updated 9/29/2004 12:07:38 PM ET 2004-09-29T16:07:38

Guests: Jason Dearen, Stephen Battaglio, Susannah Meadows, Tracy Potts

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEX WITT, GUEST HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? 

Anybody but Bush, except maybe him.  What looked like good poll number for Bush so people are looking for John Kerry to give them any reason to vote him into office. 

Can a strong debate performance turn things around for Kerry? 

We‘ll ask Howard Fineman. 

Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne, George and John, forget Iraq, is is Florida ready for an election? 

The impact of the hurricanes on how Florida votes. 

Lost in translation: the FBI.‘s backlog of over 100,000 hours of terror recordings, not translated and collecting dust. 

And the late shift, Leno weighed in last night. 

JAY LENO, HOST “THE TONIGHT SHOW”:  Conan, it is yours.  See you in five years, buddy.  OK.

CONAN O‘BRIEN, HOST “LATE NIGHT”:  Say king of late night. 

CROWD:  King of late night. 

WITT:  Five short years out.  A preview of the transfer of power. 

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  Good evening, everyone.  I‘m Alex Witt, in for Keith Olbermann. 

This is Tuesday, September 28.  Thirty-five days until the 2004 presidential election, just two days until the first presidential debate.  The build-up to Thursday night‘s face-off brings good news from the pollsters for President Bush as well as a potential opening for Senator Kerry should he deliver in Miami. 

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, what are Americans really looking for in a president? 

And can John Kerry show them what he‘s got? 

Let‘s go to the polls.  The president maintaining a solid yet

shrinking eight-point lead among likely voters in the latest “USA Today”

survey.  Their last poll had Mr. Bush up by 14.  But some strong internal

number for the president, a whopping 27 point lead on the questions of who

would better handle terrorism.  Mr. Bush more than doubling the margin he

held during the Democratic Convention.  When it come to the economy,

Senator Kerry losing his edge for the first time, 45-51.  Same for the

female vote.  Women voters now in favor of Bush, 49-46, according to the

“Washington Post.”f

Our years ago, Al Gore carried the female vote by 11.  The lack of a gender gap and the rest of it, may help explain the next results.  Bush now polling away, the latest research from Pew Research, a three-point gain in just the last week.  But when you think a trend is starting to emerge, you get this, Kerry retaking the slight lead 46-45 in “Investor‘s Business Daily.”  A statistical dead heat, given the four-point margin of error. 

That poll one of the bright spots for Senator Kerry, but even the biggest of margins can be looked at as constructive criticism when you consider this.  The polls suggest that Bush‘s gains, have less to do with the president‘s own strengths than with Kerry‘s weaknesses.  Despite the concerns American‘s may have with four more years of Bush, it seems voters have yet to be convince that had Kerry can do any better.  Here‘s where the opening comes in play, the three debates, specially first one, probably offering Kerry his best chance to show what is his stuff and convince him that he has what they are looking for in a candidate. 

Here to help us crunch those numbers tonight and look ahead to Thursday‘s crunch time debate, “Newsweek” magazine senior political correspondent, Howard Fineman, also our very own political analyst. 

Howard, many thanks for your time tonight, good evening. 

HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK”:  Good evening, Alex. 

WITT:  Lets start with that 27-point terrorism lead for President Bush.  If you‘re sitting at a bar with Senator Kerry right now, drinking a beer and he asked you, what happened, how do you explain it? 

FINEMAN:  The question is what is John Kerry‘s plan and how is it different from and better than the president‘s? 

All the polling number I studied show that he hasn‘t convinced the American people that he has a plan, let alone better one.  And one of his big tasks on Thursday night in a debate that after all, is about foreign policy and defense, is to lay out what that plan is clearly and concisely.  He hasn‘t done it and because he has done it, he‘s way behind the president both in the rankings on the war on terrorism in general and on handling that war in Iraq in particular. 

WITT:  What do you say about the polls that say there are voters that want him to win.  They really want him to win, but they just can‘t quite get to vote for him?  What do you say to them?

FINEMAN:  Him meaning John Kerry? 

WITT:  John Kerry, exactly. 

FINEMAN:  That‘s where you look at the so-called favorable ratings. 

And one poll, the “Washington Post” poll, John Kerry was only regarded favorably by about a third of the electorate.  There‘s no way you can win an election like that.  When another big task he has on Thursday night is to come across as someone who, by whatever way you want to quantify or define it, is a likable, trustworthy guy.  Because the presidency is an intimate office to the American people.  The American people have a direct emotional relationship with whoever their president is, especially in war time.  They‘re going to spend a lot of time with that person psychologically.  And they have to be comfortable with them.  And they aren‘t with John Kerry.  He has got to somehow turn that around.  This is like a mini-convention for him on Thursday, Alex.  He‘s got to reintroduce himself all over again one last time. 

WITT:  There‘s one more poll I want to bring to your attention.  This is an apparent weakness.  Listen to this, 55 percent of the people believe he takes too many risks.  This compared to just 17 percent for Senator Kerry. 

What does Mr. Bush have to do to overcome that Thursday night or is it a big deal? 

FINEMAN:  I think it is.  In looking at all the numbers, that‘s one of his big weaknesses.  People think he‘s to much of a gambler.  To much of a river boat gambler.  I think he has to say Thursday night, that his ultimate objective is peace.  That he is not a guy who likes war for the sake of war.  That the objective here is peace and tranquility in the world and in America.  He has got to get that message across.  He has a simpler task.  People know the president on balance more than half the American people like him.  But he has got to convince them that he doesn‘t to go war for the sake of it, because the American people are quite skeptical about the war in Iraq.  It is just that John Kerry hasn‘t given them an alternative to it. 

WITT:  You write in your web column piece that President Bush has to be humble in this debate.  How come? 

FINEMAN:  Well, just the way, the size killed Al Gore in 2000.  That famous George Bush smirk could hurt him.  You know, there are times you see him giving that, I can‘t believe I have to answer this kind of look on his face.  If the camera catch him doing, that‘ll be a bad thing.  The president is president.  It has to be presidential.  And you know, to a certain extent, this is like an election for the presidency of the senior class.  But it is the biggest senior class on the planet.  He has to be serious about it.  He has to be respectful of Kerry. 

WITT:  Howard, you know, Senator Kerry, He‘s been running for president for months and months now.  How is it that voter still feel they don‘t know enough about him? 

FINEMAN:  That is a very good question.  That is question of the election.  I think we thought at the time of the convention, that he had done a pretty good job, in Boston, of introducing himself.  The Bush campaign dismantled him piece by piece.  Turned him into the caricature of the flip-flopper, and John Kerry hasn‘t recovered.  Whether that‘s all John Kerry‘s fault because of his Senate record or his lack of clarity and speech and program will be debated for many years.  But unless he turns that around Thursday night, unless he speaks clearly and succinctly.  If I was his advisor, I would say ban the word but from your vocabulary Thursday night.  No sentence with the word but in there.  No qualifier.  No if‘s, and‘s or buts.  Speak from the heart and speak clearly.  If he can do that, he has a chance of getting back in it on Thursday Night. 

WITT:  OK.  “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman, thanks a lot of for your time and insight.  Great to see you.

FINEMAN:  Thank you, Alex. 

WITT:  Today‘s polling number also point to an important new subset of American voter, to the ranks of the soccer mom and NASCAR dads, we now have security moms.  With young kids, the security moms are focused on the future and concerned about the threat of another terrorist attack. 

As White House correspondent, David Gregory reports, how they vote just five weeks from now could determine the outcome of this election. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID GREGORY, MSNBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  For, Michigan mom and Democrat Carey Frasier (ph), this year politics is very important.  It‘s her families safety she thinks about most. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  People want to attack us the.  It is obvious they want to attacks.  They‘re trying to all the time. 

GREGORY:  Liz Bradshure (ph), the mother of two from Fairfax, Virginia, and a Republican, considers 9/11 a wake-up call. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I watch my kids to go school and I hope they come back. 

GREGORY:  More than any single issue this year, security has defined the battle for women voter, and has created a new swing group, the security mom. 

(on camera):  On the losing end of an 11-point gender gap four years ago, the President Bush has used the war on terror to undermine the Democrats traditional advantage among women.  Now latest NBC News “Wall Street Journal” poll shows Kerry leading by just four points. 

ANDREW KOHUT, PEW RESEARCH CENTER:  What it represents is simply this.  If Kerry cannot get as much support from women as Bush gets among men, which is the traditional pattern, he‘s going to lose the election. 

GREGORY (voice-over):  For these women, security is the top priority. 

But they disagree about who will make the country safer.  Liz is standing

by the president. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I do believe he will send us on that journey to keep us safer, more so than his opponent.  Yes.

GREGORY:  Lisa Adler (ph) is voting for Kerry. 

(on camera):  You‘re at a point where you‘re rejecting what the president has done. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I reject what he‘s done because I don‘t think we should have gone to Iraq at the time that we went in.  We should have gone after Osama bin Laden, putting all our money there. 

GREGORY (voice-over):  Laurie (ph) is undecided.  We asked about Senator Kerry. 

(on camera):  Do you feel like you know what he would do? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I have no idea.  That‘s why I‘m hoping that a question will be presented to them at the debates where he will have to actually address the issue and tell us what would he do in George Bush‘s position? 

GREGORY:  A direct challenge to the sought after security moms voting this year, not only for president but for peace of mind.  David Gregory, NBC News, Crawford, Texas. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  And for more now on the impact security moms could have come election day we‘re joined now by “Newsweek” magazine‘s general editor Susannah Meadows.

When it comes to the security mom vote, how big of a chunk of the electorate are we talking about here? 

SUSANNAH MEADOWS, “NEWSWEEK”:  It is hard to get an exact number.  One estimate places them at 10 percent of the electorate which is as you know, plenty of votes to swing the election either way. 

WITT:  Absolutely.  It used to be that any talk of the gender gap and the female vote focused on issues like healthcare or education.  Could the emergence of the so-called security moms represent the new normal that is post 9/11? 

MEADOWS:  It seems there is some correspondence between a terrorist attack and this issue being important to women.  After 9/11, the issue sort of dropped back a little bit and we saw these more traditional issues of health and education reemerge in women‘s mind.  Then this last month, when we were faced with these images of the attack on the Russian school, that brought the issue roaring back.  And now people are saying, women especially are saying, who cares about healthcare when I‘m worried about my child getting shot. 

WITT:  Are you surprised by the female vote right now leaning towards President Bush? 

MEADOWS:  I think that President Bush has done a very good job of selling himself as the one who would keep you safer.  And I think Kerry has not been as clear on that issue.  He now is out there every day saying, I promise I will keep you and your children safe.  But he is playing catch up a little bit. 

WITT:  You look ahead to these debates.  What does he have to do, Mr.  Kerry, in the last five weeks of the campaign, what does he have to do to get his point across to the security moms?

MEADOWS:  One of the things he‘s doing, he has this group of 9/11

widows planted in Ohio.  And what they‘re doing is they‘re calling other

women their age, other mothers saying, look, I believe in Kerry.  I believe

Kerry will keep me safer.  Iraq was a diversion.  It‘s not helping us in

the war on terror and Kerry will keep us safer and so he has this sort of -

·         and this is on the ground going on right now where they‘re making these calls.  That sort of sister to sister message is very effective. 

WITT:  Much has been made in this campaign about the single woman‘s vote.  That so-called “Sex in the City” vote side by side with the security moms.  Is one bloc of voters, is it more powerful than the other of these two? 

MEADOWS:  If you compare single women with single men and married women and married men, the single women are the worst voters of them all.  Only half of them voted in 2000, compared to 2/3 of married women.  So if you‘re going to be pursuing a voting bloc, you want to go after the group that is more likely to vote. 

WITT:  OK.  Susannah Meadows of “Newsweek” magazine.  Thanks for your time tonight.  We appreciate it. 

And from the battle for voters to the battle to just get people to vote, nowhere could it be a bigger problem or have a bigger impact than Florida.  That much of the state is reeling from hurricane damage.  And the Laci Peterson murder trial, the wrong woman theory, the drugging theory, the dependence a cad theory, has Mark Geragos entered enough reasonable doubt in this case? 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  From women voters to Florida voters, in the most pressing issue on their mind, security of another kind.  Nearly a million hurricane-struck residents spent the day waiting for the power to come back on.  Many standing in long lines in 80-degree heat for just a bag of ice. 

Our number four story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, the lasting political effects of this brutal hurricane season.  President Bush has now asked Congress for $7 billion in emergency aid.  This for Florida and other southeastern states hit hard by Jeanne and Ivan.  Add that to the $5 billion issued for Charley and Frances and we‘re looking at a $12 billion federal price tag.  And hurricane season runs well past the election. 

Florida status as a key swing state and the debacle there four years ago make it the focus of intense political attention and speculation.  But the six-week non-partisan pummelling by four different hurricane has forced a political hiatus for many living there. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We were wondering when we‘ll get our lights back, you know.  The air conditioning.  Nobody is talking about politics at all.  I haven‘t heard a soul. 

WITT (voice-over):  Where politics is not the priority, the Florida battleground today, actually looks like one. 

CHARLES BRADLEY, FLORIDA RESIDENT:  At this point in time, I‘m tired.  Most people are realizing they have to rebuild their houses or find another place to live. 

WITT:  But election day looms as does the question.  Will Mother Nature have her own vote on November 2? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  There is no chance that these hurricanes will not affect the outcome of this election. 

WITT:  Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, the chair person of the Miami-Dade Election Reform Commission says the affected people just don‘t have time to pay attention to campaign issues.  And that‘s not all.  Election officials are faced with their own problems. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  These problems include having to move polling places because they‘re either flooded or have been decimated or destroyed. 

People trying to get absentee ballots who have had to leave the area because their homes were destroyed or flooded out. 

WITT:  While election officials talk logistics, residents are still talking Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne not George and John.  Both candidates were forced to cut short their summer Florida campaigning. 

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  This is the first chance I‘ve been able to get back here to Florida because of the weather situation over the past weeks. 

WITT:  And President Bush making official visits and proposing billion of dollars in federal disaster relief for storm victims. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Give you a little ice? 

WITT:  It‘s not the first time a hurricane season has had an election impact.  In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew did an estimated $20 billion of damage just over two months before the election, Bush 41 was criticized for leading a slow federal response.  He did win the state, but only by 1 percentage point. 

The lesson? 

BUSH:  The lesson is, respond quickly.  And we are responding quickly. 

WITT:  Pictures of the president on the ground may offset the fact that residents have not been getting political coverage, which has been replaced by nearly wall to wall storm coverage. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It is very crucial to Florida voters how the different politicians respond in moments of crisis.  As far as Floridians are concerned, these hurricanes are a moment of crisis.  What we need to do right now to ensure voter turnout is to facilitate the logistics, to fix all the little problems, so voters can get out and vote, either by absentee or on election day.  Turnout is going to be crucial. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  But Florida‘s voting problems started long before hurricane season.  The touch screen machines meant to solve all the state‘s voting woes and prevent another chad-like fiasco, they‘ve already been the center of controversy and the subject of lawsuits.  Tonight we take a closer look at electronic voting machines, which a third of you will be using at the polls come November as part of a new MSNBC election series, “Making Your Vote Count.” 

This week, a Florida appeals court revived a lawsuit asserting the need for a printed paper receipt to verify the accuracy of their touch screen machines.  But with only the election five weeks away, is there even a chance of fixing them in time?  Our correspondent Tracy Potts reports. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TRACY POTTS, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  In Arlington, Virginia, seniors practice for election day. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Now you can make a new selection.

POTTS:  These touch screen machines, like most, record votes electronically, but do not provide paper receipts.  So how do you verify the votes if there‘s a recount? 

DOUG CHAPIN, ELECTIONLINE.ORG:  Right now, a recount on a touch screen machine basically means reading the numbers on the machine again. 

POTTS:  Gloria Berg is concerned about that.  Four years ago, she voted in Florida. 

GLORIA BERG:  I certainly don‘t think that money should be spared to have it the way it should be so that there‘s proof that everyone voted. 

POTTS:  It won‘t be cheap.  Outfitting these machines with a printer could cost another $800 a piece.  Nevada has done that, but for the most part, the 50 million voters using these machines in November will only have their votes recorded electronically.

There‘s also concern about hackers changing electronic votes.  Manufacturers insist the machines are secure, but voting rights advocates urge election officials to double-check. 

NANCY ZIRKIN:  We believe it is absolutely the wave of the future, but it must be tested and retested.  And states have to step up to—to play. 

POTTS:  Now, five weeks from election day, is it too late to prevent another Florida? 

CHAPIN:  We may have a controversy.  Not so much because of problems with the system, but because there are so many people looking for problems to occur. 

POTTS:  Problems that were supposed to be resolved. 

Tracy Potts, NBC News, Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  From election 2004 to Olympics 2006.  It is mascot unveiling time.  A ceremony big on disappointment and full of confused looks.  By that barometer, this year‘s was a smashing success.   “Oddball” is next. 

And later, the heir apparent to “The Tonight Show” throne.  Five years out and counting.  Why announce the big Jay Leno-Conan O‘Brien swap now?  You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  I‘m Alex Witt in for Keith Olbermann.  And we pause THE COUNTDOWN now for a segment called a must watch by the publishers of the Web site countdown.msnbc.com.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

We begin in Rome, where it is 500 days until the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.  And today, organizers introduced the world to their official mascot. 

Look, everyone.  It‘s Nev (ph) and Glizz (ph), the magical pansexual, non-threatening spokesies  thingies.  In English, their names are Snow and Ice, and not exactly sure what they are, except that one is male, the other is female, and they‘re said to represent the universal Olympic values of participation, respect, friendship and loyalty. 

However, here they kind of appear to be mating?  Take it from me, I love you. 

To the Mekong Delta.  It‘s 1969 and you‘re the tactical commander of a ragtag bunch of Navy men abroad Swift Boat PCF-94.  You‘re Lieutenant John Kerry in Kuma‘s new video game, Silver Star.  The game is based of course on the now controversial events of February 28, 1969, when Kerry earned his Silver Star medal for bravery in combat.  As John Kerry, you‘ll take fire on the boat, you‘ll beach the craft and chase down a variety of enemies, including the Viet Cong, the Donkey Kong and John O‘Neill. 

Finally, yet another breakthrough in America‘s war against obesity.  The pharmaceutical giant Merck & Company has unveiled its latest weapon in the battle, a diet drug, in a nasal spray.  The company says the spray makes the stomach feel full faster.  One squirt up the nose and you no longer crave that third pork chop.  Merck won‘t reveal exactly what‘s in the little bottle, but “Oddball” has learned the secret ingredient is gravy.  Oh, gross!

From the battle of the bulge to the war on terror.  The serious news returns next, and very serious concerns about stopping al Qaeda again.  On September 10, 2001, important clues about the attack on America lay untranslated.  Now three years later, the translation backlog is worse than ever. 

And little Johnny Jihad.  His mom is now pleading with the government to commute the sentence of the young man who became known as the American Taliban.  Those stories ahead. 

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

Number three, Pavel Banaszek, a 19-year-old Polish man who was run over by a train in Warsaw last summer.  He lived, but was paralyzed in the incident.  This week, the Polish rail system sent him a bill, $580, to compensate for the delays he caused by getting run over. 

Number two, Frank Kelly Rich, the editor of “Modern Drunkard” magazine, and one-time COUNTDOWN guest, is on the crusade against the makers of Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey.  The distiller has just quietly lowered the amount of alcohol from its drink from 86 proof to 80.  Rich calls this—quote—“unfathomable blasphemy.”

And, No. 1, the 50 fine residents of Playas, New Mexico.  The Department of Homeland Security has announced they have purchased the entire town to use for anti-terror training.  Workers will use the town to simulate suicide bombings, anthrax attacks and water supply poisonings.  Well, there goes the neighborhood.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Welcome back to COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Alex Witt, in for Keith Olbermann. 

There‘s an old joke about calling a suicide hot line and being put on hold, at its core, the absurd notion that a service dedicated to protecting human life can be so overwhelmed and understaffed that they can‘t do their job. 

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, news that the FBI has neither the tools nor the translators to adequately fight terrorism.  A newly declassified Department of Justice investigation concludes that the FBI language program with over 12,000 linguists cannot decipher all of the counterterrorism materials it collects.  In September 2001, 119,000 hours of audiotapes recording possible terrorist activity in counterterrorism languages have not been reviewed. 

Another tape backlog contains 370,000 hours of languages associated with counterintelligence.  The FBI says it has been trying to hire more translators, but 90 percent of job applicants don‘t make it through the vetting process.  And then there‘s the tools.  The Justice Department report also found that the FBI‘s digital collection systems have limited storage capacity. 

So, because of this, audio sessions resident on a system are sometimes deleted through an automatic file delusion procedure to make room for incoming audio sessions. 

I‘m joined now by terrorism expert and MSNBC analyst Steve Emerson. 

Hi, Steve.  Nice to see you. 

STEVE EMERSON, NBC TERRORISM ANALYST:  Hey, Alex.

WITT:  Here we go, three years after 9/11 and thousands of hours of audiotapes untranslated.  I mean, what is it going to take to get the department up to speed?  Is it better computers?  Is it more translators, more training? 

EMERSON:  You know, Alex, it is going to take a lot of things.  And it is not just the FBI‘s fault, although some fault does lie in FBI headquarters, because of, as you noted, technology that should have been 2004 technology is basically five years old, where they‘re actually recording over existing or deleting actual conversations because they don‘t have enough storage capability. 

That can remedied, should have been remedied instantly.  However, other things, such as vetting, the actual translators, ensuring that they‘re not leaking information or mistranslating, and also having enough resources to hire these translators, is a very different process that I think the FBI should be assisted in by giving them more resources that they simply don‘t have.  Yes, they‘re not allocating entirely correctly. 

But Congress knew about this problem nine, 10 years ago.  I remember -

·         just so you know, I testified before Congress I believe in 1996 about the shortage of translators.  There was a dismissal in Congress that this was an issue because we didn‘t experience terrorism.  Now in 2004, the chickens are coming home to roost. 

WITT:  Yes.  And I can‘t imagine the number of times you and I have talked about this on our air in the last three years or so. 

But, anyway, the day before September 11, Steve, officials intercepted two messages, as you know, those being, tomorrow is zero hour and the match is about to begin.  Of course, those messages didn‘t even get translated until days after the attacks.  Are we in a similar situation now?  I mean, could warnings about this potential kind of thing for an attack during an election season be in that kind of backlog? 

EMERSON:  If they are not prioritizing the al Qaeda recordings and those that are categorized as al Qaeda-related—and there‘s an allegation by the I.G. that they‘re not adequately giving the translators the actual markers for which translations, which tapes should come first—there‘s a possibility that we will overlook a tape that says, there‘s going to be a bombing taking place. 

The NSA, National Security Agency, was the one that translated those conversations right after—or it was released right after 9/11, but it was the day before.  But they didn‘t put it together.  Here, the FBI is trying to fill a void which that it never really been filled, which is the tremendous amount of linguistic challenges faced by tens of thousands of hours. 

We‘re looking at an increase of tens of thousands of hours every year for the FBI.  I think the report says 89,000 hours of still untranslated tapes remain on the FBI system. 

WITT:  OK, Steve Emerson, this is rather chilling information.  Thank you for sharing your thoughts.  We do appropriate it.

EMERSON:  Sure.

WITT:  One of the most notorious terrorist suspects already in American custody is now appealing his sentence. 

John Walker Lindh, nicknamed the American Taliban, wants President Bush to commute the 20 years he received for supplying services to the Taliban and carrying explosives.  Lindh was arrested with other Taliban fighters in Afghanistan in late 2001.  His mother today laid out the reasons why she believes his sentence should be shortened. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARILYN WALKER, MOTHER OF JOHN WALKER LINDH:  John has never had any sympathy for or involvement in any sort of terrorist activity.  Despite what people think or may think, John Lindh took no action whatsoever against his native country. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WITT:  Walker Lindh‘s lawyer said his client should be subject to the same sentence as Yaser Hamdi.  Hamdi was also arrested in Afghanistan, but will now be allowed to return to his native Saudi Arabia a free man if he reannounces terrorism and gives up his American citizenship. 

Hackers have taken revenge against a Web site that recently hosted video showing the brutal murders of two American civilians in Iraq.  A group calling itself Team USA took over the site and redirected visitors to a different Web site which showed a penguin holding a machine gun and carried a warning to other Web sites not to host terrorists.  Team USA has already attacked other Islamist and pro-al Qaeda with orders to free Web service companies to start securing their servers against militant groups. 

Finally tonight, police are hunting for a fake FBI agent in Rochester, New Hampshire.  The man showed up at the Sky Haven Airport last week wearing a jacket saying “FBI Anti-Terrorism.”  He then started asking about entrances and security.  Airport workers say they were immediately suspicious and chased him away from the hangar.  So what tipped them off?  His choice of footwear.  Word to the not-so-wise.  FBI agents don‘t wear flip-flops. 

Was Laci Peterson‘s murder a hit gone horribly wrong?  Scott Peterson‘s defense raises the issue that a look-alike neighbor with threats against her may have been the intended target.  We‘re going to take you inside the courtroom for reaction. 

And Paris Hilton, the sequel.  We‘re not talking the reality show, folks.  We‘re talking that tape that made her the Internet‘s most popular gal.  It turns out there may be some scenes on the cutting room floor. 

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN”)

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST:  And so they announced it.  NBC releases that Conan O‘Brien will be doing “The Tonight Show.”  Good for him. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That‘s fantastic.

LETTERMAN:  I wonder if I can get a tape over there. 

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It may be a little late. 

LETTERMAN:  Yes, a little late.

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER:  I was worried the speech is going to be too...

(SHOUTING)

BLAIR:  Thank you. 

Changing Britain for better, changing it for good. 

(SHOUTING)

BLAIR:  Excuse me.  But if there‘s any more of you, do you mind standing up now and we...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TODAY SHOW”) 

GARRY SHANDLING, COMEDIAN:  So I‘m just really impressed by how you handled that, because these people may not know in fact that when all that was going on with Johnny, there was a lot of awkwardness and you have dealt with it straight on.  And you‘re a real man. 

JAY LENO, HOST:  Well, thank you. 

(APPLAUSE)

LENO:  Well, that‘s very nice.

SHANDLING:  That all being said, are you out of your mind? 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Reasonable doubt in the Scott Peterson trial, is that what attorney Mark Geragos is achieving?  We‘re going to get the very latest twists and turns from inside the courtroom next, including a new twist that Laci was the wrong person killed.

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  It‘s not every day that you‘ll hear a defense lawyer in a high-profile case hoping to bring out more negative information regarding their client on cross-examination.  But if it works, it may well go down in the legal annals as the serial skirt-chaser defense. 

Our No. 2 story on tonight‘s COUNTDOWN, multiple mistresses and mistaken identity, the defense hoping to take some wind out of the prosecution‘s sails in the trial of Scott Peterson.

Lead investigator Craig Grogan was back on the stand today for more cross-examination by Peterson defense attorney Mark Geragos.  Geragos wasn‘t looking to downplay his client‘s caddish behavior.  He did just the opposite.  He instead questioned the detective regarding the fact that Scott had multiple adulterous affairs in addition to the one with Amber Frey. 

But the cross wasn‘t just limited to just the identify of Peterson‘s sexual conquests.  The jury also heard details regarding the possibility of mistaken identity, that shortly after Laci‘s disappearance, that Modesto Police received a tip that Laci‘s murder may have been carried out by someone seeking to attack a woman who looked just like Laci Peterson. 

Here to help us sort all this out tonight, Jason Dearen.  He has been covering the trial extensively for “The San Mateo County Times.”

Jason, thanks for joining us. 

JASON DEAREN, “THE SAN MATEO COUNTY TIMES”:  Thanks for having me. 

WITT:  All right, heading into this week, it did not seem possible that Scott Peterson could be made to look like any more of a creep.  But Geragos seemed to have achieved just that.  What is the defense hoping to achieve by bringing out more negative information about Peterson during all the cross-examination? 

DEAREN:  Well, the prosecution has hinged a lot of their case on the motive for murder that Scott Peterson killed his wife because he wanted to be with Amber Frey. 

So by bringing out these past affairs and the possibility that Laci knew about at least one of them, I guess Geragos is trying to show that this is a pattern of behavior that Laci was aware of, that it‘s something that they dealt with before in their relationship, they had worked through in their relationship, and that, you know, it was not abnormal behavior for Scott Peterson to engage in an affair. 

So why would he, you know, choose to kill his wife over this one when he had other affairs in the past? 

WITT:  You know, Jason, Geragos also used the cross-examination to float this mistaken identity theory, an alternative as to how and why Laci might have been killed.  What is the story there? 

DEAREN:  Well, he has floated a few different theories.  We‘ve heard of a brown van, of an eyewitness who had seen a woman that matched Laci‘s description being pulled into a van by a couple of men. 

And the theory that you‘re talking about is one that he spoke of yesterday, that a neighbor in the Peterson‘s neighborhood is a deputy district attorney in a neighboring county who prosecuted a case against a violent criminal.  I guess, after the case was finished, this person threatened the deputy district attorney, who was also pregnant, who was the same size as Laci and who actually had a golden retriever also named , McKenzie, just like the Petersons‘ dog.  And she walked it often in the neighborhood. 

So Geragos was floating out yet another possibility that perhaps the man who wanted to kill this woman mistook Laci for her and killed her instead. 

WITT:  OK, multiple mistresses, mistaken identity.  Can you gauge how effective this cross-examination has been?  What sort of impact might these theories be having on creating reasonable doubt in the mind of the jury? 

DEAREN:  They could be having a great effect.  The jury isn‘t very—they don‘t have a lot of strong facial reactions or anything.  But in a circumstantial case like this, when there‘s not a lot of direct evidence, all Geragos really has to do is give one or two reasonable interpretations that some of the juror will buy and think that, you know, this is a reasonable explanation for what happened to Laci Peterson.  And here, the prosecution hasn‘t given me anything really—no direct evidence, no blood or anything like that. 

So I think it has been very effective so far.  Throughout this trial, he has put on his case during the prosecution‘s case and has been able to float a number of theories out there that don‘t seem crazy. 

WITT:  You know, Jason, in fact, the prosecution is expected to rest its case sometime next week.  So put your jury cap on.  Who do you think is ahead at this point? 

DEAREN:  I think the defense is definitely still ahead.  They‘ve had so much time during this trial to attack the Modesto Police investigation, which he‘s continued to do today with Craig Grogan on the stand. 

The police made a number of mistakes in especially not following up on leads that seemed credible in the days after.  Sometimes they didn‘t interview people that called in one or two days after Laci went missing.  They didn‘t start interviewing them until the trial had already started.  So that really shows that—that makes it look like they had targeted Peterson and they were kind of throwing everything else out that they were getting. 

WITT:  All right, Jason Dearen, thank you very much for your time tonight. 

DEAREN:  Hey, thank you. 

WITT:  And with that, we make the turn to the rest of the entertainment news and the stories of “Keeping Tabs.” 

And it is official.  Comedy Central viewers are smarter than Fox News viewers.  The Comedy Channel did little research on the subject after a recent Jon Stewart appearance on Fox‘s “O‘Reilly Factor.”  During the interview, O‘Reilly repeatedly referred to the viewers of “The Daily Show” as—quote—“stoned slackers.”

But according to Nielsen Media Research figures, the average Jon Stewart viewer is smarter and more likely to have completed four years of college than O‘Reilly viewers.  The average Fox viewer, in contrast, is less likely to have finished college, less likely to answer simple political questions correctly, and more likely to be confused by common household items like the dishwasher. 

And just when you thought Paris Hilton was overexposed, along comes news of yet another sex tape.  According to “The New York Post,” a London tabloid has obtained footage of a private tape featuring Paris and ex-boyfriend Nick Carter and another scene with another ex-boyfriend, Jason Shaw. 

The tape is believe to have been among the items stolen from Hilton‘s Hollywood rental home during a burglary last month.  It contains graphic scenes very similar to the tape that made her famous.  But this one has more intricate plotlines. 

And finally, more strides being made by the actor-turned-governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The governator has been on a bit of a roll lately.  He has passed laws banning underage tanning, necrophilia and now smoking in prison.  The governor, who recently put up a tent outside the Capitol Building so he can smoke cigars, announced the prison ban would save the state money on health care and improve the health of the inmates, though it will likely triple the number of escape attempts. 

Tonight‘s No. 1 story is straight ahead of us.  It is official.  Jay Leno is calling it quits five years from now.  And Conan O‘Brien will be filling his shoes five years from now.  The longest long-range succession plan possibility in the history of TV, that‘s coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  The last time we attempted such a regime change, things didn‘t go quite as smoothly.  The media was electric in its wall-to-wall coverage.  Books were written, television movies made. 

Our No. 1 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, this time around, clearly, the coup was bloodless.  Last night, with very little fanfare and a great deal of class, Jay Leno announced his retirement as host of “The Tonight Show.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TODAY SHOW”) 

LENO:  This show has been No. 1.  We will keep it No. 1.  And then, in ‘09, I‘ll say, Conan, take it over.  It‘s yours, because, you know, you can do these things until they carry you out on a stretcher or you can get out when you‘re still doing good and things.  I‘m not quitting show business.  But I realized I‘m not spending enough time with my cars. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WITT:  His successor, Conan O‘Brien, he anointed without the industry infighting and public bickering of 12 years ago, when it was announced Jay Leno would succeed Johnny Carson over David Letterman.  O‘Brien will be only the fifth man to hold down the job, and surprising some insiders, the decision made just ahead of the expiration date on his contract. 

Of course, this is all five years away.  For the mechanics of the why now and what‘s next, we turn to senior correspondent for “TV Guide” Stephen Battaglio.

Stephen, thanks for joining us.

STEPHEN BATTAGLIO, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT, “TV GUIDE”:  Hi, Alex.

WITT:  Hi.

Was this all about keeping Conan on the NBC payroll, or is there more nuance to the timing than that? 

BATTAGLIO:  I just think they did want to keep him.  But I think there was a timing aspect as well.  Jay signed his contract last spring that would keep him in “The Tonight Show” Chair for five years.  Conan, who has toiled very successfully at 12:30 a.m., aspired to the 11:30 time slot.  And he wanted “The Tonight Show,” but if he wasn‘t going to get “The Tonight Show” anytime soon, he was probably going to go to another network.  ABC or Fox certainly would have accommodated him. 

WITT:  You know, this is a position, as you well know, that Jay Leno fought for and one that, as he said last night, did irreparable damage to friendships.  But this transition seems to be one that he welcomes, that is amicable.  Is that really the case? 

BATTAGLIO:  Jay is not a showbiz phony.  And I think that he‘s really appreciative to have this chance to be part of broadcast history by being on “The Tonight Show.”  And 17 years is not too shabby.  It‘s a good run. 

WITT:  Yes, yes. 

You know, Conan on “Late Night,” his audience certainly younger, his comedy a lot edgier, if you will, is he going to be expected to ramp it down a lot for “The Tonight Show”? 

BATTAGLIO:  Well, Conan is edgier because he knows he‘s at 12:30.  A lot of people said that about David Letterman.  Would he work at 11:30? 

And once you go into that time period, I think you do adjust.  Conan‘s audience has grown up with him or—in five years from now, the college kids who are watching him today are going to be older and they‘re probably not going to be staying up as late, but they like Conan.  They‘ll be comfortable with Conan.  And I think Conan is a good fit as a result. 

WITT:  Stephen, it‘s impossible really to talk about this show without talking about Johnny Carson.  In one article today, the job was referred to as Carson‘s chair.  His legacy is monumental.  But after 17 years, what will Jay Leno leave in terms of a legacy? 

BATTAGLIO:  I think he‘s a man of the people.  I think he has a very populist approach to comedy.  I don‘t think that everything he does on the show is his taste. 

But I think he is an entertainer who wants to please.  Johnny Carson, a little bit more aloof, had his own point of view.  Jay is much more of a crowd-pleaser.  I think Johnny had the benefit of not having much competition during much of his reign.  With Jay, it was like—he approached it like a political campaign.  He went out to the affiliates and shook hands and made friends wherever he went. 

And I think that did a lot for his reputation and I think the goodwill toward him in the industry. 

WITT:  OK, Stephen Battaglio, senior correspondent for “TV Guide,” many thanks. 

BATTAGLIO:  Thank you. 

WITT:  And that‘s COUNTDOWN.  Thank you for being a part of it.  I‘m Alex Witt, in for Keith Olbermann.  We‘re certainly hoping that he is going to be back with you tomorrow night. 

Until then, good night, everyone, and good luck. 

And here we go.  Batter up.  What is that? 

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

END   

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