out and sell lemonade.  And also, it just shows a little humility.  It‘s fun.

WITT:  And real quick, before you go, Bill or Kwame, who is the apprentice? 

AUSIELLO:  I‘m going to go with Kwame.  That‘s what my gut is telling me.

WITT:  OK, but you don‘t have the inside scoop on that? 

AUSIELLO:  I do not have the inside scoop on

(CROSSTALK)

WITT:  Like I‘d even be able to broadcast that.  I would be so out of a job, looking for an apprentice job somewhere myself if I did that.

Michael Ausiello, though, thank you so much.  We appreciate you being here tonight.

AUSIELLO:  You bet.

WITT:  Senior editor of “TV Guide.”

Before we leave our No. 1 story for all you, yet another thing that you need to know about “The Apprentice.”  The ladies, specifically Kristi, Katrina, Amy, and Ereka, they are going to appear in the May issue of “FHM” magazine practically naked.  Hmm, those do not look like pink slips to me.  Do they to you?  No.

And then just a recap of tonight‘s major development to share with you.  Although the White House has not yet declassified the president‘s daily briefing report from August 6, 2001, that is entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the United States,” the Associated Press is reporting tonight that several people who have seen this memo say it contains information that just three months earlier al Qaeda was trying to send operatives into the United States for an explosives attack.  Do stay with MSNBC for the latest developments on this story.

Meantime, that is going to do it for COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Alex Witt, in for Keith Olbermann. 

Good night, everybody.  Make it a great weekend.  Come on, Michael, help me throw this paper to the camera.  Let‘s go.  Give it a shot.

AUSIELLO:  Which one?

WITT:  Any one.  Get any one you can.  Go for it.  Oh, we‘re doing all right.

END   

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