updated 7/1/2004 3:13:55 PM ET 2004-07-01T19:13:55

Guests: Wayne Downing, Ronald Chervin

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

No fingerprinting, no bail hearing, no mug shot, yet Saddam Hussein is a prisoner, nonetheless, of the Iraqi judicial system as of 4:15 Eastern this morning. 

And the other prisoner.  The family of Marine Corporal Wassef Hassoun, still awaits word.  And now, must also deny charges that he was a deserter. 

Iraqi charges of a different sort:  Soda, $2 a bottle wholesale.  Your laundry cleaned, just $7 per pound.  Send the bill to the taxpayers.  All of this recorded by whistle-blowers at Halliburton. 

Feeling tired?  Almost sleep deprived?  A new medicine described as a nap inside a pill, but could the cure be worse than the disease? 

And speaking of worse:

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN (singing):  The real deal keep on flying, John Kerry keep on trying...

OLBERMANN:  All that and more on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening.  He said good morning and asked the man presiding if he could ask a few questions.  Apparently something about getting a lawyer or getting access to the 20 lawyers he already has.  He was told he should wait until tomorrow.  He did not question the process, nor the jurisdiction.  He did not threaten to have anybody‘s hands cut off, and he did not say he would be out there hunting for the real killers. 

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight:  A tale of two prisoners, the first of them, Saddam Hussein.  Legally, though not physically, turned over early today by the U.S. to the new interim government of Iraq.  The transfer of Saddam and 11 of his merry men was accomplished at 10:15 Baghdad time this morning, 4:15 Eastern time. 

“The first step has happened,” said the director of the Saddam tribunal, Salem Chalabi.  “I met with him earlier today to explain his rights and what will happen.”  While many of the henchmen appeared visibly nervous, and the infamous Chemical Ali was seen shaking, Saddam was reported calm, and then they ordered him out of the room.  What amounts to an arraignment will occur overnight our time.  One Iraqi official said he hoped to arrange live telecasts of the trial.  Another said Saddam appeared to have lost weight. 

And if the new government has its way, he will lose a lot more.  “The death penalty,” said yet another Iraqi official, “has been reinstated within Iraq‘s justice system after having been suspended during the U.S.  occupation.” 

Thus, next come images of the country‘s ex-dictator in handcuffs and on trial.  Joining us now to assess the implications of all that, retired U.S. Army General Wayne Downing, the commander of Special Operation Forces during the Gulf War of 1991 and most recently, counterterrorism adviser to the Department of Homeland Security. 

General Downing, good evening.  Thanks for your time. 

GEN. WAYNE DOWNING, U.S. ARMY (RET.):  Hi, Keith, nice to see you. 

OLBERMANN:  Let me start with those images.  Iraq‘s new national security adviser suggesting live televising of the trial, Saddam in handcuffs tomorrow.  That will be taped and broadcast, if not live.  What will the impact just of those pictures be in Iraq right now? 

DOWNING:  I think it‘s going to be of high interest, not only in Iraq, but around the world.  I mean, we like trials, especially Americans—you know, the O.J. trial, the Peterson trial and all the rest of these things.  If this thing is televised the way that they‘re talking about, this is going to be high theater and high drama.  It is going to be very, very interesting. 

OLBERMANN:  Maybe it‘s largely the American media‘s fault, but the perception out of Iraq is that in its first 60 odd hours in business, this interim Iraqi government has focused largely, if not entirely, on Saddam and his henchmen.  Is that the right starting point for them, or does it somehow ring of a new regime in a country and the show trials that they would immediately hold of the old regime? 

DOWNING:  Well, Keith, that is interesting, I mean, I thing the No. 1 problem they have on their plate and we have on our plate, we, the United States, is the security situation in that country, and if they don‘t get that thing right, the political processes, the economic processes, social processes, as well as this legal thing, is not going to go. 

But they have decided to do this.  They‘re stepping forward.  They

think it‘s important.  They‘re going to put the regime, as you pointed out,

not just Saddam, but his henchmen, they‘re going to put them on trial and -

·         you know, they‘re going to hold them accountable for the crimes that they committed, which, Keith, are considerable, and the list and the stack of crimes is impressive. 

OLBERMANN:  You used two phrases there I would like to connect, “the legal process” and “if it doesn‘t go.”  What are the chances that Saddam Hussein will manage to pull a Milosevic on his accusers, and drag this thing out indefinitely and infuriatingly and from the legal point of view? 

DOWNING:  That‘s going to be very interesting, how they handle that legal process.  They have some well-trained lawyers, headed by Salem Chalabi, who is—who is going to lead this prosecution.  Hopefully, that is not going to happen. 

Keith, the thing I am concerned about, and maybe it‘s because of my background, I‘m concerned about security for this trial.  I mean, I would hate to be the American that‘s charged with making sure that this thing runs right and is secure.  I worry both about someone assassinating Saddam Hussein and some of these people, and I worry about the jail break scenario, because if I was on the other side, I‘d love to break him out, and boy, would that be something if he got back out on the street?

OLBERMANN:  It would render much of the last year meaningless in either—either outcome. 

The retired Army general, Wayne Downing, many thanks for your time tonight, sir. 

DOWNING:  Thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  And to the other prisoner we mentioned, the Marine now at the mercy of his kidnappers‘ twisted sense of justice.  The waiting for news of Corporal Wassef Ali Hassoun now stretches into a fourth day.  Improved, perhaps, clarified certainly, by the news that his abductors have not connected a deadline to their threats to murder him, but while his family holds vigils here and in Lebanon, where he was born, there is also a new subplot surrounding his disappearance.  A report that it may have been a betrayal that landed the 24-year-old in enemy hands. 

The story, as reported by “The New York Times,” is that Corporal Hassoun was looking for a way out of his U.S. military duty in Iraq.  According to an unnamed Marine officer, after witnessing the gruesome death of one of his sergeants, the 24-year-old was determined to get himself out of Iraq.  The corporal and native Arabic speaker then allegedly befriended a group of Iraqis who worked on the same base, Iraqis who promised to find him a way back to his native Lebanon, and that is where it all reportedly went very wrong.  The Iraqis who had purportedly promised to find the corporal a path to safety, instead turned around and delivered him into the hands of hostage takers. 

The “Times” headline read:  “Abducted Marine had reportedly deserted,” prompting denials from the military and the family alike. 

So, if this could get any worse for the Hassouns, it just has.  His family in anguish now, interrupted only by their own righteous indignation.  For three days, our correspondent George Lewis has been in Hassoun‘s hometown of West Jordan, Utah.  He joins us from there again tonight.

George, good evening.

GEORGE LEWIS, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Keith.  Not only is the Hassoun family upset by “The New York Times” story, but so is the Marine Corps.  Marine spokesman calls it “just plain conjecture,” that the actual details of Hassoun‘s disappearance really aren‘t really known at this point, that no other member of his unit can describe how he disappeared, that it‘s all still under investigation. 

The spokesman told NBC News, “We‘d like to talk to the guy who said all of this to the ‘New York Times‘.”  So, the Marine Corps disputing the “New York Times” story. 

As the family continues to hold a vigil inside the house, waiting for any positive news about Corporal Hassoun, the lawn has been bedecked with about 30 flags, courtesy of a Boy Scout troop.  They came by earlier today and planted the flags in the lawn.  They said they had the permission of the Hassoun family to place the flags. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KEVIN SELL, BOY SCOUT:  Because they‘re in a time of need and we should show our support.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEWIS:  Now, in addition to that, we‘ve also heard today from a young woman who says that she‘s Corporal Hassoun‘s girlfriend.  She‘s in Oceanside, California.  She said that they met while he was stationed at Camp Pendleton between his two tours of Iraq.  She says that she and her family are holding on to hope that he‘ll be released all right. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NICHOLE MERZI, GIRLFRIEND OF HOSTAGE:  We know he‘s strong enough to handle the situation.  We know he‘s hanging in there.  It‘s just that I just wanted him to know that we still think about him all the time and that we‘re with him—you know, in his heart—in our hearts, he‘s with us, and that we want him to come back. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEWIS:  Meanwhile, the Hassoun family continues to appeal for people to pray for the safe release of the corporal.  The small Muslim community where they worship held another service today.  People there praying for his release, and the family continues to wait hopefully—Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  George Lewis, outside the home of the family of Corporal Wassef Hassoun at West Jordan, Utah.  As always, many thanks, George.

And the irony of geography takes us from West Jordan to the nation of Jordan.  An NBC News poll, whose political implications we will explore later, tonight asked a question:  Which one or two of these events have had the greatest personal effect on you?  The answer, the situation in Iraq and the hostage killings finished highest; 57 percent of respondents cited it.  More than the price of gas, more than the death of Ronald Reagan, and the 9/11 Commission, the opening of the World War II memorial, and the changes in the stock market all combined. 

The kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, if not entirely the responsibility of the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are entirely his awful legacy. 

The bounty on Zarqawi‘s head was just raised today by the State Department from $10 million to $25 million.  Who this man is, and how he got that way seems to be a microcosm of Middle Eastern terror.  As Martin Fletcher reports from Zarqawi‘s native Jordan, his schooling was replaced by religious fundamentalist indoctrination, and when a local government realized the danger he posed, it let him out of jail anyway. 

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MARTIN FLETCHER, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  In the dusty desert town of Zarqa in Jordan, locals celebrate a wedding and refuse to talk about the town‘s most notorious son, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, 37 years old, the most wanted terrorist in Iraq.  The man who allegedly cut off the head of American businessman Nick Berg, responsible for hundred of deaths in Iraq. 

But little is known about him.  No Jordanian official will talk about him.  Journalists are forbidden to go to his hometown.  But NBC News got in and found his brother-in-law, Sheikh Abu Kodama (ph). 

They fought together in Afghanistan against American troops.  Proudly, he showed us Zarqawi‘s own Quran, the Muslim holy book.  This is Zarqawi‘s signature. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator):  I‘m proud of Zarqawi.  He has taken revenge for the victims of American terrorism. 

FLETCHER (on camera):  To cut the head off an innocent man is the worst kind of terrorism. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator):  This man is doing what his religion requires him to do. 

FLETCHER (voice-over):  Though Zarqawi was born into a moderately religious family, he quickly grew into a radical. 

(on camera):  This is Zarqawi‘s family home.  He stopped going to school when he was 12 years old; instead, went increasingly to the mosque and that‘s where he conceived his final goals to destroy the Hashemite monarchy and to turn Jordan into an Islamic state.

(voice-over):  But Jordan shut him down, arrested his men, and jailed him for five years.  After that, Zarqawi left Jordan to join other Muslim extremists, first in Afghanistan and today in Iraq. 

At his hometown mosque, all the kids know him.  One said, “Abu Musab is a hero.  He is uniting the Muslims.” 

But this man, Abdullah Abu Ramani (ph), knows another side of Zarqawi. 

For four months they were together in jail.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He can‘t be a leader.  He‘s very simple person, he can‘t control 20 men. 

FLETCHER:  Ramani (ph) is amazed that Zarqawi now runs a terror organization that could threaten the American Army.  But Sheikh Kodama (ph) isn‘t.  “Allah chose Zarqawi,” he says, “to stand up to America and he will, until death.”

Martin Fletcher, NBC News, Zarqa, Jordan. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  COUNTDOWN opening tonight with Iraqi prisoners, from Saddam Hussein to an American Marine, and the men behind it all.

Coming up later, your taxpayer dollars in action in Iraq:  Whistle-blowers from Halliburton saying tonight those contracts are a gravy train.  Lisa Myers with an astounding investigation. 

And speaking of astounding, a pill that can make up for lost sleep? 

With no apparent side effects?  There has got to be a catch to Provigil. 

Doesn‘t there?  Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Our No. 4 story on COUNTDOWN is up next:  Trying to prevent terror in our ports and terror in our elections—as in, why doesn‘t the public know who has the right to postpone the presidential vote?  Stand by.

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OLBERMANN:  If it‘s a terrorist threat so obvious and so astounding that it made its way into the plotline of the series the “Sopranos” this year, you know it‘s serious.  Our forth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight: 

For a country that built itself on the Erie Canal and a dozen world-class seaports, you would have thought that we would have thought they were at risk and merited constant monitoring.  Instead, until recently, harbor security in New Orleans had for 68 years consisted of one guy with a pair of binoculars.  But as our correspondent Robert Hager reports from the waterside in Baltimore, that all changes tomorrow.  At least, it‘s supposed to. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERT HAGER, NBC CORRESPONDENT (on camera):  Scrambling at U.S. ports like this one and ports around the world, to get ready for deadlines starting tomorrow, set by the U.S. Congress and set by the United Nations, to begin doing for seaports what‘s already been done, in part, for airports, and that‘s to close what many call a huge gap in security. 

(voice-over):  The problem seems staggering.  Three hundred sixty-one ports in the U.S.  These are just a few of the major ones.  Seventeen thousand ships a year making calls.  Nine million containers a year offloaded, which could conceal explosives or terrorists.  Who knows?  Jim White runs the Port of Baltimore.

JIM WHITE, PORT OF BALTIMORE:  9/11 woke us all up, and we said we‘re not really providing security.  We are watching services here.  We got a lot of work to do.  How are we going to tackle this?

HAGER:  The new regulations will gradually force more screening of containers, sometimes using X-ray equipment or radiation detectors.  Better I.D. checks of workers, more security cameras and higher fences, and force better security, as well, at foreign ports that send ships here.  Every one will now be boarded by the Coast Guard.  It‘s commandant, Admiral Tom Collins. 

ADM. TOM COLLINS, U.S. COAST GUARD:  If they‘re not complying, though, we can take certain control actions against that vessel, up to and including denial of entry or expulsion to our ports.

HAGER:  And there‘s more.  Ships heading here from abroad must now list just what they‘ll be bringing, even before they‘re loaded.  About time for improvements, some say, like Senator Charles Schumer, who grades present port security at barely a D-plus. 

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK:  The risk of nuclear weapons, of Stingers, shoulder-held missiles, even of terrorists themselves being smuggled in on containers is as great as ever. 

HAGER:  But most agree you have to start somewhere, and that tomorrow‘s deadline is at least that, a start. 

(on camera):  The numbers tell part of the story.  So far, only a half billion dollars in government funds have been spent on port security in the U.S., whereas airport security has cost more than $11 billion.  So the work at seaports is only beginning. 

Robert Hager, NBC News, Baltimore.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  And if you‘re still in an upbeat mood after those details, let‘s fix that in a hurry.  A federal election official has written to National Security Adviser Rice and Homeland Security Secretary Ridge to ask how he should go about postponing or canceling the presidential election.  Underscoring the seldom recalled fact that the New York City primary for mayor was scheduled for September 11, 2001.  DeForest B. Soaries, head of the Election Assistance Commission, says he wrote a letter of inquiry in April about what to do in the event of a terrorist attack in November.  Who makes the call, he asks?  Under what circumstances is the call made?  What are the constitutional implications?  I think we have to err on the side of transparency to protect the voting rights of the country. 

In New York, you may remember, there were initial calls to postpone the mayoral election itself and extend the term of lame duck Rudy Giuliani, but those faded quickly.  As to his letter to Secretary Ridge and Dr. Rice, Mr. Soaries says encouragingly, he‘s heard nothing back. 

COUNTDOWN past our No. 4 story.  Up next, time for “Oddball” and a holiday safety warning that could lead to more laughs than it does to actual life saving. 

And later, the politics of the weird:  Dean and Nader head to head. 

Bubba back at Costco.

Ad an uncomfortable moment on the campaign trail:  The John Kerry scrap book, to say nothing of the John Kerry campaign CD. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We rejoin you now, and we pause the COUNTDOWN for those stories that are inherently devoid of genuine news meaning, or which have been rendered such by sober, well-intentioned safety experts who remain fully unaware that the video they have just produced resembles nothing less than an episode of the infamous MTV series, “Jackass.”  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

With the July 4th weekend looming, here‘s a safety video to which I‘ve just referred:  “The dangers of fireworks.”  The dangers of fireworks video production.  The Consumer Products Safety Commission set up a display on the National Mall in Washington this morning, using mannequins to demonstrate some simple warnings about fireworks. 

Rule No. 1:  Never hold a firecracker in your hand. 

Rule No. 2:  Never let your twin daughters hold a flaming firework, one of them against your other daughter‘s dress. 

No. 3:  Never eat a watermelon that has been stuffed with high explosive. 

And No. 4:  Never, never, never use fireworks in the office, tempting though that might be. 

Those safety rules certainly apply.  But standards of good taste might not if you use Exploding Terrorist Head brand fireworks on sale now in Nebraska.  Likenesses of Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Yasser Arafat, and the company that makes them says it can‘t keep them on the shelves.  They‘ve had some complaints, but they‘re also pointed customers to their more patriotic Super Trooper Fountain.  Yes, show your support for our troops by lighting fire to one of America‘s greatest. 

Melville wrote “Moby Dick,” in essence the story of a man who figuratively would not let go of a whale that done him wrong.  Hemingway wrote “The Old Man and the Sea,” in essence the story of an old man who literally wouldn‘t let go of the fish he‘d finally hooked.  Add to those names that of Bobby Capri, Jr., a 14-year-old boy from Manahawkin, New Jersey. 

Fishing in a tiny sea kayak, Bobby encountered a massive striped bass that decided to take him on what the whalers used to call a Nantucket sleigh ride.  Fifty-three pounds and about five-feet, six inches long, almost as big as Bobby, it took the bait and then it took Bobby—a half-hour wild ride in the Atlantic.  Then Bobby had enough of it and then finally lunged for the bass and pulled it out of the water by its gills, into the kayak; the kayak promptly capsized.  Somehow Bobby swims back to shore with the fish, goes to the bait store to get it measured and says, “I‘ve been hauling bass so long.” 

Anyhow, that‘s the way I heard it.

“Oddball” is in the COUNTDOWN time capsule now. 

Up next, the bond of war:  Was Halliburton hoping to profit off the chaos in Iraq by charging taxpayers exorbitant prices while nobody was looking?  Some Halliburton employees were looking.  Now they‘re talking to our Lisa Myers.

And later, all nighter in college?  No problem.  Pop a new pill, feel like you‘ve slept all night.  There has got to be a caveat to this thing somewhere.  We‘ll ask.

These stories ahead.  First here is COUNTDOWN‘s “Top 3 Newsmakers” of this day.

No. 3:  Ron England of Granada Hills, California.  Thirty years ago, his brother Russ bet him a meal in Paris, he says, that he could not collect a million pennies.  He has.  They‘re in his garage, all 3.6 tons of them.  Now brother Russ says he does not remember making this bet.  Our COUNTDOWN compromise?  Lunch in Paris, California, 100 miles south of Granada Hills. 

No. 2:  Fred Turner, one of the driving forces behind McDonald‘s in the ‘60s.  He came out of retirement to help the struggling new management team and he discovered why they were struggling.  They had lost the recipe to the special sauce of the Big Mac.  He found it. 

And No. 1:  Professor Peter Kopacek of Vienna Tech in Austria.  He says soccer-playing robots will be retooled to remove landmines in war ravaged countries—wait a minute.  There are soccer-playing robots? 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It appears that only the most radical and knee-jerk of the critics of the war in Iraq still think the thing was predicated on some oil grab.

As the British prime minister, Tony Blair, said long before the invasion, if we wanted cheap oil off which corporations could make ungodly profits, the man who would give us that deal was Saddam Hussein.  But our third story tonight is about politics and conspiracy theories and what people believe.  And the problem with the war-for-oil sophistry is that it kind of marginalizes by association another conspiracy theory that posits that the war is, at least in part, about taking American taxpayer money and washing it through Iraq and then into the pockets of major American defense contractors. 

Chief investigative correspondent Lisa Myers tonight with evidence which would support that theory and which comes from a very unlikely place, inside the Halliburton corporation. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LISA MYERS, NBC CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  This former Army chaplain working for Halliburton was so upset by attacks on the company, she e-mailed the CEO with a strategy on how to fight the political slurs.  But today, after five months inside Halliburton‘s operation in Kuwait, Marie deYoung has radically changed her opinion. 

MARIE DEYOUNG, FORMER HALLIBURTON EMPLOYEE:  It‘s just a gravy train. 

MYERS:  DeYoung audited accounts for Halliburton subsidiary KBR.  She claims the there was no effort to hold down costs because all costs were passed on directly to taxpayers and that she repeatedly complained to superiors of waste and fraud.  The company‘s response? 

DEYOUNG:  Quote: “We can as dumb and stupid as we want in the first year of a war and nobody is going to care.”

MYERS:  DeYoung produced documents detailing alleged waste even on routine services, $50,000 a month for soda at $45 a case, $1 million a month to clean clothes or $100 for each 15-pound bag of laundry. 

DEYOUNG:  That money could have been used to take care of soldiers. 

MYERS:  DeYoung also claims people were paid to do nothing.  This man says he was one of them.  Paid $82,000 a year to be a labor foreman in Iraq, Mike West claims he never had any laborers to supervise. 

MIKE WEST, FORMER HALLIBURTON LABOR FOREMAN:  They said, just log 12 hours a day and walk around and look busy.  OK.  So we did. 

MYERS:  Both deYoung and West have since left the company. 

Pentagon documents obtained by NBC News support the whistle-blowers‘ charges.  In December, auditors complained of Halliburton‘s serious deficiencies, including lack of cost control and cost consciousness, examples, purchase of hundreds of high-end SUVs and pickup trucks loaded with options like C.D. players, which most KBR employees do not need, duplication and gold plating in purchases of computer and high-tech equipment, Halliburton employees living in five-star hotels. 

The company declined an interview, but suggests critics are politically motivated—quote—“When Halliburton succeeds, Iraq progresses.  Sadly, a few people don‘t want either of those results.”

Halliburton also says the soda problem has been corrected and the laundry charges are being investigated, but insists it absolutely not true the company is cavalier about taxpayer money. 

DEYOUNG:  They‘re using the war as an excuse, but it‘s not the war. 

It was very bad management. 

MYERS (on camera):  Pentagon auditors apparently agree.  They‘re withholding $186 million from the company and threatening to hold back even more unless Halliburton corrects the problems. 

Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  The war in Iraq a priority concern among American voters.  In a new poll released tonight by NBC News, the consensus, it is time to start looking for the exit, 53 percent of those surveyed concerned that the U.S. may overstay its welcome in Iraq.  Only 37 percent believe there is a danger American troops could leave too soon, the second poll in as many nights to reflect growing suspicion of the president‘s motives and honesty, 44 percent saying they believe that Mr. Bush gave the most accurate information he had; 47 percent say he deliberately misled people to make his case for war. 

Those numbers a sharp change since March of this year, when the majority, 53 percent, thought the president had been truthful. 

But here at home, if it really is the economy, stupid, the improving economy is starting to register; 36 percent say the nation headed in the right direction, up slightly from last month‘s poll; 48 percent still believe America is on the wrong track, because, you guessed it, the war in Iraq.  Big picture, John Kerry still not capitalizing on that situation, in a dead heat with the president, 47 percent each.

Add in Ralph Nader and it is a horse race, still, 45-44-4.  Respondents were not asked, do you think symbolically that a vote for Ralph Nader is really a vote for President Bush?  And if they had, we would have gotten a lot of yes‘s. 

But the third part of our third story on the COUNTDOWN is about a voter‘s watchdog group which says there‘s no symbolically about it.  It claims that two conservative groups have violated election laws by campaigning and fund-raising to get Nader on the ballot in the state of Oregon, so alleges Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.  It went to the Federal Election Commission today with its complaint. 

The Oregon Family Council and Citizens For a Sound Economy admit their volunteers phoned voters in that state to support Nader‘s drive to get on the ballot there.  But the complaint alleges the groups also are corporations that cannot make campaign donations, yet have done so.  The complaint also names the Bush-Cheney campaign, claiming similar pro-Nader calls and fund-raising efforts were made by its volunteers. 

A Bush campaign spokesman called the complaint—quote—

“frivolous.”  Nader‘s detractors call his campaign that when they‘re in a generous mood.  The next hurdle for the independent is a public debate.  Ralph Nader will defend his candidacy against Howard Dean in a 90-minute argument to be taped a week from Friday for broadcast on National Public Radio. 

They will meet at the National Press Club in Washington.  And the debate will then be heard in New Hampshire and in South Carolina, and Oklahoma, Arizona, North Dakota, New Mexico and California—OK, enough.

And now a political conspiracy theory with something for everybody.  Bill Clinton supporters can point to him as a man of the people now, whose memoirs appeal to both Washington, D.C. and Issaquah, Washington state.  His detractors can point out that a week after his publication, Clinton‘s book is already available at 44 percent off. 

The former president-turned-author the main attraction today at Costco in the town 15 miles due east of Seattle, shilling and signing copies of his autobiography at a deep discount, the $35 cover price down to $19.49, just 2 cents a page.  Hundreds were already in line by 6:00 a.m.  They were turning folks away well before Mr. Clinton arrived nine hours later, a couple of hours late. 

And in case you were wondering, one of the rules posted for today‘s event, Mr. Clinton will not sign anything other than the book, Ms.  Lewinsky.

Politics, as Mr. Clinton may have heard, makes strange bedfellows, strange traveling companions, too.  The flight attendants aboard John Kerry‘s campaign plane decided to serenade him with their own version of the rock standard “Proud Mary.”  We‘ve decided to show you this in its entirety, with the reminder that, as past COUNTDOWN guest once noted, it ain‘t over until it‘s over. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(UNIDENTIFIED FEMALES SING “PROUD MARY”)

(APPLAUSE)

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Afterwards, in an expected development, Senator Kerry did not withdraw from the presidential race and move to another country. 

Speaking of polling places, the most important ones in use this minute are only open for another 24 hours.  Time to get out the vote in our second story tonight.  Then, later, the fallout from the original wardrobe malfunction continues, while the real deal happens to be a supermodel on the catwalk (INAUDIBLE) supermodel on the catwalk.  Those stories ahead. 

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We‘re about to start on a delicious smorgasbord of scientific opportunities that lie before us.  We have the planet Saturn, the fantastic ring system. 

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  Helen, you know that that‘s wrong.  Reporters can ask whatever they want when they see the president. 

QUESTION: OK.  I‘d like to ask the president some questions.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCLELLAN:  I‘m sure you would.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Been on about 487 of them all throughout the USA and Canada.  I hope we keep riding forever. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Remember yesterday‘s grotesque story of the 23-year-old schoolteacher accused of having sex with one of her eighth-grade students?  It may have just gotten worse.  She posed for a girly magazine.  Stand by for the breaking details.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)           

OLBERMANN:  Hello.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  And I did not approve this message. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)  

ANNOUNCER:  This year, America finds itself at a crossroads.  A decision must be made and every vote could mean the difference.  We‘re not talking about some meaningless presidential election.  It‘s “Playgirl” magazine‘s hunkiest anchorman contest and Keith Olbermann needs your help.  Without your votes, “Playgirl” magazine may by default name this guy or even this guy the sexiest anchorman. 

But you know who is sexy and counts down from five every night?  This guy.  Keith Olbermann is the thinking person‘s thinking person, a Clark Kent with attitude.  Sean Hannity has a face only Ed Gillespie could love.  Anderson who?  America has a choice.  Choose sexy.  Choose Olbermann. 

Keith Olbermann, his middle name is sexy. 

Won‘t you please vote now?  Go to COUNTDOWN.MSNBC.com. 

Keith‘s name is not really sexy.  Hannity‘s middle is Francis (ph) and that‘s not sexy either.  Paid for by the Committee to Beat Andy Rooney. 

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OLBERMANN:  I‘m going to have to run away again, aren‘t I? 

Our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, the good news, the “Playgirl” magazine newscaster competition voting ends tomorrow, meaning I only have to talk about this once more.  The bad news, I am now sandwiched between Anderson Cooper and Shepard Smith.  Sean Hannity is leading, although he has coughed up 3.5 points in one day.  Cooper and I were tied for second yesterday.  He‘s move up.  Smith has moved up from fourth into a third-place tie with me.  Down, Shep, down. 

Hemmer and Rooney tied for fifth.  Rounding out the top 10, Lauer, Williams, Brokaw, and Jennings.  Would that the audience ratings were like that, eh?  The winner will be invited to pose for the magazine.  Yes, good luck with that.

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  A donation will be made by “Playgirl” to the anchor‘s favorite charity. 

Now, I challenged some of the other candidates to a candid debate on the eve of this election and every last one of them chickened out.  The best we could get was a statement from “60 Minutes”: “Regarding Andy Rooney‘s inclusion on the sexiest list, we at CBS News are wondering, what took people so long to notice?”

Well, it was tougher to get the word out by Morse code.  I was rebuffed even by our own Dan Abrams, who was the leader amongst the write-in ballots and is thus 19th to my tie for third.  Stone?  No.  Paging Dr.  Gupta.

So it has become clear that my best hope is to rally back into second place thanks to a good old-fashioned ballot stuffing.  Other stuffing was suggested, but we fired that guy.  Anyway, while we‘ve got the link for you to vote on the Web site here, COUNTDOWN.MSNBC.com, remember, the more you vote for me, the less I will have to mention this. 

Now back to the comparative sanity that is our celebrity segment, “Keeping Tabs.” 

And, fittingly, if you are still reeling from the story of the arrest of the 23-year-old Tampa middle school teacher on charges she had sex with one of her eighth grade students, prepare to reel some more.  The accused teacher, Debra Lafave, turns out to have posed for what is popularly called a biker magazine.  The photographs were taken long before the incident with the 14-year-old boy who had told police, though, that she had told him her attraction was based on the fact that their relationship—quote—

“wasn‘t allowed.”

OK, back now to the latest on the big Britney Spears engagement to future Mr. Britney Spears II.  Exclusive interview, “People” magazine,” Brits says she‘s not pregnant, but, yes, she is engaged.  She says she first proposed to fiance Kevin Federline, but he said no because he felt men are supposed to propose.

So two minutes later, he did.  Ms. Spears adds—quote—“Marrying Kevin was the last thing I was thinking about doing.  But then I said, you know what?  This is my life, and I don‘t care what people think.  I‘m going to get married.  I‘m in love with him.  I plan to meet his daughter.  I love little ones.  I think the situation is good.  I definitely want to have some kids.  I see myself with four or five.  We‘re starting with a dog.  I just got a Maltese named Laci.”  Good name.  Topical. 

From topical to tropical, we have a developing wardrobe malfunction situation.  This time, it is the model Naomi Campbell.  On the catwalk in Brazil in a tiny white bikini, Ms. Campbell‘s left breast was fully exposed, so exposed, onlookers were said to have thought, it was part of the suit‘s design. 

No.  They say she just didn‘t notice.  You have to give Janet Jackson credit here.  At least she noticed.  Of course, there‘s still the warm lingering afterglow of the mother of all wardrobe malfunctions.  Ms.  Jackson‘s boob tube incident could now wind up costing CBS $550,000. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Technical problems interrupted our program.  We think it was probably Anderson Cooper or Shepard Smith just cutting off my microphone. 

We return to “Keeping Tabs.”

We mentioned the Janet Jackson story.  Play the tape.  It could now wind up costing CBS $550,000.  So reports the Reuters News Service, which quotes unnamed sources who say an FCC staff report has recommended that the full commission fine the 20 CBS-owned stations $27,500 apiece for the piece.  There would be no fine against those CBS affiliates that televised the Super Bowl halftime conflagration of biblical proportions.

And, finally, if you had “And the Half Blood Prince,” you‘ve won the “Harry Potter” sixth book title poll, author J.K. Rowling revealing the title of her next book on the Web site today.  She will not say when the book will be finished, nor published.  She wasn‘t give any other details, save to say that the half blood prince of “Harry Potter” and the half blood prince is neither Lord Voldemort, nor Harry himself. 

Well, of course it isn‘t Harry himself, woman.  That would make the title of the book “Harry Potter and the Harry Potter.”  What do I have to do, write these blessed books for you?  I‘m a little edgy. 

A nap in the form of a pill.  It would seem at first blush like either an overoptimistic remnant from some 1950‘s World‘s Fair forecast of the pharmacy of tomorrow or part of a “Twilight Zone” script Rod Serling wrote about a plot to lure Americans into the 168-hour work week. 

Our No. 1 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, anti-sleeping medicine without side-effects, without the yips of caffeine or the addiction of stimulants, just a fantasy, right?  Wrong.  The drug is called modafinil.  And it sold right now by prescription under the name Provigil.  Wile researchers are not precisely sure how it works, they are sure of the results.  Patients are nearly awake as they would be on eight solid hours of sleep, alert for hours or days without the shakes and with being able to get back to sleep at night on schedule?

Dr. Ronald Chervin was involved in the clinical trials of modafinil.  He is the director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Michigan. 

Dr. Chervin, good evening.  Thanks for your time. 

DR. RONALD CHERVIN, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN:  Hi.

OLBERMANN:  First, I have a quick request from my staff.  Could we get one big prescription for about 1,000 of these? 

(LAUGHTER)

CHERVIN:  No. 

OLBERMANN:  Good. 

Seriously, who is this for? 

CHERVIN:  This medication was developed originally for patients with narcolepsy, which is a serious brain disorder.  The main consequence of this disorder is daytime sleepiness and severe daytime sleepiness.

These are people who often have trouble driving safely on the road for any length of time, have trouble staying awake at work, have trouble even speaking to their friends or enjoying their social lives. 

OLBERMANN:  So that is where it began, and who began using it, but who is using it now?  I ask this because the college interns around here, when we brought this up today, they all knew all there was to know about it.  It sounds like it‘s as much a part of exam week as a No. 2 pencil. 

CHERVIN:  That is not how the drug was intended to be used.  The company that makes it has recently obtained FDA approval for expanded indications.  Those are for example people who are very sleepy because of sleep apnea, that, despite best treatment, still makes them sleepy or for patients who have trouble with shift work schedules. 

But the physicians that I know and especially sleep specialists do not prescribe this medication to help with exams or to help people who are simply sleep deprived skimp on their sleep. 

OLBERMANN:  So if it‘s sleep apnea or if it‘s narcolepsy, that would be a no-brainer.  Those are people who are endangered by their sleepiness, and it‘s not a function of necessarily a lack of sleep.  But what if problem is periodic sleep loss, as opposed to something that‘s chronic?  You have got young kids who wake you up too early three days a week, but not all seven?  You travel frequently and there‘s chronic jet lag?  You work nights as a newscaster, say, and the neighbors upstairs like to exercise their horse four days a week at 6:30 in the morning?

Is it appropriate or useful for folks like that? 

CHERVIN:  No. 

Personally, I don‘t think it‘s appropriate for those people.  It is a symptomatic drug, so it does probably make people feel more alert, no matter what the cause of their sleepiness is.  It may well have that effect.  But it hasn‘t been studied for all those indications and I don‘t think it‘s likely in the near future to receive official approval for those kind of uses. 

OLBERMANN:  All right, so that‘s kind of the gray area or the black area that might become a gray area.  What‘s absolutely—who needs to stay away from this stuff at all costs? 

CHERVIN:  Well, the first thing to do when a patient is sleepy is to figure out why.  And often as sleep experts almost always we‘re able to figure out why and we go for the underlying problem. 

You don‘t want to treat, for example, a bronchitis with just a cough medicine.  And so treating someone who is sleepy just with something to reverse the sleepiness will probably miss the underlying problem.  In many cases, it‘s just not getting enough sleep or it can be sleep apnea or narcolepsy or many other disorders.  When we treat those disorders, those patients are best off.

So it‘s inappropriate, I think, to use modafinil if you haven‘t really figured out what the cause of the sleepiness is.  There are also some other contraindications, some health situations in which it shouldn‘t be taken.  I don‘t think it‘s a drug to be taken lightly.  It hasn‘t been around long enough for us to know perhaps what the very long-term side effects are. 

OLBERMANN:  Last question.  I always like to ask this of any of my own doctors.  Have you ever used this stuff yourself? 

CHERVIN:  No, I haven‘t.  I have not had a medical indication for it. 

And, so barring that, I don‘t intend to use it. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, like I said at the first silly question, that‘s good news. 

Dr. Ronald Chervin of the University of Michigan on Provigil, many thanks.  Good night to you, sir.

CHERVIN:  My pleasure.  Thank you. 

OLBERMANN:  That‘s COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for being part of it.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  It‘s been an adventure, hasn‘t it?  Good night and good luck. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) 

OLBERMANN:  Hello.  I‘m Keith Olbermann and I sure as hell didn‘t approve this message. 

ANNOUNCER:  Is this the face of America‘s sexiest newsman?  Of course not.  But if those fat cats at Fox have their way, he might usurp the title of “Playgirl” magazine‘s hunkiest anchorman.  And what about this Anderson Cooper?  Who says he‘s sexy?  Just look at that face, that hair, those cool, steely eyes.  You know, he really is dreamy. 

OLBERMANN:  Hey, stick to the script. 

ANNOUNCER:  Oh, sorry.  Sean Hannity, not sexy.  Anderson Cooper, not sexy.  Keith Olbermann, now, that‘s sexy.

Vote for Keith Olbermann at COUNTDOWN.MSNBC.com.

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