updated 5/4/2004 11:09:55 AM ET 2004-05-04T15:09:55

Guests: Wayne Downing, Rick Hahn

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

Seven reprimands, six facing courts-martial, and now a death, all under investigation at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. 

While one American hostage is coming home to great joy, one American soldier comes home to consuming sadness. 

Whatever happened to John Kerry?  New commercials to lift a candidate who was seen as being eight percent less likable than the president. 

Meet Sideshow Todd:  He‘ll teach you everything you need to know to be a carney or work a boardwalk. 

SIDESHOW TODD:  You start looking at everything in the world as something potentially to go up your nose. 

OLBERMANN:  Unless you start looking at everything in the world as something you can jump from.  Good night and good luck...

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening.  The good news, the photograph of a British soldier urinating on an Iraqi prisoner may have been a not too cleverly done fake, the bad news, the U.S. military is now investigating the death of an Iraqi prisoner after interrogation at the same prison. 

Our fifth story tonight:  Iraq and the incarcerated.  An American contractor makes his way home after his kidnapping, but at the same, by a different route making it home as well, stories of misconduct and lack of accountability by the military and perhaps by military intelligence. 

The misconduct first.  The most grotesque details emerging from an investigative report published first by “New Yorker,” Seymour Hersh.  According to an Army report that Hersh obtained, detainees were not only naked in sexually explicit poses, but actually sodomized with objects and threatened with rape.  Chemical liquids were also apparently part of what can only be described as torture. 

But, today a much more serious element to the charges of abuse, in this photograph, an Iraqi man is shown wrapped in cellophane and bruises on his face; he was, according to Hersh‘s report, beaten to death during or after an interrogation.  A senior U.S. intelligence official tells NBC News that the agency‘s inspector general has begun his own investigation of the alleged abuses while simultaneously claiming there is no evidence of CIA involvement in those abuses. 

The Senate‘s Armed Services Committee will convene a closed door hearing on the allegations tomorrow morning.  Six military officers have been criminally charged and face possible courts-martial, seven more have been reprimand, but only one commander‘s name has surfaced.

No one is making the charge that Brigadier General Janis Karpinski is the Henry Wirz of Abu Ghraib prison.  Wirz was the commandant of the infamous war POW camp at Andersonville in Georgia where nearly a third of the 45,000 northern soldiers held there died of illness and starvation.  However, the general Karpinski is getting, not merely the brunt of the criticism over Abu Ghraib, she appears to have been the only military leader thus far identified in connection to the abuse there. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIG. GEN. JANIS KARPINSKI, U.S. ARMY RESERVE:  Did I have military personnel up at Abu Ghraib?  Yes.  Were those my M.P.s in those pictures?  Yes.  Do I have a responsibility in this?  Without question.  But there‘s a lot of other people that have at least an equal responsibility or more, and their names are not mention in the any publication. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And if you are the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, one sure way to get away from responsibility is to not read the report put out by your own investigators. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. RICHARD MYERS, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF:  This report (UNINTELLIGIBLE), I haven‘t seen it.  I don‘t want to comment on that reporting. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  According to the “New Yorker” magazine, the Army‘s preliminary report on Abu Ghraib was finished more than two months ago. 

Throughout the war, the U.S. and Great Britain have been looking like empathetic twins.  One bumps his knee; the other feels the sharp shooting pain in the leg.  Thus, if there is a U.S. prisoner abuse scandal, there must be a parallel one in England.  Only the jury is out on the British version.  A former British officer insists that the photographs purportedly showing members of the Queen‘s Lancashire Regiment abusing prisoners have a pair of confusing details to them.  Those, he says, are not the uniforms worn by the regiment and a vehicle seen in one of the photographs was never even sent to Iraq.  The newspaper that published the images, the “Daily Mirror” the tabloid, says the photos and the stories are nonetheless true and quotes an unidentified member of the unit who said, “The army knows there are pictures of other incidents.” 

Needless to say, in a country and a region where many are predisposed to assume the worst about the west and particularly about the U.S., which photographs are real and which may be fakes is something more trivial than splitting hairs.  As our correspondent, Dawna Friesen reports, in the battle for widespread support throughout the Middle East, the effects of life, improvements and new freedoms seem to be individual, while public relations disasters, like this one, seem to be cumulative. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAWNA FRIESEN, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Across the Arab world, news of the abuse and humiliation of the Iraqi prisoners was met with disgust.  In Cairo:

“Why are we letting them do this,” this man shouts.  “Who is responsible?”

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You said you‘re going in for democracy, it‘s anything but democracy.  There‘s truly no excuse for them to be in Iraq, right now. 

FRIESEN:  In Jerusalem...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  These pictures will build up hate, will build up revenge. 

FRIESEN:  And in Amman...

MUSTAFA ABU LEBDH, “AL RAI” NEWSPAPER:  It is considered by the Jordanian public opinion as more or less as a war crime. 

FRIESEN:  The images broadcast to millions by Arab news channels.  “Iraq‘s new jailers” is what TV network al-Arabiya called them.  Today, al-Jazeera called interviewed two Iraqi men who claim they appeared in some of the photos.

“They didn‘t care if anyone got hurt,” this man says.  “They stripped us and made us stand against the wall.  They would hit us, punch us, and kick us.”

In Iraq, winning hearts and minds was tough enough before this. 

“It‘s unacceptable,” this man says, “from a country that came to occupy us with claims of justice, and democracy.”

(on camera):  It‘s not only people in the Arab world who are outraged. 

Muslims everywhere, including here in Britain, are insulted and angry.  Many believe this only plays into the hands of radicals eager to demonize the West. 

(voice-over):  From Egypt‘s al-Ahram newspaper, a warning.  “If the U.S. will not awaken soon from its coma, it will become the No. 1 enemy to the whole Arab and Islamic world.”

And the editor of al-Quds newspaper read in all Arab countries says the photos are perfect propaganda for al-Qaeda. 

ABDEL BARI ATWAN, AL-QUDS, AL-ARABI NEWSPAPER:  They will use it to recruit more hotheaded young chap among the Arabs and the Muslims.  To say to them, “Look, you know, we were right when we actually attacked the American.  Look what they are doing to us.” 

FRIESEN:  American officials are hoping what they say are the acts of a few won‘t overwhelm the good work of the majority.  But, these pictures of already done serious, some say, irreparable damage to the credibility of the U.S. forces and Arab and Muslim world. 

Dawna Friesen, NBC News, London. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Here, that credibility has been undermined by the military casualties and the civilian kidnappings.  While at least one American soldier, Private Keith Matthew Maupin remains in captivity, the story of the abducted Halliburton driver, Tommy Hamill has a happy ending. 

He‘s at Landstuhl hospital in Germany tonight, recovering from what turns out to have been a minor infection after a relatively minor gunshot wound, and more than three weeks spent as the captive of an insurgent Iraqi group.  “He should be able,” says the spokesperson, “to go home by the end of the week.”  As our correspondent Mark Potter reports, home is Macon, Mississippi. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARK POTTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Thomas Hamill‘s wife said it was the best wake-up call of her life. 

KELLIE HAMILL, WIFE OF THOMAS HAMILL:  (CRYING) Baby.  Honey.  Are you OK?  Tommy?  The worrying‘s over—it‘s over, baby. 

POTTER:  For more than three weeks, Kellie Hamill had no idea whether her husband was dead or alive.  It was an excruciating wait, but she never gave up hope. 

HAMILL:  We knew you were coming home, we knew you were OK.  I just couldn‘t take the not knowing when. 

POTTER:  Since his kidnapping April 9, there had been no word on the condition or whereabouts of Hamill, the 43-year-old truck driver working in Iraq for a Halliburton subsidiary. 

Only a frightened videotape released shortly after his capture. 

THOMAS HAMILL, HELD HOSTAGE IN IRAQ:  For a private company.

(on camera):  Hamill‘s wife says he first escaped two days ago, trying unsuccessfully to flag down a coalition helicopter, but after running out of water in the desert, he returned to his room (ph).  Last night after being moved by his captors, Hamill said he heard a U.S. military patrol nearby.  Prying open a door, he once again escaped, running about a half mile to freedom. 

BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMETT, DPTY. DIR. COALITION OPERATIONS:  He came out of the building, identified himself to American soldiers.  It looked like it was an escape. 

POTTER:  On the phone, Kellie Hamill told her husband he was returning to a hero‘s welcome. 

HAMILL:  You‘d better be ready for it.  You‘d better be ready for it. 

You‘ve got a huge parade going down middle of town when you get out.  You‘ve got a parade going through town when you get home.  This town has fought for you like nothing you‘ve ever seen.  And you‘re coming home to stay.  Understand?  There‘s no going back. 

POTTER:  A family and a hometown preparing for the return of a native son, feeling a huge sense of relief. 

Mark potter, NBC News, Macon, Mississippi. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  For some perspective now on the good news and the bad news from Iraq, let‘s turn to General Wayne Downing, former commander of U.S.  Special Operations, now an MSNBC military analyst. 

General Downing, good evening. 

GEN. WAYNE DOWNING, U.S. ARMY (RET.):  Good evening. 

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s start with American prisoners.  Is there any reason to assume that the escape of Thomas Hamill could negatively affect the captivity of Private Maupin or even that the private‘s captors would be aware of Hamill‘s escape? 

DOWNING:  Sure.  It possibly could, Keith.  I think they will be aware and now they‘ll probably be watching him closer.  Probably to make sure he doesn‘t have that option. 

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s turn to the question of the Iraqi prisoners and what would appear to be fairly convincing evidence of their humiliation and possibly abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison.  I wouldn‘t condone any of it, of course, and I know you wouldn‘t either.  But, it does seem to me like that behavior like this, in fact, usually far worse than this, is a byproduct of war.  Was it not—could it not have been better anticipated in this case?  Did General Myers not read this report that came out two months ago, did something fail in the command—chain of command? 

DOWNING:  Well Keith, I think—I think clearly, this is a failure in the military chain of command.  Whenever you have soldiers—you know, undertaking what would I call high risk missions, and from that I don‘t mean the physical danger, I‘m talking about dealing with prisoners, dealing with interrogations, finding yourself, Keith, with two chains of command, a group of interrogators in the military intelligence chain of command, the actual prison guards in the military police chain of command.  Fining task that‘s they‘re going to do that they‘re not trained for.  This should raise the flags for all the commanders that they have got to check this very, very carefully.  They‘ve got to make sure they have detailed instructions down to both groups and then they‘ve got to walk around, Keith.  They‘ve got to go visit those places at 2:00 in the morning.  That‘s what a commander gets paid for.  To find out what‘s going on and to make sure this kind of a high risk mission is being done properly. 

OLBERMANN:  At the other end of this, I suggested before that in a largely hostile environment like Iraq, if you help the Iraqis, you build schools, you depose a dictator, what‘s been classified as the good news there, that events like that are remembered by the people there as—essentially as individual events, but because of just the nature of the conflict there, that all the negatives get put on one list, and that entirety of that list is always remembered.  Can we possibly do enough good in Iraq to wipe out the negative list and the incidents at Abu Ghraib? 

DOWNING:  Keith listen, we‘ve got a real tough hill to climb, here.  I mean, our public information, our public relations campaign on this entire global war on terrorism has not been effective.  This takes a campaign that has not worked, and even sets it further back.  You know, real good news clip there with the editor al-Quds newspaper, and he‘s exactly right.  What happened here, with these prisoners, this abuse which has been spread all over the Islamic world, plays right into the hands of Osama bin Laden?  I mean, this is what he is trying to do.  He‘s trying to drive a wedge between the West, the United States, and the Islamic world.  He wants a worldwide jihad, this plays right into that, Keith.  So, we‘ve got some real tough sledding as we try to negate this terrible, terrible image. 

OLBERMANN:  Indeed we do.  General Wayne Downing.  Many thanks for your time tonight, sir. 

DOWNING:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Back here, a public memorial service for a soldier who had been a sports star.  Pat Tillman, the first professional athlete killed in the service of his country, since 1970, died in Afghanistan two weeks ago.  Nearly two years after he gave up a million dollar salary as a safety with the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League.  That memorial service is in progress and his father-in-law has just finished speaking.  Tillman was remembered also by teammates and family members, by Senator John McCain of Arizona, and by the wife of California‘s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver of NBC News. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARIA SHRIVER, NBC NEWS:  Pat, your family doesn‘t have to worry anymore.  You are home, you are safe, and you will not be forgotten.  You will live on forever as an example and an inspiration to all of us. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  But the memorial service survive a remarkably set of embarrassing set of opening remarks by radio sport talk show host, Jim Rome, into what was supposed to be a 15-minute tribute to a self-sacrificing soldier.  Rome managed to cram no further than 79 references to himself and his radio show.  About one every 11 and a half seconds.  Say nothing of the language he chose, at a service televised live by four networks. 

COUNTDOWN opening with the latest from the war in Iraq and the fallout.  Next, tonight‘s No. 4 story:  The tale of two stories, the 9/11 Commission hears two different versions of the warning that President Clinton supposedly gave his successor on inauguration day. 

And later from national security to national icons:  The Simpson‘s versus Fox, at least here, there is peace in our time.  Excellent. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Our No. 4 story on COUNTDOWN is coming up next, you preview:  A terror dry run?  Empty suitcases left inside what might be the most inviting target in New York City.  Coincidence or proof that something sinister might be in the works?  Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The meeting between 9/11 Commission and the president and vice president last Thursday was secret, off the record, and not officially preserved for posterity.  Which mean only that it will take longer than usual for most of the testimony to leak out. 

Our fourth story in the COUNTDOWN:  Today “Time” magazine reporting one of the juicier bits to emerge, thus far, that one of Mr. Bush‘s key recollections and one of former President Clinton‘s key recollections are just not the same recollection. 

Mr. Clinton and most of his cabinet insisted that when they all briefed Mr. Bush, as he entered the White House, they ranked Osama bin Laden as the No. 1 problem the new administration was likely to face.  Not so, Mr. Bush reportedly told commissioners, last week.  “Time” quotes sources who say Bush and Clinton—Bush said, “Clinton probably mentioned terrorism as a threat,” quote, “but did not make it a point of emphasis.”  Mr. Bush, in fact, insisted that Clinton appeared far more passionate about the nuclear risk of North Korea and the conflict between the Arabs and the Israelis. 

One key reminder about the testimony of each president that will delight his respective critics, neither man was under oath. 

On the other hand, a lot of New Yorkers verbalized a lot of oaths after a frightening story about one of the most obvious potential targets for terrorists on the continent.  The “New York Post” has reported that in a two week stretch beginning in late March, five empty suitcases were found in five separate incidents at various places in and around New York‘s Penn Station.  Unattended bags are found on a daily, sometimes an hourly basis at the train hub, but these were different because they were empty.  The incidents were described in a metropolitan transit authority police bulletin, internally released, and titled:  “Possible Surveillance Testing Tactics.”  In other words, a theory, and only a theory, that the five empty bags were a test by terrorists to judge response times and reactions. 

We‘re joined now by Rick Hahn, former FBI agent, terrorism expert and MSNBC analyst. 

Rick, good evening. 

RICK HAHN, FMR. FBI AGENT:  Hi, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, let‘s start with Penn Station.  You can‘t overestimate how compelling a target it would be just if there were acts of sabotage with nobody even getting hurt, it could disrupt all train travel on the East coast, all commuter rail from Long Island and New York, New Jersey into New York City, much of the New York City subway station, to say nothing of the building that sits atop it.  It‘s an obvious target, is it not? 

HAHN:  It‘s a very obvious target, and of course, we‘re all aware of the fact that the U.S. Secret Service and the city of New York have been at loggerheads over whether or not they are going to shut down all train traffic during the republican convention in August when the president is in the building at the convention center, there. 

OLBERMANN:  We know that many of the 9/11 plotters test ran their routs weeks and months in advance.  But, does it make any sense for some sort of organized terror group to tip the authorities off about a particular target and maybe even leave evidence by deliberately leaving empty suitcases around Penn Station? 

HAHN:  Oh, absolutely.  Really there‘s no other way for the terrorists to really probe this as well, except to leave a suitcase, for example.  Assuming that they‘re doing a surveillance of that suitcase that they‘ve put down, they can see exactly what the law enforcement response is, they can see how long it takes for law enforcement to respond, they can see where the law enforcement people set up their command posts, if they evacuate people, where they put those people.  It allows all that intelligence to be gathered for both planning a successful mission and possibly even for a secondary device, which would be directed at either the civilian population or the first responders. 

OLBERMANN:  But at the emptiness of the bags is the tip-off to authorities that it might be something more than people getting rid of old bags, are these guys not bright enough just to throw in an empty—an old sweatshirt or something to make it look like these were just derelict bags? 

HAHN:  That‘s certainly—certainly you would think so.  You‘d think that they‘d be bright enough, but we really don‘t know whether this is al-Qaeda, some other terrorist organization, or even maybe just some individual out there that‘s just trying to show that these places are vulnerable.

OLBERMANN:  And the rich history of New York City‘s train stations include people who have left boa constrictors, who‘ve left diamonds in the bathroom, who‘ve left glass eyes, the guy at lost and found at Grand Central Station told me once, he thought he‘d seen everything except an elephant.  Are the odds really that long against five old empty suitcases being left in and around Penn Station over 11 or 12 days?  Is it that unlikely? 

HAHN:  Well, I think it‘s extremely unlikely.  The fact that they‘re all empty, the fact that it‘s not just Penn Station, it‘s also the federal building in Manhattan.  I think that that kind of tells you that either somebody‘s trying to probe the system or somebody‘s trying to send a message, not unlike our individual who left the box cutters in the lavatory onboard the aircraft.

OLBERMANN:  I had not thought of that. 

Former FBI agent, Terrorism expert Rick Hahn, thanks for your time again, tonight, sir. 

HAHN:  My pleasure, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  COUNTDOWN‘s No. 4 story behind us.  Now, coming up: 

“Oddball” time.  Nothing funny about a boat capsizing, right?  Well, if there were only two minor injuries and you hear the naked truth about how this barge hit the tipping point, maybe you‘ll say otherwise. 

Later, from normal boring day job to freak show wannabe:  We‘ll take you up close and personal to the school that teaches anyone how to get their freak on. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Down to the roundup of the day‘s news without the glitz, without the glamour, without, if you will, the news.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

Well, maybe no news, but plenty of nudes.  Two minor injuries at Lake Travis at Austin, Texas after an accident aboard a party barge.  Well, maybe accident is the wrong term.  The boat had just docked at Hippy Hollow, which as you Texans know, is the only nude beach in the Lone Star State.  And it happened on Splash Day, an event sponsored by an association of gay and lesbian bars and club.  Figured out what happened yet?  As soon as the barge tied up the 60 or so passenger, they all ran to one side to see the nude sunbathers, and the thing tipped over. 

Punch line:  Worker at the boatyard tells COUNTDOWN that those passengers had previously been on the nude beach, so there‘s really no explaining why they all rushed to get a better look. 

What those passenger needed was a water car.  A revisitation of the so-called amphibious passenger vehicles of the 1960‘s.  And the answer to the question, I always wondered how Lester Holt got to work every day.  In the water, the custom made effort of car freak of Dave March, can do 45 miles an hour, back on land about 125.  The price is about 150 grand.  And, there he is, the inventor.  He told the, his passenger, Mr. Holt, that one problem with the switch from highway driving to the off, off, off, off, off road kind. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVE MARCH, INVENTOR OF WATER CAR:  Security guards chasing me down trying to throw me a rope, you know, they think I‘m some drunk that‘s out there driving in the water or something and it‘s always—it‘s hilarious.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Yeah, sounds like a lot of laughs.  As does this next “Oddball” entry.  It is balloon! Now, if you already own the world record for parachuting from a balloon, why try to break it?  Austria‘s Mad Mike Kung just did, donning an oxygen mask and a special suit, he leaped from 33,000 feet.  Got down in a hurry, didn‘t he?  Three thousand feet higher than his old record, high enough that his camera man passed out, raising the question:  Who shot all those pictures, huh? 

COUNTDOWN picking back up with the No. 3 story, your preview:  The John Kerry campaign, no traction or is it just the media burying the candidate for the second consecutive year? 

And later, cancer and the prom.  It is an unlikely connection, but if you‘re a teenager or the parent of one, you may want to see this.

These stories ahead, first here are COUNTDOWN‘s “Top 3 Newsmakers” of this day:

No. 3: 600 Serbian missing monkeys, that‘s how many they think a vaccine testing company imported from Tanzania.  Only, they never showed up in Belgrade.  In theory, the monkeys were lost during shipping.  In a barrel? 

Two, Larry Wachowski, co-creator of “The Matrix” movies, and according to “The Chicago Sun-Times,” about to finish the process by which he becomes Linda Wachowski.  There is no spoon. 

No. 1, BMW drivers.  A survey by the German magazine “Men‘s Car” shows that they have more sex than the owners of other vehicles, 2.2 times per week, as compared to runner-up Porsches, 1.4 times per week.  A little fahrvergnugen on the side, eh?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  If it seems to you as if the presidential campaign should be in the final stages by now, you‘re kidding yourself.  Your circadian rhythms might suggest we‘re near the end.  In fact, America votes exactly 183 days from now. 

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, there is still plenty of campaign remaining, as “The New York Times” reports, plenty of time enough for a Kerry campaign senior staff meeting to devolve into a debate over how to costume a Kerry-sponsored protester to be sent to George Bush‘s rallies. 

As Carl Quintanilla reports, time enough for liabilities to become assets and assets to become commercials. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, JOHN KERRY CAMPAIGN AD)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I was born in Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Colorado.                

CARL QUINTANILLA, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  With that little known fact, John Kerry today launched what some Democrats call the most important 60 seconds of his campaign, two ads, starring his wife, daughter, and Vietnam crewmates to air in 19 states this month and reverse the perception his candidacy lacks message and focus. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And the process of a presidential campaign on a huge national scale is something that takes months and months to deliver the message through to the voters.  So I think we‘re right on track. 

QUINTANILLA:  It‘s the biggest single purchase of ad time in the election this year, $25 million, so sweeping, viewers are expected to see the ads more than a dozen times each on local and even cable networks, which draw high percentages of likely voter. 

(on camera):  But even some Kerry supporters say the ads have now become a defensive move, a way to combat a White House that has worked and succeeded, some say, in defining him as indecisive. 

BOB GROSSFIELD, DEMOCRATIC AD STRATEGIST:  They are rolling out attack messages on a weekly basis with great efficiency all over the country.  And it is important that Kerry now use this opportunity to turn those back. 

QUINTANILLA:  Kerry supporters say the ads will help negate controversy over his 1971 Vietnam War protests and whether he threw away his medals. 

But more important may be softening Kerry‘s public image, one the Democrats admit doesn‘t translate easily through television.  Recent polls show voters see Kerry as less friendly, less caring, and more boring than the president.  In one poll, when asked if Kerry is someone they like personally, fewer than half say yes.  Today, in a speech, Kerry seemed to discount political ads, outlining his campaign goals. 

KERRY:  To have a real conversation in America about real things that affect people, not 30 seconds sound bites and ads. 

Ads the Kerry campaign tonight hopes give him a second chance to make a good first impression. 

Carl Quintanilla, NBC News, Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  As the sudden appearance of Kerry‘s former Vietnam buddy Jim Rassmann made such a lasting impression. 

But 183 days until the election means that not only can liabilities become assets, but assets can become liabilities, too.  A previously unknown group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth aims to try that switch.  It sent out a news release today that claiming 25 of its members, the membership consisting of—quote—“hundreds of swift boat sailors,” will publicly unveil a letter tomorrow declaring Kerry is unfit to be commander in chief.  Their bona fides will be established or discredited tomorrow.

Mr. Kerry‘s will be on November 2. 

Joining me now to assess the Kerry bona fides and their future and his, MSNBC political analyst and columnist for “The Congressional Quarterly,” Craig Crawford.

Craig, good evening.

CRAIG CRAWFORD, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Hello there.  I want to see that nude beach there in Texas. 

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

OLBERMANN:  All right.  Perhaps later or, if the interview drags, perhaps we‘ll just cut to it. 

CRAWFORD:  There you go.

OLBERMANN:  To what degree, Craig, does it not have to be about John Kerry anyway?  There‘s a Web site, the name of which I can‘t even mention here, that begins with “John Kerry is a ...” and ends with, “I‘m voting for him anyway.”

Did Thomas E. Dewey prove that you can‘t get elected simply because you were not a sitting president with a lot of enemies or is this a different world now? 

CRAWFORD:  This is a hot campaign, I will tell you. 

By the time this thing is over with, these two, Bush and Kerry, are going to have to mud-wrestle on that nude beach in Texas.  It‘s already like the last few days of a campaign the way it feels, the way they‘re going at each other. 

It started because, after the primaries were over and Kerry was the eventual, or the presumed nominee, the Bush people had the money and the opportunity to go out there and define him.  They did it.  They defined him as a goofy liberal egghead, wishy-washy flip-flopper.  And now he‘s responding, trying to redefine himself on his terms. 

OLBERMANN:  But to what degree is there a problem here in Kerry‘s campaign or with Kerry, and to what degree is it just the echo chamber of the media again?  We buried this man a year ago.  And now it seems we‘re ready to do it again just because “The Washington Post” has a poll out that says 44 percent think Bush is more likely—more friendly and likable and 36 think that Kerry is likable and friendly.

CRAWFORD:  That is so telling.  And we should remember, yes, I was among them.  We wrote this man off in the primaries. 

And there‘s something about, when the voters got involved, we got an entirely different result than many of the experts like myself were saying.  So he does rally at the end.  His campaign likes to compare him to Seabiscuit against War Admiral, rising to the lead in the finish. 

This candidate is problematic, though, Keith, because he is a candidate of complexity.  This is a problem Democrats often have.  They get into the box of being the campaign of complexity, talking about issues.  And presidential campaigns are more about character than they are about issues.  And President Bush is better at bumper-stickering his message down to something simple:  I am a strong, decisive leader.  He is a wishy-washy flip-flopper. 

And they don‘t have something comparable to that on the Democrat side to respond with. 

OLBERMANN:  Might they later in the campaign?  I heard last week a suggestion that Kerry‘s best strategy was hang close and then, in October, roll out all of your remaining money in commercials with which you can let the president hang himself, every quote about weapons of mass destruction, every quote about the reason to go to war in Iraq, and do it late and hit hardest late. 

Is that the best advice for John Kerry at this point? 

CRAWFORD:  Well, Democrats are nervous hearing that.  They heard that kind of talk from Al Gore also:  Let‘s rally at the finish. 

There was a big meeting with Democratic National Committee folks the Kerry people called last week, said, we‘re going to give you our message.  We‘re going to roll out our message for you.  You‘re going to be excited.  They all got there.  And they had a big PowerPoint-type presentation.  And they‘re rallying slogan was, we‘re going to build a strong America together. 

And people were BlackBerrying each other in the meeting, saying, you‘ve got to be kidding me.  This is going to be our message?  It doesn‘t mean anything.  So the Democrats are getting nervous and waiting for leadership from the Kerry campaign on just what they‘re supposed to get out there and say that‘s relevant to people, something that people will remember and get excited about. 

OLBERMANN:  Craig Crawford of “Congressional Quarterly” and MSNBC, as always, thanks for your insight and thanks also for the image of Bush and Kerry mud-wrestling on a nude beach. 

(LAUGHTER)

CRAWFORD:  On that nude beach, yes.  I‘ll be there. 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  Oh, just—I won‘t. 

As the president jokingly pointed out on Saturday night, whatever else he is or isn‘t doing, he has revivified the publishing industry.  Ambassador Joseph Wilson‘s “The Politics of Truth,” released last Friday, now in the top 20 on Amazon.com.  Ambassador Wilson will be our guest tomorrow night here on COUNTDOWN.

That concludes the third part of tonight‘s COUNTDOWN: Kerry‘s campaign in a quandary or is it just a process? 

Up next, the No. 2 story, a new warning for tanning teens, how getting beautifully brown might leave you with an ugly disease.  Then later, the deal that has “Simpsons” fans the world over saying, excellent. 

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TODAY SHOW”) 

KATIE COURIC, CO-HOST:  So how are you different? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I think our personalities, you know?  It‘s hard for to us answer that question.  We get that all the time.  But...

COURIC:  Sorry.  Very unoriginal. 

(CROSSTALK)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER ®, CALIFORNIA:  Keep up the great work.  We need you.  And I promise you, I‘ll be back.  Thank you very much.  Thank you.  Thank you. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”)

JAY LENO, HOST:  You‘ve all heard the stories about John Kerry, used to play in a band when he was back in college.  But a lot of people don‘t know this.  Now, President Bush, you also played in a band, isn‘t that correct?  Yes, see, there you are right there.  We have rare footage of President Bush performing with his band almost 30 years ago. 

Take a look. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing):  We don‘t get fooled again, don‘t get fooled again.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Can‘t get fooled again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing):  No, no, no, no.

BUSH:  Can‘t get fooled again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Tonight‘s No. 2 story is straight ahead, beauty first, health second, baking for the prom an unlikely health risk. 

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

OLBERMANN:  High school proms had already seemed to consist of nothing but danger, alcoholism, drunk driving, pregnancy, embarrassment, social quarantine, a life‘s worth of bad memories, and just plain old loneliness. 

But in our second story on the COUNTDOWN, Roger O‘Neil reports that there may now be a far more impactful danger from the capper to the high school social scene than ever before realized.  Cancer? 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROGER O‘NEIL, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  On this night, her senior prom, Christen Sachley (ph) wants everything perfect. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The purple orchids, right? 

O‘NEIL:  The dress, the hair, the makeup. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I really like it.

O‘NEIL:  But to complete the prom package...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Did you want to do 20 minutes in the ultra bed today? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Yes. 

O‘NEIL:  To feel beautiful, Christen wanted the bronzed look. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You look at all the stars and everybody that looks so-called good and they‘re all tan. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  One, two, three. 

O‘NEIL:  Her tan was the least expensive part of this night.  But the cost to her health later on could be much more, the American Academy of Dermatology warning today overbaking for the prom will contribute to the million new cases of skin cancer this year in the U.S.

DR. DARRELL RIGEL, DERMATOLOGIST:  Fifteen years ago, it was unusual to see somebody under the age of 30 with skin cancer.  Now we are commonly seeing teenagers with skin cancer. 

O‘NEIL:  In surveys, Boston University researchers found, by age 17, 35 percent of girls use a tanning booth.  And only one-third of all teens use sunscreen during the summer. 

(on camera):  Is a tanning booth any more dangerous than the sun?  In moderation, no.  But consider, on this beach, the sun is 93 million miles away and there‘s lots of environmental filters like clouds and pollution.  In a tanning booth, dermatologists say they worry about the intensity of the ultraviolet rays so close to the skin. 

(voice-over):  But the tanning industry says the risks are overblown.  The FDA sets guideline; 27 states regulate the $5 billion-a-year tanning business.  In Illinois, teens need parental consent.  And where Christen tanned, there are other safeguards. 

EMILY TUTTLE, MANAGER, EXECUTIVE TAN:  Our computer system doesn‘t allow us to put somebody into a bed more than once in 24 hours. 

O‘NEIL:  Still, senior Robert Levine (ph) is lobbying students at his school to do prom natural. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We‘re bombarded with education about safe sex, drinking, things like that, but there‘s no education about tanning.  Students know it‘s dangerous, but they‘re doing it anyway. 

O‘NEIL:  The golden tan, ignoring the dangers for the beautiful look. 

Roger O‘Neil, NBC News, Tybee Island, Georgia. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  And as we move into our nightly roundup of celebrity and gossip news called “Keeping Tabs,” we find the oddest of segues, from the deadly seriousness of the golden brown killer tans to the endless mirth of the TV characters who are bright yellow. 

And “The Simpsons” will be back for a 16th season, in fact, for a 19th season.  A month-long walkout has been settled and the six key voices for the future of the series have signed four-year deals.  Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Harry Shearer, Yeardley Smith, Nancy Cartwright, and Hank Azaria did not get the percentage of the whole deal they had sought, but have reportedly been given a salary boost, from $125,000 each per episode to $250,000 each per.  That‘s right.  The actors are getting more “doh!”

And if there‘s a public character wackier than “The Simpsons,” it is international soccer star Diego Maradona, who tells the Reuters News Service that he was at death‘s door last week, but Argentina soccer fans pulled him back from the afterlife.  “I was dying,” says the man who starred for the Argentine team Boca Juniors, of his 12 days hospitalization for heart and lung problems.  “I was hanging by a thread.  I started to enter the tunnel of death and Boca fans pulled me back.”

It wasn‘t just them.  It was the supporters of Argentina‘s other top teams.  Quoting again: “And behind them came fans of River, San Lorenzo, Racing, Huracan, Independiente.”  What, no sportscasters?  No sportscasters pull you back from death and then plug their own show every 11.5 seconds? 

Our top story, sideshow shenanigans, they catch your eye, but have you ever wondered how somebody learns to do this? 

COUNTDOWN takes you to Sideshow School with sideshow Monica up next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  You‘ve heard the disparaging terms, clown college, carnie university, the school of hard knocks.  On our No. 1 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, it turns out there is such a place, a place where the uninitiated can go from amateur to the possessor of a master‘s degree in shove-it-up-your-nose physics.  It is located where else but in the home of American mass entertainment, Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York. 

COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny survived the trip and the experience and now has her own honorary degree from Sideshow School. 

Monica, good evening. 

MONICA NOVOTNY, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Keith. 

As you‘re about to find out, there‘s not much that you can do with this degree from this school.  But if you‘ve ever dreamed of running away to join the circus, this just might feel like home.  You learn skills that go against every instinct, and, as the teacher himself will tell you, it is the kind of thing that you‘ll like if you like this kind of thing. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD ROBBINS, SIDESHOW TEACHER:  To do what you‘re seeing done here, you would have to have a screw loose.  So it is oh good to occasionally, occasionally tighten the thing. 

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  It is everything your mother never wanted to you learn. 

ROBBINS:  Wow.  That‘s great.  That‘s great. 

NOVOTNY:  The tricks of the sideshow trade, taught to you by 45-year-old Todd Robbins, carnival performer and professor of the bizarre at the 2-year-old Coney Island Sideshow School in Brooklyn, New York. 

ROBBINS:  It is really the only safe way to do it, is to learn from someone else who knows what they‘re doing and can teach you how to do it to avoid the pitfalls and avoid a number of the risks. 

NOVOTNY:  In six weeks, Robbins, who fell in love with his first sideshow at the age of 12, will have you breathing fire and stuffing your face, literally.  

ROBBINS:  Well, what do you expect?  You‘re shoving a coat hanger down your throat. 

NOVOTNY:  Six hundred dollars and signed “hold harmless” agreement buys your 15 minutes of freak show fame. 

ROBBINS:  You start looking at everything in the world as potentially to go up your nose. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  But pens and pencils are just a little bit too big. 

ROBBINS:  Yes, they are. 

The sideshow was the great, great grandfather of reality TV.  And people have always been interested in other people, especially the more strange and unusual. 

ROBBINS:  But it‘s not easy being freaky. 

ROBBINS:  Are you all right?  Just focus on—it‘s OK.  Did you get a little burned? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Yes. 

AARON BEEBE, STUDENT:  Todd brought up the D word. 

NOVOTNY (on camera):  The D word?  What the D word? 

BEEBE:  That would be death, dying.  And, suddenly, I went, oh, this is like real.  I mean, this isn‘t sort of a party trick.  It is a thing that people get hurt doing. 

ROBBINS:  When they‘ve broken through and done something that they didn‘t think they could do because it was going to be too dangerous, there‘s such an adrenaline rush, an elation about it that nothing can match it. 

ROBBINS:  Good.  Good.  Good.  Much better. 

SETH GOODWIN, STUDENT:  That‘s actually part of the fun, in a way, is just getting over your fear. 

BEEBE:  I‘m finding that I‘m kind of good at a lot of these things, which is shocking.  Cracking the whip and everything without having to try that hard was very cool. 

ROBBINS:  Everyone can relate to the freak act, because everyone has a little secret to them that has a touch of the freak to it. 

That‘s what it should look like. 

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  And there‘s nothing like a little class participation for the new kid. 

(on camera):  Oh, my God.  This is going to stay open, right? 

ROBBINS:  Yes, sure, of course, it is.  We‘re just going to close the front.  That‘s all. 

NOVOTNY:  All right. 

ROBBINS:  The top, too.  Now we‘ll put this here. 

NOVOTNY:  Don‘t forget the head is at this end. 

ROBBINS:  Don‘t worry.  I‘ve done this a number of times. 

You see that they truly do go all the way from the top through the

cabinet and out the bottom there, the death-defying

(CROSSTALK) 

ROBBINS:  The lovely Monica the great!

NOVOTNY:  Thank you for not hurting me. 

(voice-over):  The king of sideshow can also read your mind. 

ROBBINS:  It‘s just what people are thinking, like, why don‘t you just get a real job.  And, what, and give up show business? 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY:  The skill Robbins is best known for is the one he does not teach because it is just too dangerous.  His signature act involves a light bulb.  He eats it, which even Robbins says is like playing Russian roulette. 

OLBERMANN:  Now, I‘ve been left with a whole bunch of unfortunate images throughout this show.  But why does this man do this? 

NOVOTNY:  Well, it is cliche—and he will fully admit to that—but he says he likes showing people that the impossible can be possible.  He also says that he grew up in Southern California, which might explain it. 

OLBERMANN:  We all did this when we were in Southern California. 

NOVOTNY:  Yes, of course. 

OLBERMANN:  An area notorious for people shoving things up their nose that they should not be doing. 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  Anyway, COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny from Sideshow College, can‘t wait for the alumni meeting.  All right, thanks.

NOVOTNY:  Thanks. 

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

No. 5, imprisoned in Iraq, the CIA now investigating the death of another inmate, while American ex-hostage Thomas Hamill is now in Germany reuniting with his wife.  Four, terror rehearsal, five empty suitcases left in high-profile areas like Penn Station at the New York FBI headquarters.  Three, selling John Kerry, new ads after new polls showing that voters see him as slightly less friendly, but more boring than the president.  Two, proms and cancer, dermatologists warning youngsters to stay out of tanning salons before the big night this spring.  And, No. 1, training for the freak show, courtesy of Todd Robbins‘ side-shoo—shows.

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  Courtesy of that guy.

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  That‘s COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for being part of it.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Good night—yes, it doesn‘t work—and good luck. 

END   

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