updated 3/8/2005 2:01:23 PM ET 2005-03-08T19:01:23

Guest: Tom O‘Neil

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

Rules of engagement. 

GIULIANA SGRENA, FREED ITALIAN HOSTAGE:  I want from the Americans an explanation on what happened this night.

STEWART:  She was wounded and her rescuer killed.  Why did Americans soldiers open fire on the former hostage?  And what are the implications at home, in Italy, and Iraq?

Extraordinary rendition.  The practice of taking suspected terrorists to countries outside the United States, where rules of interrogation are less stringent than within our borders.  Is it an invaluable tool for fighting terror or a creative way to legally torture suspects?

Back to work.  Her ankles conspicuously bereft of any monitoring device.  Today Martha Stewart rallies her troops in person for the first time in five months. 

And side impact.  Fourteen of 16 small car models tested flunked the side impact test. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We‘re talking about skull fracture and brain injuries, multiple rib fractures. 

A. STEWART:  How safe is the car you‘re driving?

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

A. STEWART:  And good evening.  I‘m Alison Stewart, filling in for Keith Olbermann tonight.  He‘s a little bit under the weather. 

Three hundred and 67 days after being convicted of lying to the feds, five months of confinement in prison and a weekend at talking cappuccino and lemons with reporters, Martha Stewart returned to work today. 

Hundreds of miles away in Chicago, the CEO of aerospace giant Boeing was forced out of his position after a scandalous affair with a female executive became quite public. 

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, business as usual.  Not quite. 

First, Martha.  The lifestyle icon at one time inspiring enough fear to make a chicken lay pre-colored Easter eggs was today showing a little post lock-up love. 

The egg part isn‘t true, but it sounds like something she could do, right?

Addressing her minions, I mean employees, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, she referred to them as her heroes.  And she promised that they‘d share credit in all future endeavors. 

Stewart also spoke of the, quote, “tremendous privilege” she‘s had in meeting such a cross-section of people during her time at Alderson.  Waxing poetic about the challenges facing an ever broadening definition of the American family. 

She also responded to the as yet unanswered question that has remained in all our minds for days. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARTHA STEWART, FOUNDER, MARTHA STEWART LIVING OMNIMEDIA:  Here‘s my poncho.  This was not from a fancy store.  This was from Alderson.  And it was made by a friend of mine there. 

The night before I left, she handed me this.  Not wrapped because there‘s no wrapping paper.  No ribbons.  But she handed me this and said, “Wear it in good health.”  And I wore it to the plane, never guessing that it would look so good. 

We‘ll try to get the pattern from her. 

Pride in home keeping creates serenity and pleasure and warmth that nourishes and that dignifies family relationships.  I even experienced it hanging around the microwave in the place where I was staying. 

Do all of you know how many thousands of letters I‘ve received?  Boxes, boxes and boxes.  So much support from everywhere in the country, from Canada, from Europe, from Iraq.  I got some fabulous letters from Iraq. 

We‘re going to deepen our bond with the millions who read our publications and watch our television programs.  And we‘re going to engage and inspire new readers and new viewers for whom these topics may have seemed alien, unfamiliar, or even believe it or not, superficial. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

A. STEWART:  Superficial?  Why would putting your dish soap detergent in decorative Italian glass bottles so they gently reflect the light while sitting on the windowsill be called superficial?

Joining now to discuss the new and perhaps improved Martha Stewart, senior editor for “In Touch Weekly,” Tom O‘Neil. 

Tom, good evening.  Great to see you.

TOM O‘NEIL, SENIOR EDITOR, “IN TOUCH WEEKLY”:  Same here, Alison.

A. STEWART:  I Googled “Martha‘s release,” and that poncho was in every article.  It was the fashionable sweater poncho, the fashionable knit poncho with the green turtleneck, the gray and white crocheted poncho.  Why did that darn poncho get so much press, and why did Martha need to tell us of its humble origins?

O‘NEIL:  I know.  I think because it started out so humble.  And then you saw that twinkle in her eye.  Did you hear what she said at the end of that sound clip?  I asked the woman for the pattern. 

Now, my set-up is this, Alison.  This poncho is what could rescue Martha Stewart.  I figured out today mathematically, that if she makes $10 a poncho and mass produces these, she‘ll have to sell six million ponchos to erase the debt of the loss her company had this year.  But would you buy a poncho?

A. STEWART:  I‘m telling you, I think those things are going to show up in KMart any minute now. 

O‘NEIL:  I think you‘re right.

A. STEWART:  We saw some video this weekend of Martha in her home, petting her animals, making soup for her mom.  And today, of course, her visit to Martha Stewart H.Q.  Now, as a reporter, how would you gauge this all-out media blitz?

O‘NEIL:  Well, it‘s really a fascinating story.  When was the last time we saw such a high profile celebrity go to jail?  Even when we caught Winona Ryder shoplifting, she got community service.  O.J. Simpson got off completely.  Martha goes to jail.

And what makes it so ironic is that she has been the person who‘s taught us how the live the perfect life.  What a story.  And she‘s come out, I believe, transformed. 

A. STEWART:  You do believe this is real?

O‘NEIL:  For now.  I think so.

A. STEWART:  The blowing of kisses, the crying, all of this. 

O‘NEILL:  Yes.  The offering to bring out hot cocoa to the journalists.  I think for now.  There‘s that little devil wanting to pop out.  The question is, can Martha keep in it there?

A. STEWART:  All right.  There‘s one other woman on the scene here.  Very interesting.  Susan Lyne, the president of Martha Stewart Omnimedia, almost looks like her kinder, gentler twin.  Tell people who this woman is.  She is substantial. 

O‘NEIL:  Very substantial.  She‘s the recent president of ABC, which of course, is the network that has rallied recently, based on reality TV mostly.  And of course, that‘s where Martha is headed now with her prime time show this fall.  Of course, it will be on NBC, though. 

Susan Lyne before that was a magazine editor.  So she knows the magazine business, like Martha does.  The TV business.  This is a wise choice.

A. STEWART:  All right.  They sound like a formidable team. 

O‘NEIL:  They really do, don‘t they? 

A. STEWART:  Tom O‘Neil of “In Touch Weekly” magazine.  Great thanks to you, as always. 

O‘NEIL:  Thanks, Alison. 

A. STEWART:  All right.  Move over Martha, there‘s a new corporate delinquent in town.  Former Boeing CEO, Harry Stonecipher, emerged from retirement about a little over a year ago to help to help his old company recover from a major ethical slipup.  At the time his company was under fire for hiring a corrupt Air Force official. 

Today it was made public the man who came back to clean up the mess made one of his own.  Stonecipher, married with two children, was fired for having an illicit affair with a female executive.  The irony?  He was fired for breaking his own rules. 

Our correspondent is Phil LeBeau.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) 

PHIL LEBEAU, CNBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Harry Stonecipher, the man Boeing tapped to clean up scandals wound up being a victim of his own ethical misstep. 

LEW PLATT, BOEING CHAIRMAN:  Harry was potentially compromised in terms of his ability to lead the country in the future. 

LEBEAU:  What happened?  Stonecipher had a consensual affair with a female executive who did not report directly to him.  It started just a few weeks ago but it wasn‘t revealed until an anonymous tip, including correspondence between Stonecipher and the woman, was sent to Boeing‘s board.  After an investigation, the board decided Stonecipher must go. 

PLATT: And we thought that it put the company in a position where we could potentially be embarrassed.  Those things are a violation of our code of business conduct. 

LEBEAU:  Many of the questions about Stonecipher‘s affair involved correspondence between the former CEO and the woman.  Did Stonecipher send inappropriate e-mails, letters, or leave salacious voicemails?

PLATT:  Well, no, I‘m not going to confirm or deny it.  Just suffice it to say that we saw things surrounding the relationship that we thought were potentially embarrassing and, therefore, compromised Harry‘s ability to lead the company. 

LEBEAU:  Under Stonecipher, Boeing soared.  The stocks surged 52 percent.  Commercial plane orders picked up, and the defense division, rocked by an ethics scandal involving CFO Mike Sears, started to clean up its image on Capitol Hill. 

CAI VON RUMHOR, S.G. COWEN:  The ironic thing is that he was brought in to clean up the government ethics issue.  And it looks like he pretty well had done that.  He was doing a good job. 

LEBEAU:  The top job at Boeing is once again open.  Some who track the company believed the board will take a fresh face.  Boeing‘s board believes the latest ethics scandal will not deter potential candidates. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

A. STEWART:  That was CNBC‘s Phil LeBeau reporting. 

She says they were deliberately targeted.  The military says it was a miscommunication mistake.  The fall-out from the Italian hostage shooting next. 

And small car shocker.  Fourteen out of 16 compacts failed the side impact crash test. 

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

A. STEWART:  He spent his career as an Italian secret agent.  Tonight his name is secret no more.  Nicola Calipari was buried in Rome today as a national hero for saving the life of a journalist, first by securing her release by kidnappers in Iraq, then by shielding her with his body as the vehicle they were traveling in came under fire from American soldiers in Baghdad. 

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN the anger and the aftermath.  The former hostage now claiming that she may have been the target of the attack.  The White House calling that absurd. 

Correspondent Keith Miller has the latest on the fallout from Rome tonight—Keith.

KEITH MILLER, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Alison, it‘s been a gloomy day here Italy with a nationwide standstill, if you will, to watch the funeral of a new hero of Italy.  He‘s the special agent, Nicola Calipari.  He was also instrumental in releasing the journalist, while were on their way to the airport, he was shot and killed by U.S. troops. 

He has been awarded today the nation‘s highest honor, a medal commemorating his bravery. 

Meanwhile, the journalist he saved is now talking about how she feels that she may have come under attack. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MILLER (voice-over):  Giuliana Sgrena spoke from her hospital bed by telephone and said the shooting may have been deliberate. 

SGRENA:  So rapidly a tank started to shoot to us without any sign or any light.  It was not a checkpoint.  It‘s not normal to act like this, because we were not terrorists.

MILLER:  On Italian TV she said, “I can‘t exclude that I was the real target of the shooting.” 

And writing in her newspaper, the communist “Il Manifesto,” she remembered the warning from her captors to be careful because “the Americans don‘t want to you return.” 

But a military analyst says the Italians may have been ignored the prevailing battlefield conditions. 

GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY (RET.), NBC NEWS MILITARY ANALYST:  At face value, it was monumental incompetence on the part of the Italians to be operating alone at high speed at night during a curfew situation without some way of making radio contact. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MILLER:  Sgrena was visited in the hospital today by an Italian minister, who told her that she had to measure her words.  He told Sgrena and, of course, the public, that she had been through a terrible ordeal, 30 days in captivity held by Islamic extremists and then, of course, the death of the man who not only gained her release, but then saved her life by shielding her body. 

Still, the anti-war activists in this country, and there are many, are using this incident to try to pressure the government to bring home the 3,000 Italian troops now committed to the coalition in Iraq.  The final word on all of this, Alison, is that the Italian government says that the mission in Iraq will go on. 

Back to you. 

A. STEWART:  Keith Miller in Rome.  Many thanks to you. 

The U.S. military has promised a full investigation into this incident.  For some insight into what may have happened at that checkpoint on the road to the Baghdad airport, we‘re joined by retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, who was in the first Gulf War and also served at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.  He‘s now an MSNBC military analyst. 

Colonel Francona, what are U.S. forces trained to do in a situation like this?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Well, they have standing rules of engagement on how they‘re to conduct these activities.  And the details of them are classified. 

But in essence, there will be warning signs placed out in front of the checkpoint, warning people to stop or turn around, depending on, you know, what they want them to do.  And if a vehicle proceeds past that, there are, you know, procedures.  There are warning lights, warning signals and finally, warning shots.  And then would you fire into the engine compartment, and if that doesn‘t fail to—if that fails to stop the vehicle, then you engage the vehicle. 

A. STEWART:  Now, of course, we don‘t want to sit here and second-guess soldiers who are in combat at this point.  But from what you‘ve read, did these soldiers act in the correct manner?

FRANCONA:  It appears so, Alison.  If you look at what they did and what they claimed, that they said they used flashing lights, they used hand signals, they fired warning shots into the air, then they fired into the engine compartment, finally firing into the passenger compartment.  And that follows the rules of engagement. 

But you know, I think we need to look at this in the context of time.  We‘re talking about a vehicle that is approaching them at speeds of about 75 feet per second.  You don‘t have a whole lot of time to issue signals and fire warning shots and then decide you were going to engage the occupants.  All this happens in a very, very compressed few seconds. 

A. STEWART:  Now we just heard it was a big error on the Italians part to act unilaterally, not to tell the U.S. military what they were doing.  Was this a case of miscommunication, plain and simple?

FRANCONA:  I think maybe not miscommunications.  I think a total lack of communications.  The Italians should have coordinated this with the U.S.  military.  Had that been done, they would have made sure she got to the airport safely. 

The—the normal case when you do these kinds of operations is to secure the hostage, take them to the nearest secure facility, then arrange a secure mode of transportation, instead of just picking them up and driving right to the airport.  I think this was a bit reckless. 

A. STEWART:  Now, this has shed light on a bigger issue.  All the reports that we‘ve read in “The Washington Post” and “The New York Times” today has described this as not the first time soldiers have fired on what turned out to be noncombatant vehicles.  Is there anything that the U.S.  military could or should be doing differently right now on the roads of Iraq?

FRANCONA:  Well, first, this is—this is a real hot button issue with the Iraqis.  When you talk to the Iraqis about what really upsets them about the U.S. presence, it is the checkpoints.  That‘s the one that you hear over and over. 

We‘ve tried.  The U.S. military has tried to publicize the fact that you should stay away from the convoys.  You should stay back in the vehicles, and you should follow all instructions to the letter when approaching one of these checkpoints. 

But it‘s very difficult for the—for the word to get out to all the people.  Or they just don‘t understand.  It‘s a real problem.  It‘s going to continue to be a problem. 

A. STEWART:  And I‘m sure this will be investigated further.  MSNBC analyst and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, as always, thanks for your time. 

FRANCONA:  Sure thing, Alison. 

A. STEWART:  The U.S. military facing another embarrassing friendly fire incident in Iraq, the Bulgarian government now saying that American troops probably shot and killed one of its soldiers.  It happened Friday in southern Iraq.  A Bulgarian soldier shot to death by machine gun fire. 

The Bulgarian government saying today that its investigation shows it is likely the soldier was shot by U.S. forces.  Bulgaria‘s president heard complaining today about the lack of coordination among coalition troops.  Asked that the problem be fixed immediately. 

The charges and counter charges regarding friendly fire are coming on what‘s already been a bloody day in Iraq, insurgent attacks killing at least 33 people and wounding dozens more.  At least six of the victims were killed in a suicide car bombing in northern Iraq near an Iraqi army patrol base. 

While in and around Baqubah near Baghdad, the attacks included a car bomb, three roadside bombs, and small arms fire on three different military checkpoints. 

An extraordinary story of abduction and torture, allegedly at the hands of American agents.  The government policy of rendition and its consequences in the war on terror still ahead on COUNTDOWN.

But first, what do you get when you put 40 guys on a giant surfboard? 

“Oddball,” dude. 

ANNOUNCER:  You‘re getting your news Olbermann style, COUNTDOWN WITH KEITH OLBERMANN, part of the best primetime in cable news, MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

A. STEWART:  I‘m Alison Stewart, keeping the seat warm for Keith Olbermann. 

And we‘ve reached that point in the show where we pause our COUNTDOWN of the day‘s real news for a brief segment of the day‘s news for kooks, by kooks.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

We begin on the Gold Coast of Australia where sharks, tired of eating surfers one at a time, now have a new menu choice.  The all you can eat surfer buffet.  Red Lobster, that‘s a good deal. 

This was a world record setting ride Saturday in Queensland, more than 40 people on one surfboard.  None were eaten by sharks.  Don‘t worry. 

Reports vary on the exact number of surfers who rode the 40-foot long, 10 foot wide board.  They just know they smashed the previous record of 14. 

And now to Japan, where it‘s time once again for the annual escaped animal drill at the Tama Zoo.  This is only a drill.  In case of a real emergency, the lion wouldn‘t be posing for the cameras like that.  He‘d be having somebody as a snack. 

Zoo keepers are always training for the possibility of the animal attack.  So the humans showed off their step by step plans for a lion escape to spectators and the media.  As you can see, this includes blocking off walkways with big nets to contain the ferocious beast. 

Then, in a most cowardly fashion.  Put them up!  Put them up!  Some guy in a zebra van drives up and shoots the lion in the back. 

Either that or the lion broke into the zoo‘s liquor cabinet, because he‘s going down.  The zoo keepers poke him with a stick to make sure he is out.  That‘s always a good idea, poking a drunk lion.  Then they rap him up and take him away. 

The plan works great for fuzzy mascots, but most agree in the case of a real lion escape, they‘d all run screaming for their lives. 

Sleep well, young fellow.

Finally to Napoleon, Ohio, for a good old-fashioned bridge implosion.  The 75-year-old Perry Street Bridge was blown up real good today to make way for a new modern structure. 

The bridge was only one to cross Ohio‘s Maumee River.  So hopefully the thousands who showed up to watch the event were on the right side or they have to wait until October to go home. 

From collapse to crash.  Side impact statistics to make any small car owner blanch. 

And shoot them up surgery: how playing video games can make you a better doctor. 

Those stories ahead.  Now here are the COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of the day. 

No. 3, President Bill Clinton, who‘s been on tour with President Bush 41, raising money for tsunami relief.  In an interview with “Newsweek,” former President Bush revealed that their government plane, a 757, had only one bedroom. 

Bush says Clinton decided in the advance that the elder president should have the bedroom.  And when Bush woke up the following morning, he said that he found Clinton had slept on the floor. 

No. 2, Jeff Koyen, a former editor of the alternative weekly, the “New York Press.”  He and his publisher have given different reasons for exactly why he resigned today but both agree, it stems from the paper‘s latest issue and his article, “The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope.  I guess it must have seemed funny at the time.

And No. 1, Tawny Peaks, the former stripper, who was sued for assault with her size 69 HH bosom, successfully sold one of her breast implants on eBay over the weekend.  The implant, removed in ‘99, sold for almost $17,000 to guess who?  GoldenPalace.com, the online casino. 

Have fun, kids.

(MUSIC: “On eBay”)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  What do you think?  Are you a hatchback or a convertible?  A sedan or a jalopy?  Feeling a little Mini Coop today?  Has someone ever describe you as Jeepy?  Or maybe you‘re just kind of having a fat day and you‘re feeling like a Heap. 

Our No. 3 story in the COUNTDOWN tonight, our cars are almost as varied as our personalities.  And if you were still searching for the perfect ride, there‘s hope tonight.  The new top 10 list is out. 

But first, cause for caution.  Results from a crash test have been released and the common sense conclusion, as more gas guzzling triple-wide SUV‘s cruise down the roads, if there‘s an accident, a small car is toast. 

Our correspondent, Tom Costello, reports from Charlottesville, Virginia. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM COSTELLO, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  The Insurance Institute does these tests because they want to reduce the severity of accidents, thereby reducing the insurance pay-out. 

We‘re talking here about side impact crashes.  And what‘s different this year is they tried to replicate what would happen if an SUV hit a small vehicle.  The results were not pretty.  In fact, if it weren‘t for the optional airbag on two vehicles, all models would have fared poorly. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice-over):  In the latest round of automobile safety tests, the bar has been raised, literally.  And 14 out of 16 small cars fared poorly.  With so many trucks and SUV‘s on the road, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety raised the side impact crash barrier to simulate an accident involving a much larger vehicle. 

Side impact car accidents are the second leading cause of death and serious injury. 

In this test, the worst performing small car?  The Dodge Neon.  If it had been an actual accident, the injuries could have been severe. 

BRIAN O‘NEIL, INSURANCE INSTITUTE OF HIGHWAY SAFETY:  We‘re talking about skull fracture and brain injuries.  We‘re talking about multiple rib fractures.  We‘re talking about organ injuries. 

COSTELLO:  While the car‘s structure was compromised, it also lacked airbags, important because studies show side airbags with head protection can reduce deaths by 45 percent. 

O‘NEIL:  Many of them are good in frontal crashes.  But clearly, manufacturers have to upgrade the side impact protection on most of these small cars. 

COSTELLO:  Of the 16 small cars tested for front and accidents, 15 rated good or acceptable.  From the Chevrolet Cobalt to the V.W. Beetle.  But when tested for side impact, 14 of the 16 rated poor.  Only two acceptable, the Chevy Cobalt and the Toyota Corolla, but only when equipped with optional side airbags and head protection. 

O‘NEIL:  They‘re offering a lot more protection in side crashes than most of these other small cars, some of which were really bad. 

COSTELLO:  But the car must still be structurally sound.  In fact, only five of the cars tested had airbags as a standard option and even then, all five fared poorly. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO:  Most car makers say this test is extremely difficult.  For its part, Nissan says it only tests one part of the entire safety picture.  Mitsubishi said it hasn‘t seen any real world incidents that would replicate this kind of an accident.  Volkswagen and Hyundai say that their cars usually will at least exceed what the government wants to see in terms of requirements, while Toyota says it usually exceeds what the government wants to see in terms of safety requirements. 

Nonetheless, the insurance institute says this is very concerning. 

Back to you. 

STEWART:  Tom, thanks for that report.  Now, “Consumer Reports” has released its new top 10 list, minus one.  Results from those crash tests caused the organization to remove the Ford Focus as its top pick for small cars.  Oops!

But nine categories remain.  And of course, the perfect car should be big enough for the family vacation, sleek, sporty and fun to drive, smart, sexy, really cool with a great sense of humor.  That‘s not my Match.com ad. 

So you may not find all that in one roadster, or a date, for that matter.  There‘s good news for the driver in search of some hot wheels.  Online daters, you‘re on your own. 

Our correspondent, Anne Thompson< has the report. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNE THOMPSON, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  On the “Consumer Reports” track in Connecticut, where some 200 vehicles are put through 45 different tests, a familiar name plate with a new power system is this year‘s top pick of family sedans: the Honda Accord hybrid. 

David Champion leads the auto test team. 

DAVID CHAMPION, “CONSUMER REPORTS” AUTO TEST TEAM:  I think hybrid technology has now gone mainstream with this car.  This is the power to...

THOMPSON:  With an electric motor assisting the V-6 gasoline engine, he gave the hybrid high marks for overall fuel economy, at 25 miles per gallon. 

CHAMPION:  If you‘re cruising at highway speeds, it will cut down onto three cylinders if the road is relatively flat. 

THOMPSON (on camera):  The tests for acceleration blew away “Consumer Reports” engineers.  Hybrids have a less then peppy reputation, but this hybrid went from zero to 60 a half second faster than the all gas version. 

David, what is it that gives this car so much oomph?

CHAMPION:  It‘s the electric motor that really adds the power or adds the torque to the engine that allows it to really launch itself off the line. 

THOMPSON:  The Accord is not the only hybrid to do well.  Toyota‘s Prius won top honors in owner satisfaction with 94 percent saying they would buy another. 

With more hybrids hitting the roads this year, Craig Van Battenberg (ph) is teaching mechanics across the country how to work on the vehicles.  The first rule?  Turn off the electricity. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That‘s what technicians are doing now.  They‘re depowering this and making sure the battery pack is isolated from the rest of the car before they start doing any work. 

THOMPSON:  And in crashes, experts say hybrids and their electric batteries aren‘t any more dangerous than traditional vehicles. 

O‘NEIL:  They‘ve got cut-offs built into the system.  And for the rescue squads, there are special procedures.  Because you don‘t want to be cutting away, and cutting into high power. 

THOMPSON:  Once thought of only for lovers of planet earth, this technology now making its mark with lovers of performance. 

Anne Thompson, NBC News, East Hadham (ph), Connecticut. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  Now one thing those cars may not have in common, great gas mileage.  That‘s still varies widely among the most popular American cars. 

While gas prices are consistent, consistently going up.  Last summer‘s record high gas prices made public transportation look mighty fine.  As our correspondent Michael Okwu reports from L.A., the latest price hikes will make you want to rush to the nearest karaoke bar for a heartfelt rendition of “These Boots are Made for Walking.” 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MICHAEL OKWU, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  At the gas pump this winter, more sticker shock. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I think I‘m being held hostage by the gas company. 

OKWU:  In the last two weeks, gas prices have soared.  The average retail price up more than six cents, to $2 a gallon.  Here in California, it‘s even higher. 

AAA‘s web site shows higher average prices from the Pacific coast to New England and everywhere in between.  And the experts say with crude oil prices reaching more than $53 a barrel in the coming weeks, prices may go even higher. 

MANTILL WILLIAMS, AAA:  We could have record high gas prices this year.  Sometime in the spring or the summer.  They‘re probably going to exceed $2.05 that we hit last May. 

OKWU:  Sunday, OPECs president expressed concern about the high prices.  But that may do little to slow down the rise.  As spring and summer approach, Americans drive more.  The higher the demand, the higher the price.  And that means the deeper motorists will have to dig into their wallets. 

Michael Okwu, NBC News, Los Angeles. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  And moving from the ground to the skies in a secret CIA plane with only one purpose: to take terrorist suspects out of America to a less law-abiding country for interrogation.  The extraordinary policy of extraordinary rendition, next. 

A little later, the extreme lengths one late night comedian is going to to get his Michael Jackson jokes on the air. 

Those stories are ahead.  Now, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of the day. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATIE COURIC, CO-HOST, “THE TODAY SHOW”:  This is the first marathon for both of you, isn‘t it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Actually, I ran the one marathon about four and a half months ago. 

GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE, ARKANSAS:  This was my first.  Actually, I ran two marathons, Katie.  I ran two yesterday: my first and my last. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  You‘ve got plenty of time. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I want...

BUSH:  Any other 20-year-olders talking about the issue?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  What‘s that?

BUSH:  Any other 20-year-old people talking about the issue?  Do 20-year-olders care?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes. 

BUSH:  They do?  That‘s good. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That‘s good. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  ... it all.  He has 15 seconds, I believe. 

“KRAZY” KEN LIPSITZ, WORLD ESCAROLE EATING CHAMPION:  This is all about how fast you can move your fingers, your hands, your teeth.  You‘re chewing; you‘re swallowing.  It takes a tremendous amount of energy.  It‘s like running a three-minute mile.  You‘ve got to be on top of your game to do this.  Otherwise—otherwise, you‘re just eating for pleasure.  You‘re not competing.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  New criticism for American policies in the war on terror after a Canadian citizen claims he was taken to Syria by the CIA and tortured for nearly a year.  His story is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  It was a question arose after the 9/11 attacks and has lingered ever since.  Are Americans willing to give up some degree of liberty for the sake of national security?  And will that willingness remain when the strategies become more extreme?

Our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight.  It‘s called rendition.  Terror suspects are taken out of the United States to countries where tougher interrogation tactics are legal. 

It is a CIA tactic that did exist before 9/11, but after the attacks,

President Bush gave the agency the power to execute renditions without case

by case approval from the White House. 

As our correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, reports, stories from former detainees are now raising another question.  Is this a useful tool in the war on terror or a route to unnecessary torture?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Thirty-four-year-old Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer born in Syria, says he was arrested at JFK airport after a family vacation with his wife and children a year after 9/11.

Flown on a private jet to Jordan and driven to Syria. There, he says, an interrogator tortured him for 10 months.

MAHER ARAR, CLAIMS CIA TORTURED HIM:  He hit me on it very strongly.  And then some time later he told me to open my left hand and he hit me again.

MITCHELL: Arar was eventually released, with no charges filed.  Who was responsible for his ordeal?

ARAR:  The American officials who sent me there.  They sent me there to be tortured.”

MITCHELL:  Arar is now suing the U.S. government. He is one of at least 150 suspects taken secretly since 9/11 to countries like Egypt, Syria, Pakistan and Jordan for questioning—all countries cited last week by the State Department for torturing prisoners.

JEFFREY FOGEL, ATTORNEY, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS:  Maher Arar‘s case is a perfect example of the concerns that we have about the United States sending people abroad to be interrogated with a very excessive use of psychological and physical force.

Arar was flown on a Gulfstream 5 jet, similar to this one, this plane owned by a dummy company fronting for the CIA, was used to transport al-Qaeda targets like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, mastermind of 9/11. The CIA also uses a 737 as a backup.

The agency says it is not delivering suspects for torture.

PORTER GOSS, CIA DIRECTOR:  Of course, once they‘re out of our control, there‘s only so much we can do.

MITCHELL:  But former officials say...

FRED HITZ, FORMER INSPECTOR GENERAL, CIA:  There may be justification or a reason for doing it to put additional pressure on an individual to describe what they were doing.

MITCHELL (on camera) Officials tell NBC News the CIA policy began under Bill Clinton but was greatly expanded by George Bush shortly after 9/11. Defenders call it a critical weapon in the war on terror.

But now some congressional Democrats call it outsourcing torture and say what happened to Arar should be banned, period.

Andrea Mitchell, NBC News, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  And we take a hard turn now to “Keeping Tabs,” a round-up of the news of celebrities in the rich and the famous. 

And in day six of the Michael Jackson trial, some graphic details of the alleged child molestation, this time, from someone who says he was there. 

The brother of Michael Jackson‘s accuser began testifying about what happened at Jackson‘s Neverland Ranch.  He said he and his brother were watching a movie when Jackson walked before them naked. 

The 14-year-old witness testified, quote, “Me and my brother were grossed out.  He sat on the bed and said it was natural,” end quote. 

The witness used a slang term to indicate Jackson was sexually aroused.  He also testified extensively about allegations that Jackson gave him and his brother alcohol and that Jackson called the wine “Jesus juice.” 

According to the witness, Jackson turned prank phone calls into a drinking game by calling random numbers.  If the phone number didn‘t exist, Jackson would have the boys take a drink of wine. 

Jackson‘s defense lawyer, Tom Mesereau, has not yet cross-examined the witness but did present an audio tape today in which the accuser‘s siblings and mother praised Jackson as a father figure. 

One of the potential witnesses in the Jackson trial may have been particularly stung by the gag order in the case, emphasis on gag.  NBC‘s Jay Leno is waiting to hear whether the order would prohibit him from talking about the case at all, even in monologue jokes on “The Tonight Show.” 

Leno on Friday revealed one possible solution.  He brought in Brad Garrett of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and had him do the dirty work. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRAD GARRETT, ACTOR:  All right.  So let‘s see what‘s new in the Michael Jackson trial, or as we like to call it, diary of a mad white woman. 

Now they said—they said this trial will probably last about six months, although Michael Jackson asked the judge today for some time off so he could entertain troops.  Isn‘t that nice?  OK.  They‘re Cub Scout troops.  But still, they‘re still troops, right?  Troops are troops. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Got laughs here.

The sidekick of the formerly king of late night has been hospitalized.  It‘s Ed McMahon.  The “here‘s Johnny” honcho tripped and fell Friday and was taken to the hospital for a gash in his head.  It required stitches.  He also suffered a mild concussion.  A spokesman said his prognosis is excellent and he should be released from the hospital in the next few days. 

But McMahon had to spend yesterday, his birthday, in the hospital. 

He‘s 82.  Happy birthday, Ed!

And a different kind of recovery from a different kind of weekend for Back Street Boys‘ Nick Carter.  The 25-year-old crooner was arrested for drunk driving Saturday night.  Police say Carter was pulled over for an unnamed traffic violation and then given a sobriety test, which he failed. 

Carter was arrested and booked and his car impounded.  His publicist says he, quote, “regrets situation and that a doctor prescribed medication made him unaware of, quote, “interaction possibilities,” all of which should make this former pop star an even stronger candidate for the next installment of “The Surreal Life.” 

And one person living a surreal life since coming to America, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  He‘s in New York tonight for a fundraiser, and he took time out to talk with NBC‘s Campbell Brown.  He discovered topics from steroids to his plan to put redistricting in the hands of nonpartisan commissions.  Campbell also asked if there was anything he didn‘t like about his current job. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER ®, CALIFORNIA:  To be honest with you, as crazy as it sounds, there‘s nothing that drives me crazy about the job.  It is all wonderful, and it‘s all part of it.  You cannot pick and choose.  I don‘t believe in that. 

Of course, when I go out and I see protests about it, there are no protests.  If I‘d go to the legislators and say, “Let‘s pass this law, or let‘s fix the budget, I‘d rather have them say, “Yes, Governor, let‘s fix it.”  Of course. 

But I understand that in this job, everything is a big fight and a big struggle to move things.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  You can see the rest of Campbell Brown‘s interview with Governor Schwarzenegger on the “Today” show tomorrow morning.  You just go and check your local listings for times. 

It may not be much comfort to the sick but one surgeon swears that video games help make him a better doc.  Now he is spreading the word around the rest of the medical community. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  OK.  Who‘s more excited about the upcoming release of Super Ball Deluxe?  Is it, a, your 9-year-old nephew; b, your motivationally-challenged stoner roommate; or the doctor about to perform coronary bypass surgery on your Aunt Millie.

If you guessed, B, you‘re wrong.  Yes, that dude has been bogarted the Xbox since January.

But our No. 1 story in the COUNTDOWN tonight is the doctor most eager to tear into all 300 levels of monkey mayhem for scrubbing up to take care of the little heart operation.  Scared yet?   You shouldn‘t be. 

COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny now, on his journalists to improve their skill and speed. 

STEWART:  That‘s right.  And this is good news.  Good evening, Alison.  The average 9-year-old spends 13 hours a week playing video games, raising the question, are they just killing time or, as some doctors now believe, could they be taking the first step in learning to save lives?

Dr. James Rosser is the chief of minimally-invasive surgery at New York‘s Beth Israel Hospital.  He is also a gamer.  Since discovering pong in college, Dr. Rosser‘s addiction to video games has grown as well as his prowess as an endoscopic surgeon.  And that, he says, is no coincidence.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  To this day, my dad thinks that I just wasted my life away playing those damn video games. 

STEWART:  Not exactly.  Today, Dr. James Wasser is turning his operating room into an arcade, teaching the next generation of doctors to perform better by playing games. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Now see how this is just like laproscopic surgery?

Ninety-eight thousand people a year die from medical errors in this country.  Fifty-seven percent of them have surgical errors.  I want to decrease the number of people that die in this country from medical errors. 

STEWART:  Rosser‘s specialty, endoscopic surgery, relying on a video camera and long, slender tools to perform minimally-invasive surgery. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Pre position.  Rotate.

STEWART:  He leads a course called “Top Gun,” teaching doctors to better manipulate the surgical tools with games like slam dunk. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Now, drop it.  All right!

STEWART:  But Wasser believes there‘s an even better way for surgeons to improve their skills: encouraging them to play real video games like Super Monkey Ball. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I sit down in front of a video game ten minutes and I destress and I‘m also getting sharper for the next case. 

STEWART:  Rosser believes practice here means perfection here. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  OK, on my mark, ready, set, go. 

STEWART:  “Top Gun” instructor Dr. Steve Young says gaming gets him ready to go. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Gets my mind in the right mind-set to be able to avenue through a three dimensional world on a TV screen. 

STEWART:  High-tech surgical simulators do exist but starting at around $200,000, they‘re not cost effective for many hospitals. 

So Dr.  Rosser wants to create his own video game, armed with the results of his 2004 study which found that surgeons who played video games for at least three hours a week were 27 percent faster, making 37 percent fewer mistakes than surgeons who did not play video games. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Now rotate, nice one come on, big daddy.  Nice move. 

STEWART:  Producer Alberto Menache (ph) will put the motion picture technology his engineers developed for the movie “The Polar Express” to use on Dr. Ross‘s teach.  Together creating a video game for endoscopic patients. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  First, you‘ve got a lot of data about them.  Then you can build the database that you can use to teach the students or to correct students when they‘re training. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Oh my gosh!  This is so awkward. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I know it‘s awkward there it is.  Because you can‘t—you want to just pick then up and touch it, but you can‘t.

If doctors who play can step up their game in the O.R., Rosser says everyone wins. 

Nice job there, gentlemen.  Excellent job!

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH:  Dr.  Rosser says study found that for the doctors studied, current video game skills and past video game experience were significantly more indicative of a surgeon‘s surgical proficiency than the number of previous cases performed and years of training. 

STEWART:  So Monica, that endoscopic video game will it make its ways into kids‘ hands.  Will there be a kids‘ version?

Dr.  Rosser has that as a goal, because it‘s such a natural link, obviously.  And he talked about the game “Operation, which I see you have here.  Old school in “countdown” tonight.  He wants to make a video version of something like this for kids because he feels like this is how he got interested.  He remembers playing this game.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Of course, it would have Keith‘s face on it as well. 

Our ailing host tonight. 

Our COUNTDOWN‘s, Monica Novotny, a great story.  Thank you so much. 

And that is it for COUNTDOWN.  The ailing Keith no waits will be back tomorrow hopefully.  Need the writer‘s cramp.  Do you think I can do it?

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

Content and programming copyright 2005 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2005 Voxant, 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 Voxant, 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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