updated 9/29/2005 11:46:49 AM ET 2005-09-29T15:46:49

Guests: Tony Potts, Dana Milbank, Wayne Slater

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Justice delayed is justice denied.  But is justice denied because he just is DeLay?  The indictment of the House majority leader.

And why just him?  It seems as if Washington is swimming with charge of ethics violations just now.  We‘ll try to assemble a checklist.

New Orleans.  Why did FEMA spend more money on cruise ships to house evacuees, than it would have cost to send each evacuee on a six-month cruise to the Caribbean?

And do you remember this woman?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Look how hot he is.  He‘s not waking up very easy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  An update on one of the faces of the New Orleans Convention Center.

And is this the face of the new Mrs. Ashton Kutcher (ph)?  Or is it just one of the actors in his practical joke TV series?  Was the Kutcher-Demi Moore wedding a fake?

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

His critics will say this is long overdue and self-induced, like an ethics version of Russian roulette finally clicking over to the chamber with the bullet in it.  It would be an odd defense, given that this was the last day the grand jury that did the indicting was to sit.

His defenders will argue that it‘s a political witch hunt, the head of the Republican Congressional Committee already having called the prosecutor who sought the indictment a, quote, “unapologetic Democratic partisan,” a curious criticism, given that the man indicted is certainly an unapologetic Republican partisan.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, either way, a Texas grand jury has accused House majority leader Tom DeLay of one felony count of conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws, and he has stepped aside from his leadership post.  Republican Party rules require that.  And House whip Roy Blunt of Missouri will take over as leader, at least temporarily, with the assistance of David Dreier, who headed Governor Schwarzenegger‘s campaign in California.

DeLay can remain in the House, even as the prosecution by Ronnie “My name is Earle,” the district attorney of Travis County, Texas, is ongoing.  The grand jury accused him—DeLay, that is—of shepherding $155,000 in corporate donations first into his own political action committee, and then funneling $190,000 into a Republican PAC with instructions on how to divide it among candidates for the Texas state house.

That would be illegal there.  Mr. DeLay says he did not do it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. TOM DELAY (R-TX), MAJORITY LEADER:  I have violated no law, I have violated no law, no regulation, no rule of the House.  I have done nothing unlawful, unethical, or, I might add, unprecedented, even in the political campaigns of Mr. Earle himself.  My defense in this case will not be technical or legalistic.  It will be categorical and absolute.

I am innocent.  Mr. Earle and his staff know it.  And I will prove it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  If ever tried, if ever convicted, DeLay could face up to two years in jail or five years of probation.  Right now, he is facing the climax of a political blockbuster has been building for literally years.

Reactions from Texas and from Washington in a moment.

First, what must have been for Mr. DeLay a fairly surprising reaction from the White House.  His own press office issued a 320-word statement today.  Seven of those words are the word “partisan.”  And the phrases “political agenda,” “political foe,” “political paybacks,” and “purely political” appear a total of five times.

At the White House press office, the president‘s spokesman seemed to be backing away from the majority leader to the degree that he did everything except say, Tom DeLay?  Tom DeLay who?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  I think that the president‘s view is that we need to let the legal process work.

TERRY MORAN, ABC NEWS:  The president take the allegation of wrongdoing seriously, that Tom DeLay used the Republican National Committee as a money-laundering operation to fund local elections in Texas?  That‘s what the grand jury is indicting him for.

MCCLELLAN:  That‘s what the legal process will proceed to address.  We need to let the legal process proceed.  And that‘s what the president believes.  This is a different circumstance.  And we‘re going to let the legal process, we‘re going to let the legal process work.

MORAN:  Do you think this is politically motivated?

MCCLELLAN:  We‘re going to let the legal process work.

There are some instances of individual situations, and we‘ll let those, the legal process proceed in those instances.

We need to let the legal process work.

There‘s a legal process in place to address these matters.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

OLBERMANN:  A veteran of Mr. Mcclellan‘s salon joins us now.  Dana Milbank, national political reporter, former White House reporter of “The “Washington Post.”

Good evening, Dana.

DANA MILBANK, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: 

Evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Is that the missed headline there, contained in what Mr.  Mcclellan said, that as this storm of partisan this and political retribution that is swelling, that the White House was terrifically cautious about what it said in his defense today?

MILBANK:  Sounds like you wouldn‘t want Scottie in your foxhole there.  But, you know, I think it‘s probably just a matter of arithmetic.  The president‘s sitting there at about 40 percent in approval rating, and Tom DeLay was at about 27 percent before he was indicted.  So there‘s probably not a great percentage in the White House cozying up to him right at this moment.

OLBERMANN:  Is there the potential in this to be one of those inside-out political stories that we see so often, that it looks like a hole has been blown in the side of the Republican Party, when, in fact, something like this might merely give them martyrdom points and let them shunt aside a man, for the time being,who is, at the very least, guilty of being a lightning rod for controversy?

MILBANK:  Well, that‘s sort of the Clinton impeachment model.  Everybody rallied around the president.  His approval numbers continued to go up.  It may be a little different with DeLay, who is such a controversial figure, with very low support to start with here.

But it is possible that the Republicans wouldn‘t suffer as much as all that, because of the fund-raising that he put in place, the party discipline he put in place.  The question is, is it larger than Tom DeLay?  Can they continue DeLay Inc., the K Street project, and all these other apparatuses he put in place without him?

OLBERMANN:  Which leads to the question, other than the ascension of leader Blunt, and that‘s an odd name for a politician, but what changes practically for the Republicans and DeLay just because there is an indictment instead of merely an investigation?

MILBANK:  Well, nothing changes politically in the sense that the damage is done regardless of what happens with what Scott calls the legal process from here on out.  The truth is, discipline for now was already in a lot of trouble over Hurricane Katrina, over Iraq.

And now the—you‘re going to see a lot of these Republican back-benchers just heading for the hills, because they don‘t have the Hammer there to keep them in line.  This is a man who liked to pose with a bullwhip and could dole out favors and punishment to people who did not hew to the party line.  And now we don‘t have a guy like that.

OLBERMANN:  A piece of tape that I‘d like to play for you that just occurred in the last hour or so.  All day we‘ve heard, this is a rogue partisan prosecutor, et cetera, et cetera.  But Tonight on “HARDBALL,” Mr.  DeLay told Chris Matthews something else.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, “HARDBALL”:  You believe that this is a political vendetta.

DELAY:  I know it is.

MATTHEWS:  A coordinated vendetta by the House Democratic leadership in, here in Washington.

DELAY:  And Democrat leadership in Texas, and Ronnie Earle, and absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  Do you believe that there was a heads-up to people like Nancy Pelosi before this thing today?

DELAY:  Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  (INAUDIBLE), to twist a phrase here, Dana, is there a vast leftwing conspiracy working here?

MILBANK:  It sure sounds that way.  I mean, I, I, I—in defense of Mr. DeLay, the first I heard of it was in a press release from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  But it is interesting, in a way, that the lines that DeLay is saying right now almost exactly echo the lines of Hillary Clinton, of Bill Clinton, when they were the victims of the same sort of personal bare-knuckled political efforts that Tom DeLay feels himself the victim of now that he was perpetrating in the past.

OLBERMANN:  Lastly, this does not touch on any of the Washington fundraising controversies regarding Mr. DeLay‘s ethics?  Are those investigations, possible one by the House, possible one by the Department of Justice, still ongoing?

MILBANK:  They are ongoing.  Jack Abramoff, who was a close friend and associate of Tom DeLay, is in big trouble with the Department of Justice in this investigation.  Those really affect Tom DeLay in terms of House ethics rules, as opposed to actual violations of law.  So those can get him in trouble with his colleagues, but they don‘t tend to land you in the pokey.

OLBERMANN:  Dana Milbank of “The Washington Post,” with the perspective from the capital.  Great thanks, as always, Dana.

MILBANK:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s get the view from Texas.  Wayne Slater joins us.  He is the senior political writer of “The Dallas Morning News” and co-author of the biography of Karl Rove, “Bush‘s Brain.”

Wayne, thanks again for your time.

WAYNE SLATER, SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER, “THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS”: 

Good to be here.

OLBERMANN:  Same question I just asked Dana.  Other than the fact of the indictment and the naming of Roy Blunt as acting majority leader, how does this materially change things for Tom DeLay in Texas or in Washington?

SLATER:  Well, obviously it‘s a problem in Washington, where the Democrats are talking about linking this to other problems that have befallen the Republicans.  But here in Texas, it‘s going to be a problem for Tom DeLay, who‘s up for reelection next year.  He won the last time with 55 percent of the vote, which may sound like a lot in a red district in a red state.  But that was the poorest performance he‘s ever had in almost 20 years in Congress here in Texas.

Democrats think he‘s in trouble.  Some analysts question whether he really is.  But Tom DeLay is going to have to run for his political life next year here in Texas.

OLBERMANN:  Trying to explain state campaign finance laws is, to quote the political scientist Iggy Pop, it‘s like trying to—hypnotizing chickens.  But what is the gist of what DeLay is personally accused of here?  Clarify that for everybody.

SLATER:  Basically, in Texas, it is illegal to use corporate money to elect candidates for the legislature or statewide office.

What DeLay is accused of doing in this grand jury indictment is involving himself in a conspiracy to launder corporate money, to take money from big corporations that was given for one purpose, and could not be used to elect legislators in Texas in 2002, send that money to Washington, bring it back as laundered money that could be used to elect legislators, who subsequently redrew the congressional boundaries, which subsequently gave DeLay more Republicans in the Congress, in the Texas delegation, and helped his power in Washington.

DeLay was intimately involved in the construction of the company—of the group that did this.  Now, whether or not DeLay was involved in the specific transaction, in which $190,000 was laundered to Washington and back, is up to the jury to decide.

OLBERMANN:  The dismissal by Mr. DeLay and the Republicans of the DA in the case, Mr. Earle, as partisan and political, 12 times in a 320-word statement, does that hold water factually?  Mr. Earle has stated that he has prosecuted many more Democratic politicians than Republicans.

SLATER:  He has.  In his political life here in Travis County, and I‘ve watched much of it, he has prosecuted about three times as many Democrats as Republicans.  When Democrats were in control in Texas, they were in power, and Ronnie Earle went after Democrats, including the former attorney general, the former house speaker here in Texas.

When Republicans were in control, more recently, then he‘s gone after Republicans.

This charge by DeLay, I heard Dana say that this reflects or resembles the thing what happened to Hillary Clinton.  It also resembles, deja vu all over again, here in Texas, what happened in 1993, when the same prosecutor indicted a Republican, Kay Bailey Hutchison, subsequently who went to the U.S. Senate, and the charge by the Republicans was exactly the same, runaway district attorney who‘s working for the Democratic Party establishment in the state.

It‘s the same thing then as you hear now.  Question is, whether Ronnie Earle can make it stick this time.

OLBERMANN:  And ultimately, the question is, an indictment is not a conviction, but in your opinion, was, to some degree, Tom DeLay kneecapped today?

SLATER:  Look, it‘s a real problem for him.  I know we saw these Republicans in Washington today talking about, Well, this is only temporary, he‘ll come back.  You have to wonder how long this prosecution‘s going to last.  It‘ll go into the next election year, most likely.  That‘s the off-year elections.  And even if he were acquitted, after an extended period of time, could he then come back and be majority leader?

That‘s up in the air.  This may be the death knell politically for Tom DeLay.

OLBERMANN:  Is it enough to be the death knell regarding his reelection?  Or is this simply his death knell as leader?

SLATER:  I would never want to go against Tom DeLay‘s chances in a red district near Houston to run for reelection.  I think he likely would be reelected in that district.  And I‘ve spent some time down there.  But let me tell you, he‘s going to have to campaign.  He‘s going to have to show himself.  And we‘ve heard the outlines of the campaign argument.  It‘s all a bunch of Democrat operatives in Austin, Texas, hippy-dippy Austin.  They aren‘t the kinds of people who live here in my district.  Reelect me.

He‘s likely to be reelected, but it‘s not a sure shot.

OLBERMANN:  Wayne Slater of “The Dallas Morning News,” great thanks for your insight, sir.

OLBERMANN:  Lest you think Tom DeLay is the only one in trouble in D.C., think again.  The fickle finger of investigation continues to point at many.  We‘ll take you through the latest and greatest bombshells.

And she‘s captured the nation‘s attention during a plea from the New Orleans Convention Center, a mother battling to keep her baby alive.  Tonight, what happened to both of them?

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  So the indictment House majority leader Tom DeLay marks only the third such set of blockbuster legal charges against a sitting congressman since 1996, and one of the other two was for vehicular homicide.

But as to the number of current politicos in some kind of ethics hot water, seemingly none of us can count that high.

MSNBC‘s senior Washington correspondent, Norah O‘Donnell, however, has tried, and joins us now to show us her math.

Good evening, Norah.

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  And good evening to you, Keith.

Well, today‘s indictment makes House Republican leader Tom DeLay the highest-ranking member of Congress ever to face criminal indictment.  And today Democrats claimed that DeLay‘s indictment is the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a, quote, “culture of corruption.”

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL (voice-over):  When Tom DeLay emerged after a closed-door meeting with his fellow Republicans.

DELAY:  We all know what this is.  It‘s a political witch hunt.

O‘DONNELL:  He promised his own problems won‘t affect the party‘s goals.

DELAY:  If the Democrats think that we‘re going to go crawl in a hole, and not accomplish our agenda, I just wish they could have been a fly on the wall and seen these members come together for an incredible, a bold and aggressive agenda.

O‘DONNELL:  But DeLay‘s indictment coincides with a growing swirl of political and ethical questions that could spell trouble for the Republican Party and the president‘s second-term agenda.

MORAN:  Is the president concerned that there‘s a stench of corruption around the Republican establishment in Washington?

MCCLELLAN:  Terry, I don‘t think you can make such a broad characterization.  There are some instances of individual situations, and we‘ll let those, the legal process proceed in those instances.

O‘DONNELL:  One of those individual situations involves the Republican leader of the Senate, Bill Frist.  He is under investigation for selling stock in his family‘s hospital company just days before the price fell.

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER:  An examination of the facts will demonstrate that I acted properly.

O‘DONNELL:  Frist‘s problems come after the arrest a week ago of David Safavian, the White House‘s top official responsible for government purchasing.  Safavian faces charges of obstructing a criminal investigation into Jack Abramoff, a Republican lobbyist with close ties to DeLay.

Abramoff is also under investigation for allegedly defrauding Indian tribes of millions of dollars.  And the House Ethics Committee plans to investigate whether Abramoff improperly paid for overseas travel by members of Congress, including DeLay.

CHARLIE COOK:  Republicans are justifiably very worried right now.

O‘DONNELL:  Charlie Cook says DeLay‘s indictment, along with the president‘s low approval ratings, and the still-unresolved CIA leak investigation involving Valerie Plame, could all have an effect in the 2006 elections.

COOK:  These are the kinds of things that can create these wave elections that, suddenly, all politics aren‘t local.  And suddenly, big changes can happen, and a lot of upsets.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL:  And tonight, Democrats are already trying to capitalize on that, sending out a fundraising letter saying that DeLay and Frist are, quote, “governing in a shady style,” and calling it systemic throughout the government.

There‘s also been a development tonight involving the case with Frist.  The SEC, which is investigating the sale, has moved the status from informal to formal.  And that means that gives investigators subpoena power to force individuals to talk and produce documents, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Norah, that‘s the Republican list.  Are there Democrats also facing corruption charges similar to those?

O‘DONNELL:  There are.  Congressman William Jefferson, a Democrat from Louisiana, is under investigation by the FBI, at the same time there have been media reports that the congressman allegedly used National Guard resources to gather his own personal belongings from New Orleans amid the hurricane rescue.

And, of course, just recently, we had the case of Sandy Berger, who was the national security adviser for President Clinton.  He was fined $50,000 for taking highly classified documents from the National Archives and intentionally destroying some of them, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Nice to see some of the traditions of the capital continue in my absence.  Norah O‘Donnell, MSNBC senior Washington correspondent, great thanks, Norah.

O‘DONNELL:  My pleasure.

OLBERMANN:  To another long investigation, with no partisan agenda, however.  The search for the elusive giant squid of Japan.  You‘ve seen them in the movies.  You‘ve seen them as calimari.  Now, the real thing.

And when “I do” might really be, “I don‘t know.”  First the big wedding scoop about Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher wedding, now the big question, was this a marriage made in heaven, or one made for TV?

COUNTDOWN continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We rejoin you now, and enter into the nonindictment portion of the program, where the corruption is limited to doctored pet photos, and the only slimy characters are giant blockbuster squids.

Let‘s play Oddball.

And first we go one-fifth of a league under the sea, off the coast of Japan, where scientists have for the first time in history observed the elusive giant squid in its natural habitat.  And they managed to rip one of its arms off.  Well, tentacles.  One got stuck on some photo equipment rigged with bait.  And you wonder why they‘re so camera shy.

The researchers estimate that the once-mythical creature is more than 26 feet long.  It‘s much faster and also much uglier than previously thought.

To the Internets, where good old-fashioned American ingenuity is alive and flourishing on the World Wide Web.  And today we celebrate a tremendous cyberbreakthrough.  Thanks to futuristic photo-manipulation technology, it is now possible to order eight-by-ten color glossy prints of your dog dressed in full military regalia.  PetsInUniform.com has stepped forward to fill this void that so many of us thought would never be filled, could never be filled.

But the future is now.  And for $20 a pop, any family can send in a photo of its flea-bitten, mangy animal and receive back a memorial to that pet‘s imaginary lifetime of heroic military service.

And who knows?  Perhaps in the future, they will be able to do this for prominent American politicians as well.

Finally, it‘s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  Kevin Marsh of Parker, South Dakota, believes he has shattered the state record with this behemoth, a 1,200-pound pumpkin.  The gourd, follow the gourd!  Marsh says there‘s no secret to growing one big mamajama of a pumpkin.  He just gave it plenty of water and some special vitamin B-12 shots that he got from Miguel Tejada and Rafael Palmeiro of the Baltimore Orioles.

From juice pumpkins to juice contracts.  Why did FEMA spend more to park evacuees on a cruise ship than it would have cost to send them on a vacation on the ship?

And the National Guard speaks out about its role in disaster relief.

And the desperation from New Orleans.  One month later, we‘ll tell you what happened to the mother and the baby she said was having trouble waking up.

Those stories ahead.

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

Number three, Brad Hodson of Muncie, Indiana.  He had a 55-gallon tank in his van, a battery-operated pump, and an almost undetectable siphon hose, which he inserted into the underground tank of a local gas station.  Police say he would have probably gotten away with his gas-siphoning theft, if, while siphoning, he had not fallen asleep, and thus when it was filled, he would not have been able to drive away.  Just sort of sitting there.

Number two, Leon Holliman, Jr., of Jacksonville being evaluated now at a psychiatric facility in North Carolina, after he was caught there driving a stolen ambulance while he was wearing a stethoscope and a pager, and with a dead deer in the back of the ambulance hooked up to an IV.

And number one, Glooscap, the giant statue of a legendary Native American hero off Highway 120 near Truro, Nova Scotia.  Let‘s take a closer look at Glooscap, please.  See, they‘re going to fix the optical illusion in the picture.  See, Glooscap‘s right hand is at such an angle that, well, hello.

Authorities say they plan to remodel that statue and give Glooscap a staff or a hammer or something to hold in his right hand.  And as soon as that happens, as soon as they finish that, they‘re going to do something about that Washington Monument.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The juxtaposition could not have been more stark. 

While much criticized Louisiana Governor Blanco went to Capitol Hill to beg for federal money to create jobs in her devastated state, “The Washington Post” reported that FEMA had given Carnival Cruise Lines a $236 million deal for the use of three ships as floating shelters.  It would have only cost half that much to send each evacuee on a one-week Carnival trip every week to the Caribbean for six months. 

And “The New York Times” quoted National Guard commanders in Louisiana who said that their men who are serving in Iraq could have been tremendous use in the response to Katrina, but, more importantly, their equipment that had gone to Iraq could have been of even greater value. 

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, pay now and pay later. 

First, Governor Blanco testifying to the Senate Finance Committee.  And, unlike former FEMA Director Brown‘s blame-filled recitation to Congress yesterday, the governor never mentioned other agencies‘ past performance.  She talked about what the federal government needs to do now. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO (D), LOUISIANA:  Jobs.  We need jobs to bring our people home and restore our economy. 

Katrina and Rita have shuttered or displaced 71,000 firm, almost 41 percent of Louisiana‘s businesses.  Most of them are small businesses.  They are family businesses without deep pockets. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And we are finally told one thing FEMA was doing on the 1st of September.  Three days after Katrina struck, two days after New Orleans flooded, the day that the Superdome and Convention Center were becoming packed with evacuees, FEMA was making a deal with Carnival Cruise Lines, and the facts are mind-numbering, $236 million to rent three ships for six months, ships that are now being used at about 25 percent of capacity. 

The expectation that the ships would be filled with 7,000 people did not pan out, since many evacuees apparently saw it as impractical.  But, even if the ships had been full, that six-month deal works out to be $1,275 per week per evacuee, in other words, more than twice the cost of sending each of them on a seven-day Caribbean cruise for $599, a cruise every week or one long six-month Caribbean cruise for each evacuee. 

The two ships in the Mississippi River and one in Mobile Bay now house about 1,800 evacuees and first-responders among them, your tax dollars in action. 

What those evacuees and first-responders needed, instead of cruise ships, they did not get, another amplification on that, this one from “The New York Times” today about challenges and problems facing the National Guard in its response, first, the obvious, 3,200 Louisiana National Guard troops stationed in the Iraq, meaning that only 5,700 Louisiana Guardsmen were station in Louisiana, a number far from adequate, according to disaster experts. 

The other unfortunate displacement, specialized equipment, high-water trucks, fuel trucks, and satellite phones, they‘re nearly all in Iraq.  The National Guard in Louisiana said it only had about 34 percent of its equipment.  And then there were 375 Guardsmen at Jackson barracks in New Orleans, just downriver from the French Quarter.  They spent critical hours after Katrina‘s landfall protecting their nerve center and even rescuing soldiers who could not swim.  All of them were evacuated to the Superdome. 

And 222 other Guardsmen wound up holed up in the Convention Center surrounded by angry civilians.  But those troops were not trained in police work, rather, in levee repair.  Thus, did the stricken Gulf Coast have to wait for up to 72 hours for more National Guardsmen from around the country to arrive. 

As ever, an honor to be joined now by General Barry McCaffrey, U.S.

Army retired and now an NBC and MSNBC analyst. 

General McCaffrey, good evening.  Thanks for your time. 

RET. GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, NBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Yes.  Hi, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  How do you assess this?  I mean, hindsight is pretty easy here.  It would have helped to have those Louisiana Guardsmen in Louisiana for the hurricane.  But should that have been the conclusion before the hurricane hit? 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, I think the one problem, clearly, was the enormous deployment of Guardsmen and reservists to Iraq and Afghanistan.  There‘s no question; 65 percent of the combat service support units in Iraq are Guard and Reserve. 

So, these three states so badly affected lacked half their equipment in some cases and a third of their forces.  The real big problem, though, Keith, in my judgment was a failure of leadership, FEMA, Mr. Brown, to a large extent, the governor and, to a significant extent, the mayor.  It was just a failure of imagination to see what would happen would have to be responded to before it hit. 

OLBERMANN:  Explain and amplify for us, if you can, this issue of equipment, that more of it seemed to have wound up from the Louisiana National Guard in Iraq than even the Guardsmen themselves.  Was it more important than the issue of the personnel? 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, the personnel were absolutely vital.  I mean, thank God for the National Guard.  We could not prosecute this campaign, either Afghanistan, Iraq, peacekeeping in the Middle East, peacekeeping in the Balkans, without the Reserve components. 

But, in many cases, we have cherry-picked their equipment, so the high-value hospital transportation signal, engineering equipment, a lot of it has been deployed.  A lot of it is being run into the ground.  And it is left in-country for later deploying units.  So, it was a factor.  And I‘m sure it hampered the state adjutant general in Louisiana‘s immediate ability to respond to the crisis. 

OLBERMANN:  The 72-hour response delay in the sort of domino effect here, where you had to get other National Guardsmen from other states from around the country into the Gulf Coast, one of the analysts said afterwards, we will to have up with a new model.  What kind of new model would that be? 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, it certainly won‘t be hard to think through it. 

We had a disaster affecting four million people in three states.  Immediately, we had mobilized some 4,000 Guardsmen.  We now have 42,000 active and Guard forces there.  The whole model depends, Keith, on the mayor asking the governor asking the president for support. 

When it comes to a meltdown of authority and infrastructure, such as befell the Gulf Coast or would happen in a terrorist attack, we simply have to step in with a top-down-driven model with this military headquarters, U.S. Northern Command, Admiral Tim Keating, established by Congress.  That‘s where we need to plan, organize and execute a huge disaster. 

OLBERMANN:  Lastly, does it just—does it just make your blood boil to hear that the levee experts were at the New Orleans Convention Center, rather than near one of the levees and were thus left in the position, not only of not doing what they were good at, but being forced into a situation where they were virtually hostages of the crowd and were not police-trained? 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, I don‘t think the engineers could have done much good in the levee.  That was a problem 10 years in the making.  The Army Corps of Engineers jumped into the breach, did all they could that night, minute one.  The Coast Guard was brilliant.  Thank God for the U.S. Coast Guard. 

The real problem there was, you know, we could have brought in active-duty military police and been on the ground in 12 hours, for God‘s sakes, Fort Hood, Texas, 40,000 troops, 12 hours away, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  The minute the 82nd Airborne got there, this thing wrapped up.  We should have acted earlier. 

OLBERMANN:  General Barry McCaffrey, as always, sir, great thanks for your perception and perceptiveness.  And great thanks for your time. 

MCCAFFREY:  Yes.  Good to be with you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  At the time she was thrust on the world stage outside that Convention Center in New Orleans, we did not know her name; we did not know what happened to her; we did not know what happened to her baby, the one she said could not wake up very easily.  We will find out. 

And Elton John coming to a venue, very, very personal venue, near you. 

The price tag is out for a blockbuster private concert from Sir Elton. 

Those stories ahead.  First, now here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of this day. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARRETT NICHOLS, GOLFER:  Too much.  Too much.  Too much.  Oh, (EXPLETIVE DELETED) Let‘s go.  Great putt.  Great putt.  Great putt.  Jesus, what lovely putt.  Oh, that‘s a gorgeous golf shot.  Where the hell did that go? 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”)

JAY LENO, HOST:  Vice President Dick Cheney had surgery over the weekend, luckily, a huge success.  He had 18 organs replaced.  That‘s amazing. 

(LAUGHTER)

LENO:  Organs.

KEVIN EUBANKS, BAND LEADER:  Wow.

LENO:  Amazing.  In fact, the Milton Bradley people just came out with this.  This is the new Dick Cheney operation game. 

(LAUGHTER)

LENO:  See how that works?  You can do your own knee surgery there. 

You have got the heart surgery.  It‘s a fabulous, fabulous....

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

DAVE YELVERTON:  Has your horn ever failed to honk?  Have your interior lights ever croaked?  Your stereo stopped working?  Oh, man.

Oftentimes, a little fuse like this is to blame. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  They epitomized the growing horror outside the New Orleans Convention Center, a young mother holding a visibly wilting baby, desperately asking for help.  What happened to them? 

That‘s next.  This is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  How many of the people you saw on television in the wake of Hurricane Katrina haunted your nightmares, only you can know. 

Here, we kept seeing that erudite 9-year-old boy Charles Evans (ph), who said calmly, but clearly, that there were dead people near here at the New Orleans Convention Center and he did not want to be one of them.  He did not.  When last we heard, he was safe with relatives in Texas. 

And then there were the images of a woman in the same crowd who told our cameraman that her overheated baby wasn‘t waking up so easily.  What happened to her?  What happened to her baby? 

Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, the happy answers to those questions from our correspondent Dawn Fratangelo.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAWN FRATANGELO, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Few can forget the desperate cry of this woman at the New Orleans Convention Center.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Look how hot he is.  He‘s not waking up very easy.  I‘m not—this is not about low income.  It‘s not about rich people, poor people.  It is about people. 

FRATANGELO:  Charlotte Hackman (ph) of Wilmington, North Carolina, was among those so concerned. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It was a moment in TV that I think captured people‘s hearts.  And it put a face on that tragedy. 

FRATANGELO:  Then, in her local newspaper, that face had a name, a familiar name. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It was like I could not catch my breath.  It was like, oh, my God.  That girl is—it‘s Lee Ann (ph). 

FRATANGELO:  Lee Ann Benbum (ph).  Turns out, she‘s Charlotte‘s second cousin. 

A search began and after nine days, Charlotte found the shelter where Lee Ann was taken in tiny Addis, Louisiana.  That‘s where we caught up with her. 

(on camera):  This is your—where you sleep. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  That‘s my apartment.  That‘s what we call those. 

There‘s the bed, the TV. 

FRATANGELO (voice-over):  And what about her baby, so limp when last we saw him?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Hey.

FRATANGELO:  Little Jahon (ph), 11 months old, is doing much better. 

Even before Katrina, life had its knocks.  A single mother whose parents had died, Lee Ann had been living in a shelter for battered women.  It burned three days after the hurricane hit. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I think it‘s time for a little bit of a change.  A little bit too much negative going on right there for me.  I just—I just want to start over. 

FRATANGELO:  And cousin Charlotte, who hasn‘t seen Lee Ann in 25 years, wants to make that happen. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  And maybe—maybe the fact that she knows that we looked, and we didn‘t stop looking. 

FRATANGELO:  She does.  Late last night...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It is so good to see you.  Gosh.

FRATANGELO:  ... Lee Ann and her baby began that new start, landing in Wilmington, North Carolina, one woman‘s plea answered and a family found. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  And Lee Ann is right.  You shouldn‘t ever lose touch.  OK.  You can stay forever. 

FRATANGELO:  Dawn Fratangelo, NBC News. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  So, there will be Christmas for Lee Ann and Jahon Benbum. 

Amen. 

And Christmas is our tenuous segue from that story to our nightly romp through the self-indulgent world of entertainment and celebrity, that which we call “Keeping Tabs,” not just Christmas, but the newest high-priced item available in the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue, Sir Elton John.  That‘s right.  Along with the $20,000 personal photo booth, the $200,000 ridable toy train set and the Lexus hybrid for $65,000, your own personal 90-minute Elton John concert is available.

You and 499 friends can be entertained by the rocker for a mere million-and-a-half, all of which of goes to Elton‘s AIDS foundation.  That would be $3,000 a person, by the way.  But, for a limited time, we here at COUNTDOWN can offer you this free, no-obligation preview. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ELTON JOHN, SINGER:  Rude, vile pig. 

(CROSSTALK)

JOHN:  You know what I mean?  Rude, vile pig. 

(CROSSTALK)

JOHN:  Pig.  Pig.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Woo-hoo!  He‘s doing “Rude, Vile Pig.”  Light some matches.  Maybe he‘ll sing it again.  “Rude, Vile Pig.”  “Rude, Vile Pig.” 

Which brings us to the latest on the Rush Limbaugh investigation.  The assistant state‘s attorney for Palm Beach County, Florida, is asking the courts there to let him talk to Limbaugh‘s doctors in an effort to expedite the investigation, he says, and out of an abundance of caution.  That actually translates as, they want to ask the doctors if the radio host is guilty of doctor-shopping, getting a lot of prescriptions for a lot of painkillers from a lot of different physicians.  If so, it would be a blockbuster story.

And noting the recent absence of any stories about Paris Hilton, MSNBC.com‘s Jeannette Walls supplies this one.  The woman famous for being fame, soon to translate that into new lousy films, has been ripped by two veteran actresses.  Former child star Shirley Temple Black—you know,  “Good Ship Lollipop”—she tells a London newspaper that Hilton is stealing the thunder from really talented actors who have learn their craft. 

Meanwhile, Shirley MacLaine, on the right, promoting a new film, piled on: “She calls herself not a starlet or an ingenue.  No, according to Paris, she is a movie star.  It irritates me, as, in my day, you had to really work.”

After the remarks from Shirley Temple and Shirley MacLaine, no comment from Shirley Jones, Shirley Bassey, Shirley Booth, Shirley Manson, Shirley Eaton, Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney, or former Major League pitcher Bob Shirley. 

Speaking of celebrity jokes, did Ashton Kutcher just pull off his best “Punk” ever?  That‘s ahead.

But, first, time for COUNTDOWN‘s list of today‘s three nominees for the coveted title of worst person in the world. 

Nominated at the bronze level, Scott Peterson, yes, that guy.  He‘s on death row, but, of course, it could be decades before he is executed or has his sentence commuted in some way.  But his wife‘s insurance company is ready to pay off on her quarter-of-a-million-dollar policy.  And Peterson will not waive his rights to it.  Nice.

Also nominated, Tennessee State Representative Stacey Campfield.  He was rejected for membership in the Black Legislative Caucus, possibly because he is a white guy.  Odd enough, but then came Representative‘s Campfield‘s bitter response to the rejection—quote—“My understanding is that the Ku Klux Klan does not even ban members by race.” 

Somebody voted for this dude. 

But the winner, the national scold, Bill Bennett, talking on his radio show about recent economic theories, suggesting that one of the reasons the crime rate has declined in the last 35 years is that abortion has been legalized.  He said he found the following idea—quote—“impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible”—unquote—but—quote—“if you wanted to reduce crime, you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down.”

Mr. Bennett, could you just go back to devoting your radio show to tips on how to win at high-stakes slots and video poker?  Thank you. 

His name is Bill Bennett. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Many a marriage has later proved to be a practical joke, not necessarily a planned one, although the spouse who believes him or herself victimized may in fact convince themselves that it was planned. 

Even some celebrity marriages fall loosely perhaps in this category. 

Consider Britney Spears and her first husband, whatever his name was, Mr.

All Night Boozing in Vegas Guy. 

But our number one story on the COUNTDOWN, what about two celebrities participating in a marriage ceremony that was entirely fictitious, designed as an elaborate prank to be shown later on the television show of one of the two celebrity marriagers?  That‘s the allegation of a dedicated watcher of the actor Ashton Kutcher.  Several news entertainment outfits have received copies of a blockbuster e-mail purportedly traced back to one of Kutcher‘s staffers, insisting that Saturday‘s nuptials, starring Ashton Kutcher and girlfriend Demi Moore, constituted nothing more than a taping for his practical joke series “Punk‘d.”

I‘m joined now by Tony Potts, correspondent with the syndicated TV show “Access Hollywood.” 

Good evening, Tony. 

TONY POTTS, “ACCESS HOLLYWOOD”:  Good evening, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, clearly, somebody is getting punked here.  Which is the red herring, the wedding or the story about the wedding being a red herring? 

POTTS:  Well, you know, I have said e-mail here of what it‘s about. 

And it actually was sent—this man claims that this e-mail came from Jason Goldberg, who is also one of the co-executive producers and Ashton‘s friend on “Punk‘d.”  And this guy sent out something, like you mentioned, to all the outlets, saying, look, I have this inside information.  I will give you all the information that will really happen if you pay me to the highest bidder. 

We said, we don‘t pay for stuff, so just move on.  But he gave us all these e-mails.  I think, actually, the wedding happened.  I think maybe there is disinformation on disinformation, which is a double negative, which means that, actually, it probably did happen.  I don‘t think cabala has a word for punked. 

And, since they both follow that, I think it indeed probably did happen.  And all this other stuff flying about is probably by a guy by the name of John Myers, who sent out the e-mail, if that‘s his real name, just wants to be paid.  And, apparently, some entertainment networks paid him $500 for the exclusive. 

OLBERMANN:  “The New York Daily News” says it has a statement from a spokeswoman for Mr. Kutcher saying that the e-mail is a fake, but also that that same spokeswoman will not confirm that Kutcher and Moore actually got married over the weekend.  That—why wouldn‘t you just come out and say, well, look, they got married; there‘s a ring; there‘s a picture?  Why wouldn‘t you just dismiss that this way? 

POTTS:  Because I think what might happen is, is the paparazzi will go even more mad. 

I have heard that “OK” magazine, which is now published now in the United States, which is infamous for paying for articles and pictures and what have you of celebrities, will pay as much as $3 million for the first picture of the bride and groom together.  If they confirm that that‘s the case, then the paparazzi out here in Los Angeles who knows where they live.

They will swarm them even more intensely than before.  A lot of times, the publicists just don‘t want to say exactly what happened.  I know both publicists.  In fact, Matt Labov is actually Ashton‘s publicist.  And they both say that they‘re not saying anything about it.  And, sometimes, that comes, as you know, Keith, from above, from the stars themselves.  I think maybe they want to orchestrate it at a proper time. 

OLBERMANN:  Or just keep it a secret forever to avoid the paparazzi? 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  They just never announce it?

POTTS:  Well, I think that—I do think, though, that there‘s a ring involved.  I‘m kind of old—a traditionalist here.  But I think there was probably an exchange of rings. 

So, I think, at some point, she‘ll have a big ring on there when we see her on the red carpet or we see Ashton somewhere.  And that will probably be the indicator that, yes, indeed, they have—they are married. 

OLBERMANN:  Tony Potts from Access Hollywood on this great conundrum facing American society at the moment.  Great thanks, Tony. 

(LAUGHTER)

POTTS:  Thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  The bottom line, then, even actors, jaded Hollywood morons, would not be so low as to defraud their own friends and guests in the great institution of Hollywood marriage.

That‘s COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Keep your knees loose.  Good night and good luck. 

Our coverage continues now with “RITA COSBY LIVE & DIRECT.”

Good evening, Rita. 

RITA COSBY, HOST, “RITA COSBY: LIVE & DIRECT”:  Good evening and thanks so much, Keith. 

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

Copy: 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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