updated 5/14/2004 10:39:06 AM ET 2004-05-14T14:39:06

Guests: Jack Rice; Francine D‘Amico, Michael Musto, Stanton Friedman

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

The secretary goes to the prison:  Mr. Rumsfeld surprise trip to Abu Ghraib. 

What may have been done there:  We‘re learning just what the CIA has been authorized to do to the big-ticket prisoners. 

What is the frontline going doing to women soldiers?  Lynndie England reportedly goes from the so-called “leash lady” to a woman soldier having consensual sex with, quote, “numerous partners” on tape.

The strategy of John Kerry:  Rope-a-dope?  Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.  Let George Bush beat himself.  Howard Fineman joins us to analyze. 

And I meant to do that:  What is this?  Who cares, it‘s car crashes where nobody got hurt. 

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening.  Unexpectedly the secretary of defense went to see Abu Ghraib Prison for himself today and more unexpectedly still, before he even returned to this country, the secretary‘s trip was completely overshadowed.  There is a new image from Abu Ghraib tonight, it for the first time, seems to connect the dots between abuse and interrogation. 

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN:  Just as Mr. Rumsfeld tried to tamp the controversy down it has sprung up anew and in more graphic form.  Our Pentagon correspondent is Jim Miklaszewski. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  This newly released photo obtained exclusively by NBC News, appears to be the first hard evidence of prisoner abuse actually being used as an interrogation technique at Abu Ghraib Prison.  It was provided by the attorney for Corporal Charles Graner, a military guard who faces court-martial.  In the photo, which the attorney claims was taken during an interrogation, several naked Iraqi prisoners are in a heap on the floor.  Graner is seen leaning against the wall.  Graner identifies four other soldiers as military intelligence officers in charge of interrogations and the civilian translator.  The photo emerged as serious questions have been raised about the Pentagon‘s own rules for interrogations and whether they violate the Geneva Convention.  The Pentagon guidelines for men:  Sleep and sensory deprivation for 72 hours, and prisoners forced to hold stress positions for 45 minutes.  At the Senate Armed Services Committee today, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was grilled over the rules. 

SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND:  The bag over your head for 72 hours.  Is that humane? 

PAUL WOLFOWITZ, DEPUTY DEFENSE SECRETARY:  Then come back to what you said the work of the...

REED:  No, no answer the question, Secretary. 

WOLFOWITZ:  I believe it‘s not...

REED:  Sensory depravation.

WOLFOWITZ:  ...strikes me as not humane, Senator.

REED:  Thank you.

MIKLASZEWSKI:  But, the vice chairman of the joint chiefs, General Peter Pace went further, saying the measures do violate the Geneva Convention.

GENERAL PETER PACE, VICE CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS:  I would describe it as a violation, sir. 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  But on the plane to Iraq today, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said Pentagon lawyers approved the techniques and claimed the Geneva Convention is open to interpretation by each nation. 

DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY:  I think that everyone has to make those judgments themselves, because if you think about it, Geneva doesn‘t say what you do when you get up in the morning. 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  But The Geneva Convention specifically states that during interrogations, prisoners may not be threatened, insulted or exposed to any unpleasant treatment of any kind. 

Human rights experts accuse the Pentagon of operating under its own rules. 

TOM MALINOWSKI, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH:  I think the civilian leadership in the Pentagon is trying to twist the law to fit what they are doing, rather than changing what they are doing in order to fit the law. 

MIKLASZEWSKI (on camera):  And tonight a ranking military intelligence officer tells NBC News he fears the Pentagon has taking the aggressive interrogation tactics too far. 

Jim Miklaszewski, NBC News, the Pentagon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  To help us understand why that photo may be so critical, I‘m joined by Jack Rice, former CIA special agent, now criminal defense attorney. 

Jack, good evening.

JACK RICE, FMR.  CIA SPECIAL AGENT:  Good evening.

OLBERMANN:  You‘ve seen the photo, based on your experience, what did you see in it in? 

RICE:  Oh, this is very troubling for the Defense Department, obviously, because you have now, is you have this connection between the M.P.‘s and the military intelligence people.  They‘re working together which obviously Major General Taguba, as he said, shouldn‘t have happened in the first place.  In addition, you‘re starting to see a very controlled, almost a very methodical approach, this is very disturbing and frankly I think it‘s a violation of the Geneva Conventions. 

OLBERMANN:  If the soldier who identified those men as military intelligence had not done so, would there be a way from—in that photograph to still suggest that that‘s an interrogation going on and improper activity is taking place?  Is it more than just his word? 

RICE:  Oh, I think it‘s obvious with the pictures themselves.  Obviously, you can‘t humiliate prisoners like this, you can‘t do these sorts of things and for the—for Mr. Rumsfeld to argue that the Geneva Conventions are open to interpretation, what part of humiliation don‘t you get here? 

OLBERMANN:  On Monday, General Taguba and Undersecretary Cambone contradicted each other as to whether or not military police could be involved in interrogation in these prisons.  Today, just as we say in Mick‘s report, Rumsfeld says the Geneva Convention open to interpretation by this country or another country—does it sound to you like the rules of interrogation were clear to the people on the ground at Abu Ghraib? 

RICE:  I don‘t think so because they apparently weren‘t clear to the people up in the Pentagon.  I mean, they were not in the same position to determine what was going on.  Cambone was saying one thing, Taguba was saying another, and this is in front of the Senate.  Under those circumstances, how are you going to expect a PFC to know what he‘s supposed to do? 

OLBERMANN:  Jack Rice, stand by, a second, there‘s another story that‘s right up your alley, I want to get your thoughts on in a moment, here.  Namely, the start report from the “New York Times” about what were described as “coercive interrogation methods” which the CIA has been authorized to use against a select group of al-Qaeda detainees.  Methods so severe that he FBI is said to have directed its agents to stay out of those interrogations of any of those detainees, one of them, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, considered the chief operating officer of al-Qaeda.  Current and former counterterrorism officials the newspaper that Muhammad was subject to a technique called “water boarding,” in it, Muhammad was strapped down, forced underwater, made to believe he might be left there to drown. 

Polls indicating that as much as three-quarters of this country was repulsed by images of American servicemen and women abusing and humiliating ordinary Iraqi workers and prisoners.  It seems, however, unlikely that many would be worried if the man thought to have planned the 9/11 attacks was left with the impression that he was about to die.  The problem, presumably, is that the prospect of methods used against the Khalid Sheikh Muhammads of this world, also might be applied to some guy shoved into Abu Ghraib because he stole a gas—a can of gasoline somewhere. 

Back to former CIA special agent, Jack Rice.  Is there a firewall, Jack?  If the head of the detainee center at Guantanamo can wind up running all the prisons in Iraq, can the special al-Qaeda rules of the CIA conceivably migrate or bleed into military intelligence and then wind up being applied at Abu Ghraib? 

RICE:  I think they can.  The reason is, is they‘re looking for what‘s effective, they‘re looking for the answers are, and they‘re going wherever they think they need to go to get them.  Look I never saw any of this when I was working for CIA, but apparently there has been a shift since 9/11 when it comes to these issues, they‘ve decided to go a different direction, here.  My concern though, when you use torture in situations like this, is that the information you get is unreliable, No. 1, because I can get you to say anything. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes.

RICE:  But, No. 2, there‘s the morale factor, here.  Look, if we‘re trying—if we‘re trying to recruit, essentially, the moderate people of the Middle East, wheat we have just done is we have just forced half a billion Muslims to the extremist side.  That‘s the last place we need these people, we need them to look at us and say, we‘re actually—that they need to understand that we‘re there to help. 

OLBERMANN:  Not to get too grotesque on anybody, but now we‘ve the concept of water boarding on the table.  What else is there in that gray area between, let‘s call it, extreme interrogation and torture? 

RICE:  Well, there were references—Mr. Wolfowitz talked about

today, about sleep deprivation, about controlling environments completely,

about forcing people into particular positions and then keeping them there

under extreme pain, under extreme violence.  Those are the sorts of things

·         now they‘re even claims out there of potentially—of murders out of Afghanistan and elsewhere.  There‘s a lot more going on that has to be addressed.  Obviously the office of the general council at the—at CIA is involved, the Justice Department should be involved, and we‘ll see if anything‘s going to come out of this.  There‘s a lot of political pressure, but there‘s a lot of people in the U.S. who want to see answers. 

OLBERMANN:  Jack Rice, many thanks for your insight, many thanks for your time.

RICE:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  And now what had been, in what the administration clearly had hoped to be the big story today, out of Iraq.  Landing in the middle of a sandstorm, the secretary of defense touched down in Baghdad this morning for his first visit there since February, and though he tour the prison of Abu Ghraib, driving past dozens of Iraqi detainees imprisoned in outdoor camps, Mr. Rumsfeld insisted he was not there to inspect.  Indeed, far from highlighting the failures of U.S. troops, nor the controversy, the secretary appeared to take on the role of morale booster, reassuring hundreds of troops in Baghdad that they still have the confidence of their country. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUMSFELD:  But it‘s important for each of you to know that that is not the values of America and it‘s not your values and I know that and you know that and your families know that and we‘re proud of you, each of you, we‘re proud of your service...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  But Mr. Rumsfeld expressed little pride in reporters during his visit, saying not once, but twice, that he was tuning out the media. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUMSFELD:  I don‘t think it‘ll come as anybody‘s surprise to you that I‘ve stopped reading the newspapers. 

(LAUGHTER)

RUMSFELD:  You‘ve got to keep your sanity somehow. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Back here, Private Lynndie England reportedly just went from the poster girl for American abuse of Iraqi prisoners to an X-rated version of “G.I. Girls Gone Wild.”  Congressman and senators who stayed for the later viewing of the 1,800 unreleased photos and videos from Iraq, say England is depicted in consensual sex with, quote, “multiple partners, other U.S. service personnel,” so an unidentified lawmaker tell the newspaper, the “New York Post.”  Moreover, the acts, as previously widely rumored, take place in front of Iraqi prisoners, inside Abu Ghraib.  On the record, Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota says there were lots of sexual stuff, not of the Iraqis, but of our troops.  It makes one wonder if the new sex photos will lead Ms. England to defend herself the way she did before when the images of abuse were released, saying that she was just following orders. 

It was more than a year ago when Private Jessica Lynch was captured and held prisoner of war, that we realized this was the first American conflict in which women would be risked on the frontlines.  Never, perhaps, did anyone realize that series of risks would not end with injury, death, or imprisonment. 

Joining me now to discuss the swiftly changed role of women in war, Dr. Francine D‘Amico, co-editor of “Gender Camouflage:  Women and the U.S.  Military” and also assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University. 

Dr. D‘Amico, thank you for your time, tonight. 

FRANCINE D‘AMICO, PHD, SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY:  Thanks for inviting me.

OLBERMANN:  Are American service women being changed by being in that environment in Iraq, by being at that prison, or were they these people to begin with? 

D‘AMICO:  I think there‘s a combination.  The situation in Iraq is conducive to behavior that people wouldn‘t normally engage in in their home environment.  They‘re far from home, they‘re in a dangerous situation, they‘re having trouble relating with the people that they‘re guarding, the communication lines, as general—Major General Taguba reports, are not good, and I think there is just general unease. 

OLBERMANN:  The sexual component here, not meaning the sex videotapes, but the pictures of Private England pointing at the genitals of the Iraqi prisoners—if the “I was following orders” defense is not entirely true, can you conceive of what‘s going on here psychologically?  Why—why a woman in that situation would be doing that with a camera on her? 

D‘AMICO:  Well, psychosexual torture has been a technique in military interrogation since the time of the ancient Greeks.  I think part of what‘s happening is that the gender dynamic is well understood between the prisoners and the guards, and the use of or participation of a woman in this type of activity is a tool in the same way that the torture of prisoners in Guatemala and Argentina who were—women who were raped in front of their families was a tool.  It‘s a tool of gender based humiliation, of gender identity attack. 

OLBERMANN:  This nation, I think it‘s fair to say, recoiled when Jessica Lynch and Shoshanna Johnson were held as POWs, a year ago; it‘s recoiled in a different way about Lynndie England.  Are we going to wind up, in this country, reassessing the what and the where of women soldiers in the immediate future? 

D‘AMICO:  Women are only about 10 percent of the forces deployed in

Iraq and Afghanistan, today.  And, If you look at the number of people that

are suspected of improper behavior in the prison situations, not only at

the prison where Specialist—I forgot her name—Lynndie England

OLBERMANN:  England, England...

D‘AMICO:  ...was working, but at Camp Bucca and so on, you‘ll see that proportionately women are a small portion of the people that have been charged.  I know of three of the current seven that are under charges and overall women are a small part of the military police detachment.  So, I don‘t think it‘s a commentary on all women in the military to have one or a handful of women misbehaving, and I think it—unfortunately, by political opponents of women, in the military, it may indeed be manipulated for that purpose. 

OLBERMANN:  Dr. Francine D‘Amico, Syracuse University, many thanks, we appreciate it.

Whether Nicholas Berg was horrifically beheaded as a consequence of the events in Abu Ghraib or if that was just the excuse, the Berg story changed again today, and not in a way that supports the government position that he was never in U.S. custody. 

Berg‘s family today, produced an e-mail dated April 1 from Beth Payne, the U.S. consular official in Baghdad.

“I have confirmed,” the e-mail reads, “that your son, Nick, is being detained by the U.S. military in Mosul.” 

The government continues to insist it never held Berg, only Iraqi police did.  The police in Mosul said, “No, we never held him, he was held by the Americans.”  His family says this matters so much because Berg was asking the U.S. government for help in getting the hell out of there.  They then produced two e-mails from the same consular officer, they also buried their son today, in a ceremony that they closed to the media. 

But before attending his son funeral, this morning Michael Berg placed a sign outside the family‘s Pennsylvania home.  The sign reads, “War is not the answer.”  Although Nicholas Berg said he was a supporter of the war in Iraq, his father today, told a Philadelphia radio station, quote, “my son died for the sins of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.”

And there is tentative confirmation today that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was involved in the murder, as those who posted the videotape on the Internet had claimed.  Unnamed CIA officials have said a voice match has been made with earlier recordings of Zarqawi and that tape there.  U.S.  officials blame the Jordanian-born terrorist for more than a dozen high profile attacks including the March bombings that targeted Shia pilgrims. 

COUNTDOWN starts tonight with the continuing fallout from Abu Ghraib and the death of Nick Berg, including a new prison photo with persuasive context. 

Up next, tonight‘s No. 4 story:  Easing America‘s gas pains:  Weather on the ones, traffic on the sevens, and now your list of cheapest gas stations on the nines. 

And later, it started out as a search for drugs in Mexico, but the pilots are wondering if they have found signs of intelligent life from worlds far, far way.  Earthlings, stand by. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Up next, it‘s not often that we‘re pushy enough to say “stick around and watch, because we‘ll save you money,” but if you‘re fed up with your high gas prices you may want to see tonight‘s No. 4 story, which is next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  This just in:  Gas prices are going through the roof.  Our fourth story in the COUNTDOWN:  If you hadn‘t heard that you‘ve either been off the planet for a while, or you‘re not a driver.  It has been like people talking about the weather, everybody complains, nobody does anything.  But, ah, our correspondent Ann Thompson, reports somebody now has done something about the gas pain.  They are trying to show you how to cut corners. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BILL POLISH, KFBW RADIO:  We‘re trying to track down some of the best...

ANNE THOMPSON, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  It maybe the most important news delivered in Los Angeles.

POLISH:  ...At the Texaco station at Delano and Cherry in Long Beach, $2.17 for regular...

THOMPSON:  Every half hour, KFWB tells listeners where they can find cheap gas. 

POLISH:  A lot of people are happy that somebody has stepped into the

·         into the gap here and is providing them with that kind of information. 

THOMPSON:  Prices crucial to Dave Weiss, who fills his SUV a couple of times a week. 

DAVE WEISS, MOTORIST:  I‘ll drive anywhere to find the cheapest gas. 

THOMPSON:  The pursuit of cheap gas is not just a hobby, it‘s a business for Jason Toews, his 4-year-old Web site, gasbuddy.com, is now getting 300,000 hits a day, a 10-fold increase from January.

Drivers can find the lowest prices in 174 areas in the U.S. and Canada, before they ever get behind the wheel.

JASON TOEWS, GASBUDDY.COM:  You could actually find a variance of 20 to 30 cents per gallon within the same metro area, and that‘s very common, actually. 

THOMPSON:  New environmental regulations, the vulnerability of the oil pipelines in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and fears of a shortage as demand increases, have driven gas prices to record-shattering highs, and there is no relief in sight, say experts, until after the first get-away weekend of the summer, Memorial Day. 

JOHN KILDUFF, ENERGY ANALYST:  Refiners have ramped up production, imports of gasoline are surging, literally from around the world, and I think after Memorial Day the call will have been met and we‘re going to be able to see that supplies are sufficient, enabling prices to fall.

THOMPSON:  Anne Thompson, NBC News, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Or do what Terry Blake did, the 71-year-old Canadian drove into an Esso at Simcoe, Ontario, filled up with what the pump indicated was about 25 bucks worth of gas and he gave the attendant a 20.  “That would be the fairs price,” Blake explained.  Blake says if everybody did what he did, the price, quote, “Would come down pretty fast.”  And he should know, because Mr. Blake is a retired gas station owner. 

Another way you can check out cheap gas prices in your area, go to our web page, countdown.msnbc.com.  While you‘re there, make sure to sign up for the COUNTDOWN newsletter.  That‘s all at countdown.msnbc.com.

Past the forth item tonight, up next:  Those stories that do not get an COUNTDOWN number, that means only one thing, “Oddball” is next.  “Ghostbusters,” the movie, from the land of make-believe—we will meet someone who may not exactly get that concept, make-believe. 

And later another “American Idol” controversy?  We‘ll investigate.  Hey, we‘re doing the story, nowhere does it say I have to be as wigged out about it as the show‘s fans are.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

And now, COUNTDOWN to the Athens Olympics:  Greatness comes to hurdler Allen Johnson, quietly.  The 1996 Olympic gold medalist, and four-time world champion is one of track‘s most decorated athletes.  His determination is silently relentless.  He simply puts if his work, day after day, driving himself to achieve his ambition in Athens of winning his second Olympic gold medal. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We‘re back and we take time out from the COUNTDOWN now to travel from the news of the world to the news of the weird.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

We begin in London.  And trust the British to render NASCAR down to its essential entertainment ingredients—smashy, smashy.  Actually they just stuck that little ramp in the middle of the track, but good on you, anyway, dozens gathered in Wimbledon Stadium to see this event, cleverly named the “British Roll-Over Championship.”  Here we use SUVs.  No. 117, Tony Green of Corydon, was the winner.  He, fittingly, is in the scrap metal business.  Well, if he wasn‘t before, he sure is now!

Maybe rolling over cars isn‘t your bag, maybe you‘re like this guy and all you need is, to keep sane, a few hours a day by going into the backyard dressed up like a ghostbusters.  Well, you‘re in luck my phantom fighting friend, because Sparky here, is selling the whole shebang, he‘s wearing there, on eBay.  Bidding has surpassed the $2,000 mark for this item which includes the suit, the radio, the tool belt, and an unlicensed protean accelerator pack.  You provide the money and the eight D-cells, on which the whole thing runs.  That‘s kind of disillusioning, isn‘t it?  It runs on D-cell batteries?  The seller says he built this all himself over the period of a year, and claims, quote, “It is considered to be one of the top five reproductions by industry professionals.  Do you mean there are four more guys like you out there?

In other eBay news, if you‘re not doing anything a week from Saturday, Pete and Holly of Watertown, New York, would like you to be in their wedding, in fact they‘d like you to be in their wedding as best man or best woman for a fee.  Bidding started at $99.99 as a minimum.  They‘re warnings to would-be bidders, no running off with the wedding cake, and no hitting on the bride or the groom.  No offense, but—that picture, you guys may be safe on that last score. 

Finally, from “Oddball,” tonight, former instructor, Jeremy Kerr, is threatening to sue Georgetown College of Lexington, Kentucky, over its decision not to renew his contract to teach there this fall.  He says it‘s clear case of sexual discrimination.  Hmm.  I‘m no lawyer, but, ah—Mr.  Kerr is a cross-dresser who says he has worn women‘s classing since teaching classes at another school, never at Georgetown, so what‘s the big problem, here?  His theory is that the school is reacting to recent publicity that ensued after two restaurants in town threw him out. 

No shirt, no pants, no service.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEREMY KERR, CROSS-DRESSING TEACHER:  This may be a combination of discrimination against me for my sex and the cloths I‘m wearing, however if a woman walked in with the same clothes, she would be served.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

So, we‘ll change that phrase from “No shirt, no pants, no service” to “no corsets, for the love of god, no corsets!”

COUNTDOWN will pick back up with our No. 3 story in a moment, you preview:  John Kerry‘s White House strategy.  Can you really win just because of voter displeasure with the un-incumbent president?  Howard Fineman will join us for an explanation.

And later, the search for intelligent life:  No, not in Washington, outer space.  Did we just have a close encounter of the third kind over the skies of Mexico? 

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

No. 3:  Five boys aged 11 to 16 in South Hollow, Brazil, they walk into a local ice cream parlor and stick the place up with a pellet gun.  They didn‘t take any money, they just took ice cream and they were apprehended while eating the evidence.

No. 2:  Tony Ashmawi, owner of a clothing store in New York.  Business has been so bad, he decided to put up a big sign out front and have himself a sale.  The sign reads, “Business Sucks.”  He now says it‘s booming. 

And, No. 1, Greg Burson, the voice of the cartoon character Yogi the bear, was apparently intoxicated when he barricaded himself inside his L.A.  home and held a police SWAT team at bay for 5 ½ hours before he surrendered:  I‘m smarter than the average cop, Boo-Boo.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  As of Monday, Ralph Nader‘s presidential campaign consisted of a lawsuit against the secretary of state of Texas complaining that the state‘s ballot laws were too stringent.  Today, things may have changed.

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, the presidential race and in particular the decision by the Reform Party to endorse Nader, the brain child of Ross Perot, with which he got 19 million votes in the 1992 election, the Reform endorsement giving Nader the opportunity to get on the ballot in seven states.  No guarantee.  There are still more petitions and conventions and endorsements to deal with. 

Colorado, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, South Carolina and, most importantly, Michigan and Florida, the latter two obviously key swing states that are expected to be hotly contested in November and before then.  The prospect of having Nader on the ballot again in Florida adding to the obstacles facing the presumed Democratic nominee for president.

Overshadowed first by the fierce month of fighting in Iraq and now by the growing scandal over prisoner abuse there, John Kerry has had a hard time even getting on the radar of many voters this late spring.  But the events that have kept him out of the spotlight might be the very ones that carry him to the White House. 

That‘s the theory of “Newsweek”‘s senior political correspondent, Howard Fineman, who writes that Kerry‘s strategy is to campaign as the default candidate to a president who appears to be losing control. 

Howard Fineman joins us now from Washington.

Howard, good evening.

HOWARD FINEMAN, NBC CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  I‘ve now asked this question three times of three different people in the last two weeks.  Can anybody really win a presidential race solely because the incumbent is disliked?  I thought that that was disproved by Thomas E. Dewey and Harry Truman. 

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN:  Well, not necessarily, I don‘t think. 

I think this is a war situation in which the theory of John Kerry may work.  I‘m not saying it will work, Keith.  I‘m not predicting that he is going to win.  It‘s just he‘s a guy I‘ve covered for a long time and I think I understand his political persona, which is very much akin to his favorite sport, which is wind-surfing. 

He knows how to adjust the sails.  He is constantly adjusting the sails.  He actually doesn‘t really mind being called a flip-flopper, which has been the main theme of Republican attacks against him, as long as he, John Kerry, ends up in the right place at the right time.  When he was in front of a bunch of fund-raisers a month or two ago, he said, my goal is to preserve my acceptability.

How‘s that for a ringing slogan about yourself? 

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN:  And that‘s all he‘s trying to do.  He‘s trying to be in the right place at the right time and be the unavoidable choice.  Ralph Nader does pose a potential threat to that strategy, but that‘s what Kerry‘s pursuing. 

OLBERMANN:  John Zogby, the pollster, was on the show the other night, and he said that it‘s Kerry‘s to lose right now, because all the numbers for Mr. Bush are softening in areas that he was supposed to be extremely solid in, and that the undecideds in a political presidential race, when there is an incumbent, they undecide late.  And when they undecide, they tend to undecide against the incumbent.  Is that part of the strategy, too? 

FINEMAN:  Yes, I think so.  I think that‘s a pretty standard analysis of political history. 

That‘s why the Bush-Cheney people are obsessed with keeping George Bush‘s approval rating above 50 percent, which in the last week it‘s dropped below 50, anywhere from 45 to 47, depending on which poll.  So what will happen, Kerry hopes, is that late in the campaign, he‘ll still be within a few points.  Bush will be under 50 percent in approval.  And voters will reject Nader as a nonstarter.

And they will turn to Kerry, however reluctantly, as a guy with military background who is running really as an alternative commander in chief, saying that he has the strength of military experience, but that he is smarter and can be more of a diplomat. 

Again, no big visions.  Kerry is never under the illusion that people are going to love him, that he will be beloved.  He just wants to be in the right place at the right time.  It‘s worked throughout his career.  He‘s never cared whether he was liked.  But he cares to win in the end. 

OLBERMANN:  In 30 seconds that are left, how worried would the Democrats and Mr. Kerry be right now with this news of Ralph Nader and the endorsement of the Reform Party? 

FINEMAN:  I they are they‘re concerned about it.  And I think they should be concerned.  Nader is pulling 5 or 6 or even 7 percent in some polls.  Kerry‘s going to have to fight that two-front war.  I think the Democrats are confident they can have people turn away from Nader at the end.  We‘ll see.

OLBERMANN:  Howard Fineman of “Newsweek,” who goes into this at length and as usual in reading, it is well worth your time.  Thanks, again, my friend. 

FINEMAN:  Thank you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Up next on COUNTDOWN, the No. 2 story, the democracy that is reality television, fans crying recount after LaToya London, the singer with the best odds...

(SNORING)

OLBERMANN:  I‘m sorry.  I‘m sorry.  We‘ll take it seriously when we get back.  Also, the very rarest of things here on COUNTDOWN, a sports highlight, something so cool we think everyone will be left going, woo-hoo. 

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) 

JESSE VENTURA, FORMER MINNESOTA GOVERNOR:  And I think that you‘re just—you‘re seeing a trend in people that I think of personal responsibility, that government can‘t do everything for everyone. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I have a certain reputation at this school. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Tough. 

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH:  Yes, I ran into your kind when I was in high school. 

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

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

CONAN O‘BRIEN, HOST:  Thanks to the NBC-Universal merger, I can now show a “Walker, Texas Ranger” clip any time I want for no reason at all. 

(LAUGHTER)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “WALKER, TEXAS RANGER”)

CHUCK NORRIS, ACTOR:  Amigo!  Amigo!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Coming up, a brand new “American Idol” outrage, then out-of-this-world contacts, perhaps.  Which of these two stories will be crowned our No. 1?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  In one of its 100 classic scenes, the landmark Orson Welles film “Citizen Kane” shows a newspaper editor lifting up each of two potential headlines describing the outcome of Kane‘s run for governor.  The first reads, “Kane Elected.”  The second reads, “Fraud At Polls.” 

Our second story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, viewers of the TV reality show “American Idol” are holding up that “Fraud At Polls” headline again.  Contestant LaToya London was one of four finalists going into a disco-themed night of performances this week.  She was also one of the show‘s three divas who had been predicted to clash head on for the title. 

The others were Fantasia Barrino and Jennifer Hudson.  Hudson was voted off the program four weeks ago.  Barrino and London finished at the bottom of the vote last night.  Barrino lives to sing another week, but Ms.  London left, albeit on a high note. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “AMERICAN IDOL”)

LATOYA LONDON, CONTESTANT (singing):  It‘s going to rain on my parade.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  That didn‘t sound like disco. 

As we often do when pop culture controversies have a stranglehold on the news cycle, we turn to “The Village Voice” columnist and frequent guest of COUNTDOWN, Michael Musto to untangle it all. 

Michael, good evening.

MICHAEL MUSTO, “THE VILLAGE VOICE”:  Hi, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  So, what happened here? 

MUSTO:  I love the comparison to “Citizen Kane.”  That‘s not something you hear often, by the way. 

(LAUGHTER)

MUSTO:  What happened?  Maybe the voters confused with the LaToya, who really don‘t have any talent. 

This girl can sing.  She sang “Don‘t Rain on My Parade” after they booted her off.  She sang it through her tears.  And she really proved she has star quality.  But I don‘t know.  Maybe race really is a factor here in the voting.  I denied it last time, but now it‘s starting to be more credible.  And also, insiders tell me that text-messaging is the best way to get your vote across.  A lot of times, you can‘t get through on a simple, old-fashioned phone call.

So a lot of the people voting are very young.  And they‘re going for this Diana chick on the show.  She‘s like 3 years old.  Actually, she is 16.  But she is the young one on the show.  And LaToya is maybe too old-school. 

OLBERMANN:  So we again raise this ugly R word or our choice of ugly R words, racism, or, as Elton John had suggested four weeks back when the untalented red-headed kid survived and somebody else didn‘t, there‘s another one, rigged.  Is it possible that this is not on the level? 

MUSTO:  A reality show rigged? 

OLBERMANN:  Yes. 

MUSTO:  I‘m really disillusioned.  Next, you‘re going to tell me “The 64 Million Question” was rigged.

OLBERMANN:  Fraud at polls!

(LAUGHTER)

MUSTO:  Yes. 

You know what?  I still want to be naive and check my mind at the door and believe that this is all true and it simply reflects the quirks of the American public.  There are crazy ideas out there and some people for a couple weeks thought the red-headed guy was OK.  And now actually a lot of them like this Diana girl because at least she‘s evolved on the show.  She started out really awful.  And she‘s gotten better, as Simon even has admitted. 

And one problem with LaToya was, she was dynamite from day one, so you didn‘t see her grow. 

OLBERMANN:  Is it potentially are we seeing, in the continuing, extended 15 minutes of William Hung and this now ripoff of the William Hung failure as its own kind of game show, kind of reality show on the Warner Bothers network, where they‘re going to have people win by being the worst singer, is there any kind of backlash perhaps against actual talent? 

Have people just had it with people who can actually sing and they would rather see some guy is, as you said, evolving? 

MUSTO:  That‘s what we‘re learning from this whole phenomenon is that now even the rotten people are creating spinoffs.  And William Hung has imitators.  You can‘t imitate bad singing.  Either you have that kind of talent or you don‘t. 

But, meanwhile, I‘m not that upset about this whole trend, because I make a living feeding off of trash culture.  I think it‘s disturbing if you take it too seriously and don‘t realize that you need a little perspective on this.  But there‘s no harm in kind of immersing yourself in this on a superficial level. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes, it beats looking at those pictures from the prison in Iraq all day long, put it that way.

MUSTO:  Yes.  I mean, to me,that‘s superficial and twisted. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, it‘s twisted, certainly.

Michael Musto, the columnist of “The Village Voice,” friend of COUNTDOWN, simply put, sir, this is an outrage. 

MUSTO:  I‘m pleased to be your “American Idol” correspondent.  Thank you so much.  I‘m so honored. 

OLBERMANN:  Thank you, Michael.

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  A perfect segue night from our No. 2 story into our rundown of the unwashed, the unloved and the unbearable, celeb and gossip news in “Keeping Tabs.”

“Friends” may have disappeared, “Frasier‘ now, “The Practice,” but “Law & Order” keeps on rolling.  NBC and producer Dick Wolf have announced the reupping through at least the spring of 2006 of all of the various “Law & Order” series, original “Law & Order,” “Law & Order: SVU, “Law & Order:

Criminal and Intent, “Law & Order: Trial By Jury,” “Law & Order Light,” “Law & Order: Tartar Control,” and, of course “Law & Order: Special Courtney Love Unit.”

And in a shocker, we are tonight going to show you a sports highlight.  This was so impressive, even the nonfan may enjoy this.  All you need to know to get it is that, while in baseball it is three strikes and you‘re out, if you have got two strikes and you hit the next pitch into foul territory, that foul ball does not count as a strike.  You can keep fouling them off forever. 

Ask Alex Cora of the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Against pitcher Matt Clement of the Cubs last night, Cora makes the count two balls and two strikes, as he fouls one off.  Well, now make it two.  That‘s a foul, and a foul.  There‘s a foul and then a foul, and a foul ball.  Oh, that‘s foul.  This one is foul.  A little foul.  That‘s foul.  This one‘s foul.  A little foul.  Fourteen fouls.  Fifteen?  Not quite.

It‘s deep and I don‘t think it‘s playable.  On the 18th pitch of the at-bat, after 14 straight foul balls, he hits a home run.  The baseball record, by the way, is believed to belong to Billy Hamilton, a Hall of Fame outfielder from the 1890s.  In one at-bat, he fouled off 29 consecutive pitches.  Sorry we couldn‘t show you that here. 

Up next, strange lights above the skies of Mexico.  Maybe it‘s E.T.  and his pals coming to celebrate the NBC-Universal merger.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  There it was staring us straight in the face last night.  We gave it 30 seconds in “Oddball.”  It may very well that been that aliens from the planet Skyron in the galaxy of Andromeda, two million, 200,000 light years away, come to see us here at COUNTDOWN world headquarters.  And we gave them 30 seconds in “Oddball.”

Our No. 1 story tonight, we are going to revisit the story of the unexplained lights that had the Mexican air force so stumped that they went public with it. 

George Lewis tonight from Los Angeles. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE LEWIS, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  These strange lights were spotted by pilots from the Mexican air force during a routine drug survivor mission over the southern Mexican state of Campeche.  There are 10, 11 objects, one flier tells the tower.  We don‘t know what we are seeing, says another. 

The video was taken with an infrared camera on a surveillance plane like this one.  The Mexican secretary of defense said Wednesday the military has not come to any definite conclusions about the lights.  The video, shot in March, was first made public this week by Mexican UFO investigator Jaime Maussan, telling reporters, this is historic. 

He is a partner in a company that sells UFO pictures over the Internet.

(on camera):  And while some may see a profit motive behind Maussan‘s release of these pictures, one UFO expert in California says the public should keep an open mind about them for now.

Dr. Bernard Haisch, an astronomer, runs a Web site called UFOSkeptic.org. 

BERNARD HAISCH, UFOSKEPTIC.ORG:  I have no idea what it might be, natural phenomenon or what, but certainly I don‘t think it‘s something you ought to just dismiss out of hand. 

LEWIS:  The Mexican pilots were not dismissing it out of hand, one of them wisecracking, “We are not alone.”

George Lewis, NBC News, Los Angeles.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  The investigator, Maussan, defined the veracity of the video this way—quoting here—“The armed forces don‘t perpetuate frauds.”  Of course, other UFO investigators insist that the supposed incident in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 was covered up via fraud by the armed forces. 

American armed forces saying that UFOs were actually part of a squadron of new stealth bombers practicing maneuvers in the area.

Joining me now to separate fraud from fact, Stanton Friedman, a nuclear physicist, pioneer in the field of ufology.  His forthcoming book is called “Flying Saucers and Science.”

Mr. Friedman, good evening. 

STANTON T. FRIEDMAN, AUTHOR, “FLYING SAUCERS AND SCIENCE”:  Good evening, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Reports now that this is some new stealth—similar to the F-117-A.  Do you buy that? 

FRIEDMAN:  No, I don‘t buy it at all.

First place, we wouldn‘t be testing them down there.  In the second place, there were too many of them.  And in the third place, stealth normally applies to radar.  They were seen on radar.  They weren‘t seen visually, but they were seen by sophisticated infrared equipment.  So it makes no sense that we would be doing this.  We would be using them over in Iraq is what we‘d be doing.

OLBERMANN:  Yes. 

Is there any—if it‘s not stealth fighters, are there any natural earthbound explanations for this? 

FRIEDMAN:  Well, I sure can‘t see one.  I have heard all kinds of ones, space debris, meteorites.  It makes no sense.

They were in formation.  They were around the object.  The sighting lasted for many, many minutes.  They took off at very high speed.  We know that the information came from the Mexican Department of Defense.  They say there‘s no national security impact.  I think if there were bombers flying over their country, they would be worried about that.  Wouldn‘t you?

OLBERMANN:  Yes. 

But what I want to know is, how hopped up ufologists about this?  Where does this rank among the supposed sightings and perhaps the real sightings in the last 57 years? 

FRIEDMAN:  Well, it ranks high because of the source of the information.  When was the last time a U.S. government military official gave you footage taken by military aircraft of strange stuff that‘s flying around?

The cosmic Watergate is real.  And, unfortunately, it is very hard to get data out of the U.S. or even the Canadian government.  So this is a real break with past practice in North America by military persons. 

OLBERMANN:  A big picture question.  Maybe this is too philosophical and we‘re—I‘m staring at one of the great breakthrough moments in the history of the world and I‘m asking you a philosophical question.

But why do you think, if they keep coming here, we have not had that “Klaatu Barada Nikto” big moment?  Why do they seem to keep coming to this planet and never stopping to visit with all of us?  Essentially, these look like drive-by aliens? 

FRIEDMAN:  Are we worth talking to?  I think they‘re here—frankly, one paper I did has 26 reasons.  But I think the biggest reason is to quarantine us.  If you were an alien, would you want us out there?  We‘re a primitive society whose major activity is tribal warfare.  I think they are concerned that we will take our brand of friendship, obviously hostility, out there, which, if you were an alien, you would want to be very wary of these characters here. 

Of course, we don‘t know that there hasn‘t been contact with government, but they have not landed on my lawn.  And I don‘t think they have landed on the White House lawn either. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes, when they show up in the studio, then we will officially declare that they are here. 

Well, we‘ll follow this one. 

Stanton T. Friedman, the author of “Flying Saucers and Science,” many thanks for your time, sir. 

FRIEDMAN:  My pleasure.

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

No. 5, new evidence of abuse as interrogation technique in Abu Ghraib prison, this photo obtained exclusively by NBC News showing what a soldier says are four military intelligence officers and a civilian translator and one of the military guards under investigation—he is the one who supplied the photo, or his lawyer did—all are standing around a pile of naked Iraqi prisoners.  This may have been a violation of the Geneva Convention.

Four, seeking remedy for the gas pain, consumers increasingly turning to radio stations and Internet sites that monitor local gas stations to find out the cheapest gallon for your buck.  Three, the John Kerry plan.  According to Howard Fineman, the presidential hopeful is not planning to wow voters.  He is basically going for a game of attrition with President Bush.

Two, reality rigged?  One of the favorites to win “American Idol” gets voted off.  And, No. 1, strange skies to the south, 11 UFOs in Mexico.  They didn‘t come here.

That‘s COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for being part of it.  I‘m Keith Olbermann. 

Good night and good luck. 

END   

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