Guest: Dana Milbank
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, “HARDBALL”: COUNTDOWN with Keith Olbermann starts right now.
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice-over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?
My clean is cleaner than your clean. The Democrats propose their own lobbying reform the day after the Republicans rushed out theirs.
And after Gore v. Bush and Bush v. Gore and Clinton v. Bush, the current first lady answers the previous one and calls Hillary Clinton's plantation remark a ridiculous comment.
The search for Jill Carroll. Why the fate of the American reporter may rest on Iraqi misconceptions about how many women are in prison in that country.
When car chases are not at all funny. Twice today, innocent drivers in head-on collisions with fleeing suspects. Once again, why do police chase them, if this can be the outcome?
And an unbelievable outcome in the middle of the Atlantic. Swamped by an unexpected wave, 1,300 miles away from land. No rescue possible. Yet they are left alive to tell you their story.
All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: Good evening. Ever hear the one about the fox in the henhouse? Lawmakers of both parties now serving up a smorgasbord of lobbying reform measures in the wake of the Jack Abramoff investigation. Each side, without a hint of irony, staking a claim to the ethical high ground. If you want remorse, call Jimmy Swaggart.
Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, clean up your own house day in the Senate and the House. With a warning like that, just like at a motel room near you, the finished product may look a lot cleaner than it actually is.
As usual, the Democrats a little late getting their proposal to the table, having given the Republicans a 24-hour head start.
Much in both manifestos the same, a ban on lawmakers accepting gifts from lobbyists, check. No more trips and meals. Check, check. But not surprisingly, the Democrats much tougher on those trying to curry favor with the government, if not bilk it outright. One provision of theirs calling for criminal and civil penalties for companies defrauding the government during a time of war. Halliburton? Halliburton who?
And it is not often that you will hear us praise the Democratic Party for political savvy, so listen up. Tapping Illinois Senator Barack Obama to be point man on ethics and lobbying reform, pure genius.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: I realize that our friends on the other side of the aisle have suddenly found religion on this topic. I think that's commendable. I think that's commendable. In fact, I look forward to getting a solid bipartisan piece of legislation passed.
Instead of hitting up the big firms on K Street, it's time to start visiting the workers on Main Street, who are wondering how they will send their kids to college or whether their pension will still be around when they retire. All these people have done to earn access is to cast their ballot. But in this democracy, that's all anybody should have to do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: The last 24 hours giving journalists plenty of time to find all the loopholes in the Republican reform measure. That ban on meals and trips for lawmakers? Fundraisers do not count.
So if you were, say, a lobbyist and you wanted to hold a fundraiser for, say, House Speaker Dennis Hastert in, let's go with, Las Vegas, inviting members of Congress and their flunkies on your dime, that would be ethical. Congratulations. Just remember to hand the lawmaker a campaign contribution at some point during the proceedings, and it will all be perfectly kosher.
What happens in Vegas, really does stay in Vegas.
Speaking of staying places, other lawmakers still trying to distance themselves from Jack Abramoff. One tonight finding he literally cannot give away what may be ill-gotten Abramoffian gains.
The rush to donate money received from the disgraced lobbyist to any charity that will take it has been well documented here. Key phrase: that will take it.
Senator Conrad Burns finding that out the hard way. The Montana Republican rebuffed when he tried to unload $111,000 by donating it to a Native American umbrella group, the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council. The council voting not to accept the donation. A spokesman telling NBC News that his council did not want to appear to have, quote, “bailed out the senator.”
Back in December Senator Burns said he would return about $150,000 that he had received from Abramoff and his clients and associates. No word yet at whom Mr. Burns—no, not that Mr. Burns—will next direct his largesse.
That Hillary Clinton spent part of her Martin Luther King holiday comparing the House of Representatives to a slavery-era plantation certainly sounds like something that could have come from the writers of “The Simpsons,” but since it actually happened, a cartoon-free refresher on what the senator really truly—oh, no, she didn't—said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: When you look at the way the House of Representatives has been run, it has been run like a plantation, and you know what I'm talking about.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Actually, not all of us did know what Senator Clinton was she was talking about. Many people did not, so she took another stab at her analogy, not so much clarifying it, as making it longer.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CLINTON: It is an accurate description of the kind of top down way that the House of Representatives is run, which denies meaningful debate, which has engaged in all kinds of shenanigans, keeping votes open, refusing to allow people to have the opportunity to present alternatives. And I think some very bad decisions are being made for America.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: More interpretation of the remark today from a busy Barack Obama, the Senate's only African-American, adding to his duties by telling reporters he understood what his colleague meant. He believes her choice of words was a reference to the consolidation of power in Washington, so much so that, quote, “The ordinary voter and even members of Congress who aren't in the majority party don't have much input.” Not the way anyone would have phrased it in, say, Mississippi in 1864.
Senator Clinton's successor, at first—first lady, more succinct in her condemnation, Laura Bush telling members of the press who were on board her airplane back from Africa today, quote, “I think it's ridiculous. It's a ridiculous comment. That's what I think.”
Time now to call in “Washington Post's” national political reporter, Dana Milbank, as we consider the elliptical nature of the first lady's comment there.
Such a strange mix of stories today requires the acute analysis of someone who has a Santa hat in his wardrobe.
Good evening, Dana.
DANA MILBANK, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, “WASHINGTON POST”: I
thought you were going to ask for even more ridiculous comments.
OLBERMANN: Yes. I'm sure we'll get them, if not from you then from me.
A lot to cover tonight. Let's begin with the dueling ethics and reform measures on Capitol Hill. Democrats calling their proposal the Honest Leadership Open Government Act. We mentioned what we're calling the Halliburton clause in there. Are the Dems trying to do too much at once here? Would it have been just wiser, not to say simpler, to just clean up the lobbying issues first?
MILBANK: Well, of course. They're not actually—what they're trying to do is nothing at all. The best thing for the Democrats would be for nothing at all to occur. They can take this issue to the voters in November.
The fact of the matter is the Democrats issued a proposal that's more or less the same as the Republican proposal. They get at the gifts, they get at the lunches, they get at the trips.
But if you're a lobbyist, you should be taking out one of these cigars at night, popping a very expensive bottle of wine and celebrating, because the real issue here is that they're doing nothing to ban the fundamental problem here, and that is basically the lobbyists can serve as campaign finance chairmen for reelection efforts of members of Congress. They literally owe their jobs to these lobbyists. So compared to that, a little lunch here and there is nothing.
OLBERMANN: And the Republican loopholes that—the don't provide the authorization for the entirety of what you just said, but they do—to some great degree, they are that, are the Republicans just hoping nobody will notice that—that's in their proposal?
MILBANK: Well, John McCain saying, well, it's something we have to fix. David Dreier leading the effort in the House is a little bit cagier about it. I mean, it's more than a loophole. It guts the entire thing.
Now, there are more substantive proposals, such as banning any type of fundraising in Washington. That would, of course, drive everybody out of town or maybe forcing lawmakers to raise money in their own home states. But the chance of something real like that passing is, as you can imagine, quite small.
OLBERMANN: You could just give portions of Washington to Virginia and Maryland. That would simplify it, too.
Turning to Senator Clinton, always guaranteed to generate interest. There had been a stretch there where there wasn't much that she was doing that was the lightning rod, but she has the African-American senator, Mr. Obama, defending her plantation remark and now Laura Bush deriding her for it.
Do the math for us. Is it a net loss or a net gain here for Senator Clinton?
MILBANK: You know, it's so hard to make that calculation because basically, everybody has to one side of the other made up their mind about Hillary Clinton. She is among the most polarizing figures, our president being another of those figures.
But you either love her or you hate her. African-Americans are in the love her camp. She's certainly not going to offend anybody there. The conservatives, the ones who are offended by this, are not exactly the people she was going to win over anyway. So I'd say the net is about zero.
OLBERMANN: And back to the specifics of what engendered all this lobbying discussion, the Abramoff fallout. You have to hand it to the tribal leaders in Montana and Wyoming. Saying, “We don't want your tainted money,” was—seems like, at least, a gutsy and smart move, considering how much of that money was pretty much stolen from another group of Native American tribes.
Is it possible that anybody other than an indigenous group with a kind of chip on its shoulder relative to where the money specifically came from would follow suit, would turn the money down from Senator Burns or anybody else?
MILBANK: Well, you never know. I mean, there is an element of cutting off your nose to spite your face there, in that there may be members of those individual tribes that may be interested in having it. But of course, when you're talking about large sums of money, I'm sure you can find plenty of people who'd be willing to take that money.
And in fact, if Senator Burns is really desperate, I could certainly take that for my daughter's college fund.
OLBERMANN: We'll make it into some sort of charitable thing. I'll have my accountant give you a call.
MILBANK: Thank you.
OLBERMANN: “Washington Post” national political reporter, Dane Milbank, as always, sir, great thanks for your time.
MILBANK: Good night.
OLBERMANN: That odd mix of news out of Washington today also bringing with it a surprise decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. The nine justices ruling unanimously on the controversial subject of abortion. The first time the court has tackled that topic in five years.
The interpretation of what their ruling is and what it means for the future of abortion rights in this country, that is not so unanimous. Our justice correspondent is Pete Williams.
PETE WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Two years ago New Hampshire's legislature joined most other states, requiring doctors for notify parents before performing abortions for women under 18.
But New Hampshire went further, making no exceptions, even when failing to provide an abortion would endanger a young woman's health.
LESLIE DEMARS, NEW HAMPSHIRE DOCTOR: It doesn't take into account a woman who's going to have lifelong health problems, because of her emergency.
WILLIAMS: Because of that, lower courts struck the law down. But today, in a surprisingly unanimous decision, the Supreme Court said that went too far and directed the lower courts to fix the law, perhaps by adding the emergency exception.
The opinion was written by Sandra Day O'Connor, likely her last, given the probable confirmation of Samuel Alito. Women's groups said the decision emphasized that abortion restrictions cannot endanger a woman's health.
JENNIFER DALVEN, ACLU: Where a law delays a woman's access to health care, you must have an exception for circumstances where time is really critical and you need emergency care.
WILLIAMS: Beyond New Hampshire the ruling casts a legal cloud on similar laws in Missouri, New Hampshire and Wyoming.
But opponents of abortion rights applauded the ruling's conclusion
that problem abortion laws don't have to be struck down entirely. New
Hampshire's attorney general said that could invite more state abortion
KELLY AVOTTE, NEW HAMPSHIRE ATTORNEY GENERAL: Particularly when they legislate in an area such as abortion, that is a difficult area to legislate in, given the number of challenges that are brought across the country to these types of cases.
WILLIAMS: And some legal scholars agree.
PROF. MARY CHEH, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY LAW SCHOOL: There's a suggestion here that there is latitude to regulate, try to be more precise, try to be more specific. And if you are, we'll give you latitude even in these areas about exceptions and health and so on.
WILLIAMS: The next big abortion case could come as early as this Friday, when the court decides to take up the federal ban on late term, or partial birth abortions.
Pete Williams, NBC News, at the Supreme Court.
OLBERMANN: Also tonight, the effort continuing to save kidnapped American journalist Jill Carroll from her captors in Iraq. And in Great Britain, a plot to kidnap Tony Blair's son is uncovered. A group linked to it is so ashamed it disbands.
And two high-risk car chases in two different cities, putting plenty of innocent bystanders in harm's way. Aren't police reconsidering the rules of engagement?
You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: No direct good news about the young American journalist held captive in Iraq, but a tangential sign that might be hopeful.
And the attack on an al Qaeda gathering in Pakistan. The main target apparently escaped but evidently not all of the targets survived. That's next. This is COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: Our fourth story on THE COUNTDOWN, threats, kidnapping and terror, beginning with the desperate effort to secure the release or rescue of the abducted American journalist, Jill Carroll.
There is a small shard of hope tonight. That same group that apparently kidnapped her also claimed responsibility for kidnapping the sister of Iraq's interior minister, and she has just been released unharmed.
But there's been no word from the group since yesterday. That's when they disseminated the short video of Ms. Carroll and threatened to kill her by Friday, unless all Iraqi female prisoners are released from coalition custody.
The U.S. says there are only eight such women prisoners in Iraq.
David Cook, the Washington bureau chief of her newspaper, “The Christian Science Monitor,” says his organization is doing everything possible to save her and remains hopeful she will be all right.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID COOK, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, “THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR”:
We certainly haven't given up on getting Jill back. And we were heartened by the statements that came out today by the Sunni politicians and by the clerics. And we hope that before the deadline expires she'll be free.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Those who have worked alongside Jill in Iraq know all too well the dangers of such an assignment. Our own reporter, Richard Engel, has just returned from Baghdad, where a journalist's willingness to take risks is apparently exceeded only by the number of those risks.
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Jill is very idealistic. She told me she wants to write the definitive book on Iraq and that the only way she thought she could do that would be to operate as she had been operating, going around the country with—without any kind of security, just going around in disguise, effectively dressed in an abiyah (ph), the all encompassing black cloak.
And if you didn't know who she was and she was just riding as a passenger in a beat up old normal Iraqi car, then very likely you wouldn't notice her passing.
But the problem is it's very difficult to be anonymous in Iraq. People talk. There is a market for westerners there, and it's almost like we're—we're commodities that kidnappers want to target and then try and use for political purposes or to extract some sort of a ransom.
It's not that journalists are being targeted for the work that we're doing or specific reports that we write or that are broadcast on television. It's more because we're the—among the only westerners who are left in Iraq and who that—who can be gotten to.
So they are operating like—like thieves, people who are stealing something valuable that they hope to trade for something that's important to them.
It's terribly depressing when things like this happen, and no one wants to blame Jill for what happened. She was committed to the story and is committed to the story. And had a system that had been working and it's a system that many reporters that work for small newspapers and news agencies do use, that if they can't protect themselves, they try and be discreet and try and good below the radar screen.
OLBERMANN: Baghdad correspondent Richard Engel.
And an entirely different kind of kidnap plot may have sobered up a group of protesters in England who had heretofore been high profile with a high annoyance factor.
The members of Fathers 4 Justice had previously been content to dress up in Batman costumes and scale the walls of Buckingham Palace. Then came news that members expelled from their group had discussed kidnapping the 5-year-old son of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Tonight, in the wake of that report, the founder of Fathers 4 Justice, apparently mortified that his protests could have taken such a turn, announced that his organization is disbanding. The details of the plot now from London, and our correspondent Dawna Friesen.
DAWNA FRIESEN, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Officers from Scotland Yard apparently stumbled across this plan just before Christmas while investigating a fathers' rights group.
The plan, according to unnamed sources, was to snatch Leo Blair, the prime minister's 5-year-old son.
(voice-over) Leo is the youngest of Tony and Cherie Blair's four children, born while the prime minister was in office. The plot, according to a British newspaper, was to snatch Leo for a short time as a publicity stunt.
The men behind it are described as extremist sympathizers of a group called Fathers 4 Justice, which have staged high-profile protests before, including tossing a flower at the prime minister and climbing onto Buckingham Palace.
Their aim is to highlight the plight of fathers denied access to their children in custody disputes, but the group's founder has condemned the kidnap plan, calling it despicable.
MATT O'CONNOR, FATHERS 4 JUSTICE: We condemn it unreservedly, and we hope that the police will publish the names of the people involved and, if possible, bring charges.
FRIESEN: Apart from a few photo ops, the Blairs try to keep family life private. Though Cherie has spoken about the pressure of being in the public spotlight.
CHERIE BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER TONY BLAIR'S WIFE: Sometimes I feel I'd like to crawl away and hide, but I will not.
FRIESEN: And from the prime minister's office today, a simple but firm “no comment.”
(on camera) Several people have been questioned, but there have been no arrests. And members of the group Fathers 4 Justice have been warned by the police to say away from Downing Street.
Dawna Friesen, NBC News, London.
OLBERMANN: And someone may have warned Ayman al-Zawahiri to stay out of Damadola, Pakistan, last Thursday. That's when the controversial U.S. air strike there targeted him but evidently did not kill him.
Tonight, though, Pakistani intelligence believes that, though al Qaeda's No. 2 men was not among the victims, its expert on chemical weapons and explosives was, along with al-Zawahiri's son-in-law.
Here's Jim Miklaszewski at the Pentagon.
JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): U.S. officials say the Pakistani government has identified the top al Qaeda operative killed in last week's CIA air stroke as Midhat Mursi, also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri, one of America's most wanted terrorists, with a $5 million reward on his head.
The Egyptian-born Mursi is considered to be part of Osama bin Laden's inner circle. He's said to be al Qaeda's top bomb maker, who also ran al Qaeda's training camp at Derunta in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, where he's said to have trained hundreds of al Qaeda fighters in the use of explosives and poisons.
In fact, Mursi is the alleged author of al Qaeda training manuals in the use of crude chemical and biological weapons that were recovered by U.S. forces during the war in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials also report Mursi personally trained Ahmed Ressam, the would-be Los Angeles airport bomber, shoe bomber Richard Reid, and the so-called 20th 9/11 hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui.
Pakistani intelligence has identified Mursi and two other al Qaeda operatives as among those killed in the CIA Predator strike. But in fact, U.S. officials say the CIA had tracked Mursi to the village with overhead surveillance and human intelligence on the ground and that Mursi was one of the primary targets of the Hellfire missile strike.
(on camera) U.S. intelligence officials stress that these identifications are based solely on intelligence gathering, that no actual bodies have been found. And as much as they'd like to believe it, they remain somewhat cautious tonight—Keith.
OLBERMANN: Jim, thanks. Jim Miklaszewski at the Pentagon.
Also tonight, if the government potentially listening in on your phone calls does not bother you, what do you think about people selling the records of who you have called on your cell phone? It may be enough to drive you right out of your coconut. Speaking of which, we have this guy next on COUNTDOWN. Mmm, coconut.
OLBERMANN: If there's one thing that works like a charm to give you a break from the serious news of the day and put your mind on something else, it's dogs in ballerina costumes. Man, I wish we had some of them. Oh, well. Let's play “Oddball.”
We begin in Bangalore, India, where local villager Raju Siddaraju isn't just some guy ripping coconuts apart with his teeth, and has a great name. He's the new Guinness world record holder for ripping coconuts apart with his teeth. He's got a fancy framed certificate to prove it, if he hasn't eaten it.
Raju says he's husked about 4,000 coconuts over the past 10 years, but to get himself into the good book, he ripped open 15 of them in five minutes and 35 seconds.
He celebrated with a long soul kiss with his lady friend. She's expected out of the hospital in three to six months.
And then there's Larry Miller, the owner of the NBA basketball team the Utah Jazz and a group of movie theaters in that same state. That's that Larry Miller, not the sardonic, gifted comedian and actor.
You may remember that a week or two ago, this Mr. Miller buckled to pressure from homophobic religious groups and canceled all showings of the movie “Brokeback Mountain” in his theaters hours before the flick was to premiere. This week, that film won best picture at the Golden Globes. Mr. Miller was asked for a comment.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LARRY MILLER, OWNER, UTAH JAZZ: I said everything I had to say when I
· when I pulled the movie. OK? Anything else you want to know?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Good thing, sir, that you protected Utah from them perverse, unnatural, uncivilized, violent gay folk. Nutbag.
Also tonight, criminals fleeing the law on the streets and highways usually make it into the “Oddball” segment, but today two different car chases, both with terrifying outcomes. The cops have talked about letting the criminals get away to avert danger to passersby, so why didn't they?
And two extraordinary rescues today. One in a car at the edge of the Pacific, another in a capsized boat in the middle of the Atlantic.
Those stories ahead, but first, here are COUNTDOWN's top three newsmakers of this day.
Here's another theme tonight. See if you can spot it. No. 3, an unnamed 36-year-old thief in the German city of Bochum. The guy allegedly stole a karaoke machine and, as he did so, he ripped his quilted jacket. So as he walked home with the karaoke machine, feathers began to fall out of his jacket, one at a time, leaving a trail for police to follow and arrest him.
No. 2, Sunshine the macaw. He's the pet bird of Mr. James Herb of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. And when he saw a man in his owner's apartment who was not his own—his owner, he defended the place. Burglar Michael L. Deeter says Sunshine attacked him, biting him repeatedly on the hand. That, in fact, is how police identified the suspect. The bit marks matched.
And No. 1, Ziggy, the African gray parrot. Ziggy is the pet of a Mr. Taylor of London, England. Recently, Mr. Taylor's girlfriend, Susie, moved in with him. Not long after, every time Susie's cell phone would ring, Ziggy would mimic Susie saying, “Hiya, Gary” and then Ziggy would make kissing sounds. Problem? Her boyfriend, Mr. Taylor, is named Chris, not Gary.
Final straw for Chris was when Ziggy suddenly announced, “Love you, Gary.” Chris Taylor says he had to find Ziggy a new home. He just couldn't stand hearing him underscore his girlfriend's infidelity. As to the girlfriend, she had to find a new home, too. He gave her, so to speak, the bird.
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