updated 9/23/2004 10:56:31 AM ET 2004-09-23T14:56:31

Guests: Jim Kosek, Phil Rosenthal, John Harwood, Michael Dobbs

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? 

The heartbreaking personal life or death plea from a hostage in Iraq to the prime minister of Great Britain. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I don‘t want to die.  I don‘t deserve it.  I need you to help me, Mr. Blair. 

OLBERMANN:  And the reaction from American family Jack Hensley, his body now identified in Iraq. 

Countdown to the election.  More polls, less bounce.  But 2/3 of all voters tell us they know what Bush and Cheney would do if elected.  How many felt that way about Kerry and Edwards, the number astonishes. 

So do Dan Rather‘s number.  CBS names its independent panel to investigate the Killian memos. 

And how television talk shows can ruin your life. 

OPRAH WINFREY, TALK SHOW HOST:  You get a car!  You get a car!  You get a car!  You get a car! 

OLBERMANN:  A new car that comes fully equipped with -- $7,000 in income taxes.  Is this what Oprah means by wildest dream season? 

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening.  This is Wednesday, September 22, 41 days until the 2004 presidential election.  If you can still enjoy the process without gnashing your teeth in partisan furor, you may relish this remarkable fact that only our year could produce.  The numbers George Bush has experienced since the closing of the Republicans Convention at the start of the month is appreciably smaller than the one experienced by Dan Rather. 

Our number five story on the COUNTDOWN, John Kerry has a cold, the swift boat boys have a new commercial, Dan Rather has 15 percent more viewer, and the president has a poll lead a tenth of a point less than the margin of error.  Bush 48, Kerry 45, and Nader 2 percent, in the NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll released earlier today, 106,000 registered voters.  Bye, bye, bounce.  Most of the interior numbers are stagnant and show Kerry ahead marginally in areas like does Mr. Bush deserve to be re-elected, not so marginally in area‘s like how is the president handling foreign policy or the economy.  But this poll‘s most salient data may be in the back-of-the-book questions.  Who, for instances is on message? 

Sixty-eight percent of all respondent, that includes supporters of both candidates say Bush and Cheney have a message and know what they would do if elected.  But look at the other ticket, just 36 percent say the same thing about Kerry and Edwards.  That may be reflected in the answer to another question, you‘re voting for Kerry, your more for Kerry or more against Bush? 

Against Bush a clear majority. 

The other side of that coin which would seems to render all negative advertising against John Kerry a waste of money.  Seventy-seven percent of Bush supporters claim to be voting for him, only 14 percent say they are voting against the senator.  And one more fairly complicated interior number, voters were asked to pick the top one or two issues upon which to decide the vote.  The economy tops the individual list slightly over terrorism, and Iraq.  But if you bundle the issues the way the two parties have, look what happens.  Terrorism and social values, the cornerstones of the Bush campaign, 44 percent.  Economy and health care, up until this week, at least, the cornerstones of the Kerry campaign, 44 percent.  Not bad for what looked like at first just another poll. 

Joining me to analyze it further is political editor John Harwood of the “Wall Street Journal.” John, good evening. 

JOHN HARWOOD, “WALL STREET JOURNAL”:  Hey, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s work backwards, that bundled issues numbers, economy plus healthcare equals terrorism plus social values.  Did the Kerry camp see a number similar to this, a poll similar to this and hey, you know what?  If we can add in Iraq, we could still tip the balance here. 

HARWOOD:  Keith, Iraq is a wild card in this election.  Bush has a big edge with that universe of voters that cares about terrorism and values, overwhelming edge, more than 40 percentage points with that group of people.  You take the other group of people who care about economy and the health care as most important issues and Kerry is way, way ahead among those people. 

But Iraq is the thing right on the linchpin.  You‘ve got the American public saying at the same time, it was the right thing to do to take out Saddam Hussein, on the other hand, they look back at how much it‘s cost in lives and dollars and they say not worth it.  John Kerry has to make this about what‘s happened in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was taken out.  George W. Bush wants to go back to the American people and say, I had to make a decision.  I made the right one, and right now this poll shows the public agrees with him. 

OLBERMANN:  The for and against number.  Do the I‘m voting for bush and not against Kerry numbers surprise you as the margin? 

HARWOOD:  People always say an incumbent re-election rate is about the incumbent first and foremost.  we saw early in the primary season the nomination of John Kerry wasn‘t really about him.  He was not Howard Dean, but the whole Democratic process was about rallying Democrats who had intense antipathy towards George Bush.  On the other side of the isle, George Bush is well liked by side of the aisle.  John Kerry has been sort of a bystander in this case and one of the few things with these debates is John Kerry has a chance to step up on the stage with Bush and give people to draw a favorable impression about him. 

OLBERMANN:  Before we move onto the debate, John, none of the interior numbers, or at least the major once moved.  Look at the approve, disapprove on the handling of terror.  In August it was 53-42 and now it is 52-43 approved.  This was the big thing at the convention.  This was pounded in night after night, only the president is going to be tough on terror. 

Should the convention bounce officially be declared dead as of the end of this poll? 

HARWOOD:  Well, I think, Keith, the convention bounce is mostly gone, but a couple of points about that.  First of all, this is a race that‘s going to be won by inches and George Bush has settled in now at 48 percent. 

That‘s one point higher than we was before the conventions.  Doesn‘t sound like a lot, but this is a race where the margins are going to be very close. 

Second of all, the fact that the terrorism numbers are holding is a testament to the success of the Bush campaign in defining Iraq as part of the war on terrorism.  At the earlier phases in the race, when he‘s been down, it‘s because Iraq dragged him down.  During the Abu Ghraib scandal, for example, John Kerry is hoping that Iraq can drag him down now and that‘s a lot of what the byplay in the last few weeks is going to be about. 

OLBERMANN:  All right.  One last question about the debate and the debate rules, it seem as if negotiating the first nuclear test ban treaty was a little easier than that.  What are the highlight, what are the keys of the bizarre sets of rules they have finally agreed upon? 

HARWOOD:  Well, we have agreed John Edwards and Dick Cheney are going to be sitting down.  And back and forth over what kind of lights go off when one of the candidates goes overtime.  John Kerry is the sort of guy who tends to speak for a long period of time, he might like the warning.  But look, these debates and especially the first one when the viewer ship is likely to be highest when John Kerry and George W. Bush face off in Coral Gable, Florida, next week, that‘s going to be critical.  I talked to a Democratic member of Congress today.  He said that is the ballgame for John Kerry.  He‘s got to step up at that point.  That‘s his chance to really take control of the race. 

OLBERMANN:  The lights, I‘m thinking of siren and such like when they score a goal at a hockey game.  This may be the one I am in favor of. 

John Harwood the political editor of the “Wall Street Journal,” thanks for crunching the numbers with us.  Thank you, sir. 

HARWOOD:  You bet. 

OLBERMANN:  For those of you who don‘t like poll, we‘ve got polls.  the Viacom poll.  MTV and CBS news 18-29-year-olds supporting Kerry 51-41.  And as you see here, Kerry leading in a three-way race by six.  Nice touch with the shades.  Then there is the totally righteous dude poll.  Who is the coolest candidate.  That was the question, whatever the hell it means.  All four members of the tickets very offered as choices.  Kerry is 10 points up on Bush, Edwards is six points behind the president, and Dick Cheney is just watching. 

In the end, accurately predicting the outcome of this year‘s face-off between President Bush and Senator Kerry may in fact come down to a face you can take off.  It is the battle of the Halloween presidential masks.  The early lead going to the president whose masks have been outselling those of his challenger 57 percent to 43 percent, yes, it‘s unscientific and yes, it‘s stupid, but so far it has been alarmingly accurate. 

Sales figures on campaign masks have accurately picked the winner in the last six presidential contests.  One face note, if the John Kerry mask looks suspiciously like a recycled Michael Dukakis mask, circa 1988, let‘s say you are not alone on that.  Of course, they did appear to give Mr. Bush Richard Nixon‘s hairline. 

If only we could mask over the latest volley in the politics of Itchy and Scratchy once again taking to the airways.  The self named Swift Boat Veterans for truth, remember them two or three scandals ago? 

They are back today with a new ad equating Lt. John Kerry with actress Jane Fonda during the Hanoi Jane years.  That ad eclipsed only by another attack ad that is directly from the folks at the Bush campaign, it makes fun of Senator Kerry‘s leisure pursuits and of his supposed shifting stances on the issue.  The Democratic challenger seen wind surfing on the waters of the Johann Strauss‘, “Blue Danube.” 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  In which direction would John Kerry Lead?  Kerry voted for the Iraq war, opposed it, supported it, and now opposes it again.  He bragged about voting for the $87 billion to support our troops, before he voted against it.  He voted for education reform and now opposes it.  He claim he‘s against increasing Medicare premium, but voted five times to do so.  John Kerry, whichever way the wind blows. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  You have to admit it takes courage to use the word “blow” against the other candidate while there is a book out that alleges your candidate snorted cocaine at Camp David.  That book, incidentally, took a hit today, details in a second.  First, the Democrats literally got their counter-ad out into circulation within hours of the wind surfing spot. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  1,000 U.S. Casualties, two Americans beheaded just this week.  The Pentagon admits terrorists are pouring into Iraq.  In the face of the Iraq quagmire, George Bush‘s idea to run a juvenile and tasteless attack ad.  John Kerry has a plan for success, get allies involved and speed up training of Iraqis, take essential step to get a free election next year.  On Iraq, it‘s time for a new direction. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  As mentioned, Kitty Kelley‘s book “The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty, got counterpunched when a source of the one of it‘s most disparaging sources against the first lady, claims his remarks were “comments were taken out of context.” 

Robert Nash, quoted on page 575, of saying of Laura Bush, “Not only smoked dope, but she sold dope.”  Nash is identified by the author as a quote, “Austin friend of many in Laura‘s class at Southern Methodist University.  “The New York Times” today reports it has been contacted by Nash, by E-mail, and acknowledged he said those words, but they were off the record.  They were talking about rumors that Nash said he‘d heard.  And that he told Kelley, he had no direct information on the subject.  On the other hand, the newspaper says he declined to telephone the paper to confirm anything.  He wouldn‘t even call collect. 

COUNTDOWN opening tonight with politics to the ad wars.  Up next, tonight number four story, the CBS docu-drama. 

The independent investigation begins, the questions rise, and the ratings?   

And later, an awful new twist to the terrorist kidnappings in Iraq.  The surviving civil engineer on tape pleading for his life in a powerful and heartbreaking statement addressed directly to his nation‘s prime minister, Tony Blair. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Up next tonight‘s number four story, CBS investigates CBS.  We‘ll jump the gun and do a little of it ourselves and explain the unexpected news about Dan Rather‘s ratings.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  This just isn‘t a good time of year for Dan Rather. 

It was in August of 1968 that he got dragged out of the Democratic Convention. 

August of 1986 he got mugged by a lunatic who muttered “What‘s the frequency, Kenneth?”  

September of 1987, when frustrated when the coverage of U.S. Tennis Open ran long, he walk off the set.

August of 1988, when he tussled on air with then Vice President George

H.W. Bush

And now in 2004 when turned into a story in the presidential campaign. 

On the other hand, his ratings have gone up 14 percent. 

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN the surprise for those who think Rather‘s days are numbered.  The continuing contra tomp (ph), that is the docu-drama and todays announcement of the independent two-man team which will investigate events at CBS. 

It consist of the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and ex-Reagan, and Bush I attorney General Richard Thornburgh, thus making this an episode of the Thornburghs. 

And the recently retired president and CEO of the Louis Boccardi, himself, fresh from the independent panel that investigated the Jayson Blair disaster at “The New York Times.”

But before Thornburgh and Boccardi get started, there appears to be an unofficial investigation underway at CBS and it‘s not pretty. 

Unexpectingly, two figures from “60 Minutes” have commented on events to

newspaper, “The New York Daily News.” One, noting that he worked on the

original Sunday edition of the program, while the Killian memo story was

handled by the Wednesday edition, former known as “60 Minutes II.”  “

Correspondent Steve Kroft noting quote, “I think it‘s our responsibility to draw a distinction between the two broadcast.  They‘ve done a lot of great work over there, particularly with the Abu Ghraib story.  They didn‘t rush that story on the air.  This one, for whatever reason, they did.”

Those comments didn‘t sit well with the “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt, who said in response, “Now, when the other one is in trouble, they‘re piling on.  It‘s unfair, uncalled for and not the way that grown men should act.” 

If anybody is going to be hung out to dry here, it‘s probably going to be not a grown, but a grown woman.  The producer who was supervising coverage of the Bill Burkett, Killian memo story.  CBS, says officially that Mary Mapes violated policy, by putting a source, Bill Burkett in contact with the Kerry campaign adviser, Joe Lockhart.  After executing the networks story breaking coverage of the Abu Ghraib scandal, her star was flying high.  Her status now might be best described by a headline on the Associated Press profile.  Mrs. Mapes, CBS producer on thin ice after guard story. 

From day one this, mess has been covered for the “Washington Post” by national reporter Michael Dobbs who joins us now. 

Mr. Dobbs, good evening. 

MICHAEL DOBBS, “WASHINGTON POST”:  Thanks for having me. 

OLBERMANN:  Maybe it‘s story fatigue at this end, but I sense that this to some degree deflated today.  Is it possible that CBS managed to let some air out of this by getting George H.W. Bush‘s first attorney general to investigate the man George H.W. Bush fought with on live television? 

DOBBS:  I certainly think that naming a commission with these two very respected people on it is, the first step that CBS is taking to restore its credibility.  So, that‘s certainly a move in the right direction for them. 

OLBERMANN:  You join the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel here, where are you starting on this? 

Do you start with bias?  You look for a screw up?

What is the starting point on something as important and as bizarre as this story actually is? 

DOBBS:  Well if I was doing it, it would be pretty much a routine reporting job.  I would try to speak to everybody who had anything to do with the story either inside CBS or outside the network.  And I would piece together exactly what happened since they first got the memo?

How they came to get the memos?

What they did with them?

What was their reporting process?

What were the checks and balances?

What were the independent document experts they consulted and whether they paid any attention to their advice? 

And that‘s what we try to do at request the “Post” when we tried to reconstruct the story for last Sunday‘s edition.  And I think they‘ll be going over very much the same ground. 

OLBERMANN:  In the Jayson Blair thing at “The New York Times,” perhaps the revelation of the investigation was that throughout his career he was vouched for, protected by people whose own reputations were difficult to question inside that organization.  In other words, if you question Jayson Blair, you question X, Y, and Z, and if you question X, Y, and Z while you‘re at “The Times,” you could be re-assigned to the Guam bureau.  Are we perhaps going to see evidence of that at CBS, do you suppose, where some of the failsafes may have been passed, because people were afraid to say, but I‘m not sure about this story, but I am sure about the reputation of these people? 

DOBBS:  Well, obviously, Mary Mapes who was the lead producer on the case had a very good reputation at CBS.  She‘d helped to break a number of important story, including the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. 

And then Dan Rather, the CBS anchor, put a personal—his own personal imprint on the story.  So I think it was very difficult for other people at the network to challenge the story in the first place.  And then to back down once questions were raised about it. 

OLBERMANN:  Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post.  You have been doing great work on the story.  And we thank you for you time in figuring it out with us tonight. 

DOBBS:  Thank you. 

OLBERMANN:  These matters are ultimately decided by the voters, the ones who do the votings with their remotes.  And if that‘s the case in this case, in terms of job security, Dan Rather might have nothing to worry about.  While still solidly entrenched in last place behind 2003-2004 TV seasons ratings champ Tom Brokaw, and runner-up Peter Jennings, Rather‘s ratings have been rising. 

The Hollywood Reporter, according to the analysis of Nielson Media Research Data, by the advertising buying firm Herizon Media, in the week ending August 30, it reports Rather averaged 5 million viewers per night.  In the week ending September 5, 5,200,000 viewers per night.  In the week ending September 19, 5,700,000.  See what the next set are like. 

COUNTDOWN now past the No. 4 story.  Up next, remember this amazing fly guy?  Someone has actually done him better.  We will tell you about him in “Oddball” next. 

And later, you get a car, you get a car, you get a car has turned into you get a tax bill, you get a tax bill, you get a tax bill.  Oprah‘s wildest dreams turning into big nightmares and big negative money for some quote, unquote, “lucky folks.”  Standby. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We‘re back.  And we take a short break from the COUNTDOWN for a moment, because even though the stories coming up are mostly goofy and gratuitous, that doesn‘t make them any less newsworthy.  Well, actually, it does.  Let‘s play “Oddball.” 

You may remember our “Oddball” hall of famer, Felix Bombgartner.  Last year flew across the English Channel using wings of fiberglass.  At the time we called the feat breathtaking, amazing, wondrous.  You know what we call it today?  Old news.  Meet Ed Rossie (ph) Jetman.  Yes, so it‘s the same basic idea as Bombartners, but Rossie added two kerosene-powered jet engines to the wings and took a short flight over the Swiss Alps at 180 kilometers per hour, which makes him “Oddball‘s” official coolest guy ever. 

The 45-year-old Swiss air pilot says he spent five years perfecting his design and hopes his next model will be able to take off from the ground, because really if you‘re in a plane already, why not stay for the drinks and the movie? 

Would that veterinarians had wings, or cows had wings for that matter, Neil Stevenson might have never found himself in this mess.  Western Sky, Scotland, a cow grazing next to the cliff has fallen into sea.  Dr.  Stevenson on hand along with the coast guard to rescue the beast, when the vet loses his footing and he falls into the sea.  Ouch!

The helicopter turned its attention from the stranded cow to the injured vet and quickly airlifted him to safety.  He suffered injuries to his head and face, but is conscious and OK in the hospital.  The cow was lifted out later and said to be udderly humiliated. 

And finally, behold, the ninth wonder of the world.  The second longest burning lightbulb on this planet.  The longest is somewhere in California.  We don‘t have video of that one.  This 40 watt Methuselah (ph) is housed at the Fort Worth historical society.  It has been burning continuously since September 21, 1908, 96 years and 1 day ago. 

Originally lit at a Dallas opera house, but was moved to a museum.  And after 70 years the manager finally yelled turn that damn light off already, I‘m not made of money, you know.  Once upon a time they could make a light bulb that would last forever, but somebody, perhaps the lightbulb companies, talked them out of it. 

“Oddball” now safely in the record book.  Up next the fate of the hostages in Iraq.  The body of an American was identified today and the surviving British man made an extraordinary plea, and made it directly to Prime Minister Tony Blair. 

And later, just when you thought it might be safe to return to the beach, Hurricane Jeanne does an about face and is headed back towards the U.S. coastline along, perhaps, with Hurricane Ivan.  Those stories ahead. 

First, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of the day. 

No. 3, the unnamed 70-year-old man in Colon, Germany.  He was picking blackberries when he inadvertently shutdown commuter service into the city.  He was near the railroad tracks and a train engineer thought he was trying to commit suicide.  For four hours all trains stopped. 

No. 2, 4 Catholic churches in Monterey, in Mexico.  They have developed illegal, but absolutely necessary devices to jam cell phone signals inside their houses of worship.  Boys, I will pay your way here if you install these at our movies and restaurants. 

And No. 1 interstate bakeries.  They filed for chapter 11 today.  They claim to have liabilities of $1.3 billion.  The make, among other things, Twinkies.  The makers of Twinkies go bankrupt.  Not on my account!  By my estimate, I spent $47,000 on Twinkies before I turned 15-year-old.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It has been the judgment of every television news organization from this one to Al-Jazeera that the videotaped murders of Western hostages in Iraq are truly too disturbing to be shown. 

The term beheading does not describe what has been done to the victims.  It is not quick.  It is not even relatively painless.  The decision not to televise it, not a political one, a simply human one.  Why, you ask yourself, would you want to be responsible for any other person seeing it? 

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, with the body of a second murdered American hostage now formally identified, there remains one British civil engineer still in the hands of his captors in Iraq.  And today he was, psychologically, at least, tortured while a camera rolled, either given the opportunity or forced to plead for his life.  His full statement lasted 10 minutes.  We‘re now going to show you an excerpt in which Kenneth Bigley directly addresses British Prime Minister Tony Blair. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KENNETH BIGLEY, HOSTAGE:  Please, Mr. Blair, show some compassion that you say you have, please.  Please.  I don‘t know what I can say.  Please, I wish you could talk back to me.  I wish you could tell me what I‘ve got to do.  I‘m only a small man.  I have no political gains.  I have no ambitions of grandeur.  I made the mistake of coming here.  But I‘ve worked a long time.  And in the end, really, I just didn‘t have real fear, not like I‘ve got now today.  Please, please, help me, Mr. Blair.  You know you can.  You know you can.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Although Prime Minister Blair has not responded to Mr.  Bigley‘s plea, in New York, attending United Nations business, his foreign secretary, Jack Straw, addressed it. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JACK STRAW, BRITISH FOREIGN MINISTER:  We are doing everything we can to do, is to find a way through so that Mr. Bigley‘s life can be saved.  But it has to be a way through which is consistent with the very firm policy we and every other government around the world has, which is that you can‘t bargain with evil people like this. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And the body turned over to U.S. officials there has been identified as that of Jack Hensley, the Marietta, Georgia, civil engineer who had been kidnapped last week by terrorists.  Jack Hensley would have turned 49 today.  He was murdered by as yet unidentified groups yesterday and the crime recorded on videotape. 

This morning, Jack Hensley‘s brother Ty appeared on NBC‘s “The Today Show.” 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TY HENSLEY, BROTHER OF MURDERED HOSTAGE:  What has happened will echo around the world for a day or two, but it will resonate in my family for several generations.  The world will fall on the shoulders of a young girl, a 13-year-old child who someone has to tell what happened to her father, the man that was a schoolteacher and a volunteer.  The terrorists wanted to kill my brother to hurt my family.  They thought it was for a different cause, but it is not.  It is only to desecrate my family. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  That supposed different cause, the release of Iraqi women in U.S. custody in Iraq, the U.S. maintains there are only two female detainees in that country.  And for a time today, it appeared that Iraq‘s prime minister had decided to release one of them, Dr. Rihab Rashid Taha, better known as Dr. Germ, Saddam Hussein‘s top scientist on anthrax. 

Today, the prime minister‘s office backtracked, said there was no deal to release Taha.  And an unnamed coalition source told the Associated Press that for weeks it and the U.S. had been considering releasing as many of 14 high-value detainees, including the doctor, because they were no longer being questioned and no longer posed security threats.  No time frame was given for any such release. 

Is all that by itself an under-the-table deal?  Are we, in fact, negotiating with terrorists?  Were the murdered Americans offered the chance to makes pleas like that of the Briton Bigley? 

Joining me to discuss these disturbing topics, former CIA analyst, State Department counterterrorism official Larry Johnson. 

Larry, welcome back.  Thanks for your time. 

LARRY JOHNSON, COUNTERTERRORISM EXPERT:  Good to be with you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s start with the Bigley statement.  It‘s compelling.  In the context of the last 15 years, anyway, it‘s almost new.  It puts some of the onus directly on the governments from whom the extortion is being sought and in this case particularly Prime Minister Blair.  Can you think of a reason why we did not see that particular situation done with the American hostages? 

JOHNSON:  I think they decided that—these captors decided that they might have more success with the Brits by appealing to British public opinion. 

And I was on a BBC show earlier tonight and just taking the temperature in Great Britain.  I would say it‘s having some effect in that regard. 

OLBERMANN:  Is it enough to sway—I mean, obviously the British support about Iraq has been much more complicated even than the United States support and it has been criticized in ways that we can‘t even—there‘s not enough time left in the hour to just explain it.  Did you get the sense that there could actually be some wavering in Britain? 

JOHNSON:  No, I can‘t think there‘s going to be wavering on the part of Tony Blair.

But I think one of the things we need to draw a distinction between, Keith, is concessions and negotiation.  Candidly, we should be negotiating with these people if for no other reason, if you can open up a dialogue and find out where they are, that increases your chance of being able to try to effect a rescue.

But you shouldn‘t make substantive concessions and sell out to them, but these guys clearly see themselves as using violence as a part of war. 

OLBERMANN:  Two American civilians murdered in as many days and the number of hostages taken there from the West now exceeding 135, troops in as much danger, if not more, than they were during the Iraq shooting war.  If that description today was of, take a country at random, Sri Lanka, there would be a U.S. State Department formal warning:  American civilians, stay out Sri Lanka.  Why is there not such a warning for Iraq? 

JOHNSON:  It‘s not public—well, right now, publicly, they don‘t encourage people to go.

But I know, in dealing with private corporations, they have been warned, you come here at your own risk and be prepared to take casualties.  I was in a meeting in May where that message was delivered very clearly to the private companies that are working in Iraq. 

So there should probably be a higher-profile warning to stay away.  And what clearly this effect that it‘s going to have on the private groups that are trying to help rebuild Iraq, they‘re going to have to get out because these guys have put a bounty on them and they are going to be picked up and they‘re going to keep killing them until people either pull out or decide that they can take the casualties. 

OLBERMANN:  What‘s the solution here?  Is more realism required in addressing the situation for supposedly noncombat figures of American origin in Iraq? 

JOHNSON:  At the end of the day, Keith, we‘ve either got to put more troops in there to secure the city, secure the area, secure these groups, because, right now, what you have is a lawless area where nobody is safe in their home.  They can be picked up at random, taken out, and not a single one of the people that—the kidnappers—have yet been brought to justice, despite vows that we‘re going to bring them to justice. 

You can‘t keep allowing them to do this because it just further fuels their desire and their sense that they can succeed. 

OLBERMANN:  Larry Johnson, formerly of the CIA and counterterrorism at the State Department, as always, Larry, great thanks. 

JOHNSON:  Thank, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Back in this country, oh, baby, baby, it‘s a wild world.  It‘s hard to get by on just upon a smile.  And nobody knows that better today than the man who sang those lyrics in 1971. 

Cat Stevens, more recently known as Yusuf Islam, now known as the first pop culture figure to turn up on the terrorist no-fly list, a man whose presence caused the diverting of a flight from London to Washington this time yesterday.  United Flight 919 en route to Dulles instead ordered to land at Bangor, Maine, after authorities saw a match come up between their terrorist suspect list and the passenger manifest. 

It was in the late ‘70s that Stephen Georgiou, AKA Cat Stevens, became

Yusuf Islam and opened a Muslim school in London.  But he had publicly

condemned both 9/11 and more recently the school atrocity in Beslan,

Russia.  So what happened?  Sources tell NBC News that Stevens, Islam, is -

·         quote—“not personally suspected of anything, but that one or more charitable groups with which he has been affiliated has provided assistance allegedly to Hamas.”

The flight continued without him to Washington.  And he was deported from this country to England today. 

And there will soon be a new man in charge of hunting down the people Yusuf Islam is accused of supporting.  After six hours of debate today, the Senate approved Porter Goss to head up the CIA.  Democrats had expressed concern that Goss had too many Republican ties to do the job without political considerations.  Regardless, his nomination passed 77-17. 

COUNTDOWN now past our No. 3 story.  Up next, Hurricane Ivan, it could be hitting Texas sometime soon.  That‘s right.  I said Ivan.  We couldn‘t believe it either when we heard about it.  Ivan is back.  And Jeanne may be in the picture as well.  Later, Michael Moore sets his sights on his newest target for the big screen—all that ahead. 

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  George Bush‘s plan for Medicare and his plan for health care, in fact, make life worse. 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  I‘m pleased to join my partners in crime, Russ Feingold and Chris Shays and Marty Meehan and, of course, my fellow loser, Joe Lieberman. 

(LAUGHTER)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”)

JAY LENO, HOST:  And I‘ll tell you, they‘re not taking any more chances with Dan Rather.  You seen the new opening on “60 Minutes”?  Show that opening.

MIKE WALLACE, “60 MINUTES”:  I‘m Mike Wallace. 

MORLEY SAFER, “60 MINUTES”:  I‘m Morley Safer.

ED BRADLEY, “60 MINUTES”:  I‘m Ed Bradley. 

DAN RATHER, “60 MINUTES”:  (INAUDIBLE)

LESLEY STAHL, “60 MINUTES”:  I‘m Lesley Stahl.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Next up, revenge of the hurricane.  Jeanne turns around and heads towards the coast.  And Ivan, you thought it was long gone.  Think again.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Cleanup from Hurricane Ivan has been going on for a weak now.  Incredibly, Ivan may have the last word.  It may come back as a hurricane or at least a tropical storm.  And hurricane Jeanne, the one described as no immediate threat to land in this country, well, the immediate part was true. 

Our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN, late-breaking news from an already terrible hurricane season that might just have gotten exponentially worse. 

For this, we‘re joined again by AccuWeather meteorologist Jim Kosek. 

Jim, good evening.

JIM KOSEK, ACCUWEATHER METEOROLOGIST:  Oh, good evening, Keith. 

We literally have been living on borrowed time over the last several years.  This has been going down, as AccuWeather has been touting all season long, as one of the worst hurricane seasons to date.  And sure enough, while Jeanne is no immediate threat, we also stated last week at this time that it would come back to the Eastern Seaboard. 

This is Jeanne right here, the remnants of Tropical Depression Ivan right here.  We‘ll come back to that as well.  I want to get you kick-started on Jeanne.  This is a hurricane and it is going to continue to be one.  It‘s drifting off to the west-southwest at only five miles an hour right now sandwiched in between Bermuda and the Bahamas.

But there‘s a high dome of high pressure just off to its north steering this storm system.  And do keep in mind, the wind flow around areas of high pressure is clockwise.  Now, if it could, the high pressure, elongate itself and force Jeanne into Florida, we could possibly see that as early as Sunday night or Monday.  What may be more of a concern is that the western side of the high pressure gradually weakens and opens the door up for the Carolinas. 

If that‘s truly the scenario, we may have to wait for it to skirt the Outer Banks until Tuesday and Wednesday of next week.  Regardless, it is going to be a massive storm system and it will be a problem, probably Category 2, maybe 3, 96 to 110 miles per hour for Category 2. 

What I‘m worried about here, Keith, with high pressure and Jeanne, we‘re going to have persistent onshore winds and the beaches anywhere from Florida northward into the Northeast will get battered for days on end.  And this storm system is really going to take its toll on the Eastern Seaboard, let alone the flooding aspect. 

Now back to Ivan, tropical depression status, and it was touted by AccuWeather that this storm system would come back and haunt us.  We called it a ghost last week and now here it is again out over the Gulf of Mexico, the convection all on the northern side of it.  We honestly believe it is going to become a tropical storm a little bit later during the course of Thursday.  It will make its way towards the coastal bend of Texas, though, as opposed to the eastern half of Florida. 

This one is a western scenario.  The question mark is whether or not it comes on shore or stalls just offshore late this week, Keith.  Regardless of that, flooding problems for the coastal bend of Texas starting tomorrow night or Friday. 

OLBERMANN:  Jim Kosek at AccuWeather, it‘s mind-boggling.  Many thanks, Jim. 

The bad weather may yet match the amount of damage done to innocent passersby by Britney Spears.  Topping our celebrity segment, “Keeping Tabs” tonight, was her second wedding of the year over the weekend actually just her second of three?  While Spears and fiancee Kevin Federline supposedly wed in a surprise ceremony story night in Studio City, California, but “People” magazine is reporting that there is no marriage license for Mr.  and Mrs. Spears-Federline in the L.A. County Registrar‘s Office. 

That has fueled Hollywood buzz that Saturday‘s nuptials were just a dodge to get the media to give up covering the real wedding sometime next month.  I promise, I give up.  Spears insists there is no ploy here, that the couple has 90 days to file the paperwork.  If she really did get married on Saturday night, by early yesterday, that marriage had already outlasted her first one. 

Speaking of coming back for more, having grossed about $130 million so far, Michael Moore‘s movie “Fahrenheit 9/11” may be many things, but is not a financial failure.  Thus has the sequel reportedly been green-lighted.  “Variety” says that Miramax Films will fiance and distribute Moore‘s offering about the American health care system.  And in either an homage to Hitchcock‘s classic or a simple ripoff of his bloodcurdling title, Moore is going to call this health care flick “Sicko.”

And a filmmaker once nearly as controversial as Michael Moore has died.  Russ Meyer was once an Army cameraman assigned to General Patton.  And he claimed his movie inspiration was the comic strip “Li‘l Abner.”  Mr.  Meyer did not, however, make war pictures, nor sagas about the rustic South.  He not only made skin flicks.  He made them mainstream.  Meyer‘s epics, ranging from “Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” to “Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens,” were the first such movies to play in regular theaters.  They were not hard-core and they rarely took themselves seriously.

And his genre, his style, his obsession was perhaps best described by his 2000 autobiography, “A Clean Breast.”  Russ Meyer was 82 years old. 

Next on COUNTDOWN, the tax man cometh.  When you say you win a free car, how is it that free turns out to mean you have to pay $7,000?  That‘s next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Unexpectedly, we end where we began, with the NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll and the unlikeliest question on it, question No. 32, to be precise: “On her first show of the season, Oprah Winfrey gave a new car to each member of her audience.  Had you heard about this?”

Never mind who ordered that question.  It‘s the answer that counts; 81 percent said yes.  Now, that‘s free publicity, for Winfrey, for her show, for the car manufacturer.  However, as our No. 1 story on the COUNTDOWN will show you, not-so-free publicity for the other group in this triangle, the folks who were given the cars; 276 brand new spanking Pontiacs—or brand spanking new Pontiacs, in English—were dished out. 

General Motors agreed to even foot the bill for the sales tax.  Aha.  See, there‘s also income tax, federal, state, local income tax.  And each of the cars, valued at about $28,500, on that, that comes to, $7,125.  The lucky recipients who had been selected because they could not afford a new car, they have to come up with that. 

Joining me now to discuss the question, when you say free car, exactly what do you mean by free is the TV critic of “The Chicago Sun Times,” Phil Rosenthal.

Phil, good evening. 

PHIL ROSENTHAL, TELEVISION CRITIC, “THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES”:  Good evening.

OLBERMANN:  Two disclaimers here.  Phil‘s wife works for NBC Universal Syndication, so we ain‘t talking NBC, and Phil and I have known each other since 1986.  And he has written a lot of stories about me, so we ain‘t talking me either.

ROSENTHAL:  No.  

OLBERMANN:  But we are talking Oprah Winfrey and apparently this gift is just to her.  She didn‘t pay for the car.  She didn‘t pay for the taxes.  She hasn‘t paid for it with any bad publicity.  And I get the first two parts, Phil, but I don‘t get the last.  Why has there not been backlash? 

ROSENTHAL:  You know, I think, first of all, not a lot of people are aware of this.  When the story broke, there was the line in all the stories that Pontiac is picking up the taxes.  Well, they weren‘t picking up all the taxes, but people seemed to assume they were.  So that was the first part of it. 

But the second part is, there was no reason to mention it on the show necessarily.  You know, I‘m—I‘ve watched a lot of television over the years and I can pretty much tell you that the last thing you want to hear Oprah Winfrey say is, you get a 1099 and you get a 1099 form from the IRS.  Everybody gets a tax bill.  It‘s just not that entertaining. 

OLBERMANN:  So these lucky recipients of the 1099 got in essence a new car for 75 percent off retail.  But what are their options?  Do we know?  If they really don‘t, as some of them are now saying, if they really don‘t have the money for these taxes, do you sell the car on eBay and say, hey, this is an Oprah Winfrey souvenir vice, not just a used car?  Is that what they do? 

ROSENTHAL:  Well, the first option is, you don‘t accept the car. 

Now, I‘m not a CPA and I‘m not—nobody in my family—well, actually, I think my brother works for H&R Block, but don‘t trust me on this. 

(LAUGHTER)

ROSENTHAL:  I think you can also sell the car for the taxes and so long us you don‘t exceed the value of the car, keep what you make on it and you probably can buy a very nice used car for that kind of money, which by the way another amount not included in this is the insurance. 

You know, I don‘t know what you‘re supposed to do when you have a brand new car.  Depending on where you live, that could be a very pricey proposition.  I don‘t suppose you can call when you‘re in an accident and say, I‘m not represented by State Farm, but, like a good neighbor, Oprah is there.  If she‘s not paying the taxes, she‘s sure not paying the insurance. 

OLBERMANN:  She‘s not picking up that call, Phil. 

ROSENTHAL:  No.

OLBERMANN:  On this show two nights ago, we talked about the whole event as a means of product placement, of advertising, creative advertising in a time of TiVo. 

What is next?  What can Oprah Winfrey do next to grab the spotlight again and spend an actual retail cost to her of no more than 276 small gift boxes? 

ROSENTHAL:  See, that‘s just it. 

And if you noticed, in those gift boxes, the keys did not have Pontiac on it.  They had Oprah.  A lot of the people who first opened those boxes until Oprah started shouting thought they were just getting a souvenir for being on the show.  I don‘t know what she‘s going to do next. 

You know, the next big event we know we‘re going to have to look forward to is her Christmas, you know, my favorite things thing, where the people in her studio audience get a bunch of gifts worth a ton of money, including the mukluk that loves by her—that she enjoys sitting by the fire at her winter home in Gstaad or something.  She‘s always topping herself.  Maybe next time she‘ll give away two cars. 

OLBERMANN:  And remember what Krusty says.  The key to dirty comedy is not words that are dirty.  It‘s words that sound dirty, like mukluk. 

ROSENTHAL:  Yes. 

OLBERMANN:  Oprah Winfrey, a publicity factory.

Phil Rosenthal of “The Chicago Sun Times,” an old friend, a pleasure to have you on, Phil. 

ROSENTHAL:  Well, this was great.  Thanks.

OLBERMANN:  That‘s COUNTDOWN.  Free invisible books of matches for all the viewers. 

Thanks for being part of it.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Good night and good luck. 

END   

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