updated 3/9/2005 2:45:20 PM ET 2005-03-09T19:45:20

Guest: Stephen Battaglio, Alex Ben Block, Evan Kohlmann

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

Steely Dan?  The CBS anchor prepares for his final newscast, while the fight over basic control of basic cable continues, with an unexpected ally in favor of decency regulations: the part owners of the network that carries Howard Stern?

How to stop al Qaeda operatives applying for jobs at the CIA.  Has anybody considered not hiring them?

When is it skiing and when is it just falling?  A Utah avalanche and the man who outraced it without injury. 

And if it‘s another day of the Michael Jackson trial, then it‘s also another day of Michael Jackson Puppet Theater. 

Yes, Mr. Mesereau.

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening. 

Generalizations are dangerous but without fear of contradiction, everyone watching or hosting this program has cable or satellite and is a consumer of news.  Thus we have met the fifth story on the COUNTDOWN.  And it is us. 

More precisely, it is the imminent departure of one of us, Dan Rather, CBS News, and the Rather unlikely development that one of the leading producers of the raunchier programs on basic cable is supporting efforts to strictly regulate decency in basic cable, the Disney Company. 

The Dan Rather story first.  With less than 24 hours until his final night anchoring “The CBS Evening News,” he has insisted his on-air farewell will be neither egocentric nor narcissistic.  “I don‘t want it to be about me,” he told “The Boston Globe.” 

CBS, of course, is nonetheless, going to broadcast an hour-long special on Rather‘s career tomorrow night.  That career is supposed to continue as a correspondent for other CBS News broadcasts, if it continues on “60 Minutes Wednesday.” 

And to the degree that he is going into that good night, Mr. Rather appears to be doing so largely gently, but he and others have expressed two complaints.  First, why so much of the coverage of his exit from the anchor desk has made it seem exclusively the result of the Killian memos story. 

A quote from a “New York Times” story article sums it up: “The phone call that Mr. Rather so obviously dreads, the one telling him it is time to step aside, could well come next year, several people inside the network say.”  That article was by Jacques Steinberg from November 30, 2003. 

Today Steinberg wrote that Rather‘s move back from anchor to reporter, quote, “had been under discussion for more than a year as both he and Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, said in separate interviews with ‘The New York Times‘ in fall 2003.  All that was left to be decided then was when the transition would occur.” 

Rather has also asked why the headlines of the Killian memo story report did not include the investigation‘s findings that the memos were just part of the story, that their authenticity could neither be proved nor disproved, and that a panel co-chaired by the former Republican attorney general of the United States could find no political bias just a series of journalistic mistakes. 

So exit Dan Rather, with Bob Schieffer to replace him on an interim and indefinite basis.  But instead of the lionized farewell that greeted Tom Brokaw and which will eventually accompany Peter Jennings, this anchor change is an entirely different story.  To help assess why, I‘m joined by Stephen Battaglio.  Stephen is a correspondent of “TV Guide” magazine.

Steve Battaglio, good evening.  Thanks for your time.

STEPHEN BATTAGLIO, “TV GUIDE”:  Good evening. 

OLBERMANN:  Several public opinion polls showed that a vast majority of people of all political stripes accepted idea that the Bush Air National Guard story was an honest mistake, and Dan Rather‘s ratings haven‘t been affected either way since the story or the report. 

And we know he and his employers were negotiating over the date of his departure from the anchor desk at least as far back as October 2003.  So who decided this was a political story more than it is a television story?

BATTAGLIO:  Well, I think places like MSNBC, FOX News, and CNN, the pundits that appear on those networks, decided it was a political story. 

And certainly, you cannot say that politics didn‘t drive the—the investigation into the story.  The timing of the Air National Guard story was during an election season. 

And Dan Rather does have right wing enemies.  And I mean that there are people who have always been watching him and ready to jump on him to point out what they believe are examples of bias. 

And this isn‘t just in the last few years.  This goes back to 1985 when Jesse Helms, Senator Jesse Helms, backed an effort to buy CBS, simply so Dan Rather could be taken out of the anchor chair of “The CBS Evening News.”  And I think those forces did help bring this, make this move a lot faster than it otherwise would. 

OLBERMANN:  It is interesting that, in the terms of history of broadcasting, you do not hear Edward R. Murrow disparaged as a liberal, even though he was among the first to take on Joe McCarthy.

And Walter Cronkite was not thought to be anything but the most trusted man in America, even though he famously came out against the Vietnam War at a time when news anchors were supposed to be totally impartial. 

BATTAGLIO:  Both of them operated from what could be called monopolistic strength.  You‘re talking about an era when there were three networks, really almost only two networks broadcasting the news. 

Now everything is so fragmented.  You have talk radio.  You have the Internet, three 24-hour news channels.  And Dan Rather is a poor third in the race for evening news casts, which is watched by 25 million, 25 to 30 million people a night.  A very significant number.  But nowhere near as large as it used to be. 

OLBERMANN:  To what degree do you think the entire story, his legacy, the reputation of CBS News, whatever they do next on the evening news, to what degree will all that be affected by whether or not Dan Rather actually continues on their air in some capacity after tomorrow night?

BATTAGLIO:  Well, CBS is using this, or CBS executives are using this whole transition as a time to reexamine how they do things at CBS News and whether it‘s time to innovate, whether it‘s time to change and put something on different at 6:30 or a different in the evening news time frame, take a different approach. 

Because now the three broadcasts are pretty much delivering the same type of product every night.  So when you‘re running third, when you‘re not doing well, do you innovate?  That‘s the thing they‘re going to look at. 

As for Dan, the guy is still hungry and still wants to prove himself as a great journalist.  He says that.  He‘s going to get that opportunity on “60 Minutes.”  It will be all about the stories and all about the quality of the journalism that he does in the future. 

OLBERMANN:  Stephen Battaglio, senior correspondent for “TV Guide” magazine, great thanks for your time tonight, sir.

BATTAGLIO:  My pleasure. 

OLBERMANN:  And from a Rather departure to a rather strange announcement.  The Walt Disney Company has come out in favor of the proposed extension of the so-called decency regulations from broadcast into cable television. 

That is same Walt Disney Company that owns the ESPN networks that have been regularly pummeled by critics over language and violence.  The same company that owns Soap Net, which reruns often bawdy daytime programming, and which is a part time owner of the E! Network, which brings you such family fare as Howard Stern, “The Gastano Girls” (ph) and the series “Wild On.” 

In trying to explain its support for the cable regulation idea floated last week by Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, Disney‘s vice president for government relations, Preston Paddon, cited business reasons to “Television Week” magazine, quoting here, “It would be our hope that a common indecency standard for the expanded basic bundle would lessen the pressure to legislate on a la carte or tiering.” 

Translating from the cable speak, what he means is, Disney would rather have cable language and content regulated broadly than make cable customers choose their channels one by one, the so-called a la cart process, or in small groups, tiering. 

We‘re joined now by Alex Ben Block, the editor of “Television Weekly.” 

Thank you for your time tonight, sir. 

ALEX BEN BLOCK, EDITOR, “TELEVISION WEEKLY”:  My pleasure to be here. 

OLBERMANN:  So am I right about this?  I mean, I know ABC also runs ABC Family and Disney Channel.  But Disney thinks it would have less trouble cleaning up language on ESPN movies and live ESPN sports game broadcasts or the contents of E!, than it would if cable channels were simply available to the viewer on a one by one basis?

BLOCK:  Well, have you asked the people at the E! Network or even ESPN?  They would say tell you they already operate by the so-called broadcast standard, meaning the same standard as ABC, NBC, and CBS. 

So they feel that it wouldn‘t be a problem for them, whereas it would be a huge problem for a number of their competitors like the Viacom network Spike or maybe MTV.  So actually, along with getting political advantage, they believe it might give them a business advantage. 

OLBERMANN:  So is this the reason they‘re out on a limb by themselves here?  I mean, none of the other major cable owners have at least said they would support any kind of regulation. 

BLOCK:  It‘s hard to tell what their whole motivation is.  Clearly they get some political capital out of this, because they‘re signing with a lot of the people making noise in Washington, D.C.  And there‘s any number of things that they need help on.  And they‘re going through a difficult transition in term of leadership of that company right now. 

But I think this is really a business decision.  I think they feel this is what is best for their business and they‘ll level the playing field with ABC with basic cable, meaning a broadcast network and a cable network, and it would also level the position between their cable networks and those of many other networks who do have stronger language. 

OLBERMANN:  Apart from the debatable nuances here, we had the congressman, Joe Barton, on here last week who is advancing this to the degree that it‘s being advanced within the house.  And he said that no cable pay service would be affected. 

Is there—is there not a bigger question here?  Whether or not the government even has the right to regulate cable of any kind, whether it‘s pay per channel or the so-called traditional bundles?

BLOCK:  Absolutely.  Michael Powell, the outgoing FCC chairman, who‘s very conservative and has favored a lot of this indecency stuff, said last week that he doesn‘t believe it can survive a court test, meaning even if you pass a law extending the indecency regulations from broadcast to basic cable, he believes that the courts would strike it down. 

If people to have pay money to get a service brought into their house, that‘s different than free over the air TV.  And the courts up until now have clearly ruled that if you pay for it, you do have discretion. 

And every cable system offers the option to cancel certain channels, to put controls on for children.  There‘s lots of ways they can defend this.  So it‘s not just pay TV but basic cable you also pay for.  And when you bring something into the home and you pay for it, it is different rules than free TV. 

OLBERMANN:  And of course, then there‘s that extra little conundrum:

you put free TV on cable, and you‘re paying for free TV. 

Alex Ben Block is the editor of “Television Week” magazine.  On the prospects of regulating basic cable and why Disney would be supporting it, great thanks for your insights, sir. 

BLOCK:  My pleasure. 

OLBERMANN:  And one more television note.  It can get even weirder than an anchorman‘s retirement being transmuted into a political event or a leading cable company supporting cable regulation. 

Owners of a Las Vegas television station have hired a consultant to help out their news department.  She happens also to be a Nevada state senator.  Barbara Cegavske is a Republican senator from Las Vegas.  She told a join budget committee hearing that she also gets $3,000 a month from Sunbelt Communications, which owns KVBC, the NBC station in Vegas. 

Sunbelt Communications owner, Jim Rogers, says he sees no conflict, saying Senator Cegavske is under contract in part, quote, “So we know if something big is happening.” 

The senator tells the newspaper, “The Las Vegas Sun,” that the television station calls her for help with stories about health and about education.  That opens up a whole other can of worms.  Station owner Rogers is also the interim chancellor of Nevada‘s state university system. 

Also tonight, a made for TV moment in a cameraless courtroom.  So it‘s time for another edition of Michael Jackson Puppet Theater. 

And lessons in survival: how being prepared for that euphemistically phrased emergency landing could actually now save your life. 

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Michael Jackson felt better today.  That is not the headline of our No. 4 story, but it does set the tone for it.  It‘s your entertainment and tax dollars in action, day 477 of the Michael Jackson investigations, highlighted by an apparent triumph by defense attorney Thomas Mesereau against the younger brother of the boy accusing Jackson of molestation. 

The brother had testified that Jackson had showed him a specific issue of a pornographic magazine, but Mesereau punched a big hole in that testimony today, as we see in the latest edition of Michael Jackson Puppet Theater. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN (voice-over):  “So your family last went to Neverland Ranch in March 2003?  Is that correct?”

“Yes, Mr. Mesereau.” 

“And this was the copy of the magazine you say Mr. Jackson showed you?”

“Yes, Mr. Mesereau.” 

“Then how come the date of this magazine is August 2003?”

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Ooh!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Ooh!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Ooh!

OLBERMANN:  I felt like I was in an episode of “Perry Mason.”  That magazine was called “Barely Legal,” just like this trial. 

Woo-hoo-hoo!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Mr. Jackson, of course, did not actually say any of those things.  That‘s just our dramatic recreation and dramatic license. 

But a spokesman statement read in part, “The scurrilous and salacious accusations and details, all untrue, were hurtful and embarrassing to Mr.  Jackson.  Mr. Jackson has the utmost confidence that his defense team will continue to evoke the truth.  He feels that Mr. Mesereau is doing an excellent job.”  And there is no “woo-hoo-hoo” added.

For a touch of reality, I‘m joined now by attorney and Court TV correspondent, Savannah Guthrie. 

Savannah, good evening.  Thanks for your time. 

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, COURT TV:  My pleasure. 

OLBERMANN:  You were in that courtroom.  Was that cross-examination of the younger brother about the magazine really the “Perry Mason” moment it was made out to be?

GUTHRIE:  This is what defense lawyers and geeky court reporters like myself just live for.  It was one of those moments where Tom Mesereau, for all intents and purposes, basically said, “Gotcha.” 

We all loved seeing this big on the Jumbotron screen in the courtroom yesterday, this big picture of “Barely Legal” magazine with this young nubile blond with her hands on her breasts. 

And now to turn it around the very next day and say, “Aha!  You could not have seen that magazine at Neverland with Michael Jackson, because it didn‘t come out until five or six months later.”  It was a great moment in court, I have to tell you. 

OLBERMANN:  There was a big deal also made today about this alarm that the boy heard go off in the hallway outside the bedroom both times that he said he had witnessed Jackson molesting his brother. 

Just explain that for us, because it doesn‘t seem to make a lot of sense by reading it.  You had to have heard it, I suppose. 

GUTHRIE:  It does, but you know, it‘s funny.  It is a little bell that dings, apparently, any time somebody starts approaching the Jackson bedroom, which is a two level bedroom at Neverland. 

But it‘s not an alarm in the sense that it alerts anybody else at Neverland.  It doesn‘t go to security.  It doesn‘t call 911.  It simply dings to let Michael Jackson know that somebody is coming down the hall. 

And, you know, the sheriff‘s officials would have you believe that Jackson has it there so that he can do whatever ill things he‘s up to in his bedroom and will have plenty of warning that somebody is approaching. 

OLBERMANN:  There‘s another thing that occurred that—just the details of which have been fairly sketchy.  That at one point, Michael Jackson actually spoke to the judge.  He couldn‘t hear what he was saying, and he asked the judge.  What do we know about that?

GUTHRIE:  It‘s interesting.  This is—Jackson apparently was having trouble hearing this witness.  And I have to say, during the testimony, a lot of people had a hard time hearing him. 

But this morning Jackson apparently motioned to the judge and to his attorney that he couldn‘t hear.  And the attorney said to the judge, “Can you tell the witness to bring the microphone a little bit closer?”  And so the judge told him to do that.  And it was just one of those awkward moments. 

But apparently, in the court, you could hear him just fine, in the center of the court.  But Jackson couldn‘t and he was hanging on every word, apparently. 

OLBERMANN:  Last question, Savannah, if there was damage done to the credibility of the accuser‘s brother, which suggests from the “Perry Mason” moment we started talking about, if there was, what‘s next in the prosecution quiver?  What do they go after Jackson with next?

GUTHRIE:  Well, I think the best thing that the prosecutors could do is try to corroborate the accuser and his brother‘s testimony to the extent they can. 

You know, as is always the case with molestation, you know, there aren‘t usually witnesses to it.  But if they can corroborate the details, some of the items on the periphery. 

For example, apparently there was a written directive at Neverland that said this accuser was not to leave the ranch.  That goes to the heart of the conspiracy and the false imprisonment allegations. 

Also, there‘s a flight attendant who‘s going to testify that she certainly did put alcohol in Michael Jackson‘s Coke can, a Coke can he supposedly shared with this young accuser. 

OLBERMANN:  Savannah Guthrie with Court TV, great thanks for taking time to join us tonight. 

GUTHRIE:  Nice to be with you. 

OLBERMANN:  Moving on, the stories even more strange than the Michael Jackson case.  Like a guy skiing down an avalanche.  Sure!  A sign that “Oddball” is ahead. 

And the strangest al Qaeda plot that we‘ve heard of yet: kidnap Russell Crowe and somehow destabilize American society as a direct result thereof. 

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We‘re back, and as we do every evening at this time, we take leave of the important news and puppet shows of the day for a segment of even less important stuff and fewer puppets.  At least the video is really cool. 

Let‘s play “Oddball.”

We begin in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, and that little dot there atop Mount Superior is champion telemark (ph) skier Andy Rosenberg.  About the middle of the screen.  Make that champion avalanche starting guy Andy Rosenberg. 

He his pals were there to make a skiing film when the avalanche engulfed him on the way down the 1,300-foot slope.  He was, remarkably, not seriously injured.  But park rangers made him put back all the snow he knocked off the mountain. 

All right.  You thought surviving that was impressive, talk to this guy in Texas.  A man and his female companion have been enjoying a day of boating out on Lake Austin when the motor died and the boat began to drift toward the open flood gates of the dam. 

As the boat slammed against the side of the dam, one man was swept through flood gates.  He was not seriously injured.  The woman was rescued by firefighters. 

As for the boat?  Bye-bye!  Yes, that‘s right.  Stan‘s Lake Austin Boat Rentals.  We are heavily ensured. 

And to Helsinki, Finland, where no death defying escape was necessary, unless this guy were to accidentally get his tongue stuck to his ice park.  Norwegian jazz percussionist Tergi Insunfet (ph) -- Tergi Insunfet (ph) gave this concert using instruments made entirely of ice. 

Hundreds turned out to see the concert, which will likely be his last, since he lost eight fingers to frostbite during his encore of “In a Gada da Vida.”  Just made that last part up. 

Also tonight, new answers about what al Qaeda wants.  Not making this up.  Apparently right now it‘s guns, jobs at the CIA and Russell Crowe. 

Plus, new clues help solve an ancient mystery, the strange and sudden death of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen, or King Tut to you, me and Steve Martin. 

Those stories ahead.  Now here are COUNTDOWN‘S top three newsmakers of this day. 

No. 3, State Senator Ellen Karcher of New Jersey, co-sponsored a bill to make the tomato the state‘s official vegetable, even though the tomato is a fruit.  This should tell you everything you need to know about New Jersey. 

No. 2, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, also a licensed veterinarian.  He‘s offered to highlight the need for responsible pet ownership by personally neutering a local Georgia pit bull.  May we suggest Zell Miller?

And No. 1, the unnamed resident of Brennan (ph) in Germany.  The local police there said they will not prosecute him, even though they had to break into his apartment.  For five days the lights were on and his stereo was blasting music nonstop.  His neighbors and the police assumed the man had died.  He had not.  He was simply out of town and he had left the music on, quote, “So his pet hamster would not feel lonely.”

(MUSIC: “Holiday”)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  “I don‘t have to tell you things are bad.  We all know things are bad.  Worse than bad.  They‘re crazy.  It‘s like everything everywhere is going crazy.” 

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, the quote is from Peter Finch‘s character in the movie, “Network.”  The topic is international politics, where on the counterterrorism front, we are apparently giving al Qaeda suspects guns and job interviews—while they were apparently planning to kidnap Russell Crowe as part of a scheme to destabilize something. 

First, the less crazy news.  The president‘s offensive against trouble in the Middle East continues.  In Washington, Mr. Bush again demanding that Syria pull its troops out of Lebanon to allow free elections there, the center of the Bush foreign policy universe thus having moved west from Baghdad to Beirut.  As goes Lebanon, so goes the world. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  They have a message for the people of Lebalon—Lebanon.  All of the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience.  Lebanon‘s future belongs in your hands.  And by your courage, Lebanon‘s future will be in your hands. 

The American people are on your side.  Millions across the Earth are on your side.  The momentum of freedom is on your side.  And freedom will prevail in Lebanon. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  So far as we can tell, the Bush doctrine largely lacking when it come to the safety, freedom and big screen appeal of Australian movie stars.  Nevertheless, Russell Crowe now being mentioned as the target of a potential al Qaeda plot.  Russell Crowe doing that mentioning himself. 

Back in March 2001, when Crowe was winning awards for his performance in the movie, “Gladiator,” news broke that the FBI was protecting him because of a kidnap threat—undercover agents flanking the star whenever he hit the red carpet.  At the time, the FBI refused to specify the nature of that threat, but Crowe himself now fingering al Qaeda, telling “GQ” magazine that kidnapping him was part of an Osama bin Laden cultural destabilization plan. 

Says Crowe, “that was the first time I‘d ever heard the phrase ‘al Qaeda.‘  It was about—and here‘s another little touch of irony—taking iconographic Americans out of the picture as sort of a culture destabilization plot.  I never fully understood what the **** was going on.”

That makes two of us, Russ.

Any talk of targets all but meaningless unless terrorists have the means to strike.  Luckily for extremists, there are always job prospects at the CIA and there are these American gun laws.  This job stuff in a moment. 

First, being a terror suspect, it seems, is not enough to automatically keep someone from buying a gun legally right here in the U.S.  As our justice correspondent Pete Williams reports on a congressional investigation showing that dozens of potential terrorists have already taken advantage of the loophole. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PETE WILLIAMS, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Nearly 50 times last year federal investigators revealed today people on the national terror watch list walked into firearms dealers and bought guns in at least 11 states, from Hawaii to Massachusetts.  And all of those sales, the FBI director told Congress today, were legal under federal law. 

ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR:  Inclusion on a terrorist watch list is not a stand-alone factor that would prohibit a person from receiving or possessing a firearm. 

WILLIAMS:  In fact, says the Government Accountability Office, out of the 58 times people on the terror watch list tried to buy guns, 47 were approved.  That‘s because the law bans gun sales only for such violators as felons and illegal immigrants, or people with disqualifying mental problems. 

And it requires the FBI, which conducts eight million background checks a year, to purge all records of legal transactions within 24 hours. 

But some in Congress said today those records should be kept for leads, and the gun sales should be blocked. 

SEN. FRANK LAUTENBERG (D), NEW JERSEY:  We rush to cover up the tracks of someone who is on a terror list?  That person can‘t get on an airplane.  Why is it possible for him to buy a gun? 

WILLIAMS:  FBI Director Mueller said today, changes in the law ought to be considered, but that could be a tough sell.  Gun rights advocates say the watch list contains thousands of names.  Some simply investigated, then dropped. 

WAYNE LAPIERRE, NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION:  I think we need to know a lot more about this secret watch list.  How you get on, how you get off, how it‘s managed, how many people are on there, before you start denying constitutional rights and due process of law. 

WILLIAMS (on camera):  The FBI insists tonight that even when gun sales go through, agents are alerted, and some here worry that blocking gun sales could tip off suspects that they‘re on the terror watch list in the first place. 

Pete Williams, NBC News, at the FBI in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  If you are a terrorist and you cannot buy a gun, perhaps you could get a job and then buy a gun.  There‘s always a career at the CIA to consider.  “Los Angeles Times” reporting today that the agency and other U.S. intelligence outlets are increasingly concerned that al Qaeda sympathizers or operatives may have tried or are trying to get jobs in the CIA and the other organizations, probably as translators.  Barry Royden, the CIA counterintelligence instructor and nearly 40 years in the agency himself, telling a conference in Texas over the weekend, “We think terrorist organizations have tried to insinuate people into our hiring pools.” 

Forty Americans who sought positions at the agencies had been disqualified due to possible links to terrorist groups.  Another CIA officer, Paul Redman, said it was a, quote, “actuarial certainty” that spies had infiltrated U.S. counter-intelligence. 

As silly as that perhaps sounds at first, could it be a real threat to this country‘s counterterrorism efforts, or more simply put, a real threat to this country?  Joining me now is Evan Kohlmann, NBC terrorism analyst and founder of GlobalTerrorAlert.com.  Evan, good evening. 

EVAN KOHLMANN, NBC TERRORISM ANALYST:  Thanks for having me. 

OLBERMANN:  A crazy idea.  Al Qaeda sent somebody into the CIA as a potential translator.  Couldn‘t the CIA check out their resumes?  I mean, wouldn‘t it be nice if the Central Intelligence Agency had some, what would you call it, investigative power? 

KOHLMANN:  Well, you‘d like to think so.  And I think I‘d also question the words “may” or “could,” because we have direct evidence that al Qaeda has done exactly this.  Look, we look back into 1998, with the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa.  We have Osama bin Laden‘s personal bodyguard, who scouted out the embassies there while serving as an FBI informant and a CIA informant and an instructor at the special warfare school in Fort Bragg for U.S. Special Forces.  That‘s an actual example. 

Of course, we‘ve seen the other examples in recent weeks and months and years, of translators being pulled into Gitmo.  Translators that are suspected of passing information along to potential terrorist groups in rogue regimes like Syria, which is accused of fund-raising and supporting these terrorist groups.  So it‘s really not much of a surprise. 

OLBERMANN:  Does it vary in some real way from the old game the CIA used to play against KGB and the other dozen or so spy agencies in the glory days?  Are none of the counter-spy measures still in place from the Cold War? 

KOHLMANN:  Well, I think there is two big differences.  No. 1, I think there‘s a tendency among Americans to underestimate al Qaeda and underestimate the ability of terrorist operatives to seem like Americans, to portray Americans, to be just like anybody else, and to evade the efforts of the CIA to weed out operatives and infiltrators.

And I think what is also significant is we‘re talking about a new kind of war here.  During the Cold War, we had a plethora of Russian experts, of people that could speak the languages and understood the cultures that we were at odds with. 

At this point in time, there is a drastic shortage of translators, of good translators in Arabic and Farsi and many other languages.  You know, we need people that have on the ground experience in countries of interest, like Iraq.  And frankly speaking, we‘re just not very good at weeding out people that are being sent to us deliberately and those that really actually want to help out in the war on terrorism.

OLBERMANN:  Speaking of weeding people out, as a final, final point, give me your assessment of this story that‘s in “GQ” magazine about kidnapping Russell Crowe.  How many things are wrong with this picture?  He‘s not an American.  Even if he were, his kidnapping probably would not destabilize the United States of America for very long, and some people might even support it.  Do you buy that this was an al Qaeda plot? 

KOHLMANN:  Well, I mean, at the same time that you have al Qaeda operatives that are extremely well trained and are savvy and they could infiltrate perhaps the CIA, you also have a bunch of dingbats that are not necessarily the most savvy men in the world.  And I think individuals like that are the ones that come up with plots like this. 

There have been ideas that have surfaced, even here in Northern Virginia, among terrorist operatives to carry out plots like this.  I don‘t think it was terribly realistic, but if the FBI put the manpower into it, at least they thought it was credible enough to take it seriously.  They don‘t waste manpower.

And you know, it could have come from a legitimate source.  Sometimes even the most ingenious terrorist operatives like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, come up with totally hair-brained plots, like trying to loosen the bolts on the Brooklyn Bridge and take it down.  I mean, it‘s ridiculous, but sometimes they do come up with these things.

OLBERMANN:  And it is a comforting thought.  Evan Kohlmann, of the GlobalTerrorAlert.com.  Many thanks. 

KOHLMANN:  Thank you. 

OLBERMANN:  Nice to think of moron terrorists.

And after terrorism in Iraq, the kidnapping of an Italian journalist, what sounds like a compromise about what happened in the aftermath of her release last week.  Italy officially disputing the U.S. military‘s version of events, but still calling it an accident.  The nation‘s foreign minister saying today that the car carrying the former hostage Giuliana Sgrena and one other—two others, rather, was not speeding and received no warnings to stop.  The Italian intelligence officer who freed Sgrena, Nicola Calipari, was killed. 

Italy‘s foreign minister, Gianfranco Fini, rejected, however, the idea that the attack may have been an ambush. 

Sgrena herself suggested that, said she was targeted.  The Italian government still demanding a full investigation.  The U.S. military officially opening one today, announcing in a statement that an American general will lead the probe and that Italian officials have been invited to participate.  The investigation is expected to take three to four weeks. 

The investigation is already over in the Ramadi madness prisoner abuse case.  If that‘s the first time you‘re hearing that phrase, “Ramadi madness,” that is because the tape at the center of the investigation has not been made public.  Not until now, anyway. 

The video seems to show among other things, American soldiers kicking a severely wounded prisoner in the face, also making the arm of a corpse appear to wave.  It was recorded by member of the Florida National Guard who were stationed in Ramadi—thus the title. 

They edited the footage into a DVD in January of last year, with section subtitles like “Those Crafty Little Bastards,” and “Another Day, Another Mission, Another”—we‘ll skip the exact quote there. 

The video‘s existence revealed in Army documents obtained by the ACLU under court order through the Freedom of Information Act.  But the Pentagon did not release the video itself, saying it believed it had been destroyed. 

However, “The Palm Beach Post” newspaper got a copy of it over the weekend.  The Army‘s internal investigation, which ended in December, concluded that while the soldiers‘ actions were, quote, “inappropriate,” they were not criminal. 

And the domestic political landscape dominated by the Clintons tonight.  Specifically the reelection health of one, and the cardiac health of the other. 

First, the politics.  Senator Hillary Clinton, it seems, now a rising star in the Republican Party?  The former first lady given a fund-raiser for her senatorial reelection campaign next year by a nine-time Republican congressman from upstate New York.  “The New York Times” reporting that a Republicans survey in the state, 49 percent of the Republicans approved of the job she was doing as senator. 

How this might affect her presidential prospects, less clear.  The state of New York swimming in blue on the electoral college map. 

Meanwhile, the health of the senator‘s husband back in the news tonight.  For the second time in six months, President Bill Clinton heading in for surgery related to his heart.  This time to clear away scar tissue and fluid that is impacting his lungs.  His doctors calling it the result of a rare complication of bypass surgery.  The operation itself, they say, is rather routine.  Routine enough that it did not delay Mr. Clinton‘s trip to the White House today for an update on tsunami relief, routine enough that it will not be conducted until day after tomorrow. 

Clinton says he feels fine and will be out of commission for only a week or two. 

Also tonight, hoping for the best, training for the worst.  Tips for plane crash survival, next. 

And Prince Charles getting a royal eyeful down under.  First from aboriginal women, then from protesters in New Zealand.  Those stories ahead. 

Now are COUNTDOWN‘s “Top 3 sound bytes” of this day. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  What about you?  Did you get any autographs?  That‘s kind of what you guys are doing here, hanging around, trying to get some player autographs.  Anybody good? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes.  We got (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Did you get a Sean McLaughlin? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  What?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He‘s a big up-and-comer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  No. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That‘s what I thought.  

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE (chanting):  Fight, Michael, fight!  Fight, Michael, fight!  Innocent!  Michael is innocent!  Michael is innocent!  Michael!  Michael!  Innocent!  Michael!

BUSH:  By the way, let me—one other point.  President Clinton and President Bush are going to play golf tomorrow to raise money for the tsunami victims.  Goes to show how sick he is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  This is COUNTDOWN, and this is a live picture of a giant plume of smoke that has risen over Mt. St. Helens in Washington State, as pictured from our NBC affiliate along the Oregon-Washington border, giving you an idea of just how far or how large this is, and from what a distance it can be seen.  There is no indication of an eruption per se, but the onlookers there say it is the biggest plume of smoke they had yet seen in the last year or so of activity at Mt. St. Helens.

More on this story in a moment.  COUNTDOWN resumes in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The Associated Press reports that the plume of dust and steam, mostly steam, being emitted by Mt. St. Helens, maybe as much as 25,000 feet in height.  Twenty-five thousand feet in height.  The volcano in southwest Washington, according to the latest Associated Press report, rumbled to life again last fall on the 25th anniversary of the extraordinary eruption back in May of 1980 that killed 57 people.  There is no report of an eruption.  Let‘s be very specific on this.  However, I think you get an idea of what we are dealing with in term of a plume, steam emissions 25,000 feet tall. 

Some of the shots you are seeing are from cameras from eight to 10 and even more miles away from Mount St. Helens.  That is the picture in the early evening sky above the state of Washington and visible into the state of Oregon tonight. 

We‘ll continue to follow the developments.  There you see it from a more urban picture.  Still an extraordinary image right there.  No indication of an eruption.  No indication of damage.  That is supposed to be steam right now.  That can‘t be good news regardless, we will keep you updated as COUNTDOWN continues. 

For the moment, it is easier to get yourself killed by falling out of bed or slipping in the bathtub or getting hit by lightning than by somehow getting on that airplane that is destined to crash. 

Still, in our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, you don‘t have to go sit around an airport, pay a lot of money, possibly get cavity search, and have all of that time to worry about all those other means of shuttling off this mortal coil.  Plus, there‘s a reason 2004 was the safest year ever in the skies.  There are now design elements in place to reduce fatalities in planes.  And as correspondent Tom Costello report, there are now also survival tips for air travelers and they do not include that ridiculous phrase, in the event of a water landing. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM COSTELLO, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Teterboro, New Jersey last month, a violent fiery crash into the side of a warehouse.  Yet somehow everyone on board this private plane survives.  June, 1999, a DC9 crash in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Eleven die but 135 survive.  One of them, passenger Charles Fuller. 

CHARLES FULLER, CRASH SURVIVOR:  The thought that went through my mind were, is this plane going to explode?  There were flames everywhere. 

COSTELLO:  Surviving crashes, the focus of a team of FA scientists in Oklahoma City.  Where a simulator recreates a 737 crash landing.  Within seconds, the cabin is dark and quickly filling with smoke.  The challenge for passengers, get out quickly.  Using the seat backs to find your way to the nearest exit. 

(on camera):  The key to survival may well be to stay low.  If you peak your head up too high, you could get into a toxic cloud and die.  If you go too low, you could be trampled over, as other passengers rush to get out. 

(voice-over):  Safety expert urge passengers to have a plan before take off.  How will you get out of the plane in case of an emergency?  Before take-off, locate the nearest exit to your seat.  Know the number of rows to that exit.  And leave everything behind.  But in an emergency, panic often sets in.  This training video shows what happens when dozens of people try to squeeze through same exit, ignoring instructions. 

DAVID PALMERTON, FAA:  In an emergency, passengers really do need listen to the flight attendants. 

FULLER:  A lot of people feel like there‘s no sense in paying attention to that, because they feel like the odds of surviving the plane crash are so small.  But I suppose I‘m living proof that it does help to pay attention. 

COSTELLO:  The good news, 56 percent of people involved in major crash survive.  Even better news, accidents are very rare.  By far, say the experts, the safest way to travel. 

Tom Costello, NBC News, Oklahoma City. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s bring you up to date on the situation at Mount St.

Helens where a lava dome has been building since the activity of last fall.  And Now We‘re hearing have 25,000 feet worth of a plume, apparently of steam.  An earthquake of 2.0 in the area being registered shortly before this erupted this afternoon.  But no indication of a true eruption, so forgive the use—my use of that term.  We‘re going to continue to update you on the situation of Mount St. Helens as COUNTDOWN continues after this. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  For his last tour of this country, the overkill of promotion was such, that Steve Martin ended up mocking him in a song on “Saturday Night Live.”  So, they turned it into a murder mystery. 

Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN from our correspondent George Lewis who wasn‘t born in Arizona but moved to Babylonia (ph). 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE LEWIS, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  It‘s a mystery that has puzzled Egyptologists for centuries, how did King Tut die? 

DR. KATHLYN COONEY, LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART:  There‘s a lot of controversy there.  Some people think he was murdered.  Some people say that he fell from his chariot. 

LEWIS:  And others insist he died from natural causes.  Talk about your cold cases.  Today, modern science delivered results from tests conducted in January.  When team of researchers removed King Tut‘s mummy from its tomb, and placed it inside a sophisticated topography machine.  A CT scanner taking detailed cross section images of the king‘s remains, 1,700 pictures in all.  This morning, Egypt‘s chief archaeologist announced the results. 

ZAHI HAWASS, EGYPTIAN ARCHAEOLOGIST:  I‘m very happy to tell the world for the first time that King Tut wasn‘t murdered. 

LEWIS:  And soon, Americans will get to look at the pictures, along with artifacts from Tut‘s tomb. 

(on camera):  Those CT scan images are part of the traveling Tut exhibition coming to this country in June.  First stop, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 

(voice-over):  The last time King Tut‘s treasures toured the United States in 1978, more than eight million Americans saw them. 

DR. NANCY THOMAS, L.A. COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART:  It was a good measure the another day when the first tickets went on sale to the public. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Can we get tickets for King Tut? 

LEWIS:  Monica Sanchez was 7-year-old when she first sought Tut exhibition.  She‘s now 35 and a mother of three. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I remember the first time it was here.  It was just phenomenal.  It was great and I want my children to have the same experience. 

LEWIS:  And they can draw their own conclusions about how King Tut lived and died. 

George Lewis, NBC News, Los Angeles. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  There was the other little detail, sometime between the discovery of the mummy in 1922 and the full exam in 1968, King Tut‘s royal -- his means of procreation disappeared.  But after the CAT scan, they think they found it.  It appears to have become buried in the sand around the body. 

Gee, Lorena Bobbit is a lot older than she looks.  That‘s COUNTDOWN. 

We leave you with the latest pictures.  A helicopter shot from KIGN TV in Seattle of the 25,000 steam plume above Mount St. Helens, that followed a 2.0 earthquake this afternoon on the west coast in the northwest of the United States.  No indication of an actually eruption of Mount St. Helens, but with the lava doom having been building since last fall, like we said before, this can‘t be just good news.  It may be a venting.  Stay tuned to MSNBC for further developments.

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

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