updated 6/22/2004 10:36:10 AM ET 2004-06-22T14:36:10

Guests: Roger Cressey, Robert Jordan, Laurie Kasmar, Greg Kasmar, John Podesta

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

Al Qaeda‘s changing tactics:  The impact of high-profile kidnappings and new questions about Saudi terror ties.  Did Saudi security officials actually help in the Paul Johnson‘s kidnapping? 

PFC LYNNDIE ENGLAND, U.S. ARMY:  I think I‘ll always be the girl with the leash. 

WITT:  Lynndie England.  At the center of the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal, gives her most forthcoming interview yet. 

L. ENGLAND:  I get a lot of people who support me, come up and shake my hand and they think I‘m great and I‘m the heroine of Baghdad.

WITT:  The COUNTDOWN to “My Life,” by Bill Clinton.  The book‘s set to fly off store shelves tomorrow, but tonight we‘ll take you to the big pre-party in New York City. 

And the bold new era in the space race starts today.  Forget Disneyworld.  Will the outer reaches of space be the new favorite vacation destination? 

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  Good evening and welcome to COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Alex Witt, sitting in for Keith tonight. 

The terror is now made for television, the drama perversely scripted by masked gunmen with little more than a camcorder and a poorly lit backdrop.  And tonight, more proof that the casting for hostages has not ended. 

At No. 5 tonight, another family counts the minutes, watches the clock, waiting for another deadline to pass.  But this time, the hostage pleads for his own life. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KIM SUN-IL, HOSTAGE:  Please, get out of here!  Here, here!  I don‘t want to die!  I don‘t want to die!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WITT:  The South Korean interpreter Kim Sun-il was given just 24 hours to live and it is unclear whether that deadline has now expired.  His captors appear to be the same group that beheaded Nicholas Berg.  They‘ve demanded the South Korean government reverse a decision to send 3,000 troops to Iraq, an ultimatum that South Korean officials have turned down.  And Mr. Kim may not be the only one whose life is at risk.  An employee from his company sent to negotiate with the kidnappers has said that he saw 10 other foreigners being held hostage. 

And while today‘s hostage crisis focuses on Iraq, in nearby Saudi Arabia, the search continues for the body of Paul Johnson, Jr.  Saudi officials say they‘ve been combing the capital city of Riyadh for his remains, but there are apparently growing concerns that the only people who might know of his whereabouts are now dead.  Four of the militants allegedly responsible for Johnson‘s death were killed in a Friday night gun battle, including the leader of the al-Qaeda offshoot.  But, according to one Islamic Web site, the group already has a new leader. 

But, while the deaths of those four militants are certain to be a blow, there are now new questions about whether member of the Saudi security force may have aided the terrorists.  The claim was made by the group that kidnapped Johnson in an online publication; the group details how they allegedly got police uniforms and even cars from Saudi security forces to help them with the kidnapping.  According to the publication, the al-Qaeda cell used those uniforms and cars to set up a fake checkpoint where they were able to stop Paul Johnson, drug him, and then drag him into another car.  But while some analysts say it‘s a plausible connection, a spokesman for the Saudi royal family dismissed the allegations.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ADEL AL-JUBEIR, SAUDI ROYAL ADVISER:  Of course it would be disturbing, but we have seen no evidence to that effect.  The militants have been putting stuff out on the Internet in order to project an image of support either within the security forces or within the population that they really don‘t have. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WITT:  We‘re going to have more on that in a moment with the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.  But before we get to exactly who is behind the kidnapping, we pause to ask if this is the new weapon of choice in the war on terror.  With us now to help answer that question is MSNBC analyst Roger Cressey, counterterrorism expert who worked for the White House in the National Security Council.  Mr. Cressey joins us now from Washington. 

Good evening Roger, nice to see you. 

ROGER CRESSEY, COUNTERTERRORISM EXPERT:  Good evening, Alex. 

WITT:  Roger, these kidnappings have an eerie air of a perverse publicity stunt.  Do terrorists get more for their money by kidnapping one person than setting off a car bomb? 

CRESSEY:  In some respect, yes, because with the way the Internet works, everyone around the world can see it, they can attach a message to the beheading video.  It‘s a compelling public relations coup for them and it sends a chilling message to potential targets, as well as it sends a tremendous support to their cadre and to new recruits. 

WITT:  Roger, this is a difficult assessment to make, but terrible truth perhaps, in this day and age, viewers are quickly desensitized.  Do these kidnappings and beheadings only last as long as we are shocked by them? 

CRESSEY:  Well, I think in the Western press that‘s true; in the Arab press and elsewhere around the world, it has a greater life span.  Certainly on the jihadist Web sites and the jihadist chat rooms, we‘re seeing it talked about for an extended period of time, so it does have legs in the media business, but just not in the Western press. 

WITT:  You know, Roger, from a counterterrorism perspective, I mean, how do you fight this?  You‘ve got tens of thousands of civilian contractors working in Iraq.  At least 30,000 Americans in Saudi Arabia, right now.  Can they be protected? 

CRESSEY:  No.  The answer is no.  It‘s impossible to protect every single person.  This is the type of terror tactic that‘s not only very effective but it‘s almost impossible to defend against.  It‘s one thing to construct physical security measures to prevent car bombs and truck bombs, but these type of individual attacks, these kidnappings and then beheadings, no, it‘s almost impossible to stop. 

WITT:  It has been suggested that the Saudi government, if they really crack down on this, they will be able to stop this type of attack.  Do you think that if they crack down on it, from the inside, it could stop at least within that country? 

CRESSEY:  Well, it certainly would help.  The reality is the Saudis were late to the game when it comes to dealing with al-Qaeda.  They were in denial for years and it was only after the two bombings in Saudi Arabia last year that they truly threw intelligence and law enforcement officials into this battle.  And now Saudi law enforcement establishment‘s fully engaged; they‘re fighting and dying, over 50 have been killed, so far, in the battle against al-Qaeda.  So, that‘s the good news.  The bad news is, it may too little, too late.

WITT:  Roger, the latest kidnapping, the South Korean, accompanied with a highly political demand, they want South Korea to stop their troop deployment.  We saw a similar tactic with Italian hostages.  Do you think they‘re appealing directly to the emotions of Korean voter—Italian voter here? 

CRESSEY:  Absolutely.  I think they‘ve all learned a lesson from Madrid.  Rightly or wrongly, that they directly influenced that election which led to the withdrawal of Spanish forces.  So, anything they can do to try and further undercut the credibility and cohesiveness of the coalition, they‘re going to do so, and if any other coalition member withdraws troops, as a result of a political election or a terrorist attack, that‘s going to embolden the terrorists even more.

WITT:  Roger Cressey, many thanks for your insight tonight.  We appreciate it. 

CRESSEY:  Good to see you.  Alex. 

WITT:  And you.

Turning now to the Saudi government‘s role in all of this, this weekend, security forces there, dealt a major blow to the al-Qaeda splinter group that kidnapped Paul Johnson.  But, new questions are emerging about whether some Saudis responsible for cracking down on al-Qaeda are actually helping them.  To tackle that allegation, we turn now to Robert Jordan who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the immediate aftermath of September 11.  He joins us tonight from Dallas. 

Good evening, Mr. Ambassador, nice to see you.

ROBERT JORDAN, FMR. U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SAUDI ARABIA:  Good evening, Alex. 

WITT:  Let‘s start with these al-Qaeda operations that they got help from security forces.  Last month there were some similar suspicions raised when three militants got away during that raid on the compound in Khobar.  Is it plausible that al-Qaeda has infiltrated Saudi security forces or at least had sympathizers? 

JORDAN:  I think it‘s plausible, Alex, and I think we have to be sure that we‘ve investigated these claims to be sure there has not been penetration.  You know, we have penetrations at security services all over the world, including our own FBI from time to time, so this is something that bears investigation.  But frankly, I‘m a little skeptical.  I would think that these uniforms and even a car are pretty readily available in the society there.  We had a car that was painted up like a military vehicle in connection with another bombing last fall.  I also think it would be odd for the terrorists to announce the penetration if they still had an active sympathizer or two in the security service.  They will be much more likely to try to use them for further attacks, but I do think it‘s serious enough that they can take a close look at it. 

WITT:  All right, let‘s look at the ideology, here.  Two very different ways to interpret the brutality in Saudi Arabia—some are saying this is the last desperate gasp of a dying campaign, others suggesting Saudi Arabia could be on the brink of civil war.  How do you see it? 

JORDAN:  Well, I think both ideas are a little bit of the extreme.  I think we‘re somewhere in the middle.  This is a—probably the most serious threat to the Saudi regime in the last 25 years, so clearly, they have to step up and make absolutely the maximum effort to resist.  I don‘t know that we‘re on the verge of civil war.  I think that‘s a little extreme.  The security services have been hiring and training a lot more people, hiring also more intelligence officers.  But there is a great danger that the Saudis are afraid, perhaps, to take it to the maximum extreme, as we saw in Egypt, some years ago because they‘re a little bit afraid, perhaps, that the people will resist and consider the tactics to be too brutal.  So, we‘ve got a tightrope the societies are walking, here. 

WITT:  And Mr. Ambassador, if you look at the overall—the religious perspective here, Saudi Arabia has a very tight relationship with the conservative religious establishment, an establishment that rhetorically sounds very anti-American.  Can they defeat terrorism without shaking up that relationship? 

JORDAN:  I don‘t think so.  I think they‘ve got to continue doing what, I think, they have now begun, which is to retrain or fire a number of these imams who are so completely off the charts.  They‘ve got to retool their textbooks.  We got to really see a grassroots effort that I think is going to take many, many years.  But, they‘ve really got to start and give this the full effort that they possibly can. 

WITT:  All right.  Ambassador Robert Jordan.  Many thanks for your time tonight.  Sir, we appreciate it. 

JORDAN:  Thanks Alex.

WITT:  And migrating back from Saudi Arabia to Iraq where an Army judge has ruled that the top military commanders in the region can be questioned about the prison abuse scandal.  The order was made today during the pretrial hearings for three soldiers accused of being ringleaders in the prison abuse scandal.  The judge‘s decision effectively opens the door for the defendants to question the two top military commanders in Iraq and in the Middle East, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez and General John Abizaid. 

But, those weren‘t the only authorities that the judge called into question.  He also contested a claim made by the president that the Abu Ghraib prison could be torn down, saying that the compound had to be preserved as a crime scene. 

And the woman who has provided the most infamous face to this scandal has yet to appear before a judge.  Private First Class Lynndie England‘s first pre-trial hearing was scheduled to begin tomorrow in Fort Bragg, North Carolina but was inexplicably postponed today until next month.  But, that hasn‘t kept England from talking.  International journalist Daphne Barak sat down with the 21-year-old and as NBC‘s Hoda Kotbe reports, England may be the face of the scandal, but she is not accepting the blame. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

L. ENGLAND:  I think I‘ll always be the girl with the leash. 

HODA KOTBE, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Her name is Lynndie England, she‘s better known as “the girl with the thumbs up,” “the girl with the cigarette, pointing,” “the girl with the leash.”  Twenty-one-year-old Private England, from West Virginia, wanted to chase storms.  The Army seemed like a good exciting way for her to fulfill her dreams. 

L. ENGLAND:  I was trying to get money to go to college for meteorology. 

KOTBE:  But, now she‘s landed in the heart of a storm bigger than she could ever imagine.  In January, England called her mother from Iraq, alerting her of the trouble to come. 

TERRY ENGLAND, LYNNDIE ENGLAND‘S MOTHER:  She said “Mom, there‘s some things that will happen.”  And she said, “I‘m fine, but some horrible things have happened.” 

KOTBE:  Speaking publicly last week for the first time, Terry England told international journalist, Daphne Barak, about seeing the photographs that would come to symbolize, to many around the world, the worst in America. 

T.  ENGLAND:  It just took my breath. 

DAPHNE BARAK, JOURNALIST:  And what did you see? 

T.  ENGLAND:  What did I see?  My daughter standing, pointing at prisoners naked.  It upset me because I know that‘s not Lynndie.

KOTBE:  It was.  Private England was sent back to the States.  She‘s living on base now, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. 

BARAK:  What if you could make one wish—one wish, what would that be? 

L. ENGLAND:  Go back in time and not join the Army. 

KOTBE:  England‘s lawyers have argued publicly, their client was ordered to humiliate and intimidate Iraqi prisoners to, quote, “soften them up” for interrogation.  England insists she and the other six soldiers accused are being made scapegoats. 

L. ENGLAND:  I‘m not the only one that shouldn‘t go to jail.  I think that none of the seven of us should. 

KOTBE:  Among the seven is Specialist Charles Graner.  England is six months pregnant and he is widely believed to be the expectant father.  Still in Iraq, his military court hearing is also scheduled to start this week.  If both are convicted, their unborn son may have to be raised by his grandmother. 

T.  ENGLAND:  It scares me to think I might have to go home with a grandchild without my daughter.

KOTBE:  Admitting she‘s barraged with hate mail, England says she tries to gain strength from strangers who still come up to her to say they believe what she did was right. 

L. ENGLAND:  I get a lot of people who support me, come up and shake my hand and they think I‘m great and I‘m the heroine of Baghdad. 

BARAK:  Do you feel that way? 

L. ENGLAND:  Not really. 

BARAK:  What do you feel? 

L. ENGLAND:  I just want to go home, get it over with. 

KOTBE:  The military insists this was the seven soldiers‘ own initiative.  If convicted, England may face up to 15 years in prison. 

Hoda Kotbe, NBC News, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  COUNTDOWN opening up tonight with the latest in the war on terror.  Up next, tonight‘s No. 4 story:  A potential public relations nightmare for the Army, an Iowa teenager says he was tricked into joining the Army.  The young man‘s parents will join us after the break. 

And later, the great space race:  A private company blasts off with its new ship to the utter reach of the atmosphere, now it could lead to a whole host of space firsts. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Up next on COUNTDOWN, tonight‘s No. 4 story, your preview:  One young man says he was duped into joining the Army and that he‘s not alone, he‘s not the only one who didn‘t want to enlist.  Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Uncle Sam wants you, but will he resort to lies and threats to get what he wants?  An 18-year-old Iowa man alleges that is exactly what happened to him in our No. 4 story, tonight.  Ryan Winter claims he notified his recruiter that he had changed his mind about enlisting in the Army.  Winter says he was told that he‘d still to have report to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, to out process.  He and his parents say they were assured that he‘d be back home in a matter of days.  The next time his parents heard his voice, more than a week later, was in this message on their answering machine. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

RYAN WINTER, TRICKED BY ARMY RECRUITER:  I‘ve been trying.  I‘m not going to be able to call again for a long time.  So if you‘re there, pick up the phone.  Just wanted to tell you that Sergeant Johnson lied, I‘m not going to be back home—I‘m not going to be back home for about 10 weeks or, I have to stay here.  They won‘t let me leave. 

(END AUDIO CLIP)

WITT:  That was the voice of Ryan Winter telling his voice that “Sergeant Johnson lied.  I‘m not going to be back home for about 10 weeks or so, I have to stay here.  They won‘t let me leave.” 

COUNTDOWN contacted Doug Smith of Army Recruiting Public Affairs office for a comment and he had this to say, quote, “We do not allow coercion of recruits as a matter of policy.  There is an investigation underway as to these allegations.”

Joining us now are Ryan Winter‘s mother and stepfather, Laurie and Greg Kasmar. 

Good evening to both of you. 

GREG KASMAR, RYAN WINTER‘S STEPFATHER:  Good evening, Alex.

LAURIE KASMAR, RYAN WINTER‘S MOTHER:  Hello. 

WITT:  As I understand it, even though Ryan had told his recruiting officer that he had decided not to enlist, he still received a letter telling him his report date was June 8.  Mrs. Kasmar, was he told what would happen to him if he didn‘t report as ordered? 

L. KASMAR:  Yeah.  He was told he would be AWOL if he did not report. 

WITT:  And what did AWOL mean to him?  What kind of trouble did they assure him he might get into? 

L. KASMAR:  They didn‘t tell him until I dropped him off at the recruiting office—when he got there, then in Des Moines, then they told him if he did not sign, he would be taken to prison and a $50,000 fine, and he would never get a good job in this—the rest of his life. 

WITT:  All right.  So that was a very threatening tone, as you allege, there at the recruiting center in Des Moines.  Did he look beyond that?  Did he think there was anyway out? 

G.  KASMAR:  No. Not the way they presented it to us. 

WITT:  Was he offered an attorney?  Was he offered to call you? 

G.  KASMAR:  Never. 

WITT:  Anything like that.

G.  KASMAR:  Never.  Never.

L. KASMAR:  No.

G.  KASMAR:  The whole thing was to get him—we were completely lied to, they duped us.  They misinformed us completely until the date and up to the date that he had to go for his—show-up date.  And when they did that, even down there in Des Moines, it was, all they did was scare this kid, they wanted to get him away from home, get him away from his parents so this could scare him to death into signing those papers.  If you‘re an 18...

WITT:  But from Des Moines, as I understand it, to Fort Jackson, South Carolina.  Mr. Kasmar, did he get a more sympathetic ear at all, there? 

G.  KASMAR:  No. In fact, everyone that I called down in South Carolina, all I got was “When he shows up down here in South Carolina, he‘s in the Army,” you know, that‘s it.  They didn‘t want to hear anything about how that kid got there, all they knew was they had another body. 

WITT:  A spokesperson at Fort Jackson told COUNTDOWN that Ryan was being given an entry level separation now, which is characterized by an inability or a lack of motivation to continue.  This type of release is uncharacterized, which means it‘s neither a good nor a bad connotation.  They confirm Ryan‘s paperwork, now complete.  He could be out within the week.  Are you going to be satisfied with that if you just get him home? 

G.  KASMAR:  I‘m going to be satisfied to get him home, of course, that was our main objective, because he should have never left town.  But the second thing that we‘re going to go after is make sure that these people don‘t do it to someone else‘s son.  We‘ve learned a lot here in the last couple months about the laws and how these recruiters are supposed to act and what they‘re supposed to say.  And as we find out, they‘re very good at saying what you have to do, but when it come down to ways of changing your mind or what you can do or what your rights are, they never mention that. 

WITT:  All right, Laurie and Greg Kasmar, best of luck to you as well as to Ryan.  We appreciate your time tonight.  Thanks so much. 

L. KASMAR:  Thank you. 

G.  KASMAR:  Thank you.

WITT:  COUNTDOWN, now past the No. 4 story.  Up next, those stories that don‘t get a COUNTDOWN number, but they make it into our news time capsule, anyway.  “Oddball‘s” up next, and this just in, the bad guys are still running from the cops, this time in Miami. 

And later, the U.S. Open may be in the history books already, but Tiger Woods isn‘t moving on.  Tiger with some choice words about the conditions of the greens.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  I‘m Alex Witt, in for Keith Olbermann, and we pause the COUNTDOWN now for our nightly detour into the strange stories and weird video from both the human and animal kingdoms.  Let‘s play “Oddball.” 

And we begin the “Oddball” week in Hialeah, Florida.  Taxi! An armed man has hijacked a Yellow cab at gun point.  The cab driver is unarmed, but still inside the taxi, the hijacker‘s at the wheel and he‘s not picking up fares. 

Checking the “Oddball” scoreboard for the year, we see it is cops 46, guys who think they can escape the cops, nada, and this time will be no exception, because the cops aren‘t going to wait around for this out of control (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to make his scheduled stops.  They employ the technical police maneuver known as ramming the other guy to end this chase once and for all, and this hijacking (UNINTELLIGIBLE) will have plenty of time to watch the meter run where he‘s going—the big house. 

To Spivey‘s Corner, North Carolina, and the big annual National

Hollerin‘ Contest.  It is held every year on the third Saturday in June

when contestants descend on this small town to get up on stage and scream

incoherently into a microphone.  Judging from the video, we estimate nearly

·         oh, half a dozen spectators or so came out to watch the event, a hallerin‘ contest attendance record.  Actually, they say it was more like 100.  Regardless, the show had to be worth the price of admission. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  (SCREECHING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WITT:  Yep!  Admission was free, of course. 

As it was in Petaluma, California, for the World‘s Ugliest Dog Competition at the Sonoma-Marin fair.  Hideous little pups from around the state all tried to look their worst in an effort to knock off the defending champion, Sam, a 14-year-old, blind, Chinese Crested with a broken tail.  Sam may not be much to look at, but he can wear his World‘s Ugliest Dog medals with pride and know that for now, at least, his owners have scrapped plan B—to shave Sam‘s butt and teach him to walk backwards. 

“Oddball” fortunately, in the record books.  Up next, tonight‘s No. 3 story, your preview: The Clinton book, first all the hype and now comes the big pre-release party.  We‘re going to take you live to the festivities, right after this break. 

And later, aviation history, today:  The first ever commercial trip into outer space.  Those stories ahead, but first COUNTDOWN‘s “Top 3 Newsmakers” of this day. 

No. 3:  A Canadian man we‘ll refer to as the “Gambler.”  He put $110,000 down on George W. Bush, yes he is putting big bucks behind his prediction that the president will win re-election.  There‘s believed to be no truth to the rumors that the gambler has family ties to the Diebold, you know, the voting machine manufacturer who says he wants to deliver the race for President Bush. 

No. 2:  Casey the gorilla.  Casey‘s not feeling very amorous for the three female gorillas zoo keepers would like him to bed.  At least that‘s what Casey wanted handlers to believe, so cue up the gorilla porn.  Hey, didn‘t chimps just pull this trick last week?  It‘s the animal porn revolution. 

And No. 1:  The chef at Tsarske Selo Restaurant in the Ukraine.  Well, he‘s come up with what‘s believed to be the unhealthiest snack in the world.  Ready for this?  Chocolate-covered pork fat.  There is truth to rumors, Ukraine has one of the highest rates of heart disease.  Go figure.  Mmmm, pork fat.  Mmmm, chocolate-covered pork fat.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  For a book that hasn‘t even been published yet, it is remarkable how much media attention has already been devoted to President Clinton‘s new memoir, “My Life.”

Well, tonight, let us be the first to tell you the book still hasn‘t been published.  That magic moment doesn‘t happen until tomorrow.  But not only are we still going to talk about it tonight.  We‘re also going to party.  No. 3 on the COUNTDOWN, rolling out the red carpet for Bill Clinton, the book party to end all book parties in New York City tonight, with the paparazzi to prove it, the man of the hour arriving not long ago.

And on the scene for us tonight, Rehema Ellis, joining us now outside the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Good evening, Rehema.  Pretty nice digs for a book launch.

REHEMA ELLIS, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Not so bad, just a little shindig here.

About 1,000 people on the guest list for this celebrity book party, if you will.  As you point out, it is at the renowned New York Metropolitan Museum of Art here on famous Fifth Avenue.  You saw the man just a short while ago, but he deserves another look, Bill Clinton and his wife, now New York Senator, Hillary Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea.  The cameras were clicking away and the fans screaming as the family entered the museum.

It is a party to celebrate the publication of the former president‘s autobiography called “My Life.”  It is also a celebration of Bill Clinton, now the second author in the Clinton family.  A star-studded marketing kickoff, if you will, for the release of the book, Hollywood‘s legendary Lauren Bacall, TV‘s Star Jones, former presidential candidate himself the Reverend Al Sharpton, media star and author Al Franken, who quipped that he hope that he gets a book out of this book party.

And Larry King was also here.  And he had these thoughts about the book that‘s already gotten some bad reviews.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LARRY KING, TALK SHOW HOST:  So far, it reads great.  I don‘t go by reviews; I go by how I like it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ELLIS:  It seems a lot of folks want to buy and it read it for themselves and come to their own conclusion.  I should tell you, advance online sale of the book are already pushing this to the top of the Amazon.com best-seller list.

But tonight, it is all about friends of Bill who are celebrating with him.  But tomorrow, in fact, as early as midnight for those folks who need a little light reading, about 957 pages light, they can pick up their book at midnight—Alex.

WITT:  All right, Rehema Ellis, our star on the scene tonight, many thanks.

And many of the guests at the party in the book, no doubt.  Tomorrow morning, they are going to be flipping through the index looking for their names.  But many in the book are noticeably, understandably, absent from tonight‘s shindig.  Ken Starr comes to mind.  The former president mincing few words when describing his nemesis, the former Whitewater prosecutor.

You see, the goal of all of this hoopla may be selling books, but as Andrea Mitchell examines for us tonight, the motive may be getting even.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 

Bill Clinton arriving today to tape “Oprah,” trying to shape his legacy by writing his version of history, 957 pages of Arkansas and Arafat, Osama and Whitewater.

Clinton on his marriage.

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I‘ve always been amazed at the people who felt free to analyze, criticize and pontificate about it.

MITCHELL:  With a $10 million advance, it is one of the biggest book rollouts in publishing history, 19 book signings in the next month, TV appearances this week on “Today” and “Good Morning America,” “Larry King Live” and “Oprah,” five major shows in four days, including “60 Minutes” last night on CBS News.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “60 MINUTES”)

CLINTON:  Hillary had to decide whether she wanted to stay married to me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MITCHELL:  Plus, a “TIME” magazine cover today and an unprecedented front-page “New York Times” book review Sunday.  More on that in a minute.

Clinton told “TIME” magazine, former prosecutor Ken Starr “bankrupted us.  He ruined us financially.”  Today, Starr told NBC News:

KENNETH STARR, FORMER INDEPENDENT COUNSEL:  I understand the depth of his feelings.  People tend not to like prosecutors very much.

MITCHELL:  Clinton‘s apparent goals, to get even with enemies like Starr and other targets, like former FBI Director Louis Freeh and Yasser Arafat, to resurrect his reputation, shape his legacy and, of course, sell books.

DAVID MARANISS, CLINTON BIOGRAPHER:  There‘s a little bit of honesty there, perhaps more than at other times.  But it is fairly calibrated and calculated.

MITCHELL:  But today, he is once again red meat for conservative critics.

GROVER NORQUIST, CONSERVATIVE CRITIC:  It is like a parody of a self-obsessed baby boomer who never grew up.

MITCHELL:  And what about that “The New York Times” book review?  It called the book “sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull.”  But with advance orders of 1.5 million, Clinton‘s book is already number one on Amazon.

(on camera):  And bad reviews may not matter.  All Clinton may want to do is outsell his wife‘s book, which sold almost three million copies worldwide.

Andrea Mitchell, NBC News Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  ... the book and the Clinton presidency is John Podesta, who served as chief of staff in the Clinton White House.

Good evening, sir.

JOHN PODESTA, FORMER CLINTON WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF:  Hi, Alex.

WITT:  What do you believe is the motive behind this book?  Is it a cathartic exercise?  Is it a way for the former president to shape his presidential legacy or revenge or all of the above?

PODESTA:  Well, I don‘t think it is revenge, really.

I think that—look, he wanted—a lot of people have told his story over the years, particularly people in the media.  And I think he wanted to tell his story to the American people, where he came from, the forces that shaped his life, what he wanted to try to do as president.

And of course, I think there is an element in which he wanted to explain his views and feelings about the Starr investigation, and I think that he lays that out in the book.

WITT:  What about the timing of this book release?  It is coming out less than four years after Mr. Clinton left office.  Former Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers suggesting today the book came out about a decade too soon.  Do you think there‘s been enough time for him to reflect?

PODESTA:  Well, I think that the American public is going to find this book really interesting.  I think that he has got—he‘s a great storyteller.

Really, I think particularly the parts of—I knew him very well.  And I learned a lot about him by reading portions of the manuscript, especially his early days in Arkansas.  And I think that this has become a tradition, for people to write their memoirs once they come out of office.  And I think that the public will read it, appreciate it, like it.  And I think all this kind of media hoopla right now will subside and people will really get into the book and try to understand him a little bit better.

WITT:  And speaking of timing, is Bill Clinton going to overshadow John Kerry right now, or is there a way that this book could help John Kerry?

PODESTA:  Oh, I certainly don‘t think it will overshadow him.  I think the American public is pretty smart.  They can tell the difference between a book and a presidential campaign that is going to be enormously important to the future of this country.

And you know, I think that the one way that it might help Senator Kerry a little bit, but I think we can overstate how much, but it will remind people that when there‘s someone in the Oval Office who really cares about ordinary Americans, cares about the middle class, cares about working people in this country, that they can make a difference in their lives.

WITT:  You know, 957 pages long, some pretty harsh reviews to go along with this.  Have you read any of this book?  And if so, what are you thinking about it?  And your colleagues in Washington, what are they saying about it?

PODESTA:  Yes, I‘ve read good chunks of the manuscript.  I haven‘t read the book as it was finally printed.

I found it fascinating, very interesting.  I think that the person who did that “New York Times” review gave Hillary Clinton‘s book about the same review.  It was almost identical, actually, if you look at them side by side.  And the interesting thing is, 2.3 million copies of Hillary‘s book sold in this country, three million around the world.  And I think the American people are perfectly capable of making their own minds up about whether this is an interesting read and an interesting book without the help of “The New York Times” book review.

WITT:  Nobody works more closely with an American president than his chief of staff.  What do you want to learn from this book?

PODESTA:  Well, as I said, I‘ve already learned quite a bit about him that I didn‘t know.

And when you travel with the president, when you really go all around the world—I played hundreds of hours of cards with him, and there‘s quite a bit that I didn‘t know about him, about his youth, about his relationship to his family.  And I think that what the American people are going to see is they‘re going to find people that they recognize, their aunts and uncles, their brothers and sisters.  He‘s led a remarkably remarkable life, growing up from very humble roots and, to some extent, difficult circumstances, but I think with a loving mother and a loving family.

And as I said, it‘s a very kind of interesting tale.  I think with regard to the presidential years, I think you‘ll see what the president—what really motivated him when he got up in the morning.  I was with him through some pretty tough times and pretty tough years.  But every morning, when he got to the Oval Office, I think what he cared about was how he could make people‘s lives better, and as his life was a good one that he lived throughout the course of the second half of this century.

WITT:  All right, John Podesta, former Clinton chief of staff.  Many thanks for your time and insights tonight.  We appreciate it.

PODESTA:  Thank you.

WITT:  Rounding out our No. 3 look at the world of politics tonight, big news from a small campaign.  Ralph Nader has a running mate:  the Independent Party candidate picking Green Party activist Peter Camejo today for the second spot on his ticket.  The move should help Nader win the Green Party‘s endorsement later this week, something John Kerry has been hoping to win for himself.

And the state of Connecticut will have a new governor:  John Rowland announcing his resignation earlier tonight because of the corruption scandal and possible impeachment he‘s been facing.  Rowland has admitted to lying about accepting gifts from state contractors and employees.  His resignation takes effect July 1.  And that‘s when Lieutenant Governor M.  Jodi Rell takes over.

That wraps up our third story tonight, politics and publishing.  Up next, poor course or sore loser?  Tiger Woods stirring up controversy in our second story tonight.  And later, how the hidden dangers of the pole forced one young stripper to hang up her tassels forever.

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Thank you all very much.  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  Or as the president would say, knock it off.

(LAUGHTER)

ANTHONY PICO, CHAIRMAN, VIEJAS BAND OF KUMEYAAY INDIANS:  You see how it works out.  We‘re Indians and we‘re the Chiefs.  And here‘s the Indian.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That people have when they transition out.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Yes, one reason I‘m here is to give a little boost to that bill.  And I‘m sorry to interrupt.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I was told you might do that.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH:  We‘re lobbying, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Let me know how I can help, sir.

BUSH:  You‘re helping.  Keep talking, will you?

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Coming up on COUNTDOWN, was the U.S. Open course really too dry, or is the most famous golfer being a wet blanket?  We report, you decide in our No. 2 story next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Another Father‘s Day has come and gone.  And many dads around the country likely spent much of the day on the couch watching the final round of the U.S. Open.

Traditionally, the toughest of golf‘s majors, the U.S. Open usually features the longest courses, the tightest fairways and the slickest greens.  But this weekend at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in South Hampton, New York, the elements had many golfers complaining about an unfair playing field.

Our No. 2 story tonight, we‘ve heard of tough conditions, but this is ridiculous.  This was the par three seventh hole, which had become so hard and fast in the sun that putting on it became nearly impossible, as demonstrated right here by Billy Mayfair‘s birdie attempt.  Look at this.  It keeps going and going and going and still going.

OK, course officials eventually decided to hose down the greens in an attempt to make them more manageable.  The problem is, some golfers had to play the fast, dry green, while others got the wet, slower green.  The situation even had Tiger Woods complaining.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TIGER WOODS, PROFESSIONAL GOLFER:  They lost control of the golf course.  That‘s obvious, with them having to water the greens.  And you can see some of the—some of the putts, they‘re just not staying on the greens.  It‘s terrible.  Our national championship, they lost control of the golf course.  There‘s nothing wrong with the guys being under par.  There‘s nothing wrong with that.  If they play well, they deserve to be under par, but not like this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WITT:  A golf pro today demonstrated for MSNBC the difference between what happens with a dry putting surface and a wet one and how there was a significant advantage for those playing on a green that has been hosed down, allowing players to stick the ball near the hole and keep it there.

But as for Tiger Woods, early in his career, his own father predicted there were only two things that could stop his reign as the world‘s greatest golfer:  a back injury or marriage.  Tiger‘s back is OK, but he‘s now engaged to his girlfriend, Swedish model Elin Nordegren.  And we can do our own before and after with his career lately.  And it‘s not about the playing conditions.  Tiger, in the two years before meeting Elin, 11 tournament victories, including three major championships.

In the two years since, six tournament wins, no majors.  You make the call.

From the world of pro golf to the world of “Keeping Tabs” and another sports figure topping our nightly look at those stories that grace the tabloid stands at the grocery stores.

Kobe Bryant may soon be a free agent these days, but that only applies to his relationship with the Los Angeles Lakers, not his standing as a frequent visitor to Eagle, Colorado.  The basketball legend is approaching the one-year anniversary of an alleged rape incident in a hotel room there.  Right now, Bryant‘s defense team, which probably should have suited up for the Pistons series as well, wants to control the way the judge instructs the jury in this case.

At issue is the definition of force and consent, the accuser‘s sexual history and possible compensation provided for the accuser.  Jury instruction is crucial to Bryant‘s defense, as it sets up possible points of appeal should the verdict go against him.  Colorado State Judge Terry Ruckriegle has already denied the defense‘s request for instruction relating for investigator crime scene lapses, as well as further DNA testing by the prosecution.  He will decide the other issues after two more days of preliminary hearings.

Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury has taken exception to Michael Moore‘s title of his soon-to-be-released documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a satirical film that criticizes the Bush administration‘s response to the World Trade Center attacks and the subsequent war in Iraq.  Bradbury‘s problem is that the title seems very reminiscent of the author‘s 1953 classic sci-fi novel “Fahrenheit 451,” which was also made into a movie.

Bradbury filed his complaint six months ago with the scruffy director‘s office, but Moore didn‘t get back to him until only recently.  “He suddenly realized he let too much time go by,” Bradbury said.  Moore said he was heartbroken about the appropriation and called to apologize, but he didn‘t think there would be any confusion.  Just for the record, “Fahrenheit 451” is the temperature at which books burn.  “Fahrenheit 9/11” is the point at which Ray Bradbury burns.

Uh-oh, it‘s allergy season again, folks.  British stripper and interpretive pole dancer Donna Cleeve, a.k.a Honey, has had to quit her job in a Portsmouth, England, strip club because it turns out she‘s allergic to $20 bills?  No.  The pole.  It seem that every time the scantily clad hoofer tangled with her chrome-plated upright partner, she broke out in an ugly rash, which for someone working in the nude is sort of like a jockey being allergic to horses.

“It‘s hard to look sexy when your legs and body are inflamed,” the Claritin cutie said.  Ms. Cleeve tells the British tabloid “The Sun” she‘s given up her pole and her dancing and has taken a new job in sales, where the coldest thing in her new career are the calls.

To infinity and beyond!  Well, not quite.  More like to 62 miles above the Earth and beyond.  Our No. 1 story next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  From the cannon-propelled rocket ship of Jules Verne‘s imagination to George Jetson‘s atomic-powered bubble car, the idea of a private spacecraft has already been firmly fixed in the future.

Our No. 1 story tonight, not anymore.  For the first time ever, a privately built, privately owned, and privately piloted spaceship broke through the stratosphere into space.

And NBC‘s George Lewis joined the thousands of space enthusiasts to watch it all happen high above the Mojave Desert this morning.  He joins us live from there tonight.

Good evening, George.

GEORGE LEWIS, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Alex.

It was not without glitches, but pilot Mike Melvill put one in the record books as he took off this morning into the rising sun.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LEWIS: (voice-over):  It isn‘t every day that a 63-year-old pilot gets to blast 62 miles into space.  Mike Melvill celebrated by letting a bunch of M&M‘s candy float free in zero gravity.

MIKE MELVILL, PILOT:  The flight was spectacular, it really was, the view from up there.

LEWIS:  Spectacular, but dangerous.

(on camera):  After Melvill fired the rocket, accelerating to three times the speed of sound, he encountered problems with the stabilization system, the aircraft rolling back and forth and veering 20 miles off course as it headed towards space.

(voice-over):  A big worry for Melvill and for the head of the company that designed the rocket plane.

BURT RUTAN, AIRCRAFT DESIGNER:  There is no way we would fly again without knowing the cause and without assuring that we have totally fixed it, because it‘s a very critical system.

LEWIS:  Once they get the bugs worked out, the SpaceShipOne team plans to compete for a $10 million award, the X Prize for privately funded space flight.  That will help defray the more than $20 million spent on SpaceShipOne so far.  Within the next few years, the team hopes paying passengers will shell out $30,000 to $40,000 apiece to gaze at spectacular views like these.

MELVILL:  You really do get the feeling that you‘ve touched the face of God when you do something like this, believe me.

LEWIS:  For Mike Melvill, a new pair of astronaut‘s wings presented by the Federal Aviation Administration.  And for the record, the M&M‘s didn‘t melt as Melvill was making history.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LEWIS:  Billionaire Paul Allen, who underwrote this trip at the cost of more than $20 million, said his heart was in his throat this morning as he watched that takeoff—Alex.

WITT:  I‘ll bet.

Hey, George, does this really put us one step closer to this George Jetson-esque personal space car?

LEWIS:  Well, yes and no.  These flights are going to be very brief and very rare.  And you need somebody with Paul Allen‘s big bucks to underwrite the effort.  It‘s not going to be in everybody‘s garage very soon.

WITT:  Are these guys the only ones doing such private flights?  I mean, is anyone else even close, given the money?

LEWIS:  No.

There are about 20 teams competing for this $10 million prize.  But nobody‘s as close to winning that prize as this team out here.  Nobody‘s made this kind of flight yet, except these guys here.

WITT:  OK, George, you‘re going to pardon this.  Time for us to take off.  Thanks so much, NBC‘s George Lewis live from the Mojave Desert tonight.

That wraps it up for this Monday edition of COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Alex Witt, in for Keith Olbermann.  Thanks so much for watching.  I‘ll see you back here tomorrow night—maybe!

Have a good one.

END   

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