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'The Rachel Maddow Show'for January 15, 2009

Read the transcript to the Thursday show

Guests:  Mike Taibbi, Janis Krums, David Campbell, Bob Ober, Arianna Huffington, Jonathan Turley

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST:  Thank you for staying with us for the next hour. We will be covering the remarkable story of U.S. Airways Flight 1549.  We will speak with a survivor of the crash in just a moment.  And later on on the show, as Keith mentions, President Bush says farewell to the nation and we say bye-bye right back.  A special edition of our Lame Duck Watch is coming up.

But we begin, of course, with the story of the commercial airliner with 155 people onboard that crash-landed this afternoon into the frigid waters of the Hudson River right off New York City.  Miraculously, we can report that all passengers were pulled to safety.  The only reported serious injury was one passenger had two broken legs.

U.S. Airways Flight 1549 had just taken off when a flock of birds apparently knocked out both its engines, causing the pilot to make the harrowing decision to bring the plane down into the river.  You are looking now at a live picture of the downed plane at the southern tip of Manhattan where it drifted after ditching near midtown.  The plane is being kept afloat so that investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, the NTSB, can examine the planes engines.

Joining us right now from the scene is NBC‘s Mike Taibbi, who has been covering this story since moments after Flight 1549 went down.

Mr. Taibbi—Mike, good evening.


You know, this pilot, whose name is Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger from Danville, California, is going to be a folk hero by tomorrow and he deserves to be, as you heard on Keith‘s program as well.  All he did was to save his life and 154 other lives with—drawing on all of his skill and 40 years experience as a pilot.

Here‘s what happened.  At 3:24 this afternoon, this flight 1549 took off from La Guardia Airport, bound for Charlotte, North Carolina.  Three minutes into the flight, he ran into that flock of birds, apparently, said it was a double strike.  And he could not maneuver back to La Guardia, or just to the west, at Teterboro Airport, he set his craft down on the frigid Hudson River so gently that, as one passenger put it, “it was like we went over a couple of speed bumps before the flight just leveled out,” the landing just leveled out.

People got out of the aircraft; they were standing on the wings.  We got here when they were still doing that, getting off.  And everybody, as you pointed out, and has been pointing out all afternoon, got away alive and safe, an amazing story.

MADDOW:  Mike, we know that passenger ferries and tour boats and Coast Guard vessels all flocked to the rescue, raced to the scene of the crash.  What do we know about the initial rescue operation?  Who initially responded?

TAIBBI:  Well, that‘s one of the amazing pieces of good luck, Rachel, is where the plane went down.  I used to live in Hell‘s Kitchen and walked over to the Intrepid all the time to the river when I had my dog, we‘d walk over there.  The Circle Line is there, World Yacht is there, a dinner cruise thing (ph), there are all kinds of other vessels and tenders tending all the ships to tie up and that‘s part of their work.

So, as soon as the plane went down, passengers said there were already craft pulling up to the aircraft as the hatch of the door was opened.  So, there was all of that unofficial first responders rescue activity before the fire department and the Coast Guard search and rescue people pulled alongside, too.  So, there was no break at all.  If it happened another mile down the river, two miles down the river, it would have been a different story.

MADDOW:  Remarkably, as we have seen before, sadly, in New York City.  New Yorkers when confronted with danger, rush toward it to see if they can help.  It‘s just incredible.

Mike, do we know anything about the passengers onboard the plane?  I understand, there was at least one infant among the survivors?

TAIBBI:  There was one infant.  And there was one, a fairly serious injury.  A woman broke both of his legs.

But, you know, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was down here and he said before that about 140 of the passengers, 80 on the New York side, and 60 brought over to the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, really, were not injured at all.  They were just being processed, didn‘t require any hospital care at all.

This is really an amazing story, a near miraculous story.  And although it‘s only January, you can bet, this is going to be one of the extraordinary stories of the year 2009.

MADDOW:  Absolutely.  NBC‘s Mike Taibbi, thank you so much for coming on the show tonight.

TAIBBI:  All right, Rachel.

MADDOW:  I know you‘ve been out there a long time, I owe you a hot drink.  Appreciate it.

TAIBBI:  I‘ll take it.  Thank you.

MADDOW:  Billy Campbell was a passenger on today‘s flight.  He was headed ultimately to South Carolina to visit his family for the weekend.  Billy Campbell joins us right now by phone.

Mr. Campbell, I want to thank you so much for joining us.  And let me say, right off the bat, that we‘re all really, really glad that you are safe tonight.

BILLY CAMPBELL, SURVIVED U.S. AIRWAYS CRASH (through phone):  Thank you, Rachel.  It‘s nice to be able to talk to you tonight.

MADDOW:  I understand that you were in the second to last seat on the plane and that as soon—that soon after takeoff, there was a loud sound.  Could you actually see that there was engine damage at that point?

CAMPBELL:  Yes.  I happened to be sitting on the window.  And so, I could see—we heard a loud thud and sort of the lights went out a little bit and the big shudder.  I didn‘t think much of it rather than we started to smell sort of a fire and there were flames and a lot of sparks, but continuously, flames were coming out of the left-hand engine.

MADDOW:  At some point, this was not a very long flight ultimately.  At some point, very quickly, it must have become clear that the pilot was going to set down on the water.  Can you tell me about that revelation for you, what that was like?

CAMPBELL:  Well, I—just a little bit of detail when it was—we had probably been in the air, you would probably know better than I, maybe it‘s five minutes and when this occurred.  The pilot, within about 30 seconds, started a very slow left-hand bank.  And I really, and I think probably most of the passengers, thought like he was heading back to La Guardia.

Since I was on the window and being able to look out to the left, I realized that La Guardia was in my sight and we weren‘t any getting closer and we were just like (INAUDIBLE).  He had then made his way over to the river, which obviously turned out to be an incredibly fortuitous and brilliant move on his part.  So, we were flying down the river.

So, I didn‘t really know at that time, being on the left hand side whether there was—I assumed he had power in the right engine.  But we did slow dramatically after the first thud.  And when he didn‘t, you know, sort of give more power to the right engine after about 30 seconds, I assumed that he‘d probably had some problems there.  And we were then beginning to descend as we headed down the river.

MADDOW:  Did the flight attendants or the pilot or co-pilot themselves

did they make any sort of announcements?  Did you have any information from the crew?

CAMPBELL:  I was so far in the back and that, as you said, next to the last row, that the only instructions that we got in the back were from the flight attendant who did a wonderful job.  And she immediately sort of said, someone did sort of stood up in the back and she immediately had them sit back down.  And she walked us through and said tighten your seat belts.  And she didn‘t know either, I think, at that moment.

The pilot never came on to say anything because obviously he was quite focused on what he was doing until we got much closer to hitting the water.

MADDOW:  Once you did hit the water, you were again in a very back of the plane.  I understand that water rushed into the plane almost—was that almost immediately and how deep did it get?

CAMPBELL:  It was immediate.  And it was coming through—you know, things happened so rapidly at that time, you try to reflect on what you just sort of experienced and also saw.  But water started to come through the windows.  And the nose—he did such a good job, I think, in keeping that nose up.

You know, the biggest concern I really had when we had impact because we took a lot of brunt in the far back, because he kept the nose up, was that we started to fish-tail.  And as we fish-tailed, the right wing started to dip into the water.  And I was worried that we were going to flip over or the plane was going to break up.

I think he had, obviously, done such an amazing job in keeping it as smooth as possible that that didn‘t occur.  And so, finally, when we did come to a stop, the water immediately started to rush in through the seams of the windows and predominantly coming right out of the back.

So, we then got up and walked, and trying to get to back, and again, the flight attendant did a wonderful job of keeping everyone calm.  We were going to get out of the back but the back was not open.


CAMPBELL:  So, that‘s the first time that I really said, “Wow, this is pretty bad.”

MADDOW:  So, the way that the plane was sitting in the water, with the water rushing in in the back, you could presumably see that there was less water in the cabin at the front of the plane.  Did that affect how orderly the exit was?  How did you ultimately get out?

CAMPBELL:  A little bit.  Again, I was focused on being in the back with the flight attendant and a few other passengers that were near me in those back seats.  So, I wasn‘t looking to the front.  All I realized was, wow, we can‘t get this door open and the water is starting to rush in pretty deep.  And then, I‘d say within 20 to 40 seconds was up to my waist.

And so, we then started to—the flight attendant then made a great call and said, “Turn around, you got to get out on the wing.”  And so, when I turned around and we started to—and it was orderly, and people in the back, we all kind of turned around and, you know, everyone sort of immediately in a chain reaction says, “We got to get to the wing.  We got to get up to the front and get to the wing.”

So, we started to go but it was really jam-packed on the way up there.  So, there was no way to do that.  So, I think, what I ended up doing was going down the right side of the plane, I shifted over.  But again, the water was coming in there.  So, it was hard to get traction to get over but I was pulling over the tops of the seats.

Then when I finally got to the right hand-wing, I was breathing a sigh of relief.  But there was the child you were referencing earlier was, an infant was getting out with her mom.  And so, I waited back for them to be able to get out.  And then I went and I tried to go back over to the left hand-wing and when I got to the left hand-wing, everybody was standing on the wing.  So, there was no more room there.

So, then, by that time, with the nose still up, I was able to go up over a few more seats and get in the aisle to go to the front.  But I ended up getting off into that raft at the front left and the two that came after me were the pilot and co-pilot.

MADDOW:  So, when you actually—when you actually got off the plane on that raft, you were with the pilot and co-pilot.  You were the very last people off the plane?

CAMPBELL:  Well, they—yes.  And they, to their credit, again, were extremely confident in directing.  Then they stayed on the plane at least for another 30 seconds.  And I think, from what they told me, when they gotten them out, they had gone up and down the aisles a couple of times to make sure everybody was out.  And then they sort of, you know, slid down into the raft and we were all sort of there together.

So, it‘s really kind of an amazing moment when you do realize that you are OK.  And I was able to talk to those two and both—it‘s just extraordinarily remarkable what they did and truly, you know, if the word was ever used, “miraculous” is, I think, the best way to describe it.

And I thanked the pilot, I just said, I just want you to know (ph) what you did to save my life and everyone‘s life, and sort of shook his hand.  And, you know, he‘s kind of nod, and he‘s very humble, and he said, “You‘re welcome.”

And then the co-pilot, I ended up asking him a little bit once we were clear from the plane, I said, “Well, how fast were we going?”  He said, “We were down to probably about 140 miles per hour.”  And (INAUDIBLE) and I said, “Well, what did you think?”  Then he said, “You know what, I thought it was going to be a lot, lot worse.”

MADDOW:  Incredible.  Well, Billy Campbell, thank you for taking the time to tell us what happened tonight.  We are very glad that you are safe.  And I hope you finally get down to South Carolina to meet up with your family under much less traumatic circumstances.  Thank you so much.

CAMPBELL:  (INAUDIBLE) I think I will.  And I just want to thank the people from U.S. Air, those pilots, especially, who did such an amazing job to save everyone‘s life.

MADDOW:  Thank you.

Coming up: We will hear the remarkable story of a man who is onboard a ferry, on a boat that was on the Hudson at the time the plane crashed into the Hudson.  The next thing he knew he ended up helping with the rescue.  We have a firsthand account next, another firsthand account.

Also, President Bush just delivered his farewell address to the nation.  In it, he said that he has, quote, “experienced setbacks.”  I would say that is true.  later in the Lame Duck Watch special report, we will break down Bush‘s quackitude-ness “swan song.”


MADDOW:  This is the scene in Lower Manhattan tonight and what is left of the U.S. Airways Airbus A320 that crash-landed on the Hudson River.  Thanks to one very, very, very able pilot, all 155 people are alive tonight.  And we will talk to a pilot about just how able that particular pilot was.


MADDOW:  New York Governor David Paterson called it a miracle today that nobody was killed onboard U.S. Airways Flight 1549.  It crash-landed on the surface of New York City‘s icy Hudson River, on of the coldest days of the year earlier this afternoon.  No fatalities.  More than 150 survivors and no critical injuries, one passenger with two broken legs.

That miracle was due, in large part, to the extraordinary first response from dozens of commuter ferries and tug boats that were on the scene almost immediately, circling the plane immediately after it crashed into the water.  They saw the crash and they reacted by rushing towards the danger to see how they could help.

Joining us is Janis Krums.  He was onboard a ferry headed for New Jersey around the time the plane crashed into the Hudson.  He‘s here to tell us what happened next.

Mr. Krums, thank you so much for taking time to talk to us.

JANIS KRUMS, RESCUED PASSENGERS:  Thank you for having me.

MADDOW:  Let‘s start at the beginning, you were on this ferry.  You were leaving Manhattan for New Jersey and what happened next?

KRUMS:  That‘s correct.  Someone said there is a plane in the water.  And I was checking my phone, and sure enough, I looked up and there is the plane right there in front of us.  And, you know, everyone kind of got up and started looking around.  And the captain said we are going to, you know, go in for the rescue.  And the picture that I took was of the plane when we were pulling up to one of the wings to rescue people from the, you know, from the water they were waist deep into.

MADDOW:  The picture that we‘ve got that you took of the plane floating in the river, how much of the scene could you see here?  I mean, this is one of the most dramatic photos that we have seen all day.  Did you have a sense of how many other people were coming to help?  Whether the boat that you were on, the ferry that you were on was going to be a critical part of the initial rescue effort?

KRUMS:  We had no idea.  We were the only ones there.  Just by chance, the plane was right in front of us.  And that image was the first thing that I saw.  Everyone was taking pictures.  So, you know, I just took quick pictures and I happened to be on Twitter.

And then after that, we focused on getting people on the board and getting them jackets, whatever, you know, clothing we had.  We didn‘t have any blankets but everyone took their jackets, their gloves, their scarves around the people and told them to go in the back of the ferry for them to get warmer.

MADDOW:  How did you actually get people aboard the vessel?  It‘s not that hard to get—it‘s not that easy to get from not on a boat to on a boat even in the best of circumstances.  How did that actually, physically work?

KRUMS:  There were ropes and then there was one ladder that people used.  So, we were trying to get ropes to get more people at a time, because initially, it‘s only just one person could get on.  But then after that, we were around trying to get three people at a time, two people at a time.  So, we were just trying to find whatever is on a boat because it‘s not made for rescue missions.

MADDOW:  Yes.  Was there any ambiguity about what to do?  I mean, what was it like at that moment, coming together with people you never met—you just happened to be on a ferry with to help with this rescue?

KRUMS:  I think during these kinds of tragedies, you just kind of become a team, you know, instantly.  And everyone said, OK, let‘s get the life jackets out there and let‘s just become, you know, just try to see what we need to do.  Whatever—whoever can do something, you know, the men were pulling people up.  The women were, you know, trying to get everyone in the back and trying to get everyone, you know, warm.

That‘s the main point there.  We were just to get—we didn‘t really have a plan, just, you know, you just react whatever you know that you can do.

MADDOW:  The people who you brought onboard were they emotionally upset?  Were people calm?  Was there panic?

KRUMS:  People were crying.  The main thing was they were in shock. 

They were freezing.  They were shaking.

So, it was much just shocked, there‘s so happy to be out of the water.  But overall, the scene was very calm.  Even, you know, the people who were waiting when we really only the ones, they saw that, you know, they were not going get rescued at that moment, it was very—they were still calm.  They saw that, you know, they‘re safe, that they‘re going to stay there and then wait until the ferries showed up.

And the ferries showed up within five minutes, I think, there were other five ferries around the plane and they were rescuing people very quickly.  I was impressed by that.

MADDOW:  Janis Krums, thank you so much for taking the time to explain what happened today to us and thank you for helping out.

KRUMS:  Thank you very much for having me.

MADDOW:  Coming up: Our coverage of the rescue of flight 1549 continues.  Just how remarkable was today‘s icy river landing, and how close was New York City‘s brush with a major disaster.  We will get some expert insights from Bob Ober, who‘s a pilot with 35 years experience, including flight time in an Airbus A320, much like the one that is now barely floating in the Hudson as we speak.

Also, later on on the show, today in Washington, Eric Holder had his first confirmation hearings to become Barack Obama‘s attorney general.  After eight years of the Bush administration‘s Justice Department and torture and stuff, the Senate Judiciary finally got some straight answers from a prospective A.G.  We will have more on that in a moment.


MADDOW:  Back now with more news on the commercial airliner which crashed earlier today, shortly after taking off from La Guardia Airport, with 155 people on board.  We are now looking at live pictures of the plane as it sits quietly in the Hudson River.  Miraculously, the plane‘s structure held together, it floated on the icy cold water.  Everyone survived.

Survivors and investigators are applauding the pilot‘s extraordinary actions today.  We do not know much about the pilot at this stage.  His name is Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III.  He goes by “Sully,” which I would do, too, if my last name was as cool as Sullenberger.  He‘s from Danville, California.  The “Wall Street Journal” reports that Sullenberger has been a pilot since 1980 with 19,000 hours of experience.  He was a former F-4 pilot in the Air Force.

Joining us now on the phone is former commercial pilot, Bob Ober, has 35 years of experience as a commercial pilot for Delta and Pan American airlines.  In fact, he has flown into La Guardia 7,000 times.

Captain Ober, thank you so much for your time tonight.

BOB OBER, FMR. COMMERCIAL PILOT (through phone):  It‘s a pleasure to be here.

MADDOW:  I am assuming that landing in water is a very infrequent occurrence, right?  How difficult was this emergency landing today?

OBER:  Well, on a scale of one to 10, it‘s probably a seven or an eight.  It‘s fairly difficult thing because one never has a chance to do it for real until it really occurred and you don‘t practice that in the simulator very much.  So, it was a pretty tough thing to do.

MADDOW:  We know now that there were no fatalities.  There was one passenger who is injured, had broken bones.  That seems to be it.  Is that a reflection of the pilot‘s abilities in this case?  Or is a water landing, even with its difficulty, the sort of thing where you would expect mostly, would you expect there to be a high proportion of survivors?

OBER:  Well, first, you just can‘t give the pilot enough credit for this whole thing.  That‘s number one right off the top.  But little known statistics, about 95 percent of passengers involved in commercial aircraft accidents survived.

And the second thing which gets overlooked an awful lot is to spread the credit where it‘s really due.  And some of the management of all the commercial airlines, the flight operations department, they go well beyond the minimum federal regulations as far as their training and their insistence on adherence to procedures.  And they deserve a lot of credit.

And, for example, in 2007 and 2008, the commercial airlines flew about 2 million passengers every day, about 1.5 billion people, and in those two years, the fatalities that they caused was zero.  That‘s an incredible achievement.

MADDOW:  We know that with this—with this plane as it came down, it seems clear that there was no power in either engine.  You‘ve flown Airbus A320s before.  How much maneuverability do you have?  How much control could a pilot conceivably have of the aircraft with both engines knocked out?  Is it operating as a glider at that point?

OBER:  It is.  But the thing that‘s amazing, it has what‘s called a glide ratio of 20-to-one.  That means, for each foot that you are up in the air, you can glide forward about 20 feet.  So—he hit an altitude of somewhere around 3,000 feet close to a half mile, he could have glided about 10 miles with absolutely no power whatsoever on the engines as long as he had power to operate the controls of the aircraft.

So, he had to make a decision if his track miles to go back to an airport was 10 miles or less, he probably could have made it, but if it‘s a close call and you have very smooth water, even in an icy river where there is good rescue facilities, and I‘m sure all of this ran through his mind, he made a very prudent decision to put the airplane in the river, and everybody walked away from it which was a marvelous outcome.

MADDOW:  Bob Ober, former commercial pilot for Delta and Pan-Am airlines, thank you so much for your time tonight, sir.  It‘s great to have your insight.

OBER:  Sure.

MADDOW:  We will have more on the crash later on on tonight‘s show.

But coming up next, we will have Arianna Huffington join us in person here in Los Angeles to talk about George Bush.  George Bush took his tireless legacy-polishing initiative to the American people one last time as president tonight.  He said, quote, “You may not agree with some tough decisions that I have made.”

Next on our Lame Duck Watch special report, I will agree with him that he and I didn‘t agree at all pretty much ever on anything.


MADDOW:  Today‘s dramatic plane crash in the Hudson River in New York City drew attention away from the scheduled big news story of the day, which was, of course, the end of the public phase of the presidency of George W. Bush. 

This is the start of the part where we don‘t have President Bush to kick around anymore.  That said, given his approval ratings and the state of the world his tenure has left us with, there can be no promise that we won‘t be compelled to try to keep on with that kicking around. 

The president‘s farewell address just 90 minutes ago was his last public event, his last speech to the country and puts a cap on the furious Carl Rove and Karen Hughes-produced legacy polishing tour that they undertook starting shortly after Election Day. 

There were more exit interviews that you could count on all your fingers and all your toes, including long sit-downs with pretty much everyone on television except, you know, me and Keith and stuff.  

There was a big final press conference full of defiance and self-defense that left most observers scratching their collective heads and got everybody mad about Katrina all over again. 

And there was the announcement that First Lady Laura Bush is working on a book that will detail her own experiences in the White House, all in the name of spinning the history of the Bush administration to the positive, evidence to the contrary be damned. 

But tonight was really truly it.  President Bush - his farewell address.  The official farewell address, his official goodbye, his valedictory, his final public appearance as president of the United States. 

Now, despite the overt spin, those of us who keep track of things like this know that the real context of Bush‘s bye-bye tonight is this.  When President Bush arrived in January of 2001, the unemployment rate was 4.2 percent.  Now, on his way out, it‘s 7.2 percent.  When he arrived, there was a budget surplus of $237 billion.  Today, we are looking at a $1.2 trillion deficit. 

When he arrived the consumer confidence index was 116.  Now, it is 38.  When he arrived there were 40 million Americans without health insurance.  But today, there are 46 million.  

And of course, when he arrived in January of 2001, we were fighting protracted wars in zero countries that we preventively invaded and justified occupying through manipulated intelligence.  Today, we have been in Iraq for 5 ½ years and counting, and the war in Afghanistan is even older than that. 

Also, there was a vital jewel of an American city called New Orleans back then, and a World Trade Center. 

It is against that proud backdrop the George W. Bush presidency publicly ended today.  Here are some of the president‘s final official words to the nation. 


GEORGE W. BUSH, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT:  Over the past seven years, a new Department of Homeland Security has been created.  The military, the intelligence community and the FBI have been transformed.  Our nation is equipped with new tools to monitor the terrorist movements, freeze their finances and break up their plots.  And with strong allies at our side, we have taken the fight to the terrorists and those who support them. 


MADDOW:  And also, we invaded Iraq.  Is that awkward to bring up here? 

I‘m sorry.  Let‘s go back to the speech. 


BUSH:  Afghanistan has gone from a nation where the Taliban harbored al-Qaeda and stoned women in the streets to a young democracy that is fighting terror and encouraging girls to go to school.  Iraq has gone from a brutal dictatorship and a sworn enemy of America to an Arab democracy at the heart of the Middle East and a friend of the United States. 


MADDOW:  And now, a brief interlude from the Iraqi shoe thrower guy. 

When is his trial scheduled for?  Anyway - oh, sorry.  Back to the speech. 


BUSH:  These decisions.  But there can be little debate about the results.  America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil. 


MADDOW:  After that first really big giant one. 


BUSH:  When people live in freedom, they do not willingly choose leaders who pursue campaigns of terror. 


MADDOW:  As for the Palestinians voting for Hamas, we‘ll just put an asterisk on that one and call it rounding error. 


BUSH:  Still, around the world, America is promoting human liberty, human rights and human dignity. 


MADDOW:  This brief intermission in the president‘s speech is brought to you by the official symbols of human, quote, “liberty,” human, quote, “rights” and human, quote, “dignity” as promoted around the globe by the presidency of George W. Bush. 


BUSH:  Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks and there are things I would do differently if given the chance.  Yet, I have always acted with the best interests of our country in mind.  I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right. 

You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made, but I hope you can agree I was willing to make the tough decisions. 


MADDOW:  Was putting Michael Brown the Arabian Horse Association guy in charge of FEMA - was that a tough decision, would you say?  Was that hard to do? 


BUSH:  In the 21st century, security and prosperity at home depend upon the expansion of liberty abroad.  If America does not lead the cause of freedom, that cause will not be led.  As we address these challenges and others we cannot foresee tonight, America must maintain our moral clarity. 


MADDOW:  You keep using that word “moral clarity.”  I am not sure it means what you think it means. 


BUSH:  And so my fellow Americans, for the final time, good night, may God bless this house and our next president.  And may God bless you and our wonderful country.  Thank you. 


MADDOW:  Joining us now with her response to the president‘s farewell address tonight is Arianna Huffington, one of the most influential critics of this president.  She is also the proprietor and founder of “The Huffington Post.”  Arianna, it is so nice to see you here.  Thank you for coming in. 

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, FOUNDER, “THE HUFFINGTON POST”:  Glad to see you.  I loved your rebuttal.  It should have been the Democratic rebuttal to the president‘s farewell address. 

MADDOW:  Probably a little snarky for their tastes, I would imagine.  What do you think is the big headline from the speech tonight?  Is there a big headline or is it just Bush says goodbye? 

HUFFINGTON:  I think the big headline is to paraphrase Paul Simon still delusional after all these years, because it was delusional from beginning to end.  From the points you made about Afghanistan, which he presented as kind of nice country for a vacation instead of a country where people are reluctant to leave their homes without armored convoys and where women have acid thrown on their faces for going to school. 

To Iraq which he presented as a friend of the United States rather than a BFF with Iran.  And what you mentioned about Hamas which he completely forgot.  It‘s in the news every day.  It‘s a democratically elected terrorist group. 

And then, domestically, the fact he actually dared to say that this Medicare drug benefit program which has been declared a disaster by everybody is actually giving peace of mind to seniors.  And that our air and our water are better despite all the best efforts of his production agency to actually deregulate just about everything. 

And then moving on to the most kind of stunning thing for me was when he said that he, at least, would be given credit for making the tough decisions as though making tough decisions that are wrong is actually something you should take credit for. 

MADDOW:  But on the tough decisions thing - that really has been the theme of the legacy tour.  This idea that, “OK, maybe you want to call it torture.  We don‘t think it‘s torture.  And maybe you didn‘t like the Iraq War, but we liked the Iraq War.” 

Ultimately, all we can be faulted for is how badly we wanted to defend the American people.  We‘re just too tough.  But, I mean, how does that explain Michael Brown?  How does that explain, you know, the number two guy in the Interior Department going prison and the Abramoff scandal?  How does that explain Harriet Miers, all the cronyism?  There was so much that wasn‘t tough at all, that was really easy for them.  But yet, they want it to seem like it is all just errors of execution, not of intention. 

HUFFINGTON:  Yes.  It is also - they‘re wanting it to seem that his intentions were always good and that he was willing to court unpopularity in order to do the right thing, and therefore ignoring all the things that were simply wrong decisions and that they were based on a fundamental principle that he uttered again which was that somehow, we are safer now. 

And it is very important for everybody who wants to move forward

which is very important - we all want to move forward - to also not allow them this kind of revisionist history where supposedly we are safer because we are not safer. 

We are not safer because the world is less safe because of our actions and we are no safer because here at home, we have neglected our infrastructure.  We have neglected our public health system which is going to be essential if, god forbid, there is another attack and we have neglected just about every other indicator of a healthy society including education and health care. 

MADDOW:  What I thought was remarkable is that he went back to some overtly religious language in the speech.  He went back to the language of good and evil. 

He had the audacity to talk about American moral clarity and our need to lead on human rights and human dignity issues around the world in the era - as a closing remark in the era that brought American secret detention and imprisonment without trial and torture under his watch. 

Is it delusion or is it brashness in asserting that this really is what human dignity looks like? 

HUFFINGTON:  Well, it is also being disconnected from reality. 

MADDOW:  Delusional. 

HUFFINGTON:  Which is also shown again by the fact that he did not say anything about what happened in New York today. 


HUFFINGTON:  And it was dominating everybody‘s thoughts and news.  And there were many examples of great American character there.  And at the end, he mentioned American character, so why not actually link it to what had just happened? 


HUFFINGTON:  But it is almost as though he does really live in that bubble where maybe he doesn‘t even know what just happened. 

MADDOW:  Well, the bubble is about to get a lot less crowded as he ends his presidency.  Arianna, it‘s so nice to have you here.  Thank you.

HUFFINGTON:  Thank you. 

MADDOW:  Arianna Huffington is, of course, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of “The Huffington Post.”

Eric Holder‘s confirmation hearing to become attorney general was supposed to be the Republican‘s one tough stand against Obama‘s cabinet appointment.  But instead of a partisan fireworks display today, the hearings turned out to be a referendum on the Justice Department‘s disastrous torture years.  It‘s about time.  Jonathan Turley joins us next.   


MADDOW:  If the Department of Justice was a house, say, that the Obama administration was inheriting, it could safely be classified as a real fixer-upper.  It was essentially foreclosed on after having been trashed by its outgoing tenant, the windows smashed before it was even boarded up. 

Today, the prospective new tenant of this house, the Department of Justice, the person responsible for the contractors being brought on board to fix all the damage, he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to explain what repairs he intends to make and what the house will look like going forward. 

The nomination of Eric Holder as attorney general - he would be the first African-American attorney general.  This was supposed to be the most contentious of Barack Obama‘s proposed cabinet appointments.  Republicans telegraphed for weeks that this was the hearing at which they planned to make their stand. 

The event itself was even held in the historic Russell Caucus Room, site of the Iran Contra and Watergate hearings, perhaps in anticipation of the partisan fireworks. 

But tonight, the headline out of the Holder hearing is not the fireworks, but how the process of taking over this dilapidated house, this foreclosed on house of justice has brought to the fore a lot of really scary and alarming stuff from the Bush era that is going to be with us for a long, long time. 

We just moved into a house saying he can sort of think of this as termite damage to the foundation.  Some examples - first and most newsworthy was Holder‘s plain-as-day assessment of waterboarding.  Unlike his two predecessors, Mr. Gonzales and Mukasey who danced around the question like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly without the music or the charm. 


ERIC HOLDER, OBAMA ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE:  I agree with you, Mr.  Chairman, waterboarding is torture.  I also think - I‘m not at all certain that waterboarding somebody, torturing somebody - whatever technique you want to use - is necessarily going to produce the results that we want. 

What I‘ve heard from the experts is that people will say almost anything to avoid torture.  They will give you whatever information they think you want to hear. 


MADDOW:  Now, that is refreshing.  That was easy, wasn‘t it?  Another big scary thing being left behind by the Bush administration is, of course, the prison at Guantanamo. 


HOLDER:  Senator, Guantanamo will be closed.  The physical closing of the facility is something that can be done relatively quickly.  The question is, what will we do with the people who are there now? 

That review that we‘ll have to go through to figure out who these people are and in what categories they fit will take an extended period of time.  And I think that is the thing that will prevent us from closing Guantanamo as quickly as I think we would like.  But I want to assure the American people that Guantanamo will be closed. 


MADDOW:  And then, there‘s the question of what to do with Bush Department of Justice officials like John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales who injected politics into the supposed-to-be independent Justice Department, whether it was to fire U.S. attorneys who weren‘t doing the right partisan thing or to give the White House carte blanche to do whatever it wanted by just authoring memos. 


HOLDER:  One of the things I‘m going to have to do, I think, as attorney general in short order is to make - basically do a damage assessment and understand in a way that I do not now how has the institution been harmed.  There has certainly been damage to the department‘s reputation.  I would want to know if, as a result of those actions, has there been any structural damage.  I will be more than glad to come back to this committee and share with you what I have found. 


MADDOW:  So today‘s hearing ended up lacking juicy, partisan, combative fireworks that we may be expected.  It actually more closely resembled a trial of the Bush Department of Justice, a litany of all the things they have done wrong and left us with, and hard questions about how those wrongs should be righted. 

But there was a major piece of news looming over the hearing that appears possibly to be a victory for President Bush and his Justice Department regarding the warrantless wiretapping program. 

Today, a federal intelligence court issued a rare ruling.  This is only the second ruling they have issued in the past 30 years.  The ruling validated the president‘s power to wiretap international phone calls and intercept E-mail messages without a court order even when Americans‘ private conversations are involved. 

The Appeals Court upheld the secret ruling made last year that essentially said that the national security interests here outweighed the privacy rights of those who might be targeted.  What exactly does this ruling mean?  What is this court that issued this ruling and how significant was today‘s Eric Holder hearing?

Joining us now is Jonathan Turley, professor of Constitutional Law at George Washington University Law School.  Mr. Turley, thank you so much for coming on the show tonight.  



MADDOW:  I want to get to the significance of the Eric Holder hearing.  But first, I have to ask you about this intelligence court ruling.  What is this court and how significant is this ruling today? 

TURLEY:  Well, this has been a very controversial court.  It is not a federal circuit like the second or third or D.C. circuits.  It‘s created specifically for the FISA court, which itself is viewed by many, including myself, as being inherently unconstitutional.  It was created for the purpose of circumventing the Fourth Amendment. 

So all the conservatives who insist that they believe in the text of the Constitution seem to love a court that was designed to avoid the text.  And this opinion is wildly pro-government.  It‘s astonishing how the court accepts all of the assertions made by the government, even saying that there was no evidence submitted to the contrary. 

Well, for the most part, this is a non-adversarial court.  While there was a petition filed by the telecom company in this case, this is a court that basically hears only from the government. 

The court even went ahead and said, “Look, there might be abuses, but there can be abuses under the warrant system.”  There‘s one problem with that, and that is, when you are abused in the electronic warrants, the standard warrants, you know it. 

When you are abused by the FISA court, you don‘t.  And the government has been successful in preventing anyone from challenging by saying, “You can‘t prove that we actually intercepted you.” 

So it is a very weird decision.  But for the most part, it says nothing about the criminal allegations against the president.  This case specifically dealt with a law passed by Congress.  It is not binding on the question of what happened before that law when the president went at it on his own.  

MADDOW:  I think that is being inexpertly reported.  Actually, even in the way that I introduced you before we got to you, this was a ruling on whether or not what Congress did in 2007 about warrantless wiretapping was a legal law, whether the law that they passed in 2007 was legal.  This was not exonerating President Bush.  This was not an assessment of President Bush‘s actions, right? 

TURLEY:  That‘s right.  There‘s language there that helps them.  For example, this isn‘t even binding on the other circuits.  And I expect many judges would strongly disagree with what this court said.  

MADDOW:  Unlike the bobbing and weaving of his predecessors as attorney general, I have to ask you about Eric Holder‘s pronouncement today that waterboarding is torture.  That‘s a direct sentence and a direct quote.  He said this one day after a Bush administration official said, “Yes, we tortured,” and said that without euphemism. 

So given that context of what happened in yesterday‘s “Washington Post,” how important is it that Eric Holder just unequivocally said today that waterboarding is torture and he doesn‘t have any bones about it? 

TURLEY:  I don‘t know if we can handle all this clarity after eight years of ambiguity.  It‘s really dangerous.  The fact is, you put that up against what Mukasey said in his confirmation hearing which seemed to be manifestly and intentionally false when he said he didn‘t know what waterboarding was. 

But you know, the problem here is there isn‘t any question that waterboarding is torture.  Nobody seriously believes that it was anything but torture.  There are decades of cases that establish that. 

The tough question is the one that they didn‘t ask as a follow up.  It‘s not up to Eric Holder or Barack Obama to decide that waterboarding is torture - it is.  The question is, what are you going to do about it? 

You‘ve now acknowledged that a war crime occurred.  But nobody asked him, “Are you going to enforce the law?”  Now, if you had been asked, “Would you enforce law if murder had been committed by the previous administration?”  You would say, “Of course.”  So what‘s the difference with a war crime? 

MADDOW:  Jonathan Turley, professor of Constitutional Law at George Washington University Law School - your clarity on the subject, I think, has helped the country.  Thank you for joining us to talk about it tonight.  

TURLEY:  Thank you, Rachel.  

MADDOW:  Coming up on “COUNTDOWN,” Keith asks former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan for his reaction to President Bush‘s farewell address tonight.  And next on this show, the latest on the U.S. Airways flight that crash landed in the Hudson River today.  We hear from a survivor and from those who witnessed the crash and the incredible rescue of everyone on board that plane. 


MADDOW:  Finally, tonight, we end where we began the show with the story of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 en route from New York to Charlotte, losing power in both engines right after takeoff after reportedly flying through a flock of birds, forcing the pilot to put the plane down in the freezing Hudson River.  There were 155 survivors, no critical injury.  Legitimate call for the words “miracle” and “heroism.” 

And as investigators from the NTSB spend tonight trying to figure out what went wrong, everybody agrees on what went right.  A pilot making a brilliant decision and landing perfectly.  Passengers evacuating quickly and a spontaneous and unlikely team of rescuers - from ferries to boat tours to coastguard ships all rushing and helping to bring the survivors back to shore. 

Here‘s a look at what happened today through the words of the people who actually experienced them.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE PASSENGER:  About three or four minutes into the flight - I was sitting in 22A - the left engine just blew, fire and flames coming out of it.  And I was looking right at it because I was sitting right there, and it just started smelling a lot like gasoline. And a couple of minutes after that, the pilot said, “You guys have got to brace for a hard impact.”

UNIDENTIFIED MALE PASSENGER:  We knew we were going down.  We came in this way right here, and I said, “Oh man, we‘re going to hit the water.”  

UNIDENTIFIED MALE PASSENGER: I got up and jumped and said, “Oh my god, this guy is going to land in the river.”  And I went to my window, watched the entire landing, wheels were up, he went from north to south.  


UNIDENTIFIED MALE PASSENGER:  We hit hard.  Yes, people were bleeding all over there.  And the place where I got off, some lady‘s leg got cut off.  My head hit.  Everyone‘s head hit.  We hit the water pretty hard, but I‘m fine. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE PASSENGER:  There‘s the lady with her baby on her left-hand shoulder.  And she was trying to crawl over the seats.  I remember saying, “Women and children first.”  

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Tell us how you got out on the wing?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  What was going on out on that wing? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE PASSENGER:  At first chaos, but everyone was kind of orderly then.  You know, after a while, everyone just - I just kept saying, “Relax, relax.  Women and children first.”  And then it started filling with water quick.  

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ferries already rushing out of the plane from both sides of the Hudson.  And this was within 30 seconds after it landed.  They were on their way out there.  It was unbelievable.  

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It was really scary and I‘m just really, really thankful that the vast majority of people, if not everyone, is all right. 


MADDOW:  Incredible.  “COUNTDOWN” with Keith Olbermann starts right now. 



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