updated 12/15/2004 3:47:26 PM ET 2004-12-15T20:47:26

Guests: Darrell Birt, Tom Squitieri, Jim VandeHei

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

Scrounging in Iraq:  Not limited to searching for armor to protect vehicles, but now including searching for vehicles themselves.  Five Ohio reservists and their commander court-martialed for taking trucks they needed and nobody else was using.  One of them joins us. 

Presidential medals of freedom to three men intimately connected to Iraq.  But is there more to one of these medals than meets the eye? 

An alarming statistic about an upcoming holiday.  On Christmas, you are 12 and one half percent more likely to die of natural causes.  Ho, ho, ho.

So you‘d better not pout, and you‘d better exercise, with a hula hoop? 

Is it the latest health craze, or is it just...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You know, for kids. 

OLBERMANN:  All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening. 

The image that escaped during last week‘s visit by Secretary Rumsfeld to a staging base in Kuwait was maddening enough.  American troops in Iraq, or on the way there, having to scrounge armor and other vehicle protection from garbage dumps. 

It turns out it has been worse than we thought.  They‘ve also had to scrounge, not just the vehicle protection, but the vehicles themselves.  And the military—the U.S. military, our military—has prosecuted some of them for it. 

Our fifth story in the COUNTDOWN tonight, half a dozen Ohio reservists, court-martialed, imprisoned, because they had to beg, borrow and steal transport trucks.  One of those men joins us in a moment.  Then the thoughts of retired General Barry McCaffrey. 

First, that reporter-aided question to the secretary of defense. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

THOMAS WILSON, ARMY SPECIALIST:  We‘ve had troops in Iraq for coming up on three years.  And we‘ve always staged here out of Kuwait.  Now why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles, and why don‘t we have those resources readily available to us?

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  That applause suggested this was a familiar truth to soldiers on the ground in Kuwait and Iraq, perhaps especially to the members of the 656th Transportation Company. 

In April of last year, they were supposed to move thousands of gallons of fuel for helicopters, tanks, trucks, what have you, from Kuwait to Tikrit and the Baghdad area.  But the men say they did not have enough vehicles to make the trip, and at the height of the ground war, they would have had to make that roundtrip drive at least twice. 

So they found two tractor-trailers abandoned by another American unit in Iraq and took parts from a third truck and used all of that.  Six members of the 656th, including the commanding officer and two Bronze Star recipients, were court-martialed.  Three were convicted.  Three pleaded guilty.  All were sentenced to six months in the brig, including chief warrant officer Darrell Birt, who had just been decorated by the military for his, quote, “initiative and courage in completing the perilous mission to deliver the fuel.” 

He was jailed for five months, dishonorably discharged, stripped of his benefits, and he lost his civilian job. 

Darrell Birt joins us now from Columbus, Ohio. 

Thank you for your time tonight, sir. 

DARRELL BIRT, U.S. ARMY CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER:  Thank you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  How and why did you wind up using other people‘s trucks and truck parts?

BIRT:  We were in northern Kuwait scheduled to go into Iraq about the 10th, 11th of April of ‘03.  And we didn‘t have the—we had all our extra equipment, in other words, our fuel tanks, 5,000 gallon tanker trailers, we had those.  But we had six seagoing containers, 20-foot long, we call (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that had our mission-essential equipment, such as machine guns, it had our extra M16s, our night-vision goggles, tents, tools, spare parts, et cetera. 

And we weren‘t given support to move either the containers or the equipment inside of them.  We found some trailers that were left behind.  And we loaded that equipment up and put it on the trailers and used it, maintaining with our convoys, and used them to sustain our convoys and to sustain our combat operations. 

OLBERMANN:  And after doing that, you were eventually court-martialed?

BIRT:  Yes, sir.  In April of ‘04, well, February of ‘04, the investigation was started.  April of ‘04, the charges were given to myself and others in my unit.  It was a total of 14 disciplined.  And then in May, the 17th of ‘04, myself and two others were court-martialed.  We pled guilty. 

OLBERMANN:  The former commanding officer of the battalion that the 656th was part of, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Wicker, he had said that these punishments, he thought, were too severe.  The five months that you spent in the brig and the six months that some others have. 

But he also said, let me quote him here directly, “Instead of taking the trucks back to their rightful owners, the first thing was erasing the identity marks and dumping them off at bases.  They destroyed it”—meaning the trucks, I guess—“they did the enemy‘s job.  Those trucks could be used for other units.”

He also said that he had asked officers of the 656th if they had taken the equipment from other units and nobody admitted it.  Your response to all that would be what?

BIRT:  Well, number one, on the questioning of the officers, that was to the two senior members of our unit, the commanding officer and the first sergeant.  I wasn‘t privy to that.  I don‘t know the response, what had happened in that meeting.  I wasn‘t there. 

Taking them back to the owning units, number one, it was almost nine months, and we really didn‘t remember.  We did take our unit numbers off.  But if we would have taken them back to Kuwait where they were originally found, I believe that the units that originally owned them were already gone. 

As to right now, from my understanding, one tractor-trailer and one cargo are sitting in front of the CID, the criminal investigations‘ headquarters, in Balad, Iraq, still not being used. 

And why they‘re still sitting there, the criminal investigation doesn‘t know who they belong to. 

OLBERMANN:  Let me broaden this out slightly.  Presumably you heard that question that that army specialist, Thomas Wilson, asked Secretary of defense Rumsfeld last Wednesday in Kuwait.  How did that make you feel?  And how widespread is that problem and similar problems, to your knowledge?

BIRT:  I‘m a little bit surprised it is still happening, not totally surprised.  I mean, in war, you have to make do.  You do find what you can, but at the same time, by this far into the war, I would have believed that we would have had all the necessary armament for our troops to have out there. 

I feel totally for the troops but, you know, at the same time, we did what we had to do, and they‘re doing what they had to do.  You do that in times of war.  But we do need to get the armament for the soldiers that are there. 

OLBERMANN:  Lastly, in about the 30 seconds we have left, back to your case in particular.  What do you want from the Army now?

BIRT:  Total restoration.  We did what was necessary for combat operations.  It was not for personal gain.  It was to do what the Army sent us there to do. 

OLBERMANN:  Former chief warrant officer, Darrell Birt.  Great thanks for your time tonight, sir.  And good luck to you. 

BIRT:  Thank you very much.  Appreciate your time, sir. 

OLBERMANN:  Should we be enraged on Darrell Birt‘s behalf or enraged at him?  After Specialist Wilson‘s question to Secretary Rumsfeld last week, a Pentagon spokesman inadvertently addressed a story like that of the 656th Transportation Company. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAWRENCE DI RITA, PUBLIC AFFAIRS, DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE:  As to whether an individual unit might be taken advantage of, of equipment that‘s about to be returned to the United States, and seeing if there‘s some aspects of that equipment that they can use for themselves before it goes to the United States, and maybe taking components out of it, that‘s a very standard practice to sort of just take advantage of essentially retrograde equipment that‘s going to return to the United States.  And if a unit—the policy has been, if a unit determines that it would like to use some of that, it goes and gets access to it. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  In theory, it‘s called initiative.  In practice, at least in the case of the 656th, it seems to be called theft. 

For some perspective, we‘re honored, as always, to be joined by NBC news analyst, retired U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey. 

General McCaffrey, thanks again for your time tonight. 

U.S. ARMY GENERAL BARRY MCCAFFREY, NBC NEWS ANALYST:  Yes.  Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  What‘s your reaction to this case of former chief warrant officer Birt and the other soldiers?

MCCAFFREY:  Well, one big caveat.  I‘ve sat on an awful lot of court-martial juries.  We heard one side of the story.  We don‘t know the facts. 

If the facts are as portrayed, Keith, my reaction is there‘s probably a big story and a little story.  The little story is we‘re starting to criminalize behavior that we used to handle with the chain of command.  So these soldiers ought to appeal for clemency.  If it gets to a two-star or three-star level, I would be unsurprised if the facts are as stated, particularly, dishonorable discharges, for God‘s sakes.  That sounds absolutely crazy. 

I mean, in Gulf War ‘91, any of the equipment that fell behind, my tank Mechanized Division got stripped by the 82nd Airborne, I can assure you of that.  So it just doesn‘t make any sense.  They must have lost their balance on this.  I don‘t see why these soldiers asked for a trial by judge alone.  They should have asked for a trial by a jury of their peers. 

Now having said that, again, we only heard one side of the story.  The biggest story, Keith, in my judgment is—and again, I‘m going to try and be as objective as I can. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes, sir.

MCCAFFREY:  During the build-up to the war, I was personally called by senior Army staff officials.  And I called the Sec. Def.‘s office personally and talked to a high-level official. 

Secretary Rumsfeld was absolutely micromanaging the call-up of these reserve units, delaying their deployment overseas.  They came with inadequate time to train.  They were inadequately equipped with equipment.  That‘s part of the reason for Abu Ghraib.  The 800th MP Brigade should have been called up much earlier and been allowed to get organized and get the equipment they required. 

So again, you know, I think it‘s right back, coming directly out of the senior, senior official in the Pentagon directly micromanaging and screwing up the system. 

OLBERMANN:  To what degree are the U.S. personnel, whether they‘re short of armor for a truck or short of a truck, to what degree are they now faced with the kind of choice that these soldiers evidently were, use the equipment we give you and increase your risk of not completing the mission or getting killed or injured, or find other equipment and increase your risk of getting court-martialed or reprimanded?

MCCAFFREY:  Well, you know, it‘s almost never that stark a choice.  We don‘t want soldiers ripping off equipment from other units.  So, I‘d want to know the facts in the case.  Were those trucks actually left behind by a unit?  And they just did aside with accountability, but they didn‘t take them away from another deploying unit.  If that was the case, these guys should have gotten a letter of reprimand, had it ripped up a year later or a tongue-lashing by the battalion commander.  But court-martialing them is astonishing to me. 

Again, I think some of this goes on all the time.  It appears as if they were trying to get into battle.  This wasn‘t stealing government property and selling it to the Iraqis, for God‘s sakes.  They‘re trying to get up there and prosecute the mission.  So it looks to me like a gross overreaction. 

I hope, if the facts are as stated, I hope it gets corrected by the chain of command. 

OLBERMANN:  Retired Army General, MSNBC and NBC news analyst, General Barry McCaffrey.  As always sir, great thanks for your time. 

MCCAFFREY:  Good to be with you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  On the ground in Iraq today, a second suicide car bomb attack in as many days has killed seven outside the main entrance to the Green Zone in Baghdad.  A similar attack on Monday killed 13.  No Americans injured in either bombing.  Each detonated outside the compound that houses the U.S. embassy, the British consulate and the headquarters of the interim Iraqi government. 

And coalition troops are still securing the former insurgents‘ stronghold in Fallujah.  But General Richard Myers, on a visit to Baghdad today, said residents should be able to return home there within a few days. 

Not so, American soldiers.  The current level of troop strength will be maintained for at least the next two years.  The temporary expansion necessitated by the Iraqi elections next month was from 138,000 to 150,000.  The Pentagon now saying today that through the middle of 2006 U.S. troop levels will be maintained at around that 138 to 140,000 mark. 

The next rotations in scheduled for the middle of next year will include the 4th Infantry, the 101st Airborne, and brigades from the 1st Infantry and the 10th Mountain. 

And the price just rose.  The Pentagon was expected to ask for an additional $70 to $75 billion to fund the activity in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The “Wall Street Journal” says the figure is actually $80 billion, with one unnamed U.S. official saying it could be as high as $89 billion. 

One harrowing statistic from Iraq turns out, however, to be inaccurate.  National Guardsmen are not 35 percent more likely to be killed in Iraq than are regular Army soldiers.  The percentage was calculated by “USA Today” based on statistics supplied by the Army National Guard. 

But after the newspaper printed its analysis yesterday, the National Guard said it had given out inaccurate figures as to how many guardsmen had served in Iraq.  A spokesman said the Guard had made an internal mistake and had told the newspaper that 37,000 members of the Guard had served in Iraq, when the correct statistic was closer to 91,000. 

There is one unchanged and unchangeable number, 145 members of the Guard have died in Iraq.  Less than 100 of them died in Vietnam. 

From the guys who fight the war to the men who ran it.  Today, the commander-in-chief bestowing the highest civilian honor on three of what he describe as the architects of the war in Iraq. 

And the president says he is delighted that this particular architect is staying on the job.  But what if the rest of the Republican Party disagrees with him?  You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  On the surface, there‘s nothing odd about the trio of men President Bush has chosen to honor with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a general, a CIA chief, and an Iraq administrator. 

But our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN goes below the surface to note that at least two of those men parted ways with Mr. Bush under less-than-ideal circumstances.  Former CIA director George tenet, Retired General Tommy Franks and former Iraq interim administrator L. Paul Bremer got the 2004 hardware today.  And the president made it clear he was honoring them as a group. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Today, this honor goes to three men who have played pivotal roles in great events and whose efforts have made our country more secure, and advanced the cause of human liberty. 

These three men symbolize the nobility of public service, the good character of our country and the good influence of America on the world. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Tenet, of course, became the fall guy for the WMD fiascos and a target of the 9/11 Commission.  Bremer surprised the administration by suggesting at one point the U.S. did not have enough troops in Iraq to keep the peace.  Even General Franks said the make-up of those forces that were there did not match the needs of the occupation.  So why the trophies? 

I‘m delighted to be joined by Tom Squitieri, USA Today‘s Pentagon reporter, himself just back from a two-week trip to the Middle East. 

Tom, good evening.

TOM SQUITIERI, “USA TODAY”:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Let me start with Bremer and Tenet.  Are these consolation prizes?  Are they home versions of the Iraq war game?  What are they?

SQUITIERI:  Well, even in this cynical time, the level of cynicism on this one is reaching new proportions.  It‘s being dubbed by some as “hush medals.”  You know, these guys still have to write their memoirs and their take on what happened in Iraq, in particular.  And when you get a medal from the president, it makes you a little bit nicer about what you may or may not want to write. 

This medal helps to validate their time in Iraq.  It validates the White House decision to have those people in charge of the war in Iraq and the aftermath of the invasion.  And so the coverage tomorrow I think will reflect that. 

OLBERMANN:  And from the White House‘s point of view on this, there‘s that wonderful scene in the novel, “Catch-22,” where the World War II bombardier Yossarian drops his bombs over the ocean, rather than trying to hit the target.  And his commander decides to give a medal on the premise that he can either give him a medal or he can court-martial him.  And the medal means better publicity.  Is this a milder version of that in play here?

SQUITIERI:  It certainly is.  I mean, this is—historians we spoke to today will tell you this is one of the shortest times from, sort of, the completion of the duty for the country, that was cited by the president, and receiving this medal. 

The war in Iraq is still going on, as we all know.  And Bremer is just out of his job there as viceroy from this summer.  And Franks is out about two years.  And Tenet just left.  History has not had a chance to really see how well these men performed in Iraq, specifically, which is, of course, the focal point of the three, the trio there, as you would, the three amigos, some may say, in Iraq. 

You know, Tenet is famous for the “slam-dunk” quote that they‘re going to find weapons of mass destruction.  And, clearly, that has not been yet proven accurate among the other three—among the three. 

OLBERMANN:  And to focus less on he and Bremer and more on the general, you were just in that region.  It used to be a civilian honor for service during peace-time.  Why would it be going to a general?

SQUITIERI:  Generals have gotten it in the past, Colin Powell, for example, and Schwarzkopf after the Gulf War.  But that was a significant time after that war had been over.

You know, I hate to use a sports metaphor.

(CROSSTALK)

OLBERMANN:  Please.

SQUITIERI:  But if Tenet talked about a slam dunk, one could say that Tommy Franks is the punter, the football.  He punted the problems of Iraq to his successors.  And the problem now is a lot worse than when he was in charge of the war.

It was interesting.  When the war was going on, Secretary Rumsfeld kept calling it Tommy Franks‘ war, sort of an indication, if something goes wrong, we have General Franks to blame.  Well, he got out of that war OK.  But the situation there is, in some ways, much, much worse than when he was running that war. 

OLBERMANN:  Tom Squitieri, of “USA Today,” as always, sir, a great pleasure getting your perspective and... 

SQUITIERI:  Happy to be with you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Welcome back.

SQUITIERI:  Thank you. 

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, the timeless perspective of the car chase.  When you see stuff like this, you know that the “Oddball” segment is in the oven and it‘s nearly ready for tasting. 

And the new Star Jones payment plan.  She will not pay the landscaper‘s bill, but she will give them a personally autographed photo.  Standby.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We‘re back.  And we once again pause the COUNTDOWN for that mid-show rest area of goofy video and strange animals and those who have run afoul of the law.  Let‘s play “Oddball.” 

We begin in Evansville, Indiana and COUNTDOWN car chase of the week. 

No time for the scoreboard, because this guy is getting a little rammy.  Look out. That was an Indiana sheriff‘s deputy cruiser, at least it used to be.  The deputy was not in the car.  You might have seen him getting safely out just before the crash. 

The driver of the rental truck just got out of jail for leaving the scene of an accident the day before in the same truck.  Hey, nothing parties like a rental.  But this yo-yo in a U-Haul won‘t be leaving the scene of this particular smash-up.  He‘s just booked himself into long-term storage in the big house. 

Over to Hobart, Indiana, where it has become clear that kidnappings of giant inflatable cartoon characters has now reached an epidemic proportion.  A hoodlum driving a Ford Ranger pick-up has pulled into the local candy store apparently too lazy and too out-of-shape to scale the walls of a Burger King like anybody else. 

He goes after Frosty the Snowman, stuffs him into the back of his truck and takes off.  The owner of Frosty is offering a gift tray and a 20-second shopping spree in his candy store as a reward for Frosty‘s safe return.  But, by the listless looks of this once jolly snowman, we fear it may be too late.  God speed, Frosty. 

Wait a minute.  What do you mean a 20-second shopping spree in his candy store?  “Oh, great, a Milky Way.”  “Time‘s up.”

We now rejoin “Oddball” already in progress.  Louisville, Kentucky: 

The rare and elusive great white buffalo has been spotted going south on rural Route 8, one of just two in the country.  He escaped from a nearby farm, along with an accomplice, his mother, after somebody cut the fence to their pen. 

And now the great white buffalo is coming to make his final stand.  Look out, here he comes.  The great white buffalo baby, yes, yes, yes.  Ted Nugent, who wrote those poignant words in 1983, was today quoted as saying, “I can‘t wait to kill that buffalo with an arrow.” 

I made that last part up.  They caught the buffalo and rewarded him with a 20-second shopping spree in a candy store. 

Donald Rumsfeld rewarded with support from his commander-in-chief, but not from some prominent Republicans.  How long can that situation last unchanged?  And your hips, your health, your hula hoop?  Those stories ahead. 

Now here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three news makers of the day.  No. 3, Ashlee Spinks of Indianapolis and Andrea Springer of Conyers, Georgia.  They are twins.  Today they both had babies in the same hospital.  Both had twins.  Both sets of twins were two boys.  It is not completely coincidental they had both scheduled c-sections for today. 

No. 2, the residents of Mink, Louisiana, a small town, 15 houses.  They‘re celebrating tonight because of the latest technical marvel.  No, not Google announcing it will digitize millions of library books.  Not in Mink, anyway.  In Mink, they have just been wired for telephone service. 

And No. 1, Richard Dorsay of Chicago, specifically of Chicago‘s drawbridge village.  Never heard of it?  Dorsay built it himself under the drawbridge serving the Chicago River.  He had hooked into the bridge an electrical system and was operating a space heater, a microwave, a PlayStation game, and a TV as he lived there.  Police found out about it on Sunday and arrested him and dismantled his village, which is really too bad because it was just about to get wired for telephone service.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  No secretary of defense, nor before the title was changed, secretary of war, has ever been free of criticism by politicians.  A senator saying he had, quote, “no confidence in his secretary” isn‘t that unusual, or is another one saying some of the things that the same secretary have done in a war, quote, “have been irresponsible.”  And a congressman writing to the secretary of defense a letter complaining what he said was wrong is hardly a news flash.  Of course, that all changes when you realize that the secretary of defense in question is Donald Rumsfeld at the start of his second term on the job and both senators and that congressman are members of his own political party. 

Our third story in the COUNTDOWN tonight, Rummy, if not on the ropes, then perhaps as the perpetual punching bag.  The two senators who made those remarks, John McCain and Chuck Hagel, McCain about no confidence, Hagel about irresponsible, each said that they were not suggesting Mr.  Rumsfeld resign or that President Bush help him to resign. 

But even on that dramatic possibility, McCain, the prospective next chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee seemed less than enthusiastic.  The president can, quote, “have the team that he wants around him,” McCain said.  Hagel made similar remarks.

The congressman, Republican Robin Hayes of North Carolina, did not address the secretary‘s future but rather his immediate past, that meet-and-greet with the troops in Kuwait last week, specifically his response to the armored vehicle question. 

“What he said was wrong,” Representative Hayes notes.  “The way he said it was wrong, and the place in which he said it was wrong.”  With friends like that, who needs Democrats?

To help us give a picture of the state of the secretary, I‘m joined again by the White House reporter of the “Washington Post,” Jim VandeHei. 

Jim, good evening. 

JIM VANDEHEI, “WASHINGTON POST”:  Good to be here, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Are Senators Hagel and McCain a minority among Republicans who don‘t work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

VANDEHEI:  No.  I think there are certainly a large number of Republicans outside of this White House who we consider experts in national security and Middle East policy, who share the frustration that Donald Rumsfeld did not call for enough troops after the fall of Baghdad. 

I think there‘s a smaller number of Republicans who think Donald Rumsfeld should still be held accountable for the prison scandal in Iraq, and maybe lesser so for the failure to get body armor to the troops that have been calling for it. 

OLBERMANN:  But Hagel and McCain, and any others who have made any comments here, have been very careful to suggest that they were not suggesting that there needs to be a defense secretary change.  Should we be taking them at their words, or was there a message behind those words that meant the exact opposite thing?

VANDEHEI:  I thought their message was crystal clear, that they thought that Donald Rumsfeld should get the boot.  I mean, listen, the president of the United States has said he‘s sticking by Donald Rumsfeld.  So there‘s only so far that they can push. 

It would be an exercise in futility for them to say, “Make him resign.”  Because the president is not going to make him resign.  Both McCain and Hagel have to navigate some tricky politics of their own.  Both want to run for president in 2008 and have carved out these identities as independent-minded Republicans. 

There‘s limited appeal to that.  If you‘re always the skunk of the party, eventually people aren‘t going to invite you back. 

OLBERMANN:  But how eventually here, regarding Rumsfeld?  I mean, can he last indefinitely as a lightning rod that‘s attracting both kinds of political lightning, Democratic and Republican?

VANDEHEI:  I mean, this president is notorious for standing by his men.  He has said that Donald Rumsfeld‘s his guy, that he wants him to navigate Iraq,  figure out a way to get the United States out of there and have victory.  So I don‘t see any signs that the president is backing away. 

If you have a flood of controversy, eventually it‘s going to overwhelm the president.  He might make a move.  But I don‘t see him anywhere near that situation at this point. 

OLBERMANN:  When it came out that the now famous, or infamous, Thomas Wilson question was actually inspired by or provided by an embedded reporter from Chattanooga, there was a feeling in some quarters that Mr.  Rumsfeld might have been cut some slack over that episode.  That he was set up by the media canard or excuse. 

But that doesn‘t seem to have been the case.  Is it the case?

VANDEHEI:  Right.  I mean, I think the incident itself was fleeting, but the issue is very much alive.  There are a lot of Republican, Democrats, reporters, and people who have circulated in and out of Iraq, who feel that there is this concern about whether soldiers have enough body armor and why hasn‘t the White House, and Rumsfeld in specific, responded?

This was an issue in the presidential campaign.  John Kerry raised it repeatedly.  And it even predated the presidential campaign, with Democrats raising it right after the fall of Baghdad.  I think the White House is going to move on a pretty shorter to address this because there‘s a spending bill that‘s coming to Congress in the next couple of months that‘s going to call for some money to address this problem.  But until that happens, critics are going to continue to ask, “Why is it taking so long?”

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  They already increased one of the orders last week.  But how that will affect the Rumsfeld secretary—I‘ll wait future developments. 

Jim VandeHei, White House reporter for the “Washington Post.”  Once again, sir, great thanks for your time tonight. 

VANDEHEI:  Take care, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Now to the cabinet secretary who never was.  And a fourth-estate vetting process that continue to dig up new dirt that the White House may or may not have known about all along. 

Your tax dollars in action.  Day four of the Bernard Kerik implosion investigation.  A fielder‘s choice of:  More mob ties, a movie deal in limbo, and an entire marriage kept under wraps. 

Wife number two, the current wife that Mr. Kerik all but admitted to having cheated on yesterday, is in fact wife number three.  The New York newspaper “Newsday” reporting that investigators conducting a background check as part of Kerik‘s vetting process uncovered that the then-homeland security secretary designate was married to a woman who he has apparently kept secret for the past 20 years. 

And—wait for it—his first and second marriages may have overlapped.  First wife, Linda Hales, never mentioned in his best-selling autobiography, “The Lost Son,” the gripping story that may not be coming to a multiplex near you after all. 

MSNBC.com‘s Jeannette Walls reporting that Miramax, which bought the rights to the book for a movie, is, quote, “seriously reconsidering whether to make the biopic about the now-controversial former cop.” 

A report in today‘s “New York Times” can‘t help but make one wonder why the White House did not seriously reconsider the Kerik nomination before announcing it.  And the same can be asked of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani before he made Kerik the city police commissioner four years ago. 

The paper reports that New York City‘s top investigative agency learned that Mr. Kerik had a social relationship with the owner of a New Jersey construction company suspected of having business ties to organized crime.  No indication that Mr. Kerik did anything illegal or improper.  Nevertheless, former Mayor Giuliani says none of that was even brought to his attention before he gave Kerik the police department‘s top job in August 2000. 

As for the White House, it said yesterday that its check into Kerik‘s background had been extensive.  It made no further comment on the topic today. 

Six weeks to the day after the election, they‘re still counting votes and lawsuits in the Washington State governor‘s race.  With 25 of 39 counties reporting, Republican Dino Rossi leads Democrat Christine Gregoire by 46 votes in the hand recount, 46 out of nearly 2.9 million. 

But the margin of victory, however slim, will almost definitely swing in Ms. Gregoire‘s favor if 561 ballots from King County, that‘s Seattle, heavily Democratic, will be added back into the mix.  Election officials say they went uncounted by mistake.  Workers had failed to check the signatures. 

A canvassing board will decide tomorrow whether those 561 ballots will be counted.  Republicans are howling about their sudden discovery.  But the GOP won on another front today when the state Supreme Court rejected a Democratic bid to review all 15,000 of the ballots disqualified in the state of Washington. 

The recount is just beginning in Ohio.  But the war of words is now six weeks old.  Today, Congressman John Conyers says he has finally heard back from Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell to whom he wrote December 2nd posing 36 different questions about Ohio‘s vote. 

Conyers has released a second letter to Blackwell in which he notes that Blackwell has refused to answer any of those three dozen questions.  He also claims that in Blackwell‘s return letter, Blackwell insisted that members of Congress should not and could not investigate a matter already under investigation by the Government Accountability Office, like the Ohio vote, for instance.  That is something Conyers, in his second letter to Blackwell, today says is not the case. 

Finally, when he signs off next month as the senior senator and dual challenger from Georgia, Zell Miller sign on on TV.  Senator Miller announcing today he‘ll become a commentator for FOX News Channel. 

Funny.  I thought he already was a commentator for FOX News Channel. 

From political duels to charitable duels, the Salvation Army versus Target, a holiday fight that could affect the bottom line for everybody involved. 

Donald Trump tonight might be taking his TV career a little too far. 

Not sure I want to see that part of his life televised.  That‘s ahead. 

Now, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top-three sound bites. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  At a recent high school reunion, Tommy‘s old principal told the general, “You weren‘t the brightest bulb in the socket,” to which the general replied, “Ain‘t this a great country?”

(LAUGHTER)

JAY LENO, “THE TONIGHT SHOW”:  The White House nomination of Bernard Kerik as homeland security chief, they said it was rushed, not fully thought-out and they didn‘t have a back-up plan if things went wrong.  Well, that doesn‘t sound like the White House I know. 

(LAUGHTER)

JIM CARREY, ACTOR:  That‘s beautiful.  Thank you.  Thank you so much. 

Thank you.  Yes, great, excellent.  They‘re going to love this. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  With the holiday season heart upon us now, here‘s a happy thought.  You know on which day of the year the most Americans die?  Yes, December 25th

Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, merry Christmas.  The data comes from researchers at U.C. San Diego and Tufts University.  They say 12.4 percent more deaths occur on Christmas than on the average day on the calendar. 

Other raw numbers, heart-related deaths jump by 4.65 percent during the two weeks around Christmas.  Non-heart-related deaths go up by just under 5 percent.  A nice illustration, huh?  And no, they are not including deaths caused by cold weather during the holidays, nor accidents, nor even suicides, nor when that gift really does not go over well, murders. 

Just natural causes, a total of 42,000 more of them on the 26 Christmases they studied.  Explanations?  The researchers postulate that during the holidays, if people feel sick, they are less likely to see a doctor or go to an emergency room, or the doctor‘s on vacation.  Or when they do go, according to the report, the quality of medical care might be compromised.  In other words, the B-team tends to work E.R. on Christmas. 

Only twice in a years covered by the research was there no increased visit by evil Santa, 1973 when the oil crisis reduced travel and 1981 when a severe recession hit before the holidays and also reduced travel.  Conclusion:  Stay the hell home this year. 

You certainly don‘t want to go to your nearest Target chain store.  Getting involved in the Christmas controversy there could take a year off your life.  Don Teague reporting now from Atlanta where, to paraphrase the old song, the bells aren‘t ringing. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DON TEAGUE, NBC NEWS:  For more than a hundred years, this has been the sound of Christmas in America.  An army of bell ringers, raising money for the Salvation Army.  For Willie Pickett in Atlanta...

WILLIE PICKETT, SALVATION ARMY:  Merry Christmas to you. 

TEAGUE:  ... it‘s also about spreading Christmas cheer. 

PICKETT:  I just love making people smile, you know. 

TEAGUE:  But even if Willie Picket‘s kettle brings in record donations this year, the Salvation Army as a whole expects to fall well short of its holiday goal. 

Because this year, Target has banned Salvation Army kettles from all 1,300 stores.  The company says it‘s simply enforcing existing rules against solicitation.  But it‘s a move the Christian-based charity says cost it $9 million. 

MAJ. GEORGE HOOSIER, GEORGIA SALVATION ARMY‘S GENERAL SECRETARY: 

That‘s a major part of our fundraising throughout the year.  So we‘re going to take a hit, not only at Christmas, but for the rest of our services throughout the year. 

TEAGUE:  And it may cost Target as well.  Some other big chains are now publicly welcoming Salvation Army bell ringers.  And 5,000 clergy members, like Sarasota Pastor David Anderson...

DAVID ANDERSON, SARASOTA PASTOR:  I don‘t plan to buy another thing at Target until they change their policy towards the Salvation Army. 

TEAGUE:  ... are urging churchgoers to boycott Target. 

ANDERSON:  It‘s an attack against an American tradition.  The Salvation Army is a part of Americana. 

TEAGUE:  And, supporters say, critical in efforts to feed the hungry, lift up the poor, and respond to natural disasters, like this year‘s hurricanes.  Target officials declined an interview, but, in a statement, point out their stores give more than $100 million a year directly to charities including the Salvation Army. 

And Target isn‘t the only chain that prohibits solicitation.  You won‘t find bell ringers at Best Buy, Home Depot, or Barnes and Noble either.  Still, Target officials used to make an exception for those famous red kettles. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I love Target, but they‘re not going to get my business this season. 

TEAGUE:  Now some customers are taking exception to them. 

PICKETT:  There you go.  All right.

TEAGUE:  Don Teague, NBC News, Atlanta. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  And as we segue way to our nightly roundup of celebrity and entertainment news, we start with the man for whom every day is Christmas,  Donald Trump.  He says two networks want to televise his latest marriage live. 

“The last live wedding I saw televised was Lady Di and Prince Charles,” Trump tells the “New York Daily News,” “and that didn‘t work out all that well.”  Well, there‘s always Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki from “THE TONIGHT SHOW.” 

Trump says he is not sure if he and fiancee Melania Knauss want to be televised, though he‘d definitely do it were his “APPRENTICE” producer, Mark Burnett, to be involved. 

He also did not say which networks were interested.  So here are the top five COUNTDOWN guesses.  No. 5, the Cartoon Network, no. 4, the Sci-Fi Channel, no. 3, Soap Network, no. 2, Court TV, and the no. 1 COUNTDOWN guess for which network wants to televise the Trump wedding, the Home Shopping Network.  And don‘t say Pay-Per-View, because that‘s presumably what Mr. Trump is doing. 

As to celebrities without consciences, Star Jones sued landscapers who beautified her penthouse garden before a photo shoot last year.  They said she never paid the bill.  Dimitri Nurseries of New York says more than that.  They insist that in lieu of cash, Ms. Jones offered to send the company a plaque with her picture on it that they could hang in their offices, to which the firm‘s owner answered, quote, “What am I, a diner?” unquote.

Here‘s something Star Jones has never met: a hula hoop.  A hula hoop exercise class, no less.  Monica Novotny will personally demonstrate, no less, next on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  You have to be a certain age to have owned a hula hoop.  You could be a lot younger and still remember its starring role in the movie, “The Hudsucker Proxy,” a decade ago. 

No matter how old you are, the idea that the h-h is at the center of the latest fitness craze is likely to make you laugh, or at least grab your sacroiliac in remembered pain.

Our number one story in the COUNTDOWN tonight, as reported by our Monica Novotny. 

Monica, good evening. 

MONICA NOVOTNY, NBC NEWS:  Keith, good evening. 

More than 45 years after it peaked as one of the most popular children‘s toys in America, adults are rediscovering the hula hoop.  Now these hoops are larger and heavier than they used to be, but aren‘t we all?  And quite frankly, that is the point.  Today‘s hula hoop is designed to get us in shape. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You know, for kids. 

NOVOTNY:  And now for you, too.  The hula hoop is back, super-sized and ready to roll onto the list of aerobic fitness trends.  Hoopers say it‘s an irresistible way to trim down and tone up.

LOREN BIDNER, HOOP CLASS INSTRUCTOR:  It‘s contagious.  People see people moving in them, they want to get in the mood themselves. 

NOVOTNY:  Loren Bidner charges $15 for this hour-long class in New York City. 

BIDNER:  So the first thing we‘re going to talk about is dance.  You‘re building your stamina, and you‘re toning your abs, and you‘re raising your heart rate, and you‘re pumping the blood. 

NOVOTNY:  What‘s the key to hula hooping?

BIDNER:  The key is to have the motion coming from your center. 

NOVOTNY:  In 1958, this small, plastic hoop hit the scene as a children‘s toy.  Twenty five million sold in four months.  In 1994, immortalized as Tim Robbins‘ invention in “The Hudsucker Proxy.”  Today, it‘s a dose of nostalgia for adults looking for a nontraditional workout. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I actually was at the gym before I came here. 

And this workout was a hundred times better than my previous one. 

BIDNER:  You‘re transported back to your childhood.  You know, I think that‘s why, when you picked it up, you had a smile right then and there.  You know?  I think that‘s what it is.  It‘s just pure and simple fun. 

NOVOTNY:  Bidner custom crafts each $30 adult-sized hoop. 

BIDNER:  You want the pelvis really, really rocking and rolling, all right?  Beautiful. 

NOVOTNY:  Oh, my. 

BIDNER:  Well, it is a sexy movement. 

NOVOTNY:  Not exactly, but it can be a sweaty one. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It‘s an aerobic workout, but it‘s also fun. 

NOVOTNY:  Classes are spinning out across the country, but if you can‘t make it, there‘s this exercise video featuring weighted hoops.  They say you can burn up to 660 calories an hour here. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You name it, we do it. 

NOVOTNY:  There are magazine articles, even a Web site tracking the trend. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I don‘t think anybody expected this much hoopla. 

(LAUGHTER)

NOVOTNY:  Maybe not, but Bidner says the health benefits are real.

BIDNER:  You‘re burning calories.  You‘re working out. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It was a riot. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Really fun. 

BIDNER:  It taps into that childlike fun that everyone has and everyone can connect with. 

NOVOTNY:  That‘s my dismount. 

BIDNER:  Yes.  Excellent. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY:  Loren Bidner teaches his hoop class twice a week.  He says his students range in age from 20 to 50.  They come from all walks of life.  And the one thing they have in common, he says, is the smile on their faces when students step into the hoop. 

OLBERMANN:  In “The Hudsucker Proxy,” they asked Tim Robbins a bunch of questions about it.  One of them, is how do you know you‘re finished?  And the other ones was, do you make one with more sand in the hoop for the hard of hearing? 

They have now eliminated the sound or reduced the sound.  Why is that?

NOVOTNY:  Right.  Well, when he makes these, he actually makes them without the ball bearings.  That was the sound that you remember hearing as kid, because he says it can actually impact the speed of the hoop and the sound, and then that impacts your rhythm as a hooper.  We wouldn‘t want to do that. 

OLBERMANN:  Wouldn‘t want to interrupt my rhythm. 

NOVOTNY:  Definitely not. 

OLBERMANN:  COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny.  Many thanks for the demonstration. 

NOVOTNY:  I‘ve gotten you a hoop for the holidays, by the way. 

OLBERMANN:  I‘m surprised it‘s not the punishment for the news quiz. 

OK, that‘s COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for being part of it.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Good night and good luck. 

I hit the TV.  No, no, you have got to see this.

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

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2004 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2004 FDCH e-Media, Inc. (f/k/a/ Federal Document Clearing House, Inc, eMediaMillWorks, Inc.) ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and FDCH e-Media, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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