updated 3/11/2005 3:37:21 PM ET 2005-03-11T20:37:21

Guest: Jayne Weintraub, Savannah Guthrie, Phil Rogers, Jeff Barker

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

Michael Jackson‘s back.  Back to the emergency room.  Almost back in jail.  His back, supposedly out.  He shows up late in pajamas.  And then his accuser testifies, “Michael gave me Jesus juice.” 

A man kills himself in Wisconsin but not before claiming he killed Judge Joan Lefkow‘s husband and mother and not before sending a letter of explanation to a Chicago reporter.  That reporter joins us. 

Russell Crowe threatened by al Qaeda.  No, authorities say, not so much. 

And it‘s the controversial Spongebob tolerance video, premiering in Ms. Kasarjian‘s first grade class this morning. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  What did you learn about family from the video?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That families help you when you need them to help you. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  That kid is ruined for life, huh?

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening. 

Jacko‘s backo goes whacko.  Michael is late because of a pain in the sacroiliaco (ph). 

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, just when you thought the molestation trial of Michael Jackson could not get any weirder, it does.  The defendant comes within a hair‘s breadth of going to jail, as a furious judge threatens to issue an arrest warrant because Jackson was late to court by more than an hour, purportedly after his back gave out on him. 

And oh, yes, when he did show up, he appeared in his pajamas.  Your tax and entertainment dollars in action, day 479 of the Michael Jackson investigations.  Beginning with the moment that may have turned defense attorney Thomas Mesereau‘s hair even whiter. 

His client, a no-show as court convened.  This whole subplot recapped in a moment. 

First, if Jackson thought he had a pain in his back this morning, he had only to wait to hear the second day of testimony from his accuser.  The now 15-year-old boy told the court that he remembers Jackson fondling him twice, to the unavoidable biological conclusion, and that it may have happened two other times while he was sleeping.  And he saw Jackson naked and said, “Ew!” 

And Jackson repeatedly gave him wine to drink from a can of Diet Coke.  “He told me, if I had ever heard of Jesus juice,” the witness said, “he told me, like you know how Jesus drank wine?  We call it Jesus juice.”  That they drank together nightly.  The accuser also said his own brother received wine from Jackson. 

Full legal analysis of the testimony in a moment.  First, this all played out after this morning‘s carnival freak show, Jackson‘s spokesperson insisting he tripped while getting into his clothes early this morning, threw out his back and went to a hospital emergency room at 5:45 a.m.  The hospital saying it was actually around 8 a.m. and he was only in the emergency room until about 8:40. 

And all that unleashed all this. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It could be one of the most significant days in the Michael Jackson child molestation trial. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Michael Jackson‘s accuser will be back on the stand today. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Thomas Mesereau, Michael Jackson‘s attorney, entering that Santa Maria courthouse. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  And any minute, we are expecting to see Michael Jackson arriving here at the courthouse. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Court expected to resume at about now out there on the west coast.  We are hearing, however, that the defendant, Michael Jackson, has not yet appeared at that courthouse in Santa Maria. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We understand that Michael Jackson is reportedly in Cottage Hospital suffering from, we are being told, back problems. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Tom Mesereau, Jackson‘s attorney, was on the phone. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Mesereau is outside pacing on the cell phone. 

Something is not right. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Mesereau addressed the court.  The judge cut him off and said, “I am issuing a warrant for his arrest.” 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  In 35 minutes, Michael Jackson must arrive in this courthouse here in Santa Maria or he will be arrested. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Jennifer, this is really a race against the clock for Mr. Jackson. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You‘re absolutely right.  It is a race against the clock. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  On the bottom of the screen right now, you can see we‘ve put up an arrest warrant, clock down there counting. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  The count down clock puts it at, well, he needs to show up soon, let‘s just put it that way.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  According to the countdown clock, he has one minute to arrive at this courthouse. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Clearly, he‘s not going to make it. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  That‘s right.  I mean, he has less than 10 seconds here, Jennifer. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  And the countdown clock has expired.  Michael Jackson has not arrived at the courthouse. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There is Michael Jackson now. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You can see him walking out with the umbrella. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He seems to be wearing pajama bottoms.  I‘m not sure about that. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  But he is on his feet.  He‘s walking. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He was wearing pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He was not wearing his impeccable costumes today. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  In his pajamas. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He appears to be wearing slipper. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He‘s wearing pajama bottoms. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He said himself that he‘s still working on music and his dance steps.  It could have been, he could have taken a fall.  He could have, you know, had a spasm doing one of his patented pin moves as far as we know. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Mike, the big question we all want to know is, is Michael Jackson still wearing his pajamas and can the jury see that?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  We‘ll do the countdown clocks, thank you. 

That‘s the long version.  For the morning cycle short version, we turn once again to our slightly factual nightly recap, Michael Jackson Puppet Theater. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN (voice-over):  “Mr. Mesereau, my back really hurts.  Ow! 

Ow!  Ow!”

“Michael, you do understand that if you‘re not here by 9:35, the judge will put you in jail and he will forfeit your bond of $3 million.” 

OLBERMANN:  “It‘s a miracle!  I‘ll be right over, Mr. Mesereau!  Tito, get me some jammies.  Woo-hoo-hoo!”

(END VIDEO CLIP) 

OLBERMANN:  Every time I think that that is too absurd or disrespectful, something happens in this case that reminds me, that‘s not possible. 

Let‘s review the twin stories of the day: the testimony and, first, the attempted backing out of the man whose back was supposedly out. 

From Miami, I‘m joined by defense attorney Jayne Weintraub.  Good evening, Jayne.

JAYNE WEINTRAUB, DEFENSE ATTORNEY:  Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  And in Santa Maria, California, I‘m joined by Court TV correspondent Savannah Guthrie, who was in the courtroom today. 

Good evening, Savannah.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, COURT TV:  Good evening. 

OLBERMANN:  Savannah, let me start with you.  How—how angry was Judge Melville?  How much of his anger was conveyed to that jury and how much of what happened today does the jury know about?

GUTHRIE:  I think the judge was clearly peeved.  He didn‘t say, “Talk to the hand,” but he literally put his hand up when Thomas Mesereau tried to make excuses for his client, even offering that a doctor was on the phone.  “Here‘s my cell phone.  He‘ll tell that you Jackson is really ill.”

Mesereau—excuse me, the judge didn‘t want to hear anything about it.  He just said, “Get your client here in an hour.  I‘m issuing an arrest warrant.  And in one hour, I‘m going to execute that warrant.” 

Then the judge was kind of in a pickle, because you know, he wants to be transparent to the jurors.  He wants to tell them what‘s going on.  He takes great pains to tell them what the legal objections are about and to tell them what‘s going on in the court.

At the same time, he can‘t say, “Hey, jurors, I am really ticked at Michael Jackson.”  He can‘t prejudice this jury against Michael Jackson. 

So in the end what he did was just tell them, “Michael Jackson had a medical problem this morning.  It made him late to court.  And I ordered him to come back here, and I would do the exact same to you, jurors, if you were late.”  And he left it at that. 

OLBERMANN:  Jayne, Jackson was late pretrial.  The judge warned him then.  He was out sick, postponing the jury selection for a week.  Now this happens.  If you‘re Michael Jackson‘s attorney, what do you do?  Do you just throw up your hands and say, “Your honor, my client is nuts”?

WEINTRAUB:  No, because he can‘t do that.  He‘s an advocate for his client. 

And ethically, let‘s not forget.  The truth of the matter was there was a real genuine health issue here, even this morning.  There was another genuine health issue last week. 

Look, Michael Jackson is who he is.  And Tom Mesereau is doing an excellent job—we‘ve seen the transcripts so far—of cross-examining the witnesses and presenting Michael Jackson‘s side of this case.  And he will continue to do so. 

The fact that Jackson went to the hospital this morning, he was genuinely distressed.  I mean, I think Savannah even reported that he looked distressed today. 

OLBERMANN:  Maybe because he had to be out in public in pajamas. 

But Jayne, for all his show-biz-y appearance, the flowing white mane, the lawyer as lion, Mr. Mesereau is a pretty no nonsense guy.  Did he not drop Robert Blake as a client because Blake began to flake out in terms of his conduct in court?

WEINTRAUB:  Well, I think it was because Blake disregarded his advice, refused to listen to it and gave the Barbara Walters interview. 

I think Michael Jackson has come a very long way since he was dancing on the roof top of that SUV and hired Tom Mesereau.  He has been punctual to court.  He has been respectful of the court, respectful of the process.  He‘s been wearing a shirt and tie every day this week. 

I think Tom Mesereau has a very good grasp on Michael Jackson, as good as any lawyer can have. 

OLBERMANN:  As we‘ve all found out, if you dance atop an SUV, you can hurt your back. 

Let‘s turn to the testimony.  Savannah, “He touched me twice is all I remember.”  He saw Jackson naked and said, “Ew!”  Jackson twice fondled him to the inevitable biological conclusion. 

How credible did the accuser appear as he said those things?  Could the—could the courtroom tell how the jury was perceiving this boy?

GUTHRIE:  I was in the courtroom when he talked about this molestation.  I can tell you I think every single hand on that jury was furiously scribbling notes.  They knew this was the money testimony.  This was the important stuff. 

I think they probably felt that this accuser was credible.  I mean, it‘s hard for me to say.  But they were looking at him, engaged with him.  He told a very engaging story. 

But Tom Mesereau is at the ready.  He‘s already started his cross-examination, and he is going to pick this story apart.  And he‘s already done that. 

OLBERMANN:  Savannah, how did he do that?  How did he go after him today?

GUTHRIE:  Well, first let me just tell about Mesereau‘s demeanor.  It seemed to me that he was never more aggressive than he was today.  It was like he was a race horse just waiting to get out of that gate.  And he was firing off questions so loudly and so quickly, not even really waiting for the answer that Tom Sneddon, the D.A., had to stand up and object. 

And the judge said, “Yes, Mr. Mesereau, you‘ve got to wait for the witness to answer.  You‘re cutting him off.” 

One of his key points, and he only had a couple of minutes before the testimony let up for the day.  One of his key points was, “So, let‘s get this straight young man.  You told three L.A. social workers that Michael Jackson was a great guy; nothing inappropriate happened.  Then you met with two lawyers, and then you came up this story of molestation.” 

Obviously, the defense‘s point is this isn‘t credible.  You know, once this boy met with lawyers, he got the idea, got dollar signs in his eyes, or more to the point, his mother did, and he fabricated this story. 

OLBERMANN:  Jayne, speaking of waiting, there was a note this afternoon from one of the pool reporters.  Let me just read it: “Testimony seems coached.  Accuser keeps giving the answer before Sneddon asks the questions.”

That doesn‘t sound good.  Juries usually perceive that, don‘t they?

WEINTRAUB:  As a defense lawyer, you can only hope that jurors will see through to the truth and see when a witness is coached.  I think it‘s obvious that this child is going to have to admit that he‘s been coached.  His brother admitted it, that he was coached before in the last lawsuit with the mother.  And I‘m sure that this accuser is going to have to admit it, as well. 

You know, remember, the wine and the Jesus juice, the stuff that came out today, Michael Jackson is not charged with that.  Keith, Michael Jackson is charged with giving him an intoxicating agent, the wine, to facilitate the molestation. 

Well, on the airplane or on the way down to Miami, when he supposedly gave him a can of Diet Coke with wine in it, that wasn‘t to facilitate a molestation.  All the D.A. was doing is throwing more bad acts and dirt on Michael Jackson, because there isn‘t a lot of evidence. 

OLBERMANN:  Defense attorney Jayne Weintraub in Miami and attorney and Court TV reporter Savannah Guthrie in Santa Marina—Maria, rather.  Thank you both for joining us tonight.

WEINTRAUB:  Thank you, Keith.

GUTHRIE:  You bet. 

OLBERMANN:  Keep on with the force.  Don‘t stop.  Don‘t stop till you get enough.  Our MSNBC coverage of the epic or at least bizarre day at the Jackson trial continues with a special edition of the “ABRAMS REPORT” with Dan Abrams at 9 p.m. Eastern, 6 p.m. Pacific.  Be there.  Aloha.  Woo-hoo-hoo.

Also tonight, astounding developments in a far more serious court case.  A routine traffic stop ending in suicide and what appears to be the break police need to solve the murders of a Chicago judge‘s family.  We‘ll talk to the reporter who has played such an integral role in the case. 

And who was a bigger threat to the actor, Russell Crowe?  Al Qaeda or his own imagination?

You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The murder of the husband and mother of Illinois Judge Joan Lefkow appears not to have been a white supremacist or one of his supporters, but a disgruntled ex-litigant.

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, at first there seems to be some comfort in that.  On closer inspection, what difference does it actually make?

Yesterday at about 5 p.m., a police officer noted a van with a broken taillight parked in front of a school in West Allis, Wisconsin.  As the officer approached what looked like a routine traffic stop, the driver shot himself. 

He has since been identified as Bart Ross of Chicago, Illinois.  His sudden suicide appearing far less sudden, based on a trail of evidence, a suicide note in the car in which he claimed to have committed those murders, and a handwritten confession sent to the NBC television station in Chicago, WMAQ. 

The letter said he had broken into the utility room of Judge Lefkow‘s home that day with the intent of waiting until she returned in order to then kill her.  But quoting the letter, “Mr. Lefkow discovered me.  I had no choice but to shoot him.” 

The letter continues, “Then I heard the voice, ‘Michael, Michael,‘ and saw an older woman.  I had to shoot her, too.”

The presumed motive behind all this, Judge Lefkow was one of 11 judges he named who had ruled against him in or dismissed various lawsuits he had filed against an area hospital which Ross claimed had disfigured him, an ordeal he also described in a second typewritten letter as 12 and a half years of anger. 

Reporter Phil Rogers has been covering this story for WMAQ, the story that received the letter from Bart A. Ross.  He joins us now.

Phil, good evening. 

PHIL ROGERS, WMAQ REPORTER:  Keith, good evening. 

OLBERMANN:  We‘ve called it a letter.  That‘s not exactly right.  It is a bunch of documents, right?  Give us the big picture and the key details. 

ROGERS:  Well, actually, I can show you.  We received two letters today.  The first one came in and it looked like this.  And this in fact is what police found in the van.  It looks very much like a news release.  And it details the travails in this gentleman‘s life. 

Written on the back was this.  And this is the letter that we found in the newsroom this morning, in with the morning mail and it‘s an account in very chilling details of the Lefkow murders. 

OLBERMANN:  And in that, he wrote about having considered other murders.  Is that right?

ROGERS:  That‘s exactly right.  In this first document, and in fact, in all of his lawsuits which we‘ve pulled, and they go on to hundreds of pages, he gives you a laundry list of people he blames for his problems. 

And it goes into a great number of judges, a great number of doctors, a great number of lawyers and just some private citizens over the last 12 and a half years, including one hospital. 

And in this particular case, Judge Lefkow appears to have just been the last judge.  On the 25th of January, she‘s the one that dismissed his case once and for all. 

OLBERMANN:  The—despite those circumstances, despite those letters, despite that reference, despite the suicide just as the policeman approached last night in West Allis, at the police news conference this afternoon, they seemed not to consider this case closed. 

Is there a reason for that?  Are they just being technical and precise?  Or is there something here we don‘t know about?

ROGERS:  You know, Keith, I think probably a lot of that is police speak.  They do say if you look very closely at their comments today, they showed the sketch again.  And they pointed out that this gentleman closely resembles one of the individuals that they saw outside the house. 

Sources have told us that in fact, they found clothing in the van that matched the clothing on the person seen outside the house.  They found shell casings inside the van.  They believe they‘ve got right guy. 

And in fact, they went out much their way to note that the account that he gave in this note of being inside the house closely matches what they found in the Lefkow basement. 

OLBERMANN:  Is there any idea in any of this—you mentioned why it was Judge Lefkow and when so many others were named.  We mentioned 11 names.  There‘s also the entire Illinois state Supreme Court, who‘s probably another five or 10 lawyers in that—on that list, too. 

But is there any idea of the timing of this?  What, after this, as he put it, 12 and a half years of this Nazi hell as he described it?  What would have set him off now, particularly?

ROGERS:  Well, Keith, you hit the nail right on the head of one of the most chilling things.  We mentioned this news release, in effect, that he sent out to everyone and he had in the van with him.  This is dated February 13, which is, of course, is two weeks before the Lefkow murders. 

And the first line of this little missive says, “When you read this, I should be dead.  So I‘m writing in past tense.”  He was planning this weeks in advance.  And in fact, in this document, he says, “Probably some innocent people are going to die.” 

OLBERMANN:  Goodness. 

Reporter Phil Rogers of WMAQ, our sister station in Chicago.  Great thanks for your time tonight, Phil. 

ROGERS:  Keith, thank you. 

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, don‘t look down.  The newest thrill ride in Las Vegas.  Thrill ride.  That‘s what it.  It‘s a ride. 

And will Mark McGwire find his thrill on Capitol Hill?  In the steroid showdown, baseball does not want to take the field against congressmen. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We‘re back.  And when Michael Jackson is the lead story, it becomes much more difficult to label a different segment as the odd news.  What do you want us to do?  Change the whole show around?  It ain‘t going to happen, pal. 

Let‘s play “Oddball.”

We begin high above the strip in Las Vegas, Nevada, where casino owners have figured out a way to shake the loose change out of your pockets.  It is call the Insanity Swing.  It‘s the fourth ride to be installed atop the 900-foot Stratosphere Tower in the Stratosphere Hotel, a swing which sends riders hurling out over the tower‘s edge and spun back again with the force of more than three G‘s.  The price of this is just $9.95. 

And to think that Bugsy Siegel and the other founders of Vegas used to do this for free to the less cooperative visitors and the ones who didn‘t like Sinatra enough. 

The world‘s a great place.

This is more my speed.  Mongo like Sheriff Bart.  Carlos, Louisiana, home of Teeny Swoop and Buck.  That‘s not three people.  Teeny Swoop is the guy.  The steer is Buck.  Folks in town call Teeny the steer whisperer.  Well, that‘s what they call him to his face. 

He says he‘s managed to tame the 8-year-old bull and rides him around town and puts those balls on his horns to prove it. 

No complaints for old Buck thus far.  Because he‘s biding his time.  And then one day, Teeny is going to get it.  Oh, yes.  Teeny will get it good. 

Knoxville, Tennessee, it‘s Sniffles the bunny.  He received this certificate from the Guinness Book of Records today as the world‘s oldest living rabbit.  He‘s so old, he used to dance the Charleston with Bubba the Lobster back in the 1920‘s.  Actually, he‘s dated 14 years. 

Karen Mills of Knoxville says she bought Sniffles for her son in 1991, crediting his long life to a steady diet of French fries and arthritis medicine. 

Sniffles‘ grandchildren and children were all on hand for the ceremony, all 42 million, 360 thousand of them. 

Also tonight, Russell Crowe has made some enemies in Hollywood, but al Qaeda?  More on the story we first brought you on Tuesday.  Oddly, enough some think the actor may not have really been targeted by terrorists. 

And remember when a conservative Christian preacher claimed that Spongebob Squarepants was being used by a pro-homosexual group that had produced a tolerance video?  That video premiered today, and the reviews are in from the first night audience.  Well, a first grade audience. 

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

Theme warning, legal theme. 

No. 3, Honey Houston.  A student at the University of Calgary.  She is enraged at the school newspaper, considering suing after it printed a photograph of her virtually naked. 

It sounds like a terrible invasion of privacy, until you realize that the picture was taken during sexual awareness week on the campus as she performed in front of an audience and she‘s with a group called Nasty Girls Entertainment group.  And she was also voted Miss Au Natural in the Miss Nude Canada pageant. 

And No. 2, Joseph Stanton of Bates Township, Michigan.  He is recovering from gunshot wounds inflicted when his loaded gun was knocked off his kitchen counter top.  Discharged and it got him in the lower torso.  The gun was knocked off by his pet cat.  The cat did it!

No. 1, Emert Wyss, an attorney in Alton, Illinois.  He was the lawyer for a client who bought a house and had her use the title company that he, Mr. Wyss, owned. 

Later Wyss wound up getting her into a class action lawsuit to get some improper real estate fees returned to her.  It turned out, without his knowledge, one of the defendants in that class action suit was that title company that he owned. 

This is very complicated, but in short, the day we have all prayed for has finally arrived.  This lawyer has managed to sue himself!

(MUSIC)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  In retrospect, it seems inevitable, really.  First Russell Crowe carries an Australian passport, mentions that the FBI told him back in early 2001 that he was the target of an al Qaeda kidnapped plot aimed in his words at taking iconographic Americans out of the picture as some sort of cultural destabilization.  Then in a matter of hours, the FBI and others say not exactly.

Our third story in the COUNTDOWN, wax in your ears maybe, Russ?  Are you sure you heard that right?  Al Qaeda?  Perhaps it was Al Gore?  Fresh out of work back then?  Or Al Kaline?  Always performed well in a clutch for the Detroit Tigers.

In a moment, former FBI agent Christopher Whitcomb joins us to weigh in.  First, correspondent Carl Quintanilla with more on Crowe‘s caw.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CARL QUINTANILLA, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The plot sounds perfect for a Russell Crowe movie.  The Hollywood actor becomes the target of an al Qaeda kidnapping scheme and starts receiving FBI protection.  But Crowe says it‘s real and happened to him.  In this month‘s “GQ,” he says the FBI contacted him in 2001, when he was an early favorite to win the Oscar for “Gladiator”.

The FBI went through this elaborate speech, he says, telling Crowe and his then girlfriend that for the whole time we were in America, they were going to be around and part of life.  That was the first conversation in my life that I‘d ever heard the phrase al Qaeda.

It‘s true FBI officials investigated a threat against Crowe.  It was big news in Hollywood.  And Crowe even tried to laugh it off, imagining what kidnappers would say if they got him.

RUSSELL CROWE, ACTOR:  And I‘d be on the phone going, look, we‘ve, you know, passed the hat around.  We‘ve got a couple hundred bucks.  Can you take him off our hands?

QUINTANILLA (on camera):  The FBI never specified the nature of the threat, but Crowe tells “GQ” al Qaeda wanted to “destabilize U.S. culture by taking out high profile Americans.”

EVAN KOHLMANN, NBC NEWS TERRORISM ANALYST:  It seems ridiculous, but we‘ve had incidents in the past where it seems like terrorist groups have actually followed down this path.

QUINTANILLA (voice-over):  An FBI spokeswoman won‘t comment, except to say the threat against Crowe was eventually found to be not credible.  Crowe, a native of New Zealand, says he‘s grateful for the FBI agents who stuck around through production of “A Beautiful Mind” and “Master and Commander”, protecting him, he claims, from an extraordinary threat in a role he never wanted to play.

Carl Quintanilla, NBC News, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Now NBC News analyst Christopher Whitcomb, the former FBI agent, also author of a new novel about the war on terror called “Black” joins us.

Chris, good evening.

CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB, FORMER FBI AGENT:  Hi, Keith.  Nice to talk to you.

OLBERMANN:  So is there more to this than the FBI is officially letting on?  They don‘t seem happy.

WHITCOMB:  Well, the FBI isn‘t happy.  As you can imagine, the story comes out like this and everybody wonders about al Qaeda plots to kidnap stars.  And I think that‘s very difficult.

The FBI‘s got a tough job working terrorism along with a lot of other federal law enforcement agencies.  And stories like this can rub them wrong way.

OLBERMANN:  One of the experts we just heard in Carl Quintanilla‘s report, Evan Kohlmann, was on here the other night when this thing—this story broke out of “GQ” magazine.

Evan said look, even successful terrorists have dumb ideas.  And there are also, thank goodness, dumb terrorists.  But even in this context, do you buy the concept that kidnapping an actor, even if it was somebody bigger or somebody more American than Russell  Crowe, that something like that was—it seems so subtle.  Could ever have been on an al Qaeda shopping list somewhere?

WHITCOMB:  I can‘t imagine it.

Look, it doesn‘t make sense on any level.  Al Qaeda at that time was still pretty much unknown.  We suspected them in the—or we knew they bombed the first World Trade Center bombing.  We knew that they were responsible for the Cole bombing.  And we found out very shortly after that they had horrible plans in mind.

But you can‘t really equate kidnapping a New Zealand movie star to try and destabilize the American culture.  I think that doesn‘t make sense on any level.

I don‘t think there‘s any doubt that—or I know, in fact, that the FBI contacted Russell Crowe.  It was not a terrorist plot.  It was a criminal matter.  And it was not al Qaeda.  And from everybody I‘ve spoken with, including people that were part of the investigation, they never told him that al Qaeda meant to kidnap him.

OLBERMANN:  It may have been somebody else named Al.

Chris Whitcomb, stand by a second.  I want your reaction to this next story, too.  Not only does Russell Crowe appear to be safe from an immediate al Qaeda attack, but there‘s a new report suggesting that everyone living in the U.S. may be able to rest easier, at least when it comes to a sleeper cell attack.

ABC News now reporting it has obtained a secret FBI report which says the bureau, as well as the CIA, cannot find any evidence that al Qaeda sleeper cells are currently operating inside the U.S.

Also in that report, al Qaeda could be shifting tactics and agents, possibly recruiting women and married couples with children because its leaders are aware of airport profiles singling out adult Arab males.  Also looking to replace sleeper agents with disaffected  Americans and other would-be sympathizers.

That al Qaeda is still hoping to attack the U.S. is not in question.  Only its current capacity to do so.  So back to former FBI agent Chris Whitcomb.

Is there—do you suspect, such a report as is described here?  And does it reflect reason to, if not relax, then at least exhale about terrorists actually in our midst?

WHITCOMB:  Absolutely.  I mean, they generate reports every day.  I don‘t know which one this is in particular, but I can tell you I‘ve  seen reports like this in the last year and a half.  And the FBI has known for at least a year and a half that they didn‘t believe there were any sleeper cells in the United States, which is kind of an odd term.

They are most concerned, not with an organized threat from al Qaeda in the United States, but that somebody would sympathize with them, not appear on any radar screen, and just do something themselves, something violent themselves.

That‘s always been the biggest threat.  Al Qaeda doesn‘t have a corporate office some place and someone sitting around conspiring on a dry erase board on what they‘re going to do next.  They‘re a very fractured organization.  They‘re disorganized even more so than they used to be.   And that‘s really what this report is getting at.

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  So that idea that there were hundreds, thousands, or just dozens of guys already here waiting for some sort of instruction is a fallacy?

WHITCOMB:  It‘s a fallacy. The FBI and most civilian law enforcement, the intelligence committee, has believed just that like I said for at least 18 months, Keith.  And I‘ve talked to them and had many conversations with people working these investigations.

They think the most likely threat is someone who sympathizes with al Qaeda.  And that‘s what we see—you know, we saw in the Madrid bombings, we see in Iraq, we see in Indonesia, we see that around the world, that these people hate America.  They undertake some violence.  And they say we‘re an al Qaeda offshoot.

That is what they worry about in the United States.  Not sleeper cells that are set up.  It‘s been three and a half years now since 9/11. If they were going to do something, they certainly would have done it by now.  Presidential election, Super Bowls, Fourth of July, on and on and on.  I think people just have to get that out of their mind right now.

OLBERMANN:  And half a dozen new movies by Russell Crowe.  NBC counterterrorism analyst, former FBI agent Christopher Whitcomb.  As always, sir, great thanks.

WHITCOMB:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, Mr. Canseco goes to Washington, but will any  other players or ex-players join him?  Baseball picking a fight with Congress over those steroid hearings.  And from the golf course to the OR, former President Clinton going under the knife to correct complications from his heart surgery.  Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  A week from today, two of baseball‘s former foremost home run hitters, plus five current stars, three executives, and the head of the players union will testify under oath before a Congressional committee investigating the game‘s steroid scandal.

Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, or will they?  Major League baseball, its union, and its players vowed to go to court to  fight the subpoenas issued by the House Government Reform committee on what they called First Amendment grounds.  A Washington attorney hired by the sport to answer the summonses, Stanley Brand, claims that the hearing would violate confidentiality agreements between the players and the owners, agreements about who used and who did not use steroids and other drugs illegally without a prescription.

Brand has already represented everybody from the Arthur Andersen accounting firm, you remember them from Enron, to George Stephanopoulos, to now the steroid seven, in essence.

He also noted that one of those players, Jason Giambi, had testified before a grand jury on this subject 15 months ago.  And to subpoena him before there is a trial in that case was “legal audacity.”

The committee‘s lawyers saying tonight they may excuse Giambi for that reason, but nobody else.  That “failure to comply with the committee‘s subpoenas would be unwise and irresponsible.”

Baseball‘s owners, union, and players unified on a topic for the first time since the invention of the telephone, say that the only people who will testify will be Vice President Rob Manfred and union executive Director Donald Fehr.

Former star Jose Canseco, whose book “Juiced” helped precipitate the hearing, says he will testify.

Well, in the middle of a scandal, the questions, the legitimacy of every home run hit, and in fact, every win and loss over the last two decades, wouldn‘t you want your players to look so guilty that they can‘t even testify and your owners to look like they have a terrible, terrible secret to hide?

I‘m joined now by Jeff Barker, who broke the story of the subpoenas yesterday in “The Baltimore Sun.”

Jeff, good evening.

JEFF BARKER, BALTIMORE SUN:  Nice to be with you.

OLBERMANN:  Why is baseball so desperate to keep its owners and its players away from that witness table next Thursday in Washington?

BARKER:  Well, I think the best answer is, who‘s a looser cannon in this world than Jose Canseco?  I mean, this is kind of an unmanageable story for baseball.  Baseball wants to act sort of monolithic.  But really, they can‘t control and can‘t really predict, I think, what these players might say.

And the other thing is, this is spring training.  You know, it‘s a time of rebirth and renewal.  But for baseball, this is the story they can‘t get rid of.  This is an old story.  And they don‘t want it to be aired anymore.

OLBERMANN:  But do you think anybody in baseball, or do you know of anybody in baseball who‘s actually addressed it in this light, that in trying to prevent a public airing of dirty laundry, and a sacrifice to the rites of spring, that instead they‘re going to make this look like a total stonewall?  Like it is the sports equivalent of Watergate?

BARKER:  Right.

OLBERMANN:  Did anybody say that didn‘t work out well in Watergate, let alone, you know, in potentially this situation?

BARKER:  I know the committee—I mean the committee‘s telling me that.  They committee‘s saying if the players, you know, are innocent as they say, most of them say you know they‘ve denied what Canseco said about steroids, then why don‘t they just appear? You know, then why don‘t they want to come forward?

I know—and this is a public relations battle now of course between two institutions.  Congress and Major League baseball.  And I think more and more, that‘s exactly what you‘re going to hear the committee saying.  And basically trying to embarrass baseball.

OLBERMANN:  But even if they‘re not innocent, even if the worst-case scenario occurred and you found five, six, seven, a dozen of the top home run hitters in the game, had used steroids when there weren‘t really precise rules against it, or admitted to using steroids, and were  presumably covered by some sort of flaw in the law of baseball, you know, for 15 years, now we‘ve had this debate over whether or not Pete Rose should have been thrown out because of gambling and the game has only grown and thrived since then.

Wouldn‘t it make—wouldn‘t the lesser of two evils be testimony and the worst of it being—leaving this presumption in people‘s minds, well they must have something to cover up?

BARKER:  I know.  But I think they‘re both really awful choices.  Because I think that, you know, in politics, usually you want things to be predictable.  And I understand it does look bad for baseball to appear to be stone walling.

But I think it may—baseball imagines, because it doesn‘t really know what‘s going to happen, it imagines that actually having the players present and testifying may be worse because I really think they don‘t know.

The reason this is such good theater is baseball doesn‘t know what these guys are going to say.  And it really might sound bad.  And these—and you have all these guys appearing together.  And they become like poster boys for an issue that baseball just wants to go away.

OLBERMANN:  One of the members of this committee, Christopher Shays of Connecticut, said this afternoon, everybody we subpoenaed to testify, testifies.  Jeff Barker on the steroid beat and the baseball beat for “The Baltimore Sun.”  Great thanks for your time tonight.

BARKER:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  We segue into our nightly round-up of the celebrity and entertainment news.  And that we have put this story here should tell you just how easily the surgery went.  President Bill Clinton‘s second heart-related operation in six months went off without a hitch.  The 42nd president arriving about 5:00 this morning at New York  Presbyterian Hospital Columbia University Medical Center, after having played golf yesterday with Greg Norman.

Two hours after his arrival, surgeons were in there removing fluid and scar tissue from his chest cavity, impediments that had built up after his bypass last September.  Doctors say it was slightly more complicated than they had expected.  It took about four hours, but he could be out of the hospital in as little as three days or as many as 10.

And if you‘re sometimes amazed at the endless good publicity received by the cyclist Lance Armstrong, be prepared to be amazed anew.  He‘s told a French newspaper that Paris rather than New York City should get the 2012 Olympics.  Armstrong has previously gotten a pass, even though he broke a promise not to cross a picket line while actors were on strike in 2000.  He went and made a commercial anyway, explaining he was a cancer survivor who needed to feed his wife and family.

He got a pass when he dumped his wife.  But today, “New York‘s Post” headlined this story, “Traitour de France”.  “To be honest, I think Paris deserves the games,” Armstrong told the Associated Press and the newspaper “La Parisienne.”  He later said on the other hand, New York also deserves to have the games.

New York City is spending millions to try to get them, even though the International Olympic Committee rarely awards consecutive games to the same continent and the 2010 Olympics will be in Vancouver, Canada.

And shameless self-promotion time.  I‘m a guest on “Last Call with Carson Daly” tonight on your local NBC station.  So if you‘re up, I can tell you I do get into a feud with Donald Trump.  Like I said, if you‘re up anyway, watch us.

Speaking of watching and appearances, Spongebob SquarePants made one today by a video in thousands of elementary schools along with a host of other cartoon characters.  There was learning, dancing, tolerance, but apparently there‘s been no biblical retribution.  Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The earth did not open up and swallow mankind whole this morning.  No plague of locusts swarmed the earth.  Even Mt. St. Helens was not gushing steam.

Our number one story in the COUNTDOWN, all this did not happen, even though this was the day that the “We Are Family” video was played at perhaps thousands of American elementary schools.

If you have forgotten this story, the video, featuring just about  every cartoon character ever made except Itchy and Scratchy, became the focus of a controversy created by Dr. James Dobson of the group Focus on the Family.

Citing one of the characters, Spongebob SquarePants, Dobson told a mostly congressional audience in January that the foundation that produced the video was “pro-homosexual and that Spongebob and other characters were being used to surreptitiously influence elementary children.

Introducing Spongebob into a dialogue about tolerance for gays and gay families made Dobson the subject of widespread derision.  And he was forced to admit that the video and poor old Bob himself were pretty much benign.

But his supporters rose up in self-righteous anger to spam the computers of as many columnists and reporters as they could think  of.  This one included, thanks to an e-mail generating device on Dobson‘s Web site.

Well, now the video is out.  And we sent COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny back to the first grade this morning to find out what, if anything, the fuss was all about.

Monica, good evening.

MONICA NOVOTNY, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Keith, good evening.

We spent the morning with about 50 six and seven-year olds at PS-87, a New York City public elementary school.  And as you‘re about to see, these children love Spongebob, they love their families, yes, they even love disco.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  They‘re soaking up Spongebob in school at today‘s first grade classroom premier of the “We Are  Family” foundation‘s music video.

Students telling the press what they‘re learning about family and diversity from the four minute DVD.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Family means to me when you live separate, they‘re still going to love you, just like my dad.

NILE RODGERS, WE ARE FAMILY FOUNDATION:  We just thought that this was just a good way to frame the concept of unity, tolerance, differences amongst people.

NOVOTNY:  Songwriter Nile Rodgers‘ video, along with a 10 page teachers‘ guide shipping out to 61,000 schools in the U.S. this week.

RODGERS:  Kids seem to get it.  It‘s only certain adults that don‘t get it.

LINDA KASARJIAN, TEACHER:  I see characters singing and dancing and having fun together.  And the key is that the characters are familiar to the kids.

NOVOTNY:  Now the conservative group Focus on the Family taking aim at the teachers‘ guide, which doesn‘t contain any references to sexuality, though an earlier draft did make three references to atypical families, including same-sex parents.

“We can only assume the We Are Family Foundation removed those references after realizing the majority of American parents do not want such material to be foisted on their children under the guise of tolerance and diversity.”

The final version of the guide making general references to diverse family units, saying, “Many types of people come together as a family and what binds them together is love, sharing, and caring.”

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  This is my family.  And that‘s my mom.  That‘s my brother. That‘s me.  That‘s my dad.

RODGERS:  We‘re not even talking about sex at all.  This is not a sex-oriented project.  This is a project for young kids.

KASARJIAN:  Doesn‘t even come to my mind.  And I don‘t even think I could find it.

NOVOTNY:  What did you learn about family from the video?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That family helps you when you need them to help you.

NOVOTNY:  As for that Spongebob controversy...

KASARJIAN:  Watch the video.  It will explain everything to you.

That‘s not what it‘s about.

RODGERS:  They definitely should get off of Spongebob‘s back.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  The video is really good.  Yes, I really loved it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I like the song when they sing “We Are Family.” 

It‘s kind of fun.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY:  The We Are Family Foundation is partnering with several groups on this project, including the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League.  Now members of the ADL actually wrote the teachers‘ guide.  Today, they tell me they edited down the final version to make sure it would fit inside the DVD case and not for any other reason.

Dr. Dobson‘s group, however, says they hope this is a permanent change of the philosophy for the We Are Family Foundation.

OLBERMANN:  Is this if last We Are Family Foundation video, is this—are we going to have a continuing story here?

NOVOTNY:  They actually—you probably won‘t see Spongebob again, but they do want to make another video for teenagers similar, probably using the same song, but they want to use characters and actors that would appeal to that age group.

OLBERMANN:  Russell Crowe?  You know what this actually is ultimately? 

And I think we can all agree on this.

NOVOTNY:   Yes?

OLBERMANN:  About you know, diversity, family, and all the rest of this, this is actually a subtle and below the radar attempt to sell old disco records that they couldn‘t sell in 1979 when the damn record came out in the first place.  And they, you know, everybody goes—gets their panties in a knot over this.

NOVOTNY:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny on the search for controversy. 

And as usual, in such cases, finding there really wasn‘t any.

That is COUNTDOWN.  Thank you for being part of it.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Good night and good luck.

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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