updated 8/29/2004 5:08:12 PM ET 2004-08-29T21:08:12

Guests: Larry Johnson, Elaine Povich, Mary Schiavo, Cynthia Stone

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEX WITT, GUEST HOST (voice-over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?  Espionage, an Israeli spy in the highest levels of the Pentagon.  Top-secret information compromised.  How damaging is this to the U.S. and who is the mole? 

The politics of miscalculation.  Long after the infamous mission accomplished sign, the commander-in-chief admits errors were made in the post-war phase in Iraq.  The Republican National convention meets New York City.  We‘ve seen the first protests.  Now worries among some delegates that gasp Britney Spears might show up. 

Terror in disguise.  Russian investigators find explosives in the probe of two downed airliners.  In the U.S., pilots here say terrorists are already on board flights trying to find new security soft points. 

And the he said-she said already starts in the new William Kennedy Smith sexual assault allegations.  She says she‘s trying to stop him from attacking another woman.  He says, it‘s all about money. 

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  Good evening everyone and welcome to COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Alex Witt in for Keith Olbermann. 

Miscalculations and mistakes.  Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight.  In a moment, the first admission from President Bush that he made a miscalculation when it came to post-war Iraq. 

But first, a potentially major mistake at the Pentagon.  The FBI tonight is investigating a high ranking official on charges of spying for Israel.  NBC‘s Pete Williams joins us live from Washington, D.C. tonight with all the details. 

Good evening to you Pete.

PETE WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Well first of all, no charges yet, Alex.  And of course, this is not the way these things are supposed to work.  Cases that are under investigation are not supposed to become public because who knows where they‘re going to end up?  It is always theoretically charged—possible that they‘ll end up with nobody being charged or arrested. 

Nonetheless, CBS News did report tonight and law enforcement officials confirm that the FBI is investigating whether a policy analyst at the Pentagon passed sensitive documents to Israel that involve a draft, such things as draft policy discussions of what U.S. policy should be toward Iran, very sensitive issue.  Some classified documents are also potentially involved here, we‘re told.  And at this point, the investigation is looking at whether these documents were channeled through a pro Israel lobby group here in Washington called the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC which is a very influential lobby group here in Washington. 

President Bush spoke to them earlier this year.  Many of the Democratic candidates spoke to them.  They‘re a very influential group here.  No arrests have been made.  We‘re told that nothing is imminent.  But the broad outlines of this are confirmed to us. 

Now, a couple of things.  First of all, AIPAC itself has put out a statement tonight strongly denying that it played any role in any kind of espionage.  It says it‘s a organization comprised of proud and loyal Americans committed to promoting American interests and that any allegation of criminal conduct by the organization or its employees is baseless and false.”

That is a quote from a statement tonight from AIPAC.  They go on to say, we take our responsibilities as American citizens seriously.  We wouldn‘t condone or tolerate for a second any violation of U.S. law or interest.  But they say they are fully cooperating with the government authorities and will continue to do so.

In essence, confirming that there is an investigation going on.  The government of Israel, the embassy here in Washington has also called these reports completely erroneous and baseless and has issued a very strong denial that it received anything or was involved in any kind of spying, soliciting or receiving classified American documents.  So that‘s where we are.  There is some cautionary tone from officials here tonight that they‘re not exactly sure where this investigation is going, where it will end up, and that no arrests have been made and none seem imminent Alex.

WITT:  OK.  So to repeat, no arrests made.  None imminent Pete...

WILLIAMS:  And no charges filed. 

WITT:  So is there a convergence here of intelligence and politics?  We know what is looming this next week—the Republican National Convention.  Is there anything with regard to a response from the White House at this point on this?

WILLIAMS:  I can‘t imagine they‘re going to say anything.  Well, I don‘t know whether the White House will say anything or not.  I don‘t know who CBS‘ source is and neither do the law enforcement officials that I‘m talking to tonight.  Although they‘re very upset that this thing has leaked out and they also—some of them suspect a possible political motivation.  They think somebody may be trying to embarrass the administration on the eve of the Republican Convention.  But I don‘t know whether that‘s true or not because I don‘t know who the source was or what the motive of the source was.

WITT:  You‘re very familiar with Justice Department investigations and the like in this kind of thing.  If there is a arrest imminent, then we would know about that at this point, right? 

WILLIAMS:  Not necessarily.  Although officials tonight say that an arrest is not imminent.  You know there have to be certain steps taken before you arrest someone.  And it would seem that those steps haven‘t been taken yet.  You know charges have to—arrest warrants have to be obtained or grand jury indictments or something like that.  And from the indications we have, those steps have not been taken.  In fact, one official said tonight that it is entirely possible that—theoretically possible that when this investigation is over, nobody will be arrested.  So that would suggest that nobody is about to be walked away in handcuffs. 

WITT:  All right.  NBC‘s Pete Williams in Washington.  Thank you very much for helping us get through this story. 

WILLIAMS:  You bet.

WITT:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE) at you again.  Now, if there is a high-ranking Israeli spy in the Pentagon, how much does that compromise U.S. security and intelligence, not to mention the image of the United States abroad?  Well former State Department official and former CIA agent Larry Johnson joins us by phone from Washington D.C. 

Good evening to you Larry.

LARRY JOHNSON, FORMER CIA AGENT:  Hi Alex.  How are you?

WITT:  I‘m well.  Thank you.  I hope you are as well.  I want to pose that question to you.  How much does this compromise our image, first of all, overseas Larry? 

JOHNSON:  Well it hurts us and it hurts us from the standpoint that the perception was that the reason we went into Iraq had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction and had more to do with securing Israel‘s future.  And I‘m not saying that securing Israel‘s future is a bad thing, but that was really perceived by many in the world as the real reason behind the war in Iraq. 

WITT:  And Larry, would you expect Israel to vehemently deny any sort of association with this incident? 

JOHNSON:  Absolutely.  The old saying in the intelligence community was admit nothing, deny everything, make counter accusations.  I‘ve heard about this investigation for, you know, several months now.  And you know it is—it actually is tied into the forged memo regarding the sale of uranium to Iraq from Niger. 

(CROSSTALK)

JOHNSON:  What I‘ve been told is that there‘s a strong belief that the forgery was carried out by Israel in an effort to help build up the evidence to allow the United States to justify going to war.  So, this whole thing that started with the outing of Valerie Plame, the CIA officer, started growing and expanding when they saw that there‘s this forged memo and then people linked to the office of—in the office of Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Fife at the Department of Defense were seen as having some very close contacts and sharing information with the Israeli intelligence sources. 

WITT:  Larry, I want to go back to what you just said.  You‘ve been hearing about this investigation for some months now? 

JOHNSON:  Correct.

WITT:  So my question to you, the timing of this release, it is Friday night.  We‘re heading into the weekend, leading into the Republican National Convention.  Anything to be tied to that? 

JOHNSON:  Potentially, yes.  You know, this would be a political black eye for the Bush administration if it turns out to be true.  Well and again, it is—I know that the FBI has been very reluctant to talk about it.  I‘ve been hearing about it through people who have had access to people who have been involved with the investigation.  And they‘ve been trying to run down these various leads. 

But, a key component of this goes back to who forged the memo that that letter—that document that was used to insinuate that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger?  And so this, and look, we shouldn‘t be surprised that Israel is spying us on.  There‘s no such thing as a friendly intelligence service.  And from the standpoint of Israel, I understand why they‘re spying on us, but you know we‘re not Israel.  We‘re the United States and from our standpoint, we‘ve got to protect our national security assets.  And no matter how good a friend Israel is, they don‘t get to come inside and get a hold of the family jewels. 

WITT:  Now Larry, from your perspective, how big might this be? 

JOHNSON:  Well I think it‘ll be huge.  I mean I‘ve heard some of the other names that are being looked at and you know one of the concerns is it goes over to the National Security Council as well.  So this could expand beyond the Department of Defense and go into the National Security Council.  I mean I know that there were targets that are being looked at.  Now whether they‘ve collected enough evidence to be able to prosecute, that‘s a whole other issue. 

WITT:  What about the Middle East reaction?  How fearful should we be about that? 

JOHNSON:  Well, I don‘t think that there will be any real surprise.  You know, there‘s been the perception that under the Bush administration that the United States has been in the hip pocket of Israel and under the thumb of Ariel Sharon.  We went from a policy that was first established under George Bush Sr. and then maintained by Bill Clinton where the United States was perceived as having a more even handed balanced approach to it.  And under the Bush administration—the current Bush administration, there‘s perception that we‘ve become very one-sided towards Israel. 

WITT:  All right.  Former State Department official, former CIA agent and our friend Larry Johnson, thank you very much for joining us this evening...

JOHNSON:  Thank you Alex.

WITT:  From mistakes at the Pentagon to the admission of mistakes at the White House, surprising statements today from President Bush about Americans in combat.  Comments that could change the dynamic of the couldn‘t be closer race for president.  Mr. Bush now acknowledging for the first time that post-war Iraq has not gone according to plan.  If there‘s any doubt that the president is rarely one to second-guess himself, we take you back to what happened in April when Mr. Bush was asked what his biggest mistake since 9/11 would be. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time so could I plan for it.  John, I‘m sure historians will look back and say gosh, he could have done it better this way or that way.  You know, I just—I‘m sure something will pop into my head here in amiss of this press conference all of the pressure of trying to come up an answer, but it hadn‘t yet. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WITT:  Well, today no such hesitation.  The president now admitting to “The New York Times” that he made a—quote—“miscalculation of what the conditions would be in post-war Iraq.”  But the self-reflection ends there.  The president also praising his strategy for being flexible enough to respond to the violence.  And even now he says—quote—“we are adjusting to our conditions.”

Also receiving an adjustment, the president‘s stance on his challengers‘ Vietnam War record.  Mr. Bush becoming Senator John Kerry‘s most likely defender.  Quote—“I think Senator Kerry should be proud of his record.  I don‘t think he lied.”  But once again, Mr. Bush refused to condemn the so-called Swift Boat ads attacking Senator Kerry. 

All in all, an interview that is surprising not only for its candor but also for its timing.  Here to help us analyze what the president is saying and why he is saying it now, Elaine Povich, a freelance reporter and former Washington correspondent for “Newsday”. 

Elaine, thank you for your time tonight. 

ELAINE POVICH, POLITICAL REPORTER:  Happy to be here. 

WITT:  It has been 15 long and violent months since the president declared major combat over in Iraq, so why come forward now to acknowledge that he miscalculated what the post war conditions would be?

POVICH:  Well, it would be too slick to say something just popped into his head.  But I think the timing of this was no accident at all.  The Republican Convention starts next week.  We‘re going to be talking about the future.  And the best thing that he wants to do is get rid of this nagging question from the past which is, gee, if we were so successful in Iraq, how come we‘re still there? 

WITT:  So Elaine, do you think these remarks put the controversy behind him or is the president only opening himself up to more criticism? 

POVICH:  Well, first of all the criticism has been there and will be there.  I don‘t think there‘s any putting it totally behind him.  But I think by doing what he did, he was very clever.  He said well, OK, mistakes were made but now on to the future and we‘re adjusting and we‘re making calculations and we‘re doing just fine.  And tomorrow—next week‘s convention is going to be about the future.  That‘s the calculation.  I don‘t think it puts to rest the questions at all about why the miscalculation was made.  And why they didn‘t know better that a quick and swift war, as he said, would leave the country in chaos. 

WITT:  Elaine, what about the cynics?  They‘re going to say the timing of this announcement is shrewdly calculated for minimum exposure, rather.  It‘s a Friday.  The Olympics are occupying a lot of people‘s attention.  Do you think the White House is hoping this major admission will not garner much attention? 

POVICH:  Well, it is the last Friday in August and it is the August doldrums.  And it is as all you say, all those other things.  And probably they were hoping that fewer people would notice.  But in this politically charged atmosphere in which we live, in which the 24-hour news cycle is paramount, I don‘t think anything like this can be ignored.  It might be submerged for awhile but I suspect it will become more and more obvious as time goes on that yes, he has finally admitted a mistake. 

WITT:  Now what about Senator Kerry?  I mean he was very quiet today.  Not responding at all to what the president had to say both about him, as well as the war in Iraq.  Why do you think he didn‘t speak up?  Why not make a response?

POVICH:  Oh, why make a response?  Let George Bush‘s words do it for him.  I don‘t think there was anything that Senator Kerry really needed to say today.  I mean first of all, George Bush admitted that he made a mistake.  Well if Kerry said (UNINTELLIGIBLE) he made a mistake that would be sort of seen as piling on.  And the other thing that the president said was that he didn‘t think that Senator Kerry was a liar.  Well, that was just fine with Senator Kerry.  He can let those words stay out there just fine for himself and he doesn‘t need to back that up again.  I think he made a very smart political calculation once again in remaining quiet. 

WITT:  All right.  Political reporter Elaine Povich in D.C., thank you for joining us tonight on COUNTDOWN.

POVICH:  Happy to have been here. 

WITT:  Well COUNTDOWN opening with the politics of war, from Iraq to Vietnam. 

Up next, our number four story.  The politics of politics.  On the eve of the Republican National Convention, is there anything the president can do to get a bounce out of his convention? 

And later, the Russian airline disaster.  Investigators find signs of terrorism.  Back in the United States dire warnings from pilots that it‘s just a matter of time before another airline attack here.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  COUNTDOWN‘s number four story is up next.  The (UNINTELLIGIBLE).  Senator Kerry didn‘t get a big boost out of his convention.  Will anything change this time around when it comes to the GOP Convention?  Pat Buchanan joins us with his take up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  It has been a heated week in the race for president but if the Bush-Cheney campaign has its way, next week will be the one to remember.  At number four on the COUNTDOWN tonight, counting down to the convention. 

The grand old party throws itself a party in New York.  Is New York ready? 

President Bush was on the campaign trail in Florida today.  Part of a major swing through southern battleground states before next week‘s gathering in New York.  Statistically, the race is still a dead heat.  But nonetheless, Mr. Bush heads to New York with a slight lead in the latest nationwide polls.  The big question is whether he‘ll be able to build on that lead and enjoy a traditional post convention bounce in the polls. 

Joining us now with a convention preview, Pat Buchanan, Republican advisor to three presidents and a presidential candidate himself in the ‘92, ‘96, and 2000 campaign, as well as my good friend.  Good evening to you Pat.  Thanks for... 

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Hi Alex.  Good to see you...

WITT:  And you as well.  I want to talk with you first about our breaking news here at this top of the broadcast.  You heard about these allegations of spying for Israel in the highest reaching ranks of the Pentagon.  What‘s your take on that with regard to the timing? 

BUCHANAN:  Well, first, you had an extraordinary interview with Larry Johnson who said this is directly related to an allegation that the Israelis were behind those phony documents, forged documents that came through Italian intelligence to the United States in order to convince the United States that Iraq was building nuclear weapons and make the case for going to war.  That is first, extraordinary, if true. 

Secondly, usually when you have these cases of spies, low level spies for an embassy, you‘d tell the Israelis.  You‘d call them and say get Jones out of here.  He‘s overstepping his bounds and they‘d kick one of ours out.  You do it in a friendly way.  This sounds like it‘s gotten all the way up to the top levels of the Pentagon.

My guess is, and this is a guess, that somebody has blown this operation just as their investigation is moving forward in order to abort the entire thing.  But—and I cannot think the president would want to have a collision between the United States government and the Israeli government, Sharon when he‘s doing so well with the Jewish vote.

Secondly, I don‘t think Kerry would follow up on it.  He wants the Jewish vote back and of course the Israeli issue is central in this campaign.  So this is an extraordinary story.  And I thought Larry Johnson was very interesting.  He‘s talking about possible lines into the White House.  Because what we‘re talking about here is America‘s policy toward Iran. 

Alex, do you know what they‘re thinking of right now and they‘re proposing is the possible necessity of strikes on Iran to take out their nuclear plants and whether the Israelis will do it if we don‘t.  You are talking about something that is at the highest level of strategy and thinking in terms of national security and frankly, this is an extraordinary story.  I don‘t know the details.  But I think Larry Johnson obviously knows a lot more than most of us. 

WITT:  Well it was interesting because he said this is the kind of story he‘s been hearing about for several months...

BUCHANAN:  I‘m astounded, yes.

WITT:  And that brings me to the timing of this, Pat.  Political fallout in terms of votes.  You‘ve got to believe the White House is wondering about that front and center this evening. 

BUCHANAN:  Well look I‘m sure—let me say this.  If you‘ve got another Jonathan Pollard over in the Pentagon who took a room full of documents and sent them over there, many people think should have been sentenced to death and he‘s working with Israeli intelligence, you‘ve got something that explosive in relations with Israel.  The president of the United States, quite frankly, is going to want to put that over until after November and let the investigation proceed as long as they know who they‘re dealing with. 

And so what would be the argument for putting it out now?  It sounds like someone is trying to abort an investigation that‘s underway.  Now, I don‘t know, but this is a surmise I would have.  And the reason is, we knew in the White House you find certain guys.  We did some spying on the South Africans, flew over their nuclear sites and so, then they kicked our guys out.  So they kicked—we kicked two of their guys out.  But we went to the party for them, you know, and that stuff is done.  But to raise to it this level is to me, very dramatic. 

WITT:  All right, now Pat, we booked you—we thank you for those...

BUCHANAN:  Right.

WITT:  ... but we booked you to you talk about the convention coming up...

BUCHANAN:  OK.

WITT:  ... your take on this.  We know 16 years ago, the 1988 convention, here‘s what we heard.  We heard George Bush the father called it a kinder, gentler America.  What do you think we‘re going to expect to see or hear in terms of a buzz phrase like that from the current President Bush at this convention? 

BUCHANAN:  Well you know, 1988 is a perfect example.  Dukakis came out of his convention at the end of July 17 or 18 points ahead.  Bush did say kinder, gentler.  But in the middle of his speech, he inserted these things about the flag and about the Pledge of Allegiance up in Massachusetts, which Dukakis had vetoed.  And he hit him on gun control and he hit him on social issues so that by January—by September 1, Bush was ahead by eight points.  And that‘s the way the race ended. 

What‘s happened, Alex, is the president apparently has moved two or three points ahead from two or three behind because of the Swift Boat events.  OK?  If he goes in there and gets a good bounce out of here and is six or seven ahead or five ahead, going into September, I think he is in such good shape that Kerry will have to beat him in the debates to win. 

WITT:  How do the Republicans beat the success of the Democratic Convention?  Because they had a very successful gathering in that overall.  What is the message that has to be hammered out there? 

BUCHANAN:  Well, Kerry did have a successful convention.  I thought his speech was excellent and he did get a small bounce.  Not a great one.  Bush can‘t get a great one because it‘s a 50/50 country now.  I think Bush‘s message should probably be, look, you know we were attacked on 9/11.  The president of the United States is a strong young president, took command, exacted retribution for that attack.  He has kept us safe since.  He and this team are the team to keep us safe through the next four years.  That would be my theme.  And frankly, if the demonstrators come out and behave obnoxiously, it will give the president a bounce. 

WITT:  That‘s something I think we can expect, I do believe.  Pat Buchanan...

BUCHANAN:  All right.

WITT:  ... MSNBC political analyst.  Thank you so much for your time tonight.  We appreciate it Pat.

BUCHANAN:  Thank you Alex.

WITT:  Have a good Friday. 

All right, COUNTDOWN now past five and four tonight, so up next, we pause the COUNTDOWN for our nightly traipse through the news of the weird.  “Oddball” is next.  You‘re getting a look at the revenge of the bulls.

And later, without a doctor in sight, a little girl reaches for 911 to help deliver her new little brother.  We‘ll have (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  I‘m Alex Witt in for Keith Olbermann.  And we pause the COUNTDOWN now for the stories that everyone, Republican and Democrats alike, can agree are just strange.  Let‘s play “Oddball”.

Meet Martyn Walters, the tallest Royal Palace guard in English history.  He is 7‘3”.  Nine feet if you count the big hat and this is his best friend, Matthew Else.  He‘s 5‘2”, the shortest guard in all of London. 

Together, they‘re the odd couple.  Walters has just been assigned to Queen Elizabeth II‘s elite bodyguards.  Partly because he‘s just too tall to fit in the sentry box outside and partly because the queen needs someone who can swat down attacking helicopters.  A custom uniform had to be tailored to fit his huge frame to go with the traditional bearskin hat where Walters hides his basketball.

To the bull fighting ring in Madrid, Spain where “Oddball” always roots for the bull.  The perennial underdog who faces certain death in every match, but it‘s not for a lack of trying.  Today two bulls, perhaps trying to escape or maybe they were just going after a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) fan, jumped into the stands with the spectators.  Dozens panicked and scrambled into the ring where the other bulls were.  Three poor people in the stands who did nothing more than show up for a nice day in the sun to watch some bulls get tortured and killed, they were gored.  None of the injuries were serious unless you count what happened to the bulls. 

Finally, another day, another Guinness world record falls by the wayside.  Today it‘s the world‘s largest bagel cooked up by the Bruegger‘s Bagel Company in Syracuse, New York.  It is six feet across, weighs 900 pounds and has 14,000 grams of carbohydrates.  It was served up this morning with a half ton of cream cheese and locks the size of a speedboat. 

Well, “Oddball” fortunately in the record books now.

Up next, the latest on the spy scandal rocking the Pentagon tonight.  Also, as investigators close in on terrorists, the cause of two almost simultaneous crashes in Russia, pilots here say terrorists are traveling on our airlines, casing them for new vulnerabilities.  And later, William Kennedy Smith faces more allegations of sexual assault.  He says it is a ploy for money.  The accuser says it‘s to stop another woman from becoming prey to him.  Will she be able to withstand the mountain of scrutiny coming her way? 

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

No. 3, German artist Gustav Metzger.  His display at London‘s Tate Britain Modern Art Gallery included a transparent bag of garbage meant to represent the chaos of the modern artist.  A few nights ago, an overnight custodian at the museum mistook the bag of garbage for a bag of garbage and threw it in the dumpster. 

No. 2, Sarmad Shamael, the first and only tattoo artist in Iraq.  Tattoos were banned under the regime of Saddam Hussein, but Shamael says now that Iraq is free, its citizens are free to express themselves however they wish.  His most popular request is, keep on truckin‘. 

And No. 1, Katie Bland of Independence, Missouri.  Bland is her married name, which one might think would be bothersome, until you hear her maiden name.  She is a former Mrs. Katie Boring.  She married Mr. Mason Bland in June and they‘re looking forward to a long, pleasantly uneventful life together.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  At No. 3 on the COUNTDOWN, security at home and abroad. 

In a moment, terrorists again turning their attention to the skies, but first, a developing story out of Washington, D.C. tonight.  As we told you at the top of this news hour, an FBI investigation is under way into a high-ranking official at the Pentagon, this on charges of spying for Israel.  Officials tell NBC tonight that there is evidence the official passed sensitive information, including presidential policy directives, to Israel. 

Counterterrorism expert Larry Johnson earlier on this program said that this investigation may include the forged document that alleged Saddam Hussein was attempting to purchase uranium from Niger.  Some of that information apparently also concerned U.S. policy towards Iran.  The Associated Press tonight says officials refuse to identify the employee under investigation, but said the person works in the office of Douglas J.  Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon. 

The alleged spy is accused of passing information on to Israel or the Israeli lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.  That committee tonight flatly denied the allegations, saying—quote—“AIPAC is an American organization comprised of proud and loyal American citizens committed to promoting American interests.  Any allegation of criminal conduct by the organization or its employees is baseless and false.”

And the FBI tells us tonight that an arrest is not imminent, but officials say it is—quote—“a big deal.”

Turning the corner in our third story tonight from spies and allies to terror in the skies.  In a moment, evidence that terrorists are once again actively testing security on American planes. 

But, first, what they‘ve already achieved in Russia.  Investigators found trace amounts of hexogen.  That is an explosive material used by Chechen rebels, this in the wreckage of one of the two planes that crashed nearly simultaneously on Tuesday.  A radical Islamic group has claimed responsibility for the crashes on their Web site.  But U.S.  counterterrorism officials say it is of dubious credibility. 

Russian investigators have identified a pair of other suspects, two women, one on each plane, both from Chechnya.  They‘re the only victims whose families haven‘t contacted authorities since the crash. 

As Russian investigators were sifting through wreckage of those airplane attacks, officials stateside revealed chilling evidence of terrorist plans here at home.  At a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, the president of the Association For Air Line Pilots testified that the nation‘s approach to security on airplane needs a complete overhaul. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CAPTAIN DUANE WOERTH, PRESIDENT, AIR LINE PILOTS ASSOCIATION:  We need to spend more time working on the next threat, not the last threat.  We‘ve spent all of our time taking sharp objects away from grandmothers.  We need to worry about explosives.  We need to worry about the next thing we‘re not prepared for, not what happened 9/11. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WITT:  Now, what he didn‘t say was what the next thing might be.  But his written statement to the committee offers chilling insight into how terrorists are probing the system, if not what they might be planning—quote—“We can confirm from our members‘ anecdotal reports that airline security and operations are being tested.  We know of instances of passengers feigning illness, which has the appearance of an attempt to determine how cabin crews and law enforcement on the airplane will react to incidents.  There have been reports of individuals who have run toward the flight deck door, possibly to draw out any Federal Air Marshals on board.”

Joining us now to assess the threat to the nation‘s airlines is former Department of Transportation Inspector General and author of “Flying Baseline, Flying Safe,” Mary Schiavo. 

Mary, thanks so much for your time this evening. 

MARY SCHIAVO, AVIATION EXPERT:  Thank you. 

WITT:  The terrorist testing accounts, these are anecdotal.  In fact, Captain Woerth, he‘s pretty critical of the fact that we don‘t have a national database where this kind of data is collected and analyzed, so we don‘t really know if these incidents are on the rise or not. 

Do you think terrorists are actually making a concerted effort to test the system or are we just more aware now of strange behavior on flights? 

SCHIAVO:  No, they absolutely are. 

And this has been a very important point.  And Captain Woerth is right to just be outraged, because this very issue was brought up before Congress at least two years ago.  We were promised that we would have a national database and that flight attendants, pilots, and most important, cargo handlers and other people at the airport would be able to report these instances of testing, which is exactly what went on before 9/11, crucial and important to protect us from here on out. 

WITT:  But, Mary, if these things are being reported, it seems like this is about the first time we‘ve heard about things like faking illnesses to test the system.  Why weren‘t the suspicious passengers detained, first of all, on landing?  Why haven‘t we heard about any arrests? 

SCHIAVO:  Well, the problem is, is identifying why they‘re feigning illness, if they are.  If someone says they feel sick, are they feigning illness because they‘re a terrorist planning for the next attack?  Or are they feigning illness because they‘re having an anxiety attack and need to get off the plane? 

The problem is, is identifying who is a terrorist and who is not.  So, as the captain has said, instead of taking sharp objects away from little old ladies, what we need to be identifying are the threats, not just the objects.  We‘re very object-based in our security.  And this is a problem.  You can‘t just arrest someone because they appear or tried to appear that they were sick.  What you need to do is find out why. 

And this database would allow that.  But we don‘t have it fully operational yet.  And the reason you haven‘t heard is we don‘t have the database. 

WITT:  But, Mary, what about Captain Woerth talking about people going to the cabin door, trying to rush that?  Is there any excuse for that that we can consider? 

SCHIAVO:  No, there is no excuse for that.  But that points up a very important weakness. 

Once we reinforce the cockpit doors, the government seems to think that that solution is solved.  But it‘s a long and far from solved because, as Captain Woerth pointed out, pilots need to come out occasionally for using the facilities.  If there‘s a disturbance, a lot of times, they will ask the pilot to deal with the disturbance.  That can‘t happen anymore. 

But we only have one cockpit door.  And on some planes, of course, like El-Al‘s planes, there‘s a double guard system.  You have two doors.  We don‘t have that.  So the pilots are still very vulnerable and of course they are supposed to now stay barricaded behind that door.  And we know that doesn‘t happen. 

WITT:  Now, Mary, one of the big concerns in this committee hearing was the fact that our screeners do not pat passengers down, that a wand or a metal detector might not pick up a suicide belt. 

So, given what may have happened in Russia, these two suspicious female passengers and the explosive residue there and the debris, is the possibility of a single suicide bomber the biggest threat facing air security right now, in your mind? 

SCHIAVO:  Well, a suicide bomber is a big threat because we always assumed that it would be checked on a bag or put into some—that‘s a big issue now.  Now, don‘t forget that Russia has also had a problem with surface-to-air missiles, shoulder-fired rockets.

Statistically, that is as big a problem as bombs on board.  And we have to be careful with that.  And, of course, the other thing is bombs or any kinds of issues concerning cargo, which has received very, very little attention.  So, suicide bombers, surface-to-air missiles, cargo issues really haven‘t been looked at. 

WITT:  All right, Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the DOT, thanks so much for your time tonight.  We appreciate it. 

SCHIAVO:  Thank you. 

WITT:  COUNTDOWN more than halfway home. 

Straight ahead for all of you, tonight‘s No. 2 story.  William Kennedy Smith faces more sexual assault charges.  Will his accuser be able to withstand the intense media spotlight?  And later, Paris Hilton‘s frantic dog search.  Note to self, don‘t freak out when you sent the dog to a sitter.  Hello?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Ahead on COUNTDOWN, the new sex scandal swirling around William Kennedy Smith.  And later, a new young 911 hero to introduce you to.

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Each day in courtrooms across America, the outcome of sexual assault cases often hinge on whose testimony the jury finds more believable, the accuser or the accused. 

But when the defendant is a member of one of America‘s most famous families or a professional athlete, the attention the case receives often takes on a life of its own. 

The No. 3 story on tonight‘s COUNTDOWN, sorting out the truth in high-profile cases of he said/she said.  As was widely reported yesterday, William Kennedy Smith finds himself back in the courtroom and in the spotlight, facing another charge of sexual assault.  Smith was acquitted on rape charges in 1991, a case that was one of the first trials of its kind to be broadcast on national TV.  Smith flat-out denies the latest allegations and says the accusation is an attempt to extort money and exploit his family background. 

For her part, Audra Soulias, Kennedy‘s accuser says she understands the consequences of being involved in such a high-profile case. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AUDRA SOULIAS, PLAINTIFF:  I come forward today with the full knowledge that my life will never be the same.  I have been repeatedly warned by everyone I‘ve sought guidance from not to do this.  I‘ve been warned that I, my family, and that anyone affiliated with this case can expect to be harassed, ruined and destroyed for bringing these allegations to light. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WITT:  As Audra Soulias case highlights, for a woman bringing a sexual assault claim against a high-profile defendant, the spotlight from the resulting media attention can burn exceedingly bright. 

Often , the defendant is facing jail time in a criminal trial or a million-dollar verdict in a civil suit.  With the stakes so high, the defense often attempts to turn the tables and put the accuser on trial. 

Joining us tonight to talk about the resulting impact of headline-making cases like William Kennedy Smith‘s and Kobe Bryant‘s is Cynthia Stone.  She is with the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.  And she join us tonight from Denver. 

Good evening, Cynthia.

CYNTHIA STONE, COLORADO COALITION AGAINST SEXUAL ASSAULT:  Good evening.

WITT:  What impact, Cynthia, are we seeing from these high-profile cases?  Are we seeing more women come forward, less women come forward? 

STONE:  Well, sexual assault is already the lowest reported of any crime against a person, with only an estimated 16 percent of victims coming forth to law enforcement. 

We are hearing anecdotally that this kind of treatment of the victim in the Kobe Bryant case is affecting victims‘ decisions to come forward.  What we don‘t know yet is hard numbers.  We don‘t have any numbers that would have any statistical integrity at this point. 

WITT:  All right, so, Cynthia, what do you think it is?  What or really whom do you think influences a woman‘s decision to come forward and press charges?  Is it attorneys?  Is it Counselors?  Or is it just a pursuit of justice? 

STONE:  Well, I think it is usually a woman‘s own choice whether or not to come forward. 

Most of the victims‘ rights counselors do not try to help a woman make that decision.  They decide to just support her in any decision she decides to make.  They don‘t advise them one way or another.  It is a woman‘s own choice.  But they give them the options and they do try to tell them truthfully what the process will be like if they do decide to come forward. 

WITT:  And what do you say to defense attorneys, Cynthia, who say they are not attacking an accuser‘s character, rather, their credibility, by leaking information that may not be admissible in court?  And is that something we see often happening? 

STONE:  Well, in these high-profile cases that are watched intently by the media and the public, I believe that this is the reason why we see this kind of information get out about these people. 

But the reason women, any woman decides not to come forward, they say, is because they fear losing their privacy.  They fear being blamed.  They fear not being believed about what happened to them.  And in these high-profile cases, we see those fears exponentially magnified.  We believe that the reason for that is, you have got very high-profile celebrities with almost endless financial resources and very wily defense attorney who, can circumvent around the rape shield laws. 

WITT:  All right, Cynthia Stone, we thank you for your time tonight on

COUNTDOWN. 

And, as we‘ve been discussing, few sexual assault cases have garnered more attention than the Kobe Bryant case and trial isn‘t even underway yet.  But the case took a significant step in the direction today.  Following 14 months of headlines, hearings, and rampant speculation of what happened between Kobe Bryant and his accuser, jury selection got under way today. 

Hundreds of potential jurors arrived at the courthouse and answered 82 questions designed to weed out unsuitable jurors.  The questionnaire is the first step towards picking the 12-member jury which will decide the NBA star‘s fate.  Attorneys in the case will be scrutinizing the answers over the weekend, developing lists of juror they want to question further and those they want to eliminate.  Jury selection is expected to last at least through next week. 

As always, we make the transition to some stories you‘re only going to find here and maybe in the grocery store checkout aisle.  It is the entertainment news of “Keeping Tabs.” 

And Paris Hilton‘s long ordeal is over.  No, she didn‘t just solve a Rubik‘s Cube.  She found her little doggy.  You may remember the drama earlier this month when the heir to billions and star of the reality show “The Simple Life” lost her chihuahua, Tinkerbell.  She offered a $5,000 reward for the safe return of a pooch, but “The New York Post” reports, Tinkerbell was never lost.  The dog was staying with Hilton‘s grandparents and Paris forgot ever dropping off the dog there.  Yikes.

So no reward was ever given, but available for bid on eBay is a handmade lost-dog poster hung by Paris herself.  The seller says he took the poster down from a telephone poll after the dog was found.  He has got photos proving she hung it up.  And, by the looks of it, we‘re willing to believe that she made the thing herself.  Bidding is up to a whopping $400. 

COUNTDOWN‘s No. 1 story is up next.  A young girl reacts quickly in a moment of crisis.  Her mom starts giving birth at home.  That‘s when the girl reach for the telephone and 911.  And the whole ordeal is caught on tape. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  With a conveniently scheduled day off, Keith has managed to wiggle out of his weekly on the news in the COUNTDOWN quiz “What Have We Learned?”  As punishment, I suggest you e-mail some seriously hard questions for him to try to answer next week.  That will learn him. 

Instead, at No. 1 tonight, a strange convergence of stories that marks the COUNTDOWN equivalent of lightning striking twice in the same spot.  You may remember the tale of 7-year-old Trystan Meadows on COUNTDOWN earlier this week.  When his grandfather suddenly collapsed in front of him, Trystan showed amazing presence of mind.  Instead of naturally panicking, he made a life-saving call to 911. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

TRYSTAN:  Hello, my grandpa, he fell and now he can‘t talk.  I need help immediately.

SHENIKWA TIGNER, DISPATCHER:  OK.  how old are you, honey?

TRYSTAN:  Seven.

TIGNER:  You‘re 7.  OK.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

WITT:  Well, Trystan‘s tale was amazing enough.  Then we found out about Angelina Robinson, 7 years old, in second grade.  A loved one suddenly needs help.  And what does she do?  You got it.  She picks up the phone and dials 911. 

Denise Rosch of KVBC in Las Vegas has this story. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

DISPATCHER:  Fire Medical, Fire Medical

ROBINSON:  My mom‘s having a baby right now and it‘s right now.

DISPATCHER:  OK. What‘s the address?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

DENISE ROSCH, KVBC REPORTER (voice-over):  It‘s a call that makes Angelina Robinson blush and her mom cry. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

DISPATCHER:  OK.  OK.  Is anybody else home with you right now?

ROBINSON:  My mom‘s here and my brother and sister.

DISPATCHER:  OK.  Who‘s the oldest?

ROBINSON:  I am.

DISPATCHER:  How old are you, baby?

ROBINSON:  Seven.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

ROSCH:  Two months ago, Angelina took control when her mom went into labor in the family bathroom, a day the little girl would rather forget. 

ROBINSON:  I was about to have a heart attack.

ROSCH:  But Metro Police won‘t let her. 

CAPTAIN MARK MEDINA, LAS VEGAS METRO POLICE:  This is going to be our first 911 recognition award. 

ROSCH:  In a rare ceremony at Metro‘s communication center, Angelina is being honored for making a life-saving call, holding the line as dispatch talks her through. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

ROBINSON:  Mom, she says to keep your legs up!

DISPATCHER:  Is there any way—get your mom some towels.

ROBINSON:  Mom, do you feel contractions?  The baby is halfway out

DISPATCHER:  You‘ve got to go over there and help her get the baby.

ROBINSON:  I can‘t.

DISPATCHER:  Try honey, OK?  Just try.

ROBINSON:  I can‘t.  I‘m too scared.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

JENNIFER AMARILLAS, MOTHER:  She went and called me without me knowing.  And then I went to stand up to see who was calling and out came a leg and an arm.

ROSCH:  Jennifer Amarillas says her baby was born seven weeks premature, too little to come to his sister‘s ceremony, but something he will hear about the rest of his life. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

ROBINSON:  My mom says the baby‘s head is still stuck and she wants the ambulance to come.

DISPATCHER:  OK, tell her we‘re coming, tell her to go ahead and push.

ROBINSON:  OK.

DISPATCHER:  Tell her to push easy, OK?

ROBINSON:  OK.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

ROSCH (on camera):  Were you worried about your mom?  What were you thinking? 

ROBINSON:  I thought she was going to die.

ROSCH (voice-over):  In all, Angelina‘s call lasts more than eight minutes.  Paramedics arrived as brother Angelo was born. 

ROBINSON:  OK. ROBINSON:  OK, they‘re here.

DISPATCHER:  OK, honey, you did wonderful!  You did very good, honey!

ROBINSON:  Thank you.

DISPATCHER:  OK.

DISPATCHER:  Bye-bye.

ROBINSON:  Bye.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  Denise Rosch of KVBC in Las Vegas reporting.

That is going to do it for this edition of COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Alex Witt, in for Keith Olbermann.  Check Keith out back on Monday for the COUNTDOWN from the convention, 5:00 Eastern time.

Have a good one, everyone.  Aloha.

END   

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