updated 4/15/2004 10:26:47 AM ET 2004-04-15T14:26:47

Guests: Lawrence Eagleburger, John Harwood, Larry Johnson

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEX WITT, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? 

The war in Iraq, a year later: the deadliest month yet for American troops as the politics heat up here over what‘s the best course. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I plan on telling the American people that I‘ve a war on terror. 

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  It doesn‘t have to be that way, it never had to be that way. 

WITT:  The 9/11 Commission: a stunning admission today.  The director of the CIA Says two years after 9/11, the intelligence community is not able to adequately fight al-Qaeda and won‘t be for another five years. 

An amazing story of survival: A car plunges into a ravine, it goes unnoticed for 10 days.  One little girl is very lucky to be alive. 

And the “Apprentice”: forget about what it takes to be the Donald‘s right hand.  What‘s it take to even get on the show?  A rare look at the tapes that got the current “Apprentice” crop on the “Ya fired” front lines. 

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  Good evening and welcome to COUNTDOWN I‘m Alex Witt in for Keith, tonight.  It was T.S. Elliott who first decreed that April is the cruelest month.  Now, in Iraq, that maxim is proving true.  Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, tonight: Eighty-seven U.S. troops have died since April 1, making this the deadliest month since the war began, so deadly that President Bush held a rare primetime news conference acknowledging just how bad it has gotten. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  Nobody likes to see dead people on their television screens.  I don‘t.  It‘s a tough time for the American people to see that.  It‘s gut wrenching. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WITT:  That sentiment echoed today by an unlikely source by al-Jazeera television.  Tonight that cable network, which rarely shies away from violent images of the war decided tonight show an exclusive tape from inside Iraq.  The video purportedly shows an Italian hostage being murdered by his captors.  Al-Jazeera says the images are quote: “too brutal” for their audience.  

NBC‘s Tom Aspell is in Baghdad with more on the fate of the hostages and the latest military developments in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM ASPELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  In an ominous development tonight, al-Jazeera is reporting one of four kidnapped Italians has been killed, and that gunmen are threatening to kill the others.  And tonight, Italian television broke into programming with special reports. 

More than 20 foreigners from a dozen countries are still missing.  Today, the U.S. military confirmed that one of four bodies found in a shallow grave west of Baghdad was that of an American soldier.  Another soldier and four civilian contractors, including Thomas Hamill from Macon, Mississippi, remain missing after insurgents attacked a convoy last week.  One captive, a French journalist, was released today.  As Russia announced it will evacuate more than 800 people from Iraq in the next two days. 

The deteriorating security situation prompted U.N. officials, here to help organization the June 30 handover of power and January elections, to warn that those elections may be threatened. 

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI, U.N.  ENVOY TO IRAQ:  We believe that the present security situation makes it more important and more urgent for the political process to continue. 

ASPELL:  Around Najaf today, lightly armed rebels, loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, showed no sign of being intimidated by American threats to kill or capture their leader.  Sadr remained holed up in the holy city and the military assault could further enrage Iraq‘s Shia majority.  But, joint chiefs chairman, General Richard Meyers said today, going after Moqtada al-Sadr would be an acceptable risk. 

GENERAL RICHARD MEYERS, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN:  It may well be that if he‘s captured, that it may—the violence could increase for a bit.  But, I think it‘d be very temporary. 

Around Fallujah, west of Baghdad, American fighter jets were loitering over Marines besieging the city, this morning, while a shaky ceasefire was still holding.  But, Marine commander warn that insurgents are using the ceasefire to improve their fighting positions.

(on camera):  And tonight, there are reports of heavy fighting around the edges of Fallujah with Marines calling in air support to pound the enemy.

Tom Aspell, MSNBC news, Baghdad.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  And while we count the number of hostages and the mounting number of the dead in Iraq, we‘re also keenly aware of another number.  In just 77 days, the U.S. is scheduled to hand over power to a new Iraqi government, and last flight the president made it clear that he plan to stick to that deadline. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  We will not step back from our pledge.  On June 30, Iraqi sovereignty will be placed in Iraqi hands. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WITT:  But just whose hands will rule Iraq on July first is still unclear.  Joining us now to talk about what happens 77 days from now is Lawrence Eagleburger, former secretary of state under the first President Bush. 

Good evening, Mr. Secretary. 

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE:  Good evening.

WITT:  It‘s an honor to have you with us. 

EAGLEBURGER:  Thank you. 

WITT:  Last night the president deflected a question about the June 30 handover, saying that the U.N. envoy in Iraq was figuring it out.  Does he have a vision for what will happen 77 days from now? 

EAGLEBURGER:  The president, I—yes, he‘d better have a vision and I think he does.  I think what‘s clear is, from what he said at least, while we will turn over authority to the Iraqis on that date, I think we will continue to maintain the authority over the security in the country.  And as long as we do that, and as long as the troops are there and ready to act if they need to, I think the vision that he has of moving this country toward democracy is still possible.  But, only if we maintain the control of the security of the country and if we are prepared to use severe force as necessary.

WITT:  Sir, do you have any doubt that will indeed happen? 

EAGLEBURGER:  I don‘t know.  I‘m—I am nervous now that we are not being as tough as I think we ought to be.  I recognize I‘m not on the ground and I‘m not a general, but I must tell you that if we don‘t get very serious about these people, and kill them as we have to, and I can‘t put it any other way, we‘ve got to get tough.  These ceasefires in Fallujah, and so forth, I think are a mistake and I think we have to get these people and get them now. 

WITT:  Mr. Kerry called Mr. Bush “stubborn” today and he urged a broader cooperation with the U.N. in Iraq.  So sir, how much would it change the situation on the ground if the U.N.  got involved in security? 

EAGLEBURGER:  Well, I don‘t want to sound like I don‘t think much of Senator Kerry, but I must tell you, I think what he said today shows how abysmally he does not understand the situation in Iraq.  The U.N.  has already been driven out of there once by the terrorists.  Secondly, I want to know one time where anywhere, where the U.N.  has gone into a country and been able to maintain the peace.  That‘s not what they‘re about, and they have failed when they‘ve tried in Yugoslavia, for example.  Beyond which, having now spent months saying that the—we the U.S. was going to take care of this thing, to run around and expect the U.N.  to come in, to save our bacon, if you will, I think is totally impossible, irrelevant, and a wrong way to go.

WITT:  All right.  Is there a peacekeeping model that works? 

EAGLEBURGER:  Germany after the war, Japan after the war, that‘s a long way ago, I know, but the point I would try to make there is that the peacekeeping models that have worked, and those are two examples, are ones in which the U.S. and our allies stayed a long time, worked hard to get the institutions of democracy working, and to get police forces and so forth on our side, and to be prepared to defend democratic institutions.  It‘s going to take that in Iraq and that may take quite some time. 

WITT:  A lot of attention has been paid to the president‘s press conference last night, but today he made major news with Israel‘s prime minister announcing some major reversals in U.S. policy.  How will Bush‘s backing of Sharon‘s pullout plan affect the situation there? 

EAGLEBURGER:  I don‘t think it will affect it very much, and a matter of fact, you need to understand as well that Sharon also made some major changes in what he is prepared to do.  So that he‘s preparing to turn over territory and so forth.  I think, as a matter of fact, the implications in this change in our policy and in his, will have very little impact on what‘s going on in Iraq.

WITT:  All right, Mr. Secretary, many thanks for your time, tonight.

EAGLEBURGER:  My pleasure, ma‘am. 

WITT:  And from the forecast of the future back to the ever turbulent present, these are some live pictures you‘re seeing shortly here from Brooksfield, Wisconsin, where a memorial service has just gotten underway for Specialist Michelle Witmer, one of three sisters sent over to Iraq, she was killed just last Friday.  Her family has been pleading with the military to keep her two sisters, Trudy and Rachel, from having to go back.  Michelle‘s sisters are both now torn over whether to return to the war zone.  The Wisconsin National Guard has left that decision up to them. 

It‘s images like those that prompted the president to hold a rare primetime press conference last night.  In a sharp departure from previous one-on-one‘s with the president, the president was confronted with a barrage of questions filled with words like “apology,” “failure,” and “mistake.”  So, how did he do and what‘s the reaction been to his performance?  Well, joining us now to assess all that is John Harwood, political editor for the “Wall Street Journal.” 

Good evening, John. 

JOHN HARWOOD, “WALL STREET JOURNAL” POLITICAL EDITOR:  Hi Alex.

WITT:  Could the president have staved off some of the criticism by just saying “I‘m sorry?” 

HARWOOD:  You know, that‘s a big object of debate within Republican political circles, right now.  If you talk to people, as did I in the White House in the Bush campaign, they‘re convinced that to go and admit mistakes, which the president doesn‘t actually think he‘s made, would only throw blood in the water for his critics in the media and the Democratic Party. 

On the other hand, there are other Republicans who think that he could, in effect, diffuse some of the criticism by conceding, “there are things that we could have done better” and try to rally more Americans to his side going forward.  The White House is clearly planted its flag in one place.  We‘re going to see over the next few weeks, whether the American people agree with that strategy.

WITT:  John, the president was asked directly, last night, what he thinks his biggest mistake has been since 9/11 and he couldn‘t think of one.  So, why is it so hard for him to answer a question like that?

HARWOOD:  Look Alex, this is a very self-assured president.  He doesn‘t do a lot of introspection and reflection.  I think that what we saw is the unvarnished George Bush who doesn‘t believe that he was in error to go to Iraq.  You noticed that he still said, “we may yet find weapons of mass destruction,” this is not somebody who gives ground very easily, that‘s one of his political strengths.  It could also prove to be a political weakness in this election. 

WITT:  Let‘s look at his predecessor now, John.  Clinton was certainly known as a great orator, still is.  How do you think he would have handled some of the though questions Bush got last night? 

HARWOOD:  Bill Clinton had a completely different rhetorical style, Alex.  He was very, very adept at taking—making arguments that conceded some of the points that the other side was making and sort of making people on both sides feel like he agreed with them, or at least he agreed with the thrust of his sentiments.  George W. Bush is not like that.  He draws clear lines and says this is where I stand.  That‘s gotten him to an election in a dead heat photo finish election.  It looks like he‘s in another photo finish with John Kerry, right now, several months before the election.  This is going to be tight all the way and we‘re going to see the president‘s base being reinforced by things that he does.  Democratics (SIC) base being energized in the opposite direction in just the same fashion.

WITT:  Yeah John, you mentioned John Kerry.  Well, he offered a responsible to the president‘s press conference, today.  But, it was remarkable how much he didn‘t differ with the president on what needs to be done in Iraq.  I mean, can voters tell the difference between their plans for Iraq? 

HARWOOD:  I think, Alex, that the difference between their plans is less relevant than the simple fact when you have an incumbent president running for re-election, it—the race starts with him and his record.  This is George Bush‘s war in Iraq.  It is George Bush‘s occupation in Iraq and the success on the ground, in reality, is going to determine whether he‘s successful, not the 10-point plan that John Kerry might offer on the campaign trail. 

WITT:  All right.  John Harwood of the “Wall Street Journal,” many thanks for your time, tonight.

HARWOOD:  Goodnight.

WITT:  And finally, if the White House ever needs a new press secretary, there‘s already a beauty queen in the market.  Shandi Finnessey is the newly crowned Miss U.S.A..  The republican from Missouri says, she plans to use her position to defend the war in Iraq.  As she puts it, “What needs to be done has been done.”  Whatever happened to world peace?

COUNTDOWN opening tonight with war and politics.  Up next, tonight‘s No. 4 story.:  The U.S. intelligence community wasn‘t ready to stop September 11, and now the head of the CIA says it will still take years to fix what‘s wrong with American intelligence. 

And later, a sick moment in a Florida courtroom:  A man is sentenced to 40 years behind bars, and then taunts the victim‘s family in open court.  That‘s still ahead on the COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Tonight‘s No. 4 story is straight ahead, your preview:  The president says he may have a plan to combat terrorism, but the head of CIA says we won‘t really be able take it to al-Qaeda for another five years.  Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  The heads of the CIA and FBI spent a few hours today, on the hot seat that the 9/11 Commission saves for it‘s very special guests.  Story No. 4 on the COUNTDOWN:  Based on what we heard today, our counter-terrorism agencies are broken and they say it will take money, lots of money; people.  Lots of people; and plenty of time to fix them.  How much time?  More from Lisa Myers in Washington. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LISA MYERS, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  While admitting mistakes before 9/11, CIA director, George Tenet says his agency was so decimated in the early ‘90s that it will take years to rebuild the CIA‘s human spy program. 

GEORGE TENET, CIA DIRECTOR:  It‘s going to take another five years to build a clandestine service the way the human intelligence capability of this country needs to be run. 

TOM KEAN ®, 9/11 COMMISSION CHAIRMAN:  Five years to rebuild?  I wonder whether we have five years. 

MYERS:  Later, democrat, Lee Hamilton was incredulous. 

LEE HAMILTON (D), 9/11 COMMISSION VICE CHAIRMAN:  Well, when I hear a statement like, “Well, it‘s going to take another five years,” I ask myself, “Well, where have we been for the last 10 or 15?”

MYERS:  In its report today, the commission found, despite an al-Qaeda foot soldier working with CIA officers in Afghanistan in 2001, the agency was unable to penetrate the 9/11 plot. 

The FBI arrested suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, training in a jet simulator in Minnesota in August 2001.  Yet when told, the CIA sounded no alarm, in fact when Tenet was informed later that month, the briefing was merely titled:  “Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly.” 

Did Tenet immediately alert the president when he learned of Moussaoui? 

TENET:  I didn‘t see the president.  I was not in briefings with him during this time. 

MYERS:  Tenet also was chastised for the president‘s August 6 briefing which said the CIA had “not been able to corroborate some of the more sensation al-Qaeda threats, including 1998 threats of hijacking in the U.S.” 

JOHN LEHMAN ®, 9/11 COMMISSION MEMBER:  All the kings horses and all the kings men in the CIA could not corroborate what turned out to be true. 

MYERS:  What‘s more, the commission found serious problems at the FBI two years after 9/11.  Counter-terrorism analysts assigned a menial tasks, including emptying the trash.  “The computer systems still a mess.  The FBI Still does not know what information is in its files, and delays in translating intercepts.”

TIM ROEMER (D), 9/11 COMMISSION MEMBER:  Why should we give the FBI another chance? 

TENET:  We have changed to meet threats in the past.  We will change to meet this threat. 

MYERS (on camera):  In a further slap at the CIA and FBI, the commission chairmen today, questioned whether the president is even getting decent information to conduct the war on terror. 

Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  For some superior (PH) information on what these hearings have told us about the state of our leading intelligence agencies and our ability, or lack thereof, to fight and win the president‘s war on terror, I‘m joined now by Larry Johnson, a counter-terrorism expert who served both as deputy director of the state department‘s office of counter-terror and as a CIA officer. 

Good evening to you Larry, it‘s nice to see you. 

LARRY JOHNSON, COUNTER-TERRORISM EXPERT:  Hi, Alex.

WIT:  There are lots of disturbing thing in Lisa Myers‘ report.  What disturbed you the most as you listened to the hearing today, Larry? 

JOHNSON:  The refusal by the commission to really hold the administration officials both, Clinton and Bush administration officials accountable, and the refusal of those officials to take any responsibility whatsoever for anything that‘s gone wrong, except for Richard Clarke apologized, George Tenet today admitted that they had made some errors, but other than that, everybody else has been saying, “we did everything right.”  Alex, if they had won the Super Bowl, then they could claim they did everything right, but we didn‘t have any winners here, we had losers. 

WITT:  Larry, George Tenet says it‘s going to take five years to rebuild the CIA‘s human spy building program.  Does that suggest the U.S.  could be especially vulnerable to some kind of terror attack during this upcoming period? 

JOHNSON:  The vulnerability exists, but I think Director Tenet has the problem misdiagnosed, because he‘s asserting that it is a lack of people, lack of money, and I‘ll tell what you it is, and this is not just my opinion, it‘s based upon conversations with friends inside.  It‘s a lack of leadership starting with George Tenet.  Example:  He‘s still sending out overseas chiefs of station who are senior analysts.  That would be like sending me out as a chief of station.  The problem with that is I‘m not a clandestine officer for running operations, and by doing that, he‘s putting people out there—it‘s like sending an Army general out to run an aircraft carrier. 

WITT:  OK, Larry this doesn‘t sound like rocket science...

JOHNSON:  It‘s not.

WITT:  ...to know that you shouldn‘t be doing this, so why is that being done? 

JOHNSON:  They‘re doing it because it‘s become a big large bureaucracy; they‘re trying to keep people happy and to allow people a chance to get promoted instead of saying, what is our purpose and mission, which is to be a clandestine operation.  It is not a matter of that they don‘t have enough resources, it‘s a matter of reallocating resources that are internal and putting those priorities in place.  They‘ve consistently refused to do so over the years and the number people that have left CIA would be—would astonish most Americans to look at the amount of money that‘s been wasted hiring people, bringing them in and training them, and then they leave because of the lack of leadership. 

WITT:  OK, Larry, you‘re talking about resources.  Do you think throwing more money and personnel at the CIA and FBI could fix the problem? 

JOHNSON:  That‘s not the problem, because on the one hand, we have the existing tools in place, it‘s a matter of accountability.  The message that‘s being sent—when you have a president who doesn‘t admit mistakes, when you have a secretary of defense, secretary of state who—and then attorney general who don‘t admit mistakes and I‘m not talking republican or democrat, it‘s happened under both.  Nobody‘s made any mistakes.  Nobody can think of anything better to do and that send a message down the chain of command.  I know for a fact, the person who was punished out at the CIA for the information that led to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, was the lowest level analyst at the place.  The message it sent is, it‘s the first law of plumbing, all sewage is running downhill. 

WITT:  OK, disturbing revelation, right there.  Larry Johnson, thank you so much—former CIA officer. 

JOHNSON:  Thanks Alex.

WITT:  The COUNTDOWN now past the No. 4 story.  Up next, we leave the COUNTDOWN for just a moment to give you those stories we just can‘t live without, including why this pageant overseas deserves a place in “Oddball.” 

And later on, after only two weeks on the air, the new liberal radio network “Air America” gets yanked in two major markets.  Better stay tuned to find out why.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  We‘re back.  We pause for a moment to check on the bizarre creatures from around the globe which populate the strange news exhibit at the COUNTDOWN zoo.  Let‘s play “oddball.” 

And we begin along the Hollywood Park Road in Edinburgh, Scotland, which has been temporarily shut down to traffic due to unbridled froggy lovin‘.  Hundreds of toads making their annual migration to St.  Margaret‘s Loch for mating season.  They‘re crossing the busy street with just one thing on their minds and it ain‘t the oncoming traffic, let me tell you.  Officials have closed the stretch to keep cars from crushing the horny toads, many of which can‘t even wait until they reach the lake before they find a partner and hop aboard. 

To Thailand and the strange creature.  Fifty-one of that country‘s most gorgeous of  all come together on one stage for the Miss Tiffany‘s Universe Pageant, similar to our own Miss America contest.  There‘s the evening gown competition, a talent portion, and a bikini contest.  But, it states here, it is the title of Thailand‘s most beautiful transvestite. 

(SINGING):  Here he is, Mr. Transvestite Thailand. 

Dozens of beautiful men dressed as beautiful women culled from hundreds of contestants, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) for the title, but in the end, just one man could wear the crown—a 17-year-old student who won 2,500 bucks, a new car, and the chance to represent Thailand in the up coming Miss International Queen Competition. 

And perhaps the strangest creature of all comes to us from the wilds of Africa in Nairobi National Park.  It is there amongst the zebras where a strange freak of nature has occurred.  A baby zebra has been born with no stripes.  Veterinarians are baffled, they have little or no explanation for the all-white calf who otherwise seems perfectly healthy.  They say they‘ve never seen anything like this before.  So for now, experts are calling the strange creature, a horse. 

The COUNTDOWN picking up with our No. 3 story after the break.  Your preview:  A mother‘s last act of bravery helped her young daughter beat the odds, an amazing story of survival.  That‘s coming up. 

And later, the William Hung machine, it keeps rollin‘ and rollin‘: 

New news from “Billboard” magazine on the success of the American idol reject. 

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

No. 3:  An unnamed German hospital patient in Berlin.  Bedridden for weeks, following a car crash, the 47-year-old man has reported to police that he was robbed.  Apparently, the man hired a prostitute to visit him in the hospital, then gave her his ATM and pin number.  Well, she promised to come right back. 

No. 2:  Nathan Gubachy, arrested for breaking and entering in Michigan.  Police handcuffed him to a rolling chair in the station house.  Gubachy escaped and evaded capture for more than a day before cops caught up to him.  Acting on a tip from a witness who saw him running up the street still connected to that chair.  Oh my.

And No. 1, Ray Crist, the man billed as the world‘s oldest worker.  He‘s finally retiring this year from his job as a teacher at Messiah College in Pennsylvania.  His name is Christ (SIC), and he works at Messiah‘s College.  No, he‘s not that old, he‘s 104. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Welcome back to COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Alex Witt, in for Keith Olbermann tonight.

Human endurance is one of those unknown quantities measurable only when it‘s put to the test.  Our third story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, stories of survival, both physical and emotional, that challenge the limits of that endurance and separate those who would be heroes from those who are anything but. 

We begin with a miraculous story from California.  Ten days ago, 6-year-old Ruby Bustamante and her 26-year-old mother, Norma, were reported missing.  Yesterday, California Department of Transportation workers repairing a road barrier discovered why.  The car in which Ms. Bustamante was driving with her daughter had plunged off a cliff 90 miles east of Los Angeles.  She was killed.  Little Ruby survived. 

NBC‘s Karen Brown has more on this remarkable story. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAREN BROWN, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  It‘s a story of amazing survival; 6-year-old Ruby Bustamante was rescued after surviving for nine days alone in the California desert after the car her mother was driving plunged 150 feet down in a ravine. 

SYLVIA DANIEL-MORIN, AUNT OF RUBY:  They found her underneath her mother‘s arms, like holding her.  And pretty sure from all the cold nights and the heat and everything, she just didn‘t want to leave her mom‘s side. 

BROWN:  Highway workers repairing a broken guardrail discovered Ruby and her mother‘s body after they spotted their car below them in heavy brush. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It looks like there was food and water down there at the scene. 

BROWN:  Family members believe her mom gave Ruby dry noodles and Gatorade before she died and that is how she survived.  Although dehydrated, hospital officials said, physically, Ruby will be fine. 

DR. WEBSTER WONG, RIVERSIDE COUNTY HOSPITAL:  Ruby is doing extraordinarily well, as well as the family is for enduring such a devastating loss as well as such a joyous recovery. 

BROWN:  But family members worry about the emotional toll on the 6-year-old who was brave enough to survive on her own, but may have witnessed her mom‘s death. 

Karen Brown, NBC News, Los Angeles. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  And to Wisconsin, where authorities today filed charges against 20-year-old Audrey Seiler, the University of Wisconsin student who admitted to faking her own abduction.  Seiler disappeared on March 27, prompting a massive manhunt by family and friends, as well as federal and local authorities.  She was discovered four days later near the apartment building where she claimed to have been taken from at knifepoint. 

Seiler recanted the story after being confronted with several inconsistencies, including surveillance tape showing her purchasing evidence.  She is charged with two misdemeanor counts of obstructing officers and could face nine months in jail and up to $10,000 in fines per count.  The criminal complaint also hints at her motivation, getting the attention of her boyfriend. 

You might imagine there‘s nothing more excruciating for a parent than to endure the murder of their child, until you hear this.  After pleading guilty to second-degree murder and being sentenced to 40 years in prison for the shooting death of 17-year-old Aaron Lauter (ph), Octavius Wade (ph) turned to his victim‘s parents and blew them kisses.  Eric Aut (ph), Lauter‘s stepfather, lunged and had to be restrained by his wife, Lauter‘s mother, Jamie (ph).

Deputies removed Wade from the courtroom.  His sentence was part of a plea agreement designed to spare Aaron Lauter‘s family the emotion of a lengthy trial. 

That wraps up our No. 3 story, heroes and villains. 

The second story on the COUNTDOWN, doctors originally thought she had depression.  They were wrong.  Up next, meet the first U.S. resident to get the human form of mad cow disease.  Then later, what does it take to become the apprentice?  A behind-the-scenes look at a casting audition, that‘s coming up.

But, first, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of this day. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  You don‘t have to answer their questions if you don‘t want to.  I‘m sorry you didn‘t ask him one.  Now it‘s too late.  I‘m protecting my friend here from the appetite of the American press. 

ARIEL SHARON, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER:  I‘m afraid we have the same problem. 

BUSH:  Oh, it‘s not a problem.  It‘s an opportunity, Mr. Prime Minister. 

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He wore a purple yarmulke.  And I had a Bible and I did a blessing on him to welcome him into manhood. 

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

CONAN O‘BRIEN, HOST:  President Bush held a press conference earlier tonight.  And as a result, the Fox network had to postpone “American Idol.”  Yes, some American idol fans were confused and kept calling in to vote for the old white rapper. 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Up next, a young woman diagnosed with a hideous disease that she probably caught nearly a decade ago and a continent away. 

Our No. 2 on the COUNTDOWN is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)         

WITT:  You may not be familiar with the name variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, but perhaps you are familiar with its more common name, mad cow disease. 

Our No. 2 story tonight, it has been almost a decade since the fatal disease was first discovered in humans in Great Britain.  Today, there are 150 cases worldwide, including one in South Florida.  This is Charlene.  Her family asked that we not reveal her last name.  It is hard to believe it by looking at her now, but just three years ago, Charlene was a vibrant, independent young woman. 

In 2001, they graduated from the University of Miami with honors.  But now her life is dramatically different.  She can‘t speak.  She can‘t even move or eat without someone helping her.  Charlene is the first U.S.  resident diagnosed with mad cow disease. 

Diana Gonzalez from our Miami NBC affiliate WTVJ has more Charlene‘s plight and the new form of mad cow disease. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DIANA GONZALEZ, WTVJ REPORTER (voice-over):  When looking at a sample of the normal brain under the microscope. 

CAROL PETITO, NEUROPATHOLOGIST:  And in between the brain cells, the background has a fairly smooth appearance. 

GONZALEZ:  Compared to this brain sample with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CJD. 

PETITO:  And the major difference in this patient are all the small bubbly holes that are sitting in the brain tissue itself.  These sometimes described as holes on the brain or as a spongy change, because they resemble the holes in a sponge. 

GONZALEZ:  When these degenerative changes are caused by eating meat from cattle infected with mad cow disease, it is known as new variant CJD.

PETITO:  It tends to affect patients in their 20s.  It tends to present more with psychiatric problems rather than dementia, which develops, but develops later on in the disease. 

GONZALEZ:  At first, doctors thought Charlene was suffering from depression.  She turned out to be the first U.S. resident with VCJD.  Her condition quickly worsened. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Very fast, in about six months, from going from walking to not walking. 

GONZALEZ:  Charlene probably was exposed as a child when she was living in England. 

PATRICK, FATHER OF CHARLENE:  My understanding, this disease can stay dormant in the brain for a long time.  What triggers it, nobody knows. 

GONZALEZ:  The incubation period for VCJD is about 10 years or longer.  Initial symptoms include depression and anxiety, then tremors, slurred speech, and difficulty walking. 

Once symptoms begin, life expectancy ranges from one to three years.  It has been two years since Charlene‘s symptoms started.  Her parents believe hyperbaric oxygen treatments three times a week have helped stabilize her condition.  But there is no cure for this disease. 

Diana Gonzalez for NBC News. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  And an update now to the first mad cow discovered in Washington state late last year. 

DNA evidence confirms that the cow that tested positive for the illness was from Canada.  The cow was slaughtered in December; 255 animals from that herd were also euthanized and tested for the disease.  None of those results came back positive for mad cow.  The meat from the animals was disposed of in landfills. 

Well, we have reached that time in the COUNTDOWN when it is time to shirk off the somber suit of serious news and slip into some glittering Elvis costume of stories that we like to call “Keeping Tabs.” 

And we begin in a New York City apartment, where former candidate for governor of California Arianna Huffington had a private signing party last night for her new book, “Fanatics and Fools: A Game Plan for Winning Back America.”  Unfortunately, what Arianna really needed was game plan to get out of the bathroom, where she reportedly became trapped for a brief time during the affair. 

The former conservative and wife of Senate hopeful Michael Huffington had to bang on the door before a waiter finally came to her rescue.  The apartment was the former home of artist Andy Warhol, famous for saying everybody will be famous for 15 minutes.

Which naturally brings to us William Hung.  He may be an “American Idol” reject, but Mr. Hung is our COUNTDOWN cutey.  His first album, “Inspiration,” debuted on the U.S. pop charts today at No. 34.  Gee, if only we‘d let him sing more on this show, that album might have hit the charts about, oh, 156.  The album is a selection of some of his best-loved renditions, such as “She Bangs” right there and “Rocket Man” and has open to rave reviews.  And by rave we, of course, mean, terrible. 

And, uh-oh, radio stations in Chicago and Los Angeles reportedly got real conservative about a bounced check today from the liberal radio network.  It seems Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, and the rest of Air America were yanked off the air on stations in those two markets in a move the network calls disgraceful.  The station‘s owner alleges the network bounced a check and owes him over $1 million. 

According to one report, the network‘s loan staffer in Chicago was reportedly kicked out of their studio and the locks were changed before the station abruptly switched to Spanish-language programming.  Air America is taking this matter to court, a vast right-wing enforcer, no doubt. 

Our top story still ahead.  Do you have what it takes to go up against the Donald?  But, first, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top two photos of the day. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Whether clever, catty or completely overwhelmed, we are guaranteed one thing.  They are always entertaining. 

Our No. 1 story tonight, analyzing “The Apprentice.”  A quarter of a million people initially tried out for the chance to work for Donald Trump.  Only 16 even got to try.  Now it‘s done to the final two, Bill Rancic and Kwame Jackson.  And tomorrow night, one gets fired, the other hired.  But how did they and the other 14 original contestants beat out the thousands of other applicants? 

As NBC‘s Hoda Kotb discovered, the evidence is preserved for prosperity on their audition tapes. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HODA KOTB, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Remember Bowie Hogg? 

BOWIE HOGG, CONTESTANT:  Another long week at work.  I like work, but I don‘t like to work hard. 

KOTB:  Well, you certainly wouldn‘t forget him if you saw this. 

HOGG:  Oh, life is good. 

KOTB:  Well, for Bowie, life wouldn‘t so good for too long.  He got the boot in episode four. 

HOGG:  The next apprentice.

KOTB:  And Sam Solovey, his audition tape is a bit—well, unusual.  Sam commandeered a Washington, D.C., tour bus for a crazy ride through his multitasking life. 

SAM SOLOVEY, CONTESTANT:  I promise I won‘t get us killed. 

Just deliver.  Just get it done. 

I‘m going.  I got to go.

You have a hole in the wall right here as you walk in. 

What‘s he looking at me like I‘m crazy for? 

Hello.  I don‘t know if you recognize me. 

And he‘s in the middle of the street.  You don‘t go down the middle of the street.

I‘m the hustler. 

We‘ll give me one more. 

KOTB:  Hustler, schmoozer, renaissance man of sorts.  Was there actually a method to his madness?

SOLOVEY:  He‘s looking at me like I‘m the crazy guy. 

KOTB:  We‘re still not sure. 

Do you recognize the girl on skis?  That‘s Amy Henry. 

AMY HENRY, CONTESTANT:  So I thought I would take you on a week in my life. 

KOTB:  The former dot-comer is in the office, out with friends, and riding high on the hog. 

HENRY:  As a pre-IPO employee of one of fastest high-tech startups in history, you would think I have millions to show for it, but the only three things I‘ve got left are this house, this lousy bike—oh, and a divorce decree. 

KOTB:  And now Nick Warnock.  His video was strictly business. 

NICK WARNOCK, CONTESTANT:  Put through to something newer, better, and faster. 

KOTB:  He spent his entire audition tape selling Xerox machines. 

And then there‘s Omarosa.  On the show, she was the lightning rod for controversy, but on her tape, she was the model of poise. 

OMAROSA MANIGAULT-STALLWORTH, CONTESTANT:  Again, I‘m Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth.  And I‘m going to tell you why I should be a contestant. 

KOTB:  And accomplishment. 

MANIGAULT-STALLWORTH:  This is my master‘s degree.  This is from when I served in the White House. 

I used to be a beatify queen. 

KOTB:  Yes, that is Mrs.  Omarosa is married and that‘s her husband. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  She‘s very outgoing, very vibrant. 

MANIGAULT-STALLWORTH:  I do hope that you will consider me as a contestant on “The Apprentice.”  I know exactly what it takes. 

KOTB:  Actually, only one of these guys knows what it takes, so how did our two finalists negotiate their way on to the show? 

First, there‘s Bill Rancic.  He went with the straightforward approach, showing us his business, his home and ticking off his accomplishments. 

BILL RANCIC, CONTESTANT:  It‘s a company that I started about eight or nine years ago.  These are high-end town homes.  They start at $500,000. 

KOTB:  In contrast, Kwame Jackson. 

KWAME JACKSON, CONTESTANT:  Good morning.  That was my alarm.  It‘s 6:00 a.m. 

KOTB:  Kwame‘s entire tape was shot before work inside his tiny New York City studio apartment.  But that still leaves time for Kwame to reveal his lighter side. 

JACKSON:  I now transform into corporate black man. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  NBC‘s Hoda Kotb.

So what does it take to make it on the next “The Apprentice”? 

COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny went to New Orleans for a casting session and returned with all of the secrets.

What are they, Monica?

MONICA NOVOTNY, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Alex, good news for the addicts, because casting for season two is already under way and the pressure is on to find the next Omarosa, Kwame, or Troy.

But imagine the challenging for the casting director, who has already met thousands of applicants and now must choose only those few who will be fascinating and just controversial enough, all while they‘re surrounded by cameras, competitors, and, of course, Donald Trump. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Mr. Trump, I love you. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Think outside the box. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I‘m very aggressive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m motivated. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I have what it takes. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I‘m over 6 feet tall. 

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  They‘ll say anything to grab the attention of the master caster. 

ROB LAPLANTE, CASTING DIRECTOR:  The success and failure of these shows is largely dictated by the cast. 

NOVOTNY:  Rob LaPlante, who started his reality career with the granddaddy of them all, MTV‘s “The Real World,” is now casting director for “The Apprentice.” 

LAPLANTE:  I definitely I can weed through people who are giving me what they think that what I want to hear.  And that‘s just I think one of my big talents.

NOVOTNY:  So while 20 million Americans wait for Kwame or Bill to hear the words:

DONALD TRUMP, DEVELOPER/BUSINESSMAN:  You‘re hired.

NOVOTNY:  LaPlante sits through twice the number of original applicants to fill 16 seats for season two.

LAPLANTE:  Assuming that there‘s a character map that we have to fill in with this person or that, it‘s a giant mistake.  My primary goal is to go out and find the best stories, the most interesting people that come from the most dynamic backgrounds. 

NOVOTNY:  Auditions hit 13 U.S. cities, where wanna-be Trumpsters lined up for hours, with one thing in common.  Everyone is an entrepreneur.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Just trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents, man. 

(on camera):  The process is grueling, starting with the group interview.  Then, for the chosen few, five more rounds under the microscope, including a medical exam, a psychological profile, an I.Q.  test, and the all-important background check. 

(voice-over):  Investigator Elaine Carey conducts applicant reviews for other reality shows. 

ELAINE CAREY, CONTROL RISKS GROUP:  I think mostly the networks in particular worry about the reputation or the embarrassment of it.  What we do is, we use a number of commercial databases and run a person‘s name, you know, if you will, every which way. 

NOVOTNY:  And did we mention the test? 

CAREY:  We actually—we give contestants a questionnaire that is somewhat of a killer, because it is so long.  It asks lots and lots of questions that will cover everything from education to their relationships, their families. 

NOVOTNY:  Once applicants are cleared, LaPlante looks for the it factor. 

LAPLANTE:  When I finally find that person that really gets me going and gets me interested, you can see it in my face.  I get giddy about it.  I‘m like, I found something.  I found a diamond in the rough. 

NOVOTNY:  Though some may need a little more polish than others. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I know nothing about real estate, casinos or hotels, but that‘s OK. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I would say just more my—this is hard. 

NOVOTNY:  And so is finding the perfect balance, especially when the key is conflict.  Too much might mean trouble, not enough, boring.  But LaPlante says that part is easy. 

LAPLANTE:  If I took you and 15 of your best friends in the world and stuck you into a house, you‘d probably fight more than the people on these reality shows.  It doesn‘t matter.  I don‘t need to cast for conflict. 

NOVOTNY:  And what does he say to those reality show contestants who claim their worst moments were just bad editing?

LAPLANTE:  Oftentimes, people record themselves on audiotape and then they will play it back to themselves and they will really hate the way they sound.  Do I sound like that?  Sometimes, you have to accept the fact that you sound like that. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY:  Now, LaPlante says the easiest selling point for the applicants is Donald Trump.  He‘s met people who say they wouldn‘t otherwise apply for a reality show, but they want to meet and work for Trump and they‘ll do whatever it takes to get him on their resume. 

WITT:  OK, so who is applying? 

NOVOTNY:  Everyone.  They said they that had met one who was guy shining shoes and another guy who had a $40 million business. 

WITT:  What about the investigators?  Do they see a lot of bad rap sheets? 

NOVOTNY:  Yes.  It was interesting.  She actually said—Ms. Carey, who we spoke to in the piece—she said that she had seen a change over the last few years, that, initially, anyone and everyone would apply.  And so they saw a lot of bad stuff out there.

But now people are self-selecting.  It‘s like going into politics.  If you want to get on a reality show, you‘ve got a clean background. 

WITT:  All right, well, good to know.  Thank you very much, COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny. 

And before we leave the No. 1 story here, the odds for the final two in “The Apprentice.”  Kwame Jackson is at 3-1.  But Bill Rancic, he is favored with 2-1 odds of becoming Donald Trump‘s next executive.

Let‘s recap the five COUNTDOWN stories, the ones we think you‘ll be talking about tomorrow.

Five, April attacks, the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Iraq since the war began, so deadly the president held a rare prime-time press conference to reiterate his commitment to keeping U.S. troops there—reiterate, that is—and handing over power to the Iraqis on June 30.  Four, America unprepared, the shocking admission by the head of the CIA to the 9/11 Commission today that it will take five years to rebuild the agency‘s human spy program. 

Three, an amazing story of survival, a 6-year-old girl found alive 10 days after the car crash that killed her mother.  Two, mad cow disease, a 24-year-old woman the first person to be diagnosed with the human form of the disease in the United States.  And for six months, her doctors mistakenly thought she was just depressed.  And, No. 1, an inside look at what it takes to get on “The Apprentice.” 

And that is COUNTDOWN.  Thanks so much for joining us.  I‘m Alex Witt. 

Keith will be back tomorrow. 

Good night, everyone.  I‘m going to see if I can make this shot.  Let‘s just see.  I‘m getting closer, a little closer.  Come on.  That‘s so not fair.  Let‘s go.  This is really not fair.

END   

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