updated 6/17/2004 12:15:18 PM ET 2004-06-17T16:15:18

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

Negotiating with terrorists: how the U.S. is trying to get Paul Johnson freed in Saudi Arabia without actually bargaining with his abductors. 

Memo to the vice president: the 9/11 Commission finds, quote, “no credible evidence” unquote, of any link between al-Qaeda and Iraq.  Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste joins us tonight. 

“Fahrenheit 9/11:” if it was not political before, it is sure is now.  Michael Moore hires someone to fight the “R” rating, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo.  But, what of the film itself?  We‘ll ask one of the few to see it Michael Musto. 

And are you fat?  Are you bald?  For some of you, Mr. Science has really good news, tonight.  For the rest of you, Mr. Science is investing in weight loss clinic stocks. 

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening.  It is a bold pronouncement as ancient, probably, as the first abduction itself.  We do not negotiate with kidnappers.  And what does it mean when it is said at the same time that a young man in Trenton, New Jersey says, “Please let my father come home and be a grandfather.”

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, tonight: our crises in Saudi Arabia and Iraq beginning with the kidnapping of Paul Johnson, Jr.  The State Department spokesman today saying, the U.S. government is trying to authenticate the tape in which the man identifies himself as Johnson, an employee of Lockheed Martin. 

His abductors now identifying themselves as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, say they will kill Johnson unless al-Qaeda suspects in three prisons there are released.  Sources telling the “Associated Press” that the 49-year-old Johnson has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for nearly a decade.  And helped train the Saudi military to use Lockheed Martin night vision goggles.  But we do not, the maxim goes, negotiate with kidnappers, certainly not with terrorists.  So what to do to save life of Paul Johnson? 

Former deputy director with the State Department‘s office of Counter-terrorism and former CIA officer Larry Johnson join us again tonight, not related to the kidnapped man.

Larry, good evening.

LARRY JOHNSON, FMR.  CIA OFFICER:  Hi, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Larry, what can this country do in this situation? 

Presumably, what are we doing right now?

JOHNSON:  Well, no negotiation, that‘s the sound bite.  The reality is, if you can open a dialogue and talk, you do want to do that, because if nothing else, it‘s going to give you an opportunity to try to pinpoint the location of these folks.  Plus, if you can enter into negotiation and delay their threat, push back their deadline, you can possibly improve your chances of saving the other Mr. Johnson‘s life. 

OLBERMANN:  The FBI has sent two men over there.  Do we know what they would be doing? 

JOHNSON:  Yes, this is part of a prepared contingency that the U.S.  government has.  They‘re part of an interagency team known as the Foreign Emergency Support Team.  Those individuals will be there to provide advice to the government of Saudi Arabia, if requested, to work with the Saudi police and the military, whoever‘s got the specific responsibility. 

OLBERMANN:  Is Mr. Johnson‘s employer likely to be working its own track in a situation, Lockheed Martin? 

JOHNSON:  If was Lockheed Martin, I‘d be also running my traps behind the scenes.  There‘s a tendency of the corporations to fully trust what the U.S. government‘s doing.  Lockheed‘s got a fairly large presence there.  They‘re going to reach out and see what they can do, as well, to try to identify the location of this employee.

OLBERMANN:  Do you suppose, on a bigger level, that we are now, to some degree, reaping the after effects of having negotiated with say, Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf in Iraq?  I realize he was not a kidnapper, he was not a terrorist, per se.  But, is that distinction something we see, but the criminals in the Arab world do not necessarily see? 

JOHNSON:  Yes, Keith, I think that‘s a really important point, because when you look at the 9/11 hearings, today, and I know you‘re getting to that story later.  It was this imitation of perceptions that the United States has retreated or surrendered. 

For example, when the U.S. pulled out of Somalia, that was perceived by bin Laden and his organization as a defeat.  When we make these bold threats that we‘re going to go into Fallujah and punish people and we don‘t carry through on it, we back out, that‘s viewed as a defeat, so there‘s a tendency to think the United States is not going to retaliate or not going to act and I think that‘s an unfortunate message to send. 

OLBERMANN:  Larry Johnson formerly of the State Department and CIA. 

Thanks for your insight and time tonight, sir. 

JOHNSON:  Thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  And while the clock ticks, the minutes are especially long for the family of Paul Johnson.  Our correspondent, Ron Allen, is outside the home of Johnson‘s sister, this is at Tuckerton, New Jersey. 

Ron, good evening. 

RON ALLEN, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Keith.  I‘m sure all day family has been hanging on every word from every expert and analyst, like the interview you just did, trying to figure out what‘s the possibility of their loved one being released. 

And as far as we can determine, they‘ve really heard nothing firm today.  They did speak out in an interview, not before our cameras.  And they basically, again, made a plea to the Saudi government to do everything it can to get the release of Paul Johnson.  They believe that this tape—that the Saudi government is capable of doing this. 

They continue to say that he is a man who had no ill feelings toward the Saudi people.  That he respects the culture and their way of life, that he had made contributions through his work at Lockheed Martin there.  He‘d been there for more than a decade and he was certainly part of the community and certainly knew the risks of living there.  Some people in the community that we‘ve been talking to are certainly rallying behind the family.  We‘ve seen a lot of yellow ribbons, a lot of American flags flying.  Some people are also having a difficult time looking at the pictures of Johnson being held captive. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I got a glimpse of one picture and I left. 

Because I—it‘s too close to home. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I just hope that Paul comes home safe and I‘ll just pray for him and just hope he comes home. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Oh, I feel so sorry for him and the family. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ALLEN:  I think the family, to use their words, is just absolutely numb and dumbfounded by exactly what has happened.  In their conversations with Paul Johnson, he never gave any indication that he was concerned about his own personal safety, they‘re completely shocked and taken aback by what has happened.  The community is certainly rallying around them. 

We understand that there are plans for a candlelight vigil tomorrow night at some point, as the clock ticks down to the deadline sometime Friday.  The family, again, on the phone all day hoping and praying for news, good news, to come from Saudi Arabia, but that of course has not been the case as of yet—Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Ron Allen at Tuckerton, New Jersey.  Many thanks. 

Before Paul Johnson‘s kidnappers, and Paul Johnson does have a grandson there in New Jersey he has never seen—before the kidnappers threatened to kill him, they had issued another threat that subjected him to the same abuse Iraqi prisoners had suffered at the hands of Americans. 

While Johnson‘s kidnappers may be darkly manipulating that shame for their own end, a new poll indicating tonight that the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal has had a far-reaching impact on Iraqi opinion.  “Newsweek” and the “Associated Press” have obtained the results of the first poll conducted by the Coalition Provisional Authority since the prison scandal broke.  And the numbers are not encouraging. 

When asked how they would feel if coalition forces were to leave immediately, 55 percent answered “more safe.”  That number has almost doubled since January among Iraqis.  Also tonight, a staggering 97 percent of them said they viewed coalition as occupiers.  Only 2 percent of Iraqis Americans and coalition forces as liberator.  And perhaps most disturbing of all, when asked about that prison abuse, 54 percent of Iraqis said, they believed all Americans are like this. 

News tonight of a prisoner at Abu Ghraib who was not abused, just hidden, and on the instructions of the secretary of defense.  Jim Miklaszewski reporting exclusively from the Pentagon tonight, that late last year, Donald Rumsfeld ordered General Ricardo Sanchez to take an Ansar al-Islam terrorist, quote, “off the books at the prison.”  To not let him be seen by visiting Red Cross inspectors, to hold him incommunicado, where he remains.  His treatment, a possible violation of international law that tracks directly back to Mr. Rumsfeld.  Much more on this story at our Web site at MSNBC.com. 

There is more tonight to worry about, though, than just violations and opinions.  For the second time in as many days, a key oil pipeline has been attacked in Iraq, completely shutting down the nation‘s oil industry.  The first hit came to the north where insurgents attacked a pipeline near the city of Kirkuk, the same one that was hit yesterday.  While workers struggled to control that blaze, a second blast rocked another critical oil conduit this morning in southern Iraq. 

Meanwhile north of Baghdad, there was little peace for U.S. forces.  A rocked attack at a base near Balad, it killed three U.S. soldiers, wounded 25 others, two of them civilians. 

And as the bloody stream of infrastructure attacks and ambushes ushers us towards the June 30 handover deadline, at least one Republican Senator is becoming increasingly vocal about the problems that may yet lay ahead.  In an interview on the “Today” show, John McCain of Arizona suggesting that if we want to see security along with sovereignty in Iraq, we may have to consider sending in more troops. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  Well you can‘t have democracy unless

we have security.  We don‘t have enough troops over there and we have still

·         and I‘m very, very concerned.  Having said all that, the option of losing is not an acceptable option.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  COUNTDOWN opening tonight again, with hostilities facing Americans in the Middle East.  Coming up later, the 9/11 Commission‘s detailed account of the attack on America.  How much worse that day could have been and how little Iraq or Saddam Hussein had to do with it. 

But up next, the No. 4 story: the economic recovery, it‘s everywhere, right?  So why are so few feeling any recovery in their wallets?  Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Up next, tonight‘s No. 4 story, your preview: the middle class squeeze.  Can there really be an economic recovery going on if millions of Americans say they can‘t feel it nor see it or smell it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Got milk?  How about getting milked?  In parts of the country, the price of a gallon now twice that of a gallon of gas.  Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, tonight: it‘s the economic recovery, stupid.  At least that‘s what we‘re all being told.  Something like job growth may sound great, but it isn‘t doing much to disabuse middle class of the notion that they‘re getting hosed at the checkout counter.  Carl Quintanilla among those feeling the squeeze.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CARL QUINTANILLA, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  They‘re calling at this time middle class blues. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  No, I don‘t have faith that the economy is stronger at all. 

QUINTANILLA:  The feeling that happy days aren‘t quite here yet.  From Chicago...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The price of living continues to go up. 

QUINTANILLA:  To Fort Lauderdale. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I‘ve never been in a, like, depression but I think this is pretty close to it. 

QUINTANILLA:  The numbers, of course, say different.  A million new jobs added since February.  Gas prices back below $2, the cheapest in a month, enough to give comfort to some. 

TIM HOGEN, BANK PRESIDENT:  It feels like the economy is expanding and has formed a solid base, sure.

QUINTANILLA:  But overall, the price of life in America is up from last year.  Everything from hospital visits to tuition.  Last month alone, milk prices made their single biggest jump since World War II. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The cost of food is going up.  Everything is going up.  I don‘t see prices falling.

QUINTANILLA:  And with the uncertainty in Iraq, economists say Americans, if they‘re going to feel confident, need more time. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We need to see month after month of economic growth to convince people that this recovery does have legs. 

QUINTANILLA:  The big risk now, interest rates.  Inflation may force them higher.  That means higher credit card bills and a tougher housing market.  More worries for a nervous nation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I don‘t really know what to think at this point. 

QUINTANILLA:  And a nervous middle class. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Middle class isn‘t middle class anymore, it‘s becoming like lower class because you can‘t afford to do anything. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Carl Quintanilla tonight, reporting on our No. 4 story.  Prices up, volume of bunnies in California also up.  Way up.  That can only mean one thing.  That‘s right, it‘s almost time for “Oddball.”  That was a frightening looking bunny. 

And later, the fight over “Fahrenheit 9/11,” it is Michael Moore calling in a heavyweight political player to help fight the planned “R” rating.  We will call in a heavyweight observer of the passing parade who has seen the film and can actually tell us about the rating and the controversy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We have returned and we pause the COUNTDOWN to bring you the news produced by weird people and even weirder animals.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

Follow only if ye be men of valor for the entrance to this mobile home park in (UNINTELLIGIBLE), California, is guarded by creatures so foul, so cruel that no man yet has fought with them and lived.  If do you doubt your courage or your strength, come no further for death awaits you all with nasty big pointy teeth.  Yes, once a gain, life imitates a Monty Python sketch.  Somebody‘s pet rabbits escaped, cohabitated with indigenous local rabbit population, next thing you know, this trailer park‘s being run by rabbits.  The local SPCA is planning a bunny round-up this weekend, but some residents hope to save at least a few of them.  Look, that rabbit‘s got a vicious streak a mile wide.  It is a killer.  He‘s got huge sharp—he can leap about.  Look at the bones!

And now to the highways of Madison County, Ohio, in this case and that is an experimental Cap 232 stunt plane and the pilot‘s experimental runway, State Route 40.  Right after takeoff, the thing lost power, skidded 400 feet through a corn field, and ended up here on this side of the highway.  Kind of like the scene “North by Northwest.”  Pilot unhurt, but how do they get that plane out there now?  What do they wait around for AAA? 

Funny thing to ask.  The same thing happens in Vero Beach, Florida and they called a tow truck.  This single engine Piper making an emergency landing on Highway One, after it lost its way on—its power on its way to Miami.  Going about 80 miles an hour when it landed, continuing several blocks before stopping.  The 56-year-old pilot said, quote, “at least I made the green light.”  Nobody injured but after that remark, but they are giving that pilot hourly CAT scans. 

The constant viewer will remember Dr. Ed Siegel, the Solana Beach, California psychologist who thinks the national anthem can be healed by bringing it down a notch, singing it not in B flat but in the lower key, G sharp. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. ED SIEGEL, PSYCHOLOGIST (SINGING):  ...and the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air...

OLBERMANN:  I can do it.  I can do it.

SIEGEL:  There you go, all right.

OLBERMANN:  Beautiful.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Dr. Siegel‘s demonstration on COUNTDOWN last night just before he went into the Solana Beach City Council and asked them to approve the key change.  While one small leap for man, the council approved Dr.  Siegel‘s proposal unanimously.  The problem, as an expert musician pointed out to us, is not so much singing the anthem in G sharp, but having woodwind instruments and saxophones try to play it in G sharp, which might sound a little like—well, flatulence. 

And one more “Oddball” update, you may remember this incident at a Texas Rangers baseball game over the weekend.  An adult, we‘ll use that term advisedly, man dives for a foul ball in the stands, roughly knocking into a 4-year-old boy, then refusing to do the obvious right thing and give the kid the ball. 

The Texas Rangers have, tonight, announce that that fan, Mr. Matt Starr, has “volunteered” to give the boy the ball after all and will also write him a letter of apology.  Don‘t hurt yourself, buddy.  Mr. Star must have missed the part when Reggie Sanders of the visiting St. Louis Cardinals came over to give the kid a baseball bat and a ball.  The Rangers, Kevin Mench, later did the same.  So, who needs your lousy baseball, huh, buddy? 

“Oddball” on the record book.  Up next, tonight‘s No. 3 story your preview:  The al-Qaeda plot leading to September 11.  New information on the plans, the target never hit, and old information about who was never involved. 

And later, the new truth about liposuction: it takes pounds off your figure, but does it actually help shed your previous health risks from obesity, too?  To say nothing of having operations with rock music in the background. 

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

No. 3: Double Deck Tour Limited.  An Ontario tour company serving Niagara Falls, one of its bus drivers tried to use the lower deck of a bridge, sheared the roof right off the bus, 15 Japanese tourists injured.  What?  New driver?  New bus?  New bridge?  No explanation. 

No. 2: Roger Hunter of Idaho Falls, angrily storming out after a dispute at a local bar.  He returned to the establishment an hour later and threw a rattle snake into the crowd.  No one was injured.  Punch line, Mr.  Hunter was not alone in his argument at that bar.  His mother was with him, there at the bar—Mom, can I borrow yer snake? 

And No. 1: John L.  Stanley, well known crime expert, author, lecturer, broadcaster, all on the subject of crime prevention, arrested in Kansas City, accused of bank robbery.  Well, how would you become a crime expert without committing them now and again? 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  In 1994, after several years of supporting the Kurds in their rebellions against Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden sensed an opening and personally met with the senior Iraqi intelligence officer in the Sudan.  He offered cooperation to Saddam‘s government in exchange for a place in Iraq to open an al-Qaeda training camp and four Iraqis helped in getting him weapons. 

Our third story in the COUNTDOWN, tonight: the Iraqis never got back to him.  So concludes the bipartisan 9/11 Commission in a preliminary finding released, today. 

“We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.”

Back when bin Laden had gone to Iraq looking to get weapons through the presumed rogue state terrorist empathy, Iraq turned him down without as much as the message, “no sale.”  As recently as Monday, Vice President Cheney insisted there were, quote, “long established ties between Hussein and al-Qaeda.”  President Bush even obliquely hinted at a connection in a speech today. 

In a moment, 9/11 Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste on these conclusions and the last two days of public hearings.  First Lisa Myers reporting on the plot itself and the meticulousness, both of its planning and the documentation of it. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LISA MYERS, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  As horrible as that day was, al-Qaeda‘s original plan was even worse, to hijack 10 planes on east and west coasts with many additional targets.  FBI headquarters, CIA headquarters, the tallest buildings in California, and Washington state, unspecified nuclear power plants, the Capitol, and the White House. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Raise your right hands. 

MYERS:  Today the 9/11 Commission revealed that Osama bin Laden, deemed the original plot too complicated in 1996, but approved a scaled-down version in 1999 when training and operational planning began.  But to the end, al-Qaeda was flexible. 

TIM ROEMER, (D) 9/11 COMMISSION MEMBER:  It is dynamic and changing all the time.  That‘s what makes them so lethal and so dangerous and so venomous.

MYERS:  Example.  The first two hijackers to enter the U.S. are supposed to become pilots, but turned out to be screw-ups.

DIETRICH SNELL, 9/11 COMMISSION MEMBER:  Hazmi and Mihdhar were supposed to learn English and then enroll in flight schools, but they made only cursory attempts at both.

MYERS:  So they become muscle hijackers, and Hani Hanjour joins the plot as a pilot.  When another pilot almost drops out, the commission says al-Qaeda planners rush money to Zacarias Moussaoui as a potential substitute pilot.

JOHN LEHMAN, 9/11 COMMISSION MEMBER:  It‘s a fascinating insight into how formidable al-Qaeda really is, how flexible, undogmatic in terms of operations, not ideology.

MYERS:  The date for the attacks kept changing, but ultimately was moved back to ensure Congress was in session.  Two days before 9/11, there was still debate over which Washington target would be hit by Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania.

LEHMAN:  They were going to try to find the White House, and if not the White House, Congress.

MYERS:  Also revealed today, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed planned on using as many as 26 hijackers.  On test flights, the hijackers determined the best time to strike was 10 to 15 minutes into a flight when cockpit doors opened.

Mohammed Atta was to crash his plane into the streets of New York if he couldn‘t hit the World Trade Center.

The commission also found there is no proof anyone in the U.S. knew of the plot and no evidence the Saudi government or any senior Saudi official ever financed al-Qaeda.

Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington.

OLBERMANN:  Throughout the commission‘s hearings, we have frequently been the fortunate recipients of some of the time of one of the commissioners, Richard Ben-Veniste.  And he joins us again tonight.

Thank you once more for your time, sir.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, 9/11 COMMISSION MEMBER:  Good evening.

OLBERMANN:  It goes without saying that there are a bunch of large type, obvious headlines today.  Many of them Lisa Myers just reported on.  Also the conclusion that Iraq had no connection to 9/11, the scope of the original bin Laden plan.

But of all that you heard today, what struck you as the most important?

BEN-VENISTE:  I think the public needs to hear the conclusion of the commission with respect to the fact that there was no Iraq connection to 9/11.

Somehow that information had gotten into the public domain in a way that influenced the public on the basis of public opinion polls that were taken about who was responsible.

And we found that a substantial, indeed, a majority of Americans at one point believed that not only was Iraq involved, but somehow Saddam Hussein and Iraq were behind the 9/11 catastrophe.  And that should be put to rest by the independent, bipartisan investigation by the 9/11 Commission.

OLBERMANN:  But obviously, it puts the commission in direct conflict with Vice President Cheney‘s remarks of just Monday that there had been long established ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda.

Is it possible that the vice president is partially correct, that the low level interactions that were discovered justify saying what he said, or that bin Laden‘s overtures to the Iraqis 10 years ago justify saying what he said?

Or is the vice president of the United States just wrong on this?

BEN-VENISTE:  Well, I don‘t want to get into, you know, who‘s wrong and who‘s right and what low-level connections may have been made by individuals who might have had an interest in finding out what Osama bin Laden was up to.

Indeed, months ago, the president of the United States had said he knew of no connection between Iraq and the 9/11 plot.

So, I would just, rather than say that one person or another person is mistaken, simply point to the fact that a bipartisan commission with an extraordinary professional staff has conducted an investigation, and this is our conclusion.

OLBERMANN:  Fair enough.

So much talk yesterday of the last day of public hearings tomorrow, focusing on the fighter jet response or the lack of fighter jet response on 9/11.

On that subject as you approach it, are you satisfied that you are examining a tragic, huge, fatal screw-up, but not something that might be worse still, like people rewriting the history of that day to make sure that their mistakes or their malfeasance could never be confirmed?  Is it limited somewhat in what you‘re looking at tomorrow?

BEN-VENISTE:  Well, Keith, I‘m not going to preview our findings.  But I can tell you that there will be a substantial difference between our staff findings and what the prior state of the record has been with respect to both NORAD and FAA.

There are a number of things that have somehow, like the Iraq connection to the 9/11 plot, have become part of the mythology of 9/11.

Another was the notion that there was a threat received against Air Force One, which named it by its code name and which deterred the president of the United States from returning to Washington.

Now, very quickly—indeed, probably by the end of the day on September 11, 2001 -- that notion was put to rest.  There was no such threat.  And yet, that notion continued to linger for weeks and months after 9/11.

OLBERMANN:  Thank you for your efforts to erase those notions, sir.  9/11 commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste.  Once again, our thanks for your time tonight.

BEN-VENISTE:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  From 9/11, the awful reality to 9/11, the latest controversial intersection of politics and film.

Michael Moore has ratcheted that up another notch.  He has now hired the former governor of New York to represent his movie legally.

Moore has already made an end run around a corporation that would not release his film, “Fahrenheit 9/11.”  Now he‘s trying to recreate that success by getting the film‘s ratings reduced from R to PG-13 with the help of Mario Cuomo.

Cuomo, back to a law career, has been hired to appeal to the Motion Picture Association on the film‘s behalf.

The R rating could cut the audience by 20 percent, and Cuomo makes no bones about his decision to side with Moore being somewhat, at least, politically influenced.  He says he has seen “Fahrenheit 9/11” three times, quote, “and I think every American should see this film.”

The subtle shadings of what makes something urbane, profane or profound rarely go unnoticed by our friend and frequent guest, Michael Musto, columnist of the “Village Voice.”  He‘s one of the few who have actually seen the movie.

Michael, good evening.

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

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s talk about this R rating first.  In your opinion, does the film deserve it?

MUSTO:  No, it doesn‘t.  This movie is not the devil.  It‘s not Fahrenheit 666.

I think young people should be forced to see this movie, actually.  I think they‘re exposed to enough jingoistic, war-is-great kind of hoopla.  And this shows the reality of war.

And to Michael Moore‘s credit, when he shows 9/11, the screen goes totally black for three minutes.  You only hear 9/11.  The screen is black for the first time since I closed my eyes during all of “Gigli.”

And he only shows reactions and doesn‘t really exploit his subject matter.  And if you‘re really bummed by the atrocities of war, well, that‘s the idea.  It‘s to show you, this is the reality.  Babies piled up dead and people without hands—on both sides.

OLBERMANN:  In scope, if not in content, surely, the controversy over this thing seems very reminiscent of the one that we all went through over Mel Gibson‘s “Passion of the Christ.”

So maybe that‘s a good place to start in terms of trying to give a relative measurement here of how disturbing that imagery in that film might be.

Which film is more graphic?  And in your opinion, by how much?

MUSTO:  Oh, “The Passion of the Christ” was the ultimate S&M film. 

This is “Mary Poppins” by comparison.

But Michael Moore is kind of painting himself as a Christ-like figure.  He‘s always the victim of Disney and the victim of ratings.  But I‘m totally on his side.

He‘s completely biased, but he wears his bias on his sleeve, and he‘s informed in his bias.  He‘s done his research.  The movie is very powerful, very eye-opening.

And when you see the scene of W on 9/11 reading a book called “My Pet Goat” to a classroom of toddlers, I guess because it doesn‘t have a lot of hard words in it, like “nuculer,” and being told that 9/11 is happening and we‘ve been hit and the world is pretty much ending.

And Bush gets this glazed look on his face and sits there reading the book for seven more minutes, you‘ll be biased too.  You‘ll be even more convinced of Michael Moore‘s thesis than you were of Mel Gibson.

OLBERMANN:  I keep thinking, this amount of coverage that the film has gotten because of these controversies.

Did somebody on the other side—whoever they are, the people who are opposing the release of this film—did they skip Controversy 101 class from a cultural, publicity point of view?  Have they not merely played into Michael Moore‘s hands, but played into his hands 16 times in a row?

MUSTO:  I‘m not convinced that it‘s not Michael Moore himself calling people and complaining about the movie.  I mean, this stirs the pot, obviously, and makes it a bigger story to the point where we‘re talking about it now.

Every major celebrity was at the premiere the other night at the Ziegfeld—some liberal, some not.  Bill O‘Reilly was there.  I mean, at first I thought, if a bomb drops here, every liberal celebrity would be gone.  Bill O‘Reilly would be the best, biggest thing left.

Then I saw Bill O‘Reilly there.  I mean, people were coming to throw bricks, bats, to celebrate it.  For any kind of reason, they were there.

And Michael Moore said that I know I‘m probably preaching to the converted and to the choir, but the choir needs to be awakened and to sing a song again.

And it got—not the big response it got at Cannes, but then, again, the French like Jerry Lewis.

OLBERMANN:  Right.

MUSTO:  But it got a healthy ovation.  It really was an eye-opening kind of film.

OLBERMANN:  And we understand O‘Reilly did leave early, obviously, because he was not in it or the star, so he had to go.

Michael Musto, the auteur of the column, “La Dolce Musto” in the “Village Voice.”

As always, Michael, great.  Thanks.

MUSTO:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  Up next, which of these four divas will you be talking about tomorrow?  Or rather, which one might you no longer be talking about tomorrow?

We report, you decide, in tonight‘s number two story.  One more.

And later, would you let this man into your living room?  Michael Bolton‘s brave new career attempt, ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It is a term just about to move from creative and hip to really old and annoying.  It refers to what the cognoscenti estimate was the last good episode of the TV series “Happy Days.”  The one immediately before the one in which Fonz water skied over a tank full of great whites.

Our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN, jumping the shark.  The exact moment when quality becomes schmaltz, when adulation becomes pity.

Four of America‘s top women performers may have all jumped the shark simultaneously: Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Madonna and Britney Spears - - divas gone dumb.

Miss Spears first.  She is on the musical disabled list.  Her knee gave out during the shooting of a music video, and she underwent arthroscopic surgery.  She‘ll have to wear a hard knee brace for the next six weeks.

And if there is one thing panting teenaged boys can tell you, it‘s that a hard knee brace takes away all the allure of the rest of what she‘s not wearing.  Thus, is cancelled the remainder of her four-month U.S. tour that was to resume next Tuesday.

The good news for Ms. Spears, of course, is that the tour lasted longer than her marriage.

Bummed by Britney‘s bad break?  Don‘t worry.  You can still go see Britney classic, also known as Madonna.  Plenty of good seats available for her tour—plenty.

After it opened on track to become the top grossing junket of the year, the wheels—or perhaps the falsies—have fallen off.

In New York, Ticketmaster reports thousands of seats in all price ranges were still available for her six concerts at Madison Square Garden.  Ticket brokers—the polite term for scalpers—are reported to be offering deep discounts—the polite term for, “we‘re giving the damn tickets away.”

Unfortunately for the magazine “Marie Claire,” it paid full price for Jennifer Lopez.  It spent a small fortune on a photo shoot for her for their cover, reports MSNBC.com‘s Jeannette Walls.

“Bent over backwards to accommodate her,” says a source.

Then it came time for the interview, and J. Lo was about as silent as the audience watching “Gigli.”  “Very closed, not at all forthcoming,” says the source.

And only then did it turn out she had married the singer Marc Anthony.  She not only didn‘t mention it to the magazine in the interview, after the fact, she would not comment on it for them.  Not even a we‘re-very-happy.

Given the hubby‘s similar silence, maybe they‘re not very happy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARC ANTHONY, SINGER:  No.  Nothing that was eventful.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Mock the silent as we may, sometimes it is indeed better to keep quiet and let the world think you a fool, than open your mouth and confirm it.

Janet Jackson tells a London tabloid that the whole reaction to that Super Bowl disaster was not a wardrobe malfunction, but a societal one.

“I was used just to take the attention off what was really going on in the world.”  Made a victim of a “plot by conservative forces.”

Really, lady.  Don‘t flatter yourself.

He is one live on-air wedding away from officially becoming the Tiny Tim of his generation now.  From divas dumb and dumber, through stopping the clock on the 15 minutes of fame thing, we segue from the No. 2 story to our roundup of celebrity news called “Keeping Tabs.”

And William Hung is making a movie.  Never mind the new video that premiered last night, his version of “We Are the Champions,” the former “American Idol” reject says he is heading to Singapore to shoot his first film.

He says, “I can‘t really spill the beans until I‘ve already done it, you know?”

Hung‘s CD debuted at number 34 in April.  We can now call it his first CD.  Music industry sources telling COUNTDOWN that his second one will be released in September, and will be called “Back to School.”

If William Hung is now an established musician, that means another established musician must have just got caught standing when the game of musical chairs ended.  And we know who he is.  He‘s Michael Bolton, talk show host.

Two-time Grammy winner for pop male vocal performance has been meeting with television syndicators this week, shopping himself as the host of the daytime yak festival for the 2005-2006 TV season.

This from the trade publication, “The Hollywood Reporter,” which says the target demographic is women age 25 to 54, especially those who don‘t give a damn about seeing a public figure losing his hair in public like that.

Late news tonight about metro news and sports broadcaster Pat O‘Brien.  After seven years co-hosting the entertainment show, “Access Hollywood,” he will leave the program, so it‘s producers tell “Television Week.”

O‘Brien will move on to another magazine show, “The Insider.”  He will be replaced on “Access Hollywood” by Billy Bush, cousin to one president and nephew to another.

In a moment, what could be breakthrough news for Monsieurs O‘Brien and Bolton and countless others.

No matter how follicly challenged they may be, we are talking a cure.

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

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OLBERMANN:  If you think of liposuction and hair transplants of trends of the ‘90s, you may need a history implant.

Bodily—removing fat from the body dates back to 1974.  Relocating follicles began in 1952.

It is obvious that neither process has been perfected.  But in our number one story in the COUNTDOWN tonight, that may be changing.  If you are both thin and thinning, stay tuned for a medical miracle.

But first, if you kept both your hair and every peanut butter cup you‘ve ever eaten, our medical correspondent Robert Bazell has some unhappy, albeit familiar news for you and me.

(BEGIN VIDEO)

ROBERT BAZELL, NBC MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT:  At her heaviest, Kathy Jones, a retired teacher, weighed close to 300 pounds.  And she had a bad case of Type 2 diabetes.

She decided to get liposuction, the surgical removal of fat cells, with two goals.

KATHY JONES, LIPOSUCTION PATIENT:  I would have the weight removed from me that I didn‘t want that I had gained, and that my diabetes, my blood sugar would be controlled.

BAZELL:  Indeed, some doctors have suggested that getting rid of fat cells with liposuction might not just help with diabetes, but control high cholesterol, blood pressure and other weight-related health problems.

Even without health benefits, liposuction is the most popular cosmetic surgery, with over 400,000 of the operations performed in the United States every year.

But does it improve your health?

DR. SAMUEL KLEIN, SURGEON, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY, ST. LOUIS:  She had tremendous weight loss within a few hours.

BAZELL:  In the study out today, Dr. Samuel Klein and his team at Washington University in St. Louis performed precise blood tests on Kathy and 14 other women before and after liposuction.

The operations took off an average of 22 pounds each.  The results ...

KLEIN:  Removing fat, in and of itself, according to our study results, does not have metabolic benefits.  Liposuction will not save you from having diabetes and heart disease.

BAZELL:  Dr. Gerald Pitman has performed more than 3,000 of the operations.  He says the study shows that the best way to lose weight for health is diet and exercise.

DR. GERALD PITMAN, SURGEON:  Well, if it sounds too good to be true, it‘s not true.

Liposuction does not make you healthier.  It may make you mentally healthier.  You may like the way you look better and feel better about yourself.

JONES:  Oh, this one‘s only got one gram of carbohydrate.

BAZELL:  So it is with Kathy Jones.  She‘s happy to fit into smaller clothes.  But she still needs medications for her diabetes, and now understands only a healthier lifestyle will change that.

Robert Bazell, NBC News, New York.

(END VIDEO)

OLBERMANN:  Then there is obesity‘s far less evil twin, hair loss.

It never killed anybody, although a lot of its victims have at least fleetingly wished that it had.

In a moment, a breakthrough in hair treatment.  First a breakthrough in hair insurance.

The doyens of insurance, Lloyds of London, have drawn up a policy to underwrite an unnamed male performer against the accidental loss of his chest hair.

If the undersigned loses 85 percent or more of said hairy chest, he will receive a million pounds.

Of course, the policy is voided if the loss occurs while skin diving, hunting from horseback, hang gliding, fire eating or during a nuclear attack or because of terrorism.  Or, of course, all six.

But few men sweat the status of any follicles that aren‘t what Mel Brooks famously called, public hair—the hair the public can see.

Now those who are sweating may have more hair to sweat into.  Hair transplantation has gone from a process akin to laying down large patches of sod over scorched earth, to another described as planting a tulip garden, one tulip at a time.

And more importantly to the comb challenged, another hair growth drug may be approaching FDA treatment.  And experts say that within a decade, they will be able to clone your own hair and implant it back onto your own scalp.

Dr. Jim Harris is not only co-author of the book, “The Hair Replacement Revolution: A Consumer‘s Guide to Effective Hair Replacement Techniques,” he has also experienced the revolution himself.  He has had transplants.

Dr. Harris, good evening.

DR. JAMES A. HARRIS, AUTHOR, “THE HAIR REPLACEMENT REVOLUTION”:  Hi, Keith.  Thank you very much for having me.

OLBERMANN:  So, at the University of Pennsylvania, they‘ve successfully cloned mice hair, put it back on the mouse, and not only grown new hair, but also skin and even the tiny glands that make acne in the skin?

Ten years from now, are bald men going to be so rare that they‘ll be displayed in the zoo?

HARRIS:  I hope not.  We‘ve made great advances in this field.  And currently, there are some studies going on where they‘ve actually transplanted the small cells into the scalps of men, and they‘re growing hair.

OLBERMANN:  This drug that was mentioned in the big “New York Times” story about hair replacement and hair regrowth, dutasterides, supposedly twice as effective as Propecia?  What do we know about that?

HARRIS:  Well, that‘s what the initial studies have shown.

However, what‘s concerning, at least to me, is the fact that the company that initially was doing the testing, stopped testing for its results in hair growth.

Some of the initial results also show that the side effects are five times as much as Propecia, possibly.

OLBERMANN:  So we have an unclear drug.  We have the possibility of cloning.

But right now, these advancements in transplants that really haven‘t been noticed or gotten a lot of publicity in the last couple of years—the tulip garden as opposed to the Astroturf technique.

Why is this new method better?  Why are the results so much less noticeable than the more familiar that has been in use for 20, 30 years—the plugs?

HARRIS:  Well, the field has certainly received a bad reputation from the old plugs.

But the bottom line is, right now we‘re transplanting the hairs on top of the head exactly the way they grew in the back of the head.  So it looks absolutely natural.

So, the analogy to the tulip garden is exactly what I waited for 15 years for my own head.

OLBERMANN:  And I guess there‘s been a significant improvement since the time that somebody actually transplanted carpet fibers into a man‘s head, men‘s head in the early ‘80s in Boston.

Lastly here, a prediction.  The last toupee, other than for chemotherapy patients and such, will be sold in this country in what year, do you think?

HARRIS:  Well, I‘d be hoping it‘s this year.  But I think, in reality, it may be seven to 10 years away.  And I‘m hoping to be a part of that trend.

OLBERMANN:  So what we‘re talking about, in essence, is a cure for baldness.

HARRIS:  It is.  I think right now we have a cure.  And that is this follicular unit transplantation and the advances we‘re making with that.

Men that are lacking in hair can have an absolutely natural look.

OLBERMANN:  Dr. Jim Harris, author of “The Hair Replacement Revolution,” thanks for your time.  Good luck with all that, and we‘ll see you down the road.

HARRIS:  My pleasure.  Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Before we go, let‘s recap the five COUNTDOWN stories.

Number five, no negotiation.  The U.S. working with Saudi Arabia to free the American hostage, Paul Johnson, there, without bargaining with his captures.

Four, paying a price.  Numbers indicating a stronger economy, but consumers still feeling financial pinches, especially in milk prices.

Three, terror planning.  The 9/11 Commission says no link between Iraq and 9/11.  None.  The CIA claimed it prevented hijacking attempts on both coasts since 9/11, but has not caught any (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

Two, the divas in a dither.  Janet Jackson uses the Clinton defense, claiming she was the victim of a “plot by conservative forces.”

Number one, a ray of hope for the follicly challenged.  Science could soon cure baldness.  And me with a full head of hair.

That‘s COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for being part of it.

I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Good night and good luck.

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END   

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